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Community Commons as Socially Just and Adaptive Spaces

Understand how 'community commons' can be potential adaptive spaces in urban poor settlements of the Global South through this ArcGIS StoryMap.
Multiple Authors
A multifunctional street in a slum, Dharwad, India
A multifunctional and dynamic street. A scene from Saraswatipur, Dharwad, India (Photo Credit : Integrated Design)


Supported by the Adaptation ResearchAlliance (ARA) micro grants, an action-oriented research was carried out tounderstand the diversity, functionality,and potential of ‘commons’ in urbanpoor settlements in the Global South tobecome socially just and adaptivespaces in the context of climatechange.The research also explored existing strategies that the urban poor employ to cope with climate change, urbanisation, and informality induced challenges. This understanding helped in designing contextually suited adaptation/mitigation strategies using community commons as critical elements.

The research was conducted across cities in the global South representing varying geographic and cultural contexts. Primary research was carried out in Ranchi (Indo-gangetic plains), Bangalore & Dharwad (Deccan Plateau), Bhopal (Vindhyas), in India, and Moravia (Aburrá Valley in the Andes Mountains) in Colombia. Case studies were selected from across cities in the global South. The highlights of this research can also be viewed at ArcGIS StoryMaps. This research was implemented by IntegratedDesign (India) along with Plan Adapt(South Africa), URBAM (Colombia),Mahila Housing Trust (India).

This weADAPT article is an abridged version of the original text, which can be downloaded from the right-hand column. Please access the original text for more detail, research purposes, full references, or to quote text.

The Challenge

With climate change intensifying, cities in the global South are facing some its harshest impacts. As climate change induced risks intersect with unprecedented urbanization, the implications on the lives, livelihoods, and health of urban poor- who are located on some of the most perilous urban land pockets- are immense. Low income, inadequate housing, and limited voice in governance, further intensify their vulnerability.

Climate Change, Urbanisation, Informality Nexus

Interventions at the grassroots and within plan and policy indicate adaptation (and mitigation) interventions target either the individual household and or the state/city-region. While targeting the individual householdis insufficient to engage with the externalities of livelihoods and resource access for the urban poor, the state/city-region emerges as an abstract arena for action.

Community Commons: A potential scale for climate change adaptation

‘Community Commons’ as a Potential Intervention Scale in Urban Poor Settlements

‘Community commons’ or shared spaces within settlements constitute critical spaces that provide environmental, social and economic support for the urban poor. Environmentally, these hold the potential to regulate and mitigate heat stresses and manage flood and drought conditions. Socially, these facilitate quotidian interactions and periodic celebrations and festivals. Economically, community commons support income generating activities that extend from within the household. Yet these are often neglected and are therefore at the receiving end of climate change and haphazard urbanization induced risks. Comprehending the myriad ways in which these spaces accommodate individual and community living emerges a starting point to initiate these as critical spaces of instituting adaptation and mitigation strategies in urban poor settlements.

Our Co-Creation Approach

Conceived as a transdisciplinary engagement, the action- oriented research involved multiple actors and scales. The project employed a co-creation process – bringing together CBOs, researchers, and policy and planning professionals, on a common platform- to foreground a ground-up perspective which informed the formal institutions charged with steering and implementing climate adaptation strategies. The project explored ways to foreground and strengthen commons along multiple dimensions- social, economic, and environmental- that will assist in developing geographically and socio-culturally contextualised adaptation / mitigation strategies.

The process began by co-creating knowledge on commons through secondary research. This knowledge helped in anchoring the research on a shared understanding of ‘commons’ and ‘commoning’. Drawing from the above knowledge, a framework was co-produced to comprehend the commons in the study cities. The framework helped in understanding the nature, role, and vulnerabilities of common spaces in the selected geographies and the coping strategies that were followed as a response to these vulnerabilities.

Exploring the Nature, Role, and Vulnerabilities of Community Spaces

The framework shown below was used to comprehend the nature, role, and vulnerabilities of common spaces in the selected urban poor settlements. The analyses began by identifying different types of common spaces in the communities- like street junctions, religious structures and attendant spaces, house frontages, pavements, garbage dumps, etc. Next, the location of these spaces with respect to the settlement was identified and mapped. This was followed by an observation of the social processes – ‘the commoning’ – that produce and organise these spaces. The commons in the urban poor settlements host a variety of activities related to livelihood, domestic, religious, recreational, socio-cultural, and livestock related activities.

In comprehending the commons spatially and functionally, an intersectional lens of climate change, urbanisation, and informality was used to arrive at multiple, intersecting risks (as against isolated ones) and the attendant manifestations, and implications for the urban poor. In turn, this allowed for insights into coping mechanism as entry points to possible adaptation and possibly mitigation strategies.

Framework for comprehending community commons
House frontage used for various domestic activities. A scene from Goller Oni settlement in Dharwad. (Photo Credit : Integrated Design)

Insights and Learnings

Everyday living, livelihood, and health impacts

The analysis of common spaces across cities and settlements showed that varying genesis and pathways to informality played an important role in the character, scale and use of common spaces in these settlements. For example, traditional villages turned into informal settlements have organically formed common open spaces (like wide street junctions, and shaded open spaces) owing mainly to its organic spatial fabric. These are however increasingly being lost due to urbanisation and attendant densification. On the other hand, streets emerge as the most important common for settlements that were originally squatters due to lack of other common spaces.

Irrespective of the type and location of the commons, these constitute critical assets for urban poor communities across all study cities. The limited availability of private space renders community commons as multi-functional and dynamic spaces. However, increased impacts of climate change – such as floods, and heat stress, amongst others- and urbanisation are threatening these spaces, in turn, affecting the individual and community living supported by these spaces.

Decrease in common space, loss of vegetation, increased densification, and concretisation of internal streets as a part of redevelopment efforts has increased the heat stress in all the studied informal settlements. Goller Oni, Dharwad. (Image Credit : Integrated Design)

Limited availability of private space within informal settlements often necessitates domestic activities to spill over onto common spaces like streets and house frontages. Common spaces also become important for carrying out livelihood activities within most informal settlements- be it for industries, scrap work, agriculture related storage, livestock rearing, or for small scale vending. Heavy rainfall and associated flooding events render these common spaces unusable in turn affecting their livelihoods.

Common space used for livelihood activities (drying rice for producing rice puff). Location: Churmurubhatti, Dharwad. (Photo Credit : Integrated Design)

Continuous exposure to heat is also leading to serious health (and attendant economic) impacts on the slum dwellers. For instance, increased heat stress is drastically cutting short the working years of the urban poor working in puffed rice industries in Dharwad – most of them are unable to work beyond 45 years.

Coping strategies

An understanding of what the urban poor need and undertake to deal with disasters and risks, yield important insights for the restructuring of planning and programming efforts.

Different types of ‘coping strategies’ are seen across commons and settlements in different geographies in the global South. These include modifying their physical environment, diversifying income sources, storing valuable assets that can be sold during difficult times and the development of social support networks in their communities. For example, strategies during floods include covering valuable and domestic paraphernalia with plastic sheets and storing them on higher racks within the dwelling unit. Sleeping outside their house at night during extreme heat, was a common coping strategy employed across most of the urban poor settlements that was studied.

Temporary roofs are opened during the day for ventilation and to light up the interiors. Haveripete, Dharwad. (Photo Credit : Integrated Design)
Urban poor sleeping outside their homes in summer. Location: Goller Oni, Dharwad (Photo Credit : Integrated Design)

Research Outputs

The analyses and insights led to the development of two key outputs:

  1. Local Risk Assessment (LRA) framework
  2. A set of ‘Guiding Principles’ for creating adaptive and socially just community commons

A potential framework for ‘Local Risk Assessment’

The LRA framework was built around four key guiding questions as indicated in the image below. The framework lists down parameters that can help in answering each of these questions and in effect better understand the local risk. The framework also suggests an indicative list of sub-parameters that can be used in the assessment. Notably, the parameters and the sub-parameters are neither exhaustive nor binding. These should be contextualized to the geography and its people for an effective and nuanced assessment.

Local Risk Assessment Framework (Image Credit : Integrated Design, Plan Adapt, URBAM)

Guiding Principles for creating adaptive and socially just community commons

The insights gathered through this study was also used to co-develop a set of guiding principles that can help in not just the creation of adaptive and socially just community spaces, but also help in ensuring that the processes followed for the same are inclusive.

Guiding Principles for creating socially just and adaptive community spaces (Image Credit : Plan Adapt, Integrated Design, URBAM )

(Contextual) Solutions

The insights gathered through the assessment of common spaces, attendant risks, coping strategies, coupled with an understanding garnered through case studies was used to develop illustrative solutions in proto-typical settlements.

Example: Churmuribhatti, Dharwad

Enhanced vulnerability to urban floods (due to where they live) and increased heat stress (due to the inability to control the temperature of where they live and work) in urban poor settlements necessitates adaptive solutions. Churmuribhatti (puffed rice units) is a settlement sandwiched between the landfill and the crematorium on one side and the lake on the other. As the name suggests most households in the settlement are engaged in the production of puffed rice. The common open spaces are used to dry their rice and husk. The settlement lacks an efficient drainage and sanitation network resulting in residential and industrial waste water flooding the common spaces. The fumes from the landfill and crematorium, and the dusty pavements impact the air quality negatively. The leachate from the landfill, especially during heavy rains impacts the common areas used for drying the rice and the husk, thus impacting livelihoods in addition to polluting the groundwater in the area. Cumulatively, the lack of green cover/vegetation coupled with extreme climate events such as increasing temperatures and excessive rainfall has resulted in urban heat island effects as well as eutrophication and pollution of the lake and the groundwater.

Emerging Issues in Churmuribhatti, Dharwad (Image Credit : Integrated Design)

Potential solutions for Churmuribhatti, Dharwad

  • Buffer vegetation along the lake edge to revive lake ecology and to provide shaded areas for domestic, livelihood and social activities.
  • Buffer vegetation near the landfill to block toxic fumes and improve air quality in the settlement.
  • Green cover along the edge of selected lanes to combat heat island effect.
  • Percolation trenches (with aggregate layers) to decrease surface run-off and filter it before it percolates.
  • Permeable pavements to allow recharge of run-off water and reducing the dust pollution.
Potential Solutions for Churmuribhatti, Dharwad (Photo Credit : Integrated Design)

The Way Forward

While establishing the potential of urban commons as socially just and adaptive spaces, the action-oriented research identified three major gaps.

First, the urban poor are a heterogenous group within which there are the “marginalised amongst the marginalised”. Women, elderly and the disabled are a near invisible striation and hence comprehending commons through an intersectional lens becomes pertinent. While a broad LRA framework evolved out of the co creation process, this needs further elaboration and detailing drawing from these stratifications. A detailed framework can assist in evolving contextually better suited adaptation/mitigation strategies.

Second, there is a lack of integration between the adaptation strategies at the urban poor settlement, neighbourhood, and the city scales. City level initiatives (including city climate action plans, city risk assessment frameworks, etc.) do not capture the mixity and complexity of the risks experienced by the marginalised groups. Thus, granular and nuanced local risks assessments leading to decentralised, community owned and driven solutions require institutionalising ground up initiatives in larger city action plans.

Third, there is a dearth of qualitative and quantitative data on the urban poor, the spaces they inhabit and co-habit. This impedes their integration in city level development frameworks while also negatively impacting their everyday living .

These gaps point to potential entry points for furthering and expanding the insights of this action research.

Suggested Citation:

Mohan, A. K., & Muraleedharan, G. (2022).Socially Just and Adaptive Community Spaces. ArcGIS StoryMaps

Further Reading:

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