Mapping our Futures

How integrating participatory urban planning tools into the education of young women and girls can help achieve agenda 2030.

Ray Witlin
Raisa Cole's picture


Urbanist. Human Geographer.

June 16th, 2017

“All the SDGs come down to education” (Malala Yousafzai, 2015)

Addressing the 70th session of the General Assembly, Nobel Laureate and activist for female education, Malala Yousafzai (cited in Sampathkumar, 2015) made an affirmation that put education at the centre of all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): “All the SDGs come down to education”. This powerful statement provides a highly practical strategy for operationalising the newly adopted SDGs into sustainable development policies, plans and programmes. The SDG 4 on education, “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (UN Division for Sustainable Development (DESA), 2016a), is equally premised on creating access to education as it is on using education to actualise the other 16 goals holistically. One of the targets of Goal 4 is to ensure that “all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development” (The Global Goals, 2016). Meeting this target requires the development community to undertake a thorough inquiry into the type of knowledge and skills required to promote sustainable development. One aspect of this inquiry is mapping out the geographies of poverty and underdevelopment in order to understand the nuanced development needs of each locality. It is projected that 50 percent of Africa’s population will live in cities by 2030 (World Bank, 2016). In this highly urbanising African context, much of the work towards achieving the SDGs will take place in cities. Like Goal 4, Goal 11, “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” (UN-DESA, 2016b), can also be viewed as a cross-cutting goal, as cities become the primary sites of sustainable development. This paper will explore the type of skills and knowledge required to achieve Goal 11. It will investigate the role of Participatory Urban Planning (PUP) tools in developing these skills, and the ways it may be used to make cities more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

In many ways, the success of the SDGs will rely heavily on the development community’s ability to find innovative intersections between them. This paper will link the SDGs on education and sustainable cities and focus on the potential impact that realising these goals can have on transforming gender dynamics on the African continent. The African city has, historically, been a masculine domain. Migrant work, a long-standing driver of rural-urban migration in Africa, has created an uneven gender ratio in African cities (Rhoda, 1983). In 2008, cities in Uganda, Rwanda, Niger, Ethiopia, Kenya, Burkina Faso,Lesotho, Malawi and Namibia all had a female share of the urban population under 30 percent (Tacoli, 2012). However, recent trends indicate an increasing number of women in African cities. This has the potential to enact wide-scale transformation in gender dynamics on the continent. Urbanisation, often associated with gender-related transformations, has the potential to catalyse dynamic opportunities for the social and economic advancement of urban women. Urban areas have the potential to provide a wider range of livelihood opportunities for the poor with less social restrictions (Farrington, Ramasut & Walker, 2002). The transformational power of cities is captured in how the UN (2015) describes their value: “Cities are hubs for ideas, commerce, culture, science, productivity, social development and much more. At their best, cities have enabled people to advance socially and economically.” Despite these opportunities, the gender gap between urban men and women remains acute. The barriers that limit women’s access to the transformational potential of urban services, such as access to housing tenure, healthcare, education and financial infrastructure, are particularly prevalent in African cities. For example, the legal frameworks related to property rights often discriminate against poor women through the criminalisation of informal housing and limited access to credit (Rakodi, 2014). In most African cities, urban women are overrepresented in the informal sector which is typically characterised by poor wages and working conditions (Chen, 2013). In addition, household water and sanitation access remain the role of women and girls, even within urban contexts, where water must be accessed at high prices through the cash economy (Lewis, 2016).

The African City as a site of social transformation

“In the 21st as in much earlier centuries, people congregate in cities to realize aspirations and dreams, fulfil needs and turn ideas into realities” (UN-Habitat, 2012, p. v).

There are so many development challenges in African cities that one tends to forget their role as centres of prosperity and growth. Cities are ultimately points of attraction, with rural-urban as well as urban-urban migration dominating 21st century human movement on the continent. By 2050, Africa’s urban population will have grown by 50 percent (UN-Habitat, 2010). While African urbanism evokes images of informality, infrastructural meltdown and erratic unplanned growth, one cannot deny the decision-making processes behind the large-scale influx of people into cities. The assumption that urban migrants are somehow driven to urban areas by deluded perceptions of opportunity undermines the strategic rationalisation involved in developing livelihood strategies. As Pieterse (2009, p. 4) describes it, this movement is driven by an “opportunistic searching” for new livelihood strategies within a network of multiple urban locations. The continent’s large cities are only capable of absorbing 25 percent of urban growth, leaving intermediate and small cities to absorb the remaining 75 percent (UN-Habitat, 2010). If one is to think of urban living in these network terms, then the pooled resources of multiple urban locations have the potential to provide an even wider range of livelihood opportunities than single locations. In addition, there is often a false dichotomy between “rural” and “urban” livelihood systems. The urban poor rely on links between urban, rural and peri-urban areas to develop their livelihood strategies (Farrington et al., 2002), further broadening the network of assets on which the urban poor can draw. It is important to understand the ways

 It is projected that, by 2030, Africa’s 18 highest performing cities could reach a combined purchasing power of USD 1.3 trillion – lifting 128 million households to middle-class status.

in which the urban is communicated to the rural, and how the relativity of circumstances is established within a rural urban narrative. However, regardless of whether the movement of people into cities is driven by real or imagined opportunities, there are certain tangible and intangible assets associated with urban living that have the potential to provide people, women in particular, with livelihood opportunities and other instruments of empowerment.

In South Africa, average incomes in urban areas far surpass those in rural areas (Gasmi, Ivaldi & Recuero Virto, 2009). The gap between rural and urban electrification in sub-Saharan Africa is outrageously large, with 59 percent access in urban locations and a mere 17 percent in rural areas (International Energy Agency, 2015). However, this averaging out masks greater disparities within some countries such as Burkina Faso (56 percent urban and one percent rural), Cameroon (88 percent urban and 17 percent rural), Congo (62 percent urban and five percent rural), and Ethiopia (85 percent urban and 10 percent rural) (ibid). In addition, the rate of economic growth in African cities is giving rise to a plethora of new opportunities, markets and household purchasing power (Abbott, 2013). It is projected that, by 2030, Africa’s 18 highest performing cities could reach a combined purchasing power of USD 1.3 trillion – lifting 128 million households to middle-class status (ibid). With the remarkable increase in women-headed households in African cities, this growth and prosperity has the potential to lift an unprecedented amount of women out of poverty. Evidence shows that some countries,such as Senegal and Burkina Faso, have nearly 50 percent more women-headed households in urban areas (Tacoli, 2012). This not only increases their responsibility and decision-making power, but also puts them in a position of vulnerability as navigating the socio-cultural, economic and infrastructural deficits of urban living falls solely on the shoulders of women.

“A prosperous city ensures gender equality, protects the rights of minority and vulnerable groups, and ensures civic participation by all in the social, political and cultural spheres” (UN-Habitat, 2012, p. 11); yet, an underdeveloped one, can accentuate the risks associated with poverty and vulnerability. African cities score relatively low on the UN-Habitat’s City Prosperity Index (CPI)1 with a score of 0.600 or lower (UN-Habitat, 2012). Incidentally, these cities also score relatively low on the Equity Indices (ibid), and often exist as schizophrenic sites of relative prosperity and debilitating poverty. For example, in some places, poor urban populations pay considerably more for substandard water while wealthy residents pay less for cleaner water and better sanitation systems (Lewis, 2016). This ties into the idea of the urban dweller’s hopeful state of being. These individuals have a dual aspiration: to shed the limitations of their previous locations (either cities with fewer opportunities or rural areas) and to reach a level of prosperity that only urban areas can generally provide. Poor urban women aspire to access the benefits of higher paid employment, lower fertility rates, and relatively fewer cultural limitations on their decision-making power (Tacoli, McGranahan & Satterthwaite, 2007). However, these benefits can only be realised if urban development is tailored to the livelihood aspirations of poor urban women (Farrington et al., 2002). Pieterse (2011) identifies three aspects of urban development “tailor-making” required to facilitate better lives and livelihood options for poor urban dwellers. These are 1) sustainable infrastructure, 2) the inclusive economy, and 3) efficient spatial form (ibid). Pieterse (2011) identifies democratic urban decision-making as the thread tying these three components together. These three aspects of urban development have a particular gender dimension to them. Firstly, due to their occupation of the domestic space and the increasing prevalence of female-headed households, poor urban women typically rely heavily on informal infrastructure to provide energy, water and sanitation services, often at exorbitant prices (Lewis, 2016). Secondly, similar gender dynamics can be seen in the informal economies of African cities. In South Africa, the percentage of women in the informal economy surpasses men in both wage employment (23.2 percent of women and 18.7 percent of men) and self-employment (16.3 percent of women and 12.7 percent of men) (Cole, 2015). This is true for a number of African countries and is an increasing trend in African cities. Lastly, gender dynamics play an essential role in how the spatial forms of cities manifest in exclusionary ways. Land use practices that create barriers to urban livelihood generation are common in African cities. Pieterse (2011) argues that strict separation of land uses and sprawling urban patterns create conditions for exclusion and inefficiency. Urban women are generally “time-poor”, having limited time to engage in socially mobilising activities outside their productive and daily household labour (Riverson, Kunieda, Robert, Lewi & Walker, 2005), in addition to their limited financial resources. Massive exclusion is created in public transportation because the travelling time and costs for poor women are often higher due to the peripheral location of informal settlements. In order to make infrastructure sustainable, economies inclusive and spatial form efficient, democratic urban decision-making needs to be a central component of the urban development process.

Active citizenry, non-formal education and the livelihoods of poor urban women

“In one way or another the city contains within itself major elements for integral education and training that makes it at one and the same time a complex system, object of educational attention and a permanent, plural, multi-faceted, educating agent capable of counteracting inimical educating elements”(International Association of Educating Cities, 2004, p. 2).

Various approaches have emerged to address developmental barriers and harness democratic urban decision-making, with the development of active citizenry at the forefront of these approaches. Education (formal, informal and non-formal) is widely regarded as a catalyst for democratic and civic participation (Lifelong Learning Platform (LLLP), 2016). Active citizenship in urban areas is not limited to democratic platforms of urban decision-making (Mitlin & Thompson, 1995), but rather extends to active involvement in and knowledge of a wide range of infrastructural (socio-cultural and bio-technical), economic and spatial processes that direct urban societies (Pieterse, 2011). In order to engage in these domains effectively, participants need to have practical knowledge of the city and its multi-dimensional flows. In this regard, urban governments from across the continent have recognised the importance of diagnostic tools that support a cross sectoral, multistakeholder approach to helping cities identify opportunities and risks (World Bank, 2016). Participatory Urban Planning (PUP) tools that map resources, policies, processes, institutions and risks in a city are useful for diagnosing the urban environment.

The participatory school of thought which PUP developed from emerged in the 1970s as an alternative to the “anthropological ethnographies” (Appel, Buckingham, Jodoin & Roth, 2012, p. 5) that perpetuated problematic power relations between communities and development practitioners or social scientists. This school of thought has been translated into many different participatory practices, such as participatory action learning, participatory action research and participatory planning. These approaches not only allow for greater accuracy in the communication of citizens needs to urban decision-makers, but also give residents direct access to the information needed to be more active in their own development process (Mitlin & Thomson, 1995).

PUP, therefore, focuses on putting end-users at the centre of the design and management of urban planning (International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), 2004). In this sense, it provides a powerful means of meeting the diagnostic requirements of decision-makers while meeting the education needs of poor urban women. In using participatory tools, the process of information gathering and the information itself become a catalyst for the more direct participation of these women in the development process (Mitlin & Thompson, 1995).

This process of information gathering can be effectively carried out through non-formal education methods. Defined as “Any organized learning activity outside the structure of the formal system… aimed at meeting specific learning needs of a particular sub-group” (Commonwealth Secretariat, 1972, cited in Thompson, 2001, p. 7), non-formal education has the potential to address one of the key targets of SDG 4 on education, that “all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development” (UN-DESA, 2016a). This type of education exists as a comprehensive set of tools and approaches “by which skills and work-related knowledge and attitudes are acquired, updated and adapted” (Agency for International Development, 1970, cited in Thompson, 2001, p. 8). According to Thompson (2001),non-formal education also plays an important role in facilitating access to formal education services in a city. In this sense, it is particularly suited to African urban environments where incremental measures are needed to lift a large majority of urban dwellers out of poverty. It is also highly relevant in the African context where so much of the population relies on the informal sector to generate livelihoods. Singh (2015) recognises non-formal education as a means of facilitating employability and labour mobility in both rural and urban areas in Africa. He argues that the recognition of informal sector workers’ non-formal education has the potential to increase the productivity and income levels of the working class as well as their ability to adapt to changing environments (ibid). With women making up the majority of informal sector workers in most African countries (Chen, 2013), non-formal education presents an opportunity for targeted development within this social group. The value of PUP in the non-formal education of poor urban women can be illustrated through two PUP tools, namely, mapping exercises and Venn diagrams. These tools are discussed below in relation to their value in poor urban women’s non-formal education.

Mapping exercises

The mapping process involves the visual representation of data patterns with certain spatial values (Reference, 2016). Mapping exercises, such as cognitive and asset mapping, involve the plotting out of resource flows, community movements and points of convergence in a particular location or between different locations. The diagnostic value of mapping lies in its ability to include a large amount of data graphically and gather key information about a community or space (Appel et al., 2012). Through mapping exercises, outside facilitators, planners and decision-makers obtain key insights into the existing strengths and behaviour patterns of a community for more responsive development interventions (Warner, 2015). At the same time, mapping exercises provide a useful tool for poor urban women to communicate their specific needs to decision-makers and, perhaps more importantly, plot their spheres of influence graphically. As a non-formal education tool, mapping can be used as a Participatory Learning and Action (PLA)2 activity for self-learning and critical thinking around the types of assets and vulnerabilities. This is a particularly powerful tool for poor urban women in that their vulnerabilities, as well as the resources required to address them, can be mapped. The particularly urban manifestation of poor women’s vulnerabilities is related to the lack of employment, irregularity of jobs, low wages, constant fear of eviction, lack of support from relatives and the community, and expensive health, water and sanitation services (Farrington et al., 2002). Mapping provides an opportunity for women to articulate the ways in which they navigate these vulnerabilities every day and the assets they rely on to do so.

Venn diagrams

Venn diagrams are another useful visual tool. They are used to identify and represent the power relations attached to key institutions (formal and informal) within a location. They measure the level of access to these institutions and their importance to different social groups. This PUP tool involves the identification and ranking of key institutions according to two parameters: the level of access to them and their importance to the user. Venn diagrams can be used to analyse a wide range of institutions, but particularly useful applications of the tool are to understand the service providers, infrastructure and services in a city, and create a picture of the community’s sphere of influence (Appel et al., 2012). Access to these services can be measured according to their distance from the user (travelling cost and time), and their relative importance to people’s lives and livelihoods. Due to the peripheral locations in which many poor urban women live, the longer travelling time and higher costs involved, essential services required to generate livelihoods are often inaccessible. The educational value of Venn diagrams lies in the way they encourage participants to prioritise the services needed for livelihood generation. As a diagnostic tool, Venn diagrams can reveal important power dynamics in a society by demonstrating people’s perceptions of key institutions and they can also be used to identify information flows between institutions and actors.


While the formal education of women and girls is an important part of enacting social transformation on the continent, this article has made a case for non-formal education as a powerful incremental measure to lift poor African women out of poverty. The relevance of this type of education is seen in relation to two primary characteristics of the African city. Firstly, non-formal education is well suited to the informal sector as it can be adapted to the specific needs of workers in this sector.

This level of adaptability allows for greater participation as learners shape the learning process to their specific needs. In this sense, the process of information gathering, as well as the information itself, creates opportunities for learning. The information generated through the learning process can, therefore, be used to communicate the development needs of learners for more responsive urban planning and management interventions. Secondly, the dualities in African cities, where centralised services often exist beyond the reach of the urban poor, create the need for educational tools that facilitate greater access to urban assets through the education process. If one is to view the African city as both a site of underdevelopment and prosperous growth, then their role in transforming gender power dynamics on the continent lies in locating and accessing urban assets attached to that prosperity and mitigating vulnerabilities related to underdevelopment. PUP presents an opportunity for bringing about this transformation in that it encapsulates both diagnostic as well as educational elements. The PUP tools demonstrated here provide examples of how they can be used to increase poor urban women’s access to livelihood assets and facilitate active citizenship that catalyses the transformational power of cities.


  1. The CPI was developed by UN-Habitat (n.d.) and combines the five dimensions of quality of life, infrastructures, equity and environmental sustainability to measure a city’s prosperity levels.
  2. “The underlying principle behind the PLA methodology is to engage the full participation of people in the processes of learning about their needs and opportunities, and in the action required to address them” (Appel et al., 2012, p. 6).


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About the author(s)

Raisa Cole leads the Urban Solutions team, a multi-disciplinary consultancy specialising in youth-based consulting, small-scale urban project management, and place-making facilitation. Raisa has extensive experience in sustainable development, having done policy work and analysis for the UN World Food Programme, African Union (AU), Solidaridad Southern Africa and the African Institute for Community Driven Development, among others. She has an MSc degree in International Cooperation and Urban Planning as well as an MSc in Urbanism, Habitat and International Cooperation. Raisa is also the head researcher for the Not in My Neighbourhood documentary. Twitter handle: .Cole


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