Participation as Inhabitation: Designer Citizens Negotiating Postdisaster Housing Reconstruction

Submitted doctoral thesis abstract to the RMIT School of Architecture and Urban Design

The urgency, complexity, and uncertainty that distinguish postdisaster housing reconstruction produce a debate concerning the effectiveness of command-and-control methods versus participatory approaches. The growing appreciation for the latter is reflected by domestic and international policy frameworks that promote local and community-based decision-making and resource mobilisation to address various disaster-related challenges more effectively.

Participatory planning models of postdisaster housing reconstruction conceptualise those affected by disaster as socio-political subjects who possess the local knowledge needed by built environment practitioners to effectively design and restore settlements. However, these approaches tend to privilege ‘expert’ perspectives while overlooking the lived experiences of the disaster-affected, including the role of non-human agents (e.g., materials, environmental forces, and household items) in how reconstruction site inhabitants improvise upon their dwelling in order to negotiate the politics of reconstruction while addressing everyday hopes and needs.

This study therefore investigates why, how, and with what consequences do the poor gather various forces within their environment to restore their habitation after and amidst disaster while negotiating processes of marginalisation. As such, this study develops a view of citizen participation that underscores the ‘livingness’ of the world within the practice of architecture within postdisaster housing reconstruction. This research views participation as a mode of inhabitation in which designer-citizens entangle with social, political, material, and environmental forces in the struggle to thrive and survive within a context of compound disasters. As such, the study seeks to illuminate the relational ecologies of postdisaster housing reconstruction through contribution to theory at the juncture of anthropology, cultural geography, and critical architecture. By extension, this study sheds light on how the ‘policy-practice defect’ in disaster management can be better addressed by understanding local concepts and processes to challenge the assumptions about ‘disaster’ and ‘participation’ that undergird policy frameworks for disaster risk reduction.

Where many studies of postdisaster housing reconstruction tend to focus on a single disaster, this research examines the field by focusing on the experiences and epistemologies of a vulnerable island community living amidst several disasters that are associated with multiple hazards. Specifically, the study made use of “patchwork ethnography” by deploying a combination of in-situ and remote ethnographic methods to examine how artisanal fisherfolk, one of the poorest marginalised sectors in the Philippines, struggle to overcome catastrophe through self-built housing within a context of minimal external assistance and limited political capital. Data gathering amidst COVID-19 restrictions was carried out through entanglement with tools such as tide calendars and while considering tidal and weather patterns (among other concerns); these entanglements reiterate the ‘livingness’ of the research context. The starting point of the inquiry was the experiences of the island community after Typhoon Glenda (Rammasun), one of the Philippine’s strongest storms. With the passage of time, the inquiry eventually encompassed experiences of typhoons other than Glenda as well as other recent hazards, thus underscoring the complex disaster context of inhabitation within the island.

The findings of this study are synthesised across three main themes. The first theme pertains to the relevance of ontological relationism to postdisaster housing reconstruction. The interrelated housing reconstruction processes that involve materials, environmental elements, kinship networks, household items, and infrastructure show that disaster-affected fisherfolk do not only marshal resources to reconstruct houses; their struggle is directed to rebuilding and defending cherished and fragile worlds. This theme underscores the need to revisit siloed and modernist approaches that promote a one-time-fits all approach to disaster risk reduction and that, furthermore, exacerbate vulnerability by overlooking the inequalities that characterise local disaster contexts.

The second theme refers to the relationship between postdisaster housing reconstruction and coastal flood adaptation. The findings show that efforts to rebuild homes after Typhoon Glenda have been perpetually interrupted by daily flooding on the island and the infrastructure that was presumably built to address this flooding. The findings pertaining to this theme show how the tremendous efforts to self-build often have little impact in the face of complex disasters; they also show how a disaster risk reduction ‘solution’ that embodies temporal inflexibility, local government fragility, and citizen misrecognition eventually leads to maladaptation. These findings re-frame humanity as the seat of accountability for ecological crises and highlight the need for disaster risk reduction policies to prioritise disaster justice issues.

Finally, the findings expound on the concept of ‘designer-citizen’ to index the relational character of agency in postdisaster housing reconstruction. The concept was deployed to show that the socio-political projects of the vulnerable who are affected by disaster cannot be divorced from improvisatory processes of making. This therefore cracks open who or what contributes to postdisaster housing reconstruction by expanding the understanding of ‘participation’ to include processes of inhabitation. This processual approach to understanding postdisaster housing reconstruction shows how the vulnerable become citizens by also becoming designers who negotiate with other agents within their environment in the process of remaking and defending their worlds.

The findings signpost implications and recommendations for disaster risk reduction practice, research practice, and further research. As regards disaster risk reduction practice, the inclusion of both postdisaster housing reconstruction and coastal flood adaptation in this research to better reflect lived experience implies that the compartmentalisation of disaster risk reduction, climate change, and sustainable development in policy and practice contributes to the vulnerabilities of the disaster-affected. This highlights the need for integrated interventions that correspond to the long-term roots and consequences of vulnerability.

Meanwhile, this research was implemented within a virulent and volatile disaster context. The research design of this study illustrates the need for innovative approaches that recognise disruption and fragmentation as inherent in ethnographic disaster research within planetary-scale crises. This study borrowed from anthropological thinking to illustrate how ‘design’ might be used to describe the experimental process of making ethnographic research more ‘timely’ while adhering to standards of trustworthiness and attending to ethical concerns.

This thesis therefore suggests that disaster researchers, particularly researchers from the Global South, may also be regarded as ‘designer-citizens’ who need to improvise from their surroundings to carry out projects while navigating the contexts of control and exclusion in which they are embroiled. Finally, COVID-19 restrictions in the Philippines limited the exploration of bureaucratic perspectives within this study, thus implying ways forward along similar lines of inquiry. Further research could therefore use historical, longitudinal, and mixed methods to examine improvisation within bureaucratic contexts. The findings also reveal the interconnections between electoral politics and postdisaster housing reconstruction. This line of inquiry is best pursued within a research context that is not anchored to an authoritarian regime; it further underscores the power structures that prevent the poor and the vulnerable from surmounting catastrophe despite their relentless efforts.

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