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Spaces of Peace: A participatory process worth studying

By Laura Pinzon Cardona, on 29 May 2015

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From my experience, living and working in Colombia and witnessing the struggles found in processes for upgrading poor zones in the city, I often wonder how can small organisations propose and deliver urban projects seeking for social and cultural transformation, without getting lost in the highly bureaucratic processes for funding and building permissions.

I want to share in this post some points about a participatory methodology, initially used in Venezuela in July 2014 that points to interesting directions for achieving more comprehensive, and time sustainable, results for urban interventions in low income areas.

Having said this, it is important to highlight that the experience in Venezuela needs to be studied critically, in order to understand local factors that made it successful and wondering whether it could be a methodology than can be easily replicated elsewhere.

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Spaces of Peace (Espacios de Paz) is the name given to this participatory methodology, and that was precisely the main purpose, to create places of truce in conflictive neighbourhoods with violent histories, through the transformation of empty buildings, and urban voids, into communal spaces for the practice of different activities related to cultural and recreational practices in the community.

This initiative was lead by the Presidential Commission of the Movement for Peace and Life (Comisión Presidencial del Movimiento por la Paz y la Vida) and coordinated by the architecture firm PICO Estudio. Eleven social architecture collectives – both national and international – were invited to participate in the project, and to take part in five parallel participatory workshops across the country. The workshops lasted 6 weeks, which included one week for preparation, and five for design and construction.

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This may sound straightforward for someone unfamiliar with managing and delivering urban proposals in low-income communities in South America. But the fact is that it is an outstanding accomplishment. The project achieved five good-quality results in parallel, in just six weeks, while remaining participatory throughout. In my experience, it can take about 6 weeks just to have the permissions ready for a small urban intervention, and that would only involve two or three actors – not the seven who came together for this project.

There are a few details that piqued my interest in learning more about this methodology, which I believe these could be strategic decisions that explain the apparent success of implementation of this approach. The first detail I want to highlight is that local women managed resources for each project, including both food and money to pay for construction materials brought to the site.

In doing so the role of actors in the project is balanced: the community all of a sudden receives these architecture collectives to guide the workshop, design and construction – even if they are from the same country, they are still somehow alien to local contexts. But at the same time it is the community itself, represented by their women, who are the ones in charge of managing the process in the best way possible to make the ideas feasible.

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Production teams were in charge of all logistical details covering a wide range of tasks related to the preparation and implementation of workshops, including transportation, hosting, food, hiring and delivering of construction materials. Besides a small quota of voluntary students and some specialised craftsmen, men and women from the communities did most of the labour, being hired and paid for their time

One final detail I want to highlight is that cultural and social activation started in parallel with the project being built. With the support of local and national networks of foundations, artists and collectives with social purposes, many different activities were planned and realised in the communities during the workshops. This called the interest of the community and gave a chance to more people to participate.

I am part of one of the international collectives invited to be part of this exercise, Habitat sin Fronteras. Although I could not be there during the workshops I followed it from my home in Colombia, through the experiences of a colleague, and in August last year I had the chance to visit one of the projects in Caracas. In this project an existing two-story building was renovated, in a very crowded corner in Petare, a traditionally conflictive poor neighborhood.

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Inside the new building there are spaces designated for dancing and yoga, a music-recording studio, and an Internet room with a few computers. The roof terrace was reinforced and properly adapted for a single basketball court with space for stands and plants. During my visit I could see all these spaces were used intensely by local people, still being supported by some art and cultural collectives that participated during the construction exercise.

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Looking at the impact generated by Spaces of Peace, it is hard not to think this should be done more often and in many more countries. However, specific local conditions such as political will, levels of coordination among institutions, strong funding management and production capacity from the project leaders, and community cooperation are, among others, some factors to study locally before replicating this particular exercise.

Nowadays, Spaces of Peace 2015 is being implemented in Venezuela, and also in Mexico at a smaller scale on a project-by-project basis. I will share some of their experiences in future posts.

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Laura Pinzon is an architect and completed the MSc Building and Urban Design in Development at the DPU in 2012. She currently works as a consultant with Habitat sin Fronteras, a non-profit foundation, and is also manager and creative director of a communication company called 101 Media Solutions, developing communicative strategies to support development processes in Colombia, where she currently lives.

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