The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Visiting Research Student defends thesis at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

28 September 2021

Congratulations to Thaisa Comelli who recently defended her PhD thesis on 'Participation as a game of cards. An analysis of collective urban planning spaces in the favela of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil'


Thaisa was a Visiting Research Student at the DPU and is now an Academic Support Tutor on the MSc Urban Development Planning programme.

In her doctoral thesis, she argues for a peripheral, decolonial and normative gaze at participation that seeks to highlight the contributions of peripheral territories to a post-binary reading of participatory urban planning.

Participation has been defended for decades as a pathway to democratise the production and management of cities. Yet, spaces of participatory urban planning have also been heavily criticised for their superficial, instrumentalist, and co-opted character. These two forces – of co-optation and of transformation - are frequently addressed in most critical analysis on the subject. Although not necessarily mistaken, binary readings on participation make it difficult to identify the nuances – of voices, subjects, knowledges and processes - that make up cities. 

Thus, her research examines how different participatory spaces in peripheral territories relate to and influence each other, and how these interactions can move towards more just cities. In its theoretical stage, her thesis navigates through transdisciplinary discussions about participation, and within critical planning theory. In its empirical stage, she looks at participatory planning in the favela of Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro – Brazil. The case is examined longitudinally, using mixed methods of data collection such as participant observation, interviews, archival research, digital ethnography and questionnaires.

The case of the ‘urban game’ in Rocinha sheds light on what she calls ‘conflictive co-production’ – a troubled planning process, but still full of participatory synergies and democratic lessons. In this peripheral territory, actors, knowledges and planning spaces are increasingly hybrid, interrelated and, therefore, difficult to fit into simplistic binaries.

Photo credit: collection of Brazilian architect Luiz Carlos Toledo