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    Subjective realities in divided Nicosia

    By Camila Cocina Varas, on 13 December 2017

    As part of the DPU summerLab workshop series, the workshop “Inhabiting Edges” took place in Nicosia, Cyprus, during September 2017. The workshop was led by Camila Cociña and Ricardo Martén (DPU) and Silvia Covarino (Girne American University), and aimed to explore and critically understand the history and politics of Cyprus’ borders, navigating the complexities of the last divided capital city in Europe. In this series of two blogs, Bethania Soriano and Sharon Ayalon -participants of the workshop- reflect on subjective realities, developmental disparities, and regeneration processes in divided Nicosia.

    Part 1 can be viewed here.

    By Bethania Soriano and Sharon Yavo Yalon

    This post draws from our DPU SummerLab experience in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, which is considered the last divided city in Europe.

    The SummerLab provided the opportunity to challenge preconceived notions of the oversimplified reality that centres around a dichotomised conflict pitting Greek-Cypriot against Turkish-Cypriot. By engaging with the materiality of the city and its social networks, we attempted to uncover nuances and complexities in a context of deep-seated division, territorial and politico-ideological contestation. We were interested in framing division and its impact from the standpoint of the actors that cross Nicosia’s visible and invisible thresholds in an attempt to meet the ‘other’, forming unlikely allegiances to build a sense of identity that bridges fault lines in their landscape. Thus, we conducted fieldwork, collecting different perceptions on belonging and uncovering particularly situated narratives.

    Exploring both sides of the divided city, we recognised that the agents who productively engage with difference were mostly young artists, not only from the expected majoritarian ethnic groups, but from an international expatriate community that congregate in Cyprus. As a young musician told us:

    “My father is Cypriot; I grew up in Colombia, Chicago and then in Cyprus.

    People from all over the world live here. This is Cyprus – we are cluster-f***ed.” 1

    Thus, we discovered shared spaces of ‘encounter’ such as the two twinned cafes, Hoi Polloi in the north, and Kala Kathoumena in the south, as the gathering places of the artistic community on each side of the buffer zone – areas emblematic of tolerance and sought-after common ground. The informal interviews conducted in these spaces highlighted, in the evocative and charged language used by the interviewees, the importance of capturing voices beyond the well-known register – those whose stories will not feature as officially promoted, sanctioned narratives.

    Location of café’s and interviewees routes showing southerners crossing to the north and vice versa.

    When asked to comment on the prevailing mentalities from people in the north and south, a young British-Filipino singer articulated her thoughts in a candid way, disconcerting in its lyrical tone:

    “… the south is a ‘rock’, whereas the north is like ‘air’.

    In the north people are chaotic, relaxed, middle-eastern… when we play, they dance and smile back at you. In the south people are serious and philosophical, more reserved and conservative… and really scarred by what happened.” 2

    Reflecting on the young woman’s comments, the south is portrayed anchored in the solidity and rigidity of the perceptions and views of its inhabitants; in the reaffirming and reinforcing of memories and official narratives of occupation and suffered injuries.

    “In the cover of all school notebooks, there are these slogans – ‘Do not forget’. The school books are all branded, so we are constantly reminded…” 3

    Whereas in the north, the rarefied and ephemeral re-imaginings of identity and belonging are expressed in the ways people wish to highlight and confront narratives of prejudice:

    “People from the south think in the north you can get raped… they [Turkish-Cypriots] will steal your children.” 4

    Motivated by the need for political survival against the longstanding embargo and isolation from the international community, many Turkish-Cypriots are interested in carving a sense of collective Cypriot identity that includes southerners. Even if that involves selective forgetting of past injuries, some are choosing to ‘draw a breath of fresh air’ in order to survive:

    “…it is important to move from a narrative of  ‘This is who we are’, to a narrative of ‘We do not know who we will become’… ” 5

    However, across Nicosia diverse voices can be heard. Alongside few Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots who dared to venture beyond rigid confines and shed some of the values of their communities, others were conflicted:

    “Now I realise that I only had half a childhood – I only met half the people I could have… only made half the friends… only had half the experiences.” 6

    “I tried to cross with my friend and we walked all the way… but when my friend saw Ataturk [statues] and all the [Turkish] flags he got scared and turned back.” 7

    “Before the [Ledras Street] crossing, people never thought the south was so ‘close’ – there was an initial shock; then the shock of all the similarities!” 8

    Hoi Polloi in the north, and Kala Kathoumena in the south.

    In conclusion, the quotes reproduced above testify to the individuals’ ingenious capacities to articulate, negotiate, ascribe meaning and ultimately either normalise or contest the ‘everyday’. Their struggles for belonging co-exist with the need to develop and affirm an identity, breaking away from any restrictive ‘cluster’ to reclaim their place in the city. Whilst examining Nicosia’s overlapping, subjective realities, we learned that identity is not necessarily bound by place, but it is relational and situated – it can only be conceived in regard to the material reality of place and its sustaining social networks. Identity is also fluid and in constant transformation.

     

    1.  Young Colombian-Cypriot man who grew up in the United States and Cyprus; artist.
    2.  Young British-Filipino woman, in Cyprus for the past 17 years; living in south Nicosia and working as an artist and singer in north Nicosia.
    3.  Young Greek-Cypriot aspiring artist, living in the south and frequenting the artists’ cafés in north Nicosia.
    4.  Turkish-Cypriot male student, commuting from Kyrenia/ Girne into north Nicosia.
    5.  Dean of Architecture, Design & Fine Arts at Girne American University, Assoc. Prof Dr Mehmet Adil,

    addressing participants of the SummerLab.

    6 and 7.  Young Greek-Cypriot man, living in south Nicosia and often visiting the north side.

    1. Mayor of North Nicosia, Mehmet Harmancı, addressing participants of the SummerLab.

     

    Bethania Soriano is an independent researcher based in London, particularly focused on the politics of contested spaces – the ways in which people negotiate the environments they inhabit, adapting, reclaiming and ultimately shaping space by virtue of their everyday practices. She studies areas with long-established ‘geographies of difference’, in contexts of conflict transformation, and where minorities strive for spatial justice and social inclusion.

    Bethania trained as an Architect and Urban Designer in Southern Brazil and holds an MSc in City Design and Social Science with distinction, from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

     

    Sharon Yavo Yalon is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, based in Haifa. Her research enfolds the linkage between art and urbanism and the manner in which local identity, spatial (in)justice and social (ex-in)clusion are forged or  deconstructed by artistic activity in cities. More specifically, she focuses on artistic interventions in contested cities and the ways in which they affect and are affected by urban segregation patterns and boundaries. Sharon is a practicing architect and artist, graduated summa cum laude BA and MSc in Architecture and Town Planning from the Technion IIT.

    Developmental disparities and regeneration processes in divided Nicosia

    By Camila Cocina Varas, on 12 December 2017

    As part of the DPU summerLab workshop series, the workshop “Inhabiting Edges” took place in Nicosia, Cyprus, during September 2017. The workshop was led by Camila Cociña and Ricardo Martén (DPU) and Silvia Covarino (Girne American University), and aimed to explore and critically understand the history and politics of Cyprus’ borders, navigating the complexities of the last divided capital city in Europe. In this series of two blogs, Bethania Soriano and Sharon Ayalon -participants of the workshop- reflect on subjective realities, developmental disparities, and regeneration processes in divided Nicosia.

     

    By Bethania Soriano and Sharon Ayalon

    “Nicosia is a city where you cross not only into a different country but into a different time zone.” 1

    In this second post, we comment on Cyprus’ geostrategic position and its partition, appropriating of the metaphorical language used by the interviewees. Using the “rock and air” allegories, we frame our observations of disparities in development levels on each side of the buffer zone.

    Both sides of Ledras Street crossing

     

    On the one hand, south Cyprus can be understood as a “rock” in its solid, consolidated position on the international stage, benefiting from direct access to the European Union and a reliable network of financial support. There are better-developed physical and institutional infrastructures in the south, from public transport and organised rubbish collection, to the presence of international banks, companies and organisations. Additionally, the south can be contextualised as being strongly affected by the ‘telluric’ forces of capitalism. Patent signs of gentrification can be seen, where hip areas shed their local shops in favour of commercially branded streets, tagged with reproaching graffiti and street art.

    In the south, another consequence of rapid development is the large influx of economic migrants predominantly from Southeast Asia. Thus, new, vibrant migrant communities such as Filipinos, live side-by-side with long-established minorities such as Maronite, Armenians, etc. They occupy mostly run-down, city centre areas where accommodation is cheaper.

    The north on the other hand, can be seen as “air” since its existence as an independent state is not internationally recognised but by neighbouring Turkey. Thus, the future of the “occupied area”, circa 36.2% of the island, is ‘up in the air’, in a limbo. Furthermore, the north is under international embargo, in a vacuum of investment in infrastructure, with the exception of direct financial aid from Turkey and localised cash injections from independent, foreign investors in tourism.

    North Cyprus experiences similar development processes to the south, albeit at a slower pace. Its commercial streets are still lined with local shops, except for Turkish companies. The street markets selling clothing and sportswear counterfeits are a reflection of the same commercial trends gripping the south, where people emulate patterns of ‘western affluence’ to display status. Similarly, the large presence of economic migrants is noticeable, although in the north these are predominantly Turkish, unskilled seasonal labourers, housed in neglected, inner-city areas.

    The differentiating phenomenon registered in the ‘rarefied’ north, extending an economic lifeline and changing the demographic profile of the area, is the proliferation of foreign, Higher Education institutions, which vie to attract international students from the Middle East and African countries. The student, transient presence however, is said to nearly double the city’s population, putting extra pressure on services and ailing infrastructures.

    These two parallel realities are becoming more disparate, with the south developing rapidly and losing its uniqueness faster. The country seems to be at a crucial moment – if it continues growing apart at this rate, the discrepancy in development levels will be hard to match, and true unification, whether a desired political project, may not be a possible outcome for decades.

    Commercial streets on both sides of the border.

     

    “If you ask me, more hipsters – that is what we need” 2

    Returning to the level of the city, another common trend in the revitalisation of rundown areas observed in Nicosia is culture-led urban regeneration. This strategy has gained momentum since the advancement of Richard Florida’s “creative city” theory and the publication of numerous studies highlighting art’s contribution to urban success, social change, people’s sense of belonging and economic growth. Since this model has proven problematic in a variety of contexts, it must also be addressed in the case of Nicosia, where the agents of transformation were mostly young artists engaging with bottom-up urban interventions.

    Artistic interventions on both sides of Nicosia.

     

    During interviews, architects and city planners described the ‘soft seeds’ of artistic intervention, mentioning initiatives such as the street-art festival. They highlighted the intrinsic relationship between art and the city – often, in deteriorating urban spaces artists see themselves as ‘shamans’ fixing problems with collaborative and participatory art. In Nicosia, the notion of the “last divided city in Europe” is a source of inspiration to prolific artists, as evidenced by ubiquitous graffiti, uncommissioned murals and installations. Moreover, these artistic manifestations are potent political statements – the record of personal and collective narratives, otherwise unacknowledged, and a direct reflection of issues dominating social imaginaries. Unfortunately, there is a danger to art being identified as something to be consumed and commodified. Then, bottom-up, hipster-led city activation can be adopted by developers and municipalities and turned into top-down, culture-led urban renewal projects.

    Over the years, criticism of the transformation of art into cultural capital, a tool of symbolic economy or a mean for marketing and branding, has shown that investment in art rarely trickles down or triggers the wheels of economy as expected. In fact, it is more likely for veteran residents to become the main victims of these strategies, which escalate gentrification, prompt social exclusion and displacement. In sum, it is necessary to interrogate the role of art in attracting investment; whose art; how much art; and what kind of development is being promoted.

    In conclusion, this split island country is embedded in a broader context; needing international recognition, substantial and sustained investment from external actors. As such, it has to be understood in the interplay between political zones of influence and corresponding financing streams, where the strength (or fragility) of foreign allegiances can produce great disparities in development levels. We leave Cyprus, wondering how could regeneration processes, often initiated by the creativity of local actors and later propelled by external forces, allow for dissonant voices in contested spaces to be heard but not co-opted for political or economic gains.

     

    1.  Mayor of North Nicosia, Mehmet Harmancı, addressing participants of the SummerLab.
    2. Young female, freelance architect.

     

    Bethania Soriano is an independent researcher based in London, particularly focused on the politics of contested spaces – the ways in which people negotiate the environments they inhabit, adapting, reclaiming and ultimately shaping space by virtue of their everyday practices. She studies areas with long-established ‘geographies of difference’, in contexts of conflict transformation, and where minorities strive for spatial justice and social inclusion.

    Bethania trained as an Architect and Urban Designer in Southern Brazil and holds an MSc in City Design and Social Science with distinction, from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

    Sharon Yavo Yalon is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, based in Haifa. Her research enfolds the linkage between art and urbanism and the manner in which local identity, spatial (in)justice and social (ex-in)clusion are forged or  deconstructed by artistic activity in cities. More specifically, she focuses on artistic interventions in contested cities and the ways in which they affect and are affected by urban segregation patterns and boundaries. Sharon is a practicing architect and artist, graduated summa cum laude BA and MSc in Architecture and Town Planning from the Technion IIT.

    Women’s Political Participation in Somaliland

    By Lilian Schofield, on 20 February 2017

    Reflections from the ‘Women’s Political Participation in Somaliland’ event that took place on the 2nd of February 2017 and was presented by the UCL Development Planning Unit DPU, Somaliland Mission to the UK and Somaliland Focus (UK).

    IMAG2125

    Picture: from left Amina-Bahja Ekman, Michael Walls, Nafisat Yusuf Mohammed, Hodan Hassan Elmi, Malou Schueller and James Firebrace

    The concept of women’s exclusion from political participation is commonplace throughout the world. The principles of inclusion and equality occupies a central place in the discourse of political participation. According to the 2011 UN General Assembly resolution on women’s political participation, women all over the world continue to be largely marginalised from participating in politics and face a myriad of challenges and barriers in doing so. For women in many African countries, these challenges are made up of a complex set of factors and often embedded in local tradition, culture and religion. Women in Somaliland are not excluded from some of these challenges and barriers.

    Somaliland is a self-declared independent republic, and politics, as it is practiced there, is deeply embedded in local history and culture.  The social and political structure is composed of clans, sub-clans, lineage and blood groups (Ahmed and Green, 1999). Somali tradition is strongly egalitarian and both men and women play active roles in their society. Women are not restricted from being vocal or following a career path. In fact, in recent years, roles have so changed that women are increasingly becoming the breadwinners. Somali women have always played significant roles, and are often involved in mediation during conflict. Going back in the history of Somaliland, especially during the period of conflict, women played important roles in peace and reconstruction, and many took on ancillary duties of running public offices. Despite Somali women’s widely acknowledged economic and social contributions, politics remains patriarchal; dominated by men at the expense and exclusion of women from crucial decision-making processes (Walls, 2013, Ingiriis and Hoehne, 2013).

    Executive Director of NAGAAD, Nafisat Yusuf Mohammed, in her presentation, highlighted that Somali women face economic, social, financial and cultural challenges that hinder their political participation in Somaliland. In highlighting some of the challenges Somali women face in political participation, Nafisat mentioned that some of these barriers are embedded in socio-cultural practices and many times, is manifested in several ways which lead to political party discrimination and lack of support from family. One of the main issues highlighted in the presentation was the patriarchal system that discourages women from participating in politics. As political parties are rooted in the clan system, which is male dominated, women have limited space to run for positions.  One of the noteworthy narratives from the presentation was the significant role that the clans and lineage structures play in women’s participation. For instance, during elections, some women tend to vote for their male clan members.

    IMAG2126_1

    Nafisat also touched on the topic of the prevalence of female genital mutilation FGM within women aged 15-49 and access to Justice. She however mentioned some positive moves as well. For the first time, there are four female ministers in Somaliland and there is also an ongoing discussion between NAGAAD and parliament over the quota agenda point. There is also a continued long-term advocacy programme that aims to address all the challenges such as establishing and implementing a quota for female representation in parliament.

    Following on from Nafisat’s presentation, Hodan Hassan Elmi, Head of Governance, Advocacy and Communication at CARE International in Somalia/Somaliland provided some background information about what CARE International does in Somaliland and how they work with NAGAAD. She stated that CARE International works very closely with local organisations such as NAGAAD, and is also engaged in capacity building. She mentioned that some of the barriers that women in Somaliland face also have to do with lack of capacity and funding. She mentioned that there are challenges for young Somali women to participate in politics, which is often dominated by older women. She also encouraged the diaspora community to engage with grassroot organisations. Hodan stated that there is an opportunity for young Somali women and everyone interested in being part of the movement to get involved. Further, she mentioned that there are different avenues to engage in, such as new social media platforms, which present powerful tools in this so-called ‘information age’.

    Dr Michael Walls, Malou Schueller & Amina-Bahja Ekman presented preliminary findings from their ESRC-funded project ‘Political Settlement in Somaliland: A gendered perspective’.  In their presentation, the issue of ‘clanism’ as well as how it is seen in the community was highlighted. It was apparent from the presentation that clanism and patriarchy play a major role in Somali politics. From their findings, some respondents believe that ‘clanism’ is a bad thing and is on the rise. Some respondents also believe that ‘clanism’ is getting stronger and some even suggested going back to tradition. Findings also highlighted the degree of polarization in responses. Responses also highlighted a fear of political and cultural vicissitudes. This was demonstrated in some of the responses in which some respondents felt that women’s engagement in politics is a Western phenomenon/agenda and would rather prefer women’s roles as ascribed by Islamic sharia. Some respondents believe that women should not be politically active at all. However, there were some agreement all respondents both male and female, young and old, that women cannot stand for some positions such as for the presidency, Imam and as a judge.

    IMAG2133_1

    From the presentation, it was evident that clan and religion overlap and people’s perceptions are diverse on gender identity and roles.  It was also mentioned that culture and religion strongly influence gender identities and used as justifications to define what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. It was further mentioned that responsibilities have changed for both men and women, and although women have more responsibilities, they are not seen as capable to participate in politics. The presentation provided the context to explore and question what in the political settlement makes it difficult for progress to take place. Some positives were also highlighted especially progress in the area of some policies which looks fine on paper and constitution but never implemented. Some of the suggested ways forward included the following:

    • Counter act this idea that this is a Western agenda.
    • Donors need to think about their own agendas and how they promote their selves.
    • Strengthening women’s rights and organisations
    • Women’s needs at the local level needs to be addressed
    • Engaging men

    The last segment of the presentation was from James Firebrace who gave his presentation on the drought crisis in Eastern Somaliland and shared his key findings with the audience. He stated that in 2016, Deyr rain fell throughout Eastern Somaliland and was followed by 3 years of erratic/poor rain fall. This was followed by large-scale loss of livestock, increasing malnutrition; problems related to poor and insufficient water, vulnerable groups – pregnant women, displaced people. Some areas of the east received limited rainfall during the Deyr rainy season.  James stated that some responses to this disaster have come in the way of fundraising and contributions from the diaspora community. However, he stated that there is the need for large agencies to get engaged and also bringing the stranded population back home.

    The session ended with a vibrant discussion around progressive alliance for change, dealing with the drought crisis, discussant around the social, political, economic and cultural barriers that women face and ways all those interested in the region including the young and the diaspora community could get involved.

     

     

    References

    Ahmed, I.I., and Green, H. R. (1999) The heritage of war and state collapse in Somalia and Somaliland: local-level effects, external interventions and reconstruction. Third World Quarterly, 20(1), pp.113-127.

    Bradbury, M.,  Abokor, A.Y. & Yusuf, H.A. (2003) Somaliland: choosing politics over violence. Review of African Political Economy. Volume 30, Issue 97

    Ingiriis, M.H. and Hoehne, M.V., (2013) The impact of civil war and state collapse on the roles of Somali women: a blessing in disguise. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 7(2), pp.314-333.

    UN Women – Women’s leadership and political participation http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation (Accessed 12/02/2017).

    Walls, M. (2013) Women’s political participation in Somaliland. In: Journeys from exclusion to inclusion: Marginalised women’s successes in overcoming political exclusion. (164 – 197). International IDEA: Stockholm, Sweden. http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1417498/ (Accessed on the 09/02/2017).

     

    https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/jan/27/somaliland-clan-loyalty-women-political-prospects (accessed 05/02/2017)


    Dr Lilian Schofield is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Development Administration and Planning (DAP). She has over five years experience working in Higher Education Institutions in the UK as well as experience in the development field having worked with development consultancies and NGOs in Nigeria. Lilian Schofield has a PhD in Construction and Property Management and investigated the role of stakeholders in housing development projects in poor communities in Nigeria.

    From heroes to villains: Brazil at risk of moving away from the New Urban Agenda

    By Alexandre Apsan Frediani, on 16 February 2017

    By Julia Moretti and Alexandre Apsan Frediani

    Call to support the mobilisation against a new presidential act that intends to dismantle the regulations for land regularization in Brazil.

    27649969524_0640172ec4_o
    A network of Brazilian civil society organisations is calling the international community to support their mobilisations against a new presidential act that intends to dismantle the regulations for land regularization in Brazil. Since the introduction of the City Statute in 2001, Brazilian urban policy has been setting a series of innovative precedents in the implementation of principles of Right to the City. The Statute involves the recognition of the social function of property, setting the framework for participatory urban planning as well as linking land tenure regularization with urbanization of settlements.

    Since then, this law has been consolidated as a legal guide for the Brazilian land regularization policy and several other statutes were enacted guided by its principles in order to regulate instruments and procedures (Law n.11977/09 about urban settlements regularization; Law n. 11481/07 about regularization on public owned land; Law 11952/09 about regularization on land owned by the Federal Government in the Amazon Region). This legal framework became an international example of progressive urban policy, prioritizing justice over profit, and informing the development of the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda agreed in 2016

    The Provisional Presidential Act (PPA) no. 759/16 enacted at the very end of 2016 attempts to amend the existing legislation regarding land regularization with an act that promises to reduce bureaucracy and increase efficiency. However, its underlying motivation is to reposition land as a financial asset, rather than a right. Apart from dismantling an entire legal body that represents the result of a long term public debate and consolidated collective understanding and agreement of multiple stake-holders, the PPA marks a step backwards in terms of assuring access to land for the poor and implementing the principle of social function of property. Below are some of the problems with the PPA.

    Changing basic principles: legal definition of land regularization established by the PPA suppresses the aim to assure housing rights and environmentally sustainable by observing the social function of property. According to the new law, policies on land regularization are to be economically sustainable and developed based on principles of competitiveness and efficiency.

    Lack of participation: participation is no longer a principle of land regularization. Furthermore, the PPA revokes a consolidated and democratic legal framework replacing it with a not self-operating law enacted without any public debate.

    Massive privatization of land owned by the Federal Government: the new law creates an instrument that gives property rights indiscriminately, without meeting any criteria regarding social and collective interest. The PPA makes possible and easier to regularize high-income settlements and gated communities in public land without any compensation at a loss of social and environmental function of public property.

    Amnesty to deforestation and land appropriation: the PPA allows regularization of large parcels of public land all over the country even to those who already own land. It accepts deforestation as proof of possession,substantially changing the program “Legal land in the Amazon Region” originally conceived to settle conflicts over landbetween small-scale agriculture and traditional population against agribusiness, preventing deforestation.

    Policy on Rural Reform weakened: according to this new law,land titles resulting from rural reform can be sold in the market,increasing the risk toreturn to a situation of land concentration. Furthermore, the governmental agency on rural reform is released from its obligations regarding the wellbeing of settled families and looses competencies to a Secretary that answers directly to the President.

    Land regularization for social interest weakened: in the PPA, special social interest zones no longer exist.This results in the loss of an important zoning instrument that for a long time was used to demarcate urban territory occupied by the poor, setting priority fortenure regularization. This and other tools and procedures that made it easier to regularize informal settlements occupied by the poor are no longer in place.

    In brief, the PPA focuses on property titles not in assuring basic human rights to those more in need. This new law deconstructs an innovative legal framework based on pillars of participatory urban planning socio-environmental function of the city and property and land regularization as a key element for attaining social inclusion. It represents the triumph of the concept of abstract entitlements held on individual bases, prioritizing the exchange rather than social value of property.

     

    The Open Letter attached is meant to summon social movements and all those who believe in Urban and Rural Reform to demand Brazilian Federal Government to withdraw Provisional Presidential Act No.759/2016 from Congress; therefore stopping the voting process and promoting a large scale debate about land ownership, property and possession, guided by constitutional principles of social function of property and individual and collective human rights.

    To show your support, please sign the on-line petition:

    https://contramp759.wixsite.com/cartaaobrasil


    Alexandre Apsan Frediani is a lecturer at the DPU, and is the co-director of the MSc Social Development Practice programme.

    Julia Moretti is a lawyer at Escritório Modelo Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns

    Imagining a Social Enterprise Model for the Provision of Pro-poor Housing Solutions in the Philippines

    By David Hoffmann, on 7 December 2016

    In November 2013, super typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines in full swing. Fragile shelter structures across the archipelago’s coastal areas did not withstand the strong winds and storm surges brought about by Yolanda. In the aftermath of the disaster, the government launched an emergency programme with the mission to ‘build back better’ [1]. The government was supported by the international humanitarian community, whose swift response matched the scale of the disaster in its scope and ambition. Yet serious funding challenges were said to hamper recovery.

     

    Budget shortfalls are one of the most pervasive barriers to the successful implementation of recovery programs and a constant challenge faced by traditional development models. The idea that social enterprises could offer an answer to this issue has gained traction in the past years [2]. Social enterprises are organisations set up as revenue-generating business with social objectives, which allows them to be financially independent. As part of DPUs Junior Professional Programme, I was lucky to work closely with one of them.

     

    Founded in 2014, LinkBuild is a young Housing Development Enterprise (HDE) whose mission is to scale up innovative, low-cost, and sustainable shelter solutions and programs for and with the poor. LinkBuild was set up as the latest addition of the Philippine Alliance, a grouping of 5 organisations that has a long history of successfully mobilising communities around savings groups in order to achieve secured land tenure. Given the current housing context in the Philippines, the need for this kind of program has never been more urgent.

     

    The Housing Context in the Philippines

     

    A new day begins in Quezon City, one of Metropolitan Manila’s 16 cities. The streets have been buzzing since the early morning hours, the traffic slowly pulsating through their aching junctions. As I work my way through the streets, I walk past busy informal settlements. Some are squatter settlements, the result of spontaneous and unplanned occupation of land. Others are informal subdivisions. The residents here live on a surveyed plot and they usually have proof of ownership or land-lease rights.

     

    Flooded downtown Manila during rain season.

    Flooded downtown Manila during rain season.

     

    In Metro Manila, one out of every four people resides in informal settlements, often within disaster-prone areas. As an alternative, several shelter programs are being implemented by government and non-government actors. Yet the delivery of these programmes has been unable to cope with the rocketing demand for affordable housing. Driven by natural population growth and rural to urban migration, the main urban areas in in the Philippines are growing at a breath-taking pace. The country is projected to be 80% urbanised by 2025 [2] – an increase of 30 points from 2015. Moreover, officials are talking of a housing backlog of 5.7 million houses of which 60% are believed to be economic and social housing [3].

     

    Most worryingly, some of the latest government’s efforts to deliver shelter programs have been proven to be counterproductive. A recent operation plan that aimed to relocate over 104,000 informal settler families out of danger zones in Metropolitan Manila, relocated 67 per cent to off-city sites [4]. The programme beneficiaries call these off-city sites the ‘death zones’. They feel effectively disconnected from their earlier life as they struggle to deal with the loss of their livelihoods and networks. Reports show that up to 60% of individuals that were relocated out of Metro Manila eventually return to the city [5]. If given the option, many ISF would rather remain in the old site despite the immediate risks they face instead of moving outside of the city.

     

    Informal subdivision in Valenzuela City, Metro Manila.

    Informal subdivision in Valenzuela City, Metro Manila.

     

    At the same time, the private sector has recognised affordable housing as a potential growth market, yet it is struggling to set foot in the sector. From a purely financial perspective, affordable housing provision is a cut-throat affair. In Metro Manila, developing affordable housing amounts to ‘financial suicide’, as a local housing developer recently put it. The high land prices, as well as the additional costs of building in a congested city mean that selling houses for less than 7.500£, the maximum unit price at which they are considered to be affordable, can only be achieved at a loss. Even the supply of houses within the ‘economic housing’ brackets, at a unit cost of no more than 19.000£, is a hard trick to pull off.

     

    The fundamental problem with these government and private programmes is that they treat informal settlers as an issue that needs to be dealt with, or an opportunity that ought to be exploited. What they fail to see is that informal settlers can be actors in the housing delivery process.

     

    Imagining a Social Enterprise Model for the Provision of Pro-Poor Housing

     

    As a social enterprise, LinkBuild is set as a revenue-generating business with social objectives. This distinguishes it from traditional NGOs that rely on international aid and funding to run their programmes and operations. Historically, the Philippine Alliance members have operated as traditional NGO’s. However, the donor landscape is shifting as it tries to make its beneficiaries’ programmes more investor-friendly. As a result, donors increasingly treat capital disbursements to partners as an investment, which has important implications for organisations like LinkBuild. This new trend is pushing LinkBuild to imagine a business model that sits comfortably within the highly competitive real-estate sector while staying true to its vision of reaching and mobilising the marginalised communities.

    These units were built on an in-city relocation site identified by the local government. It also facilitated negotiations with the landowner and landfilled 6.5 hectares of land. Seventeen (17) of these plots were allotted to one of the communities associated to the Philippine Alliance

    The units pictured above were built on an in-city relocation site identified by the local government.  Local government also facilitated negotiations with the landowner and landfilled 6.5 hectares of land.

     

    To achieve financial sustainability, LinkBuild’s latest wave of housing projects is being conceived as mixed-income developments. The idea is to make a part of the 670 units fit for middle-income clients. The units, which will be more spacious, will be sold at a price surplus, effectively subsidising the construction of the more affordable units. While this new approach seems like radical change in direction, it does have a compelling argument in its favour. It offers a possibility for the organisation to become financially independent over time.

     

    In the short run, LinkBuild’s operations would still heavily rely on the access to a starting capital. LinkBuild has therefore partnered with Real Equity For All (ReAll – former Homeless International), one of the few investors who are venturing into the housing market at the bottom of the pyramid. The capital enables LinkBuild to cover the costs of ‘hard investments’ such as purchasing and developing land, as well as the construction of the housing units; and thus, LinkBuild cannot be thought of as a stand-alone organisation, at least not for the time being.  However, in the medium run LinkBuild is hoping to achieve financial sustainability sustaining through the profit generated by the sales of surplus houses.

     

    Chart 1: LinkBuild’s Social Enterprise Model

    Chart 1: LinkBuild’s Social Enterprise Model

    Strong Communities Make a Difference

    In line with the tradition of community-oriented organisations like the Community Architects Network and the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights, LinkBuild works closely with the communities that it seeks to reach. The Philippine Alliance is the main enabler of this process. Each organisation in the Alliance plays a strategic role in delivering LinkBuild’s housing projects, as their active networks and expertise allows them to mobilise and engage communities through participatory processes. For example, through the Homeless People Federation Philippines, Linkbuild is able to link with strong communities (see Chart 1) in different regions. After connecting with the communities,  LinkBuild conducts market research and hosts workshops with clients and communities to ensure that it is able to reach target clients; that it meets their specific needs; and that the project is financially viable. In the end, the gathered information directly feeds into the architects’ final project design.

    Chart 2: What defines a Strong Community?

    Chart 2: What defines a Strong Community?

    Moreover, the close ties of the Philippine Alliance with the local government units help to navigate the hurdles that land acquisition and development may pose. For example, in Mandate City, local government identified land and facilitated the negotiations for acquisition. Given the competitive nature of the sector, this form of support is crucial.  Least but not last, LinkBuild also follows international best practice of developing in-city projects. By purchasing land that is centrally located, the organisation hopes to deliver projects that actively contribute to the integration of marginalised communities to the existing city fabric.

     

    Participants of the Bago Gallera Site Planning Workshop in Davao City last September.

    Participants of the Bago Gallera Site Planning Workshop in Davao City last September.

    All of the above factors allow LinkBuild to distinguish itself from the traditional housing developers that tend to have a top-down approach to housing delivery and are primarily concerned with meeting sales objectives.

    Ultimately Linkbuild’s model still remains to be tested since the mixed-income housing projects are yet to be completed. As the organisation enters unexplored waters with the Philippine Alliance, it will continue to learn by doing. And there remains a lot to be learnt. Given the housing sector’s state of permanent emergency, planning for the future of the countries’ urban poor is crucial. Despite the scale of the problem, there are only few organisations bold enough to offer an alternative. As it paves its way to sustainability, LinkBuild might well be leading the path towards the ‘imaginative reformulation of the systems by which we manage change’ [7]. And it is leading the change by asking the right question – how do we build forward better?

     

    References

     

    [1] National Economic and Development Authority, 2013. Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda:  Implementation for Results. [online] Available at: http://yolanda.neda.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/RAY-2.pdf

    [2] Overseas Development Institute, 2013. Why and how are donors supporting social enterprises? [online]. Available at: https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/8894.pdf

    [3] The World Bank, 2016. Closing the Gap in Affordable Housing in the Philippines: Policy Paper for the National Summit on Housing and Urban Development. [online] Available at: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/547171468059364837/pdf/AUS13470-WP-PUBLIC-Housing-Summit-Policy-Paper-has-been-approved-P155561.pdf
    [4] Lorenciana, C.R. (2013). Philippine housing backlog is 5.5M SHDA targets to build a million units by 2016. [online]. Available at: http://www.philstar.com/cebu-business/2015/07/13/1476445/philippine-housing-backlog-5.5m-shda-targets-build-million-units

    [5] The World Bank, 2016. Closing the Gap in Affordable Housing in the Philippines: Policy Paper for the National Summit on Housing and Urban Development. [online] Available at: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/547171468059364837/pdf/AUS13470-WP-PUBLIC-Housing-Summit-Policy-Paper-has-been-approved-P155561.pdf

    [6] Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council. 2014. Developing a National Informal Settlements Upgrading Strategy for the Philippines (Final Report). [online]. Available at: http://www.hudcc.net/sites/default/files/styles/large/public/document/NISUS%20Final%20Report_July2014.pdf

    [7] Sumsook, B. 2016.  Cities for People and by People. [online]. Available at: https://unchronicle.un.org/article/cities-people-and-people

     


     

    David Hoffmann is an alumna of the MSc Urban Economic Development and a participant of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme. He currently works at LinkBuild, where he is involved with the design and implementation of organisational development strategies. Amongst others he organised workshops to encourage the knowledge exchange between community associations in Cebu and Davao.

     

    *All pictures taken by D.H.

     

    Lebanon and the Syrian refugee crisis – Lessons to be learnt

    By Lilian Schofield, on 2 December 2016

    The debate and discourse surrounding migration and the current refugee crisis is one that can be contentious and to a certain extent emotive bringing about polarised stands amongst different parties. The surge of refugees to the UK and other European countries in the past few years has been a major issue to politicians and consequently, been in the foreground of policy makers as well as a topic of great concern among its citizens.  So serious is this issue that it has been regarded as a major emergency and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel stated that ‘the issue of asylum could be the next major European project’ (Berry et al 2016). A statement made in response to the high numbers of refugees arriving in the European Union escaping the wars in Syria and Iraq.

     

    Dr. Nasser Yassin’s presentation on ‘Informal Institutions Shaping Refugee’s Cities – Lessons from Lebanon’ drew in an audience from several walks of life. The venue was filled to capacity and the discussions were intellectual, challenging and passionate as expected. His research presented a great avenue to understand and appreciate how Lebanon, a country with its own problems has coped with the huge influx of Syrian refugees.

     

    41_NASSER_poster

     

    Lebanon and the Syrian refugee crisis

    Lebanon, a small country with a population of about four million has taken in a large number of Syrian refugees (Loveless, 2013). Data and sources gleaned from reports and literature show that about 250,000 Syrians have been killed since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011 (Dionigi, 2016). It is purported in literature that since the start of the war, over three million Syrians have fled their country and over 1.1 million fled to Lebanon (Barnard 2015). Dionigi (2016) attributes the choice of Lebanon to two main reasons. 1. The geographic proximity. 2. Language and historical relations.

    According to the UNHCR report, there are about 930,000 refugees that are registered or waiting to be registered. In addition to the Syrian numbers is also an influx of Palestinian refugees (Save the Children 2014 report). Some of the refugees stay in poor areas of Lebanon with limited infrastructure. At this juncture, it is important to note and understand that Lebanon has its own challenges such as a weak and fragile political state and has experienced the absence of a central government for some time. For a country that is characterised by weak state capacity, economic and regional inequalities, social and sectarian schism and inadequate infrastructures that have not been upgraded for decades, Lebanon’s role in absorbing the large number of refugees is commendable (Dahi, 2014).

     

     

    Lebanon refugees distribution - Source: UNHCR Lebanon

    Lebanon refugees distribution – Source: UNHCR Lebanon

     

    In Dr. Nasser Yassin’s presentation, he highlighted three main ways that Lebanon was able to cope with the crisis.

    1. History: Lebanon has had a history of accepting refugees going back to 1860 with the acceptance of Christian refugees brought to Beirut.
    2. Social geography: Refugees move to places where they have social networks and places they know.
    3. Political economy: 70.5% of Syrian refugees and 27% of Lebanese live below the poverty line. Syrian refugees engage in manual labour doing basic jobs. 95% of Syrians work in the informal economy allowing them to work and earn a living. Hence, there is a rise of micro enterprises started by Syrians, which is mostly informal.

     

    Although Lebanon has done a commendable job in absorbing the large number of refugees, given its fragile and weak state, financial and economic challenges and limited resources, there are some areas of contestation especially in the area of providing legality to the refugees, access to basic amenities – health and education and informality. For example, in January 2015, Lebanon announced a restricted 6-month visa for displaced Syrians. The lack of  legal papers meant that Syrian refugees could not have access to basic amenities and social services – meaning that access to education, health facilities and other amenities were often a challenge as either inaccessible or there was a lot of hurdles to cross to get access to these basic needs (Balsari et al, 2015).

     

    From the presentation, it was clear that Lebanon plans to return some of the refugees back to Syria after the war. According to Dr. Yassin, one reason for this is linked to the findings of an interview conducted with Syrian refugees in which they were asked to pick anywhere in the world they wanted to settle in and about 40% of those interviewed stated that they wanted to return home after the war. Hence, Dr. Yassin stated that the main focus for Lebanon is finding a way to end the war so that these refugees can go back home.

    Dr Yassin

    In addition to the preceding point is the nuanced debate on being honest about the effects of absorbing huge numbers of refugees and reaching a tipping point whereby the country could not cope with the large numbers given its limited resources and already existing weak infrastructures.  According to data presented there are about 100,000 Syrian newborns, 98% have not been registered, 80% have no legal papers, 61 of under 18 are out of work. With inadequate infrastructure and amenities, Lebanon may not be able to cope.

     

    Is informality a bad thing?

    The presentation also opened up an avenue to debate on informality and its legality – ‘is informality all-together a negative thing’? Although this question leads to a whole new and separate debate and open to moot point, it is, however, important to highlight on what is meant by informality. Informal institution is often referred to in literature as the ‘unwritten rule’ guiding informal social networks, capital, family and mutual help. In many developing countries where there is a weak state, unwritten rules are the order of the day (Bratton, 2007).  Understanding how the Syrian refugees are able to cope in Lebanon entails understanding the role of informal institutions – how informal institutions help in meeting the needs of many where formal institutions are weak, absent or challenging. Unfortunately, whilst informal institutions can provide some form of manageable living to refugees, it has its disadvantages and hence why the audience focused on the debate regarding its legality.  However, Dr Yassin argued that there is a need to be open minded on issues such as the role of informality.

     

    Some reflections and conclusions

     

    The debate was concluded on the grounds that there is a need to create a paradigm shift to not totally view informality as a negative phenomenon especially within the context of developing countries – understanding that many households in developing countries function within informal institutions.

     

    There is also a need to be cautious about our criticisms of the workings of countries that we are not all too well familiar with their workings as well as being cautious in our generalisations. There is a need to look at things through different lenses and not assume or follow the hegemonic rhetoric of a particular or familiar view that we are used to.

     

    The question of applying theory to practice needs to be realistic and the complication and complex nature of doing this not taken for granted.  As future practitioners, there is a need to be open minded as well as understand the thinking of a policy maker.

     

    Our ontological perspectives and positionality do play an important role in our arguments and assumptions. Hence, it is important to view arguments from different ontological and epistemological perspectives as well as understand the role of the researcher and how research can influence policy change and public knowledge.

    You can hear the lecture in the audio podcast here:

     

    References

     

    Balsari, S., Abisaab, J., Hamill, K. and Leaning, J. (2015) Syrian refugee crisis: when aid is not enough. The Lancet, 385(9972), pp.942-943).

    Barnard, A. (2015) As Refugee Tide Swells, Lebanon Plans a Visa Requirement for Syrians. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/03/world/as-refugee-tide-swells-lebanon-plans-a-visa-requirement-for-syrians.html?_r=1. Accessed 28/11/16.

    Berry, M., Garcia-Blanco, I. and Moore, K. (2016) Press coverage of the refugee and migrant crisis in the EU: a content analysis of five European countries.

    Bratton, M., (2007) Formal versus informal institutions in Africa. Journal of Democracy, 18(3), pp.96-110.

    Dahi, O. (2014) The refugee crisis in Lebanon and Jordan: the need for economic development spending. Forced Migration Review, (47), p.11.).

    Dionigi, F. (2016) The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: State Fragility and Social Resilience. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/65565/1/Dionigi_Syrian_Refugees%20in%20Lebanon_Author_2016.pdf. LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series. Accessed 29/11/2016.

    Loveless, J., 2013. Crisis in Lebanon: camps for Syrian refugees?. Forced Migration Review, (43), p.66.

    UNHCR http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/syria.php.

    Save the Children (2014) Save the Children’s Humanitarian response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: Overview. https://lebanon.savethechildren.net/sites/lebanon.savethechildren.net/files/Lebanon%20Context%20and%20Programme%20Overview%20February%202014.pdf  [Accessed on the 29/11/2016].


    Dr Lilian Schofield is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Development Administration and Planning (DAP). She has over five years experience working in Higher Education Institutions in the UK as well as experience in the development field having worked with development consultancies and NGOs in Nigeria. Lilian Schofield has a PhD in Construction and Property Management and investigated the role of stakeholders in housing development projects in poor communities in Nigeria.

     

    Playing with goldfish: Engaging people through games in the age of the falling attention span

    By Nausica Castanas, on 11 November 2016

    Research in the age of the falling attention span

    There is undeniably a great amount of social science research produced around the world. In the field of development, much of it aims to inform the public, perhaps even with the expressive aim of changing behaviours. Yet how can one produce engaging content when it is well documented that the general public cannot focus for more than seconds at a time? There has been substantial research on people’s decreasing attention span. In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman advanced his thesis that television and the emphasis placed on entertainment has altered the way people consume information, and decreased their ability to concentrate on issues they do not find pleasurable[i]. Nicholas Carr focused his study on the advent of the Internet, arguing that our use of the Internet not only makes absorption harder, it actually impacts our ability to be engrossed in written material both online and offline[ii][iii]. Statistics seem to concur with this thesis. A 2008 study found that Internet users spent 10 seconds or less on any given page over 50% of the time, while the average time for a stay on a page was placed between 2-3 seconds[iv]. A 2015 study by Microsoft found that overstimulation through the Internet and smartphones has decreased our attention span from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015, jokingly compared to the attention span of a goldfish[v].

     

    The evidence is all around us: news videos online last on average under 3 minutes. In development, the trend is very much the same. Most organisations – including DFID, WaterAid and ODI to name a few – now produce a mix of short videos and infographics to present their material. Information is distilled in bite size pieces which audiences can easily digest.

     

    Conversely, when people are engaged, they can focus for longer. And this is where things get interesting. Coming up with engaging ways to communicate information can make all the difference. And what better way to engage someone’s attention than turning the subject into a game? Playing games de facto retains the player’s attention, and, for that reason, they have long been used in education. Whether it was through educational board games or through the use of computer games in school for math or physics modules, most of us were exposed to learning in game format.

     

    Games can therefore be a great communicative tool, especially for complex information. Openspace, the organisation I am currently working with in Bangkok, has teamed with Dr Wijitbusaba Ann Marome from the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Thammasat University, to translate the results of a 5-year international research project of the Coastal Cities at Risk (CCaR) on urban resilience into a game.

    The Urban Resilience Board Game

    The Urban Resilience Board Game

     

    Urban Resilience and the CCaR research

    Coastal Cities at Risk (CCaR): Building Adaptive Capacity for Managing Climate Change in Coastal Megacities is a research project financed by Canada, looking at climate change and urban resilience, with respect to flooding in Vancouver, Lagos, Manila and Bangkok. CCaR uses modelling through the VENSIM program, using data derived from City System Dynamic model, to input known variables and produce future scenarios for these cities. Interestingly, the causes of flooding are different in each city, which allows for a broad field of study.

     

    Urban Resilience refers to the capacity of a city to bounce back after a shock. The most widespread definition, coined by the Community and Regional Research Initiative on Resilient Communities (CARRI), defines resilience as the “capability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from significant multi-hazard threats with minimum damage to public safety and health, the economy, and national security”[vi]. As evidenced by this definition, urban resilience has adaptability and complexity at heart. It views cities as adaptive systems, where the interactions of a wide set of factors need to be taken into consideration. Moreover, preparedness is key to achieving urban resilience, as anticipating potential future threats to urban settings allows for greater adaptability. This becomes ever more significant given the looming threat of climate change, which already brings an increase in the occurrence and severity of extreme weather phenomena around the world. While urban resilience involves more than natural disasters, these are considered a central aspect of the threats that need to be countered.

     

    In Bangkok, it is very intuitive to focus on flooding. Bangkok floods severely every couple of years, and, with climate change, the intensity is worsening. 2011 witnessed the worst flooding in decades; the year remains engraved in people’s minds and imagination, and routinely comes up in conversation as the benchmark for all subsequent flooding. The numbers are staggering: 884 people died, while a further 13.6 million were affected. 65 provinces were classified as disaster zones, and the World Bank estimated the total economic losses at $45.7 billion, making it one of the five most costly natural disasters in history[vii][viii].

     

    To a lesser extent, Bangkok floods semi-regularly. For example, it only takes a heavy night’s worth of rain during the rainy season to flood Lat Prao, the area where I live. The CCaR research concludes that flooding in the Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) will intensify as both the intensity and frequency of heavy rain will increase.

     

    Perhaps surprisingly, the prevalence of flooding has not been linked to climate change or urban resilience, be it at policy level or in people’s minds. It is also telling that there is no government agency responsible for dealing with it. “It ranks low on the scale of political priorities, far behind questions of economic and social development” remarks Dr Marome, the leader of the CCaR team for Bangkok.

     

    Dr Marome stresses the importance of preparing society. “While investing in infrastructure can be very useful, it can only ever represent 70% of dealing with climate change. The remaining 30% needs to be done by people themselves, through preparedness. Japan is a great example of that. The state provides different measures to mitigate earthquakes, from law and regulations to earthquake resistant structures, but society has also adapted. Children are being taught from a very young age how to prepare for earthquakes”.

     

    Dr Wijitbusaba Ann Marome, Faculty of Architecture & Planning, Thammasat University

    Dr Wijitbusaba Ann Marome, Faculty of Architecture & Planning, Thammasat University

     

    In Bangkok, there is clearly a gap between the people who have the relevant information on the one side, and the wider public and government agencies on the other. The Urban Resilience Board Game tries to bridge this gap, by making information easily accessible to a wider public, beyond the scope of academics and people in the field.

     

    The Urban Resilience Board Game

    The game is played by 4 or 6 players, each the mayor of a Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) – Bangkok Metropolis, Nakhon Pathom, Pathum Thani, Nonthaburi, Samut Prakan, and Samut Sakhon – and a facilitator. Each region has distinct characteristics and conditions, all based on the CCaR research findings: some are more developed, some have issues with waste management, some have issues with social cohesion, or environmental protection. Overall, there are six different urban futures, each affected by four different drivers: socio-economic factors, housing and land use, environment and health, and flood management.

     

    All players are allocated an initial budget, to be used for future investments. The players roll the dice to advance on the board and get handed an event that they need to deal with. Events range from anything between a drug problem among the area’s youth to the construction of a fast train linking this area to its neighbours. The player needs to identify the risk, the opportunity, and, where necessary, invest to deal with the event. Points are allocated for correctly identifying each, and all need to be relevant to the specific area’s profile. This urges players to link different issues and eventually identify necessary investments in the short or long term.

     

    In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

    In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

    Rolling a six or completing two rounds triggers a flood round. Flood intensity varies each time, and affects each region differently. An area’s resilience ultimately depends on preparedness stemming from investments in the previous rounds. For example, should an area have a serious garbage problem, investment in clean up prior to the flood round would increase resilience, as refuse not only obstructs drainage, thus worsening the flood, but also spreads diseases. During the flood round, all investment proposals need to be voted on by the mayors of the other regions: players need to argue their case to seek approval. The game ends when any participant reaches the end of the board; the player with the most points wins.

     

    In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

    In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

    The Urban Resilience Board Game thus has a double role: first, it raises awareness about flooding and resilience, allowing people to think about urban resilience and find linkages between different issues. Second, it brings people from different backgrounds together and opens a dialogue that would not otherwise be happening, and certainly not under these conditions. In June 2016, Thammasat University and Openspace organised a workshop with academics, policy makers and representatives from the local government, specifically from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). Many participants had no experience with these issues but all played the board game for two hours. The feedback was extremely positive, as they found the game both informative and entertaining. Interestingly, the game seemed to transcend political red tape, allowing people to consider flooding and urban resilience without the backdrop of the sometimes charged political considerations that happen in Thailand.

    In action: The Urban Resilience workshop, June 2016

    In action: The Urban Resilience workshop, June 2016

    The appeal for planners is evident. The game opens a platform for people to discuss complex issues in an informal way. Instead of being confined by the structure and convention of a meeting or conference, participants can let their guard down and engage with the material in a new way. More importantly, the subject matter becomes accessible to people with no prior experience. In the guise of explaining the rules and aim of the game, facilitators are actually presenting the basic information for people to understand the core ideas of urban resilience. Yet all of this remains unthreatening; at the end of the day, it is only a game. The players are then pushed to really think about the issues, and see the connection between investments in infrastructure and cooperation with other regions, and achieving urban resilience. Their output is then fed back to the CCaR team and Openspace, who collect the documented actions that players took during the flood round. This is crucial, as it allows for a feedback loop into the research in a very direct way.

     

    In the next months, more workshops will be organised. Moreover, Dr Marome and Thammasat University plan to train members of the public to be facilitators, allowing for greater exposure, perhaps even spilling to other Thai cities in the North. They are also working on having a workshop with urban policy planners from across Asia to play the game. The possibilities are endless, because who would not like to come play with us?

     

    [i] Postman, N. 2005 [1985]. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. London: 2005 Penguin Books

    [ii] Carr, N. 2008. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains”. The Atlantic. July-August 2008

    [iii] Carr, N. 2010. The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. London: W. W. Norton & Company

    [iv] Weinreich, H., Obendorf, H., Herder, E. and Mayer, M. 2008. “Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use”. ACM Transactions on the Web, Vol. 2, No. 1

    [v] Mcspadden, K. 2015. “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish”. The Times, May 2015. Retrieved in September 2016 from http://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/

    [vi] Wilbanks, T. 2007. The Research Component of the Community and Regional Resilience Initiative (CARRI). Presentation at the Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado- Boulder; as quoted in C. E. Colten, R. W. Kates, and S. B. Laska. 2008. Community Resilience: Lessons from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. Retrieved in September 2015 from http://www.resilientus.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/FINAL_COLTEN_9-25-08_1223482263.pdf

    [vii] Emergency Operation Center for Flood, Storm and Landslide. 2012. Flood, Storm and Landslide Situation Report. Retrieved in October 2016 from http://disaster.go.th/dpm/flood/flood54/news/news_thai/EOCReport17JAN.pdf [in Thai]

    [viii] Impact Forecasting LLC. 2012. 2011 Thailand Floods: Event Recap Report. Retrieved in September 2016 from http://thoughtleadership.aonbenfield.com/Documents/20120314_impact_forecasting_thailand_flood_event_recap.pdf

     


    Nausica is a DPU MSc Environment and Sustainable Development alumna. She is currently completing the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme in Bangkok, Thailand. All images taken by Nausica Castanas

    Harnessing ideas, partnerships and resources to transform urban Sierra Leone

    By Andrea Rigon, on 21 October 2016

    Dr Andrea Rigon and Dr Alexandre Apsan Frediani  from the DPU coordinated and supported a delegation from Freetown (Sierra Leone) at the UN Habitat III conference. The delegation included Sam Gibson, Mayor of Freetown, Sulaiman Parker, the Environment and Social Officer of Freetown City Council and the two co-directors of the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC), Dr Joseph Macarthy and Braima Koroma. SLURC is a research centre created through a partnership between the Bartlett Development Planning Unit and Njala University with the aim of generating knowledge that could bring together city actors to achieve just urban development.

    IMG_5343

    Sierra Leone is one of the countries with the lowest Human Development Index and is facing a process of urbanisation which has the potential to improve the well-being of its citizens. On Sunday, the delegation participated to the World Mayors Assembly. Mayors of the world strongly asked to be recognised as the central actors in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda and asked for more powers, particularly in terms of direct access to finance mechanisms.  There was also a mayor call for more women in local government leadership. The Mayor of Freetown had the opportunity to informally meet with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and put the needs of cities in least developed countries on the political agenda. The delegation had the opportunity to meet with IIHS, an indian-based research institution which had similar purposes and learn form their history.

     

    The Mayor of Freetown met with UN-Habitat to discuss the challenges of the city in terms of appropriate legal frameworks to implement city planning. These reflections were later presented at the special session on urban rules and regulations. The discussion also highlighted the need to clarify responsibilities between the city and central government and the need for the city to improve their own revenues. The delegation was also approached by the UN programme Capital Development Fund, which helps cities getting access to capital markets and bridging relationships with donors, in order to discuss municipal finance

    IMG_5312

    The following day the delegation met with the Secretary for Territory and Housing of the Quito Municipality and their civil society partners to learn from the experience of Quito. A number of areas were identified in which Quito has very interesting and successful policies that could benefit Freetown. These are the effective system of property tax, betterment tax and land value capture which are used to invest in the city infrastructure. Moreover, the land regularisation process for Quito informal settlements can be a useful model for Freetown. The delegation was also introduced to the cooperative housing model which enabled low income groups to access high quality housing and regenerate important ecological areas next to the creeks. We discussed the potential for south-south city-to-city cooperation and the Quito Municipality was open to organising a trip to Sierra Leone. In the afternoon, we had a meeting at the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing where we furthered the discussion around south-south cooperation and the possibility of a delegation from Ecuador including both municipal and central government staff in order to share with Sierra Leone  on division of labour and cooperation between these levels of government could work for the city.

    IMG_5340

    On Wednesday, the delegation met with Cities Alliance to discuss the possibility to expand their programme to Sierra Leone and focus on upgrading through an alliances of government, civil society and research institutions. Later, we met with the Government of Kenya to discuss slum upgrading approaches and learn from their experience with the Minimum Intervention Approach based on community building, land titling and infrastructure. They invited us to the session of the Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme (PSUP), a UN programme in multiple countries. The Mayor asked for Sierra Leone to join the programme and the European Commission which fund it welcomed Sierra Leone as long as central and local government are jointly willing to implement slum-upgrading policies.

     

    On Thursday, SLURC was launched internationally through a press conference to explain how it operates as an urban learning alliance introducing a new mode of urban knowledge production through partnerships with central and local government, universities, civil society organizations, and local communities. The following people explained the importance of an organization such as SLURC: Mr. Sam Gibson, Mayor of Freetown, Mr. Francis Reffell, YMCA Sierra Leone, Dr. Joseph Macarthy, SLURC co-director of SLURC, Prof. Julio Davila, Director of Bartlett Development Planning Unit, University College London, Dr. Irene Vance, Comic Relief.

    IMG_5324

     

    Following this international launch, a networking invited brought together six urban alliances between universities and city actors, from four continents to share their insights and recommendations for SLURC and how urban learning alliances can play a key role in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

    Friday morning was dedicated to visit two communities and projects dealing with housing. In the morning, the delegation visited Los Pinos a community in the outskirts of Quito, while the afternoon was dedicated to getting to know the  housing project of the cooperative Solidaridad.IMG_5353

    ‘Africa Regional Dossier’ highlights some key issues raised by civil society groups in advance of Habitat III

    By Rafaella Simas Lima, on 20 October 2016

     

    For the past year and a half the DPU has worked in collaboration with the international civil society network Habitat International Coalition (HIC) to understand the various preparations and processes leading up to Habitat III, set to take place in Quito, Ecuador, in October. Namely, the intent has been to understand how civil society groups and grassroots movements have been involved (or not) in these processes, that are meant to culminate in the ‘New Urban Agenda’, to be agreed upon by national governments at the Habitat conference.

    The first iteration of the DPU-HIC research was to look at the process of Habitat III national report production in eight countries where national report drafts were being prepared. Our research showed that in most cases, civil society participation in the national reporting process was quite limited, representing at best brief consultations, at worst reports undertaken by government institutions or consultants without much outside input. In addition, with a few exceptions, national reports themselves were quite limited in terms of commitments to ‘right to the city’ principles and other rights-based approaches advocated by some several civil society groups.

    Alexandre Apsan Frediani speaking at the HIC general assembly meeting

    Alexandre Apsan Frediani speaking at the HIC general assembly meeting

    As attention shifted from the national level to regional meetings and the development of regional reports, the second project was an attempt to more actively respond to regional processes. Regional reports were developed by the five UN Regional Economic and Social Commissions and UN-Habitat. Like at the national level, the opportunity for civil society input at the regional level again seemed limited, and while regional reports were ostensibly supposed to build on national reports, it is unclear how much this actually happened in practice. Accordingly, the DPU, steered by an advisory committee of civil society networks, grass-roots movements and academics spanning the African continent, helped coordinate an Africa Regional Dossier (full report available here) to highlight key issues requiring more visibility and reframing in the New Urban Agenda, from a civil society vantage point. Beyond a reliance on selected interviews, the Dossier builds on two pan-African civil society gatherings organised in Johannesburg in November/December 2015: the Global Platform on the Right to the City’s regional meeting and the Session of Inhabitants coordinated by the International Alliance of Inhabitants at Africities VII. Meanwhile, HIC coordinated a Latin America response, which is taking the form of an alternative Latin American regional report (forthcoming).

    The Africa Regional Dossier is not intended to be a comprehensive report, but serves to highlight a series of key urban issues and propositions articulated by civil society actors in need of further visibility and commitment from national and transnational actors, to be reflected in the New Urban Agenda. The propositional aspects of each issue are summarised as follows:

    1) Forced evictions and land grabbing: The urbanisation practices that are driving evictions and land grabbing need to be placed at the centre of struggles around evictions. This implies rethinking the balance between collective rights (including the collective ‘right to occupation’) and individual land rights acquired through land markets. Habitat II commitments to ‘prevent and remedy’ unjustified evictions need to be upheld. There is a need to develop legislative frameworks for legal redress, in order to support community rights in case of evictions that are deemed unavoidable.

    2) Land tenure: ‘Land tenure’ should not be limited to private ownership and private land rights. Rather, diverse forms of collective and individual tenure can be recognised and explored as mechanisms to ensure marginalised groups’ access to land.

    3) Rural-urban ‘divide’: Re-framing ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ not as a dichotomy but as interconnected parts of the same system, allows for the recognition of diverse urbanisation trajectories. Policy making could reflect this plurality and the linkages between the ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ by emphasising inter-municipal and cross-departmental coordination rather than dealing with ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ as separate categories governed by different authorities.

    4) Infrastructure: At the local scale, infrastructure development plans need to recognise and integrate decentralised, low-cost and low-skilled solutions through targeted financial resources and training. Understanding diverse infrastructure provisions within the urban-rural continuum and through a combination of financing sources that connects Africa’s diverse economies is key. This can be facilitated through cross-departmental and cross-boundary coordination among local governments. Additionally, there is an opportunity to view infrastructure and service delivery as providing environmental outcomes, creating employment or economic opportunities, as well as social outcomes, for example, in mobilising youth.

    5) Governance and the right to political voice: There is a widespread call amongst African civil society actors to reframe ‘good governance’ through a focus on deepening meaningful democratic practices. This implies ensuring better recognition of different social actors, facilitating increased participation in decision-making structures, and achieving more equitable redistribution of wealth and services. Equally important as involving civil society actors and other stakeholders is recognising unequal power relations among actors, taking steps to address these power imbalances in decision-making fora, and ensuring that more democratic governance leads to equitable outcomes.

    6) Economic opportunities: The ‘economy’ can be re-conceptualised within a plural perspective of diverse systems—formal, informal, social, solidarity, etc.—interacting together. The fluidity and adaptability of informal practices can be harnessed while pursuing policies to limit potential exploitative conditions. In addition, viewing employment conditions through a human rights perspective would imply the need for the protection of jobs, especially in the informal sector, and the right to legitimate and decent work. At the same time, a focus on the capacity of local governments could improve their ability to generate revenue through taxation and the capture of value from real estate or infrastructure developments.

    7) Security and urban conflict: In order for urban stakeholders to meaningfully address urban security, the varying manifestations of urban conflict and violence must be acknowledged along with the intersecting social, political and economic factors behind such violence. Often, interventions to address urban safety address merely the side effects rather than the root causes of urban violence. Security commitments need to call for building linkages between humanitarian, development and human rights approaches, and the fundamental principles of security and equity.

    8) Climate change and environment: Climate change can go beyond concepts of sustainability and resilience, and be re-framed from the perspective of environmental justice. This allows for the links between social justice and climate change to be acknowledged, and for a discussion about the distribution of environmental benefits and hazards, so that the differentiated effects of climate change can be addressed.

    In addition to these eight issues, the Africa Regional Dossier argues that the New Urban Agenda should place more emphasis on protecting against the loss of entitlements (for example, those outlined in previous Habitat agendas and human rights conventions), the distribution of resources and opportunities towards a more equitable urban development, and to the roles, responsibilities and capacity of local actors to implement and monitor the agreed agenda. The case studies in the Regional Dossier demonstrate some ways in which civil society groups can partake in such processes.

    The regional scope of this Dossier reinforces the need for territorial debates in the process of elaborating international agendas such as the New Urban Agenda. This research also highlighted the lack of opportunities for civil society groups to participate meaningfully in such a process. Lack of transparency and limited access to regional reporting procedures compromised the potential of the agenda-making process to deepen a collective understanding of on-going urban challenges in Africa. This has thus represented a missed opportunity to build commitments from a variety of stakeholders towards a transformative New Urban Agenda.

    The process of coordinating the African Regional Dossier demonstrated the appetite of civil society groups to share experiences, deepen their understanding about wider regional processes, and collaboratively build synergies for transnational collective action. We hope that this Dossier, far from being an exhaustive list of key issues, can contribute to the on-going discussions within and around Habitat III, but most importantly, that it can be of use in the building of linkages and collaboration among civil society groups across the Africa region advocating for more just urban development.

    Universal design in a divided world: The young architects building urban resilience through social inclusivity

    By Cindy Huang, on 4 October 2016

    It’s hardly arguable that one of the most prevalent human activities is picking sides.  From ethnic conflicts down to people’s taste in music, the world finds itself divided – by nationalism, classism, other-isms or simply a difference of opinion.  And amid the Brexit aftershocks and cries over racial violence in the States, amid the broken trust and broken spirits flooding our news channels, where does the term “universal” stand?  How can we, in these circumstances, imagine a unified vision to take care of each other?

    Although the built environment has a way of reinforcing social divisions, whether through gender-specific bathrooms or communities ghettoised by gentrification, it can also host spaces that inspire solidary over status, and spaces that actively embrace the most excluded people of our societies.  Today, pockets of planners and architects work to promote a less socially divided world, and some of them are doing it through universal design.

    Universal design, defined

    Often presumed as design for people with disabilities, universal design actually embraces a much broader definition.  It is “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”[1]  In other words, it tries to befriend as many as possible – selfish in a selfless way.  It assumes all people have disabilities to some extent;[2] just as we gain abilities with age, we also lose abilities – whatever “normal” is on this spectrum will always be trend-related and misguided.

    The term was coined by Ronald L. Mace, an American architect who at age nine contracted polio, became a wheelchair user, and in his twenties had to be carried up and down the stairs at university.[3]  It was perhaps forecasted, then, that he would help institute the first accessibility building codes in the United States in 1973, which went on to influence national policies including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.[4]  During this period he also founded what is now the Centre for Universal Design at New Carolina University.

    His legacy not only etched a space of dialogue for disability discrimination but also raised the question of what constitutes social norms to a new height.  “Unfortunately,” Mace said in a speech, “designers in our society also mistakenly assume that everyone fits this definition of ‘normal.’ This just is not the case.”[5]

     

    Young Ronald L. Mace (source); Mace later in life as an architect (source)

    Young Ronald L. Mace (source); Mace later in life as an architect (source)

     

    Mace’s work evolved from recognising people’s differences to harmonising them – from disability design (focused on the inclusion of one group) to universal design (embracing all individuals’ differences).  The strength in universal design is that it simply acknowledges human diversity.  With no technical guidelines, it serves as a new reference point for practitioners, informed by anthropological understanding – sort of like a social justice challenge.

     

    No rules attached

    Tar-Saeng Studio, an offshoot of the collective Openspace with whom I’m working in Bangkok as part of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme, is helping to grow universal design into Thai society.  Using participatory approaches channelled through the comforts of informality, they create spaces attentive to the often overlooked needs of elderly people and people with disabilities, who live on low-incomes or in poverty.  The studio is run by a small group of community architects who are in their mid-twenties to early thirties.  They represent a new generation of practitioners building urban resilience through inclusive design—both in product and process.

    When I chatted with Tar-Saeng Studio founder Ploy Kasama Yamtree about universal design, I found it interesting that their work is largely dependent on the country’s institutional gaps.  “In Thailand, universal design is still linked to regulations, like the correct ratio for a ramp or handrail,” Ploy said, “But when you go into people’s bamboo houses, you see it’s not possible to have the 1:12 ratio because people just don’t have that type of space.”

    Conveniently, building codes go unenforced in most remote or slum areas of Thailand, giving Ploy’s team creative freedom to shape genuinely usable spaces for those who need them.  “We go and figure out what we can do without following the rules,” she explained, “We are more interested in adaptive design.”

    There’s a very human approach to all this.  Building codes unquestionably play a role in keeping our societies safe, but like with anything institutionalised they can be restrictive to the ever-changing contexts.  Tar-Saeng Studio chooses to carry out their work—safely and strategically—whether it adheres to the legal systems or not, for they do it to solve problems, not to abide by the confines that sustain problems.

    And in the process they are making a point – “When we design and don’t follow building codes because it’s impossible to, it’s a statement we’re putting out there that these building codes need to change,” Ploy said.

    Tar-Saeng Studio works with vulnerable populations to provide living environments suited to their needs. (Photo: Openspace)

    Tar-Saeng Studio works with vulnerable populations to provide living environments suited to their needs. (Photo: Openspace)

     

    Designing for Thai society

    Before Tar-Saeng Studio was established, Openspace worked in some of Thailand’s poorest communities and noticed this widespread but untrodden issue.  In 2013, about 7.3 million people in Thailand lived below the poverty line, and another 6.7 million were at risk of falling below it.[6]  For these people, access to safe shelter is already a struggle.  Thailand is also the world’s third most rapidly aging country with more than 10 percent of people over 64 years old,[7] and it’s projected that by 2040 this number will jump to 25 percent—that’s one in every four people.[8]  And of the near 2 million people with disabilities,[9] almost 40 percent are above the age of 64.[10]   Adapting for an aging society in Thailand with increasing cases of disabilities is just smart planning, yet no one was doing it.

    The first time Openspace actively applied universal design was in 2011, or as people here call it “flood year” – referring to the floods that caused 884 deaths and an estimated loss of 45.7 billion USD.[11]  In a riverside community in Pathum Thani province, elderly people felt uncatered for in the local amenities.  The goal was to create a space in which they can socialise, exercise, and spend time in.  More importantly, a space where they can connect with each other and lead healthier lives, and where the inherent vulnerabilities from unwanted isolation can dissipate over time.

    Openspace worked side by side with the local people, like a true partnership.  Using low-cost materials like discarded bamboo and motorcycle tyres from nearby shops, they made an area consisting of benches at varying heights, a hanging garden, and an exercise station—it was modest, useful, beautiful.  The benches aimed to connect the elderly with the children; the hanging garden had attached platforms for stretching legs; the exercise station held removable weights made of stones stored in bamboo.  Everything served a purpose in bettering older people’s lives.  Equally as valuable were the skills gained and relationships reinforced within the community, and perhaps a proud sense of ownership to something they collectively brought to life.

    A few months later came the floods during which the structures were destroyed.  Ploy heard that after the water subsided, the community rebuilt the space.  “It was really nice to hear,” she said.

    Community members weaving a bench seat with recycled tyres for a socialising/exercising space for elderly people; the space being exhibited; the hanging garden on site of the community (Photos: Tar-Saeng Studio)

    Community members weaving a bench seat with recycled tyres for a socialising/exercising space for elderly people; the space being exhibited; the hanging garden on site of the community (Photos: Tar-Saeng Studio)

     

    Eager to pursue universal design with greater commitment, Openspace partnered with the Institute of Health Promotion for People with Disability, a government entity, on a four-month project involving seventeen people with disabilities living in underprivileged conditions.  Most of them were in rural housing unfit for accessibility building codes, and couldn’t afford the “standard” equipment for their needs.  This is the reality; affordability should be integral to accessibility but disability-focused design can be expensive, leaving out those who are poor.

    Openspace visited the seventeen people across two provinces.  Case by case, they studied the clients’ health and living conditions then came up with low-cost design solutions, published in an illustrative book titled Differently-Abled Architecture.  It includes people with cerebral palsy, paraplegia, hemiplegia, deafness, blindness, and mobility difficulties from diabetes.

    In one case, they created an “at-home playground” for an eight-year-old boy with cerebral palsy that allowed him to stretch different parts of his body and aid the development of his muscles and joints.  It was constructed from bamboo, rubber tyres and concrete.  Another project was a “DIY horizontal toilet” built into wooden floors, and beneath it sat a plastic bucket connected to pipes, a hose, and a water tap.  It was for a client who couldn’t sit up but was perfectly capable of moving around in his own ways; he just needed an environment suited to his methods of self-reliance.

    These projects underscored the basis of universal design – understanding the concept of “normal” as shifting with the users, all of whom differ.

    Ploy measuring the hand of an eight-year-old client with cerebral palsy; drawings of the “at-home playground” shown in Differently-Abled Architecture. (Photos: Openspace)

    Ploy measuring the hand of an eight-year-old client with cerebral palsy; drawings of the “at-home playground” shown in Differently-Abled Architecture. (Photos: Openspace)

     

    What Ploy grasped at the end of the four months was the dismally isolated nature of these cases.  These were just seventeen of 2 million people with disabilities in Thailand, who happened to be among the poorest populations, divorced from public assistance.  There was no space in which they can support each other, no platform on which they can be heard, and no signs of progress towards their inclusivity.

    “I decided that in our next projects we wouldn’t do it the same way,” Ploy said, “Instead we will combine many cases.  A process of building together, and taking care of each other, would be better.”

     

    “Lit Eyes”

    At this point, in 2013, Ploy set up Tar-Saeng Studio, a private entity detached from government organisations—detached from politics, a precarious area of discussion in Thailand—aimed to mainstream universal design into Thai society.  The word tar saeng means “lit eyes” in Thai and “community” or “villages” in Laos, chosen to give familiarity to local people (whereas Openspace, a mishmash of English design jargon, means little to many).  Through Tar-Saeng Studio, Ploy would advocate for the inclusion of vulnerable populations to built environment practices.

    But she also acknowledges it won’t be easy.  The concept of universal design is still alien to most, and when it does ring a bell to some it’s often perceived as an extra luxury, covered by extra costs, sacrificed from the “real” necessities.  Trying to convince poorer communities to embrace universal design principles has been tough.  Many say they simply don’t see the point; meanwhile Ploy would watch them struggle to move around their homes.

    She realised it will take a lot more awareness raising before implementation can go full force, and decided to keep the message simple, which was, “Look, there are no rules.  It’s about knowing your own resources and adapting to your environment.”

    Since then, Tar-Saeng Studio has undertaken a series of projects ranging from low-cost furniture making to hospital design.  Their outputs are always based on inclusive design principles, and their processes on participatory empowerment. They’ve also published and distributed books to institutions and the wider public, and held training workshops in small communities.  It is Ploy’s hope for Tar-Saeng to become a social enterprise one day, with income from private sector clients subsidising projects for poor communities.  “It’s very important to connect with people doing similar things from different sectors,” she mentioned, “You can’t really do this alone.”

    Tar-Saeng Studio holding a community workshop in Ching Rai on universal design for public space. (Photo: Tar-Saeng Studio)

    Tar-Saeng Studio holding a community workshop in Ching Rai on universal design for public space. (Photo: Tar-Saeng Studio)

     

    What this means for urban resilience

    The floods of 2011 brought great devastation across Thailand.  People lost their homes, they felt desperate, they wanted answers.  This triggered a well-needed public dialogue on urban resilience and climate change adaptation; like a newcomer experiencing culture shock, Thailand had struggled to cope with these new waves of events and adapt to a new language through which to understand them.  So this was a good step.

    A city’s urban resilience is characterised by its social and physical capacity to take on different types of pressures, endure through them, and recover from them.[12]  Whether hit by an earthquake or economic recession, things like governance, ecosystem balance, physical infrastructure, social services, and community support networks, all determine how a city bounces back.  Conversations around urban resilience in Thailand, however, remain primarily on physical infrastructure, while social capacity—people’s knowledge, mental and physical health, and resourcefulness during a time of crisis—have remained more or less a faded backdrop.

    Ploy’s decision to focus on universal design, she told me, has everything to do with building urban resilience in Thailand.  People are aging, losing abilities, living in poverty, and some need particular types of assistance.  The fluctuating climate is also adding to these stresses.  She said, “What we’re doing is planning for the future, for the environment that’s always changing.”  Tar-Saeng Studio is proving that building adaptive environments through participatory approaches can increase social capacity by minimising vulnerabilities and strengthening communities.  Their next goal is to demonstrate that these grassroots activities can be scaled-up to the regional and national levels.

    It’s as if Mace predicted the volatile state of the world today and decided to send a note to the future.  In a 1998 speech he said, “I’m not sure it’s possible to create anything that’s universally usable…We use that term because it’s the most descriptive of what the goal is, [which is] something people can live with and afford.”[13]  What seemed like a vague statement then has become significant in today’s social practice.  I’ve noticed that Ploy rarely speaks about disability, elderly, or po-poor focused designs as independent from each other, but instead she talks about making environments inclusive to everyone.  Now I understand how she’s running with Mace’s words.  But it’s not that these things—disability, elderly, pro-poor focused designs—always go together either.  I guess universal design is like a head-to-toe winter outfit that you modify according to the weather that day.  You just need to check the forecast to make the best decision.

    As Mace wrapped up his last speech, at a New York conference in 1998, he said, “We are all learning from each other in a wonderful way and need to continue what we have started here—communication and the exchange of ideas and experience.”  And eighteen years later, reading his words were a small group of young architects in a traditional Thai house, lying on the floor, scribbling away, planning for the future.

     

    References:

    [1] Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, 2012. What is Universal Design. [online] Available at: <http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design>
    [2] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>
    [3] Saxon, W., 1998. Ronald L. Mace, 58, Designer Of Buildings Accessible to All. [online] 12 July. Available at: <http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/13/us/ronald-l-mace-58-designer-of-buildings-accessible-to-all.html?_r=0>
    [4] Center for Universal Design (2008) About the Center: Ronald L. Mace. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmace.htm>
    [5] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>
    [6]
    The World Bank, 2016. Thailand: Overview. [online] Washington: The World Bank Group. Available at: <http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/thailand/overview>
    [7]
    HelpAge International, 2014. Aging population in Thailand. [online] Available at: <http://ageingasia.org/ageing-population-thailand1/>
    [8] The World Bank, 2016. Aging in Thailand – Addressing unmet health needs of the elderly. [online] 8 April. Available at: <http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2016/04/08/aging-in-thailand—addressing-unmet-health-needs-of-the-elderly-poor>
    [9] International Labour Organization, 2009. Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Thailand [pdf fact sheet] International Labour Organization.
    [10] Thongkuay, S., 2016. People with Disabilities – Thailand Country Profile [draft report 2016].
    [11]
    Impact Forecasting LLC, 2012. 2011 Thailand Floods Event Recap Report Impact Forecasting. Chicago: Aon Corporation, p.3.
    [12] 100 Resilient Cities, 2016. What is Urban Resilience? [online] Available at: <http://100resilientcities.org/resilience>
    [13] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>


     Cindy Huang is an alumna of MSc UDP and a participant of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme, currently working on community-driven development projects with Openspace and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights network in Thailand.