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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.

Mapping Everyday and Episodic Risks

RitaLambert1 December 2015

The cLIMA sin Riesgo research project in Lima, Peru, adopts participatory mapping as a means to gather quantitative and qualitative information to capture varying degrees of natural and man-made conditions of vulnerability that affect women and men living in the center and in the periphery of the city. The process is designed to open up dialogue between various stakeholders, with the aim of informing the design of interventions that prevent and reduce risks.

To better understand the everyday risks that inhabitants of the two case study sites are exposed to, we spatialise our inquiry capturing how these risks are distributed and where they accumulate in space (Figure 1). This is a necessary step in identifying how, and where, risk traps need to be disrupted. Preliminary findings suggest that actions taken in one place to mitigate risk may, in effect, externalise the risk to other locations. Hence mapping to make visible the interdependencies that constitute and shape a given territory becomes a vital step in our enquiry, particularly as we seek to devise solutions for an integrated, and co-produced planning.

Figure 1. Drone image of Barrios Altos used to identify residential plots, cultural heritage buildings and other uses such as storage, which is defacing the historic centre. Photo: Rita Lambert

Figure 1. Drone image of Barrios Altos used to identify residential plots, cultural heritage buildings and other uses such as storage, which is defacing the historic centre. Photo: Rita Lambert

This notion of interdependencies materialise at different scales in both Barrios Altos (BA) and José Carlos Mariátegui (JCM). Therefore the analysis is undertaken at various scales. In BA, some of the quintas (multi familiar residential plots) that have private ownership, also present a weakened social organisation.  The quinta, which used to function as an identifiable unit, with common areas and the shared goal amongst residents to improve these areas collectively, now works as a group of individual structures.  The impact of such changes is noted as some households undertake improvement works and in doing so, move away from the traditional one storey structure made of adobe, replacing it with multi-storey brick and concrete buildings. As the structural integrity of the buildings are weakened due to the disparate materials used, the residents are differentially exposed to risk. Besides the increased physical risks that such practices bring, the weakened collective action and organisation also increases the vulnerability of residents to land trafficking activities.

Figure 2. Surveying team in action in BA. Photo Rita Lambert

Figure 2. Surveying team in action in BA. Photo Rita Lambert

Moving out of the quinta and analysing the scale of the manzana (block), it is possible to capture the increasing threats which are claiming the Historic Centre. Land speculation is leading to the slow eviction of  many vulnerable tenants. Moreover, the cancerous growth of storage facilities, also increases the likelihood of fires with the storage of highly flammable materials. If a quinta is adjacent to any of these conditions, it is also more vulnerable, as different land use types interact to increase risk.

In JCM, the interdependencies materialise on the slope. Risk is unevenly distributed with those higher up the slope having to pay more to mitigate risk and make the area habitable. However the occupation in the higher parts, as well as the opening up of roads by large scale land traffickers to capitalise in this area, also increases risk for the lower parts e.g rock falls etc. The latter also have to invest to cope with this risk. Hence mapping at the scale of settlements can make visible where risk mitigation strategies are taken and where risk is externalised to.

Figure 3. Undercutting of slope to create a habitable plot led, in this case, to the partial collapse of the foundation of an existing structure. Photo: Rita Lambert

Figure 3. Undercutting of slope to create a habitable plot led, in this case, to the partial collapse of the foundation of an existing structure. Photo: Rita Lambert

Having analysed how risk is mapped by various institutions in Lima, the project acknowledges the need to work at a finer scale. Many of the official maps homogenise risk painting large areas in red, whilst a more grainier and differentiated understanding of everyday risk is sought in this project. For this purpose, the base maps used also need to be at a level which show subdivisions in built structures. As the Cadastral Institute of Lima only provides the information at manzana or plot level, the SEDAPAL maps are hereby used as a base because  they show water connection in every household and thus capture subdivisions. Furthermore, in the process of data collection, high resolution drone images for each area are used in a process of manual mapping (Figure 1) undertaken in parallel to digital mapping using EpiCollect+, a free application on smartphones which enables the digitalisation of surveys as these are collected.

Figure 4. Inhabitants of JCM indentifying their plots and the limits of their settlements. Photo: Rita Lambert

Figure 4. Inhabitants of JCM indentifying their plots and the limits of their settlements. Photo: Rita Lambert

Departing from the need to map everyday risks at various scales, the project will undertake geo-referenced surveys in both areas at: 1) the household level, to assess the individual investments made to mitigate risk; and 2) at the quinta level in BA and the settlement level in JCM, to assess the collective investments.  The data collection takes a significant representative number: in BA, 30% of quintas in a manzana (40 manzanas in total are chosen, representing half of BA area) and in JCM, 30% of occupied plots for each of the 11 settlements under study. The participatory nature of the process involves capacity building in mapping, the integration of residents in data collection, and the co-design of the survey to include information that inhabitants deem important to them. This means that the method is also used to strengthen existing processes of change, particularly supporting social mobilisation and integrated planning. In BA, community leaders, accompany the fieldwork, sharing information and communicating with others in their neighborhood. This is a necessary step to promote collective action and resist unwanted changes. In JCM, on the other hand, identifying the various investments made over time in each settlement, and making visible the increased investments that need to be made to continue this form of urbanisation raises consciousness of the ripple effect created by atomised actions upon the territory.  This paves the way for an integrated planning between settlements but also more coordinated actions between inhabitants and state agencies.

For more information of the research project cLIMA sin Riesgo please visit the site: http://www.climasinriesgo.net/

You can also access some of the outputs released so far in the following links:

Newsletter No 1, June 2015 “Reframing Urban Risks”

Policy Brief: No 1, June 2015 “Urban Risk: In search of new perspectives”

Video Interview with Principal Investigator of cLima sin Riesgo, Adriana Allen, about the importance of amplifying knowledge of everyday and episodic risks and the objectives of the project

 


Rita Lambert is a teaching fellow at the Development Planning Unit, UCL, where she is primarily engaged in the planning and delivery of the practice module of the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development.

Originally from Ethiopia, she undertook her university studies in Edinburgh and London. She graduated from the Architectural Association in London, where she later taught for 4 years in the final years of the Diploma in Architecture.  In 2009, she studied in the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development, at the Development Planning Unit , UCL.

Her particular interest lies in mapping, as a tool which can be adopted by ordinary citizens to navigate institutional barriers and expand the room for manoeuvre towards environmentally just urbanisation.

Reflections of a male researcher interviewing women in Hyderabad, India

NikhileshSinha19 June 2015

Naseer beckoned to me from the other side of a doorway, through which I could see a large-ish courtyard, with several women, of various ages, heads uncovered, going about their mid-morning activities. I hesitated, and then drawing a deep breath, I stepped through…

After several weeks of wandering around Jahangir Nagar, survey sheets in hand and hanging out at the corner Irani chai café, I found myself being acknowledged and greeted on the street by several of the male residents. I had struggled initially to explain myself and my research, but the fact that I was studying and living in London seemed to clear many a brow and had a significant effect on my curiosity value.

My interaction with female residents however, was restricted to those I’d interviewed for the survey, usually along with a male member of the household. In cases where there was no male present, the interview would be conducted briefly on the doorstep, if at all. One obstacle was my own bashfulness. I was unsure how to approach and talk to women, especially in a neighbourhood where the niqab and/or burqa is customarily worn in public. I felt continually intrusive, awkward, ill-equipped, and a hairsbreadth away from committing an unforgivable faux pas. I did once get mistaken for a government official and yelled at by a woman because the garbage heap near her house hadn’t been cleared for weeks, but that was an unexpected bonus.

Hyderabad 1

All of this meant that if I was to get to do in-depth interviews with women residents, unmediated by males in the household, I needed to rethink my strategy. Assistance came from an unexpected quarter – an accounts executive at a digital printing studio where I got some printing done, put me in touch with his father who runs a school, located not far from Jahangir Nagar. A few days later I found myself being invited to the house of Naseer, – a student of Huda School, Sultan Shahi – and his family, who live with nine other households in a ground floor unit, with shared bathing and toilet facilities.

The first thing I notice was a broken but evidently functional washing machine, swirling and gurgling to itself in the corner. It was washing day, and Naseer’s mother, was in the midst of pulling garments of various shapes and sizes from a multi-coloured pile. She would wring one out and pass it on to one of her daughters to hang on the line that stretched across the courtyard. Some of the other female residents were engaged in a similar activity. Naseer’s mother explained later that this was a fortnightly ritual.

Hyderabad 2The courtyard space seemed to be shared by all the households who live there, but Naseer’s mother possessed some subtle authority. I was to learn later that Naseer’s family were the tenants who had lived there longest, all of eight years. Naseer’s father drives an auto rickshaw, leaving the house in the morning only to return at night, and he told me he leaves the running of the house and paying of the bills to his wife. It appears that she may have some say in the running of the other households in the tenement as well, certainly as far as the use of the shared space is concerned.

I interviewed three other women living in the same tenement. The first was Naseer’s grandmother, who lives in the adjoining room. Her husband died last year and Naseer’s father decided she should move from the settlement where she and his father used to live. He felt it was not safe for a widowed woman to continue living there. She told me that she believed she would have been fine, but moved at her son’s insistence.

The second was a middle-aged women living in a two-room apartment along with her five daughters. She told me that her husband had left her some years before, and that he hadn’t provided much financial support for her or their eleven children. She has managed to marry off five of her daughters, and is now left with five more to worry about.

The last was the landlady, or as she described it, daughter of the owner of the building. She said she lives like a tenant along with the others, paying for utilities and managing the space for her mother in lieu of rent. Her husband works as a chauffer in Saudi Arabia, and visits once in two years. Unlike the other women I interviewed, she attended school and is literate in both Urdu and English.

Hyderabad 3.1

I entered the tenement as someone who was known to the Headmaster of Naseer’s school, and was treated as an honoured guest. None of the women I interviewed put on a hijab, though they would have done so if they were stepping out into the street. This may mean that men who enter the courtyard cease being strangers, or as is more likely it was due to my association with Naseer’s school.

Towards the end of my conversation with the landlady, she enquired if I was married, and on learning I wasn’t, both she and Naseer’s mother, who was seated nearby, offered only half-jokingly to arrange for my wedding, and to hold it in their courtyard. An offer I was both deeply touched and petrified by. This exchange was the source of much amusement all round. When I left I was followed by three girls, aged approximately eight, ten and fourteen (the last wearing an oversize burqa) who accosted me and asked me when I was returning to get married. I smiled nervously, mumbled “soon” and walked as fast as my legs would carry me in the opposite direction.


Nikhilesh Sinha is in his third year of a PhD at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit. His research relates to how poor people find places to live in Indian cities. He teaches a course on Global Citizenship at Hult International Business School, London, as well as a course on the challenges and opportunities of doing business in India. Before moving to London, he led research in affordable housing and urbanisation at the Centre for Emerging Markets Solutions at the Indian School of Business (ISB). He has also worked in television, co-founded a theatre company, and is usually in the middle of reading three books not remotely related to his research.

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.

Doing Participatory Photography: the politics of home-making in Valparaiso

IgnaciaOssul Vermehren14 April 2015

‘No matter how familiar the object or situation may be, a photograph is a restatement of reality; it presents life around us in new, objective, and arresting dimensions, and can stimulate the information to discuss the world about him as if observing it for the first time’  – Collier, 1957: 859 [1]

Ignacia PP1

The use of visual methodologies has been introduced to help expand the efforts of data generation beyond more established avenues such as language-based interviews. Photo-elicitation, specifically participant-driven photography, can capture life experiences, spaces and emotions that may be difficult to grasp through other methodologies.

Although not considered a miracle cure, it is thought to have particular qualities such as:

  1. Producing different type of information – many times more precise and vivid than other techniques
  2. As a primary ‘language’ – it can be used with people of different ages and with different levels of oral or written language
  3. Addressing concerns of power relations between researcher and subject, as well as knowledge production.

Participatory Photography Research Workshop

As part of my PhD fieldwork I have been using participatory photography to explore the meaning of home for residents in informal settlements in Viña del Mar, Chile. Particularly in discussing home-making practices, home aspirations and housing policy. In practice, the workshop develops across 6 sessions, in which participants learn basic photography skills and take cameras home to capture images for the next session.

The workshop starts with an introduction to photography, discussing the different uses, participants’ personal relationship with pictures and basic skills such as how to operate the camera, framing, colour and the use of light.

In an introductory activity Luis chooses a picture of a colonial building in a magazine, he says: 'I chose this picture because I like architecture, looking at old buildings, pictures help maintain them even if there are not there any more'

In an introductory activity Luis chooses a picture of a colonial building in a magazine, he says: ‘I chose this picture because I like architecture, looking at old buildings, pictures help maintain them even if there are not there any more’

Participants practicing how to frame a picture, taking into consideration what to include and what to leave out of the photo

Participants practicing how to frame a picture, taking into consideration what to include and what to leave out of the photo

The first assignment refers to images that represent their home. It was important for the data collection that participants felt free to take any picture they wanted – without been concerned of getting the ‘right answer’.

Some of the pictures taken by participants (Francisco Ahumada, Katerine Montecinos and Mariela Aravena); (top-left) privacy of a single room, (top-right) community centre which was constructed recently by the residents, (bottom-left) house and the dogs as part of the family and (bottom-right) nature, not only their own plants but the surrounding environment

Some of the pictures taken by participants (Francisco Ahumada, Katerine Montecinos and Mariela Aravena); (top-left) privacy of a single room, (top-right) community centre which was constructed recently by the residents, (bottom-left) house and the dogs as part of the family and (bottom-right) nature, not only their own plants but the surrounding environment

Participant looks at her printed pictures for the first time.  Participants were impressed with the results, stating that is was not the same as seeing them on the screen.

A girl looks at her printed pictures for the first time. Participants were impressed with the results, stating that is was not the same as seeing them on the screen.

After revising the pictures individually, the group puts together all the pictures and divides them into categories of what represents home

After revising the pictures individually, the group puts together all the pictures and divides them into categories of what represents home

The second and last assignment was to take pictures of elements that they like and do not like about a house. Participants were encouraged to look for these elements not only in their house, but also in the neighbourhood and city.

Participants exercise the type of pictures they would like to take for the assignment

Participants practise taking the types of pictures they would like to use for the assignment

The pictures from the second assignment were rich in content and included much more elements from the city than the first assignment. Many of them took pictures while they were going to work and in the streets.

Ignacia PP8

Elucidating Everyday Aspirations

Some of the results of the second task are shown in this image (above). These were taken by Nayaret Gajardo, a woman living in the settlement. She took five pictures of elements she would like for her house such as a better kitchen, a big backyard, water tap for the settlement in case of fire, and connection to services. The three elements she does not like refer to the way she is currently connected to services, which she evaluates as dangerous and a poor quality of life.

In brief, the participatory photography workshops facilitated discussion on some elements which could be easily disregarded using other techniques. It has shed light on everyday life, the personal, the collective and the political. The concept of home portrayed is wide and diverse, it does not only refers to the home space but also to multiple places, people and feelings. The challenge now is to do a rigorous analysis moving from images to findings, so that pictures serve not just a nice visual complement for the research but as solid data for the study.

 Notes:

[1] Collier J. Jr. (1957), Photography in anthropology: a report on two experiments. American Anthropologist, New Series, 59 (5), 843-859.


Ignacia Ossul Vermehren is a PhD candidate at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit. She previous studied the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU. She worked for 4 years at Techo, a youth-led organisation that works in informal settlements where she was Director of the office in the region of Valparaiso. Ignacia is currently undertaking her PhD fieldwork in Chile.

Participatory Photography: Reflections on Practice

Laura JHirst12 February 2015

Participatory photography workshop with Gonda self help disability group, Manyatta ward, Kisumu, Alexandre Apsan Frediani. May 2014

In 2014, in collaboration with international NGO Practical Action and the Kisumu Informal Settlement Network (a grassroots network involving representatives from informal traders collectives and neighbourhood planning associations), I joined students from the MSc Social Development Practice on a project looking at the role of neighbourhood planning in the city of Kisumu, Kenya.

People’s Plans into Practice

The focus of the research was to document learning around processes of participatory governance within informal settlements supported by a Practical Action initiative ‘People’s Plans into Practice’, which ran 2008-2012. During these years the programme aimed to improve the well-being, productivity and living conditions of poor people living in informal settlements in Kenya and the East African region.

Within a context of growing private development and regeneration, this research came up with recommendations to strengthen the capacity of neighbourhood planning associations and enhance participatory planning processes.

‘Critical Urban Learning’

We adopted participatory photography as part of a wider research methodology, which related to ‘critical urban learning’ in the module. This idea is defined by Colin McFarlane as ‘questioning and antagonizing existing urban knowledges and formulations, learning alternatives in participatory collectives and proposing alternative formulations’ [1].

In the field, we supported the students in using participatory photography with small groups of residents to explore institutional relationships and networks, aspects of diversity and processes of representation.

Participatory photography workshop with Gonda self help disability group, Manyatta ward, Kisumu, Alexandre Apsan Frediani. May 2014

Photography Exercises

We began by facilitating introductory workshops on basic camera use with a number of themes in mind, aimed at guiding the focus of the activities. These were: spaces and conditions of participation; participation of people with disabilities; housing rights; and the right to water.

The resulting photographs were used in focus group discussions and one-to-one interviews, to draw out personal and shared stories and experiences. We tried to move the conversation beyond assumptions about the surface content of images to explore the processes, practices and relationships behind them and communicate different individual and shared perspectives on living in the city. See some examples of the images captured below:

Gathering water for everyday use in Manyatta ward, Kisumu, Elizabeth Ochieng, workshop participant. May 2014.

Gathering water for everyday use in Manyatta ward, Kisumu by Elizabeth Ochieng, workshop participant. May 2014.

Opportunities for people with disabilities to earn a living in Manyatta ward, Kisumu, George Otieno. May 2014.

Opportunities for people with disabilities to earn a living in Manyatta ward, Kisumu by George Otieno. May 2014.

Informal spaces of participation in Nyalenda B, Kisumu, Joseph Otieno Odhiambo. May 2014.

Informal spaces of participation in Nyalenda B, Kisumu by Joseph Otieno Odhiambo. May 2014.

Accessibility challenges for children with disabilities living in Manyatta ward, Kisumu, Jane Ouma. May 2014.

Accessibility challenges for children with disabilities living in Manyatta ward, Kisumu by Jane Ouma. May 2014.

Reflections

Using participatory photography during this project was an exciting, and to many of us, new way of working with research participants. It yielded rich information on everyday urban practices and gave visibility to challenges that might not otherwise have been revealed by using techniques such as standard interviews or focus groups.

It was clear to see how the visual immediacy of a photograph as a talking point often revealed nuanced emotions, values, and opinions. Many of us were particularly struck by the way that the process of taking photographs and telling stories changed the dynamic between researcher and participant. It helped participants to relax and open up and communicate in a fun and more dynamic way.

Making trade-offs

Our timeframe was just two weeks. As a result we had to make a trade-off between different levels of potential social transformation and empowerment that participatory research often promises.

Whilst the participatory photography workshops provided space and opportunities for participants to articulate their own existing knowledge and experiences and discuss aspirations, which were shared in the research outputs for broad advocacy use, time constraints meant there were limited opportunities for participants to participate in directing the research, or for using the photographs to directly advocate for their own positions themselves with city stakeholders.

A longer term engagement using participatory photography with a more explicit advocacy focus could go some way to address these issues. Future action research should therefore aim to work more closely with participants to devise collaborative digital storytelling campaigns that can be targeted to bring stories to the attention of local city authorities.

Notes:

[1] Colin McFarlane, Learning the City: Knowledge and Translocal Assemblage (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

 

Related Content:

Laura published a first post on this theme called Participatory Photography: a background on the DPU Blog in January 2015.

Laura Hirst has been working as the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Social Development Practice. She has recently left the DPU to join the DPU-ACHR-CAN intership programme in the Philippines where she will be working with community groups in Davao for the next 4-6 months.

The wheels on the bus do not go round and round

Laura JHirst16 April 2012

Transport and social exclusion project in Newham Borough

Linking theory with practice is something that the DPU prides itself in – recently the students of the MSc Social Development Practice had an exciting opportunity to work in conjunction with the Overview and Scrutiny Committee of the London Borough of Newham to explore the constraints faced by high school students when using the local bus network.

Although Newham now enjoys excellent transport links which bring people both in and out of the Borough, bus travel for local residents within Newham remains difficult.  To date, mobility studies tended to focus on quantitative operational data and important issues related to the social aspects of mobility by bus, especially those related to social identity and which can lead to social exclusion, are often ignored.  The brief specifically required the investigation of barriers in relation to bus travel in Plaistow to get to and from school and access educational opportunities within Newham.

A number of interviews and focus groups were conducted with a diverse range of students aged between 13 to 18, using participatory methodologies where possible. These included 24 hour mapping and drawing activities and visioning exercises.  Other important stakeholders were consulted, a focus group with Newham Young People’s Board was held, as well as interviews with bus drivers and dedicated school Youth Safety Workers.

The research highligted that safety is a huge issue for young people travelling by bus. Young men feel vulnerable to muggings and bullying on buses and the presence of postcode gangs is believed to exacerbate this problem. For young women, travelling in the dark in the winter months is a particular safety concern. At one school, several students with disabilities face major difficulties in getting to school due to limited spaces on a council-provided bus service. Uneasy relationships between young people, bus drivers and other bus users were also cited as an issue, giving rise to feelings of insecurity on all sides.  Young people feel they are subject to negative stereotyping and discrimination on the grounds of age, gender and ethnicity whilst bus drivers experience a general lack of respect from young bus users.

Findings and recommendations based on the evidence collected were presented to the Overview and Scrutiny Team and other invited stakeholders. Recommendations were grouped under the general theme of a stakeholder engagement campaign, seeking to address the tensions which were identified between real and perceived safety concerns.  Such a campaign could go some way to dispelling stereotypes and facilitating broader community dialogue and participation on student safety issues related to bus travel within both Plaistow and the Borough more generally.  More specific recommendations were:

  1. Increased contact between bus drivers and students through the incorporation of school visits into bus driver training;
  2. A school and youth based education campaign to make students aware of their rights and responsibilities related to bus travel;
  3. A community travel forum bringing together local residents, the council, Transport for London, and young people to address security concerns

Not only did the research provide invaluable first hand experience of ‘practice’ for the UCL students,  but the results of the work have since been taken up by Newham Borough Council and are reflected in the recently published  ‘Report of the Regeneration and Employment Scrutiny Commission’s Review into Regeneration and Transport in Newham’.  In addition, student mentoring opportunities have been created, and there are plans for a potential student-led public engagement campaign, hopefully building ongoing connections between UCL and the community.

Laura Hirst is a student of the MSc Social Development Practice (SDP) at the DPU. She has sent this post on behalf of the SDP group. Photos in this post by the SDP student Ignacia Ossul.
 

Latest Update 6th Sep.2012

As follow-up to the presentation of findings and recommendations to Newham Council, SDP students shared these results with Newham Young People’s Board (NYPB), one of the project’s stakeholders. The feedback session reminded students of the importance of the ongoing process of evaluation and reflection of the practitioner’s role in representing voice(s), particularly those of young people in social development research.
Time and practical constraints meant it had not been possible to fully involve young people in the research process and gain feedback from them prior to reporting back to the council. The NYPB were not satisfied with how their input had been represented in the final document produced by Newham Council; they felt that language used should be more youth-friendly and that their recommendations needed to be more accurately reflected. Recognising these concerns, a group of SDP students applied for and were successful in receiving funding from the UCL Public Engagement Unit’s Train and Engage programme to work with the NYPB to facilitate one of their recommendations; a community forum on the issues raised in the research. The SDP students will work collaboratively with the NYPB to facilitate a series of community forums on youth and transport issues, involving a range of local stakeholders (e.g. bus users, young people, Newham Council, local service providers), to improve the relationships between them. The forums will culminate in a final meeting where agreed ‘asks’ will be publicly presented to service providers and local institutions.Heidi Chan, Laura Hirst, Emma Shilston