#OlotMésB: Local participation meets technical expertise

By Erin Johnson and Paisaje Transversal

In 2014, we embarked upon a project in Olot, a city of around 35,000 inhabitants in Catalonia situated 50km from Girona.We were initially contacted by the Olot municipality at the end of 2013 for a pilot program, and we carried out the project from May 2014 through the end of the year. This project was particularly meaningful to us because through it we were able to fully flesh-out and utilize our Participatory Indicators (InPar).

The municipality wanted to plan and take action in the areas of highest vulnerability, so the neighborhood of Saint Miquel-Les Tries was selected to start. The area had been abandoned in the last decades, losing public space to infrastructure and commercial and industrial uses; this in turn caused rents to drop which attracted a large immigrant population. Thus, the neighborhood suffered from a negative image and was unattractive to many Olot residents. Despite this loss of value of resources in Sant Miquel, there was much value in its location: rich with old industrial spaces that could be taken advantage of for new creative uses, situated along on of the main access points to the city, and nestled between two volcanoes along the Fluviá River which provided tourism opportunities. The mixture of immigrant groups, a network of community associations, and the diversity of buildings and landscape provided a great opportunity for regeneration, enrichment and improved quality of life.

The project took place in two consecutive phases: the first phase from May through July was directed at drafting a participatory diagnostic –identifying problems and urban, social, economic and environmental potential; the second phase was to start at the end of the summer, serving to define distinct actions of improvement, study temporary programming able to be tested and evaluated, and guarantee programming viability for the future. 

To start, we had to address the problem of defining proposals and validating citizens – which comes first? How do we make sure that actions are adapted to the needs of the citizenry? How can we guarantee that citizen proposals that develop from the process are technically and economically feasible and viable? To these questions, emerged a proposal to combine these two – participatory process and technical expertise for analysis and viability – in a way that was mutually supportive, blurring the lines between local knowledge and technical knowledge to unite them both. We built a process that was intersectional (between disciplines and government departments that would need to work together and coordinate to reach common solutions) and participatory (to foster participation from the residents of each neighborhood to identify problems, establish priorities, and work out solutions). Through this process, we would generate dynamics of co-responsibility for making the city between citizens, experts, politicians, and cultural and business sectors.

We held the first presentation in May with participation from residents, associations, experts, and government representatives. Over the following weeks, a variety of activities took place to spur participation. First was an exercise with a large 3D model of the neighborhood for residents to share important aspects of the past and present, and what they want for the future of the neighborhood. Beyond activity participation, we were also able to engage the community by enlisting the help of local companies to construct the model and 3D print the figurines. The activity was meant to be an informative, fun, and engaging activity, to help draw out community values and what they saw as the most important improvements necessary. Improvements were categorized into themes: the relationship of the neighborhood with the rest of the city, mobility and access, public and open space, and socio-economic activity. A later activity involved posters with panels for each of the four themes where people could leave their opinions (distributed at locations around the neighborhood) and this was also adapted digitally on the web – making it as accessible as possible for whoever wanted to participate and share.

With involving the residents in the changes that would take place in their neighborhood as an objective, it was important to have a space that made the process visible, inform residents about the progress, and to act as a reference point for the project. To that end, we made an exhibit in an old fish shop in the neighborhood with project information that would stay open until the end of the pilot project at the end of the year. This space was then also able to be utilized for workshops and other activities. 

The next exercise was collaborative mapping based on a series neighborhood walks followed by workshops. First, we visited spaces relevant to improving the neighborhood – underutilized or unused lots that could be an opportunity or potential for development to serve the neighborhood needs. Once we identified key spaces in the neighborhood, we held workshops to identify resources and needs of residents and associations. This first mapping exercise focused on understanding the urban space (axes of connection, access, discontinuous pedestrian streets, free and underutilized lots, access to natural spaces and public spaces) and the second focused on the natural environment of the neighborhood. For the second, we collaborated with two environmental groups for a walk down the paths along the volcanoes and the river. These walking and mapping exercises contributed to understanding the resources of the neighborhood and a more complete understanding of the area.

With a large youth population in the area, we also wanted to ensure they had opportunities to participate and share their opinions. So we designed materials with kids in mind for two activities: one for kids up to age 12 and one for high-schoolers and partnered with local schools to carry out these activities.

The final stage of the first phase was applying InPar: a technical analysis based on calculations from a series of indicators to provide a quantitative value to the status of Sant Miquel. Using reports from the various sectors involved on functional, environmental, social, and economic aspects of the neighborhood, we filled in and analyzed quantitative data, along with qualitative data garnered from citizen involvement. We had used parts of the tool in previous projects, but #OlotMesB was the first time using it in full. Through this process, we identified strengths and weaknesses, and differences and conflicts between the technical analysis by experts and resident perceptions. The results of InPar were then put into a document utilized to guide the rest of the project, defining objectives and roles and developing Strategic Themes to advance to Phase 2

Moving on to Phase 2, the focus was oriented towards prioritization, construction, collaboration, and visibilization of proposals for temporary activations of disused spaces which we developed along two complementary yet distinct lines of strategy:
1- Sant Miquel as a nicer, more livable neighborhood (better quality public spaces, rich landscape, local businesses, walkable) though improved green spaces, public spaces for coexistence, reviving of sociocultural and educational groups, and improved pedestrian mobility.

2. Sant Miquel as an active and attractive neighborhood with character, appealing to visitors, through valuing the neighborhood’s idiosyncrasies as an entry point to Olot, connected to natural park, home to an art school and diverse economic activity, and with an interesting public heritage.

One of the temporary activations, associated with the first strategy, was a tactical intervention to beautify Plaza Sant Miquel that improved its urban image and would give it value as a space of great importance to the neighborhood. The other was an activation of Girona Avenue as an axis of access and of activity through graphic signage. Both interventions were done in collaboration with local art and design groups, which were key relationships to establish for the future.

Though the focus of Phase 2 was different from Phase 1, the processes remained participatory and interdisciplinary. The two temporary interventions were selected out of collaborative workshops we hosted with interested parties from the community to share and validate 46 initial proposals that emerged from an interdepartmental work session of more than 25 experts from nine different municipal bodies. Through two consecutive work sessions addressing different types of proposals and employing shared decision-making, we moved from ideation to development of proposals to prioritization based on impact and viability. Then we analyzed proposals together – did they work together toward the overall objectives or were they simply isolated interventions? 

Then during the workshop with community members, participants could select which of the proposals were most interesting to them in order to establish priorities and concretize the plan of action. With so many proposals, they were grouped within a series of topics, strategic networks, and points of view to keep it organized and prevent complications.

Through both phases of the project, participatory and transdisciplinary processes remained at the forefront. The opportunity presented to us by the Olot municipality enabled us to employ InPar as a tool to assess qualitative and quantitative data on sustainability indicators and resident opinions. Furthermore, the end result of the pilot was not only low-cost and easy to implement, but also flexible, testable, and adaptable, in line with the philosophy of beta permanente. The temporary interventions incorporated local knowledge and technical expertise, made the project accessible both during the planning and implementation, and allowed the community to ideate and take action at the same time.

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Image credits:

Image 01: 3D model 
of the neighborhood (font: Paisaje Transversal)
Image 02: Poster of the proyect (font: Paisaje Transversal)
Image 03-05: 
different stages and activities in Olot (font: Paisaje Transversal)

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