Participatory Research as Path to Equitable Transportation
A community meeting. Photo by Ed Mitchell.

Gathering input from community meetings can improve transport and land use projects. Photo by Ed Mitchell.

One asset of urban communities is that there are a lot of people living in them, which means plenty of opportunities to garner input from diverse people for research purposes. There’s a method for this kind of qualitative and quantitative research called participatory action research or community-based participatory research, a ground-up approach premised on community participation and the translation of research findings into action for social change. Using resident input for feedback and to orient research can be empowering for residents (because it recognizes local knowledge in a community), and it also provides an opportunity for under-privileged populations to voice input on issues of concern.  This type of research involves residents  in all aspects of the design and implementation of research projects.

These are the key tenants of this approach, according to an article by Meredith Minkler, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley:

  • The process is participatory and cooperative;
  • residents are actively involved and co-learning 0ccurs (on the part of researchers and citizens);
  • the research develops systems and builds capacity for a local community;
  • it’s empowering for those involved; and
  • it balances research and action.

This approach to research is a bit vague, but the intention to empower communities, seek successful long-term solutions, and focus on accountability and citizen-voiced priorities is important.  In the field of public health, participatory research is seen more and more as impacting behaviors and outcomes through its practical focus.

For issues like transportation, the process also allows planners, researchers and policymakers to garner new perspectives and learn what a community identifies as its own needs and assets. Such studies can identify the needs of a community and collect data that might otherwise be difficult to obtain.

Through focus groups, community discussions, surveys and visioning exercises, high level decision-making can be integrated with community participation. But there are also other innovative ways to engage under-served populations. It’s happening in the urban planning field.

Games for Chinatown

Last year in Boston, Mass. the MacArthur Foundation awarded a few Boston-based groups – Asian Community Development Corporation, Emerson College and Metropolitan Area Planning Council – funding for a collaborative project called “Participatory Chinatown.” The project focused on getting residents to use interactive online technology to inform the city’s master planning process. According to the press release, Participatory Chinatown seeks to “transform the planning practices shaping Boston’s Chinatown – from disjointed transactions between developers and communities to a persistent conversation shaped by participatory learning.”

The project focuses on engaging residents of diverse ages, languages and backgrounds.  The organizations involved created an online video game in which players assume the role of one of 15 “virtual” residents, working to complete a task within the city, such as finding a place to socialize. In the game, language skills, income level and other circumstances make the tasks more challenging.  Players also consider the future of their neighborhood by commenting on proposed development sites.  According to the website, “every one of your comments and decisions will be shared with real life decision-makers.”

Serving the needs of slums

Another project, RioOnWatch was developed by a nonprofit in Rio de Janeiro to give voice to the residents of Rio’s favelas (slums) as the city prepares for the 2016 Olympics. RioOnWatch is the English-language version and favela.info is the Portugese version of a blog that focuses on interactions between the government and local populations, providing information on how the decisions made by government and corporations for the upcoming mega-sporting event will impact communities around Rio in the period before and after the Olympics. Planners of the Rio Olympics showcased their plan on video. In response, RioOnWatch points out that breaking ground for much of the necessary infrastructure for the Games will displace thousands of people.

Catalytic Communities, the nonprofit that runs the project, created a multimedia workshop room, computer lab and gallery to provide community spaces for people to articulate ideas, work together and use the internet as a resource for documentation and development of projects.

Community-based participatory research is not widely used in the transportation planning field, but more often is employed in the fields of public health and urban planning. Although informative in theory, this model of research takes extensive grassroots knowledge on the part of researchers, it can be time-consuming, and it is dependent on the culture of the community in which the researchers are based. If you know of any alternative models for transportation planning research, please feel free to post a comment or send me an email.

For related information, read our previous posts about MetroQuest, a SimCity-like software used by Chicago-area residents to inform the regional planning process; Apps for Healthy Kids, a competition for game developers to educate and inspire children to be more active; and other examples of online government-to-citizen engagement.

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