Shared Grammars, Individual Desires: Participatory Planning and Slum Upgrading in Brazil

In Brazil, for the past three to four decades, planning and design have continuously had their relevance in the broader social and political debates weakened. After the demise of modern master planning and physical-behavioral determinism, the scientific ability to somehow foresee the future that planners and designers imagined to posses proved to be flawed in many cases. 

The amalgamation of planning and design has not yet been fully understood as to form a new repertoire that allows more effective operations in the urban realm, not even in Brazil, where planning and design were merged in the professional statute of the architect. Under the light of this disciplinary crisis – at least from a Brazilian point of view – this article makes an effort to map and analyze how the technocratic (top-down) and the social-political (bottom-up) dimensions of urbanism can somehow be reconciled. And rethinking public participation is key to this revision.

The emergence (and urgency) of informality requires the formulation of new methodological agendas with larger impacts on how planning and design disciplines operate in contemporary metropolises, especially in developing nations. In this context, it must be clarified that this article does not advocate for neither the bottom-up nor the top-down. Yet, it understands that this debate has deceitfully taken urban disciplines to these two extremes so far.

There is a tendency to confuse participation with public consultation, which are conceptually divergent. It is deceptive to understand participation as a synonym to consultation, and accept that whatever a given community voices out is a solemn truth. Society in general – and some politicians, planners and designer as well – tend to blindly stress the values of exclusively ‘listening’ as means to compose a list of demands for all sorts of reasons: from political promises to easily graspable rhetoric. It is also an illusory idea that top-down technical knowledge is able to individually make all the right decisions, being impermeable to any local input.

Negotiations on participatory processes tend to fluctuate towards these extremes, most of the times without yielding any positive results. One of the most pressing challenges in implementing participation in design and planning is precisely to find the most efficient ratio between local knowledge/demands and technique. This can only be achieved if participation shifts from mere consultation to a process of establishing effective channels of communication among all the stakeholders involved. Extremely polarized discussions evolve into unfruitful disputes simply because the parties involved are unable to understand each other.

 This article aims at amplifying the discussion towards the necessary revisions of the roles that planners and designers play in moderating and enabling conversations in the context of urban regeneration projects. It derives propositional hypotheses and critical arguments on a new sort of moderated participation from two recently completed urban regenerations plans by the author in coastal slums in Niterói, in Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan region: the Canto de Itaipú and Jurujuba fishermen communities. Both are located in environmentally and politically sensitive areas, where imprecise planning regulations, illegal occupation and the clash between traditional fishing and offshore oil drilling led to severe urban decay.

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