X Close

The Bartlett Development Planning Unit

Home

Collective reflections about development practice and cities

Menu

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.

Favela Upgrading and Integration into the City – 20 years on

MarianaDias Simpson4 December 2015

In 1996, when Rio de Janeiro was a candidate to host the Olympics for the first time, the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analyses (Ibase, in Portuguese) proposed that such a mega event should be accompanied by a “social agenda” with five goals (one goal for each Olympic ring), defined then by Betinho, Ibase’s founder and prominent civil society representative. Rio didn’t win the bid, but the social agenda gathered great support from civil society, governments and the private sector, and had repercussions for years to come.

Twenty years on, as Rio is about to host the next Olympics Games, Ibase is revisiting the debate on the Olympic social legacy – or lack thereof – for the city. The NGO proposes that special attention is given to one of the goals proposed in the 1996 social agenda: “Favela Upgrading and Integration into the City” .

Ibase, DPU, and youth volunteers.

In a first initiative carried out by Ibase in partnership with the DPU[1] in November, teams from both institutions and a group of young volunteers from the favelas of Borel and Providência[2] debated the topic, interviewed key informants (slum and city dwellers, social movements and governmental representatives) and realised a workshop. The initial idea was to have housing, mobility and public security as a starting point.

The young volunteers draw out their storyboard. Photograph by Alex Macfarlane

The young volunteers draw out their storyboard. Photograph by Alex Macfarlane

Choosing to leave the discussion open, the topics debated by the young volunteers with the DPU’s mediation naturally converged into issues related to a) the pressing threat of eviction and gentrification felt in favelas. This is reinforced by the Games and by public policies that favour land speculation, currently pushing local residents to the city peripheries; b) difficulties in freely accessing the city, as racism and ‘social apartheid’ make them feel unwelcome in the wealthier parts of Rio. This feeling is intensified by the city government’s recent decision to end direct public transport links between the (poorer) north and the (richer) south zones of the city; c) the fact that favelas’ culture and identity are being curtailed by public security policies such as the ‘Pacifying Police Units’ (UPPs) that ‘militarise’ these territories and locals’ everyday lives. Public tenders open to local cultural groups were also mentioned. On a positive note, these tenders allow them to have access to public funds, but as a side effect, their perception is that the groups are being ‘used as small parts of a larger engine’ in which they are allowed to take part without ever having a leading role.

The final ‘world cafe’ workshop. Photograph by Alex Macfarlane

Based on that, it was decided that Ibase should approach the target “favela upgrading and integration into the City” from the perspective of three strategic values: a) inclusion with locals’ prominence; b) encounter of differences; and c) citizen participation. The understanding is that, to be successful in building a socially just city, public policies must encapsulate these three strategic objectives.

The interviews with key-informants were filmed to support a workshop[3] that brought together an important group of collaborators. For the workshop, it was proposed that all participants worked as groups to identify obstacles faced in the past 20 years to achieve the overall goal and strategic values mentioned above; opportunities and possibilities for advancement; and, finally, actions that may be taken in order to achieve the goal of upgrading and integrating favelas into the city.

The final 'world cafe' workshop. Photograph by Alex Macfarlane

The final ‘world cafe’ workshop. Photograph by Alex Macfarlane

The debates were extremely rich and this intense week of work shared between Ibase and the DPU is being seen as a seed for future projects. Ibase’s plan is to use this solid base to develop actions aiming to strengthen existing favelas’ organisations and networks through political and capacity building for the co-creation of campaigns that should occupy educational, public and virtual spaces in order to promote encounters to disseminate debate and influence public policies for the city we want – an inclusive, diverse and participatory city.

[1]    Represented in Rio de Janeiro by Alex Frediani and Alex Macfarlane.

[2]    The youth group was formed by Cosme Vinícius Felippsen (Providência/ Rio de Janeiro’s Youth Forum), João Batista (Providência/ UFF), Luiz Henrique Souza Pereira (Borel) and Renan Oliveira dos Santos (Borel-Formiga/ UFRJ).

[3] The workshop was held in Rio de Janeiro in November 13th, 2015 and used the methodology known as “world cafe”.


Mariana Dias Simpson is a DPU MSc Urban Development Planning alumni. She works as a researcher at the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analyses (Ibase) in Rio de Janeiro and has worked with urban issues related to favelas, housing, public policies, poverty and inequality for several years.

 

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.

The Philippine Alliance: collaboration for planning and design

JessicaMamo17 March 2015

In January this year, three DPU alumni travelled to the Philippines to work with the Philippine Alliance as part of the DPU-CAN-ACHR Junior Professional programme for six months. This blog kicks off a four-part series from the interns, serving as an introduction to the work of the Alliance.

The next posts will explore and reflect on different aspects of its work; community mapping (as told by Mariangela Veronesi, based in Metro Manila), community mobilisation (thoughts from Laura Hirst, in Davao) and settlement planning and design (from Jessica Mamo, in Mandaue). This first post gives a brief overview of the history, structure and different partners in the Alliance, along with how they work with the urban poor in the Philippines.

Community mapping in Barangay Ilang, Davao City, March 2015. © Laura Hirst

Community mapping in Barangay Ilang, Davao City, March 2015. © Laura Hirst

The Philippine Alliance: a brief background

The Philippine Alliance works with the urban poor living in informal settlements across the Philippines. They also work with other vulnerable groups, such as communities living on land susceptible to natural and man-made disasters or those facing the threat of eviction. Through partnerships with local government and other stakeholders they provide sustainable housing solutions for the urban poor.

The Alliance itself is a partnership between five organisations; Homeless Peoples Federation Philippines Inc. (HPFPI), Philippine Action for Community-led Shelter Initiatives Inc. (PACSII), Technical Assistance Movement for People and the Environment Inc. (TAMPEI), Community Resources for the Advancement of Capable Societies (CoRe-ACS), and LinkBuild. Each of these organisations has a particular role, and work together throughout the process of acquiring land tenure and providing new housing solutions for the urban poor.

Homeless Peoples Federation Philippines Inc

The work of HPFPI started in the 1990s with the creation of savings groups among waste-pickers living on a garbage dump site in the barangay (neighbourhood) of Payatas, in Quezon City, Metro Manila. Originally addressing immediate needs, the programme evolved to tackle issues of land security and eviction. Its successes in Quezon City, in addition to local and international networking and exchanges, encouraged the federation to intensify its work and expand across the country.

Today HPFPI is a national federation of community associations and savers pursuing community-led housing and upgrading processes.

The main role of the federation is to promote and facilitate savings among member-communities, as a way of building their financial capability to invest in their own development. This mobilisation aims to uphold the aspirations of its members to secure their own land, maintain decent living conditions, break the cycle of poverty, and protect their dignity and human rights.

Diagram 1: The Philippines Alliance; Partners and their main responsibilities

Diagram 1: The Philippines Alliance; Partners and their main responsibilities

Philippine Action for Community-led Shelter Initiatives Inc

PACSII is a non-profit NGO, registered in 2002, and serves as the intermediary support institution to HPFPI, coordinating the Alliance’s programmes across the various regions, providing overall guidance in their mission.

PACSII provides extensive assistance on legal and financial matters, finding resources, serving as a legal holder for these resources, but most importantly giving the federation the space and opportunity to genuinely develop as a community-driven institution.

Technical Assistance Movement for People and the Environment Inc

TAMPEI is the technical support unit of the Alliance, supporting the federation in community-led technical processes, specifically through the design of low-cost incremental housing, community upgrading, community mapping and planning initiatives at different scales; from community to city level developments.

Community Resources for the Advancement of Capable Societies and LinkBuild

LinkBuild and CoRe-ACS are newly-formed social enterprise and micro-finance institutions which support the communities that form the federation. LinkBuild provides development finance and builds houses while Core-ACS provides end user financing for low-income families through accessible loan systems.

LinkBuild was formed in order for the Alliance to deliver sustainable housing to scale for HPFPI members, affiliates and partner community networks. HPFPI and TAMPEI are directly engaged in the project planning and implementation processes in order to ensure community preparedness and involvement.

Surplus and cross-subsidy projects are being explored as means to sustain the programs and make housing affordable for very low-income families. Houses constructed by Linkbuild are sold to CoRe-ACS, which is then responsible for handing over the houses to households who have been assessed and approved to receive a housing loan, and administrating and collecting these loans.

Diagram 2: The methodology adopted by the Philippine Alliance, and associated partners involved in each stage

Diagram 2: The methodology adopted by the Philippine Alliance, and associated partners involved in each stage

How the Alliance mobilises member-communities

Although the process varies depending on the context, the starting point for the federation has historically been the mobilisation of communities through the promotion of savings. As communities become mobilised, the aspiration of securing their own land becomes progressively more realistic. Another important stage is the collection of relevant data regarding the community, referred to as community mapping.

If the community has already been organised by HPFPI, the mapping process can represent a crucial step before moving onto planning and design. Nonetheless, mapping can also be used in communities that are not yet organised or involved with HPFPI.

In fact it is often used as a strategy to start interacting with a community and to then introduce the concept of organising and saving to find housing solutions. For large projects, such as housing development, mapping is an important stage which profiles the settlement.

Taking a participatory approach, data is gathered at the household level (for example the number of families, occupations, building structure and facilities), on physical characteristics (such as the boundaries of the settlement and the communities present) as well as on the historical development of settlements.

Once the data has been gathered, verified, analysed and synthesised by community members, it is presented to the wider community, to be used as a tool in the next stage of community land acquisition, planning and design.

What are DPU interns doing?

Throughout our time here we hope to be working in different capacities on all stages of the process in order to support the Alliance in its work and to learn from their experience.

Look out for the three forthcoming posts about our work and experiences in the coming weeks.


Jessica is an architect and has recently completed the MSc in Building and Urban Design in Development at the DPU. Currently, she is working in the Philippines, as part of the DPU-ACHR joint internship programme. Her interests lie primarily in community-led upgrading, particularly with regards to housing and service provision. 

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.

Participatory Photography: a background

Laura JHirst20 January 2015

Image: Laura Hirst, 2014

While there exists a broad history of ‘participation’ in visual research methods, participatory photography or ‘photo voice’ has evolved as a specific participatory action research method for development, which involves providing (often marginalized groups of) people with cameras to record their realities and perspectives.

The process of taking photographs and subsequent group discussion amongst participants and researchers (which can take the form of storytelling, coding, explaining choices taken in making images) can provide new spaces for dialogue, exchange and knowledge production about personal and community issues. The following anecdote illustrates some of the potential of the method as a way of prompting reflexive discussions:

In 1973, while conducting a literacy project in a barrio in Lima, Peru, Paulo Freire and his colleagues asked people questions in Spanish, but distributed cameras and requested the answers in photographs. When the question ‘What is exploitation?’ was asked, some people took photos of a landlord, grocer, or a policeman. One child took a photo of a nail on a wall. Freire & Boal interpreted it as an abstract metaphor of the hard lives of children who worked long hours as shoe shiners, and had to walk long distances between home and the city.

The ensuing discussions revealed that as their shoe-shine boxes were too heavy for them to carry, these boys rented a nail on a wall, usually in a shop, where they could hang their boxes for the night. For them, that nail on the wall symbolised exploitation within their community. The photograph spurred widespread discussions in the Peruvian barrio about other forms of institutionalised exploitation, including ways to overcome them. [1]

In some cases the resulting photographs are themselves used as a powerful advocacy tool, attempting to inspire change through bringing stories and experiences to the attention of decision-makers and the wider public through campaigns and exhibitions.

As well as having roots in Freirean theories of conscientisation (where a critical awareness of one’s social reality is developed through both reflection and action), the method also draws from feminist theory which advocates research participants as actors rather than objects of study, and identifying the empowering potential of knowledge production for participants. [2]

In 2014, participatory photography was used as one of several research methods during fieldwork examining neighbourhood planning and urban governance in the city of Kisumu, Kenya, conducted as part of the MSc Social Development Practice fieldwork. Keep an eye out for future blog posts elaborating on how this was used in practice and reflections on its potential as a tool for empowerment and change in communities.

 

[1] From: Aline Gubrium and Krista Harper, ‘Photovoice Research’ in Participatory Visual and Digital Methods (Left Coast Press Inc, 2013): 69-89 and Singhal, A., L.M. Harter, K. Chitnis, and D. Sharma, 2007, Participatory Photography as Theory, Method and Praxis: Analyzing an Entertainment-Education Project in India. Critical Arts 21 (1): 212-227.

[2] Caroline Wang, ‘Photovoice: A Participatory Action Research Strategy Applied to Women’s Health’, Journal of Women’s Health, vol. 8, no. 2 (1999), 185-92.

 

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.

Participatory Action Upgrading and Well-Being in Kisumu, Kenya

StephanieButcher22 June 2013

From February – June 2013, the MSc Social Development Practice (SDP) partnered with the international NGO Practical Action to pursue an ‘action-learning’ project entitled “Participatory Informal Settlement Upgrading and Well-Being”, focusing on the city of Kisumu, Kenya. The research process consisted of three months of desktop research and policy analysis in London, and two and a half weeks of primary field research in Kisumu in late April. In Kisumu, SDP students were joined by colleagues from Maseno University and the Great Lakes University of Kisumu, to collaboratively undertake the fieldwork research.
thumb_Kisumu-Kenya_1024

The Participatory Informal Settlement Upgrading and Well-Being partnership opened in early February 2013, when fourteen SDP masters students were introduced to the project. Students were asked to examine four different water and sanitation interventions within three unplanned settlements in Kisumu. Three of the projects were implemented with the support of Practical Action as a part of their People’s Plans into Practice (PPP) programme—a participatory planning initiative that works through the local Neighborhood Planning Associations to identify and address settlement upgrading priorities.  The final project was implemented under the Kenyan Government’s Local Authority Service Delivery Action Plan (LASDAP), a participatory planning process with devolved funding, chosen to serve as a point of comparison with the NGO models.

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

thumb_Kisumu-Kenya_1024

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

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

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

thumb_Kisumu-Kenya_1024

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

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

An honest account of participatory research

RosalinaBabourkova-Horner2 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.