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Enabling Community Engagement: Some Basic Concepts

Explore what community engagement means.

The idea that communities should partake in design decisions that affect them, has a long history. The notion of community engagement has been linked to a wide range of terms such as ‘community architecture’, ‘community design’, ‘participatory architecture’, ‘participatory planning’ or ‘co-design’, which started emerging in the early 1960s and 70s, as part of various civic, political and social rights movements in the UK, Europe and the United States.

Over the years, whilst community participation has become a more recognised part of the design process, it has developed numerous meanings as different stakeholders bring diverse and often dissimilar perspectives.

To create a better sense of the variety of those different perspectives and practices, different typologies of participation have been developed. Most of them are ‘normative typologies’, which suggest that different ways to participate are graded from bad to good. However, these typologies offer a good starting point for getting an overview of the different kinds of participation and the issues with the different levels of community engagement.

The most widely known and used typology of participation is Anstein’s ‘Ladder of participation’. It looks at participation from the community perspective, the receiving end as it were. The ladder represents graded levels of public involvement within public decision-making processes, with ‘citizen control’ at the top of the ladder and ‘non-participation’ at the bottom rung. Information-giving and consultation is where the community can share their thoughts and opinions on the design and brief. However, the final decisions are still made by the professionals, or those in authority, with no guarantees that any of the feedback will be incorporated. This is therefore a form of tokenistic engagement.

Arnstein’s (1969) Ladder of Participation Arnstein’s (1969) Ladder of Participation

Arnstein acknowledged that the ladder of participation is a simplification of the gradients of community engagement and that in fact there might be 150 rungs on the ladder to cover the wide variety of people, community groups, programs, opinions and interests. It is also worth noting that effective participation strategies can benefit from a combination of elements that occupy various rungs on that ladder. Nevertheless, the ladder of participation shows the issues of power and control in decision-making and highlights some of the barriers and gaps regarding the if, when and how communities get their say.

The main aim of participation should be to enable people to have control over the course of their own life and their surroundings. This practically means to have legal rights, access to information, but also all the support they need to be part of shaping and collectively taking decisions. Participation, when fulfilling these conditions (i.e. access to information, right to participate and support), creates a sense of ownership and belonging which are critical factors for the quality and sustainability of a place.

In sum, design participation should open opportunities for people to engage in dialogue, and have a say in all stages of a design process. Participation should not be a tick box exercise, but an integral part of making design efficient, effective and meaningful.

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