Mapping that changes lives

UCL Antenna
Published in
12 min readMar 26, 2018


More than one billion people globally live in informal settlements. Online platform ReMapRisk could help them put themselves and the ´invisible´ risks they live with, like landslides and disease, on the map.

By Melissa Bradshaw| UCL Communications

José Carlos Mariategui, a settlement on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. Credit: Professor Adriana Allen

When Professor Adriana Allen and Rita Lambert visited Lima with local NGOs back in 2012, they realised that the millions of people living in informal settlements there were largely invisible on official maps.

This meant that everyday risks, such as water-related diseases and small scale disasters like localised floods and landslides, were hardly recorded by official sources and therefore rarely receive the prevention and mitigation measures required to reduce negative impacts on local dwellers.

“People are living with avoidable risks related to poor access to water and sanitation, landslides and collapsing buildings, and coping with these risks constantly sets them back” says Professor Allen.

“If women and men are invisible on maps, it means they are also invisible to decision makers and planning that could support them.”

Professor Allen’s team at the UCL Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU) have now worked with several NGOs in Lima (Foro Ciudades para la Vida, CENCA and CIDAP) and local communities for over five years. They first joined forces as a learning alliance called Learning Lima and later through an action-research project called cLIMA sin Riesgo , funded by The Climate Development Knowledge Network.

Together they have developed tools to assist local communities to put themselves and the risks they live with on the map.

Using mobile phone apps, local residents can gather information about their neighbourhoods by registering and geo-referencing hazards such as landslides, fires or outbreaks of disease. The information is verified and synchronised to an online mapping platform called ReMapRisk.

The platform visualises everyday risks and small scale disasters, allowing for analysis of their concentration, frequency and impacts. It was created as a support tool for local communities, organisations and governments to tackle the deeply entrenched problems that trap people in cycles of risk accumulation not just in Lima but elsewhere.

ReMapRisk aims to reach much further.

“What we see in Lima is something that exemplifies how cities are developing and expanding under very unequal conditions across the Global South,” says Professor Allen.

Settlements in Lima. Credit: Teresa Belkow

“It is not just women and men in Latin American cities but dwellers living in informal settlements across African and Asian cities that face similar avoidable and often invisible risk traps that deny their right to the city.”

Risk traps

Between 2012 and 2017, a new wave of students studying the UCL/DPU MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development spent several weeks in Lima, having prepared themselves in London with in-depth research that builds upon previous year’s results and contributions.

The students have a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, such as environmental studies, architecture, sociology and engineering, adding fresh eyes that complement and benefit from the different phases of the research project.

Over the years, the team also enlisted Peruvian young professionals as interns, to support the UCL students and to strengthen the local capacity and legacy of the project.

Based on deliberations with the local team, the cLIMA sin Riesgo research team, led by Professor Allen, decided to focus on two areas that they had found exemplified the diverse and contrasting living conditions of low-income areas in Lima.

Barrios Altos. Credit: Teresa Belkow

One is Barrios Altos, known as the ‘red district’ and unsafe zone of Cercado de Lima, the city’s historic centre, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite its historic status, Barrios Altos has suffered from institutional neglect, leading to lack of investment and competing interests, including land trafficking and illegally built warehouses behind the UNESCO-protected facades.

The conflict of interests has resulted in a general failure to take action on urgent issues of overcrowding combined with deteriorated basic infrastructure and crime. Current conditions only benefit the commercial establishments that use the situation as an opportunity to set up warehouses in an attractive central spot.

“In the city-centre, there are historical residences that are called quintas,” says DPU PhD student Julia Wesely, who joint the cLIMA sin Riesgo team in 2016. “Inside each quinta there are 20 to 30 tenant families living behind beautiful colonial facades, but the authorities don’t really know what is happening behind them, so they are off the map.”

Fires and ruptured sewage pipes occur often in Barrios Altos. Due to property speculation, low income tenant families who have lived in the area for generations are at constant threat of eviction.

“The other contrasting research site, José Carlos Mariátegui, is situated in the periphery, on the hills in the outskirts of Lima, where there is constant urban sprawl,” explains Wesely. “This is a site where newcomers settle informally and where it takes them between 8 to 15 years to attain access to basic services. Here, the large bulk of investments comes from the settlers themselves.”

José Carlos Mariategui. Credit: Drone Adventures

José Carlos Mariátegui is situated in Lima’s poorest and most populated district, San Juan de Lurigancho. It is also the one that expand fastest in population. Here, much like the peripheries of other Latin America cities, there have been large waves of rural to urban and intra-urban migration.

As people move further up the hills, often on land sold to them by land traffickers or illegal land speculators, building collapses and landslides become a constant danger.

Many of the people living here have no formal tenure, and state assistance is absent or inadequate. The more recent settlements here have never been mapped at all. The Peruvian Ministry of Housing has mapped the lower area of these settlements, but the majority of the expansion is not mapped or recognised by ministerial authorities.

A detailed analysis of local community and government-led investments to ameliorate the current situation in both Barrios Altos and José Carlos Mariátegui, reveals that often such investments end up inadvertently making the problems worse by trying to fix them themselves.

Local team member Linda Zilbert is an independent expert associated with the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery of the United Nations Development Programme in Peru. She explains that people in informal settlements often internalise risk, in that they see them as normal.

“I call it the everyday experience of risk,” says Linda Zilbert, “because dealing with risk on a daily basis is part of the everyday lives of many women and men, especially those who are very vulnerable because they live on unstable slopes.”

“Many of the actions undertaken to cope with this experience paradoxically increases their risk — of rockfalls for example, or people falling on steep streets or stairs. But because these risks are a normal part of their existence, they are not perceived as such.”

Credit: Professor Adriana Allen

Lack of formal tenancy means people can’t get access to formal credit and end up having to spend what little they do earn on temporary solutions to deal with the most immediate problems.

“If your investments go again and again every year just to cope with basic events such as fires and landslides,” says Professor Allen, “that can set you back at least five to seven years in trying to improve your basic living minimum conditions, to access water and so on. It is extraordinarily debilitating. You cannot, no matter how much you try, get out of that situation.”

The combination of these effects are what the cLIMA sin Riesgo team call ‘risk traps’.

Seeing the invisible

People’s personal circumstances also affect their ability to cope with environmental risks.

“We wanted to understand who is at the bottom of these risk traps,” Allen continues. “For example, the measures needed to help a single mum with three kids who lives on the upper part of the slope in the periphery of the Lima are completely different to those required to support a nuclear household with two parents who are working, who have some capital and had more options but settled there.”

Policy makers and inhabitants elsewhere in Lima know little about those living at risk on a daily basis, says Professor Allen, and tend to stereotype them, in particular as criminals and land traffickers.

The term land trafficking (‘tráfico de la tierra’) is used very widely in Lima, she explains. One of the mechanisms in José Carlos Mariátegui is that organised gangs demarcate areas of land, bring in big machinery and carve into the slopes to sell plots to families in need.

In Barrios Altos, land traffickers use false documentation of ownership to build warehouses for profit, displacing whole families, most of whom have lifelong ties to the neighbourhood.

In the periphery of Lima, there is a system of communal or ‘campesino’ land ownership, but individuals often sell the land on behalf of the collective, by means including fabricating papers of ownership. In addition, there are various other processes of expanding and subdividing land and accessing land titles, which are important to understand.

Getting the bigger picture of how, where and why people live in high-risk areas can enable city planners and policy makers to create better and more effective interventions. “Before you can see the resources people have on a larger scale, you don’t really know how you could bundle them together,” explains Julia Wesely.

Participatory mapping. Credit: ReMap Lima team

Giving the maps life

To see better, cLIMA sin Riesgo embarked on a series of mapping projects.

First, a team of students, researchers, NGOs and members of the local communities, with the aid of another NGO called Drone Adventures, flew drones over Barrios Altos and José Carlos Mariátegui.

Credit: Drone Adventures

Drone Adventures are interested in using drones for humanitarian purposes — though using drones to map urban areas was a new venture for them.

The drones took multiple aerial photographs of both studied areas and, out of these, high precision maps were produced. The new maps were printed and local residents helped to fill out information about what was represented on the maps. Later on and with the assistance of UCL CASA and UCL CEGE the images were made available on digital 3D maps.

From this point, local dwellers were able to move forward into ‘self-mapping’: “So starting to identify things like who lives here, who we are, when we arrived, how many disabled people are in our community, how many single mums, where they are settled, what risks they confront and what they do to confront them and so on”, says Professor Allen.

To capture the diversity of experiences within each of the studied areas, cLIMA sin Riesgo also produced what local residents call ‘mapas parlantes’, or ‘talking maps’, by collecting statements of people’s lives and their experiences of living at risk and putting them on maps.

“The talking maps are not abstractions but have voices, faces and experiences of what it means to live at risk” says Professor Allen.

The project also embarked in collecting qualitative and quantitative data at the community and household level in order to understand how risk traps operate and where there was potential for coordinated action. To meet this aim local dwellers and the team used free smartphone apps, including EpiCollect, MyTrack and Twitter.

Local people can take a picture of a landslide and put it on Twitter, for example, or they can add quantitative information about who is affected and how that is recorded on ReMapRisk.

“Throughout the mapping exercise, young people were the champions. For them to grab a phone and say, ‘Of course we know how to use these apps, but we didn’t think that we could be using them to map hazards, to alert civil defense that there has been a landslide here and so on’…. that was very exciting.”

They surveyed more than 700 households in the two areas — equivalent to one-third of all the households, and representing the diversity of the people and challenges in each area.

“The survey was also about finding out what are the day-to-day experiences and practices of the people that are living in the two to studied areas, and how they deal with risk” says Julia Wesely.

Remapping risk

“ReMapRisk is basically a geo-referenced database,” says Julia Wesely, “a tool that allows you to access all data collected and to interrogate it spatially. For example, you can ask it to show the number of households that are headed by single mothers with a high dependency ratio, and then show how many of them have experienced rock-falls in the past five years. Or, to show how many households arrived in the past five years and now have adequate access to water.”

Instead of treating a settlement as homogeneous, policymakers can then prioritise and target interventions.

Credit: ReMap Lima team

The system depends on the quality of the data collected by residents, and equally can help them take control. “Local dwellers can go to one of the NGOs and say ‘can you help me feed this into the database’, or they can do it themselves because it’s a smartphone app,” explains Wesely.

“Building the awareness that you can make yourself visible or make yourself heard, and you don’t have to bear the whole burden of being at risk yourself, makes it a potentially very powerful tool.”

Instituto de Desarrollo Urbano CENCA (Urban Development Institute CENCA) is one of the three NGOs in the project, which are based in Lima and which have set up a risk ‘observatory’ to create a legacy of the project and support ReMapRisk.

The observatory operates on two levels, says Carlos Escalante of CENCA. On the local level, a team of community leaders (mostly women) are using ReMapRisk to collect data about the everyday risks “that normally pass unnoticed by the authorities and the general public,” he explains. Their team then periodically analyses the results, and uses them to raise awareness about risk reduction and prevention.

“cLIMA sin Riesgo has helped us to analyse the relation between the informal and precarious urbanisation that characterises these areas, and the generation of risks,” says Carlos Escalante. “It is potentially useful the 2.8 million people living on hillsides in the peripheries of Lima.”

Mapping outwards

cLIMA sin Riesgo also put together an exhibition showcasing their maps, which toured five different locations around Lima, attracting over 6,000 visitors. The exhibition is also available virtually and travelled to the UN Habitat III Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development in Quito, where it was featured in a publicly accessible space hosted by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment.

Some of the residents from Barrios Altos and José Carlos Mariátegui who were part of the initiative joined Habitat III to share their experiences.

“One of the most beautiful encounters I think we had was when a group of neighbours from Quito came up and said, ‘Oh that is how our neighbourhood in Quito looked 30 years ago, but now we have transport and streets and water and electricity’,” says Julia Wesely.

Teresa Belkow, a UCL DPU Research Assistant working for cLIMA sin Riesgo, and the residents from Lima were able to spend time with the community from Quito, sharing knowledge about organising, getting their voices heard and obtaining services.

“We are very careful at reassessing our potential contribution every year, from all angles” says Professor Allen. “Now that the experience in Lima has a consolidated legacy, we have started a similar process in Freetown in Sierra Leone and also in Karonga in Malawi in the context of a research project entitled Urban ARK, funded by the UK ESRC.”

Disrupting risk traps in informal settlements across the Global South requires a collective and concerted effort, says co-investigator Linda Zilbert de Soto.

“We have to collect evidence about everyday risks to make people aware that they have the right to a better life. And we have to show those in charge of the planning, development and management of cities that they all have a responsibility in making that right a reality.”

Melissa Bradshaw is Content Producer for UCL Communications.

For more information about this initiative, please visit cLIMAsinRiesgo or contact Professor Allen at



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