Experiencing opportunity and discrimination in participatory urban planning projects in Bogotá and Medellín, Colombia

Experiencing opportunity and discrimination in participatory urban planning projects in Bogotá and Medellín, Colombia

Ellen van Holstein

In cities around the world, citizen participation is widely adopted to promote democratic legitimacy and to make policies more inclusive and empowering. In Colombia participatory programs have been used to integrate previously neglected neighbourhoods into the social and physical fabric of cities. However, this previous neglect has prevented the programs from being experienced as inclusive and empowering political mechanisms.

Governments of Colombian cities use community consultation and public competitions to execute small-scale upgrades of public space. During fieldwork in 2009 in four such projects in Bogotá and Medellín, I interviewed participants and spoke with managers and planners. This research revealed that participants experienced few opportunities to be heard in these projects. They applauded the chance to upgrade neighbourhood parks and squares, but simultaneously felt frustrated that they were required to go to public meetings when others in the city already enjoyed paved streets and clean parks.

Participation programs to upgrade public spaces were rolled out in urban landscapes that have been affected by the country’s previously unstable situation. The two cities absorbed the influx of internally displaced people, which led to stark inequalities manifest in poorly serviced informal settlements. Particularly in the hilly conditions of Medellín, these neglected areas were prone to paramilitary and gang violence, and clandestine forms of law and order. At the same time, and as in various Latin American countries, the political landscape decentralised and citizen participation was promoted at all levels of government in response to growing corruption and inequality. In cities, the constitution translated into more direct power for mayors and more creative urban policies such as participation programs.

These policies started from the premise that state and citizens both carry responsibilities towards solving the cities’ ills – such as violence, pollution and corruption. As a result, both cities enjoyed ‘miracle status’ from the mid- 1990s until the mid-2000s, for their drastic reductions in violence and corruption. In their own ways, popular elected mayors of both cities used the favourable circumstances of reform described above to reduce the gap between elite and marginalised urban areas. Both foregrounded the importance of social inclusion and implemented policies that physically and socially integrated marginalised residential areas into the formal urban fabric, which included participatory programs on the neighbourhood scale, such as the ones I analysed.

The case studies consisted of four participatory projects in marginalised neighbourhoods: two in Bogotá and two in Medellín. To analyse the experience of residents of marginalised neighbourhoods with participatory planning programs, I selected a key participatory urban renewal program in each city that aimed to socially and physically connect marginalised neighbourhoods to the city’s infrastructure. One project in Bogotá was located in the periphery of the city, and one in the city centre. Both projects were part of the program ‘Obras con Participación Cuidadana’ (OPC). This program fell under the Instituto Distrital de la Participación y Acción Comunal (IDPAC). This local government department for the promotion of citizen participation ran OPC as a competition between neighbourhoods. The two projects in Medellín selected for this study were located in neighbourhoods in the city’s periphery. These two projects were part of ‘Integral Urban Projects’, a program ran by the semi-public urban planning agency ‘Empressa de Desarollo Urbano’ (EDU). EDU’s integral approach meant that targeted neighbourhoods saw thorough upgrades of public spaces, the relocation of houses from high-risk zones and the establishment of connections to existing infrastructure such as sewerage and public transport.

Interviews from the four projects revealed that the research participants welcomed the opportunities that participatory planning projects generated to affect positive change in their neighbourhood. Residents valued opportunities to improve their neighbourhoods, and aimed to engage with political institutions on their own terms. In interactions with planning staff, residents challenged the expectations that they would comply with planning processes and show gratitude for improvements. Projects that embraced the program as an opportunity to substantially upgrade public space in the neighbourhood, and improve social cohesion and safety were experienced positively, but projects that were delayed, generated conflict, or that failed to address hard-felt necessities in the neighbourhoods made participants aware of the discrimination that comes with where they live. In these cases, limited empowerment led to further despair and frustration, and rather than generating inclusion, these projects strengthened feelings of marginalisation.

Participants in the participatory planning project commonly held the point of view that there was no participation. For example, one community leader in Bogotá said ‘I am one of the people who never agreed. The neighbourhood has needs that are much more important. There are deteriorated roads, there are people without homes, single mothers, mothers who can’t send their children to school. So, I think that these kinds of funds should be spent on more important things. First it is important to look at what is most urgent.’ This quote illustrates that residents’ limited ability to shape the overarching agenda of participatory programs stands in the way of empowerment and inclusion. A similar point of view was shared by a community leader in a project in Medellín: ‘The project is important but there were other things that were more important. This improves the quality of life but it is also important to remove families from high risk zones. […] With less money we could have enjoyed the space as much as we are going to now, and with that money they could have solved the problem of those families.’ These two quotes illustrate that the participation programs offered no opportunities to address structural problems such as unemployment or lacking infrastructure.

Although many welcomed improvements in their neighbourhoods, the participation process and some of the interactions with government staff made residents of the four neighbourhoods feel like citizens of secondary importance in comparison to people in more affluent parts of the city who did not need to participate to acquire services and infrastructure. Participants in both cities suspected that their neighbourhoods’ problems would have already been solved had they occurred in more affluent neighbourhoods. Inequality was also experienced within community groups. Participants in Bogotá commented that they participated because ‘we work in our own businesses. People who work in companies don’t have time. The time they have is very limited.’ The participant thus highlighted that participation programs place stress on the self- and the under employed. Participants also disagreed with expectations to express gratitude for government initiatives. In Medellín, a participant said about an EDU project manager that she ‘said that we are ungrateful because we ask for more things all the time, but we don’t have to be grateful. It is a debt. This is the first time the government has come.’ Participants refused to be forced into the role of the grateful recipient of state hand-outs and instead emphasised the projects as ways to counteract what they understood as the government’s neglect of their area.

Participation projects were made sense of in relation to a long period of violence and state neglect and in terms of the opportunities for work and improvements they offered. The improvements offered as part of the participatory projects meant that it was not in the residents’ interest to object to the ways in which projects were implemented. Even when they did not agree with the program or with aspects of a project, participants did not protest or challenge the terms because they focused on increasing their chances to realise future projects. A community leader in Bogotá explained: ‘I don’t agree, but if I say that they won’t give me another one. We are happy that there is a possibility to improve the conditions, but this isn’t the best option.’ This way, residents of informal settlements aspiring to be recognised as legitimate and conventional inhabitants of the city, were co-opted to work in participatory mechanisms on terms with which they did not agree.
In sum, participatory programs were rolled out to diminish political exclusion and isolation, but they inadvertently strengthened it. The four projects echo scholars’ observations that participatory programs can work more to legitimise state practices and reproduce stigma than to support marginalised communities (Hernández-García, 2013; Lombard, 2013). Combined with the realisation that participatory programs did not necessarily respond to the hard-felt needs of the community, these shortcomings of participation programs made citizens feel forgotten rather than included. The research shows how participatory projects in segregated cities need to take the priorities, needs and desires of communities into account and create participatory processes that allow communities to address their most urgent needs on terms open to negotiation.

Hernández-García, J. (2013). Public space in informal settlements: The barrios of Bogotá. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge scholars.
Lombard, M. (2013). Citizen participation in urban governance in the context of democratization: Evidence from low-income neighbourhoods in Mexico. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37, 135–150.


Ellen van Holstein is an urban geographer at the University of Melbourne. She is interested in citizens’ place-making practices. She recently completed her PhD at the University of Wollongong in which she unpacked community gardens as practised expressions of property and community. She conducted the research presented in this paper in fulfilment of her master’s degree in cultural geography from the University of Groningen. This article is based on a paper published in Planning Theory and Practice.