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Spaces of Peace: A participatory process worth studying

LauraPinzon Cardona29 May 2015

petare 3

From my experience, living and working in Colombia and witnessing the struggles found in processes for upgrading poor zones in the city, I often wonder how can small organisations propose and deliver urban projects seeking for social and cultural transformation, without getting lost in the highly bureaucratic processes for funding and building permissions.

I want to share in this post some points about a participatory methodology, initially used in Venezuela in July 2014 that points to interesting directions for achieving more comprehensive, and time sustainable, results for urban interventions in low income areas.

Having said this, it is important to highlight that the experience in Venezuela needs to be studied critically, in order to understand local factors that made it successful and wondering whether it could be a methodology than can be easily replicated elsewhere.

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Spaces of Peace (Espacios de Paz) is the name given to this participatory methodology, and that was precisely the main purpose, to create places of truce in conflictive neighbourhoods with violent histories, through the transformation of empty buildings, and urban voids, into communal spaces for the practice of different activities related to cultural and recreational practices in the community.

This initiative was lead by the Presidential Commission of the Movement for Peace and Life (Comisión Presidencial del Movimiento por la Paz y la Vida) and coordinated by the architecture firm PICO Estudio. Eleven social architecture collectives – both national and international – were invited to participate in the project, and to take part in five parallel participatory workshops across the country. The workshops lasted 6 weeks, which included one week for preparation, and five for design and construction.

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This may sound straightforward for someone unfamiliar with managing and delivering urban proposals in low-income communities in South America. But the fact is that it is an outstanding accomplishment. The project achieved five good-quality results in parallel, in just six weeks, while remaining participatory throughout. In my experience, it can take about 6 weeks just to have the permissions ready for a small urban intervention, and that would only involve two or three actors – not the seven who came together for this project.

There are a few details that piqued my interest in learning more about this methodology, which I believe these could be strategic decisions that explain the apparent success of implementation of this approach. The first detail I want to highlight is that local women managed resources for each project, including both food and money to pay for construction materials brought to the site.

In doing so the role of actors in the project is balanced: the community all of a sudden receives these architecture collectives to guide the workshop, design and construction – even if they are from the same country, they are still somehow alien to local contexts. But at the same time it is the community itself, represented by their women, who are the ones in charge of managing the process in the best way possible to make the ideas feasible.

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Production teams were in charge of all logistical details covering a wide range of tasks related to the preparation and implementation of workshops, including transportation, hosting, food, hiring and delivering of construction materials. Besides a small quota of voluntary students and some specialised craftsmen, men and women from the communities did most of the labour, being hired and paid for their time

One final detail I want to highlight is that cultural and social activation started in parallel with the project being built. With the support of local and national networks of foundations, artists and collectives with social purposes, many different activities were planned and realised in the communities during the workshops. This called the interest of the community and gave a chance to more people to participate.

I am part of one of the international collectives invited to be part of this exercise, Habitat sin Fronteras. Although I could not be there during the workshops I followed it from my home in Colombia, through the experiences of a colleague, and in August last year I had the chance to visit one of the projects in Caracas. In this project an existing two-story building was renovated, in a very crowded corner in Petare, a traditionally conflictive poor neighborhood.

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Inside the new building there are spaces designated for dancing and yoga, a music-recording studio, and an Internet room with a few computers. The roof terrace was reinforced and properly adapted for a single basketball court with space for stands and plants. During my visit I could see all these spaces were used intensely by local people, still being supported by some art and cultural collectives that participated during the construction exercise.

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Looking at the impact generated by Spaces of Peace, it is hard not to think this should be done more often and in many more countries. However, specific local conditions such as political will, levels of coordination among institutions, strong funding management and production capacity from the project leaders, and community cooperation are, among others, some factors to study locally before replicating this particular exercise.

Nowadays, Spaces of Peace 2015 is being implemented in Venezuela, and also in Mexico at a smaller scale on a project-by-project basis. I will share some of their experiences in future posts.

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Laura Pinzon is an architect and completed the MSc Building and Urban Design in Development at the DPU in 2012. She currently works as a consultant with Habitat sin Fronteras, a non-profit foundation, and is also manager and creative director of a communication company called 101 Media Solutions, developing communicative strategies to support development processes in Colombia, where she currently lives.

Transformation in a Time of Transition: Engaging with People-driven Upgrading Strategies in Cambodia

GiovannaAstolfo26 May 2015

In the last 20 days students from the MSc BUDD have been engaging with people driven upgrading processes in Cambodia as part of the annual action oriented design research fieldtrip project.

Working closely with local communities, in collaboration with the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (MLMUPC) and the Community Architect Network (CAN) and supported by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), BUDD students, along with 22 local students from 7 different Universities, developed design strategies for city wide upgrading and inclusive urban design, starting from a socio spatial full immersion in three informal communities in Phnom Penh and Kompong Thom.

Image: Striking contrast of Global Phnom Penh, between elite towns, vernacular wooden architecture and poor houses. The desire for growth and economic development passes through urbanisation, land exploitation, eviction and relocation (©Ana Puhac; Rui Geng; Camillo Boano; Alex Pixley)

Image: Striking contrast of Global Phnom Penh, between elite towns, vernacular wooden architecture and poor houses. The desire for growth and economic development passes through urbanisation, land exploitation, eviction and relocation (©Ana Puhac; Rui Geng; Camillo Boano; Alex Pixley)

Two of the three sites share similar challenges, even though one is located in a mostly urbanised area in the periphery of Phnom Penh (Chbar Ampov District), while the other is located in the Province of Kompong Thom, 160 km far from the capital city, in a mostly rural part of the country.

Poor though cohesive communities are here facing the perpetual lack of land tenure – one of the many by-products of the murderous urbicidal past of the country – and basic services (water, sanitation, waste management..); on top of that, seasonal flooding worsens the already precarious conditions in urban and rural Cambodia weakening the relationship between environment and people. But local people’s knowledge and technology, their inexhaustible inventiveness and resilience, their ability in organising and building, proves once more to be strong enough to imagine, design and plan a different future.

Image: Beoung Chuck Meanchey Thmey II community in Phnom Penh is a cohesive community willing to pursue land negotiations and start a process of upgrading. In order to do so, detailed house mapping and reflections on accessibility were experimented, along with alternative layouts including landfill and housing on stilts (©Camillo Boano)

Image: Beoung Chuck Meanchey Thmey II community in Phnom Penh is a cohesive community willing to pursue land negotiations and start a process of upgrading. In order to do so, detailed house mapping and reflections on accessibility were experimented, along with alternative layouts including landfill and housing on stilts (©Camillo Boano)

The third site, Anlong Kngan community, has been even more challenging, given the large scale (it is in fact formed by nine communities for a total of 500 households), the extremely contested and conflictive context (a relocation site in the periphery of the city, today a densely inhabited area with high pressure over land) and lack of cohesion in the communities. The Anlong case is paradigmatic as it represents a common feature in the urban production of Cambodia: massive settlements generated ad hoc from forced evictions and acts of emptying the centre of the city paired to the use of peripheral land to relocate informal populations, toward building the image of a ‘charming’, globalised and competitive city.

Anlong Kngan combined the perverse failure of the relocation system in Phnom Penh with another example of the resilience of the Khmer people and their ability to work out the worst condition, resist unjust urban dynamics, reclaiming the right to shape, built and inhabit the city.

Image: Water supply by re‐using plastic bottles; coping mechanisms for floods (©Vishaka Jha); techniques to capture insects for daily consumption (©Giovanna Astolfo)

Image: Water supply by re‐using plastic bottles; coping mechanisms for floods (©Vishaka Jha); techniques to capture insects for daily consumption (©Giovanna Astolfo)

The Kompong Thom community is formed by 30 households and lives in unhealthy and unsafe conditions above a polluted canal. Houses are built on stilts echoing the traditional vernacular wooden architecture ubiquitous in rural Cambodia. During the rainy season, the water of the canal reaches the floor level of the houses worsening the living condition of the residents.

In light of the vulnerability of the area and taking advantage of the lack of land tenure of the residents, the municipality is willing to relocate the community in a site 70 km far away causing the disruption of their livelihood. However, the small city does not show evidence of a possible pattern of growth or urban development that can explain the relocation or make sense of such pressure over land. Also, it is unclear how imminent the threat of eviction could be.

Image: mapping of the community settled above the canal (©Giovanna Astolfo); raised access to the houses; possible land for relocation identified by the community (©BUDD students)

Image: mapping of the community settled above the canal (©Giovanna Astolfo); raised access to the houses; possible land for relocation identified by the community (©BUDD students)

Nevertheless, the community urges to envision alternative scenarios as tools to expand the room for manoeuvre with the local authority, to catalyse attention, gain visibility, mobilise other communities and reach a level of autonomy. Helped by a pro-poor oriented Municipality, the BUDD developed and tested several proposals for on-site upgrading (domestic space, shared spaces and infrastructures), re-blocking and relocation to another land of choice.

Image: Imagining living spaces: the dream house activity; co‐producing alternative futures: relocation versus on site upgrading (©BUDD students)

Image: Imagining living spaces: the dream house activity; co‐producing alternative futures: relocation versus on site upgrading (©BUDD students)

The group of students worked along with community members to jointly develop a strategy to be presented to the local authority first, and, after further refinement, to the vice Governor in Phnom Penh.

It is of crucial importance that the first presentation is led by the community, in order to capitalise on the unique opportunity for urban poor communities to share their story and upgrading aspirations directly with local authority. Similarly, the aim of the second presentation is to facilitate the institutional recognition of the presence of such enormous capital in each communities.

Image: moments of the learning process in Kompong Thom. Dream house exercise and community driven presentation of the strategies to the local authority. The dream house is a collective activity that involves the co‐creation of 3d models of incremental housing unit at 1:50 scale with plastiline removable furniture. (©BUDD students; Giovanna Astolfo)

Image: moments of the learning process in Kompong Thom. Dream house exercise and community driven presentation of the strategies to the local authority. The dream house is a collective activity that involves the co‐creation of 3d models of incremental housing unit at 1:50 scale with plastiline removable furniture. (©BUDD students; Giovanna Astolfo)

Image: Learning from the Province. Visit to upgraded community that are already part of the network (©Giovanna Astolfo)

Image: Learning from the Province. Visit to upgraded community that are already part of the network (©Giovanna Astolfo)

Anlong is a peri-urban site for relocated people, where the government allocated empty land for victims of (deliberate) fire in the more central zone. Fast forward 15 years, the communities have transformed the empty land without infrastructure and services in a dense lively urban space.

Four of the nine communities not included in the relocation process, are illegally occupying part of the land. The site is therefore two times a locus of contestation, for being a relocation site and for being a squatted relocation site.

Image: Anlong Kgan settlement (©Camillo Boano; BUDD students)

Image: Anlong Kgan settlement (©Camillo Boano; BUDD students)

Great effort was put by the students in disentangling the complex dynamic of resettlement as a mechanism repeatedly present in the system of the city and in unpacking the conflicting agendas of different actors.

The proposed interventions aim at the incremental occupation and densification of the site (sensitive reblocking), the activation of self-sufficient mechanism and growth of the site as a self sufficient city, at strengthening the interdependency of the communities settled in the site, and at increase the rootedness and sense of belonging.

Image: unpacking Anlong Kgan settlement development (©BUDD students)

Image: unpacking Anlong Kgan settlement development (©BUDD students)

The three sites despite local specificity share similar features related to the uncertain institutional and legal framework for the urban poor’s access to land in the new course of the National Housing Policy implementation; even when present, laws and regulations on land and housing are rarely fulfilled.

The collaboration between BUDD students, Staff and representatives of the recently established General Department of Housing (GDH) as part of the Ministry of Land Management (MLMUPC), has been an attempt to catalyse attention to people driven processes in the production of the city and attentive participatory methodologies.

Image: collaborative settings (©Fiona; Belen Desmaison)

Image: collaborative settings (©Fiona; Belen Desmaison)

Since reliable data and maps, when existing, are difficult to gather or deliberately hidden or simply not recognised as forms of knowledge, a cross cutting underlying common goal of the fieldwork in each site has been the co-production of knowledge, including settlement profiling, enumeration, mapping, and participatory design activities, at the point that it is difficult to say who contributed more: the community, the Khmer students or the BUDDies.

Image: co‐production of knowledge(©Giorgio Talocci)

Image: co‐production of knowledge (©Giorgio Talocci)

Finally, a common trait of the work has been the constant learning attitude, inspired by the humble, no-hero work of CAN and ACHR. Such attitude is central and constantly reasserted in their approach: learning from the people, learning from urban reality, learning from each other, learning by doing.

If once Giancarlo de Carlo said that architecture is too important to be left to architects, maybe there is a greater role for Community architects?


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. This year’s cohort of BUDD students will present the outcomes of their research on Wednesday 27 May 2015.

Experiences in community mapping

MariangelaVeronesi24 March 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a Base Map

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

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

Muntinlupa Core Team involved in GPS mapping during the ocular visit

Muntinlupa Core Team involved in GPS mapping during the ocular visit

Collecting Information at Household Level

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

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

Collection of structure and household information in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila

Collection of structure and household information in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila

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

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

Lessons learnt during the process so far

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

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

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

Community mapping in Ilang, Davao

Community mapping in Ilang, Davao

Clarity in communication

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

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

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

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

The goal of the mapping process

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

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

Mapping training in Ilang, Davao

Mapping training in Ilang, Davao


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