El Carrito is a mobile public participation cart that unfolds to reveal maps, models and drawing materials so that local people can describe what they want from their physical environment. In this post El Carrito founds the Fort Pienc Neighborhood Detectives — a group of school children who investigate the neighborhood.
Putting Down Roots
The first thing that charmed me about El Carrito was its mobility, and all the real and imagined possibilities of activating public space that comes with this mobility. When Raons members and I went out into public space to engage residents of Fort Pienc, Barcelona to participate in sharing their insights and experiences about their environment, I was eager to take El Carrito “out for a spin” throughout the entire neighborhood under study. However, things are not quite that simple.
The main reason that Raons Publiques is in the neighborhood of Fort Pienc is because it lacks many robust public spaces; as we tried to engage people at different locations, we kept returning to the most active public space in the area – the Fort Pienc Civic Center Plaza.
At first I was disappointed by what seemed as a missed opportunity to spread all this participation around. But then, today, I had a wonderful realization: El Carrito is mobile to allow it to be not just a constantly moving urban element, but rather to become a sustained presence. And this is best achieved by its recurring presence in the Civic Center Plaza — same place, same time, so to speak. And so, because of its mobility, El Carrito can take root in this successful public space, and from here, from this very spot, new things can grow.
And grow they do! I want to share the beginnings of the unfolding story of a new El Carrito project — the Fort Pienc Neighborhood Detectives.
It all started as a reaction. Raons members reacted to the fact that, while children were happy to participate, they quickly finished all tasks on hand, and it became clear that they could do more. Some responses have been recorded in previous posts: drawings, draw-offs, random origami and marking space with personalized flags.
And so, in order to broaden the horizons of participation, Raons members introduced the game of Neighborhood Detective to the children. We encouraged children to work individually or in teams. They preferred teams and quickly came up with team names such as Corazones (Hearts).
Team Corazones teamate explains project and team Corazones with badges.
Next, each team received the following Urban Mission:
• Ask 5 people what activity brings them to the plaza.
• Ask 5 people what they think that children play in the street.
• Ask an elderly person to play a game.
• How many trees are there in the plaza? How many benches?
• Ask a person if they have participated with El Carrito. If so, ask them why El Carrito is in the plaza.
The children were incredibly enthusiastic to delve into these questions. They in fact demanded more questions once they completed the initial five prompts. A couple of them even came up with questions of their own to use:
“Do you like the neighborhood?”
“Do you think there is contamination in the neighborhood?”
Three steps of Detectives: The rules; The urban mission; The prize.
And once they completed the questions we improvised prizes and let them choose one of the postcards depicting other urban actions taken by Arquitectos Sin Fronteras. But, more than getting a postcard, they were happy to pose with their yellow cardboard detective badges with El Carrito in the background.
El Carrito y Carnaval
In the spirit of Carnaval (Carnival), we donned some masks before heading off with El Carrito to recruit Neighborhood Detectives on Saturday morning, an activity we tried out on our last participation outing. The Neighborhood Detectives, ranging in age from seven to twelve, were once again full of enthusiasm.
Neighborhood Detectives pose with badges after completing the urban mission.
Some worked in groups and others independently. Some groups came for clarifications after each of the five questions and one group completed the entire survey without any further help from us.
In addition to the information gathered, the exciting part about this new activity is two-fold. On one hand, the activity encourages children to engage with their immediate environment and enter into conversation with adults about the surrounding space. Secondly, since we will print the photos to give the Neighborhood Detectives next time they see El Carrito, the engagement continues beyond an isolated event on a Saturday morning.
Too Young to Participate
During week eight of El Carrito, Barcelona celebrated Semana Blanca. Due to the holiday and the lack of school-aged children in the Fort Pienc Civic Center Plaza, we made our way with El Carrito to an interior court designed for the play of younger children. Perhaps because the children were too young there, with few over the age of five, and the parents more attentive to the youngsters’ safety, El Carrito only received minimal attention.
El Carrito in the Old Horta Street Courtyard.
While participation was low today, I began thinking about the nature of participation once more. The other night at our weekly meeting, I passed out small pieces of paper and asked each Raons member to write down what each person thought was the objective of this Diagnostico (study / site analysis) in Fort Pienc. I expected a variety of answers, but in fact they all revolved around the theme of residents being part of city building, including decisions about policy and design.
The idea that a participation process can go beyond simply stopping bad development and act as a catalyst for good or even innovative development, which results from the deep knowledge of an area and the complexity of all its history, social relations, conflicts and paradoxes, is extremely exciting.
And so, there we were, with our participation El Carrito, surrounded by people, not participating. Along with the paradoxes of any robust neighborhood, there are also contradictions in the objective of Raons Publiques’ attempts to engage the residents. Probably, one of the main obstacles is that people don’t usually look at their environment and think of it as constantly changing. By the standards of how fast other technologies evolve, cities seem pretty static. I also think that the process of participating in city design has some relationship to voting, although the former is obviously in its infantile stage. Nevertheless, like voting, participation requires a certain engagement with the external processes of society, and even as different groups of people fought for their right to vote, voter turnout is not a unanimous practice. As a note, voter turnout in national elections in Spain is indeed high. While there are many reasons why voter turnout suffers in some regions and flourishes in others, one of the factors is literacy. Applying this to our desire for participation in the domain of public space, I often think about the “spatial literacy” of people. How could a deeper understanding of the surrounding environment, both natural and urban (although it is somewhat unfair to make them seem so separate, when they are so interconnected), encourage productive engagement with the environment as well as participating in its creation.
Until further developments, El Carrito waits for the Neighborhood Detectives to retrieve their Mission Portraits!
Photo prizes await pick-up from detectives.
Post and images by Claudia Paraschiv. For more information on her work in Barcelona, read her blog, http://learningfrombarcelona.wordpress.com/.