This post is part of the Portraits of Place series.
View of Civic Center Plaza from Library Terrace.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011 was my first day out with El Carrito – a mobile public participation cart on wheels. At four in the afternoon, I gathered with Raons Publiques in the Civic Center Plaza of Fort Pienc ready to engage residents about public space. The Plaza is a node of expansion along Carrer de Ribes, a small street running diagonally across Cerdá’s famous chamfered blocks in Barcelona’s Eixample. This street, in fact, was here long before the expansion of the city, when the area of study was a Fort and the street led to outlying villages, but more on the history of the zone later.
Civic Center Plaza of Fort Pienc Location Map.
On Wednesday afternoon, a day after arriving in Barcelona for the first time, I only knew what I saw with my eyes. The first thing that struck me was the many places to sit in the plaza, in a variety of orientations. On the north-west side at least two bars added their own seating to the mix; the opposite side included a grocery market, the public library and an elementary school. It was clear, even before many people swelled into the plaza, that this was a central area in the barrio (neighborhood).
El Carrito in front of Elementary School, Civic Center Plaza and Neighborhood Model.
What is Participation?
El Carrito is equipped with a model of the barrio (neighborhood), forms and maps to be filled out by participants and lots of colors. A pin marks the spot of our current location on the neighborhood model. This pin is an important point of reference that bridges the gap between inhabiting a real space in the barrio and then looking at space conceptually as a three-dimensional model, and then filling out a survey on a two-dimensional plan. From this starting point, the participant finds where he or she lives, explores frequented paths taken, familiar landmarks and favored spaces.
So how do residents participate? As of now, it is a three-part process. First, participants use the model of the neighborhood to orient themselves, next a conversation ensues between the resident and a Raons Publiques member, and finally, the participant completes the following form:
Participation Form, by Raons Publiques. Click map image to view full size.
The form begins with basic demographic information regarding the age, profession and length of residency in the neighborhood of each participant. Then participants answer three questions: what are three things they like in the neighborhood; what are three things they would change in the neighborhood; and what is a vision they have for the neighborhood. The second question is of particular significance because it does not simply ask for problems in the neighborhood, but rather, it encourages residents to imagine changes in their environment. One of the main points of this survey is to foster the idea that the built environment can be improved.
After these written questions, the survey prompts the participant to use the map and locate one’s home, and draw, in different colors, their primary paths, most frequented destinations and modes of transport used.
Most people often stop after the written part; perhaps because people are not used to communicating by drawing on maps as much as by writing. This is the part where dialogue becomes important once more and Raons Publiques members help participants really visualize their daily activities in the neighborhood on the abstracted map.
Another important aspect, also drawn on the map, is the perceived boundary of Fort Pienc. Although there is an administrative limit to the neighborhood, the perceived limits of residents that actually use the area reveals the parts of the neighborhood that effectively act as edges. For instance, a street can be a thoroughfare for city traffic while also bisecting the local area. All this information is compiled and spatailized, documented on maps of the area rather than as written data.
Of course, the participation process is not so linear, and the various stages often overlap. Children especially enjoy spending time playing with the model; they write “mi casa,” or other significant markers and construct flags with the pins that quickly populate the model.
Participation After School.
Purpose of Participation
The purpose of participation is to give people a chance to be part of the changes in their living environment. Resident involvement effectively increases the feeling of ownership (and hopefully stewardship) from the private home to the public limits of the neighborhood. On a large scale, this opens the dialogue regarding the relationship between municipal and local urban systems. For instance, one of the issues I will address in a future post is the benefit of the National Theatre, constructed in Fort Pienc in 1997.
The analytical rationale of the activity is two-fold: One, to create a dialogue by engaging people in participation; two, to gather potentially pertinent information. In this way, “we” (potential planners, designers and general movers and shakers of the urban domain) can get to know the people most affected by urban change and vice versa. The simple presence of El Carrito, a scale-model of the Fort Pienc neighborhood on display for orientation, and three members of the group were enough to entice a surprising number of people to stop and inquire as to what “this was all about.” As I am learning, people in Barcelona are quite curious. Once school got out that day, we moved El Carrito closer to the entrance and were literally enveloped by scores of children and parents incredibly excited to participate.
El Carrito establishing a Presence in the Neighborhood.
Saturday, January 22 was the third appearance of El Carrito in the center plaza of the barrio. As the people of the neighborhood continue to see El Carrito in their most populated public space, they will hopefully get used to its presence; perhaps its symbol will prompt people to think about the space of their barrio at other times as well. In a sense, because not every participant’s input can be objectively documented, a lot is also accomplished by simply instilling a new curiosity about the possibility of changing the surrounding environment.
Post and images by Claudia Paraschiv. For more information on her work in Barcelona, read her blog, http://learningfrombarcelona.wordpress.com/.