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Jane Jacobs had it right: we need to start seeing citizens as experts in their own experience.

Jane Jacobs had it right when she famously wrote: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” It’s a brilliant and prophetic statement. Yet who would have thought that some 50 years after this was written, we would still be building cities from the top down. That a city’s future is still largely planned by a few influential people, rather than influenced by hundreds of actions taken daily by thousands of people based on what they believe about that city’s future. Baby steps.

Stop talking about places for everybody

While Jane Jacobs is quoted prominently in glossy company brochures and urban conference presentations, when we (the design and technical professionals) say “created by everybody” often what we really mean is “created for everybody”. A subtle, but critical difference.

We are, in Australia and other post-industrial cities, very good at creating places for people: Places that offer multiple reasons to visit, places that cater for young and old, places that improve urban sustainability. If we get it right – these are places that people love and remember.  And if we get it wrong (which is surprisingly common), places that are empty and underutilised. Many of such places will involve good consultation, but they are not co-created.

We much more rarely create places by people, places where citizens and expert work together as equals, places that invite citizens to make key decisions about what happens in their neighbourhood, places that allow local innovation to flourish and places that are locally relevant (and not increasingly homogenous).

When we replace co-creation for consultation, we settle for an urban environment that is much less than the one that we are capable of creating. Consultation, if done well, results in better place outcomes. Co-creation has a much deeper agenda: it builds resilience.

When we replace co-creation for consultation, we settle for an urban environment that is much less than the one that we are capable of creating. Consultation, if done well, results in better place outcomes. Co-creation has a much deeper agenda: it builds resilience. When we fail to inspire civic leadership through neighbourhood improvement projects, we miss out on local innovation, capacity and skills that make our projects better and communities stronger.

Take for example the The Otakaro Orchard – Christchurch's first edible park and urban food hub, being built as part of the city’s earthquake recovery. Initially the site was set aside as a community garden but as local groups collaborated it emerged that what was needed was a new public space and urban orchard. Citizens are crowdfunding $2 Million to support the space. What’s different here is not so much the physical outcome of the space, but the mode of collaboration and decision making. The project has built a community around it. It has been created by over 30 local groups and 200 people – created by everybody.

Draft Scheme for the Otakaro Orchard

Co-creation is also not just for the realm of community gardens and street verges either. One of the lesser known aspects of New York’s High Line is that it is a project that was initiated and driven by citizen-action, and remains privately owned. The Peckham Coal Line in London is a similar community-led initiative just getting underway. We should not underestimate the capacity of organised citizens to shape neighbourhoods, and create places that are stronger and more resilient than if they had been designed using traditional top-down approaches.

Baby Steps

Co-creating cities is, nevertheless, quite difficult to achieve, particularly using traditional methods. This is not because citizens are not willing to participate and lead (they are), but it requires a different culture and system of participation. This takes time, but here are a few things that we can start doing, right away, to strengthen the resilience of public space projects, and the communities that surround them.

1. See communities are experts in their own experience.

2. Ask for ideas, not just feedback.

3. Commit to backing local ideas with funding or support

4. Invite people to contribute time and resources to the project

5. Seek out local innovation, and be surprised what you find

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