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The role of citizen participation in the socio-ecological transition of the city


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Despite the growing sensitivity about the effects of climate change, its marked consequences show the risk of continuing with the unilateral imperative of economic growth, characterized by a «consumer intoxication» that has driven this society to the current situation of global chronic lack of resources. In this context, the new approach cannot be reduced to a mere cosmetic repair of a paradigm in crisis” but it needs a change of paradigm to advance towards environmental sustainability and social equity. Therefore, it is important to focus on the fact that a population that is actively involved is a key element in order to activate a change in the way occidental society has to understand nature, and to build real alternatives to the current model of territory occupation based on the ecological paradigm. The approach of this article has its theoretical bases on the Social Production and Management of Habitat (henceforth PGSH), understanding by Social Transformation of Habitat those processes that tend to transform the existing habitat in which citizen initiative has an active role in the decision making. Thus, it is concluded that participation cannot only help transforming the material conditions of the ecological transition of the city, but, from a profound work that requires great efforts by all stakeholder groups involved, it allows to generate a process in which citizens, politicians and technicians grow up and mature collectively
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Retos, 9(17), 2019
Journal of Administration Sciences and Economics | p-ISSN impreso: 1390-6291| e-ISSN: 1390-8618
Received on: 14/01/2019 | Reviewed on: 18/01/2019 | Approved on: 29/01/2019 | Published on: 01/04/2019
The role of citizen participation in the
socio-ecological transition of the city
El papel de la participación en la transición socio-ecológica de la ciudad
Dra. Marta Donadei is a researcher of the group ADICI (HUM-810) and is an Honorary Assistant of the Urban Planning
Department of ETSA Sevilla (Spain) ( (
Despite the growing sensitivity about the effects of climate change, its marked consequences show the risk of continuing with
the unilateral imperative of economic growth, characterized by a «consumer intoxication» that has driven this society to the
current situation of global chronic lack of resources. In this context, the new approach cannot be reduced to a mere cosmetic
repair of a paradigm in crisis” but it needs a change of paradigm to advance towards environmental sustainability and social
equity. Therefore, it is important to focus on the fact that a population that is actively involved is a key element in order to
activate a change in the way occidental society has to understand nature, and to build real alternatives to the current model
of territory occupation based on the ecological paradigm. The approach of this article has its theoretical bases on the Social
Production and Management of Habitat (henceforth PGSH), understanding by Social Transformation of Habitat those pro-
cesses that tend to transform the existing habitat in which citizen initiative has an active role in the decision making. Thus,
it is concluded that participation cannot only help transforming the material conditions of the ecological transition of the
city, but, from a profound work that requires great efforts by all stakeholder groups involved, it allows to generate a process in
which citizens, politicians and technicians grow up and mature collectively.
Pese a la creciente sensibilización a los efectos del cambio climático, sus cada vez más acusadas consecuencias de-
muestran el peligro que supone el seguir con el imperativo unilateral del crecimiento económico, caracterizado por
una «intoxicación consumista» que nos ha llevado a esta situación de carestía crónica global de recursos. En este
contexto, el nuevo enfoque no puede reducirse a mero arreglo cosmético de un paradigma en crisis, sino que requiere
también un cambio de paradigma para avanzar hacia la sostenibilidad ambiental y la equidad social. Para ello se quiere
incidir en el hecho de que la involucración activa de la población resulta elemento clave para activar un cambio en la
forma que la sociedad occidental tiene de entender la naturaleza y para construir alternativas reales al actual modelo
de ocupación del territorio, que estén basadas en el paradigma ecológico. Así, el planteamiento de esta investigación
encuentra sus bases teóricas en la Producción y Gestión Social del Hábitat (en adelante PGSH), entendiendo por
Trasformación Social del Hábitat el conjunto de procesos tendientes a la transformación del hábitat existente en los
cuales la iniciativa ciudadana tiene un papel activo en la toma de decisiones. A través de esta revisión se concluye que
la participación no sólo puede ayudar a la transformación de las condiciones materiales de la transición ecológica de
la ciudad, sino que, a partir de un trabajo profundo que requiere grandes esfuerzos por parte de todos los grupos de
actores involucrados, permite generar un proceso en el que ciudadanos, políticos y técnicos maduren colectivamente.
Keywords | palabras clave
Social participation, social research, urban planning, socio-ecological transition, par.
Participación social, investigación social, urbanismo, transición socio-ecológica, iap.
Citation: Donadei, M. (2019). The role of citizen participation in the socio-ecological transition of the
city. Retos Journal of Administration Sciences and Economics, 9(17), 55-69. https://doi.
Retos, 9(17), 2019
© 2019, Universidad Politécnica Salesiana del Ecuador
p-ISSN: 1390-6291; e-ISSN: 1390-8618
1. Introduction
Assuming the definition of architecture as “a set of modifications and alterations
introduced in earth in accordance with the human needs, except only in the desert”
(Morris 1981 in Benevolo, 1979, p. 15), the concept of architecture is in the field
between nature and culture, and finds its foundation in the human needs. Thus,
architecture as such, and therefore urbanism, cannot only be considered “things of
architects” but it enters a larger dimension: The Social Habitat.
Pelli (2010; 2007) defines the Social Habitat as the system of physical, social,
economic, legal, political, environmental and symbolic situations among which, apply-
ing the concepts of the “Theory of Complexity” of Morin (1994), are recursive and
complementary relations (Manuel Jerez, 2010). In this sense “any act of production,
elimination or conservation of a part or component of the habitat modifies the equilib-
rium, functioning and quality of the whole and affects those of other existing or future
components “ (Pelli, 2010, p. 41).
But the Social Habitat is only a subsystem of the planetary ecosystem to which
it interacts and transforms: «The rules of the dominant economic/financial game»
(Naredo, 2000), characterized by an obsession with growth and based on the progres-
sive exploitation and massive use of natural resources, which have provoked an ever
greater territorial deterioration and show that we have already overflowed the regen-
eration limits of the planet (Emmott, 2013; Meadows, Randers, & Meadows, 2006).
In this context, the accused social inequalities and the increasingly alarming
ecological crisis show the failure of the western model and put in crisis the same postu-
late of growth, proving that it is necessary to activate a deconstruction of the economic
imperative thought, rethinking the place of the economy to see it as a simple means of
life and not as the ultimate goal (Castiblanco, 2008; Common & Stagl, 2008; Georgescu-
Roegen, 1971; Naredo, 2011) and revising the current urban and territorial models to
move towards social equity and the recovery of natural and territorial balances, by
means of the fair reduction of wastefulness, overproduction and over-consumption,
while guaranteeing the increase of social welfare (Caravaca Llamas, 2012; Latouche,
2009; Marcellesi, 2010; Taibo, 2009).
Any social and cultural guideline, from the private issues of each being to the
political-economic organization of a society, has a direct or indirect impact on the
environment. Therefore, it is essential to work with the cultural dimension of sustain-
ability because it is the culture that makes us act in the territory in one way or another,
helping to build a model based on resource deterioration or fostering sustainable living
patterns under an ecointegrative approach.
In this sense, participation becomes a key element in order to activate the
socio-ecological transition of our cities and territories (García Montes, 2018): If we
do not rethink the forms of consumption in our day to day, as citizens, professionals,
companies, societies, etc., the new facilities and technological solutions – often seen as
the solution to any kind of problem – these will lead us to increasingly foolish wastes
(‘Paradox of Jevons). Thus, “we need an ethical system in which the natural world has
a value not only as useful for human well-being, but for itself,” because we are part of
it (Lovelock, 2006, p. 214).
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Dra. Marta Donadei (2019).
The role of citizen participation in the socio-ecological transition of the city. Retos, 9(17), 55-69
All this implies the generation of more consistent policies with the government of
the territory, as well as the need to propose new ways of planning that are much more
flexible and dynamic, so that they can adapt to the rhythm of the intense transformations
due to the use of soil, and induced by socio-economic factors. But at the same time, it is
necessary to promote strategies oriented to the change in the thought and the habits of
life and consumption of the society to replace the current individualistic and cumulative
values, but considering at the same time that people are active agents of that change.
Any attempt to impose projects based on new schemes developed exogenous-
ly generates feelings and rejection attitudes by the population (Díaz Rodríguez &
Rodríguez Darias, 2012) and will be destined for the failure. On the contrary, there are
numerous social initiatives that require a leading role in the decision-making on the
habitat, particularly against conventional planned and regulated urbanism (up-down).
In recent years, movements have proliferated, claiming their right to participate “from
below” in urban transformation to improve the surrounding environment that affects
the development of everyday life and that develops from the self-organization between
citizens and the professional groups (Freire, 2009; González-Arriero, 2017).
With this dichotomy between the planned models of traditional urbanism and
the increasing citizen initiatives that demand their protagonism and autonomy in the
decision-making, the aim is to demonstrate the need to:
[...] To construct knowledge tools and action strategies that allow to understand and to act
with complex problems, [...] that escape to the fragmentation of the knowledge in stagnant
disciplines. And tools that insert the technical knowledge in transforming processes that
recover the POLIS, the participation spaces of the citizens in the decision making (Cambil
Medina et al., 2006, p. 1).
2. Local Responses to global phenomena: towards a new urbanism
Western societies have faced radical transformations over the last century, charac-
terized by a constant and increasingly technological innovation. This innovation has
given way to a deep globalization that continues to generate great impacts, inducing
progressive changes (positive and negative, and of material and symbolic order) in
its political, economic, cultural and territorial structure. In particular, the current
technological paradigm has generated a growing segmentation and decentralization
of production to take advantage of the different potentials offered by the different
territories. In this way, there has been a growing competition between companies,
sectors and territories following different types of processes that have been shaping
and articulating societies in a global system.
Power relations are redefined and the economic dimension is prioritized to
improve competitiveness, following a development model based on the “Chimera of
Growth” (Folch, 2011). The same concept of wellbeing has been reduced only to its
material sense, leaving aside its most authentic meaning related to quality of life or
“good living” (Acosta, 2013; Hessel & Morin, 2012).
In this way, the logics of the global market have been affecting the territorial
processes, generating social and environmental imbalances at different scales: the ter-
ritories occupy an economic role and a position in the global market, so that the pro-
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duction and capital tend to be located in some areas and leave others; thus, generating
a strong dependence on transportation (Fernandez Durán & González Reyes, 2014).
But this social and economic polarization does not occur only between terri-
tories, but is also reflected in the urban sphere, between the rich areas and the cen-
tral neighborhoods and marginal areas, physically disconnected or isolated, turning
cities into ‘disputed areas’. In the same way, this inequality is evident on a global
scale among the rich countries, where wealth accumulates, and the rest of the world
suffers more and more a precariousness of its living conditions (Del Moral Ituarte,
2014; Naredo, 2004).
The strong environmental impact, social segregation at different scales and the
economic inefficiency derived from high energy costs are among the main negative
consequences of the dynamics of the global economy, as well as the consequential
polarization phenomena of the territories and their fragmentation by the increasing
urban expansion that follows a model of diffused, dispersed and disordered city that
separates pieces and urban functions (Fariña Tojo & Manuel Naredo, 2010). It is
in the cities, and especially in the big metropolitan areas, where the most shocking
consumption and unsustainability spaces of the planet are generated and where the
real decisions about what happens in their surroundings escape more and more to
the capacity of citizens’ control (Sassen, 1991; Verdaguer Viana-Cárdenas, 2002b).
But at the same time, cities have an essential role to play in reversing this
trend. For this, any process of urban and territorial transformation has to be planned.
Planning as a technical discipline of urbanism is a fundamental achievement because
it is a legal instrument that, with its tools, methodologies and specific training,
offers the basis for a sustainable management of the territory. However, it needs a
reformulation to regain its vocation as a tool to serve the citizens. In this sense, it is
necessary to reverse the “up-down” decision processes to create forms of “down-up”
intervention that rescue citizens from the consumer/user status and return their role
as protagonists in the cultural and collective construction of the city (cfr. Verdaguer
Viana-Cárdenas, 2002a, p. 17).
2.1. Responses to the growth logics of territorial cities
The new territorial city overflows, surpassing the classic rural-urban boundary.
The city is no longer synonymous with compactness, mixture of uses and diversity
(Monclús, 1998), but it transcends its limits, moving to the field, and deconstructing
the systems of its environment and occupying increasingly extensive areas (López
Trigal & Relea Fernández, 2001). The current extreme dispersion of uses constitutes
one of the main deterioration factors of the environment and of the territory fragmen-
tation. Gradually, the continuous physical space is losing importance to the discon-
tinuous abstract space of the big global networks, supported by an increasingly dense
and thick overlapping articulations. The nodes (big cities) have in this model a funda-
mental importance because of their economic role in the scales of the global market.
The model of the current urban-industrial societies is based on an “open
cycle” model, consisting of centralized consumption/production nuclei. In this model,
materials and energy are absorbed in an increasingly intense way, surpassing the
regeneration capacities of resources by the ecosystems and the natural assimilation
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The role of citizen participation in the socio-ecological transition of the city. Retos, 9(17), 55-69
capacities of the waste produced by the human activity (Requejo Liberal, 2011).
But the essential element on which this model is based is the enormous amount of
“horizontal routes of water, food, electricity and fuel resources, capable of exploiting
other distant ecosystems and causing significant territorial imbalances in the planet”
(Higueras, 2013, p. 70).
This “open system” model, which has already shown its unsustainability and
unfeasibility in the medium term, has been the cause that different authors propose
another type of model by means of which each population can seek, order and obtain
from its territory the basis of its sustenance in semi-open cycles (v. gr. Requejo Liberal,
2011). It is a question of betting on a development model of prevalently endogenous
type, based on a productive diversification where the network connections allow the
necessary exchange for the systems to be able to complete self-sufficiency. “As long as
there is more self-sufficiency in the multiple layers of the management of our habitat,
we will have more capacity to decide the type of living space and the life style we want
to develop” (Guallart, 2012, p. 21).
To do this, optimization must be sought within the territory of the possibili-
ties of obtaining beneficiaries that meet the real human needs (Max Neef et al., 1994)
using the exterior for goods and services that are not sufficient or cannot be obtained
with own means; in addition, it is necessary to regain the old balance between ter-
ritory and man, developing the capacity to integrate human activities into the logics
and ecosystem processes (Requejo Liberal, 2011).
Finally, it is necessary to respond to the increasing demands of democratic
innovation, giving citizens a leading role in decision-making, surpassing traditional
forms of representative democracy (De Manuel Jerez, 2010; Requejo Liberal, 2011;
Romero, 2011). In other Words, it is a matter of equipping our territories with more
resilience in order to achieve a dynamic equilibrium in the moments of crisis (Ojeda
Rivera & Villa Díaz, 2008), mainly based on the response capacity and the involve-
ment of communities (in the scale of the territory) and of the neighborhood (on the
urban scale) for the ecological transformation of the territory and the city.
In this sense, it is essential to leave aside the conception of the territory as
mere physical support of human activity: the territory is a valuable and non-renew-
able resource, and at the same time complex of history, culture, collective memory,
identity. It is a space of tension, where there is a counter position of many diversified
interests, and therefore it needs a look that is global, complex, holistic and, specially,
shared to recover the different perspectives that help us understand that complexity.
Thus, it is necessary to deepen not only in the processes and ways of planning
and management1, but also in the construction of the knowledge about the habitat.
Our current system of scientific knowledge is in fact fundamentally based on the par-
adigm of simplicity which, with its separation, reduction and abstraction principles,
has made extraordinary developments in different fields of knowledge; even though
it has isolated the knowledge between fields of expertise, leaving in shady areas all
1 Not only with the scale change in the planning and management of the territory, but also with the need
to overcome the sectoral and fragmentary policies, often incoherent with each other, and that reflect
once again the limits of a form of disciplinary knowledge.
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the transversal issues to the disciplinary limits, being thus difficult to frame (López
Medina, 2012; Morin, 1994).
On the contrary, all the situations faced by the habitat have complex components and
unapproachable from a single point of view, so they require that the flow of knowledge is
open and subjected to a permanent uncertainty that leaves space for the introduction of
new complex relationships (Lucca, 2017, pp. 17-18).
Therefore, it is necessary to reformulate our paradigm of thought by rebuild-
ing it from the paradigm of complexity: if discipline is a parcel unit of knowledge,
transdiscipline is a complementary construct of it (Lucca, 2009), which allows to
dilute the disciplinary barriers to assume the uncertainty and the impossibility of a
complete knowledge and to reconnect the link between subject and object (Morin,
1994). It is necessary to reinstate the subject in the production of knowledge (Ibañez,
1992), which constitutes a sociocultural fact that cannot be considered only as an
exclusive patrimony of the technical-institutional sphere: the expert knowledge has
a double slope, including the sectorial expert (specialist) and the experiential expert
(the direct affected of the situation to study).
For all this, it is necessary that the responsibility to make the main decisions that
affect the territorial organization is in the whole of the society, starting from the creation
of participation and concertation spaces where it is possible to reach the construction of
this expert knowledge, in its double slope. In this sense and as it will be seen later, many
authors define the participatory process as a cyclic construction of knowledge, during
which there are moments of opening and closing (synthesis or systematization) that are
marking their “duration” over the time, according to a spiral scheme.
Thus, the idea is to highlight the importance of the social factor, especially
by identifying citizens as the solution to build creatively and collectively new and
enriching ways of life, more connected to the community, and by accepting the bio-
logical limits of the planet: the transitional goes through the social, it is by active
communities that ideas and exchange information are generated in order to build in
the territory alternative common projects towards sustainability.
And this becomes even more evident in complex environmental and territo-
rial issues (Villasante, 2006): in contexts of uncertainty and plurality of legitimate
perspectives of the different social, economic and institutional actors involved, local
actors “can imagine solutions and reformulate problems so that the experts officially
accredited do not find them orthodox in their own professional paradigm” (Del Moral
Ituarte & Pedregal Mateos, 2002, p. 128).
2.2. From users to citizens of the Polis
Although there are more and more participatory experiences that show that citizen
participation is seen today as a democratic requirement, it is observed among the dif-
ferent urban actors involved, a lack of participatory culture that affects the effective
scope of participation, either because of a lack of methodological success or because
of a low political coherence of the approach (Red CIMAS, 2015). But there are also
other motivations related to the cultural dimension that exerts the way of acting of
our societies, influencing it and justifying it. Martín Recio (1998) and Alberich (2008)
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The role of citizen participation in the socio-ecological transition of the city. Retos, 9(17), 55-69
identify three “social diseases” – interpersonal dependence, permanent compartmen-
talization and permanent delegation– that provoke a lack of widespread participation
in individual societies such as the current societies of the Western world.
On the contrary, it is necessary that the citizen regain his role of protagonist of
the public life, of citizen of the πόλις2. Even though it is true that in order “to change
the course of the world, it is necessary to change the management mechanisms” (De
Manuel Jerez, 2006, p. 89), the solution is not in the invisible hand that regulates the
markets, neither in the technicians and the professional politicians who alone do not
have (n) capacity to formulate transformative policies, inter alia because:
[…] What is at risk is a model of civilization, a way of understanding life that affects
everyday behaviors, and this task is not possible to undertake without putting in place
processes that involve us all. We have to change values to change policies (ibid.).
However, it is not to nullify the role of professionals and specialists in the
learning process and analysis of the reality (Donadei, 2017; Red CIMAS, 2015), nor
of considering a society that works without representatives and only by direct par-
ticipation (Alberich et al., 2009), but of deepening in the democracy moving from a
model of representative type, currently in crisis, a new complex formula that allow
to generate spaces where the decisions are taken jointly between administrations,
technicians and citizens in an equitable way (Encina & Rosa, 2004) and respecting
to the ecological principles.
2.3. Participation from the PGSH paradigm
In the Production and Social Management of the Habitat (PGSH), three groups of
actors are identified with dialogical and recursive relations with each other, generally
conflicted by having competing interests and different power in the decision making:
1. The political leaders of the public administration at all levels, who are responsible
for approving habitat programs and making decisions on different areas (eco-
nomic, social, cultural, etc.), always ensuring the general interest.
2. Technicians and scientists to the public or private service, responsible for advis-
ing and managing habitat programs.
3. Citizens who present their wide diversity of habitat needs.
On the other hand, it is often appropriate to introduce one or more groups
of actors by disaggregating the previous groups. Thus, the original triangle can be
undermined by disaggregating, for example, the category of citizens in two new
actors: the economic sector, constituted by those companies linked to the habitat
(developers, builders, supplying companies, etc.) and other organizations and entities
that constitute civil society (Figure 1).
2 Beyond the strong limitations existing in the former democratic Greece on what categories entered the
definition of a citizen of fact and of law, every citizen considered as such had the right and duty to par-
ticipate directly in the life of the city, maybe appointed to occupy public office of a different nature; and
those who renounced to take care of public affairs to devote themselves only to their particular interests
were called ἰδιώτες (idiots) or useless.
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The construction of the city has always been marked by a variable relationship
between these large groups of actors: if on the one hand the architect has usually
worked for the “prince” and the “merchant”, on the other the town has built the rest
of the city by their own (De Manuel Jerez, 2006; Sassen, 2011; Verdaguer Viana-
Cárdenas, 2002b).
Thus, participation is understood as the equitable redistribution of the power
of decision in all the processes that tend to the social transformation of the social
habitat (Encina & Rosa, 2004), so that the sectors targeting the transformation
processes are not trapped in their traditional passive role of recipients of change
(Pelli, 2007). In this way, the responsibility to make the main decisions affecting
the organization of the habitat falls to the whole of the society from the creation of
participation and concertation spaces where politicians, technicians and citizens are
called to share this desire to initiate a long process of concertation, co-creation and
cooperation, through a process of collective learning that will build the “equilateral
triangle of social management of the habitat” (De Manuel Jerez, 2010, p. 18).
The equilateral construction of the triangle can start from the initiative of
any of these three groups of actors to start building a first side (the base): It can be
technical-neighborhood, political-neighbor or technical-political (Figure 1). Once this
base is built, it will work to involve the missing vertex: the more actors involved in the
formulation of the problem, the greater the real social incidence.
Figure 1. Activation of changes from the three categories of actors and possible
breakdown of socio-economic actors
Source: Own elaboration based on De Manuel Jerez (2010) and Donadei (2017)
In this context, the use of participatory Action Research (PAR) is defended as a
methodological basis to be able to accompany the different groups of people involved
in the encouragement of participation processes that allow the collective construction
of the knowledge and design in complex strategies of integral intervention that con-
vert neighborhoods, cities and territories into key mobilizing parts of the ecological
transition at different scales. The PAR, understood as a process of social research and
Civil society
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The role of citizen participation in the socio-ecological transition of the city. Retos, 9(17), 55-69
at the same time of social intervention – and with a certain dose of social commit-
ment (from the most militant positions to others of affective implication – (Alberich,
2008; Montañes Serrano & Martín Gutierrez, 2017; Villasante & Montañes, 2002),
tries to unite the time of the study with the time of the action for the achievement
of the results in terms of transformation of a collective situation, stimulating the
participation of the citizens in all research-action phases. In the same way, it tries to
rescue the validity of the knowledge and popular skills as a result of the interaction
with the others, with the environment and with the own culture of belonging and with
the institutional sphere.
In this way, the PAR propitiates the dialogue as a mechanism used to create
processes, where the affected subjects contribute, after the reflection, with solutions
to their problems (Álvarez & Álvarez, 2007). Thus, citizen participation is understood
as a process of cyclical and incremental nature, a “space-temporal spiral” of exchange
and collective construction of knowledge that begins with the awareness of the need
to face a habitat problem on the part of a community. On it, each cycle gains organi-
zational complexity and number of actors (Rosa, Saavedra and Hernández 2008; Rosa
& Encina, 2005) to progressively define and implement action strategies, encouraged
(and not conducted or directed) by methodological experts (Encina & Ávila, 2010).
Knowledge Is built in and for transforming action, in a close collaboration
between the people and the technicians who support them, going through successive
degrees of reflexivity in the elaboration of the strategy of needs, or in the progressive
taking of Decisions (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Spiral development of participatory methodologies
Source: Rosa, Saavedra & Hernández (2008)
Collection of information
Identication of sensitive
Deepening of integral topics
Approach strategies
Cooperative action
Increase of people involved, community, participation
Complexity, democratic organization
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There are three prerequisites for the activation of really effective participation
processes: the desire, being able to participate, and the knowledge to participate
(Encina & Ávila, 2010; Montañés Serrano, 2008):
[A] desire that concerns the motivations, a power relative to the channels and a knowled-
ge related to the skills. But [...] in relation to the paradigm of complexity, not understood
as independent premises but as elements linked in the same strategy: a desire more mo-
tivated from the existence of channels and skills; more demanded channels from moti-
vation and capacities; and a more encouraged knowledge from the opening of channels
and the impulse of motivations (López Medina, 2012, p. 166).
Thus, the “desire to participate” is related to the feeling of belonging that gives
the motivations to get involved in the process: for this it is necessary the application of
strategies of social identification that arise from the popular culture and that work with
the identifications and affection of the social groups involved (Figure 3).
Figure 3. From user to Citizen
Source: Donadei (2017)
“Knowing how to participate” is related to the awareness of the meaning of “par-
ticipation”, i.e., that each citizen involved could internalize the fact that the personal
interest is before the collective interest (and in respect of the environmental interests).
To Activate this transition from individual subjects to collective subjects, it is neces-
sary to work methodologically to provoke not only organizational changes, but also
exchanges at symbolic level and in cultural grammar, as well as changes in the system
of rules that structure social relations and interactions (Rosa & Encina, 2004).
Finally, ‘being able to participate’ refers to the need for appropriate circum-
stances for participation to be possible. This requires the adequacy of spaces and
times that allow different social actors to get involved when taking part in the process.
This implies overcoming the current and convoluted forms and administrative struc-
tures, accommodating new and renewed forms of urbanism based on more dynamic
and flexible methodologies; but in addition, a real political commitment is required
to cede power to the citizen.
to reinforce
the cultural
To be
To act and have
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Figure 4. The ladder of participation
3 The first author who introduced the metaphorical figure of the stair was Sherry Arnstein, an American
social worker.
Source: own elaboration based on López Medina (2012) and CIMAS network (2015)
On the other hand, it should be considered that this is an opening to the
involvement of other actors in a process to which they have no access a priori (Arnanz
Monreal, 2018; López Medina, 2012). It is therefore necessary to clarify the degree of
openness and appropriate involvement to consider that a participatory process is really
effective. There are many authors3 who have proposed the image of a pyramid or ladder
to point out the different gradients of participation: in all of them what is evident is that
the lowest level is occupied by non-participatory management models until reaching
the more emancipatory models, where citizens take an active role in the decision-mak-
ing, along with technicians and politicians.
All these models can be summed up in a five-step diagram (Figure 4). At the
lowest level there would be direct management without participation, where decisions
are made in the instances of power that involve a political office or technical role. The
second level would include the formulas that provide simple information as a legiti-
mizing instrument: all these models can be summed up in a five-step diagram (Figure
4). At the lowest level, there would be direct management without participation, where
decisions are made in the instances of power that involve a political office or technical
role. In the second level we would find the formulas that provide simple information as
a legitimizing instrument: “However, this cannot be considered participation but a pre-
requisite [...] so that there may be participation” as “information favors critical aware-
ness, creation of opinion and transparency” (Red CIMAS, 2015, p. 44). A third level is
Co-decision and
I will tell you what
I am doing
1st level
5th level
2nd level
Information as a legitimizing instrument
3rd level
Consultant participation
4th level
projective participation
I ask you but then I
make my decisión
Retos, 9(17), 2019
© 2019, Universidad Politécnica Salesiana del Ecuador
p-ISSN: 1390-6291; e-ISSN: 1390-8618
characterized by the consultation of opinion, very characteristic of many of the writing
processes of urban documents of different nature and whose only objective is often to
give a certain participative direction to the process, specially by the fact that in most
cases the results become mere ratifications of the proposals by means of nuances but
without substantial modifications, or are collected in some complementary document
which is not binding and whose application only depends on the political voluntarism.
The last two levels have to do with the real involvement of the citizens in the
decision making, thus exercising, once it has been informed, consulted and heard, the
right to be active subject of the transformation processes of the habitat. If in the fourth
level the principle it is assumed as co-decision and co-responsibility principle in which
the citizenry shares the management of the transformation processes along with politi-
cians and technicians, it is the last level that really supposes a huge qualitative leap in
the understanding of participation, requiring a high degree of maturity on the part of
citizens and other groups involved.
At this level, self-organization and self-management are the ones to which orga-
nized citizens are responsible for the management of some part of the public life (López
Medina, 2012; Red CIMAS, 2015). In this sense, participation acquires a greater degree
of complexity as it moves:
[...] The institutionalized processes to the daily life processes of the population as a sour-
ce of self-management mechanisms to be fed and strengthened from the public. [...] In
this sense, the habitat is constructed in a daily basis (López Medina, 2012, p. 168).
3. Discussion and conclusions
The ecological crisis shows that it is necessary to restructure the model, going
through a cultural revolution that should lead to a refoundation of the political
(Latouche, 2009). If a first step towards “coevolution”4 between human and ecological
systems is the convergence between theory and practice in the integration of envi-
ronmental sustainability principles into the legal policies and instruments of urban
planning and management of the territory, the second step would be for ecological
principles not to become a new dogma that replaces the collective decision-making
capacity of a community (Lucca, 2015; Verdaguer Viana-Cárdenas, 2002b), but that
these principles are assimilated by their maturity degree.
In this sense, the citizens turn out to be the active subjects of this change as
they are the ones who define the territoriality through their daily practices (Bonora,
2006). As opposed to the dominant attitude of a theoretical participation, which is often
concreted in specific events and actions (and driven by the different administrations),
it is necessary to bet on a real appropriation by the citizens of the new urban and
territorial body, reinforced at the same time with a greater degree of involvement and
4 By co-evolution is understood the process of reciprocal interaction in time between socio-cultural
systems and biophysical systems, which maintain a close interaction conditioned by mechanisms of
feedback and adaptation (Norgaard, 1984). While societies have benefited from this type of process
throughout history, the dominant economic model has broken this balance by pressuring the ecological
system beyond its coevolution potential.
p-ISSN: 1390-6291; e-ISSN: 1390-8618
Dra. Marta Donadei (2019).
The role of citizen participation in the socio-ecological transition of the city. Retos, 9(17), 55-69
responsibility on the part of the communities in the environmental issues that affect
its surroundings and its founding landscapes.
Thus, the great long-term challenge is for citizen participation to become a
habit, a laboratory of constant experimentation to adapt languages, instruments and
methods of the different disciplines to generate complex strategies and collective
intervention on the habitat, oriented towards the ecological transition. Understood
in this way, participation can not only help the transformation of the material condi-
tions of a particular field, but, from a deep work that requires great efforts on the part
of all the groups involved, it allows to generate a process in which citizens, politicians
and technicians mature collectively. Thus, active citizenship will be able to take the
control of the place they live.
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Resumen Queremos plantear unas herramientas conceptuales que nos permitan mejorar tanto la comprensión de los fenómenos del hábitat como de los procesos encaminados a su producción y gestión social. Para ello nos situamos en la tradición del pensamiento complejo y desde ella integraremos las aportaciones realizadas por teóricos del hábitat social y de la producción social del hábitat. Proponemos una serie de triángulos conceptuales construidos sobre relaciones dialógicas y recursivas entre los elementos que lo componen. Con ellos nos acercamos a la comprensión compleja del hábitat, del hábitat social, de la producción y gestión social del hábitat, y de la función de la universidad en relación con los tópicos anteriores. Por último aplicamos estos conceptos a la interpretación de varios casos en los que hemos participado direc-tamente. Abstract : Constructing triangles for social management of habitat We set out some conceptual tools that will improve both the understanding of the phenomena of habitat and the pro-cesses leading to its production and social management. To this end, we position ourselves in the tradition of complex thought, and from this point we will integrate the contributions made by theoreticians of the social habitat and of the so-cial production of habitat. We propose a series of conceptual triangles built on dialogical and recursive relationships bet-ween the elements of which it is composed. With these triangles, we approach complex understanding of the habitat, of the social habitat, of the social production and management of habitat, and of the role of the university in relation with the aforementioned topics. Lastly, we apply these concepts to the interpretation of various cases in which we participated directly.