Local Participation: What’s the Secret to Success?

“Design is invisible,” wrote sociologist Lucius Burckhardt almost forty years ago. He’s right—design involves more than just objects we can see; it’s also about social processes that we can’t. And that’s exactly what the Hamburg-based group PlanBude, who are working to promote participation in city planning, are all about.

In Germany, public participation is built into plenty of planning proposals—but it’s rare to see a dialogue in which both public and private sides are taken seriously. What typically happens is that normal citizens are presented with a project that’s already been fully planned; the only option available to them is to object to it, often leaving them feeling like everything’s already been set in stone. This creates an atmosphere of rejection rather than productive participation. PlanBude’s approach is a game-changing model capable of completely transforming the future of participatory processes.

PlanBude’s roots actually lie in local protest rather than participation. The group initially opposed the demolition of the Esso buildings in Hamburg, a complex from the 1960s. The buildings’ residents campaigned for them to be carefully renovated, rather than demolished and rebuilt. Residents from the neighborhood, a district called St. Pauli, frequently took to the streets in protest, joined by creatives and artists from all over Hamburg. But when it became clear that the investor was not prepared to renovate, they used the “St. Pauli selber machen” (DIY St. Pauli) platform created by the protests to demand that the new build be at least a participatory process, ensuring that local requests and interests formed the design’s foundation.

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What followed was a rare stroke of luck in city politics. A group of St. Pauli activists was prepared to structure this new kind of participatory process, the municipal administration was willing to formally commission the group, and the investor was prepared to greenlight this unpredictable process.

And so PlanBude was born—a transdisciplinary team of seven people who ranged in age between twentysomething to mid-seventies: artist Margit Czenki, architect Volker Katthagen, social worker Christina Röthig, artist Christoph Schäfer, city planner Renée Tribble, architecture student Lisa Marie Zander, and cultural scientist and musician Patricia Wedler. They drew on their experience to transform the protest into a project.

To avoid simply knocking on doors and handing out standardized questionnaires, PlanBude developed a range of creative tools

The starting point for the ensuing participatory process was the concept of “producing wishes” or “Collective Production of Desires.” Instead of just collecting opinions and voices in opposition to something, wishes and desires needed to be generated and residents’ knowledge and their hopes for the space made visible. A prerequisite to this was presence and on-site networking. PlanBude constructed a container on the building site; instead of waiting for residents to approach them, they moved their “tactical furniture” around the area like a mobile planning office. To avoid simply knocking on doors and handing out standardized questionnaires, PlanBude developed a range of creative tools. They used Lego and clay models, organized workshops for children and teenagers, offered exploratory tours through the district with photo safaris and sound walks, and provided conceptual open spaces, like the “inspiration couch.” Most important was their dedication to taking every single proposal seriously. More than 2,300 desires and designs were archived and evaluated; the results were then discussed at district meetings. PlanBude’s attitude proved fundamental to the results they achieved: No consensus was imposed—contradictions were considered and acted upon. The “St. Pauli Code” was born, establishing the new development as diverse instead of homogeneous, preferring variety over monoculture, and emphasizing affordability, with open spaces free from the pressure to consume.

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The investor accepted the St. Pauli Code, which formed the basis of the architectural competition. Everyone—local residents, politicians, and the investor—is happy with the development. Planned by several internationally renowned architects, it features a Park Fiction 2.0 on the roof, a climbing wall, and a basketball court.

Bringing local residents’ knowledge and their hopes for the space to the fore

PlanBude’s success proves that early local participation in city planning doesn’t mean that laypeople completely take over from architects and city planners. On the contrary: participation in this case means that architects and city planners are made aware of the residents’ knowledge, desires, and needs, so that site-specific features can be incorporated into their designs. This makes the residents feel more connected to their neighborhood and produces better architecture. Local participation strengthens democracy. Shaping and implementing participatory processes is an important step to ensuring that democracy isn’t just a formal act—but a vital part of everyday life.

Friedrich von Borries, born in 1974, is an architect. He teaches Design Theory at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg and runs the Projektbüro Friedrich von Borries in Berlin. The relationship between design and social development lies at the heart of his work, which exists in the border zone between urban planning, architecture, design, and art. “As scholars, we try to understand the world. As designers, we try to change it.”