Co-creating Madrid - online urbanism and community engagement

How can we create a better city by asking public opinion? How can we embrace citizens’ engagement in the decision-making process? How can technology limit the gap between different public actors? 

By Dimitra Ravani - architect and urbanist from Athens.

 
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Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding initiatives, online platforms, and urban applications aim to answer these questions and create the links between decision-makers and the public. They are not introduced as alternatives to the strategic governmental investment, but rather as complements, ways to eliminate barriers to public participation, and locate residents and local communities at the forefront of the production of urban space. In that sense, the growth of digital technology aims to impact not only the way cities are experienced but also the way they are grown, planned, and managed. 

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Citizens’ participation has widely been acknowledged in urban planning as a way towards greater democratization of local governance and valuable input in processes of city-making and urban regeneration. However, different strategies face different limitations. Even if the goal is always a higher degree of public participation, they often fail to overcome class, educational, or cultural differences. Digital platforms and online applications initially introduced as a way to overcome these barriers and provide a neutral common ground for public involvement.

Decide Madrid, an online platform powered by the open-source software Consul, introduced by the municipality in 2015, aiming to directly engage local communities in the governance and recreation of their city. The platform has more than 400,000 registered users, while more than 33 countries and 130 institutions have followed Madrid’s example, affecting more than 90 million citizens around the world. 

Through Decide Madrid, citizens better participate in the decision –making a process in four ways: 

  • Participatory budgeting – Residents of Madrid can submit proposals for the recreation of the city as a whole, or their area, as well as vote for already introduced projects up to a defined budget. If the proposal is supported by more than 1% of the registered citizens over the age of 16, it gets to the final voting stage;

  • Proposals – Citizens can directly propose and support ideas for new legislation affecting them;

  • Collaborative Legislation– Citizens have the opportunity to comment and vote for any legislative text introduced by the council; and

  • Debates – An open platform is created for everyone who wants to share opinions and open a dialogue on relative topics. Debates are valued by everybody. In that sense, the community decides what’s important, while the City identifies major public opinions.

The platform identifies stages of involvement. While anyone that has internet access can be subscribed and submit proposals, additional authentication is necessary to participate in discussions, create expenditure projects, or vote for proposals. At the same time, users must fully verify their identity and resident details in person at a Citizen Assistance Office or via mail in order to be eligible to vote in the final decision phase. 

The importance of this initiative is the opportunity to create channels that enable communities to participate in a process that directly affects their lives.

In that sense, success is to transform citizens from passive receivers to active participants. For doing so, the platform should empower and provide the necessary tools for those who traditionally are segregated; people without access, skills, education, or the ability to be involved.

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It is often in this type of incentives that only people already engaged with community consultation or their personal connections (family, friends, and organization that support individual’s ideas) are finally involved in the process, giving the sense that the ‘public’ is targeted from the project and not the platform as some would assume.

At the same time, the different stages of involvement, while aiming to promote equity prioritising the legal residents of the city and securing the integrity of the process, create obstacles for people that lack of access, time or the ability to enter this process and exercise their legal right to recreate the city they call home. 

The platform introduced, aiming to create an open and transparent government that empowers a more direct and interactive democracy. Through processes of debating and voting, both citizens and policy-makers are able to stress and test legislation.

Grassroots ideas are revealed, and new space potentialities are discovered. However, a limited number of proposals, presented in the participatory budgeting sector, have been enacted. Further, only a small percentage of the overall budget is subjected to public consultation. For Decide Madrid to realize its goal of expanding public involvement in planning, both figures need to grow. 

Nevertheless, still in its first steps, Decide Madrid is undoubtedly an innovative platform. Embracing community involvement, creating the common space for different public actors, and envisioning a more open and transparent way of governing, Decide Madrid is beginning the crucial work of questioning the ways we manage and recreate our cities. As all initiatives at the beginning of their life,

Decide still has its flaws. Nevertheless, the aim is still alive.



 
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Dimitra Ravani is an architect and urbanist from Athens. Her professional experience includes small and large scale projects and participation in several international competitions and workshops. Strong professional with an interest in city-making and a people-centered design approach.

Get in touch with her here.


 
Fabijana Popovic