[This article is drawn from a paper presented by the author at the Vulnerability, Infrastructure, and Displacement Symposium held at University College London on 12-13 June 2019, as part of the panel on "Methodological Approaches." Click here, here, and here for articles based on other papers presented at the panel.]
This article consists of two parts. The first presents a framework for understanding and dealing with diversity in participatory urban infrastructure interventions. These are interventions related to any type of urban infrastructure and that seek to involve local residents in their planning and design. The article draws on Kenyan case studies related to housing in particular; however, examples for other types of urban interventions and locations would equally support the importance of taking into account the diversity of residents’ aspirations and needs in designing urban interventions. It distinguishes three interlinked aspects of diversity: recognition, the diversity of needs and aspirations requiring different interventions; redistribution, the diversity of impact of interventions on different groups and individuals; and representation, the diversity in participation in decision-making. The second part of the article is made up of a photo essay that shows how we deployed this framework in the implementation of participatory spatial interventions implemented in Bar Elias, a Lebanese town currently undergoing significant changes due to mass displacement from Syria.
Often urban infrastructure interventions in poor urban settlements in the global South assume all residents have similar aspirations and needs. However, these localities are some of the most unequal settlements, and interventions in these contexts create winners and losers. The argument that this piece makes is that different dimensions of diversity have to be taken into consideration in the planning of these interventions. This first piece is more about explaining the importance of diversity in urban interventions, while the second piece will more closely focus on the approach and methodology.
We all have multiple simultaneous identities: such as gender, class, race and ethnicity, citizenship or legal status, age, ability, sexuality, and life path/project (e.g. migration plan). Some of these are individual and other collectives, and they are fluid and in constant change. A fundamental way to understand how these identities shape different experiences, needs and aspirations is the concept of intersectionality, that is, how the combination and intersection of multiple dimensions of identity create unique experiences of oppression and discrimination. For example, the discrimination of black women in the US legal system cannot be understood by simply looking at the discrimination of black people or women.
Different aspects of individual and collective social identities play a crucial role in social processes, shaping life chances. The relationships between these different identities are intertwined with power. There are consolidated hierarchies and power relations amongst these identities: such as between men and women, black and white people, etc. These unequal relations between identities contribute to inequalities and marginalisation processes. But these identities and the relationship between them change in different contexts and over time, which means they are not natural but are socially constructed, and thus can be socially deconstructed. Therefore, addressing these inequalities requires a relational and intersectional approach focused on transforming power relations that are at the core of social identities, making the recognition of diversity a political process.
Inequalities and Participation
The other fundamental element is the understanding of the heterogeneity of poor urban neighbourhoods that are often wrongly considered to host poor residents with similar vulnerabilities, needs, and aspirations. However, in poor neighbourhoods in the global South not everyone is poor. For example, successful businesspeople may operate from these informal neighbourhoods to benefit from the lower regulatory constraints. In Kenya and elsewhere, wealthy landlords, sometimes owning large numbers of properties, live in these settlements with tenants who have little security of tenure and live in poor housing conditions. In South Africa, citizens living in these areas are entitled to government upgrading and housing programmes, while migrants are not.
Over the past three decades, there has been a push for community participation approaches to planning urban interventions in these contexts. However, community participation approaches tend to build on an image of a homogenous community, leading to practices that seek to identify a unified consensus on interventions through community leaders or collective meetings. The internal inequalities and power relations based on different identities do not allow all residents to raise their interests in these processes. For example, tenants can be evicted for speaking up against landlords’ interests, or women may not be allowed to contradict powerful male voices. As highlighted by a large body of literature, these community participatory approaches often lead to specific elite interests being portrayed as the community interest, and interventions as being equally beneficial to all.
Social Justice and Dimensions of Diversity
To frame the analysis of diversity and urban intervention, we use the work of Nancy Fraser. Her framework for social justice goes beyond distributional justice and takes into account diversity issues. Analysing existing struggles for justice, she observed how many were about the recognition of different identities, on top of struggles for a better redistribution of material benefits. Moreover, she identified representation as a third dimension and argued that social justice requires all of these dimensions, while injustice is the result of misrecognition, maldistribution, and misrepresentation. We propose three key interlinked aspects of diversity that broadly correspond to the three dimensions of social justice in Nancy Fraser’s framework.
Recognition: Diversity of Vulnerabilities/Needs/Aspirations Requiring Different Interventions
We discussed how residents of poor urban neighbourhoods are very diverse and live in very unequal settlements. Planners behind upgrading programmes often assume all residents need better housing and argue that better living conditions can be achieved in high-density areas through multi-story buildings or by relocating residents to less central areas of the city. However, this fails to recognise the diversity of residents’ needs and aspirations. For example, in Kenya’s informal settlements, housing often has a double function of both dwelling and shop. Therefore, multi-story arrangements destroy livelihoods because a window shop only works if the dwelling is at street level. Moreover, in this context, housing is a complex system of settings in which public spaces are part of the housing. What appears to the planners to be a very small dwelling, is adequate for a family given that they can also use the public space outside for washing and cooking. Moreover, for the complex and delicate livelihood systems of many residents, social relations are of the utmost importance. In the existing arrangements, residents can, for instance, leave their children under the supervision of neighbours and build system of mutual support that are more difficult in housing types that do not include shared spaces. Such relationships, built over the course of many years, can be easily disrupted by the relocations to new housing.
Moreover, some of these programmes do not take into sufficient account the diversity of needs that are satisfied by the current housing arrangements. Many residents chose their housing for its proximity to livelihood opportunities and good education. The poor housing conditions mean relatively cheaper rent, thus allowing them to make a more valued investment in the education of their children, which is rightly seen as their best chance of social mobility. Many tenants are therefore not interested in investing their savings and time into a complex risky process to own a flat in an ethnically mixed area.
Redistribution: The Diversity of Impact of Interventions on Different Groups and Individuals
Urban development interventions have profoundly different impacts on different groups and individuals residing in the city. Analyses of existing interventions can counter-narratives of win-win projects benefiting all community members and present a more complex and nuanced perspective on who gains from what intervention (considering unexpected outcomes) and highlight the important political choices about which individuals and groups to prioritise inherent in any interventions. For example, in the upgrading programme of a Nairobi (Kenya) informal settlement, internal roads were expanded and tarmacked, allowing the passage of cars and public transport into the settlement in 2011. Such an infrastructure intervention was presented as benefiting all residents. However, for the large majority of the residents, who were tenants, this intervention activated market forces and rent for a room changed from KES 250-400 in 2008 to KES 2,000-2,500 in 2015 without any improvement in the quality of the rooms. The increased demand for housing also meant that it was easy to replace tenants, many of whom were no longer able to afford the new rent. Moreover, the value of plots of land also increased several times. This meant that those owning property benefited enormously from the intervention while poorer tenants – supposedly the key beneficiaries of the project – were displaced by the market forces unleashed by the new infrastructure intervention.
Representation: The Diversity in Participation to Decision-Making
Participation is often costly for people who need to support their families. Moreover, local governance structures often reflect unequal power relations at the settlement level, making it difficult to ensure that they adequately represent the diversity of interests, particularly of the most marginalised women and men. It is important to design processes that acknowledge the main social divisions in each context and build processes that take these into account from an intersectional perspective. In the same upgrading programme mentioned above, the elected residents’ committee was to be formed by two landlords, one tenant, one youth, one woman and one elder. However, as the woman, elder and youth are also either landlords or tenants, the committee ended up being dominated by landlords because these had more power to make themselves elected. The way in which participation was designed failed to recognise the multiple simultaneous intersectional identities of residents and the power relations between them.
We argue that as identities shape the life chances of people, it is fundamental that urban interventions consider these three interlinked aspects of diversity – recognition, distribution, and participation – and implement a relational and intersectional approach to the participation of residents in planning and design processes. This means: going beyond classifying beneficiaries into groups based on one dimension of identity; focusing on the relationships between residents and between different groups of residents; and thinking beyond the physical and material component of interventions in order to transform these unequal relationships.
Photo Essay: Co-designing Urban Infrastructure with Refugee and Host Communities in Bar Elias, Lebanon
Joana Dabaj, Andrea Rigon, Hanna Baumann
This photo essay explores the characteristics of the participatory and diversity-sensitive methodology that was applied by the research team implementing a Participatory Spatial Intervention (PSI) in the town of Bar Elias (Lebanon) as an activity of the project “Public Services and vulnerability in the Lebanese context of large-scale displacement”. The PSI is a co-produced way to build capacity and generate knowledge through an experimental process, which aims to have an impact on the sustainable prosperity of the town. This activity was implemented by the team from University College London in partnership with the non-profit design studio CatalyticAction. We build on the framework for dealing with diversity in urban interventions above.
The intervention was implemented in Bar Elias, one of the most vulnerable localities in Lebanon, located halfway between Beirut and Damascus, and only 15 km from the Syrian border. The Bar Elias municipality has been particularly welcoming towards displaced Syrians since the start of the Syrian civil war and the town has been transformed by their influx. In addition to increased construction inside the town’s urbanising space, over one hundred informal tented settlements are dotted along the outskirts of the city. As the number of refugees rose, there were increased tensions between the two groups and pressure on infrastructure and public services.
© Hanna Baumann
Given the social tensions in the town and the aim to identify interventions that could transform existing relationships, it was fundamental to set up a process through which multiple groups of residents could participate. The project recruited seven citizen scientists through an open and extensive process amongst the residents of Bar Elias, which resulted in the recruitment of a mixed group of Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians from different genders and age groups. Citizen scientists were trained throughout the project on social research methods; ethics and data management; participatory research; design thinking and human-centred approaches. The citizen scientists played a major role in the research and implementation of the project, and owned the process. Their work helped identify the site for the intervention, the main entrance road to the town, that was the only public place used by the three communities living in Bar Elias and a social hub concentrating a number of health facilities as well as a large number of shops.
© Hanna Baumann
An intensive one-week participatory workshop in October 2018 brought together citizens scientists and twelve other participants, ranging from 19 to 65 years of age, to create a gender-balanced and diverse range of Bar Elias residents. While some women are not normally be permitted to take part in such public processes, the university involvement allowed participants to frame the activities as an educational opportunity and thus obtain permission to participate. Moreover, a small payment was provided to ensure participants, particularly the poorest, could compensate for the loss of income from other sources while taking part in the research activities.
© Hanna Baumann
During the workshop, participants learned and applied a range of research methods (including participatory mapping, semi-structured interviews, street observation) gain an in-depth understanding of how different users experience vulnerabilities with regard to infrastructures and the use of the road. Data was analysed in groups and then collectively. Three interrelated categories of vulnerabilities were identified: socio-economic vulnerabilities; health and environmental vulnerabilities; and safe and inclusive spaces for all. Participants were divided into three groups to conduct an in-depth analysis of the causes of these vulnerabilities by drawing complex problem trees. For each component of the problem, they were encouraged to reflect on how different individuals and groups were differently affected and why. Participants were then asked to identify solutions, thinking about who would and would not benefit. A ‘visioning exercise’ was developed in which the participants imagined their ideal day in Bar Elias with their families or friends, through a range of media including drawing and poetry. This was used to counter adaptive preferences, which often pushes the most marginalised to lower their aspirations. A shared vision was constructed before moving to propose concrete spatial interventions. Different groups proposed different interventions that would bridge the solutions to problems with their aspirations as expressed in their vision.
© Hanna Baumann
An internal exhibition took place through which the group identified some key ideas that were then presented in a public exhibition on the street. Passers-by, as well as representatives of the municipality, gave their feedback on the proposals. The main output of the workshop was a design brief used to translate participants’ ideas into a design for the spatial interventions. All the steps of the process were characterised by reflection on the social diversity of the residents and how their different identities shaped their vulnerabilities and aspirations for the city. This pushed explicit conversations about who would benefit and lose from each proposed intervention and led to the prioritisation of interventions addressing some of the most vulnerable groups while fostering interactions amongst all different communities of residents. The preliminary design was presented to participants and the public for another round of feedback in December 2018. The findings and proposals were also presented to municipality, with whom implementation details and permissions were negotiated.
The implementation of the spatial intervention took place in May 2019. Physical interventions included a large circular and playful seating area built on a wide pavement next to the polyclinic, where patients often wait for their appointments, but previously lacked shade or benches. To create sufficient shade and some rain protection, a rectangular aluminium screen covers the seating area; it also contains phrases showcasing people’s values and hopes.
Several seats were added along the sidewalks together with smaller shades, including around the waiting area for taxis. Trees and shades were added to the sidewalks to extend the time these could be used, as hot weather previously prevented people from using the area until the evening. Floor games were painted to allow children to play while parents shop. The play element was also conceived for children from different groups to play together, thereby compelling parents to talk to each other.
A public green space just off the main road that had once served as an important public space for the town had become a deposit of debris from nearby construction works. The park was rehabilitated: additional trees and wooden benches were added in the park, painted in collaboration with children and fabricated at a local carpenter’s shop. A Jasmine arch, whose smell reminded Syrians of the gardens in Damascus, was installed to mark the park’s entrance. The nearby polyclinic complemented the intervention with additional benches, planters and paving, and the municipality signalled intent to maintain the improvements by agreeing to water the plants in the garden.
The sidewalk along the Bar Elias entrance road is up to 60cm high in some places – making it very difficult for pedestrian to navigate. Because of this, and because cars often park on the pavement, many pedestrians walked on the road, exposing themselves to speeding cars. Ramps were installed to facilitate access, especially for the elderly, wheelchair users and parents pushing baby strollers. In addition, speed bumps were installed on the road to discourage speeding in this area. Street signs were added to locate important landmarks and spotlights were installed to make it safer at night. This way, the town centre was made more welcoming and accessible for groups made vulnerable by the previous spatial arrangements.
The intervention converted a public space into a social space and helped to change the narrative from refugees presenting a burden on Bar Elias to refugees helping the town of to become a beautiful city to be proud of. More importantly, the intervention enabled residents to analyse their own problems and work together to identify solutions, while mediating with different authorities. The way the intervention was implemented also allowed individuals to see their voice and capacities recognised, and transformed some social relations by bringing people into the process on equal terms, including people who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to take part in such processes. For example, while the municipality explicitly said they wouldn’t allow a project on women’s rights, the intervention was led on the ground by two female Lebanese architects. This leadership allowed participating women to experience social relations in new ways, as they repeatedly noted, and created a space of freedom to design an intervention and be involved in its implementation.
 Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid modernity, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000). Richard Jenkins, Social identity. Key ideas. 3rd edn. (London: Routledge, 2008).
 Jennifer C. Nash, “re-thinking intersectionality,” Feminist Review 89 (2008): 1-15.
 Jean-Philippe Platteau, “Monitoring Elite Capture in Community-Driven Development,” Development and Change 35, no. 2 (2004): 223-246. Ghazali Mansuri and Vijayendra Rao, Localizing Development: Does Participation Work? (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2013). Andrea Rigon, “Building Local Governance: Participation and Elite Capture in Slum-upgrading in Kenya,” Development and Change 45, no.2 (2014): 257-283.
 Nancy Fraser, Social justice in the age of identity politics: Redistribution, recognition, participation, (Berlin: Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, 1998) 98-108).
Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking Recognition,” New Left Review, 3 (May-June 2000): 107-120.
Nancy Fraser, “Reframing Justice in a Globalizing World,” New Left Review 36 (November-December 2005): 69-88.
 Andrea Rigon, Co-producing Development: Participation, Power and Conflict in the Upgrading of Informal Settlements in Nairobi, (PhD, Trinity College, Dublin, 2012)
 Amos Rapoport, “Theory, Culture and Housing,” Housing, Theory and Society 17, no. 4 (2000): 145-165.