Co-creating neighbourhood participation

How to step up from the occasional neighborhood consultation to more ongoing neighborhood participation as part of a public space design project? This was the challenge that the local council of Amsterdam South set themselves, and they commissioned STBY to help them with this.

Beyond individual Streetlabs

Over the past few years, STBY has been commissioned by various local councils in Amsterdam to  support service innovation projects around the use of public space by organising and facilitating co-creative participatory ‘Streetlab’ projects. These Streetlabs usually happen for a specific project only. This time, the local council of Amsterdam South asked STBY to design and coordinate a more experimental and longer running type of participatory process: a co-creative neighborhood participation process that involved a ‘process advisory group’ consisting of a group of residents and business owners from the Gerard Dou neighborhood. 

Redesigning public space and improving the livability of the neighborhood 

The local council is planning for a range of short and long term redesigns in the public space of the Gerard Dou neighborhood. Before they would start redesigning, they wanted to discuss visions for the future of the neighborhood and co-creative shared principles together with the neighborhood community. This new public space plan will then be the starting point for the upcoming redesign process that aims to improve the livability of the neighborhood. The council wanted to find out what the most pressing issues are according to its users (residents and local business owners), and what their suggestions are for improvement. 

Working with a process advisory group

STBY was asked to recruit and select participants for the process advisory group, who all needed to be willing to commit to a series of meetings about this project during the period of about a year. The participants were people living, working or having a business in Gerard Doubuurt. It was important to recruit a diverse group of participants that reflected the demographics of this area. The group consisted of five residents, four business owners, and three civil servants of different ages that are all living or working in one of the five neighborhood streets. 

We prepared and facilitated the sessions in which the process advisory group advised the local council on the process of involving the wider neighborhood community in the redesign process. Their task was to advise on how to collect input from the neighbourhood that could feed into the redesign plan. The process advisory group could jointly choose the research methods that were used for mapping the current experienced issues and the suggestions for improvement. We introduced various potential research methods to the group, such as an interactive map, Street Safaris, Streetlabs, in-depth interviews, a survey and online Street Talks.

Involving the neighbourhood in redesign project 

The first research method selected by the process advisory group, was an online interactive tool to map out the experienced issues in the neighbourhood. People living or working in Gerard Doubuurt received a letter with a link to the online interactive map. Everyone could add a topic or issue and pin it to a specific spot in the street. In addition to giving input, there was an option to vote for the issues added by others. The data collected was analysed by STBY and presented in a report. The outcomes were discussed with the members of the process advisory group. Subsequently, they could choose a follow up research method. Together they agreed on going more in depth on the most urgent topics. 

First poll: mapped issues experienced by residents and people working in Gerard Doubuurt 
Analysed and mapped issues in a report document by STBY

The second selected research method was a series of online ‘Street Talks’, in which a joint brainstorm between people living and working in the neighbourhood took place. Participants brainstormed about ideas for improving for the identified issues in the first poll. People could sign up  for the online Street Talks, and those that didn’t have the possibility to join online were offered an interview by phone. After having done these two polls, the process advisory group decided that there was enough input collected from the neighbourhood about suggestions and ideas to improve the public space and livability. For example, ideas about clear markings in the street to show where you can park your bike, to keep the pavement free of bikes, more trash containers to take out garbage and more trash cans to discourage litter. 

Since the Covid-19 measures did not allow us to meet physically, we prepared and facilitated all the sessions with the process advisory group and also the neighborhood polls online. These sessions were done by using a video conference tool, supported with a digital whiteboard to illustrate and document the discussions during the sessions.

Second poll: Participants prioritised topics during online Street talks

Experimental participation project
This participation project was a new approach for Stadsdeel Zuid. The neighbourhood had not been involved in a redesign project from this early stage before. The neighbourhood could provide input and ideas for the redesign plan yet to come. Such a new participatory way of working has challenges, of course, and we had to navigate these challenges together along the way. In the final reflections the process advisory group was positive about the approach, and advised to apply this way of working again in future. For future applications, it is important to keep in mind that: 

1: Be prepared to let go of fixed ideas and mindsets, and have a flexible approach.

2: Every participant has an active role to play in making this type of participation project a success. Everybody needs to be open minded, curious, and willing to explore other people’s perspectives.

3: There is no pre-fixed format. Sometimes planned sessions need to be altered because of the complexity and dynamics of the topic and collaborations.

4: Embrace the fact that things will have to be figured out on the go, since many things are new. This mindset helps to work together in a challenging and experimental process and helps the project to succeed.