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    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.

    Between reception and exception. Engaging with refugees dwelling practices and the politics of care in the Italian urban context

    By Camillo Boano, on 10 March 2017

    By Camillo Boano and Giovanna Astolfo

    Statistics confirm that more than 60% of refugees worldwide live in urban areas and in the future, this figure is likely to gradually increase. Such a global phenomenon is forcing us to think not only about how integration and systems of care and assistance have to be shaped, but also about the very nature of the city and their forms.

     

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    Cities are places where both migrants and non-migrants interact, be it through working, studying, living, raising their families or simply walking in the street. While cities offer great opportunities for migrants and refugees, at the same time they are also faced with challenges in creating opportunities for care, integration and inclusion. More than ever refugees and migrants become a concern of urban design. In the Italian urban context, the presence of migrants at different stages of their migration experience has triggered a complex system of reception and housing options. It is within this context of inherent contradictions and opportunities brought along by the practice of reception, assistance and integration itself that the BUDD Camp 2017 (integral part of the MSc Building & Urban design in Development Practice Module) embarked on exploring migrant’s dwelling practices.

     

    IMG_8761

     

    Thanks to a long-term partnership with Associazione per l’Ambasciata della Democrazia Locale a Zavidovici Onlus (ADL), BUDD students visited Brescia (Italy) last February, to explore a variety of housing/hosting/reception typologies including centers, dormitories, and shared houses that house/host refugees, asylum seekers, and no fixed abode migrants.

     

    In line with the practice of our partner, BUDD students would experience the different tensions that arise from local inclusive and integrated practices that are inherent in the multi-level governance of the so-called refugee crisis: between reception and exception; dwelling and transition; visibility and invisibility; proximity and distance; present and future; inside and outside; faith and despair.

     

    jingran (13)

     

    Refugees’ lives are exceptional, suspended in a sine tempore condition, trapped in a country where they might not want to be, or they might not be welcomed, and forced to perform a role. Refugees are individuals who are in need for protection and shelter but because of this need are denied the possibility to live a full life, and forced into a condition of temporariness which compromises the very meaning of home in itself.

     

    The meaning of home becomes political. Boundaries of homes have been experienced in the multiple forms of socialisation, appropriation, and narratives inside and outside the physical spaces of hospitality. However, that of reception is indeed a mechanism that often becomes a dispositive of control as it ensures protection only at the expense of individual freedom. Houses and homes where refugees are hosted have strict rules and limited freedom that govern the space and its routine and nevertheless refugees are asked to keep them with the same care they would have if those where their houses.

     

    Social workers and volunteers engage with passionate political sensitivity with the refugees and struggle to deal with such limitations to reconcile the legal meaning of protection with the universal right to freedom and the political imperative to host and help. But nevertheless reception and care remains an opportunity. Especially in the meaning given by ADL, where reception is not about giving a roof, but building recognition and reciprocity, through social networks, job opportunities, interactions in the urban space.

     

    Venkatesh Kshitijia

     

    ADL currently coordinate the SPRAR project (Sistema di Protezione Richiedenti Asilo e Rifugiati) that focuses on improving the integration of forced migrants in the city of Brescia and its surrounded municipalities. The SPRAR project aims to oppose the humanitarian approach where the refugee is seen as a ‘beneficiary’ and the person that needs help, an action which often leads to segregation from the wider urban community. ADL is currently questioning how to transform the top down governance system into something that addresses the needs of individuals, that is tailored on individuals. The project rather aims to stimulate self-awareness, autonomy and inclusion of refugees through individualised and targeted programmes.

     

    ADL further recognise that integration and hospitality need to be systemic and relational; need to support each other and need to be well coordinated. Their work endeavors to emancipate the current policy that addresses refugees as alien to the society into a welfare that embrace refugees and residents as equals. Of course, there is no immediate solution but rather an incremental effort to push the boundaries of existing frameworks and transforming the systems of expulsion into an inclusive one.

     

    Within levels of complexity, in a commendable effort to grasp most of what is possible in a short engagement timeframe, BUDD students have investigated individual experiences, spatial phenomena and potential alternative interventions. Strategies and interventions developed in Brescia seek to reinforce socio-spatial relations and the creation of new ones, to foster recognition and advancement on citizenship.

     

    20170206_105037

     

    Through life story interviews, ethnographic observation, key informant interviews and participatory maps, the short workshop aimed to reflect on the efficacy and limits of housing and immigration policies and further expands from hospitality to integration issues, looking beyond dwelling towards inhabiting the urban space, intended as lieu of encounter and conflict.

     

    Witnessing, learning and discussing LDA practices, ethics and operations have given a fantastic opportunity to learn about the complexity, the tensions and the opportunity of the urban design of refugee crisis, however in a small, short and incomplete manner. ADL works at the edge of the politics of care, between the ethical and the licit dealing with vulnerability, normative frameworks, and political struggles.

     

    Their work made is made more challenging by the Italian context of austerity and cuts to welfare and social services, increasing unemployment and homelessness and proportional surge of nationalism and xenophobic sentiments. The unwillingness to receive strangers, migrants, ‘the other’ in general is on the surge, and unfortunately not only in Italy.

     

    IMG_8759

     

    Reception has always been and remains a hot debate in the peninsula, and it reflects a wider trend in the EU context as well. The refugee identity and experience is questioning our own identity and our assumptions about space, places and design agency and it open an active interrogation of practices of recognition, emancipation and activations in any act of city making.


    Camillo Boano is a senior lecturer at the DPU, and is co-director of the MSc Building & Urban design in Development programme.

    Giovanna Astolfo is a teaching fellow at the DPU, and works closely and contributes to the teaching of the MSc Building & Urban design in Development programme.

    Citywide upgrading strategies in Phnom Penh, Cambodia: three years of engagement

    By Giovanna Astolfo, on 23 May 2016

    In a famous picture of Phnom Penh in 1979, two children stand in the foreground looking steadily at the camera, while behind them the city, once the ‘pearl of Asia’, is nothing but a desolated and spectral bunch of abandoned buildings. The urban history of the capital of Cambodia is demarcated by iterative evacuations and expulsions of its population. Although there is no agreement on numbers and scale of the phenomenon, the first evacuation took place in Phnom Penh during the Pol Pot regime. The vast majority of the urban population was forcibly deported to the countryside, in order to fulfil the utopia of a rural Kampuchea and a classless agrarian society; while public buildings, cultural and institutional symbols, were emptied, abandoned and eventually destroyed in what can be referred to as urbicide, an act of extreme violence towards the city and what it represents for its people.

    At the end of the war, people returned to Phnom Penh. As refugees in their own city, they occupied abandoned buildings or settled in unregulated land. When, two decades later, Cambodia opened to the global market, and new foreign investments flew into the city, that land became attractive to the appetite of new developers. As a consequence, entire communities were brutally evicted and forcibly moved to peripheral areas. Relocations took place from the 90s to ‐ officially ‐ the early 2010s. Over this period, with more than 50 relocation sites around Phnom Penh, the relocation process has become the main way to produce the city.

    Today, urban planning is still not high in the national agenda (there is a city strategy plan which level of implementation is hard to grasp and local investment plans which consider private development only), while the housing policy (released in 2014) is poorly articulated and not yet implemented. Although a social housing policy (programme) for low income people is under study, the housing needs of the poor are not addressed. In general terms, local government is not much interfering in the land market; such a laissez faire approach is favouring private-sector development, with no alternative for the poor. As the land on the market is not accessible to them, poor communities keep occupying public or private interstitial land along canals and unused infrastructure, mostly vulnerable and prone to flooding, while gated communities and satellite cities are growing in number. Given that 50% of the urban population are below the poverty line, who can afford these houses? Gated communities are probably aimed at a middle class that still does not exists or better to foreigners and officials that are part of a highly corrupted political system.

    Looking inward: challenges at site level. Smor San community, Chbar Ampov district, Phnom Penh, settled since the 1970s on a graveyard. Pictures by Catalina Ortiz.

    Looking inward: challenges at site level. Smor San community, Chbar Ampov district, Phnom Penh, settled since the 1970s on a graveyard. Pictures by Catalina Ortiz.

    Most of the sites selected for the MSc BUDD fieldtrip – taking place in Phnom Penh for the third consecutive year – reveal aspects and nuances of these urban processes. Particularly, Pong Ro Senchey and Steung Kombot communities are informal settlements on narrow strips of public land stretched between private properties waiting for redevelopment; while Smor San settlement is located on a graveyard. By learning from the unique approach of our partners, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), Community Architects Cambodia (CAN-CAM), and Community Development Foundation (CDF), and from the people in each community, BUDD students, divided into three groups and joined by local students of architecture and urbanism, by UN intern and representative of the housing department, worked for five days in the three sites. Five days of emotionally intense engagement with the people and the context, trying to identify needs and aspirations, while unpacking the complex power relations within the government, digging into the legal and normative frameworks to understand how to ‘break the vertical’ and to disclose the potential for change.

    After working with the communities to develop site upgrading strategies, the students were asked to produce an ulterior effort, that of looking across the different sites (and for this purpose the original groups have been reshuffled into new groups each one including at least two members from each site group) to address what we call ‘citywide upgrading’. This is a difficult and ambitious task, as it encompasses the multidimensionality of urban issues at the political, social, spatial and economic levels. Particularly, it calls for a multi-scalar reasoning and strategising that takes into consideration the community singularity and agency as well as the national policy framework in which community action needs to be framed. The scaling up of site upgrading strategies does not happen in a merely quantitative manner (i.e. iteration of a similar strategy), but rather considering the city as a wider community, where spatial proximity is replaced by shared practices and interests. Citywide upgrading is at the core of the BUDD pedagogy, and although this is not a new theory, BUDD students are currently contributing to its redefinition as a development theory for the poor, deeply embedded into the practice of ACHR and CAN.

    Engaging the community to identify priorities for upgrading in Steung Kombot, Russey Keo district. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci

    Engaging the community to identify priorities for upgrading in Steung Kombot, Russey Keo district. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci

    Amongst the principles for citywide upgrading, three seem to be crucial.

    First, to include the urban poor in the ongoing development. While Phnom Penh is witnessing fast urbanisation and growth, poor people are still uninscribed in such growth. How to capture and redistribute the profits and benefits? How to dismantle the hierarchical system that is at the basis of unequal development?

    Secondly, to question the regulatory role of state authority. Although the government is merely indulging in highly corrupted laissez faire, legal and policy frameworks exist (for instance, art. 5 of the housing policy includes onsite upgrading). The question is how to implement them? How to monitor the implementation through accountable mechanisms?

    Third, to address the aid dependency and foster self determination of the communities. This stems from the acknowledgement of existing potential: the people knowledge, skills, technology and capital. How to achieve political recognition? How to increase the visibility of people processes?

     

    BUDD and Khmer students @work learning from each other. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci/Giovanna Astolfo

    BUDD and Khmer students @work learning from each other. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci/Giovanna Astolfo

    The above questions have been addressed through small, short or long term, concrete actions such as: environmental upgrading particularly related to flooding risk (households repeatedly affected by seasonal flooding or flooding related to climate change and land development, can access to new grants for upgrading); online knowledge platforms (as people are increasingly connected, online platforms can ensure easy and fast access to knowledge, and data collection and sharing; such platforms can be accessible also to NGOs and local authority); network upgrading fund (as private development is happening, social responsibility can be strengthen, for instance through new funding schemes sourced from the private sector and led by people); social ombudsman (in order to ensure the inclusion of the community as well as the transparency of the decision making process, the implementation of policy and scrutiny of the process).

    As in the previous two years, strategies have been publicly presented by students and representatives of the communities, serving as a platform to advocate ‘the cause’ with national and local authorities. As political recognition remains one of the main challenges that the communities in Phnom Penh face, after three years of engagement, the ‘cumulative impacts’ of the work developed by BUDD with local partners has inspired a young and strong generation of architects equipped to take up the challenge of a more just future for our cities

    Presentations to the local authorities in Khan (district of) Por Senchey and Russey Keo. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci/Giovanna Astolfo

    Presentations to the local authorities in Khan (district of) Por Senchey and Russey Keo. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci/Giovanna Astolfo

     


    Giovanna Astolfo is a teaching fellow at the MSc Building and Urban Design for Development, she recently joined students on overseas fieldwork in Cambodia. This is the third year that the MSc BUDD has visited Cambodia, continuing a collaboration with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and Community Architects Network Cambodia

    Experimental modes of urban design research: BUDD in Cambodia

    By Giovanna Astolfo, on 2 June 2015

    The BUDD Fieldtrip engages with urban challenges in informal settlements in Cambodia by experimenting a different mode of design research. A mode that is embedded, relational, and therefore also active, reflexive and certainly collective. Embedded refers to the learning and knowledge production which is seen as a process integrally related to the practices and lived experiences of people in specific contexts. The work on the field starts from the understanding of the unique needs, abilities, aspirations, and forms of resistance of urban dwellers. Participants focus on how people shape and reshape space and how their specific forms of life shape and produce the everyday.

    As it is an immersion in life, the research is also necessarily relational – recognising that knowledge production and learning are defined within relative positions, and in conversation with existing discourses, social and material processes.

    Active refers to a practice that is engaged with material conditions and social and political complexities, while reflexive acknowledges the contexts in which the research is produced and challenges hegemonic outcomes.

    It is precisely in the apparent contradiction between active and reflexive that an ongoing balancing act between withdrawing from taking action and engagement takes place. Withdrawing from taking action implies a humble, flexible and reflexive approach against the risk, inherent to design, to get trapped into solution-delivery, and prescriptive and exogenous plans.

    What follows is a visual account of the process to which BUDD students are exposed to and contribute to shape during and after the fieldtrip. It makes sense of the word collective, as the essential attribute of the above mentioned design research. The work developed during the fieldtrip is two times collective: in recognising that space is collectively produced by multiple subjectivities and therefore in pursuing the production of knowledge as a common endeavour.

    Embedded in the present text there are some students’ notes developed during the fieldtrip and posted in the BUDD blog as part of the reflexive praxis of the course.

    Image: Snapshot of the activity in Beoung Chuk Meanchey Thmey 2. The video by David McEwen is available at https://youtu.be/1r9PQ1KcMlM

    Image: Snapshot of the activity in Beoung Chuk Meanchey Thmey 2. The video by David McEwen is available at https://youtu.be/1r9PQ1KcMlM

    In Cambodia BUDD students were divided across three sites, working with Community Architects Network (CAN-Cambodia), CDF (Community Development Fund), GDH (General Department of Housing) representatives and Khmer university students. The fieldwork unfolds similarly in the different sites following a modus operandi that is now consolidated.

    During the first days, after being introduced to the community members and leaders and have met local governmental officials, participants indulge in observing, surveying, mapping and interviewing, to grasp an understanding of the context, in its physical and social construction. Collective activities aimed at gathering information, identifying issues and developing proposals follow one another filling a very dense agenda.

    They are also aimed at mobilising the community, reinforcing the cohesion when present, and building a relation with the materiality of the living environment. For instance, collective mapping of boundaries, landmarks and households; enumeration; focus groups; participatory exercises – such as the ‘dream house’ and ‘dream community’ exercise; design workshops as the ‘re-blocking workshop’; and even more playful activities as the ‘talking jacket’ and the ‘participatory massage’.

      Image: The 'dream house' exercise is a collective activity that involves the co-creation of 3d models of incremental housing units at 1:50 scale. Using plastiline for the furniture and cardboard for walls, rooms and roof, all removable, the community members supported by the students managed to imagine new spaces for living. (copyright: Cristian Robertson De Ferrari).

    Image: The ‘dream house’ exercise is a collective activity that involves the co-creation of 3d models of incremental housing units at 1:50 scale. Using plastiline for the furniture and cardboard for walls, rooms and roof, all removable, the community members supported by the students managed to imagine new spaces for living. (copyright: Cristian Robertson De Ferrari).

    “Housing is conceived from inside to outside scaled by the households through the scale of the body, its shapes, its dimensions. The house is understood far away from stereotypes repeated as a stamp, seeking an average family or an ideal life standard acquirable as commodity. The exercise challenged concepts repeated and taught in Universities as a mantra: The house is clearly not “a machine for living in”. The body, the people and their social relations are in the centre.

    Before the exercise, we were afraid to invite the community to dream a house far from what was possible to achieve by them in the reality. We discussed about the risk of the exercise in the creation of false expectations. However, during the activity, we discovered once again that people knowledge is linked with the reality and experience. The outcomes of the exercise were projects feasible to be built in the future.

    Projecting the dream house was an exercise of reality, affordability and hope. The dream house is not a luxury mansion impossible to build, maintain or inhabit. People dream, but with open eyes : small steps, flexible projects, and reality. All the houses, created with individualities, were proposing improvements and new realities. ” (Cristian Robertson De Ferrari, MSc BUDD student, 2014/15)

      Image: the presentation at the municipality in Kompong Thom. A community leader is explaining to the vice Mayor a map of the context developed by the students, including the current location of the community and the possible relocation site, while the rest of the community members is actively participating to the discussion (copyright Sri Suryani)

    Image: the presentation at the municipality in Kompong Thom. A community leader is explaining to the vice Mayor a map of the context developed by the students, including the current location of the community and the possible relocation site, while the rest of the community members is actively participating to the discussion (copyright Sri Suryani)

    After the initial observation, survey, mapping and participatory activities, the group of students start working along with community members to jointly envision and materialise a proposal to be presented to the local authority, either at the municipal or district level. It is of crucial importance that the presentation is led by the community. This is in fact a unique opportunity for them to share their story and upgrading aspirations.

    “Together with university students, ministry representatives, CAN Community Architect Netwwork, CDF Community Development Fund, we facilitated community to open communication with local authorities. We could have called it an ‘urban forum’, where the community became visible and openly spoke out their proposal to government.

    Their agency to act and bring something on the table was important to build trust and recognition as equal partner for government in shaping the environment. Collective agency, then, means everyone who presence in the forum understand their capacity to act, listen, and speak for themselves. Knowledge was produced both about space and positionality. We spoke in different language, but actually our meaning was mutual.” (Sri Suryani, MSc BUDD student, 2014/15)

    Image: an idea of the whole process, aimed at a incremental investigation of Cambodia's transformation, through defining and redefining, building and rebuilding an incremental understanding. Prior to the fieldtrip, students analyse Cambodia in a time of transition and elaborate on the definition of transformation as main general framework for the analysis, drawing from readings, seminars and data collection.  Furthermore, they create action plans aimed at guiding the design research in Cambodia. In order to get a full understanding of the sites, students are split into report and site groups. Report groups work together in London, site groups in Cambodia; each report group includes two representatives from each site groups, in order to think across different sites and ground the overall research question into the different locations. During the fieldtrip students have the possibility to contextualise their definition and test their design research methods.  Back in London, students can integrate the information obtained before the field work in order to re-problematise their notion of transformation, while grounding the site findings into design strategies for city wide upgrading. (BUDD students)

    Image: an idea of the whole process, aimed at a incremental investigation of Cambodia’s transformation, through defining and redefining, building and rebuilding an incremental understanding. Prior to the fieldtrip, students analyse Cambodia in a time of transition and elaborate on the definition of transformation as main general framework for the analysis, drawing from readings, seminars and data collection.
    Furthermore, they create action plans aimed at guiding the design research in Cambodia. In order to get a full understanding of the sites, students are split into report and site groups. Report groups work together in London, site groups in Cambodia; each report group includes two representatives from each site groups, in order to think across different sites and ground the overall research question into the different locations. During the fieldtrip students have the possibility to contextualise their definition and test their design research methods.
    Back in London, students can integrate the information obtained before the field work in order to re-problematise their notion of transformation, while grounding the site findings into design strategies for city wide upgrading. (BUDD students)

    Proposals, interventions and strategies developed with the community are refined during the last days of the fieldtrip and presented to the vice governor in Phnom Penh. This is a further opportunity to exchange the learning and outcomes; it is also aimed at making visible the presence of such enormous capital in the communities, the ‘people technology’. Capitalising on the site work, back in London, BUDD students share once again their outcomes in a final presentation that concludes the Cambodia fieldtrip project.

    Image: strategies for city wide upgrading (BUDD students)

    Image: strategies for city wide upgrading (BUDD students)

    Contemporary urban challenges call for a deeper reorientation of design research. The BUDD mode – embedded, collective, relational, active and reflexive – aims to do so. Immersed in the tradition of action learning of the DPU, these pedagogical dimensions foster a constitutive role for urban education in addressing urban exclusion and inequality, and global disparities in the production of knowledge and space.


    Giovanna Astolfo is a lecturer on the MSc Building and Urban Design for Development, she recently joined students on overseas fieldwork in Cambodia. This is the second year that the MSc BUDD has visited Cambodia, continuing a collaboration with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights that previously saw the programme conduct overseas fieldwork in Thailand in 2011-13.

    Transformation in a Time of Transition: Engaging with People-driven Upgrading Strategies in Cambodia

    By Giovanna Astolfo, on 26 May 2015

    In the last 20 days students from the MSc BUDD have been engaging with people driven upgrading processes in Cambodia as part of the annual action oriented design research fieldtrip project.

    Working closely with local communities, in collaboration with the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (MLMUPC) and the Community Architect Network (CAN) and supported by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), BUDD students, along with 22 local students from 7 different Universities, developed design strategies for city wide upgrading and inclusive urban design, starting from a socio spatial full immersion in three informal communities in Phnom Penh and Kompong Thom.

    Image: Striking contrast of Global Phnom Penh, between elite towns, vernacular wooden architecture and poor houses. The desire for growth and economic development passes through urbanisation, land exploitation, eviction and relocation (©Ana Puhac; Rui Geng; Camillo Boano; Alex Pixley)

    Image: Striking contrast of Global Phnom Penh, between elite towns, vernacular wooden architecture and poor houses. The desire for growth and economic development passes through urbanisation, land exploitation, eviction and relocation (©Ana Puhac; Rui Geng; Camillo Boano; Alex Pixley)

    Two of the three sites share similar challenges, even though one is located in a mostly urbanised area in the periphery of Phnom Penh (Chbar Ampov District), while the other is located in the Province of Kompong Thom, 160 km far from the capital city, in a mostly rural part of the country.

    Poor though cohesive communities are here facing the perpetual lack of land tenure – one of the many by-products of the murderous urbicidal past of the country – and basic services (water, sanitation, waste management..); on top of that, seasonal flooding worsens the already precarious conditions in urban and rural Cambodia weakening the relationship between environment and people. But local people’s knowledge and technology, their inexhaustible inventiveness and resilience, their ability in organising and building, proves once more to be strong enough to imagine, design and plan a different future.

    Image: Beoung Chuck Meanchey Thmey II community in Phnom Penh is a cohesive community willing to pursue land negotiations and start a process of upgrading. In order to do so, detailed house mapping and reflections on accessibility were experimented, along with alternative layouts including landfill and housing on stilts (©Camillo Boano)

    Image: Beoung Chuck Meanchey Thmey II community in Phnom Penh is a cohesive community willing to pursue land negotiations and start a process of upgrading. In order to do so, detailed house mapping and reflections on accessibility were experimented, along with alternative layouts including landfill and housing on stilts (©Camillo Boano)

    The third site, Anlong Kngan community, has been even more challenging, given the large scale (it is in fact formed by nine communities for a total of 500 households), the extremely contested and conflictive context (a relocation site in the periphery of the city, today a densely inhabited area with high pressure over land) and lack of cohesion in the communities. The Anlong case is paradigmatic as it represents a common feature in the urban production of Cambodia: massive settlements generated ad hoc from forced evictions and acts of emptying the centre of the city paired to the use of peripheral land to relocate informal populations, toward building the image of a ‘charming’, globalised and competitive city.

    Anlong Kngan combined the perverse failure of the relocation system in Phnom Penh with another example of the resilience of the Khmer people and their ability to work out the worst condition, resist unjust urban dynamics, reclaiming the right to shape, built and inhabit the city.

    Image: Water supply by re‐using plastic bottles; coping mechanisms for floods (©Vishaka Jha); techniques to capture insects for daily consumption (©Giovanna Astolfo)

    Image: Water supply by re‐using plastic bottles; coping mechanisms for floods (©Vishaka Jha); techniques to capture insects for daily consumption (©Giovanna Astolfo)

    The Kompong Thom community is formed by 30 households and lives in unhealthy and unsafe conditions above a polluted canal. Houses are built on stilts echoing the traditional vernacular wooden architecture ubiquitous in rural Cambodia. During the rainy season, the water of the canal reaches the floor level of the houses worsening the living condition of the residents.

    In light of the vulnerability of the area and taking advantage of the lack of land tenure of the residents, the municipality is willing to relocate the community in a site 70 km far away causing the disruption of their livelihood. However, the small city does not show evidence of a possible pattern of growth or urban development that can explain the relocation or make sense of such pressure over land. Also, it is unclear how imminent the threat of eviction could be.

    Image: mapping of the community settled above the canal (©Giovanna Astolfo); raised access to the houses; possible land for relocation identified by the community (©BUDD students)

    Image: mapping of the community settled above the canal (©Giovanna Astolfo); raised access to the houses; possible land for relocation identified by the community (©BUDD students)

    Nevertheless, the community urges to envision alternative scenarios as tools to expand the room for manoeuvre with the local authority, to catalyse attention, gain visibility, mobilise other communities and reach a level of autonomy. Helped by a pro-poor oriented Municipality, the BUDD developed and tested several proposals for on-site upgrading (domestic space, shared spaces and infrastructures), re-blocking and relocation to another land of choice.

    Image: Imagining living spaces: the dream house activity; co‐producing alternative futures: relocation versus on site upgrading (©BUDD students)

    Image: Imagining living spaces: the dream house activity; co‐producing alternative futures: relocation versus on site upgrading (©BUDD students)

    The group of students worked along with community members to jointly develop a strategy to be presented to the local authority first, and, after further refinement, to the vice Governor in Phnom Penh.

    It is of crucial importance that the first presentation is led by the community, in order to capitalise on the unique opportunity for urban poor communities to share their story and upgrading aspirations directly with local authority. Similarly, the aim of the second presentation is to facilitate the institutional recognition of the presence of such enormous capital in each communities.

    Image: moments of the learning process in Kompong Thom. Dream house exercise and community driven presentation of the strategies to the local authority. The dream house is a collective activity that involves the co‐creation of 3d models of incremental housing unit at 1:50 scale with plastiline removable furniture. (©BUDD students; Giovanna Astolfo)

    Image: moments of the learning process in Kompong Thom. Dream house exercise and community driven presentation of the strategies to the local authority. The dream house is a collective activity that involves the co‐creation of 3d models of incremental housing unit at 1:50 scale with plastiline removable furniture. (©BUDD students; Giovanna Astolfo)

    Image: Learning from the Province. Visit to upgraded community that are already part of the network (©Giovanna Astolfo)

    Image: Learning from the Province. Visit to upgraded community that are already part of the network (©Giovanna Astolfo)

    Anlong is a peri-urban site for relocated people, where the government allocated empty land for victims of (deliberate) fire in the more central zone. Fast forward 15 years, the communities have transformed the empty land without infrastructure and services in a dense lively urban space.

    Four of the nine communities not included in the relocation process, are illegally occupying part of the land. The site is therefore two times a locus of contestation, for being a relocation site and for being a squatted relocation site.

    Image: Anlong Kgan settlement (©Camillo Boano; BUDD students)

    Image: Anlong Kgan settlement (©Camillo Boano; BUDD students)

    Great effort was put by the students in disentangling the complex dynamic of resettlement as a mechanism repeatedly present in the system of the city and in unpacking the conflicting agendas of different actors.

    The proposed interventions aim at the incremental occupation and densification of the site (sensitive reblocking), the activation of self-sufficient mechanism and growth of the site as a self sufficient city, at strengthening the interdependency of the communities settled in the site, and at increase the rootedness and sense of belonging.

    Image: unpacking Anlong Kgan settlement development (©BUDD students)

    Image: unpacking Anlong Kgan settlement development (©BUDD students)

    The three sites despite local specificity share similar features related to the uncertain institutional and legal framework for the urban poor’s access to land in the new course of the National Housing Policy implementation; even when present, laws and regulations on land and housing are rarely fulfilled.

    The collaboration between BUDD students, Staff and representatives of the recently established General Department of Housing (GDH) as part of the Ministry of Land Management (MLMUPC), has been an attempt to catalyse attention to people driven processes in the production of the city and attentive participatory methodologies.

    Image: collaborative settings (©Fiona; Belen Desmaison)

    Image: collaborative settings (©Fiona; Belen Desmaison)

    Since reliable data and maps, when existing, are difficult to gather or deliberately hidden or simply not recognised as forms of knowledge, a cross cutting underlying common goal of the fieldwork in each site has been the co-production of knowledge, including settlement profiling, enumeration, mapping, and participatory design activities, at the point that it is difficult to say who contributed more: the community, the Khmer students or the BUDDies.

    Image: co‐production of knowledge(©Giorgio Talocci)

    Image: co‐production of knowledge (©Giorgio Talocci)

    Finally, a common trait of the work has been the constant learning attitude, inspired by the humble, no-hero work of CAN and ACHR. Such attitude is central and constantly reasserted in their approach: learning from the people, learning from urban reality, learning from each other, learning by doing.

    If once Giancarlo de Carlo said that architecture is too important to be left to architects, maybe there is a greater role for Community architects?


    Giovanna Astolfo is a lecturer on the MSc Building and Urban Design for Development, she recently joined students on overseas fieldwork in Cambodia. This is the second year that the MSc BUDD has visited Cambodia, continuing a collaboration with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights that previously saw the programme conduct overseas fieldwork in Thailand in 2011-13. This year’s cohort of BUDD students will present the outcomes of their research on Wednesday 27 May 2015.