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A few weeks ago, we were invited to present ESCI’s Urban Design Lab methodology at the Expert Group Meeting in Barcelona organized by UN-HABITAT. The purpose of the meeting was to exchange our knowledge and experience with Urban Labs, and to explore the possibility of creating a toolbox for participatory planning.

UN-HABITAT is currently seeking to create a network of urban planning and design labs in the world, and ESCI is happy to contribute to this network with our knowledge and the lessons we have learned so far.

What is an Urban Lab?

An Urban Lab is a permanent or temporary think tank, which helps municipalities find multi-sectorial solutions in a complex and dynamic world. It is set up as a supportive laboratory for the planning department of the municipality. Urban Labs act as facilitators in generating quick urban solutions in the context of rapid urbanization. The labs assist in creating a dialogue between different groups of stakeholders, which significantly increases the chances for successful and sustainable urban development. ESCI’s Urban Design Labs (UDL) have been implemented in 17 cities throughout the Latin America and the Caribbean and have contributed to the development of ESCI’s Action Plans.

urban lab 117 Urban Design Labs hosted in the framework of ESCI’s work in Latin America and the Caribbean. Map by R. Krebs, 2016.


A myriad of problems and solutions

Cities have become increasingly complex, and thus more factors have to be taken into consideration when working on urban solutions. We tend to think in boxes: planners do the zoning, architects design the buildings… In other words, the way we think is not multi-disciplinary.

We also don’t tend to think about these complexities in defining the problems. When we come to cities and set up the labs, we encounter a vacuum of ideas. Municipal planners are often overwhelmed with many tasks, and have little time to develop concrete answers. They often lack strong urban management institutions or have trouble solving issues associated to urban growth, such as poverty and informality. Urban Labs help find answers to these questions: Where should we intervene? What are the most impactful investments necessary to see change in the city?

urban lab 2Urban Strategy for Puerto Montt’s and Puerto Varas’ Metropolitan Areas

Image: Lisa Mittelberger and Sebastian Sattlegger, 2016


Sharing knowledge about ‘emerging topics’

In the context of Latin America and the Caribbean, urban planning is becoming more and more important. A high urbanization rate over 80% and accelerated urban growth are having a severe impact on the urban ecosystem. The outcome is a series of ‘emerging topics,’ or issues that happen over and over again. Among these topics are the following:

  • Abandoned or mono-functional historical city centers
  • Transformation of the urban tissue, density and the lack of centralities
  • Need for affordable housing in the context of creating urbanity
  • Disconnected or generally lack of public space
  • Urban security and social resilience
  • Weak urban economy, unemployment and entrepreneurship, mono-functionality in the urban tissue
  • Walkability and human scale mobility
  • Metropolitan planning issues and tackle growth of the suburbs

We strongly believe that the exchange of knowledge and viable solutions on these emerging topics is adding value to the discussion on how to tackle urban problems.

urban lab 3Emerging Topics and planning goals for the Downtown Nassau and Grant’s Town Regeneration Image: R. Krebs, 2016

Planning is a dynamic process that involves a broad number of stakeholders. A ‘stakeholder mapping’ is a key exercise to fin out the needs and interests of each sector, and to identify the Local Support Group (LSG): a group of organizations and individual actors that can help facilitate the dialogue with the community. We encourage these actors to participate and think out of the box, by drafting visions, defining planning goals and designing urban scenarios.

urban lab 4Panama City: Session for developing urban scenarios with the community. Photo: R. Krebs, 2015


Challenges and lessons learned

After two years of running Urban Labs in Latin America and the Caribbean, we realize how powerful this planning methodology really is. These are some of the lessons we have learned:


  • The Urban Lab has to be tied into a public entity—for instance, the municipal urban planning department—and it must foster multidisciplinary work, by connecting this entity with different stakeholders.
  • Project ownership can be achieved by creating Local Support Groups that act as a liaison with the community.
  • Open discussions and a non-linear development process are key to produce new urban ideas.
  • The Urban Lab methodology must be taught as part of the university curriculum, as a powerful capacity-building tool for professors, students and local municipal planners.
  • Urban Labs help reach consensus on priority investments to improve densely-populated neighborhoods or those with accelerated urban growth.


Other examples of Urban Labs are UN-Habitat’s Urban Planning and Design Lab and URBACT, the European Union’s urban development program. Do you have any experience with Urban Labs in the region? Let us know!