In this blog, Dr Abubakar Danladi Isah from the Federal University of Technology Minna, Nigeria describes how learning about neighbourhood level research has helped strengthen his capacity to conduct urban research and why, for him, engaging with community residents is what matters most. All views are attributable to the author and are not the views of SHLC.

My participation in the neighbourhood research capacity building workshop hosted by Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development (CHSD) University of Lagos, Akoka gave me the ability to view the neighbourhood from three distinct but connected thoughts—people, life and community. It also exposed me to the acquisition of skills on neighbourhood level research.

Rules of engagement

Learning about different engagement methods, such as co-production, is going to be of significance use in my future research. The workshop has given me a spectrum of strategies that will help me synergise the trio of research, theory and experience, as well as incorporate neighbourhood policies and communities’ lived experience towards offering sustainable and impactful research solutions. This approach aligns strongly with my PhD research, which focused on the benefits of lived experiences and transformations made by residents living in public housing neighbourhoods. Learning new knowledge focused on multi-level techniques and tools of neighbourhood research, like street mapping, beyond traditional methods was amazing.

Meeting Urban Residents at Neighbourhood Level Research Workshop, Nigeria. Credit: University of Lagos
Talking to urban communities

I also enjoyed learning more about research and community dissemination techniques such as the message box, policy brief, OpEd, blogs and particularly enjoyed exploring non-academic routes like the use of literature, poetry, drama and media, which are innovations I feel are worthy of including in my own practice. I feel this is necessary in order to reach a wider audience even beyond the communities where the researches are conducted. It can also help guarantee the understanding of the appropriate messages by communities and other stakeholders who are likely to implement and benefit from the research output. When using tools like this, it is important to ensure that the problem is tangibly outlined, the need is addressed, the solution is presented and the benefit is packaged. These means neighbourhoods and communities are anticipating something of interest worth their sacrifice and participation that will ultimately benefit them at the end of the day. Researchers must focus on this end goal when thinking about how to disseminate their research.

"When using tools like this [for example, message box or drama], it is important to ensure that the problem is tangibly outlined, the need is addressed, the solution is presented and the benefit is packaged. These means neighbourhoods and communities are anticipating something of interest worth their sacrifice and participation that will ultimately benefit them at the end of the day."
Getting out into the field

As part of the workshop, I had an opportunity to take part in a field trip that provided me with a deeper understanding of people and their neighbourhoods beyond my own perceptions and assumptions. It also gave me the opportunity to appreciate coping strategies adopted by neighbourhoods in order to survive threats of environmental hazards, health challenges and natural occurrences in the absence of alternatives.

I saw some people living on waste that they used as a building material. These people are usually ready to work with anyone having lost the trust of government authorities. I also saw that space constraints and seclusion stopped physical interaction in some neighbourhoods. Despite the wide disparity of lifestyle and status, what was seen to be common among all neighbourhoods are problems that require intervention beyond their own capacity, which is aggravated because these people are not usually captured in neighbourhood and city planning leading to problems such as housing and infrastructure deficits.

It was particularly interesting to interact with experts, community residents and hear their expectations from engagement with researchers and local authorities. I was particularly impressed to know that communities participate and engage experts to validate research developments. The role of community development and welfare associations cannot be understated. Even though each community has its unique story and situation, these associations form forces that unite them to fight for common interests.  I learned that knowledge of community boundaries, social structure, social capital and leadership structure is important in designing entry strategies and engagement activities. Community ‘arrowheads’ are identified in order to gain initial access and sustain the trust from inhabitants. Most importantly, I learnt the need to gain the community’s trust and also sustain this trust throughout the process. That is how the co-production approach can be assured and the research plan successfully completed. I also learnt the importance of engaging the communities on a neutral mind and integrating into their lifestyle in order to assure them of commitment to their problems and gaining their trust.

Future funding

Neighbourhood research is complex and time-consuming, but rewarding, and requires grants from donor agencies particularly for early carrier researchers who have the enthusiasm, capacity and awareness to investigate sustainable neighbourhoods. This workshop has taught me how to seek funding through accessing grants to aid neighbourhood research from theory to implementation. Also, the broad variety of co-researchers from diverse background I met with gave me an understanding that multifaceted neighbourhood research requires multi-disciplinary research approach.

One issue that really stood out for me is the fact that different neighbourhoods each have unique and general issues. Whilst there is a lot of data available for research in these domains, there seems to be a disconnect between research output, its application and feeding back to communities. It became obvious that inhabitants somehow track research promises but rarely get the opportunity to feedback. From this workshop, I learned that good research must enable residents to track promised research outputs and ensure the anticipated benefits are achieved through co-production.

I am looking forward to leveraging the opportunities from the workshop and the network and focusing my role as a teacher and researcher on engaging with communities to create impact and add value to their lives.

This neighbourhood research workshop and fieldwork were hosted by the University of Lagos and funded by SHLC’s Capacity Development Acceleration Fund