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Experimental modes of urban design research: BUDD in Cambodia

GiovannaAstolfo2 June 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: strategies for city wide upgrading (BUDD students)

Image: strategies for city wide upgrading (BUDD students)

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


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

Participatory Action Upgrading and Well-Being in Kisumu, Kenya

StephanieButcher22 June 2013

From February – June 2013, the MSc Social Development Practice (SDP) partnered with the international NGO Practical Action to pursue an ‘action-learning’ project entitled “Participatory Informal Settlement Upgrading and Well-Being”, focusing on the city of Kisumu, Kenya. The research process consisted of three months of desktop research and policy analysis in London, and two and a half weeks of primary field research in Kisumu in late April. In Kisumu, SDP students were joined by colleagues from Maseno University and the Great Lakes University of Kisumu, to collaboratively undertake the fieldwork research.
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The Participatory Informal Settlement Upgrading and Well-Being partnership opened in early February 2013, when fourteen SDP masters students were introduced to the project. Students were asked to examine four different water and sanitation interventions within three unplanned settlements in Kisumu. Three of the projects were implemented with the support of Practical Action as a part of their People’s Plans into Practice (PPP) programme—a participatory planning initiative that works through the local Neighborhood Planning Associations to identify and address settlement upgrading priorities.  The final project was implemented under the Kenyan Government’s Local Authority Service Delivery Action Plan (LASDAP), a participatory planning process with devolved funding, chosen to serve as a point of comparison with the NGO models.

Each selected case represented a different model of service delivery, including a waste pickers social enterprise, a water spring / eco-sanitation toilet community facility, a water kiosk run through the delegated management model, and the LASDAP community toilet run as a pro-poor public-private partnership. The focus of the action-learning platform was two-fold. Students were firstly asked to assess the well-being impacts of their particular model of service delivery, exploring dimensions including dignity, health, empowerment, security, recognition, accessibility, and equity in relation to diverse identities within the settlements. Secondly, students were asked to explore the wider institutional environment and urban context in which the models were embedded, to comment upon the potential for scaling up and sustaining the positive participatory processes underlying each model.

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This SDP collaboration with Practical Action emerged out of the mutual interest in exploring ‘human well-being’ as the objective of development. For Practical Action, this is reflected in their new vision that examines the concept of ‘technology justice’ through the lens of well-being. This recently established narrative seeks to elucidate the linkages between the material impacts of Practical Action’s small-scale technologies and ‘relational well-being’, which refers to people’s abilities to participate in decision-making that affects their lives. Drawing from Sen’s (1989) Capability Approach, for the SDP team this offered a useful entry point to start exploring the operationalization of well-being theories in development practice.

Throughout the course of the research project, the SDP students highlighted a number of key findings and experimented with a series of methodologies to stimulate discussions on well-being. Here, the analytical focus on material and relational well-being proved critical in highlighting the different processes and impacts underlying each intervention. Notably, while all the projects facilitated greater access to basic services such as water and sanitation, and supported resident associations to manage the provision of these goods—each still faced certain structural barriers to scaling-up these institutional relationships to generate wider relational gains. What emerged from the research was that that such institutional change required challenging the predominant vision of the ‘citizen as consumer’ embedded in key policy documents and in the rhetoric of the Kisumu municipal council.

The market-oriented approach to the provision of water and sanitation services was problematic for particularly vulnerable residents that might have to prioritize amongst a set of financial demands, the individualized approach to service delivery was not sufficient to address collective challenges such as waste collection in public spaces, and public-private partnerships often represented gains for the public sector in the form of increased efficiency and reduced expenditures, while leaving small private operators or the managing community groups with a greater share of risk and responsibility. Thus while students found that Practical Action played a key role in the development and support of networked residents—taking advantage of devolved spaces of governance as stipulated in the recent reforms of the Kenyan Constitution in 2010—the potential of these spaces were not fully unlocked when implemented within this wider market-based narrative.

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Here, the added-value of a well-being approach was in allowing for a subjective interpretation of the quality and inclusivity of the relationships established through the Practical Action and LASDAP interventions. This allowed for an analysis that unfolded how different identities, including men, women, children, tenants, landlords or elected community representatives, experienced each service delivery model, and helped to qualify the (sometimes fuzzy) concept of community participation in planning processes. As the SDP-Practical Action partnership moves forward, a key area of interest will be in the examination of these subjective and relational dimensions, looking to explore both methodologically and conceptually how this focus on well-being can continue to inform Practical Action interventions, and wider development discourse.

Sen, A. (1989). Development as Capability Expansion. Journal of Development Planning 19: 41–58, reprinted in Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and A.K. Shiva Kumar, eds. 2003. Readings in Human Development, pp. 3–16. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stephanie Butcher is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU.