General Participation for Innovation – Why We Need To Talk More About Participatory...

Participation for Innovation – Why We Need To Talk More About Participatory Cities

Tanja Polonyi
I can't imagine my daily life without my bike (and coffee)! But cycling often means fighting over space on the road with car drivers.  That's why I want cyclists and pedestrians to get the space they deserve. Give me green spaces, walkable streets, and fresh air!

When talking about bringing change to cities, many governments and private organisations tend to hold on to traditional ways of creating policies and engagement. But many researchers are looking into new, innovative ways of how to change things. One approach that can’t be ignored is participatory city-making – collaboration and participation that changes the system.

What Are Participatory Cities?

According to the Illustrated Guide to Participatory City by Every One. Every Day., participatory cities are:

“Places created by many people working together through a large network of practical ‘participatory culture’ projects and community businesses, built into the fabric of everyday life.”

In most research about participatory cities, the focus is put on people, not on traditional ideas of changing cities solely through governments and policies. 

According to Ekim Tan[1], the notion of collaboration and participation in city-making is not new, but it has changed a lot. She sees one reason for this transformation originated from our recent history; specifically, the rise in values such as social welfare and individual freedoms demanded by social movements. 

While modernist city planning focused on the “production of the physical plans, ignoring the people inhabiting these cities, neighbourhoods, urban blocks and buildings”, Tan points out that civil rights movements offered a new perspective, conceiving cities as complex self-organising systems: “Participation is no more a simple dialectic of governance from above or below, participation becomes the self-organisation itself.”

In this context, you can’t help but stumble upon one name – Jane Jacobs. The part-time architectural journalist published her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961, after Robert Moses, a New York urban planner, planned to build a highway through her neighbourhood, Greenwich village. 

In her book, Jacobs argues that cities work when self-organised by their citizens. She also criticises modernist urban planning for destroying communities of diverse social and economic backgrounds. Her book managed to turn public opinion against many modernist planners, including Robert Moses.

Modernist urban planning ideas started to fade away and the vitalisation of neighbourhoods has luckily been put front and centre of most urban planning.

You can find a lot more on the historical transformation of urban planning in Tan’s book

Why Should Cities Be Participatory?

Jane Jacobs and Ekim Tan both agree on the self-organisation of cities as the way to go to improve liveability – and self-organisation can’t happen without community participation and citizen engagement.

Moreover, as argued in another study[2], cities also need to increase participatory and innovative capacities to tackle climate change, rapid diffusion of new technologies, and demographic and economic changes. These are all-hands-on-deck issues, only solvable if everyone participates!

Additionally, there are many collective benefits to participatory cities. The project The Open Works, done in West Norwood, London, created a network of 20 practical initiatives in collaboration with 1000+ residents. When asked how they benefitted from this project, residents mentioned among other things an increase in trust in neighbours, a rise in the vibrancy of their neighbourhood, and a sense of safety as well as a sense of pride and ownership over shared public spaces. 

How Can We Make Our Cities Participatory

Participatory City Makers

Contrary to what you might think, city makers are not people, but initiatives! In a study with a focus on the city of Rotterdam[3], four Dutch scholars have identified 10 types of participatory city makers necessary to make citizens’ participation happen.

Community Types

Community building, Community garden, Community platform

If you have had citizens’ initiatives in your neighbourhood before, they probably happened in places like these. Safe spaces for people to connect to talk about ideas of change. A city maker many times neglected but important, nonetheless. 

Community gardens motivate citizens to improve their city in terms of sustainability and overall liveability. A community platform works as a virtual connector to share thoughts and ideas among a wider audience.

Image credit: Pexels / Elevate

Special Buildings

Community building, event hosting building, maker space or lab, entrepreneur hosting building 

Again, space is offered to meet and create interactions. However, community buildings are specialised for social cohesion, while other special buildings have a greater focus on product-technology innovation. 

The people that meet here and exchange ideas most likely have the same mindset and similar experiences or knowledge about certain areas in the city. This can prove useful for more strategic ideas. 

Network Makers and Alternative Systems

These types of activities are “largely in the operational domain, combined with strategic activities”. These city-making initiatives provide a network or work as a connector between people in different sectors. Network makers and alternative systems deal with the political, creative, and technological dimensions of cities.

Supporting Platforms and Bright Ideas

A supporting platform is meant to provide other city makers with information about specific topics that can be useful for them in their quest to change their city. CityChangers.org is a perfect example. 

Bright ideas are probably what most people have in mind when thinking of innovation and change. They are indeed “extremely important; however, it is also important that bright ideas do not act in a vacuum but are connected to the other types of city makers.” (De Konig, et al.)

The Main Takeaway

Although confusing at first, research shows the importance of these participatory city makers on driving change but emphasises why they shouldn’t exist in isolation from one another. 

It is crucial to connect the city makers with each other to create a greater framework of participation and engagement between initiatives, as well as state and private actors. 

The Tricky Part – Engaging Citizens

There’s already a community building in your neighbourhood. Perfect. Now what? Without residents going there, willing to connect and participate, it is not really valuable. Sadly, the reality is that citizen engagement is not on the rise…

In academic terms, citizen engagement is the attempt “to make a difference in the civic life of our communities […]. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes”.[4] Citizen engagement can simply mean voting in the upcoming election. But to actually change neighbourhoods, this is simply not sufficient.

Before starting citizens’ initiatives, it is crucial to keep in mind that not everyone has the same abilities to actually act. Irina Anastasiu mentions this in her paper[5] about smart cities.  Just because citizens in your city seem eager to participate, doesn’t mean they automatically have the ability to do so. Depending on their skills or their access to resources, whether financial or material ones, their engagement might be limited. 

Good news, however – if done right, citizens’ initiatives can encourage exchange between people and emphasise learning through immersion in the topic so that more residents will overcome limitations.

Why Don’t People Participate and How Do We Get Them To?

Through several surveys across the UK, the organisation Every One. Every Day. was able to outline the reasoning behind non-participation and how to counter this. 

Apparently, the majority of people feel that there are not enough or no fitting opportunities for them to participate. Besides, after finally finding a suitable initiative, many are put off by exclusivity and the impression that their participation may not be valued. Moreover, many find it difficult and risky to develop their own ideas and feel that there is not enough support surrounding them. 

Hence, these tips can help to make participation easier and more effective:

  • Provide a collaborative culture that is not confrontational
  • Provide flexible, open and local participation opportunities
  • Provide a social and diverse environment so that everyone finds the confidence to participate
  • Create a collaboration and networking system for local government, institutions, and citizens so that personal risks are shared among many

Most importantly, develop a support system that does not exclude anyone! Grants will only get you so far, but in a supportive, open, and empowering environment, ideas and innovation excel.

Check out the Every One. Every Day’s vision here. And find detailed findings of the projects here.

Citizen Engagement Through Gaming

Another idea to increase participation is a treat for all tech enthusiasts out there. According to Irina Anastasiu, digital technology can be an important contributor to get citizens engaged. We are not just talking about social media. Interactive visualisations, photographs, and websites can work as catalysts for social and political action. 

Increasing citizens’ engagement with technological approaches is a topic many scholars have researched. Michiel de Lange[6] talked in his paper about playable or playful cities. He argues that, through play and games, citizens can be motivated to engage in participatory city-making. 

Image credit: Pexels / Julia M Cameron

Again, there is a historical context to this. In ancient times, cities were already the centre of entertainment and fun, even though entertainment back then was gladiatorial games, not Netflix.

De Lange also gives the example of “ludic architecture” in playful cities, mentioning the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck, who filled WW2 bomb sites with playgrounds. 

Today, virtual reality can influence architectural decisions in a city. Unsurprisingly, as digital tools are used everywhere, city designing is no exception. 

These tools might also foster citizen participation. De Lange argues that games may engage people in the planning and designing process of cities via simulations and can, furthermore, educate them about urban planning.

To give you an example, the Dutch Rezone the game – an urban management game – gives players an idea about the complexity of city planning. They need to make strategic investments and collaborate with different stakeholders to create an attractive neighbourhood.

Play generates culture because it provides room for innovation. Play offers a safe space for experiment and collaborations in which failing does not immediately have grave consequences.”, says De Lange.

Hence, if you want innovation and engagement, start with play to educate and inspire. You can find more city games on this website by Play The City.  

How to in a Nutshell…

We need more citizens to participate in cities to make their neighbourhoods liveable. Residents know best what they dislike and what they’d like to improve. It is the city’s job to create citizens’ initiatives that allow every resident to participate, to create and develop their own ideas. 

To increase citizen engagement, creativity and supportive environments are key! And let it be said – a neighbourhood in which transformation you and your friends actively participated in will feel even more like home! 


[1] Tan, E. (2014). Negotiation and Design for the Self-Organizing City. Gaming as a Method for Urban Design. TU Delft.

[2] De Konig, J., Puerari, E., Mulder, I.J. & Loorbach, D.A. (2018). Design-enabled participatory city making. In 2018 IEEE International Conference on Engineering, Technology and Innovation (ICE/ITMC) (pp. 1-9). IEEE

[3] De Konig, J., Puerari, E., Mulder, I. & Loorbach, D. (2019). Landscape of participatory city makers: A distinct understanding though different lenses. Formakademisk, 12(2), 1-13.  https://doi.org/10.7577/formakademisk.2706

[4] Ehrlich, T. (2000). Civic responsibility and higher education. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group

[5] Anastasiu, I. (2019). Unpacking the smart city through the lens of the right to the city: A taxonomy as a way forward in participatory city-making. In de Lange, M., de Waal M. (eds.). The Hackable City. Digital media and collaborative city-making in the network society. Springer, Singapore, pp. 239-260.

[6] De Lange, M. (2015). The playful city: using play and games to foster citizen participation. In Skaržauskienė, A. (ed.) Social Technologies and Collective Intelligence. pp. 426-434.

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