Public space design with participatory methods: A multi-partner learning experience

Posted April 28, 2021

What would it take to design a truly participatory community project whereby a neglected public space is revitalized to create an inclusive and vibrant community hub through placemaking?

In Turkey, there is a traditional model of creating public spaces that has been around for a long time. From the giant concrete structures built by radical urban transformation projects to preconceived functions that were assigned by decision makers with a top-down approach, participatory design practices have been ignored and not sufficiently adopted into the public sphere in Turkey. The rare examples of placemaking for public spaces are limited despite various research activities carried out by academic institutions in this area.

Globally, new models of urban transformation and revitalization have had tremendous positive effects on urban life. These include new partnerships, approaches, financing and maintenance models that are not only innovative but inclusive and sustainable. However, the last couple of years, this issue has become more visible: The need to tap into diverse sources of knowledge and talent of communities has made itself evident, it seems that some of the local governments have started to carry participatory models to a public policy level, especially in Istanbul.

Participatory design requires advanced capacities, strong local partnerships, participation of residents, diverse relevant communities, and businesses. That results in enriching the value of identity, public demand, and recognition. The process requires and is not limited to transparency, communication, coordination between partners, and most importantly a functioning feedback mechanism between participants and practitioners during the project process.

AccLab Turkey has been focusing on this issue since 2020 February, by organizing workshops for Post-Covid cities with local communities, keeping track of the developments within the ecosystem, and enormous amount of desk research. So far, we have had many attempts in terms of creating opportunities for collaboration focusing on participatory practices with local governments that have provided many lessons learned: The most crucial aspect for collaboration with local municipalities is the willingness toward innovation and commitment to learning.

In October 2020, the Accelerator Labs Network Global Team, in collaboration with the Japan Unit (BERA) invited labs working on SDGs 3, 11, 12 and 13 to be part of an innovation challenge with the Japanese private sector to solicit ideas and solutions to address the problems and learning questions labs are working on. Not surprisingly, we have carried out our interest for participatory design and public spaces to international stage to benefit from Japanese technological expertise in design, engineering, and ICTs is well known. Our lab became one of the five winning labs awarded with a grant by Japanese Cabinet Officers funding for participatory design of public spaces.  Thanks to the call of the SDGs Holistic Innovation Platform (SHIP) launched by the Japan Innovation Network (JIN), it was possible for us as a UNDP Accelerator Lab to be matched with a suitable Japanese partner through Japan SDGs Innovation Challenge. Sotonoba team will be our design partner until the end of May 2021 for the design of the project.

On the Turkey side, we have launched an open call for municipalities to select a local partner, in collaboration with Marmara Municipalities Union[1] (MMU). We received 11 applications from municipalities in the Marmara region. The aim of this call was to select the most compatible municipality focusing on cooperation to establish an exemplary model in co-design and place-making practices, designing an open community hub/meeting place through place-making, supporting urban resilience and sustainability under COVID-19 conditions.

The willingness and capacity of the municipality team, the vision they proposed and suggested project area were the assessment criteria. Interviews were conducted and the 3 final candidates were evaluated together with Sotonoba team. As a result, Gokceada Municipality was selected as the local partner. Gokceada is the biggest island of Turkey, which is partially isolated and has various ethnic groups, different income levels, and socio-cultural structure.

Our learning is based on creating conditions for participatory urban design (both form and function) and planning where residents of an area can share their views, experiences, wishes, and skills with the municipality and other stakeholders who are responsible for building public spaces.

This process aims to create a conceptual design with participatory methods and placemaking tools. We have faced several challenges during this process but most importantly, language barrier and Covid-19 has had an implacable impact on the project and has led it to become more innovative. For such a study, face to face interaction would be a preferred methodology, however the difficult circumstances stemming from the pandemic, lockdowns and restrictions have pushed us to be more creative and to use digital tools in an effective way. Using new and simple methods and digital tools for the workshops and meetings has brought an unusual perspective in finding solutions. The Sotonoba Team brings placemaking and architecture expertise as well as cultural exchange reflecting collective heritage via collaboration.

Here, I have just aimed to give the general framework of the project. In the coming weeks, I will be sharing insights and lessons learned, digital methodologies and communication processes in detail.

Lastly, bridging cultures, desires and approaches between Gokceada and Japan is a unique experience. Creating constructive communication ground for all parties, building trust and knowledge exchange and facing challenges all together bring about alternative problem-solving methods and motivation for creating applicable solutions in the process.

[1] MMU is a regional union of municipalities and the first of its kind in Turkey, pioneering in the development of democratic local administration movement, increasing the authority and resources of municipalities, improving environmental awareness in local administrations and adopting a sustainable development approach in Turkey. Having over 190 members, UMM operates in 12 provinces, six of which are metropoles. It provides administrative, financial and legal consultancy and training services, supports scientific studies and organizes events and meetings that bring relevant stakeholders together in order to improve the institutional capacities of local administrations in areas such as environmental management, urbanization, migration and social adaptation, local diplomacy, local development, urban technologies and innovation.