Federation for
Housing and

Learning from the Goa Urban Lab

Learning from the Goa Urban Lab as described by a participant
The following blog post is authored by Prathiwi W. Putri, Post-Doc at University of Copenhagen

It was a great experience to have joined the Goa Urban Lab, held on 6-9 February 2018, organized by the International Federation for Housing and Planning (IFHP), in partnerships with several other civil society initiatives. This event offered a broadening horizon in a grounded way, because place-based actors and stakeholders were involved. Together with other national and international participants, they contributed to thought-provoking discussions, information-sharing and experience-exchange. To me, as an academic researcher, this was another kind of forum from which creative thinking can be cultivated – a forum that is different from a conventional academic conference. This was a kind of thinker-activist forum to challenge our diverse conceptual perspectives and to engage with some shared actual problems for new strategic interventions.

The Urban Lab responded to pressing issues, related to tourism, water resilience, and commons. Tourism has brought different opportunities for community livelihoods, household income regeneration and municipal revenue, that might leverage improved public services: new playgrounds, sports facilities and healthcare centres, affordable public transports, more services of water and sanitation, and many other good things. But it has been witnessed that tourism has also led to deforestation, marine and coastal depletion, agricultural land-use change, unplanned agglomerations and extensive sprawls. All of these are harmful to local food resources – a key factor for sustainable consumption. If the built environment continues to grow with the current sprawling pattern, it will be harder to mitigate the impacts of climate change; while extreme events of drought and flooding happen more frequently, our social and economic activities will be increasingly prone to disasters. Apart from facing current and cumulative environmental pressures, such as depleting water resources and untreated solid waste and wastewater, the people of Goa have been dealing with increasing social pressures. The cohesion of more traditional communities is now in question. This decrease in social cohesion happens along with a shift of the workforce, with the rural workers leaving the agriculture sector and moving into the urban (informal) service sector, in Indian cities or abroad. By unravelling these environmental and socio-demographic contexts, the Urban Lab has developed some visions of new urban commons. The future commons lay within, among others, people’s hybrid knowledge and practice at the intersection of environmentally-friendly tourism and community-based sustainable agriculture.

Beginning with some strategic thinking, the Urban Lab went forward to define some strategic interventions. Realizing the rich diversity of the Goa region – socially and ecologically – many participants urged interventions that encompass both short-term and long-term needs of community wellbeing and environmental protection. A crucial strategy is to make use of existing opportunities for change (defined as ‘low hanging fruits’, ready to be harvested). However, when it comes to city or regional planning, the situation that need to be addressed becomes more complex. We might find synergies between fulfilling community needs and accommodating interests of diverse stakeholders, but very often these are in conflictual relationships. The Urban Lab guided the participants to conduct some exercises, forming scenarios in which community members can play the role of active stakeholders in development, especially within the visions of sustainable tourism and food industries. At the same time, communities have to be the active planning agencies, to help push the protection of the hydrological cycle, coastal areas, the hilly forests, the biodiversity, and not least to push bettering the public service of environmental sanitation and health. These community roles were deemed possible by incorporating the existing structures of state and non-state institutions, including the neighbourhood associations of communidades and panchayats, as well as creating new platforms of public participation, possibly with the help of social media.

Beyond the successful Urban Lab, complexities remain to be handled in the everyday life. I ask myself, how to accommodate a wide variety of needs and interests within different time-spans of planning and development interventions? Who will steer such diverse aspirations into a unifying intervention with varying supports and commitments? How can bottom-up channels be created and maintained to balance formal initiatives that tend to be top-down? For addressing these issues, neighbourhood communities cannot be alone. Grassroots and civil society organizations in Goa seem to gain important social-political space to influence the orientations of spatial development. During the Lab, invited members of civil society fluently discussed different technical problems, administratively and technologically. Such technical knowledge is essential to maintain their social and political involvement in development, and is especially useful to pair the roles of formal state development agencies. There are indefinite ways to couple the state and non-state initiatives in development. We can keep learning through both North-South and South-South co-operations. It is the role of an organization like the IFHP to promote such learning processes.