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< prev - next > Social and economic development Social Development participatory_urban_planning_KnO 100615 (Printable PDF)
Urban participatory planning
Practical Action
What does participation mean in the urban context? Complexity and diversity
As the world demographic has shifted from being more rural to more urban, the focus on
participation in urban settings has also intensified. However, while there is increasing focus on
urban environments, there is still debate as to what differences should be recognised as
significant in the transition from rural to urban, and in turn what effect this should have on the
processes and techniques used in participation at an urban scale, and whether it is appropriate
to use or adapt processes that were initially developed for use in rural environments.
While some have argued that there are few significant differences between rural and urban
environments in terms of participatory processes (Mitlin 1995), there are a number of key
factors that become at least more significant in urban environments, and will therefore need to
be taken into consideration in the participatory approaches used (Sahley and Pratt 2003):
Defining community: Many of the participatory approaches designed in rural areas were
developed for use at the household or community level. However, the use of the word
‘community’ has been widely criticised in terms of the underlying assumptions in defining those
who live in a particular geographical area as likely to be homogenous and cohesive in nature.
Even within the smaller ‘communities’ in rural environments this is unlikely to be true, but even
more so within the dynamic social environment of urban settings. While some people may have
lived in the same area for many years, a large proportion of the population is likely to be made
up of a fluctuating number of migrant workers and tenants, there is also likely to be much more
diversity as people from many different areas, backgrounds and cultures come to take advantage
of the opportunities of urban environments.
The reality in urban areas is that even people living on the same street can have little in
common, either socially or economically: beyond sharing a few basic services” Sahley and Pratt
The lives and livelihoods of the poor are often made up of a complex web of connections and
interactions (Nabeel Hamdi (2004) cites five types of overlapping ‘communities’ that people are
often simultaneously connected to) that become even more complex in urban environments. The
increased heterogeneity can mean that there is greater potential for the divisions and inequities
between groups experienced in small pockets elsewhere to become much more apparent, and
potentially volatile in the densely populated and overlapping environments in urban areas.
However, there is also a greater potential for changes in traditional hierarchies and social norms
and thus greater potential opportunities for those who are traditionally marginalised in society,
such as women.
Scale: The increasing scale of
urban environments means not only
that ‘communities’ within
themselves have become more
complex, but also that their
population mass and density as well
as in the complexity of how they fit
into the urban fabric and the
relationship between areas of
poverty and the urban environments
in which they are located is also
changing. While some settlements,
‘informal’ or ‘formal’ have been in
existence for many years, others are
emerging all the time, as official
and unofficial approaches to
dealing with the urban poor are
Figure 3: Mathare informal settlement, Nairobi, Kenya
changing. It becomes much harder
Photo credit: Caroline Cage
to define a community when the face of poverty within the city is constantly shifting. However,
while the scale of urban poverty is often overwhelming to local and international institutions
alike, the numbers and density of the poor in urban environments can also present new
opportunities in terms of the potential scale at which the poor can act collectively. Thus, while