Participatory planning of rivers and riversides in Addis Ababa using Minecraft

Participatory planning is a well-known best practice in decision-making processes, especially those dealing with urban natural asset management. It is a powerful way to create social cohesion and bring together people with different ideas, innovations, skills and knowledge[1]; an essential in African cities where the needs of vulnerable and marginalised groups are significant. In addition, it is a means to promote local ownership and harness context-relevant knowledge and skills; improving the applicability and uptake of plans and projects.

Participatory planning is a process by which a community aims to reach a given socio-economic goal by consciously diagnosing its problems and drafting a course of action to resolve those problems[2].

Key lessons learnt

  • Translating into the local language improved engagement of community members
  • A more accurate model of the design space allowed for better designs and dialogues to occur
  • Providing participations with information upfront on how to use the Minecraft tool helped the design process and methodology run more efficiently.
  • The value of site visits in unlocking opportunities only seen when exploring the actual site, as well as creating important dialogue between different stakeholders
  • The importance of having strong community engagement in the process
  • Involving those with technical skills in computer use and design concepts to walk the road with the community members
  • The design process and the design outcome are equally important, e.g. ensuring that all participants are fully briefed; that the process is easily understood;  that there is constant well-facilitated support during participatory planning and community engagement.
  • Design tools and products provide an incredible opportunity to create important dialogue and partnerships between participants as well as ensure all participants remain engaged and excited throughout the process

As part of the Urban Natural Assets for Africa: Rivers for Life (UNA Rivers) project, which aims to enable city planning that sustainably manages and integrates the natural asset base, various approaches for community activation in relation to urban planning have been implemented.  One such tool is Minecraft. UN-Habitat, through their Global Programme on Public Space, has effectively been using Minecraft as a catalyst to improve governance and increase the levels of participation, efficiency and accountability in the development and implementation of public urban policies. In particular, Minecraft has been found to best enable engagement of youth and marginalised groups in planning. Due to the success of the tool, ICLEI Africa, in partnership with the Addis Ababa City Authority and UN-Habitat, made use of this approach in designing an implementable plan for a pilot site alongside a river in Addis Ababa.

The approach 

ICLEI Africa, the Addis Ababa City Authority and UN-Habitat held a participatory workshop with city officials and community members (with a focus on vulnerable groups such as women and children). Just under 50% of participants were women and over 60% were under the age of 35 years (with. three street children who live near the site also participating).During this workshop participants visited the implementation site to get a better sense of the opportunities and challenges on the ground as well as to begin engaging with basic design considerations for public open spaces. A large part of the remaining workshop then focused on the actual design of the site using the Minecraft model and tool. Participants were divided into smaller groups, where each individual was able to provide design input into the site. The workshop was highly participatory and enriching for all involved; with feedback session and group design presentations woven into the process. Following on from the initial workshop, the various group designs were consolidated into one final design for the site, which was presented back to participants a few weeks later, for further inputs. Monitoring, evaluation and learning occurred throughout the process, with interviews conducted in order to assess the outcomes of the Minecraft experience and to better understand how public participation processes can be harnessed to design open green spaces in cities.

Key outcomes

  • An effective participatory design process being implemented.
  • Stakeholders being exposed to why natural assets are valuable in the urban environment.
  • Stakeholders acquiring computer skills.
  • Crucial dialogue and partnerships built between city stakeholders.
  • A co-produced implementation plan for a popular open space.
  • Implementation of a co-designed plan, with the aim of improving the lived experience of sections of the riverbed (more to follow soon on the actual implementation of the plan).

Interesting points

  • We found that during the design process, it was often the women and youth that took control of the computer-based Minecraft tool.
  • Despite many participants not having engaged with design concepts before, all designs were extremely practical, innovative and cost-effective.
  • 58% of participants had never used a computer before; smaller group work allowed for this challenge to be overcome, with participants learning from each other.

As a participatory planning tool, the Minecraft methodology was found to be an effective means to influence and engender community engagement in an African context. Such bottom-up approaches provide a framework for continued engagement between city officials and other relevant stakeholders and we hope, will ultimately contribute to the sustainability of plans and on the ground change. Both process and design are critical for successful implementation when designing public open spaces in African cities.

[1] Westerberg, P & von Heland, F. (2015). Using Minecraft for Youth Participation in urban Design and Governance. United Nations Human Settlements Programme.

[2] FAO, 2003. Proceedings of Second International Workshop on Participatory Forestry in Africa;, Arusha: Tanzania. 2002. 18–22 February

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