Power of partnership: Voices of residents & city planners as sources of innovation for sustainable urban governance
Principal Investigator:

Dr. Ricardo Safra de Campos,  University of Exeter, UK.


Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) Bangladesh;

Chattogram Development Authority, Bangladesh;

Chattogram City Corporation, Bangladesh


This project sought to mobilise knowledge on innovative research initiatives designed to integrate the lived experience of urban populations into planning processes and inclusive governance. A number of lessons for policy and practice emerged. The variety and complexity of social, economic and environmental challenges affecting the wellbeing of vulnerable populations in urban centres are currently not adequately addressed in existing policy and planning. The implementation of a participatory visual approach by a group of city planners was fundamental to establish that vulnerable urban residents of Chattogram are not a homogenous group and experience different social, economic and environmental risks depending on their gender, ethnicity and places of residence and work in the city.

In alignment with SHLC core objectives, the project engaged urban planners in Chattogram, Bangladesh’s second city, in participatory visual methods to provide insight into different challenges and opportunities shaping the everyday wellbeing of urban residents including migrants in the city. Such insights, for example, revealed that women experienced additional stresses due to balancing income generating and caring responsibilities, and highlighted lack of childcare as a major challenge to ensuring the health, safety and education of their children. This reveals that gender-specific experiences will require targeted interventions that can enhance the lived experiences of women in the slums of Chattogram.

Workshop for urban planners, residents, academics and practitioners in Chattogram
Workshop for urban planners, residents, academics and practitioners. Credit: University of Exeter


The project had three main activities, which synergistically worked together to deliver the project aims and objectives. These were:

1.Participatory consultation approach for urban planners. This project’s objective was to guide practitioners and researchers working in the design and implementation of urban policy interventions in rapidly growing cities in Bangladesh, Chattogram, step-by-step, through the process of using a photovoice approach to facilitate dialogue between residents and local planning and development authorities. The idea for this approach arose following the implementation of participatory visual techniques in Chattogram, Bangladesh as part of the Safe and sustainable cities: human security, migration and wellbeing research project, a collaboration between the University of Exeter in the UK and the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) in Dhaka. Co-design and co-creation was paramount and employed from the outset. This was achieved through engagement via two workshops in Chattogram, Bangladesh. Each workshop was attended by 30 participants including urban planners, residents, academics and practitioners. The inception workshop happened in November 2019. The impact and dissemination workshop in January 2020 was attended by Mr Md. Zahirul Alam Dubash, Chattogram Development Authority’s Chairman and Mr Shahinul Islam Khan, Deputy Chief Town Planner.

2. Practical implementation of photovoice and photo-elicitation as tools for urban planning.

STEP 1: Project design (7 October – 31 October 2019)

In this step, three city planners created a project design, similar to the exercise conducted on the second day of the training workshop. Planners received feedback and suggestions from project team members.

STEP 2: Implementing the project (1 November – 5 December 2019)

During implementation, city-planners recruited participants and conducted the photovoice with them. There was a mid-project Skype briefing with project members during this phase, which allowed planners to reflect on how the project was going, what challenges they faced and how they dealt with them.

STEP 3: Interpreting photovoice images to identify findings (5 December – 18 December 2019)

During this last phase of the mini project, city planners conducted interviews or group workshops to develop an interpretation of the photographs with a view to answering their specific research question. Planners shared all photographs and voice recordings.

Once all steps were completed, the three participant city planners had the opportunity to present their findings at the January workshop.

3. Impact and dissemination workshop. The workshop helped the research team to consolidate urban planners’ feedback, suggestions and comments into the second draft of a “how-to” guide. Through this guide, the team intends to provide diverse groups of stakeholders with the basic tools necessary to engage in photovoice. The advice provided is generalised, to ensure that it is accessible and useful to individuals working in many different levels of urban planning.

Contributions to challenges in low and middle-income countries (LMICs)

The project was demand driven in line with priorities identified by the Ministry for Planning and the Ministry for Disaster Management and Relief in Bangladesh, during a national level workshop on safe and sustainable cities in Dhaka in March 2019. Both national authorities emphasised the need for evidence on new migrant populations and urban sustainability. Rapid urbanisation of Bangladesh driven partly by rural to urban migration flows suggests a demand for a tool that enables novel approaches to communicating sustainability challenges. The evidence from the activities developed in Chattogram suggest that both city planners and policy-makers believe that the visual images shared by marginalised residents including migrants could help in identifying priorities for interventions.

Moreover, in addition to visual participatory methods, project participants argued that perspective-taking activities can facilitate empathy between different groups of stakeholders, with implications for city planning and policy uptake. Participatory platforms for gathering data on urban challenges faced by low-income urban residents in Chattogram and across Bangladesh could make it easier to monitor and understand the impacts of interventions to improve housing, civic facilities, access to health and education, decent and secure employment and use of public spaces. Lessons that emerged from this project will be relevant for the government of other ODA priority countries on meeting targets of relevant Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.


Practical implementation of photovoice and perspective-taking techniques as tools for urban research afforded a comprehensive insight into different challenges and opportunities shaping the everyday wellbeing of vulnerable urban residents in Chattogram city. The qualitative data, in some cases, also revealed hidden mechanisms and root causes relating to migrants’ predicaments (e.g. resource control and capture by more powerful stakeholders). These findings were consistent with previous work from the same team in Chattogram (see Policy Opportunities and Constraints for Addressing Urban Precarity of Migrant Populations). The visual participatory approach combined with two workshops was also powerful in bringing migrants’ and city planners’ perspectives and voices together to deliberate potential pathways to solutions, which could enhance the liveability and sustainability of rapidly growing Chattogram and other large secondary cities of Bangladesh. Vulnerable residents, including migrants, are often viewed as a ‘problem to be solved’ by urban policy-makers, but the team’s experience during this project showed that newcomers to Chattogram offer valuable insights for those seeking to improve material conditions for all citizens. Mainstreaming deliberative and participatory processes into urban planning and policymaking can improve legitimacy and compliance with decisions and to foster sustainable and inclusive urban development.

Project Outputs

The photovoice approach itself has emerged as a powerful new technique for involving diverse stakeholder groups in a deliberative, participatory and democratic approach to policymaking. The PI, Ricardo Safra de Campos, and his colleagues produced a comprehensive manual: Photovoice for urban planning: a how-to guide for urban planning professionals which will be used by Chattogram Development Authorities to help them better engage with vulnerable communities.

Local Involvement

Since its inception, the team project collaborated with a range of non-academic stakeholders in Chattogram, Bangladesh. These are: Chattogram City Corporation, Chittagong Development Authority, General Economic Division, and Planning Commission. Three city planners from Chattogram Development Authority engaged in the photovoice and photo elicitation data approach providing valuable feedback towards the drafting of the “how-to” guide on photovoice for urban planning. Together with vulnerable residents of Chattogram they explored their visual representations of sources of sustainability and security and discussed priorities of urban interventions and strategies.


“The hawkers and slum dwellers are the heart of the city’s development. They are the people who makes the economy of this place run. So we need to take measures to rehabilitate them. Urban planning isn’t possible without including them” (Photovoice interview with urban planner).

“The people of low wage live in these areas. They are living here because they don’t have any other way. They can’t find any other accommodation for themselves with the amount of money they earn. The rents in this area are quite low compared to other areas of the city. That’s why people are living in these places despite the problems that they face” (City planner, Chattogram)

“I think the people who work here do it because they don’t have any other options. Most of them are poor and they have to do it because of their poor conditions. Because the people who work in this city can meet the expenses of their children back home. As they don’t have adequate working opportunity in their native places, they have to come here and work” (Cityplanner, Chattogram)

Future Activities

The PI, Ricardo Safra de Campos, is collaborating on a British Academy funded project MY CITY (IN)VISIBLE, coordinated by University of Liverpool. This BA project builds on the participatory visual methods employed throughout the SHLC Acceleration Fund as well as the partnerships with local institutions in Chattogram. The project seeks to explore beyond the dominant ‘western’ framings of ‘what is a good city’, and render visible the invisible characteristics of successful communities. Drawing on existing networks, community narratives of a good city will be captured in six case studies (Accra, Ghana; Cape Town, South Africa; Chennai, India; Colombo, Sri Lanka; and Chattogram and Mongla, Bangladesh).  Photographs and observations will be recorded on a GIS-based digimap and interpretive maps commissioned for an online exhibition, documenting community voices and the overlooked everyday life experiences that connect people positively with the places where they live.

Funding was also obtained under ESRC-DFID Joint Fund Follow on Funding for the project The Next Frontier of Climate Policy: Joining the dots of bricks, trade and embodied emissions from Cambodia and Bangladesh to the UK. The project is led by London Royal Holloway.  Dr Safra de Campos is Exeter’s Co-I and Prof Siddiqui is a Bangladesh partner. The project examines international flows of embodied carbon and the role of international trade in shaping climate impacts, especially in relation to labour rights and working conditions in Cambodia and Bangladesh.

Capacity Strengthening

The planned activities were motivated by the objective of producing impact for the non-academic stakeholders involved in the project. The project team worked with architects and city planners in Chattogram. In particular, the team designed and delivered two training workshops on photovoice for urban planners and architects.  These demand-based activities built on the relationships developed during the project and provided practitioners with new skills to foster more inclusive forms of urban research and planning. Feedback from participants, gathered through follow-up interviews, indicated that the project was able to make important strides towards this goal.  Moreover, their feedback suggested that planners especially favoured the visual method used and thought that this could be a tool that they could also use in the future to design more meaningful public consultation activities.

This project was co-designed and co-produced from inception through to delivery with Southern partners, in particular Early Career Researchers (ECR), to take advantage of a variety of opportunities for training, learning and other activities that will contribute to their growth as researchers pursuing a career in academia. For example, training was provided in qualitative methods such as photovoice, photo elicitation interviewing and workshop facilitation to ECRs. This training was provided not only to ECRs employed by the partner RMMRU, but also to two researchers from Chittagong University. These young researchers were responsible for carrying out and/or facilitating much of the fieldwork on the project. Additionally, the ECRs involved in the project contributed to writing the bespoke “how-to” guide on photovoice for urban planning as co-authors.