The Bartlett


Co-creating the city

KNOW is one of the biggest research grants The Bartlett has ever received and its ambition is even bigger.

Brightly coloured buildings sit on a hillside
KNOW is one of the biggest research grants The Bartlett has ever received and its ambition – to help 12 cities in the Global South understand how to create urban equality as they grow – is even bigger. The poorest citizens must be involved in shaping their cities.

In Kampala, Uganda, some of the city’s poorest residents have found a way to make household fuel by collecting organic waste – mainly agricultural and food processing waste – drying it in the sun, burning it in a kiln and mixing the ash with fine clay to make briquettes, creating a livelihood for themselves and positively affecting solid waste management in the city, which has been largely overlooked by residents and authorities. That is starting to change. 

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in an informal settlement in the south-west of the city, residents of a neighbourhood have been working with a local NGO to build a simplified sewerage system, an innovative approach to the provision of toilets, creating better living conditions for each household and demonstrating a new approach to the provision of sewerage infrastructure in the city, which has not been considered at scale by the local authorities. That is starting to change.

In Nakhon Sawan, Thailand, low-income residents have benefitted from 15 years of city-wide community organisation, collaboration with the local government and engagement with the national Baan Mankong Housing programme. Working in alliance with an NGO to reflect on their own experience of accessing improved housing, they are doing research together to provide concrete knowledge to strengthen and upscale support to the provision of housing in the province and the country.  This will feed into ongoing change.

These examples are some of the initiatives to emerge from a global project launched by The Bartlett’s Development Planning Unit (DPU) in 2017 called Knowledge in Action for Urban Equality (KNOW).

“There will be a city-wide impact in these different places,” says Emmanuel Osuteye, a DPU Research Fellow working with KNOW partners on a range of research and capacity building initiatives, each aimed to have a positive effect on relations between those living in informal settlements, the city council and other actors in the city.

With a budget of more than £7m from the Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF), one of the largest grants The Bartlett has ever received, KNOW is a four year project (2017 – 2021) that aims to produce transformational research and grounded capacities for innovative planning and policy to promote urban equality as cities face new and ongoing challenges. 

Rethinking planning

Two out of three people are expected to be living in urban areas by 2050 but as cities have grown, urban inequality has increased. UN Habitat estimates that over one billion people – one in eight of the global population – currently live in slum conditions. Across much of the world, city officials often see informal settlements and slums as illegal and do little to improve them or support their residents. “The challenge is to rethink planning in a way that recognises informality in cities and the positive contribution that women and men living and working in informality make to the just development of a city, now and in the future” says the DPU’s Professor Caren Levy, who leads KNOW. “In many places, where informality is equated with illegality, this creates huge barriers and problems for urban residents – and the development of more equal cities,” she says. “KNOW is about co-creating opportunities for change.”

Working in 12 cities across the Global South (Barranquilla, Havana, Lima and San José in Latin America; Da Nang, Jaipur, Nakhon Sawan, Yangon and Yogyakarta in Asia; and Dar es Salaam, Kampala and Freetown in Africa) and combining six different work streams, KNOW seeks to find innovative and more effective ways of delivering prosperity, tackling extreme poverty and building urban resilience.

This ambitious project builds on the connections and partnerships the DPU has developed globally over many years and is based on a principle of much of the DPU’s work – that the poorest citizens are meaningfully involved in shaping their cities. A key part of KNOW’s work involves enabling communities to fill the vast gaps in knowledge that mean city authorities often have little accurate data and information about how women and men, girls and boys living in informal settlements experience the city and how they contribute to its development. KNOW aims to identify ways for that knowledge to be co-produced, shared and turned into action and used to inform policy and practice, as well as the education of future planners and urban practitioners.

In Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, for example, KNOW is working with the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC).  SLURC was established in 2015 out of a partnership between DPU and the Institute of Geography and Development Studies at Njala University, to support residents of informal settlements to gather all kinds of knowledge about how the poorest residents of the city live and their capacity to improve their own lives. 
They are mapping the city’s informal settlements, logging details on everything from numbers of residents to the locations of the few water taps residents depend on and who controls them. At the same time, they are recording examples of how residents can improve their own living conditions, given some technical training and support. This process of documentation aims to demonstrate the urgent need to improve living conditions in Freetown’s informal settlements, while at the same time recognising the opportunities to do so through a community-led approach, and in partnership with government and civil society actors. 

KNOW is building on previous DPU work with SLURC, such as the community-led mapping methodology, ReMapRisk, developed under the auspices of an earlier project, Urban ARK (DFID-ESRC, 2015-2018), in which strategic action plans were developed with communities in Freetown. This included the informal settlement of Dwarzack, where deep and wide drainage gullies running down the hillside make it hard for people to move from one part of the settlement to another and were a hazard in the rainy season for children who needed to cross them to get to school. The residents clubbed their limited resources together and, with technical advice from SLURC, built a bridge. 

“They didn’t just build it randomly,” explains Alexandre Apsan Frediani, Associate Professor at the DPU and a co-founder of SLURC. “They did it as a result of a collective process of discussion, deciding what their priorities were, identifying the best place for it.” 

This small strategic intervention is a classic example of the potential to build the capacity of some of the poorest urban communities to set precedents on how community-led processes can bring about meaningful change. “It demonstrates how knowledge translates into action,” says Osuteye. “And it highlights how people are not helpless.  Under the right conditions, they can be active participants in development.” KNOW will build on this kind of experience in order to scale up community-led planning at city-wide level.

Working with reality

One of the unusual things about the KNOW project is that capacity building is considered as valuable as research. KNOW has begun to publish research and, in 2020, will produce analysis on the potential impact of initiatives like the Kampala briquette-makers’ business. At the same time, the process of capacity building accompanies the research, enabling people to ‘co-produce’ and exchange knowledge and translate it into collective action. 

As Levy explains, a huge part of the work of the KNOW project, especially in its initial phase, has been to develop human connections and build and change relationships across traditional divides. Many city authorities in developing countries are still working to outdated or colonial-era building standards and planning ideas that do not recognise current realities and focus on trying to evict slum dwellers.

“There is always someone in city planning offices who is open to new ways of thinking and wants to change the way things work from within. It’s about building coalitions with like-minded people in organisations across the city.”

Professor Caren Levy

KNOW focuses on co-producing knowledge, sharing, comparing and turning it into action, as well as the ethics of research practice, education of urban practitioners, and the use of UK official development assistance in urban development.  A significant part of KNOW is about fostering exchange between people who might otherwise not get the opportunity to do so. For example, academics from Sierra Leone have met their peers in Havana.  Across the six work streams and within the 12 KNOW cities, citizens are meeting city officials and politicians, businesses and academics. KNOW also seeks to set up ‘urban learning hubs’ to support the implementation, monitoring and learning from progress towards national and global UN Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda, both of which see urban equality as a priority. 

At the same time, information is being shared in multiple formats and languages from simple leaflets to videos to databases and research papers to ‘scale out’ the knowledge gained through KNOW to organisations and individuals not yet involved. “Communication is absolutely central, at every level of this project,” Levy says.

Common challenges

The 12 cities in which KNOW is working span three continents and each has their own individual identities and challenges. Havana, Levy explains, is one of “the most equal cities in the world” in terms of housing, food and healthcare being provided to all. But the challenge, as Cuba’s economy opens up, is to generate prosperity without increasing inequality. Freetown has extreme poverty and weak public bodies due to a long and horrific civil war and, more recently, the devastating Ebola crisis. But it now has a visionary mayor, whose ‘Transform Freetown’ vision for the city offers hope and opportunity. Yogyakarta in Indonesia is a medium-sized city that is growing fast, where tourism is driving the economy, and causing the threat of evictions. But community mobilisation and decentralisation may provide an opportunity for new initiatives with city authorities. 

KNOW recognises that many cities worldwide also face common challenges – rapid growth, climate change and pollution to name a few – and lessons learnt in one city may provide information and knowledge that others can use. One of the over-arching principles of the project is to shake up traditional concepts of international engagement, research and capacity building, by promoting ‘partnerships with equivalence’ where there is genuine ‘co-production’ of knowledge.  This is based on mutual learning, rather than the extraction of information by researchers from the subjects they study. 

These are approaches that the DPU has long championed and KNOW is working to continue to advance this agenda. “What is different about KNOW is its focus on the quality of the processes engendered and their outcomes across multiple scales. KNOW is as much about globalising local action towards urban justice, as localising global commitments towards the same end,” says the DPU’s Professor Adriana Allen, who leads KNOW’s work on learning and planning education in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS).

“KNOW is a large platform where connections across different city trajectories and pathways towards urban equality can be found. The project has all the right ingredients to co-produce valuable insights about the changes required and opportunities available to pave the way towards urban justice across the global South.”

Learning and planning education towards urban equality 

One stream of KNOW focuses on planning education and how urban practitioners – professional planners, grassroots actors, and governments and many more – learn the skills, knowledge and values required to work towards urban equality. 
As explained by the DPU’s Professor Adriana Allen: “planning education and professional praxis can work either to reproduce or challenge urban equality. Key obstacles in this field include the unequal distribution of planners across the global South; the lasting legacy of colonial planning curricula; and inadequate pedagogies and tools for addressing contemporary challenges. Our work within KNOW aims to explore pathways to overcome these prevailing challenges to contribute towards the re-invention of planning education.”

In Latin America, Adriana Allen and Julia Wesely are collaborating with the Habitat International Coalition (HIC-AL), an umbrella organisation for civil society groups advocating the right to the city. Over decades, HIC-AL member organisations have developed pedagogic approaches to build schools of grassroots-led urbanism. KNOW is documenting these processes and helping to systematise these pedagogies and understand how they travel across different contexts, while fostering alliances with academic and governmental institutions to transform planning education.
In Freetown, the team is working with SLURC as well as one of the DPU MSc programmes in Environment and Sustainable Development. In April, they held long conversations with young urban practitioners from Sierra Leone engaged in this ongoing alliance. These talks helped to better understand their learning trajectories in and outside classroom-based education, as well as their capacities and challenges to be active contributors towards urban equality.
These learning trajectories are simultaneously a tool for learners to become more aware of the knowledge they have, and for planning education institutions to update and reframe their curricula and pedagogy. For example, many of the learners interviewed acknowledge that their lived experience made them bilingual across a diversity of urban dwellers, allowing them to engage fluently with established inhabitants and migrants or landlords and tenants, amongst others. These insights are feeding into the design of a new Masters programme led by SLURC at Njala University.