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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


The impact of COVID-19 on night-time economies, arts and culture

By Alessio Koliulis, on 30 June 2020

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

As the pandemic continues to disrupt urban life, city governments have to think about how to support their night-time economies (NTEs).

Photograph: Alexander Macfarlane

Cities are forced to lock down venues but regulations over physical distancing result in closures of night-time venues and job losses. In order to protect local economies, there are urgent changes that need to take place, as NTEs remain without financial support and their re-opening is highly uncertain.

Firstly, NTEs need to be understood in their contribution to urban development. Night-time activities are a cultural trait of urban societies, and, as such, possess a strong economic dimension for cities. They also represent a key part of the creative industries supply chain.

As economic and cultural producers, night-time venues maintain a twofold relationship with urban space. Clubs, festivals and music venues are powerful spaces of aggregation in popular neighbourhoods. They attract people and provide space for imagination. And yet, they are particularly vulnerable to changes, highlighting the precarious nature of the creative sector.

In this regard, for NTEs the pandemic presents similar challenges to the 2008 financial crisis. Seeking new assets, financial companies invested in the real estate market and sought opportunities to capitalize on the associated value generated by creative and night-time scenes. This trend intensified pressures over land use, led to a wave of closures of independent venues and prompted campaigns to “save nightlives” in cities across the globe.

Between 2005 and 2015, 44% of nightclubs in the UK closed. UCL researchers Professor Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall found that LGBTQ+ spaces have been particularly vulnerable to closures, with a decrease of 58% in London (down to 53 from 125). Looking at the total number of closures, a greater proportion of LGBTQ+ spaces open to BAME ceased to exist, exposing their greater vulnerability to dynamics of urban development and speculation.

The fragility of NTEs brought by land use pressures and lack of institutional support suggests that a second change needs to take place. National and city governments need support the creative economy more holistically.

The Night Time Industry Association (NTIA), a membership organisation representing thousands of small and medium enterprises forming the UK’s NTE, urged the government to provide specific support in the form of grants and job retention schemes.

With night-time accounting for 8% of the UK’s employment and revenues of £66b per annum, NTIA fears that failures to protect the sector will result in venues and supply chain facing permanent closure. Oxford Economics estimates that across the UK, the creative industries will lose 406,000 jobs, equal to 19% drop in employment.

Photographs: Alexander Macfarlane

As Richard Florida writes on Bloomberg CityLab, “the creative economy of art galleries, museums, theatres, and music venues, along with the artists, musicians, and actors who fuel them, is at dire risk. Cities must partner with other levels of government, the private sector and philanthropies to marshal the funding and expertise that is needed to keep their cultural scenes alive.”

Fortunately, many local governments recognize the importance of the NTE for the creative sector. Night-time mayors and commissions from Amsterdam to Berlin and from London to Los Angeles are keen to support its creative production industries and protect jobs. More specifically, they acknowledged that night-time activities, clubs and music venues need to be considered in their socio-economic environment, looking at how they intersect within and beyond the supply chains of the creative sector.

Take for instance the actions of the German federal government. The German ministry of culture supported the creative sector with a €50 billion aid package covering rentals and overheads for artists, self-employed and cultural businesses. An additional €10 billion was released in the form of social security support for individuals employed in the sector. The state initiative recognises that arts and culture are “vital and indispensable”, especially in the context of COVID-19.

Photograph: Alexander Macfarlane

Paul Pacifico, CEO of the Association of Independent Music UK, argues that “enforced isolation has also thrown into sharp relief the value of arts and culture to our mental health, wellbeing and ability to connect with other human beings whether or not we occupy the same physical space in that moment.” In this respect, arts and culture should be regarded as public goods on which people rely in times of need, Sound Diplomacy’s report Music Cities Resilience Handbook highlights.

In April 2020, another initiative was launched by VibeLab. The “Global Night-time Recovery Plan” aims to design a strategy for the recovery efforts of cities, reopening night-time venues in a safe and feasible manner. This global initiative is a collaborative call that will publish a practical guide on how to mitigate the challenges cities are facing.

These studies seek to determine the needs of the creative businesses and the value of NTEs for cities and their recovery. Research on the socio-cultural value of night-time highlights the importance of venues for community life and wellbeing. Failing to provide support will exacerbate inequalities further.

As I argued at the first NITE conference in May 2020, closures of night-time venues increase inequalities and undermine urban democracy. Issues of inequalities related to night-time are driven by ideas of economic democracy. Looking at night-time in this way, as a problem of equality and inequality, can provide a better framework to offset the negative impacts of COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, further research is needed to understand the impact of COVID-19 on night-time economies and inequalities in cities of the Global South.

Night-time activities – a theme that runs underground throughout the work of urban theorist AbdouMaliq Simone – are an integral part of the “popular economies” fabricating the social infrastructures of African, Asian and Latin American cities. Overlooking night-time, including in the context of COVID-19, may prevent scholars and practitioners to fully understand contemporary challenges of urban change and development.

Working remotely: Implications on the fate of smaller cities, towns and villages in the New economy.

By Naji P Makarem, on 5 June 2020

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

This article is about imagining the future of smaller cities, towns and villages through the lens of economic geography three months into a global lock-down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Economic geography is a field of economics that aims to understand the ‘sorting’ of firms and workers across space as well as the evolution in the industrial structure of cities and regions, which determine the economic activities and per capita income of different places. It is a rich and sophisticated approach to understanding economic development, one that has been informing economic models with deep insights from economic sociology, political science and organisational theory for the past 100 years.

In the 1980s some scholars believed that technological change would mean the more even distribution of economic activities across space. Over the subsequent 4 decades quite the opposite has happened: Urbanisation and the concentration of people and economic activity in large mega-cities has increased, with larger cities coming out on average as the winners when measured in terms of per capita income (albeit not when measured in terms of inequality it must be noted).

It became sacrilege to imagine the resurgence of smaller cities, let alone that of towns and villages, as we look back at those early scholars who ‘had gotten it all wrong’.

In fact, the field reached such a strong theoretical understanding of the link between urbanisation and economic development that economic geographers and policy-makers accepted that inequality was inevitable and even good for unleashing the potential of large successful cities. Rebalancing spatial inequalities was best left to social welfare initiatives rather than wasting our time kidding ourselves about the economic potential of backward cities and towns. The EU thus changed its mission from ‘social cohesion policy’, trying to equalize per capita incomes across its regions, to implicitly accepting spatial inequality as inevitable, while boosting its large agglomerations at the expense of increased inter-regional inequality (Barca, 2009).

The forces that make big cities ‘winners’ in terms of economic growth, per capita income, innovation and productivity are known as agglomeration economies. They emerge from the size of their urban labour and consumer markets, the high demand for public services in densely populated areas (that reduces the per-capita cost of access to public services, utilities and amenities), lower-cost access to the inputs of other firms (the proximity of lawyers and traders and other business and financial services) and the interaction between people from different worlds or fields (the social ‘soup’ for creativity and innovation – cite Powell). These are known as ‘matching’, ‘sharing’ and learning’, the three agglomeration economies that attract people and firms to cities.

The larger the city, the more industries can reach critical mass, often in clusters within the city, unleashing further external economies of scale and scope within an increasingly diverse ‘kaleidoscope’ of clusters, thus increasing the probability of creative and innovative expression (It has been shown that more diverse places with greater generalised trust are indeed more innovative (Kemeny, 2012).

In reality however, if you read between the dots above and below the regression lines economists point to as evidence that cities are engines of economic growth (which on average they are, but not really), it becomes evident that in developed countries “big cities are not always the most dynamic engines of growth (Dijkstra et al. 2013) [and] in developing countries urbanisation without growth is increasingly the norm (Jedwab and Vollrath, 2015) as cited by Rodriguez-Pose in his article titled The revenge of places that don’t matter.

The dreams of scholars in the 1980s predicting the spread of economic activities, people and firms, across geography proved to be un-founded due to the agglomeration effects of propinquity and the interaction effects of face to face contact.

The technology however since then has evolved substantially and today we are 3 months into a global lock-down where almost all service industry jobs have been taken online through remote working from home, with 45% of workers expecting to work more flexibly after the lock-down.

This sudden shift to remote work seemed to me like a seamless shift given our online skills (most of us have chatted over WhatsApp and Skype before) but it was only after a few weeks that it really dawned on me that despite being computer savvy and comfortable with the internet, social media and working in cafes, I had transcended to a qualitatively different culture of working remotely because now everyone was doing it.

This cultural shift has its advantages: C02 emissions are down, traffic diminished considerably in our cities and I spent less money on coffees and sandwiches and ate more healthier home-cooked food. I also found myself engaging in more meetings (that no longer required long journeys on the tube) and generally being more productive while paradoxically feeling like I was on a summer holiday (the sunshine, river-walks and my balcony helped for sure). My conversations with friends, admittedly a privileged middle-class segment of the population in the service sector who had not lost their jobs, substantiated my intuition that the lock-down was being secretly enjoyed by those whose lives were not shattered by the virus.

I did feel that remote working had finally kicked into full force for the first time since the technologies for it were widely available over the past 10-15 years. What was needed was cultural change, which either happens over a very long period of time (North, 1981) or very rapidly due to a sudden shock or crisis.

This new way of working and the slow-paced lifestyle I have enjoyed makes me wonder, and I say this at the risk of heresy and ridicule in the field of economic geography: Is there a role for smaller cities, towns and villages in the new economy?

Local Economic Development (LED) strategies offer small cities, towns and villages the opportunity to achieve their potential. Locally-led bottom-up LED approaches to the challenges of urban economic development emerged in the 1990s as a response to fiscal austerity and demands for independence. Looking back, we have learnt a great deal about the perils of inter-jurisdictional competition with its dead-weight loss in the aggregate and the inability of many municipalities to engage in LED with stakeholders and catalyse economic development due to fiscal and capacity constraints. But we have also learnt that the places and communities that do organise across community boundaries, that develop a sense of shared identity and vision of the future and do so in a way that is realistic in light of their own circumstances and the changing world around them can achieve more inclusive and sustainable development (Rodriguez-Pose, 2002).

If we can replace a significant share of our regular face to face interaction with the occasional face to face interaction as a way to (socially) cement regular online interaction through webinars, meetings and other forums of interaction, with most service industry inputs and outputs being digital and if new technologies reduce the per capita costs of accessing amenities, public services and utilities, might the economic geographers of the early 1980s have actually been correct (albeit premature) in predicting the more even distribution of economic activities across space? And if so, what will villages and towns of the future look like? Can they unleash agglomeration economies and economic specialisation in a combination of spatial and digital interaction enabled by local economic development strategies and an emerging new culture of remote working?

I’ll leave you with these questions as I turn my attention back to the web page that inspired me to write this article in the first place.


Dr. Naji P. Makarem

Lecturer – Political Economy of Development

Program co-Leader – Msc. Urban Economic Development

Bartlett School’s Development Planning Unit (DPU) – UCL




Dijkstra, L, E Garcilazo, and P McCann (2013), “The economic performance of European cities and city regions: Myths and realities”, European Planning Studies 21(3): 334-354.


Frick, Susanne, and Rodriguez-Pose, A, (2018), “Big or small cities? On city size and economic growth”, Growth and Change, A journal or urban and regional policy, Volume 49, Issue 1 (March 2018). Access online: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/grow.12232


Jedwab, R and D Vollrath (2015), “Urbanization without growth in historical perspective”, Explorations in Economic History 58: 1-21.


Kemeny, T, (2012), “Cultural Diversity, Institutions and Urban Economic Performance, Environment and Planning A; DOI: 10.1068/a44385 – access online: https://www.academia.edu/33968043/Cultural_Diversity_Institutions_and_Urban_Economic_Performance?auto=download


North D C, 1981, Structure and Change in Economic History (W. W. Norton, New York, NY)


Rodríguez-Pose, A (2018), “The revenge of the places that don’t matter (and what to do about it)”, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 11(1): forthcoming.


Rodríguez-Pose, A  (2002), “The role of the ILO in implementing local economic development strategies in a globalised world”, International Labour Organization, Geneva. Acess Online: https://www.ilo.org/empent/Publications/WCMS_111545/lang–en/index.htm


Has the pandemic reinforced what we know about disaster risk management?

By Cassidy A Johnson, on 29 May 2020

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

The possibility of emerging infectious diseases impacting on our societies is increasing, as our relationship with nature is changing due to climate change, land use change, and humans encroaching on the habitat of wild animals. Additionally, the global spread of emerging infectious diseases is more possible due to the increase in world travel, the global transport of food and intensive food production methods.

While this pandemic is still an ongoing emergency – it might be worthwhile to ask the question at this point – has the pandemic reinforced what we know about disaster risk management? The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction is the international blueprint for reducing risk and responding to disasters, and includes biological hazards in its considerations.

The difficulty in preparing properly for high impact/low frequency events. Pandemic usually tops the list of national risk registers as potential high-impact disaster event that we need to prepare for. Most countries have undertaken some kind of preparedness for pandemics, or other public health emergencies. The 2017 National Risk Register for the UK lists emerging infectious diseases as an unpredictable but potentially more frequent event (see figure 1 below).

We know that the more often an event happens, the more prepared we are for future events. However, preparing for an event that is high impact, low frequency is always more difficult, as the issue seems less pressing. It has been over 100 years since the last full-scale pandemic of the Spanish flu in 1918, and many countries have been left unprepared, with weak health systems and lack of political commitment to invest in prevention, or to place pandemics at the front and centre of preparedness.

As we have seen, the countries that have had more recent experiences in responding to epidemics have been better prepared. For example, Ebola in Sierra Leone and across West Africa, and SARS across East Asian countries has prepared the medical and governance systems for swift action. Medical professionals from Cuba helped to respond to Ebola in West Africa in 2014/15, and this experience has meant that Cuba has been quicker and better able to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic at home. Taiwan, a country that has was hard-hit by SARS, brought in checks on travellers from Wuhan in late December, a day after Hubei province public health reporting of a mystery, pneumonia-like illness. The integration of public health and disaster risk management fields is an important and emerging area of research.

The pandemic has shown how crucial national-level policy-making and strong leadership is to reduce disaster risks. The lock-down actions that have been taken – or not taken—by national governments across the world have changed the trajectory of the epidemics in their countries. Very unfortunately, those who have not taken swift action have seen more deaths.

Figure 1: An illustration of the hazards, diseases, accidents, and societal risks facing the United Kingdom, as of 2017. Source: National Risk Register, 2017.

Figure 1: An illustration of the hazards, diseases, accidents, and societal risks facing the United Kingdom, as of 2017. Source: National Risk Register, 2017.

The world’s population is only as strong as its weakest link. The pandemic has underscored that vulnerability is key variable in understanding risk to a pandemic, and that poverty is a key variable in vulnerability. Thus, addressing poverty, access to basic services and safe working conditions is the most important element in reducing the risks of pandemics, as well as host of other risks.

For example, The Office for National Statistics in the UK reported in early May 2020 that the most deprived areas of England and Wales have 55.1 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 25.3 in affluent areas. People working in lower-paid jobs are more likely to be exposed, due to needing to be at work, needing to travel to work, needing to use public transport to cover the distance from home to work. The death rate among Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups in the UK is 2.5 times that of white people, some of which may be related to higher levels of deprivation, or to exposure due to types of employment as frontline or key workers.

Outbreaks of Covid-19 among people who are unable to isolate themselves brings to fore poor living standards that people face on a daily basis.  Migrant workers in the gulf region exposes the harsh living conditions, and working conditions, that people face and how lack of rights exposes them unduly to a host of hazards, including Covid-19. In the cities were I usually do research, such as Kampala (Uganda), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Dhaka (Bangladesh), people living in informal settlements, who lack access to clean piped water, share toilets amongst many families, and share one room with several family members sharing are not able to self-isolate. The cash-based economy means money is needed to access basic supplies such as food, water, toilets, health care and electricity. As savings are quickly depleted, people are forced to go out to work, or wait for government or charity hand-outs, which have been very slow to come. Brutal lockdowns and police enforcement have made people more vulnerable to violence, as we have seen in India and Uganda.

The economic vulnerability of certain groups extends into the phased opening-up of society too, for example in Uganda, where they are starting to come out of a harsh lock-down. In Kampala, the capital city, driving a motorbike taxi (boda-boda) is a profession for many young men, however now this form of transport is not allowed due to social distancing measures (they can only carry packages).

The importance of risk information, and the role of science in assessing risk. Risk assessment and the role of science is a major aspect of the Sendai Framework. Many of the actions that have been taken to reduce the spread of the pandemic are related to modelling done by epidemiologists on how the virus will affect the population, and how different actions, such as social distancing, shielding the worst affected, use of masks, etc. will reduce the spread of the virus. This modelling contains many uncertainties that have to be communicated to decision-makers, and modelling requires the scientists to make a multitude of choices in developing the methodology, which may be influenced by their own cultural and personal perspectives. In order for politicians to make decisions, consensus is ideally required, based on many different epidemiological models, created by different scientists, and the sharing of methods and data.

The role of science in public policy making about Covid-19 is of crucial importance to tackling the pandemic, and the clarity upon which policy decisions are made has a massive influence on how the public perceives and acts on the policies. In the U.K. this has been a huge area of contention, with the public calling for a more transparent links between the science and policy decisions, including access to the minutes of the U.K. Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) meetings. This has led to the setting up of an independent SAGE group that publishes its advice publicly.

Local governments should be on the front-line. While the pandemic is a global event, the day-to-day management of protecting people’s health happens at the local level, and more local this is, the better it is adapted to people’s needs. For example, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, organised communities in the informal settlements have been working with public health officials to convey messages about how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and communities have been feeding back about the challenges they face in doing so, it is with these dialogues that they have been able to tailor the messages and the needed actions

In the U.K. local level ‘resilience forums’, set up in 2004 include local councils and emergency services and respond to disasters on a regular basis. While in this crisis, they have the ability to play an important coordinating role, for example on supplying personal protective equipment to care home and other community settings, they have been beset by centralised control of information.  It is often the case in disasters that power and control reverts to the centre, and local governments are left out.


The pandemic has certainly reinforced some of the central tenants of our understanding of disasters. Those who are most vulnerable in our societies, due to depravations and lack of access to basic services are the most vulnerable to covid-19, as they are to other hazards; that serious planning by national governments are needed ahead of time to prepare for disasters; that science and local knowledge are all extremely important in assessing risks and taking-action. The role of science in informing public policy, and the transparency of decision-making is an ongoing area of research that will require greater scrutiny following this emergency.  While emerging infectious diseases will likely become more prevalent in the future, governments will become more attuned and more practiced at responding.

Chile: Protect the campamentos!

By Camillo Boano, on 11 May 2020

Co-authored by Francisco Vergara Perucich and Camillo Boano

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

The COVID-19 crisis caught us unprepared. We thought we would have been ready, with sufficient knowledge and expertise to make our cities safe and our planning effective. As Julio Davila recently suggested[1], the pandemic has exacerbated socio-economic inequalities around the world but has also forced us to re-centre our reflections on the infrastructures of care that connects bodies, places and projects[2]. A new (or renewed) urban question that places the fractured and decomposed character of vulnerability back into the core of the urban project and urban discourses; the ethical connotation of the link between body and space; the rethinking of the local outside any conservative shortcuts; and the need for new infrastructure of care that has the courage to bring us to other ways of acting and practicing[3]. All this requires a non-defensive but affirmative project in order to advance from the current perplexity to proactively address the issue of vulnerability from urban practices. This is a worldwide challenge about to begin.

The potential health impacts of COVID-19 on informal urbanisation and marginalised groups globally is immense but, as Wilkinson suggests[4], if control measures are poorly executed these could also have severe negative impacts. The priorities on effective control measures need to be developed with engaged communities and locally appropriate control strategies based on partnerships with local governments and authorities. The support to communities and inhabitants is fundamental to offering situated and relevant spatial and social infrastructures that bypass and complement the one-size-fits-all strategy of containment and lockdown, in a strong coordination with local governments, and directly investing in improved data for monitoring the response in informal settlements.  Our engagement with the specific reality of Chilean campamentos[5] is the centre of this report.

In the last ten years, the number of campamentos in Chile has increased by 22%, with the cities of Antofagasta, Calama, Iquique-Alto Hospicio, Copiapó, La Serena, Viña del Mar and Valparaíso being the most affected given the aggressive increase of people living in informal settlements. For these campamentos to face COVID-19, it is urgent to define the set of effective control measures to be taken before the worst occurs.

Figure 1. Cities where the number of campamentos increased the most in the last ten years in relation to the most vulnerable districts of each city. Source: Authors elaboration based on Vergara-Perucich et. al., 2020.

It is critical to see that campamentos in Chile are placed in the most vulnerable areas[6] regarding the hazard of COVID-19 outbreak (Figure 1). This adds to the problem of water access, especially considering that the most critical campamentos are located in the desert or areas affected by intense drought where rationing could also occur, as announced by the government at the end of 2019[7]. Therefore, in these communities, such a simple action as handwashing will be a challenge.

Thus, the campamentos may face a scenario similar to the one faced by London during the cholera outbreak in the middle of the nineteenth century. In this example on Broad Street in Soho (now Broadwick Street), the only water supply for an entire neighbourhood was a pump, which was identified as being responsible for more than 616 deaths in this small area of the city[8]. In this case, it was the water that was contaminated with bacteria, but in a campamento, it could be the interaction between neighbours when collecting the water or a tap that everyone shares as the sources of infection.

This issue of the water is only an example of how the lack of planning and preparedness in relation to the urban emergencies would hit on the most vulnerable communities. People can organise actions, but they also have to deal with the anguish produced by the conspicuous improvisation of the government. Unfortunately, one of the main problems facing campamento households is uncertainty about the immediate future.

Figure 2. Map of Soho indicating the number of deaths per block and the location of pumps. Source: John Snow (Johnson, 2006).

Regarding this uncertainty, Elizabeth Andrade, a community leader of the Los Arenales macro-campamento[9] in Antofagasta, says: “I am concerned about the conditions in general, and the little presence of the government. I just spoke with a neighbour who asked me for money because in a month, she runs out; now, one hears it as something normal. [I’m] seeing that and how the neighbours ask when they are going to vaccinate us.”[10] The problem in the campamento is serious, in large part due to abandonment and hesitant performance of local authorities in this case, where, in addition to socio-economic vulnerability, there is also the fact that many people are immigrants in a nation where xenophobia is on the rise. “There are things like the housing conditions or the families who have been harmed in their work by the crisis. The great majority have been fired. They used to work in restaurants and construction, activities that ceased because of the pandemic. There is also the issue that about 80 percent of the macro-slum are immigrants, so we feel that we are even more invisible than before”[11].

The government announced measures on water supply and emergency health kits which was read as a measure to keep people clean but not actually alleviate the challenging situation of living being a highly vulnerable population during one of the most aggressive planetary outbreaks since 1918[12]. It is concerning that other aspects that would give some certainty to the immigrant population, such as food and employment security, are not part of the government’s plans so far. In fact, the government is doing exactly the opposite. For instance, the 6th April 2020 the executive promulgated a legal body named “Law of protection of the employment due to COVID-19”[13] which allows employers to suspend hiring contracts and do not pay the salaries during the pandemic but allows the employees to keep their job positions. Protecting the companies and not the workers seems to be the motto of this measure.

We urge to the Chilean government to change the aim from companies to people. To contribute to this discussion, in relation to the immediate need to facilitate the successful implementation of sanitation measures in slums, here are some strategies based on diverse approaches that are already circulating in specialised literature[14] [15] [16]:


  1. Empowering local organisation of sanitation plans: This implies creating a temporary community-based institution to make emergency decisions where community leaders have direct articulation in decision-making with local authorities.
  2. Housing certainty: Ban evictions, shifting the aim of protecting the right to housing.
  3. Financial aid: Generate a payment guarantee bonus for campamento inhabitants, consisting of a minimum wage per worker, regardless of whether they were fired.
  4. Train community health assistants: Deploy specific training in respiratory care and preventive actions for the control and monitoring of measures to be implemented when a case is presented within the campamento. This training integrates the knowledge of protocols and key actions to take in case of respiratory symptoms in neighbours.
  5. Ensure access to water: This will require the investment in water supplies by the local government to distribute water supplies to each house in the campamento to facilitate the quarantine. This plan incorporates providing clean water, monitoring its use, and delivering sustainable education about water use in situations of scarcity.
  6. Provide food baskets: The local authority should deliver baskets of basic products that include food, soap, and cleaning supplies to each household. The possibility of including portable gas stoves should be considered to ensure that people can cook and boil water if needed.
  7. Create an emergency mobility plan: Considering the road-accessibility problems that many campamentos face, the community should coordinate with the sanitation authority to develop a plan to transport people suspected of being carriers of the pathogen.

To live in a campamento is to be subject to uncertainty. It means living day by day with mixed feelings of hope and anguish. The pandemic adds stress to everyone’s lives, but this stress is aggravated in situations of extreme scarcity. The virus can be even more lethal in these communities. More aggressive government measures are urgently needed to protect the people at risk, and many of those measures would rely on the organisational capacity of communities. Time is running out, and there is no room for speculation.

Different approaches around the globe are showing how the coordination between local authorities and communities for developing diverse and complex urban strategies are effective in the reduction of harm and also foster sense of collectiveness[17] that would lead to build a more permanent bottom-up culture in urban governance. The pandemic has served to contest the current social contract in the global south[18], which in the case of Chile is neoliberalism in its pure form. As an urban strategy is needed that is based on grassroot organisation, the principles of the right to the city seems as the incipient way to deliver effective solutions at the time a new social contract is at least practiced during the crisis.


[1] Julio D. Dávila, “Covid-19, Urban Mobility and Social Equity,” DPU Blog, 2020, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/dpublog/2020/05/04/covid-19-urban-mobility-and-social-equity/.

[2] Catalina Ortiz and Camillo Boano, “‘Stay at Home’: Housing as a Pivotal Infrastructure of Care?,” DPU Blog, 2020, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/dpublog/2020/04/06/stay-at-home-housing-as-a-pivotal-infrastructure-of-care/.

[3] Cristina Bianchetti, Camillo Boano, and Antonio di Campi, “Quarantine Urbanism, La Mutazione Che Viviamo e Pensiamo in Ritardo,” Il Giornale Dell’Architettura, 2020, https://inchieste.ilgiornaledellarchitettura.com/quarantine-urbanism-la-mutazione-che-viviamo-e-pensiamo-in-ritardo/?fbclid=IwAR0qouXP4N9lphBedhsSPZe-SNY8OD7aIDjf1khg32A1nqwP_R3OvikhoGk.

[4] Annie Wilkinson, “Local Response in Health Emergencies : Key Considerations for Addressing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Informal Urban Settlements,” 2020, 1–20, https://doi.org/10.1177/0956247820922843.

[5] Campamentos is the name given in Chile to informal settlements. The direct translation is camps.

[6] José-Francisco Vergara-Perucich, Juan Correa, and Carlos Aguirre-Núñez, Atlas de Indicadores Espaciales de Vulnerabilidad Ante El COVID-19 En Chile (Santiago: Centro Producción del Espacio, 2020).

[7] CNN, “La Mega Sequía Podría Ocasionar Racionamiento de Agua Antes de Lo Esperado,” CNN Chile, 2020, https://www.cnnchile.com/pais/la-mega-sequia-podria-ocasionar-racionamiento-de-agua-antes-de-lo-esperado_20200105/.

[8] Steven Johnson, THE GHOST MAP (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006).

[9] Macro-campamento is the definition for an informal settlement where are two or more campamentos.

[10] Nataliao Figueroa, “Sobreviviendo Al Coronavirus En Un Campamento: La Vida de Los Contagiados Más Abandonados de La Pandemia | El Desconcierto,” El Desconcierto2, 2020, https://www.eldesconcierto.cl/2020/04/25/hacinados-y-con-agua-limitada-la-cruda-realidad-de-los-contagiados-por-covid-19-en-campamentos/.

[11] Andrea Bustos, “‘El Encierro Se Mezcla Con Hambre’: La Preocupante Realidad de Los ‘Invisibles’ Campamentos de Antofagasta « Diario y Radio U Chile,” diario Uchile, April 23, 2020, https://radio.uchile.cl/2020/04/23/el-encierro-se-mezcla-con-hambre-la-preocupante-realidad-de-los-invisibles-campamentos-de-antofagasta/.

[12] J N Hays, Epidemics and Pandemics. Their Impacts on Human History (Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, Oxford: ABC Clio, 2005).

[13] MINISTERIO DEL TRABAJO Y PREVISIÓN SOCIAL, “Ley de Proteccion Al Empleo Por COVID-19” (2020).

[14] Jason Corburn et al., “Slum Health: Arresting COVID-19 and Improving Well-Being in Urban Informal Settlements,” Journal of Urban Health, April 24, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-020-00438-6.

[15] Wilkinson, “Local Response in Health Emergencies : Key Considerations for Addressing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Informal Urban Settlements.”

[16] Diana Mitlin, “Dealing with COVID-19 in the Towns and Cities of the Global South,” IIED, 2020, https://www.iied.org/dealing-covid-19-towns-cities-global-south.

[17] Wilkinson, “Local Response in Health Emergencies : Key Considerations for Addressing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Informal Urban Settlements.”

[18] Mitlin, “Dealing with COVID-19 in the Towns and Cities of the Global South.”

Covid-19, urban mobility and social equity

By j.davila, on 4 May 2020

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

The hugely destructive health, social and economic effects of the novel Covid-19 respiratory virus have been amply illustrated in the world press over the past few weeks. This pandemic is, without a doubt, the toughest challenge faced by humanity in generations. As infected individuals unwittingly continued to travel in a world more interconnected than ever before, the virus rapidly spread from China to parts of Asia, Europe, North and South America and is gradually making its way to the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. The measures taken to contain it have placed a huge fiscal and monetary burden on their governments – and on future generations. In many cases, it has involved using variations on ‘lockdown’ measures to temporarily reduce or stop all forms of face-to-face interactions other than with immediate household members, thus effectively bringing entire national and city economies to a screeching halt. In cities for which there is reliable data, this has resulted in over 90% reduced mobility compared to usual patterns, as reported by Google and as can be seen in the Citymapper image.

Source: Citymapper Mobility Index, 1/5/20

What has this pandemic got to do with urban mobility and social equity? The key lies in all of these concepts: urban, mobility, and social equity. Scientists are still trying to model the behaviour of Covid-19. The virus spreads rapidly not only through direct contact or close proximity to an infected person, but it also survives for hours or even days on different surfaces. More worryingly, it seems to persist in the form of micro-particles suspended in the air many minutes after an infected person has sneezed, coughed or even spoken. All of this has extremely worrying consequences for cities. As urban economists like my DPU colleague Alexandra Panman have written, the quality that makes cities so unique as one of humankind’s best inventions is their ability to facilitate the exchange of goods, services and ideas often through personal contact with others. Over the past 10,000 years or so, cities have been at the core of all forms of cultural and economic advances. The stringent lockdown and ‘social distancing’ measures imposed by governments the world over, desperate to reduce the speed at which the virus spreads while a long-term solution (such as a vaccine) is found, conspire against this very quality of cities. At present no amount of communications technology, however sophisticated, offers a substitute for face-to-face interactions, a feature so central to human society for thousands of generations.

The pandemic has also struck at the core of the issue of mobility, and potentially threatens some of the policy gains made in the past few decades. Mindful of the heavy carbon and health cost of car-centric urban plans implemented in the richer nations in the 1950s and 1960s and subsequently copied elsewhere, in recent years progressive policy prescriptions have sought to avoid the need to travel, shift essential transport towards non-motorised or efficient public transport modes, and improve the fuel-efficiency and lower the emissions of all forms of transport (the ‘avoid-shift-improve’ model). Urban and transport planners have sought to align more closely their plans to make cities more compact with diverse activities closer to each other so the need to travel is reduced. If well thought out, these policies can potentially contribute towards more equitable cities, as poorer citizens who tend to travel longer distances and spend a higher share of their income on transport can instead devote more time to their personal development and the wellbeing of their families. In the rare case of an epidemic such as the present one, or some threat to street life such as a terrorist attack on public transport systems, unless stringent measures are taken to make public transport safe for all, people will take matters into their own hands by, for example, shifting to private cars or motorbikes if they can afford them, or else spend even longer time walking to work. This would reverse any social and economic gains sought by a succession of progressive urban policies. It is also likely to leave a very large hole in municipal finances as much-needed revenues from public transport fares are drastically reduced.

The pandemic is exacerbating socio-economic inequalities around the world. In both middle and high-income countries, only some white-collar workers are able to continue working from home while those employed in factories, retail, hospitality, personal services and as street traders who must travel to work risk being infected or deprived of an income during a lockdown. As research from the UK shows, those with lowest household incomes are less able to work from home, a result echoed in preliminary results from DPU research on Colombian cities. Evidence from the UK and the US points to ethnic minorities being much more likely to die from the disease.

As those able to work from home using the internet will also tend to earn higher incomes than those in manual occupations, such measures will further exacerbate already wide income inequalities, unless national governments put in place drastic measures to prevent so, at a significant cost to national budgets. Once the data becomes available, analysis of lockdowns and their impact on city populations and economies is likely to add to the evidence that the ability to travel safely and efficiently is central to generate wealth, reduce income inequalities and, therefore, improve social equity.

The unprecedented situation in which most of humanity finds itself offers policy makers valuable lessons. Before Covid-19, and largely due to the effects of the SARS epidemic in 2003, only a handful of countries such as Taiwan, Singapore, China and Hong Kong had adopted preventive epidemic plans. It is very likely that many countries will add the threat of new epidemics into the planning of new urban transport infrastructure.

Scholars and policy makers have learned much from applying social, environmental and spatial lenses to the study of transport. These are extremely valuable advances that the current global emergency should remind us of. The challenge remains to make cities and urban transport safe, more equitable and less environmentally damaging for present and future generations, so that it continues to provide a lifeline to city economies, to communities and to individuals’ own advancement.

Gaza and the COVID-19 “Crisis”: Breaking the cycle of structural vulnerability first

By Haim Yacobi, on 21 April 2020

Co-authored by Haim Yacobi, Michelle Pace, Ziad Abu Mustafa and Manal Massalha

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

While writing this blog, 12 people in the Gaza Strip have tested positive for COVID-19. This number may look miniscule when compared to the shocking figures in China, the US, Spain or Italy. However, as we argue here, in light of the rapid spread of this global pandemic on the one hand, and the ongoing violence and destruction caused by Israel on the other, the conditions in Gaza will lead to a human catastrophe. This will not be a natural disaster, but rather a product of decades of Israeli settler colonial policy that has been consciously designed to achieve the dismantling of Gaza.

Our research, supported by the Wellcome Trust, started eight months ago with the aim of examining how violence and health are entangled in conflict. Throughout the last few months we documented and analysed the effect of infrastructure destruction on health in Gaza. During these exceptional times when most of the people in the world are in lockdown, our research becomes more salient for understanding the outcome of what Rob Nixon defines as slow violence. That is, what “occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” Through Nixon’s perspective we argue that the current COVID-19 “crisis” exposes the politics of slow violence as operated by Israel’s settler colonial enterprise and its damaging effects on the lives of Gazans.

We suggest that the health system in Gaza – even before the outbreak of COVID-19 – is evidently not able to cope with the needs of the almost two million people living in the Strip. With the Israeli blockade and its restrictions on the movement of goods and people remaining intact since 2007, the Palestinian divide unresolved, the chronic disruption of electricity and fuel supplies, and recurring hostilities always looming, the conditions on the ground in Gaza have deteriorated to deplorable proportions. In less than six years Gaza experienced three devastating wars which not only inflicted human losses (3,808 dead) and left thousands injured and displaced; but which also targeted key infrastructures, including Gaza’s sole power plant, sewage facilities, hospitals, schools, factories, agricultural farms and local industries.

In Gaza’s case, the Social Determinants of Health as defined by the WHO, that is, the systems that produce and reproduce the health conditions in places where people are born, live and work, must be politicized in a settler colonial context. Some might argue that Gaza is no longer under a settler colonial regime since Israel withdrew from the Strip in 2005. We contest such claims and argue that the withdrawal from Gaza marks not only a continuation but even a radicalisation of settler colonialism in Gaza. More specifically we propose that settler colonialism without (the physical presence of) settlers (inside Gaza) is at the core of the transformation of the Strip into a frontier, where Israel has fewer and weaker moral obligations over Gaza’s population and hence the possibility of manipulating destructive violent practices.

In the face of the situation in Gaza, it is time to acknowledge that the “COVID-19 crisis” in Gaza must be understood within the context of settler colonialism’s ongoing political history, ideology and geography which prioritises territorial and demographic control, and the will of erasure over everyday life and the basic rights of Gazans.

Our argument is well illustrated by the gloomy 2012 UN report that casts doubt over Gaza’s liveability by 2020. Revisiting the same indicators five years later, in 2017 the UN in its report entitled Gaza: Ten Years Later reported that “life for the average Palestinian in Gaza is getting more and more wretched.” Most of the projections for 2020 “have in fact deteriorated even further and faster than anticipated”. Provision of hospital beds, doctors and nurses have not only not been met but have actually declined, relative to Gaza’s population growth. The housing shortage increased from 71,000 units in 2012 to 120,000 in 2017. With the outbreak of COVID-19, Gaza has only 56 ventilators and 40 intensive care unit (ICU) beds for a population of two million. By comparison, Germany has 29.2 ICU beds per 100,000; Belgium 22; Italy 12.5; France 11.6, and the UK six and a half: Gaza has two. During the last two years Gaza has also witnessed a dramatic immigration, of around 30,000 people, among them around 80 medical personnel who are desperately needed:

“We have a lack of doctors in Gaza… our doctors are studying abroad or they went to complete their speciality – they did not return to Gaza for the following reasons: the lack of salaries in Gaza, life’s difficult circumstances in Gaza, and the journey hurdles while travelling to Gaza…” (Interview 19 with a Medical Doctor 23/09/2019)

Although we are witnessing the relatively early stages of the outbreak of the pandemic, we are well aware that it disproportionately harms vulnerable individuals and communities including people of colour, the poor, undocumented migrants, refugees and indigenous communities. The WHO recommends that people all over the world self-isolate, wash their hands frequently and keep a safe social distance from others. However, can one take these precautionary measures in one of the most crowded places on earth? Social distancing is a privilege open only to those who live in secure and large enough housing conditions that allow for the practice of this restrictive measure. Social distancing in Gaza assumes some control over density, distances and spatial regulations. Yet the massive destruction of Gaza’s housing, public buildings and infrastructure by Israel’s recurrent attacks means that many Gazans live in dense and overcrowded conditions. Some who are homeless live in temporary shelters without basic services, as one of our interviewees put it:

“Our situation with coronavirus is different from the world… Israelis will not allow the respirators and medicine to come through and they will wait until half of Gazans are going to die before they allow for the medicine to come in as their policy is aiming to get rid of Gazans… I think the corona doesn’t make big difference for us in Gaza, as the corona takes the life and stop all life aspects and we already do not have life in Gaza” (Interview 2/04/2020).

More than half of the Gazan population is unemployed and, with chronic power shortages lasting at least eight hours a day, it is very challenging for Gazans to stay inside their homes:

“The families prioritise purchasing bread and fundamental items not sterilisation materials… our children do not have entertainment places, they are playing with each other outside and not follow the self-isolation procedures… if the corona spread will kill a lot of people as we go out, as our houses is narrow [sic] as you know that I live at refugee camp and can’t bear to be home all the time” (Interview 2/04/2020).

The quality and availability of water for hand washing on a regular basis is poor due to the over-extraction of its coastal aquifer which, being almost the only source of water, leads to sea-water penetration and increased saline contamination. This, along with the infiltration of raw sewage and nitrates from fertilisers, has rendered over 96 per cent of Gaza’s groundwater unfit for human consumption. In less than 15 years, access to safe drinking water through the public water network has plummeted from 98.3 per cent in 2000 to a mere 10.5 per cent in 2014, as a Gazan engineer informed us:

“In the north of Gaza, they attacked the sewage water and we were not able to stop the line and this led to the mix up of the drinking water and the sewage water and I think that future generations will discover the amount of damage to their health” (Interview 25 14/10/2019)

As a result, nine out of ten people rely on desalinated water, 81 per cent of which is provided by the private sector, less than a third of which is licensed. Drinking water is purchased at prices 15-20 times more expensive than piped water, costing Gazans on average 33 per cent of their income, compared to 0.7 per cent in the Western world. Although the quality of desalinated water is better than piped water, desalination does not necessarily remove all pollutants as desalination points do not function at full capacity. A third of cases of illness, and more than twelve per cent of child mortality rates are linked to contaminated water. Poor quality water also means compromised hygiene in hospitals and, as reported by UN OCHA, surgeons at Shifa Hospital are unable to sterilise their hands prior to surgery.

The chronic disruption of the electricity supply has compromised the functionality of sewage treatment plants. On a daily basis between 100,000 CM to 108,000 CM untreated or partially treated sewage, the size of 43 Olympic-size swimming pools, is released into the Mediterranean. It is within this context that a 2018 study by the US-based RAND Corporation warned that if the chronic state of emergency in Gaza’s water and sewage remains unaddressed, an endemic disease outbreak and other public health crises are imminent, with the risk of them spreading to neighbouring Israel and Egypt.

Many of us have the privilege of working from our safe and secure homes during the current lockdown. Most of us still have a secure job because we can convert our work to a virtual platform, knowing that internet access and a reliable power supply can be taken for granted. We can still buy clean water and have sufficient nutritious food supplies at home. If we feel any symptoms, we can safely call a specially designated number and our healthcare systems can take care of us.

There is already strong evidence that isolation, following the COVID-19 outbreak, exposed women and children to domestic violence across China, the UK and the USA as well as in other countries all over the world. Looking through these lenses, the current situation in Gaza is alarming since there already exists a high rate of (a growing) 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 living conditions.

As Dr. Ghada Al Jadba, Chief of the Health Programme in the Gaza Strip, UNRWA, stipulated: “Gaza is like the Japanese cruise ship that became a coronavirus breeding ground”. Such a metaphorical image that isolates Gazans as abnormal and outside of the normal social order echoes Foucault’s discussion of heterotopias of deviation, namely institutions that locate individuals “… whose behaviour is deviant in relation to the required means or norms in place. Cases of this are rest homes and psychiatric hospitals, and of course prisons…”. Indeed, in the last two decades Israel’s control over the Gaza Strip transformed it into an heterotopian space; an isolated territory monitored by Israel and inhabited by a population which is pathologized and demonised.

This heterotopian image links to our main argument that there is an urgent necessity to move from the social determinants of health to the political determinants that led to the current conditions in the Gaza Strip occurring, as well as to the emerging coronavirus “crisis”. It is an outcome of Israeli policies and its settler colonial violence. This move is necessary if we are to nuance how social determinants of health translate into severe and fragile health outcomes in contexts such as those faced by Gazans. Breaking the cycle of structural vulnerability resulting from power relationships and global hierarchies of power is the foundation for helping those who face a greater exposure to risk. It means, practically, stopping the blockade on Gaza and enabling the flow of medical equipment and personnel, food and medicines. It also means restoring coordination between Hamas, the PA and Israel, and immediately establishing a coordination committee of representatives that includes governments, NGOs and community leaders to prioritise emergency budgets, upgrade existing water infrastructures, and to arrange emergency provision of cheap and clean water.

‘Stay at Home’: Housing as a pivotal infrastructure of care?

By ucfurti, on 6 April 2020

Co-authored by Catalina Ortiz and Camillo Boano

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

“people survive difficulty by coming together as communities of care, not pulling apart in a retreat into individualism”  OluTimehin Adegbeye, 2020

“Housing is a condition to the right to life” Laia Bonet, 2020

Yangon public housing – Catalina Ortiz

It is always difficult to write something meaningful when the categories we often adopt are not sufficient to grasp the severity and the globality of the present condition. In pandemic times, the linchpin strategy to prevent the spread of disease relies on a ‘Staying at home’ mantra of securitization and immunization. But staying home proved to be a privilege not feasible for many and social distancing impossible for the majority of urban inhabitants.

This universal measure allows inequalities, vulnerabilities and structural perversions to emerge more violently. Now, more than ever, the centrality of housing and the practices of living are fundamental for population’s care and health. While many are interrogating on the future, if any, on the post-, and the surely extreme consequences at economic and political levels, the zeitgeist calls for fostering radical care.

In this short piece, we want to expand our understanding of the interdependent nature of housing and urbanism as well as possible directions for guiding the synergies of efforts of response and recovery.  The departing point for global solidarity, we argue, needs to frame housing as the pivotal ‘infrastructure of care’ for surviving in the present and for reimaging the future of cities.

What if we rethink housing as the key infrastructure of care?

The crisis has releveled as ‘essential’ not only the invisible precarious workers that sustain the maintenance and care that make cities operate; as well as, the gendered reproductive labour that sustain the collective responsibility of care. Care refers to “an affective connective tissue between an inner self and an outer world… and as a critical survival strategy” (Hobart & Kneese: 2020: 2). Here, housing conditions represents a matter of life and death and mediates the relations between individuals and societies.  We can think housing as ‘infrastructure of care’ inasmuch as the networks of solidarity in the proximity or from afar contained in the practices and tactics to sustain wellbeing. Here the infrastructures of care is what allows to weave “the individual body, the social body, and the body politic” (Neely & Lopez, 2020: 1). As a result, thinking on housing in a COVID-19 present is thinking on embodied, relational and affective cartographies of the space in our inhabiting practices.

In this context, as Hobart and Kneese (2020) remind us “care is unevenly distributed and cannot be disentangled from structural racism and inequality” (8). In some of our work we thought on inhabitation “as a form of care that emerge from the overlapping, simultaneous, and incremental encounters with and between different people, places, and services, and the spatial practices that develop to endure and maintain life” (Boano & Astolfo, 2020: 222), “support one another to sustain a meaningful life […] where the socio-political tensions are one challenge and the lack of governmental refugee policies is another (Yassine, et.all, 2019). The ‘Stay at home’ rhetoric is exacerbating racial and class prejudices, producing an uneven emptying of cities from certain bodies but also the filling of bodies in domestic spaces not all apt for healthy and peaceful coexistence. This crude reality urges us to call global solidarity to leverage the ‘Stay at home’ to champion the right to the adequate housing and the right to be in the city.

The pandemic resurfaces the existing housing crisis

Havana Alamar – Catalina Ortiz

The UN has shed light on an “international housing crisis” (Farha, 2019; Rolnik, 2013), from volatility of housing systems, to evictions, overcrowding, unaffordability, substandard conditions, homelessness, and displacement (Fields & Hodkinson, 2017). But the pandemic resurfaces a housing crisis not tackled systematically across sectors and now a becomes a long overdue duty.

Urban homes are part of a complex system, the outcome of many interdependent elements interacting within the city as a connected whole. Rediscover the centrality of the domestic dimension is to re-discover its political potential of housing as the central role in any society reveals how it contains many of the global challenges of the current urban condition and its possible futures: rapid urbanisation, inequalities, segregation, informality, resource depletion, ecological crisis, displacement and migration, privatisation, financialization, securitization, economic development, ageing, health and well-being.

Much of this is concentrated in cities of the Global South where a ‘second wave’ of global urbanisation is occurring and where inadequate housing puts at risk political, economic and ecological urban futures (Simone & Pieterse, 2017). Some estimate at 330 million the number of urban households living in sub-standard housing or facing financial strain, while in many cities a vast proportion of households and individuals resort to living in ‘informal settlements’ with no secure tenure and poor basic services.

The response has to enact a healthy recovery

This unprecedented challenge requires also inedited responses for building a long term progressive response to bring about healthy and more equitable cities. Housing, according to World’s Health Organisation’s Social Determinants of Health, along with infrastructure, socio-economic conditions, and social exclusion, are key determinants of population health. Therefore, an adequate response can only come from inter-disciplinary, cross-sectoral, situated and trans-regional knowledge, new paradigms of practice as well as new institutional capacities.

Such capacities are sorely lacking, particularly in contexts where specialisation and the action of governments has tended to become fragmented and siloed. Globally, but especially in cities of the Global South, housing policies have failed to respond adequately. This failure is at least partially due to a narrow conception of housing leading to policies that either worsen housing problems or create new ones (Monkkonen, 2018). Unidimensional approaches to housing have perpetuated policies that fail to adequately deal with marginalisation and environmental deprivation and racial capitalism (cf. Madden & Marcuse, 2016; Fiori, 2014; Gilbert, 2004; Goodchild, 2008; Martin et al., 2015).

Being both a commodity and a right, a new examination of housing requires a complex systemic approach to untangle this vast and multidimensional challenge, addressing simultaneously the domestic scale and broader political, institutional and financial issues. Thinking housing as infrastructure of care seeks to capture urban living as a dynamically complex system to help shape urban form and influence urban life.

Periurban Yangon – Catalina Ortiz

Survival unite us and a collective vision guide us

The COVID-19 present urge us to lure our collective imagination to enact a vision of the future we want to shape posing the ethics of care as a transversal axis. Inscribed in already agreed common goals contained in the international agendas such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we propose the following vision and objectives:

In thinking housing in this transformative time we call for urgent actions to develop an adequate response that lay the foundation for a housing, infrastructure of care, that helps foster non-discrimination while promoting equitable, low-carbon forms of livelihood creation and sustainable development, as well as physical and mental health and well-being.

A recovery that enacts:

  • Improved urban governance for spatial justice (SDGs 5-17): Urban governance operates at different scales through an ecosystem of formal and informal institutions where the state, civil society and private sector actors negotiate regulatory frameworks and practices around the production and use of housing. However, major gaps exist in understanding the complex multidimensional nature of housing within the urban development conditions. We need to push for open access spatial data on housing and harvest the myriad situated co-produced knowledges of different networks across regions.
  • More just financial mechanisms and markets for land and housing (SDGs 8-12): ‘Markets’ are a core component of housing, relating to how land, finance, materials, construction and sales are accessed and valued. Nonetheless, we experiment lack of consistent definitions, situated data and geographical evidence on the links between housing production, land, infrastructure and labour markets. We need to activate trans regional and trans disciplinary networks for policy and practices and resistance exchange.
  • Better living conditions for migrants and people in temporary housing (SDGs 8, 9, 13,16): Temporary dwelling is the result of conflict, disaster and economic shocks that is why we need to better understand of how state institutions, civil society, businesses, community organisations and people themselves respond to crises. But we witness a lack of capacity of housing institutions and decision makers to address housing inequality and affordability. We need that humanitarian agencies and a broad range of stakeholders to develop new forms of collaboration with practitioners, researchers, and activists.
  • Improved urban resilience and physical and mental health through housing (SDGs 3, 5, 16): In most cities, mental and physical illness and premature death are disproportionally concentrated in poor communities and ethnic minorities in as much as the links between housing and health are understood in relation to dwelling features. However, the long term state withdrawal and poor governance has caused the abandonment of housing as a political urban process. We need to push for the kind of institutional transformations to enable structural improvements in both housing and health and shifting urban politics towards more healthy cities.
  • More energy efficient -low-carbon-, innovative and sustainable housing (SDGs 7, 9, 12, 13): Cities across the world perform like linear metabolisms where housing and built infrastructure have a fixed design life expectancy. An appreciation of the city as a ‘circular metabolism’ will further the transition towards a more sustainable and inclusive future, with nature and non-human environments. Nonetheless, we have dysfunctional policy-action systems for housing provision producing energy intensive consumption. We need advocacy for innovative modes of housing production in Global South cities.

Opening an uncharted territory of infrastructures of care

Central Havana – Catalina Ortiz

Thinking housing is to transform the way we think we inhabit the bodies, the collective and the city. The COVID-19 present urge us to rethink, radically our housing future as it is the way we are inhabiting the word (Boano & Astolfo, 2020). Stay at home, at least the in the meaning we want to provocatively frame it here, is not to be interpreted with its a shut-up, privileged immunological meaning, but more stay-with-home as to re-centre home as the significant infrastructure through which we care of each other’s and out cities and territories. Re-centre housing in its global significance as infrastructure or care is to think the problems (economic crisis, migration crisis, ecological crises, violence) from another framework.

If, on the one hand, housing has returned to the centre, at least in the simple public imagery of the pandemic, inhabiting needs a continuous rethinking outside of contemporary nuclear living, governed and imposed by states. Care practices have always emerged in time of crisis, and thinking housing as infrastructures of care is materialising resistances, as adaptations, as desires and networks. It is an attention to bodies and spaces, is revisiting rhythms, collectives, redefining proximity, and coding new positive passions, but also re-inventing spaces and finding new trajectories.

We are all scared of a ‘new normal’ being presented to us, we are also scared of ‘getting back to a normality’ that was complicit if not the whole problem. We have to inhabit the present, inhabitation is a form of caring (Boano and Astolfo, 2020). To live is to be present is caring the present.


* Note – Some excerpts are adapted and come from a collaborative research proposal for GCRF on Housing Hub led by DPU, UCL.

Works cited:

Boano, C., Astolfo, G., (2020) Notes around hospitality as inhabitation. Engaging with the politics of care and refugees dwelling practices in the Italian urban context. Migration and Society: Advances in Research, Vol.3, pp: 222–232.

Corburn, J. (2015), ‘Urban Inequities, Population Health and Spatial Planning’, in Barton, H., Thompson, S., Burgess, S., and Grant, M. (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Planning for Health and Well-Being, London, Routledge. and Grant, M. (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Planning for Health and Well-Being, London, Routledge.

Farha, L. (2017), ‘Commodification over community: financialization of the housing sector and its threat to SDG 11 and the right to housing’, Civil society report, Spotlight on Sustainable Development.

Fields, D.J. and Hodkinson, S.N. (2017), ‘Housing Policy in Crisis: An International Perspective’, Housing Policy Debates, 28(1): 1-5.

Fiori, J. (2014), ‘Informal City: Design as Political Engagement’, in Verebes, T. (ed.), Masterplanning the adaptive city: computational urbanism in the twenty-first century, London, Routledge.

Gilbert, A. (2004), ‘Helping the Poor through Housing Subsidies: Lessons from Chile, Colombia and South Africa’, Habitat International, 28(1):13-40.

Goodchild, B. (2008), Homes, Cities and Neighbourhoods. Planning and the Residential Landscapes of Modern Britain, Hampshire, Ashgate.

Hobart, H and Kneese, T. (2020). Radical Care: Surviving Strategies for Uncertain Times, Social Text 142, p. 1-16 .

King, R. et al. (2017), ‘Confronting the Urban Housing Crisis in the Global South: Adequate, Secure, and Affordable Housing.’ Working Paper. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

Lancione, M. (2019) Radical housing: on the politics of dwelling as difference, International Journal of Housing Policy.

Marcuse, P. and Madden, D. (2016), In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis, New York, Verso. Martin, R., Moore, J., and Schindler, S. (eds.) (2015), The Art of Inequality: Architecture, Housing, and Real Estate. A Provisional Report. New York, The Trustees of Columbia University.

Monkkonen, P. (2018), ‘Do we need innovation in housing policy? Mass production, community based upgrading, and the politics of urban land in the Global South’, International Journal of Housing Policy, 18 (2): 167-176.

Neely, A. & Lopez, P. (2020) Care in the Time of COVID-19, Antipode online blog, retrieved at:


Rolnik, R. (2013), UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, ‘Guiding Principles on Security of Tenure for the Urban Poor’, UN doc. A/HRC/25/54.

Simone, A. and Pieterse, E. (2017), New Urban Worlds: Inhabiting Dissonant Times, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Yassine B., Al-Harithy, H., Boano, C. (2019) ‘Refugees Hosting Other Refugees’ in Ouzaii (Lebanon): Endurance and Maintenance of Care. The Journal of Refugee Studies.

Urban economics in the time of Covid-19: What happens when the thing that makes cities great also makes them dangerous?

By ucfuap3, on 1 April 2020

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

Many of the world’s most iconic cities are in lock-down. Bustling public places have emptied overnight. As the images below show, Times Square (New York) is eerily quiet, traffic disappeared from the streets of Shanghai. Even the pigeons are staying away from St. Mark’s (Venice).

Image sources: New York Magazine, Reuters, and thejournal.ie

This physical distancing is a vital response to Covid-19. To reduce the human cost of the crisis, we must ‘flatten the curve’ and slow the speed of the spread of infection to a rate that will not overwhelm our health services.

Yet physical proximity is also what makes cities great. As urban economists love to say, it makes cities ‘engines of economic growth’. The theory is that density boosts productivity through three forms of ‘agglomeration economies’: ideas and new technologies spread much more quickly (learning); workers and companies have more choice, so they are more likely to do things they are good at (matching); and we can use resources more efficiently (sharing).

So, what happens to cities when it is dangerous for people to be close to one another?  In what follows I’ve set out some ideas and questions. These are not predictions, just thoughts that I hope can stimulate a productive conversation. Please share your experiences from where you are in the world.


Paris, Madrid, Washington and Rome: Urban Change begins at Home?

Imagine how many people in London are currently sitting at home, deliberately avoiding each other. Covid-19 has caused millions, no, billions, of people to alter their behaviour in unprecedented ways. The closest parallel is the Second World War; although, as memes like the one below jokingly remind us, we may want to keep the level of sacrifice demanded in perspective.

The last weeks, however, have felt more like sprint up a steep technological learning curve than a break on the couch.  Along with my colleagues, I’ve had to pivot to deliver teaching, research, and pastoral responsibilities from home. And we are not alone: universities across the world have gone virtual; companies of all sizes have introduced remote working; and even hospitals have shifted some functions online.

Will this change the way we work in the long-term? We may rush back to the office once the crisis is over. After all, predictions in the 1980s and 1990s that technology would transform our economic geography largely failed to materialize. Even as it became technically possible to live and work in different places, demand for face-to-face contact remained.

Yet things may be different this time. The technology we’re scrambling to adopt has existed for a while. The big change is that we’ve been forced learn how it works. As a recent randomized control trail found, the benefits of remote working can come as a surprise to companies and employees, something we can only realise if we try it out.

Perhaps even more importantly, we are doing this together.  After all, there is no point in getting to grips with new technology if you can’t convince others to learn it with you. It also means that the number of people thinking seriously about the downsides of remote working and looking for ways to mitigate them is expanding as well. Managers are trialling measures to keep teams connected and ideas flowing, and there has been a proliferation of advice on mental health (mostly serious, some hilarious).

In short, while I don’t think I’m alone in saying (to my surprise) that I miss the office, I can also imagine reaching for remote working tools more easily once this is over. If that’s true for many, or if companies demand it, other changes could follow. People may not abandon the city just because they started working from home 3 days a week, but they may reevaluate where they want to live within cities. If commuting times become less important, the persistent global trend of sky-rocketing downtown rents could start to reverse.


Bowling alone: will the appeal of cities change?

In the opening line of a seminal paper, Edward Glaeser and others state that the “future of the city depends on demand for density”.  This demand, the authors argue, does not only come from jobs. People are also attracted to the range of goods – commercial, aesthetic, public – that cities can provide.

Will Covid-19 change this? Fear of mass outbreaks could impact our leisure choices. One of the great benefits of cities – that you can find enough kindred spirits to make your favourite hobby viable, whether it’s theatre or a specialist yoga class – may disappear. If physical contact with strangers is scary, the draw of big city lights may start to dim.

We may also start to pay more attention to our neighbours. Anonymity is one of the hallmarks of big cities: we move through our day without acknowledging most of the people around us. Ironically, however, the current quarantine underlines that do not actually live in isolation; we are connected, for good and for bad.

On the good side, we’ve seen mutual aid groups spring up all over the world. On the bad, the realization that our safety is in other people’s hands (or at least hand washing, as well as where they go and who they interact with) can lead to fear and suspicion. At its most ignorant and extreme, this manifests as violent xenophobic attacks.

How might these changes affect city life? Fear may lead communities to find ways to stop strangers moving in, whether in the form of promoting people they know or discrimination against ‘outsiders’. These shifts could accelerate socio-spatial inequality, since, as Raj Chetty and others show, neighbourhood quality is central to life opportunities in cities.

Hopefully the future is brighter, and a rise in contagious diseases is not the new normal. Yet important shifts may nonetheless be occurring. Online shopping through companies like Amazon is booming as high-street shops close. This presents a public policy challenge, since high-street shops anchor public spaces and thus have considerable social value. While some are optimistic that new uses for this land will arise, these are goods with ‘positive externalities’, which markets notoriously underprovide.

To end on a note of optimism, one factor working in favour of cities is that more remote working could lead to improvements in urban air quality.  In the current crisis, carbon monoxide indicators in New York are down 50 percent. Since air pollution is a major ‘cost’ of living in cities, improvements may help make urban areas more attractive places to live.


How will the situation differ for cities in the Global South?

The WHO recently warned that Covid-19 will hit the world’s most vulnerable hardest. Since the mortality rate of the virus cannot be separated from health and social protection infrastructure, it seems devastatingly inevitable that the impact will be severe in the Global South.  It is too soon to reflect on the long-term outlook. Yet given the trends discussed above, divergence seems likely.

In cities like Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), where my recent research has been based, most households live in one or two rooms that they rent from a live-in landlord. They may share their toilet with 13 or 14 other people.  Work is largely informal and social support, such as sick-pay or unemployment benefits, are rare. Social distancing may be unfeasible. Remote work will be an option for only a minority.

Instead, those who can may well leave the city. Although we still know too little about urban mobility trends in the Global South, one insight from the 2014/5 Ebola crisis in West Africa was increased movement between urban and rural areas. Yet as with Ebola, this may further spread the virus.

As such, movement may not translate into a longer-term shift in urbanisation trends.  Life in cities in the Global South can be tough, but as long as is wages and urban amenities are higher than in rural areas, people will continue to be drawn to them despite a precipitous decline in living conditions. This, combined with a global recession that now looks inevitable, means that we must urgently look ahead and anticipate the new ways that urban, national, and international policymakers can support people and livelihoods.

The Politics of Making Disability Visible in Community-led Urban Research

By ucfumio, on 26 February 2020

Last Tuesday 11th February, we held the event titled “The Politics of Making Disability Visible in Community-led Urban Research” as part of the Dialogues in Development series at The Bartlett Developing and Planning Unit (UCL). The aim was to share reflections and learnings from the action-research project “Community-led solution: Assistive Technologies in Informal Settlements” – an on-going research project in four low-income urban communities: two in Freetown (Sierra Leone) and two in Banjarmasin (Indonesia). The project maps out how local residents, including both existing and potential AT users, as well as people with a range of disabilities, are able to pursue a number of shared aspirations for life outcomes.

Generally, research in informal settlements tends to overlook or co-opt the voices of disabled people, and as such, there is a need to develop methods that engage with the specific lived experiences and priorities of disabled residents, as well as spaces to include the participation of disabled residents in the wider decision-making process of low-income communities. The event engaged with some of the tensions of making disability more ‘visible’ in action-research, at the same time as making it visible in ways that challenge, rather than reinforce stigma. It also reflected on the role of research in creating a space for validating disability as a political identity.

The presentations explored these tensions by reflecting on two of the methods used – photography and the rATA survey developed by World Health Organisation. The presentations were led by Julian Walker (UCL), Ignacia Ossul-Vermehren (UCL), Mark Carew (Leonard Cheshire), Nina Asterina (Kota Kita-Indonesia), Eka Ramadhini (Kaki Kota-Indonesia), Hawanatu Bangura (SLURC- Sierra Leone), Angus Stewart (professional photographer) and Katherine Perry (GDI).


Photography: Making research more accessible

Hawantu (SLURC) and Nina (Kota Kita) discussed the use of participatory photography workshops. They explained the process, in which a total of 120 people across both countries participated in workshops, and produced 720 pictures. Photography made the research more accessible for participants, especially in considering different types of disabilities, including those with a visual impairment, who were supported through the process and were introduced to tactile elements of the camera.

The process of producing their own material and displaying participants’ photos helped to show disability as a common lived experience in the communities. Hawanatu gave the example of a young female participant in Freetown, who was ashamed of her disability and did not want to leave her house. However, after a couple of weeks of participating in the workshop, her attitude to sharing opinion and participating with others changed: “Before, I was ashamed but since I’ve been participating in the project I feel my opinion is important”.

Angus Stewart, a professional photographer who created photo essays with participants reflected on the use of photography in this context. His work raises interesting questions about the process of co-production between photographer and participant. A number of participants were asked to show their everyday practices and what they do to achieve a selected aspiration (such as inclusive mobility or healthy living conditions). Participants chose the location, the clothes they wore, what practices to show, and the main narrative of the photo essay. On the other hand, Angus also inevitably had to make aesthetic decisions, a key one he identified as to always photograph participants at eye level, in order to capture them looking empowered. During the event, some of the pictures were displayed, which provided another set of ethical decisions and concerns. As he explained, on the one hand, “pictures look nice framed”, whereas, on the other, by framing them they look disconnected to the lives of participants: “they don’t look like participants and that’s something to take into consideration”.


rATA survey: Measuring gaps and tracking progress

Mark (Leonard Cheshire) and Ignacia (UCL) introduced the rATA (Rapid Assistive Technology Assessment), a new survey developed by the World Health Organisation, which was implemented to more than 4,000 residents during the research. The aim was to test the technology and give feedback to WHO, identify participants, contribute knowledge to the development of the tool and generate new data. This is important for two reasons: on the one hand, collecting data on disability supports the human rights approach, as it allows for the tracking of gaps in data and measure progress on disability, and on the other hand, it allows the identification of participants for the research.  A limitation of the survey is that disabled people played a more ‘passive’ role in the survey. As we were testing a tool, we could not co-design the survey with disabled people, and instead piloted and incorporated the feedback.

The rATA questionnaire measures functional difficulty and does not refer to ‘disability’. This avoids stigma and underreporting (i.e. older people); measures across 6 domains; and acknowledges the impact of bodily impairment and environmental factors. Another important element in how the survey deals with disability is that it measures it as a continuum instead of a fixed category (by “No difficulty” “Some difficulty” “A lot of difficulty” “Cannot do at all” in a given domain). The questionnaire included a poster with 26 images of AP – which introduced AP to interviewee and raised awareness.

We also noticed a change in perception in the data collectors (which were non-disabled). By participating in a 3-day training and implementing the survey in the settlements for 1 month, they become more disability sensitive (mainstreaming disability in other urban research) and developing advocacy around disability issues.


Mainstreaming disability in urban research: The role of grassroots organizations

Eka (Kaki Kota) was the last to present. She introduced Kaki Kota and the organisation’s work. Eka reflected on the role of taking part in AT2030 – as an opportunity to mainstream disability in their organisation and the urban projects they are involved in.  As a way of involving FEDURP in the presentation, Ignacia briefly showed what Yirah (Head of FEDURP) had said during the event of International Day of Disabled People in Freetown, showing how FEDURP had changed their attitude towards disability and how they want to mainstream it in the planning of informal settlements.


  • How do you ensure that you keep standards when communities provide AP?
  • Can you expand on the barriers and limitations of your research?
  • What makes this research political?
  • How have Kota Kita and Kaki Kota engaged with wider audiences? How can you have a bigger impact with organisation working with urban issues?
  • How dangerous is it for disabled people to live in stilt houses in Banjarmasin? What happens when there is flooding or fire?
  • How do you deal with trauma in a post conflict country like Sierra Leone, when doing research about disability?
  • What are the politics amongst disabled people, between different types of disabilities?

How Research Creates More Inclusive Spaces: Bar Elias, Lebanon

By h.baumann, on 12 November 2019

Co-authored by Joana Dabaj

Originally published by UCL Institute for Global Prosperity

It is not every day that academics plant trees, paint pavements, or install park benches. But that is exactly what I, and other researchers from the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) and other parts of UCL, did when we recently completed a project in Bar Elias, a refugee-hosting town in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.

Our project was a long-term collaborative engagement with local residents that resulted in tangible changes to the local urban fabric. Along the main road at the entrance to the town, we enhanced pedestrian safety, mobility and accessibility for all, created child friendly spaces suitable for gathering and sitting in the shade, and rehabilitated a dilapidated public park. Based on participatory research with the community, this “spatial intervention” aimed to address problems articulated by Lebanese residents as well as Palestinian and Syrian refugees, found in their urban space.

A Town Transformed

Located half way between Beirut and Damascus, and only 15 km from the Syrian border, Bar Elias has been transformed by the influx of Syrian refugees – gradually turning it from an agricultural village into a city. In addition to increased construction inside the town’s urbanising space, over one hundred informal tented settlements now dot the outskirts of the city. Tensions have increased since the number of refugees has risen to the point that they outnumber local residents. But on the other hand, international aid has started to bring several positive changes too, with a hospital, a dispensary and a new solid waste sorting and treatment plant, built in recent years.

Our partner, London-based, non-profit design studio CatalyticAction, has been implementing participatory projects enhancing community cohesion in the Beqaa for over four years. Their long-standing engagement with the community and the trust they had already built with local actors and the municipality was a key asset in making this project happen, especially in the relatively short project time frame of 23 months. It allowed them to bring on board all relevant local actors and negotiate successfully between them.

Participatory Planning

One of the first things CatalyticAction did in this project was recruit a team of highly motivated Citizen Scientists from the Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian communities of Bar Elias. These local researchers in Bar Elias were trained in basic spatial and social science research methods as well as research ethics (skills they first applied during the Development Planning Unit’s SummerLab in 2018 – a workshop in Bar Elias, 2018 – which focused on questions of public space in the town).

The second phase of our work with Citizen Scientists was a participatory workshop on the links between infrastructure and vulnerability conducted in October 2018. The participants, who ranged from age 18 to 69 and represented all nationalities living in Bar Elias, learned and applied research methods including participatory mapping, semi-structured interviews, and street observation in order to analyse the infrastructural challenges of the town and propose ways of addressing them.

Following the workshop, CatalyticAction gave participants’ ideas shape by translating them into a specific design. In December, the draft design was presented to participants and the public for another round of feedback. CatalyticAction also presented the findings and proposals to the Bar Elias municipality and negotiated conditions of implementation that took their existing plans into account. For instance, the municipality had planned to turn the dilapidated public space behind the hospital into a parking lot. At the same time, the revitalisation of this neglected area was a key aspect of the workshop participants’ vision for a city centre that was safe, welcoming and inclusive. By devising a new design in which only a smaller portion of the area was turned into parking space, we were able to reach a compromise that worked for everyone.


After a long and wet winter in Lebanon, which did not permit construction work, the implementation took place in May 2019 along the road from the Clock Tower marking Bar Elias’ central square to the main road’s intersection with the Beirut-Damascus Highway.

Public spaces for gathering: A large circular seating area was built on a wide pavement next to the medical dispensary, where patients often wait for their appointment but do not have shade or benches. To change this, we discouraged cars from parking on the pavement through the removal of ramps and the creation of parking spaces behind the dispensary. To create sufficient shade, we installed a metal screen to cover the seating area. We laser-cut the aluminium panels in such a way that the shadows created spells our phrases highlighted as important by the local researchers and the community members who participated in the October workshop. They showcase values and hopes for Bar Elias such as “Bar Elias – the mother of strangers, cleanliness and togetherness”. While the benches themselves are made of concrete, and involve play elements for children, they are also covered in colourful mosaics made by two artists – sisters Nour and Amani Al-Kawas, whose mother is from Bar Elias. These were made from leftover ceramic tiles collected at a local tile shop. Beyond this main seating area, several blocks for resting were added along the road together with smaller shades. In addition, we planted trees creating much-needed shade for pedestrians and shopkeepers, as well as shades made of recycled materials.

(c) CatalyticAction – before/after image of seating area

(c) CatalyticAction – shade from recycled materials


Accessibility and safety: The sidewalk along the Bar Elias main road is up to 60cm high in some places, making it very difficult to navigate. Because of this, and because cars often park on the pavement, many pedestrians walk on the road, exposing themselves to speeding cars. In order to facilitate better access – especially for the elderly, those with mobility impairments, and parents pushing strollers – we put in place a total of 15 pedestrian ramps onto the pavements.

(c) CatalyticAction – woman with stroller using newly installed ramp

In addition, we installed three speed humps in key locations of this area used by many pedestrians throughout the day. The location of the speed humps was agreed together with the municipality. To encourage children to use the sidewalks, we painted floor games along the sidewalks, adding colours and playfulness. Along the road, street signs were added to locate important areas: showing the Dayaa’ / town centre, the taxi stand with its new benches, the rehabilitated public park, as a sign marking the main shaded seating area, which we named Dar or Abode. We also installed spotlights overlooking the Dar and the public garden.

(c) CatalyticAction – signage point out the Dayaa’/town centre

Rehabilitated park: A public green space just off the main road that had once served as an important public space for the town had fallen into disrepair with the construction of the hospital and the new medical dispensary. We organised a collective clean-up session to free the area of rubbish and hired gardeners to remove the overgrowth, revealing some beautiful trees and bushes. Then we planted additional trees including an olive tree, and plants including rosemary. Together with the Citizen Scientists, we also installed three wooden benches, which were painted in collaboration with children and made at a local carpenter’s shop.

(c) CatalyticAction – rehabilitated green space

To mark the entrance to the newly-revitalised park, a Jasmine arch was installed along the main road and a pathway was paved to make it accessible. This way, users of the hospital and medical dispensary as well as visitors and staff will be able to easily recognise a space they can use to relax and gather, shielded from the traffic and noise of the main road. While passers-by interviewed by Citizen Scientists about their expectations expressed concerns about the maintenance of the rehabilitated green space, the municipality has already agreed to take responsibility for its upkeep. During construction, the municipality of Bar Elias had already shown its support for this work, sending trucks and workers to remove the rubbish and water new plants. Two weeks after the space was inaugurated, the municipality also built a water well for the park. Employees of the medical dispensary were so happy with the new benches and path that they expanded the intervention themselves to include additional benches and planters along the new path.

During the implementation of this project, different community activities took place. For example, collecting and reusing plastics to form the smaller shade structures, painting the benches and painting a mural. The mural, in collaboration with The Chain Effect, an initiative aiming to encourage cycling in Lebanon, transformed a previously rough wall into a colourful wall at the entrance of the road.  The spatial intervention was inaugurated on a busy Ramadan evening through an interactive performance by The Flying Seagull Project , near the main seating area where children and parents joined in for a fun and memorable night.

(c) CatalyticAction – mural painting

Knowledge transfer:  An important aspect of the intervention was the joint learning, as well as sharing skills. The intervention has built the capacity of the Citizen Scientists and other residents to analyse problems, has encouraged other members of the community to participate in this work, think about diverse identities, and negotiate collective solutions. This project has led to the creation of a social infrastructure which is a public good for the entire city. There are also examples of local members of the community using this project to share knowledge elsewhere. One local Syrian researcher who worked as a school teacher in Bar Elias before moving back to her hometown in Syria implemented workshops with Syrian students at a local school. The children learned about the importance of recycling, reusing and taking care of the environment. Through discussion and arts and craft, they learned how to make a beautiful tree out of plastic and other discarded material. They also reflected on uses of the streets and how they would like to change them.

Next Steps

Now that the spatial intervention is complete, we will focus on monitoring its impact on the way Bar Elias residents turn this public area into a social space. Over the coming months, they will monitor the usage of the new spaces at regular intervals. This will allow us to track the impact of the participatory spatial intervention and make adjustments in the future if necessary.

Currently, a project funded by UCL’s Grand Challenges programme on Migration & Displacement is enabling the Citizen Scientists to further develop their skills. Through a partnership with CatalyticAction and  Salam Ya Sham, an arts organisation founded by Syrian refugees, local researchers are learning to use film-making as a research tool. They are now in the process of making several short films about the infrastructural challenges facing Bar Elias.

(c) Salam Ya Sham – Citizen Scientist Moayad Hamdallah filming at the Bar Elias waste sorting plant, July 2019

In addition to ensuring maintenance through the municipality and other actors, CatalyticAction have also been in discussion with a local NGO about working together on further development of the public space and its activation. Thus, although the British Academy-funded project ends this month, our ongoing engagement with the town – and especially the Citizen Scientists we’ve worked with for close to a year now – will be enabled through the RELIEF Centre, whose Vital City research stream will also trial small-scale spatial projects to pilot urban improvements for both refugees and hosts.

(c) CatalyticAction – new shaded seating area with mosaic

Further Reading:

Find out more about the participatory research process that led to this intervention: Collaborative team from IGP and DPU facilitate a participatory spatial intervention in Lebanon, 8 January 2019, Institute for Global Prosperity, UCL

A blog by Professor Caroline Knowles, the Director of the British Academy’s Cities & Infrastructure programme about witnessing the participatory spatial intervention in Bar Elias: Creating Inclusive Urban Space in Lebanon, 2 June 2019, Medium

A blog about our recent concluding symposium: Blog: Symposium – Vulnerability, Infrastructure and Displacement, 5 July 2019, Institute for Global Prosperity, UCL

To learn more about the IGP’s work with Citizen Scientists:

What is Citizen Science? London Prosperity Board

Launching a Citizen-Led Prosperity Index, Bartlett 100

IGP-led team wins funding for Citizen Science project exploring local botanic knowledge in Kenya, 29 January 2019, Institute for Global Prosperity, UCL