Participatory Design in Poor Communities: Beyond the Rhetoric

"Participatory design" seems to be the mantra of the current generation of urban practitioners working with low-income populations. There is growing consensus that local communities should be involved in projects that affect them, both for the sake of their efficacy and with an eye to inclusive cities and governance frameworks. You'd be hard-pressed nowadays to find a development agency pamphlet, municipal government plan, or urban design curriculum that didn't pay homage to "participation."

Although the rhetoric all sounds pretty, the way in which the concept is understood varies widely. In bare-bones cases, it may mean simply keeping users informed about a project. At other times, it may involve getting majority consent. in other situations, designers may study the needs of users and incorporate their interpretations into the project. Going further, there may be processes of community consultation of varying depth. Participation can also involve inclusion of civil society and, less often, grassroots leaders in advisory or decision-making capacities. Much less often, participation means working in-depth with local groups at some or all stages of a project, from design to implementation to post-construction work.

The model of participation employed hinges in part on design professionals' understanding of the role of the architect in such projects. Is it to innovate and present people with what the professional considers a better space? Is to study and interpret local conditions? Is to to balance user needs and desires with considerations of design, engineering, costs, regulations, etc.? Or is to facilitate a bottom-up process of design and implementation? Equally if not more so, the mode of participation possible depends on the ways in which the community itself is organized.

In Pune, India, the ground has been laid for a precedent-setting model of community participation in housing design and slum upgrading. There, a network of poor women's collectives known as Mahila Milan ("Women Together") are planning to mobilize around 700 families in 7 slums to participate in design and construction to upgrade their homes as part of an incremental housing strategy developed in partnership with SPARC, an NGO that supports their work (and which I work for), and an international group of architects led by Filipe Balestra and Sara Göransson.

Upgrading is taking place under a scheme administered by the Pune Municipal Corporation that offers subsidies of Rs.300,000 (10% of which comes from a beneficiary contribution) to eligible households living in structures made of recycled materials for rebuilding 265 square-foot homes on roughly the existing footprint. The scheme also provides for improvement of infrastructure, roads and basic amenities. (Using government subsidies to promote incremental upgrading at the settlement level and preservation of well-developed structures is itself a landmark move by the PMC, and came in part out of negotiations and collaborations with SPARC and Mahila Milan over years.)

Housing designs and settlement layouts will emerge out of a participatory process facilitated by Mahila Milan, which has been active in the communities through savings activities and other community work for over a decade, in most cases. The strategy uses house models and other visual aids as tools for participatory design and promotes cluster development to enable consensus on rearrangements that will increase pathways and public space. A major aim is to create structures that will allow families to increment their homes over time and to maintain the existing settlement layout as far as possible to preserve social networks and the urban fabric.

In the project, Mahila Milan will also lead a community mobilization process, complete household and plane table surveys, secure consent letters, and help manage construction, which will be implemented through local labor. The idea is that the pilot project will be a springboard for Mahila Milan to explore this process in other locales that they work in across Pune and India and to manage as many aspects of the process as possible.

How is it that grassroots collectives of poor women can participate in the project to such an extent? To understand that, you need to look back to 1984, to the pavement slums of Mumbai. That was where a group of development professionals that formed an NGO called SPARC mobilized the first Mahila Milan groups organized around credit and savings activities. SPARC was aiming to develop new relationships with the urban poor and increase the participation of women in order to ultimately promote their mission of improving access to shelter, land and basic amenities for the urban poor.

Savings and credit increased financial assets, but more importantly, mobilized women into networks and built their confidence and financial and leadership skills. Savings and credit became the first core activity in a series of rituals that are both ends in themselves and means for building the capacities of the poor to proactively develop strategies and negotiate around issues of housing, land, sanitation and other basic habitat needs (these include slum surveys and mapping, peer exchanges, model housing exhibitions, demonstration construction projects, and more). Pune's Mahila Milan started with savings in 1997 , but gradually built their capacity to take on construction projects, large-scale surveys, and even a city-wide sanitation program in partnership with the government. It is only because of these decades of groundwork that Mahila Milan are poised to take on this project.

The type of involvement here is "empowered participation." Because Mahila Milan have a vast organizational base; skills in financial management, data collection, construction, and collaboration with government authorities; and staying power, they are able to lead a process in which communities are genuine partners rather than survey respondents or focus group members. Most importantly, Mahila Milan has the capacity to institutionalize and build on their learning from the partnership with design professionals to take work forward.

In the absence of a group like Mahila Milan, designers would likely be limited to talking with men, particularly those with local power, who would co-opt the process when a question of money was at stake. It would not be possible for designers to organize the community in a way that enables deep participation, and local people would not have the skills or systems for completing maps and surveys, collecting beneficiary contributions, and managing construction. Once the architect left at the end of the project, the process would end rather than being scaled up.

Because obstacles are the rule rather than the exception with housing projects in slums, it is not guaranteed that the project will unfold as planned. However, the conceptual groundwork has laid and partnerships formed give us a hint about how participation can genuinely become a reality rather than remaining a cute catch phrase.

Note: The third partner besides SPARC and Mahila Milan in what is known as the Indian Alliance is the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF). The Alliance works in 72 cities in 9 states across India and is an affiliate of Slum Dwellers International (SDI), a network in over 30 countries.

(Images by the team of Filipe Balestra and Sara Göransson.)

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