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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.

    New Practices in Urban Transformation: Towards Inclusionary Heritage 27/11/2017

    By Lilian Schofield, on 4 December 2017

    Contemporary urban studies, especially those in global cities often acknowledge the challenges in city planning and a variety of urban development problems that are associated with rapid urban growth. The city of São Paulo, Brazil, which is one of Latin America’s most developed urban agglomerations, is no exception. The lecture by Nadia Somekh draws on 40 years of theory and practice, using the case of São Paulo’s Bixiga neighbourhood as an entry point to explore how a critical approach to urban planning practices can help city planners move towards a more inclusionary understanding of heritage management.

    Nadia Somekh is an Emeritus Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning at Mackenzie University whose current research focuses on heritage and urban projects in the contemporary city as well as the vertical growth of Brazilian cities.  Amongst other roles, Nadia is the author of “A Cidade Vertical e o Urbanismo Modernizador” (“The Vertical City and Modernist Urbanism”). Outside of academia, between 2013 and 2016 Nadia served as President of CONPRESP (São Paulo City Heritage Council) and director of DPH (Heritage Department of São Paulo City).  Nadia has also held the position of President of EMURB (Municipal Urbanisation Company) as well as Economic Development Secretary in Santo André City.

    One of the many thought-provoking questions posed by Nadia to the audience during her presentation was; how do we deal with social issues in urban planning? I believe Nadia’s challenging question reflects the ethical crossroads that the 21st-century city planner is confronted with. More so, it raises the complex question; how does a planner reconcile issues relating to spatial justice with preservation of heritage? This question is rightly posed within the context of the case study of São Paulo, which is Brazil’s largest conurbation, with a high proportion of its residents living in a sub-standard housing (Budds, and Teixeira, 2005). Since the 1950s, Brazilian cities have experienced rapid urbanisation and this conurbation is moving into neighbouring vicinities and the outskirts of the city, bringing with it a myriad of social, economic and planning challenges (Sperandelli et al, 2013). In terms of perceived space, São Paulo is a vertical city but not a dense one and this verticalization is now extending to the outskirts of the city to neighbourhoods such as Bixiga. Historic buildings are gradually demolished in favour of high rise apartments. Housing remains a pertinent issue in the city even with the introduction and implementation of master planning and zoning. This is a regulatory and urban policy, which was established in the 1980s in a number of Brazil’s large cities to address inequality and dwellings (Caldeira and Holston, 2015).

    Reflecting on the narratives around Heritage and preservation, Nadia posed another critical question, “how do we deal with the tensions between high-rise building and heritage”? As highlighted by Nadia, there exists a number of listed buildings with very little being done in terms of preservation. The protection of Bixiga’s heritage buildings is not just about preserving the buildings but also, the social relationships as well as dealing with gentrification. In discussing the evolution and urban morphology of the city, it is pertinent to examine the disembeddedness of social practices in defining and owning the space. Nadia highlighted the issue of identity and how the residents perceive heritage buildings. Social practices and the way identity is perceived also play a crucial role in preserving heritage sites. Previously, the perception of these heritage sites was not imbued in ‘identity’ and the praxis of developers was to erase history and build high-rise building, however, recent findings illustrate that people are beginning to value history and now want to preserve and protect the heritage buildings and sites.

    One theme emanating from the discussions was that different countries view and understand heritage in diverse ways. For example, the United Kingdom has different streams of funding for heritage projects, one being the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The HLF uses money raised through the National Lottery to provide grants for conservation activities or projects. A project would need to meet several criteria for funding, one of which is that the building must have some economic use as well as being beneficial to the community. One great example that comes to mind is Manchester’s Victoria Baths, a Grade II* listed building, which in 2003, won the first BBC Restoration programme and with it, £3m of Heritage Lottery funding (BBC).

    The concluding part of the seminar was an intellectual discussion centred on preservation and heritage. I took from the engaging and enlightening debate that heritage is understood and perceived in different ways, and in different parts of the world. Another important observation that I made, is that for an inclusionary understanding of heritage management to take place, it is necessary to identify the importance of heritage both in economic terms and its contribution to the community and then seeking for different streams of funding. There is also the need for participation from all, including planners, architects and the community. A good example mentioned by Barbara Lipietz, of the Development Planning Unit (DPU), is her reference to the case of Medellin, Colombia, where planners, community members, architects and different actor groups come together in a city level to tackle problems associated with urban planning.

    In conclusion, heritage management must not only focus on the preservation of heritage but also at the same time ensure the economic and community benefit.

     

    References

     

    BBC:http://www.bbc.co.uk/manchester/content/articles/2008/09/17/victoria_baths_history_feature.shtml. Accessed 28/11/2017.

    Budds, J. and Teixeira, P. (2005) Ensuring the right to the city: pro-poor housing, urban development and tenure legalization in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Environment and Urbanization, 17(1), pp.89-114.

    Caldeira, T. and Holston, J. (2015) Participatory urban planning in Brazil. Special issue article: Urban revolutions in an age of global urbanism. Urban Studies. Vol. 52(11).

    Godfrey, B.J. (1991) Modernizing the Brazilian city. Geographical Review, pp.18-34.

    Irazábal, C. (2009) Revisiting urban planning in Latin America and the Caribbean. Unpublished regional study prepared for the Global Report on Human Settlements.

    Sperandelli, D.I., Dupas, F.A. and Dias Pons, N.A. (2013) Dynamics of urban sprawl, vacant land, and green spaces on the metropolitan fringe of São Paulo, Brazil. Journal of Urban Planning and Development139(4), pp.274-279.

     

    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.

    Yangon: Transformation in a Time of Transition – BUDD Fieldtrip 2017

    By Ricardo Marten Caceres, on 19 May 2017

    In the late hours of November 8th 2015 it was clear that Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy and Nobel Peace Prize winner, had scored an unquestionable electoral triumph. After decades of military rule, the NLD categorically won Myanmar’s latest elections, gaining control of parliament and thus starting a new chapter in the country’s turbulent political history. The ensuing months, however, have been far from perfect, with repeated tensions and confrontations that expose Myanmar’s deeply rooted problems with religious tolerance, ethnic integration, displacement and migration. In a momentous time of transition, the country’s transformation towards democracy, growth and aperture faces innumerable challenges –a reality that is particularly evident in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.

    Yangon | Ricardo Martén

    Yangon | Ricardo Martén

    Focusing on the urban implications of these processes, the recently concluded 2017 BUDD fieldtrip attempted to shed light on Yangon’s recent evolution, exploring a series of analytical frameworks anchored in both design research and critical thinking. Rather than settling on a removed diagnosis of the city, the BUDD students were able to explore and produce strategic urban planning visions that emerged from site visits, lectures, discussions, and permanent exchange with numerous local actors, international experts and community organisations. With the collaboration of local students from Yangon Technological University (YTU), interns working with Women for the World, and support from the Community Architects Network (CAN) and the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights (ACHR), the fieldtrip was the conclusion of a two-month academic process developed in our Urban Intervention Studio.

    Community-students dialogue in Yoelay Village | Ricardo Martén

    Community-students dialogue in Yoelay Village | Ricardo Martén

    With a population of over seven million, Yangon’s metro area is a blend of cultural influences, historical periods and varying densities, defined as much by the city’s geographical location, its environmental conditions and the inevitable tensions brought by inequality and spatial disparities. As emerging economies and fast-track urban developments collide with traditional everyday practices, the BUDD students looked at potential opportunities brought by the inevitable processes of urban transformation, suggesting alternative means of design and development where spatial variety is recognised and where strategies put forth by the urban poor are allowed to coexist together with the large-scale measures enforced by the planning authorities.

    Site visit, Hlaing Tar Yar | Ricardo Martén

    Site visit, Hlaing Tar Yar | Ricardo Martén

    The fieldtrip was designed around the collaboration between Women for the World and CAN-ACHR, who have engaged with numerous community savings groups across different townships, producing remarkable slum upgrading projects in villages with poor infrastructure, limited mobility and complex land ownership dynamics. The BUDD student teams worked on different sites in the Hlaing Tar Yar and Dagon Seikkan townships, engaging with communities at different stages of the upgrading process through interviews, mapping, visual exercises and other means to better understand the sites dwellers’ aspirations as well as their immediate needs.

    Community mapping exercise | Ricardo Martén

    Community mapping exercise | Ricardo Martén

    As part of the programme’s requirements, the student teams delivered two different presentations over the course of the fieldtrip, one before community members from the visited sites, and a concluding presentation before most of the partner institutions. The first presentation was a direct response to the fieldwork, with analysis placed at the community scale and focused on participatory means of knowledge sharing and co-production. The second presentation scaled-up the proposals at the township/city level, with strategies, principles and guidelines aiming at possible urban policy entry points for inclusive spatial integration. This last event also included a discussion panel including members from the BUDD staff, CAN-ACHR, and top representatives from the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), addressing further themes of contention and debate around Yangon’s city model for the future.

    Strategies presentation | Ricardo Martén

    Strategies presentation | Ricardo Martén

    The future of Yangon will reflect Myanmar’s ruling class capacity to integrate a country deeply divided along political and ethnic lines. Societal tensions are inevitably translated into the built environment, materialising through spatial configurations, taking shape through forms, networks and materiality –in roads, in house typologies, in infrastructures, in trade economies, in territorial ownership. The friction between the antagonistic pressures that dispute rapid large-scale transformation against the slow-paced growth of local communities exposes the need to address the disparities in relation to mobility, access and environmental risks –and in Yangon’s specific case, the right to the city to come. If local communities’ capacities for upgrading and city-making are acknowledged, anchored in multiple agencies rather than unilateral imposition, Yangon could build a vision of open, heterogeneous, and rich urban life.

    Field trip team and partners | Xiaodan Li

    Field trip team and partners | Xiaodan Li

    As mentioned, the 2017 BUDD fieldtrip was possible thanks to the programme’s partnerships with Women for the World, Community Architects Network (CAN), the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights (ACHR), Yangon Technological University (YTU), the Association of Myanmar Architects (AMA) and the special contributions from Somsook Boonyabancha, Jayde Roberts and representatives from the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC).

    Axonometric design | Salma Nassar

    Axonometric design | Salma Nassar


    Ricardo Marten Caceres is an architect and urban designer, graduated from the Technological Institute of Costa Rica (ITCR) and with an MSc degree from BUDD. He has worked as an architect in between studies, leading a studio practice in Costa Rica focused on residential projects, as well as being partner in a design practice based in Germany working with several NGOs in Haiti, the Philippines and Tanzania. His academic interests lie in the urban dynamics between informal settlements and territorial variables. Ricardo’s current PhD candidacy looks to examine these elements, particularly focusing on the urban legacy of official spaces of exception and the resulting informal counter-narratives.

    The Holy City of Makkah: Growth, Informal Areas and Urban Identity

    By Theresa M J Abrassart, on 16 January 2017

    Spatial transformations caused by a coterie of social and economic factors have profoundly altered the urban landscape in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. In a lecture held at the Bartlett’s Department Planning Unit (DPU), urban specialist Dr. Muhammad Khadim discussed informal settlements in Makkah and measures to address the challenges posed by their growth.

    In Makkah, a city of 2.2 million, there have been several factors which have caused this urban transformation. Informal settlement growth has been driven by an ever-increasing number of pilgrims (Hajj, Umrah), the city’s constant desire to invest in upgrading the surrounding built environment, and the profit motive spurring the intervention of public and private interests.

    Construction behind the Kaaba © Creative Commons

    Construction behind the Kaaba
    © Creative Commons

    While Makkah’s inhabitants represent over 80 nationalities, there exists a bifurcation amongst the rights and privileges of the Saudi citizenry and foreigners over the urban landscape. According to Dr. Khadim, informal settlements are primarily inhabited by non Saudi nationals, which are also illegal residents of the Kingdom. There are approximately 65 settlements spread across 16 primary locations, consisting of approximately 40% of Makkah’s total population. Researchers contend that roughly 1.5 million people will be living in informal settlements by 2040.

     

    Makkah is a religious city, with approximately 10 million annual visitors. Pilgrims are projected to top 30 million by 2040. Large numbers of pilgrims have remained in the city over the past several decades and constitute a significant proportion of the migrant labour force. These informal laborers, lacking the means to access the formal real estate market are reliant on renting from Saudi nationals providing a financial opportunity for some legal residents.

     

    To accommodate the surge in visitors, mega developments have sprung up across the city specifically around the Kaaba and other religious sites. These projects are exclusive and cater to a socioeconomic segment that is not accessible to informal residents. Lacking adequate planning and thorough municipal oversight these developments rarely adhere to historic spatial configurations.

     

    There has been a distinct lack of initiatives to address the rapid transformation of the urban landscape of informal settlements in Makkah. While a by-law was promulgated by Makkah’s municipality in May 2008, the legal framework falls short of being a well defined and binding legal document.

     

    According to Dr. Khadim, the sole initiative that has sought to deal with informal settlement redevelopment, Jabal Al Sharashef has a number of limitations. Chiefly, the redevelopment plan remains costly and largely inaccessible for existing informal inhabitants. These modern and glitzy constructions are highly occupied and do not assign sufficient space for low-income residents.

     

    To address these issues Dr. Khadim outlined several key points. He contended that the Saudi government should draft a national policy for guiding the upgrading of informal sites and construct a national legal framework for regulating informal settlements. A standardized spatial database for all informal areas should be established, and an improvement in the current redevelopment bylaw should be instituted to make it more binding.

     

    To conclude, Dr. Khadim argued that the redevelopment of informal areas in Makkah should form part of a larger urban regeneration effort. This overall spatial development plan should refer to best practice cases in other parts of the world and align with the recently released Sustainable Development Goals.

    You can hear the lecture in the audio podcast here:

    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.

     

    Collective practices vs. the Neoliberal City?

    By Harshavardhan R Jatkar, on 24 November 2016

    Has democracy failed to resist the neoliberal vision of the city and does architecture have anything to contribute to the debate? A presentation by Leonardo Cappetto, an architect and co-founder of Grupo TOMA, came as a fresh and potent ray of hope on Thursday evening – 17th November 2016. Thanks to Dr. Camilo Boano, Leonardo was invited to present at the Development Planning Unit. His presentation commenced by juxtaposing the rise of populist right-wing politicians almost all around the world and the seeming demise of an alternative to the neoliberal city. But the optimism rose as he presented the work done by the Chile based collective – Grupo TOMA towards attempting to find that alternative.

    37_TOMA_poster_v1b

    The promise of an alternative reflected within the very structure of Grupo TOMA, defying the norms that governed the 20th century professional world. Grupo TOMA is a collective of architects without any hierarchical internal relationships. It is a nomad organisation that resents the idea of growth for its sake and it works with temporal communities inherently being denied the chance for any permanent architectural statement.

     

    What motivates a group of architects to let go of the egotistic practice of the 20th century? What inspires their continuing reconciliation with temporal existence? Leonardo’s presentation was just a glimpse into some of the aspects that may answer these questions.

     

    TOMA’s first project involved bringing together neighbours to discuss and decide potential uses for an empty plot in a neighbourhood. Not having accomplished the desired outcomes after months of working with the local government, TOMA moved to set up its office in a factory that was commissioned for demolition and used the opportunity to invite 10 organisations to collectively model a city, comprising of design shops, kitchen, discussion areas, artist workshops, bicycle shops and media outlets among others. Though short lived, the experiment involved developing a territory and building a social organisation to organise that developed territory. According to Leonardo, such an experiment has immense potential in stimulating political questions over the city and thereby informing us of the alternatives.

     

    TOMA’s journey continued in a new factory, commissioned to be converted into a centre for innovation. Cautious of the potential of their actions towards gentrifying the neighbourhood, TOMA embarks on a new project of generating a social narrative of the history of the place. Using a fictitious character of an elderly resident, Mr. Hugo, the narrative attempted to capture the rise of social speculators, searching for their gains in the neoliberal city – “a speculopolis – a Chillicon Valley”, suggested Leonardo. Although criticised of being a “dystopian narrative”, Leonardo claimed that such an exercise helps prompt discussion and provocations against the “seduction and destruction” of neoliberalism. Grupo TOMA has carried out similar other projects in Santiago de Chile, as well as Chicago, where they moved their office for a few months.

     

    Leonardo concluded his talk by hinting at three main contributions architecture can make towards questioning the dominant neoliberal city. Firstly, he claims, the contribution lies in acknowledging the interrelation between the territory and its social organisation, something the profession has neglected so far. Secondly, in his opinion, architecture can help mobilise contemporary political discussion through use of unconventional languages and of experiments. Lastly, he concluded by asserting the potential of architecture in building spaces and scenarios for involving all socio-political conflicts.

     

    Undoubtedly, Leonardo’s passionate accounts of TOMA’s work and its ideological journey stimulated a lively debate. Questions came from the audience that ranged from the ethics of involving community during projects to TOMA’s future plans for a bigger and a more permanent movement. Leonardo’s fitting comments, modestly acknowledging the unknown and further provoking the ideas of permanency, growth and the neoliberal, closed the session by stating, “Although temporal, the projects are Real and even as they disappear – nothing remains the same.”

     

    Follow the works of Grupo TOMA here.

     

    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.