The Urban Design Laboratory (UDL) is an experimental design methodology combining people-centered planning, participatory planning tools, urban strategies and urban design. The UDL calls for a shift away from rigid, conventional planning approaches and towards more complex and flexible ones; in order to develop collaborative and multisectorial design-solutions in the context of rapid urban growth in Latin America and the Caribbean. The leading elements of UDL are the people and the personal, local knowledge they have about a specific, complex, and local situation. Typically, Planners and Urban Designers facilitate and design sustainable new neighborhoods, revive abandoned areas, expand cites, and design urban regeneration projects. In contrast, the UDL employs community workshops as a participatory planning tool, where local key actors and the community members work together to create their own planning visions, scenarios, and urban strategies, which are then developed further by the UDL Designers. A collaborative feedback process shapes the proposals and pilot projects elaborated throughout the workshops. The UDL has been successfully tested in over ten partner cities in Latin America and the Caribbean, and is a dynamic and constantly improving toolkit.

A key aspect of the UDL is participation and empowerment of communities. Participation has become the new state-of-the-art methodology in the planning world—or at least the most recent buzzword. However, there is quite a distinction between participation and empowerment. Often, participation is confused with an information policy where municipalities inform the public about projects and don’t engage people in the design process. But, in reality, empowerment is actually what is needed and is in fact the goal of the Urban Design Lab. The point is this: Information and communication are crucial to inform citizens of what is going on in their city, and if we go a step further and activate the community by using this information, we can call this process empowerment. A fundamental part of this process is to test new ideas, which “pop up” or develop organically from the community engagements. Even what might be considered the most far-fetched (and sometimes quite unrealistic) ideas provoke fruitful discussions and insightful dialogue within the community. By reaching out to and with the support of a critical mass of local actors, this methodology creates a sense of ownership within the community of new ideas and projects from the start. Moreover, by including the academic sector in the process, the city can create opportunities not only to test these ideas, but also for the university students to gain real world experience and for the universities to reach out to their local community.

At the Urban Design Lab we believe that the concept of empowerment should be an integral part of strategic planning, urban planning, and design. Furthermore, we believe it should be taught as a part of the university curriculum to make this the new standard for developing urban ideas and visions.

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