Towards an understanding of participatory processes in development: The case of the Incremental Housing Strategy in India

by Andrea Cubides


The purpose of this essay is to discuss notions of participatory processes in Urban Development through the analysis of a specific case. Participation in design is without doubt a buzzword in the actual development practice. Although it is supposed to improve social and physical situations and or elements behind the idea of inclusive feedback and involvement from the communities that are to be benefited, it actually can just be sometimes, to better inform people about the project with absolutely no consideration of the local community member thoughts. However, there are more responsible implementations of participation towards a more inclusive process of design for development. This paper use concepts of participation such as empowerment and power relations encrypted in participatory methods for social transformation like radical planning and the capability approach for the discussion of the case of study. The analysis presented aims to highlight the importance of development strategies built on permanent flux of knowledge between vulnerable communities and practitioners, which would generate the adequate mechanisms to resist injustice and lack of opportunities in the cities.

The essay will first introduce the case of the Incremental Housing Strategy developed in a shanty town in Pune, India chosen by its participatory strategies with the community, implemented at different stages of the process thanks to a close relation between the  community based organisation of women leaders, their supportive NGO and the team of architects. The information would be presented as complete as possible regarding the sources of information available about it. Accordingly, it will highlight the different strategies and resources related to participation that were used along different stages of the process of the project, and will follow also, in the next sections. In the second section, the study case would be analysed from the perspective of radical planning built on community capacity. The final section would show discussions of the case from notions on the capability approach focused on process and product.

Incremental Housing Strategy[i] for an informal settlement in Pune, India.

Architects Filipe Balestra and Sara Göransson were invited by the NGO SPARC to work on a strategy to develop informal settlements into permanent urban districts with the participation of a community based organisation of women called “Mahila Milan” which would facilitate and lead the work with the community. In essence, the strategy should require the influence from the communities from the areas included in the project. They were asked to design a process of gradual improvement to existing dwellings instead of demolishing and rebuilding. In order to prioritise and work on what was really necessary, one of the main strategies of the project was created, consisting it in the replacement of the old temporary houses made form recycled materials called kacchas, located between a number of well built houses in the Yerawada City neighbourhood (one of the most densely populated areas of Pune); this also aiming to respect the actual urban and social fabric of the neighbourhood.

Following the use of existing urban formations as a starting point for development, the interdisciplinary team of professionals composed by a group of international architects, urban planners, landscape architects and graphic designers lead by Balestra and Göransson with the community based organisation Mahila Milan and SPARC started a series of participatory strategies to mobilise around 700 families in 7 slums to participate in the design and construction to upgrade their homes through the incremental housing project.

They started by mapping the kacchas (most vulnerable temporary houses) of seven different slums (Nagar) of Yerawada, identifying those houses by singles, doubles, triples, quadruples and clusters for more houses together for two reasons, the first one to prioritise the houses to be transformed within the project and consequently to inform the rest of the community this prioritisation and secondly, to preserve the social and organic patterns that have evolved during time so that in the implementation of the project neighbours can remain the same through the possible mix  of the three typologies of houses created.

It is important to highlight that the community based organisation was strongly involved in every step of the development project, that is with complete power to influence and make decisions. The three typologies were designed with the local knowledge of the Mahila Milan women. Together they came up with three options for the actual requirements of the project but also with the possibility for future expansions, taking into account family extension and/or future resources  for business initiatives in every household. This was made possible through a structure of two floors with the introduction of a void that could be in the first, second or third storey. As this was thinking in future extensions, the void adaptation would not be met by the project itself as the idea was to use effectively the available money for the basic house (two floors) and the utilities connections (the kacchas normally lack of toilet and kitchen).

As the project was carried out with the community based organisation, there where various workshops organised with the purpose to explain the strategy of the project to the different communities of the nagars, regarding the prioritisation of action and also, in an advanced stage, to explain the different typologies and assist the people in choosing the most suitable alternative for their needs and ambitions in the future. To be more precise, the alternatives where design to allow a future parking , extra room, shop or workshop space in the first floor, a workshop, veranda or extra room in the second floor and a terrace or extra room in the third floor. Again, each of this typologies were design to be mixed in order to maintain the existing spatial configuration of the nagars but the project also proposed a reorganisation of the footprint of some houses to widen and open the streets and spaces between houses, generating a more organised general space through the use of structures suitable for vertical expansion. For the mixed clusters, families will share walls, columns and infrastructure that would help lessen the cost.

One big benefit that came along the upgrading strategy was the participation of the Pune Municipal Corporation that enter to be part of the project in an advanced stage without being expected. They offered a grant of 4500 euros (total cost of the house, ten percent of which have to be covered by the elected family) to eligible households living in structures made of recycled materials for rebuilding their homes on roughly the existing footprint. Such participation from the government came in part out of negotiations and collaborations with SPARC and Mahila Milan over years. Considering  that many families would not have the resources to contribute with the total equivalent of a ten percent of the cost of the house, the alternative of sweat contribution was considered, the families can help placing windows, doors, painting the house and placing their own floor tiles, after the reinforced concrete structure is up.

In the process, the Mahila Milan women had vast responsibilities that gave a deep component of participation to this particular project. They lead the community mobilisation process and were meant to complete household and plane table surveys, secure consent letters, and manage the construction scheme, which was planned to be implemented through local labor.

Few projects can claim such participatory extend where grassroots leaders are in an advisory or decision-making position and where participation means working in-depth with local groups at some or all stages of a project, from design to implementation to post-construction work.

Assertively, Katia Savchuk (2009) a former consultant in SPARC and journalist focused on urban and international development, points out that many times the extension of the community participation depends mainly on the practitioners understanding of their roll in a development project and equally important, on the level of organisation of the community itself. This mean that a community´s capacity of organisation and strong leadership cannot only influence but also guide and take decisions at different stages of a project.

Having presented the information about the project, what follows is an analysis of the case in relation to two participatory concepts, community empowerment and power relations. This concepts are explored from the perspective of methods such as Radical Planning and the Capability Approach because of their possibilities for social transformation. In this essay, social transformation is when people in situations of vulnerability is mobilised to lead the change by a project, but from which they get the capacity to continue improving their situation by themselves, rather than just taken what is given because of lack of other options.


Empowerment and power relations from the notion of Radical Planning.

Building on Friedmann´s writings from 1987 on Radical Planning[ii], Beard interprets that planning as social transformation is radical planning (2003), which has as aim, the emancipation of humanity from social oppression according to Friedmann and Sandercock. The latter, could not say it clearer in the next definition: “Radical practice emerge from experiences with and a critique of existing unequal relations and distributions of power, opportunity and resources. The goal of this practices is to work for structural transformation of systematic inequalities and, in the process to empower those who have been systematically disempowered” (Sandercock, 1998 in Beard, 2003 p. 19). This definition encompasses two concepts of participation: power relations and empowerment. Regarding the latter, although the community based organisation Mahila Milan already had a vast organisational base, skills in financial management, data collection, and collaboration with government authorities; the power and even -it can be said- management they had over the process in the IHS project, set a higher capacity to institutionalise big scale projects to take work forward with other communities in Pune. They lead a process in which communities were genuine partners rather than consultation respondents.

Around the notions of power relations, the case shows a strong leadership from the group of women that it can be argued, would not have the same impact and extend if it was lead by man. This is important when notions of male domination are considered, particularly from those with most power within the communities. The experience and responsibility for which this women are known and the way they work together as a collective were decisive in the project. Additionally, such experience, and in particular  by previous collaborations with the local government and the fact of being supported by SPARC, were able to influence the participation of the Pune Municipal Corporation with the grant. In short, the community gained a formal recognition from the government.

In the radical planning model, the necessary knowledge is obtained “through an overlapping and intertwined process in which theory, strategy, vision and action inform each other in social learning” (Friedmann, 1987 in Beard, 2003 p.17). With this in mind, the case presents a clear process of mutual learning through the strong work and management between the community and the practitioners. Proof of that are the strategies created in partnership, to prioritise and work on what is really necessary and make use of the existing urban formations as starting point for the planned development. Basically, the practitioners adapted plans and strategies built from the local experience of Mahila Milan and SPARC. Equally, the project would not have the same participation extend if it was not for the leadership and involvement of the women collective.

David Harvey suggests that radical planning must take place at multiple operational scales to generate a wider structural change (Harvey, 1999 in Beard, 2003). In that account, the Incremental Housing Strategy was able to influence both local and national scales, producing the introduction of the grant from the Pune Municipal Corporation which widen the scale of the project.  Although this help was unexpected, the management, strategies and involvement of the local communities in the project were so powerful that managed to catch the attention of a higher institution, with a positive impact for the urban poor. What is more, in addition to the financial help, the local government scheme also includes the improvement of infrastructure, roads and basic amenities which would improve the connection of the households to the city.


Empowerment and power relations from the Capability Approach.

As discussed before, a number of development projects include participation just as a repetitive term without real efforts to work with  and be influenced by the people it supposed to be benefiting. In that sense, the strategies used, seek in the end not more than to convince people of the project presented as the best alternative or to involve communities in processes where they merely can support the implementation of pre-stablished plans without the power to shape them. However, as illustrated in the table below by Frediani and Boano (2012), it depicts in a simple manner the fine line between such manipulative use of participatory strategies and a more responsible and just manner of the use of participation in the design process for development.

Positioning participatory design by Frediani, A. and Boano, C. (2012)

Positioning participatory design by Frediani, A. and Boano, C. (2012)

Figure 1   Positioning participatory design by Frediani, A. and Boano, C. (2012)

Building on notions around participatory design, Sanoff suggests that coming discussions”environment works better if citizens are active and involved in its creation and management instead of being treated as passive consumers” (Sanoff, 2007 in Frediani and Boano, 2012). The capability approach is intended to secure such citizen participation in their environment creation. It can provide the framework to both develop a participatory process of design and their appropriation and ownership with the physical environment once produced.

In relevance for the case study, the two areas closer to participation as transformation in the figure would be discussed. According to Frediani and Boano (2012), the area C of the figure represents participatory initiatives in which 3D models are implemented to facilitate the discussions of the physical characteristics of a project. That is, facilitating the participants to influence the design plan. However, such development strategies are criticised for giving little attention to power relations between community members and institutional actors related with the project. Thus, providing localised solutions that do not present a critical view on structural and institutional processes that maintain poverty and injustice in cities.

In other words, area C represents participatory strategies that pay more attention to the design, but less to the process. On the contrary, area D depicts participatory strategies that focus more on the process, leaving the design product aside. According to the authors, the projects and cases included in this area, enhance and strengthen the capacity of grass-roots organisations. Thus, empowering vulnerable communities to gain influence and decision power in processes that otherwise, would be managed and decided by institutions and other powerful actors. However, this strategies are criticised for leaving behind the attention to quality in the design product. With both sides in mind regarding the participatory design strategies, different points about the case study would be discuss below, demonstrating the careful attention in the process and design product (intended as its meant to be in progress), resulting from the permanent collaboration between the community based organisation of women Mahila Milan, SPARC, the communities and the team of practitioners.

In the Incremental Housing strategy, different participatory workshops were created and 3D models and real scale delimitations were used as comprehensive tools to facilitate the participatory process. Is important to highlight that the Mahila Milan where the actors who lead the different workshops. In those, explanation of the strategies, the three typologies created, and the assistance to choose the most suitable one for each family needs and aspirations, where conducted at different stages, using this tools.

Conflictual situations about the participatory process are unknown so far. Yet, there must have been strong moments of disagreement but, the active involvement and strong leadership form the women collective must have been fundamental to reconcile coming differences and continue with the implementation of the project. The gained support and credibility from the community over years, is an assurance that their feedback is influencing the project design and implementation. With that in mind, it can be said that, it depends on whom makes the use of the tools to secure participatory processes, as for the meaning that the actor represent for the communities.

Regarding structural and institutional processes of injustice, the case produced a positive impact. The upgrading project started as a local initiative with the invitation of the international architects to participate and facilitate the design and implementation of an incremental upgrading scheme. This was meant to be covered with a big effort form the community, by saving programs implemented by Mahila Milan and SPARC. However, the project acquired such attention that the local government came in with financial support, at an advanced stage of the process. Fortunately, this and other cases shown that, organised communities have been recognised and supported in some manner (be it financial, resources provision, skills training, among others) by their local governments.

It is of common knowledge that the pursuit of welfare and opportunities for a population and moreover, the most vulnerable part of it, should be the responsibility of its government. However, the most vulnerable population, socially and physically, is often located in developing countries which governments lack of sources and funds to successfully assist. Therefore, local organisation and mobilisation towards own physical and social improvement, is a fundamental process for more just cities. As it often gains the attention and even support of its government which would increase the scope and capacity of such projects, hopefully without manipulating the process and decision making. But it depends on the community based organisation capacities.

In short, the Incremental Housing Strategy represents the collective efforts of the community to improve their physical existence which in turn, influenced the recognition from the government.


Having analysed the case from different participatory concepts and perspectives, I argue that participation can help to overcome complex power relations but it depends on empowerment practices. In other words, without empowering the people in situation of vulnerability, be it social, political and/or physical, they would not be able to defend, resist or generate the necessary change against disempowering mechanisms in the city. People cannot resist or influence strong mechanisms of power without being empowered through capacity building processes. In essence, it means that development projects require participatory processes not only to secure the adequate solutions and engage communities to own and produce the initiatives but also to generate the necessary resistance to the actual forces that maintain the injustice and lack of opportunities in the cities.

The strategies and participation developed in partnership with the practitioners in the Incremental Housing Strategy shows the respect and the influence of the local knowledge and experience along its development.

The extension of the involvement from the Mahila Milan in the project was possible thanks to their organisational experience, and was key for the participatory capacity that they lead with the community. This demonstrates the fundamental difference that it makes to create successful strategies for development through permanent work with community based organisations. They have the knowledge of and trust to mobilise the community, encourage their participation and catalyse the change.


1 Incremental Housing Strategy project information for this essay built on the data available from different sources: Balestra (2010), Basulto (2009), Fairs (2009) and Savchuk (2009).

2 Notions of radical planning from analysis of various sources in case study of community participation: Beard (2003).


Balestra, F. (2010) ‘Acupuncture architecture & urban villages‘, PechaKucha, (accessed 30 December 2012).

Basulto, D. (2009) ‘Incremental Housing Strategy in India / Filipe Balestra & Sara Göransson‘, ArchDaily, (accessed 29 December 2012).

Beard, V. (2003) ‘Learning Radical Planning: The Power of Collective Action‘, Planning Theory 2(13) pp. 13–35.

Fairs, M. (2009) ‘Incremental Housing Strategy by Filipe Balestra & Sara Göransson‘, Dezeen Magazine, (accessed 30 December 2012).

Frediani, A. and Boano, C. (2012) ‘Processes for just products: the capability space of participatory design‘ from Oosterlaken, I. and Hoven, J. The capability approach, technology and design, pp. 203-222, London: Springer.

Savchuk, K. (2009) ‘Participatory Design in Poor Communities: Beyond the Rhetoric‘, Where: Imagining an urban future, (accessed 29 December 2012).