guest post by Ana Cristina Vargas, as we promised in our previous post

Informal settlements in major cities of the developing world -which shelter one third of the world’s population- lack infrastructure, open spaces and safe living environments. Tracing Public Space introduces a new methodology to address urban poverty by introducing a participatory design process to transform public spaces in low-income communities. The method uses a toolkit to teach children observation, representation and design skills to empower them to begin a sustainable transformation process of their community’s public spaces. Tracing Public Space has been developed in India, Venezuela and the USA through nine workshops with local children and institutions. The workshops have three steps:

Step 1: Observation and Representation




The first part introduces children to the concept of public spaces and cultural identity. They receive a toolkit (figure 1) that includes a map of their community, digital cameras and measuring tape. These tools help them understand the physical aspects of public space within their communities. Observation is the first step to realize all the opportunities to intervene public spaces. They represent those spaces by mapping them in a collective map. At the end of this workshop the group shares the map and their images with the rest of the community and together they can choose one space to intervene with help and advice from their parents, experts and community leaders.




For example in Malwani (Mumbai, India) by mapping public spaces, we discovered that 30% of the open spaces that had been planned for this temporary transit camp had disappeared as a result of informal occupation of the space. This finding helped the children to advocate for the preservation of the existing spaces (figure 3 and 4).













Step 2: Imagining and Designing Public Space



The goal of this step within the process is to design spatial interventions that could help transform the space. The design toolbox (figure 5) can be made of cardboard pieces, clay, foam blocks or Lego pieces. Children cannot learn architecture skills in a day or a week, but these pre fabricated tools framework can help them to represent their ideas in three dimensions (figure 6).


The hardest step of enabling a design process is to push creative thinking to the limits and have the children invent new things. Only by doing several iterations of the design phase they will refine their ideas. All the models, mockups, drawings and ideas are shared with the community and the children are responsible for explaining their own work.

For example, Shagufta from Mumbai imagined it could snow in the courtyards of her neighborhood so that children could slide on the snow. Therefore, when she realized that snowing could not happen, she designed a waterslide for the children to play.


Step 3: Transforming Public Space



This step is about demonstrating how transformation can happen. With help from the community we choose one design idea that can be built using a simple construction technique (figure 7). The construction process requires that adults and outside specialists get involved to help the children. This is primarily a pedagogical step for the children to realize that they can drive a pro­cess of change, that they have the tools, they have developed the skills, they have a voice to advocate for public spaces and finally they can make a change happen. To transform a place takes time, it is not about a moment gesture. It is about developing with the community a long-term transformation process.

For example, in Venezuela Madeleine and Leonelly design a mural using lines and patterns for ta iny soccer field and we used ceramic mosaics to build it with help from architects and adults from the community (figures 8, 9, 10, 11).

Fig8-ModelforMural Fig9-MuralSite

Fig11-Mural           Fig10-Muralconstruction


The most valuable lesson from these workshops is to recognize that to transform public spaces we need to be understood the process beyond physical design. It is about how we engage people in the process to allow them to think differently about their communities. It is about converting the owners of the space into agents of their own transformative process. This method emphasizes the need to develop the workshops in-situ, because they depend on being on the ground to perceive the space and to fully embrace it. Finally, it is about understanding that we see when we observe, we perceive when we participate, we learn when we do, and we are when we act. So, think about what you can teach and inspire others to observe, do, participate and act, and become the architect of your own process, because time is running and the world is waiting.

, a Participatory Design Project

 on FAVELissue | Ana Vargas

  2. Pingback: AICA, the workshop | {FAVEL issues}

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