NEW eReport #95 – Civic Engagement for Healthy Cities

This eReport presents six presentations and slides dealing with different aspects of community engagement, including a methodology for eliciting a community vision, children’s involvement in improving their neighborhood, a history of civic engagement in a city, and community-led improvements in a neighborhood, as well as case studies showing how to involve more diverse skills in achieving lasting improvements.

“The key to the most successful urban planning and design”, asserts Anton Nelessen, “is understanding the vision of the people. Anything less fails to recognize our shared purpose of designing cities … that advance health, happiness, and prosperity for all.” Professor Nelessen claims that city design should be generated by the people, not by a central planning authority. He promotes the use of the Visual Preference Survey with large numbers of citizens to elicit the consensus vision for appropriate urban design changes. He presents the structure of the survey, which is tailored to the community.

After conducting 168 Visioning sessions in cities large and small, Nelessen found several common consensus visions: people want cities to have centers that are very active and heavily pedestrian oriented; street level uses should focus on retail, culture, and civic places; proportions, scale and landscaping should be in harmony; there should be multiple modes of mobility; nature must be integrated into the form and fabric of the city; and building heights and very high density are a concern for most. Nelessen notes that when the result of a public visioning process gets implemented, public interest, pride and well-being increase and politicians in charge are praised and re-elected. As he says: “A plan will succeed when it represents the vision of the many and fail when it is the vision of the few.”

David McKenna, Landscape Architect and Engineer, IBI Group observes that with regards to the design of streets, engineers and landscape architects have different approaches, objectives and viewpoints, but that a simple, clear, common goal shared with city representatives can help them pull in the same direction. He presents four interesting case studies from the UK:

  • Castle Square, Caernarfon: simple idea for a clean open square was easy to communicate and agree. The engineers energetically followed this through and delivered a fantastic scheme that has helped change perceptions of the town.
  • Exchange Place, Kidderminster: A strong local historic concept, of the penny black stamp, was accepted by the engineering team and once agreed, they did not want to dilute the concept  
  • Frodsham St, Chester: Collaborative workshops with council members produced an agreed vision. The officers decided the type of solution they wanted. IBI produced a design which reflected their ambitions and there has been remarkably little change through the detailed design process.
  • Ashton Green, Leicester: communicating sustainable drainage ideas that are technically 
simple but different from the traditional engineering solution. Discussions are on-going and it is going to take a while to agree on a shared vision.

The Shaping Healthier Neighbourhoods for Children Project, presented by Laura McDonald, Health Development Officer in Belfast, gave children an opportunity to participate in decision making and to improve the public spaces near their schools. The project engaged approximately 400 primary school children aged 8 – 11 years. It involved a guided walk with the children in the public spaces near their school, during which the children took photographs of things they liked and did not like. They then created posters and PowerPoint presentations using their photographs to demonstrate the positive and negative aspects of their environment.

Their wishes were relatively simple: cleaner, calmer, greener streets and public spaces. The information they gathered will be used to develop Belfast Healthy Cities’ strategic child friendly approach in Belfast.

“Throughout history”, explain Stefania Biondi, and Patricia Rios from the Monterrey Institute of Technology Querétaro, in Mexico, “the city of Queretaro has struggled with social and urban segregation. During the industrialization process, the city began drawing physical borders that divided the society into neighborhoods that separated the different socioeconomic levels. Consequently, the urban fabric intensified social problems such as segregation, exclusion and intolerance that, to these days, continue to exist.”

Participatory design offers an opportunity of change and inclusion. Their research explores the evolution of participatory design in Queretaro over the last couple of decades. Today, participatory design begins to be considered as an instrument that promotes social sustainability and the creation of an inclusive society.

To be able to provide a livable city for the next generations, asserts Tomas Allen, Ph.D. student at La Coruna University, Spain, it is imperative to adopt sustainable transport alternatives. These must address the needs of current and future citizens, and also their broader concerns, such as greenhouse gas emissions and quality of life. Mayors must hear their citizens, and attend to their social desires.

Allen makes the case that to achieve these goals, urban planning should be coordinated by a Project Management team with members from diverse backgrounds drawn from both municipal planning authorities and other agencies, ideally with leadership and core staff external to the local Agencies.  This approach, he believes, will allow local leaders to focus on generating creative solutions for the city and its inhabitants, instead of car-oriented functional zoning plans.

Devon McAslan’s research on Jackson Heights, in Queens, New York focuses on community activism in improving access to public parks and urban spaces. He looks at how communities use the street in new ways, and asks:

  • How can streets be used to enhance public life?
  • What obstacles arise when the community and the city have different planning goals?

The neighborhood lacks park space, but has many children. This led the community to petition to transform 78th Street into a Play Street in July and August. When finally achieved, this further encouraged the introduction of a greenmarket; community use of a schoolyard after school hours; Sunday entertainment on the park; and closing of an additional street to traffic. These neighborhood improvements took place because of citizen action, not because of planning initiatives. McAslan, Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor observes that temporary, incremental, and inexpensive changes such as these, initiated by the community, may be more successful in the long run.

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