To reimagine its largest public space, the City of Lausanne organized a citywide consultation and workshop that asked: Just who is the public?

“One thing is very clear: Urban design is not the first preoccupation of the people who participate in such events,” said Urbz co-founder Marias Echanove. “Some people may have precise ideas of how to refashion the two squares, but mostly people come because they want to talk about their experience of the space, their attachment to it, or their anger about certain aspects of it.”

Rather than providing ready-made blueprints, Lausanne is starting a process that the city’s Socialist mayor Grégoire Junod calls “turning a blank page to explore the field of the possible.”

In doing so, Lausanne has tapped into a ready-to-go template from Switzerland’s tradition of direct democracy. Since the Middle Ages, the Swiss have congregated around town squares to participate in the Landsgemeinde, or state assembly—an open-air meeting of all citizens held in a marketplace or plaza to decide on issues of local importance via public vote. Once a widespread tradition in German-speaking Switzerland, state assemblies still continue to hold decision-making authority in two of the 26 cantons that comprise the Swiss Confederation.


All this was the work of Urbz, a Mumbai-based “action and research collective” that was brought in by the city to pilot an 18-month mass consultation of all the squares’ users that culminated in the three-day workshop. Urbz will then use this public input to draw up a brief for an architectural competition to reimagine the area. The results—hopefully representing a genuine bottom-up approach to urban transformation—will be unveiled in 2020.

It’s too early to say exactly how this consultation will affect the squares’ final form, but organizers say it’s already highlighted something interesting. While cities and developers’ might focus on design when discussing urban space, the public itself tends to be more preoccupied with issues of identity.