Desassossego [disquiet]: reflecting on being academics during the Covid-19 pandemic

8 min read

Guest authors: Urban Transitions Hub (UTH) (Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon)

Editor’s note: This post is an engaging contribution by the members of UTH, including the founder and former editor-in-chief of the YA blog. 

With this collective post, the Urban Transitions Hub wants to contribute to the debate about what it means to be a social scientist today, and what it might mean in the medium term. Perhaps aptly, we began this reflection on April Fools day (April 1st) during our first online meeting amid Covid-19 lockdown measures. We came together somewhat unsure of how and what to share between us, realising that ‘business as usual’ was not an option, and soon finding that we were searching for a space where we could discuss our collective desasossego (Fernando Pessoa’s disquiet) and unease triggered by the way the pandemic was affecting our personal and professional lives; we also needed to make renewed sense of our work in the ‘now’, and into the uncertain future. This is an open, ongoing exercise in self-reflection, which may hopefully resonate with others out there. The post is (un)structured with the view of sharing our tentative steps from facing, coping and reacting to this situation, toward organising ourselves to better act, together.

Artistic rendering of screenshot of the online reading group

Literally, a picture of UTH members in the video call – 1st April. Credit: the authors.


We started this conversation roughly two weeks after the state of emergency had been declared in Portugal (on 18th March). We began by sharing what we felt about the ongoing situation, which, at the time, seemed like a perfect storm: one that generates unease, confusion, and struggle, while hitting on already fragile structures and systems. For many of us, this latest crisis represents an acceleration of existing patterns, trends and weathered crises – weathered, for having been defined as such for much too long. We witness problems and contradictions that have been building up over decades, to which the pandemic seems to offer a tragic new stage. And we feel that new patterns, or ‘rising monsters’ as some have been calling them, appear to creep over the horizon of a Covid-19 dawn: the techno-dystopias, the authoritarian backlashes, the glaring inequality of suffering…. the excluded choices, the unrevealed (unexplored?) assumptions about what is life, and what is being made ‘safe’.

This ‘state of affairs’ can generate a sort of cognitive (and existential?) dissonance, which is likely to be a new norm for most of us as we feel social proximity and social distance; digital connection and physical separation; affirmation and denial of previous values; future and past trends and processes; micro- and macro-politics; wish for safety (overly understood as top-down control) and for individual freedom (which resembles bottom-up agency). Perhaps even more poignant, a sense of confusion mixed with struggle as much of our work appeared to be too distant from the here-and-now of the crisis, suggesting that a certain dissonance may be spreading across our to-do lists.

As we shared and compared our individual ways of dealing with the situation, we found out that they inevitably differed depending on our context and life situation. For example, it matters whether your relatives and friends are healthy, you are alone or with someone, and whether you have children demanding most of your time and attention. It also matters whether you are in a secure job situation, or not: as it happens, none of us has a permanent contract, but we can position ourselves along a ‘spectrum of precariousness’. These, and many other feelings, colour our interpretation and sense-making of current affairs as well as of our academic work.

In this regard, our point of departure was to observe the extraordinary barrage of opinions and suggestions arising from this new horizon; and taking note of themes cropping up, as a potential ‘to-research’ list. We mentioned many, very diverse, themes, as if to prove to ourselves our struggle to make-sense. For example: the politics and economics driving un-responsiveness, the health science ‘suddenly’ gripping decision-makers where biodiversity and climate change science had failed for decades, new demands for human-nature connectedness (omitting to mention the ‘over-connectedness’ that probably drove us into this mess), new possibilities and critiques of the ‘life vs tech’ agendas, bold unilateral steps towards colonised futures where apps may legitimize our mobility, renewed questions about what and how we teach and learn etc.

The exercise was useful nonetheless. It convinced us that it is too early to build a research agenda – unless you build it for a specific purpose (e.g., helping the state manage this crisis), or to jump aboard the latest Covid-themed funding opportunity. But our immediate goal is to try and connect the pieces of the puzzle arising from this crisis, and thus we realised we needed to take a step back.

Picture of narrow street with staircase and graffiti in Lisbon, looking up

A street in Lisbon. Photo by Aaron Thomas on Unsplash


For starters, it seems odd that we needed a pandemic to start discussing our family lives among ourselves – something we tend to put aside as if honouring an idea of ‘scholars’ that could have been relevant in the 18th century? Reflecting on the separation between personal and professional life, especially at a time when they are physically inextricable, and how to reconcile these seems to be a starting point. A bit like (re)discovering our own humanity.

We are all struggling with our existential space and knowing that this is a shared struggle helps feeling less alone. We are worried about how to maintain some kind of balance in order to keep home a safe, and healthy, space. Some of us have decided to stop watching the news, since they tend to (re)produce panic; and we try to keep ourselves informed using different means. The goal is to try and identify the anchors that can keep us afloat and to learn how to better deal with those very monsters we mentioned above. Having a ‘to do list’ to organise our daily job routine seems to help. Time matters, some are using the time liberated from meetings and daily bureaucracies to spend more time thinking and reading; others have been privileging spending more time to being in contact with family and friends – digitally, it goes without saying. From these reflections, we wonder whether more space for ‘care’ in academia (among peers and in our academic practice) may emerge.

Granted, some of us feel privileged because, in the face of our shared precarity, a part of UTH has a relatively secure job and thus a steady income in spite of the looming economic debacle. And yet, all of us felt like having a conversation on how this is affecting our human condition – who we are, what we are doing – in spite of academic pressures that urge us to think and talk about research agendas.

And precisely because of the need for a reintegration of ‘minds and bodies’, the researcher and the human being, it seems to us that the starting point is engaging in discussion aiming at reframing our questions, much more than providing answers (and certainly before attempting to do so). Some of us have reacted with a sense of rejection of their current work, as if it suddenly felt ‘meaningless’; others have been trying to resist to what they perceive as an attempted instrumentalisation of our job for this or that agenda: what we do still does matter – it may matter even more – and it should not matter only for its direct, visible, or ‘measurable’ impact. Part of what we do, especially in the humanities, is giving space to reflection. Our job is above all about exploring intellectually the realm of possibilities.


A question for which we have no definitive answer is: is it (already) time to articulate a comment on what is happening? We are trying to reflect on what (and how) we should write, be out there as critical social scientists, and think in the long term, beyond technical and pragmatic contributions. Social sciences have long been put under pressure to continuously prove their relevance and impact: will pressure further increase after this? More cuts to social sciences will be done to fund bio-sciences? The signals made by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology do not seem promising in this respect, as some emergency funds have been allocated for medical research and AI during the pandemic.

We can try to gather the energy to focus on the greater meaning of this situation and the proper ways to contribute, as individuals, as scholars, as a group. We feel that business as usual work and schedules are not a priority, and should not be for the wider academic community. We feel that individualised agendas, egos, careers are not so relevant now (and should never have been so dominant): against a Covid-19 horizon, they appear even more dispiriting and disruptive than ever. It is not so much about the number of working hours that you put in a day, but the sense therein.

Looking to what can be unbuilt, removed and demolished… getting rid of all that noise, paying more attention to the (social and academic) relevance of the kind of inputs that are less valued in and through academia. Outreach work, work as activists, action/engaged research and similar practices that are less valued in our CVs. We need to increase our social productivity within society and politics. We should focus on the real world, doing some kind of real job. Our work has to have a community dimension. Giving help, rather than being helpful as academics. We should raise our voice out there, on citizens’ platforms – who may not read long academic papers but possibly watch videos, or interviews. Try to cooperate on concrete processes and practical tips, help in our local community.

We need to increase our social productivity within society and politics. We should focus on the real world, doing some kind of real job. Our work has to have a community dimension.

Picture over orange-tiled rooftops in Lisbon, with the sea in the backdrop

Sea of orange tiles. Photo by Tom Byrom on Unsplash


 As you will have gathered then, we do not yet have an answer, or even a question, let alone a clear list of priority themes to offer. For all the above reasons, we do not really feel in the position to give much advice, but hope this brief account of the steps we took so far, and of how we are organising to cope, react and act, may be useful to other groups out there.

Following the March declaration of the state of emergency, our Institute closed and we cancelled our monthly meeting and reading group. Soon however, one of our members who was driven by the challenge of suddenly being locked out of the office and having to work at home, suggested we could try holding the reading group online. We were a bit sceptical at first: can you really do an engaging reading group discussion online? The answer turned out to be yes! Although the level of interaction we had during that session was definitely lower than usual, the need of a stricter organisation of the conversation also forced us to a fairer distribution of talking time. To our collective surprise, we enjoyed it! This encouraged us to hold our first online meeting soon after, and – perhaps inevitably given all the above – it served first and foremost as a much welcomed self-help group. Several of us took notes, and came up with the idea of putting a text together, which we then discussed in our following meeting as a way to explore ways of moving from coping to (re)acting. For one, we decided to change the topic of the following reading group, dedicating it to the urban and social implications of epidemics:[i] with a view to advance our thinking towards a revised research agenda for our Hub.

But we are not in a rush.

Reflection of buildings in a very small pool of water on a cobbled street

Cais do Sodré, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Alex Paganelli on Unsplash


[i] In case you were wondering, we read: Connolly, Keil and Ali’s review of extended urbanisation and infectious diseases; Social Contagion, a long post by China-based collective Chuang on the capitalism/epidemics nexus – indeed, one of the best, if indirect, responses to the (in)famous Sopa de Wuhan; and Bratton’s 18 lessons from quarantine urbanism.


UTH logo The Urban Transitions Hub ( is a group of researchers interested in exploring the urban dimension of the Anthropocene and its crises: theorising and shaping more equitable and sustainable urbanisation. The UTH is based at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon, within the research group Environment, Territory and Society. Get in touch at:

Posted in Academia, research quality and assessment, Beyond planning, Dissemination, outreach, communication, Planning, city, and society, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Environmental resource mapping

3 min read

Guest author: Olga Chepelianskaia (UNICITI)

Editor’s note: This post reviews the importance of mapping local environmental resources using diverse data to support agricultural practices in the state of Karnataka (India). The post is the second one in the three-part series entitled ‘Mapping: a tool to build urban resilience’. The premise for this post is that agricultural resilience in a rural setting is fundamental for wider urban and societal resilience. See here for the first post about community-led heritage mapping in Kathmandu, Nepal. 

Rain-fed agriculture plays an important role in Asia’s economy. More than 60% of agricultural land in South Asia is rainfed (FAO, 2005). Rain-fed agriculture is vital in India too. The country has nearly 180 million ha of cultivable land (The World Bank, 2016), which employs 50% of the country’s workforce.

However, this resource is vulnerable to climate change. Over 40% of this land lies in drought prone areas, while 54% of India’s net sown areas are dependent on rain. Over 150 million ha of the country’s cultivable land are eroded because of floods (Suhas P Wani, 2009).

Map displaying Distribution of rain and crops across India

Left: Major rain-fed districts in India and their major crops.
Right: India’s drought proneness
Source: Science Direct and Resource Research

The State of Karnataka, India, illustrates the situation well. Nearly 80% of Karnataka’s land falls in drought prone areas while they heavily rely on groundwater. Since 1990, this resource faced an excessive pressure, which led to a sharp decline in water levels and deteriorated the water quality. These conditions directly affect the livelihoods of farmers across the State. In such a context, efficient water management becomes a question of survival for them.

Picture of five people holding a large printed map of local environmental resources in Karnataka, India

Field verification by TERI in Kalaburgi’s Dotikola village. Source: TERI.


Right: A thematic map in LRI atlas. Source: TERI

Realizing this, the Watershed Development Department of Government of Karnataka (WDD) and the State Department of Horticulture (DoH) joined forces to start Karnataka Watershed Development Project-II. Locally known as SUJALA3, the project brings effective watershed management through science-based approaches. One of them is mapping the local resources in 3 steps:

  1. Resource Mapping: Information on soil and land use was mapped at a farmer field scale by the National Bureau of Soil Survey, Land Use Planning (NBSSLUP) and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore. Information about local watersheds, ground water content and crop cycles were documented in detail.
  2. Data Atlas: Based on this in-depth mapping, a Land Resource Inventory (LRI) atlas was developed for each local watershed area. The LRIs are a comprehensive assimilation of the mapped local resources. They detail site-specific information on the soil texture, moisture availability, suitable crops, nutrients and site-specific farming techniques.
  3. Accessible Knowledge: Lastly, the LRIs were made in the local language.

This mapping exercise at the field level helped farmers select best suited crops based on the amount of water and the type of soil they had. As a result, farmers reported an average increase of 100 kg per harvest. Resource mapping can also help incorporate climate change projections and help farmers climate proof their activities.

Picture of outdoor covered meeting with experts sharing information with local farmers

LRI training given to farmers in Davangere, Karnataka. Source: TERI


Farmers have reported an average increase in produce of 100 kgs per harvest. Source: TERI

Links for further reading



Olga Chepelianskaia is principal consultant and founder at UNICITI. Olga has international technical field experience in over 20 Asian cities and 40 Asian countries, conducted in the frame of programs and projects implemented for a number of international development institutions such as the ADB, CDIA, UNECE, UNEP, UN ESCAP or UNDP.

Posted in Climate change, Development, Ecology, Sustainability and resilience, Territory, landscape, land, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Community-led Heritage Mapping in Kathmandu (Nepal)

4 min read

Guest author: Olga Chepelianskaia (UNICITI)

Editor’s note: This piece is the first in a series of three posts entitled ‘Mapping – a tool for urban resilience’ which reviews varied uses of mapping from across the globe. The series specifically addresses: i) heritage in the built environment; ii) environmental management; and iii) cognitive maps for neighbourhood planning. The posts provide much-needed insight in complement to existing posts on the YA blog about various mapping methods. This first post introduces the series and focuses on community-led heritage mapping. 

Mapping: a tool to build urban resilience

Post pandemic and disaster relief efforts have heavily relied on maps and surveys in the past. The global COVID outbreak map by Johns Hopkins University is keeping minute by minute tabs on the pandemic. Governments and health agencies are consulting them to track the situation and take action.

Mapping is also pivotal in providing humanitarian relief to disaster-affected communities. In the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, crowdsourced platform OpenStreetMap along with Crisis Commons volunteers used available satellite imagery to map roads, buildings and refugee camps of Port-au-Prince in only 2 days, building the most complete digital map of Haiti’s roads. Surely, mapping plays a crucial role in mitigating the effects of disasters.

With this background, today UNICITI reflects on the role of mapping in building resilience in cities of the Global South. The 3 chosen case studies each highlight the role of communities, planners and experts in mapping heritage, resources, and settlements.

Community led heritage mapping – Kathmandu, Nepal

Picture of volunteers clearing rubble at holy site in Kathmandu

Nepal’s tourism sector which supports 1.05 million jobs yearly was severely impacted due to the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Source: UN News

The 2015 Gorkha 7.8 magnitude earthquake heavily impacted Nepal’s heritage structures. As per UNESCO, it affected nearly 2,900 heritage structures in Kathmandu, Nepal Valley and the North-Western region of Nepal. About 700 structures were damaged, among which 131 were destroyed.

This loss of cultural heritage at such a scale is dramatic for a country in which heritage driven tourism substantially contributes to the national economy. In 2018, Nepal’s tourism sector supported 1.05 million jobs (Prasain, 2019). Unfortunately, while reconstruction took place rapidly with 83% of structures already reconstructed (National Reconstruction Authority of Nepal), the quality of the restoration works remains a big challenge. One of the major reasons for it was a severe lack of documentation on damaged heritage structures (The Nepal Heritage Documentation Project, 2020). In the case of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the situation was different. Professor Andrew Tallon of the Vassar College Art History developed a detailed laser-scanned model of the cathedral before the fire took place. Today, conservation architects have access to precise data on the geometry, materials, details and construction techniques that were used in the damaged part of the structure.

Digital heritage documentation can indeed go well beyond conventional on-paper documentation.  Heritage layers are documented with high precision and can greatly help reconstruction. In addition, active elements can be added as well – for example, candles burning in a prayer room or the sound of monks’ chants in a monastery – and create a more engaging virtual heritage experience.

Nepal realized the value of digital heritage documentation too. Kathmandu’s first geo-crowdsourcing system Share Our Cultural Heritage – SOCH – is revolutionizing heritage documentation and monitoring efforts. Initiated by Newcastle University, UK in 2017, the platform helps georeference cultural heritage data such as oral history, locations and images. It uses photogrammetric modelling to reconstruct heritage structures or artefacts into 3D digital models. These are then visualized on an open-access website or mobile app. Such a system is affordable because it catalyses crowdsourced inputs and is effective because it digitises detailed information about the structures.

Screenshot of a participatory mapping application for cultural heritage conservation

SOCH platform by Newcastle University. Source: SOCH Platform

Let’s have a deeper look into the process:

Step 1 – Photogrammetric documentation. Photogrammetry is the method of photographing heritage structures in detail and transforming them into digital models. These models inform on the geometry, materials and different layers of repair of the structure with great accuracy. The final model is achieved by using a combination of softwares. Agisoft Metashape was used for photogrammetry along with MeshLab for refining the models. Tinkercad, and Blender helped create the final 3D model Importantly, all these softwares are open source.

Photogrammetry of three cultural heritage buildings

Examples of Nepalese heritage structures and 3D models created using SOCH Source: Dhonju, Xiao, Mills, and Sarhosis (2018). International Journal of Geo-Information.

Step 2 – Capacity building. In 2018, the University of North Carolina organised a 5-day workshop in Kathmandu. It added to the initiative by teaching the basics of photogrammetry and VR modelling. Participants were to bring their own SLR cameras and laptops, on which they could learn image capture and 3D model creation techniques.

Pic4 Digital modelling cultural heritage

Digital modelling of cultural heritage in Kathmandu, Nepal

Step 3 – Sharing the experience: The models documented during the workshop were shared through virtual reality headsets. This model goes beyond conservation: it lets global heritage enthusiasts indulge in this remote active heritage experience. SOCH platform offers a window into how people interact and own their culture. This is a huge step in retaining the living heritage.

Links for further reading:



Olga Chepelianskaia is principal consultant and founder at UNICITI. Olga has international technical field experience in over 20 Asian cities and 40 Asian countries, conducted in the frame of programs and projects implemented for a number of international development institutions such as the ADB, CDIA, UNECE, UNEP, UN ESCAP or UNDP.

Posted in Architecture, Disaster management, Heritage and Planning, Resilience, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Presentation from Elisa Privitera – New YA Coordination Team Member!

2 min read

Hello dear friends and colleagues,

My name is Elisa Privitera, but all call me Lizzy. I am an engineer and architect particularly interested in urban issues. I come from Sicily where I am engaged with some community-led processes (such as Trame di Quartiere dealing with inclusive urban regeneration) and where I attend the second year of the PhD course in “Evaluation and mitigation of urban and land risks” at the University of Catania. In the same university, since 2016, I am a member of LabPEAT’s (Ecological Design Lab), coordinated by my Ph.D. tutor, Prof. Filippo Gravagno.

My background is quite varied. After two Erasmus (Germany, Spain) and some study experiences abroad (Malta, Czech Republic, Japan), in 2017 I got an MSc in Building Engineering and Architecture (110/110 cum laude and recommendation for publication) at the University of Catania with a final thesis on the co-construction of an urban community lab for the inclusive urban regeneration of a distressed district. Then, I attended a specialization course at IUAV (Venice) on participatory local action.

Since 2018, as a PhD student, I am working at the intersection of political ecology, environmental humanities, and planning, with the goal of exploring the hybrid common ground where subaltern communities and engaged researchers contribute to the planning of contaminated areas. Especially, I am especially focusing on the case of a Sicilian petrochemical town. As a  C. M. Lerici Foundation fellow, I have spent 6 months at the Environmental Humanities Lab at KTH (Royal Institute of Technology) in Stockholm, Sweden, led by my co-tutor, Prof. Marco Armiero.

In a nutshell, I have been always cooperating both in local and international contexts!

Since June 2020 I had the honor to be elected in the Coordination Team of the Young Academic Network. So far, I am in charge of the production of booklets and the communication through social media (Facebook and Twitter account). Also, I will be YA representative in the jury member of AESOP Excellence in Teaching Award. I would like to collaborate both in the YA Blog and in the editorial management of PlaNext.

My prior experiences with the YA network regard a series of YA initiatives I was involved in. For instance, the 13th YA Conference in Darmstadt (Germany), the AESOP PhD workshop  in Ferrara (Italy), and the 2019 AESOP Congress in Venice. In all these events I had the occasion to share my research ideas and professional dilemmas in a very friendly environment. I was so much enthusiastic about YA network that I decided to get more involved in it!

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In addition to fostering and carrying on the already great ongoing YA activities, my contribution to the YA network concerns some innovative proposals. For instance, I think that further reflections and actions on how to increase and facilitate the access and production of open-knowledge for young academics are needed. As well as, it is necessary a deeper understanding of the state of the art of the Ph.D. schools’ planning in Europe (and not only) in order to better mitigate (or valorize) the existing differences and disparities or to reduce the gaps of possibility among countries. I am sure that YA could play a meaningful role in this equalitarian direction by implementing local YA nodes that give feedback and are frequently in contact with each other, besides the yearly punctual events. A better connection and embedding of YA with “YA Ph.D. local” networks may spawn a virtuous circle of shares of experiences, issues, and new ideas.

And do you have any further idea? Would you like to collaborate with YA network?

Don’t hesitate to contact the YA Coordination Team!

In case you would like to be in contact with me:

My profile on ResearchGate,, and Twitter.

Posted in Dissemination, outreach, communication, The YA network, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Presentation from Ledio Allkja – New YA Coordination Team Member!

2 min read

Hello Everybody,

I am Ledio Allkja, a spatial planner from Albania and this is a short post on introducing myself as the new member of the AESOP Young Academics Coordination Team. My endeavors in planning education have started in 2008, when I enrolled on a course on Property Development and Planning at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Coming from Albania, where the spatial planning system and practice were weak, I wanted to learn more on how systems evolve and how I could contribute in my own country.

After my bachelor studies, I went to the Netherlands where I followed the European Spatial and Environmental Planning master at Radboud University in Nijmegen. In 2012, I returned in Albania where I started working at POLIS University as an assistant lecturer and as a spatial planner. Besides lecturing I took part in the preparation of different spatial plans at the local level. This was one of the greatest experiences as a newly graduated planner to put my university knowledge into practice. In 2014, I was appointed as the head of the sector of Regional and Local Planning in the Ministry of Urban Development in Albania. There I had a chance to work first hand with the review of the planning legislation and the preparation of the first National Spatial Plan of Albania. After two years, I decided to start my PhD at TU Wien focusing on the Europeanization of the Spatial Planning System in Albania. I returned to Albania after my first year to conduct my field research and I also decided to engage again as an assistant lecturer at POLIS University and as a researcher at Co-PLAN.

I became acquainted with the AESOP YA when I attended the PhD Workshop in Aveiro in 2017. I have followed the AESOP Annual Congresses in Lisbon, Gothenburg and Venice where I had the possibility to better understand the great work of the YA CT. Initiatives such as co-chairs in the Congress tracks, roundtables, Expert Clinics, PLANEXT are an amazing opportunity to support each other in the difficult path of academia. I started working with some other colleagues from POLIS in bringing some of the AESOP and AESOP YA activities to Albania. We organized the 13th AESOP Lecture Series in 2019 and afterwards applied for organizing the AESOP YA Conference in 2021 in Tirana. This also pushed me to apply for the upcoming elections of the AESOP YA CT. My desire is to expand and promote the YA network in the Western Balkan.

Despite the difficult and uncertain period of pandemics where social distancing is necessary, I think it is also a great possibility for the network to grow stronger. Shifting our attention to online services is one of the possibilities. I think this is a great time to expand some of the activities that the YA CT conducts especially in creating mutual support between young planning academics in order to develop a more resilient community of young planners.

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New Blog Editor

2 minute read

Hello all, 

My name is Konstantina, I am an Urban Planner and Development Engineer from Greece. I grew up in Luxembourg but returned to Greece for my studies, and I have also lived in the Netherlands for over a year. I am highly-motivated to enable environmental and societal change, which is why my career path has had a strong focus on sustainable and resilient development. 

I was first introduced to the placemaking approach through my work experience at STIPO and  Placemaking Europe. The company works on making the human dimension more central in public spaces, while improving the quality of streets, squares and parks through participation and co-creation. In addition to many other projects, they have developed a series of publications focused on active plinths and inclusive cities, such as The City at Eye Level, and Our City? Countering Exclusion in Public Space. Due to my passion for environmental sustainability, in the context of my thesis, I explored the connection between placemaking and climate adaptation, through the implementation of an adapted version of the place game tool, developed by Project for Public Spaces (Image 1 & 2). 

Image 1: The Place Diagram (Project for Public Spaces)
Image 2: Presentation of the Place Game tool, Stipo Office, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Eager to further deepen my knowledge on sustainable urbanism, I applied and was successfully selected as a Local Pathways Fellow at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) – Youth. This United Nations Initiative trains and empowers a cohort of young urban leaders from all over the world to localize the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Throughout the fellowship my focus will be on SDG target 11.7, which is aimed at improving access to safe and inclusive green and public spaces in cities. More specifically, I am exploring how placemaking approaches can contribute to creating better quality urban spaces that are simultaneously safer, more accessible and climate adaptive. 

I joined the AESOP YA’s blog as an editor and contributor, as I am passionate about creating, creating and editing content that is focused on spatial planning challenges and urban solutions. Sharing knowledge, tools, projects and best-practices within a network such as AESOP YA, can enable the use of the blog as a platform that makes information more accessible to policy makers, educators, academics and planners, further reinforcing their ability to generate change. 

Therefore, I would like to invite you to share with our network your experiences, recent accomplishments, events you might have attended or thoughts you might have, so we can create a stronger community.  

I am excited about the journey ahead 🙂 

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The medina as a historic urban landscape

4 min read

Guest author: Sarah Ben Salem (Szent István University)

The ‘Historic Urban Landscape’ concept in an approach that was declared by the UNESCO in 2011. It refers to the historical sites that should no longer be considered as separate entities from their broader regional context. The declaration also aims to adapt a sustainable development for these historical sites by considering their tangible, intangible, and social values. The relevance of this approach in the Medina case and its role in the planning projects of the Grand Tunis will be the subject of this article. We firstly state some project examples that were proposed to integrate the Medina in the regional urban process. Back in history, giving the fact that the Medina was submerged by the urban pressure of the modern city which was developed around it, and also, the invasion of vehicles’ usage and changes in the town infrastructure. Several calls for projects were announced, and different studies were proposed in the 20th century. For instance, the Valensi project of planning and embellishment which was suggested in 1920 and aimed to avoid partitioning the Medina, however, this idea was rejected because it would have transformed the city into an unanimated museum.

On the other way round, several projects aimed to change the urban morphology of the Medina, such as opening a large urban street following the ‘Bab Bhar’ Gate – ‘Zitouna’ Mosque axis. These studies didn’t convince the authorities neither, mainly because of the risk of altering the authenticity and identity of the city.1


Picture credit: Yona Friedman


Picture credit: Yona Friedman

Among the remarkable and avant-gardist suggested designs also, we mention the idea of the architect Yona Friedman, that belongs to his feasible utopias (Utopies Réalisables) of ‘the Ville Spatiale’ research proposition. The architect proposed in 1959 to integrate the Medina under a global scheme of science and technology. He intended to transform the structure of the city by adding above it a structure wherein triangles are substituted by circular rings.2 This design concept was not widely listed in the most considered and appreciated literatures about the Medina revitalisation projects. However, even though the idea is very utopic, it encompasses an inspirational and innovative concept in contemporary urban thinking.

In reality, none of the listed proposed plans had been taken forward except for the ‘Bab Souika’ and the ‘Hafsia’ urban regeneration projects.

The social life of the Medina

To better understand and predict the social movement and everyday life in public spaces, several architects and theorists have developed practical methods and solutions, such as Jan Gehl, who strongly believed that urban design should integrate and consider people’s needs as a priority. Referring to his approach, I followed a trajectory that I analysed by observing at different times in the day how people are using the space and I recorded their presence and behavior.

croquis medina

Picture credit: by the author

The studied pathway starts from the ‘Bab Bhar’ square to the ‘Zitouna’ Mosque and also the ‘Sidi Ben Arous’ street, where we find many coffees and amenities. I also walked into the inhabitants and visitors and asked about their opinion and connection with the spaces in the Medina. What I concluded from this study is that the visitors, including the tourists, like the warm and exceptional atmosphere in the city and the particular charm given by the connection between the distances and the closeness and warmth in the human experience and contact. Nevertheless, what was attested by the inhabitants also is that the Medina has much changed since the last years, and its inhabitants and users have less and less the feeling of belonging to their quarter or being familiar and secure in its shared spaces.

المدينة.. .. يا حسرة المدينة. ، تخلطت

The Medina, alas…! it has changed a lot

يا حسرة بكري

The good old times…

أنا تولدت هنا، ملي صغير عشت هنا

I was born here, since I was a child I have always lived here

معادش الناس متاع قبل

People of the Medina are no longer the same…

يعجبني جو المدينة في رمضان

I like the Medina atmosphere during the month of Ramadan [1]

The specific urban character of the Medina


Picture credit: by the author

The most astonishing characteristic of the Medina also is the strategical thinking behind its organic urban tissue. The city was built according to this morphology not only for climate reasons and social adaptation, but the inhabitants also sought to preserve their intimacy and protect themselves from strangers, hence, unexpected visitors who will find it difficult to orientate themselves there. A very impressive study that was led by a group of Tunisian and orientalist architects and psychoanalysts to analyse the mutual relationship between the religious values (the Islam), the space and the human body in the city, attested that the ‘imaginary representation’[2] produced in the city spaces is revealing the attachment of the Arab tribes with the desert. ‘The city is represented as a stop in the wandering space, a node and a boundary point in the nomadic space.‘ While for the houses, they are connected to their interiors, yet, their heavenly courts are connected with the sky and beyond world.3



Picture credit: by the author

The Medina, undoubtedly, represents the ‘Lieu de Mémoire‘ of Tunisians, a singular destination for tourists, and also an open museum that hosts different artistic manifestations which are curating the city on many occasions every year. On the other hand, the living conditions in the Medina need to be prominently studied while intervening in its public spaces. We need to better understand the social life in the city and even predict how it will unfold in the future. The interventions in the Medina should also be studied by considering the urban landscape of the historical site surroundings and the entire urban landscape of the city.


Sarah Ben Salem

Sarah Ben Salem is an architect and PhD candidate at the Department of Landscape, Architecture and Urban Planning at Szent István University in Hungary (Academia, LinkedIn).





  1. Imen Oueslati, La place de la médina de Tunis dans les projets d’aménagement de l’époque coloniale, URBAMAG, 1 – Les médinas et ksours dans la recherche universitaire,
  2. Yona Friedman, Architecture with the people, by the people, for the people, Actar, 2011, P127; []
  3. Jellal Abdelkafi, La médina de Tunis, 1989, CNRS, 1989. P249


[1] Attestations given by city inhabitants and users, in Tunisian Arabic dialect and their close translation to English.

[2] Representations or creative productions based on our imagination

Posted in Architecture, Heritage and Planning, Placemaking, Territory, landscape, land, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Share summaries of webinars & events

2 min read

This post invites you to share summaries of the latest/most engaging webinars you attended or hosted recently.

Recovery planning: yes we can!

The webosphere currently abounds with ideas and plans for recovery from the covid-19 pandemic. These include discussions about whether the ‘new normal’ will be ‘green’ or back to ‘business-as-usual’ (e.g. reflections from 12 leading planning experts about post-covid city life, including Richard Florida, and many others). This period of global confinement (at least for those shielded from the front-line) has generated tremendous reflection about what can be done within the remit of spatial planning.

At the same time, the amount of digital content about the implications of the covid-19 pandemic for collective life, including the design and management of places and spaces, is simply staggering. It is impossible to keep up with! Not to mention a flurry of other crises (e.g. social, political, environmental economic, non-covid related epidemics) which add to the global pandemic, and further remind us that spatial planning can (and should?) contribute to creating fairer and more resilient cities and regions. This is true not just for places located in developed countries well-covered by the mass media, but for all places, everywhere. Place and space still matter, now more than ever.

Based on the AESOP YA PhD workshop in 2018, the planNext special issue “Making space for hope” aptly reminds us that research and activism can go hand in hand. Owning up to the transformative power of planning research and practice can be a necessary step toward facilitating change. Particularly, engaged reflection and practice can fuel more inclusive practices that embrace both people and planet. Spatial planning is the canvas upon which much of collective transformation can come to life. 

Share summaries of webinars and online events

Keeping a renewed sense of responsibility in mind, the blog of the AESOP Young Academics’ networks warmly welcomes short summaries of interesting webinars you have recently attended or hosted. The webinars can concern any topic broadly related to spatial planning.

Sharing a summary will make the insight from the webinars accessible to the global community of spatial planners connected to the AESOP and Young Academics’ network, and beyond. A single blog post (500-1500 words) can help summarise 1 hour of rich discussions in a 5 minute read (or even less!). The summary will make the online video more accessible to readers who want to find out more, especially if a recording of the webinar is available.

So wait no longer and send summaries of your favourite recent webinars and online events to:

Here are a few basic guidelines for contributions.

Looking forward to publishing your post!

Picture of laptop that says "I design and develop experiences that make people's lives SIMPLE'

Like software and website designers, spatial planners design and influence interactive user experiences – of space, place, and much more still. Picture by Ben Kolde on Unsplash.






Posted in Academia, research quality and assessment, Beyond planning, Disaster management, Dissemination, outreach, communication, Events reports, Resilience, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cartoons for systemic change & recovery

2 min read

We normally change only if we have to. A popular idiom encapsulates this: “Necessity is the mother of invention”. If we don’t acutely perceive the need to change, we might just settle for the status quo, and forgo inventing anything.

Beyond necessity, one can ascertain more positively that creativity is the mother of innovation. This is true for everybody: businesses, government, individuals, academics, practitioners…. Cartoons, just like participatory games, citizen participation and placemaking techniques (among others) can all support systemic change. Humour and creativity can inspire steadfast efforts to recover from the global shock experienced by nearly everyone on our precious planet.

The EU-funded EIT Climate-KIC organised a virtual ‘cartoonathon’ at the beginning of May, hosting 150 digital participants connected to their network . EIT Climate-KIC is a Knowledge and Innovation Community initiated by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. The initiative fosters urban experimentation, collaboration, civic engagement and innovative entrepreneurship across Europe, with test-beds and innovation hubs in several partnering cities.

The cartoonathon event allowed to explore and discuss avenues for transformation in the current recovery from the global pandemic. Professional cartoonists joined in to help synthesise the discussions creatively, which stimulated more discussions and reflections. These cartoons, among other methods, can support organisations and businesses in navigating change in the difficult period of recovery.

P BYRNES cartoonist cartoonathan EIT Climate KIC

Managing systemic transformation – thinking outside the box, or breaking down silos? Cartoon by Pat Byrnes for the EIT Climate-KIC cartoonathon.

The event generated input about three areas of transformation: (1) Complexity and Chaos, (2) Rapid Digitalisation and; (3) Innovation and Agility. Among other sub-topics, participants mentioned finance, prioritisation and resources as hurdles to achieving sustainable change. The following comments by participants will likely resonate with members of countless organisations in spatial planning and beyond…

“Competing priorities, quantity above quality, lack of acknowledgement of interrelated vulnerabilities”

“We are receiving money only for 1 single issue but one problem is actually 9 problems!”

“This captures the limited financial resources and capacity/shows how we have put all the other issues to one side but it all intersects! Extremely important, not only in Corona time”

About the event itself, a participant expressed:

“It’s a good format to get us thinking. 90 mins went by fast, and have left us with
food for thought.”

In sum, just as art and urban graffitti can stimulate discussion and participation about the need for systemic change in urban planning and environmental management, so could cartoons support similar endeavours.

Share your recent discussions and initiatives for recovery and transformation with:

Posted in Beyond planning, Climate change, Disaster management, Sustainability and resilience, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Online Workshops: Expert Tips & Six Formats

5 minute read

This post provides some resources for the craft of designing and hosting online workshops. Workshops enable you to collaborate and engage with communities for research or participatory planning purposes. In a previous post, I blogged about a wide range of digital adaptions and tools relevant to the field of spatial planning. This post focuses on online workshops, and briefly discusses five workshop formats that could be adapted online. 

How To: Online Workshops

Les Robinson is a community engagement expert based south of Sydney, Australia. His consultancy’s motto is: “The practice of making change for good”. His principal advice for effective workshops, whether online or in-person/physical, is to make them fun: fun for participants, which will also make them fun for the facilitator (i.e.: you!). When it comes to the perfect online workshop, Les advocates good preparation, and plenty of it. It took him 3 days to get his working space in top gear, and two mock workshops with real volunteer participants to sweep all those technical details that would otherwise ruin your real workshop. While he used Zoom, the following lessons apply to all platforms:

  1. Do two (2) full dress rehearsals.
  2. Have a co-host;
  3. Start slow, do energy checks and have lots of breaks.
  4. Use the breakout room feature;
  5. Get a bluetooth headset;
  6. Have a big screen (a TV is perfect)
  7. Make a nice background and adjust the lighting.

Perfect Online Workshop

Getting your full set-up right for an online workshop can take up to three days. A large screen will help you see all participants. Picture credit: Les Robinson on the Changeology blog (31 March 2020).

You will need to prepare. This includes sending out preliminary material to participants in advance, printing out a list of participants, and doing a sound check. Delivery-wise, the ground rules for participation should be crystal clear from the outset, as will be the agenda for the workshop. Schedule in some breaks. Be lively and ‘theatrical’ as facilitator to foster a friendly climate, this will support discussion and interaction among the participants.

Finally, Les Robinson’s website also provides lots of resources to help you learn the trade of community engagement, such as a blog, goodies for practitioners, and the book Changeology for purchase which serves as a crash course for the field. Whether you are a researcher, industry professional or a spatial planning aficionado / activist / community group member, you too can practice making change for good!

Six Workshop Formats

There is no a priori format for online workshops. Workshops are typically delivered in-person (i.e. face-to-face in physical venues).  Much of the advice for effective physical workshops will hold true for online delivery, from workshop design to the art and science of moderation and facilitation. 

I briefly present six methods: 1) Planning for Real®, 2) Focus groups, 3) Conversation cafés, 4) Future workshops, 5) Democs, and 6) Second Life. The first five are traditional physical workshop methods. The sixth is a digital platform that could host any of these, among others. See the crowdsourced database Participedia for more workshop methods. 

Planning for Real® is UK version of the American charrette (i.e. participatory design workshop). The participatory design method rests on making a physical 3D model of the area being planned, followed by a prioritisation and ranking of ideas and needs generated by participants. A landmark precursor of online participatory planning platforms was the web-based Public Participation GIS platform developed by Richard Kingston and colleagues. An online facilitated Planning for Real® session will likely require ingenuity and the use of a complementary collaborative design platform (ideally free and Open Source, for greater accessibility).  Tools such as Mural  or Wireframe can help wireframe conceptual designs, but lack a spatial component. A former post reviews useful participatory mapping tools

Focus Groups are a staple research, participatory design and policy evaluation method in many fields and disciplines. Focus groups involve interaction among a small group of participants about issues that matter both to them. Participants can be any specific group, from experts to people living in a certain area. The more homogeneous the group, the more participants will have in common with each other, and the easier the group will be to moderate for the researchers. Sociology Professor David Morgan (Portland State University) gives the full low-down on how to design, prepare and conduct focus groups in the essential book Planning Focus Groups and in presentation on Youtube. See also the crisp overview of the value of focus groups by B2B International, with a focus on market research.

Conversation Cafés consist of “openly hosted conversations designed to engage participants in stimulating dialogue on relevant societal issues, thereby allowing them to express and develop informed opinions in a mutually respectful way.” For people living in northern latitudes, cultural and political cafés might not be ingrained in local culture as in other parts of the world. The point here is not small talk of typical café conversations, but discussion about issues that matter, conducted in a “Socratic” mode of respectful dialogue and mutual learning. Fruitful conversations can last 60-90 minutes, or as appropriate. Don’t forget the virtual coffee and biscotti

Future Workshops are essentially visioning workshops that enable to elicit desirable futures. Think urban utopias! The method comprises three steps: 1) critique, 2) fantasise/envision, and 3) implement. They can also share features with scenario workshops. Future workshops could also feature elements of ‘backcasting’. Once participants have agreed on desirable futures (e.g. different development scenarios), the idea is to proceed with the end in mind. This entails detailing milestones and progress indicators. Backcasting can operationalise and perform a reality check (i.e. feasibility assessment) on desirable futures. Backcasting could even help in creating precise roadmaps for ‘utopian’ visions, or, in other words, (re-)create the present in the image of the desired future. Even if visions are unrealistic, the formulation of desirable futures helps raise awareness about key societal issues and stimulates dialogue about alternatives to the status quo.

Democs, also called PlayDecide, is a deliberation method based on a card game where about 6-8 participants can learn about and discuss complex scientific, political and ethical issues. This makes the method a good candidate for spatial planning, as the field naturally lends itself to complexity. The method comprises two simple steps: participants begin by selecting a range of issues, which they then discuss, and report back to the organisation sponsoring the participatory workshop. No need for technical experts: the cards provide food for thought, learning and discussion among the participants.The cards can be downloaded for free, covering diverse themes from climate change and energy to social inclusion and culture. Democs can also be used for teaching purposes.

Second Life is a virtual gamification platform where participants interact as avatars. It lends itself to multi-user discussions and deliberation. The virtual environment could enable any of the five workshop formats discussed here. Why not also roundtables or thematic exhibitions? You can easily upload pictures or 3D models to display in the digital venues custom-made by you. The potential of Second Life for participatory spatial planning has long been recognised in research (e.g. The Second Life of Urban Planning (2009) by Marcus Foth and colleagues).

Finally, you can augment any of the above workshop formats with a host of simple facilitation exercises, ranging from conversation starters and ideation methods to prioritisation and decision-making. The engagement start-up SessionLab provides an impressive library of 750 facilitation techniques!


Host your workshop in Second Life to make it fun in times of lockdown recovery. Picture credit: Second Life Office Hours, by John Lester on Flickr. Attribution Creative Commons.

Share your favourite online facilitation and collaboration methods with: 

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