“There’s nothing worse than answering the wrong question.” Participatory design is not a “hippie, romantic let’s-all-dream-together -about-the-future-of-the-city kind of thing,” but rather a way to identify the right questions. — Alejando Aravena3
Alejandro Aravena, Pritzker prize-winning architect of the Chilean studio ELEMENTAL, executed a participatory design process to rebuild Constitución, Chile after a major tsunami. The project created a consortium of community stakeholders and experts and gave that consortium real power to influence the ultimate design of the project.
In 2010, after being hit by an 8.8 Richter scale earthquake and tsunami, Constitución had to be rebuilt.1 The earthquake and tsunami may have destroyed much of the town, but it also created opportunities to solve longstanding problems: flooding, lack of quality housing and public spaces, and a disconnection with the waterfront.2 “We were given 100 days, three months to design almost everything: from public buildings to public space, street grid, transportation, housing, and mainly how to protect the city against future tsunamis.4”
Aravena created a consortium formed by Arauco (the main forestry company of the region partially financed the project), the Chilean Ministry for Housing & Planning, local and regional governments, the public, and a set of experts formed by his studio, Tironi Associates, and Arup. The consortium worked to create cross-sector coordination, connections among government agencies that had been working in silos, and public participation.1
The participatory rebuilding process maintained transparency with an “open house” in the city’s main square that displayed all of the plans.2 ELEMENTAL hosted a series of workshops in which the community was informed of the status of plans, gave feedback, and voted on proposals for private developments, public facilities, and the fate of the entire waterfront.2 They also voted on prioritizing where resources would be allocated and in what order–fire or bus station first?1 The plan included a substantial amount of “incremental housing” in which the state pays to build two-story, two-bedroom homes with equal-sized vacant lots next to them and owners invest their own resources into building the other half as they see fit for their individual needs.1 And to protect the town against further tsunamis, they “designed a forest in between the city and the sea that wouldn’t try to resist the energy of nature, but dissipates it by introducing friction.4” It also provided a huge new swath of public space.
Dialogue among stakeholders enhances decision-making and ultimately permits more efficient and equitable resource allocation. As Aravena says, “design’s power of synthesis is trying to make a more efficient use of the scarcest resource in cities, which is not money but coordination”.3