AGORA – The sociologist in urban design
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The sociologist in urban design

AGORA has chosen to integrate the perspective of sociologists into its urban development projects. Mathieu Berger, researcher and professor of sociology, is one of them. He attended the design workshop of the future Alzette Quarter. He looks back on this experience.

Developing the urban environment is a complex adventure. The constraints are of course technical, technological and spatial. They are also social: the city, a living and shared space, is experienced and lived in by a wide variety of users. This is why AGORA frequently chooses to integrate the perspective of sociologists into its projects, inviting them to share their expertise and vision.

Mathieu Berger, professor at UCLouvain, associate researcher at the urban sociology laboratory of EPFL Lausanne and member of the urban planning office CityTools, is one of them. In 2019, he participated, as an external expert, in an original urban design workshop set up by AGORA, which aimed to determine the urban and landscape design concept of the future Alzette Quarter, on the site of the former steelworks in Esch-Schifflange. He looks back on this experience and on the contribution of sociology to urban development.

Urban design according to AGORA: experts behind closed doors or a collective adventure?

With its workshop, AGORA has clearly understood the need, with an urban project of this magnitude, to open the procedure to as many stakeholders as possible, in particular to local residents and associations, as part of a sustained public dialogue. For a week, four competing international teams of urban planners and landscape designers threw themselves into this project, followed in real time by experts but also by citizens, invited to express themselves and to participate at different points in the process. Personally, I came in as a member of the committee of experts, to which I brought a sociological perspective.

The sociologist's perspective of urban development: superficial contribution or necessary expertise?

I am not of course neutral on this point! But I do believe that a sociological component is necessary. It is astonishing to think that knowledge about residents’ customs and the functioning of social life is a superficial contribution to projects aimed at changing urban environments or creating new ones. The sociologist is also there to remind us, if necessary, of the public and shared character of urban spaces, and to support architects and urban planners in their thinking about the qualities necessary for a space to be accessible to all.

Urban planning: unchanging recipe or tailor-made?

Typical solutions don't work... because the typical user doesn't exist! It is important to capture the diversity of user perspectives (that of workers, residents, women, small children, the elderly, etc.) and to integrate this complexity into the project. As far as the consultation processes are concerned, it is important to identify these different audiences, to have specific exchanges with each one, and thus to construct the mosaic of possible users and uses. Ignoring these aspects is taking a big risk: that of undoing or mishandling social life in a way that will not be sustainable for the project.

The sociologist: different methods of intervention?

Fortunately, there is no single profile of a sociologist or one possible way of integrating a sociological perspective into an urban project. To simplify, there are at least four:

A quantitative approach. This consists in mobilising data and socio-demographic knowledge for a macro-social and objective description of the population under consideration: its structure, its components, its evolution, its needs, etc. This figure generally assumes skills in social geography and cartographic abilities: to situate the population in its territory, it is necessary to be able to spatialise the data.

A qualitative approach. This is based on the practice of interviewing and analysing the discourse of the stakeholders, particularly the citizens concerned. This can take the form of individual interviews of varying degrees of depth, online surveys, or focus groups: groups of typical users are identified and questioned about their perceptions and experiences of the spaces in question. The sociologist positions himself here as an interpreter.

An ethnographic approach. This is based on the micro-sociological observation of the uses of urban spaces and the interactions between users. This is the one that I, personally, am most passionate about. Recently, I have been very interested in "the city of the child", observing and describing in detail how young children use places, analysing their way of dealing with the available space. This observational approach can then inform design practice.

A facilitative approach. This is a fairly common posture. Here, sociologists are not so much called on as experts or as scientists, but rather as intermediaries between disciplines: they orchestrate citizen participation and work to mediate between designers and users.

For successful participation: face-to-face between citizens and elected officials, or interdisciplinary conversation?

I think one of the keys to success is the diversity of the actors involved and the intensity of their interactions. This was the case in the Alzette Quarter experience: AGORA succeeded in bringing together a hundred participants: urban planners and architects, outside experts, elected representatives, residents, associations etc. under one roof and for a whole week. All of them attended various workshops and site visits.

Too often, participatory procedures are limited to local residents. This is not enough. Here, the impressive number of participants and the organisation of dialogue sequences throughout the week showed a real desire to open the project to discussion; with, at the end, the choice of a project that seems to have been accepted by the greatest number. This workshop set up by AGORA, based on the principle of rivalry between competing design teams in constant interaction, as well as on public dialogue with citizens, certainly represents a significant investment, but the advantages in terms of project quality and public acceptance are much greater.

Participatory procedure: "one shot" or ongoing process?

Temporality is essential when talking about participation. The value of the workshop discussed is that it was a dynamic and sustained process, rather than a superficial "one-shot" gathering for a few hours. Discussions, site visits, milestones, ongoing mediation with the design teams and with the jury, continuous presence of the citizens for seven days, from the beginning to the final presentation of the projects: the desire to excel in the quality of the process as well as in the resulting development concept, and the seriousness placed in the organisation and practical implementation of the exchanges made the difference.

Interviews with Agora employees, partners and experts, with the " Défis urbains " series discover the values promoted and developed by AGORA.

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