Politicising participation

Doctoral thesis OPEN
Calderon, Camilo (2013)
  • Subject: Architectural Engineering | Landscape Architecture | Political Science (excluding Public Administration Studies and Globalisation Studies)

The involvement of local communities in public space planning and design processes is widely promoted as an essential element of landscape architecture and urban design practice. Despite this, there has been little theorisation of this topic within these fields. Furthermore, the implementation of ideals and principles commonly found in theory are far from becoming mainstream practice, indicating a significant gap between the theory and practice of participation. This thesis aims to contribute to the development of theories of participation in the planning and design of public spaces. It steps away from the prevailing normative and procedural approach to theory development, and instead adopts a critical approach grounded on the deep understanding of the challenges of participation in the planning and design of public spaces. Case studies of two urban renewal projects, in Medellin, Colombia, and in Barcelona, Spain, and their participatory processes, are used for building up the theoretical contribution. The empirical and theoretical findings foreground the contextual and political nature of participatory processes. Contextual, in the sense that the implementation of ideals and principles found in theory is facilitated or hindered by the social, political and economic context in which a participatory process takes place. Political, in the sense that in complex contexts that comprise a wide range of actors, and where contrasting goals and agendas are at stake, the implementation of these theoretical ideals and principles is significantly challenged by politics involving deep differences, conflicts and power relations. The findings also show that prevailing theories of participation within landscape architecture and urban design do not take into consideration the contextual and political nature of participatory processes. This renders these theories weak in their capacity to respond to the challenges encountered by participatory processes in contemporary public space projects. This is particularly so as the dynamics of increasing pluralisation, muliticultarisation and neoliberalisation of cities create contexts that hinder the implementation of the ideals and principles found in theory, and increase the challenges caused by their political nature. Consequently, this thesis proposes a new theoretical approach to participation in the planning and design of public spaces, that allows context-based distinctions and judgements about the qualities of participatory practices for just decision-making. Difference, conflict and power are central in this approach. This thesis establishes this theoretical departure point and makes a significant contribution towards the development of the proposed theoretical approach.
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