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Interview with John Taylor

August 7, 2014

John Taylor, Founder of ‘Our City Foundation’, Indonesia recently gave an email interview on citizen engagement in the planning process and community mapping in particular. You can read more about the work of his organization here.

1. What is ‘community planning’?
To me community planning means the participation of citizens in planning decisions together with government. Such planning requires the involvement of people, who are not planners nor have any particular technical background in planning; basically everyday people. These people have opinions and needs, but don’t necessarily know how to articulate these in the way that engineers or planners do. So I think that community planning requires the ability to translate concepts and ideas back and forth between these two different groups in a way that helps construct a dialogue between them, a dialogue where both government and community can understand each other. Through such a dialogue, they can come to some pretty innovative and interesting solutions, and this I think is the desired outcome of community planning. Participation requires outreach, making information available in an accessible and legible way, and deliberation and constructive dialogue.

2. How can community planning help solve civic issues?
Community planning alone won’t – and doesn’t claim to – solve civic issues, but it is a start! Often, civic issues, such as poor water service delivery or trash collection, are invisible issues or handled by institutions that are not very accountable. Citizens may assume that there is some institution improving the situation, or that there is knowledge about what is going wrong. You have two issues here: one is the assumption that once they know, then they will be able to do something, and secondly that there is information available to help them to bring about change. But the reality is that there isn’t a lot of information available, and so the public doesn’t have access to information about issues like these (and often service delivery companies like to keep it that way). Without access to information, the public can’t hold the responsible institutions accountable or put forward their wishes. They’re just not informed enough to do so. On the other hand, there may not be mechanisms in which city government or service providers actually are able to know what is going on; they may not have the capacity, or knowledge, to map the issues.

A new program we’re working on in Indonesia called Water SMS gives a good example. Municipal water providers don’t know where leaks in the system are occurring or where there are areas of poor service at any given moment in time. However citizens are able to provide that information by sending SMS messages about the problems and where they’re happening. This information can be visualized on a map, thereby visualizing the water system’s changing issues, so they can be responded to.

3. Who can participate in community planning? Where and how can citizens look for avenues of participation?
This all depends on the openness of ward and city leaders to work with and listen to citizens. In theory everyone should participate. At the moment however there don’t seem to be many clearly defined forums for participation in planning, such as the participatory budgeting policy made famous in many Brazilian cities. In India, I’ve not heard of many spaces for citizens to participate or get involved, but this culture might change. Innovative and forward-thinking institutions and leaders could encourage more and more participation and help find ways for citizens to contribute.

4. What are the aims of community mapping?
The aim behind community mapping is to create an accurate, up to date, and relevant set of information about our communities and cities. In general, city governments don’t really have accurate information upon which to make plans or design their policies. As a result decisions are often not made based upon analysis of current conditions. Community mapping is able to pull together information quickly and efficiently, because it works with citizens and local organizations to do so. Another aim is that by involving people you are helping to involve them and get them interested in making changes in their surroundings based upon their contributions and ideas. Collecting information should only be the beginning, a first step to more substantive citizen engagement in shaping neighborhoods and cities.

5. What can the impact of community mapping be in city planning?
There can be a big impact in the way that city officials think about issues and also how citizens engage with them about them. As I stated before, a better understanding of the city can be gained through the contributions of all active citizens, and this can help pinpoint where more specific projects or policies are needed. So, for instance, if you identify where concentrations of poverty are, or areas where access to water is particularly poor, the government can design a program to address the needs of that area. So community mapping can equip the city planning process with better information to respond to issues, and data that is more up to date than what is usually available.

In addition, if citizens are engaged and involved, then they can help give recommendations and articulate their needs to government. This helps planning become more efficient and effective in allocation of resources, and people will be much more content with the services they receive in return, because they’ll have been consulted on it.

6. Should community-mapping initiatives get started by city administrators, NGOs, or interested citizens themselves?
I think that such initiatives can get started anywhere and by anybody, but it’s often best by citizens themselves. Community mapping can really be about any issue, for example the problem of uncollected trash in a single street or ward, or instances of violent crime in a city. You can map these things alone, or with an interest group, or with a whole neighborhood working together. Once you have people seeking to better understand an issue and bring about change, then mapping it is one step to make that change. But then you also have to work with government to show your findings and propose possible solutions. The mapping can really be started by anyone, it is one important step to addressing issues of citizen concern.

7. What is the Indonesian model of community planning, and would it work for a city like Chennai that is chaotic and geographically diverse?
You shouldn’t overestimate Indonesian cities, they are just as chaotic and diverse as cities like Chennai! (He laughs) There isn’t really any one model of community planning, there are probably many. The one that we have developed in the city of Solo, Central Java, is one which is based on the RT (a small administrative unit) or sub-neighborhood-level.

We started the community mapping project in Indonesia by surveying one small neighborhood. We got residents to come together to identify the important infrastructure and assets (water tanks, wells, schools, health centers, etc.) and also gathered information about how many people lived on each street (or in our case RT). This helped create different map layers showing population density (which is a proxy for demand) and the existence of different services (which is a proxy for supply). By discussing the mismatch between these two things in one neighborhood, you start a participatory planning discussion about what residents need, they then can put forward these needs to their elected representatives. When we showed the Mayor and other people what we found, they started to take notice.

We scaled this process up and collected basic demographic and socio-economic data from each RT in the city, in total over 2,700 of them, and organized the data in a database. We were able to show the spatial information in maps, indicating patterns of poverty, access to water, population density, levels of land tenure, and access to sanitation. We hope that this serves as a base of information upon which citizens can better understand how their city and neighborhood works, so they can be better informed about what to ask government for the musrenbang (the term for Solo’s annual participatory budgeting cycle). Even without the musrenbang, the information is useful for citizens to visualize how the city changes and can help them understand better what they may need from government (for example better access to services, transportation, schools, etc.).

I think that each city and populace has to develop such initiatives based upon their own specific needs, interests, and context. For example, Chennai is now building a citywide metro system. The coverage of this new system could be mapped together with other transportation alternatives, and by analyzing the information you could see who is not going to be able to access public transport. This kind of mapping could help inform discussions about how to provide better mobility options for those who need it.

One thought on “Interview with John Taylor

  1. 13 August 2014
    A wonderful interview! Thanks a lot for posting it.
    “6. Should community-mapping initiatives get started by city administrators, NGOs, or interested citizens themselves?”
    I think that such initiatives can get started anywhere and by anybody, but it’s often best by citizens themselves. Community mapping can really be about any issue…. ”
    I would like to bring to your notice, that in 1995/1996, INTACH, Chennai, under the guidance of late Prof. G. Dattatri, initiated such a programme of setting up a community service called CISDEM (Community Information Services on Development and Environment Matters).
    A brainstorming workshop for the design of the framework of the service, to which a large number of voluntary organisations, academics, and concerned individuals were invited, was held In June 1995. 67 institutions and 8 individuals including a few from outside Chennai participated. The proceedings can be accessed through the link

    Based on the discussions, it was decided to concretise the idea further through a prototype which could lead to development of the service itself.

    In December 1996, the work done was consolidated into a report designed to form the basis on which the service can be set up, not only by INTACH but by anyone interested in the concept, either at a local level or at a regional level. The report can be accessed through the link

    You should remember that in those days we could have only a PC AT with MS DOS operating system, and public domain software from UN like PopMap for GIS and CDS/ISIS for information storage and dissemination. Not even a digitiser was available to draw a map in the computer from an Ao size map of Chennai; it was done through the mouse only.
    Even with that kind of limitations, the prototype design could validate the assumptions underlying the concept. Unfortunately, a trial on the ground, as in the case of Solo, Central Java couldn’t take off.
    The concept is not only still relevant, but can now be concretised better with advances in technology and sophisticated public domain software like open street mapping, now available. In addition, institutions like IMFR are also interested in such concepts.
    If IFMR or Transparent Chennai is interested in taking the concept further, I would be only too glad to be associated with it.
    K. Ananthanarayanan