Design as Democracy
‘With such a positive title, this book potentially offers a great deal for designers and community groups. It aims to show that by giving more people a role in design processes, it can fulfil their needs better and inspire the long-term stewardship of places. Edited by a group of six academics and practitioners based in the United States, the language in the book is very quirky in places; although this may be deliberate, it is distracting rather than making it easy to read. The book was planned as a way of reinvigorating democratic design, and draws together ideas, experiences and techniques submitted to the team in 2015.
It comprises nine chapters which cover topics from preparation (Suiting Up to Shed), identifying commitment and interest (Going to the People’s Coming), and other stages to build up an understanding of what could be done, where the energy is locally, what information is needed and from whom, to Co-generating, Engaging the Making, Testing, and Putting Power to Good Use. Each chapter includes techniques and a case study, submitted by a contributor. These are wide-ranging examples from prison gardens and buildings to public space designs. Frustratingly the techniques are not summarised elsewhere, nor the case studies highlighted separately, except within the index, so that each one has to be read and its transferability judged chapter by chapter. One interesting example is from Barcelona, where El Carrito (the cart) is rolled out onto the streets and acts as both an attraction to people using a specific space, and a meeting point to share or gather information. The design of the cart described as being as important as the maps or questions being used.
Another example is the idea of using big maps and mock-up models to engage people, or the importance of giving things away (e.g. popsicles from the Pop-Up Meeting van) to those who participate. Many of the case studies seem to have a long period in which to engage people in preparation for more specific discussions, building trust, relationships and perhaps local skills. It is rare that community engagement in planning and urban design projects allow the time, let alone the budget, to include many of these approaches, unless a core objective of the project is to build local skills and capacity. Sadly engagement is too often just consultation, and with very specific objectives to be achieved in mind.