The (Urban) Relevance of Community-Making

The approach of the Fundación Hogares understands the relevance of strengthening social cohesion in neighbourhoods to respond to city-scale challenges. José Roberto shares some valuable insights into how community organisations are shaping their surroundings in infrastructure as well as in inclusiveness.

It is inevitable not to question the purpose of architecture and urban planning practice when its current model —in many cities in Mexico— has failed in providing adequate and affordable housing, access to basic infrastructure and a common ground for capacity building among people, which also leads to the evident socio-spatial inequalities.

Through almost 12 years of working in low-income neighbourhoods across Mexico, the Fundación Hogares has found the key to address those issues in urban planning. Public spaces are being recognised as the catalyst for strengthening social cohesion at the neighbourhood level and it is acknowledged that communities build their environment based on identity, culture, and experience.

Started From the Bottom (Now We’re Here)

Understanding social cohesion as the attribute that creates solidarity and positive interactions among groups of people that co-exist in any given territory means it cannot be handed out; rather it consists of a process of building collective trust.  In doing so, the community members exchange ideas about how they understand their environment in relation to their experience of the city.

Many times, the urban experience is determined by patterns of mobility, especially when linked to work, education, and commerce. When the location of neighbourhoods is far from these facilities, the city experience is disrupted. A way to solve local problems is through the experience of neighbourly organisation. Facilitators are helping to create a common vision for the neighbourhood and provide tools for co-designing solutions and translating outdated policies that are disconnected from everyday needs.

To address structural problems, bottom-up initiatives emerge from community and civil society organisations and come together to act ‘tactically’ and to maximise the existing resources. An example of this is a recent project of the Fundación Hogares funded by the Institute of the National Housing Fund for Workers (Infonavit for its Spanish acronym), carried out in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. The city is located on the border with El Paso, Texas, so the community of neighbours come from rather diverse geographic and cultural backgrounds. The results show how small-scale interventions foster community organisation, local partnerships, and a sense of belonging.

Within this context, the participatory assessment was key for the project to reflect that diversity. Through field derives, informal conversations with neighbourhood leaders, mapping exercises community talents were identified and the physical condition of public spaces in their relation to use and appropriation was analysed. The assessment included the Neighbourly Social Cohesion Index (NSCI, 2015), an index developed by the Fundación Hogares and Mexico Evalúa which measures the participatory behaviour, the sense of belonging, the shared social identity, and the interpersonal trust that exists within the neighbourhood.  To assure the projects are in line with the neighbourhood’s needs, it is important to take the proposals back to the community to obtain their feedback. In other words, co-design becomes a pedagogical exercise for the community to learn the terminology commonly used in policy documents and it develops leadership skills so that neighbours can reclaim their right to be key actors in decision-making processes.

From Park Royal to North Acton

During the community meetings, groups of neighbours of Rincones de Salvarcar and Hacienda de las Torres Universidad, two neighbourhoods located on the outskirts of the city, discussed the future use of 13,080 square meters of reclaimed public space. The participation format created room for everyone —from the children to the elder— to speak up and voice their opinions, be it on the colour palette or the kind of vegetation and furniture for the project. It became clear that, when it comes to discussing the issues that involve the community’s well-being and their environment, everyone wants to take part.

The evaluation shows that social cohesion increased from 5.92 to 6.64 in the NSCI, demonstrating the positive impact that these had on the social dynamics of the community, specifically those —such as volunteering— where people organised themselves to distribute tasks according to abilities and interests so that the common goal was achieved.

At the core of the strategy was community participation. This is demonstrated with the component ‘Participatory behaviour’ showing the largest increase of the NSCI, going from 2.89 to 4.61. At the same time, 82% of the people mentioned, they feel they belong to the community and 86% consider the neighbourhood a good place to live. The three intervened spaces are now part of the city programme “Club de Parques”, which allows the community to access public funds for the maintenance of their parks.

“I have lived in this neighbourhood for 18 years, with this project we are achieving something big. I would love to support other groups of neighbours in accomplishing the same” Carlos Solís, a neighbour of Rincones de Salvarcar says.

We Built This City (on Rock and Roll)

The physical changes were only possible thanks to the neighbours’ engagement throughout the process. We built partnerships with the municipality and 16 other civil society organisations to line up projects that could be implemented in the neighbourhood to assure the long-term impact. The design of the three intervened spaces engaged the neighbours in public art by creating murals that reflect the community’s identity, providing the space with new meanings of inclusion and equity.

“The park belongs to everyone, not just a few. It takes everyone’s effort to maintain it, little by little, so our children and future generations can enjoy it” —Eduardo Nájera, a neighbour of Hacienda de las Torres Universidad.

Public spaces create encounters among neighbours and in doing so they build social proximity whilst giving (physical) shape to the city. In Mexico and other developing economies, the model of city-making that focuses on community processes to strengthen social cohesion represents an opportunity to increase the resilience of cities tactically and to address urban issues from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. New challenges demand new (or refreshed) approaches, so what if instead of place-making we shift to community-making?

José Roberto Lagunes Trejo
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