Food for thought: applying ethnography into participatory urban planning

How can we turn day-to-day observations into compelling data that becomes useful?

Side note: Starting today, I’ve opened up the blog Participatory Cities up for the public! This will be a repository and data-base for participatory planning processes. This is my first blog post for that blog, and I’m reposting it here for reference.  More details later.

According to Wikipedia:

Ethnography is two things: (1) the fundamental research method of cultural anthropology,and (2) the written text produced to report ethnographic research results.

Ethnography as method seeks to answer central anthropological questions concerning the ways of life of living human beings. Ethnographic questions generally concern the link between culture and behavior and/or how cultural processes develop over time. The data base for ethnographies is usually extensive description of the details of social life or cultural phenomena in a small number of cases.


Participant observation is based on living among the people under study for a lengthy period, usually a year, and gathering data through continuous involvement in their lives and activities. The ethnographer begins systematic observation and keeps daily field notes, in which the significant events of each day are recorded along with informants’ interpretations. Initial observations focus on general, open ended data gathering derived from learning the most basic cultural rules and usually the local language as well. This initial orientation process is important not only for providing a background for more narrowly focused investigation but also helps the anthropologist to gain rapport with his/her informants, avoid breaches of etiquette, and test out whether the original research objectives are meaningful and practical in the local situation.

What I particularly like about the ethnographic approach is that it allows people to deeply immerse oneself into the community to truly know the day-to-day activities of a community; in other words, how does the day-to-day activities of a particular group of people reflect the culture and its values?

These sort of questions get easily lost in the urban planning profession, where public meetings are the one of the few places where people can come, but however, get really intimidated due to, for example, a lack of understanding of the public planning process (i.e. due to jargon or bureaucracy).

I guess the question that is in my mind is: how do we transform, compile ethnographic data, and turn it into useful guidelines and recommendations in urban planning?

An example of how this dilemma comes up is in SLAB, MIT Sidewalk Laboratory. Here, they have used interviews and observations to create several maps how people use, identify  connect with,  and interact with sidewalk space in Ho Chih Minh City in Vietnam.

3D Time Space Map of Ho Chih Minh City

This is a great map showing the different types of activities taking place in one day in this neighborhood, but the question is, can these sort of tools be used as products to guide future urban planning?

I really like how this map captures the day-to-day lifestyles of the people in this neighborhood. However, much of these sort of maps, products, visualizations, etc. are still at its early “observatory” phases. One might argue that one can use this map to guide how other similar neighborhoods are planned and organize, but how? I don’t think there has been a discussion on how these forms of visualizations can guide (or not) urban planning.

Ethnography and various data-collection tools, I believe, can be an excellent first step in deeply embedding oneself into a community and understanding it’s overlying issues from the ground-up. However, without a way to transform the data into planning recommendations, it still has a long ways to go to engage communities into making better cities.

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