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    Archive for the 'Contested spaces' Category

    Insurgent urbanization in Rua Marconi, São Paulo

    By Alexandre Apsan Frediani, on 22 September 2014

    As part of the action-research programme ‘Insurgent Regeneration’, the DPU’s Alex Frediani spent some time over the summer working with the team of the ‘Insurgent Urbanization’ module at the Universidade Federal do ABC in São Paulo, Brazil. The research was a real success, engaging with inhabitants occupying a vacant building in the city centre of São Paulo led by a housing social movement called ‘Movimento de Moradia Para Todos’ (MMPT). The research involved speaking to and working closely with residents and organisers of the movement. The final activity of the research was the Café da Manhã na Rua Marconi (Breakfast in Marconi Street) – an event that appropriated the public space of the street as a meeting place for community and encounters between strangers.

    Watch a timelapsed video of this activity below.

    The module was run in collaboration with Ricardo Moretti and Chico Comaru (Universidade Federal do ABC) and Beatrice De Carli (University of Sheffield). Further outputs will soon follow, with a short pamphlet and journal articles already planned. For more information, and to follow the progress of the project, please visit the Insurgent Regeneration microsite via the DPU website.

    A photographic exploration of urban issues: The DPU Photography Project explained

    By David Hoffmann, on 18 August 2014

    The DPU Photo project 2014

    Like many students in the Development Planning Unit, I realized that this year’s field trip would be a great opportunity to take pictures. However, I felt I wanted to do more than just going on a solitary mission to capture whatever crossed my path. I decided to launch a project that pushes the photographer to reflect during the process of taking pictures and that gives coherence in the way work is seized and presented.

    The final concept took shape as I spoke about my intentions to fellow students. We decided to create a photo-blog with a collection of pictures taken by students in Peru, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania where we would be conducting research as part of our respective MSc programs. As a collective we then agreed on 9 different photographic themes that would work as our creative lens. The final blog works as a mosaic of moments and motives that will hopefully capture the viewers’ attention. The project is entirely voluntary and student run, and all pictures were taken between April and May 2014.

    We believe that the appeal of the project resides in the diversity of photographic styles of students, the varying interpretations of the selected topics and the diverse locations and experiences that DPU students were exposed to. We hope that it is conducive of real insight into people’s work and day-to-day experiences, allowing viewers to emotionally engage with different realities as depicted in the pictures and giving food for thought.

    For us photographers, the project was a great opportunity to use our skills with a concrete purpose in mind, and also resulted in the creation of a temporary platform to experiment and explore the potential of photography. The project was a challenge, yet it allowed us to make the most of the experience and we are now happy to be able to share our vision with fellow students, alumni and curious minds alike.

    The selection of pictures below has a photojournalistic quality to them and triggers reflection, as they seized some of the tensions that we witnessed in the field. There is a story behind each picture, as told by the photographers.


    ‘Contrasts’  Dar es Salaam, Tanzania © Jorge Ortiz 2014 MSc Urban Development Planning

    Dar es Salaam, Tanzania © Jorge Ortiz 2014
    MSc Urban Development Planning

    ‘This picture was taken from the third floor of the hotel in which we stayed during our work as UDP students in Dar es Salaam. With this panorama surrounding us, it was not necessary going to slums to have a taste of how inequality expresses itself in urban contexts. It was actually not completely comfortable (in ethical terms) to swim there after a day of work with the communities, where people were completely open to talk with us about their inaccessibility to certain environmental goods, like potable water. In my opinion, the fieldtrip to Tanzania was helpful for getting or strengthening that ethical fiber that any development professional should have.’ – Jorge Ortiz


    'Estamos en el aire' ('We live in the air') Jose Carlos Mariategui, Lima, Peru © Loan Diep 2014 MSc Environment and Sustainable Development

    ‘Estamos en el aire’ (‘We live in the air’)
    Jose Carlos Mariategui, Lima, Peru © Loan Diep 2014
    MSc Environment and Sustainable Development

    ‘Lima’s rapid urbanisation, fragmented planning and conflictual land issues have led the city to expand beyond its territorial boundaries. An increasing amount of the population is now occupying the slopes of the Andes Mountains surrounding Lima, where exposure to disasters is considerable, and upon which mobility is particularly limited. This picture has been taken in Jose Carlos Mariátegui, Lima’s largest and poorest municipal district. When approached, people living in the area state: ‘we live in the air’. Beyond a simple reference to the high altitude in which the informal settlement is located, it also metaphorically reflects on the marginalising impact of Lima’s development plans on a vulnerable segment of the population.’ – Loan Diep


    ‘Breaking the rigidity of the grid’ Cambodia © Joana Dabaj 2014  MSc Building & Urban Design in Development

    ‘Breaking the rigidity of the grid’
    Cambodia © Joana Dabaj 2014
    MSc Building & Urban Design in Development

    ‘The picture represents a little girl standing in front of her house and simply eating some dried berries… a simple act. The grid behind her is a sort of a fence constructed by the family in order to protect their house. The family has appropriated several materials in order to build their “home”: bamboo, wood, corrugated metal sheet… as part of an informal settlement, the issue of privacy is always critical, one can easily break this tessellated surface, pass his hand through it or look behind it so what did it serve other than delimiting a space?’ – Joana Dabaj


    'A horse with no name' Mekelle, Ethiopia © David Hoffmann  MSc Urban Economic Development

    ‘A horse with no name’
    Mekelle, Ethiopia © David Hoffmann
    MSc Urban Economic Development

    ‘Some people say that Black and White photography is good at capturing the soul of an image. As it is, colours tend to distract the viewer from shapes, textures and raw emotions that it might contain. There is little soul left in this ill horse, however… it was abandoned in the middle of the city by its owner, where it is more likely to be run over by an inattentive driver than being saved by a caring soul. The skeleton of a building in the backdrop completes the picture, and reminds us of the fragility of the urban environment, where hope and despair cohabite.’ – David Hoffmann


    Dream, Fly? Seek a way out of traffic lines!  Dar es Salaam, Tanzania © Asimina Paraskevopoulou 2014 MSc  in Urban Development Planning

    ‘Dream, Fly? Seek a way out of traffic lines!’
    Dar es Salaam, Tanzania © Asimina Paraskevopoulou 2014
    MSc in Urban Development Planning

    ‘An image out of focus: shot just with a stretch of the arm outside the window. A need to get some fresh air while spending 3 ½ hours inside an air-conditioned mini-bus was the reason for a split opening of my side window. The view at that point: vehicles stuck in traffic lines due to flooding on the streets of Dar es Salaam. During rush hour and when the tropic clouds pour the city with rain the transportation system paralyzes. Commuting in the city of Dar is always an adventure: dala-dala buses, private taxis, public transportation, whichever the vehicle the ride is going to be probably a frustrating experience. And even though infrastructure improvements are planned and already under construction, with the BRT system being at the center of attention, it seems that the advertisement’s quote in the background “DREAM, FLY, SAVE” is the ‘only’ solution!’ – Asimina Paraskevopoulou

    View images from the DPU Student Photography Project on Flickr or read more on the DPU website.


    DPU60 Day 3 – resources, justice, intersectionality and learning in urban development

    By Matthew A Wood-Hill, on 4 July 2014

    DPU60 Conference Participants at the British Medical Association in London - over 200 people attended the conference in total

    DPU60 Conference Participants at the British Medical Association in London – over 200 people attended the conference in total

    The third and final day of the DPU60 conference offered up plenty of food for thought through discussions on environmental management in cities, intersectionality and identity and learning and knowledge production in planning. This was then supported by a fantastic summary of many of the key arguments heard over the three days by Caren Levy in the closing session. We conclude the conference with many many thoughts to reflect upon into the future both as individuals and as a collective.

    John Twigg speaker at Session 6: Re-imagining socio-environmental trajectories of change

    John Twigg speaker at Session 6: Re-imagining socio-environmental trajectories of change

    Re-imagining socio-environmental trajectories of change: Radical practices and approaches to environmental planning and governance

    Environmental issues had been mentioned in the previous two days, but not discussed explicitly. Day three of the conference tackled some of these matters in great detail. Mark Swilling got things going by asking ‘what are the resource requirements of urbanisation?’ If 52% of the built environment thought to be needed by 2050 has yet to be created, what does this mean for the way we resource our cities? One approach might be to minimise damage through technological and smart-city approaches, but Mark advocated a more systematic reconstitution of human-environment relations and the web of life. Lyla Mehta focused her presentation on the urban periphery. She sees this as a particularly charged space into which cities are expanding but where services, rights and citizenship are not always well defined. We therefore arrive at a state where distinctions could be made between the political society and civil society as this ‘unequal citizenship’ forces many urban inhabitants to opt-out of the formal system.

    The focus of John Twigg’s talk was on whether Disaster Risk Reduction, which itself emerged from the margins to the mainstream within a decade, might now be becoming unfashionable as the present discourse has become dominated by the concept of resilience. This is seen as providing a more holistic understanding of vulnerability reduction, but he wonders if this shift in emphasis is an academic or discursive shift, and if DRR might still have a lasting impact in guiding policy and practice. In her comments, discussant Adriana Allen remarked on the gap between environmental theory and thinking on environmental planning and management. She asked do cities exist outside of nature? And therefore what role is there for planning, encouraging us to think towards how planning can be reimagined around a more radical stance. Yet what kind of barriers do environmentally pragmatic approaches, adopted in many policies, pose to this?

    Session 7 was on Gender, intersectionality and socially just futures

    Session 7 was on Gender, intersectionality and socially just futures

    Gender, intersectionality and socially just futures: Planning in an era of social polarisation

    A stimulating session began with Sarah White’s presentation on how intersectionality can inform wellbeing. She discussed both the different and common challenges facing these discourses and suggested that in both cases the ‘real world’ focus is appealing, but as such there are challenges in articulating this complexity in practice. Gautam Bhan delivered a personal account thinking about queer politics and inclusive planning drawing on his experiences in India. He described how he couldn’t imagine the sorts of solidarities we have today back in 2001, but warned that a city that cannot make space for difference cannot effectively accommodate the diversity of its urban citizens.

    Julian Walker went specifically into political representation at the local level, using the example of neighbourhood planning associations in Kisumu, Kenya. These associations ensure representatives are from a number of categories, but he suggested that such labelling can reinforce stigma, also questioning who is absent in such formations. He observed that methodologies, such as the DPU’s Gender in Policy and Planning approach, do exist to better integrate diversity into planning conversations. Maxine Molyneux, the discussant, identified working through intersectionality to bring about justice and recognition as a common theme among the speakers and discussed asked how we might go about incorporating our learning from practice back into theory.

    A series of interviews with former DPU staff were screened throughout the event.

    A series of interviews with former DPU staff were screened throughout the event.

    Positioning planning learning in an urbanizing world: The challenge of practitioner formation and the co-production of knowledge

    An overarching theme of the session was that learning happen in a number of different places and ways: the classroom, the studio, the community, and the personal and lived experiences embodied within each of us. Vanessa Watson presented the thinking behind a planning programme between the Association of African Planning Schools and Slum/Shack Dwellers International. The studios attempt to break down some of the perceived deficiencies in African planning education, which is too focused on teaching students how to work within national planning legislations. They therefore open up planners to different ways of thinking through the co-production of knowledge with SDI affiliate organisations. Vanessa sees the emphasis of this knowledge co-production as being on building relationships, empowering local groups and mutual learning by doing.

    Jo Beall looked at the relationships between cities and higher education institutions. In setting herself the question ‘why are universities important to cities?’ she offered up the contributions to culture and society, and to regional knowledge economies among her responses. But reversing the question, to ask ‘why are cities important to universities?’ created different reflections. Specifically she suggested that these city-university relationships are stronger in the global south, whereas evidence shows that higher education in the north has a greater focus on working towards national economic growth.

    Bisha Sanyal introduced us to the SPURS programme in MIT, which is a one year non-degree programme aimed at mid-career professional from emerging economies. He reflected that many ‘difficult conversations’ between participants from different geographies happen in such programmes as a means of understanding difference, and broadening our own horizons.

    Discussant Alexandre Frediani raised several key points: in practice we see a pedagogy of contestation, not of negotiation in many contexts, and we need to consider the role of universities in engaging with this. How do we manage our public engagement as academic research, especially when it encounters these dynamics? He praised the studios approach, but questioned whether its time-bound nature constituted a weakness as students’ engagement is very brief. A lot of the impacts of such interventions depend on the end product and the types of processes that these pedagogical approaches are embedded within.

    Session 7 provoked a lively discussion on intersectionality

    Session 7 provoked a lively discussion on intersectionality


    Caren Levy took on the enormous task of summarising the main talking points of the conference, which she delivered eloquently and comprehensively. She emphasised among many things that dialogue is important and events like this are fantastic opportunities in bringing together a community of practitioners – but that we also need advocacy. Alan Penn and Julio Davila closed the session.

    The summaries in these blog posts provide only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the discussions that have taken place – podcasts from each of the sessions will be made available via our website later in the summer.

    Visit our website for the latest news about the DPU and outputs from the DPU60 Conference.



    DPU60 Day 2 – Informality, contestation, pragmatism and the urban imperative.

    By Matthew A Wood-Hill, on 3 July 2014

    The DPU welcomed Joan Clos, the Director of UN Habitat, and Micahel Arthur, UCL Provost to a session that also featured DPU Visiting Professor David Satterthwaite. The session was chaired by Julio D. Davila.

    The DPU welcomed Joan Clos, the Director of UN Habitat, and Micahel Arthur, UCL Provost to a session that also featured DPU Visiting Professor David Satterthwaite. The session was chaired by Julio D. Davila.

    Day two of the conference provoked a series of interesting talking points, among which were: informality as a way of contesting the city; calls for counter-narratives to prevalent practices in urban design; the need to separate a one-project approach from a more integrated and systematic approach to city planning; the differential merits of applying overly pragmatic approaches to planning and urban development discourses; and why we need to think of cities as urban planners and not simply as as development experts if we are to enact real change at the local level beyond the SDGs in 2015.

    Today's sessions saw lively discussions and audience participation throughout

    Today’s sessions saw lively discussions and audience participation throughout

    Approaches to urban equality and informality in the cities of the global south

    The opening session of day two focused on issues of urban equality and informality in the global south. With a focus on different regions, speakers discussed urban circumstances in Egypt, India and Ecuador. An overarching theme of the session was in reconstituting the relationship between people and the city in different ways. This was reflected in Omar Nagati’s talk which discussed the changing nature of the public spaces appropriated by street vendors, and how activists have contested and reoccupied certain parts of the city in Cairo.

    Sheela Patel particularly talked about informality and how to incorporate exiting ‘informal’ practices into formal regulatory frameworks. Emphasising the importance of a strategic approach to planning that addresses long term goals, not by simply resolving immediate concerns in a step-by-step process, Diego Carrion talked us through several infrastructure projects at different scales in Quite, Ecuador. Discussant Pushpa Arabindoo stressed the importance of forging better links between pedagogy and practice especially when theorising an understanding of informality – something very central to the vision of the DPU.

    The DPU60 Reflections Working Paper series was launched to coincide with the conference. These papers have been written by former DPU staff and can be download from our website.

    The DPU60 Reflections Working Paper series was launched to coincide with the conference. These papers have been written by former DPU staff and can be download from our website.

    Participation and contested practices in urban design and planning: Rights, needs and urban imaginaries

    A fascinating discussion about urban design followed in Session 3 that ranged from very grounded case studies to more theoretical articulations of urban design as a disciplinary practice. Soomsook Boonyabacha advocated people-led development solutions at the city-wide scale as an alternative to simply isolated urban projects. She drew on her experience with ACHR and CODI to suggest how this could be done, but she sees a need for new financial mechanisms to support these alternatives. Focusing on a specific city case study, Jane Weru presented the challenges faced by many urban dwellers in Kenya in fighting against land speculation and the dominance of wealthy landholders, but also the inflexibility of the statutory legal system.

    ‘Practicing Dissensus’ was the title of Camillo Boano’s presentation. He spoke of the need to rediscover the potential of urban design, which has been ‘capitulated to the developer’ in many circumstances. Jane Rendell, the discussant for the session echoed Camillo’s calls for subversive urban practices and counter-narratives, where dialogue at these points of disagreement can foster productive outcomes. The plenary discussion continued to unpack these issues, and particularly ‘unlearning’ as a means of breaking away from the dominant discourses that define the boundaries that need to be crossed.

    An exhibition of work from currently DPU PhD students is on display throughout the event.

    An exhibition of work from currently DPU PhD students is on display throughout the event.

    Forging New Relationships in Governance and Planning: State, Market and Society in a Post-Economic Crisis World

    A common theme from speakers in Session 4 was that urban projects cannot be thought of one by one, but must be packaged or conceived in relation to one-another. Antonio Estache opened the session with an analysis of lessons from Public Private Partnerships. With infrastructure demands still huge and urbanisation rates higher than they were 25 years ago, he suggested that PPPs have not done as well as many expected, and that greater realism is required in fitting PPPs in with urban strategies. Peter Brand drew comparisons between Bogota and Medellin, contrasting Bogota as a socially just and multicultural city, versus Medellin as a spectacle city – a government export project. The critique of Medellin suggested that as such it shows off poverty, rather than necessarily addressing it in a holistic way. He finished by asking if, as planners, we standing on the glossy surface of capitalism, or the foundations of ethical and social concerns.

    Lawrie Robertson presented the challenge of the ‘strategic planning equation’: meeting the rising social aspirations of urban residents. He sees three present themes in urban development, from the perspective of city managers: to ‘grow faster’ in order to remain internationally competitive; to ‘spend now’ through the involvement of private sector in development; and ‘localise’ through the decentralisation of responsibilities. He finished with a call for us to seek out pragmatic and effective solutions, which echoed the other speakers. This was picked up by discussant Mike Raco, who sees the term as devoid of substance as it claims to remove ideology and politics from the equation. He went on to question where social movements and the democratic voice fit into this call for pragmatism in urban governance, asking ‘do you have to be a technical expert to be political?’

    Somsook Boonyabancha speaks in the second session of the day, on Scaling up demand-led housing processes: The challenges of institutionalising city-wide development

    Somsook Boonyabancha speaks in the second session of the day.

    Urban Development and Development Assistance

    In the final presentation of the day Dr Joan Clos, the Director of UN Habitat, looked ahead to Habitat III. He identifies the event as coming at a critical time: post-SDGs; responding to the latest conversations on climate change; and to the continuing challenges posed by urbanisation. It will therefore be the role of the Habitat conference to discuss how to incorporate this broader thinking in cities at the local level. Part of the agenda is UN Habitat’s proposal for National Urban Policies and related Local Urban Policies.

    David Satterthwaite followed, asking how can we make aid work better for the poor? He bemoaned the fact that fewer international agencies and development banks have urban sections than 30 or 40 years ago, in spite of the widely understood importance of combating urban poverty. If ‘the urban’ features prominently on the post-2015 agenda, he sees this as representing a sea change. This would have important knock on effects for local governance working with urban poor groups in the co-production of knowledge and service delivery in support of better city planning. He stressed that at present this remains an ‘if’.

    David Satterthwaite addressing the audience

    David Satterthwaite addressing the audience

    The discussion continues tomorrow!

    For bios of all of the speakers taking part in the conference, please visit:

    You can read more about the conference via our website

    The importance of ‘place’ – An exploration with 16-18 year old students

    By Kamna Patel, on 22 May 2014

    Blog Authors: Liza Griffin and Kamna Patel

    The place in question is Kilburn in northwest London, and it’s a place that means a great deal to both of us. At different moments in our lives, Kilburn has been a place that we have called ‘home’. The ways in which we both interact with Kilburn are strongly influenced by the kinds of shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and bars found there, the desirability and affordability of property, and rents which enable our network of friends and relatives to live in and around Kilburn, and the density of transport linkages that allow easy movement in, out and through the area. In all these influences we experience processes of globalisation and urbanisation at work. This idea was first discussed by geographer, Doreen Massey in her seminal paper on ‘a global sense of place’ (1991). This paper countered dominant narratives of globalisation which were around at the time, explaining that globalisation was not some disembodied juggernaut homogenising space as it spread across the globe, but a process actively made in real places and often via the agency of ‘local’ people in urban regions. Massey’s frame of reference in this important work was the Kilburn High Road.

    Students from St. Augustine’s High School, Kilburn

    Students from St. Augustine’s High School, Kilburn, who participated in the workshop.
    Photo: Liza Griffin.

    Kilburn, thought of as a place created by and simultaneously creating globalisation and urbanisation, contextualises and informs our relationship to place. Reflecting on this spurred us to think about how the processes of globalisation and urbanisation that create contemporary Kilburn are understood through other sets of eyes and how place is made through other bodies. Looking at literature on place-making and urban transformation in London we can see really thoughtful class-based and even race-based analyses (e.g. Butler and Hamnett, 2011), but what struck us was a consistently overlooked demographic: young people. We wanted to understand how young people in Kilburn made sense of the globalising and urbanising processes that were going on around them.

    On March 17-18 we held a two day workshop with 20 A-level students from St. Augustine’s High School, Kilburn; the workshop was titled ‘Exploring Urbanisation and Globalisation in Place: A study of Kilburn’ supported by UCL’s widening participation scheme. Over the two sessions we worked with the students to examine these related concepts not only as abstract ideas, but also as very real processes that affect and help to create places. We looked at how Kilburn has become urbanised over time and how it not only reflects globalisation, but also helps to reproduce it. We encouraged the students to think about how they are not simply the passive consumers of ‘global culture’ but how they are active participants in the time-space compression of the globe through their activity on social media or in sending remunerations to relatives abroad. We explored how global commodities for sale on the Kilburn High Road were packaged to appeal to local idiosyncrasies. We examined the ways that local and global are enmeshed at the city scale. And we asked the students to reflect upon the divergent interpretations of these important words, global and local, which feature in their A Level textbooks, asking what purpose difference definitions might serve and for whom.

    At the end of the workshop students were asked to identify and evaluate urbanisation and globalisation in relation to their locale: that is, amidst lively discussion, students explained that they discerned the effects of globalisation in their own school: the ethnic make-up of classmates had changed dramatically over their years there, reflecting changes to residential demographics in the area and affecting friendship groups. Residential spaces were also dramatically changing with the construction of new estates targeting middle income earners lured by the appeal of living in zone 2 London. St. Augustine’s student Eden Steenkamp thoughtfully reflected upon how Kilburn’s growing appeal has increased land prices in the region and that this “was a worry”.

    Eden’s thoughtful assessment of London’s property market is matched by her reflection on how contemporary processes of urbanisation and gentrification in Kilburn affect everyday life and behaviour. She writes, “If people look different, then they are treated differently… For instance you either eat in a boutique café to show how sophisticated you are or at one of the many Chicken Cottages, like the average Londoner”. Eden sees herself as an “average Londoner” and through her eyes and body we are afforded an insight into how she understands and makes sense of Kilburn and her relationship to that place. And through her engagement in the workshop she was able to connect up some of the academic narratives of uneven development we discussed in class with examples of real injustice she saw around her.

    For us, the themes of place and positionality underlie the workshop. It was insightful to explore the perspectives of these young people on how they make meaning and create place, and to contrast those views with our own relationships to that same place. It raises a broader and interesting question that carries through to our own research: does place matter in research? That is, what does it mean if researchers are personally vested in a place that is also the subject of their research? And does it matter if they are not? Can we meaningfully conduct nuanced social science in places that we do not have some lived experience of? Sadly we do not have answers, but through our engagement with these bright and brilliant young people we have a deeper understanding of the importance of the question.

    The workshop was organised and run by Kamna Patel, Co-director of the MSc Development Administration and Planning, and Liza Griffin, Co-director of the MSc Environment and Sustainable Development at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, UCL.

    • Butler, T. and Hamnett, C (2011) Ethnicity, Class and Aspiration: Understanding London’s New East End, Bristol: Policy Press
    • Massey, D (1991) A Global Sense of Place. Marxism Today 38.

    What do you get when you gather 2000 geographers?

    By Vicente A Sandoval Henriquez, on 27 September 2013

    The fourth EUGEO Congress took place in Rome, Italy, 5-7 September 2013, at the University of Rome La Sapienza and at the Società Geografica Italiana, where thousands of geographers and researchers from all different fields of study attended and participated in more than 500 presentations.

    Photo 05-09-2013 09 42 42

    When thinking of organising a mega-conference like this in a city like Rome one must deal with motivation. The event is competing against the Coliseo, the Vatican and more than 3000 years of vibrant history. How do you maintain the attention of 2000 geographers and attendees for 2 “cloistered” days ? Well, some keynote speeches kicked off the conference. The programme included keynote speakers such as James W. Scott, Ron Boschma, Anne Buttimer, Gyula Horvát, Vladimir Kolossov, Peter Mehlbye, Armando Montanari, Petros Petsimeris and Ad de Roo, among others. But also, other activities such as paper sessions, poster sessions, thematic panels, scientific and social events created very interesting spaces for discussions and knowledge dissemination.

    So, when bring 2000 geographers together, along with other researchers from related-fields, it is great to have a juicy programme that ignite intellectual discussion on matters highly relevant for all. Thus, macro topics such as capitalism and geography, borders and neoliberalism, and disaster and capitalism, were a very good beginning.

    Neoliberal borders for a neoliberal world

    James W. Scott, from the University of Eastern Finland presented in the session “Beyond ‘Fortress Europe’? Bordering and crossbordering processes along the European Union external frontiers”, critically discussing, for example, how EU borders have been affected and influenced by neoliberal forces creating something like a “neoliberal segregation”. The discussion turned to what defines a border as a “good” or “bad”, with further examples given; for instance, the case of US and Mexican border agencies working collaboratively. This sparked debates on borders as opportunities for cooperation, while also being protection from threats. One discussant described this phenomenon as the “permeability of frontiers”. Interestingly, a creative author proposed borders as interstitial spaces such as “Venn diagrams” where opposed forces share common interests and concerns.

    Another interesting discussion emerged in the session on free mobility, borders and neoliberalism. The contradictory idea that free market and free mobility of people – ideas from neoliberalism – are all about freedom and liberty but only possible inside a controlled space caught my attention. ‘Free mobility’ for insiders maybe, but ‘exclusionary borders’ for outsiders.

    When Capitalism Met Disaster


    I participated more actively in the session where Camillo Boano and I presented; “Multiple geographical perspectives on hazards and disasters”. In this session, we discussed single-scale studies on disaster risk and vulnerability –i.e. urban risk, physical vulnerability– by formulating the progression of vulnerability proposed in the Pressure and Release Model (PAR Model) as a multi-scalar phenomenon.

    We examined the case of Chaitén in order to explain how socio-economic and political processes nested at major geographical scales participate in the production of disaster risk and vulnerability at minor scales. This proposal and another presentation on L’Aquila earthquake in 2007 set the discussion on ‘disaster capitalism’. Most of the presenters acknowledged that disasters open windows of opportunity for structural transformations. Nobody disagreed with the potential transformative opportunity of disasters. Nevertheless, some of the case studies explored suggest that these windows of opportunity have been devised to systematically introduce more neoliberal reforms, such as in the cases of Sri Lanka in 2004 and Katrina 2005.

    While disasters have became more frequent and their impacts more severe, neoliberal reforms are aggressively expanding in an unprecedented manner. So, the combination – or the encounter, just like in the film “When Harry Met Sally” (1989)– of these processes is highly challenging for government and institutions, particularly for people in the global south. Naturally, we all agreed that more research and more intellectual endeavours are required to better understand the implications and potentials –negative or positive– of this new phase in disasters.

    What is going on in Brazil?

    By Alexandre Apsan Frediani, on 23 June 2013

    Together with my Brazilian friends and family living in London, we cannot stop following the posts, videos, tweets and news about what is going on in Brazil since the demonstrations in the streets of São Paulo on June the 6th and spreading to the main urban centres of the country. We cannot also help starting most conversations we have at the moment by commenting on the latest news. Even after spending hours talking and reading about it, it is still hard to answer the question: what is going on in Brazil? While hopeful and excited about the level of social mobilisation around equitable access to urban infrastructure and services, we are also extremely worried about the more recent turn of the events towards a conservative agenda.

    Picture 1: Demonstrations in London

    Source: Alex Frediani

    Source: Alex Frediani


    The Excitement

    Since the demonstrations that impeached the president Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992 we probably have not seen the public sphere so much dominated by political debates, rather than football or soap opera. Everybody is talking about it, everybody is having to position themselves in one way or another. This is also the result of a long-term mobilisation story around universal access to transport through free fares. After a series of decentralised actions (including the demonstrations in Salvador in 2003 in Florianopolis in 2004[1]), in the 2005 World Social Forum the Movimento Passe Livre, MPL (Free Fare – but also translated as Free Pass – Movement) was formed. A charter with basic principles was developed, which included independence, non-partisanship, horizontality and decision-by-consensus. National meetings were conducted to generate strategic plans. Local groups consolidated and political pressure was successfully exerted through studies and street demonstrations. During August and September of last year the MPL organised demonstrations in Natal (Rio Grande do Norte), March this year the movement took thousands to the street of Porto Alegre (Rio Grande do Sul). Then in the beginning of this month, the movement responded to the plans of increasing the price of bus fare in São Paulo by organising the demonstrations on the 6th of June, which brought 5,000 people to the streets.

    For me, these activities provide examples of how social movements are contesting the commodification of city services. One of the major references of the movement is the engineer Lúcio Gregori (municipal secretary of transport of São Paulo between 1990-1992). Lúcio designed during his mandate the Project Free Fare, never implemented but which aimed at subsidising the cost of public transport through a reform of the progressive property tax. His argument is based on the idea that the high costs of the tariffs is prioritising the support towards automobile industry and bus companies over the movement towards sustainable and equitable cities.  By subsidising public transport and reducing tariffs, citizens would opt for collective transport services rather than individual cars, minimizing traffic and maintenance costs of roads. Importantly, Lúcio argues that financially the project free fare is viable, however it needs the political willingness that is not in place, hence the need for social mobilisation and pressure by civil society organisations.

    Picture 2: Illustration used by MPL

    Translation: A city only exists for those that can move through it. Source:

    Translation: A city only exists for those that can move through it. Source:


    However, since the initial stages, protests increased in amount of supporters but also concerns. Apart from transport tariffs, the various signs seen in the demonstrations have condemned a series of issues, including the costs caused by the forthcoming world cup[2], as well as the controversial constitutional amendment number 37, which would prohibit public agencies from carrying out criminal investigations. Such claims are important demands to keep Brazilian government under scrutiny and deepening public debates and democratic practices.

    Picture 3: Protests in London with demands beyond bus tariffs

    Translation: Brazil, let’s wake up! A teacher is worth more than Neymar (Brazilian footballer). Source: Alex Frediani

    Translation: Brazil, let’s wake up! A teacher is worth more than Neymar (Brazilian footballer). Source: Alex Frediani


    The Brazilian government responded to the voices of those in the street. In a televised announcement on the 21st of June, the president Dilma Rousseff called for meeting with activists, mayors and state governors to discuss about the demands of protesters. In particularly, urban mobility would be a major theme of deliberation. Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo mayors also responded by scraping their plans to increase prices of bus tariffs in the short term

    The Worry

    Apart from those exciting citizenship claims through debates of transport and urban mobility, we have also seen a series of worrying elements that we perceive to be counter productive to such claims. Firstly ‘violence’ has been unfortunately dominating a lot of the discussions. Just after the first protests since the 6th of June, the major media corporations did not hesitate to focus their news around the violence generated by a few protesters, therefore criminalising the activities in the streets. In the meantime, on-line various videos were shared by protesters and journalists showing the outrageous reactions of the police force using rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the peaceful crowds shouting: sem violencia – without violence. Videos also show police shooting people recording the events in the streets and in buildings.

    When the activities in the streets of the country started getting momentum, the position from the major media corporations, especially Globo, changed radically. From criminalising uprising, they started to provide ‘reasoned’ arguments, mostly associated to corruption of current government, to legitimize activities. Many comments on-line have accused such shift to demonstrate an opportunistic attitude of the right-wing/conservative elite in Brazil, tapping into and co-opting events, shifting the agenda from urban mobility towards a debate on corruption with the intention to destabilise the PT (workers party) government[3].

    Also worrying is how the mood of the crowd in the streets started to shift. As numbers increased and causes for mobilisation started to multiply, the national anthem has become a key shouting bringing protestors to a united voice. The article by journalists Camila Petroni and Debora Lessa of the journal Brasil de Fato[4] outline the dangers of the emergence of this problematic nationalistic mood, which often is associated to militarization and reminds us of worrying times of our history during the 60s and 70s military government. Therefore, many have argued that the demonstrations have become compromised, losing coherence, depth and clarity due to this attempt of the right to sabotage and co-opt activities. Others have argued that this is the nature of current uprisings: multiple, decentralised, unpredictable, difficult to explain as a whole, and evidence of a new form of networked society.

    However profoundly worrying has been the reaction in the streets of São Paulo in the celebration following the announcement of the mayor saying that the bus tariff would not go up. Those who went to celebrate using their party or organization’s banners and shirts (i.e. PSOL – Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, Socialism and Freedom Party – that thas been involved with the MPL since its first steps) were kicked out from the marches. Protesters argued that they would not like such groups and organisations to profit from what has been the ‘people’s demonstration’[5]. This rejection to the role of such groups in the organisation, mobilisation and future dialogue with government officials is naïve and limits the potential of protests to move beyond an outburst of grievances and influence concrete policy and practices of governance. Furthermore, and even more worrying, those claiming to be of no-association and no-party have also been accused of belonging to organised right-wing and military groups[6].

    As a result of such recent events, the MPL has said that it would not be involved in the organisation of future demonstrations. Journalists and bloggers are calling protestors to localise their discussions. As it happened also in Spain, the call is to consolidate the debate and critical thinking in neighbourhoods and hubs of dialogue. The editorial piece of the magazine Forum (which was created during the World Social Forum of 2001 in Porto Alegre) asked activists to replace in the short-term demonstrations with meetings to deepen the debate, work out differences and share perspectives before going again to the streets[7].

    Next steps

    The above description is one of the many readings of the situation. It is quite surprising that the media in the UK is not engaging with such reading and has not been trying to capture complexities and the contradictions of the schizophrenic nature of the uprisings in Brazil. It is impossible to attempt to make any analysis of what could happen, but I see exciting and worrying scenarios: if the progressive activists move out from the demonstrations by prioritising localised discussions, the conflict in the streets might end up dominated by right-wing groups, with dangerous prospects of militarization and confrontation with the current government. But on the other hand the confrontations with fuzzy purposes might phase out with time, and what is going to be left are the seeds for a much more constructive and profound mode of civil engagement. What is going on in Brazil? I am not sure, but definitely it is uncertain, exciting and worrying all at the same time…

    Alexandre Apsan Frediani is a lecturer at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit and co-director of Masters in Social Development Practice.

    [1] See documentary Impasse on-line about the movement in Florianopolis:

    [2] See videos that went viral on-line outlining the major arguments against the World Cup: ‘No, I am not going to the world cup’: and Brazilian ex-footballer and now politician Romario arguing that FIFA has established a estate within the Brazilian estate:


    [5] See post by a demonstrator that got kicked out from the celebrations:

    [6] See list disseminated through facebook:


    Occupying and the New Monuments: DPU summerLab at Porto Fluviale, Rome

    By Giorgio Talocci, on 24 September 2012

    “The future is but the obsolete in reverse” (Vladimir Nabokov, Lance, 1952)

    This post – whose title recalls Robert Smithson’s seminal essay Entropy and the New Monuments – tells the experience of the DPU summerLab in Rome, and of its landing into the reality of what we called the Occupation City. 

    The New Monuments, Smithson says, are no longer for remembering and learning about the past but rather for helping forgetting a future which is dissolving because of Entropy and Obsolescence. Rome is a city of Old and New (or renewed) Monuments whose role has always been to drive a trend, either visible or hidden, formal or informal, in the urban development of their time. As last year’s strolling exploration, we navigated through these Monuments and the images of the city they wanted to portray when built, and through what they represent today. We started from Corviale, the swan song of the Modernist utopia and its monumental re-signification through the informal occupation of its one kilometre long fifth floor, originally supposed to host never-implemented services and shops. We passed on the Tiber River, through its monumental banks and bridges and its population of gypsies in provisional shanty towns. And by the Roman Walls and the non-catholic cemetery which has colonised their back. And we entered the Campo Boario, neoclassic Monument to the industrial production (of meat), abandoned by the Municipality and become a living collection of people – now Kurdish and Italians but once also Palestinians, Gypsies, Ukrainians – and the stories of how they landed there.

    Part of Corviale's fifth floor and its informal housing.


    A conversation with the leader of the Kurdish Community in Campo Boario.

    Campo Boario and its open and multicultural square constituted a paradigmatic space for our investigation in Porto Fluviale, the squat-occupation we have been working with, today undergoing a process of opening up toward the surroundings exactly through the transformation of its central courtyard in a public square.

    The galaxy of squat-occupations is a network of New Monuments, buildings whose re-significations through the (anti-entropic and anti-obsolescing) act of occupying have become the spatial manifestations of the current housing crisis in Rome. Porto Fluviale is one of those. Abandoned many years ago after serving as deposit for weapons and then for uniforms for armed forces, the building, still property of the Ministry of Defence, has been occupied in 2003 by the Coordinamento Cittadino Lotta per la Casa (one of the Social Movements leading the Struggle for Housing in Rome), in its endeavour to concentrate the Struggle on the restitution of otherwise idle and abandoned publicly-owned fragments of the city to the use of the citizens. Both the words use and citizen though are at stake in the political vision of the Movement, and the project of the new piazza challenges both concepts.

    The entrance toward the courtyard (photo by Gamar Markarian)

    The courtyard of Porto Fluviale (picture by Maria Rocco)

    So far, the courtyard has been the centre of the community life and the spatial element that more than anything else has helped fostering throughout the years a sense of collectiveness and everyday life sharing. The day 80 families (about 250 people) from different nationalities – mainly Italians, Ecuadorians, Moroccans, Peruvians, but many more – broke into the building from one of the main gates, Porto Fluviale started undergoing a deep transformation. Its three floors got transformed into houses facing both internal and external side of the C-shaped building, with the dark distribution corridors marked by the rails once used to move the materials around the floors and to the service-lifts. The housing units search for the light vertically, thanks to the widespread use of self-made mezzanines built to reach the level of the big windows whose basis is at 2.50 meters, so to have the possibility of a view toward the outside or the courtyard.

    The inner distribution corridor.

    The space of a housing unit from the mezzanine.

    In spite of the constant risk of eviction (the building is part of a plan through which the Municipality is trying to sell out a number of former barracks to private developers) the community have recently voted to keep the main gate open during the day so to let the people from the surroundings feel free to enter. The process started a couple of years ago opening a tearoom on the ground floor, and went on with the transformation of many spaces, that were once residential and now have become an assembly room, a bicycle workshop, guest rooms (where a group of participant was kindly hosted) and new rooms for skill-sharing activities.

    All the talks and the interaction between the community and the participants to the workshop have been driven by the idea of this new space, focus of both worries (in terms of security) and dreams (a finally redeemed image) for its inhabitants. What mostly struck us, in the assembly, was a sentence that sounded more or less like this: “we don’t want to open all the gates and make the new square become a place of passage and circulation like all the other squares around the city: this would simply replicate the current experience of the city, whose public spaces are meant for the capitalistic consumption”. The new square sets aside any capitalistic logic and wants to be the place where to experiment new activities and ways of exchanging and paying back the services that the community will offer. The square is meant to be the place where new alternative lessons can be taught and more lessons have yet to be learnt, where pro-active citizens can meet and exchange their experiences, where the use-value of space takes again over the exchange one.

    A moment of the assembly.

    The participants’ works helped unpacking, de-codifying and portraying the neo-marxist vision come out from the initial assembly with the inhabitants and their leadership. They highlighted hidden potentialities of the new square, possible ways of portraying its many identities and stories, latent contradictions intrinsic to a project of a piazza that is open to everyone but chiefly to whom is willing to enter: what if the space opens all its three main gates and its sides become totally permeable as already happening for the tearoom? How to open a gate to show something that is other without the risk of losing this otherness itself? How does openness combine with the need for security? And which declension can the term security acquire in the transition toward a post-capitalistic urban space?

    The final presentation of the works.

    In spite of these open questions, in Porto Fluviale the DPU summerLab has met a community with a complex past and witnessed its will to write a different future. Through the act of occupying the otherwise obsolete Monument Porto Fluviale, its community has inverted the entropic process it was undergoing. Porto Fluviale represents a re-use of a Monument, re-use that though goes beyond a simple notion of renovation or change of use, of retrofitting to accommodate new functions. The piazza calls for a use that is totally new, crafted outside the logic of the capitalistic development and then yet to be discovered. A use made possible through means of occupation, that though, today, leads to question the appropriateness of the verb occupying itself, as remarked by one of the participants to the workshop. Spaces such as Porto Fluviale had their inception through the act of occupying but their raison d’etre nowadays lies in the even more political action of producing space: should we stop saying ‘Porto Fluviale Occupation’ and naming it simpy for its current essence ‘Piazza del Porto Fluviale’?

    Many thanks to our local collaborators, Francesco Careri and Laboratorio Arti Civiche – whose preliminary work and constant insights made our workshop possible and cheerful – and warm greetings to all the inhabitants of Porto Fluviale, thanks for such a delightful week together.

    Thresholds of Liminality, Visibility, and Temporality in the Grafting of New Peripheries in Zurich: Reconnaissance from DPU summerLab

    By William N Hunter, on 14 August 2012

    What does it mean to transplant two inherently different demographic entities with different and debatable models of organisation against one another in what would otherwise be considered a current urban periphery? What would it imply, in regards to the expected evolution of a site, if the mechanism for transplanting these two entities was seen as definitively temporary and par the existenzminimum? And furthermore, if this be the situational urban problematic, what provocations can be found in critically interpretive readings and what measures should be taken in the form of alternative tactics that could increase their unspoken potential as urban generators?

    workshop group walking in Oerlikon district residential park

    These are the primary questions that formed the core investigation of the DPU summerLab Zurich held in the Swiss capital from August 6-11. The workshop, entitled Liminal Contours, under the collaboration and facilitation of the ETH Zurich, combined a series of lecture talks, exploratory city walks/site visits, and design charrette exercises. That suggestive title refers to a theme surrounding various suspect activities and alternative forms of development that, although not completely foreign or novel, still stand apart from the generally kosher character of the city and its more conservative development tendencies. It was in fact certain small divergent planning schemes that peaked particular entry points for this line of intriguing urban questioning.

    No question about it, like many cities experiencing more rapid population growth, Zurich is expanding. Specifically, the western peripheral village of Altstetten has been a focus of real estate speculation since the early 90s. However, not living up to the hype, the area still retains its neighbouring village character complete with sub-urban style park-and-shop centres. Any serenity seems set to finally change as activities set in the former urban peripheries begin to transplant there along with an expanded rail and tram station.

    containers for creative industry start-ups being moved onto the site in Altstetten

    The most apparent of these new developments is the latest incarnation of the “Basislager” (Eng. translation – basecamp), a temporary clustering of stacked custom-designed shipping container-like modules meant to house creative industry start-ups. These compact commercial containers were original erected in the Binz district and will intend to house many of the previous tenants. The last few container clusters were being shifted as we visited the site. Already on the new site in Altstetten is another similar cluster of colourful shipping containers housing asylum seekers under a municipal scheme that allows immigrants to live there until their new papers are sorted, eventually giving way to another group of refugees. Undoubtedly the most intriguing entity that will be located near the commercial units is a “Strichplatz” (legal prostitution zone). Zurich has a healthy history of prostitution, both legal and illegal, and many such manifestations still exist throughout the city. The new-found attention, outright planning and forced juxtaposition of such a suspect and debated entity next to a temporary creative zone raises some profound questions in regard to the urban problematic.

    shipping containers housing asylum seekers in Altstetten

     At the moment the site in Altstetten is in its infancy. The creative commercial containers are just now being stacked. The prostitution boxes or corrals (for a more honest label) are not yet erected. No landscaping features appear on the horizon and all indications would lead one to believe that not many will. Given the current skeleton of action on the site, the workshop participants and tutors had to look elsewhere for clues as to how these divergent activities manifest in their everyday manners. Through determined transect walks exploring various points throughout the city that contain elements of these activities, we focused primarily on two areas to provide the most generous identifiable revelations. The Langstrasse Quarter, an eclectic and diverse enclave of multicultural factions, sometimes hedonist energy, sex shops and a still apparent red light district character, was approached at different hours of the day in order to witness, in a sort of retrospective mode, how certain suspect activities have evolved and adapted over time. The Langstrasse has experienced various levels of gentrification. It’s once seedy image is wavering, yet a clear outsider reputation precedes any discussion on the area and one can easily find a healthy faction of sex workers and parallel levels of “clientele”, especially in the late hours of the night.

    entrance of the Roland Kino (erotic cinema) on the Langstrasse

    The most revealing observations were the dominating overlaps of programs in the area. An array of sex shops and erotic cinemas nestle somewhat seamlessly next to professional offices, galleries, clothing stores, kebab shops, and bars (some of which cater to the suspect trades). Here the concept of visibility vs. invisibility emerged as method of mapping and understanding the phenomenological character of the place. The idea of thresholds, the notion of public and private began to blur in different ways as one’s eyes moved from street level to a scanning of the facades of the buildings. A particularly intriguing observation was how the actual size of signage decreased as one moved away from the main high street. Signs and symbols of the sex industry would change as the residential quarters emerged in side streets, implying that a different level of acceptability occurred there.

    spatial program analysis  in the Langstrasse Quarter

    Similar former suspect areas were covered in our walks to gain further parallel understanding- including Platspitz (the former legal drug zone Needle Park) and drug/prostitution zones along the Limmat River. Although these scenes have been disbanded over 15 years ago, the historical knowledge and the layers of new activity provide interesting insight into the city’s liberal interludes. A short visit to the Binz district, the site of the former “Basislager” was a bookend to our field excursions. Here the group was able to detect a changing of the guard as the office containers were removed. What was clear is how the inhabitants of the containers had “moved in” to the site, dotting their immediate proximity with casual public amenities. This gave some hint as to how the future site in Altstetten might develop over a period of a couple of years.

    model image of proposed “Strichplatz” and “Basislager” with walled partition in between

    What emerged in the final days of production was a challenge of understand the Langstrasse Quarter and the Altstetten site across a package of thematic underpinnings. The notions of visibility, thresholds, juxtaposition, inheritance, temporary, and public formed the framework for mapping the phenomenological characteristics of these areas, hoping to reveal prioritized entry points that would elicit a sampled representation of the challenges facing the users of the future site. Recognizing a cross-cutting relationship of themes, especially in what was seen to be an odd tendency for the burgeoning creative industries and prostitution zones to always be located in peripheral settings, the framework allowed for clearer, if not still challenging transposition of observations from one site to the other. Without being able to see a finished transplanting of the activities in Altstetten, the speculation of interventions and strategies were limiting. However the process of understanding the phenomenal character and the spatialising of themes led to a more informed questioning of what it would mean to have these activities occupying neighbouring swaths of land and what tactics could lead to a critique of this situation.

    group work at ETH’s  Werk 11

    speculative critique of future activity on the Altstetten site

    Ultimately the Zurich summerLab offered the opportunity to undertake a different reading of the city from alternative perspectives, and led to a critical thinking on proposals that challenge the decisions taken by current development planning schemes. The group was able to adopt alternative methods of design research and action with the charge to rethink the processes of urban practice in a dominant political economy where such processes, activities and contours might in some way regain control of the design of the urban realm.

    Slummin’ it: The re-emergence of an ethical tourism debate

    By William N Hunter, on 27 July 2012

    Just the other day as I stood on semi-cramped tube carriage in morning rush-hour on the London Underground, passively flipping through the Metro, that bourgeois staple of just-above-the surface news periodical, I was pleasantly surprised to arrive at an article of astute guile and questioning verve. Ross McGuinness’* article on whether the concept of ‘slum tourism’ was merely a glorified exploitive cash cow or a legitimate method for enabling those individuals and communities stuck in poverty stricken conditions struck a particular chord, especially given the coincidental fact that just the evening before Film4 was screening Danny Boyle’s multi-award winning Slumdog Millionaire.

    McGuinness keenly points to that film and others such as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God and The Constant Gardener as catalysts in how cinema has had a profound universal influence on generating a newfound interest in the intriguing and somehow exotic qualities of a mostly unknown social and cultural phenomenon, at least to the rest of Western society. Despite a lack of prevalent data on the correlation between exposure through film, there is little doubt in the re-emergence or growth of travellers seeking a different kind of experience as they eschew the erstwhile daily grind of the office or the default third trip to an easy and enjoyable European capital. But what exactly are they hoping to see and find in these alternative landscapes and moreover what does it imply in regards to the how the other half- the residents of these areas- perceive this attention?

    It seems that a fortuitous parallel occurred in the sense that many of the ‘slums’ across the world that have experienced such influx of intrigue are located in glamour destinations already on the tourist map, for example cities in Brazil and South Africa, which became more accessible and certainly popular after the Apartheid. As Dr. Fabian Frenzel points out in the article, in Rio “favela tourism has almost become part of the package.” Frenzel is a lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Leicester and has just published a lengthy EU funded volume on the subject titled Slum Tourism: Poverty, Power, and Ethics* which attempts to advance the debate on the concept of slum tourism and put to rest the easy generalisations and presumptions that follow this trend.

    The big question that stems from any presumption or debate is one of whether slum tourism should be considered an exploitive mechanism for selfish capital gain or a legitimate driver and benefit for poorer populations in cities and territories in development. But this too, as Frenzel points out, is also a generalisation of the argument. For the notion of slum tourism or at least some version of it is nothing novel at all. As a revelatory note, Frenzel and McGuinness highlight the UK’s own booming experience with the concept in the 1870-80s when well-off Londoners from the West End would visit the seedy East London foxholes of Hackney and Shoreditch and draw attention to Engels’ description of Manchester’s Irish Quarter around the same time. It is also well known that New York saw a similar phenomenon all the way through the Great Depression in such storied hollows as Central Park, briefly documented in Ron Howard’s film Cinderella Man.

                                                         drawing of old London slums


    So what then is the difference now in the situation and debate surrounding the economy of slum tourism? Given the fact that in some cities the idea has existed in various forms before, there are some examples where individuals involved in this growing enterprise have implemented an arguably less exploitive methodology. As the article reveals and according to his website, for 20+years, Marcelo Armstrong has run Favela Tour in Rio. Says Armstrong, “We talk about many subjects that it’s not proper to talk about if you go to Sugarloaf Mountain or Christ the Redeemer. You just see Rio. Every new step we do something new. The tour is basically to contextualize favelas into Brazilian society. It is not a tour that only talks about favelas but about Brazilian society from another point of view.” On the surface this doesn’t sound like exploitation, but rather a more critically insightful alternative tour experience, even more than one might expect to receive at the tourist flooded landmarks of the city. To that, McGuinness pointedly asks if visitors in fact go on the tours for the right reasons. Armstrong’s response is that “Human beings are very complex. There are many motivations why they want to go there. Some may have a specific interest because they are teachers, historians, social workers or architects. Others because they want to confront what they have read about. Others have seen films.” An argument for the genuine article in this particular tour which has 1500 visitors per month is that it funds a school- highlighting the belief that education is the main way out of poverty.

                                                         favela tour, Rio


    Aside from the primary of question of ethics and benefits, it is important to ask what is wrong with ordinary individuals wanting to gain some perspective towards a subject or a reality that they themselves do not encounter on an everyday scale- that has itself been coloured up (or down) or exploited by media and film. Not every person could be thought of as a gawker and as Armstrong points out, many of the visitors have a certain level of sophisticated and clear motivation. And tours, at least like his cater to a more critical mass of individual and subject rather than object. The work of the DPU comes quickly to mind.

    Each May our various MSc courses take intriguing and somewhat exotic journeys to destinations in the Global South- i.e. Ghana, India, Ethiopia, Thailand. While the agenda is one of determined, critical and open-minded social consideration, many of our students have never spent time in such extreme conditions and there always exists a high level of debriefing and attention given to the perception we have and a clarity of what we are intending to do there. In nearly every case we are working in collaboration with community groups from within these possible slum areas, so our appearance is generally measured. Though the fact that we are there conducting research still places us square in the middle of the debate. And we are constantly questioning the benefit of our work for the communities that have taken their time to share with us the challenges they may face.

                                                         pavement dwellers in Dharavi, Mumbai


    Another significant note worth mentioning, and one that is also being revealed more and more in parallel regards to why these areas have piqued such an interest for researchers and tourists alike is the fact that despite a usually clear lack of sufficient provided infrastructure, resources, and opportunity slum communities produce some of the most fascinating informal economic systems and represent, across many societies, the truly historic and grounded ideal of the working classes, the vital aspects of society. The cultural practices and the levels of resilience in these areas is something to behold and learn from, and in the case of this type of tourism, and witness in the flesh. I can signal my own experience in Mumbai when on a day off from the field research, I had the opportunity to visit the dohbi ghats- the fantastic community clothes washing centre where millions of residents and travellers’ garments go to cycle. The children outside the gate could not have been more than excited to guide me around the inner-workings for a very nominal fee. And I was able to talk with workers about what I was doing in Mumbai and about the phenomenon and tradesmen history of the dohbi ghats. This is just one of hundreds of examples that could ripen this post and address the debate further. Unfortunately this admittance will be for another day.

                                                         dohbi ghats in Mumbai, India


    But, this brings up a point in that if slum tourism continues to grow, it should arguably be harnessed from within these communities. It may be a fine line, but there is a difference between exploitation, even self-exploitation and the sharing of culture. As the debate rages on and discourse and research is built around the subject, slum tourism can be seen as urban tactic formed around local trades and culture and most certainly can act as a catalyst for prompting wider strategy, whether that sits in education initiatives or physical environment upgrading. Practitioners and those individuals with knowledge in the tourism industry and likewise steeped in local knowledge have a responsibility to jump on the potential, if and/or before it is appropriated. In an ideal scenario, the local slum communities and socially-minded professionals would come to define the paradigm. If this is slow in formation, according to Ko Koens of the Slum Tourism Network and part of the research team with Fabian Frenzel, at least “if done in a respectful way that actively tries to benefit the local communities, it can help inhabitants gain income and pride. On the other hand, issues of access and power abuse may mean only a limited number of people benefit.” So continues the conundrum…


    Ross McGuiness’ article Slum tourism: A cynical cash cow or a helping hand to those in poverty? appeared in the Metro 11 July 2012
     Dr. Fabian Frenzel’s Slum Tourism: Poverty, Power, and Ethics is out now through Routledge
    Marcelo Armstrong’s Favel Tour Rio can be found at /