By Catalina Ortiz, on 9 May 2019
By Dr. Catalina Ortiz and Gynna Millan
A research collaboration between The Bartlett DPU staff, UN-Habitat, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Habitat International Coalition (HIC), Cities Alliance, the Municipality of Medellin and six grassroots organisations part of Movimiento de Pobladores and Sandelion – a local transmedia production organisation- to co-design a digital platform that helps to learn about slum upgrading strategies.
For a Spanish version of this blog click here
Learning across cities is vital to building cities ‘that leave no one behind.’
Global slum dwellers have grown on average six million a year since 2000, and by 2030, about 3 billion people will require proper housing (UN-Habitat 2014). Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, expressed to the UN Assembly that “the living conditions in informal settlements are one of the most pervasive violations of human rights globally and yet this is being ignored by most and exacerbated by many” (2018:1). In this context, slum upgrading “remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums” (United Nations 2014:15). World leaders have committed to ensure ‘access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing, basic services and to upgrade slums’ as well as to ‘strengthen global partnerships to support and achieve the ambitious targets of the 2030 Agenda’ (UN Habitat, 2016). Following this, SDGs 11 and 17 as well as the UN-Habitat New Urban Agenda highlight the need for people-centred approaches and peer learning platforms as crucial preconditions to engage stakeholders across cities to implement international agendas locally, particularly about Slum Upgrading Strategies (SUS).
Even though learning about SUS across cities is imperative for urban governance and planning in contemporary cities, how such learning occurs and the types of knowledge that are valued, documented and circulated have been less scrutinised and understood. The research project “COiNVITE: Activating Urban Learning for Slum Upgrading” financed by the Bartlett ECR-GCRF, led by Dr Catalina Ortiz -@CataOrtizA- and Gynna Millan -@Gynaji- (PDRA) at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU) aims at finding alternative spaces and methodologies to recalibrate the debate on slum upgrading policies and the role of the circulation of urban knowledge across cities through new visual and digital tools. To achieve this, COiNVITE will deliver the prototype of a Transmedia Storytelling Platform co-designed by multiple urban actors.
Transmedia Storytelling for Learning
Storytelling has been as a powerful tool for planning practitioners to connect with more human-centred approaches to urban development. Storytelling is emerging as a key tool to raise public awareness (Anderson & McLachlan 2015; Cities Alliance 2018), policy advocacy (Davidson 2017, Brown & Tucker 2017) and peer to peer learning (Hara 2008, UCLG 2018) since generating emotional connections is essential for triggering social change. In this light, urban planning in itself has been described as a ‘performed story’ (Sandercock 2003:13) and storytelling in the field has received recent attention as a means for persuasion and empowerment (Sandercock 2003; Throgmorton 2007; van Hulst 2012; Mager & Matthey 2015; Olesen 2017; Devos et al. 2018). In sum, storytelling helps to foster empathy, to understand the meaning of complex experiences and to inspire action.
With the rise of the digital era, new digital technologies at hand have redefined the way we tell, connect and engaged with stories. The world of entertainment and the field of media and communication studies have framed the emerging strategies of communication as Transmedia Storytelling (TS). Transmedia implies using multiple channels to tell a story from different angles in a coordinated and unified way. It also offers as an expansive and immersive experience using multiple platforms where each media provides a unique contribution to the development of stories (i.e. community radio or newspapers, WhatsApp, Instagram, cartoons, etc.). This new way to engage with storytelling is “by nature fluid and fragmented… in transmedia, meaning changes with exploration… this suggests that knowledge is fluid; it changes with time” (Pence 2012:137). In that way, TS offers new avenues to mobilise learning.
In urban learning codified knowledge is more easily expressed since it is written, and tacit knowledge –the one that often communities have- does not travel as well and is more difficult to communicate (McFarlane 2011). Transmedia helps to translate tacit knowledge and make it travel in different formats. Henry Jenkins, who coined the term, argues that TS “is the ideal aesthetic form of collective intelligence”, that is to say, “those new social structures that facilitate the production and circulation of knowledge within a networked society” (2007: 1). That is why, TS, translated into the development and planning field, offers enormous potential for the circulation of diverse urban narratives and alternative tacit knowledges that reside in local urban communities.
Going beyond the ‘best practice’
Urban decision-makers look for best practices to inspire action and speed up effective urban interventions. The research project uses as a pilot case the city of Medellin, Colombia that has been considered a benchmark for urban transformation and social innovation becoming an inspirational case for Global South cities dealing with entrenched violence and informality. Medellin has shown a decisive convergence of extended practices of strategic planning, urban design and architecture, which have focused local state interest and public investments in traditionally excluded peripheral neighbourhoods. These spatial interventions have included expanding the interconnected transit system (i.e. metro, tramway, cable cars, BRT, and so on), the generation of public spaces and the construction of multiple iconic public facilities.
Medellin demonstrates that ‘informal settlements’ of global South cities are sites of urban planning innovation and collective agency, thus challenging orthodox urban planning narratives that argue otherwise. Learning about the conditions under which transformation is possible goes beyond only listening or praising official narratives about success. For this, TS helps to build a more comprehensive picture of the plurality of stories and learnings that have produced the city and the trade-offs of slum upgrading strategies. In this sense, the main objective of the co-designed Transmedia Storytelling Platform is to make visible those alternative –but often ignored– voices, memories, and learning spaces that have disrupted upgrading urban practices. Thus, the project challenges the notion that slum upgrading is an expert-driven and state-led activity by engaging with community-led processes in the epistemology of knowledge co-production.
COiNVITE: Building a strategic learning alliance
‘Convite’ is a word in Spanish that designates the celebration of collective actions that result from solidarity and empathy networks among urban dwellers. In Medellín, ‘Convite’ has been a social, cultural and technological tool to build urban infrastructure at the neighbourhood level with a city scale impact. During a ‘Convite’, learning and knowledge exchange is essential to achieve common goals. In a ‘Convite’ everyone has knowledge and expertise that can be shared and transferred through storytelling and collective practice, something like “doing while telling”. Medellín is a city that has been transformed significantly by urban ‘Convites’. As a result, we named the -digital and social- platform after this meaningful practice.
A key challenge for effective urban learning is the ability to bring together multiple actors operating at different scales and times and who often have confrontational perspectives. Building on this, COiNVITE’s methodological approach was to first established a learning alliance with multilateral agencies and global coalitions –UN-Habitat, Cities Alliance, UCLG, the Global Platform for the Right to the City and the HIC–, along with the Municipality of Medellin, National University of Colombia, Los Andes University, University of Colorado Boulder and several grassroots organisations linked to the social movement ‘Movimiento de Pobladores’ in Medellín, to shape the content of the Transmedia Storytelling Platform and provide their knowledge and expertise in a collaborative way.
On the other hand, one of the significant challenges of assembling a platform for urban learning is the expertise that it requires. This journey cannot be made without the alliances between usual urban actors but neither without a team that can translate urban knowledge into the technicalities that make possible the new digital environments. This is why we collaborate with a local transmedia production organisation – Sandelion Productions @SandelionPro – an expert on linking co-creation processes, storytelling and transmedia experiences. Creating a transmedia experience is a complicated endeavour, as they involve multiple dimensions such as narrative, cultural and historical contexts (Rampazzo 2013). For Jenkins (2010), this is in part because transmedia represents the intersection between fields that are typically separated. To ‘fast’ prototype a transmedia platform is even more complex as it goes against the long periods that can take generating multimedia material that is this case should be meaningful human centred stories. To overcome this, we partnered with the NGO Mobility / Movilidad that since 2012 has been producing what is now an extensive archive of stories about dwellers’ struggles in Medellin informal settlements. This combination of actors made it possible to assemble a strategic learning alliance to explore the potentials of bringing TS to processes of urban learning.
The exploration of a methodological repertoire and the encounter of the multi-actor alliance took place between the 27th March and 2nd April and was hosted our partners at Exploratorio – Parque Explora and Moravia Cultural Centre in Medellin. The international workshop served as a disruptive action to bring about innovative urban learning strategies for: a) fostering togetherness across partners under the equalising notion of ‘we are urban storytellers’ and bonding through creative thinking activities; b) sensitising about the key learnings on local slum upgrading using character-driven stories; c) experimenting with unconventional methodological tools for creating transmedia storytelling; and d) linking partners’ initiatives working at different scales on slum upgrading to act collectively.
In sum, from The Bartlett, we are leading an effort to co-design a learning TS platform as methodological experimentation to localise critical targets of the Sustainable Development Goals 11 and 17 as well as the UN Habitat New Urban Agenda. COiNVITE will deliver a fast prototype of the platform that will be publicly tested in June 2019. If you are interested in any way about this project, get in touch by email or by following any of our social media channels using @coinvite.
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By Liza Griffin, on 24 April 2019
There is an growing body of scholarship that supports the cultivation of green spaces in urban environments as a vital part of healthcare and wellbeing provision in cities and communities (Pearson and Craig 2014; Wyles et al. 2017). According to the constitution of the World Health Organisation health is ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. In other words, it includes both physical and psychological wellbeing. Good health then is not only the improvement of symptoms associated with chronic illness, but must also include the presence of positive emotions like life satisfaction, a sense of community and happiness (Soga, Gaston, and Yamaura 2017).
We have long known that urban parks provide sites for physical activity and that exercise reduces the prevalence of most chronic diseases and enhances healthiness in general. More recent evidence, however, has demonstrated the manifold positive associations between access to green spaces like forests, cemeteries, reserves, sports fields, conservation areas, and community gardens – and better health outcomes (Newell et al. 2013). For example, psychological wellbeing has been empirically linked to contact with green areas (Berto 2014; Bertram and Rehdanz 2015). And according to research in environmental psychology simply being in a ‘natural’ environment can help promote recovery from stress. Parks are said to provide a sense of peace and tranquillity and they can function as a locus of social interaction and play – both associated with positive health indicators. Evidence also suggests that green spaces increase perceptions of safety and belonging. And Fuller et al. (2009) have found positive associations between species richness and self-reported psychological contentment. Louv (2005) has shown that children who lack access to urban green space can suffer from a wide range of behavioural problems; and that interaction with flora and fauna is crucial to child development. Gardens in care homes have been found to be beneficial for reducing the agitation and aggression linked to dementia, while hospices make use of the tranquillity of green spaces as part of end-of-life care (Triggle 2016).
What’s more, green spaces also support the ecological integrity of cities which is turn have health benefits for the people living and working in them. For instance, trees and plants help to filter air and remove pollution. In 2019 the World Health Organisation found that around seven million people die each year from exposure to polluted air. Vegetation also helps to attenuate noise pollution – another source of stress reported to be increasing in urban environments. And urban forests can moderate temperatures by providing shade and cooling and thus helping reduce the risk of heat-related illnesses for city dwellers (Wolch, Byrne, and Newell 2014).
But it isn’t simply being present in green spaces that can aid better health. Producing and cultivating them is also increasingly being recognised as a crucial part of the story. Gardening has been linked to lower BMIs, reduced stress, fatigue and depression, better cognitive function, and also to the prevention or management of diabetes, circulatory problems and heart disease (Buck 2016; Soga et al. 2017; Thompson 2018; Van-Den-Berg and Custers 2011).
Speaking personally, I can attest that gardens and gardening undeniably provides a sense of solace. I have always enjoyed being outdoors and walking in beautiful settings but only very recently have I taken up gardening. Much of the academic literature on horticulture and cultivating green space simply asserts an empirical relationship between the act of gardening and its corollary beneficial outcomes. But very little research explores or explains precisely what the mechanisms of association might be. Below I want to examine some of the processes that connect the act of growing green things with the benefits that are ascribed to its practice.
Gardening – the cultivation of and care for plants and vegetables for non-commercial purposes – provides a different way to experience the natural environment: it is far more immersive and visceral than simply being present in a green space. What’s more, gardening is a process and never complete; it is an act of care and it is often hard work. However, I believe its rewards are many.
I felt tired simply looking at our own overgrown ‘cottage garden’ – at least that’s how it was described by the last estate agent. Shrubs and weeds had proliferated during years of benign neglect leaving only a slim pathway to the bicycle shed. Rather than a pleasant space to enjoy, it had been a reminder of another chore yet to address.
All this changed a few years ago and I began to tackle the tangle of vegetation. I hacked back gargantuan shrubs and removed well-established bramble and after a couple of days the hard labour was complete; I could then work on cultivating something resembling a garden in this newly revealed plot. Admiring the freshly made beds of soil I set about planting and digging. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was keen.
It’s become a cliché that gardening is therapeutic, but at that time I hadn’t appreciated just how helpful it could be. Gardening obviously involves effort and according to the Mental Health Foundation, exercise is not only beneficial for physical health it also helps psychological conditions like mild to moderate depression and stress (Buck 2016). There’s also something about its practice which I believe is salutary. At least it is in my own experience.
Digging and manipulating soil to plant bulbs and seeds is a hopeful act. That in itself is heartening, but when the first green shoots push through the earth it can be exhilarating too. It is an act of human agency to dig, plant and to nurture and yet one’s gardening success lies far beyond the control of the gardener herself, notwithstanding her commitment and expertise.
So much can go wrong: blight, poor weather, ravenous slugs – and a hundred other circumstances can conspire to thwart the gardener’s efforts. While plans may go awry, the co-production between gardener and the non-human garden assemblage can produce glorious outcomes. I have felt at once proud of the spring displays that have emerged in my tiny plot, and also humbled; knowing that the results were only partially of my own doing.
One can read-up and share tips with other enthusiasts but sometimes it just doesn’t work out as planned. I was disappointed that my tulip bulbs didn’t materialise into the plants promised on the packet, but I’ve been pleased that the ailing roses I got on discount at the garden centre have thrived. Gardening knowhow is often more tacit than taught. It is acquired through seasons of practice, of hope and sometimes of frustration. Feeling stressed by the demands of everyday life can make us feel impotent so it’s perplexing that gardening, in which we have only a relative influence on the outcome, can be so satisfying. Or maybe that’s its appeal.
Perhaps it is the combination of endorphin-releasing exercise, surrendering control to serendipity and the slow tacit acquisition of practical know-how that makes gardening special. But there’s something about the rhythms, textures, sounds and scents of gardening too. The immersive and visceral experience of working with plants and mud encourages us to be mindful and present in our own bodies. Instead of worrying about work or the everyday stresses of life, gardening directs us to the tasks at hand: to pruning, repotting, weeding or digging. Anxiety can worsen when we focus unduly on the past or worry excessively about the future, whereas gardening is an activity engaged in the ‘now’. And since most plants and shrubs only flower for a short period, to enjoy them at their best we must be fully present.
And of course, gardens are sensual and sensory. Their beauty can’t be captured in a text or by a photograph they must be experienced. The feel of earth warmed by microbes and sunshine, delicate and textured vegetation that brushes the skin, foliage with thorns or stings, inhaling the musty smell of air in soil displaced by rain, or the aromatic scent of leaves and petals, the sound of breeze hissing through leaves. It is these incursions on our senses that can help relieve us of our existential angst and provide succour in difficult times.
In Britain, Hospital Foundations, mental health, homeless and dementia charities are beginning to offer not only access to green spaces as part of their efforts to improve the health of citizens, but also opportunities for publics to get involved in their cultivation. This seems like a very positive move in the endeavour for healthier cities (Soga et al. 2017). However, there are some caveats. Some studies on green spaces and health reveal that access disproportionately benefits White, able bodied and more affluent communities (McConnachie and Shackleton 2010; Wolch et al. 2014). And enhancing natural amenities in cities has been shown to in many cities to paradoxically facilitate gentrification and increase property prices, further diminishing access to those constituents who might benefit the most (Newell et al. 2013). Concerted effort needs to be made by urban planners and communities everywhere to keep this most valuable resource accessible and open to all for the good of healthy citizens everywhere.
Berto, Rita. 2014. “The Role of Nature in Coping with Psycho-Physiological Stress: A Literature Review on Restorativeness.” Behavioral Sciences 4(4):394–409.
Bertram, Christine and Katrin Rehdanz. 2015. “The Role of Urban Green Space for Human Well-Being.” Ecological Economics 120:139–52.
Buck, D. 2016. Gardens and Health Implications for Policy and Practice. Kings Fund.
Fuller, Richard and Gaston Kevin. 2009. “The Scaling of Green Space Coverage in European Cities.” Biology Letters 5(3):352–55.
Louv, Richard. 2005. “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” SCHOLE: A Journal of Leisure Studies and Recreation Education 21(1):136–37.
McConnachie, M. Matthew and Charlie M. Shackleton. 2010. “Public Green Space Inequality in Small Towns in South Africa.” Habitat International 34(2):244–48.
Newell, Joshua P., Mona Seymour, Thomas Yee, Jennifer Renteria, Travis Longcore, Jennifer R. Wolch, and Anne Shishkovsky. 2013. “Green Alley Programs: Planning for a Sustainable Urban Infrastructure?” Cities 31:144–55.
Pearson, David G. and Tony Craig. 2014. “The Great Outdoors? Exploring the Mental Health Benefits of Natural Environments.” Frontiers in Psychology 5:1178.
Soga, Masashi, Kevin J. Gaston, and Yuichi Yamaura. 2017. “Gardening Is Beneficial for Health: A Meta-Analysis.” Preventive Medicine Reports 5:92–99.
Thompson, Richard. 2018. “Gardening for Health: A Regular Dose of Gardening.” Clinical Medicine 18(3):201–5.
Triggle, N. 2016. “Gardening and Volunteering: The New Wonder Drugs?” BBC News Website.
Van-Den-Berg, Agnes and Mariëtte Custers. 2011. “Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress.” Journal of Health Psychology 16(1):3–11.
Wolch, Jennifer R., Jason Byrne, and Joshua P. Newell. 2014. “Urban Green Space, Public Health, and Environmental Justice: The Challenge of Making Cities ‘Just Green Enough.’” Landscape and Urban Planning 125:234–44.
Wyles, Kayleigh J., Mathew P. White, Caroline Hattam, Sabine Pahl, Haney King, and Melanie Austen. 2017. “Are Some Natural Environments More Psychologically Beneficial Than Others? The Importance of Type and Quality on Connectedness to Nature and Psychological Restoration.” Environment and Behavior 51(2):111–43.
Crowdsourcing inputs for future impact evaluation? Pilot participatory mapping for liveability and health baselines of a transport-centred project in Cali, Colombia
By Daniel Oviedo Hernandez, on 2 April 2019
This blog is part of the health in urban development blog series – the full series can be found at the bottom of this post.
Urban transport and mobility are critical instruments for development, health and sustainability. Transport is one of the most data-, land- and resources-intensive sectors in urban public policy, consuming often more than a third of public budgets in Global south cities and being explicitly linked with many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. However, conventional transport planning lacks sufficient tools, policies and methods that make explicit the links between transport, liveable and sustainable cities, and health. This blog showcases a participatory methodology for drawing a baseline and developing future impact assessment on liveability and the social determinants of health in transport-driven large-scale urban interventions. The blog argues for the use of health-informed methods using our research experience in Cali – Colombia’s third largest city – in the implementation of web-based participatory mapping tools for a project in the implementation phase.
The centrality of transport to urban development trajectories
Transport is a very effective instrument for urban policy definition and delivery. As showcased by the rapidly increasing number of kms of Bus Rapid Transit (BRTs), cable-cars, cycling lanes and many such other projects built in recent years throughout Latin America, transport has claimed a central role in current urban development trajectories. For instance, out of the 170 cities that have implemented Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems globally, 55 (32%) are in Latin America, with 1,816 km of BRT networks built regionally (BRTDATA.ORG, 2018). Investments in mass public transport infrastructure have opened the door for urban transformations driven by transport developments via promotion of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), reclaiming of public spaces, development of non-motorised infrastructure, and other transport-land-use integration strategies. Strategies such as the above have enabled sustainability and climate-change adaptation agendas to redefine some of the relationships between built environment and transport infrastructure across the region (1; 2). There is also larger awareness in the research and policy spheres about the health implications of transport, from a preventive medicine and physical activity perspective, to access to healthcare, environmental exposures and road safety (e.g. 3; 4; 5).
The Caliveable project
The Caliveable project (www.caliveable.com) is a research initiative led by Dr Daniel Oviedo at the DPU and funded by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The project involves a multi-disciplinary team of UK-based and Colombian researchers seeking to develop frameworks and methods for baseline studies of liveability and the social determinants of health of nascent transport-centred urban projects. The project argues that by building on rigorous and tested frameworks such as liveability, which are cross-cutting to both the built environment and health, it is possible to construct tailored baselines for the design, monitoring and evaluation of the effects of transport-centred interventions on the social determinants of health. The project studies Cali’s Corredor Verde (CV) as the empirical context for the development and implementation of the study. The CV is a large-scale infrastructure and public space investment programme aimed at enhancing social, economic and regional integration with a regional train at the centre of urban interventions traversing the city from north to south.
The Corredor Verde project has a modern public transport system intending to serve as regional link with emerging poles of population and economic growth near Cali (e.g. Yumbo, Palmira). The corridor also intends to become an environmental anchor and axis for supporting urban biodiversity, linking interconnected biodiversity points and support structures – such as waste and recycling plans, nurseries and educational trails. The transport dimension of the project aims to promote active travel and urban transformations based on the notions and principles of TOD, which align with the overall objective of re-unifying the eastern area of Cali with the rest of the city. However, there is no evidence on how this is consistent with the implementation of measures that promote determinants of health and liveability neither on the guidelines or the project’s masterplan. Moreover, given the socio-spatial distribution of the population, the investment rises questions regarding its distributive effects. Will the citizens from both sides of the corridor be benefited equally? Could the CV create an increase in land value and consequently ignite processes of gentrification and expulsion of low-income residents?
Harnessing the links between transport, liveability and health
We aim to examine liveability in seven domains – employment, food housing, public space, transport, walkability and social infrastructure – linked with health and wellbeing outcomes (6). Two challenges emerge when approaching a project such as the Corredor Verde from a liveability perspective: the first is lack of purpose-built data for comprehensive analysis of the different dimensions of the concept, the second is lack of resources for collecting a sufficient sample that can serve in later stages for impact evaluation. The Caliveable project addresses these challenges using web-based geo-questionnaires designed for participatory mapping. We optimised resources available to deploy targeted field data collection campaigns in areas with lower income and access to technology and neighbourhoods with high levels of illiteracy and other restrictions for self-reporting. Using Maptionnaire (www.maptionnaire.com) the team has designed a comprehensive 15-minute questionnaire dubbed The Calidoscopio, that allows building indicators based on numerical scales, Likert, multiple choice question, multiple choice grid and draw buttons. Drawbuttons are a feature of the approach of participatory GIS as it enables respondents to map out different features of their behaviour and their urban environment.
The Maptionnaire platform enables the construction of geographical-based features, making it possible to crowdsource mapping for different purposes. For example, a respondent is asked to draw the area of the neighbourhood they perceive as more polluted and then evaluate how they perceive how this contributes/affects their quality of life. The graphical result allows both the interviewee and the researcher to work with a superposition of georeferenced and self-completed information layers. The platform also allows mapping routes and points in the city, which are relevant for transport-specific analysis such as accessibility and walkability. The superposition of layers of analysis through easy visualisation is one of the key advantages of the web-based tool for participatory GIS.
Initial findings from the deployment of the liveability questionnaire in Maptionnaire have produced comprehensive information about behaviours, preferences, needs and perceptions, not often captured by traditional data collection methods applied in transport studies. The tool enabled the research team, even from the pilot stage, to add a spatial dimension to variables explicitly linked with the social determinants of health, informing location, distribution and characteristics of the built environment from an urban health perspective. This will inform not only planning and development of the Corredor Verde and other relevant transport infrastructure projects in Cali, as well as leaving a replicable methodology for monitoring and evaluation. The Caliveable project seeks to establish alliances with government authorities and researchers for the appropriation of the tool and scaling-up of the methodology for future health monitoring and impact assessments of the Corredor Verde.
Learning from the experience: transport equity and participatory mapping
Experiences with the use of alternative methods for data collection have been introduced in the DPU’s curriculum for years. Such practice has continued in the context of our Transport Equity and Urban Mobility module of the masters in Urban Development Planning course. Students have received training in the Maptionnaire tool and have had the chance of designing and deploying a small-sample test survey in the London Bloomsbury area. Students from across the DPU and the Bartlett have used participatory GIS questionnaires to address issues such as night-time mobilities, liveability and well-being related to transport, transport and security, and walkability. The experience with the use of innovative methods and technological tools for data collection have served for collective reflections about the role of data in leading to more inclusive and sustainable urban transport planning and the need for grounding innovative methods in rigorous conceptual frameworks and context-specific considerations as those covered during the module. The exercise also informed reflections related to research ethics, data management and privacy and the challenges of development research in the digital age.
- Paget-Seekins, L., & Tironi, M. (2016). The publicness of public transport: The changing nature of public transport in Latin American cities. Transport Policy, 49, 176-183.
- Vergel-Tovar, C. E., & Rodriguez, D. A. (2018). The ridership performance of the built environment for BRT systems: Evidence from Latin America. Journal of Transport Geography.
- Sarmiento, O. L., del Castillo, A. D., Triana, C. A., Acevedo, M. J., Gonzalez, S. A., & Pratt, M. (2017). Reclaiming the streets for people: Insights from Ciclovías Recreativas in Latin America. Preventive medicine, 103, S34-S40.
- Salvo, D., Reis, R. S., Sarmiento, O. L., & Pratt, M. (2014). Overcoming the challenges of conducting physical activity and built environment research in Latin America: IPEN Latin America. Preventive medicine, 69, S86-S92.
- Becerra, J. M., Reis, R. S., Frank, L. D., Ramirez-Marrero, F. A., Welle, B., Arriaga Cordero, E., … & Dill, J. (2013). Transport and health: a look at three Latin American cities. Cadernos de Saúde Pública, 29, 654-666.
- Badland, H., Whitzman, C., Lowe, M., Davern, M., Aye, L., Butterworth, I., … & Giles-Corti, B. (2014). Urban liveability: emerging lessons from Australia for exploring the potential for indicators to measure the social determinants of health. Social science & medicine, 111, 64-73.
Health in urban development blog series
Health in secondary urban centres: Insights from Karonga, Malawi
By Donald Brown
Gaza: Cage Politics, Violence and Health
By Haim Yacobi
If you are interested in DPU’s new MSc in Health in Urban Development, more information can be found on our website.
By Samia Khan, on 15 March 2019
One person is forcibly displaced every two seconds in the world and over twenty-five million people are now refugees worldwide as result of conflict. They journey seeking settlement in a place where they can secure livable circumstances.
Humanitarian literature on refugees is clear to distinguish the types of protection at play; UNHCR for example determines that the three ways to protect a refugee is to rehabilitate, repatriate or resettle. A majority of refugees in the Arab world who have fled failed states and armed conflicts have resettled in neighbouring countries and still continue to do so. Throughout the past 70 years, Palestinian refugees have been through several phases of vulnerability and displacement, affected by their immedeate struggles, but also by a shifting set of tensions: deterritorialisation, urban pressures and geo-politics. Arab host countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and ‘temporary’ camps set along the West bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza strip lack the proper infrastructure and regulatory frameworks to integrate refugees which complicates resettlement processes. With the arrival of refugees as a result of the Syrian crisis of 2011 existing refugee camps and displaced communities in host countries such as Lebanon started to overflow by a population of over another million, and reached a crisis point that needed immediate attention.
Recent events show how political unrest impact the plight of refugees. Lebanon was without a stable government for nearly two and a half years before starting to form cabinet structure very recently. This political unrest suspends efforts for urban planning which tackles the influx of refugees. The economic infrastucture is still recovering from the conflicts the country witnessed, particularly the 1975 – 1990 civil war and the armed conflict of 2006 with Israel. Though efforts were made for public and social reconstruction, economic growth was insufficient and large areas were bought by private sector for real estate development to help the Lebanese economy thrive.
The extended political crisis resulted in an eminent economic downfall. Tax reforms, suspension of bank loans and Lebanon’s debt of $81 billion being the third largest in the world, soared real estate prices. According to a recent conversation with a local activist, Elza Seferian, “ the ‘unliveability’ of Beirut is like a Pandora’s box for me. The price of renting a room in Beirut is as costly as Paris. Affordable housing is scarce.”.
With refugees from neighbouring countries moving in at an exponential pace, existing refugee settlements such as those for example in Sabra, Shatila and Akkar are overpopulated and in dismal living conditions. The lack of space in temporal arrangements pushes refugees to the capital to rent spaces in tower buildings, that were abandoned by private sector initiatives. ‘A half full Beirut’ is a notion that is derived from the complex situation in Beirut where private sector developers have run out of money and are unable to complete real estate projects leaving Beirut’s skyline half empty. However, these abandoned spaces have been vacant on the formal market for years, yet are rented out to refugees albeit on extortionate rates, hence are more often than not ‘half full’.
Beirut is lacking in affordable housing for middle-income and this historical issue for locals has now extended and become part of the refugee experience. This shows a fracture in the market. With the relocation of refugees from camps to capital, they become an active part of the urban population and drivers of the formal and informal real estate market.
State led initiatives to mitigate refugee housing issues has been quite limited in Lebanon. It is one of the countries that has not signed the 1951 International Convention for Refugees which was established in by UNHCR. The convention’s core principle “asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom…”. The civil society, though unstructured, is the major agency of support for refugees alongside non governmental organizations. A detailed mapping of Civil Society Organizations and their scope in Lebanon can be found here: https://eeas.europa.eu/archives/delegations/lebanon/documents/news/20150416_2_en.pdf
Refugees rely on housing arrangements made by CSOs and NGOs such as ACTED, URDA, ANERA, DRC and more. They are ready to take on any opportunity for housing they can secure. Without formal paperwork, documentation or legal rights, refugees become susceptible to exploitation. The real estate black market thrives on premium rental rates, making refugees susceptible to forced evictions and other forms of abuse that pose no repercussions on the landlords.
Though private sector developments are abandoned, they stand on land bought by private companies from the government, stripping the government from authority over majority of Beirut’s land or the real estate projects. In light of these conditions, the following conclusions can be considered:
- Government can strenghten legal frameworks and negotiate alternative uses for abandoned spaces to provide more liveable urban solutions to locals and refugees
- Since CSOs and NGOs possess the role of primary support to refugees and low income households with housing, agency can be established between the private sector and civil society to liaise with discontinued developments and create affordable housing schemes
- Refugee integration schemes can be enhanced by CSOs and NGOs by creating a rigid framework of lease documentation to closely monitor the resettlement process
There is a pressing need for housing in Beirut yet an abundance of uninhabited spaces. Perhaps if the underlying opportunity within these spaces was recognized and organized, a solution could arise for the housing crisis that affects millions.
Samia Khan is a graduate of the MSc Building and Urban Design program at the DPU
 Refugee camps are often thought of as a temporary solution under the assumption that refugees will one day return to their home countries. These camps have now evolved to urban slums as the influx in the Middle East increases.
How and in what ways can local-level risk information about health and disasters influence city government practices and policies?
By Cassidy A Johnson, on 28 February 2019
This blog is the fourth of the health in urban development blog series. View also:
Gaza: Cage Politics, Violence and Health
By Haim Yacobi
If you are interested in DPU’s new MSc in Health in Urban Development, more information can be found on our website.
Over the last few years there have been several initiatives to develop practical and policy-relevant ways to measure environmental risks faced by low-income groups. This has been in response to a severe lack of information about disaster and health risks available for policy makers to draw on in most low- and middle-income nations. There is a need for both detailed settlement-level data, particularly for informal settlements, as well as for aggregated data needed to inform city-level or national interventions[i]. In this blog, I discuss innovative methodologies that are being developed in cities of the Global South to generate much needed data for action.
Innovative methodologies for understanding health and disaster risks at the urban scale
Innovative methods developed for understanding and measuring these risks range from profiling and mapping informal settlements with community-led or co-production approaches, to detailed analysis of hospital, police and newspaper records. Other methods seek to build consensus based on perceptions and experiences of risk with communities and local governments. DesInventar is a collection of national, regional and city-level databases, which use newspaper reports, as well as police, hospital and accident records to create a detailed portrait of both large or intensive disasters and small-scale extensive disaster events. Other methodologies such as Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) settlement profiling and Action at the Frontline use community-generated information about resident’s experiences of health and disaster risks in order to enter into dialogue with municipal governments about their needs. ReMapRisk uses community-generated risk information and offers a spatial analysis with maps to interrogate and visualise the information, there are maps for Lima (Peru), Karonga (Malawi) and Freetown (Sierra Leone). Other approaches, such CityRAP, The City Resilience Index and 10 Essentials for Making Cities Resilient focus on the municipal government’s perspectives of risks and capacities for addressing risk at the city-level, and often in dialogue with communities.
Health and disaster risks faced by the urban poor
These studies have found that women, men and children living in informal settlements are disproportionally exposed to small and large-scale disaster risks such as flooding, landslides and fires, as well as everyday risks, such as water borne illnesses and poor air quality. For example, the AXA-funded research I have been involved in in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, used Action at the Frontline methodology, with household surveys, focus groups and action planning Mtambani settlement in Ilala municipality and Bonde la Mpunga settlement in Kinondoni municipality[ii]. The communities identified crime, poor solid management, lack of storm-water drainage infrastructure, lack of wastewater and toilet infrastructure, lack of basic health services and hospitals, flooding, high living costs and drug abuse as the main issues in their settlements. Many of these are directly related to health problems, such as malaria, diarrheal disease and personal safety. While big disasters, such a major floods, earthquakes, tsunami and windstorms do affect the health and welfare of millions across the globe every year, it is actually the smaller events and everyday risks that impact the greatest number of people’s health and well-being.
These different methods of understanding risks have been employed in close partnerships between researchers, community organisations, municipal authorities and other research users in many cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America. While there are many innovative initiatives for understanding and measuring risks, the data still remains extremely patchy and limited in scope. Furthermore, and its uptake into municipal government operations and planning is not guaranteed.
Principles for the uptake of risk information in urban planning and policy making
Through the Urban Africa Risk Knowledge programme[iii], researchers have identified some principles related to the uptake of local-level risk information into planning and policy making: 1) It is important not just to provide the type of information that are assumed to be useful, but to work closely with partners in identifying data that will be useful for policy and practice[iv]. 2) The community-driven process can be more conducive to driving change in practice and policy in local government than expert-driven data. The use of local knowledge that comes through communities collaborating with local level decision-makers can capture the qualitative experiences of risks and measure the burdens arising from these risks, while enabling communities to engage with local governments/state about their needs[v]. 3) Small steps at collecting local data that are ‘good-enough’ can be valuable in the beginning.[vi] 4) Project-based risk measurement initiatives are rarely enough to make a difference in government practices and policies. What is required is long-term and sustained engagement with information that is regularly updated. 5) Improving official data collection, such as census, vital registration systems and healthcare records will be necessary to systematically address disaster and health risks in informal settlements[vii].
Many cities in low- and middle- income countries, and especially in sub-Saharan Africa, do not have functioning local governments, they lack a metropolitan structure or their resources are too meagre to take on new initiatives. While some progress has been made in developing methodologies that help us to better understand the everyday and small-scale disaster risks that underpin women’s, men’s and children’s health in informal settlement, there is still much more to do to scale up these initiatives and to enable local governments to take actions to address risks.
[i] Satterthwaite, D and Sverdlik, A (2018). Assessing health risks in informal settlements in sub-Saharan African cities. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 10. June 2018. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/assessing-health-risks-informal-settlements-sub-saharan-african-cities
[ii] Osuteye, E. at al. (2018). Communicating risk from the frontline: projecting community voices into disaster risk management policies across scales. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 19. October 2018. Available from:
[iv] Dodman, D., Leck, H. and F. Taylor (2017). Applying multiple methods to understand and address urban risk. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 7. July 2017. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/applying-multiple-methods-understand-and-address-urban-risk
[v] Osuteye, E. at al. (2018). Communicating risk from the frontline: projecting community voices into disaster risk management policies across scales. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 19. October 2018. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/communicating-risk-frontline-projecting-community-voices-disaster-risk-management-policies-across
[vi] Spaliviero, M. at al. (2019). Urban Resilience building in fast-growing African Cities. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 20, January 2019. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/urban-resilience-building-fast-growing-african-cities
[vii][vii] Adelekan, I.O. and D. Satterthwaite (2019). Filling the data gaps on everyday and disaster risks in cities: The case of Ibadan. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No 22. January 2019. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/filling-data-gaps-every-day-and-disaster-risks-cities-case-ibadan
By Ignacia Ossul Vermehren, on 22 February 2019
Co-authored with Trinidad Avaria
What are the role of crafts in political processes? Can crafts be a tool for individual or collective awareness? Can they open space for social justice for women? In December, we undertook an explorative workshop in the city of Santiago to answer some of these questions with women making Chilean arpilleras (burlap in Spanish), which are tapestries embroidered with scraps of recycled fabrics. The workshop was organised by the Chilean NGO Casa del Encuentro of Fundación Santa Ana that works with low-income women and their children, providing practical work skills for women and a safe space for children to play.
The motivation of the workshop came from our personal experiences. Having both grown up in Chile, we were familiar with the craft and we were aware of its political connotation during the military regime (1970-1980s). Over the last decade, we have both worked with low-income women in the country, looking at the cross section between gender and class, in a country that remains mostly unequal, segregated and machista. And this specific craft was an interesting entry point to discuss women’s participation in social and public life.
The first arpillera workshops were organised in 1974 by the Catholic Church, Vicarate of Solidarity and the Association of Families of the Detained-Disappeared. Concerned by human rights violations and women’s struggles, they supported a space for women to grieve and help each other, through sewing and embroidery. Thousands of low-income women participated in workshops making arpilleras, the motives of the embroidery was a way to denounce the cruelty of the dictatorship. As such, the production and sale of the arpilleras was clandestine. They were sold abroad, and were bought by people in exile as well as left-wing European supporters.
More than 200 arpillera workshops in low-income neighbourhoods across Santiago, transformed the private and feminine nature of sewing and embroidery into the production of “political objects” that both challenged the dictatorship (Grindon & Flood, p. 11, 2014; see also Krause, 2004), and provided emotional relief for women (Frank, 1996). In doing so, they strengthened their political awareness by socialising with other women in the same situation (Baldez, 2002), and encouraged each other to take action. Ultimately, the making of arpilleras was a way for many women to engage with politics (Boldt & White, 2011).
In Latin America, it has been widely documented by feminist researchers that women’s political participation has been initiated by their roles as mothers (Baldez, 2002; Chaney, 1979). This does not necessarily challenges their traditional gender roles, but instead uses it to become active in the public sphere (Classic examples include, Madres de Mayo in Argentina and Ollas Comunes in Chile). After the dictatorship, women were expected to go back to their traditional roles, as they no longer existed in a state of exception. However, what happens when democracy is institutionalised, but women remain in a position of inequality? What spaces to participate exist and how can they access those spaces? Almost 40 years have passed since the official arpillera workshops closed. However, low-income women in many parts of the country continue meeting to make tapestries, passing the knowledge from one to the other.
Fundación Santa Ana works in two of the same areas where these workshops started decades ago. In their experience, they see how the role of women is still shaped by deep gender and class inequalities. These are manifested in low employment opportunities and strong reproductive responsibilities, leaving them bound mostly to the private space of the household and with few spaces to socialise, beyond with their families. This does not only have consequences for the women themselves, but also to their children. As the NGO has documented, women confronted with the loneliness of raising children mostly on their own are likely to transfer that frustration to their children. It is in this context that the workshop emerges, as a way of understanding how women from the same area are able to play a different role and take up other spaces of socialisation and engagement beyond the home space.
In December of 2018, we ran a workshop with Renca’s arpilleristas (women that make arpilleras) and women from the area. The arpilleristas have worked in the craft for 20 years, and lived through the dictatorship (although many would not discuss it), continue making arpilleras to sustain their households, and say that arpilleras “saved their lives” from depression, separations and other afflictions. During the workshop, they taught the craft and shared their stories.
From the workshop we can see that contemporary arpilleristas’ work does not necessarily target a specific political event, however it remains an important activity as a source of income – selling finished items in Chile and abroad – and as a space to socialise and support each other. Although living conditions are radically different to those during the dictatorship, the growing economic inequality of the country, paired with a machista culture and conservative gender legislation, keeps low-income women in a challenging position. As such, the three aims of arpilleras during the 1980’s – (i) economic support, (ii) a space to socialise, and (iii) create awareness and become effective leaders, remain relevant today.
Baldez, L.(2002), Why Women Protest: Women’s Movements in Chile, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Boldt, K., & White, T. (2011). Chilean women and democratization: Entering politics through resistance as Arpilleristas. Asian Journal of Latin American Studies, 24(2), 27-44
Chaney, E. (1979). Supermadre: Women in politics in Latin America. Austin TX: University of Texas Press.
Grindon, G., & Flood, C. (editors) (2014). Disobedient objects. V&A Publications.
Krause, W. (2004) The role and example of Chilean and Argentinian Mothers in democratisation, Development in Practice, 14:3, 366-380.
The William Benton Museum of Art (2018). Accessed: https://benton.uconn.edu/exhibitions/arpilleria/images/
Ignacia is a Research Associate at UCL and has a PhD in Development and Planning (UCL). Trinidad is the director of Casa del Encuentro at Fundación Santa Ana and has a Master in Psychoanalysis (Universidad de Chile).
By Pascale Hofmann, on 14 January 2019
This blog is the third of the health in urban development blog series. View also:
Gaza: Cage Politics, Violence and Health
By Haim Yacobi
If you are interested in DPU’s new MSc in Health in Urban Development, more information can be found on our website.
In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s main economic and administrative centre, high population densities, the accumulation of informal lower-income residents, lack of access to clean water and poor sanitary conditions have been associated with a range of water and sanitation-related diseases. Cholera outbreaks are a frequent occurrence during the rainy season and some settlements in the city are among the worst affected in the country. In this context, I argue that urban water poverty needs to be tackled using a proactive rather than reactive approach at the local level to yield long-lasting health benefits.
Tackling urban water poverty and community health promotion
Internationally, the link between urban water poverty – i.e. inadequate access to water supply and sanitation facilities, and public health – is widely recognised whereby improvements in accessing water and sanitation are deemed crucial in tackling a diverse range of diseases and improving the lives of the poor.
Such thinking calls for integrated and consistent approaches, which, as emphasised by a UNICEF WASH specialist in Tanzania are evidently lacking in most policy-driven practices on the ground.
“Hygiene and sanitation awareness, behaviour change, communication and empowerment are maybe done in urban areas but erratically, not systematically. When the rains are coming and there is threat of cholera etc. then you will find people will announce: ‘food vendors cover properly your food and make sure it is hot and whatever, please clean your surroundings, no solid waste should be seen and liquid waste, please drain it out completely’ etc. […] or there is a cholera outbreak in a certain locality in Dar es Salaam and it is feared that it might spread, so that happens but on a regular basis there is not a lot done” (quote from UNICEF WASH specialist).
During the recent cholera outbreak in 2015 government spending increased significantly to treat the affected population. While curative measures are vital, efforts to improve water supply and sanitation constitute essential steps towards future outbreaks. Similarly, some municipalities in Dar es Salaam have put continuous support into household fumigation programmes to impede the spread of malaria but fall short of investing in preventative measures to keep people healthy – i.e. reduce mosquito breeding sites through the provision of safe drinking water, improved sanitation and hygiene. Currently, the onus is predominantly on residents themselves to be pre-emptive in their everyday practices with regards to potential health implications but not everybody is equally aware or shares the same ability to act. In the absence of sufficient government action, those who can have invested in better access to water, improved sanitation facilities and even flood defences.
“In 2011 there was flooding and we lost our livestock and we had to start afresh. What actually happened is there has been increased silt in the Msimbazi river. At the same time, there is wastewater that comes from the ponds and where these meet, that impact pushes the water towards our land. […] we constructed this drainage channel jointly with my neighbour after the flooding to try and divert the water from coming in” (quote from a resident in an informal settlement in Dar es Salaam).
The need for a proactive, decentralised approach
Ward health officers are officially tasked with preventing water-related diseases and promoting environmental health in their jurisdiction through regular water quality tests at local water supply schemes and inspections of businesses and households with no equivalent paid staff at sub-ward level. However, with limited resources at ward level much of the action regarding water supply, sanitation and environmental health depends on voluntary efforts in the communities by residents themselves and facilitated through sub-ward committees, water committees and community representatives. Many health officers at the ward level understand the importance of sanitation, drainage and safely-managed water supply but struggle to influence the agenda at higher levels of government. The Decentralisation by Devolution Policy introduced in the 1990s transferred responsibilities to local government for service improvements but without fiscal decentralisation or devolution of decision-making power. Decentralisation should pave the way for bottom-up participatory planning processes but municipalities in Dar es Salaam focus on central government priorities while continuing to disregard lower levels of government and their efforts to address local challenges. Decentralised decision-making structures are therefore not a guarantee for more democratic processes.
The importance of engaging urban poor communities
To lower the burden of water and sanitation-related diseases, engagement of communities with the authorities (utility and municipal government) is crucial but often limited and slow. Until recently, one of Dar es Salaam’s municipalities prohibited low-income communities living near wastewater stabilisation ponds to use them for safe sewage disposal. A lengthy period of continuous interaction between the local community, the municipality and the utility, facilitated by a local NGO, eventually led to a pilot initiative that connects household toilets to the nearby ponds using simplified technology. This has reduced the number of pits being informally emptied during the rainy season and led to a safer and healthier environment for residents.
The utility seems keen to replicate the scheme elsewhere in the city, which shows potential that policy-driven practices can be transformed, scaled up and institutionalised in ways that are more integrated and sensitive towards the needs of the urban poor if sufficient consideration is given to the scope for scaling up and sharing the benefits more equally within a settlement.
Pascale is a Lecturer at the Development Planning Unit, UCL, where she leads the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development Programme. Her current research is particularly concerned with the dialectics of urban water poverty, examining different policy-driven and everyday practices and their impact on everyday trajectories of the urban water poor. She is interested in generating knowledge towards developing feasible pathways out of urban water poverty.
By Ariana Markowitz, on 19 December 2018
NB: This post contains graphic content.
In March 2018, I interviewed a Salvadoran artist who lives in the United States about his work on violence. As we discussed a project, he recounted seeing the body of a teenage girl that had been disinterred, raped, and left on the ground of the cemetery where she had been buried the previous day. “I remember the colour of her dress, the texture of the fluids on her body,” he told me. There was an anguished pause. “I’ve only told my partner, a friend, and you. It’s been years and I still see her.”
El Salvador is one of the most violent countries on earth, so I knew going in that I would be speaking with people who have experienced trauma about that trauma. Unlike a mental health professional or a faith leader, however, I entered these conversations for information, not to directly support recovery and healing. Fearful that my questions could cause harm, I sought guidance from friends who work with asylum seekers and survivors of sexual assault. Despite that preparation, I still struggled to respond to the artist in the moment, shunting aside my own reactions to ensure that he felt heard and that our conversation remained centred on him. Afterwards, overwhelmed with disgust and unease, I told myself that what the artist described had to be an aberration—an exceptionally violent incident, even in an exceptionally violent place.
But then, in the following weeks, I heard versions of the same story about different bodies in different places from different people. I came to understand that these stories were more about tactics than necrophilia: Salvadoran gangs use the rape of a corpse to taunt or exact revenge upon the family and community of the victim, tainting and deforming their grief and ratcheting up the ongoing conflicts amongst the gangs, and between the gangs and the Salvadoran state. A play I saw in San Salvador depicted this tactic, though I failed to recognize it for what it was, assuming the victim was drugged or unconscious. Now, months later, I was realizing that the rest of the audience, for whom this violence was part of their reality, did not make the same mistake.
All of this heightened my awareness of and sensibility to violence, and the more time I spent in the field, the more the stories and images of violence piled up. I had nightmares that turned into sleepless nights, and despite being exhausted I remained unable to rest. I took impulsive decisions to regain some agency amidst circumstances that felt beyond my control. Normally an extrovert, I often preferred to be alone, and apart from an occasional thrill of warmth or wonder, the luster of the world around me faded.
My agitation pursued me back to London where I took two months off. Once I tried to watch a film to distract myself, but the film’s negative foreshadowing unsettled me and I had an agonizing night struggling to keep my mounting panic at bay. When I got my hair cut, the stylist commented that my hair had grown during the months I was away and asked how my trip went. Without meaning or wanting to, a torrent of horrific stories streamed out of me. I watched people’s eyes widen behind me in the mirror.
Other academics and practitioners who work on similar topics reassure me that all of this is par for the course. I have heard about nightmares, insomnia, compulsive exercise, benders of all kinds, addiction, and the straining and splitting of relationships with friends, relatives, and lovers. Some people abandoned researching violence altogether, with one explaining simply that, “The work damaged my spirit.”
Despite the prevalence of trauma in the field, however, I received little formal guidance related to research challenges in violent contexts prior to beginning my fieldwork. Throughout the world, university ethics protocols for all disciplines draw primarily from biomedical research that prioritizes physical over mental harm and research participants over the researcher. To that effect, I was asked to consider earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, mosquito-borne illnesses, crime, and more, and I wrote thousands of words about them in my risk assessment because they were valid concerns that I needed to take into account. I also read Salvadoran legislation on data protection, determined that the GDPR was more robust, and spelled out the measures I would take to protect my research participants’ personal information, per GDPR requirements. I sought advice from friends on how to talk about trauma because I identified it as a crucial skillset that I needed and lacked, not because an ethics committee alerted me to my potential for inflicting mental or emotional harm on my participants.
Social science methodology literature likewise comes up short in this regard. Most often, texts discussing research about violence neglect to mention the researcher at all, treating us as just the instruments for doing research. More reflexive pieces tend to focus on four topics: the ethics of working with victims and victimizers, difficulties accessing people and places, the absence or unreliability of data, and threats to researchers’ physical health and safety. As with the concerns above, these topics pose real challenges to the successful undertaking of fieldwork and merit serious debate and consideration.
But none of that illuminated any path that I could see towards feeling whole again, returning to the field, and finishing my work. Eventually, finally, I came across work that addressed the gaps. The scholars who produce it, most of whom are anthropologists, contend that shame around mental health in general, and concerns about bias and subjectivity in academia in particular, silence our ability to engage with what we see, hear, do, and feel as we gather information. More progressive criticism faults researchers for focusing on ourselves while the people we study are the ones who are actually suffering. Plus, unlike the privileged researcher, our participants may have few avenues to alter their circumstances.
Humility, perspective, prudence, and grit are essential in this type of work, but they do not change the fact that researching violence implies experiencing it. Breaking the silence around researcher trauma, rather than being unscientific or self-indulgent, permits clarity in the theories, concepts, and methods we develop to make sense of violence as a social phenomenon.
In January I am organizing a workshop at UCL called “Fortify and Heal: Researching Sensitive Topics and Violent Places” that will be the starting point for a collective process of seeking and finding guidance and support. The workshop will bring together students and staff for sessions on defining and managing trauma, supervising sensitive and violent research, and recalibrating risk and ethics protocols. Many researchers lament the external barriers to researching violence—earlier this year a charity rejected my funding application because “the successful candidates are carrying out less risky fieldwork”—so this is an opportunity to explore our individual and collective needs and how our institutions’ can comply with their duty to care such that more people, not fewer, feel able to research violence. Outside scholars will facilitate each session so that our ideas and debates reverberate around other campuses.
Jeff Hearn, who studies men and masculinities, writes about finding a paradoxical positiveness in violence from the possibility of change to non-violence. Engaging with our trauma—bracing ourselves, finding comfort, rejuvenating each other—is a first step.
“Fortify and Heal” will take place at UCL on Tuesday 8 and Wednesday 9 January 2019 from 14:00 to 17:00 each day. For more information or to attend any or all sessions, please contact Ariana at email@example.com by Sunday 6 January 2019.
Ariana is a PhD student at DPU researching how fear and trauma manifest and become defining parts of urban landscapes. Taking cues from this damage, especially in marginalized communities, she looks for alternative ways of repairing frayed social fabric and healing.
By Ariana Markowitz, on 11 December 2018
I spent an afternoon in August with a group of young men in a skate park on the outskirts of San Salvador, El Salvador. The park was part of a larger recreational complex and more people drifted in as the hours passed. The day was stifling and even if shade in the park was limited, at least sometimes there was a breeze in the air, unlike inside the low-income housing blocks that ringed the park and the shacks that climbed up the surrounding streets, splintering into a labyrinth of dead-end alleys.
The young men in the skate park told me story after story about police and gang brutality. At one point I asked them to draw a picture of a place or a situation in which they felt unsafe, uncomfortable, or anxious and another place or situation where they felt the opposite. One person stared at a blank piece of paper for 10 minutes, unable to think of any time or place where he had ever felt safe. Another drew an imaginary safe place where there were no abuses of power, people interacted as equals, homes were dignified, and greenery was abundant. After leaving the park later that day, a taxi driver told me about almost joining a gang some 15 years earlier, but changing his mind at the last minute based on the somber regrets of someone who had decided to go through with it. Later that night on my way home, I saw a body on the street. No one stopped and when I slowed down to get a closer look, my car was almost hit from behind.
This situation is part of what is driving Central Americans, especially from the so-called ‘Northern Triangle’ countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, to flee, seeking a better life or, in some cases, a life at all in the United States. More and more the migrants and displaced people are traveling in mass because most of their journey is through Mexico and the Mexican state has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness or inability to protect asylum seekers’ human rights, leaving them vulnerable to opportunistic people and cartel violence while they travel, often with babies and children in tow. The poor treatment of migrants and displaced people is an extension of the Mexican state’s similar unwillingness or inability to protect Mexican citizens’ human rights. Nearly 250,000 Mexicans have been killed in the last 10 years and there are more disappearances now in Mexico than there were under the dictatorships in South America, including the still unresolved case of 43 students disappearing in 2014, apparently at the hands of state security agents with assistance from organized criminal groups under the protection of military forces. Just like I saw in El Salvador, poverty in Mexico is both a driver and a result of violence, and decades of repeated abuses have corroded Mexicans’ confidence in each other and in their government. Several years ago when I was documenting police reform in Mexico, I was struck by how government insiders and partners recalled processes that were difficult but ultimately successful while outsiders saw failures and suspected conspiracies.
Amidst so much darkness, DPU’s Étienne von Bertrab has opted to look for light. A few years ago he began developing what is now Albora, an initiative that traces Mexico’s “geographies of hope” through identifying, studying, documenting, and showcasing transformative projects throughout the country. Spotlighting this work demonstrates the that there are other ways to develop, progress, and grow, ones in which no one mistakes violence for a solution, where access to water and other natural resources is universal, where citizens are informed and engaged, and where everyone strives for the greater good.
One such project is Agua para Siempre (‘water forever’), established 30 years ago by a then young couple, who decided that they would defend and support their poorest compatriots. They landed in the Sierra Mixteca in the Mexican state of Puebla, an arid and fast-eroding area that had been and continued to be hollowed out because of migration to large Mexican cities and the United States. With time, the couple understood that access to water was fundamental to addressing poverty and migration, so they began to study pre-Hispanic methods for soil retention and cultivation and advocate for their re-adoption in surrounding communities. Today, their organization, Alternativas y Procesos de Participación Social, AC (‘alternatives and social participation processes’), has 300 people and thousands of local partners who are seeing the fruits of their sustained efforts. Communities are beginning to have access to water all year for small-scale cultivation, animal husbandry, and human consumption, and hundreds of small cooperatives have begun to produce amaranth, a pre-Columbian pseudo-grain that, like quinoa, is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Reversing previous trends, migration is falling, as is child malnutrition, thanks to the inclusion of amaranth in local diets.
The search for transformative initiatives also brought the Albora team, which includes five DPU alumni, to Mexico City where a Mexican historian and novelist, his family, and a dozen others have formed the Brigada para Leer en Libertad (‘brigade to read in freedom’). The brigade has cultivated new readers through facilitating horizontal and informal access to authors, expanding the availability of books, and creating free places to read. So far, they have gifted or sold more than a million books at an affordable price to girls, boys, women, and men in a country where the high price of books makes bookstores elitist and inaccessible and public libraries are few. To that end, the brigade also establishes libraries, with a recent campaign resulting in the donation of nearly 70,000 books. These books have become the basis for carefully curated collections in formerly empty libraries in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The brigade promotes reading for pleasure but also as a political act—an essential step towards the full exercise of conscious citizenship.
These projects and others are harnessing the power of hope to fuel alternative visions of their society. They demonstrate the fundamental importance of restoring and cultivating hope, necessary for active citizenship, and united, powerful communities, not just in Mexico or El Salvador but everywhere where injustice and inequality construct blocks for us to stumble over. The projects challenge us to look beyond our cynicism and apathy.
Before I left the skate park in August, one young man told me that he was glad I had come. “Most people don’t come looking for us, and the people who do don’t listen to what we have to say,” he said. “I hope you’ve been able to hear us and that the stories of our lives help you do your work.”
To learn more about Albora and contribute to its crowdfunding campaign, active until Tuesday, 18 December and only funded if it reaches 100% of its goal, go here.
Ariana Markowitz is a PhD student at DPU researching how fear and trauma manifest and become defining characteristics of urban landscapes. Taking cues from this damage, especially in marginalized communities, she looks for alternative ways of repairing frayed social fabric and healing.
By Haim Yacobi, on 4 December 2018
This blog is the second of the health in urban development blog series. View also:
Health in secondary urban centres: Insights from Karonga, Malawi
“I’m like a bird in a cage”, told Shaheen in an interview to Al Jazeera as she lay in bed at Al-Rantisi hospital. “Outside of my cage I can see water and food, but I can’t reach it. This is my condition right now.” Shaheen suffers from breast cancer, her condition has been deteriorating ever since she was denied exit from Gaza for treatment. The Gaza Strip does not have adequate resources to provide her with appropriate treatment, yet she cannot leave, as Israeli authorities rejected her permit three times in a row without explanation. But this is not an anecdote – current data indicates that 54 Palestinians, including 46 cancer patients, died in 2017 after their requests for permits were delayed or refused.
The case of Shaheen illustrates the ways in which health, death, life and space are entangled. It is not just about the crossing of the border between the Gaza strip and Israel, but also about being in a “cage”, an urban territory where electricity, clean water, sewage system and adequate housing which are basic conditions for ensuring a health – are absent. As already noted, in 2017 more than 96 percent of groundwater is unfit for human consumption, and the forecast is that the damage would become irreversible by 2020; Due to chronic shortage in electricity operating pumps, there is a constant threat of raw sewage flooding residential areas. The beach areas of Gaza strip are polluted by more than a hundred million litres of raw sewage flowing into the sea every day. This matter was recently defined by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights as a “TOXIC SLUM”, claiming that Gazans “…are… caged in a toxic slum from birth to death”, a ghetto of 1.9 million residents (50% under the age of 18) living in one of the most densely-populated places on earth.
The spatio-politics of health, death and life goes beyond the notion of necropolitics; it is not just about the use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die as Achile Mbembe suggests; rather it is also about the spatial dimension of “cage politics”. Within this context I argue that spatial organisation determines the right to kill as defined by Foucault; blocking Gaza, isolating its habitants, controlling the goods that can enter the strip (such as food, construction materials etc). Yet the question is not whether the organisation of space and health are linked, but why is space organised, controlled and destructed in certain cases so as to protect the right to health; What are the ideological forces and the political processes that promote or hinder the organisation of space?
The conditions in Gaza are not the result of any natural disaster, neither the outcome of the last few months events along the border. Rather, I would suggest to see it within the context of settler colonial political history, which prioritises territorial and demographic control over basic rights. As already noted the establishment of settler colonialism is based on “the will of erasure”, or at least the “systematic containment” of the original inhabitants. First of all, the refugees: close to 70% of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip are refugees. Most of them ran away, or were expelled from villages, towns and cities that are part of the State of Israel today.
Since then, Israeli political discourse focuses on the idea that this problem would disappear by itself. Yet, as the last few months demonstrate this is not the case: Young Palestinians who are demonstrating at the border are the third and fourth generations of the original refugees, and they are willing to die for the right to return, reminding us that 1948 is still with us, waiting for a political (rather than military) answer. Indeed, links between health, death, life and cage politics should be understood within a wider context, where freedom of movement, access to public services and infrastructure, as well as freedom from pollution and environmental hazards, are obvious rights linked to space.
Indeed, the case of Gaza illustrates the ways in which people who have been displaced experience “root shock” – the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of some or all of one’s emotional ecosystem. As the case of Gaza demonstrates, the very historical foundations of the root shock are the expelled of Palestinians after the 1948 war from Israel, the creation of the “refugees crisis” and the ongoing violence in the last few decades. Root shock is both personal and collective: on the individual level emotional trauma affect a person experiences when his or her environment is destroyed. It causes the risk for stress-related diseases like depression and diminishes social, emotional, and financial resources. Here, several reports point on the growing number of mental illness in Gaza, including a growing number of suicides.
Importantly this has also an effect on the community level; root shock is expressed by the loss of interpersonal ties that is vested in the collective connections and affect negatively a community resilience. A telling example is the aspect of the high rates of sexual assaults in Gaza resulted of the common addiction to Tramadol which is available in Gaza, and popularly traded as an illegal street-drug. According to Mansour, the Tramadol side-effects have an immense impact on the frequency of sexual assaults and other un-healthy sexual behaviours. In general, Mansour describes Gaza as a society in “a tremendous and accelerated disintegration” in which “people are losing their humanity”. Another aspect is gender-based violence. In 2016, more than 148,000 women were subjected to psychological and physical abuse. Studies show a link between violence against women and the worsening of living conditions. According to the UNFPA, ‘The structural, cyclical and hierarchal nature of violence… means women often become “shock-absorbers” of the crisis’ in Gaza.
To sum up, cage politics violence has two dimensions that affect health conditions in Gaza. Active violence stemming from direct military actions and explicit policy. This affects water supply, electricity, nutrition. It also causes a severe shortage of equipment, medicines (including antibiotics and morphium), and medical expertise. This, for example, means injured people with gunshot wounds to the legs are not always treated quickly, leading to amputation. But cage politics is also discursive, symbolic and implicit; this is expressed in the very de-humansing and demonising public discourse in Israel, that in turn justifies active state violence. A current example is the building of an underwater sea barrier that according to the Israelis aims to prevent Palestinian infiltrators from entering Israel by sea. The barrier will consist of three layers. The first will be below the water; the second will be made of stone; the third will be made of barbed wire. An additional fence will surround the sea fence. The effect of this project on Gaza is clear: fishing, mobility, health and economy is one side of it, but this also takes us back to the very argument presented today: cage politics of health, life and death are highly political and that access to water, electricity and services, or proximity to environmental hazards, are not neutral facts but rather the results of policy and violence.
Haim Yacobi is a Prof of Development Planning and the Programme Leader of the Health in Urban Development MSc Programme at the DPU. In his current research he focuses on the ways in which ideology, planning and health are entangled in conflict zones.