The Hippos, the Bus stop and the Pickle Jar

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You might think this is the title of a postmodern play, and the author’s endeavor to create order and meaning out of variant objects.

Well, wrong guess! Let me tell you what exactly this title is about. This is a serious educational piece about core principles of participatory planning and community development. Your best takeaway after reading this piece would hopefully be learning how “to shut up, and listen” (4), and interfere without intervening.

Your best takeaway after reading this piece would hopefully be learning how “to shut up, and listen”.

The placemaker’s guide to building community, Nabeel Hamdi, 2010-The book Cover

The Bus Stop

It was a fishing village (could have been anywhere on this planet), and there was this international fund aimed to improve the quality of living of the community by building something for them, something that can provide them support and services they were in need.

And there was a community development professional, an architect/planner who led the project.

He knew about participatory planning and the first thing he was looking for, to engage with the local community, was a community structure that he (as outsider) could engage with (2). Being an architect, he first thought, well, the best way to build a community is by building a community center. And then he heard from the people saying that there was a community center already there, and it was not working. “Well, let’s go visit it and talk with people about what is happening”, said the architect (2).

The community center was a mud structure, painted light blue. The inside also looked really great, there was a room with rows of sewing machines and women working with them making clothes. In the next room, there were a bunch of kids playing, it was a playing center. The architect got so excited seeing this nice piece of architecture feeling indigenous and vernacular, and the facilities to build capacity for local women’s involvement in economic activity, and the child care center let kids play in a safe and quality environment.

Everything seemed to be working so well! But, actually it was not: Around 50% of the informal economy in that village was household based, how had those women been selected among many to work there? Of course, it was working very well, but for very small groups in the community, a minority who had the literacy to work with these sophisticated machines.

And then, the play center was not the way the community dealt with child care. Traditionally it was the responsibility of the elderly who often converted the forefront room into a nursery and playing room and looked after their close relatives’ children, so the child care was home-based and was a way of connections among generations and transferring cultural learning.

And further, there were 2000 families in the community, and the room accommodated at most 15 kids. How did these 15 kids get selected? In reality, the project had created divisions and conflicts in the community. There was a “preemptive undermining of the traditional way of doing things” (2) (which in this case was working very well in the context of the community).

So, the community center was not working so far as the ‘community’ was concerned, but working very well so far as the’ community center’ was concerned (2).

And the architect said, “Well, Obviously there are key issues to consider here”, but at least, he thought the architecture felt local, with a nice exterior color. But, again, the reality was that that color belonged to a minority community who ran the center and this created even more conflicts in the community so far as the leadership was concerned.

And the architect thought to himself ” How can we get it so wrong as such!”(2)

What could be his approach in this project? How should he proceed concerning all the conflicts and issues that the previous interventions had created? let alone many expected outcomes and impacts that were not met.So the architect started from “re-thinking the concept of community center as such” (2).

He spent quite good time in the neighborhood, observing people’s work and daily life. They noted that just down the road, and around the place where people waited for the only public bus to pass by, a lot of neighborhood activities were going on, kids were playing, people were hanging out while waiting for the bus to pick them up to the city, there were some random small markets shaped by street traders and lots of these sorts of live activities going on largely because the bus always had delays, and people had time to kill while waiting. It was where the real community hub had been happening organically.

They thought” what if we negotiate with the bus company to put a bus stop in the middle of the site and thus bring the bus into the site and then take it out again, and see what will happen” (2), a very simple small intervention that would be the beginning of community development.

And here was the challenge, how the team was going to present the idea to the funder; a reputable big name among development aid agencies that (similar to many other international aid organizations) expected big figures as the project outcome, “It didn’t seem a great idea to tell them, well our intervention is gonna be a bus stop”(2).

And what type of community development practice is that? Negotiating with a bus company and a bus stop? How could it be related to ‘Sustainability’, ‘Resiliency’, and ‘Equitable opportunities to thrive’?

Well, here is how the bus stop could work successfully for community’s resiliency:

The first thing emerged was, women who took the fish to the market on foot everyday, started using the bus, now that it had a station, route and schedule. So, the immediate practical intervention as such had a direct tangible result, which was reducing the carrying distances to the market, but it was grounded on the strategic agenda for community building.

As the bus came every hour, women used this time, placed their sheets on the ground while waiting for the bus and started selling fish. Over a period of time an informal fish market was formed and people around the area started to come there because they heard that here they could buy fresh fish, and then some local cafes shaped organically (with a few seats and tables first) and served people who were waiting for the bus or were buying from the fish market.

The architect also broke the rules (i.e., textbook standards and the municipality's code in terms of the number and distance of street lights) and gathered them all where the bus stop was (for that, he used the time that normally he would have spent on design to negotiate with local public authorities) And then, they noted that in the evening kids gathered under the streetlights to do their homework (there were not many houses in the neighborhood with the privilege of constant electricity).

And with kids came different small business owners who sold ice-cream, candies, exercise notebooks, pencils and so on and that also developed as part of the market. Over time, the site formed by the street market, local cafes and a dental clinic (a mobile van clinic that stopped by every week at the site and provided dental care services), it actually grew as a community center, and over the 2–3 years, trees, pavement, furniture for street markets were added, and many local entrepreneurs such as barbers, bike repairs, etc. opened their shops, and so this community hub improved in line with the local dynamics.

And in the end an actual building also was built, it wasn’t a community center, rather, one that was very clearly tailored to the needs of the community (at that time), it was a center led by a few local women and provided training, job and entrepreneurial opportunities about recycling and up cycling (i.e., a locally-led social enterprise).

The bus stop developed as a community center but through a constant process of community building which engaged various groups in the regeneration process on the site.

This community development strategy of “Acting in order to induce others to act”… “offering impulses rather than instructions”… and “ cultivating an environment for change from within”, often starts with small and on the ground interventions which have “emergent” potential (1:xx).

You might argue that at the end the idea came from the creative minds of the architect, the practitioner, that’s true to some extent. But it took days and months of listening to people, observation of patterns that already exist, working closely with diverse groups. Can we say that it can be what collaborative imagination of the next steps should look like?

And here the other critical role of the practitioner was the negotiation skill and power, with local authorities and entities in power for setting the benchmarks and regulations (local municipality and local departments of civil infrastructure and the bus company in this story)

This is an interdependent setting and the practitioners’ capacity to play with their intuition in inexperienced situations is necessary for such practice. Success story in this play grounded on our ability to improvise in both good ideas and problems that would emerge unexpectedly. It requires being reflective and learning from lived and living experiences. This kind of knowledge is less easy to get normalized and standardized, “There are few sacred prototypes to follow but no best practices for export” (1:xxii).

Rather than merely reliant on system analysis and professional competencies and accuracy, informed improvisations, practical wisdom, integrated thinking and good judgment based on a shared sense of justice and equity, and on common sense, are the norm. We will talk more about the emergence and its connection to participatory planning in the next episode.

Resources:

1-Hamdi, N. (2004). Small change:about the art of practice and the limits of planning in cities. Sterling, VA.

2-A beginner’s guide to participatory planning, Nabeel Hamdi’s lecture at UIC Barcelona.

3-Jacobs, J (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, New York.

4-Want to help someone? then shut up and listen!, Ernesto Sirolli, TEDxE, September 2012.

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Ethnomad
Articles and stories from the OACC community and beyond

My name is Marveh. I am a co-creation savvy. I love sharing stories about People, Land, Roots and Design.