Place-making and Local Knowledge Production: comparative (re-)mapping of twentieth century ‘native’ housing estates as planned and (sometimes) realized in Nairobi, Accra and Douala.

City / Country / Region: 
University of Groningen, the Netherlands (and Sub Sahara Africa fieldwork sessions)
Commissioner(s) / Initiator(s): 

Initiators: Aurora Marijke Martin (daily supervisor/co-promotor) and Pauline Bezemer (PhD)

Commissioners: Research PhD funding from University of Groningen (Graduate School of the Arts Faculty). 

Case-study is part of a comparative PhD-research, entitled Hybrid Artefacts: actors identified, carried out at the University of Groningen, Netherlands (2017-2022).

Local / Citizens' Knowledge Production as a Tool for Placemaking: 

The case-study critically compares a series of twentieth century ‘native’ housing estates, which were publicly commissioned, designed and (sometimes) realized in Nairobi, Douala and Accra; it proves that local knowledge (historic, ethnic, dwelling rituals/typologies, social) was among the prime actors that figured in the estates’ production and later adjustments. 

Although public housing for African citizens became a serious planning and urban design issue in larger Sub-Sahara African cities as of the 1920s – and would remain so until the 1980s - , urban historical knowledge of this topic is still limited. 

Most estates mirror unique hybrids of global and local urban models, housing typologies and dwelling concepts, as a result of the complex interplay of human and non-human actors (agency). Due to a typical and (still) ongoing place-making process, consisting (among others) of informalization and densification of the built environment, the estates’ original lay-outs and dwelling typologies tend to blur and become untraceable; some estates figuring in this research risk to be replaced by private urban redevelopment projects. Accurate insight into their origins, interim adaptations and current state is therefore crucial: for urban historians, for those involved in urban policies and design practices, and for the residents of the estates in question. Moreover, such  knowledge will contribute to local awareness and place making.  

In this study priority is given to the identification of key human and non-human actors and to their comparison over time and space.

Participatory Processes: 

Estate residents participate in knowledge production via:   

  • Mental mapping exercises: to identify the core elements by which residents use their estate, construct its image, and experience and relate to its built forms (historical, later-constructed, informalized etc.). The resulting mental maps provide vital spatial and geographical data on the estate.
  • Go-along-walking interviews: residents show buildings, sites, borders/boundaries and walking routes which – according to them – are important for the history/identity of the estate and for their personal daily life/activities. The researchers will keep track of these walks via GPS. 
Safety, security and remembering trauma, as triggers for placemaking and local knowledge production over time:: 
  • Social-ethnic, not to say ‘racial’ rules and unambiguous urban-colonial visions and hierarchies determined the 1920-1960s estate production in all three cities (colonial trauma). 
  • Ongoing informalization and self-built practices, densification, and state withdrawal since the 1980s not only blurred original lay-out and typologies (HERITAGE), but also transformed the estates in less secure/safe places. Knowledge and renewal might add to heritage conservation, and to safety/security. 
  • The estates at stake represent the cities’ few centrally-located, low-income housing stocks. With the city administration’s shift to neoliberal policies and recent  gentrification processes, this heritage is put under severe pressure and an easy pray for demolition and private renewal practices (heritage / insecurity).


Digital Tools Used: 

GPS-tracking (go-along-walking interviews) is done with the ArcGIS Tracker app. 

All map making, apart from residents’ mental mapping, is done with the ArcGis program. 

Using the ArcGis program, the GPS-data gathered during the go-along-walking interviews will be combined with residents’ mental maps to produce GPS-accurate infographic maps. 

For the realization of GIS-estate maps, the infographic - and the archival-sourced historical maps will be translated into ArcGIS-map layers, which will hopefully result in multiple layered, interactive maps that show the estates’ dynamic and heterogenous urban characteristics from inception to present-day.

The research will be presented as a combination of written texts, interactive maps and  actor-diagrams. 


Bottom-Up Digital Practices: 

Various dimensions, among which: 

  • Citizens/Residents’ participation in the production of digital mapping.
  • All ArcGIS-map layers and maps produced for this study can/will be published on the digital platform ArcGIS StoryMaps for public, worldwide access (see: ArcGIS StoryMaps is used by scholars and urban practitioners, by a wider public interested in urbanism and mapping, and – most importantly – will be accessible for the estates’ residents.
Disciplinary / Professional Field: 

History of modern and contemporary Architecture and Urbanism / Urban History / Urban narratives

Articles / Publications / Websites: 


  • Bezemer, P.M., A.M Martin. “Imagining and building native housing estates in Lomé and Douala, 1884-1940”. Planning Perspectives (currently under peer-review; planned for publication in 2021).
  • Martin, A.M., P.M. Bezemer. “The Concept and Planning of Public Native Housing Estates in Nairobi/Kenya, 1918-1948”. Planning Perspectives 35, no. 4 (2019).

Collaboration project with architects/planners

  • Formal collaboration with Dutch NGO Alliance for Sustainable Urban Development in Africa (DASUDA;

Method reference articles 

  • Catney et al. “Resident’s perspectives on defining neighbourhood: mental mapping as tool for participatory neighbourhood research”. Qualitive Research 19, no. 6 (2019): 735-752.
  • Ese, A. Uncovering the Urban Unknown. Mapping Methods in popular settlements in Nairobi. PhD-thesis (AHO), 2014.
  • Bergeron et al. “Uncovering Landscape Values and Micro-geographies of Meanings with the Go-along Method”. Landscape and Urban Planning 122 (2014): 108–121.
  • Jencks, M. and N. Dempsey. “Defining the neighbourhood: challenges for empirical research”. The Town Planning Review 78, no. 2 (2007): 153-177.