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PhD Defence Sergio Alvarado Vazquez | Social participation and the role of ICT in the planning, design and maintenance of public spaces


The PhD defence of Sergio Alvarado Vazquez will take place in the Waaier building of the University of Twente and can be followed by a live stream.
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Sergio Alvarado Vazquez is a PhD student in the department of Urban and Regional Planning and Geo-Information Management. (Co)Promotors are prof.dr. K. Pfeffer, dr. A.M. Pinto Soares Madureira and dr. F.O. Ostermann from the faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation.

Public spaces are areas of the city that are open and accessible to general public. Some have a symbolic purpose or a specific function, such as providing recreation for local residents. Urban public spaces can take different forms, such as parks, squares or streets, and offer local, regional or metropolitan services depending on their scale. However, their management is a global challenge. New international agendas, such as the Sustainable Development Goals or the New Urban Agenda, have influenced regulations at different governance levels, emphasising how to manage public spaces effectively and how residents can participate in their planning, design or maintenance.

Urban planning has a social character, affecting the residents directly or indirectly. However, a planning process that does not consider social needs in their public spaces can affect how social groups experience their urban environment. It is necessary to understand how residents and other stakeholders are involved in planning, design, and maintenance of public spaces (PDMPS), how they communicate, and how they influence decisions. New methods and tools to support participation  are needed to improve the PDMPS. The use of  Information and Communication technologies (ICTs) have been tested and are in continuous development by practitioners and academics to understand how public space functions while facilitating the involvement of stakeholders and residents in decision-making. Nevertheless, a comprehensive understanding of how to integrate social participation and the use of ICTs in PDPMS in countries with emergent economies is needed and has been a concern among scholars and practitioners involved in developing public spaces. This thesis examines the case of Mexico, where public spaces have a long history of use and appropriation by their residents that dates back to pre-Hispanic times. Despite recent plans and programs to modernize public spaces, these traditional uses persist in Mexico. To this end, four research objectives were formulated and investigated, specifically in the cities of Mexico City and Puebla. These cases were chosen due to close geographic proximity, historical relations and recent legislative changes that aim to improve the conditions of public spaces for their inhabitants.

The first objective was to understand how public spaces are managed in the Mexican context. Currently, the literature on the management of public spaces in Mexico is limited. This objective addressed this gap by elucidating the Mexican context with the help of an analytical framework called “Public Space Management” (PSM), which explains how public space management was conducted in the European context. The PSM framework was adopted and modified for the Mexican context to understand how different governance actors perceive the management of public spaces and identify the challenges and opportunities. This objective was achieved by using qualitative document analysis and semi-structured interviews with four groups of actors (government officials, academics, NGOs, and architecture/urban planning firms). The results indicate a diversity of opinions regarding PSM and multiple challenges. A series of interviews revealed that in both cities, political differences and a lack of political will for institutional collaboration caused uncoordinated efforts in maintaining public space. Government practitioners mentioned a need for more resources for planning, designing, and maintaining public spaces in both cities, prioritising public spaces in tourist or commercial areas. At the intra-governmental level, the results reveal a need for interinstitutional coordination between government institutions at different scales, an increasing reliance on the private sector, and limited opportunities for residents to participate in PSM processes. One of the main recommendations is that government practitioners explore ways to enhance their interaction and coordination with governance actors and residents in the planning, designing, and maintaining public spaces.

The second objective was to identify how social participation is conducted in PDMPS in the Mexican context. Social participation is a crucial and challenging aspect of PDMPS, especially in countries with emerging economies. Due to the recognised relevance by scholars, governments and international organisations, there is a need for a deeper understanding of how participatory processes take place in such countries. In the Latin American context of Mexico, previous studies expressed the need for further research to understand better how participatory processes can help inform, assess, manage, and improve PDMPS. To address this gap, this thesis adopted Fung's democracy cube as a theoretical framework to understand the range of institutional possibilities for public participation. I examined three aspects of participatory processes: 1) The actors taking part in participatory processes related to the PDMPS; 2) the level of communication achieved in the process; and 3) the level of authority and power that is given to the actors taking part in the process. In this objective, I developed a modified version of the democracy cube, which was named the 'democracy diagram'. This diagram helped to reveal the diversity of stakeholders and the challenges of participation in the case study areas. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with four groups of actors (government, NGOs, architecture/urban planning consultancy firms, and academia) to obtain empirical data on how social participation is conducted in Mexico. The semi-structured interviews allowed us to explore the perception of social participation among the four groups of actors regarding PDMPS in Mexico City and Puebla. The democracy diagram helped to locate and organise our findings, revealing the diversity of stakeholders and the challenges of participation in Mexico City and Puebla. One of the main findings, among others is that social organisations do not have enough power to influence the decision-making processes in PDMPS. The research also recommended implementing methodological mechanisms that enable more effective and inclusive communication channels with residents and stakeholders in PDMPS.

The third objective was divided into two parts. The first part focused on identifying the challenges and opportunities of using ICTs to support the participatory process in PDMPS. The second part focused on using a digital participatory platform called AMACHAN, which was tailored to collect data through a public space quality evaluation survey.

For the first part, I investigated how ICTs support social participation in PDMPS in the Mexican context.  ICTs have been used to support participatory planning processes, such as collecting and creating knowledge among diverse stakeholders; although there is a need to improve the existing digital tools to support participatory processes or develop new ones. Critics point out that the use of ICTs in practice by planners and decision-makers often ignores the needs and aspirations of residents. Another criticism is that experts and decision-makers usually do not consider residents as one of the primary sources of information when ICTs are used for planning and decision-making. Furthermore, the need to accept ICTs by government institutions and other stakeholders that can lead to higher levels of decision-making is another challenge found among scholars. To address these gaps, this objective adopted a case study approach, a desk research, and interviews with government officials, non-governmental organisations, academics, and architecture/urban planning consultancy companies in Mexico. This research developed an ICT aspect matrix to facilitate the identification and analysis of hardware and software used to support social participation in the daily practice and allowed to organise the findings obtained during the semi-structured interviews. The findings show that Mexico has a base of digital tools requiring technical capacities and spatial literacy at various stages of PDMPS. ICTs are seen as an opportunity to engage with residents. However, in practice, the interviewees from the local governments mentioned that ICTs are rarely implemented to support participatory processes due to high costs, lack of political support and the insufficient technical expertise of technical staff to engage with residents using ICTs.

The second part of this objective was to examine how digital participatory platforms (DPPs) for participatory data collection on public space quality can influence decision-making processes in the context of PDMPS. This objective is built on the recent evidence that digital tools can effectively facilitate social participation and enhance discussions between stakeholders regarding the perception and aspirations of public spaces. However, as discussed in the previous part, there are remaining challenges when using ICTs to collect and integrate data into decision-making processes, especially in countries facing budgetary issues in their government institutions. It also considers the global challenges stated by scholars about the need of articulating and considering the demands and aspirations of residents in PDMPS, which were also identified in the previous two objectives. However, this research also acknowledged the challenge of using digital information technology. To address the challenges of using ICTs to support participatory processes. Using AMACHAN, I tested a DPP in real-life for data collection in a participatory setup through a public space quality evaluation. After collecting data using AMACHAN, a post-evaluation was conducted with governmental actors and other stakeholders to see the potential of integrating DPPs for data collection in daily practice. The evaluation showed that AMACHAN was helpful in collecting the perceptions, desires, and needs of residents through a public space quality evaluation. The evaluation also offered insights for future decision-making. However, this research also noted some persistent challenges when using AMACHAN, such as the need for assistance to some users when they were incorporating (spatial) data or when using mobile devices, especially for participants with eyesight issues. It was also found that external factors affected the engagement of residents, such as the lack of interest of local residents to participate in public space issues or their limited time. The findings also indicated that residents seemed motivated to participate when they saw that the data they contributed was later discussed among decision-makers for consideration in further decision-making processes for PDMPS.

To conclude, this thesis addressed the management of public spaces, the influence of social participation in the PDMPS, the use of technology in the PDMPS and the exploration of using DPPs for data collection through a public space quality evaluation. The main contributions were five novel conceptual elements that can serve as instruments for future research and practice: 1) The elaboration of a public space management framework (PSM) for PDMPS; 2) the democracy diagram for PDMPS; 3) the decision framework that used an ICT aspect matrix for supporting social participation for PDMPS; 4) tailoring AMACHAN as a DPP to conduct a public space quality evaluation for its use in a real context scenario; and 5) And the transferability of the methodological devices used in this thesis. The thesis includes a reflection on the limitations, such as overlooking specific geographical conditions, the limited time for data collection, and the change of government during the case study, which may have unintentionally led us to omit critical insights from our research. The thesis ended by providing recommendations for decision makers and directions for future research. The recommendations for decision makers include suggesting a stronger engagement with local residents and other stakeholders; and the need to explore innovative policies, methods and techniques that can consider the use of ICTs to improve data collection processes. The directions for future research include the integration of qualitative and quantitative methods to strengthen the data collected in participatory processes and the exploration of interactive technologies, such as the use of gamification approaches or the use of virtual reality that allow located-based experiences through a combination of virtual reality with augmented reality.