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Encouraging (and Inciting) Participation in the Architecture of the Public Space

By LETICIA LOZANO

LABORATORIO PARA LA CIUDAD

When we look at architecture, we can view it as a historic manifestation of the “status update” of societies. Architectural remains help us understand the social complexity of ancient cities, which are so often reminiscent of our contemporary urban spaces. While we’re well past the days of the Greek agora as a centerpiece of public social interaction, looking at architecture reveals that much of what was important to our predecessors is still valued today. But as our populations grows and our societies evolve, the problems faced by cities grow in significance, relevance and priority, making them more complex to reflect upon and act on.

Everyday, academics, NGOs, governments and policy makers are confronted with complicated problems related to managing urban expansion and congestion, fostering competitiveness, innovation, social inclusion and environmental sustainability, among others. These issues should matter to each and every human being, or at least to the majority of us living in cities. We all should want to take part in making decisions about the courses of action to address these problems, because eventually, either directly or indirectly, they will affect us all. But how do policy makers make these decisions? How do those decisions address the common good? Are they considering what is likely to happen in the next 100 years—or just in the next electoral period? How do they take citizens and our concerns and interests into account?

This is where architecture has to step in. Our cities have to be designed once again for people, to host public life. The built environment must engage people to go beyond organizing the public protests that are common in places like Mexico City and take an active role in decision making affecting the problems that affect them. Likewise, decision makers need to take advantage of public spaces to effectively and transparently communicate their actions and choices.

Representatives from institutions of urban laboratories (and pioneers in civic innovation) in two of the world’s largest metropolises came together in London and Mexico City for a series of exchanges. During the collaborative sessions between the Royal College of Art (RCA), Superflux, Future Cities Catapult, UNAM (the National Autonomous University of Mexico) and Laboratorio para la Ciudad, many concerns, ideas and questions surrounding the notion of how to make policies more legible emerged.

Around the world we find many examples of organizations and collectives instigating participatory processes for decision making, organized around different topics, and the resulting tools and methodologies have become increasingly popular for engaging regular people with complex problems. Having proved very effective at developing a sense of belonging and propriety of their urban surroundings, the tools and methodologies of legible policy have the potential to create more interconnected and responsible communities. But how might we keep involving citizens in the decision making processes, and would these strategies have a positive effect not only on citizens and politicians, but ultimately on our cities and our everyday lives?

The collaborators agreed that the decision-making process needs to be more open and accessible for people to participate. It must be responsive and reflect the contributions of citizens, and this process must be developed in parallel with the urban fabric.

THE SHAPE OF ANONYMOUS DECISIONS

Whether they concern the project to pave the sidewalk in front of our house, determine if our neighborhood will get a new library or postpone the implementation of a plan to improve safety on the streets, every day anonymous decisions are made that affect us directly or indirectly. Decision makers, whom in Mexico we elect based on the notion that they are suitable people to make decisions for us, should in theory have citizen’s interests as their number one priority. Unfortunately citizens only get to see the final results in the form of policy decisions, and not the process itself. The resulting anonymity of the process deepens already prominent public distrust of elected officials; when one does participate in the processes, understand the strategies considered, nor have a say in the decisions, it is quite easy to believe that those decisions respond to the agendas and benefits of others rather than our own.

The urban environment is full of physical manifestations of anonymous decisions. A very clear one is the global prominence of “starchitects” and the common belief that they uninterested in designing spaces to accommodate people’s lives and activities and prefer to concentrate on promoting their brands and attending to governments’ and developers’ financial desires, offering little to improve the urban environment for the commonwealth.1 Regrettably, this may be at least partly true, as developers often attach a renowned name to a project to help win major governmental decisions concerning urban planning. Considering that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao earns €320m for the city every year, we should wonder what mayor or governor would not want that kind of economic boon?2

Even beyond the mayor or executive official, I speculate that if a city-wide vote were to be implemented to make the decision of whether or not to invest in a building that would bring profits like Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum does for said city, citizens would support the endeavor—still more if it meant the new city income would then be spent on improving the quality of life in different neighborhoods. People might even feel proud of making a good decision for the common good. But what if, again, this decision is made anonymously and is perceived to respond to an agenda that differs from major public concerns?

A NEW PARADIGM FOR THE URBAN CONTEXT

In December of 2015, Mexico City experienced an unprecedented situation: An “urban regeneration” project on a main avenue of the city centre was taken to public consultation. Avenida Chapultepec, the site of the project, is an 11-lane avenue where the experience of crossing is best described as tortuous and dangerous. It is perceived as a barrier dividing the creative zone of the city comprised by the Condesa, Roma and Juárez neighborhoods, home to a large population of young adults with comfortable purchasing power.

The proposal for the Corredor Cultural Chapultepec (CCC), developed by Fernando Romero’s architecture office FR-EE, entailed a linear park that would connect the neighbourhoods and extend the greenery of Chapultepec Park, the world’s largest urban park that is located adjacent to the proposed project site. In the words of Archdaily editor Karissa Rosenfield, it aimed “…to transform the congested avenue into an efficient, multimodal roadway that features an elevated promenade lined with commercial and cultural programs that are powered by renewable energy and connected by lush landscaping.”3 As a narrative, the CCC sounded like an astonishing urban strategy and was even acclaimed on international media. But here in Mexico City, the story rolled out differently. The public found the process of announcing the project’s master plan suspicious and opaque, and the content of project itself would up causing more problems than it aimed to solve. Citizens quickly perceived the proposed corridor as a mere excuse to privatize public space and build a large outdoors shopping center. Immediately, the community organized itself into the the ‘No Shopultepec’ movement and brought a powerful wave of controversy crashing down on on the city government.

 

Critical facts about the decision making process around the CCC include:

1. There was no international competition to identify the executors of the project. Only two offices pitched proposals, and the winning office belongs Fernando Romero, son-in-law of Carlos Slim Helu, the richest man in Mexico and fourth richest in the world.4 In a country plagued with recent examples of political favortism and corrupt development contracts, this greatly damaged the public’s acceptance of the project.

2. All of the plots of land that fell into the proposed area to develop were consolidated into one single tract, without the approval of the mayor or the local deputies. The land was then granted for the next 40 years to the semi-public company ProCDMX, which in turn gave overall control to a trusteeship mostly managed by members of the private sector.

3. The members of said trusteeship were the same companies that developed the project’s feasibility studies. The contract granting them overall control gives them 94.88% of the CCC’s profit, leaving only 5.12% to the city. Clearly, the project’s approval was in their best interests, rather than the interests of the public.

4. The long-term control of the trusteeship was brought to public knowledge in mid-August, when construction was slated to begin mid-September. The “public consultation” was to be hosted in the brief interim, leaving a practically non-existent time frame to include citizens’ perspectives and opinions, and giving the impression that the intended attempt at public consultation was in truth a gross deception.

5. Citizen opposition stopped the first attempt at public consultation and delayed construction, leading the government to forcibly schedule the public consultation for early December 2015 and limit participation to inhabitants of Delegación Cuauhtémoc, one of 16 city boroughs, despite the prominent location of the project in an area frequented by people from across the city.5

 

Significant facts about the characteristics of the proposed CCC project include:

1. The CCC was an elevated multi-story shopping mall presented to the public as a “public cultural space,” another of the popular privately-owned public spaces proliferating around the globe.

2. The master plan was strongly criticized because, beyond the capital investment, the elevated corridors would cause increased pollution, noise, darkness and places with high crime risk.

3. Mobility consultant Steer Davies highlighted that the cyclist infrastructure did not cover SEDEMA’s (Mexico’s environment council) standards and that the public blueprints did not specify where the bike lane would go. The company also warned the trusteeship about the insufficiency of public transportation infrastructure, stating that the proposed Metrobus line (an articulated bus) would not meet user demands.

4. The project’s compliance with seismic standards was unclear and made more questionable by the passing of the city’s metro’s tunnels precisely underneath the location of the project.

5. The trusteeship planned to contract private security, likely enabling them to deny the right of access to citizens who were judged undesirable based on appearance, in other words, segregating certain segments of the population.

6. While Mexico City as a whole has great need for cultural regeneration projects to repair the fragmentation of the social fabric, the objective of the CCC seems misplaced, as its location, in the words of David Ortega, planning scholar at ITESM, “…is well-served when it comes to transit, retail, and namely, green space…”6

With controversy roiling around the project, at the last minute Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera made a public statement promising he would “…respect the results of the public consultation and would keep nurturing citizens’ participation.” When the public consultation finally happened, according to a national newspaper a total of 22,370 people participated, only 4.8% of the total population of the neighborhood.7 The results were not surprising: Approximately two-thirds of voters rejected the project. At the time this book was published, in seeming respect for the public consultation, the construction had not begun, and it is uncertain if it ever will. However, the construction of another elevated park has appeared on the outskirts of the city, and the government has announced the construction of ten similar “amenities” around the city, setting the precedent for how a local government can impose the private sector’s financial agendas in the guise of urban regeneration projects.8

There are many relevant conclusions to draw from this effort to transform urban decision-making into a citizenship-driven exercise, and the people of Mexico City should be proud of having made their voices heard in this matter. It sets an example of citizen empowerment and determines some characteristics to take into account when conceiving legible policy as a new paradigm for cities.

CIVIC INNOVATION, CITIZENSHIP INVOLVEMENT

While the public’s suspicions of the validity of the public consultation has its roots in common (and well justified) Latin American habit of distrusting the government, we should recognize it as a good civic exercise. Even if the methodology used (a democratic vote) was not particularly innovative and despite the low voter turnout and  highly flawed communication between government and citizens, it still managed to stopped the construction of the CCC, showing that the people’s voice was heard and taking us one step closer to the open processes and engaged community we aspire to. Change will not come if citizens do not start it.

THE PRECEDENT FOR AGENCY

The public consultation for CCC sets many precedents, and shows us a resounding example of how citizenship engagement can change a government’s decision. The public united against a common enemy, and this situation created an environment in which everyone’s opinion was important. Neighbors of the affected area gathered to discuss the situation; people outside of the neighborhood took part in demonstrations; various architectural offices presented alternative projects for discussion in open forums; social media vigorously embraced the subject (the hashtags #NoShopultepec and #AsíNo permeated online networks); and a debate summoned by the Instituto National Electoral (National Electoral Institute) gave both favoring and opposing groups the opportunity to discuss three topics: transparency/accountability, public participation and the project itself. During the months this city-wide effort flourished, academia, civil society and government worked together towards a shared goal and created an atmosphere of agency, for once, within our own city.

THESE THINGS TAKE TIME

The original timeframe imposed for the public consultation was far from ideal, and in my opinion, absurd, giving only one month to hear and consider the opinions of the public at large, make design iterations and approve a proposed project that would have an impact on the city for at least 100 years. While I don’t believe it should take six years, as did New York City’s High Line, which seems to have provided inspiration that guided the CCC, there must be a proper co-design process. First, local concerns and comments should be taken into account, then a project should be presented to all stakeholders, accompanied by a clear urban and financial impact plan, and then the iteration process takes place and continues until all problems are addressed in a transparent and coherent way. In addition, it is vital that the project be evaluated by an impartial third party.

Corredor Cultural Chapultepec may have been many things, but it was not a cultural corridor. It was quite clearly a private development project that would not have benefitted the city nor its residents. There was no justification offered for building an elevated park next to the 847 hectares (almost 2,100 acres) of forest in Chapultepec Park, nor for why the city would need more “cultural” space in between the creative zones where the city’s most culturally vibrant neighborhoods are located. Holding up the success of the High Line as an example falls flat when we consider that park’s problems keeping the spaces under the freight rail line safe for everyone. And at root, we must remember that for the high line, neighbors and stakeholders were in the decision-making process from the beginning, and the project of the park was guided by the reuse, refurbishing and refreshing of decrepit infrastructure—not creating an elevated park from scratch! These facts make me question the professional values in practice at FR-EE and serve as pivotal points to emphasize the importance of architecture and of the architect itself as the one responsible for the physical manifestation of a legible policy in the urban environment.

In conclusion, architecture and architects have essential roles to play in the conception and implementation of legible policies. They must facilitate and participate in a shared space with citizens, where all can interact, listen and understand each other to create a level playing field and shape urban decisions. This space is full of opportunities for hosting public interactions and spontaneously engaging civilians with their social and built environments; if governments, developers, architects and the public are able to work together to create it, the architecture of our cities will stand as the physical manifestation of our legible policies.

1 The term starchitect is used to describe particular architects whose landmark buildings and well-paid projects give them a degree of fame or celebrity status amongst the general public.
2 Gehry famously stated, “I don’t know who invented that fucking word ‘starchitect.’ In fact a journalist invented it, I think. I am not a ‘star-chitect’, I am an ar-chitect…” See http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/ architecture/frank-gehry-dont-call-me-a-starchitect-1842870.htm
3 Rosenfield, K. (2008, Aug 19). FR-EE Proposes to Restore Mexico City Avenue with Cultural Corridor Chapultepec. Archdaily. Retreived from: http://www.archdaily.com/772173/fr-ee-proposes-cultural-corridor-chapultepec-in-mexico-city
4 The World’s Billionaires (2016). Forbes. See http://www.forbes.com/billionaires/
5 Summary from: http://www.landscapeinstitute.org/news/Backlash-begins-for-Mexico-City-s-linear-park http://www.citylab.com/design/2015/09/the-terrible-plan-for-mexico-citys-high-line-style-park/408010/ http://www.animalpolitico.com/blogueros-el-dato-checado/2015/12/03/diez-puntos-para-entender-shopultepec/ http://www.animalpolitico.com/blogueros-ciudad-posible/2015/08/20/dudas-legitimas-y-razonables-sobre-el-corredor-cultural-chapultepec/ http://www.animalpolitico.com/blogueros-salir-de-dudas/2015/09/01/necesidad-o-necedad-avenida-chapultepec-y-su-entorno/
6 See http://www.citylab.com/design/2015/09/the-terrible-plan-for-mexico-citys-high-line-style-park/408010/
7 See Robles, J. (2015, Dec 7). Dicen “no” al Corredor Cultural Chapultepec. El Universal. Retrieved from: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/articulo/metropoli/df/2015/12/7/dicen-no-al-corredor-cultural-chapultepec
8 For further reference: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/articulo/metropoli/df/2015/12/7/dicen-no-al-corredor-cultural-chapultepec