Engaging users is important because:
- They know the place where they live best
Communities exist within a specific context and construct their daily lives accordingly, making them the experts of the built environment they inhabit and shape.
They hold unwritten stories
Local residents’ stories can offer valuable insights into a place’s history, and its social and physical transformations.
They have already developed ideas from which to learn
Communities will have developed specific skills to cope with the challenges presented by their context. Any project can learn from the coping mechanisms that are already present.
Perception of built spaces is subjective
Individuals experience space differently. There is no universal design idea that works for everyone. Many factors, such as culture or religion, contribute to spatial experience. For this reason, when designing built spaces, any spatial choice must be discussed with the final users.
When designing spaces with children, user engagement must also extend to children. Children experience space differently from adults, so design choices for children cannot be based only on input from adults. Children must be considered as agents and rights holders, as powerful co-creators of knowledge, and as experts on their own lives. Children’s participation provides researchers and practitioners with unique knowledge about children’s life experiences. Young children can also be engaged in participatory activities together with their caregivers.
Designers should try to apply their knowledge of spatial awareness by designing from children’s point of view. The Bernard van Leer Foundation advocates this approach in their ‘Urban95’ project. Caregivers can contribute to children’s input into the design process, as they play a major role in children’s lives.
Forming neighbourhood committees, if they do not exist already, helps facilitators include diverse parts of the community. The committees can be formed of children, youths, and adults who volunteer some of their time for neighbourhood improvements. Committee members could include motivated members of local groups, representatives of the municipality, and other key stakeholders from different nationalities, genders, religious and educational backgrounds.
The following list presents some of the participatory tools that enable an understanding of users’ needs in relation to the built environment.