Games for better planning and participation

Read time: 5 minutes

Guest Author: Viktorija Priļenska (Tallinn University of Technology)

Games entered the planning domain in the 1960s. Early games focused on simulating the relationship between urban policies and regulations, land-uses, population dynamics, infrastructures and ecology (e.g. CLUG by Allan Feldt and Metropolis by Richard Duke). In the course of development, games diversified their repertoire, focusing, among other topics, on participatory design and planning (e.g. Design Games by Henry Sanoff). Games, which pursue involving stakeholders in all sorts of participation exercises are referred to in the current article as “participatory games”. Due to their structured goal-oriented nature, fairness and transparency ensuing from the rules, games are capable of becoming efficient participation methods at certain planning phases. The post provides a summary of the article on potential applications of participatory games in planning. The full article is available at the author’s Research Gate profile.

Crowdsourcing games

Increasing global connectivity and digital literacy among all social groups gave rise to online crowdsourcing games, which enable sourcing and sharing geo-referenced content, such as images and text. Online crowdsourcing games employ either web platforms (e.g. CommunityPlanIt!), or applications for mobile devices (e.g. Täsä). Provided the Internet connection, online tools enable sharing content any time and from any location, for instance, while waiting for a bus at the bus stop, thus, reaching out to larger number of participants (e.g., 1,043 players in Community PlanIt! game in Detroit and 780 players in Täsä game in Turku) and involving the usually underrepresented groups, such as young adults. The players’ experiences of the environment captured through online crowdsourcing games can potentially contribute to the knowledge base for the forthcoming spatial plans and policies.


Täsä smartphone game for sourcing and sharing planning ideas among the residents of Turku.
Image source: Apkpure.

Data generation games

As as spin-off of the core activity, which is outlined in the game narrative, location-based leisure activities and games generate planning relevant data. If correlated with other GIS data, the generated data may provide insights into various topics, such as outdoor recreation preferences (Geocaching), hyperlocal places (Ingress), public space qualities (Pokémon Go), and places of interest for the youth (Urban Shaper. Data generation games are potentially useful in the context of decreasing participation rates, as well as while stated and actual preferences about the environment diverge.

Pervasive games

Games, which transcend the boundaries of the game, the “magic circle”, and invade into public spaces or involve outsiders, are referred to as “pervasive”. The interest in “pervasiveness” in relation to participation was fueled by the success of commercial location-based leisure activities and games, discussed in the previous section. Non-commercial pervasive games, designed for participatory purposes, vary from multi-player to single-player games. Multi-player games, such as Big Urban Game and ZWERM, transform the public space into playground, pursuing community building and awareness raising about urban issues. Single-player games, like Geo-Zombie and Change Explorer, encourage certain location-based actions, aiming to collect spatial data, as well as to attract new participants by means of game elements.


Big Urban Game pervasive game. Player teams racing trough Twin Cities Minneapolis and Saint Paul with inflatable game pieces. Image source: Katie Salen.

Deliberative games

Communication in traditional participatory methods, such as surveys and public hearings, is usually limited to one- and two-way information exchange, where participants state their positions. Furthermore, such interactions are usually unstructured and dominated by the narratives of the vociferous individuals or groups. Due to their regulated nature, board games foster structured small-group deliberation between players enabling dialogue building and diversification of narratives (e.g. Community Conversational). Role-play games, in turn, encourage players to take on unusual roles, thus, practicing the art of reasoning and arguing from the perspective, which is different from their own (e.g. Play Noord). The latter enables players to transcend the boundaries of their positions and develop empathy towards alternative perspectives.


Play Noord role-play board game for creating collective vision for Overhoeks neighbourhood in Amsterdam Noord. Image source: Play the City.

Educational games

A share of participatory games focuses on education with no intention to produce planning related outcomes. In-game learning represents a set of progressive challenges with continuous support and instant customised feedback enabling active learning (or learning by doing), which is believed to be more efficient than passive learning (e.g. lecturing). Games provide space for experimentation, which allows exploring a range of choices and their ramifications without facing real-life undesirable consequences in case of failure and receiving in-game reward in case of success. Participation games may play out real-life situations by setting challenges and modelling possible responses, and, thus, prepare players for real-life action (e.g. Water Management Game).

Co-designed games

Participatory games usually create frameworks for collective design activities, but rarely invite players to shape these frameworks. Traditional literature on game design advocates for a completed unambiguous set of rules as a prerequisite for any game. Emerging literature on game design explores the opportunities for game co-design. The latter, arguably, aligns games with players’ preferences, mitigates the knowledge gaps (especially, if a game tackles controversial issues) and enables civic learning. Game co-design sessions encourage players to play around with a barebones game prototype, populating it with narratives and rules (e.g. Energy Safari, City Makers, Participation Game). It is essential, that co-design sessions involve either perspective players or players with relevant professional knowledge.

Games throughout the planning cycle

To sum up, participatory games exhibit potential to be applied in all planning phases, from initiation to maintenance. In the initiation phase games may source information from the residents, thus, building the foundation for the forthcoming plan or policy. In the design phase games may aid in developing and negotiating planning decisions through deliberation. By fostering community cohesion, games may shape actor networks, which facilitate implementation of plans and policies, as well as the maintenance of new public spaces. Furthermore, through education and co-design games enable understanding, questioning and reshaping current planning concepts, leading to the more efficient planning and participation in the future.



Viktorija Prilenska is a PhD candidate at Tallinn University of Technology, architect and urban planner, as well as a co-founder, board member and project manager at NGO Urban Narratives. Viktorija holds a Diploma in Architecture from Riga Technical University (2009) and a Master of Science in Urbanism from Delft University of Technology (2012). Her PhD research deals with games for better community engagement in urban planning. Her research interests, also, include planning for sustainable mobility and energy, city branding, and the use of natural phenomena for shaping the built environment. Her professional competences encompass spatial planning from neighbourhood to city, development of building regulations, interior design, design of outdoor structures, and building refurbishment. She is interested in networking with fellow researchers, planners and architects, and for developing research and practice related collaborations.

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Digital adaptations & reflections: from people to planet

Read time: 5 minutes

In a time of global crisis, the digital keeps us connected and providing us opportunities to adapt and reflect both individually and collectively. This post shares some digital adaptations and reflections that stretch from the individual to the global level, with relevance to spatial planning and construction. 

The current global crisis reveals both significant gaps and opportunities for more resilient spatial planning and collaboration in our highly networked world. Physical places and space are out of reach for many of us at the moment, while others are busy keeping essential services or tending the sick. At the same time, the digital is keeping us connected as never before. It is expected that digital and mixed reality solutions will grow in the near and medium future, and help us to further manage ourselves, collaborate with others, as well as visualise, navigate, analyse, manage and shape places and spaces remotely and/or on site. Digital adaptations are here to stay, and grow.

Individual adaptations

Mindfulness. At the very individual level, one of the best thing to do in times of crisis, besides observing public health guidelines, is to keep calm. Mindfulness apps can guide or support you in restoring inner calm and focus, particularly if you are not used to activities like meditation.

Online learning. Online learning and teaching can be expected to boom in the near future. This can range from growing demand for MOOC platforms (e.g. Coursera, Udemy, FutureLearn, CodeAcademy, and many others) to universities likely developing advanced learning platforms for their own students. Many websites also provide resources to improve soft skills, such as Mind Tools, among many others.

Tools for collaboration & events

For academics and professionals, online collaboration is a clear adaptation to working from home. Collaboration and mixed reality tools are of vital importance for professionals in architecture, engineering and construction. People in all industries will increasingly rely on collaboration such as Trello and Microsoft Teams, discussion tools such as Slack, and  and video-conferencing tools such as Zoom.

Events and meetings can still be done virtually through platforms such as Second Life. Already in 2009, Marcus Foth explored the possibilities for the second life of urban planning through a range of ‘neogeography’ tools that facilitate participation of even the less tech-savvy. To these we can add various online serious gaming

Neighbourhood apps

NextDoor is a leading neighbourhood-based app in several countries around the world, enabling residents to share information and help each other, which is acutely useful in this time of pandemic. In France specifically, a number of neighbourhod-based apps are flourishing to promote social life, inclusion, and mutual help between neighbours, such as Ensembl’, Ma Vie de Quartier, or Smiile. Ensembl’ also fosters partnerships with local authorities and housing professionals.

Digital spatial planning & construction

The current crisis has left its mark on the planning and construction industries. Diana Budds on Curbed traces the capacity of spatial planning to handle epidemics from a historical perspective, starting with Ancient Greece, and discusses implications for the current crisis. Resilient urban design is the key to managing wide-sweeping crises, although clearly there is no simple way to do this. The impact on the world economy will be felt. From a UK perspective, construction sites and manufacturing are encouraged to keep going so long as workers can work safely.

Construction. the growing digitalisation of design, workflows, information and processes is exemplified in Building Information Modelling (BIM). In an ideal world, BIM models enable stakeholders and clients to collaborate and manage physical assets seamlessly over the course of a building or infrastructure’s life cycle. Improved collaboration and integration of information, data and processes through BIM can only be expected to grow. Building contractors worldwide are also reaping the benefits of various forms of digital data collection (e.g. Skanska). Regarding environmental assessment, Royal Haskonig DHV leverage a digital format for Environmental Impact Statements. In short, all aspects of the built environment are undergoing intensive digitisation.

Spatial Planning. 3D visualisation tools such as OpenCities (CityPlanner) can be used for internal project management within planning departments, as well as to enable various forms of citizen participation in many Swedish cities. In a former post, Enzo Falco and Reinout Kleinhans shared a comprehensive list of digital participatory platforms that can help support citizen participation in spatial planning. More generally, the tech sector is becoming increasingly pervasive in the shaping of cities, from Google’s Alphabet in Toronto’s Waterfront, to swathes of sensors and increasingly interconnected ICTs as the backbone of smart cities where planners could (or should) take the driving seat. A BIM approach to cities can also be upscaled to entire cities, placing spatial planners as key market actors, which would rely on an extensive spatial data model.

Digital Twins: a tale of two cities. Building on the above, a related trend in both architecture, planning, engineering and construction is the emergence of digital twins. Digital twins are digital replica of physical entities, which can include buildings, cities or even entire countries. In the UK, for example, the Infrastructure Client Group (part of the Institution of Civil Engineers), is working with the Cambridge-based Centre for Digital Built Britain to produce a digital twin for the whole of Britain. The latter can be integrated in smart city strategies. Virtual and digital twins are readily used in urban planning, for the production of plans as well as citizen engagement, drawing on game tech such as Minecraft, or the aforementioned digital platforms for citizen participation. The city of Rotterdam is actively building a digital twin of the city, which could be coupled with insight from open data and the analytical powers of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Among many others, other cities include Virtual Singapore, or Amaravati, the new capital of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, which is thought to be the first entire city born with a digital twin.

As the built environment and cities becoming increasingly digitised, the line between digital and physical realities will become increasingly porous and… virtual. Our world is increasingly one of mixed reality, as presented in a former post on hybridity in placemaking. 

Picture of mixed reality event in Boston, 2006.

A mixed reality event in Boston as early as 2006, hosted in . One of many examples of mixed reality applications. Mixed reality: the new norm for urban dwellers and professionals within the spatial planning, design and construction industries? Picture credit: Beth Kanter on Flickr, Generic CC Attribution.


Our planet has a digital twin too. Google Earth enables you to see the whole world in 2D and/or 3D on the web, and also to learn about places. When you can’t go places physically, the web always you to go virtually. 

The digital is also used for surveillance worldwide. The current crisis bears implications for democracy, governance, public health, privacy and urban security at the global level. In a recent article in the Financial Times, Noal Yuvah Harari maps the authoritarian dangers and democratic opportunities of the world after covid-19, demonstrating that the way we respond globally to the covid-19 crisis can have lasting effects for the years to come.  Harari identifies two main possible scenarios: one toward global disunity and mass-surveillance, and another toward global solidarity. We should be conscious of the implications of each.

To conclude, resources such as Yann Arthus Bertrand’s Human and Planet Ocean, and David Attenborough‘s lifetime worth of fascinating documentaries (e.g. Seven Worlds, One Planet), remind us of the preciousness and wonders of life on earth, and of the interdependence between all humans. As we continue to adapt digitally, we cannot afford to lose sight of the precious planet which sustains all life, and of our fellow human neighbours, past, present and future.


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Top 10 blog posts on the YA blog

Read time: 2 minutes

This post celebrates the top ten blog posts published on the blog of the AESOP Young Academics network since its launch in 2014. It does so by way of a traditional list of the top ten posts which generated the most views. 

The top 10 individual posts that generated the most views are:

Picture of mural street art with empty red chair with floating red umbrella

‘And the winner is…’ All time highest views concern reflections about the future of PhD students in Italian academia. Picture credit: Street art by Albenty in Montpellier Hill, Dublin, photo by William Murphy on Flickr, CC Attribution-ShareAlike.

While the number of views of individual posts can be a sign of their popularity, other posts that have received less traction display an opportunity to generate greater interest over time. This can be true for all types of creative content. Remember Van Gogh? In 2017, the Van Gogh Museum saw 2.26 million visitors, making it the most visited museum in the Netherlands!

So do make use of the YA blog as a repository of invaluable research insight, and browse former posts for hidden gems!!


Looking out from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam – an immensely popular museum dedicated to a world-famous artist who only gained his fame posthumously. So it is with all creative content. Picture credit: Martin Wehrle on Flickr, Attribution-ShareAlike CC


Continue reading

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Shining at the VIVA

Read time: 7-8 minutes

Following up on a previous post entitled “Preparing to shine at the VIVA“, this post distils some common gems of advice to help you prepare in the last days before, and during the VIVA. The VIVA is your time to shine! So make sure you thoroughly review your thesis, sleep plenty, eat well, perfect your smouldering gaze, and always keep the forest in sight (without getting lost in the trees). 

Trusting the Doctor within

In my previous post, I shared some useful tips which helped me prepare for my own VIVA (at Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK). To recap: you need to know your Contribution to Knowledge inside out and practice all you can, so that you can hope for the best, and shine your brightest light at the VIVA.

But at the end of the day, every VIVA is unique, and there is only so much you can prepare. Which is why what you do in the last run-up to the VIVA matters a lot.

Rather than cramming in every bit of knowledge about your thesis in your fatigued and anxious brain, you may benefit more from sleeping, exercising and eating wholesome, nutritious food. Get every positive bit of inspiration you can. Reconnect to why you embarked on a PhD in the first place. Trust with good faith that the Doctor within you will shine out, as she/he deserves to!! By this stage, your only alternative is to surf the wave and make the VIVA enjoyable for the examiners and yourself.

Creative art design showing Nessie (i.e. the Loch Ness Monster) saying: 'The important things is that I believe in myself'

Your PhD is of real value: believe in the Doctor within. Don’t let the imposter syndrome fool you, says Nessie (i.e. the Loch Ness monster). Design credit: David Olenick (follow the artist on Instagram). 

Keep calm, and shine on

If you are defending a VIVA in public (where just about anyone can come), prepare to be intimated by the presence of a large crowd as well as your external examiner! If your external examiner is a super star academic, she/he may perhaps enjoy playing to the gallery.

abstract blackboard bulb chalk

Get ready to shine! Photo by Pixabay on

Regardless of whether your VIVA is ‘public’ or ‘closed’, your examiners will (gently) pour some oil on the fire. They will question the core of what your thesis is trying to convey. You may falter because you are: a) sleep deprived; b) stressed; c) low on caffeine; d) high on caffeine; e) or you had hoped you knew what was coming; and/or f) you have momentarily forgetten the difference between ‘data‘, ‘information‘, and ‘knowledge‘; or between ‘space‘ and ‘place‘; or between ‘epistemology‘ and ‘ontology‘… Or what have you. You can always ask for a break to buy some time to breathe, think, or sketch an answer.

In all circumstances, keep calm, and carry on. Speak clearly and concisely, and avoid beating around the bush. 

Walking a fine line

If you ever find yourself in a hole or in quicksands, don’t dig yourself deeper. Lest you want to make it your grave…

Avoid being over-defensive, or losing your temper, which never yield good results anyway (you see it in daily life too!). Don’t blame others or circumstances. Own up to what you did. Saying “I don’t know” can be more redeeming than “Wasn’t me!. Defend what needs to be defended, and let go of the rest. Even the best PhD theses feature limitations. Take all criticism and comments constructively, not personally. 

Quicksand by Dave Wild taken2007 Flickr

Stay safe and avoid any quicksand zones during the VIVA – never make matters worse, and don’t expose yourself to unnecessary trouble! Picture credit: Dave Wilde on Flickr, Non-Commercial CC Attribution.

A related pitfall is to tell the story of your whole PhD. The VIVA is about defending your thesis, not everything that led to it. Think of yourself as a craftsman and the thesis as your cathedral or iconic building. The examiners are examining the end product. Speaking about the scaffolding(s) might open one or several cans of worms. Good luck with putting the worms back in!

The other extreme is to shoot yourself in the foot. Who in their sane mind would do that? If you are a perfectionist, or carefree during the VIVA, you might surprise yourself! Likelihood is: you will not quite feel like your normal self. But no matter how strong the temptation, don’t pull at the loose ends of your thesis. The examiners will gladly do it for you! And hopefully they will omit some of patchy ends of your thesis in the process. I am delighted my examiners spotted lots of embarrassing omissions and unresolved issues in my thesis. It made the VIVA fun! Happy, too, that they did not probe other weak spots in thesis. But I did have to fight my honesty instinct, disguised as the vile-faced imposter syndrome that plagues so many PhD candidates and professionals. I did not pull the trigger, which meant I was able to walk free, with happy feet, by the end of it.

So successfully defending the VIVA is about treading a fine line between ‘fight’ and ‘flight’, or between over-defending and chickening out. To subvertly paraphrase Bob Marley: neither shoot the sheriff nor the deputee. The VIVA is a nonviolent dealing! Nor should you try to take the money and run. There is nowhere to hide or escape. Instead, stand tall and stand your ground, with calm assertiveness, gratitude and humility. As with many things in life, the middle way (beyond extremes) is always the most difficult path to follow, but it always pay off, and is most sustainable.

Managing the Beast

If you did not come to know yourself during the PhD, you will certainly do so before the VIVA. Two days before the VIVA was one of the worst days in my whole PhD.  I had to face the imposter syndrome (all over again!), and haggle with the unwieldy Beast that had been sabotaging my PhD from Day 1. In fact, the whole PhD sort of felt like one large ugly Beast.

Picture yourself David and Goliath; Sir Bilbo vs. Smaug the dragon sitting on a mountain of gold; or Captain Nemo with the giant octopus in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. I was experiencing total overwhelm, Armageddon, Mars Attacks, you name it. Hence the following precautionary note of warning: at this stage, you might feel like you wasted 3-5 years of your life embarking on a (potentially low-paid) PhD. Or any number of other silly, useless thoughts. Or there again, you might not experience any of this. 


Remember to breathe and get some fresh air…. The last days before the VIVA might feel like being stuck in a submarine and battling with a giant squid 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Picture credit: engraving in Hetzel edition (1870) of the Jules Verne novel Wikimedia Commons.

The good news (for me, at least) was the acceptance that there is nothing to fight. The ‘Beast’ only exists if it has someone to fight against, and can burn everything on its way. The moment you accept the Beast, you release it. Because it is self-destructive, the Beast actually wants to be liberated.

bilbo and the dragon

Two days before the VIVA: just before crashing into deep slumber, I felt like Sir Bilbo in front the nasty, treasure-keeping dragon. 20+ hours of sleep put the Beast to rest… Call it the beauty sleep if you will. The gold will be yours in the end!

Simplify your life in the run-up to the VIVA, and avoid tangential, time-consuming issues (e.g. “I need to clean the whole flat“). These can be dealt with in their own time, post-VIVA. Remember why you started the PhD in the first place. It will help restore the Super You within.

Media entertainment can also help build confidence and silence your nagging inner demons. If you haven’t already done so, watch Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and practice Dr Bravestone’s smouldering intensity. The worst dragon-beasts will turn to Mickey Mouse. Or you may want to eat more spinach, like PopeyeWhatever works!!

If you must ward off the dragons that be, bring along Ancient Greek hero Achilles, archangel St MichaelGandalf the White, the Avengers (Agent John Steed, and/or the Marvel crew), Batman, the A-TeamMacgyver, your teddy bear… or whichever Source of inspiration and strength that will give you resourcefulness at this critical point in time. A PhD friend in Stockholm has dozens of Minions at her office (i.e. from the animation film Despicable Me): Minions on her desk, pinned on the walls, screensaver, and probably on her key ring too. I have no doubt they will support her at the VIVA, when the day comes. 

Holding the key

So by now, you should know your thesis well enough, have done some practising (e.g. a mock VIVA with your supervisor and your peers), and have a premium self-confidence insurance against dragon damage.

Next: sleep plenty and eat well.

If you have to choose between excessive preparation (i.e. ‘prepare till you drop’) and plentiful rest, choose the latter. Resting will give you strength, confidence and humility to actively engage in that one conversation that will turn you into a doctor.

Good sleep, exercise and wholesome food will keep your head cool and make you stay in the zone. Wholesome nourishment also includes sunlight, positive sensations, feelings of gratitude, and tapping into your trusted sources of quality inspiration. Beware of comfort food, sugar, coffee, and other addictive and over-stimulating substances. 

Preparedness, multiplied by the effects of good rest and wholesome nourishment, will make you to hit the mark.

In a nutshell, the key to a fun, successful VIVA is:


Trust that you will defend the VIVA with both pride, humility and joy. You have the key to unlock the Doctor within. Your hard work will shine, for real. A useful mantra or comforting phrase, in two parts: All is well, that ends well

My VIVA lasted 3 hours (I do babble on). It was intense, but fun! A PhD mate had her VIVA last only 40 minutes: easy-peasy, a box-ticking exercise… Both VIVAs were behind closed doors: two examiners, and the optional presence of the supervisor.

Creative mural of Don Quixota, with some inspiration from the artwork by Dali

It takes the courage and perseverance of Don Quixote to pass a VIVA. Artwork: Quixota, mural by David Charlton for the Shine Mural Festival in St Petersburg, Florida. Picture credit: Terence Faircloth on Flickr, Non-Commercial CC Attribution.

Shine on!

No one will do it for you. Not your supervisor, not your partner, not your friends, nor your relatives.

You may feel like you are an ill-clad gladiator thrown into the pit with the lions, possibly under the gaze of a large intimidating crowd.

But you are not a gladiator. You are a Doctor-in-the-making, ready to shine.

Your VIVA day will be ‘V-day’. Victory lies in 3 main steps:

  1. bring your head along (do not forget it on your pillow), and keep it cool
  2. keep your Contribution to Knowledge fresh and accessible (its different parts, and as a whole)
  3. have enough wholesome liquid and solid nutrition to keep you in the zone, full of beans, and buzzing for the whole VIVA.

Celebration is both the starting point and natural end point of the VIVA experience. You have every reason to shine, and release the doctor within you!

If you want to share insight about how to shine before / during/ after the VIVA, send your blog post or favourite resources to:


Due acknowledgements to my superstar supervisors, Dr James Charlton, and Pfr Ruth Dalton, as well as to Pfr Paul Greenhalgh, for many of the advice and tips mentioned in this blog. Neither a positive VIVA experience, nor this blog post, would have been possible without their continuous support.

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Placemaking: toolkits & books

Read time: 3 minutes

This post is a companion to a previous post: Placemaking: trends & people. This post focuses on toolkits, methods, books and handbooks for effective placemaking in a range of contexts, from healthy streets and neighbourhood planning to risk management. Whether you self-identify as ‘placemaker’ or are just interested in people-friendly places, the following resources can provide some useful material and inspiration for your work as researcher, practitioner and/or volunteer.

The post is structured as follows:

  • Toolkits (for the craft)
  • Books (a small selection)


Placemaking is a craft. The following tools and frameworks can be used for participatory diagnosis, design, management, evaluation and benchmarking of projects.

The Placemaking toolbox, by Placemaking Europe led by Rotterdam-based Stipo. It is an open source resource: help them grow the toolbox! The website hosts a large number of case studies around the world. They are continuously collecting tools from around the world. 

The Place Standard tool helps to measure the quality of places. It assess 14 key aspects of places, covering both physical and social elements. Participants can score each element on a scale from 1-7. It was jointly developed by NHS Health Scotland, the Scottish government and Architecture & Design Scotland. See Architecture & Design Scotland for case studies and a full description of the tool.

The Place Standard tool spider diagram, featuring 14 key elements of places

The Place Standard tool, which allows users to assess the key qualities of places. Picture credit: Place Standard tool, Scottish government.

The Urban STEP participatory design method is leveraged by Stockholm-based Arken Arkitekter and landscape consultancy Ekologigruppen. The method’s starting point is the specific typologies of places and towns/cities. Alongside participatory modelling, its key tool is the ‘Value Rose’ (värderosen), a 12-spoked spider diagram that comprises ecological, social, physical and economic sustainability elements. The specific components of the Value Rose can be adapted as per context.

Public realm ethnography. To improve places, you need to observe them. This article maps key practical and theoretical issues for immersive research in the public realm.

The Guide to the Healthy Streets Indicators (2017) adopts the Healthy Streets Approach™. It considers 10 different indicators that focus on mobility and street attractiveness. The guide was jointly produced by Transport for London and consultant Lucy Saunders, and is part of the Draft London Plan (2017) and the Mayor’s Transport Strategy (2018). is the one-stop database of participatory methods and case studies from all around the world. There were 2300 entries as of March 2020. The database/repository was founded by leading political scientists Archon Fung and Mark E. Warren.

Participatory 3D modelling. In a development and environmental resource management context, Participatory 3D modelling is a very effective tool in engaging local communities in shaping their living and natural environment. This handbook is authored by Participatory GIS leading expert Giacomo Rambaldi (@iapd on twitter), and is available in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and even Amharic.

Charrettes. A participatory method rather than a tool, charrettes are intensive group-based design workshops. The Whole Building Design Guide gives the full low-down on charrettes. See also the Handbook for Planning and Conducting Charrettes for High-Performance Projects for a (very) comprehensive manual, leveraged by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US Department of Energy.  

Participatory Methods for development contexts. The Brighton-based Institute of Development Studies (IDS) hosts a range of documents and practical tools for planning, learning, empowerment, participatory research, communication and facilitation, including a range of useful methods.

The Coordination Cluster is a disaster relief and management framework for collaboration between clusters of humanitarian organisations. It covers the key sectoral aspects of emergency management. As placemaking needs to become more resilient (by force or by choice), it seems opportune to include an emergency management tool here. The Cluster comprises disaster prevention, mitigation, preparedness, disaster response, recovery and reconstruction. It was first used after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. See also the comprehensive toolbox and information repository provided by OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs).

Diagram of Cluster Approach to humanitarian coordination

The Cluster Approach for preventing and responding to emergencies. Picture credit: Humanitarian Response, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Books & articles

The number and diversity of placemaking resources is growing. Here is a small selection:


Making public places great again: one initiative at a time. Picture credit: Hot Tub Parklet by Paul Krueger on Flickr, Attribution CC.

Share your favourite placemaking resources with:

Posted in Beyond planning, climate change, community engagement, development, Disaster management, Nature, Planning, city, and society, Resources, Sustainability and resilience, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Placemaking: trends & people

Read time: 4-5 minutes

This brief post presents some trends and people that shape the placemaking movement worldwide. See the companion post: Placemaking: toolkits & books. Feel free to contribute more placemaking resources to:

The post is structured as such: 

  • Making places (intro)
  • Placemaking Earth (the big picture)
  • Placemaking in North America
  • Placemaking in Europe
  • Beyond placemaking (similar trends)

Making places

The Project for Public Space (PPS) takes on a community perspective to the making of public places. The main focus in on the public realm, rather than private/privatised places.

As both an overarching idea and a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood, city, or region, placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community.

Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value.

More than just promoting better urban design, placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.

Placemaking can denote both top-down and community-led initiatives across the private, public and third sector. Its main motto is an apt revamping of the ‘Think Global, Act Local’ slogan of the wave Local Agenda 21s in the 1990s (Remember Rio 1992?). Placemaking initiatives are typically participatory, but may also be associated with contestation and resistance.

Placemaking Earth

Improving the quality of places can support greater resilience and climate change mitigation and adaptation on a global scale.

Fred Kent and Kathy Madden, key figures in the placemaking movement, advocate the following measures to help solve the impending ‘global catastrophe’: 1) bringing back the public square; 2) restoring local markets as the centres of neighbourhoods; 3) turning streets into places; 4) making architecture worth visiting; 5) develop new urban districts such as innovation districts; 6) regenerating/valuing waterfronts; 7) nurturing & extending museum.

PlacemakingX and Social Life Project are two initiatives part of the non-profit Placemaking Fund.  The Social Life Project functions as a placemaking repository led by Fred Kent and Kathy Madden. PlacemakingX is an international network of leaders that lead the way and/or discussion in shaping ‘better’ places. 

Stay put for Placemake Earth, an international placemaking challenge, part of Earth Week 2020. It will run between 18-27 April 2020. 

Placemaking in North America (and beyond)

It would be presumptuous to claim that placemaking began in the US. Leading placemakers such as Chuck Wolfe repeatedly draw inspiration from the ‘Old World’. See for example this post about different ways of seeing a place (inspired by old towns in France), and this book review of Why Old Places Matter by Thompson M. Mayes.

In its praise of both old and new, placemaking seems to be thriving in North America, as evidenced here.

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is the one-stop portal for place-makers on the other side of the Atlantic. It was founded in 1975 and originates in the work of William (Holly) Whyte, author of the documentary and book Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Check out their top 10 articles of 2019. The articles are full of resources, such this post about the new edition of Kathy Madden’s landmark book How to Turn a Place Around.

Curbed contributors Patrick Sisson and Alissa Walker also share 101 small ways you can improve your city. From planting a tree and documenting your street to fixing your local park, there is much more you can do than you probably thought you could.

If you are a Twitter aficionado, do regularly check the #placemaking hashtag. Follow particularly the influential work of practitioner, academic and Planetizen contributor Chuck Wolfe.

The Alliance Center provides numerous placemaking-related resources, including a resourceful blog. A Denver-based non-profit, they leverage an impact dashboard to measure the impact of local actions, alongside three main categories of services/activities: 1) Climate Democracy; 2) Living Lab (focused on energy efficiency); and 3) local action, business CSR programme Best for Colorado. 

Ecosistema urbano is a multi-lingual placemaking portal and design and placemaking company that is active in several countries. The content on the portal is mostly in Spanish and English. The company operates internationally in the US and Spain, and beyond.

Placemaking in Europe

Focusing on this side of the Atlantic, Placemaking Europe provides tools and resources for effectively ‘creating better cities together’. They issue an excellent monthly newsletter: view the February 2020 edition, and subscribe here.

Place au changemetn St Etienne

‘Place au Changement’, a placemaking community initiative led by collectif etc. in the city of St Etienne, France. The place-name pun in French equates to ‘Change Square’ or ‘Transformation Place’. Picture credit: collectif etc.

If William Whyte sounded familiar, then you will surely know Jan Gehl’s own brand of people-friendly planning and architecture, epitomised by his books Cities for people (2010) and Life Between Buildings (2011 [1971]). This work can also feed into progressive forms of placemaking. Gehl Architects do brand themselves under the mission banner of ‘making cities for people.’ 

In a similar vein as the PPS project and Gehl Architects, check out some of the progressive architectural and neighbourhood design by the Swedish firm White Arkitekter. They often adopt a people-friendly approach to their projects. For example, follow the projects that feature their social sustainability lead, Viktoria Walldin. Worth noting also is the C/O City non-profit partnership which focuses on urban ecosystems and nature-based solutions, and brings together city agencies, research institutes, and various construction and architecture firms. 

In the UK as elsewhere, ‘placemaking’ may have come down with a negative connotation. ‘Placemaking’ may translate as gentrification induced by urban regeneration. Regeneration in the UK unfolds in a context of a housing crisis exacerbated by a mediocre quality of new housing. For a coverage of regeneration-led placemaking experience and best practice, see the UK-based news portal Placemaking Resources.

Thankfully, also, non-profits such as London-based Social Life promote the state-of-the-art in placemaking, people-friendly planning, and affordable housing / urban regeneration. High-level academics such as Matthew Carmona at UCL also push for better places through better design. See particularly the Place Alliance movement that he is leading, and the related Place Value Wiki. Participatory planning consultancies such as Commonplace also support local councils in their creating more people- and environmentally friendly places, neighbourhoods and cities. 

PPS shares the following insight about placemaking projects in Bulgaria.

Beyond placemaking

Movements and trends that relate to placemaking include New Urbanism, tactical urbanism, urban acupuncture, guerrilla gardening, permaculture, participatory budgeting and similar approaches that aim reconcile people and their environment in one way or another. Social enterprises, too, can help maintain social and environmental links and thereby contribute to (re-)shape places. See for example this former post about social enterprises in France.

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Posted in Beyond planning, Dissemination, outreach, communication, Ecology, Planning, city, and society, resilience, Sustainability and resilience, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Preparing to shine at the VIVA

Read time:  6 minutes

The VIVA is your time to shine. The VIVA, alongside your PhD thesis submission, is a major milestone on your way to becoming a ‘doctor of philosophy’. VIVA is short-hand for ‘Viva voce’ (‘by word of mouth’), a.k.a. PhD defense. Provided that you get proper preparation, the right mindset, and favourable circumstances, it can be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. This post provides some modest insight to prepare you to shine at the VIVA. 

Celebrate! You will defend

The most important piece of advice to pass the VIVA, in my humble opinion, should begin with a celebratory note. If your PhD supervisory team and the Graduate school allowed you to submit the PhD thesis in the first place, that is because there is an overwhelming chance they expect you to pass the VIVA. Getting to thesis submission stage is arguably the hardest haul. But once the thesis is in, it seems most highly likely you will be able to come out of the VIVA with a bright smile on your face, and a combined sense of achievement and relief… 

Picture of street art painting of two women with boxing gloves

Prepare to defend! The VIVA is a conversation, not a fight, but preparing might feel like one. Street art: Fight for Street Art (2014) by Eduardo Kobra. Picture by pliffgrieff on Flickr, Non Commercial CC Attribution.

Be more wise, seek advice

In terms of practical advice, start with the resources provided by your university and senior academic staff around you. Just like your thesis, every VIVA is unique. The VIVA being ‘word of mouth’, the process of gathering advice comes first and foremost through personal contact and observation. Your own institution may conduct VIVAs differently than other institutions. There are also important differences between countries, whereby some VIVAs may be behind closed doors (e.g. three people: your external, your internal, and yourself, as it is in the UK), or fully public (e.g. much of mainland Europe). ‘Public’ means: your mother, friends, droppers-by, support staff, school friends, friends of your supervisor, industry leaders and partners, and many other people you perhaps wish had not been invited. Psychologically, you might come to feel very claustrophobic and/or very exposed, but hopefully you will feel just right, no matter the venue and circumstances of the examination. 

Newly-examined PhD peers can give a boon of insight. Try to systematically soak in the wisdom vibes from your newly examined PhD mates: the fresher the experience, the more you can learn from them (note: catch them before they party, should they choose to party hard). And attend every relevant public VIVA you can (i.e. if your institutions makes VIVAs public). I benefited from my observation of public VIVAs in Sweden, and chatting to 30+ friends and acquaintances who passed their VIVA in the UK or Sweden. VIVAs are normally constructive, if challenging. Ideally, it will feel like a mature, engaging conversation between keen researchers, a tame rite of passage where the aim is not to traumatise for life but encourage further professional researcher development.

auditorium benches chairs class

If your VIVA is public, all eyes will be on you! So prepare to focus. Your examiners don’t want to eat you raw, they will need to season you first ;D . Photo by Pixabay on

Prepare to prepare

The webosphere and literature abound with VIVA-prep tips and advice.

In a former post on the YA blog, How to prepare for the VIVA, Basak Tanulku shares precious advice about her own experience of successfully preparing and passing the VIVA (in the UK), which helped me a lot. It has proven a very popular post on the blog. If you ever experience nightmares and anxiety as you get closer to the date, just know you haven’t been the only one!

On the creative end, Chrissi Nerantzi suggests different ways in which you can use Lego bricks to defend your thesis. Even the corporate sector can use Legos for group collaboration and team building! So get at it: use every piece of permissible material to help you make your point at the VIVA!

More generally, the University of Leicester suggest four steps: 1) Getting to re-know your thesis; 2) practicing exam responses; 3) thinking about (and knowing) your examiners; 4) using (all) support available. Their grad school website also lists lots of practical, common-sense advice.

Invaluable printed resources include the book Stepping Stones to Achieving your Doctorate: Focusing on your VIVA from the start by Vernon Trafford and Shosh Leshem. I also found the following useful: How to Survive a PhD VIVA: top 17 tips by Rebecca Ratcliffe and the concise advice provided by VITAE body


Practice makes (just about) perfect. Think: mock VIVAs with your supervisors, research lab and PhD peers. Make yourself a cheat sheet where you summarise all the key parts of your thesis, including sample answers to the most common questions that get asked at VIVAs. You might not be able to take it with you at the VIVA, but it well you revise before. Devise answers that always go back to the thesis, rather than to your own fanciful imagination. You can also prepare answers concerning the weak parts in your thesis. Besides scheduling one or several mock VIVAs, try to impress yourself in the mirror, talk to your smartphone recorder, your pet, or practise sample questions with real people. I also recommend watching the recent Jumanji films again, and practicing the Dr Bravestone smouldering gaze. It won’t fail!


Practice the Dr Bravestone smouldering intensity (or any female version thereof) to boost your confidence before the VIVA! Credit: ‘Publicity Still’ on Jumanji Fandom.

The one thing to know inside out is your sacrosanct Contribution to Knowledge. This is truly the cornerstone of both the thesis and the VIVA. On par with your Contribution is the equally essential Methodology that underpins the whole thesis. It is absolute common sense but vital to imprint in your mind. This includes being able to clearly explain, and justify, how and why you collected, presented and analysed the data the way you did, and how these feed your discussion. Contribution to Knowledge and Methodology are the two pillars of your thesis, and these should shine through during the VIVA. Your research questions, analysis, discussion and conclusions should be crystal-clear and easy to digest. If they are not, these can be improved post-VIVA (e.g. during the corrections phase, as is typical in the UK). Throughout your preparation, know the trees while keeping sight of the forest. If your thesis is sound, knowing how it all coherently holds together as a whole will matter significantly more than knowing every single detail.

Improve the odds

Improving the odds of having an enjoyable VIVA can/should be done throughout the PhD. It is always a good idea to start your PhD with the end in sight (i.e. the VIVA). And to repeatedly remind yourself of that end point, especially if your PhD takes on a life of its own, and takes you to unexpected places, or further still, into uncharted territory.

The more supportive the supervisory team, the better the experience of submitting the thesis, and the greater the chances of having an enjoyable VIVA. Not everyone is blessed with supportive supervisors, though. MIT graduate Dora Farkas identifies nine types of ‘less-than-supportive’ or ‘difficult’ supervisors, and how to deal with them. Beware also of the tyranny of the awesome supervisor. During VIVA prep as for the PhD process as a whole, PhD candidates who feel abandoned or in a disarray would benefit from every bit of help from other experienced academics (e.g. second supervisor, PhD coordinator / line manager), post-docs, and even fellow PhD candidates/ doctors-in-the-making / funkateers. As I have seen this happen repeatedly, one should not allow their disengaged principal supervisor weigh down on their own career, for the VIVA is a major milestone. In any event, your supervisors will remain 99% silent during the VIVA, if they are there at all. The VIVA is about you and your choices reflected in the final submitted thesis, and how humbly and assertively you justify these choices. It is your time to shine!

monopoly car piece

Don’t have to leave it to chance: there are plenty of opportunities of improving your odds of having an enjoyable VIVA. This can be done throughout the PhD. Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

You can increase your chances of getting a quality examination team in a number of complementary ways, such as: going to plenty of conferences, networking in everyday life and on the webosphere, getting along with your supervisor, and broadly knowing who’s who in your field. Conferences help you learn how to communicate and engage with your peers as well as senior academics, to clarify your ideas, and meet new people. You can learn who’s who by reading extensively and looking up key academics’ profiles, or even trying to collaborate with more experienced researchers. It pays off to be able to (partly) influence the choice of your external and internal examiners. There is often both an official procedure and a de-facto subscript about how examiners get selected. You will benefit from having considerate, mature, engaging and constructively critical examiners. Tedious or meticuluous examiners may examine your thesis page by page. I had 350 pages (including appendices): the VIVA would have taken a whole day! Other examiners may have an axe to grind, or it might be in their academic upbringing to feel obliged to act superior (bless them!). Thankfully both my examiners were very pragmatic and constructively critical, and spared me from such a trial. No matter what the circumstances, prepare to be grateful and take on board all criticism. 

Prepare to shine!

Now that most of the odds are on your side, you are ready to leap the final run-up to the VIVA. Likelihood is: you might not be your normal self before and during the VIVA. Get ready for some rough rides before your penultimate opportunity to shine. There again, you may just as well cruise through the whole process… Just prepare as best you can, have good faith, and let go of the rest.

The next blog post will provide some modest insight about how to cope with the last days before the VIVA, and how to shine as bright as you can during the VIVA.


Due acknowledgements to my superstar supervisors, Dr James Charlton, and Pfr Ruth Dalton, as well as to Pfr Paul Greenhalgh, for many of the advice and tips mentioned in this blog. Neither a positive VIVA experience, nor this blog post, would have been possible without their continuous support.



Posted in Academia, research quality and assessment, Dissemination, outreach, communication, Lego, Methodology and ethics, PhD process, Uncategorized, VIVA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment