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

CindyHuang4 October 2016

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

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

Universal design, defined

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

No rules attached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Designing for Thai society

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

“Lit Eyes”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What this means for urban resilience

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

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

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

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

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

 

References:

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


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

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

GiovannaAstolfo23 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

Community savings: mobilising for secure tenure and housing in Davao

Laura JHirst7 April 2015

Barangay Payatas, a Quezon City neighbourbood, is home to the Philippines’ largest landfill site, where up to 500 truckloads of waste are dumped daily, and on whose slopes hundreds of people live and work, many of them scavenging for recyclable waste.

It’s here that the foundations of HPFPI were laid in the early 1990s, by Vincentian missionaries who initiated social initiatives with the waste-pickers or mangangalahigs (so-called ‘chicken-scratchers’). This included a savings programme, and as participant numbers in Payatas grew, so too did news of its success.

HPFPI Davao orienting community associations on the savings process. © Laura Hirst

HPFPI Davao orienting community associations on the savings process. © Laura Hirst

Mobilisation through savings

Other communities from cities across the Philippines visited and formed savings groups back home and in 2001, the Homeless People’s Federation Philippines (HPFPI) was incorporated. Today, the savings programme still underpins HPFPI’s community-driven interventions; whenever a group is organised, the first group project is savings.

The idea is that mobilisation through savings can develop communities’ financial capacity to invest in and plan their own developments, through for example negotiating and managing land acquisition, relocation, or on-site upgrading. As a social mechanism, savings brings community members together regularly for support, to exchange ideas and strategies and over time build capacity to negotiate with the state, private sector or other stakeholders to gain secure tenure.

Mobilisation through community mapping, Barangay Ilang. © Laura Hirst

Mobilisation through community mapping, Barangay Ilang. © Laura Hirst

Urban challenges in Davao

Davao, where I am currently working, is the primary city of the southern island of Mindanao. Geographically, it’s very different to Metro Manila, mainly thanks to its low population density and relative greenery. However, it’s still highly urbanised, and with a quarter of the city’s population classed as ‘urban poor’, many of its inhabitants are subject to the same urban trends that proliferate in the National Capital Region.

Davao has a severe lack of affordable land and housing options for low income families, resulting in the spread of informal settlements, often on hazardous land, illegally, with minimal service provision, and at risk of eviction. The huge housing backlog is being addressed at a painfully slow rate by local government, making the work of community-based organisations like HPFPI and the Philippine Alliance vital.

From individual to federated savings groups

Since I’ve been in Davao, I’ve witnessed how savings groups become part of the federation in a number of ways. Some approach the federation directly, encouraged by word of mouth, but also driven by imminent threats to their security. We were recently contacted by community groups in the Ma’a neighbourhood who, having heard of the federation’s work, requested a savings orientation. They are facing eviction from the private land they are occupying and want to mobilise to search for and acquire a relocation site.

A similar eviction threat to the Arroyo settlement (home to 3000 + households and located close to the HPFPI office), has mobilised federation members to encourage their neighbours to start saving in order to be ready to respond to any future plans for the land. Savings here have previously paid for legal fees to fight similar eviction orders.

The federation also reaches out and extends support to areas which have experienced natural disasters, as well as encouraging savings groups, as in Arroyo, which has suffered fatal floods in recent years. Additionally, partnerships between local government and the alliance can pave the way for the introduction of savings and community mobilisation.

HPFPI Davao orienting community associations on the savings process. © Laura Hirst

© Laura Hirst

Current projects of the Philippine Alliance

The Alliance is currently constructing houses as part of a large relocation project at a site called Los Amigos, which has initiated a new group of savers. We are also facilitating community mapping of a number of informal settlements in an industrial area of the city, for community planning purposes, supported by a progressive local government unit.

We hope that this will act as a catalyst for these communities to create savings groups, supporting the planning process with increased social and financial capital. The strength of the savings programme has also allowed communities in Davao to access funds through the ACHR Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA) programme for upgrading projects to address problems of land, infrastructure and housing at scale, often in partnership with local government.

These have included bridges (including the now world-famous, and rather beautiful bamboo bridge in Arroyo), flood defences and structure upgrading across a number of communities.

Models of community saving schemes

The federation’s model of savings comprises several different funds, amounting to five pesos (about 7 pence) a day; an Urban Poor Development Fund (loanable, for projects to develop the area) and group savings (withdrawable anytime for emergency use) are kept by the community, whilst a monthly contribution to a city fund helps HPFPI to sustain its activities, and build a revolving loan fund at the city level.

Each group is also encouraged to save 150 pesos a month for future land purchases. Groups meet weekly and there are rules about the collection and storage of money for transparency and accountability.

Whilst the model appears straightforward, as with any community mobilisation work, challenges arise from group to group. During my first month here, each Saturday we visited each of the HPFPI affiliated community associations in Davao to assess and understand their current situation and any problems they were experiencing.

Mobilisation through community mapping, Barangay Ilang. © Laura Hirst

Mobilisation through community mapping, Barangay Ilang. © Laura Hirst

Community organisation is complex

Mobilisation depends greatly on the huge commitment of voluntary time and effort of the HPFPI ‘mothers’ and coordinators; during the early days of a group’s formation members need orientation and training in record keeping.

In the long term groups also need to be sustained and encouraged; groups can succumb to savings fatigue, and become discouraged about slow progress and gains. Some associations in Davao are comprised of members who have mobilised for land acquisition but are spread living across different sites, which brings practical problems in terms of regular savings collection and meetings.

Leadership issues, schisms within associations and mismanagement of savings do occur, and in these cases, the mothers need to employ huge sensitivity and diplomacy to navigate community politics, histories, relationships and individuals to maintain strong community associations that can continue the struggle for secure tenure.

How can emerging challenges be overcome?

In light of our visits, we’ve been discussing ways to address some of these problems. We hope to start piloting a few changes to the model with new groups, such as rotating responsibility amongst all members for collecting savings on a weekly basis, so that everyone feels included and responsible for the group’s financial status.

Community and leadership exchanges between stronger and weaker groups are planned, to strengthen the situation of those currently struggling through sharing learning and successes across the city.

We hope that at the same time we can build on these activities to reinforce and deepen the (often challenging) ambition of the alliance to develop a strong, organised and engaged citywide platform for communities to discuss, plan and build their way to secure tenure and housing.


Laura Hirst is currently working in Davao City with the Philippine Alliance as part of the DPU-CAN-ACHR junior professional internship programme. She is an MSc Social Development Practice graduate and a former Graduate Teaching Assistant for the programme. Her interests include participatory urban governance and social diversity, gender justice, participatory processes and methodologies and photography. She has previously worked at the UCL Urban Laboratory as well as for Leonard Cheshire Disability, PhotoVoice and One World Action in the UK, civil society organisations in Peru and Cameroon and on action research projects in London, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

This contribution is the latest in a mini series of posts from our interns in the Philippines. Read blog 1, on the Philippine Alliance and blog 2, on Community Mapping in Metro Manila.

Experiences in community mapping

MariangelaVeronesi24 March 2015

The Philippine Alliance, where I am currently interning for 6 months as part of TAMPEI, has been involved in community mapping since 2013, when the first pilot project was conducted in the city of Valenzuela within Metro Manila. You can read about this in the Grounding Knowledge booklet produced by the 2013 DPU interns.

The purpose of participatory mapping is for the community, in partnership with the Alliance’s technical assistance team, TAMPEI, and the Homeless People’s Federation, to gather detailed physical and social information about an area. This reliable data serves as the basis for further planning, design and negotiation for upgrading or for relocation.

It can also initiate mobilisation, increase awareness over local issues and allow the community leaders and members to build up technical and organisational skills. This video about mapping by CAN/ACHR is worth having a look at!

Interviews with community members and settlement mapping training in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila

Interviews with community members and settlement mapping training in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila

Creating a Base Map

TAMPEI assists on the technical side of the process, while the Homeless People’s Federation oversees the community engagement component of mapping. A Core Team is established, usually made up of community leaders and representatives of various local institutions, and is trained by TAMPEI in spot mapping (creating a map outlining streets and landmarks), photo documentation, GPS boundary/landmark mapping and interviews.

These methods are then used by the Core Team to carry out an ocular visit of the areas to be mapped, which permits the collection of a first layer of information for the creation of a base map and brief description of the settlements. It is also a great way to start interacting with the wider community and its members, to explain the purpose of mapping in preparation for the steps to come.

Muntinlupa Core Team involved in GPS mapping during the ocular visit

Muntinlupa Core Team involved in GPS mapping during the ocular visit

Collecting Information at Household Level

The next phase actively involves the community in mapping out individual structures and collecting information at household level. The community representatives introduce the idea to the other members, the structures are mapped out on the base map, allocated a number, and the household survey forms (demographic data and housing information) are then filled out according to the structure numbering.

Within this phase, a focus group with the leaders and/or the elderly is conducted to create an in depth Settlement Profile (characteristics, issues, state of housing and infrastructure, access to services, employment opportunities, etc). Once this stage is completed, the Core Team encodes the data and a complete map is created to be presented to the community for validation.

Collection of structure and household information in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila

Collection of structure and household information in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila

The mapping procedure follows the CAN/ACHR methodology, although it is adapted along the way to fit with each specific context.

As part of the Metro Manila team, I’ve mostly been involved in mapping in the city of Muntinlupa: located along the Laguna de Bay lake and characterised by several high risk zones and widespread insecurity of tenure. So far it has been a very insightful experience terms of seeing the mapping being carried in practice and in furthering my learning on working with communities.

Lessons learnt during the process so far

One aspect I have found really interesting is the importance of flexibility, the ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, the capacity to modify plans, tools and methodologies while maintaining clear objectives and ensure they are met. Basically, at times things don’t seem to really go as initially planned… and that’s ok! It really is. As long as the process comes together and the goals are reached, it is ok to adapt and change plans.

Both small and big lessons are accumulated through time, and can help improve the process for the next mapping exercise. For example, some of the materials used to create the maps turned out to not be so user friendly and had to be rethought (at times sticking symbols for landmarks seems to be better than writing directly to avoid being confronted with undecipherable handwritings!).

These methodologies and lessons are shared across the regional offices. One occasion was during training that took place in Davao, Mindanao in March, where the Metro Manila team had a chance to share but also to learn from a specific local context that was quite different the capital. Key distinctions identified were working with different religious communities, language barriers due to difference in dialects, and on average lower income levels.

Community mapping in Ilang, Davao

Community mapping in Ilang, Davao

Clarity in communication

The importance of communication with the Core Team and with the community has struck me as eessential, especially in terms of clarifying the objectives and purposes of mapping, and of avoiding misunderstanding, misplaced expectations or conflicts.

For example, if communication is ineffective one of the recurrent issues we encountered is community members believing that by flagging up their house they might either be able to obtain a new one for free, or might be faced with eviction… The real objective was simply to collect data! This misunderstanding can lead to people refusing to engage in the activity, or signaling more houses than they actually own…

Another aspect that caught my attention is how the process varies according to many factors such as the actors involved, the type of incentives created to participate , and the trade-off between participation in the activity and other engagements, thought to the size of the community, the urgency of the need for a new plan for the neighbourhood and other considerations such as the layout of the community.

These changed from one place to the other, and even within the same areas varied significantly. Juggling between all these different considerations has possibly been the most challenging but stimulating aspects so far!

The goal of the mapping process

The ultimate goal of mapping is to inform planning and design, so that the solutions that TAMPEI and the communities elaborate together can truly respond to local needs. The organisational capacity, skills and data that results from this process guarantee greater power to the communities when it comes to engaging as an active group and pledge for change.

It is a fascinating process which brings many issues to light, but still remains a challenge: sometimes there is a pressure to move onto more ‘tangible’ aspects such as land purchase, access to loans, planning and design. I will be looking forward to see how this ties into the next steps and hopefully, since in the case of Muntinlupa it is being carried out at city-wide level, how this translates into more comprehensive and holistic development for the area.

Mapping training in Ilang, Davao

Mapping training in Ilang, Davao


Mariangela Veronesi graduated from Environment and Sustainable Development in 2012 and has since been working on the World Habitat Awards for sustainable and innovative solutions to housing issues (www.worldhabitatawards.org) at the Building and Social Housing Foundation. She is also the co-founder of Bugs for Life (www.bugsforlife.org), a non-profit organisation for the promotion of edible insects, both in the UK and in West Africa, as a sustainable option contributing to global food insecurity. She is currently working in Metro manila with the Philippine Alliance National Team as part of the 6 months joint DPU-CAN-ACHR internship programme. Her interests also include gender issues and informal economies.