Promoting Public Participation in Urban Planning Processes as a Bottom-up Process: Urban-Rural Differences

Juan Antonio Chinchilla (coord), Carmen Navarro, Mónica Domínguez, Instituto de Derecho Local, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

Relevance of the Practice

One of the basic principles of Spanish urban law, since 1956, is that the development of planning instruments includes public participation, not only of the landowners but of any citizen, because the ‘city belongs to everyone’. However, this process has traditionally been led by the municipal administration: a top-down approach. This has been considered a failure of participatory processes since in the ‘city of architects, expert designers know more, and they design cities and spaces for people, but they do not feel comfortable designing with people’.[1]

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 ‘Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’, and more specifically target 3, requires to ‘enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management’. It is in this context that the regulation of Article 4(2)(c) of Royal Legislative Decree no 7/2015, of 30 October, which approves the revised text of the Law on Land and Urban Renewal, sets public participation as a weighting process. It is conceived as a decision-making process that requires prior identification of the relevant interests and imposes a procedure for the participation of all possible affected parties. It is thus oriented towards a bottom-up logic, especially in the case of the so-called ‘tactical’ urban planning i.e. the planning that focuses on specific and concrete actions instead of giving a general and holistic vision over a territory.

Description of the Practice

Public participation in urban planning can be analyzed by comparing two real cases, one referred to as the medium-sized city (Torrelodones) and a second one regarding a small village (Lerín).

The Municipality of Torrelodones, located in the metropolitan area of Madrid, is characterized as a medium city (28,000 inhabitants). In 2017, the city government decided to start the urban planning procedure to renovate a central green area, the Pradogrande park, which covers more than 4 hectares, through a collaborative design process in which the different agents were targeted to be involved. The objective was to reform the park, as defined by the residents and users themselves. To this end, an innovative public participation methodology has been implemented that has managed to involve the population not only in the diagnosis and identification of the park’s problems but also in the definition of architectural solutions.

The process was divided into three phases:

First, involve: The objective was to involve as many people as possible, for which an issue of the municipal magazine was dedicated to the process, a video was shot and disseminated on social networks; a letter was mailed inviting residents, it was taken to six meetings, in addition to involving associations and social agents. Second, listening: The objective was to capture the participation of individuals and social agents through interactive mappings based on printed maps distributed among the citizens of the surroundings and user groups in the park itself, diagnostic and proposal walk open to all citizens, user interviews, digital questionnaires, and face-to-face questionnaires. Third, transformation: The objective was to capture the participation of all those involved in the design of the specific solutions to the problems detected in previous phases so that the project implemented includes the preferences of the maximum number of perspectives of what the park should be.

The results of the process were as follows:

Involvement and listening Individual participation through interactive tools: an interactive physical map and a digital questionnaire. In addition, interviews were carried out to groups and users, an open action mapping, plus other complementary ones that allowed to move the debate to the group. interviews and preparation of perceptive maps of the park with associations, groups, technicians, and other agents of interest (15 interviews);an online questionnaire (114 responded, 63 per cent women, 47 per cent men, all age groups mostly between 30 and 60 years);big map of the park with instructions and stickers to leave proposals (73 maps, 52 per cent women, 48 per cent men, all age groups, mostly <20);mapping, tours of the park where proposals can be collected by groups;mapping of the elderly in the social center (6 participants over 65);open mapping (70 participants).  
Transformation Individual participation through the same interactive tools, but in this case, is aimed at evaluating the design alternatives resulting from the previous phase. Group participation was carried out through a temporary collaborative design office in which the details of the project are specified and discussed in depth. an online questionnaire to evaluate alternatives (117 participants, 61 per cent women 39 per cent men, all age ranges, the majority between 60 and 30 years old);assessment of alternatives for the renovation of the park (137 participants, 51 per cent women, 49 per cent men, all age ranges, the majority range between 30 and 50 and <15);a design office open for five days at the culture center (8 design sessions, 15 participants).

This has been considered a successful experience, but public participation seems to face more challenges in municipalities located in rural areas, with a smaller, older population, and, urban contraction processes. This was the case of Lerín (Navarre), 1,725 inhabitants (2018 census). In 2019 the Autonomous Community of Navarre led a project of inclusive urbanism like the one described above in the design of public spaces, developed from the perspective of active aging. It included measures such as improving pavements and pedestrian routes to ensure full accessibility, eliminating architectural barriers, limiting road traffic, improving lighting, the vegetation of the spaces, strategic placement of fountains or benches adapted and ergonomic as points of socialization, and improving access to public buildings and services or promotion of local commerce. The participatory process was open to all residents in the town, but it was particularly oriented towards the involvement of older people and has been developed over the last eight months in three participatory sessions, two of them in the local civic center and another in the Town Hall Square. The process has been articulated in three participative sessions, open to all citizens and with a playful character. One of the meetings took place practically through a tour of the most controversial places in the town, which allowed them to experience them collectively. But these processes involved only 4, 10, and 12 people (mostly women).

Assessment of the Practice

The advantages of these urban planning participatory processes are found, fundamentally, in their capacity to educate citizens on public issues and policy challenges, in this case in the field of planning, where the daily experience of citizens in urban design also generates an active and critical view of the environment. It is possible to appreciate that in the process of urban planning the main input comes from the local population (bottom-up), although filtered and complemented by the technical approach of the professional team responsible for the planning instrument. In any case, the participatory results become a valuable tool for the local administration. These participation mechanisms provide social legitimacy to the urban planning solutions adopted by the local authorities, making them resistant to wear and tear and increasing the sense of belonging of citizens, thus being framed in the notion of governance. While in urban areas participation is broader, in rural communities it seems that greater involvement of local and regional authorities is required to foster participation that goes beyond mere testimony, at least in the case analyzed.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

—— ‘Pradogrande or How to Improve Public Space Through Collaborative Design’ (paisaje transversal, 24 September 2019) <>

Chinchilla Peinado JA, ‘La participación ciudadana en el urbanismo: ¿mito o realidad?’ in Judith Gifreu i Font and others (eds), El derecho de la ciudad y el territorio: estudios en homenaje a Manuel Ballbé Prunés (INAP 2016)

—— ‘Las consultas a la ciudadanía como instrumento de legitimación social de concretas ordenaciones urbanísticas’ (2017) 311 Revista de Derecho Urbanístico y Medio Ambiente 57

De la Peña D, ‘Barcelona’s Superilles Hit a Snag’  (David de la Peña, November 2016) <>

Fariña Tojo J, ‘Ciudades para las personas mayores’ (El Blog De José Fariña, 1 April 2016) <>

[1] David de la Peña, ‘Barcelona’s Superilles hit a snag’  (David de la Peña, November 2016)                 <>.