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Interview with John Taylor

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.

The Road Ahead- Looking back at Participatory Planning in Nanganallur and KK Nagar

Over the past few weeks, we have blogged about our experiences in Nanganallur and KK Nagar. In our attempts to initiate the process of advocating for a better walking environment within the neighbourhoods of Chennai, we have been able to establish relations with community members and stakeholders in both localities. At the same time, by facilitating participatory planning with citizens, not only has awareness been raised about walkability and the need for improving pedestrian infrastructure, but, concerned parties have begun to comprehend each other’s requirements and limitations. This would enable them to work in unison to arrive at solutions. The key is to create a platform for learning rather than nose-diving into problem solving.

An illustration of this actively-engaging learning process, which surfaced through our interactive design workshop involving community members in Nanganallur, was the transformation of people’s perceptions towards vendors and their encroachments upon pedestrian infrastructure. Realising that vendors contributed to the informal economy, and are an integral part of urban spaces, people were open to cooperating with vendors and were willing to allot space for vending activities, when design options were explained to them. As this newspaper article demonstrates, walkers and vendors can co-exist. Furthermore, it mentions the vending zone list that has been furnished by the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation. Instead of launching schemes that would pigeonhole vendors (the hawkers complex in T. Nagar is a prime example of apathy and bad planning), the Chennai Corporation could look into methods of accommodating vendors.

Our meetings, while sprinkled with participation from community members, did not see sufficient participation from vendors. This is not an insurmountable obstacle, and is one that can be mitigated by initiating dialogue. But, a bigger challenge would lie in improving youth participation. While approaching schools and colleges, and raising awareness about pedestrian issues is a good place to start, a more concerted effort would be required to tap into the latent potential of this age group.

Over the next few weeks, keep watching this space to learn more about our community outreach program!

Written by Ranjeet Joseph, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Meeting with residents of KK Nagar to discuss pedestrian infrastructure

On August 4th, Transparent Chennai held its first community meeting in KK Nagar to bring the residents of the locality together advocate for improvements of pedestrian infrastructure in KK Nagar. About 25 residents from the community including the ward councillor, resident welfare association members and other residents participated in the meeting. Prior to this meeting, we had worked with a few residents to survey the quality of footpaths but less than ten had participated. The poor response from the residents prompted us to organise a community meeting to elaborate the walkability project, create an awareness about the importance of pedestrian infrastructure, its condition in their neighbourhood and demand for change.

Image 1: Starting the meeting with a description of Transparent Chennai and the Walkability project

The one hour session was organised with two objectives in mind. First, we wanted to create awareness about pedestrian infrastructure and participatory planning. Second, we wanted to conduct an activity that would stimulate them to differentiate between good and poor pedestrian infrastructure. We started by explaining who Transparent Chennai is and does and described the walkability project in detail. We briefly took them through the methodology and the process involved in the project starting with community outreach, surveys, mapping and data collection to digitisation and analysis. We also elucidated the steps of conducting design workshops, finalising designs and drawing up an implementation plan. The final step in the process is to follow up with the appropriate people responsible for the implementation and hold them accountable. We illustrated the Nanganallur experience, which has received an incredible response from the residents and is in the design finalisation stage. The residents were enthralled about the Nanganallur project and were inspired to make it work in KK Nagar as well.

We also briefed the residents about the various components in the footpath design, how we envisage the project from the point of view of equality in public space and good pedestrian infrastructure, and how we work with local elected representatives to provide leadership for the change.

The ward councillor, who has shown keen interest in pedestrian infrastructure in the past, addressed the group about the importance of footpaths and how there are conflicting uses of that space. He also pointed out how the footpaths of 2 feet wide on each side of the interior roads act only as a place for planting trees. As a result, people tend to park their vehicles next to them and block the movement of vehicles. One suggestion he made was to have railings along the footpaths to ensure safe walking to the pedestrians. The residents agreed with most of the points and appreciated the councillor for participating in the meeting.

Image 2: The ward councillor addresses the meeting

The second half of the meeting was an activity which had residents look at images of pedestrian infrastructure from around the world. They were given stickers of two colours: red and black and asked to place the red ones beside images they liked and black for those they didn’t. This exercise was to compel them to look at various features of footpaths and differentiate between good and bad designs. The residents participated actively and enthusiastically and promised that they would get involved and help us in getting more people for the next stage which is surveying of the streets in KK Nagar.

Image 3: Participants evaluating images of pedestrian infrastructure from around the world

The lively session got the residents to interact and made them think about the various issues that affect pedestrians. By creating awareness about the importance of footpaths among the residents of KK Nagar, this community meeting made it easier to overcome the initial scepticism about the project and helped pave the way for future endeavours in the neighbourhood. We look forward to the next stage of the walkability project in KK Nagar and to working with the councillor and residents.

Written by Lalitha Selvarajan, researcher, Transparent Chennai
Photographs by Ranjeet Joseph, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Participatory planning percolates into the Nanganallur community

Participatory planning is an essential element of all project planning and implementation processes. It enables concerned parties to understand each other’s requirements and limitations and allows them to work together to reach solutions in consensus.

On July 6th, Transparent Chennai held its first design workshop for walkability with the community of Nanganallur where citizens worked together to design footpaths for their neighbourhood. Nearly 50 residents of the community, including the ward councillor, representatives of resident welfare associations and other local organisations, school students and teachers, and also people from the media attended and participated.

A few weeks ago, this community had surveyed and mapped a few select streets in the neighbourhood and the meeting started with a presentation of the data collected from that exercise. The data showed the present conditions as well as Indian standards of the various parameters that make up good pedestrian infrastructure like footpath continuity, footpath condition, presence of amenities, etc.

Following the presentation was a hands-on activity session where participants were divided into groups that were to design ideal street sections. Each team was given a blank street section that spanned property lines on the two sides of the street. They were also given a set of scaled images of components that make up a section of a footpath – frontages, pedestrian zones and furniture zones, and also given images of vehicles, trees, vendors, street lights, electrical poles, utility boxes, dustbins, etc. Using these, the groups designed street sections with various footpath widths and amenities that they thought would be ideal for their street.

The exercise generated lively discussions about current problems and ideal solutions that could be incorporated into street and footpath designs to make both pedestrian and vehicular traffic move smoothly and efficiently.

While design ideas surfaced through this interactive workshop, the most important aspect of the workshop was a better understanding of pedestrian infrastructure by the community. Initial design attempts reflected peoples’ limited understanding of footpaths where groups started with the complete removal of street parking and vendors. But when design options were explained to them, they were open to cooperation with the vendors and willing to provide space for vending and parking. This level of awareness and understanding by the community and the government is essential for providing and maintaining pedestrian infrastructure in Indian cities.

The design suggestions that surfaced during this workshop will form the basis for the pedestrian infrastructure design for Nanganallur. This will be presented to the government along with an implementation plan so that ideas that are best suited for the neighbourhood can be put in place.

This workshop was covered by The Hindu and The Times of India.

Written by Kadambari Badami, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Photographs by Lalitha Selvarajan and slide image by Ranjeet Joseph