As we have seen, co-creation projects can help to create connections between urban planning, local governance and community development. These initiatives focus on the co-creation of common urban space, on re-thinking communal and public services, as well as on creating new digital or hybrid tools for citizen participation (Saad-Sulonen and Horelli 2010). Such tools can empower people to get involved in solving urban issues. De Lange and De Waal (2013) discuss digital media technologies as a co-creation enabler, which can support peer-to-peer citizen engagement as an alternative to the institutionalised top-down or local bottom-up ways.
Inspired by the development of these three visions of city-making, the AGL has designed a framework for participatory action research projects, as an attempt to set up a process to actively manage co-design and collaboration in urban development. This process endeavours to facilitate learning and communication through flow of local information from within and introduction to diverse ideas from without, in an effort to allow innovative solutions to emerge and to prevent stagnation. We will now move on to discuss how this was applied in one of our projects in more detail.
‘Imaginative Neighbourhood Woodquay’ was a community design process which leads by the Adaptive Governance Lab (AGL) at the School of Architecture at University of Limerick, working together with the Woodquay Business and Residents Association and Galway City Council from 2013 till 2015.
The initiative belonged to the Woodquay Business and Residents Association, who approached the local authority (Galway City Council). The combined residents and business group were concerned about the declining residential population and the increasing incidents of antisocial behaviour. They advanced a request to revive a market in their public space on a periodic basis, with the belief that providing a better balance to the use of the public space, (almost entirely being used for vehicular traffic and parking at the time), would make the area safer, livelier and more attractive.
The Council invited the Adaptive Governance Lab—an academic research laboratory—to engage with the community and to discuss options, also involving officials working in various functional areas of the Council. Thus, the initiator was the residents and business association, who had a possible solution in mind. The Council took advantage of this opportunity to open a dialogue, and invited a third party, known for its interest in urban development and co-design facilitation skills, to lead the process.
3.1 Evolution of the Process
The process started in the autumn of 2013, with two weeks dedicated to a ‘Designing with Communities’ exercise, held in a pop-up shop in Woodquay in September and October. Rather than supporting the revival of the weekly market, the AGL suggested a wider process, where the different stakeholders would establish a common understanding of the issues confronting the community.
Each of the two weeks consisted of community learning days—during which information was gathered from both local and official sources, and the audience (formed of locals, students, academics and representatives of the local government) heard presentations from people experienced in collaborative local planning. Community workshops and field visits were initially organised for the Woodquay Business and Residents Group and extended (by publicising them openly) to a wider public audience. These allowed the participants to listen and gain an understanding of the needs of local collaborators. Design ideas were presented at an open critique session (held as an event during European Culture Night) in Galway, to test the appetite for proposals and to get feedback. Culture Night provided a perfect format to extend the discussion beyond the local community to include those engaged on a wider scale in the social and cultural life of the city (Fig. 1).
During the first week, students from the School of Architecture at the University of Limerick (SAUL) collected data and produced strategic maps for the area, describing what existed already in Woodquay and then what could exist, making proposals for short-term interventions/temporary uses that could be executed immediately and inexpensively to catalyse the community towards fulfilling broader long-term objectives for the area. During the second week, the students designed a ‘Toolkit for Streets’, including street furnishing for their tactical urbanism interventions, street layouts to support them and an event programme to develop and promote emerging themes (Fig. 2).
In the spring of 2014, the Woodquay Residents and Business Association, who were an informal organisation of local home-owners and locally owned and run businesses, formed an alliance with a local Men’s Sheds organisation to apply for funding from a youth and community fund. The partnership was facilitated by the City Council and was necessary as the Woodquay Business and Residents Association lacked formal articles of association to apply for funding. The group used the documentation produced during the previous AGL sessions to form the basis of the application. The funding was granted, and it was used to facilitate four events in the public space of Woodquay during 2014. These events took place in conjunction with national holidays and aimed to draw attention to the potential of the particular public space. They included a dance demonstration, a Teddy bear picnic, a street critique and a Christmas tree lighting event. Organising these events gave the association the chance to attract people to Woodquay and to showcase the potential of the public space.
In the fall of 2014, the AGL held two more ‘Designing with Communities’ weeks, involving a new cohort of students. The collaboration included a direct collaboration with Bernadette Divilly,Footnote 1 a local choreographer running a participatory art project called ‘Walking Wisdom Woodquay’. The project was a result of the choreographer’s participation in the previous Designing with Communities weeks. Bernadette Divilly’s response was informed by discussions about the research of the AGL, which revealed a predominance of older women living in the area. The students participated in investigative walks as a way of learning about how people move and engage with their public space in the area using the methodologies of the dance artist. There was a particular emphasis on the needs of the elderly female residents.
At a public critique session held at the local theatre in November, the students presented proposals for interactive street furnishings that could ‘instigate the cultural and economic performance’ of the place. The potential incorporation of measurement platforms (sensors, counters) into the fabric of the urban realm was an issue raised by the participants. From the perspective of the local authorities and of research groups from the local university, such interventions could assist decision-making by making the city more responsive to its citizens and enabling local actors to influence how their shared spaces develop.
The opportunity to imagine specific changes to public spaces collaboratively with community groups is a luxury few city officials can afford. One of the factors that mitigates against the practice is the fear of raising expectations of improvements that cannot be delivered due to a lack of funding. Funding for long-term improvements often comes with strict time frames for completion, which, once the statutory planning permissions and regulatory procurement procedures are adhered to, leave minimal time for public consultation. The year-long process of design thinking and community coalition building described above would need to be substantially compressed. Even with the most dedicated participants, most communities suffer from consultation fatigue when such a high level of commitment is required. Notwithstanding this issue, the cost of not engaging with community groups in the design and creation of public space forms a much greater risk to the success of public realm projects which may suffer from lack of distinctive local character and lack of local ownership of the space in terms of both its future adoption and local caretaking.
The second factor that inhibits Council officials who wish to engage in this process is the perceived role of the officials. These are often reluctant to express a personal opinion that may be at odds with an official position of which they may or may not be aware. They are also often expected by the community to solve issues that may not be within their remit. Local authorities that can have projects progressed to a point of ‘shovel readiness’ are best placed to avail of funding when it is announced. Asking for long-term public engagement requires a high level of trust, and no guarantee can be provided that the effort will have a direct impact on improving life in the area. That level of trust can often accumulate where local authority design professionals are engaged at local level as ‘town architects’, but such a role is rare in today’s local governance structures. Occasionally funds become available for short-term consultancy contracts for ‘artists in the community’ or ‘community design facilitators’ through arts and cultural funding mechanisms, but these are limited in scope and duration by their nature, and not supported as long-term initiatives. The trust must be connected to the ongoing build-up of intelligence about places and the visibility of that information, analysis and consensus building, rather than being personality driven or connected to any one individual within or without the governance organisations.
In Woodquay, after the extended collaboration period, it was important for the co-design process to lead to a quick, visible and substantial intervention in the area. The decision was made in the spring of 2015, together with the community, to implement one of the student-envisaged interventions. The stakeholders chose a parklet as the most appropriate temporary intervention for Woodquay. The parklet was designed and built by summer bursary students in 2015.
The AGL teamed up with the Fab Lab Limerick and the Interaction Design Centre at the University of Limerick to design and fabricate the parklet over a 6-week period during the summer for a demonstration project in the autumn of 2015. The plan was to have the parklet in place for a trial period, to allow the community to engage directly in the design of their public space and to provide feedback in real time. It was intended that the information gathered and the lessons learned from the demonstrations would influence future permanent changes in making Woodquay a more liveable place and assist the community and local authority in collaboratively identifying funding opportunities from public and semi-public sources, as well as alerting potential industry and commercial partners to worthwhile projects.
Some of the ideas for interactive installations discussed with the stakeholders were: sensitive ‘musical’ plants included in the parklet that would react to movement/proximity, sensitive light installation triggered only by the presence of more than one person, a hyperlocal website and newspaper, a dedicated radio/podcast station. Other ideas discussed were: collecting oral histories from locals during dedicated events or through a temporary audio booth, providing free Wi-Fi and having a landing page dedicated to the project, having a geocache hidden in the parklet, the creation of an Ingress portal, a foursquare venue, etc.
The summer project engaged the stakeholders in the co-design, fabrication and installation of the parklet installation in the public space of Woodquay. Through the ‘Designing with Communities’ process, and in particular, through the presentation of emerging design proposals at weekly public critique sessions held alternatively in the local theatre in Galway and in the Fab Lab in Limerick City, the installation’s shape, size and functionality were debated and negotiated with local actors, its location and placement were agreed and facilitated by Council officials and nearby business owners and residents, its design was supported, developed and refined by industry partners, maker community collaborators and university researchers, its operational and maintenance protocols were clarified, assigned and accepted by willing participants, as well as being rejected by those more reserved in their engagement.
A team of potential collaborators, including Bernadette Divilly, the choreographer who ran the participatory art project and Ed Devane,Footnote 2 sound artist, declared their availability to run and curate events around the parklet installation. The design project and the participatory design process allowed to connect the aspirations of the community, to the imagination and innovation spirit of these socially engaged artists and makers. Industry partners, including the DIY department of a local building supply merchant, supported the project by donating materials and expertise. An international lighting company offered interactive lighting and sound installation elements. Academic collaborators from Galway and Dublin engaged in the project to provide research assistance in scoping pre- and post-occupancy measurement and monitoring tools and performance parameters. All this interest was in line with the AGL intention of making the parklet structure open and ‘hackable’, allowing the addition of new uses and functionalities.
In the autumn of 2015, AGL ran two more ‘Designing with Communities’ weeks in Woodquay, where new streets layouts and installations were imagined, discussed and proposed. The first week was timed to coincide with the European Culture Night and Global Park(ing) Day in September and addressed the theme of ‘Street Culture’ in Woodquay. The second demonstration week was held in October during Social Inclusion Week and fed into a Universal Design workshop week facilitated by the City Council.
The parklet was installed in Woodquay, reclaiming a space previously used by cars for people (see Fig. 3). The plan was to go through a further iteration of the hackable parklet installation during those demonstration weeks, to discuss the need for developing a parklet licensing procedure and to develop a new urban prototype aimed at enabling accessibility to premises in the area.
However, due to the lack of a project champion at senior management level within the local authority as the director who commissioned the work had moved on and following the job transfer of the person who initially coordinated the AGL involvement, these intentions did not materialise. After these events, the parklet was dismantled and put in storage. Nevertheless, the social capital created during the 3-year span of the project remains. The Woodquay residents and business owners, as well as the wider community got a glimpse of what is possible and how can it be achieved. Business owners state that the footfall in the area has risen, students of the local university often choose the area as site for their projects, and the locals’ sense of pride appears to have been restored. The conditions are now ripe for other interventions (tactical urbanism or others) in the near future.
It is worth noting that the chair of the AGL straddled the academic and local authority project champion roles, holding simultaneously a position in the City Council and teaching at the University. During the process, this situation was perceived as both an advantage and a challenge. The privilege of access to information and understanding of the structures of local government were often outweighed by the responsibility of continually reiterating the position from which one was operating.
This demonstrates that while the individual hacker attitude and the collective practices remain with the community, the ‘hackability’ of the institutions was temporary and depended on the presence of specific actors. The future years will hopefully bring more openness and appetite for collaboration, as communities start putting pressure on the local authorities bottom-up, and the top-down legislation encouraging co-creation emerges at national level.
3.2 The ‘Designing with Communities’ Framework
An analysis of the work undertaken with the business and residents group in Woodquay, the local authority officials in Galway City and with the various communities of interest and local businesses who engaged in ‘Imaginative Neighbourhood Woodquay’ project, has led to this presentation in context of the Designing with Communities framework. Here, we will try to abstract and distil the essence of this framework, making it available for further appropriation and adaptation. These are the main characteristics of the framework:
The Designing with Communities framework is conceived as a meaningful medium- to long-term (9–18 months) intervention as part of a continuous, cyclic engagement process. Based on our experience, targeted community engagement weeks lasting 3–5 days should occur 4–6 times per year, while tactical urbanism interventions should be in place for 3 months to 1 year. Feedback should be collected, analysed and changes implemented continuously during this time.
The ‘network weaver’: the process has to be led by urban design leadership (a person, an organisation, an academic research group) with good connections with and authority within the local institutions, connected with businesses and local communities; the network weaver has to be there for an extended period of time, so that he/she/they can gain the trust of the community.
Local authority official engagement to develop and coordinate licensing/permitting approvals processes if required.
Local community groups working together (Tidy Towns, heritage preservation groups, environmental protection groups, community gardeners, etc.).
Education institutions—universities, technical institutes, schools, primary and secondary.
Communities of interest, interested in DIY (such as Fab Labs, makerspaces, Men’s sheds), arts and performance (socially engaged artists, radical empathy groups, etc.), special interest groups (Access for All, Smart Aging Groups, Friends of the local Park, etc.).
Professionals (possibly as a pro-bono exercise, or as continuing professional development).
Urban innovators (from local industry or local small and medium enterprise companies, start-ups, etc.) (Fig. 4).
During Community Engagement Weeks, we found the following formats to be working well.
Learning Days—using formats like PechaKucha style lighting talks from local actors, civic conversations with presentations and panel discussions with ‘experts’ and strategic and operational policy makers.
Field days and tours—led by local interest groups and officials.
Community mapping and auditing events—crowdsourcing local and less known information, visions, aspirations, things that people treasure and things that they dislike.
Community design workshops—exploring specific proposals, ideally with diverse and intergenerational groups (hands-on and interactive, ideally involving physical and digital modelling, drawing and narrative development). These could work with proposals for the area or specific proposals for interventions.
Open design critique sessions—bringing together analysis of information collected about what exists currently and making proposals for tactical urbanism interventions about what could exist, to address the needed change to the built and/or natural environment in the area.
From the point of view of local government, it is increasingly difficult to find a structure within which urban designers/network weavers can operate. The lack of time and bureaucratic constraints are making long-term collaborations with local communities a difficult challenge.
One of the challenges to placemaking today is the absence of a coordinating framework for design activity. That absence is felt both at the top and from the bottom. Top-down, it is increasingly difficult to find a place for urban design professionals within local government structures. Simultaneously, local, amateur and professional amateur input (bottom-up contribution) are being disabled, due to increasingly onerous statutory and regulatory systems.
The Designing with Communities framework described in this chapter attempts to improve both of those situations, by defining the role of designers within a new process, which could parallel or even align with statutory local planning processes. It proposes a co-design process in which professionals and local designers can both engage. Lastly, it aims to connect these actors to each other through digital media and tools.
The Designing with Communities framework focuses on community engagement events (no comma) and the design of tactical urbanism interventions which can be imagined, refined and realised within a relatively short time period (3–6 months), with little funding (under 5,000 euro) and which, (comma added) crucially, are (not is) flexible enough to be hackable, programmable and open to be curated by others who engage in the process.
This design work must be supported by a participatory platform that would include learning days, workshops and importantly, community open critiques, which have to happen locally and, ideally, within the public space they address. The platform involves both face-to-face meetings and digital- and social media-mediated resources and conversations. The changes or design options being considered have the aim of improving the shared public spaces, safety and liveability of the area, but neither their physical nor their operational aspects can be predetermined. Therefore, flexibility is required in developing the options as they emerge. In a truly participatory approach to design, solutions must be allowed to evolve with local input and with an explicit agenda to facilitate change.
There are obvious advantages resulting from the application of the framework. A main advantage of the process that has been carried out to date has been its capacity to move public consultation from a broadcast mode to a genuine conversation about the design of shared public spaces. Through the period of engagement in the co-design process, the conversation in Woodquay changed from ‘Reasons why a public bench will adversely affect locals by attracting antisocial behaviour’ to ‘Where can we place a public bench to get the most benefit for all and how should it be designed to make the place more attractive, provide for the most vulnerable users and to attract pro-social behaviour?’.
The process created a valuable platform to allow socially engaged actors to emerge and to have a voice regarding the use of public spaces. Co-creation provided opportunities for cooperative direct action. The incremental change facilitated by the ‘Designing with Communities’ process makes the actors feel more comfortable with the environmental changes, due to their perceived reversibility, and to accumulation of an evidence base to either reject or support the interventions for the future.
There is also a potential risk of using the process as an urban management tool: if consensus cannot be reached, there is a danger of leaving public realm improvements in a perpetual temporary state. Another risk is that the co-design process produces a poor-quality outcome, as a result of ‘design by committee’. Sound design leadership should mitigate against these risks.
For the ‘Designing with Communities’ framework to fit into the developing community participation structures of both academia and local government, there is a need for cross-institutional governance structures, detailed time frames and multi-annual funding mechanisms. The citizen innovation and urban prototyping exercises need to engage directly with local small and medium enterprises for the products and services imagined to develop real value for the community.
The process is outgrowing its current format, which is situated within the academic term schedule and allows for only two of these design weeks with the same group of junior designers. It is expanding both in terms of the time commitment to encompass year-long participation, and in terms of the skill base of the participants, opening out to related disciplines (interaction design, digital fabrication, applied electronics).
The AGL is increasingly committed to making, as well as designing, and is working intimately with digital fabrication experts and interaction designers in the areas of digital local manufacturing, digital platform design, digital mapping processes and environmental sensors. The AGL is finding a lot of common interest in Living Labs networks dedicated to co-design and citizen innovation and is positioning itself in this field of expertise. We are now working towards finding ways in which the framework we have developed could be adapted to fit into the developing community engagement structures of local government in Ireland. We hope that by doing this, a strong link between community planning and official governmental planning processes can be created.