The city comprises both built and lived factors: streets and buildings are just as much part of a city as the individual and communal spatial constitutions of its inhabitants and users. They shape the city on a daily basis with their conduct, which is in turn influenced by built and structural conditions. Participation in a city’s processes of change therefore relates both to constructional and structural factors and to urban (that is, city) life—and thus ultimately to every single individual: our social relationships, our lifestyle, and the question as to who we actually are and in what society we want to live.
Public participation in a city’s processes of change thus also bears the potential for members of the public to design their own lives in a self-determined manner and to enter into a societal negotiation process with their ideas—because in cities, individuals live as one among many. If we keep this in mind, then we realize the relevance of public participation. It is not about the face of the city or about individual instances of limited-term participation in construction projects, but about power relations and structures of dominance, about inclusions and exclusions, about systems and our ability to tolerate diversity.
If we really do want to give the public at large the opportunity to actively co-design their living spaces, then it is important to fundamentally rethink public participation. Changes to the city must allow for a process of negotiation in which its inhabitants can take part. This only succeeds when changes and their planning in the urban environment are clearly visible and negotiable. Only then will we move the focus away from mere “pacification” and the optimization of a city as a product for sale and toward a more radical understanding of urban democracy. Then the emphasis will not be on fast solutions and results, but on the city and its diversity, inconsistency, and complexity. In this sense, public participation in the city’s processes of change means creating spaces for discourse and allowing contradictions in order to make a diverse city possible.
Leonie Wendel lives and works as a public interest designer in Düsseldorf. She is a member of Planwerkstatt 378, and in this context, she conducts both academic and practical research on public participation in the processes of change in cities.