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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Tren Maya: high hopes and contested development in the Yucatan Peninsula

By Naji P Makarem, on 24 September 2021

Authors: Naji Makarem, Étienne von Bertrab and Alessio Koliulis

This year our students in the MSc Urban Economic Development embarked on our Overseas Practice Engagement (OPE) by focusing their attention on the Tren Maya project in Mexico, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)’s flagship development project. The Tren Maya project is poised to connect and develop 19 towns and cities in the Yucatan Peninsula, the South-East region of Mexico. Students were split into six groups, with two student groups focusing on the potential impact of the train on three distinct locations: Mérida, one of the region’s largest cities, San Francisco de Campeche, a smaller port city with a run-down economy, and Xpujil, a small community planned to become an urban centre.

Students found themselves immersed in literature about Mexico and the Tren Maya as well as primary research in the form of stakeholder interviews, conducted with our partners at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana – Xochimilco, a prestigious public university in Mexico City. They also participated in a series of professionally-interpreted live sessions with stakeholders based in Yucatan and Mexico City. This allowed live interaction between our international students and stakeholders without language being a barrier.

Current route of the Tren Maya and proposed stations. As with the overall project, the route is having modifications as excavations reveal valuable archaeological sites, technical challenges are reassessed, but also as the project meets social and political resistance in some locations. Image: FONATUR

What makes this research particularly interesting is the wide spectrum of stakeholders we engaged with, from indigenous Mayan and environmental activist groups concerned about the social and environmental impact of the project, to government and international development representatives who believe the project is unique in Mexico’s history with its pro-poor approach. AMLO, who is originally from the region, claims that this project is different to past development projects that have been widely seen by the people as exploitative and destructive of the environment. Will this project be any different? This question to a great extent has shaped the research of UED MSc students at the DPU.

In San Francisco de Campeche, the organisation Colectivo Tres Barrios has opposed the relocation of their homes and brought successful appeals. A recent decision to relocate the station means the train will no longer enter the heart of the city and hundreds of residents will continue to live in their traditional neighbourhoods. Photo: Arturo Contreras (Pie de Página)


It became very apparent that Mexico’s contested history has left its mark on the region in the form of dis-trust of the government and economic actors, including trans-national corporations, and for good reasons: the development model has so far benefitted only a few and the territory has been significantly altered at the expense of local communities, affecting traditional ways of life and of seeing the world. While the government aimed to have (for the first time in the country) an indigenous consultation process for the project in late 2019, it did not meet the standards to ensure a prior, free, informed and culturally adequate consent. Subsequently, the decision to involve the army in its construction, and in the running of the train, has triggered further concerns. The government claims the decision aims at impeding a privatisation of the train in subsequent administrations, something that can be understood considering the country’s troubled past with highly corrupt and problematic privatisation of infrastructure and services.

Some indigenous communities are concerned about losing their lands and communal ways of life, and others are concerned about environmental devastation which they anticipate from a reduction in transport costs for commodities in the region, through the unsustainable extraction of finite natural resources and unsustainable agricultural practices that cause deforestation and pollute the land and waters with toxic chemicals such as synthetic pesticides. Another concern is the anticipated growth in tourism which in the region’s main tourist centre, Cancún, has brought a significant increase in crime and inequality. The question of development for whom and how became a cross-cutting concern of all six research groups.

Will the Tren Maya project simply perpetuate the inequality, violence, and environmental degradation characteristic of past tourism-led development projects in the region, or is this indeed a new era for Mexico where development is aligned with the needs of people and the environment? Anti-capitalist movements such as the Zapatistas (the EZLN) would argue that all state and corporate interventions in the region disrupt their autonomy and are by the very nature of the capitalist system exploitative and violent. They want to expand horizontal models of self-determination outside the domain of state institutions. Other indigenous groups and community organisations echo these concerns which at some level resonate with many Mexicans but are open to engaging with the project to ensure it respects and promotes their way of life and their environment and that it creates meaningful opportunities for their communities.

While sceptical in a context of high levels of distrust in government and corporate institutions, interviews with community leaders shed light on their cautious optimism as they imagine ways they and their communities could benefit from the Tren Maya and the opportunities it may bring to them. The people in the region are predominantly in favour of the Tren Maya when framed as a yes or no to the project in principle. This the government argues is proof of support for the project.

Many national and transnational companies are involved in the project, considered the largest ongoing infrastructure development project in Latin America. The winning consortia for building the trains themselves ensured these will be built with significant national components in Mexico, in the impoverished state of Hidalgo. Photo: Government of Mexico.


What the community organisations have done is carve a wedge between this black or white approach and shed light on the all-important question of how. It is not simply a question of building the train line or not, it is a question they argue of whether the project will ultimately benefit the people or not, which is determined by the intentions and plans and ways of thinking of those implementing the project and its associated development strategies and initiatives.

Our students quickly understood the significance of their engagement and sought to bridge gaps of understanding and dialogue between indigenous community and environmental groups on one hand and the government institutions and their international development partners such as UN Habitat, on the other.

UED will continue its OPE working on the Tren Maya project for the next few years, as it accompanies the project and hopefully contributes to achieving its noble stated aims.


We want to thank all our team: Professor Violeta Núñez, Rocío Itzel Sánchez, Rodrigo Migoya, and DPU alumna Sofía Fernández, in Mexico, our translator, DPU alumnus George Azariah-Moreno, Jing Zhang, and each of our students in the cohort 2020-21, for their meaningful engagement despite the remote nature of this first year of the OPE. They are listed below in alphabetical order: Aisha Abdi,  Aya Aboelenen,  Ellen Ahn,  Izzudin Al Farras,  Saad Alsabah,  Abdullah Arshad,  Juliano Cavalli De Meira,  Mao Chen,  Qingya Cheng,  Chung Ching Lo,  Armando Espitia Arevalo, Tanyeli Guler,  Heesu Jeon,  Tanya Kasinganeti, Adha Khazina Kazmi,  Tatsunari Kubonishi,  Fasheng Liang,  Hope McGee,  Consolata Ndungu,  Yasin Omar Ashley Richardson,  Hoodo Richter,  Amin Rirash,  Qi Ru,  Yasmeen Safaie,  Shamira Sendagala,  Shuqi Su,  Genevieve Sundaresan,  Alia Tolba,  Yan Xu,  Jiaying Xue,  Xinyue Yi,  Binyu Wang,  Siyu Wang and  Dixuan Zhao.

Decolonising urban sanitation through celebration

By Nelly M Leblond, on 14 September 2021

The project “OVERDUE: Tackling the sanitation taboo across urban Africa” was launched in July 2021, several months into the COVID-19 pandemic. At this time no vaccine was yet in sight for the places and people central to the project: the women, men, girls and boys who build and run vital infrastructures of care across African cities. On the frontline, with scarce protective equipment, they were – and still are – subject to lockdowns and travel bans while dealing with viral residues, reduced livelihoods, limited access to water and sanitation, and increased caring responsibilities.

Inspired by the Disability Festivals organized by the AT2030 programme, the OVERDUE team saw the potential of using festivals to destigmatize the work of sanitation providers and to spark new conversations. The principal investigator, Adriana Allen, saw festivals as “context sensitive”, acknowledging sanitation as a lifeline for urban and domestic spaces in the pandemic.

At the end of 2020, the OVERDUE team embarked on a set of celebratory activities in the cities of Beira (Mozambique), Freetown (Sierra Leone), and Mwanza (Tanzania), where OVERDUE’s research is rooted. These were complemented by an online campaign: Voicing Just Sanitation. Beyond sensitivity and fun, the sanitation celebrations embedded a theoretical and methodological claim that aligns with the call to decolonise the Water, Hygiene and Sanitation (WASH) sector.



Sanitation festivals

The city sanitation festivals immediately attracted enthusiasts. Claudy Vouhé from l’Etre Egale, for example, envisioned the potential to re-position women as key providers, challenging the narratives of women as mere sanitation beneficiaries.

However, there were also some doubts raised. Sending colleagues to organise festivals during a pandemic, and forcing celebrations on to a sector that people might locally want to treat otherwise, seemed problematic. So I asked Allen: “can’t we just have soap handouts instead of festivals?” Colleagues from the Sierra Leonean Urban Research Centre (SLURC) had been praised for offering soaps and buckets. Fortunately, Allen held on, convinced that festivals could go a long way. And they did.

Figure 1: Collectively organizing the Sanitation Festival in Freetown, and reaching out to different parts of the city to stimulate conversations. Source: Ibrahim Bangura, SLURC, November 2020.

In Freetown, SLURC organized a sanitation walk across the city on World Toilet Day, 19 November 2020. “It had much more success than I thought” acknowledged Sulaiman Kamara, researcher at SLURC, “communities did not want to let us go. They showed us their toilets, they had so much to say.” COVID-19 was a challenge. Attendances had to be reduced, and the planned football match could not go ahead. The participants ended up wearing the shirts designed for the players, advertising Freetown’s City Council sanitation hotline.

In Beira, the team led by COWI-Mozambique organized radio debates in partnership with Mega-FM Radio to reach communities and households under lockdown. This allowed the voices and preoccupations of individual residents to “bubble up”, and discussion of these in the light of colonial legacies, corruption, hopes and constrained capacities. Officials from the municipality and sanitation services, practitioners and local authorities were publicly broadcasted, moving sanitation out of the grey zone of unspoken frustrations to the spotlight of public accountability.

Figure 2: Student presenting her illustration of unsatisfactory sanitation during the Sanitation Festival in Mwanza, December 2020. Source: CCI.

In Mwanza, the Centre for Community Initiatives CCI Tanzania and Ardhi University organized presentations, dances and a drawing competition on the subject of safe sanitation in the Mabatini neighbourhood. This created a space to publicly challenge taboos and to discuss options such as simplified sewerage systems. The women who, mostly, maintain the sanitation facilities voiced their concerns and struggles to uphold privacy and safety.

The festivals turned out to be powerful tools for engaging with local sanitation authorities, providers and users; and for connecting these groups with each other.

Decolonizing sanitation

By celebrating existing initiatives and practices, and by taking stock of what local people and organisations knew rather than pathologizing them, the sanitation festivals departed from dominant approaches.

They challenged the white saviour complex, whereby foreigners construct issues to match their capacities so as to later claim ego-centric successes. This complex has plagued the WASH sector since the colonial era, as hygiene and sanitation were, and sometimes still are, conceived as western “gifts” to “unclean” and “uncivilized” populations.

In contrast, the festivals materialised what Māori researcher Linda Tuhiwai Smith calls “celebrating survivance”. They focused on the resistance, resilience, and journeys that have enabled indigenous people to survive and retain cultural and spiritual values, despite harmful processes and structures such as colonialism, imperialism, racism, and neoliberalism.

Valuing everyday sanitation practices as local acts of heroism produces enabling positions and identities. This contrasts with damage-based research, which looks for victims, stigmatizing and disempowering those it seeks to help.

Furthermore, the celebratory perspective helped de-normalize poor sanitary conditions and voiced aspirations in non-antagonistic ways. This is crucial for interventions to successfully move beyond the pilot stage, another pitfall for projects imbued with coloniality. It creates motion that can be endogenously sustained beyond the festival events and research projects themselves.

Figure 3: Pears’ Soap advertisement, McClure’s Magazine, Oct. 1899. The ad reads “The first step towards lightening The White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pears’ Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place — it is the ideal toilet soap.”


Reordering time and expertise

The sanitation festivals made space and time for anchoring the research on pre-existing and context-specific engagements and practices. They inverted the traditional timeline of research, which rolls out pre-defined questions and methods and then shares “results” later, recognising that societies are both substrate and empty-cups-to-be-filled. Celebrating catalysed productive knowledge relations, that act both as objectives and railings, drive us forward while keeping us on track.

Figure 4: The team assembled by SLURC, from turning their backs to facing sanitation, composed of faecal sludge workers, researchers and members of CSOs and NGOs. Source: SLURC

Subtly, this redistributes expertise. It removes planners, practitioners and researchers from fenced offices and puts them on an equal footing with the women, men, girls and boys who work in sanitation every day. It multiplies standpoints and perspectives, a key feminist movement to strengthen objectivity.

Further, it makes the reinterrogation of colonial and post-colonial bifurcations between off-grid and on-grid sanitation possible. As both users and providers of sewerage facilities and on-site sanitation are engaged, co-dependencies between on-grid and off-grid systems can be observed and discussed. This is a necessary step to advance sanitation justice.


So, should we all celebrate?

Preconditions must be recalled and enthusiasm moderated. These sanitation festivals were made possible by SLURC, CCI, Ardhi University and COWI’s networks in Beira, Mwanza, and Freetown. The activities built on previously weathered collaborations and understandings.

Celebration cannot be parachuted. But as Somsook Boonyabancha urges us to think, it can be stirred if we invest in people rather than projects. Building communities, institutions and trust first so that drains and sanitation can be realised second.

Flexi funds, a budget facility to transfer money to partners with no strings attached, were crucial to designing context-specific and relevant activities. They helped participants to yield power and support creativity. Despite major budget cuts imposed by the UK government, this approach will continue to drive our work We hope that this will stimulate further moves to push back coloniality in the WASH sector, and that we can pursue a second edition, hopefully in a post-pandemic and socially re-energized context.


The author wishes to acknowledge valuable input from Pascale Hofmann (UCL) and Adriana Allen (UCL). Celebration as a method will be further discussed in a dedicated session of the RISE Africa 2021 Action Festival.

Embracing Diversity: Inclusive Mobility for Women with Disabilities from Low Income Households in Kelayan Barat, Banjarmasin

By Anyu Liu, on 5 August 2021

Written by Fitria Nazmi, Gusti Muhammad Irsyad Maulana, Muhammad Firdauz Nuzula, Orchidea Annaysa Azizah, Rika Febriyantina, Yun Gu, Shuqi Fang, Manjin Wei, Adina Kaztayeva, Yaozhi Xu, Quynh Nguyen and Anyu Liu

This blog was written for the Overseas Practice Engagement (OPE) 2021 for the module Social Development in Practice. In 2021, the OPE focused on the role of inclusive design and planning in supporting disabled people and older residents achieve their aspiration of inclusive public space and community participation in Solo, Indonesia.

In April and May 2021, students from the MSc Social Development Practice programme, UCL together with students from the Urban Citizenship Academy, Indonesia (UCA)  and the Indonesian NGO Kota Kita conducted an Overseas Practice Engagement (OPE). The engagement took place remotely due to the restrictions for the Covid-19 pandemic. Its overall aim was to learn about disabled people’s aspirations for inclusive public space and community engagement, and ultimately to promote inclusive citizenship in Indonesia, for our group it is especially in the city of Banjarmasin. The engagement is a part of the ongoing action-research project “AT2030: Community led Solutions” led by the Global Disability Innovation Hub.

During the OPE, our research specifically focused on the issue of inclusive mobility to increase access to public space for women with disabilities in Kelayan Barat,  Banjarmasin. Qualitative research methods were employed for our data collection, including a literature review, semi-structured interviews, and photo voice. With support from Kota Kita, a total of 15 interviews were carried out, of which six were face-to-face with women with disabilities who are residents from low-income households in Kelayan Barat. The other interviews were conducted online with policymakers from relevant governmental departments and a Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO) namely Himpunan Wanita Disabilitas Indonesia (HWDI), or Indonesian Association of Persons with Disabilities. Additionally, women participants were invited to take or choose videos and/or pictures themselves (photovoice) to visually demonstrate what they believe to be the good practice/ barriers associated with inclusive mobility. 

Key findings from our research demonstrate a highly prevalent need for mobility of women with disabilities in Kelayan Barat as well as the multiple barriers hindering this aspiration, which include:

Inadequate infrastructure and transport: The physical infrastructure of Kelayan Barat is a daily struggle for people with disabilities. The lack of inclusive design and quality infrastructure, e.g. unpaved alleyway and tyre pathway, prevents women with disabilities going out  and safely accessing public spaces. When they do go out, companions are often needed for assistance. The women  have limited access to transportation and assistive technology is inadequate, hampering mobility to the point of making some women housebound.

Image: Photos taken by participants during photovoice activity, April 2021 Row 1, left to right: favourite transport (motorcycle), example of insufficient infrastructure (unpaved alleyway and tyre pathway) Row 2: flooding in the settlement

Lack of social recognition and prevalent social stigma associated with disabilities and gender:
While most policymakers acknowledged the need to recognise the diversity of disabilities, challenges remain in realising this programme delivery. Amongst the interviewed stakeholders, only the HWDI leaders paid explicit attention to the social barriers which hinder the mobility of women with disabilities, such as insufficient social acceptance. The experiences shared by the women participants demonstrated the layered and intersectional discriminations they face due to their identities as women and having disabilities highlighting the importance of designing taking these intersectional identities into consideration. Specifically, women’s reproductive role can worsen their physical health and further obstruct their already limited mobility, and the role of house caretaker can restrict their freedom for mobility. In some cases, stigma against disability and the heavy burden of housework can result in them being prohibited from going outside by their own family.

Low active participation of women with disabilities in the planning and design of policies/programmes on mobility:
Women with disabilities participation in the planning process appears to encounter various challenges. First is the relatively top-down administrative style as policies/programmes are often designed and planned based primarily on policy makers’ and community leaders’ perceptions without sufficient inputs from women with disabilities. Secondly, women with disabilities lack information on relevant activities available to them. Besides, insufficient accessibility and affordability together with social stigma earlier discussed also hinder their participation in the process.

Limited community awareness and collective actions in supporting women with disabilities’ mobility: During interviews, women with disabilities and HWDI leaders indicate that community connection is crucial in improving the mobility of women with disabilities. While various departments at city level have implemented programmes, within the community, collective actions to support the mobility of women with disabilities appears limited. Although neighbourhood leaders considered the community environment to be open and friendly, the women interviewed felt the need for more community care. Social barriers such as the aforementioned stigma are not well recognised by community leaders, which further hinders the community’s collective efforts for the women’s social rehabilitation.

On the other hand, the active and substantial role that NGOs such as HWDI and Kota Kita play in providing diverse support to people with disabilities) in general and women in particular is promising. A report and advocacy output will be produced by the research team at the end of the engagement. We hope that what we have learned will contribute to the wider AT2030 project, as well as to the overall efforts in improving inclusivity for people with disabilities.

About the SDP Reflection in Practice series.

 The module social development in practice places emphasis on building a reflexive lens to co-learning, and research practice. This is captured through individual and collective reflections, which offer a space to develop an ethical practice attentive to the complexity of social identities, relationships, and power structures inherent in any social change programme.


Upholding ethical considerations during collaborative remote research in Banjarmasin, Indonesia

By Ritwika Deb, on 30 July 2021

Written by Naufal Muhammad Azca, Jianglei Bai, Chang Chao, Ritwika Deb, Farah Dhafiya, Kristy Adelia Gayatri, Ahmad Rizky Rolanda, Hargita Saputri Mei Vita, Mojun Sun, Yu Wei, Menglin Yang, Haoyang Zhang

This blog was written for the Overseas Practice Engagement (OPE) 2021 for the module Social Development in Practice. In 2021, the OPE focused on the role of inclusive design and planning in supporting disabled people and older residents achieve their aspiration of inclusive public space and community participation in Solo, Indonesia.

In late February, we were introduced to our research project that aimed to advance inclusive design and planning in Indonesian cities through a process of remote knowledge co-production that was to be designed and implemented by our group of 11 students from Kota Kita’s Urban Citizenship Academy and UCL’s MSc Social Development Practice programme, based across Indonesia, the United Kingdom and China. The project presented us researchers with the opportunity to learn from and contribute to  the Indonesian Association of Persons with Disabilities (PPDI) and the low-income neighbourhood of Pelambuan in Banjarmasin, the capital of South Kalimantan, Indonesia.

While preparing the groundwork for the research strategy, the work of scholars like Nidhi Singal (2010) helped us understand that disability research in countries of the South faces many challenges and dilemmas in terms of design and implementation. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, our project included elements of both face-to-face interaction and remote data collection, which led to additional complexities, especially in terms of ethical and logistical considerations, which had to be carefully contemplated.

To account for the dilemmas that emerged from this challenging context, our team of researchers identified the Ethics Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research (British Psychological Society, 2017) as the relevant code of ethics to build on.  Scholars and researchers across the board have long emphasized the importance of ethics – and for good reason, because us researchers ultimately are responsible for whether or not we do harm or good to communities. From setting the goals to shaping the strategy and implementing the methods on the ground – we play a key role as decision makers. By using the code of ethics, we learned that such a code can support researchers in general decision-making by giving them a structure to follow in the middle of the dynamic process of field engagement, allowing them to be prepared to deal with ethical dilemmas if and when they arise. Especially in a scenario like ours, where unprecedented challenges could arise at the complex intersection of disability research and remote knowledge co-production in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, this code of ethics served as a structure for our team members from the moment we began our engagement, not only helping us prevent potential challenges, but also making the process of dealing with emerging issues much easier.


  1. Ensuring informed consent

This principle of the referenced ethics guidelines emphasised the importance of ensuring that participants make informed choices. The first practice in this regard was to provide adequate information about the research, to specify what kind of commitment was required from participants, and to make it very clear to them that participation was voluntary and that they could withdraw from the research at any time if they wanted to.

To this end, the consent strategy was developed in accordance with the nature of the research methods and the needs of participants with disabilities.

First, a simple consent video was developed in the local language so that the research objectives could be clearly communicated to all, including participants with visual impairments.

Second, an accompanying consent form was created to enable participants with hearing impairments to lean on written information.

Third, participants were also given the opportunity to share verbal consent, if more feasible.

Finally, people with cognitive disabilities who expressed difficulties in giving informed consent were still invited to participate as long as they were accompanied by a family member or caregiver.


  1. Recognising participants’ choices

Another effort in relation to this principle was also to ensure that participants’ personal choices or preferences are always respected. To further stimulate responses to interview questions, we introduced a participatory photography method. In addition to securing consent from participants to use their photographs in our research work, we made adaptations in the process to allow participants of all abilities to take part by giving them the flexibility to either take the photos themselves or request the assistance of a researcher.

Our primary effort was to foster a safe space for them to express their opinions, address any unintentional stress during the activity and assure participants that if they withdrew their participation at any point there would be no consequences. An important instance to note is that when one of the participants showed a strong expression of autonomy on her part during the fieldwork and asserted that she was no longer in the mood to participate in this method, the researchers respected her decision without contestation.

Overall, this ethical consideration and the strategies used to promote it strengthened our understanding that a research project such as this should strongly value the opinions of participants, facilitate their inclusion and true participation even if the methods involve technical complexity. and ultimately consider participants’ needs, lived experiences and autonomy to be of the utmost importance.

In conclusion, adopting this ethical approach enabled us to adhere to a form of self regulation that guided us and defined the boundaries between what is considered ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in research. Although no code of ethics can describe every situation one will encounter, building a solid understanding of the principle of ‘respect for autonomy’ and adapting the guidelines to a version appropriate to our specific context, served us in most cases. This, coupled with a spirit of continuous reflection through the research process, enabled us to spot any danger early on and to move forward with increased self-vigilance when engaging with all involved parties.




British Psychological Society, 2017. Ethics Guidelines for Internet-Mediated Research. Available at: https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/ethics-guidelines-internet-mediated-research-2017. [Accessed 5 May 2021].

Capstick, A., 2012. Participatory Video and Situated Ethics: Avoiding Disablism. In: E-J. Milne, C. Mitchell and N. de Lange, ed. The Handbook of Participatory Video. Lanham MD: AltaMira Press, pp. 269-281.

Denscombe, M., 2010. Research Ethics: A practical guide. In: The Good Research Guide. Maidenhead: Open University Press, pp. 329-342.

Padan, Y., 2015. Asking Questions. Practising ethics guides to built environment research Series. The Bartlett Ethics Commission. Available at: https://www.practisingethics.org/project [Online] [Accessed 5 May 2021].

Singal, N., 2010. Doing disability research in a Southern context: challenges and possibilities. Disability & Society, 25(4), pp. 415-426.


About the SDP Reflection in Practice series.

 The module social development in practice places emphasis on building a reflexive lens to co-learning, and research practice. This is captured through individual and collective reflections, which offer a space to develop an ethical practice attentive to the complexity of social identities, relationships, and power structures inherent in any social change programme.

What is the role of gender in Spatial Data Infrastructure?

By Sandra Rodriguez Castaneda, on 20 July 2021

This blog is adapted from an essay submission for the MSc Urban Development Planning module ‘The City and its Relations: Context, Institutions and Actors in Urban Development’


Is land a source for gender equality? “Perhaps the most significant pro-poor urban transformation of the late twentieth century had to do with the gains of the feminist movement and the emergence of gender-based planning” (Parnell, p.27, 2015). , However, there is still a long way to go before women have an equal role in cities and rural areas. In the case of land, it is fundamental to the development of women’s identity, wellbeing and mobility (Chant & Datu, 2015). It is acknowledged that good management of land is key addressing gendered concerns. However, how does gender figure in the technologies of Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) that underlies good land management? Therefore, this post investigates how SDI is gendered and argues that this has consequences for land administrators seeking more equity.

There are multiple processes around the land in which the gender approach must be studied and taken into account. Generally, when talking about gender and land, it is often based on the reformulation of policies around women´s right to access land, land distribution and titling programmes. What this tends to leave aside is how data is integrated to understand the relationship between land and women’s public-private roles. Additionally, land standards are applied to define guidelines but they tend to miss the intersectionality of gendered social relations, and methodologies for assessing indicators around land use and tenure do not reflect women’s real participation.

Despite the fact that the SDI seeks to facilitate and improve processes and decisions around land, the technological and modern component does not resolve the question of the role of gender in its understanding and comprehension.

I argue for the need to have a holistic vision to generate knowledge and cooperation to understand the role of gender in spatial data. Therefore, the tools developed to support land management should be understood under a differential and gender inclusionary approach.


Why is this argument important?

In this section, two examples will be explored to provide evidence why this argument is different and important. The first example is based on the fact that SDI is a technological component intended to facilitate decision making around land and productivity. Therefore, its focus is on capturing spatial information, and it does not have an explicit differentiating approach that considers social roles that make up land relations. The second example is based on evidence of the current situation of the relationship between women and land, and it is argued that the specific needs of women are not clearly understood, and so discrimination that replicates colonising models continues to exist.

According to Coleman and McLaughlin (1998, p.9), SDI “encompasses the policies, technologies, standards and human resources necessary for the effective collection, management, access, delivery and utilisation of geospatial data in a global community”. Definitions such as these suggest that the main objective of SDI is based on effectiveness, while the social component is limited to human resources and the use of data in the community. Rajabifard and Williamson (2003, p.3) note that, “SDI is much more than data and goes far beyond surveying and mapping, it provides an environment within which organisations and/or nations interact with technologies to foster activities for using, managing and producing geographic data”. However, even in this wider view, SDI as a social approach remains very much implicit in thinking about how SDI can be an enabling tool for organisations and nations.

In this light, what kind of data should be generated to understand social roles and especially women’s roles? This first example shows, through the most cited definitions of SDI above, that raising the question around the role of women in this technological tool is significant. As an additional element, it is also worth noting that inherent in technology itself is a complex language that is often based on strategic and rational concepts that leave aside social components (Cohn, 1987). Therefore, technology could become a gender-unequal tool despite being conceived to be gender-neutral if there is not a broader approach and understanding. We are in search of more socially and spatially just cities, so it is valuable to think about using the technological tools that support decisions about land to generate a more inclusive vision.

The role of women has been affected by sexist and colonising models that have limited their access to land. Throughout history, the subordination of women in society, based on a patriarchal structure, has been in evidence. Also, it is assumed that housing policies affect men and women equally when it is evident that there is discrimination against women (Borja & Castells, 1997).  As a result, it is essential to understand that there are socially constructed roles of women in the household and society: productive, reproductive, community managing and politics (Levy, 2009) that must be understood from a diverse perspective and taking into account the context and identity characteristics of each woman (age, religion, ethnicity). Accordingly, it is valuable to ask how this is reflected in the capture of information, in the standards implemented, in data analysis policies and in land governance in general.

According to FAO (2018, p.1), “Reliable, sex-disaggregated data on land is crucial for highlighting disparities in land rights between women and men. (…) there is still a lack of understanding as to what data are available and needed, and what they can tell us about women’s land rights”. This shows that there is still some way to go in understanding the role of women and the discrimination they face in relation to land rights. Given that SDI is an important part of land administration it will be important to work on how the inclusion and protection of women’s land rights can be enhanced through technology.


Conclusion and final discussion

This post presents an essential question in the context of SDI and gender equity. The framing of the question outlines a new challenge that combines the rational understanding of technology, the social dynamics around the land, the recognition of women’s real needs and the use of spatial tools. Consequently, technology should not be seen as a sole means of efficiency and productivity but also of inclusion.

Among the challenges that this question implies are to generate a holistic and decolonising vision that helps breaking with stereotypes and exclusionary models that are reflected in women’s lack of access to land, in the absence of protection of their rights, and the lack of representation and participation in decision-making related to land administration. Furthermore, it is necessary to understand that the relationship between women and land is complex and requires recognition of their roles in the public and private sphere. This will lead to the identification of the different entry points that need to be studied in order to find effective solutions according to time, scale and space.

Finally, “prosperity is not an inevitable outcome of urbanisation, and in the absence of appropriate management, cities can become sinkholes of poverty and inequality” (Chant & Datu,2015, p.40). Therefore, raising the question of the role of women in SDI shows that it is not enough to have efficient geographical tools; their appropriate use and management is fundamental to fight against poverty and inequality. Thus, the pressure of globalisation and the search for productivity need to be oriented to create new questions that confront the status quo and do not blind the construction of inclusive policies and strategies.




Barbero, M., et. al. (2019). The role of Spatial Data Infrastructures in the Digital Government Transformation of Public Administrations. Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. [Accessed 20 April 2021]. Available from:  http://www.catastro.minhafp.es/documentos/internacional/27112019the_role_of_sdi_in_digital_government_transformation_1.pdf

Borja, J., & Castells, M. (1997). The City of Women. In Local and Global (pp. 45-67). Routledge

Chant, S, & Datu, K. (2015). Women in Cities: Prosperity or Poverty? A Need for Multi-dimensional and Multi-spatial Analysis. In The City in Urban Poverty (EADI Global Development Series, pp. 39-63). London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Chen, M. A. (2010). Informality, poverty, and gender: Evidence from the Global South, in: S. Chant (ed.), The International Handbook of Gender and Poverty: Concepts, Research, Policy . Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 463–471.

Cohn, C. (1987). Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals. Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Volume 12, Number 4. [Accessed 15 April 2021]. Available from: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/494362

Coleman, D. & McLaughlin, J. (1998). Defining global geospatial data infrastructure (GGDI): components, stakeholders and interfaces. Geomatica, Canadian Institute of Geomatics, 52(2):129-144. [Accessed 20 April 2021]. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/291089003_Defining_global_geospatial_data_infrastructure_GGDI_components_stakeholders_and_interfaces

Deere, C., Alvarado, G., & Twyman, J. (2012). “Gender inequality in asset ownership in Latin America: female owners vs household heads.” Development and Change, 43.2, pp. 505–530.

Enemark, S. (2006). Understanding the land management paradigm. GIM, 1-5.

FAO. (2018). The Gender Gap in Land Rights. CGIAR. [Accessed 12 April 2021]. Available from: http://www.fao.org/3/i8796en/I8796EN.pdf

Fenster, T. (2005). The right to the gendered city: Different formations of belonging in everyday Life. Journal of Gender Studies, 14 (3): 217–231.

Kabeer, N. (2008). Paid Work, Women’s Empowerment and Gender Justice: Critical Pathways of Social Change. Pathways Working Paper 3, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton. [Accessed 15 April 2021]. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/4002986/Paid_work_womens_empowerment_and_inclusive_growth_Transforming_the_gendered_structures_of_constraint

Levy, C. (2009). “Gender justice in a diversity approach to development? The challenges for development planning”, International Development Planning Review Vol 31, No 4.

Masser, I., Rajabifard, A., & Williamson, I. (2008). Spatially enabling governments through SDI implementation. International Journal of Geographical Information Science, 5-20.

Moser, C. (1993) Gender planning and development: theory, practice, and training, London; New York: Routledge.

Parnell,S. (2015). Poverty and ‘the City’. In The City in Urban Poverty (EADI Global Development Series, pp. 39-63). London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Purdie-Vaughns, V. & Eibach, R. (2008). “Intersectional invisibility: the distinctive advantages and disadvantages of multiple subordinate group identities”.

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Sandra Esperanza Rodriguez Castañeda is undertaking her Master’s degree in Urban Development Planning at the University College of London. As a civil engineer, she has worked and led projects related to geomatics, geographical information systems, cadastre, and transport.

No Man is an Island

By Ruochan Liu, on 16 July 2021

Written by Ruochan Liu, Rachel Cobbinah, Di Hu, Celine Sola Gracia Lumban Gaol, Bayu Laksono Jati, Yuan Meng, Meerim Osmonalieva, Ricca Padyansari, Amich Kemala Damariyan, Nuzula Firda Sa’adhati, Xinran Zou

This blog was written for the Overseas Practice Engagement (OPE) 2021 for the module Social Development in Practice. In 2021, the OPE focused on the role of inclusive design and planning in supporting disabled people and older residents achieve their aspiration of inclusive public space and community participation in Solo, Indonesia.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;


Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 1624


I was wearing several layers under my hoodie when we had our first group meeting. Two seasons later, the rest of us have finally caught up with Giligan’s everlasting summer and our outfits for Zoom finally look like we’ve got the same memo.

We begin this blogpost with this anecdote because upon reflection, this is perfectly symbolic of our experience as a group throughout this Overseas Practice Engagement (OPE). We set off on completely different pages, coming from a kaleidoscope of backgrounds with multiple understandings of disability research. Synchronization of workflow happens incrementally in much the same way as snowmelt precedes the budding green, and greenness is prologue to blossom. Effective communication and healthy dynamics within the group are hard-won fruits. Despite all the bad internet connections, lengthy video calls, long debates about every single detail of our methodology, we end up appreciating each other more than ever. We realized that this inseparable unit of like-minded researchers-to-be cannot function without the presence of every single member as part of the sum. For those of us from UCL, our lack of proficiency in Bahasa results in a heavy reliance on our UCA members as they make sure no data is lost in translation. For our UCA members, they are also gaining new experiences and knowledge on social rights, citizenship, inclusivity as well as empowerment, which help them as they interview our research participants. We become each other’s remedies, attending to our vulnerabilities, insecurities and frustrations through the whirlwinds of unexpectedness. We challenge each other on the falsity of our assumptions. We interrogate, together, each other’s takeaways from interviews. We scrutinize the language we’d use in interviews and discussions. We, as a team, have worked as a continent of pieces.



Our research diary entries are an intriguing read as we approach the end of OPE. We as a team have reached the consensus that our anticipation of disability research as students of urban planning and social development are significantly overturned. Research processes are much more complicated and nuanced. Working with people involves getting knee-deep into their daily experiences and acknowledging that they are complex beings full of intentions, struggles, strength and hopes. It is about building foundations of trust and rapport with gestures of mutual respect. It is about learning and producing knowledge on equal grounds. It is a practice of patience and resilience. The time spent sitting in classes and reading journal articles are only meaningful after fighting tooth and nail to bite into the realities. We, as students, have to sail off from our islands of books. It is then we will see how it is only one part of the main, and our islands are connected to millions of heartbeats.



The words in bold have emerged out of our reflective discussions. We collated them before sitting down to write this post, and it is only now we notice how they can encapsulate almost everything our research participants have said in the course of OPE. Community engagement, active participation and inclusive public spaces will be hard-won fruits. It needs bold and assured experimentation of new ways of working, the understanding of vulnerabilities in the most diverse ways, and constant outreach to the unheard and unnoticed. There needs to be a genuine respect of people’s complicated realities. Anyone who is interested to work towards promoting inclusive planning for people with disabilities must be prepared to fight a long battle.


There is really no such a binary between “us” and “them”.

It is time to start working as “We”, for no man is an island entire of itself.


About the SDP Reflection in Practice series.

 The module social development in practice places emphasis on building a reflexive lens to co-learning, and research practice. This is captured through individual and collective reflections, which offer a space to develop an ethical practice attentive to the complexity of social identities, relationships, and power structures inherent in any social change programme.

Chile will write its new Constitution building on a more diverse, plural and female ‘we’

By Ignacia Ossul Vermehren, on 24 May 2021

By Camila Cociña, Ignacia Ossul Vermehren and Lieta Vivaldi

 On Sunday 16th May 2021, Chileans elected the 155 citizens that will write the new Constitution. With the country voting in favour of a gender-balanced assembly, with indigenous and minority representation, we discuss what this latest development means for inclusion in Chile and the possibility for change and hope elsewhere.

Elisa Loncon, one of the nine Mapuche women elected for the Convention. Source: https://www.instagram.com/elisa.loncon/

How does a people collectively rewrite the trajectory of its own history? How does a people mobilise its differences to set up their own collective rules? How to write a “we” that has never been spelt out before? The people of Chile have started to recognise and build together their own “we”, one that is female, indigenous, working class, diverse, and is coming from places not usually in the spotlight.

What is happening in Chile?

The elections last weekend saw the latest development of a process of constitutional transformation that was triggered by the simmering social unrest that exploded in October 2019 across the country. As we discussed in a previous blog, in October 2020 Chileans voted in mass to overhaul the 1980’s Pinochet-era Constitution, determining that this new Constitution would be written by an assembly composed exclusively by elected citizens, half of whom would be women.[1] Following this popular mandate, the poll on the 15th-16th May 2021 elected the 155 members of this Constitutional Convention, which will function for the next 9 to 12 months with the exclusive task of writing the new constitution.

New mechanisms for inclusion

The election of the members of the Constitutional Convention is a crucial milestone in a unique transformative national process, which has relied on social mobilisations, territorial organisation, political negotiations and agreements, formal democratic processes, violent contestations, resistance to human rights violation, and thousands of organised actions that have strengthened a collective sense of self determination. During the last decade, several processes paved the road and created the political conditions to promote renewed mechanisms for institutional inclusion. These events included social mobilisations around specific social justice agendas – including feminist mobilisations – as well as an attempt of constitutional change led by the previous central government (2014-2018), which involved self-organised local assemblies, and a rich public debate about potential mechanisms for the writing of a democratic Constitution. These processes only intensified after the 2019 social outburst, with the emergence and raise of countless local political instances in urban and rural areas, including spaces of discussion and co-learning, and territorial and  feminist assemblies, which have’t been waned by the difficulties of the pandemic.

In a post-2019 scenario of political crisis, it became very difficult for the political class not to acknowledge the existing gap between the formal tools of political representation and the deeply democratic and diverse processes taking place across the territory. Then, the institutional arrangements for this Constitutional process agreed between November 2019 and March 2020, were pushed to incorporate several explicit inclusion mechanisms: The gender quota system, designed prior to the election, enshrined a historical agreement for gender parity of 50% both in the nomination of female candidates as in the elected ones; indigenous groups’ representation (7 Mapuche, 2 Aimara, 1 Rapa Nui, 1 Quechua, 1 Atacameño, 1 Diaguita, 1 Kawashkar, 1 Yagán and 1 Chango); and electoral mechanisms to allow independent actors outside political parties to be competitive in the election.

This is positive in at least three ways: First, it mirrors Chilean society more closely – women represent more than half of the population, and for the first time 10 indigenous groups in Chile are recognised and represented in a formal political process; second, it prevents the overrepresentation of white, upper class, heterosexual men that has been reproduced historically in other spaces of democratic decision-making; and third, it will allow the interests of women, indigenous groups and working class people – such as achieving recognition of specific rights that have been historically invisible – to have a better chance of being incorporated into the constitutional text.

Results: A more honest and plural ‘we’

Beyond the pre-established inclusion mechanisms – which had an indubitable effect in terms of the output – the results of May 16th presented a picture of Chilean society that no previous election had ever shown:

  • Gender: As said, the gender quota mechanism was established both in terms of number of candidates, as in terms of elected members – in other words, entry and output This double mechanism was key to encourage political parties to present competitive female candidates. In the National Congress election of 2017, for example, there were already mechanisms to include at least 40% of female candidates, but this only translated into 23% of female representatives elected (see the analysys from Arce-Riffo and Suárez-Cao). By contrast, in this 2021 election women candidates performed better than men, and the correction instruments to ensure parity of output benefited more men than women, with eleven cases in which women had to give their place to their male co-runners in order to ensure equal distribution of female and male. As a result the convention is now formed by 78 men and 77 women. .
  • Indigenous: Indigenous groups had 17 reserved seats, which constitutes an unprecedented mechanism of recognition in the country. The low turnout (22,81%) of indigenous people reflects that there is still a possible distrust in formal political processes and representation through institutional spaces. Among the elected (9 women and 8 men), there are emblematic traditional and spiritual authorities, such as the Machi (traditional healer) Francisca Linconao, who obtained the first majority of the Mapuche votes. Machi Linconao spent nine months in pretrial detention accused of terrorist activities in 2016, and was later acquitted of all the charges in a case that raised international concerns about the violation of human rights of Mapuche people by the Chilean state.

Distribution of seats in Constitutional Convention, after gender and D’Holt corrections. Original image by Macarena Segovia in CIPER, available here – https://www.ciperchile.cl/2021/05/17/convencion-constitucional-mecanismos-de-paridad-redujeron-a-29-la-brecha-de-representatividad-de-las-mujeres/.


  • Age: The new Constitution will be written by a relatively young assembly. The average age of the elected members is around 45 years old. Independent elected candidates are the youngest, with an average of 41, while the two traditional rightwing and centre-left coalition are the oldest with an average of 48 and 49 respectively.
  • LGBTIQ+: There are at least 6 (3,9%) self-identified LGBTIQ+ elected members. There were 38 LGBTIQ+ candidates, two of which were transgender candidates but weren’t elected.
  • Class and occupation: The social composition of the Convention is also significantly more diverse than traditional representational bodies. In Chile, as elsewhere, schools are a very clear proxy for class. While in the current Chilean Congress more than half (54%) of representatives come from paid private schools, from the 155 elected members; 49 come from public schools, 40 from publicly-subsidized private schools, and 43 from paid private schools – and most of them are not from traditional elite schools (see infographic here). Likewise, in terms of occupation, even if more than 60 of them are lawyers – as could be expected given the nature of the constitutional body – the second most common occupation is teachers (20) and the rest are distributed in 39 occupations that include activists, accountants, social leaders, environmental scientists, technicians, nurses, designers, journalists, housepersons, and so on.
  • Progressive and grassroots forces: Finally, one of the main surprises of the poll results was the support to transformative and emergent political forces. Conservative ruling parties, under the “Chile Vamos” coalition, got only 37 seats – less than a third of the convention, which would have allowed them to block initiatives within the Convention; this is an important loss compared to the previous performance of the current president’s coalition, even if they collected significantly more financial resources for their campaign; the traditional centre-left parties, “Unidad Constituyente”, got 25 seats; this is less than the 28 seats gained by the newly formed left coalition “Apruebo Dignidad”, which includes the Communist Party and the emerging force Frente Amplio; the rest of the seats are distributed among independent candidates, 27 of which ran for the “Lista del Pueblo”, which grouped activist mobilised during the 2019 social outburst outside the traditional political system. As the table below shows, progressive forces of Apruebo Dignidad, Lista del Pueblo, and the indigenous seats had a significantly larger representation of elected women, with 68%, 67% and 59% respectively.

Constitutional Convention, by coalitions and gender. Image based on information available here, by plataformacontexto.cl


Opportunity for a truly transformative institutional process

The plurality of protagonists of this process – which are best captured by the diversity of the 155 elected members – opens up the possibility of recognising claims, struggles, knowledges and ways of living that have been historically rendered invisible by dominant discourses and practices, in a highly unequal and centralised country. At last, we see how a country full of complexities and particularities can be represented in their difference and not only by a white, middle class, heterosexual elite, that for years has impossed an absolute and “universal” thruth leaving behind the rights of so many people.

The possibilities of this transformative institutional process fills many Chilean people with hope. Getting here has only been possible through the articulation of complex processes of social mobilisation with political action. It has required active efforts and mechanisms to give space to the life experiences of sectors that have been historically discriminated against and excluded from traditional political spaces. This moment has been shaped by a combination of formal mechanisms and the grounded efforts of the people of Chile to articulate claims and voices in new and democratic ways. In doing so, it recognises the composition of the country as it is, and as it wants to be. In a context in which sisters and brothers are fighting for their rights and freedoms from Colombia to Palestine to Myanmar and beyond, we see in this unique experience a hope; one that shows the possibility of a change mobilised by the radical construction of a plural ‘we’.


[1] Chile will be the first country in the world that writes a Constitution with gender parity. This is possible due to the gender parity system established in the nomination (same number of men and women as candidates), as well as in the election, to make sure that the elected positions are distributed evenly between men and women.


Camila (Univeristy College London), Ignacia (University College London) and Lieta (Universidad Alberto Hurtado) are academics from Chile working on women’s rights, feminist theory, poverty, planning and urban equality.

A journey into the Peruvian Amazon: Collaborating for sustainable regional economic development in Tarapoto, San Martin

By Naji P Makarem, on 23 April 2021

By Naji Makarem, Etienne Von Bertrab and Alessio Koliulis

Over the past 4 years, students of the MSc in Urban Economic Development have been engaging with stakeholders on the local and regional development of Tarapoto, a wonderful small city in the Amazon rainforest in Northern Peru.

The purpose of our field trips (or what we now call the Overseas Practice Engagements – OPE) are two-fold: On one hand the OPE is an opportunity for students to put theory into practice; on the other it’s an opportunity for students to develop insights that may influence local conversations around the future of the cities we engage with. Together we try to make sense of what is going on and with the help and insights from stakeholders, co-imagine equitable, sustainable and ecological potential-futures.

The charming features of the city of Tarapoto today date back to 1970 when it was a small village of 30,000 inhabitants characterised by one-storey houses and walking and  motorcycling (and moto-taxis) were and continue to be the transport modes of choice. It has grown into a small city with a population of approx. 200,000 inhabitants. It has maintained its charm; Tarapoto has a many trees paving the streets and purple flowers which together with its colourful low-rise housing make it a very charming city, but at this grander scale its growing pains are beginning to exert pressure on the city and its residents. Our student groups over the past 4 years focused on the city’s major challenges and opportunities, imagining a more inclusive and sustainable future for Tarapoto.

One common theme investigated by student groups was moto-taxis and mobility more generally in the city and its surrounding regions, which the urban core is integrally connected to socially and economically. Moto-taxis are extremely convenient (easy to find most of the time, but not always and not everywhere) and refreshing as the cool breeze sweeps passengers’ faces, creating a sense of freedom and adventure when moving around the city. They also offer a source of income to the large share of the population that owns their own moto-taxi, including what in the UK we would call white-collar workers.

Mototaxis are also very loud, they emit toxic gases in the air which people breathe and contribute to global warming, and they are relatively dangerous (road accidents are fatal due to their very nature but also due to the road system itself) and they are also perceived to be less safe at certain times of day or in certain places, particularly for women travelling alone (our students were advised to always traveled in pairs). Yet the moto-taxis of Tarapoto are very much loved by residents and visitors alike, and have been the focus of investigation by our student groups over the past 4 years. We have translated and published the research of our wining student group from the 3 groups who focused their work on moto-taxis and mobility in Tarapoto last year, available to download here. Tarapoto is a region with a city at its core. The urban and rural have been interconnected ever since the traders of agricultural produce began to agglomerate in the city, connecting the Coffee and Cacao amongst others products grown in the region with national and global markets. In retrospect, globally, we look back on the green revolution and we see deforestation and the devastation of biodiversity, as well as the economics of large monoculture farming that pushes people, small farmers, off the land and into cities that struggle to provide them with the affordable housing, infrastructure and services human beings need to live a good life.
Luckily Tarapoto does not suffer from the kinds of destitution evident in many larger cities around the world, mostly in the Global South but not exclusively. The city therefore struggles with the challenge and opportunity of an ecological future, and adding more value to a more diverse range of agricultural outputs which can bring greater sustainability and value to the city and region. I invite you to access our winning student report from last year, selected from the 3 groups dedicated to the agriculture and agro-processing theme in Tarapoto available here.

Tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of the region. Tourists land in Tarapoto in a well-connected and well-maintained airport (a welcoming, cosy small-scale airport), and use Tarapoto as a base for regional tourism. Tourism is an attractive sector for many cities because it is the only sector whose export markets come to you. To be sure, there is an element of services exports through marketing and other promotional initiatives abroad to help generate awareness and attraction, but essentially the market comes to you (selling a 3-course dinner to a Japanese tourist akin to packaging the food and sending it to people in Japan).


Doing tourism well is therefore an extremely attractive economic opportunity for cities, but it is also very intrusive and, if not managed well, has a heavy environmental footprint and drain on resources. It can also increase rather than reduce inequality and end up siphoning a large share of the value generated to international investors leaving locals with precarious and not-so-interesting jobs and low wages. If done well it contributes to locals interacting with people from all over the world, bringing new ideas and perspectives, celebrating and bring out their cultural heritage, their art and culture and creating entrepreneurial opportunities and community initiatives that generate value and incomes for people and communities. You can access the report of the winning student group from last year’s students groups on Tourism here.

All of us students and staff at the DPU’s Msc. in Urban Economic Development extend our sincere gratitude to our local facilitator and coordinator, Maite Hidalgo, who invited us to Tarapoto, Dra. Martiza Requeja la Torre from the National University of San Martin, the Dean of the University Dr. Aquilino Mesia Garcia Bautista, the faculty, students and admin staff who engaged with our students and supported us in many ways including facilities for our final presentations.

We are also grateful to all the stakeholders who engaged with our four OPEs, including the Mayor Tedy Del Aguila Gronerth and leading managers at the municipality of Tarapoto, business leaders and heads of the chamber of commerce, business owners, social entrepreneurs, local organisers and community leaders, and residents and visitors who so kindly offered our students their time, insights and trust to better understand the city from its diverse perspectives. Last but not least the UED team is also grateful for the hard work, passion and creative thinking of our students.

We hope you all enjoyed our 4-year engagement and enjoy reading through our 3 winning reports from last year (available in English and Spanish).



Durante los últimos 4 años, los estudiantes de la Maestría en Desarrollo Económico Urbano se han involucrado con actores interesados en el desarrollo local y regional de Tarapoto, una pequeña ciudad maravillosa en la selva amazónica en el norte de Perú.

El propósito de nuestras excursiones (o lo que ahora llamamos Compromisos de Práctica en el Extranjero – OPE) es doble: Por un lado, el OPE es una oportunidad para que los estudiantes pongan la teoría en práctica; por otro, es una oportunidad para que los estudiantes desarrollen conocimientos que puedan influir en conversaciones locales sobre el futuro de las ciudades con las que nos relacionamos. Juntos tratamos de dar sentido a lo que está sucediendo y, con la ayuda y los conocimientos de actores interesados, imaginamos un futuro potencial equitativo, sostenible y ecológico.

Las características encantadoras de la ciudad de Tarapoto hoy se remontan a 1970 cuando era un pequeño pueblo de 30.000 habitantes caracterizado por casas de una sola planta y donde caminar y andar en motocicleta (y moto-taxis) fueron y siguen siendo los medios de transporte de elección. Se ha convertido en una pequeña ciudad con una población de aprox. 200.000 habitantes. Ha mantenido su encanto; Tarapoto tiene muchos árboles pavimentando las calles y flores violetas que junto con sus coloridas viviendas de poca altura la hacen una ciudad muy encantadora, pero a una escala mayor sus dolores de crecimiento están comenzando a ejercer presión sobre la ciudad y sus residentes. Nuestros grupos de estudiantes durante los últimos 4 años se enfocaron en los principales desafíos y oportunidades de la ciudad, imaginando un futuro más inclusivo y sostenible para Tarapoto.

Un tema común investigado por los grupos de estudiantes fue el de los mototaxis y la movilidad en general en la ciudad y sus regiones circundantes, a las que el núcleo urbano está integralmente conectado de forma social y económica. Los mototaxis son extremadamente convenientes (fáciles de encontrar la mayor parte del tiempo, pero no siempre ni en todas partes) y refrescantes ya que la brisa fresca barre los rostros de los pasajeros, creando una sensación de libertad y aventura al moverse por la ciudad. También ofrecen una fuente de ingresos a una gran parte de la población que posee su propio mototaxi, incluido lo que en el Reino Unido llamaríamos trabajadores administrativos.

Los mototaxis también son muy ruidosos, emiten gases tóxicos en el aire que las personas respiran y contribuyen al calentamiento global, y son relativamente peligrosos (los accidentes de tráfico son fatales por su propia naturaleza pero también por el propio sistema de carreteras) y también son percibidos como  insegurosen ciertos momentos del día o en ciertos lugares, particularmente para las mujeres que viajan solas (a nuestros estudiantes se les recomendó viajar siempre en parejas). Sin embargo, los mototaxis de Tarapoto son muy queridos tanto por los residentes como por los visitantes, y han sido el foco de investigación de nuestros grupos de estudiantes durante los últimos 4 años. Hemos traducido y publicado la investigación de nuestro grupo ganador de los 3 grupos de estudiantes que enfocaron su trabajo en moto-taxis y movilidad en Tarapoto el año pasado, disponible para descargar aquí. Tarapoto es una región con una ciudad en su núcleo. Lo urbano y lo rural han estado interconectados desde que los comerciantes de productos agrícolas comenzaron a aglomerarse en la ciudad, conectando el Café y Cacao entre otros productos cultivados en la región con los mercados nacionales y globales. En retrospectiva, a nivel mundial, miramos hacia atrás en la revolución verde y vemos la deforestación y la devastación de la biodiversidad, así como la economía de la gran agricultura de monocultivo que empuja a las personas, a los pequeños agricultores, fuera de la tierra a las ciudades que luchan por proporcionarles la vivienda, a la infraestructura y a los servicios asequibles que los seres humanos necesitan para vivir una buena vida.

Afortunadamente, Tarapoto no sufre el tipo de indigencia evidente en muchas ciudades más grandes del mundo, principalmente en el Sur Global, pero no exclusivamente. Por lo tanto, la ciudad lucha con el desafío y la oportunidad de un futuro ecológico y agrega más valor a una gama más diversa de productos agrícolas que pueden aportar mayor sostenibilidad y valor a la ciudad y la región. Los invito a acceder a nuestro informe de estudiantes ganadores del año pasado, seleccionados de los 3 grupos dedicados al tema de la agricultura y el procesamiento agrícola en Tarapoto disponibles aquí.

El turismo es uno de los sectores de más rápido crecimiento de la región. Los turistas aterrizan en Tarapoto en un aeropuerto bien conectado y bien mantenido (un aeropuerto acogedor y acogedor a pequeña escala) y utilizan a la ciudad de Tarapoto como base para el turismo regional. El turismo es un sector atractivo para muchas ciudades porque es el único sector cuyos mercados de exportación llegan a ti. Sin duda, existe un elemento de exportación de servicios a través del marketing y otras iniciativas promocionales en el extranjero para ayudar a generar conciencia y atracción, pero esencialmente el mercado se acerca a usted (vender una cena de 3 platos a un turista japonés similar a empaquetar la comida y enviar a la gente en Japón).




Hacer turismo bien es, por tanto, una oportunidad económica extremadamente atractiva para las ciudades, pero también es muy intrusivo y, si no se gestiona bien, tiene una gran huella medioambiental y consume recursos. También puede aumentar en lugar de reducir la desigualdad y terminar desviando una gran parte del valor generado a los inversores internacionales, dejando a los locales con trabajos precarios y no tan interesantes y con salarios bajos. Si se hace bien, contribuye a que los lugareños interactúen con personas de todo el mundo, aportando nuevas ideas y perspectivas, celebrando y sacando a relucir su herencia cultural, su arte y cultura y creando oportunidades empresariales e iniciativas comunitarias que generan valor e ingresos para las personas y las comunidades. Puede acceder al informe del grupo ganador de los grupos de estudiantes del año pasado sobre Turismo aquí.


Todos nosotros, estudiantes y personal de la Maestría de la DPU. en Desarrollo Económico Urbano extendemos nuestro más sincero agradecimiento a nuestra facilitadora y coordinadora local, Maite Hidalgo, quien nos invitó a Tarapoto, Dra. Martiza Requeja la Torre de la Universidad Nacional de San Martín, el Decano de la Universidad Dr. Aquilino Mesia García Bautista, la facultad, los estudiantes y el personal administrativo que se relacionaron con nuestros estudiantes y nos apoyaron de muchas maneras, incluidas las instalaciones para nuestras presentaciones finales.



También estamos agradecidos a todos los interesados ​​que se involucraron con nuestras cuatro OPE, incluido el alcalde Tedy Del Aguila Gronerth y los principales gerentes del municipio de Tarapoto, líderes empresariales y jefes de la cámara de comercio, dueños de negocios, emprendedores sociales, organizadores locales y líderes comunitarios, residentes y visitantes que tan amablemente ofrecieron a nuestros estudiantes su tiempo, conocimientos y confianza para comprender mejor la ciudad desde sus diversas perspectivas. Por último, pero no menos importante, el equipo de la UED también está agradecido por el arduo trabajo, la pasión y el pensamiento creativo de nuestros estudiantes.


Esperamos que todos hayan disfrutado de nuestro compromiso de 4 años y disfruten leyendo nuestros 3 informes ganadores del año pasado (disponibles en Inglés y Español).

Reflections from the frontline: Does environmental sustainability have a problem with social justice? (Part 1)

By Nick Anim, on 1 April 2021

The question about whether environmental sustainability has a problem with social justice seems rather wrong, right? At first glance, it appears a bit abstract because what it is asking us to do is to interrogate a dialectical relationship between two contested concepts that have no determinate meanings. Upon further thought, the question beckons a somewhat counterintuitive analysis because in many spheres we simply assume to be true, and therefore take for granted, the proposition that environmental sustainability and social justice are not only interconnected but also interdependent in a relationship of mutual reinforcement on the same virtuous circle. Indeed, notions such as sustainable development, environmental justice, climate justice and just sustainabilities, whilst being conceptually distinguishable, all endeavour to promote and/or uphold that assumption. Here at the DPU, our main goal of “planning for socially just and sustainable development in the Global South” also contributes to the omnipotence and omnipresence of that canon.

It has been argued elsewhere that whilst environmental sustainability and social justice share a common organising concern around issues of scarcity, they do very different things with it (cf. Campbell, 2013; Dobson, 1998; Irvine and Ponton, 1988). On the one hand, environmentalism centres on questions of extinction, reducing the consumption of non-renewable resources, increasing the use of renewable resources, and decreasing the aggregate amount of waste generated by industrial and other processes of production. On the other hand, social justice concerns centre around the fair sharing or distribution of benefits and burdens in the socio-political community.

On that basis, having different centres of gravity means their objectives will almost always conflict as environmentalists focus on intergenerational justice, and social justice activists demand intragenerational justice. From that perspective, the differences between them are not merely of ambition, but also of tactics. Any convergence of the two ideologies, then, it has been argued (ibid), should be taken as a temporary marriage of convenience with no conjugal rights, and will thereby produce no empirical evidence to validate claims of their universal compatibility.

Now, although those arguments about the lack of empirical evidence may hold true and excite theoretical discussions and diagnoses in the ivory towers of academe, it is not my intention here to excavate, re-examine and confirm or contest them in this short piece. Rather, what I propose to do is to interrogate that opening question through the reflexive lens of my activism with two prominent environmental movements, Extinction Rebellion (XR), and the Transition Network (TN). Both movements can be understood in terms of adopting a glocal focus in their approach to environmentalism; think globally, act locally. In that regard, their organisational structures are very similar; place-based, decentralised and highly networked.

Where XR and TN differ is in their collective action repertoires and processes. XR pursues a broad spectrum of high-impact performative ‘Capital-A activism’ repertoires of civil disobedience that show a moral outrage against the machinations of predatory capitalism and its inherent contradictions which perpetuate environmental despoliation (see Harvey, 2014). In contrast, the TN model subscribes to Buckminster Fuller’s aphorism that “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Accordingly, the TN promotes a solutions-based approach which encourages groups to experiment with niche innovations such as local currencies, local energy production, and food initiatives.

It is worth noting here that whilst XR and TN occupy distinct spaces in the ecosystem of contemporary environmental activism, there is some level of cross-pollination of activists between the two movements. Perhaps most importantly for the purpose of this piece, there is considerable consistency in the viewpoints of activists regarding the question of whether environmental sustainability has a problem with social justice. Bringing that question down from the ‘ivory tower of academe’ to the frontline of activism, the kindred question to ask, then, is, do environmentalists have a problem with incorporating social justice claims into their strategic demands?

Drawing from my reflexive diaries of notes taken following conversations with over a hundred activists in both groups, it is clear that there is a significant minority of just under 25% of activists in XR and TN who strongly believe that the clear course of their demands will somehow be muddied by incorporating issues of social justice. That figure increases to just over 32% when the proposed pivot is towards accommodating matters of racial justice. To be clear here, almost all activists sympathised with, and showed enlightened concern for, the cries and demands of social, economic, and racial justice. However, many argued that the introduction of the aforementioned justice concerns might prove too politically divisive and thus threaten the critical ‘mass factor’ necessary to trigger the tipping points for regime change (see, Centola et al., 2018) with regard to the status quo of damaging environmental practices.

Further, as many activists pointed out, there are a plethora of well-established social, justice, economic justice, and racial justice movements already attending to those issues. On that last point about the existence of other movements for various issues of social justice, the inescapable question to ask here at this point, then, is ‘how can environmental movements and movements for social justice build solidarity across differences?’ That is the question I propose to tackle in the next offering of my ‘Reflections from the Frontline’. For now, I will end this short piece by suggesting that the opening question is one that in many ways reflects the state of the union in terms of how humanity is organised on Earth. We find ourselves in the middle of two simultaneous emergencies. On the one hand, we face the twinned climate and ecological breakdown, and on the other hand an emergency of persistent inequalities within and between countries.

Taken together, it becomes clear that humanity is facing something of an identity crisis; a crisis of belonging and othering. As Covid-19 stalks the Earth, threatening to, as viruses so often do, mutate the living daylights out of available vaccines and continue to disrupt everything, we are forced to pause and reflect on how rapidly things can change. In the last twelve months during the pandemic, so many things that we were always told were not possible, suddenly became possible. Amidst speculative visions of dystopian futures predicated on haphazard government responses that demonstrated a mixture of chaotic politics and politicised chaos, measures such as national lockdowns, social distancing and quarantining, fuelled cycles of fear, despair, social isolation and division, and great uncertainty.

Against that backdrop, many place-based movements such as XR and TN have taken a leading role in engaging in mutual support, providing basic needs and solidarity in their community and beyond. What lessons can activists learn from this experience to help the coalescence of environmental movements and movements for social justice in post pandemic activism?



Campbell, S.D., 2013. Sustainable development and social justice: Conflicting urgencies and the search for common ground in urban and regional planning. Michigan Journal of Sustainability, 1.

Centola, D., Becker, J., Brackbill, D. and Baronchelli, A., 2018. Experimental evidence for tipping points in social convention. Science, 360(6393), pp.1116-1119. Accessed via: https://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/20031/1/

Dobson, A., 1998. Justice and the environment: Conceptions of environmental sustainability and theories of distributive justice. Clarendon Press.

Harvey, D., 2014. Seventeen contradictions and the end of capitalism. Oxford University Press, USA. Accessed via: https://www.marefa.org/images/3/3f/Harvey14.pdf

Irvine, S. and Ponton, A., 1988. A Green Manifesto: Policies for a Green Future. Vintage.

Designing safe cities for women: The green space, gender, safety nexus in London

By Reshma Kumar, on 18 March 2021

Part of the HUD Urban Profiles blog series.

Designing safe cities for women: The green space, gender, safety nexus in London

The Healthy Cities movement from the World Health Organisation, established a focus for understanding the relationship between our environment and health, including the responsibility of local governments. A healthy, sustainable city is one that provides access to safe and inclusive public green space. This is highlighted, specifically for vulnerable populations, including women, under Sustainable Development Goal 11.

Data from the ONS shows that 44% of London residents live within a five-minute walking distance of a park. This is important as Londoners are less likely than residents living in the rest of the UK to have access to a private garden, and the Mayor of London has incorporated the promotion of green spaces in to cross-sectoral policy, as illustrated in the Health Inequalities Strategy.

However, poorly designed public space can increase the occurrence of harassment and threats. It is important that we pay attention to how the experience of green space can differ across gender, race, age, sexuality, disability and economic status. In London, women report, at twice the rate of men, that safety is a barrier to walking in public space.

What are the benefits of green space?


The positive effects of green space are well documented. Physical benefits include healthier immune systems, improved cardiovascular health, decreased exposure to noise and air pollution and promotion of physical activity. To add to this, the mental health benefits consist of promoting social interaction, lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and lifting mood.

More must be done to question how accessible these spaces really are, and who benefits from them. 59% of people surveyed in London found they had become more attune to the importance of green space for their wellbeing during lockdown. Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of green space, as well as concerns around women’s safety. The pandemic has not only affected access to services and livelihoods, but has also restricted women’s freedom of movement, and freedom from violence.

Lived experiences and safety perceptions

The intersection between space and gender is influenced by subtle, underlying power dynamics within society. Women are one of the groups who are underrepresented in green spaces and hence feel unsafe. Reflected across the UK, disaggregated data further shows that BAME women in particular are less likely to be visibly present in green spaces.

Despite green spaces being recognized as places of escape, the fear of violence can present as a barrier to accessing them. Our identity influences how we experience and shape space and place, including the levels of psychosocial and physical risk we face. 1 in 5 women in London go through sexual assault, with 40% recorded having taken place in public spaces.

In quieter spaces there is the appearance of having fewer ‘eyes on the street’, leading to the impression of weaker public safety. Throughout green space in London other factors accompanying this include poorly lit areas, badly constructed pathways and enclosed, less visible areas with blind spots.

How can we create safer green spaces?

Multiple tools have been used globally to encourage women friendly spaces and increase awareness of these issues. Recording this sensitive data whilst also paying attention to anonymity are essential to guaranteeing reporters’ safety and encouraging women to disclose this information to create safer, more accessible green spaces.

  • The UN Safe Cities and Public spaces programme works with local organisations and governments to eliminate violence and sexual harassment in public spaces; empowering women and enhancing their freedom of movement, access to services, cultural activities and in turn better health.
  • The ‘Hollaback!’ project is an app and website to anonymously document harassment that occurs in public spaces. It uses this data to drive dialogue and action with stakeholders such as Transport for London and the End Violence Against Women Coalition.
  • The ‘Women’s Safety Audit’ is a checklist incorporating the lived experiences of women, identifying safety concerns specific to a local area. A recommendations report is presented to planners to improve design features which may not have been recognised as causing concern.
  • Finally, lack of diversity and understanding of these spaces is reflected in industry. In the UK in 2018, 74% of architects were male. And within horticulture, only 15% of employees were female, with 10-20% from a BAME background. Working towards encouraging women into these industries can aid in bringing an intersectional perspective in to planning and design.


The urban environment is constantly adapting to the needs of its residents. But cities continue to be spaces of inequality, and it is necessary for our green environments to be inclusive spaces, if all groups within society are to gain from the positive effects of nature. Allowing the spaces for different voices and perspectives to be heard throughout policy and design processes will aid in producing safer, more equitable green spaces across London.



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