Governing the Unknown: Adaptive Spatial Planning in the age of uncertainty

This is a short contribution by the Local Organizing Committee (LOC), from POLIS University, Tirana, unfolding the inspirations and underlying events that led to the theme for the 2021 AESOP YA Conference. At the beginning of September 2019, we decided to apply as organizers of the next YA Conference. We were strongly encouraged by the engagement of AESOP to bring the next YA Conferences (2021, 2022) towards South-East Europe. POLIS is a relatively young university that has been operating since 2007, and a vast majority of the academic staff are also young practitioners specializing in the field of spatial planning. This is a rather new discipline in Albania, given that the urban planning milieu has been dominated by a technocratic, urbanist tradition in the last century. Therefore, this was a golden opportunity not to be missed: (1) hosting a conference dedicated to young academics in spatial planning and (2) launching Albania as an open laboratory to analyze and think critically about political, social, economic transformations going on in South-East Europe. At that point, we needed to find a smart conference topic to encompass the complexity of these transformations. 

We aimed for something future-oriented and linked to the topics of “resilience and adaptivity.  However,  considering the vast amount of conferences in recent years focusing on this topic, we were not fully convinced at the beginning. Nevertheless, our dilemma was shaken soon after our first meeting, with a seismic event of magnitude 5.8 happening on September 21 2019 in the coastal part of Albania. Not long after this event, on November 26, an even larger earthquake of 6.4 magnitude hit the Tirane-Durres metropolitan area. This time the aftermath was tragic (Image 1). The earthquake resulted in thousands of buildings being damaged and ten-thousands more declared uninhabitable. Moreover, there were thousands of people that got injured and 51 casualties were recorded. This event brought to light many of the planning and construction failures in Albania, highlighting the need to rethink  the overall approach in terms of spatial planning and urban development. Suddenly the terms ‘resilience’ and ‘adaptivity’ didn’t sound like buzzwords anymore. Hence, we decided to focus our conference on two main aspects of resilience and adaptivity such as (1) Uncertainty and (2) The Unknown.

Image 1: Emergency workers clearing debris after a building collapsed in Thumane, during the Earthquake of 26 November
Source: The New York Times, Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA

The current global context is facing dynamic development and changes. These new conditions of uncertainty have  created the need for socio-economic systems, people and institutions, as well as our urban and ecological system to become more resilient. Having the ability to cope with crises, but also to adapt to change and situations of  uncertainty, has created the necessity to change our planning paradigms. This has become more apparent in our current and ongoing experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On the other hand, Donald Rumsfeld’s famous saying (2002) “there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns” holds truth also for planning. The complexity of our system is increasing, and besides dealing with the growing uncertainty, planning and governance need to deal with the complexity of the unknown. In Europe, for instance, increasing inequalities between people and places, as well as unsustainable development have reached a critical level. This will be challenged further by the pandemic in  the mid-term recovery period, as well as by the long-term climate change impacts. Climate change, as a comprehensive challenge, is not to be seen merely from an environmental perspective. Its socio-economic impacts are extremely important and are played out across territories and spaces. One could simply think of the increased frequency of extreme weather events and their impacts on society and the economy, to understand the magnitude of the challenge, let alone other less visible impacts. Additionally, the high uncertainty in planning and resilience are related and affecting economic, political, social as well as environmental aspects, which all require a degree of adaptation. While uncertainty, on one hand, requires improving prediction mechanisms and management of big data in order to reduce it, the governance of “unknowns” requires perhaps a paradigmatic shift in the way we deal with knowledge in planning altogether. Capitalizing on this, Davoudi (2015) argues that planning can be conceptualized as a practice of knowing situated in a complex interrelationship (Figure 1):

Figure 1: Planning as Practice of Knowing, Planning Theory
Source: Davoudi (2015, p. 327)

Davoudi puts an emphasis that planners need to increase knowledge on what their “does do”. As such, also in the framework of this conference, when talking about the unknown, we refer to this aspect of unknown unknowns in planning. Additionally, an important discussion we would like to open as part of the conference is the question of “what constitutes knowledge in planning and how can this knowledge be acquired?”. 

Spatial Planning as one of the main mediums for achieving territorial governance and resilience of the socio-ecological system, is a domain in constant evolution and need for reinvention as a response to the challenges ahead. The discipline has always been subject to various pressures and concerns trying to adapt to the dynamics of the world. While in its early days, planning was trying to control the future, now the growing recognition that it needs to work with uncertainty is becoming one of the main drivers of change. Today planning as a disciple has a more complex mission to face, and it needs to move away from the initial paradigms that created it.

Nevertheless, the biggest challenge that planning as a profession and research domain is and will be facing in the coming decades, is its ability to adapt and work with climate change, shrinking resources, and high demand for energy, all positioned in a highly uncertain framework. These challenges are known and accepted by planners, and are quite common in planning policy discourses. However, planning has shown little capacity to develop tools and instruments able to respond to the challenge. 

Albania over the last decade has initiated a process of changing its planning system. Since 2007, continuous changes have been introduced to manage the shift from a rigid and inflexible planning system. This is done based on a controlled future paradigm and with a strong urban planning/design focus, in addition to a more comprehensive and integrated approach. This is a similar situation in most Western Balkan countries, stuck in the middle of the complex conundrum between European Integration and internal challenges. On the other hand, the seismic events of 2019 uncovered a very obvious fragility of both the planning system, as well as planning practitioners in Albania. These tragic events now offer the opportunity and the prospect of building a more resilient territory and system. Albania is now an open laboratory, where one can study the failures of the planning system and the prospects of the resilience-based rebuilding process. Organizing the YA conference in Albania with the proposed topic would serve to open an interesting discussion contributing to current debates in the country/region, while at the same time Young Academics could experience firsthand the recovery process from a major earthquake. 

In this regard, the main aim of the conference is to open a debate among young planning academics regarding the question of ‘adaptivity’ in planning and for planning in the face of uncertainty and unknowns. The conference will create a platform for knowledge sharing, from both planning theory and planning practice perspectives. Some of the important questions we would like to answer are linked to issues of dealing with uncertainty in planning, dealing with the known unknowns and to more philosophical issues of dealing with the unknown unknowns in planning and governance. 

We too, as a LOC, are learning to adapt now. Organizing this conference is associated with many uncertainties due to the situation with COVID-19 that has restricted travel in many parts of the world. However, one certain thing is that the conference will occur between the 29th of March and the 2nd of April 2021. Together with the Young Academics Coordination Team we are working closely to prepare for the conference in a multiple-scenario perspective. As much as we would like everyone to come to Albania, the conference still remains a great opportunity, a space to network and collaborate with fellow young planners, which could turn to occur in the form of a  hybrid event: a combination of in person attendance combined with online interaction. We are monitoring the situation and in January 2021 – two months before the conference, we will make a decision that does not influence the quality of the conference and, most importantly, does not impact our health and well-being. 

With this in mind, we would like to warmly invite you to join the 2021 AESOP YA Conference in Polis University, Tirana. Some important dates that you need to take into consideration for the conference are: 

– 2nd week of September opening of call of Abstracts
– 14th of November deadline for abstracts
– 1st of February 2021 deadline for full papers.

See you soon, live or virtually, in Tirana 😊

Image 2: Virtual meeting of the Local Organizing Committee, during the quarantine time April 2020 in Tirana
Source: Local Organizing Committee, personal library
From top-left to right: Fiona, Zenel, Kejt, Rudina, Amanda, Besjana, Rodi, Ledio and Eranda

Guest authors: Local Organizing Committee team: Amanda, Besjana, Eranda, Fiona, Kejt, Ledio, Rodi and Zenel (Image 2). For more information, feel free to contact the Local Organizing Committee at

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Cognitive mapping to understand neighbourhoods – Kenya

3 min read

Editor’s note: This post is the concluding post in a series of entitled ‘Mapping – a tool to build urban resilience’ (see post 1 about community-led heritage mapping, and post 2 about environmental resources mapping for sustainable agriculture). This post highlights the value of cognitive mapping to grow our collective understanding of neighbourhoods, looking at an early example of its use in Boston (MA) and how it has also been used in a neighbourhood located close to Nairobi, Kenya. It concludes with key take-aways about the value of mapping for urban resilience across the world. 

Rapid urbanization has largely impacted the quality of life in cities. This is specifically true for informal urban settlements, which are often unplanned and lack basic infrastructure such as lighting, sewage, drainage, and electricity. According to the International Growth Centre, 86% of dwelling units in Delhi’s slums do not have a water connection. Such settlements are usually side-lined in top down planning processes.

Public engagement into the planning process can help include such settlements into the urban development discussion. Here, cognitive mapping can be an effective tool.  A cognitive map is a roughly sketched map anyone can do to visualise their city or neighbourhood. This opens several opportunities: citizens can bring in very specific information only they can collect, they feel empowered and such mapping unveils a very personal perception of the area. Kevin Lynch introduced the concept in the Image of the City in 1960 stating that as people interact with their surroundings, they interpret and encode them into mental maps.

Here is an example to understand cognitive mapping better. In 1970, Florence C. Ladd asked a number of black children living in the Mission Hill area of Boston, Massachusetts, to sketch maps of their area, and interviewed them about their maps. The map drawn by one child, Dave (below), shows his neighbourhood at the top. The Mission Project area, where the white children live, is represented at the bottom of the map. For Dave, the significance of the Mission Project area is highlighted by rendering it as relatively larger, more prominent and more central than his own neighbourhood (Ladd, 1970). This demonstrates how differently Dave perceives the two neighbourhoods.

Hand-drawn cognitive map of a neighbourhood in Boston, Massachussets, showing streets and blocks

Cognitive map of a Dave’s neighbourhood
Source: Cognitive Mapping and Social Change

Communities can greatly help city planning through cognitive mapping. It is an informal and engaging tool of public participation through which planners can understand how communities perceive their urban surroundings. This establishes a ground for joint discussion to plan better urban areas. The approach can provide practical information about roads, streetlights, stormwater drains, or footpaths to urban practitioners, city planners and decision-makers. Cognitive mapping can also help understand the identity of cities and neighbourhoods. This information can then be used to make inclusive spaces which meet the needs of the city.

Community representatives discussing planning needs with official representatives Source: Kiandutu Settlement profiling and mapping begins

Kiandutu settlement, Kenya, is located on a 94 sqkm land. Its residents face a lack of sewage infrastructure, poor housing quality and poor water access. So the University of Nairobi and Muungano Support Trust Redevelopment supported the community with cognitive mapping.  This initiative understood that locals can gather data about their neighborhood efficiently, which can greatly influence the planning of their settlement.

As a result, the community itself collected data through the Kiandutu’ Participatory Settlement Profile and Mapping Project.  This data helped the settlers understand their infrastructural needs.  They realized that a lack of community gathering spaces, poor housing conditions and lack of sewage infrastructure needed to be addressed in priority. This understanding led the community to act and reach a major change by building a new community hall, improving housing and sanitation facilities.

Links for further reading


Clearly, mapping can bring our resilience actions to a whole different level. The next step is to fully integrate it into our resilience strategies. This has already been successfully done in selected cities. In 2013, the Minneapolis Climate Action Plan recommended strategies to increase energy efficiency, the number of bike lanes and active transport, recycling and composting after mapping vulnerability factors such as urban heat island effect, lack of access to public transport and neighbourhoods prone to flooding. Melbourne enhanced its urban resilience by mapping its metropolitan area’s biodiversity in 2017. This baseline map helped draw up urban forest precinct plans to protect and expand green cover in the city. As a result, today 25% of the city’s public land has a forest canopy cover, and this share continues to increase. UNICITI works with mapping experts to address issues discussed here. Reach out to us if we can help.


Olga_profile_pic_200xOlga 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 Community engagement, Impact, Resilience, Sustainability and resilience, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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: Rao et al. 2015 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 , , , , , , , , | 1 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.

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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.

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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