Discussion
“O City, what do you want to be?”: Understanding what cities want through co-creation

New cities are constantly being created, but almost none of these cities are designed through a process that includes citizens, especially the poor, vulnerable, and underserved. In Bangladesh, one out of four people live in urban areas where more than one-fifth are living in poverty, and cities are struggling to keep up with a booming population and an ever-increasing demand for civic amenities. In the era of hyper-urbanization, we are now facing the danger of creating cities with economic aspirations at the expense of quality of life. It is, therefore, important that we re-evaluate whether traditionally planned cities are what people want or need. It is time to pause, take a deep breath and ask ourselves about whether there are better alternatives to the conventional process of designing cities.

Architect Louis I. Kahn famously imagined a dialog with a brick, asking, ‘What do you want, brick?’. What if we consider the city as a living entity and ask ‘What do you want, city?’ If every material has a sense of its own destiny and wants to be something, why not a city too? By asking the city what it wants, a conversation can be initiated with the people living within it and therefore with the characteristics it inherits. This conversation can be a way to overcome the disconnection with the aspirations of citizens while designing a city. This action research paper discusses the process of co-creation as a better alternative to improve architecture and urban design through a human-centered approach, as well as the challenges it raises.

A city is not only about being an economic driver, but also about moulding the environment to realize one’s aspirations, the wellbeing of its citizens, and supporting a sense of ownership. Every city has its own identity, color, texture and human interactions that need to be addressed while designing. And who else can address it better than the people themselves? Who else can be better to connect the present with the past through their memories and enhance the experiential quality of the city? It is an exceptionally empowering process that involves all kinds of people proactively participating and continuously creating a network among themselves. It creates a cognitive platform where people follow the value of being “conscious”, which means “knowing together” in Latin. Human-centered solutions evolve through enabling the co-creation process.

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This co-creation process is the application of learnings and experiences gathered from other Asian cities that have been working with a human-centered approach in collaboration with Community Architects Network (CAN) of Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR). Co-creation can consist of a combination of people-centered actions shaped by a continuous reflection process. This reflection process is crucial in order to determine the intention, contribution, and aspiration of different stakeholders involved. The actions which are taken in the co-creation process also shape or give direction to the consequent actions and reactions. In this manner, the process remains flexible, open-ended and always informed by the people. Close observation, analysis, deep listening to human and nonhuman elements and applying all senses in the present are some important strategies to inspire critical actions in the co-creation process.

With the intention of (re)connecting the city to its citizens, Jhenaidah Municipality, a secondary city in south-west Bangladesh has come together and is rethinking about how to build a better city. With the core belief, “citizens can co-create their own city”, local people with the municipality have been working for the last four years towards co-creating an inclusive and conscious city. In Jhenaidah, the co-creation process started with collaborative actions involving people from informal settlements, civic groups, the municipality, academics, and professionals. In four years since the process started, many tangible and crucial ‘happenings’ have taken place.

Marzuki1 and Horney et.al.2 point out that through participation, citizens become aware of current public matters and how they can potentially impact a decision. In Jhenaidah, communities are not only better informed about different city upgrading projects but are also consciously shaping the process through their active involvement and presence. Rydin, Pennington3 and Innes, Booher4 argue that participation can and must be used to extract local understandings and knowledge that large centralized planning authorities do not have. The force of the aspirations of the people has driven the Jhenaidah municipality to take action in improving city infrastructure and amenities. Co-creating Jhenaidah has empowered different civic groups, the positive changes and energy among participating communities has been clearly visible. The strength of the collective when different groups with different priorities come together to start a conversation about understanding each other’s preferences is very powerful. It creates a platform for sharing knowledge and changing the praxis among the layman and experienced professionals in the field of the built environment. Decisions are accepted unanimously, the sense of ownership of the city deepens and if carried out well the process can create more empathetic, inclusive design. The more people see, hear, and/or express their opinions without objection, the more legitimate it becomes3. Participation thus becomes an indicator of a decision’s political legitimacy5.

However, this process has its own set of challenges. Even in cities that have a considerable enthusiasm for public engagement, the biggest challenge is to bring representation from all sectors of society, from the most vulnerable to the most privileged. The success of the process hinges on trust, which might not be present between the city authority and the citizens. Authorities may not trust the people to be capable enough to engage in policy matters or physical planning6. The process of co-creating cities demands built environment professionals to invite people from different fields and sectors with varying levels of understanding and capacities to take the role of designers. In this process, an architect/urbanist must play the role of an animator and organizer. This role requires opening a platform where everyone can voice their opinion equally, extracting crucial design strategies and ideas, and directing the discussion towards prioritized and productive action. Without the animator/organizer properly handling this role, conflict can take place which can potentially waste time and resources. Taking into account as many opinions as possible also means that the process can be slow, especially when long bureaucratic mechanisms prove to be demoralizing. On the other hand, participants may tend to lose motivation to engage when there is a pause in group activities; resulting in a loss of momentum.

In the case of co-creation Jhenaidah, the presence of local animators has been crucial as they come with knowledge of local issues and sentiment. The results might be less appropriate if similar strategies were animated by those not local to the place. Also, in the case of Jhenaidah, engagement from different groups of people may have been possible because of the city’s relatively smaller size, meaning that inhabitants could be more likely to feel a sense of ownership. Applying the same strategies for co-creation for a larger city may be less impactful. Diversity in participation is a key driver for innovation and creativity6. Through trial and error in Jhenaidah, it was realized that when the most vulnerable and underserved communities, differently-abled people, children, women and the elderly are included in the city design process; the most inclusive, original and conscious outcome is achieved. The authors believe that it can be a successful alternative to the prevalent urban design processes in order to ensure social and environmental justice by asking “O city, what do you want to be?”.

 

References

  1. Marzuki, A. (2015): Challenges in the public participation and the decision making process, Sociologija i prostor, 53 (2015) 201 (1): 21-39, Institute for Social Research in Zagreb. 
  2. Horney, J., Spurlock, D., Grabich, S., Berke, P. (2016) Capacity for Stakeholder Participation in Recovery Planning, Planning Practice & Research, 31:1, 65-79, DOI: 10.1080/02697459.2015.1104220, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02697459.2015.1104220
  3. Rydin, Y., Pennington, M. (2000): Public Participation and Local Environmental Planning: The collective action problem and the potential of social capital, Local Environment, 5:2, 153-169, DOI: 10.1080/13549830050009328, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13549830050009328 
  4. Innes, J.E, Booher, D.E. (2000): Public Participation in Planning: New Strategies for the 21st Century, found on http://escholarship.org/uc/item/3r34r38h, last accessed 11.05.2016 
  5. Hanssen G.S., Hofstad H., Saglie I.L. (2015): Kompakt byutvikling – muligheter og utfordringer, Universitetsforlaget AS. (Compact city development – possibilities and challenges) 
  6. Drazkiewicz, A., Challies, E., Newig, J. (2015): Public participation and local environmental planning: Testing factors influencing decision quality and implementation in four case studies from Germany, Land Use Policy 46, July 2015, Pages 211–222, doi:10.1016/j.landusepol.2015.02.010 

Roushan, N., Baidya, E.U., Farzana, S. (2019). “O City, what do you want to be?”: Understanding what cities want through co-creation. London: Conscious Cities Anthology 2019: Science-Informed Architecture and Urbanism. ISSN 2514-6815 DOI:10.33797/CCA19.14