Hackable city-making: designing cities with communities

A new framework developed in Ireland is helping governments transform cities by co-designing solutions with communities.

After almost ten years in the making, the University of Limerick’s ‘Designing with Communities’ framework is flipping urban planning on its head, helping governments develop solutions to improve the livability of cities by co-designing them with communities.

Rosie Webb

When Rosie Webb, senior architect at Limerick Council and founder of the University of Limerick’s Adaptive Governance Lab, started to experiment with engaging communities in the design of Irish cities in 2010 as part of an action research project, she knew she was onto something.

Ms Webb quickly found that letting communities steer  the development of solutions to some of the challenges facing cities led to innovative ‘quick-win’ solutions based on ‘tactical urbanism,’ or short-term, low-cost changes to the built environment.

This model of collaborative, participatory urban planning has come to be known as ‘hackable city-making.’

Placing the community at the helm of the development of these problems meant change was addressed incrementally in a way “people were comfortable to deal with,” Ms Webb says, in-turn improving community sentiment about plans while also addressing problems of “collective action” through quick solutions.

“Doing these small scale things and seeing quick, easy wins and signs of progress helps to start a discussion and form networks and groups of people who want to work together, to help solve bigger problems,” she says.

It was this success that saw Ms Webb and a team of experts develop a framework to help other governments innovate solutions with communities by aligning bottom-up initiatives with top-down planning.

The framework, published late last year, is about flipping urban planning on its head, Ms Webb says, by allowing communities to lead solutions as opposed to involving them in consultation once design decisions have been made.

Case study: The Wood Quay project

A co-creation project aimed at improving the livability of the Irish town of Wood Quay, located in the riverside of Galway, helped to refine the framework.

Concerned with the declining residential population and rising number of incidents of antisocial behaviour, the community of Wood Quay set out to revive public space in the area to promote its use.

Spearheaded by the Adaptive Governance Lab, the project saw the community, local government and university students collaborate to develop solutions to improve the livability of the area.

Over a period of a few months, council arranged workshops where design ideas were developed by communities while students from the local university developed solutions for short-term interventions, later proposing them to communities and council.

After extensive consultation, the community decided to develop a parklet to promote public use of the area and discourage antisocial behaviour.

The parklet that was installed in Wood Quay.

The project was a huge success, with business owners reporting increased footfall in the area since the parklet’s introduction, while students of the local university have chosen the area as a site for their projects, and locals’ sense of pride has been “restored.”

Ms Webb says the success of the framework lies in the fact it connects the aspirations of the community with the desires of other stakeholders, including local government.

The framework

The ‘Designing Cities with Communities’ framework is based on medium to long-term engagement with communities and the implementation of tactical urbanism interventions and the implementation of continuous feedback.

The process involves a medium to long-term intervention of around 9-18 months involving a continuous, cyclic engagement process and targeted community engagement lasting 5 days occurring every 4-6 times per year.

Tactical urbanism interventions should be in place for 3 months to 1 year, while feedback should be collected, analysed and implemented continuously, according to the framework.

Community engagement weeks tend to work well in the format of learning days, field days and tours, community mapping, workshop and open design critique sessions, it says.

It’s this bottom-up approach that more councils need to foster in urban planning, according to Ms Webb. The traditional top-down approach to urban planning is increasingly being questioned by urban planners, she says, while tactical urbanism is being seen as a useful alternative to achieve progress in the urban planning context.

“Anything cities can do to collaborate at the very early stage so people can have input into framing the problem and deciding the solution is useful,” she says.

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