Reflections from the frontline: Does environmental sustainability have a problem with social justice? (Part 1)
By Nick Anim, on 1 April 2021
The question about whether environmental sustainability has a problem with social justice seems rather wrong, right? At first glance, it appears a bit abstract because what it is asking us to do is to interrogate a dialectical relationship between two contested concepts that have no determinate meanings. Upon further thought, the question beckons a somewhat counterintuitive analysis because in many spheres we simply assume to be true, and therefore take for granted, the proposition that environmental sustainability and social justice are not only interconnected but also interdependent in a relationship of mutual reinforcement on the same virtuous circle. Indeed, notions such as sustainable development, environmental justice, climate justice and just sustainabilities, whilst being conceptually distinguishable, all endeavour to promote and/or uphold that assumption. Here at the DPU, our main goal of “planning for socially just and sustainable development in the Global South” also contributes to the omnipotence and omnipresence of that canon.
It has been argued elsewhere that whilst environmental sustainability and social justice share a common organising concern around issues of scarcity, they do very different things with it (cf. Campbell, 2013; Dobson, 1998; Irvine and Ponton, 1988). On the one hand, environmentalism centres on questions of extinction, reducing the consumption of non-renewable resources, increasing the use of renewable resources, and decreasing the aggregate amount of waste generated by industrial and other processes of production. On the other hand, social justice concerns centre around the fair sharing or distribution of benefits and burdens in the socio-political community.
On that basis, having different centres of gravity means their objectives will almost always conflict as environmentalists focus on intergenerational justice, and social justice activists demand intragenerational justice. From that perspective, the differences between them are not merely of ambition, but also of tactics. Any convergence of the two ideologies, then, it has been argued (ibid), should be taken as a temporary marriage of convenience with no conjugal rights, and will thereby produce no empirical evidence to validate claims of their universal compatibility.
Now, although those arguments about the lack of empirical evidence may hold true and excite theoretical discussions and diagnoses in the ivory towers of academe, it is not my intention here to excavate, re-examine and confirm or contest them in this short piece. Rather, what I propose to do is to interrogate that opening question through the reflexive lens of my activism with two prominent environmental movements, Extinction Rebellion (XR), and the Transition Network (TN). Both movements can be understood in terms of adopting a glocal focus in their approach to environmentalism; think globally, act locally. In that regard, their organisational structures are very similar; place-based, decentralised and highly networked.
Where XR and TN differ is in their collective action repertoires and processes. XR pursues a broad spectrum of high-impact performative ‘Capital-A activism’ repertoires of civil disobedience that show a moral outrage against the machinations of predatory capitalism and its inherent contradictions which perpetuate environmental despoliation (see Harvey, 2014). In contrast, the TN model subscribes to Buckminster Fuller’s aphorism that “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Accordingly, the TN promotes a solutions-based approach which encourages groups to experiment with niche innovations such as local currencies, local energy production, and food initiatives.
It is worth noting here that whilst XR and TN occupy distinct spaces in the ecosystem of contemporary environmental activism, there is some level of cross-pollination of activists between the two movements. Perhaps most importantly for the purpose of this piece, there is considerable consistency in the viewpoints of activists regarding the question of whether environmental sustainability has a problem with social justice. Bringing that question down from the ‘ivory tower of academe’ to the frontline of activism, the kindred question to ask, then, is, do environmentalists have a problem with incorporating social justice claims into their strategic demands?
Drawing from my reflexive diaries of notes taken following conversations with over a hundred activists in both groups, it is clear that there is a significant minority of just under 25% of activists in XR and TN who strongly believe that the clear course of their demands will somehow be muddied by incorporating issues of social justice. That figure increases to just over 32% when the proposed pivot is towards accommodating matters of racial justice. To be clear here, almost all activists sympathised with, and showed enlightened concern for, the cries and demands of social, economic, and racial justice. However, many argued that the introduction of the aforementioned justice concerns might prove too politically divisive and thus threaten the critical ‘mass factor’ necessary to trigger the tipping points for regime change (see, Centola et al., 2018) with regard to the status quo of damaging environmental practices.
Further, as many activists pointed out, there are a plethora of well-established social, justice, economic justice, and racial justice movements already attending to those issues. On that last point about the existence of other movements for various issues of social justice, the inescapable question to ask here at this point, then, is ‘how can environmental movements and movements for social justice build solidarity across differences?’ That is the question I propose to tackle in the next offering of my ‘Reflections from the Frontline’. For now, I will end this short piece by suggesting that the opening question is one that in many ways reflects the state of the union in terms of how humanity is organised on Earth. We find ourselves in the middle of two simultaneous emergencies. On the one hand, we face the twinned climate and ecological breakdown, and on the other hand an emergency of persistent inequalities within and between countries.
Taken together, it becomes clear that humanity is facing something of an identity crisis; a crisis of belonging and othering. As Covid-19 stalks the Earth, threatening to, as viruses so often do, mutate the living daylights out of available vaccines and continue to disrupt everything, we are forced to pause and reflect on how rapidly things can change. In the last twelve months during the pandemic, so many things that we were always told were not possible, suddenly became possible. Amidst speculative visions of dystopian futures predicated on haphazard government responses that demonstrated a mixture of chaotic politics and politicised chaos, measures such as national lockdowns, social distancing and quarantining, fuelled cycles of fear, despair, social isolation and division, and great uncertainty.
Against that backdrop, many place-based movements such as XR and TN have taken a leading role in engaging in mutual support, providing basic needs and solidarity in their community and beyond. What lessons can activists learn from this experience to help the coalescence of environmental movements and movements for social justice in post pandemic activism?
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Dobson, A., 1998. Justice and the environment: Conceptions of environmental sustainability and theories of distributive justice. Clarendon Press.
Harvey, D., 2014. Seventeen contradictions and the end of capitalism. Oxford University Press, USA. Accessed via: https://www.marefa.org/images/3/3f/Harvey14.pdf
Irvine, S. and Ponton, A., 1988. A Green Manifesto: Policies for a Green Future. Vintage.
By Reshma Kumar, on 18 March 2021
Part of the HUD Urban Profiles blog series.
Designing safe cities for women: The green space, gender, safety nexus in London
The Healthy Cities movement from the World Health Organisation, established a focus for understanding the relationship between our environment and health, including the responsibility of local governments. A healthy, sustainable city is one that provides access to safe and inclusive public green space. This is highlighted, specifically for vulnerable populations, including women, under Sustainable Development Goal 11.
Data from the ONS shows that 44% of London residents live within a five-minute walking distance of a park. This is important as Londoners are less likely than residents living in the rest of the UK to have access to a private garden, and the Mayor of London has incorporated the promotion of green spaces in to cross-sectoral policy, as illustrated in the Health Inequalities Strategy.
However, poorly designed public space can increase the occurrence of harassment and threats. It is important that we pay attention to how the experience of green space can differ across gender, race, age, sexuality, disability and economic status. In London, women report, at twice the rate of men, that safety is a barrier to walking in public space.
What are the benefits of green space?
The positive effects of green space are well documented. Physical benefits include healthier immune systems, improved cardiovascular health, decreased exposure to noise and air pollution and promotion of physical activity. To add to this, the mental health benefits consist of promoting social interaction, lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and lifting mood.
More must be done to question how accessible these spaces really are, and who benefits from them. 59% of people surveyed in London found they had become more attune to the importance of green space for their wellbeing during lockdown. Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of green space, as well as concerns around women’s safety. The pandemic has not only affected access to services and livelihoods, but has also restricted women’s freedom of movement, and freedom from violence.
Lived experiences and safety perceptions
The intersection between space and gender is influenced by subtle, underlying power dynamics within society. Women are one of the groups who are underrepresented in green spaces and hence feel unsafe. Reflected across the UK, disaggregated data further shows that BAME women in particular are less likely to be visibly present in green spaces.
Despite green spaces being recognized as places of escape, the fear of violence can present as a barrier to accessing them. Our identity influences how we experience and shape space and place, including the levels of psychosocial and physical risk we face. 1 in 5 women in London go through sexual assault, with 40% recorded having taken place in public spaces.
In quieter spaces there is the appearance of having fewer ‘eyes on the street’, leading to the impression of weaker public safety. Throughout green space in London other factors accompanying this include poorly lit areas, badly constructed pathways and enclosed, less visible areas with blind spots.
How can we create safer green spaces?
Multiple tools have been used globally to encourage women friendly spaces and increase awareness of these issues. Recording this sensitive data whilst also paying attention to anonymity are essential to guaranteeing reporters’ safety and encouraging women to disclose this information to create safer, more accessible green spaces.
- The UN Safe Cities and Public spaces programme works with local organisations and governments to eliminate violence and sexual harassment in public spaces; empowering women and enhancing their freedom of movement, access to services, cultural activities and in turn better health.
- The ‘Hollaback!’ project is an app and website to anonymously document harassment that occurs in public spaces. It uses this data to drive dialogue and action with stakeholders such as Transport for London and the End Violence Against Women Coalition.
- The ‘Women’s Safety Audit’ is a checklist incorporating the lived experiences of women, identifying safety concerns specific to a local area. A recommendations report is presented to planners to improve design features which may not have been recognised as causing concern.
- Finally, lack of diversity and understanding of these spaces is reflected in industry. In the UK in 2018, 74% of architects were male. And within horticulture, only 15% of employees were female, with 10-20% from a BAME background. Working towards encouraging women into these industries can aid in bringing an intersectional perspective in to planning and design.
The urban environment is constantly adapting to the needs of its residents. But cities continue to be spaces of inequality, and it is necessary for our green environments to be inclusive spaces, if all groups within society are to gain from the positive effects of nature. Allowing the spaces for different voices and perspectives to be heard throughout policy and design processes will aid in producing safer, more equitable green spaces across London.
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Centre for London. 2019. Fair Access: Towards A Transport System For Everyone, Chapter 3: Impacts On Different Groups. [online] Centreforlondon.org. Available at: <https://www.centreforlondon.org/reader/fair-access/chapter-3/#health-and-wellbeing> [Accessed 18 January 2021].
Collier, B.. 2020. The Race Factor In Access To Green Space. [online] Runnymedetrust.org. Available at: <https://www.runnymedetrust.org/blog/the-race-factor-in-access-to-green-space> [Accessed 5 December 2020].
CPRE London. 2020. Appreciation Of Green Space Grows During Lockdown. [online] CPRE London. Available at: <https://www.cprelondon.org.uk/news/cpre-poll-of-londoners-shows-appreciation-of-green-space-during-lockdown/> [Accessed 18 January 2021].
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Greater London Authority. 2018. The London Health Inequalities Strategy. [online] Greater London. Available at: <https://www.easy-read-online.co.uk/media/52136/health_inequalities_strategy_easy_read_lores_v4.pdf> [Accessed 17 January 2021].
Greenspace Scotland. 2020. COVID-19 And Ensuring Safe Cities And Safe Public Spaces For Women And Girls. [online] Available at: <https://www.greenspacescotland.org.uk/news/covid-19-and-ensuring-safe-cities-and-safe-public-spaces-for-women-and-girls> [Accessed 21 November 2020].
Hollaback London. Undated. About Us And Faqs. [online] Ldn.ihollaback.org. Available at: <https://ldn.ihollaback.org/about/> [Accessed 19 January 2021].
Kalms, N., 2019. To Design Safer Parks For Women, City Planners Must Listen To Their Stories. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/to-design-safer-parks-for-women-city-planners-must-listen-to-their-stories-98317> [Accessed 21 November 2020].
London Green Spaces Commission. 2020. LONDON GREEN SPACES COMMISSION REPORT. [online] Available at: <https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/4244_-_gla_-_london_green_spaces_commission_report_v7_0.pdf> [Accessed 18 January 2021].
Massey, D. 1994. Space, Place and Gender. In: Space, Place, and Gender. University of Minnesota Press. Pg.185-190. Retrieved November 9, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.cttttw2z.15
Naylor, C. and Buck, C. 2018. The role of cities in improving population health. International insights. [online]. Available at: < https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-06/Role_cities_population_health_Kings_Fund_June_2018_0.pdf> [Accessed 22 November 2020]
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O’Brien, L., Owen, R., Singh, J. and Lawrence, A. Undated. Social Dynamics Of London’s Trees, Woodlands And Green Spaces. [online] Forestry Commision England. Available at: <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/718113/100000FCGuidanceSocialDynamicsofTreesinLondon.pdf> [Accessed 18 January 2021].
ONS. 2020. One In Eight British Households Has No Garden – Office For National Statistics. [online] Ons.gov.uk. Available at: <https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/oneineightbritishhouseholdshasnogarden/2020-05-14> [Accessed 17 January 2021].
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Lockdown and inequalities in green spaces distribution: side effects on mental health, a French case study
By Theophile altuzarra, on 9 March 2021
Part of the HUD Urban Profiles blog series.
10 months ago, governments across Europe imposed movement restriction policies, often resulting in lockdown measures, in order to contain the spread of Covid-19. In addition to curfew periods, France has witnessed 104 days of strict lockdown measures, in two periods, and is now expecting a highly probable third one.
These measures, have nevertheless resulted in side effects, degradation of well-being and mental health of inhabitants, particularly among the most vulnerable groups. With a few months’ hindsight, we are now able to better understand the underlying drivers of the increasing depression symptoms, stress and anxiety among the population resulting from the anti-Covid measures, with a growing body of studies and evidence. One of the main reason for the deterioration of mental health under lockdown measures is the lack of access to nature and green areas for urban dwellers.
I. Green-and-blue areas and mental health
The positive impact of natural areas, urban parks and forests, on mental health is now well known. These areas are contributing to the reduction of stress for urban dwellers, as well as the reduction of depression symptoms. Moreover, urban parks are places of socialisation, particularly for the youth, providing them areas for physical activities and social practices, positively contributing to their well-being.
II. Lockdown highlighting the inequalities
During lockdown, natural areas became really important for residents. But this access was hindered in some countries, like France where lockdowns were strict. During the first French lockdown, the access to seashore, beaches, forests and even urban parks and other green spaces was forbidden, with important consequences on mental health. For the second lockdown, if natural and green spaces were theoretically opened, population movement was restricted to a strict radius of 1 kilometer from residence.
This 1km radius restriction, neutral in appearance, was in fact reinforcing preexisting inequalities, particularly regarding access to natural areas in urban environments. More than just access to blue and green spaces, the access to quality spaces is important. In the Paris Metropolitan Area, nature is unequally distributed among the population, targeting particularly the poorest neighbourhoods. The restrictions have been added to inequalities in urban park distribution, where priority neighborhoods in France, with higher population density and poor housing conditions, usually have less access to quality green spaces than other neighbourhoods.
Under normal circumstances, home is considered as a restorative space. But during lockdown, home becomes the only place for living, working, leisure. As boundaries between personal and professional spaces are fading, the indoor area is no longer this restorative place it used to be. Having access to green areas can compensate for this loss of restoration. And being deprived of these areas, particularly in the most deprived neighbourhoods where poor housing conditions and overcrowding are exacerbated, is a second burden in pandemic times.
III. Consequences on mental health
By preventing most urban dwellers from natural areas, lockdown restrictions are resulting in a degradation of mental health. Depression symptoms are rising, particularly among those who don’t have access to nature, and even people who don’t have views on natural elements from their windows. There is therefore a direct correlation between mental health and natural elements, and this connection is exacerbated in difficult, stressful times such as pandemic and lockdowns, creating a gap in mental health between people living in overcrowded, deprived, with poor housing, and no access to blue and green spaces, and people living in more favourable conditions.
Green areas are known for their positive outcomes, and psychological restorative impact, particularly needed under stressful conditions such as a pandemic or the restrictions resulting from the pandemic. Preventing some part of the population to have access to it, by implementing an arbitrary 1km restriction is the same as depriving them from opportunities to cope with the situation, in a very unequal way, particularly because this part of the population is composed of vulnerable groups.
IV. And now?
Therefore, as France is now expecting to know a third lockdown, which is just a matter of weeks, it seems urgent to think what kind of city do we want to build, regarding normal time, lockdowns period, and even future pandemics. One of the most important issues is to deal with the ‘’side-effects’’ of the containment measures, on psychiatric and mental health level, to deal with the increasing depression cases, particularly among the youth.
One of the solutions for future policies can be to guarantee for all citizens an equitable access to quality blue and green areas more spread in the city, regarding the rights to nature. For example, policy measures regarding the access to nature for future urban planning can provide an access to a close urban park for new housing units built. Furthermore, new houses or collective accommodation buildings can be designed in a way that each resident can have at least an access to a balcony, a terrace or a view on natural elements.
Finally, regarding the more than likely third French lockdown, it seems urgent to abolish the 1km restriction, or at least adapt it to mitigate the too important negative outcomes.
By Jess Beagley, on 3 March 2021
Part of the HUD Urban Profiles blog series.
A Liveable City
Situated in the north-east of London, Waltham Forest is home to some 277,000 residents, of whom an unusually low proportion are over the age of 65. In fact, the median age of the local population is just 34, compared to a national average of 40. Many local residents are young families, drawn to Waltham Forest’s notable liveability, with green open spaces, a local food market, miles of cycle lanes, and comparatively spacious housing – all within manageable commuting distance of central London.
At first glance, the setting seems idyllic for many, but older people are decreasingly visible not only in terms of their number but arguably also in the extent to which their needs are reflected in local planning. One setting where this is evident is the popular Lloyd Park, which has long been appreciated by local residents, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public Space and the Right to the City
While Lloyd Park offers an impressive variety of facilities and activities for a range of ages, with football pitches, a boules court, skate park, Tai Chi classes, tennis courts, and regularly spaced benches, some aspects nevertheless greatly limit the enjoyment of older visitors.
Signs at the park entrance indicate that “considerate cycling” is permitted, but many riders race down the main path which runs through the park, providing a convenient shortcut between two roads, with little care for pedestrians of any age. Other routes around the perimeter of the park have far less rapid traffic, but present a different hazard: poor or entirely absent surfacing of the paths leaves them perilously muddy, with severe risk of slipping after wet weather. A lack of lighting along even the main paths adds to the hostility of the environment once the afternoon light has faded.
For people over 65, falls represent a particular hazard to health, and the ability to get up and continue on is not one that can be taken for granted. Falls have an enduring impact, and are causes not only of injury and pain, but also of distress, loss of confidence and loss of independence. Over 65s are vulnerable in this context on account of their reduced capacity to resist and recover from the threat posed by the unsafe environment, to the extent that some older residents are unlikely to use the park. One visitor to the park commented “There are no ‘really old’ people – I mean, people in their 80s. They are conspicuous by their absence” and how “the park [should be] for everyone, but everyone needs to…respect the shared spaces.”
Subsidiarity and Truly Participatory Urban Governance
UN Habitat defines good urban governance as being underpinned by the interdependent and mutually reinforcing principles of “sustainability, subsidiarity, equity, efficiency, transparency and accountability, civic engagement and citizenship, and security”. The principle of subsidiarity refers to the allocation of responsibility for provision of services “at the closest appropriate level consistent with efficient and cost-effective delivery of services”. While the principle of subsidiarity is apparent in Waltham Forest, with the park being managed by the local council, this has not led to effective civic engagement in defining priorities for the maintenance and upgrading of the park. This has in turn contributed to inequities. In order to ensure that the park becomes a truly public space, active outreach and engagement with older people and the wider community is necessary. The question here is not so much of who uses the park, but of who does not. The duty of the service provider to understand the needs of those who the park visitor described as “conspicuous by their absence”, often referred to as “hard-to-reach” is one which is often overlooked. Workshops with regular park visitors to consult on plans for park developments are comparatively easy to organise, but these relatively passive efforts fall far short of what is needed to serve the local population.
The very term “hard-to-reach” encapsulates the reason for this collapse – many of those who do not use the park are distanced not by choice, but by exclusion. The abject failure to cater to the needs if the disenfranchised, whether for age or any other reason, is in stark juxtaposition to the very essence of “public” space. It must be questioned whether these communities are “seldom-heard” or rather seldom offered a platform to speak. In order to overcome these shortcomings, the local council must actively identify, reach out to, and seek to gain the trust of those who are least likely to use the park in order to understand their needs and views and how these can be catered for alongside those of other residents. Approaches to support these forms of active outreach have been proposed including by Cinderby and BEMIS and must be pursued for the sake of urban justice.
Images (author’s own) show one of Lloyd Park’s football fields, and the muddy perimeter path of the same area at dusk.
HUD Urban Profiles
As part of the module Urban Health: Reflections on Practice, students were given the opportunity to critically and creatively engage with their surroundings. Urban Profiles is a culmination of students’ reflective journals from the start of the course. Whether it was a walk around their town or a focus on specific communities within their home cities, students reflected on what ‘health in the city means’ to them as urban health practitioners, and strategised what could help tackle health concerns in consideration of the urban profiles of their cities.
An introduction to time-space planning: Re-thinking the role of planning in the making of cities in India
By Debayan Chatterjee, on 28 January 2021
“Given the overwhelming evidence that cities are a complex overlay of buildings and activities that are in one way or another, temporary, why have urbanists been so focused on permanence?” (Bishop et al., 2012: 3)
Indian cities today are changing physically slower than the rate demanded by the pace of activities within. And the emerging trend of ‘temporary urbanism’ signifies a shift from traditional physical city-making paradigm to one which interprets the city as a backdrop for activities. Therefore, the contemporary urban practitioners need to revisit their conceptual association with urban permanence and explore possibilities of de-constructing the current mainstream planning narrative which is grounded in a dichotomy where space stood for fixity and time for dynamism, novelty and becoming (Massey, 1999). In this context, the introduction of Time-Space planning as an alternative narrative cherishes ‘seductive flexibility’ and openness by re-conceptualizing urban time-spaces as ‘multiple, relational, and co-produced’ (Ferreri, 2015; May et al., 2001).
Historically, cities in India have always celebrated temporariness in various ways. Religious festivals, periodic cultural events, and street markets are a few examples of such ‘embedded’ practices that have been an integral part of people’s everyday lives for years. After independence, it was the modernist city planning that tried to separate the time and space aspects of everyday practices, generated the thrust for fixity across the country, and created binary distinctions such as permanent versus temporary. However, the deliberate practice of Time-Space planning (at the local level) allows planning professionals and communities to learn from deeply ‘embedded’ temporariness, experiments with ‘intentional’/’experiential’ temporariness (Madanipour, 2017) and therefore, helps in the new imagination of urban places/ societies. These contemporary urban practices reinstate Lefebvre’s understandings of time that is something inseparable from space (1992) and validate that cities are ‘four-dimensional’ (Bishop et al., 2012). Thus, the above-mentioned changes demonstrate a clear shift from ‘solid’ modernity to ‘fluid’ modernity (Bauman, 2000) where, the urban is “…understood as a living pulse, assembling and disassembling itself in a reversible manner according to needs and opportunities, market demands and supply of resources, restrictions, and aspirations of inhabitants” (Mehrotra, 2016).
In my viewpoint, Time-Space planning emphasizes on the alternative conceptualization of cities “…by questioning the very assumptions, norms, values, and ideals” (Miraftab, 2009) that shape mainstream planning practices in India. The new planning narrative refuses to picture permanent ‘destinations’ for people and therefore, unleashes the possibilities of imagining ever-transforming environments that can sustain through the processes of ‘improvisations’ and ‘indeterminacies’ (Simone, 2019). This is a major analytical shift because planning here is neither obsessed with finding out the ‘ultimate solution’ for a given urban context nor dependent on the long-term projecting and forecasting. Such refusals lead to the much-needed liberation of current planning imaginations by provoking enough willingness “…to risk, to try different things, without necessarily needing for the results to come, in some sense, right away” (Simone, 2019). Such ‘incompleteness’ embedded within the Time-Space planning narrative allows the planners and the people to collectively experiment with the moments of ‘provisionality’ (Simone, 2019) and to maneuver rooms for future improvisations in India.
Unpacking time-space planning & its principles
In my opinion, the conceptual formulation of the Time-Space approach stresses on a few urban trajectories as follows;
– The alternative planning practices challenge the foundations of modernist planning and its obsession with permanence and imposing order;
– New urban imaginaries celebrate flexibility and fluidity; deliberate planning for temporariness sits within a mix of time-scales;
– Active involvement of a range of actors and recognition of their power relations are necessary for inviting necessary improvisations in the urban-making process. The actors’ collective roles/ responsibilities change with the context. It liberates ‘planning’ from the ‘professional planners’;
– Transformative local practices use a palette of (time-based) strategies and tactics to fulfil the need of marginalized communities. Here, planning refuses its mainstream norms and discipline, follows unorthodox processes, and therefore celebrates incompleteness;
Thus, contours of Time-Space planning can be distilled into four key principles;
Principle 1: Liberating planning imagination
“Cities are subject to continuous change and restructuring. There arises, inter alia, a fundamental tension between the rigidity of the urban built environment and the relative fluidity of the socio-economic processes that produce and are accommodated by it” (Henneberry, 2017: 1). Unlike the top-down planning approaches, Time-Space planning improves the relations between the former and the latter and allows smooth urban transformations. The new adaptive planning practices enforce alternative imagination of cities by amplifying ‘reversibility’ and ‘openness’ in the space production processes. In short, these careful measures assert a new consciousness that “…aims at decolonizing the planning imagination by taking a fresh look at subaltern cities to understand them by their own rules of the game and values rather than by the planning prescriptions and fantasies of the West” (Miraftab, 2009: 45).
Principle 2: Embracing a hybrid/ in-between development approach
Temporary urban interventions “…may arise completely spontaneously or be supported wholly or partly by the state or established private actors” (Henneberry, 2017: 256). The long-term sustenance of these time-bound interventions neither solely dependent on the support from the state nor the communities. Rather, the collective efforts from both the government and the people decide the fate of alternative place-making practices. Time-Space planning goes beyond the binary of the state-led and citizen-led practices and develops a ‘third way’ of development that ensures active participation of all mainstream and marginalized actors in the urbanization process. Understanding the negotiations involved in the process is crucial to produce social innovations.
Principle 3: Amplifying socio-spatial justice
“Temporary activities can provide a vehicle for local consultation” (Lehtovuori et al., 2012: 35), and help to build a bridge among state, developers, and (marginalized) communities. Such collaborations are essential to enable the marginalized communities to actively take part in their city-making process. Time-Space planning protects these weak actors and facilitates them to address various forms of injustices by re-using available city structure; re-adjusting structural forces; and reinforcing strategic temporary-use regulations. Thus, temporary urban interventions are capable of producing socially just built-environments in cities (Klanten and Hübner, 2010; Oswalt et al.,2013). The new imagination of cities not only focuses on minimizing harm (/inequalities) but on doing measurable good.
Principle 4: Triggering experiment-driven planning practices
Time-Space planning is “…experiment driven development, not planning led” (Lehtovuori et al., 2012: 36), and therefore, it involves a range of decision-makers and users, and aims “…to foster change by producing alternative visions and projects whose aim is not to be sustained but to evolve with space and its users” (Andres n.d.). These practices follow the conceptual architecture of Insurgent Planning and hence, shift the theoretical objectives from ‘planner to planning’ (Miraftab, 2009). As a result, the alternative urban-making processes democratize planning practices and re-define the planning limits by allowing various community activists, professional planners, city councilors, employed/ unemployed residents, etc. to decide the necessary planning measures focusing on conditions and not on the action itself (Miraftab, 2009; Lehtovuori et al., 2012).
Mainstreaming time-space planning
It is important to understand that mainstreaming the Time-Space approach won’t be an easy task for the new-age urban planners. And failing to do so, the future will be “…less open and more predetermined as persistence and perpetuation of the present” (Miraftab, 2017: 284). So, they can ‘imagine’ the ‘unimaginable’ only when; (a) Place-making practices identify ‘impermanence’ as a ‘potential’ and not a ‘failure’; (b) Planning becomes reflexive and not prescriptive. Hence, the focus shifts from top-down forecasting, projections, and improvements to grassroots improvisations; (c) The interested communities/ planners/ government officials have the appropriate technical knowledge/skills related to time-bound planning, construction, maintenance, and demolition/ transferal of temporary urban interventions; (d) Government is willing to modify its rigid administrations and reduce bureaucratic obstacles that hinder ‘spontaneous’ and ‘unorthodox’ practices; (e) All the actors stress on just collaborations and the newly formed alliances have enough courage to experiment with ‘non-linearity’, ‘fuzziness’ and ‘openness’ in planning; Without satisfying these prerequisites, planning will be always afraid to celebrate its ‘incompleteness’ in true sense.
The purpose of this article is not to stress on replacing the long-term interventions with time-bound interventions. Rather, it celebrates the notion of adaptability and openness in planning, and discusses how embracing ‘temporariness’ in urban planning allows new-age urban planners to explore appropriate possibilities to ‘improvise’ urban lives in India.
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Mr. Debayan Chatterjee is a Commonwealth Scholar from India, who has finished his MSc in Urban Development Planning at University College London with distinction in 2020. He also earned a Master of Urban Design degree from SPA-Delhi and a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He is an academician and artist too. Currently, he is working as an urban designer at Jacobs India.
By Ignacia Ossul Vermehren, on 3 December 2020
The 3rd of December is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. We reflect on this year’s theme “Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 World” through DPU’s research “AT2030: Community led solutions” in informal settlements Sierra Leone and Indonesia.
While we know that 15% of the world’s population lives with a disability, there is no global data specifically on informal settlements. After conducting the rATA WHO survey last year, we found that 26% of people surveyed across four informal settlements in Indonesia and Sierra Leone experienced at least ‘some difficulty’ in seeing, walking, hearing, remembering and/or communicating. One third lacked the assistive products they needed. Despite being a major issue, disability tends to be overlooked in urban and development research.
The impact of COVID-19 on disabled people in informal settlements
Between April and August this year, we conducted a research on the impact of COVID-19 on older people and disabled residents in Sierra Leone and Indonesia. Distinct effects emerged, including loss of livelihoods, reduced educational opportunities, unequal access to government support, limited social life and poorer access to information. Moreover, COVID-19 recovery narratives emphasising the importance of ‘healthy bodies’ have exacerbated these difficulties and increased stigma towards disabled people (see video with stories from Indonesia here).
However, the research also highlighted how community-based organisations in the global South are stepping in to provide support, whether through life-saving resources, accessible information, new spaces for disabled people’s participation, or innovative collaborations in the city. As has been the case across the world, the pandemic has brought into focus the experiences of those more vulnerable members of the community.
Making disability visible in communities
While research in informal settlements has tended to overlook or co-opt the voices of disabled people, making disability more ‘visible’ has its tensions. A first step that challenges rather than reinforces stigma has been to engage with the specific lived experiences and priorities of disabled residents.
An important output of Phase 1 of the research has shown that the methods, implemented through grassroots organisations with a participatory approach in the communities, can facilitate an emerging collective and positive identity around ‘disability’. Many participants who did not initially want to refer to themselves as disabled, started to see disability as a more positive, political, group identity. Providing spaces for disabled residents to participate in the wider decision-making process of low-income communities, can further foster solidarity between disabled and non-disabled members of the community.
The leadership of the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDURP) have themselves felt influenced in the way they approach disabled residents. As FEDURP’s country head said in a speech during last year’s Celebration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities: “We knew that disability was a big issue, but we hadn’t engaged with it, neither including disability in the discussion nor working with disabled residents specially. FEDURP is now committed to working with people with disabilities.”
Coming together to foster a political identity around disability
International Day of Persons with Disabilities has become an important event in giving visibility to disability in the two communities in Sierra Leone. This year, Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre, FEDURP and Dr. Abdulaya Dumbaya (a disability activist and Head of the Springer Trust Fund) will be reflecting on how COVID has affected disabled people, discussing disability rights and sharing stories of resilience in the communities.
In Pelambuan, a low-income neighbourhood in Banjarmasin, Indonesia, the celebrations this year led by NGO Kota Kita will be marked with the painting of a mural on the theme of “Community participation towards an inclusive neighbourhood (kampung)”. The mural aims to translate community voices and aspirations — particularly those with disabilities — and build collective identity through an inclusive approach.
As a physically impaired male participant in Pelambuan said, “I am really happy to participate in this mural project. I like the idea of turning our aspirations into images on the wall. I hope this activity can inspire other neighbourhoods to strengthen their community participation.”
Through making disability more visible, and engaging with tensions that may arise, the research has been able to create space for disabled people to take a shaping role in the community. Recognizing days such as this is an important step in continuing to do so.
The action research project “AT2030 Community Led Solutions” is led by DPU’s Julian Walker as part Global Disability Innovation Hub’s programme and funded by UK Aid.
By Ignacia Ossul Vermehren, on 2 November 2020
By Ignacia Ossul Vermehren, Lieta Vivaldi & Camila Cociña
On Sunday 25th October, Chileans voted to overhaul the Pinochet-era Constitution. The country also determined that this new Constitution will be written by an assembly composed exclusively by elected citizens, half of whom will be women. In doing so, Chile will become the first country in the world to write a Constitution with gender parity.
The protests and the overall claim for Dignidad
On 18th October 2019, simmering social unrest in Chile exploded. Led by students in response to Metro ticket price rises by 30 pesos, protests spread across the country, exposing deep inequalities and systemic injustice. “No eran 30 pesos, eran 30 años” (“It wasn’t 30 pesos, it was 30 years”) became a mobilising slogan for protesters that claimed several demands to address multifold inequalities experienced by the majority of people.
The protests were framed, in broad terms, as a response to the failure of the neoliberal system. While economic and social policies have for decades led to successful macro level indicators, the model has deepened disparities in terms of distribution, political power and representation. The consequent human rights violations and police brutality that followed the protests, only deepened the sense of injustice. Issues of representation of ethnic groups and women in politics played a key role, as well as demands related to pension, health and environmental issues, summarised under the overall claim for Dignidad (Dignity). The demands for change were so fundamental, wide-reaching and varied, that less than a month after the beginning of the protests the political establishment agreed on setting up a route map to write a new Constitution through a democratic process. One year and one week later, the country was finally given the chance to vote on whether or not to write a new Constitution, and if so, who would be responsible for writing it.
A new Constitution to address entrenched social inequalities
The results were overwhelming. With a large turnout across the country, 77.6% voted in favour of a new Constitution. Crucially, 78.99% determined that it should be written entirely by elected citizens, half of whom will be women, rather than both citizens and members of parliament.
How and why did a mobilisation driven against inequalities find an answer in a claim for a constituent process? And what do the results and the nature of the body in charge of writing the new Constitution tell us about the fight for gender equality in Chile and Latin America?
When social mobilisations and violence exploded in October 2019, many figures from the establishment claimed that they ‘didn’t see this coming’; while the statement seems to project some humility, it is hard to comprehend it in a country where the depth of inequalities and the ‘social gap’ had been widely researched and socialised by organisations from diverse sectors, as encapsulated by the report “Desiguales” (“Unequals”) published by UNDP in 2017. Even more, mobilisations and unrest against injustices in different arenas had grown exponentially: while students’ mobilisations for public education trembled the political agenda in 2006 and 2011, the last decade witnessed the emergence of massive protests around gender and indigenous rights, environmental concerns, and pension issues.
Looking back, what all these mobilisations had in common was a call for what the 2019 mobilisation coined as ‘dignity’. From a social justice perspective, the distribution aspect of inequality was only one of the elements at stake: claims for representation and parity participation have been central to all of them. While some legal reforms were introduced in each of these sectors as response to citizens’ claims, the impasse for structural change seemed to be always the same: the burden of the Constitution written during the dictatorship in 1980, and its limitations to adapt to the claims of the majority while concentrating power in a few. Unsurprisingly, the demand for a new Constitution had been growing as a significant claim by civil society groups and new political forces (who in 2013 articulated the campaign #MarcaAC), and also by authorities that led President Michelle Bachelet (2014-2018) to launch a first attempt of re-writing a democratic Constitution through self-organised local assemblies (for an assessment of that process, see here).
But the demand wasn’t just for any new Constitution, or any constituent process. While significant in itself, the overwhelming triumph for writing a new Constitution is as telling as the nature of the politics of representation of the body that will write it up. This representation was determined in March 2020, when parliament voted for any citizen-based constitutional convention to be gender equal, following long-term demands for gender parity. In voting for a new Constitution written exclusively by elected citizens, Chile has voted to become the first country to enshrine the equal representation of women and men in the writing of its Constitution.
The key role of feminist movement(s)
Chile has historically been one of the most conservative countries in terms of gender rights in Latin America; abortion was only made legal in 2017, and only on three grounds. Yet, it was the first country in Latin America to establish a Department of Women’s Services in the 1990s which became the Ministry of Women and Gender Equality in 2016. During Michelle Bachelet governments (2006-2010; 2014-2018) many progressive gender bills were put forward, such as the newly passed abortion law.
Progress has not been limited to legislation. Many believe last year’s extended protests were made possible by feminist groups, who played a key role both in setting the agenda and in mobilising people on the street. The 2016 feminist protests of “Ni Una Menos” (‘Not one [woman] less’), in which thousands of women in Chile and across Latin America marched to demand the end of gender violence, is also seen to have prepared the ground for last year’s mobilisations. In May 2018, the “Chilean feminist revolution” took place. It began in universities with demands for equal rights in higher education, to stop sexual assault and to incorporate feminist theories and authors to the syllabus. These demands expanded later to different social inequalities caused by patriarchy and neoliberalism that were an important precedent to feminist demands from October 2019 onwards.
Many of the most enduring, widely shared and internationally recognised images of the protests were based in feminist demonstartions, whether through the performances of “Un violador en tu camino” (‘A Rapist in Your Path’) by art collective “Las Tesis” and the giant textile banner “Borda sus Ojos” in which women from across the country embroidered an eye to denounce police brutality implicated in 359 recorded eye injuries. The banner was subsequently displayed this year in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.
The outcome of the plebiscite directly reflects the demands of feminist groups for more representation and parity in political participation in decision-making spaces. This victory has already set a precedent for representation and inclusion of other groups, which has been taken forward by a bill to include additional reserved seats for indigenous peoples in the writing of the Constitution, currently being debated in parliament.
The details of the referendum results, at this early stage, seem to manifest some of the intersectional claims for recognition and participation that had been raised over the last decade: first, the social gap and concentration of power of elites resistant to change was manifested by the fact that the option against the new Constitution only won in the three richest districts of Santiago, which has led some to say that “No eran 30 pesos, eran 3 comunas” (“It wasn’t 30 pesos, it was 3 districts”); second, in a country where participation in elections had systematically decreased since the return of democracy in 1990, this plebicite witnessed an increase of turnout particularly in poor and segregated districts, such as La Pintana and Puente Alto in Santiago, with increased turnout from young urban groups, who were consistently seen as the most politically disaffected group; and finally, looking at the districts in which the support to the new Constitution was the highest (with triumphs of around 90%) they tend to be small towns or rural areas that had been at the eye of the storm of environmental conflicts over the last years, led by local communities against extractive companies. All in all, these results speak of a hope for change precisely from those groups that have been marginalised from the narratives of development and growth that have dominated the country, and women are not the exception.
The Constitution from a feminist perspective and how it could bring about change
In terms of gender equality, the opportunities in the Constitution for social change are immense, both in the recognition of women in decision-making spaces, as in the potential for a gender approach to the creation of the Constitution. Although the equal participation of women and men in the Constitutional convention alone does not guarantee feminist outcomes and the protection of women’s rights, particularly considering the wide diversity of age, class, ethnicity and political beliefs of the women involved, this remains a significant step towards improving gender representation in the country.
Before 2015, Chile had one of the lowest rates of female parliamentary participation in Latin America: 15.8% compared to the average of 27.8% in Latin America. It was only after the introduction of a new law on gender quotas for 40% of the candidates, that the percentage of elected women increased to 23%. This is still lower than the average in the region and far from Nordic countries, that have 42.5% of female representation in parliament.
To think a Constitution from a feminist perspective is much more than including an article establishing that men and women are equal before the law. Formal equality has proven to be completely insufficient in order to really guarantee women’s and sexual diversity rights.
On the one hand, feminist demands involve expanding rights that have been historically made invisible, such as domestic and reproductive labour, sexual and reproductive rights, and the prohibition of discrimination; additionally to incorporate gender perspective to rights that are already in the constitution, such as health care, education, and so on. On the other hand, a gender perspective implies questioning the politics of representation of diverse identities, knowledges and claims; then, writing a feminist Constitution means also to ensure a mechanism to distribute and negotiate power, ensuring that multiple and often marginalised identities are recognised in decision-making processes in the long term.
The constituent process is an opportunity to expand this approach to all government bodies: the equal representation of men and women in each state branch and institution is also crucial to ensure the inclusion of women and sexual dissidence in processes of decision making. Furthermore, Chile has subscribed and ratified international treaties with commitments to ensure several women’s rights, and the way in which the legal system includes them to then apply them by national courts, is also a matter of the constituent discussion. Last, the state should have specific obligations and duties in order to incorporate gender perspective in public policies, judicial decisions and national legislation.
Even if the outcome of the Constitution is unknown, the decision to vote for gender parity of those writing the Constitution is an enormous win for Chile, and a model for democratic politics of representation and parity participation around the world.
 Additional to these three districts (Las Condes, Lo Barnechea, Vitacura), there were another two small districts where the option against the new Constitution won (Antártica and Colchane, both of which are rural areas with military bases), making it to a total of 5 out of the 346 districts of the country. For a complete analysis of the territorial distribution of the results, see “Cartografías del apruebo: notas de trabajo”.
 Even if similar processes in other countries have ensured minimum quotas for women as candidates and elected representatives, this will be the first case in which the final composition of the body in charge of writing the new Constitution will be actually composed by 50% women. For more information, see “Facts and figures: Leadership and political participation”.
Ignacia (University College London), Lieta (U. de Chile and UAH) and Camila (University College London) are academics from Chile working on women’s rights, feminist theory, poverty, planning and urban equality.
By Ignacia Ossul Vermehren, on 8 October 2020
COVID-19 has exacerbated the disadvantages experienced by people with disabilities in low-income communities of the global South. Here, the authors explain how urban community organisations are offering effective short-term support and inspiring inclusive longer-term strategies.
Disabled people living in informal settlements have been not only affected by the general consequences of the pandemic, including decreasing support from carers, family and friends and difficulty accessing basic supplies, but also by the threat of increased stigma and exclusion.
However, some community organisations have mobilised: providing life-saving resources, accessible information, new spaces for participation and innovative collaborations. In doing so, they have also mapped strategies for inclusive urban development.
Taking a local look at disability
While we know that 15% of the world’s population lives with a disability, there is no global data specifically on informal settlements.
An indication of scale can perhaps be gleaned from the WHO Rapid Assistive Technology Assessment conducted in 2019 as part of our research project, Community-led solutions: Assistive Technologies in Informal Settlements, led by The Bartlett Developing Planning Unit and Global Disability Hub.
The assessment surveyed 4,000 people across four settlements in Banjarmasin, Indonesia and Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was carried out by our partners, Indonesian NGOs Kaki Kota, Kota Kita and the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDURP) and Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC).
We found that 26% of people surveyed experienced at least ‘some difficulty’ in seeing, walking, hearing, remembering and/or communicating. One third lacked the assistive products they needed.
In April-August this year, the project expanded to include a response to COVID-19. Kaki Kota and FEDURP took the lead, providing support and conducting interviews with disabled people in informal settlements to understand the impact of the pandemic.
We found that disabled people often saw the impacts of COVID-19 as similar for disabled and non-disabled residents, such as loss of income and poorer access to basic supplies.
However, distinct effects on people with disabilities also emerged, including:
- Loss of livelihoods: Many disabled people depend on begging or practice trades which are greatly affected by social distancing (for example, masseurs with visually impairments in Indonesia). Lower income decreases access to food and water.
- Reduced educational opportunities: In Indonesia, parents of disabled children have found it difficult to adapt to online teaching, having to modify learning materials and cope without sign language support.
- Unequal access to government support: In Sierra Leone, only recognised disabled groups received support, overlooking many residents of informal settlements. In Indonesia, the bureaucracy around government cash transfers has been a barrier for many disabled people.
- Limited social life and capacity to organise: In Indonesia, social distancing has seen activities for disabled people cancelled; many cannot afford internet access to join online alternatives. Risk of infection has also limited the chances for disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) to meet or provide in-person support.
- Poor access to information: In Indonesia, signage about social distancing is not accessible for people with a visual impairment, causing even more difficulties for using public space.
COVID-19 response narratives emphasising the importance of ‘healthy bodies’ exacerbate these difficulties and increase stigma towards disabled people. Social distancing rules have limited offers of help from the public, such as support crossing the street.
Local leadership reaches the right people
Community-based support is vital in a pandemic, to manage information and resources and control the outbreak. However, we found that disabled people tend to have less contact with community leaders, lower levels of participation and limited use of communal spaces, meaning they are liable to miss out.
A targeted approach is needed, and community organisations are well-placed act: FEDURP and Kaki Kota delivered water, food parcels and face masks (transparent masks for sign language users) to people with disabilities in low-income communities.
Both organisations built accessible sanitation points and distributed coronavirus information in a range of formats; Kota Kita’s accessible support guide met the disabled community’s demand for better information on COVID-19
After COVID-19: inclusive urban development?
As urban development organisations – rather than disability specialists – FEDURP and Kaki Kota could situate action on disability within wider initiatives. This ensured that disabled people can access mainstream community resources, as well as raising awareness of their needs across sectors.
As locally embedded organisations, Kaki Kota and FEDURP could make quick decisions and corroborate community-level data. Kaki Kota shared georeferenced disability data with city authorities, enabling support to reach disabled people. They also formed a disability-focused consortium of community-led organisations and NGOs, supported by the Government of Banjarmasin.
The community-led responses discussed here show how local organisations can play a vital part in knowledge production about disability in informal settlements, not least by engaging with DPOs and disabled people directly as research collaborators. They also show how community organisations can scale up inclusive interventions by collaborating with other organisations and authorities.
There is a real opportunity for this thinking to transcend the current crisis and place disability at the centre of an inclusive approach to development, both for and with disabled people.
This blog post was originally published on the IIED website on 1st October 2020. The authors wish to acknowledge the support from the IIED team for this piece.
“AT2030 Community led solution” focuses on how disabled and older people in informal settlements in Banjarmasin (Indonesia) and Freetown (Sierra Leone) are able to achieve their aspirations, and the role that Assistive Technologies play in their strategies to do so. Julian Walker is the Principal Investigator. The project is part of AT2030 programme, funded by UK Aid and led by the Global Disability Innovation Hub.
By Hanadi Samhan, on 11 September 2020
On 4 August 2020 at around 6:00 pm two large explosions rocked the Port of Beirut and ripped through most of the city leaving more than 180 people killed, 6,000 injured, and 300,000 homeless. My husband, my younger daughter Hind, and I were sitting in the living room of my apartment in Beirut on 4 August enjoying the light breeze from the air conditioner before the daily electricity cuts. My older daughter Leila was in the dining room deep in her Nintendo world. A sudden and terrifying thunder like sound broke the silence and shook the entire building. I looked at my husband’s face trembling in fear and not knowing what to do next—where should we go? The door of the dining room was locked shut from the force of the shock and Leila was screaming at the top of her lungs for us to come help her. Within seconds we heard another explosion and I saw cobbles on the floor. I ran to knock the door down to reach Leila. I held her in my arms, and we went down to the lobby of the building and hid under the staircase. I saw glass shattered on the floor and people looking out of their windows and balconies wondering if the series of explosions was over. I held my daughters close to my chest while seeing my life flash in front of my eyes for the first time since the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990); time had stopped and the future became obscure.
I went back to my apartment, grabbed my phone, and tried to look for answers. I followed the news and here it was: two large explosions at the Port of Beirut. At first, I felt relieved to know that it was a local incident, no sacred war, no Israeli attacks, and no massive car bombs. Videos then started circulating on social media depicting people drenched in blood, hospitals destroyed, trees uprooted, and residential buildings collapsed. It felt like the heart of Beirut stopped pumping blood into its veins, as if the city was declared dead. I thought to myself that the port of Beirut had committed suicide!
The Port of Beirut was dear to my heart. It was the last urban planning project that I had worked on before I moved to London in 2018 to pursue my academic passion. In fact, the port project was one of the most challenging urban developments that I had encountered in my career given its long controversial history. Since its establishment in the 1880s, the strategic location of the Port made it vulnerable to misuse. My many encounters with the Port extended beyond developing masterplans and running technical workshops. They gave me insider knowledge on the political, social, and economic dynamics of the site.
From my frequent field visits to the Port, I remembered the uniqueness of the grain silos—the grandiose structures of Ottoman heritage and silent witnesses to the port activities. Pigeons hid in their shadows from the heat coming from the seaside, adding life to a quiet area. The passengers’ station located at the far eastern side of the Port was another hidden gem—a serene and innocent flowery area in a loud and shady industrial location.
These nostalgic memories to me brought out the contradictions in every corner of the Port. Its container yard developed to become one of the most state-of-the-art port structures along the Mediterranean Sea. Its transhipment activities were prosperous, with unprecedented rates of high revenues channelled to the Port authority as opposed to the Lebanese customs department. The free zone was expanding at a rapid pace and applications for potential tenants were on the rise. In contrast, the cargo area was in a derelict condition; warehouses were informally divided according to religious factions, handling equipment were outdated, and operations were primarily manual and old fashioned.
One of the main characteristics of the Port was its temporary administrative body created exceptionally after the Civil War to oversee its daily operations and maintenance. Since 1993, three temporary committees were formed to manage the Port under the appointed presidents. In the process, the Port became a space of exception to the sovereign power of the government of Lebanon. After three decades of surviving as a ‘Homo sacer’, the port became devoid of life, stripped “of every right by virtue of the fact that anyone can kill him without committing homicide; he could not save himself in perpetual flight or to find a foreign land.” (Agamben, 1995, p. 150). My imaginary old friend, the Port of Beirut, became old and attached to the city that it could not escape nor leave to a foreign land. The Port now exploded and committed suicide! Perhaps now the exception might end and a new way of life begins.
The Port of Beirut was always a hot spot for deep conflicts rooted in geo sectarian rivalry. It occupied a strategic location along the Mediterranean Sea, ranking among the top 10 most important ports in the region. Before the explosion, it operated as a sub-regional transhipment hub and served all the largest liners such as CMA CGM, MSC, Hamburg Sud, and Maersk. Before the start of the Civil War in 1975, Lebanon’s ports in general, and the Port of Beirut in particular, were important gateways for commerce in the Middle East. Since then, the capacity of the central government became limited and the country plunged into further chaos and uncertainty. Militias that are divided by religious sects seized control over portions of the country’s official ports and constructed internal makeshift ports. The war ended, the reconstruction process started in 1994, and the country began to heal from the fifteen years of massive destruction. After the war, the Port was no longer under the control of the Lebanese parties, particularly the Maronite Lebanese Forces, and was operated by temporary committees appointed by the newly formed government of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The latest temporary committee was formed in 2002 to include seven members and allies that manage the Port. The economic activities of the Port flourished, and the revenues reached US$ 1 billion in 2014. Nevertheless, economic, and political benefits continued to reach the political parties whose interests and goals do not align with the need for a balanced economic and political solution for Lebanon.
The temporality status of the committee is tasked with exceptional powers over the expenditures of the Port and its revenues, defining public works and approving bids away from government censorship. Along with this committee, the customs department is tasked with the protection of the public interests in Port activities and is responsible for collecting tax revenues and monitoring any violations. Both actors functioned under the exceptional status of the Port and expanded their influence on the use of its revenues. In fact, the committee does not follow any censorship requirements whether from the Ministry of Finance, the bidding administration, the state audit institution, and the central inspection agency, although it operates as public property through public finances. The Port customs has an established reputation of being dangerously corrupt and is often described as the ‘Ali Baba grotto’ since it grants a golden ticket to rapid wealth to its members. The exceptional temporariness of the committee limited the political right to the Port and its ability to participate in any juridical form of accountability. The predators are not yet identified, even after the death of the Port. To this moment, it is not yet known if the Port’s ‘suicidal flee’ was an innocent industrial accident or an urbicide that targeted Hezbollah, the local political party. International Investigators from the FBI and British and German forensic teams travelled overseas to decipher the motives behind the explosion of the Port without any possibility for escape or potentiality for a change.
One should not solely attribute the suicidal act of the Port to corruption or negligence. I also find it too linear to say that the failed sectarian system in Lebanon is responsible for the Port incident. Rather, it is the Port’s exceptional system of administration, activities, and distribution of revenues that led to the recent suicide under the most radical and hurtful ways. It is the perpetual fights among the different Lebanese parties that hindered any development schemes for the Port. It is the frozen status of its administration that prevented a potential new life for the Port and an active engagement in the political life of its immediate and wider surroundings.
Despite its strategic location, expansion plans for the container yards and development schemes for the Port were obstructed and the reclamation of its Basin 4 was vilified. The maritime customs strongly objected to the initial initiative that aimed to upgrade the container yards and called for the protection of the interests of Lebanese Christians in the region. They asked the patriarch to intervene and stop the implementation of the initiative. Another attempt to expand the container yards was proposed, calling for a comprehensive masterplan that aimed to upgrade the cargo area and replace the deteriorated warehouses, including warehouse 12 where the explosive materials were stored. By the end of 2018, the masterplan was approved by the committee members, however, its implementation was halted pending the green light from the minister of public works. During this period, a new government took office after the 2018 elections and the masterplan was again put on hold for the same reasons: Basin 4 caters to the interest of Christians and hence, reclaiming it means burying all present and future interests. Accordingly, the basin was never reclaimed, and the warehouses were never rehabilitated and continued to face an uncertain future. After the explosion, the life in the Port of Beirut stopped and its Basin 4 and destroyed its cancerous warehouses.
Several urban planning development schemes were proposed to change the way of life in the Port and end its exceptional state. They were, however, never approved by almost every public authority and the Port remains an exceptional area in its management and operation. It decided to end its life, killing with it valuable workers and residents of Beirut, people who lost their lives as well to do the right thing.
 Those who are familiar with the Port development plans and its expansion schemes are aware of the complications around the reclamation of Basin 4 that made media headlines in 2012, 2015 and 2018.
 One of the main concerns raised during the project was the overgrowing transshipment business taking over large areas in the container yard. The transshipment does not incur tax revenues to the customs department which is known for its endemic levels of corruption (https://www.albawaba.com/business/beirut-port-corruption-446903).
By Aisha F Aminu, on 26 August 2020
Part of the MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Insights from Practice blog series.
On June 8, 2020 I got off a call with my research group for the last time after successfully completing our fieldwork. We acknowledged that we had just experienced a remarkable moment in history. Yet our goodbyes were tearful, knowing that the uncertainty we had come to thrive in was about to end. Just two months earlier, still certain of the future, we were cementing plans for our field trip to Sierra Leone. Then our world paused its physical existence and turned virtual.
Rapidly changing plans were met with a sense of disbelief and helplessness. It would have been easy to give up. Instead, we drew closer together. However, for me this turned out to be a battle between maintaining my privacy and gaining a new level of intimacy with the group. As one who tires easily from prolonged social interaction, I thought a virtual field trip would be great. Yet, all of a sudden, even though physically distanced from my group, I was inviting them into the depths of my home for long hours every day and they were doing the same for me. This virtual invitation extended to my tutors, other classmates, acquaintances and strangers. We saw parts of each other’s homes visitors usually did not get to see. I was overwhelmed and wanted to shut everyone out.
Contrary to Lefebvre’s argument that it is difficult to reconcile the analysis of experiences in an ideological space with everyday lived realities, discussing housing issues in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic meant analysing the very thing I was experiencing. I realised my sense of social discomfort was not peculiar to me when the group talked about the strangeness of seeing each other first thing in the morning, even before members of our households. We were all in different parts of the world with different living conditions, interacting through computer screens. This brought to fore a new awareness of our daily realities. Despite the reduced privacy, we had the privilege of choosing to be physically separated while remaining mentally and socially connected. In contrast, the primary focus of our research – renters in dense informal settlements whose neighbourhoods also serve as their home – mostly lack this privilege and are disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s response measures which exacerbate existing inequalities.
Acknowledging an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ intensified my dismay at the injustices informal settlement renters face daily. But it also sparked an inquisition into their resilience against socio-economic hardship and environmental risks. Nevertheless, just like Lefebvre argued, where a physical field trip would have fostered an immersive experience of diverse renter dynamics, virtual learning fell short. I wondered if we could truly examine intersecting complexities by merely hearing about them and whether we ran the risk of homogenising renters. However, interacting outside the physical confines of an informal settlement forced us to rely on one another’s past and present experiences to put forward our research questions. It also opened up opportunities to craft new experiences and ways of learning based on heightened awareness and mutual understanding.
‘Us’ versus ‘them’ morphed into a bigger ‘us’ as we broadened the scope of our research to multiple contexts. Though unable to conduct participatory activities like focus group discussions, interviewing our social contacts across the globe gave us access to forums that amplified the voices and opinions of multiple actors and renter groups, we would otherwise not have connected with. These forums facilitated communication between renters and landlords, informal settlements and local governments, and local governments and external development actors. We witnessed hierarchic positions being renegotiated on multiple scales ranging from community to national scales.
My fear of homogenising renters was tackled by the similarities and differences I observed between them within the same context and across different contexts. In some contexts they were playing a part in holding local government accountable for injustices, while in others formal legal renting agreements were adopting informal principles of solidarity. Having a bird’s eye view of simultaneous transformative renegotiations across different contexts, would have made it easy to make suggestions that promote cross-learning between multiple actors. However, remembering Lefebvre, we revisited our verbal information chains and observations to critically analyse their implicit biases and propose practical solutions grounded in context-specific everyday realities.
I realise now that my research group had subconsciously adopted the solidarity practices we were examining. We subtly renegotiated our in-group roles to address our strengths and weaknesses. The group’s collective self-efficacy, sense of hope and motivation infected me. I became less afraid of taking risks and less doubtful of my abilities. Collectively, we learned how to create animations rather than rely on out-of-context video footage in order to ethically present our research findings. Learning a new skill remotely meant watching multiple tutorials and knowing when to ask for help. Answering each other’s questions was difficult, especially when we had different software versions or could not simply reach out and click a command on someone else’s computer. I learned to exercise patience and show empathy until we had mastered this skill to a satisfactory level. We ate together, laughed together and celebrated achievements outside of this as well.
My new-found pro-social behaviour replaced my privacy concerns and my eagerness to interact with the group quickly became a habit. However, this carried certain risks. Being around each other for prolonged hours every day, albeit virtually, meant we needed to adjust to our different personalities. I noticed myself recognising non-verbal nuances of communication even when filtered by a screen and adjusting my responses accordingly. Kindness and collective emotional intelligence dominated our interactions. We started having one-word check-ins to measure how we felt and discussed ways we could support one another. Again, contrary to Lefebvre’s arguments about not recognising what you are experiencing while experiencing it, on our last call, the group joked about becoming addicted to our virtual support circle and made plans to interact outside of it.
It has been a week since that last call. I find myself asking if the lessons I learned from this period of uncertainty will stand the test of time, not just for me but for them. Will the intimacy of a wider ‘us’ group prevail during more certain times? Have I been able to analyse all of my lived experiences or are the obvious lessons limited to the moment, only to be re-activated during the next wave of uncertainty? I hope I can look back at this first ‘last time’ when that happens and be able to say, “last time…”
Bandura, A. (1971) Social learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-813251-7.00057-2.
Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Edited by D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell. doi: 10.2307/378107.
McLeod, S. (2016) Bandura – Social Learning Theory, Simply Psychology. Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/bandura.html.
Pierce, J. and Martin, D. G. (2015) ‘Placing Lefebvre’, Antipode, 47(5), pp. 1279–1299. doi: 10.1111/anti.12155.
 Henri Lefebvre was a Marxist theorist, philosopher and sociologist famous for his books The Production of Space and The Critique of Everyday Life.