How Media Supports Participatory Urban Planning – Evidence from Hamburg, Cape Town and Mexico City

How Media Supports Participatory Urban Planning – Evidence from Hamburg, Cape Town and Mexico City

Ever since Robert Chambers started classifying different methods of participatory planning in the 1980s (Chambers, 1987 and Chambers, 1995), this method has been used as a buzzword in urban planning efforts around the world. While there are some very successful examples, too often participation becomes a token, unused and maybe even unknown by citizens. This is where media, and citizen journalism through social media, can play an important role. Via social media, blogs, and vlogs, citizens can actively participate in urban planning and document any planning efforts going on (Groot et al., 2018). This article outlines the general role of media support for participatory planning, using three case studies from Germany, Mexico, and South Africa.

Case Studies of Media Support for Urban Planning

Public participation in urban planning is thought to be a crucial element. After all, cities are supposed to be for people. Icons like Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl have been preaching the benefits of people-centred cities, which can only achieve their most liveable status quo by asking the people what they want from the urban environment.

In this spirit, participatory planning has become a buzz word in the last decades. However, experts are still divided on what the best methods are. Participation rates differ widely from city to city, from country to country, and sometimes even within cities. At the same time, new initiatives in cities such as Melbourne, Hamburg, Mexico City, Cape Town,and many other metropolises show that a new way of participation using social media might be possible (Williamson & Ruming, 2019). How can media support the use and help generate the benefits of participatory urban planning?

New ways to participate include social media and apps, where anyone can share their opinions using popular hashtags; live streams to show current planning developments or share participatory events; fun ways of designing surveys; new ways of receiving input from citizens. On top of these possibilities, citizens themselves become crucial actors in urban planning. Anyone with an account on social media can call themselves a journalist now, which is changing the media landscape. However, newspaper support and TV remain crucial.

The following three examples of media and participation are a personal selection among a countless number of examples to show the different approaches at stake in the field of participation and the use of media therein.

The Case of Hamburg / Germany

German cities have good rates of participation and – equally important – good methods to participate in urban planning. This results in very long planning processes where, but the idea is that whoever is interested in giving their opinion will have the opportunity to do so. The country’s second-largest city, Hamburg, is a good example of it. You can find a participatory digital “Stadtwerkstatt” (city workshop) and invitations for online participation on the city government’s website. 

There is a mix of online platforms and real-life events for participatory purposes in Hamburg’s participatory urban planning landscape. Interestingly, media such as “Die Zeit” or “Der Spiegel” as well as local newspapers keep a very close eye on these developments. They can be relied upon to report about the latest planning and to inform citizens of important dates for participation.

The challenge for Hamburg’s government is to include younger people in urban development plans. There is not a lack of participatory tools, but rather a lack of public interest. This is why new hashtags like #hamburg2030 are being used by political parties, newspapers, blogs, citizen journalists and interested citizens to incite debate on social media.

The Case of Cape Town / South Africa

Media do not always have to be used in a traditional way. Started in 2015, the project “Your City Idea” in Cape Town showed another way to encourage citizen participation in urban planning. By using big letterboxes placed in strategic places of the city, citizens can vote for certain ideas and add suggestions. The results are published on the website, on social media and occasionally also on traditional media.

The interactive, low-barrier element of participatory planning is exemplary in this case. However, the challenge (as always) lies in creating awareness of and trust for the participatory approach. By using creative media as well as hashtags on social media, the project is taking an interesting step with very good results so far.

The Case of Mexico City / Mexico

In Mexico City, there is a lot of frustration with official participatory planning mechanisms, due to widespread corruption and many failed attempts at including the public in urban planning. At the same time, considering the size of this metropolis, it is a big challenge to foster interest in different areas and cover them with reporting.

Again, citizen journalism plays an important role in a country like Mexico, where most citizens consume their information through social media. This new avenue has to be used as a method to gauge citizens’ opinions (López-Ornelas et al., 2017). Indeed, social median can help to make important decisions, to analyse contexts, and to identify important players.

Mexico City’s government often relies on social media to gauge the public opinion. For example, “Enchúlatucolonia” (make your neighborhood cool) is a popular example of this in 2019. Although it is hard to increase participation rates in a city with high inequality, high rates of corruption and a resulting sense of disillusionment, it seems that the government is finding a new way to include citizens in the sourcing of new ideas.

Citizen Journalism for Broader Reporting

On top of hashtags and online participation fora, the case studies show a need for something else: An additional source for reporting about participatory planning and planning efforts as well as successful examples. Solutions journalism, purported by citizens, can incentivize and support participation in urban planning. 

The distribution of information about ongoing participatory efforts, successful results, and possibilities to participate as well as the search for new ideas is an important role that media can and should play. Hamburg shows that this is possible with the use of more traditional media, whereas cities like Cape Town and Mexico City show that in order to reach younger (and in many cases also poorer) people, it is important to include social media and other, creative media in the mix.


It is increasingly more evident that for participatory planning efforts to be successful, they need the support of media. Otherwise, citizens will not have any information about ongoing participatory initiatives, new planning ideas and successful examples of urban planning.

Social media can help to gauge the public opinion, to gather ideas and to build trust between citizens and the urban planners or the government. At the same time, it is difficult to moderate participation on social media and to incentivize citizens to use hashtags and other digital ways for participating. Therefore, social media and apps alone cannot be the only way to improve participation. In the realm of digital participation, however, it can serve some of the existing demand.

The case studies show that new ways of participation, supported by citizen journalism and the creative use of social media, might be a worthwhile avenue for improving participation rates and gathering solutions. Smart cities are supposed to use digital tools for participation. While these do not necessarily increase engagement rates, they are easily accessible and can be supported by social media and citizen journalists bridging the gap between urban participation offers and citizens. 


Chambers, Robert (1987), “Sustainable livelihoods, environment and development: putting poor rural people first”, Discussion Paper 240, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK (out of print, available from the author)

Chambers, Robert (1995), “Whose Reality Counts?”, Environment and Urbanization, Vol. 7, No. 1, April 1995

Groot, Bert; Effing, Robert; Veenstra, Mettina (2018), “Urban Media Trends for Enabling Citizen Participation in Urban Planning: Old Wine in New Barrels?”, International Conference on Electronic Participation, August 2018. Available online at

López-Ornelas, Erick; Abascal-Mena, R.; Zepeda-Hernández, S. (2017): “Social Media Participation in Urban Planning: A New Way to Interact and Take Decisions”, The International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences, Volume XLII-4/W3, 2017 2nd International Conference on Smart Data and Smart Cities, 4–6 October 2017, Puebla, Mexico

Williamson, Wayne; Ruming, Kristian (2019), “Can Social Media Support Large Scale Public Participation in Urban Planning? The Case of the #MySydney Digital Engagement Campaign”, Journal for International Planning Studies. Available online at

The Dream School – a holistic learning approach

The Dream School – a holistic learning approach

Next to the coastline in Northeast Brazil, close to a mangrove area in the state of Sergipe, lies a beautiful community named Pedra Furada (which means “carved rock”). There, time seemed to have stopped; little houses built with rammed earth by the hands of the local community frame still unpaved streets that are also composed of earth. The houses that do not display the same colour with the streets have painted colourful walls, evidencing both the connection with nature as a source of survival and the care for beauty in details. Children run on the local streets as if nothing could be more captivating than playing. Homeowners sit by the front door watching life on the streets or, just simply observe the beauty of the surrounding natural scenario.

Some of the houses built with adobe (earth). 
Aerial view of part of the local community of Pedra Furada.

A place filled with colours, natural beauty, amusing fauna and flora, amazing culinary and people and, a rich culture of folklore, local traditions and circular dances. This is the amusing context for a beautiful school project named Dream School, centred on its community desires.

The project was designed from collaboration between different stakeholders, including the following: 

  • A local NGO who has been acting on the development of the village for over 20 years through a social innovation lens and focusing on technology, education and creative economies – IPTI , led by Saulo Barretto (1);
  • An architecture and facilitation team, acting through a collaborative and holistic design approach and having at the core Sofia Croso Mazzuco (2), Rodrigo Carvalho Lacerda, Guile Amadeu, Gustavo Fontes, Robernildo Araújo and Diego Regis (3), counting with the support of architecture students Annare Reis, Andresa Oliveira, and Matheus dos Santos; 
  • Together with Martina Croso Mazzuco (4), leading the landscape design for sustainable solutions. 
  • Moreover, the school is being sponsored by private institutions and will be built on an area donated by the local municipality. 
Part of the group designing the Dream School.

The idealisation and design of the Dream School was developed through a collaborative approach mindful on community desires – having the architecture team applying a methodology different from that what is currently mostly practiced by architects in Brazil. By this collaborative approach the architect assumes that skills can be summoned between designers’ knowledge and the integrated knowledge brought forward by locals, thus optimizing the result and positive impact of the architectural project, aimed at accelerating holistic development.  

The school was idealized through three different community workshops, led by the architecture team that also acts as the facilitation team (facilitators are responsible for facilitating the development of given communities, helping them identify local resources for development). The workshops were structured in a timeframe of 3 months, as follows:

– Workshops 1 (17 May 2018): School curriculum. This first workshop aimed at investigating the real learning needs of the local community, asking what type of knowledge and pedagogical structure would help them thrive socially, economically and ecologically. It was collectively decided that the school will follow a Waldorf pedagogy (with an anthroposophy approach based on Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy), combining social innovation and technical courses.

First introductions and setting personal and collective intentions. 

– Workshop 2 (18 May 2018): School architectural design.The second workshop focused on the synergies between the school curriculum and its architectural design, looking at ways to maximise community building, integrated learning (mind, body and soul), and sustainability. The community emphasised the need for a big area where they could cultivate their own food, besides a space for cultural activities such as theatre and dancing, and a technology lab where the agenda run by the local NGO could be taken forward. 

The architect Sofia Croso Mazzuco facilitating the collaborative design process.

– Workshop 3 (15 August 2018): Presentation of the school architectural project. This was an occasion to present to the community the school design developed thoroughly during 3 months by the architecture team, based on the conversations and material originating from workshops 1 and 2. Workshop 3 invited the community to either approve or make changes to the overall project, made visible through architectural drawings and physical models. The community was very happy with the result and did not ask to change a single thing; they felt very represented by the project.

Aligning project design and curriculum.

During the whole conception process, it can be said that the community acted both as the client and as the architect. As set by the multidisciplinary team, the Dream School project values local resources and talents, and thus invites the local community not only to conceptualise the project itself, but also to join hands and bring its walls up. Part of the school will be constructed through a hands-on collaborative approach, called “mutirão” in Brazil, and much used as part of the popular culture in Sergipe – where people gather to build their own houses and, at the end of the day, celebrate together through a barbecue feast. 

Hands-on community workshops will be guided sometimes by expert community members and sometimes by external experts who have technical knowledge on construction works, allowing the wider community to join efforts for building the new school. A community centre for assembling construction elements such as cement tiles and earth bricks will be settled to manufacture locally part of the school’s construction materials, and will keep being run by the community for commercialization to accelerate local economic development. 

As part of the holistic sustainability agenda, the school will count with grey and black water treatment through septic tanks – that make use of specific plants to clean water originating from the kitchen and the bathrooms. It will also host food production, having allotments, orchards and unconventional food plants (UFP) that will be cultivated on a nursery to be set locally during the school construction. That being said, the learning possibilities of the Escola dos Sonhos, or the Dream School go beyond what can be learned in the classroom, and permeates its conception, construction and collective management processes.

View of the school main entrance.
View of the school courtyard. 
View of the theatre and gardens. 

The Dream School will become a real one very soon since its building process is about to start in November 2019. Interested in helping to build it? If so, please get in touch(5).

School students excited with the new Dream School.




Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019: third community gardening session

Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019: third community gardening session

Save the date: next Saturday, 27th April Luiss University will host the third EDU@LabGov community gardening session in Luiss Community Garden from 10 am to 13am.

The LabGovers (students of the Urban Clinic of LabGov) will work to make the last adjustments to the prototype of the project that they have designed during these months. This session represents a fundamental moment to put into practice definitively the topics they have discussed in recent months: urban agriculture, urban gardens, healthy nutrition, innovation, technology, justice, sustainability.

The students of the Urban Clinic of LabGov have designed and created an innovative solution to the problems created by the scarcity of knowledge about the state of well being in the cities. They have created two prototypes, one material and one immaterial: a multifunctional structure that will be installed in the city (in strategic points, by starting from the urban gardens) and a digital platform. Through those two tools they will be able to start an awareness/information campaign about the relevance of sustainable models of agriculture and nutrition in the cities and its importance for the individual and collective well-being. At the same time they will investigate the state of the urban well-being by collecting big data on this issue.

As always, this is not just a didactic moment but a collaborative practice born in the walls of the Luiss Guido Carli university and the results will be exported in the city.

If you are interested in following their work, follow our official social networks!

Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019 – Module III

Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019 – Module III


The third workshop of the Urban Clinic EDU@LabGov 2019 took place on Friday the 15th of March into the Viale Romania Campus of LUISS University. The workshop has inaugurated the start of the third module of the course. The module was dedicated to “Urban Law and Policy”.  Indeed, the Laboratory hosted three important experts on these themes: prof. Christian Fernando Iaione, lawyer Nico Moravia, and dr. Paola Marzi.

Prof. Iaione, the scientific co-director of LabGov, teaches Urban Law and Policy and Urbanistic Law at LUISS University.

Lawyer Moravia is partner of the law firm Pavia-Ansaldo (administrative law department).

Dr. Paola Marzi is an official of the municipality of Rome as Head of the office for the Urban Gardens, and has a long experience on these themes since she has participated in the drafting of the Regulation of Urban Gardens of Rome.

The workshop was introduced by the speech of Prof. Iaione, who talked about his experiences in the urban regeneration field. He exposed the project of Co-Bologna ( the program started 7 years ago and its effects were such as to spread his principles in Italian cities like Turin, Rome and Reggio-Emilia, but also in others parts of the world like New York, Amsterdam and Sao Paulo.

All these experiences demonstrated how important is to rewrite administrative and urbanistic legislation in order to face all the problems brought in the cities by the changes of the third millennium. What is fundamental in this process is the participative paradigm, that means involving as much as possible all the different urban stakeholder in order to re-define the way of living the urban centers.

Indeed, lawyer Moravia showed how it worked in the roman context, by showing the case of the Ex-Dogana: an un-used space, owned by Cassa Depositi e Prestiti, brought back to life by the efforts of four young entrepreneurs. The cohesion of legal, human and economics competences, made possible to find a new and simple solution, like a temporary leasing contract, and create what now is one of the most important experiences of this kind in Rome.

One of the sectors where the participative paradigm is more successful and better applied is the urban garden’s one. Dr. Marzi explained how gardens are the place where it is possible to focus all the energies and differences of a neighborhood, not only as a place where plants grow, but as an instrument of social inclusion, that generates wellness and new solutions to co-live the city by building up new forms of community.


The 3rd Module of the Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019 continued with the Co-Working session, held on March 16th. The co-working session is facilitated by Chiara De Angelis, Friends of LabGov’s ex-president.

The Co-Working session took place in the LUISS Campus of Viale Romania and it started at 10 am with Pasquale Tedesco’s testimony, expert of Confagricoltura (

He talked about the importance of the relationship between Earth and Nature and the fortune to enjoy some products that Earth offers.

After this inspirational session, Chiara De Angelis explained the Labgovers service design, an important passage to complete and improve the idea that they’re developing during this A.A. of LabGov EDU. For this reason, the LabGovers were divided into groups in order to select the “personas” (consumer type) of their product/service, basing on their previous research.

In the afternoon, the LabGovers developed the user journey map to describe the possible experience consumers might have through the platform that they are developing.

Stay Tuned!

Save The date: March 16th, the first meeting of the “Cuento, Partecipo, Decido” pilot project.

Save The date: March 16th, the first meeting of the “Cuento, Partecipo, Decido” pilot project.

On March 16, at the Council of the Municipal District of San Ramón, Alajuela, Costa Rica, there will be the first meeting of the pilot project “Cuento, Partecipo, Decido” . The project is aimed at promoting the importance of a policy of openness, transparency, showdown and, above all, citizen participation in institutions and throughout citizenship.

Open Government and Open State, Mechanisms and methodologies of citizen participation, Communities and Commons will be some of the topics that will be discussed during the meeting.

At the end of the meeting there will be a workshop where the digital tool ÁgoraPIC will be presented. ÁgoraPIC, which was developed by the Plataforma de Integración Ciudadana, is a civic tool aimed at making citizens an active protagonist in the public life of the neighborhood and the city, facilitating the participation of people and democratic dialogue, and providing multiple benefits to enhance the process of Open Government and Open State in Costa Rica.

The meeting will be opened to the Peñas Blancas, community and the institutions of the district.

Margherita Valle will bring forward the experience of LabGov in Costarica.