PAP 50 : «  Concertation ", «  Participation ", «  co-construction  »

Sebastien Giorgis, mai 2021

Le Collectif Paysages de l’Après-Pétrole (PAP)

Anxious to ensure the energy transition and, more generally, the transition of our societies towards sustainable development, 60 planning professionals have joined together in an association to promote the central role that landscape approaches can play in regional planning policies. With his double hat as an elected official and a landscape architect, Sebastien Giorgis retraces the different stages of the emergence of what is commonly called today «  urban ecology ".

The right to the city manifests itself as a higher form of rights: the right to freedom, to individualisation in socialisation, to habitat and to living. The right to work (participatory activity) and the right of appropriation (quite distinct from the right of ownership) are involved in the right to the city ».

Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, 1968

The agora, the central square of the ancient city, is the founding place of citizenship in the Western tradition 1. It is on the agora that the ‘public space’ in the sense of the philosophers 2 took shape, this place of debate where the political project of the city is built. In the continuity of this reference, the search for this accomplished form of citizenship has reappeared today as an attempt at direct democracy in various countries. Its current forms emerge at the beginning of the 20th century in the United States with the proposals and approaches to urban projects based on citizens developed by Patrick Geddes 3 and later with the work of the urban ecology of the Chicago school. Originating in sociology 4, this discipline studied the relationships between the different communities in the city and the extensions in terms of participatory democracy opened up by the communityorganizing mechanism implemented by the sociologist Saul Alinsky in the 1920s 5. In Europe, the first stirrings came later. A first attempt was made in 1945 by the architect and town planner André Lurçat, who was commissioned by the State to rebuild the town centre of Maubeuge, which had been completely destroyed during the war. His approach was not taken up. This revival of citizen involvement in the making or transformation of the city then reappeared with the innovations in urban methodology introduced in the 1960s by the project to reclaim the historic centre of Bologna in Italy during the San Leonardo district experiment. This experiment was to become one of the places of pilgrimage for European urban planners in the following two decades. Among these precursors, we should also mention Simone and Lucien Kroll in Belgium, who also remained very isolated. The emblematic operation of the «  Maison Médicalisée ", the famous «  Mémé  » of the Faculty of Medicine of Leuven, was conceived in 1970 with the students and future users in an approach based on the principle : «  the habitat is an action, not an object  »6. Through these few initiatives, French society was committing itself, albeit timidly, to this new way of experiencing citizenship in and through the design of urban projects and their landscapes. These initiators of participatory democracy inspired several generations of urban planners, including ourselves, when we created the Association for Participation and Regional Action (APARE) in Avignon in 1978, whose first mission was to design, together with the inhabitants of two municipalities in the Drôme, the spatial, urban and heritage project that embodied the idea they had of their future. At that time, ten years after 1968 and well before the first decentralisation laws (1982), the State and its services in the territories (the DDE) were in charge of all the equipment projects, from planning to the development of the village square, without any public meeting or information. The administration took the decisions and carried out the work, imposing its initiatives and know-how. In the face of this unique and unquestioned practice, our proposals, designed with the citizens, remained unchanged. Beyond the difficulties that these first experiments faced, forty years of practice in these approaches have shown that, when the method is good and sincere, the mobilisation of the control of use that each citizen has contributes greatly to the quality of the design of the urban project, as shown today by the example of the operations resulting from calls for projects with participatory budgets.

The stages in the emergence of a new way of designing the city and public space

After a long period of top-down planning in France by an undivided central power in which only the public authorities and their experts were allowed to design the city, different concepts emerged from the 1960s onwards: consultation, a timid start, participation, a modest place is given to the citizen, often referred to as the « user »; and finally co-construction, which now seems to be prevailing. Echoing this process and in the continuity of the worldwide cultural revolts of the 1960s, two trends will clash: urban struggle approaches with revolutionary references, of which the ZADs are the contemporary expression, and a more reformist approach embodied by participation. Among the references inclining towards the participatory approach, the work of the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy Gourna, a tale of two villages 7 has particularly influenced the French public because its title has been translated as Construire avec le peuple (Building with the people). This militant expression fed the imagination of an entire generation of architecture and urban planning students in the 1970s. It became the slogan of a movement aspiring to this new form of democracy which developed in those same years with the creation, in Grenoble, of the first «  Groupe d’Action Municipale  » (GAM) formed on the initiative of associations, neighbourhood unions and workers’ unions. They all shared the observation that traditional political governance was inadequate to deal with urban planning and development issues. Nearly ten years later, one hundred and fifty GAMs were at work - there are still about thirty of them today - forming a field of expression for this other way of living and designing the city and the landscapes to be lived in.

This first generation is also symbolised in France by the « Alma gare » movement in Roubaix, which was based more on urban struggle. At the time, a hygiene project planned to demolish the old urban courtyards, which were considered unhealthy by the public authorities, who preferred the promise of comfort of the large housing estates. To oppose this, the inhabitants mobilised within the Atelier Populaire d’Urbanisme (created in 1973). For ten years, the APU developed another project, attentive to the way in which this urban structure inherited from the city’s working-class history embodied the memory and pride of the inhabitants. The slogan «  The APU does not represent the inhabitants, it is the inhabitants  » symbolises a positioning that today could be called «  empowerment ", in reference to Anglo-Saxon movements. It is evocative to note that, since 2003, these courtyards have been protected under a ZPPAUP 8. The emotion and intuition of the inhabitants and their sensitive attachment to their district preceded by forty years the regulations implemented by the institutions and official experts. From the 1980s onwards, this first generation of citizen action faded away behind the great project of decentralisation, which mobilised all energies. It is emerging again today, as a reaction against the way in which local authorities have taken over from the top-down model by basing themselves on the legitimate claim of representative democracy.

But for all that, the opening up of the public media space, the continuous rise in the level of education of citizens, the continuous information provided by the media, the flexibility and speed of exchanges offered by the development of social networks are now calling into question this governance of local authorities which, as we can see from the countless signs, is also reaching its limits.

For most of those who claim it, this social and political aspiration to participatory democracy is now associated with the concerns of sustainable development and global warming, which have taken their full place in local public debate. This participatory democracy largely inspires the new approaches and tools put in place following the 1992 Rio Earth Summit (local Agenda 21s are one of the expressions of this) and in application of the Aarhus Convention (1998) 9 and the European Landscape Convention (Florence, 2000) 10.

When they emerged from the years of dictatorship, which had excluded them from democracy and its dynamics - 1985 in Brazil, 1983 in Argentina -, the Latin American countries constituted a hotbed of enthusiastic experimentation that developed various mechanisms for citizen involvement. Among the most dynamic, the participatory budgets implemented in Porto Alegre in 1989 have recently been developed in France in Angers, Avignon, Bordeaux and Paris 11. Here, a citizen or groups propose projects that can be financed from the commune’s budget. And a vote of the whole population designates which ones will be carried out. Our institutional vocabulary and the regulatory context are trying to learn from this global evolution. It was in the field of the environment and not town planning that a first law instituted the principle of information and participation of the inhabitants, with the Bouchardeau law 12 «  related to the democratisation of public enquiries and the protection of the environment ". 13.

The evolution of the vocabulary will then be rapid and will permeate other legislative and regulatory fields:

The fact that, in schools of architecture, urban planning and landscape design, specific courses are now given to students to train them in participatory approaches also marks a significant step.

Despite these regulatory changes and the different interpretations to which these participation methods give rise, the actors currently tend to prefer the concept of co-construction, a term included in the programming law for the city and urban cohesion 18. The project house and citizens’ councils provided for by this law 19 aim to guarantee the place of inhabitants in the steering tools «  so that a relationship of mutual trust is established between the inhabitants and the institutions ".

However, these participation and co-construction procedures are still very much under the control of the public authorities, who set up, regulate and control the process from A to Z. In reaction to this top-down participation, the term « empowerment » appeared in France long after it was invented in the United States. The sociologist Jacques Donzelot 20 describes it as an « elevation of people’s power over their lives » which would challenge consultation and participation.

This principle was embodied in the Chicago « community organising » mentioned above. It consists of a direct takeover, by the citizens’ groups themselves, of issues left untouched by the institutions 21. With this notion, it is no longer a question of consultation or participation aiming to produce a consensus between actors concerned by a planned development, but of assuming a dimension of conflict through the expression of what some people call a « territorial class consciousness » or a « civic communitarianism ». It is then posited that «  ordinary people are the best experts for themselves ", a principle from which the notions of «  expertise of use  » and «  power to act  » develop, a direct translation of «  empowerment ". This notion is difficult to accept for the supporters of representative democracy: does citizen or association representativeness which is concerned with the particular interest or that of given groups 22 have the same legitimacy as that which guarantees the public interest? The debate is far from over. The fact is that many of these practices involving play sessions with coloured post-it notes, ‘walking diagnoses’, mobilisation of digital applications 23 and other inclusive procedures are still in their infancy in France. We could learn a lot from our neighbours in Spain, Italy or Switzerland who, having not experienced centralism, are more freely adopting practices of local autonomy and citizen responsibility.

Processes under construction

We have all attended these public meetings in the heart of a neighbourhood of 5000 inhabitants. Twenty people attend, including twelve institutional members. Despite the physical proximity of the participants, a face-to-face arrangement leads to a counter-productive confrontation. Similarly, the shared diagnoses, the collection of questionnaires and the various efforts made in the field often fall short of the ambitions.

The key question is: how to involve the voiceless, the invisible, those who have never attended a public meeting or responded to a survey? They are legitimate to bring this expertise of use and the testimony of their practices, their expectations, their dreams and their fears within the project design process. How can we convince these citizens that their presence is indispensable, legitimate and expected?

These questions arise in different ways depending on whether one is in a rural environment, where participation is more naturally established, or in an anonymous urban context. Similarly, in the city, depending on whether it is a working-class or middle-class neighbourhood. Each situation calls for adapted approaches. In order to develop and formalise them, various dimensions need to be examined.

1) Triggering factors. What are the contextual elements that can trigger the desire to co-produce an urban space? What initiatives and situations are conducive to co-construction projects?

2) The impact of these approaches on the actors : how do the inhabitants (all of them ?) enter the process, how are they integrated ? How do the elected and professional actors receive the inhabitants’ words ? Does this renew their professional practices?

3) Impacts on the urban space, the territory and the social link: does participation transform the urban project or the landscape project? How is the space produced different in terms of use, aesthetics, evolvability, cost ? Does participation lead to a transformation of our representations of the city, the district, our urban landscapes ?

4) The temporal dimension : is it an ephemeral or permanent process ? Is it reproducible ? What is its capacity to evolve ? What financial and human resources should be allocated to it ?

5) Factors for success and obstacles encountered : what are the obstacles to be overcome in carrying out a co-constructed project ? What are the success factors? How to overcome the constraints and difficulties ?

To answer these questions, various points of vigilance and method requirements will be decisive :

Which actors are at the origin of their formulation : the public authorities ? The inhabitants, and if so, which ones? If these expectations are not formulated by the inhabitants, it is essential that the person responsible for the common good (the municipality and sometimes its mayor, the social landlord, etc.) does not ignore the shortcomings and tensions of a situation.

We can see here the methodological technicality of these approaches. One thing is clear: these questions cannot be answered from a rostrum dominating an audience destined to remain spectators, as is still too often the case in public meetings. On the contrary, it is around a table or during shared field visits - the landscape and sensitive approach to places is essential here - that the best way of building a local democracy in line with the diversity of the aspirations and interests of the participants can be outlined, in a way that is specific to each situation, each type of issue and each urban landscape.

The conclusion is simple : let’s make a round table out of the past as well as out of everyone’s experience !

  • 1 The agora is the place for a free and argued debate between partners who recognise an equal right to discourse (logos). In fact, in Athens, this equality of citizenship concerns only an oligarchy of 10 to 15% of the population, as it excludes women, slaves and metatics (foreigners).

  • 2In the singular, public space refers to the sphere of political debate, the publicity of private opinions. In the plural, public spaces correspond to the road network, streets and boulevards, squares and forecourts, parks and gardens, in short to all the traffic routes open to the public, in metropolises as well as in urbanised villages » Thierry Paquot, 2009, Éditions de La Découverte, back cover.

  • 3 Scottish biologist, professor of botany and sociologist, 1854-1932.

  • 4 «  Fascinated by the behaviour of man in his new urban environment, Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, Roderick McKenzie and Louis Wirth laid the foundations of an ‘ecological approach to the city’ » (4th cover), Yves Grafmeyer and Isaac Joseph (dir), The Chicago School - Birth of Urban Ecology, Aubier, Paris, 1990. 1st edition : Les éditions du Champ Urbain - CRU, 1979.

  • 5 Communityorganizing has become very popular in recent years in the fields of participatory democracy, urban policy, social work and popular education. Cf H. Balazard, «  Communityorganizing ", In Casillo I. et al, Dictionnaire critique et interdisciplinaire de la participation, Paris, GIS, 2013.

  • 6 Title of the article «  Lucien Kroll ", Lucas Brusco, Martial Résibois, In Clara N°5 Hors-série, pages 188 to 217. Also read the book summarising his approach to participatory architecture: «  Tout est paysage ", Simone and Lucien Kroll, republished Sens et Tonka, 2012.

  • 7 Gourna, a tale of two villages, published in English in Cairo in 1969, translated into French in 1970 under the title Construire avec le peuple (cf Hassan Fathy, Ed. Sindbad, 1979).

  • 8 Zone de Protection du Patrimoine Architectural, Urbain et Paysager. The ZPPAU system was established by the decentralisation law of 7 January 1983 and its scope was extended by the «  P  » of Landscape by the «  paysages  » law of 8 January 1993.

  • 9 The «  principle of participation  » is an integral part of the Aarhus Convention, an international agreement of 1998 ratified by France on 8 July 2002.

  • 10 In its article 5c, this convention invites «  to establish procedures for the participation of the public, local and regional authorities and other stakeholders in the design and implementation of landscape policies ".

  • 11Today, more than 80 municipalities in France are involved in this participatory budget process. They have joined together in a network that met for the first time in Montreuil in 2016. A «  participatory budget  » guide developed by the Citizen Lab platform is available on

  • 12 N°83-630 of 12 July 1983.

  • 13 From this point of view, see the CGEDD report «  Preliminary consultation in urban planning : Supporting the development of a citizen practice  » Report No. 010896-01 drawn up by Jean-Philippe Moreteau (coordinator) and Jean-Pierre Thibault, December 2017, which exhaustively recalls the sequence of laws in these areas and the way in which urban planning has joined the environment. This report proposes significant ways of improving these processes.

  • 14 Article L 300-2 provides that: «  everyone must have access to information relating to the environment and the public must be involved in the process of drawing up projects with a significant impact on the environment or land use planning ".

  • 15 «  We can’t take this pseudo consultation anymore : three meetings, always the same participants and the project is wrapped up !

  • 16 Law 95-200 of 02/02/1995.

  • 17 Article explained in the OJ of 12 April 2009 in text 38 with the vocabulary of the environment: «  The social body is fully associated with the preparation of projects and public decisions having an impact on the environment ".

  • 18 February 2014. In a break with the usual forms of governance, this law intends to initiate a «  sustainable participatory dynamic  » in the 1500 priority neighbourhoods of the city policy. This programme is the subject of a call for projects in the form of a « national experimentation grant in favour of participation ».

  • 19 Constituted, in part, by inhabitants chosen by lot to avoid the same twenty « citizenship professionals » designating themselves as the only representatives of the inhabitants.

  • 20 Jacques Donzelot, Quand la ville se défait. What politics in the face of the crisis in the suburbs ? Points, coll. Points Essais, 2008

  • 21 The term had already re-emerged in the United States in the 1970s on the initiative of the battered women’s movement. Today we find this movement in France, with a similar meaning, in a note from the Ministry of the City, which invites «  exploratory walks by women  » for the safety of all. The principle is described as «  women as actors of their own safety (empowerment) who reappropriate public space ".

  • 22 The NIMBY syndrome: Not In My Back Yard.

  • 23 See for example :

  • 24 For example, the link between the Development Council (agglomeration level), the GAM (municipal level) and the Neighbourhood Council must be constructed in line with the link between the competences of the various local authorities.