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    Subjective realities in divided Nicosia

    By Camila Cocina Varas, on 13 December 2017

    As part of the DPU summerLab workshop series, the workshop “Inhabiting Edges” took place in Nicosia, Cyprus, during September 2017. The workshop was led by Camila Cociña and Ricardo Martén (DPU) and Silvia Covarino (Girne American University), and aimed to explore and critically understand the history and politics of Cyprus’ borders, navigating the complexities of the last divided capital city in Europe. In this series of two blogs, Bethania Soriano and Sharon Ayalon -participants of the workshop- reflect on subjective realities, developmental disparities, and regeneration processes in divided Nicosia.

    Part 1 can be viewed here.

    By Bethania Soriano and Sharon Yavo Yalon

    This post draws from our DPU SummerLab experience in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, which is considered the last divided city in Europe.

    The SummerLab provided the opportunity to challenge preconceived notions of the oversimplified reality that centres around a dichotomised conflict pitting Greek-Cypriot against Turkish-Cypriot. By engaging with the materiality of the city and its social networks, we attempted to uncover nuances and complexities in a context of deep-seated division, territorial and politico-ideological contestation. We were interested in framing division and its impact from the standpoint of the actors that cross Nicosia’s visible and invisible thresholds in an attempt to meet the ‘other’, forming unlikely allegiances to build a sense of identity that bridges fault lines in their landscape. Thus, we conducted fieldwork, collecting different perceptions on belonging and uncovering particularly situated narratives.

    Exploring both sides of the divided city, we recognised that the agents who productively engage with difference were mostly young artists, not only from the expected majoritarian ethnic groups, but from an international expatriate community that congregate in Cyprus. As a young musician told us:

    “My father is Cypriot; I grew up in Colombia, Chicago and then in Cyprus.

    People from all over the world live here. This is Cyprus – we are cluster-f***ed.” 1

    Thus, we discovered shared spaces of ‘encounter’ such as the two twinned cafes, Hoi Polloi in the north, and Kala Kathoumena in the south, as the gathering places of the artistic community on each side of the buffer zone – areas emblematic of tolerance and sought-after common ground. The informal interviews conducted in these spaces highlighted, in the evocative and charged language used by the interviewees, the importance of capturing voices beyond the well-known register – those whose stories will not feature as officially promoted, sanctioned narratives.

    Location of café’s and interviewees routes showing southerners crossing to the north and vice versa.

    When asked to comment on the prevailing mentalities from people in the north and south, a young British-Filipino singer articulated her thoughts in a candid way, disconcerting in its lyrical tone:

    “… the south is a ‘rock’, whereas the north is like ‘air’.

    In the north people are chaotic, relaxed, middle-eastern… when we play, they dance and smile back at you. In the south people are serious and philosophical, more reserved and conservative… and really scarred by what happened.” 2

    Reflecting on the young woman’s comments, the south is portrayed anchored in the solidity and rigidity of the perceptions and views of its inhabitants; in the reaffirming and reinforcing of memories and official narratives of occupation and suffered injuries.

    “In the cover of all school notebooks, there are these slogans – ‘Do not forget’. The school books are all branded, so we are constantly reminded…” 3

    Whereas in the north, the rarefied and ephemeral re-imaginings of identity and belonging are expressed in the ways people wish to highlight and confront narratives of prejudice:

    “People from the south think in the north you can get raped… they [Turkish-Cypriots] will steal your children.” 4

    Motivated by the need for political survival against the longstanding embargo and isolation from the international community, many Turkish-Cypriots are interested in carving a sense of collective Cypriot identity that includes southerners. Even if that involves selective forgetting of past injuries, some are choosing to ‘draw a breath of fresh air’ in order to survive:

    “…it is important to move from a narrative of  ‘This is who we are’, to a narrative of ‘We do not know who we will become’… ” 5

    However, across Nicosia diverse voices can be heard. Alongside few Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots who dared to venture beyond rigid confines and shed some of the values of their communities, others were conflicted:

    “Now I realise that I only had half a childhood – I only met half the people I could have… only made half the friends… only had half the experiences.” 6

    “I tried to cross with my friend and we walked all the way… but when my friend saw Ataturk [statues] and all the [Turkish] flags he got scared and turned back.” 7

    “Before the [Ledras Street] crossing, people never thought the south was so ‘close’ – there was an initial shock; then the shock of all the similarities!” 8

    Hoi Polloi in the north, and Kala Kathoumena in the south.

    In conclusion, the quotes reproduced above testify to the individuals’ ingenious capacities to articulate, negotiate, ascribe meaning and ultimately either normalise or contest the ‘everyday’. Their struggles for belonging co-exist with the need to develop and affirm an identity, breaking away from any restrictive ‘cluster’ to reclaim their place in the city. Whilst examining Nicosia’s overlapping, subjective realities, we learned that identity is not necessarily bound by place, but it is relational and situated – it can only be conceived in regard to the material reality of place and its sustaining social networks. Identity is also fluid and in constant transformation.

     

    1.  Young Colombian-Cypriot man who grew up in the United States and Cyprus; artist.
    2.  Young British-Filipino woman, in Cyprus for the past 17 years; living in south Nicosia and working as an artist and singer in north Nicosia.
    3.  Young Greek-Cypriot aspiring artist, living in the south and frequenting the artists’ cafés in north Nicosia.
    4.  Turkish-Cypriot male student, commuting from Kyrenia/ Girne into north Nicosia.
    5.  Dean of Architecture, Design & Fine Arts at Girne American University, Assoc. Prof Dr Mehmet Adil,

    addressing participants of the SummerLab.

    6 and 7.  Young Greek-Cypriot man, living in south Nicosia and often visiting the north side.

    1. Mayor of North Nicosia, Mehmet Harmancı, addressing participants of the SummerLab.

     

    Bethania Soriano is an independent researcher based in London, particularly focused on the politics of contested spaces – the ways in which people negotiate the environments they inhabit, adapting, reclaiming and ultimately shaping space by virtue of their everyday practices. She studies areas with long-established ‘geographies of difference’, in contexts of conflict transformation, and where minorities strive for spatial justice and social inclusion.

    Bethania trained as an Architect and Urban Designer in Southern Brazil and holds an MSc in City Design and Social Science with distinction, from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

     

    Sharon Yavo Yalon is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, based in Haifa. Her research enfolds the linkage between art and urbanism and the manner in which local identity, spatial (in)justice and social (ex-in)clusion are forged or  deconstructed by artistic activity in cities. More specifically, she focuses on artistic interventions in contested cities and the ways in which they affect and are affected by urban segregation patterns and boundaries. Sharon is a practicing architect and artist, graduated summa cum laude BA and MSc in Architecture and Town Planning from the Technion IIT.

    Universal design in a divided world: The young architects building urban resilience through social inclusivity

    By Cindy Huang, on 4 October 2016

    It’s hardly arguable that one of the most prevalent human activities is picking sides.  From ethnic conflicts down to people’s taste in music, the world finds itself divided – by nationalism, classism, other-isms or simply a difference of opinion.  And amid the Brexit aftershocks and cries over racial violence in the States, amid the broken trust and broken spirits flooding our news channels, where does the term “universal” stand?  How can we, in these circumstances, imagine a unified vision to take care of each other?

    Although the built environment has a way of reinforcing social divisions, whether through gender-specific bathrooms or communities ghettoised by gentrification, it can also host spaces that inspire solidary over status, and spaces that actively embrace the most excluded people of our societies.  Today, pockets of planners and architects work to promote a less socially divided world, and some of them are doing it through universal design.

    Universal design, defined

    Often presumed as design for people with disabilities, universal design actually embraces a much broader definition.  It is “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”[1]  In other words, it tries to befriend as many as possible – selfish in a selfless way.  It assumes all people have disabilities to some extent;[2] just as we gain abilities with age, we also lose abilities – whatever “normal” is on this spectrum will always be trend-related and misguided.

    The term was coined by Ronald L. Mace, an American architect who at age nine contracted polio, became a wheelchair user, and in his twenties had to be carried up and down the stairs at university.[3]  It was perhaps forecasted, then, that he would help institute the first accessibility building codes in the United States in 1973, which went on to influence national policies including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.[4]  During this period he also founded what is now the Centre for Universal Design at New Carolina University.

    His legacy not only etched a space of dialogue for disability discrimination but also raised the question of what constitutes social norms to a new height.  “Unfortunately,” Mace said in a speech, “designers in our society also mistakenly assume that everyone fits this definition of ‘normal.’ This just is not the case.”[5]

     

    Young Ronald L. Mace (source); Mace later in life as an architect (source)

    Young Ronald L. Mace (source); Mace later in life as an architect (source)

     

    Mace’s work evolved from recognising people’s differences to harmonising them – from disability design (focused on the inclusion of one group) to universal design (embracing all individuals’ differences).  The strength in universal design is that it simply acknowledges human diversity.  With no technical guidelines, it serves as a new reference point for practitioners, informed by anthropological understanding – sort of like a social justice challenge.

     

    No rules attached

    Tar-Saeng Studio, an offshoot of the collective Openspace with whom I’m working in Bangkok as part of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme, is helping to grow universal design into Thai society.  Using participatory approaches channelled through the comforts of informality, they create spaces attentive to the often overlooked needs of elderly people and people with disabilities, who live on low-incomes or in poverty.  The studio is run by a small group of community architects who are in their mid-twenties to early thirties.  They represent a new generation of practitioners building urban resilience through inclusive design—both in product and process.

    When I chatted with Tar-Saeng Studio founder Ploy Kasama Yamtree about universal design, I found it interesting that their work is largely dependent on the country’s institutional gaps.  “In Thailand, universal design is still linked to regulations, like the correct ratio for a ramp or handrail,” Ploy said, “But when you go into people’s bamboo houses, you see it’s not possible to have the 1:12 ratio because people just don’t have that type of space.”

    Conveniently, building codes go unenforced in most remote or slum areas of Thailand, giving Ploy’s team creative freedom to shape genuinely usable spaces for those who need them.  “We go and figure out what we can do without following the rules,” she explained, “We are more interested in adaptive design.”

    There’s a very human approach to all this.  Building codes unquestionably play a role in keeping our societies safe, but like with anything institutionalised they can be restrictive to the ever-changing contexts.  Tar-Saeng Studio chooses to carry out their work—safely and strategically—whether it adheres to the legal systems or not, for they do it to solve problems, not to abide by the confines that sustain problems.

    And in the process they are making a point – “When we design and don’t follow building codes because it’s impossible to, it’s a statement we’re putting out there that these building codes need to change,” Ploy said.

    Tar-Saeng Studio works with vulnerable populations to provide living environments suited to their needs. (Photo: Openspace)

    Tar-Saeng Studio works with vulnerable populations to provide living environments suited to their needs. (Photo: Openspace)

     

    Designing for Thai society

    Before Tar-Saeng Studio was established, Openspace worked in some of Thailand’s poorest communities and noticed this widespread but untrodden issue.  In 2013, about 7.3 million people in Thailand lived below the poverty line, and another 6.7 million were at risk of falling below it.[6]  For these people, access to safe shelter is already a struggle.  Thailand is also the world’s third most rapidly aging country with more than 10 percent of people over 64 years old,[7] and it’s projected that by 2040 this number will jump to 25 percent—that’s one in every four people.[8]  And of the near 2 million people with disabilities,[9] almost 40 percent are above the age of 64.[10]   Adapting for an aging society in Thailand with increasing cases of disabilities is just smart planning, yet no one was doing it.

    The first time Openspace actively applied universal design was in 2011, or as people here call it “flood year” – referring to the floods that caused 884 deaths and an estimated loss of 45.7 billion USD.[11]  In a riverside community in Pathum Thani province, elderly people felt uncatered for in the local amenities.  The goal was to create a space in which they can socialise, exercise, and spend time in.  More importantly, a space where they can connect with each other and lead healthier lives, and where the inherent vulnerabilities from unwanted isolation can dissipate over time.

    Openspace worked side by side with the local people, like a true partnership.  Using low-cost materials like discarded bamboo and motorcycle tyres from nearby shops, they made an area consisting of benches at varying heights, a hanging garden, and an exercise station—it was modest, useful, beautiful.  The benches aimed to connect the elderly with the children; the hanging garden had attached platforms for stretching legs; the exercise station held removable weights made of stones stored in bamboo.  Everything served a purpose in bettering older people’s lives.  Equally as valuable were the skills gained and relationships reinforced within the community, and perhaps a proud sense of ownership to something they collectively brought to life.

    A few months later came the floods during which the structures were destroyed.  Ploy heard that after the water subsided, the community rebuilt the space.  “It was really nice to hear,” she said.

    Community members weaving a bench seat with recycled tyres for a socialising/exercising space for elderly people; the space being exhibited; the hanging garden on site of the community (Photos: Tar-Saeng Studio)

    Community members weaving a bench seat with recycled tyres for a socialising/exercising space for elderly people; the space being exhibited; the hanging garden on site of the community (Photos: Tar-Saeng Studio)

     

    Eager to pursue universal design with greater commitment, Openspace partnered with the Institute of Health Promotion for People with Disability, a government entity, on a four-month project involving seventeen people with disabilities living in underprivileged conditions.  Most of them were in rural housing unfit for accessibility building codes, and couldn’t afford the “standard” equipment for their needs.  This is the reality; affordability should be integral to accessibility but disability-focused design can be expensive, leaving out those who are poor.

    Openspace visited the seventeen people across two provinces.  Case by case, they studied the clients’ health and living conditions then came up with low-cost design solutions, published in an illustrative book titled Differently-Abled Architecture.  It includes people with cerebral palsy, paraplegia, hemiplegia, deafness, blindness, and mobility difficulties from diabetes.

    In one case, they created an “at-home playground” for an eight-year-old boy with cerebral palsy that allowed him to stretch different parts of his body and aid the development of his muscles and joints.  It was constructed from bamboo, rubber tyres and concrete.  Another project was a “DIY horizontal toilet” built into wooden floors, and beneath it sat a plastic bucket connected to pipes, a hose, and a water tap.  It was for a client who couldn’t sit up but was perfectly capable of moving around in his own ways; he just needed an environment suited to his methods of self-reliance.

    These projects underscored the basis of universal design – understanding the concept of “normal” as shifting with the users, all of whom differ.

    Ploy measuring the hand of an eight-year-old client with cerebral palsy; drawings of the “at-home playground” shown in Differently-Abled Architecture. (Photos: Openspace)

    Ploy measuring the hand of an eight-year-old client with cerebral palsy; drawings of the “at-home playground” shown in Differently-Abled Architecture. (Photos: Openspace)

     

    What Ploy grasped at the end of the four months was the dismally isolated nature of these cases.  These were just seventeen of 2 million people with disabilities in Thailand, who happened to be among the poorest populations, divorced from public assistance.  There was no space in which they can support each other, no platform on which they can be heard, and no signs of progress towards their inclusivity.

    “I decided that in our next projects we wouldn’t do it the same way,” Ploy said, “Instead we will combine many cases.  A process of building together, and taking care of each other, would be better.”

     

    “Lit Eyes”

    At this point, in 2013, Ploy set up Tar-Saeng Studio, a private entity detached from government organisations—detached from politics, a precarious area of discussion in Thailand—aimed to mainstream universal design into Thai society.  The word tar saeng means “lit eyes” in Thai and “community” or “villages” in Laos, chosen to give familiarity to local people (whereas Openspace, a mishmash of English design jargon, means little to many).  Through Tar-Saeng Studio, Ploy would advocate for the inclusion of vulnerable populations to built environment practices.

    But she also acknowledges it won’t be easy.  The concept of universal design is still alien to most, and when it does ring a bell to some it’s often perceived as an extra luxury, covered by extra costs, sacrificed from the “real” necessities.  Trying to convince poorer communities to embrace universal design principles has been tough.  Many say they simply don’t see the point; meanwhile Ploy would watch them struggle to move around their homes.

    She realised it will take a lot more awareness raising before implementation can go full force, and decided to keep the message simple, which was, “Look, there are no rules.  It’s about knowing your own resources and adapting to your environment.”

    Since then, Tar-Saeng Studio has undertaken a series of projects ranging from low-cost furniture making to hospital design.  Their outputs are always based on inclusive design principles, and their processes on participatory empowerment. They’ve also published and distributed books to institutions and the wider public, and held training workshops in small communities.  It is Ploy’s hope for Tar-Saeng to become a social enterprise one day, with income from private sector clients subsidising projects for poor communities.  “It’s very important to connect with people doing similar things from different sectors,” she mentioned, “You can’t really do this alone.”

    Tar-Saeng Studio holding a community workshop in Ching Rai on universal design for public space. (Photo: Tar-Saeng Studio)

    Tar-Saeng Studio holding a community workshop in Ching Rai on universal design for public space. (Photo: Tar-Saeng Studio)

     

    What this means for urban resilience

    The floods of 2011 brought great devastation across Thailand.  People lost their homes, they felt desperate, they wanted answers.  This triggered a well-needed public dialogue on urban resilience and climate change adaptation; like a newcomer experiencing culture shock, Thailand had struggled to cope with these new waves of events and adapt to a new language through which to understand them.  So this was a good step.

    A city’s urban resilience is characterised by its social and physical capacity to take on different types of pressures, endure through them, and recover from them.[12]  Whether hit by an earthquake or economic recession, things like governance, ecosystem balance, physical infrastructure, social services, and community support networks, all determine how a city bounces back.  Conversations around urban resilience in Thailand, however, remain primarily on physical infrastructure, while social capacity—people’s knowledge, mental and physical health, and resourcefulness during a time of crisis—have remained more or less a faded backdrop.

    Ploy’s decision to focus on universal design, she told me, has everything to do with building urban resilience in Thailand.  People are aging, losing abilities, living in poverty, and some need particular types of assistance.  The fluctuating climate is also adding to these stresses.  She said, “What we’re doing is planning for the future, for the environment that’s always changing.”  Tar-Saeng Studio is proving that building adaptive environments through participatory approaches can increase social capacity by minimising vulnerabilities and strengthening communities.  Their next goal is to demonstrate that these grassroots activities can be scaled-up to the regional and national levels.

    It’s as if Mace predicted the volatile state of the world today and decided to send a note to the future.  In a 1998 speech he said, “I’m not sure it’s possible to create anything that’s universally usable…We use that term because it’s the most descriptive of what the goal is, [which is] something people can live with and afford.”[13]  What seemed like a vague statement then has become significant in today’s social practice.  I’ve noticed that Ploy rarely speaks about disability, elderly, or po-poor focused designs as independent from each other, but instead she talks about making environments inclusive to everyone.  Now I understand how she’s running with Mace’s words.  But it’s not that these things—disability, elderly, pro-poor focused designs—always go together either.  I guess universal design is like a head-to-toe winter outfit that you modify according to the weather that day.  You just need to check the forecast to make the best decision.

    As Mace wrapped up his last speech, at a New York conference in 1998, he said, “We are all learning from each other in a wonderful way and need to continue what we have started here—communication and the exchange of ideas and experience.”  And eighteen years later, reading his words were a small group of young architects in a traditional Thai house, lying on the floor, scribbling away, planning for the future.

     

    References:

    [1] Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, 2012. What is Universal Design. [online] Available at: <http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design>
    [2] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>
    [3] Saxon, W., 1998. Ronald L. Mace, 58, Designer Of Buildings Accessible to All. [online] 12 July. Available at: <http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/13/us/ronald-l-mace-58-designer-of-buildings-accessible-to-all.html?_r=0>
    [4] Center for Universal Design (2008) About the Center: Ronald L. Mace. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmace.htm>
    [5] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>
    [6]
    The World Bank, 2016. Thailand: Overview. [online] Washington: The World Bank Group. Available at: <http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/thailand/overview>
    [7]
    HelpAge International, 2014. Aging population in Thailand. [online] Available at: <http://ageingasia.org/ageing-population-thailand1/>
    [8] The World Bank, 2016. Aging in Thailand – Addressing unmet health needs of the elderly. [online] 8 April. Available at: <http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2016/04/08/aging-in-thailand—addressing-unmet-health-needs-of-the-elderly-poor>
    [9] International Labour Organization, 2009. Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Thailand [pdf fact sheet] International Labour Organization.
    [10] Thongkuay, S., 2016. People with Disabilities – Thailand Country Profile [draft report 2016].
    [11]
    Impact Forecasting LLC, 2012. 2011 Thailand Floods Event Recap Report Impact Forecasting. Chicago: Aon Corporation, p.3.
    [12] 100 Resilient Cities, 2016. What is Urban Resilience? [online] Available at: <http://100resilientcities.org/resilience>
    [13] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>


     Cindy Huang is an alumna of MSc UDP and a participant of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme, currently working on community-driven development projects with Openspace and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights network in Thailand.

    Shifting Perspectives – A reflection on the use of video in the field

    By David McEwen, on 23 August 2016

    The lens is an eye. Video and photography offer a unique opportunity to represent or share a situation, an event, a person, a moment in time. Within the context of academia and research, where it can be far too easy to dilute a point through a mass of text or statistics (or big words), these mediums serve as infinitely powerful and diverse tools to reflect on a particular subject (or no subject at all).

    IMG_4423

    Through my experience on the field, I have viewed the capacities of video in a few different, interrelated ways: as a documentary, evidence gathering tool; as a democratising force, a platform with which to share hidden or silent perspectives; as a tool for advocacy, support and ‘legitimisation’. As three broad categories, these ultimately refer to the opportunity to craft a certain narrative to, one that engages with the senses on a scale that other mediums cannot. You see the sights of the cameraman, you hear what and who they hear, you feel what they feel.

    Working with local communities on our field-trip to Cambodia (as part of the BUDD masters), we used video to document the results of participatory design workshops we ran alongside community members. This proved valuable as a resource to draw from during presentations in front of key local and national government officials, demonstrating the success of our participatory planning pilot and suggesting a potential future for participation within the planning system. Similarly, while on the field in Uganda, I worked alongside local NGO ACTogether to document community planning meetings in which participatory exercises were conducted to attempt to address the issue of flooding. The video and media content produced as part of these meetings is invaluable in not only sharing the general aims and methodology of the NGO, but in legitimising its efforts, providing firsthand evidence of its work, efficacy and influence.

    IMG_5407

    The value of crafting a narrative is particularly felt when viewing video as a democratising tool, as an amplifier for those voices unheard. Within the context of London, I have used documentary films as a platform with which to express and elucidate the concerns of various community groups fighting juggernaut developers and regeneration proposals. The typical structure for participation within the planning system does not offer many opportunities to voice objections and concerns, and where present, they remain particularly formal and confined. Creating films and sharing them online, we were able to share and voice our views to a much wider audience than would otherwise be available and generate greater opportunities for discussion than standard methods for participation would allow. This felt particularly empowering as we were able to craft a message within boundaries set by ourselves, rather than an outside agent.

    IMG_5200

    The freedom offered by the last case is something that deserves greater reflection as it is not something that will necessarily be available in situations where video and media is tasked with representing the views of others in research and academic work. There is an inherent bias and degree of manipulation involved in the creation of video/film/photography; this is its greatest asset and weakness. In an academic or research context (perhaps in every context), it is important to meditate on the role of the photographer/videographer, how they may be shaping or influencing their surroundings and the material they record, and consequently the role of the editor or curator, tasked with weaving a particular narrative or message. Questions of fidelity and authenticity are necessary at each of these stages to avoid the potential of misrepresenting or distorting a subject. I am afraid I have no concrete answers though; the ultimate beauty of the medium lies in its ability to be interpreted in many different ways: to portray the right and the wrong, the easy and the hard, the simple and the contradictory, all at the same time.

     

    My final advice:

     

    Think, record, then think again.


    David McEwen is a filmmaker and architect, a recent graduate of the BUDD masters programme, with an interest in design and democratic spatial practices. His work has included the production of documentaries on development processes in Cambodia and Uganda and more recently the representation and advocacy of minority ethnic interests in urban design and planning practices in London.

    Life at the edge: reflecting on Calais, borders and camps

    By Ricardo Marten Caceres, on 26 April 2016

    Two weeks ago, as part of a preliminary research supported by the Urban Transformation and Social Diversity clusters, a DPU group visited Calais and Dunkirk to better understand the dynamics around refugee camps in Europe, particularly ‘The Jungle’ camp close to the border checkpoint. We visited a few sites and met with activists and NGOs currently engaged in humanitarian or logistical responses; this brief piece is an initial reflection on our visit.

     

    In the past months, it has become frequent to find accounts of life in the Jungle from different perspectives: its spatial implications, the plight of individual life stories, the political dynamics around it, the impact it has on Calais’ citizens. The Jungle has become the most mediatised camp in northern Europe for many reasons, to the point where its semantic value has been stretched and fitted into multiple narratives. On the one hand, it serves anti-immigration supporters as the perfect example of a problem exploding beyond control, the arrival of lawlessness right at the gates of jurisdiction, with the implicit suggestion that European values (whatever those may be) stand before a cultural clash that may break them apart for good. On the other, it has raised awareness on the transformative wave of migration that currently crosses the continent; thousands upon thousands of people fleeing their countries searching for a better life and the illusion of opportunity, in need for help and support along the way. Of course, reality lies somewhere in between these views because migration, camps and border control are not homogenous blocks with absolute variables of exchange.

    Container camp in The Jungle

    Container camp in The Jungle

    At the heart of the current Jungle camp, there is a new government-sponsored container camp hosting nearly 700 refugees. Its sanitized white aesthetic stands in sharp contrast to the slum-like informality of the surrounding group of densely packed shelters. Those who live in the new camp have to comply with fingerprint scanners in order to enter one of the three checkpoints, all set up with security rooms, metallic gates and narrow, rotating barred doors that only function if the registered hand palm has been identified by the device. The container camp has no real social life, as it lacks social spaces and, fundamentally, has no area for cooking in the shelters. The administrator of the camp, La Vie Active, is an NGO that has little experience with either camp management or with supporting vulnerable refugee populations, having focused on elderly care initiatives. Yet this is the NGO contracted by the local government to make of this typology an example of a successful intervention, one that appeases the local citizen’s concern while implying the authorities remain in control of the situation.

    While South and Eastern Europe are filled with all sorts of camp typologies (from humanitarian shelter compounds to detention centres) dealing with millions of refugees, this tiny region in Northern France is struggling to find an adequate response with the few thousands that make it here. At Grand-Synthe, Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) has recently built and opened a camp in partnership with the local authorities. Driven by the local mayor’s desperation at the lack of governmental support, this camp currently hosts around 1500 refugees in rows of identical wooden shelters. MSF were given the right to buy the land, taking over the whole construction process and delivering the camp in three months. Regardless of this camp’s constraints and limitations, it shows light on the paradoxical state of humanitarian response: Grand-Synthe is a more inclusive, strategic solution than the Jungle’s new container camp and yet it is an anomaly because it came from political will and institutional support. Despite its constraints, this camp’s original vision is anchored on basic solidarity principles, and its construction signalled to its dwellers an acknowledgement, however limited, that their agency was recognised.

    Emergency tents at the Jungle & MSF Camp Grande-Synthe

    Emergency tents at the Jungle & MSF Camp Grande-Synthe

    Visiting these camps in order to build grand overarching conclusions is an exercise in futility, not because it is impossible, but because it is a disservice to the complexity in place. The jaded, introspective learning process of young volunteers who, in a matter of months, have dealt with troublesome issues around human right violations and basic needs, reflect a problematic that transcends specific camp design or typological debates. This is a humanitarian crisis at the core, about people in movement following chaotic patterns and transforming the spatial axes out of elemental urgencies. The urban, spatial responses appear to be always one step behind, reactionary instead of thoughtful, punitive instead of engaging. Planning has been eroded from political dialogue and established camps have fallen, at least in character, into monocultural instruments of control, becoming the designated spaces of illusory social corrections.

     

    The local bookstore in The Jungle has maps where refugees have pinned and drawn their personal trajectories from their place of departure all the way to Calais. Next to the pins are post-it notes describing the time spent at different countries; months of displacement that brought them closer to the UK. In that context, where distances travelled and experiences acquire an additional power by being diagrammed, the Jungle feels like a brevity, an impasse that will be sorted one way or another. At least that seems to be part of the collective ideal. Proximity can play with illusions easily, because despite the layers of security and the implacable transparency of the border’s militarization, the destination is almost at reach. To the north of the camp are a set of barely usable emergency tents, marking the edge of the Jungle proper. A stretch of thick marshland follows, a few meters later the beach, then the sea, and beyond them the infinite imaginaries constructed for weeks and months; a conclusion of innumerable journeys drifting away.

     

    This process is now part of the European reality, reminding us that migration, cultural assimilation, and the legacies of war are permanently shaping our perceptions about society and space. And in that spirit, we are eager to continue this research, in an effort to further understand the intricacies surrounding this unparalleled period of continental transformation.


    Ricardo Marten Caceres is an architect and urban designer, graduated from the Technological Institute of Costa Rica (ITCR) and with an MSc degree from BUDD. He has worked as an architect in between studies, leading a studio practice in Costa Rica focused on residential projects, as well as being partner in a design practice based in Germany working with several NGOs in Haiti, the Philippines and Tanzania. His academic interests lie in the urban dynamics between informal settlements and territorial variables. Ricardo’s current PhD candidacy looks to examine these elements, particularly focusing on the urban legacy of official spaces of exception and the resulting informal counter-narratives.

    Meeting the Change Maker Painters: Street Messages in Accra, Ghana

    By Claire Tunnacliffe, on 20 April 2016

    The first experience of a city is a disorientating introduction of smells, sound, temperature and touch. It is primarily sensorial. Before you can get your bearings, your body reacts, attunes, listens, smells, and looks.

    I’ve been fascinated about the use of the wall as a tool for communication and transformation, and while I’ve known from previous visits to Accra that there were messages inscribed on the walls, I had never paid close enough attention to them, the walls passing by in a whir of taxi windows, going from place A to B. This time it would be about following the surfaces, not about the destination but the in between.

    Accra’s visual landscape is dominated by signage; Ghanaians express and shape their culture through this, as common as the informal flows that dominate the city. Signs stating ‘Do Not Urinate Here’, ‘Post No Bills’ sit alongside adverts for Indomie, Glo and Juvita. School walls are decorated with children playing and learning. Billboards advertise religious services, skin care and weight loss. In and amongst this, businesses paint the front of their shop with illustrations of their services and products.

    Figure 1: Signage, Hospital Road

    Figure 1: Signage, Hospital Road

     

    Hash-Tags

    On Accra’s main roads in and around the city, messages become slightly more political, more patriotic. On November 7th 2016, Ghana will have another election, and the surfaces along the streets are covered in posters for party leaders and tags. Ghana is a multi-party system but either the National Democratic Congress or the New Patriotic Party largely dominates it, with any other party finding it difficult to achieve electoral success. However, along these main roads is the repetitive scrawl: #GHANAGOESGREEN #TOTALSUPPORT #NEWREGISTERSTOVOTE or SAVE GHANA. A retort to the current election process and another party, the Convention People’s Party, a socialist political party based on the ideas of the first President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah. After a bit of digging online, I learn that #ghanagoesgreen isn’t based on green party politics, but rather for Ivor Greenstreet, a candidate standing for Presidential Election in 2016.

    Figure 2: #GHANAGOESGREEN, Ring Road Central

    Figure 2: #GHANAGOESGREEN, Ring Road Central

     

    These hash-tags straddle two existences between public space and cyber space, a tactic used by political parties, musicians and other businesses. While many people do have phones, what part of the demographic accesses the Internet? Do these tags predominantly exist online or offline?

     

    Murals

    I met Larry, who co-founded Nima: Muhinmanchi Art (NMA), a grassroots organisation that provides art workshops to youth, beautifying communities through public art and promoting urban renewal through culture. Larry tells me how he sees mural paintings as an opportunity to transform everyday spaces, empowering local communities and how it’s a powerful tool to changing the perception of Nima. Nima, is a dense, vibrant and ethnically diverse residential area in Accra, made popular by a large market. It is a stigmatized area, external perceptions have created prejudice and cultural barriers to the rest of the city, and as a result, it has become a city within a city – with its own authorities, rules and policing, undergoing its own development, driven and enforced by its inhabitants.

     

    Larry is passionate about the power of art as transformative, calling the artists in NMA the Change Maker Painters. I ask him about the mural making process and he explains that it begins with a visibility study, to identify a surface that has the most footfall followed by a conversation with the community; including chiefs, the wall owner and households in the immediate vicinity. He presents what he has noticed about the area or what other people have raised with him – the murals act as a vehicle to talk about issues; child labour, waste, and politics. The murals, are subjects of conversation before, during and after their production, with people stopping to talk and ask questions, and share their own experiences. He tells me about a mural that the NMA did after Accra was devastated by a flood and explosion in 2015 that saw the loss of 150 lives. They decided to paint a mural along Kanda Highway to stress the importance of waste management, one of the main causes found for the flood that had blocked drainage systems. As a result, people clean their drains outside their homes and in their community more frequently than when they are just blocked, creating more preventative methods of avoiding another flood.

     

    I meet with Rufai Zakari, an artist, in his studio in Nima, and I ask him why he has made the transition to murals, “Art contributes to positive change. But also introduces something African into the street art scene. My community, which I promised to help with my profession, needs this. I am a child of that community and I use art to change the perception of it, but also to fight for my country and continent”. In March 2015, he set up with other street artists GrafArt GH, a group of young artists from Ghana with the aim of using art to address issues facing the African continent & also to promote Ghanaian art & culture to the rest of the world. Rufai explains that to him, art is a multidimensional tool, to change peoples view of the area, to beautify, but also as a platform for change and awareness raising.

     

    Art movements in these contexts are therefore less about the individual, about the money, than they are about the collective, the community, so that everyone grows and learns together. These Change Maker Painters, see themselves occupying two roles, one within their own communities, painting the inner bellies of the walls and communal courtyards to address very localised problems, but also more widely in the streets of Accra, drawing attention to who they are, to changing the perception of their community, to showing Ghanaians and the world their art.

     

    Figure 3: Flood & Fire, Kanda Highway

    Figure 3: Flood & Fire, Kanda Highway

    Accra is a creative and dynamic city, its visual landscape a thick tapestry of politics, social, environmental and economic messages. From the religious billboards that dominate much of the main roads, to the upcoming elections, the hash-tags that flicker past moving vehicles, to the Ghanaian flag which is bold and colourful, to the murals in communities and the art festivals in the streets of Accra more widely. There are therefore many ways in which street messages are communicated to the city and its inhabitants, orchestrated by individuals, communities, businesses, artists and politicians. While their intent and agency may vary, the wall is a space for appropriation, discussion and transformation, and as one artist pointed out to me as, “if there are no walls, we will build the wall, to share our message”.

    Figure 4: Bird, Jamestown

    Figure 4: Bird, Jamestown

    Many thanks to NMA for opening up their studios and selves to my questions – and personally to Larry, Musah, Rufai and Kamal. I extend also a big thank you to Samoa, for taking me on a tour of Jamestown, exploring the route of Chale Wote. Thank you to Victoria Okoye from African Urbanism, for the contacts, resources & tilapia.


    Claire is a DPU MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Alumni. Since graduating in 2012, she continues to research the role of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences. She is a PhD student at the Bartlett School of Architecture exploring street messages in West African urbanism. However, her interests are interdisciplinary; community engagement, urban street art, public interest design, sustainable development, town planning, creative cities, art psychotherapy, mental health, the psychodynamics of public spaces, and their impact on place making in the city. All images taken by Claire Tunnacliffe.

    The Ties That (un)Bind: Affect and Organisation in the Bosnia-Herzegovina Protests, 2014

    By Giulia Carabelli, on 11 December 2015

    In this post, I discuss the preliminary results of my ongoing research on the 2014 mass protests in Bosnia Herzegovina (BiH). Overall, I am interested in the production and articulation of these spaces of rebellion by considering their ‘affective atmospheres’, which means that I am curious about the effects that affect have in the production of socio-spatial relations. In particular, I look at rage, anger, but especially hope as a way to understand how spaces of “togetherness” came to be created during the protests in a country where both “being together” and “occupying public spaces” represent major political and social issues in their own right.

    1: Protests in Sarajevo, February 2014 by abzur licensed under CC BY 2.0

    1: Protests in Sarajevo, February 2014 by abzur licensed under CC BY 2.0

    When the protests started in Tuzla, in February 2014 international media and journalists wrote extensively about hope and anger as unifying forces leading toward a potential future of peaceful coexistence among divided communities, and thus hinting at the power of these affects to create new spaces of political engagement. According to such accounts, people temporarily overcame established patterns of hatred for the “ethnic other” due to an affective displacement created by the much stronger hatred they shared for the corrupt political class. Although this is a simplistic and problematic view, particularly the erroneous – though widespread – assumption that territorial segregation and social divisions are the result of citizens’ ‘eternal hatred’ of ‘the other’ (rather than the result of specific political and economic conflicts among a range of national and international actors) it is nevertheless true that the atmosphere of political, economic and social instability that permeates the country facilitates a sense of disengagement and fear that are not conducive to revolt but rather invite conditions of stasis as a means of preservation or survival (see my article on the struggles of youth activists in Mostar here). And yet, the protests brought about a new sense of hope and euphoria that made it possible to take the risk of being together against the government’s inability to take care of its citizens’ needs and aspirations. Crucially, this movement toward togetherness materialised in public spaces – squares, streets, and parks – that saw the reclaiming of these spaces as a place of community, rather than politically imposed division.

    2: Protests in Sarajevo, February 2014 by abzur licensed under CC BY 2.0

    2: Protests in Sarajevo, February 2014 by abzur licensed under CC BY 2.0

    I have spent the first two months of my fellowship travelling across BiH to interview activists and actors of civil society who were involved in the 2014 protests. I listened to them re-enacting the confrontations in the street, discussing the challenges of coordinating large numbers of people in the plenums, and their personal and collective struggles to imagine how the future of BiH could be radically different from its problematic present. For this post, I will focus on the importance of reflecting on how “becoming hopeful” moved bodies and created spaces for political encounters.

    According my respondents, it was hope that brought people in the streets because hope allowed them to believe that change was possible. The protesting bodies, becoming hopeful, became also a visible presence in the city: impossible to ignore and hard to silence. And it was this very process of becoming hopeful and invading the streets to protest that is in itself an extraordinary event. As one interviewee in Sarajevo explained to me:

    “here we have been deprived of the luxury of being political… I mean it’s a luxury because you need to work, to take care of your kids, you struggle all the time and you have no energy for struggle more for politics…”

    Yet becoming hopeful is also a reason for disappointment, discontent and for the creation of fractures within the movement. As another respondent reported, it was the fact that people put too much hope in what this grassroots movement could do that, when it ended without a revolution, new disappointment and anger arise.

    3: Protests in Sarajevo, February 2014 by Kumjana Novakova licensed under CC BY 2.0

    3: Protests in Sarajevo, February 2014 by Kumjana Novakova licensed under CC BY 2.0

    I believe that there is great potential of looking at hope to account for and explore grassroots protests, how they come into being, how they become movements for creating new spaces of togetherness, but also divisions and fractures; to create and sustain, but also destroy infrastructures of togetherness. Hope begins from encounters and it brings about the question of how new possibilities can be born from these encounters, which involve multiple processes of mediation, negotiation, explanation. And yet, these sites of hope, such as the protests in Bosnia, are the potential signposts that an alternative exists. As Helena Flam argues, we should pay attention to the ways in which protest movements attempt to re-socialise people through (subversive) emotions in order to show that to be angry and to voice concerns is fair and legitimate.


    Giulia Carabelli joined the Centre for Advanced Studies – South East Europe (CAS SEE) at the University of Rijeka in October 2015. This is an international research centre that seeks to support, guide, and encourage early career scholars to produce critical and innovative works on topics related to the region of South-Eastern Europe. Prior to joining CAS SEE, Giulia worked in the Development Planning Unit as the MSc Building and Urban Design in Development Graduate Teaching Assistant.