Constructing sustainable buildings in our cities is all well and good, but sometimes you’ve got to step back and look at the bigger picture: urban development. In order to create a city suitable for the present and the future, who better to consult than those living in that space? We spoke to Caren Ohrhallinger from nonconform about the dos, don’ts, and how tos of participation processes in urban development.
Constructing a building is one thing but constructing a city… well there’s a lot to consider there. While there are those with the subject-specific expertise, it’s the people right under our noses with the day-to-day knowledge: you, me, everyone. Participation essentially means allowing people to be involved in the planning and development of the city, shaping their urban environment, and having the opportunity to be involved in anything and everything that is happening in that space. As well as having the connectedness of the urban development processes, it is also about raising awareness. Whether it’s having a say in where and how a district should be constructed or simply wanting to join a music club or take up a sport as a hobby – every single person in the city should have access to all of this.
nonconform, an architecture company with a difference, is leading the way with their unique business structure and approach to architecture and urban planning projects. Caren Ohrhallinger, Chief Executive in Architecture, shared some helpful tips and told us everything we need to know about participation, where to start, best practice examples, and potential challenges.
What is nonconform?
Growing out of an architecture company, nonconform now has offices across Germany and Austria and are spreading their idea of involvement from “phase zero”, as Caren puts it. She labels nonconform “an office for change” with the fundamental belief that the best urban planning and construction solutions can be found by conceptualising them with the involvement of those affected right from the get-go. Caren explains that they found incorporating knowledge from the public and local experts provided much more suitable results and satisfied many more people than simply asking for feedback at the end.
Our expert describes urban development as “an operation on living patients, an intrusion into people’s living space.” There can be quite a lot of fears and opposition which aren’t necessarily factually justified. Often, they simply stem from the resistance to change that is inherent in many people. Caren says, the difference is that if you take the people on board with you from the very beginning and make sure that you develop real positives for the neighbourhood and for the existing residents, then people can cope with the changes much better.
As well as taking on “the classic architectural services”, as Caren calls them, nonconform works with public commissioning authorities and private clients to help facilitate the process. This means from the conceptual phase of examining the initial enquiry, the challenges and the needs, from which the scope of the task can be defined, right through to competition and execution. She adds that nonconform “will ideally stay to simply ease the process and ensure continuity and quality throughout, from beginning to end”. She specifies that this is the continuity of the knowledge and of the trust which they gain from the experts and various stakeholders; they don’t believe this should suddenly be lost by backing out before a project is implemented.
The Nitty Gritty of the nonconform Approach
Their process usually starts with what they like to call “idea workshops”, which are essentially 3-day-long festivals. They serve as a stimulus to get ideas flowing, people talking, and get the process going. Essentially, it gets the ball rolling to encourage further change and development.
“It is so trivial, but the bottom line is, if you can manage to get people started and get them talking to each other, then things start moving”.
These workshops mean they talk to as many people as possible. There are moderated meetings as well as an open-office policy where people can come and go, and talk to nonconform and to others as they wish. “We keep extracting, collecting, and filtering the issues and asking questions and streamlining it all as a collective”, Caren tells us. So, this is not participation in the sense that a question is formulated, written on a ballot paper and people vote for or against it. No, no, this is much deeper. By talking to all these people, nonconform tries to understand their demands, requests, interests, what the conflict issues are, and why certain people may be agitated by certain things. Laying all of this on the table, Caren says, enables an exchange of perspectives and the widening of people’s horizons. This is essential to ensure acceptance, comprehensibility, and transparency.
All of this information, the pros and cons, “plus the specialist knowledge that we have, and the framework and the possibilities provided by the commissioning authorities set out at the beginning” allows nonconform to then suggest the best solution. Not forgetting their one-of-a-kind attitude, summed up by aptly calling themselves “advocates for the future”. This ensures these solutions are sustainable and suitable for every individual in the city, now and in years to come.
Caren also points out that this way of approaching participation means that they know every person who has had a say in shaping the project is informed and has a genuine interest. The same can’t always be said for the vote-on-a-statement-on-a-piece-of-paper method. Our expert continues,“this is a way of practicing participation whereby the focus is on exchange and dialogue”.
The Many Faces of Participation
It seems there is actually more to participation and participatory processes than we think. You’ve already heard about nonconform’s approach, but there’s more than one way of going about it. There are many levels to participation: from consciously being part of the decision making, to being heard and involved, to just being told what is happening.
Caren reminds us that even if we can engage the majority, that doesn’t mean participation processes will satisfy everyone. However, it does mean that when people are involved in the project, for the most part, they can more readily understand and accept the end result, even if they’re not 100% happy about it.
As well as nonconform’s flagship 3-day format mentioned above, there are instances when this isn’t the best option and so they design different combinations and tailor-made processes.
According to Caren, our oracle for participation, this could start with involvement at the lower end of the participation scale. For example, collecting lots of ideas, demands, needs and concerns using a digital platform and then developing the meat of a project and different concepts based on this. This could then also be followed by collecting feedback. In this case, the intense shared development is missing, and the dialogue is staggered in time and place, however a lot is possible by using this method.
Based on this information you could then sit down with representative groups and together develop concrete and full-scale concepts.
Then there’s also the “citizen’s council” format. This allows a representative group of people to all be part of the development of a concept right from the beginning, another popular method at nonconform, Caren highlights. The “citizen’s council” approach would be appropriate for topics or issues with a wide scope which affect a lot of people but where the groups are difficult to differentiate.
“Participation always works, there is always a participatory approach that is possible; there is just a variety to consider.”
That being said, here are some elements to bear in mind when considering participatory processes and which could work best for you:
- When talking about the bigger, more general questions related to urban planning, Caren says that “it is more important to have a good dialogue between the relevant administrative departments, the specialists, the developers, investors and ideally those in politics too” than to involve all citizens. This includes questions, such as: “Where are we actually going to build? How are we going to build? How densely are we going to build? What mobility is on offer?”.
At this stage, it is also crucial to raise awareness among decision-makers and to create levers and financial instruments in order to implement the goals set.
Other significant questions which require more expert knowledge than citizen participation:
Are they mixed-use or single function?
Is it a purely residential building and laid out so that it can only ever include living spaces, or does the structure make it open to other uses?
How is the main floor plan laid out? Could it also be used as a public building?
Don’t skimp out on specialist knowledge. Caren emphasises that it is crucial to discuss such questions, the context, and the consequences of urban planning issues publicly; so many individual decisions depend on the awareness and the connectedness.
- Participatory processes may be difficult when developing a new district. Although there are stakeholders with interests and neighbours in the surrounding area who want a say, at this point there are no residents to ask, making it both easier and more difficult.
It’s easier since there are fewer people who are potentially directly affected, and more difficult as there is no “stock of residents” that you can turn to, explains Caren. She continues, “the needs of future residents can, however, be illustrated or imagined using role play. “
- Caren specifies that participation in the form of nonconform’s flagship approach functions really well and achieves great results in closed systems, such as: “schools; companies; small municipalities”. For example, if we look at a school. Here you can involve the whole school community or certain parts of it if it only affects a limited group that you can easily define. We could easily determine the school community as all adults, educators, carers, cleaners, caterers, maintenance staff, and the pupils.
Talking about closed systems has nothing to do with the size, but to do with how easily those affected can be defined, which in a municipality can vary. Of course, when it comes to broad topics, such as the city’s main mobility hubs or the historic centre of a large city, it affects everyone and so participation can engage all citizens, stakeholders, decision-makers.etc.
- If citizens themselves take the initiative to start a project or even just have an idea or the willingness to make a change, then the authorities must support, encourage and seize the opportunity.
Caren told us: “As a city, we should be falling to our knees and welcoming such things when a group of people say they want to do something with a particular building. This is a breeding ground for sociability and community life that already exists.” This is a kind of bottom-up participation which means the authorities and decision-makers ensuring that people who are engaged and want to implement things are able to do so.
- Development of public spaces is an area where it is essential to include participation, according to Caren. She defines public space as “everything that is in between the buildings; everything that’s not the buildings themselves” – this includes parks and squares, but also the streets and the spaces there.
There are always extensive, drawn-out debates on how to use, adapt and allocate public space. Unfortunately, the majority of public space is currently designated to motorised transport: a fact that also remains largely unquestioned, despite everyone and everything else then having to share the little space that is left over. “This is a huge issue and one that we can only tackle with intense participation, although politics would offer a lot more leverage”, Caren proclaims.
She continues by explaining that these are the areas that people most identify with, i.e., saying “this is my street” or “this is my local park”. Consequently, the more opportunities they have to consider what this piece of land could be like, to develop and design it with the experts onboard too, the more likely it is that people will relate to the area. “Therefore, more people will be active there, resulting in social networks and neighbourhood communities”, Caren elucidates. It’s all part of one big, interconnected web of chain reactions that can ultimately mean land is used in a socially more sustainable way while improving the social and mental well-being of citizens too.
The neighbourhoods and communities that emerge have a lot to do with urban planning and how public space is used. The bottom line is: If there are no pleasant, welcoming spaces for people to enjoy, then they won’t go there, and there will be no social interaction. This has a direct link to diversity, social inclusion, and integration too.
According to Caren, well-planned and carefully considered public spaces are “the best possibility for small social overlaps between the different social groups and social bubbles”. She illustrates with an example: “In Vienna there are so many different neighbourhoods and sometimes even a street or a little part of it has its own identity.” And it’s all thanks to having urban public spaces that are enjoyed and appreciated. Perhaps that’s also why in 2020, 68% of Vienna’s residents (41.3% of which are people of foreign origin) rated living together as ‘good’ or ‘rather good’.
Ducking and Diving the Challenges
As with any city-changing action, there will of course be difficulties to overcome and hurdles to jump en route to successful participation. Luckily, Caren has helped us to help you by offering a heads up so you know exactly what might be in store:
- Caren believes that sociable and well-used public space can really make a difference, but unfortunately the attitude towards public space currently leaves a lot to be desired. It is missing “the commitment that, fundamentally, public space belongs to the citizens”, rather than to the city and the authorities assigning it as they see fit. for instance, the commercialisation of public spaces with the presence of cafes, restaurants, pubs, etc. Dealing with this way of thinking may be something you’ve got to face before you can even start the participation or development processes.
- It is probably no surprise that bureaucracy may be another challenge. Often, the idea and the implementation may actually be super simple, but the bureaucratic route is so long and complicated that no-one wants to take it on. Caren tells us this is problematic because “it’s this easy access that it needs to make it happen”. She continues that you’ve got to be resilient and “there are individuals in the system who are very helpful”, so there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
- We mentioned closed systems above and these being ideal for participatory processes. However, this does not mean that participation is impossible in larger, more complex systems, such as in big cities like Vienna or Berlin. To put it simply, the more uniform the concern and the reach of the issue, the easier it is to implement participatory processes. The more diverse the people affected are, the more complicated and challenging this becomes.
At some point if the diversity is too wide and there is a gaping hole in the difference between specific and community interests, then participation will likely no longer be possible. For instance, when deciding where a landfill or sewage treatment plant should be: Everyone needs it, it needs to be set up somewhere, but no-one wants it near themselves.
Despite this, nonconform’s portfolio with Vienna already includes multiple stakeholder processes around urban development involving businesses and municipal authorities. Caren also discloses that there is actually a participation process for Vienna with citizen involvement in the planning as we speak.
- Lastly, we have a challenge that has become even clearer during the COVID-19 pandemic: working digitally. While not a challenge per se, as working digitally also has incredible benefits, there are perhaps some aspects which function better using ‘in real life’ methods.
Speaking from experience, “most things work surprisingly well”, Caren points out, “gathering ideas, requests, making these available, collecting feedback and then developing things with individuals in small workshops, that all works fine”. She even believes that such methods will be here to stay.
The problem is achieving the same sense of shared enthusiasm and spirit and, for instance, “working with an entire municipality to develop something, where every single person stands there at the end and says, ‘yes, we’ve built that’ – this is not a feeling you can easily achieve digitally and to the same extent. You’re missing maybe the last 20% of that feeling.”
That being said, Caren is optimistic and has had some very positive experiences working digitally or in a hybrid format. She also tells us that they are currently working on a format which involves gamification (using elements of game playing to encourage engagement) to allow the development of ideas and places together, even when people are in different locations or in a staggered manner.i.e., not everyone can work on everything at the same time. She is optimistic that this will make the last 20% of that feeling of involvement possible.
Best Practices – How to Include Participation in Urban Planning
Caren described a great example of a small town in Styria, Austria, where they have used participation in the urban planning process to revitalise the town centre. Trofaiach, with a population of 11,119 (2020), commissioned nonconform to help them bring their dying high street and centre full of abandoned property back to life. In 2015, they ran an idea workshop, asking the questions: what are we going to do with our town and our high streets? And how are we going to bring this place back to life?
Employing a Caretaker
This was the first piece of advice offered by nonconform, Caren says. They advised that the town appoint someone to oversee the whole process: “It’s all very well developing something with the public, but there is also the follow-up: you’ve then got to implement this and that takes work”. Erich Biberich became the face of the operation, acting as the caretaker, meaning that “what was developed immediately had someone who could push it onwards with full force, and that is exactly what it needs”, explains Caren.
There are so many facets to urban development. It is up to this person, the caretaker, to stay on top of the involvement of participatory processes, as well as acting as “the information interface between the people, the municipal authorities, the property owners of abandoned buildings”, she clarifies. Caren goes on to say that the caretaker’s job is primarily to:
- Gather the people together.
- Raise awareness of what they are doing or plan to do.
- Make the possibilities and opportunities clear to everyone.
- Encourage anyone who wants to and anyone who has ideas to act.
Don’t Dither, Do Something
The principal aim of Trofaiach’s development project was to revive the centre of the town. In this way, nonconform’s next recommendation was to take this aim and to just do it. Do something. Anything: it really didn’t matter what. That first step is always going to be a risk and a challenge, but as the German phrase goes, ‘no risk, no fun’.
Trofaiach wanted to make their highstreets and town centre come alive, so that’s what they did: “The first step was a big festival in the abandoned high street, simply so that there was something going on”. Caren remarks that at this point it was not about creating a long-term, perfect solution, it was about making something happen there and showing people that it is possible to bring life to this little, forgotten town centre. Part of this meant that they had to improvise, using the materials that were readily available. For instance, by making seats out of wooden pallets and arranging plant pots and troughs so they could improve the aesthetics.
While there may be towns, cities and companies with money growing on trees, this is not often the case. But it need not be expensive, Caren stresses. This goes back to the idea of just making things happen and getting the ball rolling through participation. “It sounds so trivial but when no one talks about these things, and if no one suggests just trying it out, then nothing will happen”, she adds.
Referring to Trofaiach, Caren says, “we just tried things out and that’s often the key: try it out, try it with humble resources and just see what it’s like”. For example, when they did come to the grander idea of re-designing the street as a square, instead of digging it up and relaying it, the surface of the street was simply painted with an orange, grey, white, and black pattern. Something so minor immediately signals that this is no longer a road – divided into pavement-road-pavement – but a place, a square, and somewhere for events to be held.
Obvious, Open, Observable Changes
This is an important piece of advice for any CityChanger trying to revive an abandoned area or use participation in urban planning. The first big development, upgrade, or change you make should be right under people’s noses. Don’t shy away, bask in the spotlight. This shows people that something is happening. Even if it takes some time, the public knows that those in decision-making positions have recognised that the status quo is just not cutting it and they are doing something about it.
In Trofaiach this meant their first revival action was Erich’s office. Caren discloses, “it was really important that he was right in the middle of the town centre”. She continues by telling us how, due to the location, he would quite often come out of the office, which had a huge front window, and talk to people. Or they could easily pop in to see him.
“It was the first visible thing that said ‘something is happening here’”, Caren confirms.
Spinning a Web of Communication
One of the caretaker’s main tasks is communication and information dissemination. This also goes one step further as, through communication, people can network and be linked up “bringing possibilities together”, says Caren excitedly. This can be an invigorating spin-off to participation. You’ve already brought the people together and got them talking; why not find out a little more so that these connections can be used to their advantage?
Through this, Erich was able to fill several previously abandoned properties by understanding their needs, issues, and wishes. He connected them with people who could help fulfil these requirements. For example, two elderly owners of a book and stationary store contemplating their retirement wanted to find someone to take over, rather than let the property sit empty. This became a priority and Erich successfully found two people to take their place.
No, we’re not talking about rollercoasters and fairground rides (although why not?!). This is about ensuring that, when deciding on the application of buildings and public spaces, the people are at the heart of it. You’ve already got them involved, don’t forget them now.
Caren elaborates that “it is extremely important that you always create attractions and applications of buildings which are going to generate a lot of frequent visitors, where people come and as a result, encounters happen, and meet-up points emerge”.
She gives the example of a music school moving into one of the abandoned buildings next to a stream, which was renovated by the municipality in Trofaiach. The area then gave children an outdoor spot to play in before and after music lessons, and parents and carers an area to enjoy, take in some fresh air, or chat in while waiting. It created something out of nothing. Trofaiach heard, through participation and networking, that the music school needed a new building. The stream had been left unloved and forgotten, so the new construction combined the two and established a new social hub of activity.
Main Take-Aways and Expert Advice
With so much wisdom and incredible advice from Caren, it’s only fair that we break it down and share it with you, our CityChangers. So, here’s the gist of everything we’ve gathered from Caren about participation in sustainable urban planning.
- Speak to as many people as possible.
- Make people aware of the local and global, current, and future contexts, and how they are connected. “Explain why it is so important to strengthen our city” with these changes, advises Caren.
- Don’t wait on anyone else, “instead, look and see what you/we can do that is in the realms of our possibilities by talking to the right people”, she highlights.
- Find someone who can continue to make things happen and keep up the wave of enthusiasm following the participation in the early stages. Keep people informed and involved.
- Another of Caren’s noteworthy tips: “Bring the people into it and start with small activities and interventions which don’t require a lot of effort or costs.”
The bottom line? If you really want to create a sustainable city then it’s important to get everyone involved from the beginning to the end, through every step – the citizens, authorities, builders, developers, specialists, and investors. Yes, there are some instances where it’s not possible or necessary to include participation processes. However, even here considering a way to put ideas to the public and keep them in the loop may be worthwhile. No one wants to be kept in the dark. So, sustainable urban planning = participation: let everyone get their hands dirty and get stuck in.