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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Just Sustainabilities and the New Urban Agenda

By ucfuvca, on 5 August 2016

Originally published by Urban Transformations

Will 2016 be an urban year in international development policy? In September 2015, the United Nations Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to supersede the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). One notable feature was the introduction of an ‘urban goal’, Goal 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Planning is at the centre of the new urban goal. It includes an explicit planning target, Target 11.3: “By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.” Target 11.3 synthetizes a long history of international development thinking to make cities sustainable through planning.

The target also emphasises the relationship between inclusive development and sustainability. In doing so, the target expresses explicitly the interconnection between social and environmental issues in planning. By emphasising capacity, the target also points to a fundamental issue in planning for sustainable cities: that institutions with the power to carry on sustainable action, or even to understand what sustainable action is, are frequently absent. The target specifies how planning has to be: it has to be participatory, integrated and sustainable. This last adjective emphasises that sustainability is both a characteristic of the output, i.e., a sustainable city, and of the process whereby that output is achieved: i.e. participatory, integrated.14157883749_8f55b61a29_k

To a certain extent, Target 11.3 follows on from the guidelines of Chapter 7 in Local Agenda 21 that was later consolidated in the Habitat II agenda in Istanbul, 1996. The assertive formulation of Target 11.3, putting at its core both participation and integrated planning, suggests an association of planning and urban management with social and environmental justice objectives. As part of the preparations for the Habitat III conference in Quito 2016, UN-Habitat has promoted the slogan “the transformative force of urbanisation”. The slogan is designed to harness the energy emerging from positive views of urbanization which do not just see it as an unavoidable global phenomenon, but embrace it as a positive force with the potential to change unsustainable societies. The use of the word ‘transformative’, however, suggests a radical departure from business as usual scenarios, a deep structural change that will not only reconfigure cities but also, will reconfigure contemporary societies and economies towards a fairer world which respects its environment. Overall, the link between inclusive and sustainable cities, the emphasis on the sustainability of both processes and outputs, and the framing of planning as a tool for radical change towards a better society all point to a greater interest on achieving environmental and social justice in urban areas. The central question that should be asked in the road towards implementation of SDG 11 and in the preparations for Habitat III is: what kind of planning can bring about cities that are both sustainable and just?


The protection of the Earth’s life-support system and poverty reduction are twin priorities for development. In relation to the new urban agenda, this is akin to achieving ‘just sustainabilities’ through linking social welfare and environmental protection (Agyeman et al. 2003, Agyeman 2013). Just sustainabilities approaches have the potential to reinvigorate notions of sustainability in the new urban agenda, helping link environmental concerns with the needs and perceptions of citizens, and their articulation in social movements.

23090523285_5b350f70ae_kThe notion of just sustainabilities emerged as a response to the 1990s debates on sustainable development, and how sustainability goals in an urban context reproduced, rather than prevented, the conditions of inequality and environmental degradation. In urban planning, there has long been a concern about the limitations of using sustainability-oriented urban policies to address social justice issues (Marcuse 1998). Political theorists have questioned broadly where social justice and environmental sustainability are actually compatible (Dobson 1998, Dobson 2003). However, for proponents of just sustainabilities, social justice and environmental sustainability are interdependent problems that challenge existing power structures (McLaren 2003).

The linkages between environmental change and social justice are apparent in empirical evidence of how environmental degradation and resource scarcity is experienced by the urban poor. Unsafe and inadequate water supplies, inadequate provision of sanitation and waste management, overcrowding, lack of safety, and different forms of air and water pollution continue to shape the lives of many citizens around the world (e.g. Hardoy and Satterthwaite 1991, Forsyth et al. 1998, Brennan 1999, HEI 2004, WHO 2009, UNDP 2014). For example, almost 10% of deaths in low-income regions are directly attributed to environmental risks such as unsafe water, outdoor and indoor air pollution, lead exposure and impacts from climate change (WHO 2009). Poverty and inequalities in access to resources and livelihood opportunities increase the vulnerability of the urban poor to climate change impacts and natural disasters (Revi et al. 2014). By 2030, the global demand for energy and water will likely grow by 40%, while for food it may increase by as much as 50% (ODI/ECDPM/GDI/DIE 2012). This is likely to further hinder poor people’s access to even basic resources. For example, the number of people without energy access is raising, regardless of infrastructure developments or urbanisation rates (IEA 2014).


Incorporating notions of justice in environmental policy and planning emphasises both the distributional impacts of environmental degradation and resource scarcity and the need to adopt decisions that emerge from a fair and open process of policy-making. This also requires broadening the notion of justice beyond a narrow distributive conceptualisation with a recognition of how environmental problems are experienced by diverse groups of actors – especially those which are disadvantaged and struggle to make their views known – the extent to which they are represented and participate in environmental decision-making, and how environmental policy influences people’s opportunities for fulfilment (Schlosberg 2007).


Civil society organisations and local community organisations have already made substantial contributions to demonstrating and acting upon the nexus between social justice and environmental sustainability, which have in turn inspired the ideals of just sustainabilities (Agyeman et al. 2002). These are initiatives that recognise the need for people to participate in environmental decisions; the imperative to meet people’s basic needs’ and the normative requirement to preserve the integrity of nature for future generations (Faber and McCarthy 2003). Justice-oriented discourses are already inspiring environmental action for climate change in urban areas (Bulkeley et al. 2014, Bulkeley et al. 2013). Yet, addressing the environmental crisis will require a concerted action between public, private and civil society actors for a sustainability transition.

Demonstrating that just sustainabilities have purchase to deliver an urban future that is both just and sustainable will require operationalising this notion within current governance possibilities. In particular, following Rydin’s (2013) pioneering work on the future of planning, there is a need to think how just sustainabilities can help challenge and redefine environmental planning. Just sustainabilities emphasises the “nexus of theoretical compatibility between sustainability and environmental justice, including an emphasis on community-based decision making; on economic policies that account fiscally for social and environmental externalities; on reductions in all forms of pollution; on building clean, livable communities for all people; and on an overall regard for the ecological integrity of the planet” (Agyeman and Evans 2003; p. 36-37). It adopts an expansive notion of environmental justice which also recognises the just practices of everyday life (Schlosberg 2013). In doing so, it calls for a to move away from current dominant paradigms of growth, using planning as a means to address social and ecological concerns within an unsustainable and unjust economic system (Rydin 2013).


In this vein, just sustainabilities may be thought as the attainment of four conditions simultaneously:

1. Improving people’s quality of life and wellbeing;
2. Meeting the needs of both present and future generations, that is, considering simultaneously intra- and intergenerational equity;
3. Ensuring justice and equity in terms of recognition, process, procedure and outcome; and
4. Recognising ecosystem limits and the need to live within the possibilities of this planet (Agyeman et al. 2003).

There is already a body of empirical evidence about the practice of just sustainabilities (Agyeman 2005, Agyeman 2013). However, does it represent a viable perspective for sustainable planning agendas? Does it have relevance beyond the environmental justice movements from which it has emerged? Can it be integrated into current practices of environmental planning? These are open questions which will unfold as the New Urban Agenda begins to be implemented on the ground. The concept of just sustainabilities emerges as a positive discourse that can support action to deliver urban transformations. Clearly, there are tools available to deliver just sustainability action in urban environmental planning and management, but their applicability, effectiveness and impacts depend on the context in which they are implemented. More ambitious efforts are needed in the New Urban Agenda to redefine urban development possibilities and the way environmental limits are experienced in different cities. Local governments will play a key role in developing strategies to challenge growth-dependence paradigms and to enable collaborative forms of environmental governance.



Agyeman, J., 2005. Sustainable communities and the challenge of environmental justice. New York University Press: New York.
Agyeman, J., 2013. Introducing just sustainabilities: Policy, planning, and practice. London: Zed books.
Agyeman, J., Bullard, R. D. and Evans, B. 2002. Exploring the Nexus: Bringing Together Sustainability, Environmental Justice and Equity. Space and Polity, 6(1), 77-90.
Agyeman, J., Bullard, R. D. and Evans, B., 2003. Just sustainabilities: development in an unequal world. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Agyeman, J. and Evans, T. 2003. Toward Just Sustainability in Urban Communities: Building Equity Rights with Sustainable Solutions. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 590(1), 35-53.
Brennan, E., 1999. Population, Urbanization , Environment, and Security : A summary of the issues. Comparative Urban Studies Occasional Paper Series. Washington.
Bulkeley, H., et al. 2013. Climate justice and global cities: mapping the emerging discourses. Global Environmental Change, 23(5), 914-925.
Bulkeley, H., Edwards, G. A. and Fuller, S. 2014. Contesting climate justice in the city: Examining politics and practice in urban climate change experiments. Global Environmental Change, 25, 31-40.
Dobson, A., 1998. Justice and the Environment: Conceptions of Environmental Sustainability and Dimensions of Social Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dobson, A. 2003. Social justice and environmental sustainability: ne’er the twain shall meet. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world, 83-95.
Faber, D. and McCarthy, D. 2003. Neo-liberalism, globalization and the struggle for ecological democracy: linking sustainability and environmental justice. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world, 38-63.
Forsyth, T., Leach, M. and Scoones, I., 1998. Poverty and environment: priorities for research and policy – an overview study. Sussex, 49.
Hardoy, J. E. and Satterthwaite, D. 1991. Environmental problems of third world cities: A global issue ignored. Public Administration and Development, 11, 341-361.
HEI, Health Effects of Outdoor Air Pollution in Developing Countries of Asia. ed., 2004 Boston.
IEA, Africa Energy Outlook. ed., 2014 Paris.
Marcuse, P. 1998. Sustainability is not enough. Environment and Urbanization, 10(2), 103-112.
McLaren, D. 2003. Environmental space, equity and the ecological debt. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world, 19-37.
ODI/ECDPM/GDI/DIE, 2012. Confronting scarcity: Managing water, energy and land for inclusive and sustainable growth. Brussels: European Union Report on Development, 9789279231612.
Revi, A., et al. 2014. Towards transformative adaptation in cities: the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment. Environment and Urbanization, 26(1), 11-28.
Rydin, Y., 2013. The future of planning. Policy Press.
Schlosberg, D. 2007. Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature.
Schlosberg, D. 2013. Theorising environmental justice: the expanding sphere of a discourse. Environmental politics, 22(1), 37-55.
UNDP, Human Development Report 2014. ed., 2014 New York, 239.
WHO, Global Health Risks: Mortality and Burden of Disease Attributable to selected major risks. ed., 2009 Geneva.

Vanesa Castán Broto is a senior lecturer and co-director of MSc Environment and Sustainable Development at the DPU. Her work spans a range of issues in developing cities, including disaster preparedness, climate change adaptation and energy supply. Vanesa is also Principal Investigator of the Mapping Urban Energy Landscapes (MUEL) in the Global South project at Urban Transformations.


Anthropocene and social diversity: an important research agenda

By Andrea Rigon, on 19 May 2016

While there are a number of debates on its actual beginning, academics and media have embraced the concept of Anthropocene. The Anthropocene presents humankind as the major geological force contributing to environmental change. This representation of humanity as a single agent produces a compelling narrative about the urgency of global collective action to limit dangerous environmental changes, particularly climate change. This narrative has been effectively used by political leaders to build political capital for global negotiations and efforts aimed at introducing global governance measures on environmental issues.

Picture Caption 2: World Social Forum 2009: diversity in collective action, Brazil. By: Andrea Rigon

Picture Caption 2: World Social Forum 2009: diversity in collective action, Brazil. By: Andrea Rigon

Lovbrand et al. (2015) points out how the merging of social diversity into a single and universal “human agent” produces a ‘post-social ontology’ which fails to analyse unequal social relations. Environmental risk and vulnerability are unequally distributed across the world and so are the responsibilities for ecological destruction and consumption beyond the biosphere carrying capacity.

Deterministic narratives of apocalyptic futures if no action is taken are coupled with the idea of a unified and single global response led by green economy investments and techno-scientific solutions. This is a paralysing and depoliticised narrative which hides winners and losers, conceals social relations and dynamics, and delegates responsibility even further, resulting in a concentration of power in the name of avoiding a global catastrophe. (Some would say entrusting with additional power those institutions and mechanisms that led to the ecological crisis in the first place).

By bringing a social diversity perspective into the analysis of global environmental change – which considers gender, ethnicity, class, age, ability, etc. – it is possible to repoliticise the Anthropocene by shifting the focus on the agency of different groups of women and men, the analysis of power relations, and emphasising the centrality of local politics. Critical social science analysing practices and social relations can deconstruct hegemonic narratives, which silences multiple voices, and identify situated practices and the diversity of ways in which women and men engage with environmental challenges.

Picture Caption 1: Toxic smokes from Dandora dumpsite affects the neighbouring population, Kenya. By: Andrea Rigon

Picture Caption 1: Toxic smokes from Dandora dumpsite affects the neighbouring population, Kenya. By: Andrea Rigon

At the same time, the dominant narrative around Anthropocene builds on an epistemology that maintains the nature/humans dichotomy and sees the latter as the masters of nature, separate from it and therefore able to apply a technical fix. Social sciences, and particularly Science and Technology Studies, have criticized this approach, highlighting the social construction of nature and dismantling nature/social boundaries. By highlighting the situated characters of all knowledges, including agroecological, literature on local knowledges in development (Agrawal 1995) has also criticised this distinction. Therefore, a critical engagement with the Anthropocene demands collaboration with other sciences, refuses to see nature as external to society, and calls for a broadening of the “social” in relation to diversity.

By conceiving social and environmental justice as intrinsically inseparable and by working in an interdisciplinary manner, the DPU is well placed to embark on this agenda and open to more collaboration with other sciences. In particular, the expertise of the DPU’s research cluster Diversity, social complexity & planned intervention is highly relevant. For instance, this new research agenda would benefit from previous analysis of the constraints to the participation and voice of groups and individuals and their unequal access to policy-making spaces. Moreover, it could build upon the insights from the work on relational poverty, particularly the idea that people are poor “because of others” and the need for a wider analysis of the political economy and of the processes that create poverty.

Being that the Anthropocene is the central conversation of our time, the question is not whether to embark on this research agenda but how. It is about a reflective and reflexive practice in which we cannot escape a critical view of the impact of our behaviours and life choices. The Anthropocene challenges our academic practice and interrogates the legitimacy of a consumption of nature several times beyond our individual fair share (and often hundreds times the one of the communities we co-produce knowledge with). Our ‘professional expertise’ is used to justify our overconsumption (e.g. uncountable intercontinental flights) in the process of knowledge production, implicitly, and perhaps unintentionally, implying the superiority of our knowledge input.

Andrea Rigon is a lecturer on the MSc Social Development Practice course at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit of University College London. He researches and teaches about social diversity, poverty and inequalities. His recent work analyses how social and political conflicts among different actors shape the implementation of development interventions.

Keep it simple: helping local governments reduce the risk from the next disaster

By Cassidy A Johnson, on 26 March 2015

The World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction aims to make communities safer in the face of new disasters but could complex guidance be confusing issues?

Flooding in cities like Dar es Salaam disrupts urban life on a seasonal basis. How can international frameworks, like the HFA II address these everyday risks?

Flooding in cities like Dar es Salaam disrupts urban life on a seasonal basis. How can international frameworks, like the HFA II address these everyday risks?

Four years after a powerful earthquake triggered tsunami waves that destroyed much of Japan’s northeastern coast, I joined a group visiting a peninsula connected to the mainland by a bridge that was obliterated by the tsnunami’s towering wave. I was in Japan for the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which was looking at how to respond to future disasters.

Tragically, during the earthquake, a semi-truck toppled over and blocked the bridge so that when the tsunami hit, people could not evacuate the area.

The visit was a sobering reminder of the importance of properly managing the risks associated with natural hazards. What is needed to enable cities like Sendai to address disaster risks in the future?

Hyogo Framework for Action II

At the conference, governments adopted a new framework to guide government, civil society and donor actions on managing the risks associated with natural hazards for the next 15 years. The framework was signed ten years after the adoption of the Hyogo Framework for Action on Disaster Risk Reduction.

While the new framework includes many different ways to approach the reduction of disaster risks, the lack of specific targets was disappointing. Earlier drafts of the agreement had set out percentage-based targets that governments would need to report on. However in the final negotiated framework, these were removed, which is a great shame.

Ben Wisner argues that the seven new targets do not prioritise building local community and local government capacity to make their citizens safer.

Years of advocacy have led to an understanding that, with preparedness and good risk governance, it is possible to greatly reduce the impacts of disasters. Most governments acknowledge this, and have been working to support disaster risk reduction, along with donors and civil society.

How can we operationalise risk reduction?

We need to focus now on how this should be done. What are the processes and actions needed to reduce disaster impacts? How can limited resources be best used to tackle the risks of disasters? So it was important that the overarching discussions at the conference related to operationalising disaster risk reduction.

There are many ways to approach this, and perhaps action is needed on all fronts. We know that poverty and other forms of inequality make some people more susceptible to disasters when a hazard does strike.

We also know that small-scale disasters which happen regularly (but often do not make the international news), cause more losses overall than do the large events. Tackling those vulnerabilities and focusing on both big and small-scale disasters is important.

The role of local government      

The new framework does specifically acknowledge the role of local governments in risk reduction, and the importance of tackling disaster risks in urban areas to reduce the impact of both large and small-scale disasters that are increasing in intensity as urban areas grow and urban populations expand.

The UNISDR Making Cities Resilient Campaign, an advocacy campaign which aims to get local governments to address risks as front-line responders, has already had over 2500 local governments sign up to it.

However, it’s clear that local governments need more guidance on what to do. They especially need more guidance on how to address the most acute risks now and into the future through low-cost, implementable actions.

So, what does this look like from the perspective of local government? It means learning from other cities that face similar kinds of hazards through exchanges that build the capacity of local government and people to take action in their city are important.

It could also involve assisting cities to address basic infrastructure deficits and working with local planners and civil society groups to help them think about disaster risks in their work.

Tools promoting urban resilience

One of the tools that the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) campaign uses is the 10-Essentials for Making Cities Resilient. It’s a ten-point, simple checklist that is a version of the main framework, but aimed at local governments.

I have recently been involved in a revision of the 10 Essentials, which were originally developed in line with the priorities of the Hyogo Framework for Action. Our aim was to update them to become more operational.

We have managed to flesh out the 10-essentials with more details but, in my view, we need to be careful that they do not become overly complicated. Their complexity risks alienating the very local governments they are aimed at. The aim needs to be a simple set of goals that helps local governments with limited budgets and capacities develop a plan of action .

Connecting cities

We had a lot of discussions at the conference about how to build the capacity of local governments to take action on risk reduction. UNISDR is establishing a new platform, called Resilient Cities Connect which aims to bring together knowledge about risk reduction across cities.

A session about the new platform featured presentations both from local governments in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, and from a wide range of expert groups, such as AECOM and C40.

Are global responses relevant to local challenges?

In my view, the expert group presentations seemed to be highly technical, and aimed at cities with big budgets to invest in expensive consultancies and equipment. At the end of the session, a woman from a local government municipality, Kisumu, Kenya, with a population of around 400,000 people put up her hand and said: “What do I take home from this session? What is it that I can implement in my city? We have four computers in my municipality.

As small and medium cities are expanding rapidly, this is where disaster risks are accumulating and will continue to grow. Municipalities like Kisumu are on the front line of disaster risk reduction. If we can help them work with their residents to address disaster risks, then we will all win.

Cassidy Johnson is a Senior Lecturer at the DPU on urban resilience and disaster risk reduction and recovery in cities. She is currently leading the DPU’s part of the Urban Africa Risk Knowledge project, which explores the relationships between urbanisation, poverty and environmental risk in small and medium sized cities in sub-Saharan Africa. The project aims to support local knowledge and preparedness to risk.

This blog was originally posted on the IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) blog on Wednesday 25 March 2015.

Future Proofing Cities

By ucfucjl, on 29 November 2012

Risks and opportunities for inclusive urban growth in developing countries, a report reflecting 9 months work by teams from Atkins and UCL’s Development Planning Unit (DPU) funded by DFID, was launched on the 28th November 2012.

In this picture, from left to right: Adriana Allen (DPU,UCL), David Tonkin (Atkins) and Nick Godfrey (Atkins)

At a time when debates about the environment seem to get stuck around arguments about the existence and magnitude of environmental problems, and the short term and long term opportunity cost of solutions in primarily economic terms, the report offers a clear methodology for assessing and responding to environmental risks and opportunities in a way that addresses poverty and inequality in cities.  The methodology was applied to 129 cities across 20 countries within DFID’s programme remit.

The first component of the methodology is an ‘urban diagnostic’ based on an assessment of three critical issues:

  1. A cities environmental risk assessment based on the intersection of the risks from carbon emissions and energy use, climate change risks, and resource and ecosystems risks;
  2. an assessment of urban vulnerability, based on poverty and inequality; basic infrastructure and services; and urban form;
  3. an assessment of the capacity to act, based on indicators relating to the economy; governance; planning; finance and delivery.

Drawing together the urban diagnostics, the research proposed a categorisation of cities into 5 urban types based on their most significant environmental risk, that is,

  • energy intensive, sprawled cities, with significant carbon footprints (eg. Bangalore, Cape Town);
  • cities with major climate hazards (eg. Dhaka, Kampala);
  • cities with regional support system(s) at risk (water, food, biodiversity) (eg. Karachi, Da Nang);
  • cities with multiple risks: energy, carbon, climate hazards, and regional support systems (eg Jakarta, Bangkok);
  • and cities with a low current risk profile (eg Blantyre-Limbe, Lilongwe)

The second component of the methodology is a 5 stage multi-criteria approach to identifying and prioritising policies for future proofing.  The research reviewed 102 different policies which might have different combinations of applicability to the urban types.  For an individual city, the 5 stage model would involve the identification and appraisal of solutions related to

  1. the risks addressed;
  2. the ability to target vulnerabilities;
  3. and the capacity required to implement solutions;
  4. on the basis of 1.- 3. , an impact and cost effectiveness assessment;
  5. and finally a policy portfolio is assembled.

At the launch of this research, the Nick Godfrey (Atkins) and Adriana Allen (DPU, UCL) summarised the following main arguments from the report.

The first and strong message is that cities need to take steps to future proof themselves.  In the face of massive future growth in African and Asian cities, there is an important but closing window of opportunity for cities to act.   The team emphasised that there is not a single development path for cities, and the report demonstrates that, although cities may face similar challenges, social and political and cultural diversity means that there will be multiple paths, for example, in the cases of Maputo and Karachi.  Moreover, a review of the 102 policies revealed that policies with the highest impact are not necessarily those that require the highest investment.  Thus, the policy portfolio for any city must be tailored to the specific of the context, including the capacity to act by government as well as civil society and the private sector.  In this sense, the report moves away from the ‘best practice’ approach, offering a methodology rather than the transferability of policies identified for their success in a particular place and time.

Source: Future Proofing Cities report (c)Atkins 2012

A second major theme is that future proofing cannot be done at the expense of equity issues.  Future proofing policies can generate important wider social and economic benefits.  “…a strategy based on ‘grow first, tackle environmental risks later’ is unlikely to be effective given the risks to economic growth and the urban poor from depletion of natural resources, climate change, and global population pressure.” (p ix).  Although the report has pulled together a unique data set form a wide variety of sources, it was also a useful survey of the data gaps of city and city hinterland level information which constrains the effectiveness of the proposed urban diagnostics.   The proposed categories for assessment suggest where future research needs to be done, including the need for disaggregated information as research shows that who you are and where you live matters a lot in terms of how vulnerable you are.

Finally, the multidisciplinary and integrated character of the challenge was emphasised.  The opportunity to achieve multiple benefits for cities is only possible if we break out of our disciplinary silos. Only teams with multidisciplinary approaches, knowledge and skills can address the complex and ‘wicked’ problems so many contemporary cities face.

The notion of future proofing in the report is aspirational and goes beyond the notion of resilience in getting us to think not just how we cope, but how we transform our cities. Report seeks to engender confidence that multidisciplinary teams working collaboratively within government, civil society and the private sector, can address the environmental, economic and social challenges faced by contemporary cities.

More information about the report at www.futureproofingcities.com
Listen to the podcast of the report’s official launch here http://j.mp/SvSBEc

An honest account of participatory research

By Rosalina Babourkova-Horner, on 2 October 2012

Are you like me, forever enthralled by anything with the adjective “participatory” in front of it? If yes then read on. This is the story of how I felt undertaking my first so-called participatory mapping research project. It so happened that a few months ago I managed to receive small funding for a project entitled “Mapping perceptions of environmental risk and well-being in a Roma community”. The study I had conceived was not designed to effect any particular social action or change, which is, I am sure you know, the crux of participatory action research. Far more self-centered, my reasons were to forge contacts with local NGOs in the Roma community where I wanted to conduct fieldwork for my PhD.

Despite being exposed to countless theoretical discussions and practical exercises on participatory research methods, I never had any real hands-on experience of actually conducting participatory research. The study that I had so successfully sold to colleagues who kindly advised me, to the local NGO which enthusiastically agreed to be my partner in this undertaking, and, of course, to the funders, became just a testing ground for my participatory research skills.

To what extent do we as students (PhD, Masters, Undergraduate) have the capacity to run participatory action research, when at the end of the day the results of our study are often there to suit our own purposes? Is it worth experimenting with those methods when the research question has not been developed in collaboration with a community, which wants to effect a particular change? In absence of an organized community that one as a researcher can work with and support using participatory techniques, are we not just imposing “participation” on people who are taxed in so many ways?

Let me give an example. Already the fact that I was discussing a participant recruitment strategy with my partner NGO shows that real voluntary participation from within the community was not the point. My partners had their usual beneficiaries in mind as potential participants. Not knowing any better, I quickly agreed that having a group of young mothers (who anyways came to the social center every day to drop off their children, and a group of young men the NGO was working with on other social projects), would be the easiest and most effective way to get people involved.

On the morning of the first workshop I was overcome by  the anxiety of not knowing who may turn up and also of standing in the midst of a completely alien group of people whose trust I should have theoretically already developed, but whom I had not personally invited to the project.

About five women arrived to participate in something, what exactly in they had no clue. “We asked for 10-15 to come”, said the centre manager apologetically and proceeded to ask one of his female colleagues to step in to raise the participant number. As coercion crept in my project, I resolved myself to remain relaxed and upbeat. I ended up delivering a rushed introductory session to the goals of my project and a warm-up game of matching photos of famous landmarks to their location on a large-scale city map. Disposable cameras were distributed, along with hasty instructions on how to use the cameras and what to photograph. Although the women seemed like they were listening intently and did well in the mapping game, I felt in a way as if I was wasting their time.

The afternoon session  [with a group of young men] was similarly rushed after they all came late. They were a bit dazed from walking around in the 3pm blistering sun, but obviously summoned by their informal leader, were ready like soldiers to obey the commands of the “foreign general”. I was disappointed with my performance of Day 1 and bitter that I was making people I did not know participate in something when they may have other things to do.

Interestingly, the next day all 12 cameras were neatly stacked on the proud centre manager’s desk.I rushed around to find a photo studio that would develop them overnight, only realising that I had not factored in the cost of express service development into my project budget. The next morning, on the way to pick up the photos, I felt like I could not and did not want to do this any more. But as soon as I saw the photos I was suddenly elated again. The participants had really understood what I asked them to capture. I could not wait to show them their pictures.

Four out of six boys came for their second session that afternoon. They were eager to see what they had shot. This time I felt more at ease guiding them through a discussion of the kinds of environmental problems they had photographed. They actively participated in grouping the photos in themes and ranking the significance of risk, and I began to realise that we cannot talk about problems without talking about potential solutions as well. With each problem addressed, they asked “how can we improve this?” and “who is responsible?”. They decided to send the Mayor some of the photographs. We arranged to meet the following week to prepare picture postcards of the settlement and a petition list also to be sent to the Mayor.

The boys were not interested in the body health mapping exercise through which I had planned to elicit how the environmental risks portrayed in the PhotoVoice exercise would impact on participants’ and their relatives’ health. I left it for the group of mothers without having the time to prepare for it. I quickly improvised and drew some funny-looking outlines of human bodies on the back of used paper I had salvaged from the rubbish bin. Although the women joked that this is really not what they look like, the body maps produced a very lively discussion on health issues that affected the women and their relatives. Gradually the discussion turned into the informal impromptu gossip session that I thought I was preventing previously. One of the women exclaimed: “We could sit and talk like that all day!” and the others agreed that they’ll come again next week to finish off our project.

The night before my final session, the one where I had promised participants that we’ll alert the municipality about the problems they identified through an existing (but currently defunct!) online mapping platform, I had to think of another plan. Necessity being the mother of all inventions, I found myself creating Google accounts for all participants so they could collaborate in creating a Google map of the risks in the settlement. With only three of the mothers and two of the boys turning up for the final session and technology not working quite like I expected, we all clustered around one computer and transferred results from the paper map into the Google map.

Thinking back now about the whole process, it was a mixed experience. Although I grew more confident as a facilitator in the process, I must confess that managing a group process is not my forte. I would do it again, but definitely not on my own. Throughout the process I missed working in a team of researchers. I missed the ability to bounce ideas off each other, discuss pros and cons, having someone to advice and motivate me when things don’t quite go to plan. Ironically, in a process that is supposed to be participatory, I felt at times very lonely. Not to make this sound entirely like “doom and gloom.” I cherished that my participants started opening up to me after the second session. Although I did not get the results I expected, trialing the methodologies proved fruitful for my partner NGO who is now interested in using them further. The project led to some social action in the form of a petitions list and letter (complete with photos and digital map of problems) send to the mayor asking for some very urgent infrastructural improvements.

all photos by the author
Disclaimer: The views, opinions and positions expressed within this post are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Development Planning Unit -UCL .  The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.