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Becoming an environmental leader will require you to learn and utilize many skills and tools. One of these tools is the ability to understand environmental problems systemically, as we saw in the previous module. Another crucial skill is your capacity to understand global issues as they relate to your local context, the connectedness between relationships and networks, and the impacts and interdependencies found within the environment.

You will need to have as much data and information on the current state of the environment around you, to assess its issues. But this data will not guarantee the success of your initiative. You will need your community or peer’s involvement so that the change you want to trigger has long lasting effects. To increase their involvement you will also need to know how they view these environmental issues and how they might affect them.


Through this module you will discover the importance of understanding your local environmental context, and acquire a set of tools to map, diagnose, measure, and ensure the participation of your community. You will also discover how these tools can be put into action with an example of community participation, mobilization, and action from Chile.


The importance of understanding local contexts

If you want to change anything within a given community, you will need to understand the local context. This is essential to planning and executing any intervention you want to lead. This is what you call a diagnosis or an assessment and their objective is helping you assess activities in your geographical, social, cultural, environmental, technical, and economic context. An assessment can help you understand the dynamics of your community, and also allows you and the people you might want to mobilize to make better decisions, prioritize means of action, and reveals the strengths and resources that might help you achieve your goal.

You may find new ways to tackle the environmental problems you want to solve or discover new challenges that the community believes should be addressed. Working towards environmental goals does not mean working against people but rather with them. The knowledge and solutions they bring could be crucial for any project or initiative you might lead. For example, when there is no data on how regularly a neighbourhood floods because your city does not measure it, or you cannot access the internet, you can always ask the local community. You could discover much more information about how this specific issue connects to others, and find solutions you didn’t even know existed.

Tools for understanding your local context

Independent Research Tools
This family of tools concerns every source of information and every type of research you can do on your own. The aim is to investigate your chosen issue more deeply. Gather thorough information on the local and global aspects of the issue so that you can make informed decisions on what can be done to have a positive impact.

It’s important to look for verified and reliable sources of information. For example, every country has a ministry of environment that might make available reports or statistics. Your local library, and any long-standing environmental organisation and collective in your community will also be a source of valuable information. You can also look for international organisation’s information of your country, viewing the World Bank, national WWF, UNDP or UNEP websites regarding the issue of your choice.

The internet is a wonderful place full of information that you can use for research on your environmental issue. However, keep a critical eye on the what you might find, and if possible, look for different sources. Always try to ask the following questions:

  • Is the information the same on every website?
  • Are there any differences?
  • Are they selling you a product?
  • Who owns the website?

Stakeholder Mapping
A stakeholder is a person with an interest or concern in any issue. Most people don’t know they are stakeholders in their local environmental issues, and that these might impact them. The objective of this tool is to identify all the actors that might be affected, that affect or that play a role in dealing with your environmental issue. You can follow these steps to use this tool.

Draw at the center of a sheet of paper or whiteboard a circle with your issue. Draft a specific question to identify these stakeholders like : ‘Who influences water quality in my community?’ This question needs to be specific to your issue, and about the change you want to put in place.

Identify all the actors involved by discussing it together. Remember these actors can be part of different categories, like public, private, ngos, powerful individuals, or any other category you might think is relevant. You can add these categories as a colored legend on the side of your map, and circle actors that fit in them with these colors.

Ask the next question: ‘How are these actors connected?’ These links can be formal or informal. Think about the nature of these links, for instance if one actor exercises power or influence over another. These links can be social, political, or economic if one pays or bribes the other. You can also draw with different colors the nature of their relationship (for instance, blue is trust, red is support, orange is conflict).

Finally you can discuss their levels of support for your eventual solution, to determine if they can help you out or not, by writing next to their name a + , -, or =, if you believe they support, oppose or are indifferent to your solution.

An interview gives you knowledge about the way individuals relate and view their environment. They are one on one conversations between you and relevant stakeholders. Before conducting an interview remember the following:

  • Identify what sort of information or insight you need from this interview, and what characteristics you need from your interviewee (if they are affected by the issue, or have specific knowledge for example). Remember to check your biases, and make sure the people you interview are representative of the diversity of voices within the whole community.
  • Documenting the interview is essential if you want to use this material as evidence for a report or campaign, and generally if you wish to go back to it. Be respectful of your interviewees time, and availability, check with them the date, time and questions you are going to ask them. Explain to them the purpose of the interview.
  • Practice the interview beforehand with a friend or collaborator.
  • When conducting the interviews remember to put people at ease, use open and clear questions like ‘What../ Why…/ How…/ Where… etc.”, and encourage them to elaborate.
  • Never interrupt them, and when you finish maintain an open line of communication.

Focus Groups
The objective of a focus group is to obtain relevant information from people involved with the issue you might have. A focus group is relevant when you need to consult a specific category or group of people (those that live in an affected area, women, children etc), or when you need to ensure that people’s opinions are heard. Invite six to ten participants, and make sure they represent all the different people that are part of the community, that they are not intimidated by others and that they are willing to discuss the issue.

Choose a place that is accessible and quiet, and a convenient time for them to attend. For instance if most people work, don’t do it during working hours. Organize for someone to take notes or record the session. Offering refreshments and breaks will also encourage participation. Have a discussion plan, so that the conversation remains centred on the information or issue of your choosing.

For this you can prepare a set of questions. You can ask them about their lives to make them comfortable. Next ask questions that lead to an introduction of your issue, asking them how they feel about it. You can then ask them to identify the resources or actions they might wish were taken to solve this issue. Finally ask them to voice their final thoughts and reflect on the experience.

Participatory mapping This tool enables people to identify specific areas in their communities and have a broader understanding of their environment. This will allow you to acquire valuable knowledge to develop adapted projects or initiatives. To conduct this first identify what you want to map: places, paths, resources, networks.

According to what you want to map you can then design the questions you want to ask, for instance: Where can you access water? Where do you enjoy time outside? What paths do you take? And any other question you might have regarding the environment. Then you can conduct the session, by having someone draw the map with the input from the participants.

Surveys Surveys are a method of quantifying people’s perceptions. Surveys benefit from large amounts of data, so organizing a survey requires logistics, volunteers, and establishing a methodology. Surveys can be expensive and take time so make sure you really need one, by reviewing the following reasons to do a survey:

  • To learn more about what your community’s needs regarding the environment might be, particularly those that you never saw as particularly important or that you never even knew existed.
  • To get a more honest and objective description of needs, than people might tell you publicly.
  • To monitor and document your needs, this will be helpful if you want to scale up your initiative by applying for funding, and will also be helpful as a tool for any campaign you might want to launch.

If you decided to do the survey, first you have to design the questionnaire. Keep it short and simple, so that people won’t get tired answering, and secondly, choose closed yes or no questions. Ensure that the questions are not misleading or sound judgmental. Be sure to train the people that are going to be conducting the survey, and set a specific area or time for these surveys to happen.

When they identify respondents make sure they choose a large sample of people that will be representative of the whole population. If you are planning to enact any sort of intervention and want to use surveys, apply one before and after it, so as to measure its impact. Finally make sure you protect all the data and personal information you collect by following your local data protection laws, or following these tips.

Identifying Community Assets and Resources
A community asset or resource is anything that can be used to help you along the way of dealing with your environmental issue. Identifying community assets and resources is a very positive way to start any group activity, since you will be able to focus on existing strengths.

Before you begin, ask yourself these questions: What size is the community you’re concerned with? How many people, time and resources do you have available to support doing the identification task? You can set up the task as a group activity, or do it on your own, according to the previous questions’ answers. The objective of identifying community assets is to help tackle an issue or improve a situation, once you do it you might be able to do the following:

  • Make this asset known to others and the community at large, as this will help people that needed them and might not have known they existed. You can do this through a website, a poster or anything else.
  • Use these assets to mobilize towards a new project, since before identifying them you didn’t know they existed.
  • Build on local resources and rely less on external aid and funding.
  • Bring organisations that didn’t collaborate before together to build knowledge and learn from each other.

To identify a group asset first make a list of all the local formal and informal groups, like associations, collectives, organisations, or unions. This list can be built from common knowledge. Then you can start researching around your issue or the type of institution. Just walking around your neighbourhood consciously, might help you notice offices, posters and places where these groups might be working.

With individual assets, it can be different since individuals are plentiful. But you can rely on people’s networks and knowledge to identify those assets. For example, if you need an ornithologist, just go to the local bird watcher’s group where they will know one.

Remember, everyone can be an asset.

Tools & Solutions in action: El Gran Malón by Ciudad Emergente

Ciudad Emergente was founded 10 years ago, with the idea of bringing back simplicity, and common sense to urban planning. At the time, they were frustrated with the way cities were planned, as it was mostly done by experts with very little citizen participation. They felt that the tools that were available were not enough to effectively engage communities on improving their surroundings. As an answer to this they developed a simple but effective tool called ‘El Gran Malón”.

Based around a community potluck, a shared meal, that becomes an event through which you can get to know your community and local context, creating a space for creating support, building ties, explaining your initiatives, and gathering data. There are three easy steps for you to follow so that you can implement a similar strategy:

  • Motivating your neighbours and define a place for the activity
  • Think about who might be willing to get together, think about your friends, think about your family, do not be afraid of knocking on the door of the people who live close by. You can set up a WhatsApp group and invite more people. To define a place, you can start by your own street or find any other space that allows for a gathering, it’s just a matter of envisioning a different present and future for these spaces. Remember to apply for the necessary permits and check with your local authorities, they might want to get involved and support the event.
  • Preparing the activity and setting up the scene. The Malón is a collaborative meal: invite your neighbours to bring something to share, this will also help them feel involved and empower them as part of the organisation. You can decorate the street together using banners, plants, flowers and being creative in transforming the space. Think in very practical terms for this, try to think about tasks that you can assign to people, they can bring things like their own chairs, or anything that they would like to contribute. This activity is for fun: its success will depend on how many people feel this as their own.
  • Enjoy your Malón and measure its impact. Malón day is here and it is time to enjoy the conversation with your neighbours and the delicious food. Invite people to listen to each other and loosen up, you can orient the conversation towards identifying the needs of the community or understanding a local environmental problem. To make your intervention more effective, you can apply some tools to measure the feelings and the thoughts of people. You can use surveys to measure people’s feelings, attendance, or any other indicator you might want to quantify before and after the event. Or use qualitative methods like the tree of ideas, which you can discover here.
  • Tree of ideas. People can share their thoughts and concerns through the aggregation of ideas written on ballots by hand. This tool consists of a hanging screen of large format and visibility in which two to three questions are exposed. The user can then attach and/or hang messages allowing the reading and exhibition in the form of a showcase of ideas. Through well-crafted open questions the Tree can measure and diagnose people’s perceptions of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in their community. This can help you map out the environmental situation and opportunities for change and improvement in your community.


  • There are many tools and resources for you to understand your local environmental context and help identify its issues, but the best ones are within the community itself: remember to keep a participatory approach in all your initiatives and projects.
  • When consulting information and data remember to keep a critical eye and check your sources of information. Try to keep science at the heart of any conclusion or diagnosis you might make.


  • Beginner: Look at Box 1 what does it say to you? How does it make you feel? Do you believe that the issue you care about is researched better on your own with scientific information? Or, do you believe you can gain from other people’s participation and knowledge?
  • Intermediate: Look at Box 2, and think about your local and national governments, or other institutions around you. Do they make information about the environment available to people? Do they create spaces for your participation? Can you go to those spaces? Can you find the information on your own?
  • Advanced: Think about the environmental cause you have at heart, and the initiative you might want to lead.

Using the tools on this worksheet tools write down a plan from start to finish on diagnosing your environment: Where will you get the information? Can you easily share this information and will everyone understand it? Secondly think about all the activities you want to carry out: How will you create spaces for other people’s inputs and participation? Can their ideas change your project’s initial goals? How can you use their knowledge and assets to improve on your idea?


-Learn about citizen participation through applied actions and take a look at the qualitative and quantitative tools that Ciudad Emergente has developed. -Handbook for tactical urbanism actions: Humanizing public space by Low Carbon City. -View The Art of Facilitating Groups, a webinar by Youth For Our Planet.


After watching the module’s video, reflect on the following questions:

  • Do you believe you have enough knowledge about your local context?
  • Can you do a stakeholder map of your local environmental context?
  • Do you believe measurement matters in your initiative, and if so did you find inspiration on ways to apply a better diagnosis of your local context?



Javier has specialized in combining social innovation projects, entrepreneurship, citizen participation and applied technologies in the city. Javier has worked in diverse projects of tactical urbanism and territorial regulation in Latin America, Europe and the United States. Currently Javier is an active teacher imparting his knowledge in UDP, UDD and in the Master’s in Urban Projects from the Pontificia Universidad Católica (Chile).