The lecture shows the challenges and opportunities of participatory planning through a series of concrete experiences from the field.

AUDIO: Elisa Maceratini- "Participatory urban planning"


Issues which the lecture addresses

Planners and scholars of urban studies have acknowledged the potentialities of participatory planning since the 1960s. Today, the emphasis on participation increasingly permeates both academic conversations and policy debates. Participation is often invoked as a panacea, a universally applicable recipe able to ensure equitable and fair outcomes in city design and city management. But participation is a tool rather than a goal and in the field planners and policy makers face many challenges to use it properly. What strategies are to be implemented in order to ensure the effectiveness of participatory techniques at all scales remains an open question.

The lecture will address these issues by showing practical examples of different participatory processes, across the world. Doctor Maceratini will discuss the potentialities and challenges of participation in diverse contexts, by providing examples of projects that she worked on. Maceratini will present participatory planning processes that she designed and managed in the framework of her work with Keios Development Consulting in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. She will also present some of the projects of public space renewal that she coordinated for the NGO Interazioni Urbane in the outskirts of Rome, Italy.

Short analysis of the above issues

Cities across the world are facing issues such as overcrowding, difficult governance, and social and racial segregation. But cities also provide great opportunities, albeit not often immediately visible. From a spatial point of view, these opportunities materialize in a series of abandoned public spaces and buildings that remain unused because local administrations struggle to maintain or manage them. From a social and economic perspective, the opportunities hidden in the cities manifest themselves in the will of citizens and administrations to improve these unused spaces.

Participation is key in this scenario of great challenges and silent opportunities.

As a fundamental tool for listening, participation can strengthen links and create new relationships between people and the space they inhabit.

As it is well known, participation is a flexible, transversal tool that can be used in different fields and at different scales. And yet, experience in the field reveals that each participatory process is unique in space and time. Professionals face many challenges while trying to balance often non-aligned factors such as political will, capacities of administrations, specificities of the context and the needs of the local communities.

As the examples shown in this lecture demonstrate, participatory processes, both in top-down and bottom-up models, can activate urban regeneration, foster community engagement, and generate social inclusion. It is necessary, however, that planners and architects consider the specific characteristics of the contexts in which they intervene. More importantly, professionals must consider the motivations of the involved stakeholders and make them feel “actors of change” in order to foster a sense of engagement and inclusion within communities.

Propositions for addressing the issue

Some suggestions from the field to ensure efficiency of participation in planning are:

- Listen to stakeholders.

- Strengthen the motivation of stakeholders and make them feel like the “actors of change”.

- Carefully prepare the participatory events, and prefer the use of simple (non-digital) tools and terminology.

- Generate “appropriation” of the project by the community by emphasizing the concept of public space as a common good (very important in the case of reactivation of public spaces).

- Emphasize the pedagogical (always explaining the ongoing activity) aspects and therefore always explain what is the common goal (very important in the case of urban planning processes).

- Involve women in the process, in any geographical context and at any level of the project.

- Emphasize empathy and trust, as they are key factors for participatory planning.


Elisa Maceratini is a consultant in architecture and urban planning who works extensively in Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and Europe. Her work focuses on participatory practices as means of sustainable development. Elisa has served in numerous international projects as an expert in strategic and master planning, slum upgrading and urban renewal.

Elisa received a PhD in Urban Planning and a Master of Architecture Summa cum Laude from Sapienza University of Rome. Her doctoral dissertation and Master thesis focused on slum upgrading strategies in the Latin American context. During and after her studies, Elisa served as researcher and lecturer in numerous universities including Columbia University in New York, Universidad Nacional de Rosario in Argentina, and Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotà.

In 2010 Elisa founded Interazioni Urbane, an association of young professionals who develop creative urban projects in vulnerable areas around the world. The architects, planners, and sociologists of Interazioni Urbane believe that the reactivation of under-used public spaces will ameliorate social interactions among the diverse users of a city. As the leader of the association, Elisa has passionately coordinated many award-winning projects involving local communities, vulnerable subjects, and institutional actors.


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