The Regulatory Framework of the Participative Approach – A Compared Analysis between Berlin, Belo Horizonte and Bucharest

The Regulatory Framework of the Participative Approach – A Compared Analysis between Berlin, Belo Horizonte and Bucharest


Participation is a flexible term that was endowed with different overtones depending on the cultural and socio-economic context. The regulatory frameworks, both the laws in force and their implementation, have evolved from the first participatory projects by either accommodating or defying the new practices to different degrees. Parameters such as the responsiveness of the authorities, the extent to which the public involvement is regarded as hurdle or as catalyst for urban development, as well as the impact of the on-going formalization of the architectural profession will be discussed based on three case studies from Berlin, Belo Horizonte and Bucharest (Chitila).


In the case of Germany, against the background of a democratic political infrastructure, the social mechanisms inevitably generated momentum for participation (Bürgerbeteiligung) in the broader sense. Given the quasi-formalized status of the construction industry, participatory architecture was left with only two niche-directions in which it could manifest. The first one is the thoroughly regulated practice of future homeowners association (Bauherrengemeinschaft or Baugruppe). While not a requirement, the involvement of the clients in the planning process – and rarely even in the building phase – has a higher incidence than in other real estate operating methods. Very similar to the case of single-family houses, the projects are carried out with the help of contracted architects and other specialists, through consulting procedures. The degree of participation and the legal framework are mainly the same as for single-family housing projects, while cumulating the authorization proceedings reduces bureaucracy.

The second direction remains in a grey area from a legal point of view: various attempts to reclaim the public space by the so-called urban pioneers, through guerilla-interventions and temporary squatting (Zwischennutzungen). In this sense, Berlin is an avant-garde city, in which new forms of resident-led public space emerge from grassroots initiatives and citizen activism. The urban pioneers identify empty spaces within the formalized city – vacant plots, abandoned houses, shunned areas – where informality can take shape: urban gardens, parks, playgrounds, cafés, event venues (Oswalt et. al. 2014). The community garden Prinzessinnengärten, situated in the Kreuzberg district, is the perfect illustration of the close ties between the social realities and the legislating process in democratic societies. The plot used to be a wasteland owned by the municipality. After staying vacant for 60 years, in 2009 the site was cleaned by a group of nearby residents and planted with vegetables. Shortly after, the garden became a lively meeting point and playground for the neighbourhood. For administrative purposes and for representing the community interests in dealing with the public authorities, a non-profit organisation was created. After a difficult start and a long series of negotiations with the municipality, which required outlining new regulatory mechanisms, the annual lease of land was secured. In the meanwhile, Prinzessinnengärten developed into one of the most active public spaces of the area, setting the stage for similar initiatives and more citizen activism. The relevance of this project lies in its power to act as a precedent. An interim use, set in motion by the illegal act of occupying a state-owned property, was subsequently legalized and, after almost ten years of continuous activity, one can claim that it became permanent. Alongside with other community projects, it opened new perspectives in urban development. The creation of functional public space, the maintenance of communal green areas, as well as neutralizing residual spaces are all high priorities on the agenda of most municipalities. Engaging the authorities in joint objectives is the key to securing a positive response from them. The authorization and success of community projects depends greatly on the light shed on them, as well as on the vision of the decision – making person in policy settings.

Community garden Prinzessinnengärten, Kreuzberg, Berlin


In Brazilian context, participation gained an ambivalent reputation, both among academics and in the public opinion. This happened because the term has been treacherously used as a political instrument. The housing deficit, estimated in 2015 at over six million1 units, has been on a continuous growth trend. An estimated 20 percent of the population lives in informal settlements (favelas), often in inadequate conditions, being exposed to social exclusion, lack of infrastructure and utilities, and unhealthy environments. The problems associated with informality started to be voiced during the social movements of the 1960s and subsequently gained more visibility within the academic debate, but managed to find their way on the political agenda only after the regime change in 1985, once the process of democratization was set in motion.

Aglomerado da Serra, Belo Horizonte, the third largest favela in Brazil

The social housing programs of the 1990s, along with the attempts of the authorities to formalize the informal settlements, proved inefficient, mainly because of inadequate planning, flawed implementation and insufficient budgeting. The social pressure was asking for more inclusive and democratic practices, as well as for administrative reforms towards urban solidarity. The term participative became a slogan used by politicians, who started using it as a label that guarantees the success of a project. More often than not participation was reduced to pro-forma public consultations, without real debate. The vagueness of the term, poor regulation, together with the lack of expertise and human resources led to its inflation and, consequently, to its decay both in the collective mentality and within the profession.

Housing project within the frames of the national program MCMV in Aglomerado da Serra. In the background, the informal settlement that developed over time; in the forefront, a recent illegal land occupation

In order to reach the stated goals, in 2009, the government launched a federal housing program, Minha Casa, Minha Vida2 (MCMV), with a significant budget, aimed at increasing the formal housing supply by over three million units. The program is mandated by national legislation and implemented by the private sector (Hehl 2014: 5). Aglomerado da Serra in Belo Horizonte is one of the many informal settlements where housing projects were carried out within the frames of MCMV. The place has much in common with a traditional village – it has a history of community involvement and self-building, carried on until today. The problems faced by the residents are often used against them in the discourse of the municipality, in an attempt to justify their aggressive politics of formalization. The area, close to the city centre, is coveted by real estate developers. In this case, participative instruments, such as public consultation, were used by the authorities as legal means against the community. In the contact zone between the formalized city and the informal settlement the space is being permanently negotiated. The residents are being evicted and relocated in the new housing projects carrying the label of “participative”. Many of the MCMV projects multiply the mistakes of previous housing policies: top-down approach, wide-scale implementation, mono-functionality, lack of facilities, repetitive architecture, ignoring social practices.
Backing away from the participative mark, the academia responds with alternative initiatives, many of which actually reflect the founding principles of participation: architecture as open process, as social interface, the end of fragmentary space production. The initiative MOM3 of the Federal University of Minas Gerais goes even further towards the autonomy of the builder-user. It proposes to reduce the attributions of the architect to mediation, exercising critique, and delivering instruments as well as the necessary interface for the involved actors. Called to assist the community of Aglomerado da Serra, the MOM group started a dialog with the residents. The results materialized in common actions: they managed to obtain the official collective ownership for some parts of the favela and set up the first community project, Pomar do Cafezal, an orchard on the site of a former waste dump. The place has been appropriated by the locals and it is used also as a public space. The housing deficit is too large to be filled by academic projects, but these can set the tone for improving the lives of those living in the informal settlements. The method emphasizes collaboration, contact and mutual appreciation. It requires continuity of action and is time consuming. This type of non-hierarchical approach is not yet regulated, either by legislation or by professional organizations, and renders it unfeasible for the market.

Participative community project Pomar do Cafezal, in Aglomerado da Serra


The legal framework of participative architecture in Romania cannot be dated prior to democracy itself, or to the regulation of the architectural profession – which took place in 20014. The beginning of the 1990s set up the legislative framework for housing policies. These are the years of the unauthorized construction boom, especially in the rural areas, followed by a period of consolidation and diversification of the legislation. After 2001 the market settled down and the literacy regarding the construction industry increased among the population (Ţigănaş 2014: 224). Acceding to the European Union brought along accommodating new standards and regulations. The first discussions about participative strategies appeared in the context of sustainable urban development but were not backed by the administrative capacity. Although legally possible, public consultation was exceptional (Ţigănaş 2014:25), but after 2010 it become mandatory for all town plans. However, in the field of architecture this method has not yet been regulated.

Residential project for young families, Islazului area, Chitila

One of the few large-scale housing developments with a participative approach is the residential project for young families in Chitila-Ilfov. It was a partnership between the municipality – who provided the land – the future users – young residents who engaged in building the houses – and the planning office Urbe 2000 SRL – which provided pro bono projects for six different architectural configurations from which the clients could choose5. The planners aimed to offer a high degree of flexibility, in order to incorporate the needs and aspirations of the resident, while the unifying typology ensured the urban suitability. The Romanian law does not officially accommodate the concept of flexible planning. But in this case, the fact that the authority called upon to sanction deviations from the authorized project was a co-interested partner of the project made it possible for the residents to carry out modifications within a certain limit. The paradox is that neither the representatives of the local authority, nor the inhabitants themselves understood the real advantages of the participative approach6. For both parties, the main motivation for engaging in this project was linked to financial issues. The young residents saved the planning and land costs, while the municipality pushed forward, with minimal budgeting, a solution for the housing deficit. The loose formalization of the architectural profession, together with a certain tolerance by the authorities towards moderate law infringement reflects a social reality with both advantages and disadvantages.

Closing Remarks

From the three countries Brazil has, at least on paper, the most developed legal framework for a participative approach. However, the implementation of the concept appears to be flawed. The disregard of the policy makers towards the informal dwellers – whom they treat as a hurdle rather than a useful instrument for urban development – adds to the problem. The participative budgeting is extensive for both Germany and Brazil, but the emphasis of the programs differs: social inclusion is the main direction in the Brazilian case, while administrative efficiency and focusing on local policies sets the accent in Germany. Between the three cases, the differences at the level of the written laws are minimal. Yet, with regard to the implicit unspoken laws, the cultural practices vary significantly. The lack of firmness in implementing the laws and stipulations can be turned into an advantage, especially when the legislating process does not keep pace with the social dynamics. In the same time, laws and regulations can be adjusted in order to accommodate participative practices. The capacity of transformation depends largely on the democracy level of the society.


HEHL, Rainer, ANGELIL, Marc M. and Something Fantastic (Firm), eds. 2014. Minha Casa -Nossa Cidade! Innovating Mass Housing for Social Change in Brazil. Berlin: Ruby Press.
OSWALT, Philipp, Klaus OVERMEYER, Philipp MISSELWITZ, eds. 2014. Urban Catalyst: mit Zwischennutzungen Stadt entwickeln. 2. unveränd. Aufl. Berlin: DOM Publ.
ŢIGĂNAŞ, Şerban, MĂRGULESCU, Andrei. 2014. Arhitecţi, arhitectură şi oraşe. Despre profesia de arhitect şi cum se construieşte în România recentă. Bucureşti: Simetria.


1. According to the study Déficit Habitacional no Brasil 2015, Fundația João Pinheiro (http://www.fjp.mg.gov.br/).
2. Which translates: ”My House, My Life”.
3. Morar de Outras Maneiras, translated ”Living/Dwelling in a Different Manner”.
4. The Law 184/12.04.2001 – regarding organizing and exercising the architectural profession – followed by setting up the OAR.
5. According to the data presented in Urbanismul 16-17/2014, p. 136-138.
6. This conclusion is based on the extensive interviews carried out by the author during the last five years within the research project “The Vernacular Dimension of Housing in Romania”.



Comments are closed.

Powered by Jasper Roberts - Blog