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Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Archive for the 'Environmental Justice, Urbanisation & Resilience' Category

Decolonising urban sanitation through celebration

By Nelly M Leblond, on 14 September 2021

The project “OVERDUE: Tackling the sanitation taboo across urban Africa” was launched in July 2021, several months into the COVID-19 pandemic. At this time no vaccine was yet in sight for the places and people central to the project: the women, men, girls and boys who build and run vital infrastructures of care across African cities. On the frontline, with scarce protective equipment, they were – and still are – subject to lockdowns and travel bans while dealing with viral residues, reduced livelihoods, limited access to water and sanitation, and increased caring responsibilities.

Inspired by the Disability Festivals organized by the AT2030 programme, the OVERDUE team saw the potential of using festivals to destigmatize the work of sanitation providers and to spark new conversations. The principal investigator, Adriana Allen, saw festivals as “context sensitive”, acknowledging sanitation as a lifeline for urban and domestic spaces in the pandemic.

At the end of 2020, the OVERDUE team embarked on a set of celebratory activities in the cities of Beira (Mozambique), Freetown (Sierra Leone), and Mwanza (Tanzania), where OVERDUE’s research is rooted. These were complemented by an online campaign: Voicing Just Sanitation. Beyond sensitivity and fun, the sanitation celebrations embedded a theoretical and methodological claim that aligns with the call to decolonise the Water, Hygiene and Sanitation (WASH) sector.



Sanitation festivals

The city sanitation festivals immediately attracted enthusiasts. Claudy Vouhé from l’Etre Egale, for example, envisioned the potential to re-position women as key providers, challenging the narratives of women as mere sanitation beneficiaries.

However, there were also some doubts raised. Sending colleagues to organise festivals during a pandemic, and forcing celebrations on to a sector that people might locally want to treat otherwise, seemed problematic. So I asked Allen: “can’t we just have soap handouts instead of festivals?” Colleagues from the Sierra Leonean Urban Research Centre (SLURC) had been praised for offering soaps and buckets. Fortunately, Allen held on, convinced that festivals could go a long way. And they did.

Figure 1: Collectively organizing the Sanitation Festival in Freetown, and reaching out to different parts of the city to stimulate conversations. Source: Ibrahim Bangura, SLURC, November 2020.

In Freetown, SLURC organized a sanitation walk across the city on World Toilet Day, 19 November 2020. “It had much more success than I thought” acknowledged Sulaiman Kamara, researcher at SLURC, “communities did not want to let us go. They showed us their toilets, they had so much to say.” COVID-19 was a challenge. Attendances had to be reduced, and the planned football match could not go ahead. The participants ended up wearing the shirts designed for the players, advertising Freetown’s City Council sanitation hotline.

In Beira, the team led by COWI-Mozambique organized radio debates in partnership with Mega-FM Radio to reach communities and households under lockdown. This allowed the voices and preoccupations of individual residents to “bubble up”, and discussion of these in the light of colonial legacies, corruption, hopes and constrained capacities. Officials from the municipality and sanitation services, practitioners and local authorities were publicly broadcasted, moving sanitation out of the grey zone of unspoken frustrations to the spotlight of public accountability.

Figure 2: Student presenting her illustration of unsatisfactory sanitation during the Sanitation Festival in Mwanza, December 2020. Source: CCI.

In Mwanza, the Centre for Community Initiatives CCI Tanzania and Ardhi University organized presentations, dances and a drawing competition on the subject of safe sanitation in the Mabatini neighbourhood. This created a space to publicly challenge taboos and to discuss options such as simplified sewerage systems. The women who, mostly, maintain the sanitation facilities voiced their concerns and struggles to uphold privacy and safety.

The festivals turned out to be powerful tools for engaging with local sanitation authorities, providers and users; and for connecting these groups with each other.

Decolonizing sanitation

By celebrating existing initiatives and practices, and by taking stock of what local people and organisations knew rather than pathologizing them, the sanitation festivals departed from dominant approaches.

They challenged the white saviour complex, whereby foreigners construct issues to match their capacities so as to later claim ego-centric successes. This complex has plagued the WASH sector since the colonial era, as hygiene and sanitation were, and sometimes still are, conceived as western “gifts” to “unclean” and “uncivilized” populations.

In contrast, the festivals materialised what Māori researcher Linda Tuhiwai Smith calls “celebrating survivance”. They focused on the resistance, resilience, and journeys that have enabled indigenous people to survive and retain cultural and spiritual values, despite harmful processes and structures such as colonialism, imperialism, racism, and neoliberalism.

Valuing everyday sanitation practices as local acts of heroism produces enabling positions and identities. This contrasts with damage-based research, which looks for victims, stigmatizing and disempowering those it seeks to help.

Furthermore, the celebratory perspective helped de-normalize poor sanitary conditions and voiced aspirations in non-antagonistic ways. This is crucial for interventions to successfully move beyond the pilot stage, another pitfall for projects imbued with coloniality. It creates motion that can be endogenously sustained beyond the festival events and research projects themselves.

Figure 3: Pears’ Soap advertisement, McClure’s Magazine, Oct. 1899. The ad reads “The first step towards lightening The White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pears’ Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place — it is the ideal toilet soap.”


Reordering time and expertise

The sanitation festivals made space and time for anchoring the research on pre-existing and context-specific engagements and practices. They inverted the traditional timeline of research, which rolls out pre-defined questions and methods and then shares “results” later, recognising that societies are both substrate and empty-cups-to-be-filled. Celebrating catalysed productive knowledge relations, that act both as objectives and railings, drive us forward while keeping us on track.

Figure 4: The team assembled by SLURC, from turning their backs to facing sanitation, composed of faecal sludge workers, researchers and members of CSOs and NGOs. Source: SLURC

Subtly, this redistributes expertise. It removes planners, practitioners and researchers from fenced offices and puts them on an equal footing with the women, men, girls and boys who work in sanitation every day. It multiplies standpoints and perspectives, a key feminist movement to strengthen objectivity.

Further, it makes the reinterrogation of colonial and post-colonial bifurcations between off-grid and on-grid sanitation possible. As both users and providers of sewerage facilities and on-site sanitation are engaged, co-dependencies between on-grid and off-grid systems can be observed and discussed. This is a necessary step to advance sanitation justice.


So, should we all celebrate?

Preconditions must be recalled and enthusiasm moderated. These sanitation festivals were made possible by SLURC, CCI, Ardhi University and COWI’s networks in Beira, Mwanza, and Freetown. The activities built on previously weathered collaborations and understandings.

Celebration cannot be parachuted. But as Somsook Boonyabancha urges us to think, it can be stirred if we invest in people rather than projects. Building communities, institutions and trust first so that drains and sanitation can be realised second.

Flexi funds, a budget facility to transfer money to partners with no strings attached, were crucial to designing context-specific and relevant activities. They helped participants to yield power and support creativity. Despite major budget cuts imposed by the UK government, this approach will continue to drive our work We hope that this will stimulate further moves to push back coloniality in the WASH sector, and that we can pursue a second edition, hopefully in a post-pandemic and socially re-energized context.


The author wishes to acknowledge valuable input from Pascale Hofmann (UCL) and Adriana Allen (UCL). Celebration as a method will be further discussed in a dedicated session of the RISE Africa 2021 Action Festival.

Green space in Waltham Forest, and the fundamental wrongs of engaging ‘hard to reach’ populations

By Jess Beagley, on 3 March 2021

Part of the HUD Urban Profiles blog series.

A Liveable City

Situated in the north-east of London, Waltham Forest is home to some 277,000 residents, of whom an unusually low proportion are over the age of 65. In fact, the median age of the local population is just 34, compared to a national average of 40. Many local residents are young families, drawn to Waltham Forest’s notable liveability, with green open spaces, a local food market, miles of cycle lanes, and comparatively spacious housing – all within manageable commuting distance of central London.

At first glance, the setting seems idyllic for many, but older people are decreasingly visible not only in terms of their number but arguably also in the extent to which their needs are reflected in local planning. One setting where this is evident is the popular Lloyd Park, which has long been appreciated by local residents, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic.



Public Space and the Right to the City

While Lloyd Park offers an impressive variety of facilities and activities for a range of ages, with football pitches, a boules court, skate park, Tai Chi classes, tennis courts, and regularly spaced benches, some aspects nevertheless greatly limit the enjoyment of older visitors.

Signs at the park entrance indicate that “considerate cycling” is permitted, but many riders race down the main path which runs through the park, providing a convenient shortcut between two roads, with little care for pedestrians of any age. Other routes around the perimeter of the park have far less rapid traffic, but present a different hazard: poor or entirely absent surfacing of the paths leaves them perilously muddy, with severe risk of slipping after wet weather. A lack of lighting along even the main paths adds to the hostility of the environment once the afternoon light has faded.

For people over 65, falls represent a particular hazard to health, and the ability to get up and continue on is not one that can be taken for granted. Falls have an enduring impact, and are causes not only of injury and pain, but also of distress, loss of confidence and loss of independence. Over 65s are vulnerable in this context on account of their reduced capacity to resist and recover from the threat posed by the unsafe environment, to the extent that some older residents are unlikely to use the park. One visitor to the park commented “There are no ‘really old’ people – I mean, people in their 80s. They are conspicuous by their absence” and how “the park [should be] for everyone, but everyone needs to…respect the shared spaces.”

Subsidiarity and Truly Participatory Urban Governance

UN Habitat defines good urban governance as being underpinned by the interdependent and mutually reinforcing principles of “sustainability, subsidiarity, equity, efficiency, transparency and accountability, civic engagement and citizenship, and security”. The principle of subsidiarity refers to the allocation of responsibility for provision of services “at the closest appropriate level consistent with efficient and cost-effective delivery of services”. While the principle of subsidiarity is apparent in Waltham Forest, with the park being managed by the local council, this has not led to effective civic engagement in defining priorities for the maintenance and upgrading of the park. This has in turn contributed to inequities. In order to ensure that the park becomes a truly public space, active outreach and engagement with older people and the wider community is necessary. The question here is not so much of who uses the park, but of who does not. The duty of the service provider to understand the needs of those who the park visitor described as “conspicuous by their absence”, often referred to as “hard-to-reach” is one which is often overlooked. Workshops with regular park visitors to consult on plans for park developments are comparatively easy to organise, but these relatively passive efforts fall far short of what is needed to serve the local population.

The very term “hard-to-reach” encapsulates the reason for this collapse – many of those who do not use the park are distanced not by choice, but by exclusion. The abject failure to cater to the needs if the disenfranchised, whether for age or any other reason, is in stark juxtaposition to the very essence of “public” space. It must be questioned whether these communities are “seldom-heard” or rather seldom offered a platform to speak. In order to overcome these shortcomings, the local council must actively identify, reach out to, and seek to gain the trust of those who are least likely to use the park in order to understand their needs and views and how these can be catered for alongside those of other residents. Approaches to support these forms of active outreach have been proposed including by Cinderby and BEMIS and must be pursued for the sake of urban justice.

Images (author’s own) show one of Lloyd Park’s football fields, and the muddy perimeter path of the same area at dusk.



HUD Urban Profiles

As part of the module Urban Health: Reflections on Practice, students were given the opportunity to critically and creatively engage with their surroundings. Urban Profiles is a culmination of students’ reflective journals from the start of the course. Whether it was a walk around their town or a focus on specific communities within their home cities, students reflected on what ‘health in the city means’ to them as urban health practitioners, and strategised what could help tackle health concerns in consideration of the urban profiles of their cities.

The first last time: Lessons for uncertain times

By Aisha F Aminu, on 26 August 2020

Part of the MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Insights from Practice blog series.

On June 8, 2020 I got off a call with my research group for the last time after successfully completing our fieldwork. We acknowledged that we had just experienced a remarkable moment in history. Yet our goodbyes were tearful, knowing that the uncertainty we had come to thrive in was about to end. Just two months earlier, still certain of the future, we were cementing plans for our field trip to Sierra Leone. Then our world paused its physical existence and turned virtual.

Rapidly changing plans were met with a sense of disbelief and helplessness. It would have been easy to give up. Instead, we drew closer together. However, for me this turned out to be a battle between maintaining my privacy and gaining a new level of intimacy with the group. As one who tires easily from prolonged social interaction, I thought a virtual field trip would be great. Yet, all of a sudden, even though physically distanced from my group, I was inviting them into the depths of my home for long hours every day and they were doing the same for me. This virtual invitation extended to my tutors, other classmates, acquaintances and strangers. We saw parts of each other’s homes visitors usually did not get to see. I was overwhelmed and wanted to shut everyone out.

Contrary to Lefebvre’s[1] argument that it is difficult to reconcile the analysis of experiences in an ideological space with everyday lived realities, discussing housing issues in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic meant analysing the very thing I was experiencing. I realised my sense of social discomfort was not peculiar to me when the group talked about the strangeness of seeing each other first thing in the morning, even before members of our households. We were all in different parts of the world with different living conditions, interacting through computer screens. This brought to fore a new awareness of our daily realities. Despite the reduced privacy, we had the privilege of choosing to be physically separated while remaining mentally and socially connected. In contrast, the primary focus of our research – renters in dense informal settlements whose neighbourhoods also serve as their home – mostly lack this privilege and are disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s response measures which exacerbate existing inequalities.

Acknowledging an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ intensified my dismay at the injustices informal settlement renters face daily. But it also sparked an inquisition into their resilience against socio-economic hardship and environmental risks. Nevertheless, just like Lefebvre argued, where a physical field trip would have fostered an immersive experience of diverse renter dynamics, virtual learning fell short. I wondered if we could truly examine intersecting complexities by merely hearing about them and whether we ran the risk of homogenising renters. However, interacting outside the physical confines of an informal settlement forced us to rely on one another’s past and present experiences to put forward our research questions. It also opened up opportunities to craft new experiences and ways of learning based on heightened awareness and mutual understanding.

‘Us’ versus ‘them’ morphed into a bigger ‘us’ as we broadened the scope of our research to multiple contexts. Though unable to conduct participatory activities like focus group discussions, interviewing our social contacts across the globe gave us access to forums that amplified the voices and opinions of multiple actors and renter groups, we would otherwise not have connected with. These forums facilitated communication between renters and landlords, informal settlements and local governments, and local governments and external development actors. We witnessed hierarchic positions being renegotiated on multiple scales ranging from community to national scales.

My fear of homogenising renters was tackled by the similarities and differences I observed between them within the same context and across different contexts. In some contexts they were playing a part in holding local government accountable for injustices, while in others formal legal renting agreements were adopting informal principles of solidarity. Having a bird’s eye view of simultaneous transformative renegotiations across different contexts, would have made it easy to make suggestions that promote cross-learning between multiple actors. However, remembering Lefebvre, we revisited our verbal information chains and observations to critically analyse their implicit biases and propose practical solutions grounded in context-specific everyday realities.

I realise now that my research group had subconsciously adopted the solidarity practices we were examining. We subtly renegotiated our in-group roles to address our strengths and weaknesses. The group’s collective self-efficacy, sense of hope and motivation infected me. I became less afraid of taking risks and less doubtful of my abilities. Collectively, we learned how to create animations rather than rely on out-of-context video footage in order to ethically present our research findings. Learning a new skill remotely meant watching multiple tutorials and knowing when to ask for help. Answering each other’s questions was difficult, especially when we had different software versions or could not simply reach out and click a command on someone else’s computer. I learned to exercise patience and show empathy until we had mastered this skill to a satisfactory level. We ate together, laughed together and celebrated achievements outside of this as well.

My new-found pro-social behaviour replaced my privacy concerns and my eagerness to interact with the group quickly became a habit. However, this carried certain risks. Being around each other for prolonged hours every day, albeit virtually, meant we needed to adjust to our different personalities. I noticed myself recognising non-verbal nuances of communication even when filtered by a screen and adjusting my responses accordingly. Kindness and collective emotional intelligence dominated our interactions. We started having one-word check-ins to measure how we felt and discussed ways we could support one another. Again, contrary to Lefebvre’s arguments about not recognising what you are experiencing while experiencing it, on our last call, the group joked about becoming addicted to our virtual support circle and made plans to interact outside of it.

It has been a week since that last call. I find myself asking if the lessons I learned from this period of uncertainty will stand the test of time, not just for me but for them. Will the intimacy of a wider ‘us’ group prevail during more certain times? Have I been able to analyse all of my lived experiences or are the obvious lessons limited to the moment, only to be re-activated during the next wave of uncertainty? I hope I can look back at this first ‘last time’ when that happens and be able to say, “last time…”


Bandura, A. (1971) Social learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-813251-7.00057-2.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Edited by D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell. doi: 10.2307/378107.

McLeod, S. (2016) Bandura – Social Learning Theory, Simply Psychology. Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/bandura.html.

Pierce, J. and Martin, D. G. (2015) ‘Placing Lefebvre’, Antipode, 47(5), pp. 1279–1299. doi: 10.1111/anti.12155.

[1] Henri Lefebvre was a Marxist theorist, philosopher and sociologist famous for his books The Production of Space and The Critique of Everyday Life.


The other side of Chungking Express

By Natalie Kwong, on 28 July 2020

Part of the MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Insights from Practice blog series.

Still from Chungking Express (1994)

Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, a 1994 film telling two stories of romantic longing is amongst one of my favourite films for its poetic storytelling and arthouse cinematography. A large portion of the film is set in the background of Chungking Mansions, from which its title derives from, depicted in the film as a hyperactive and eclectic mix of cultures (majority South Asian), but also as a crime hotspot for drug trade, scammers and immigrants. Having rewatched the film recently and coupled with the resurgence of the black lives matter movement has led me to reflect personally on my own experiences with racial inequality in Hong Kong, particularly the South Asian community, and ultimately how this leads to epistemic injustices.

The term ‘epistemic injustices’ was first introduced by Fricker (2007), in reference to injustices in someone’s capacity as a knower. Fricker makes a distinction between two different types of epistemic injustices:

  1. Hermeneutic Injustice—when someone lacks the resources, usually of conceptual nature required to formulate their problems;
  2. Testimonial Injustice—when someone is treated as lacking credibility due to a systemic identity prejudice which influences the listener.

The basis of this blog will focus on testimonial injustice, where the racial stereotypes attributed to the South Asian community in Hong Kong (a majority Chinese ethnic society) has led to the production and reproduction of epistemic injustices.

So how does this relate to the film Chungking Express? In the film, the stereotype of South Asians as criminals becomes reinforced as Chungking Mansions, a large hub for ethnic minorities, is depicted as a site of gang activity and violence. This homogenous depiction of South Asians in the building obfuscates an authentic representation of its community—the other side of Chungking Mansions is an agglomeration of traders, businesses, restaurants operated by South Asians and Africans. Having been inside the building myself on numerous occasions as part of volunteer work to cook for refugees and asylum seekers, I know it to be a site of rich and diverse stories, far from what is depicted in the film.

Still from Chungking Express (1994)

This depiction of South Asians is not only limited to Chungking Express, where the representation of these minorities in local TV and film are largely negative as they are used to serve comedic relief and villainous intent, perpetuating stereotypes and their exclusion from mainstream society. These depictions manifest as epistemic injustices on an institutional and structural level. For instance, children of South Asian minorities who attend local schools in Hong Kong aren’t offered language assistance when learning Chinese, putting them at a disadvantage to their peers who are able to practise Chinese at home. As a result of this language barrier, they become victims of epistemic injustices where their knowledge becomes unheard and face significant disadvantages in accessing livelihood and economic opportunities.

A clear instance of the epistemic injustices borne on these communities was in the shooting of a Nepalese man in 2009 by the police, which disturbingly mirrors the police aggression that reignited the recent black lives matter movement. The police had emphasised the man as a “dark-skinned foreigner with criminal convictions”, and ultimately authorities deemed the shooting as lawful and as an act of self-defence (SCMP, 2011). The family of the Nepalese man were denied judicial review of his death, despite citing a lack of police transparency in the case. The injustice on whose knowledge comes to matter in these cases becomes manifested on an institutional level as there is a clear privileging on whose knowledge becomes heard. Clearly, depictions of South Asians as barbaric and criminals in media reinforce these stereotypes that lead to epistemic injustices on a structural and institutional level.

This depiction of Chungking Mansions, and by extension South Asians, carries on to epistemic injustices that are reflected on an interpersonal level as well. Within my immediate and extended family and amongst friends, there is a prejudice held against this site—a place to be avoided due to its preconceived association with crime. On a personal level, looking back on my visits to the building for volunteer work, I was afraid to venture into the place alone and had tried to avoid eye contact when navigating the halls. Despite conflicting with my firmly held beliefs on racial equality, as Cunliffe (2019) has examined, these stereotypes as portrayed in the media operates on an unconscious level, existing in the social imagination and feed into judgements without express authorisation.

So how can this process of production and reproduction of epistemic injustices be challenged? In the same way that mainstream media perpetuates stereotypes, media can also be used to co-produce actionable knowledge through inclusive representation that challenges these injustices. Cunliffe (2019) identified four ways in which narrative fiction can help counter testimonial injustices: Firstly, through familiarisation, where inclusion of marginalised groups help acquaint an audience; Secondly, by stimulating a higher self awareness in the audience; Thirdly, in emphasising ambiguity in making decisive judgements about people; and finally, through representation of marginalised groups. As such, these processes require a co-production of knowledge, wherein those who have been marginalised become creators of such media. Jordan Peele’s Get Out serves as a prime example in challenging homogenous depictions of African Americans in mainstream media. The film depicts the microaggressions of racism in American society, in instances such as forced mentions of Barack Obama and Tiger Woods by white partygoers to the protagonist. This presentation of an African-American man’s experience in America by an African-American writer allows the audience to imagine oneself in the protagonist’s place, enabling a self awareness to recognise and question their own judgements in relation to epistemic injustices.

Still from Get Out (2017)

To return to a more personal level in my experience of epistemic injustices of South Asians in Hong Kong, the inclusion of South Asians in the production of mainstream media can allow for authentic representations of lived experiences, challenging the systemic racial stereotypes of these groups and the testimonial injustices associated. In essence, though media is not the singular approach in addressing these issues, the co-production of inclusive representation will be instrumental in confronting the “other side” of Chungking Express.


Cottle, S. (2000). Ethnic Minorities and the Media: Changing Cultural Boundaries. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Cunliffe, Z. (2019). Narrative Fiction and Epistemic Injustice. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 77(2). pp.169-182.

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

South China Morning Post. (2011). ‘Review of Nepali’s shooting denied,’ South China Morning

Post, Hong Kong, 12 June. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/article/736380/review-nepalis-shooting-denied. [Accessed 11 June 2020].

Re-educating the educated

By Rachel S Fisch, on 17 July 2020

Part of the MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Insights from Practice blog series.

“The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated” (James Baldwin, 1963)

 Part I: Epistemic Injustice and Education

James Baldwin, a black American writer and activist, argued that education is designed to teach people independent thought and decision-making, yet, the paradox within this is that once this occurs people will realise the wrongs in society and seek to change them. However, this will be society’s demise as ‘society’ wants docile subjects, not people actively seeking change.

Baldwin saw education as the force to enable society to change. He acknowledged the racial testimonial and hermeneutical injustice (Fricker, 2007) riddled within US society and its education system and called upon teachers to dispel the myths and dominant white narrative in American history that silenced other voices. The solution to societal change and racial equality was to educate and push children to understand the world constructed by those before them and give them the tools to remould it into something new.

Part II: Am I Educated?

History is a powerful force that has and continues to mould the world today. How history is told, or not told, embeds and reinforces worldviews in children from a young age. As the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has swept across social media I have seen many petitions to change the UK’s school history syllabus. This made me reflect on the history I learnt at school, which was full of Normans, Tudors and WWII. This was a very white, male-dominated history that sought to paint the UK in a favourable light. The darker parts of history, such as the slave trade, were scarcely mentioned.

There is no doubt that knowledge is power. Yet knowledge is based on an outdated, white, Eurocentric and patriarchal ideology which subtly dictates society today. The UN views education as a basic human right, yet what we are taught ignores the rights of many and plurality of the world. Although knowledge is always in formation (Madge, Raghuram and Noxolo, 2015) its acquisition needs to become an inclusive, global and cyclical process. The UK school system assumes homogeneity; of students, subject matters and the world, impacting how people view and act in the world for generations. I now realise that I left school with a fragmented reality and minimal knowledge about how the world works, how it came to be and why it is how it is. The institutionalised ‘othering’ (Said, 1978) and marginalisation of information needs to be eradicated to prevent the on-going epistemic injustice prevalent in the UK education system.

Part III: The Online Field Trip

The rise of the BLM movement and the subsequent enlightenment on epistemic injustice made me reflect on how I conducted our fieldwork. From the onset, we were encouraged to place heavy emphasis on exploring our strategic pathway through a gendered perspective. Due to the virtual nature of our project we were unable to fully grasp the reality of a gendered experience in Freetown and relied on our assumptions and previous research that commonly contextualised women as marginalised and disproportionately burdened. As a group, we established that the gender of the interviewer should parallel that of the interviewee, as we believed that this may influence the openness of the interviewee and thus the obtained data.

I realise in hindsight that how we were conducting the research and asking interview questions were biased towards our positionality rather than the local context. We found that although our assumptions of women in Freetown are true, they failed to reflect the heterogeneity of the gender experience, the high levels of resilience displayed by women in their everyday lives and their oppression in wider knowledge production. The fact that the Mayor of Freetown is a woman seemed to escape me, highlighting that the strong ideas of gender in the academic sphere swayed my perspective and did not fully reflect the situation in Freetown. This made me think further about where this knowledge came from and the power relations that enabled this knowledge to shape my perceptions as a researcher and practitioner. The academic sphere has been shaped by white, privileged males, and made me overlook my knowledge of being a woman and intersectionality in this fieldwork. I also realised that such knowledge fails to truly reflect the situations on the ground as communities don’t tend to get the opportunity to share their knowledge, and if they do, it tends to be distorted through the academic lens of the researcher.

This process taught me to reject preconceived notions of knowledge, data collection methods and; that learning truly is a dynamic concept (Acharya, 2007). It was only through doing this project that I truly realised the importance and power of co-producing knowledge and action to tackle epistemic injustice. There are multiple understandings of the world and we need to escape our current embedded, Western restraints to truly understand lived experiences and create positive change. Although it was not the field trip we all imagined, it showed me that academic knowledge is not always the ‘right’ knowledge and that seeing, listening and incorporating what others have to say is vital in challenging what we think we know and our assumptions.

Part IIII: Re-educating the Education System

Society is crying out for change, and in doing so, is finally acknowledging the paradox of education and the injustices within it. Although the societal issues are not new, how we perceive and understand them are evolving. Following Baldwin, I think that to truly address and disrupt epistemic injustices we need to change how and what we teach our children – our future. The lessons that we learn in school stay with us, and we are currently not teaching children enough.

Whilst many will look back on 2020 as a dark period in history, I think that 2020 is the year of ‘creative destruction’ (Schumpeter, 1976), whereby we will move beyond crisis to radical change (Biel, 2020). This year has been scary, painful and heart-breaking, yet it has forced many to wake up and seek opportunities for societal reflection and possibly become the force of change that this world needs. I hope to take the lessons learnt from my ‘field trip’ in Freetown and apply them to my academic and personal outlook to help identify and address the epistemic injustices I encounter in my life.


Acharya, S. (2007) Identity, Technological Communication and Education in the Age of Globalization. Gender, Technology and Development, 11(3), pg.339-356.

Baldwin, J. (2008) [1963]. A Talk to Teachers. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, 107(2), pg.15-20.

Biel, R. (2020) From crisis to radical change. Post COVID-19 Urban Futures webinar series. [Online] Available from: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/development/events/2020/apr/crisis-radical-change

Fricker, M. (2007) Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. [Online] Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Madge, C., Raghuram, P. and Noxolo, P. (2015) Conceptualizing international education: From international student to international study. Progress in Human Geography, 39(6), pg.681-701.

Said, E. W. (1978) Orientalism. London: Penguin.

Schumpeter, J. A. (1976) Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. [Online] London: Routledge.

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.

Therapy Gardens – Urban Green Space and Better Health

By Liza Griffin, on 24 April 2019

There is an growing body of scholarship that supports the cultivation of green spaces in urban environments as a vital part of healthcare and wellbeing provision in cities and communities (Pearson and Craig 2014; Wyles et al. 2017).  According to the constitution of the World Health Organisation health is ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. In other words, it includes both physical and psychological wellbeing. Good health then is not only the improvement of symptoms associated with chronic illness, but must also include the presence of positive emotions like life satisfaction, a sense of community and happiness (Soga, Gaston, and Yamaura 2017).

We have long known that urban parks provide sites for physical activity and that exercise reduces the prevalence of most chronic diseases and enhances healthiness in general. More recent evidence, however, has demonstrated the manifold positive associations between access to green spaces like forests, cemeteries, reserves, sports fields, conservation areas, and community gardens – and better health outcomes (Newell et al. 2013). For example, psychological wellbeing has been empirically linked to contact with green areas (Berto 2014; Bertram and Rehdanz 2015).  And according to research in environmental psychology simply being in a ‘natural’ environment can help promote recovery from stress.  Parks are said to provide a sense of peace and tranquillity and they can function as a locus of social interaction and play – both associated with positive health indicators. Evidence also suggests that green spaces increase perceptions of safety and belonging.  And Fuller et al. (2009) have found positive associations between species richness and self-reported psychological contentment. Louv (2005) has shown that children who lack access to urban green space can suffer from a wide range of behavioural problems; and that interaction with flora and fauna is crucial to child development. Gardens in care homes have been found to be beneficial for reducing the agitation and aggression linked to dementia, while hospices make use of the tranquillity of green spaces as part of end-of-life care (Triggle 2016).

What’s more, green spaces also support the ecological integrity of cities which is turn have health benefits for the people living and working in them. For instance, trees and plants help to filter air and remove pollution. In 2019 the World Health Organisation found that around seven million people die each year from exposure to polluted air. Vegetation also helps to attenuate noise pollution – another source of stress reported to be increasing in urban environments. And urban forests can moderate temperatures by providing shade and cooling  and thus helping reduce the risk of heat-related illnesses for city dwellers (Wolch, Byrne, and Newell 2014).

But it isn’t simply being present in green spaces that can aid better health. Producing and cultivating them is also increasingly being recognised as a crucial part of the story. Gardening has been linked to lower BMIs, reduced stress, fatigue and depression, better cognitive function, and also to the prevention or management of diabetes, circulatory problems and heart disease (Buck 2016; Soga et al. 2017; Thompson 2018; Van-Den-Berg and Custers 2011).

Speaking personally, I can attest that gardens and gardening undeniably provides a sense of solace. I have always enjoyed being outdoors and walking in beautiful settings but only very recently have I taken up gardening. Much of the academic literature on horticulture and cultivating green space simply asserts an empirical relationship between the act of gardening and its corollary beneficial outcomes. But very little research explores or explains precisely what the mechanisms of association might be. Below I want to examine some of the processes that connect the act of growing green things with the benefits that are ascribed to its practice.

Gardening – the cultivation of and care for plants and vegetables for non-commercial purposes – provides a different way to experience the natural environment: it is far more immersive and visceral than simply being present in a green space. What’s more, gardening is a process and never complete; it is an act of care and it is often hard work. However, I believe its rewards are many.

I felt tired simply looking at our own overgrown ‘cottage garden’ – at least that’s how it was described by the last estate agent. Shrubs and weeds had proliferated during years of benign neglect leaving only a slim pathway to the bicycle shed. Rather than a pleasant space to enjoy, it had been a reminder of another chore yet to address.

All this changed a few years ago and I began to tackle the tangle of vegetation. I hacked back gargantuan shrubs and removed well-established bramble and after a couple of days the hard labour was complete; I could then work on cultivating something resembling a garden in this newly revealed plot. Admiring the freshly made beds of soil I set about planting and digging. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was keen.

It’s become a cliché that gardening is therapeutic, but at that time I hadn’t appreciated just how helpful it could be. Gardening obviously involves effort and according to the Mental Health Foundation, exercise is not only beneficial for physical health it also helps psychological conditions like mild to moderate depression and stress (Buck 2016). There’s also something about its practice which I believe is salutary. At least it is in my own experience.

Digging and manipulating soil to plant bulbs and seeds is a hopeful act. That in itself is heartening, but when the first green shoots push through the earth it can be exhilarating too. It is an act of human agency to dig, plant and to nurture and yet one’s gardening success lies far beyond the control of the gardener herself, notwithstanding her commitment and expertise.

So much can go wrong: blight, poor weather, ravenous slugs – and a hundred other circumstances can conspire to thwart the gardener’s efforts. While plans may go awry, the co-production between gardener and the non-human garden assemblage can produce glorious outcomes. I have felt at once proud of the spring displays that have emerged in my tiny plot, and also humbled; knowing that the results were only partially of my own doing.

One can read-up and share tips with other enthusiasts but sometimes it just doesn’t work out as planned. I was disappointed that my tulip bulbs didn’t materialise into the plants promised on the packet, but I’ve been pleased that the ailing roses I got on discount at the garden centre have thrived.  Gardening knowhow is often more tacit than taught. It is acquired through seasons of practice, of hope and sometimes of frustration. Feeling stressed by the demands of everyday life can make us feel impotent so it’s perplexing that gardening, in which we have only a relative influence on the outcome, can be so satisfying. Or maybe that’s its appeal.

Perhaps it is the combination of endorphin-releasing exercise, surrendering control to serendipity and the slow tacit acquisition of practical know-how that makes gardening special. But there’s something about the rhythms, textures, sounds and scents of gardening too. The immersive and visceral experience of working with plants and mud encourages us to be mindful and present in our own bodies. Instead of worrying about work or the everyday stresses of life, gardening directs us to the tasks at hand: to pruning, repotting, weeding or digging.  Anxiety can worsen when we focus unduly on the past or worry excessively about the future, whereas gardening is an activity engaged in the ‘now’.  And since most plants and shrubs only flower for a short period, to enjoy them at their best we must be fully present.

And of course, gardens are sensual and sensory. Their beauty can’t be captured in a text or by a photograph they must be experienced. The feel of earth warmed by microbes and sunshine, delicate and textured vegetation that brushes the skin, foliage with thorns or stings, inhaling the musty smell of air in soil displaced by rain, or the aromatic scent of leaves and petals, the sound of breeze hissing through leaves. It is these incursions on our senses that can help relieve us of our existential angst and provide succour in difficult times.

In Britain, Hospital Foundations, mental health, homeless and dementia charities are beginning to offer not only access to green spaces as part of their efforts to improve the health of citizens, but also opportunities for publics to get involved in their cultivation. This seems like a very positive move in the endeavour for healthier cities (Soga et al. 2017). However, there are some caveats.  Some studies on green spaces and health reveal that access disproportionately benefits White, able bodied and more affluent communities (McConnachie and Shackleton 2010; Wolch et al. 2014). And enhancing natural amenities in cities has been shown to in many cities to paradoxically facilitate gentrification and increase property prices, further diminishing access to those constituents who might benefit the most (Newell et al. 2013).  Concerted effort needs to be made by urban planners and communities everywhere to keep this most valuable resource accessible and open to all for the good of healthy citizens everywhere.


Berto, Rita. 2014. “The Role of Nature in Coping with Psycho-Physiological Stress: A Literature Review on Restorativeness.” Behavioral Sciences 4(4):394–409.

Bertram, Christine and Katrin Rehdanz. 2015. “The Role of Urban Green Space for Human Well-Being.” Ecological Economics 120:139–52.

Buck, D. 2016. Gardens and Health Implications for Policy and Practice. Kings Fund.

Fuller, Richard and Gaston Kevin. 2009. “The Scaling of Green Space Coverage in European Cities.” Biology Letters 5(3):352–55.

Louv, Richard. 2005. “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” SCHOLE: A Journal of Leisure Studies and Recreation Education 21(1):136–37.

McConnachie, M. Matthew and Charlie M. Shackleton. 2010. “Public Green Space Inequality in Small Towns in South Africa.” Habitat International 34(2):244–48.

Newell, Joshua P., Mona Seymour, Thomas Yee, Jennifer Renteria, Travis Longcore, Jennifer R. Wolch, and Anne Shishkovsky. 2013. “Green Alley Programs: Planning for a Sustainable Urban Infrastructure?” Cities 31:144–55.

Pearson, David G. and Tony Craig. 2014. “The Great Outdoors? Exploring the Mental Health Benefits of Natural Environments.” Frontiers in Psychology 5:1178.

Soga, Masashi, Kevin J. Gaston, and Yuichi Yamaura. 2017. “Gardening Is Beneficial for Health: A Meta-Analysis.” Preventive Medicine Reports 5:92–99.

Thompson, Richard. 2018. “Gardening for Health: A Regular Dose of Gardening.” Clinical Medicine  18(3):201–5.

Triggle, N. 2016. “Gardening and Volunteering: The New Wonder Drugs?” BBC News Website.

Van-Den-Berg, Agnes and Mariëtte Custers. 2011. “Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress.” Journal of Health Psychology 16(1):3–11.

Wolch, Jennifer R., Jason Byrne, and Joshua P. Newell. 2014. “Urban Green Space, Public Health, and Environmental Justice: The Challenge of Making Cities ‘Just Green Enough.’” Landscape and Urban Planning 125:234–44.

Wyles, Kayleigh J., Mathew P. White, Caroline Hattam, Sabine Pahl, Haney King, and Melanie Austen. 2017. “Are Some Natural Environments More Psychologically Beneficial Than Others? The Importance of Type and Quality on Connectedness to Nature and Psychological Restoration.” Environment and Behavior 51(2):111–43.

How and in what ways can local-level risk information about health and disasters influence city government practices and policies?

By Cassidy A Johnson, on 28 February 2019

This blog is the fourth of the health in urban development blog series. View also:

Treat, contain, repeat: key links between water supply, sanitation and urban health
By Pascale Hofmann

Health in secondary urban centres: Insights from Karonga, Malawi
By Don Brown

Gaza: Cage Politics, Violence and Health
By Haim Yacobi


If you are interested in DPU’s new MSc in Health in Urban Development, more information can be found on our website.


Over the last few years there have been several initiatives to develop practical and policy-relevant ways to measure environmental risks faced by low-income groups. This has been in response to a severe lack of information about disaster and health risks available for policy makers to draw on in most low- and middle-income nations. There is a need for both detailed settlement-level data, particularly for informal settlements, as well as for aggregated data needed to inform city-level or national interventions[i]. In this blog, I discuss innovative methodologies that are being developed in cities of the Global South to generate much needed data for action.

Innovative methodologies for understanding health and disaster risks at the urban scale

Innovative methods developed for understanding and measuring these risks range from profiling and mapping informal settlements with community-led or co-production approaches, to detailed analysis of hospital, police and newspaper records. Other methods seek to build consensus based on perceptions and experiences of risk with communities and local governments. DesInventar is a collection of national, regional and city-level databases, which use newspaper reports, as well as police, hospital and accident records to create a detailed portrait of both large or intensive disasters and small-scale extensive disaster events. Other methodologies such as Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) settlement profiling and Action at the Frontline use community-generated information about resident’s experiences of health and disaster risks in order to enter into dialogue with municipal governments about their needs. ReMapRisk uses community-generated risk information and offers a spatial analysis with maps to interrogate and visualise the information, there are maps for Lima (Peru), Karonga (Malawi) and Freetown (Sierra Leone).  Other approaches, such CityRAP, The City Resilience Index and 10 Essentials for Making Cities Resilient focus on the municipal government’s perspectives of risks and capacities for addressing risk at the city-level, and often in dialogue with communities.


Health and disaster risks faced by the urban poor

These studies have found that women, men and children living in informal settlements are disproportionally exposed to small and large-scale disaster risks such as flooding, landslides and fires, as well as everyday risks, such as water borne illnesses and poor air quality. For example, the AXA-funded research I have been involved in in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, used Action at the Frontline methodology, with household surveys, focus groups and action planning Mtambani settlement in Ilala municipality and Bonde la Mpunga settlement in Kinondoni municipality[ii]. The communities identified crime, poor solid management, lack of storm-water drainage infrastructure, lack of wastewater and toilet infrastructure, lack of basic health services and hospitals, flooding, high living costs and drug abuse as the main issues in their settlements. Many of these are directly related to health problems, such as malaria, diarrheal disease and personal safety. While big disasters, such a major floods, earthquakes, tsunami and windstorms do affect the health and welfare of millions across the globe every year, it is actually the smaller events and everyday risks that impact the greatest number of people’s health and well-being.


These different methods of understanding risks have been employed in close partnerships between researchers, community organisations, municipal authorities and other research users in many cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America. While there are many innovative initiatives for understanding and measuring risks, the data still remains extremely patchy and limited in scope. Furthermore, and its uptake into municipal government operations and planning is not guaranteed.


Principles for the uptake of risk information in urban planning and policy making

Through the Urban Africa Risk Knowledge programme[iii], researchers have identified some principles related to the uptake of local-level risk information into planning and policy making: 1) It is important not just to provide the type of information that are assumed to be useful, but to work closely with partners in identifying data that will be useful for policy and practice[iv]. 2) The community-driven process can be more conducive to driving change in practice and policy in local government than expert-driven data. The use of local knowledge that comes through communities collaborating with local level decision-makers can capture the qualitative experiences of risks and measure the burdens arising from these risks, while enabling communities to engage with local governments/state about their needs[v]. 3) Small steps at collecting local data that are ‘good-enough’ can be valuable in the beginning.[vi] 4) Project-based risk measurement initiatives are rarely enough to make a difference in government practices and policies. What is required is long-term and sustained engagement with information that is regularly updated. 5) Improving official data collection, such as census, vital registration systems and healthcare records will be necessary to systematically address disaster and health risks in informal settlements[vii].


Many cities in low- and middle- income countries, and especially in sub-Saharan Africa, do not have functioning local governments, they lack a metropolitan structure or their resources are too meagre to take on new initiatives. While some progress has been made in developing methodologies that help us to better understand the everyday and small-scale disaster risks that underpin women’s, men’s and children’s health in informal settlement, there is still much more to do to scale up these initiatives and to enable local governments to take actions to address risks.



[i] Satterthwaite, D and Sverdlik, A (2018). Assessing health risks in informal settlements in sub-Saharan African cities. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 10. June 2018. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/assessing-health-risks-informal-settlements-sub-saharan-african-cities

[ii] Osuteye, E. at al. (2018). Communicating risk from the frontline: projecting community voices into disaster risk management policies across scales. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 19. October 2018. Available from:

[iii] See www.urbanark.org

[iv] Dodman, D., Leck, H. and F. Taylor (2017). Applying multiple methods to understand and address urban risk. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 7. July 2017. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/applying-multiple-methods-understand-and-address-urban-risk

[v] Osuteye, E. at al. (2018). Communicating risk from the frontline: projecting community voices into disaster risk management policies across scales. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 19. October 2018. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/communicating-risk-frontline-projecting-community-voices-disaster-risk-management-policies-across

[vi] Spaliviero, M. at al. (2019). Urban Resilience building in fast-growing African Cities. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 20, January 2019. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/urban-resilience-building-fast-growing-african-cities

[vii][vii] Adelekan, I.O. and D. Satterthwaite (2019). Filling the data gaps on everyday and disaster risks in cities: The case of Ibadan. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No 22. January 2019. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/filling-data-gaps-every-day-and-disaster-risks-cities-case-ibadan

Health in secondary urban centres: Insights from Karonga, Malawi

By Donald Brown, on 23 November 2018

This blog is the first of the health in urban development blog series. View also:
Gaza: Cage Politics, Violence and Health

If you are interested in DPU’s new MSc in Health in Urban Development, more information can be found on our website.

They may be small, but don’t let their size mislead you. Secondary centres form a significant—though underappreciated—part of the global urban landscape. Drawing on my doctoral research in Karonga, a small town in Malawi, I explain why achieving a healthy urban future will depend increasingly on how urban growth occurs outside the largest cities.

Haphazard densification of a previously planned settlement, Karonga Town, Malawi. Photo credit: Donald Brown (2017)


It is widely proclaimed that we now live in an urban age, with more than half of the world’s population living in ‘cities’. While impressive, this statistic does not tell the whole story. It is widely assumed that most of the world’s urban population live in the largest cities and that they are the fastest growing. But there are relatively few mega cities (with more than 10 million residents) and they account for less than 10% of the world’s urban population. Many are also not growing especially fast.

Far more urban dwellers live in small and intermediate centres (with less than 1 million inhabitants), many in Asia and Africa. These ‘secondary’ centres constitute the bottom and middle of the urban hierarchy, where a large and typically growing share of the world’s future urban growth is expected to occur. But this is also where the capacity to plan and manage urban growth, provide services, and reduce environmental risks is so often lacking.

If the growth of secondary centres in Malawi and other sub-Saharan African countries is to contribute to a healthy urban future, research and action is required on several fronts:

The dynamics of in situ urbanisation

Most accounts of Africa’s urban transition have focused on the causes and patterns of urbanisation and peri-urbanisation. Much less attention has been paid to in situ urbanisation—the placed-based transition from a rural area into an urban one. These dynamics are of growing importance in sub-Saharan Africa given its low urbanisation level and moderate urbanisation rate, meaning that many small settlements have yet to emerge.

Karonga exemplifies the process of in situ urbanisation: it grew from a small trading post in the colonial era into a sub-regional service centre under the current national planning framework. The town’s population increased nearly four-fold from around 11,000 in 1966 (the first census year) to over 40,000 in 2008 (the last census year). Karonga is now the second largest centre in the Northern Region following Mzuzu.

Despite its size and growth, Karonga has no local government and so lacks the capacity to effectively plan and manage its growth. Numerous environmental hazards have subsequently emerged, ranging from poor sanitation, to seasonal floods, to large-scale disasters, posing major health risks.

Flooding in and around the central market, Karonga Town, Malawi. Photo credit: Wisdom Bwanali (2017)

The need for disaggregated urban data

Most demographic and health data is aggregated to provide averages for urban populations, obscuring widespread health disparities within and between urban populations. Basic health data is especially limited in sub-Saharan Africa in the absence of vital registration systems, disease surveillance sites and electronic health records, even though the region bears the brunt of the world’s deadliest epidemics, including HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

Where available, local information sources can be used to generate disaggregated data at the urban scale. Among the most valuable sources are hospital records, which provide information on the causes of disease in populations. To generate this information for Karonga, nearly 3,000 inpatient records from Karonga District Hospital (located in the town) were collected over a 12-month period (August 2016 to July 2017) to produces estimates of the prevalence of environmental disease.

While the sample is not completely representative of the town’s population, the findings reveal alarming patterns:

  • 63% of all recorded diseases were environmental (i.e. related to factors in the physical environment);
  • 64% of environmental diseases were infectious and parasitic; and
  • cholera outbreaks during the rainy season are recurrent in areas with the poorest sanitation.

These observations support the longstanding suspicion that smaller settlements with limited capacities can be among the most hazardous places to live, highlighting the need for urban environments far more capable of preventing disease.

The dynamics of rural governance regime change

As in situ urbanisation unfolds, villages will grow into towns, towns will be reclassified as urban (raising the urbanisation level), and modern institutions will attempt to intervene in rural governance regimes that may be resistant to change. This process is creating new governance challenges for planning authorities attempting to intervene in towns once they have already emerged.

These challenges are heightened in Karonga in the absence of a local government, meaning the balance of power has not shifted from traditional to modern institutions in much the same way the planning system has not resulted in formal urban development. Instead, customary and modern institutions have intertwined in hybridised governance arrangements in which the authority and legitimacy of the state is contested.

A chief holds a meeting in a village in Karonga Town, Malawi. Photo credit: Donald Brown (2017)

Understanding the place-based dynamics of rural governance regime change in emerging towns such as Karonga is at the forefront of planning research on in situ urbanisation. Case studies of this kind have significant potential to reveal the possibilities and obstacles for planning healthy towns at the bottom of the urban hierarchy. This is where many of the future challenges facing public health will be increasingly concentrated, but where little scholarly or practical attention has been paid to this and other important urban development issues.


Donald Brown is an urban planner and researcher interested in the nexus between urban development planning, public health and (disaster) risk reduction in sub-Saharan Africa and other urbanising regions. His doctoral research focused on environmental health in smaller African urban centres as increasingly important to overall urban population health.

Living at risk in Freetown

By Adriana E Allen, on 4 May 2018

Authors: Leong, Matilda; Vo, Son Nam; Kim, Hayeon; Korsi Simpson, Paul; Korsi Simpson, Peter and Allen, Adriana (Cockle Bay Group from the ESD MSc practice module)

In the early hours of Wednesday, 25 April 2018, the residents of Kola Tree in Cockle Bay were awakened to the shouts of fire. The blaze took place in the informal settlement located in the Western coast of Freetown and affected 97 people. Although there were no casualties reported, rampant loss of property, possessions and livelihoods were claimed by the incident.

When the team from Development Planning Unit (DPU) at University College London (UCL) and Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC) arrived at the site, they were met with chaos. A crowd of residents were still dealing with the aftermath of the fire over the rubbles of their corrugated metal sheet homes. Despite all effort to mitigate damages, the flames had been eventually extinguished by burying them under the collapsing building structures.

Photo by S.N. Vo

It was soon established that the Cockle Bay community was left on its own to undertake responsive actions. There were minimal external interventions save for the fire brigade who attempted to extinguish the fire alongside the residents. The DPU/SLURC team quickly came to the support of the residents by conducting an enumeration process to determine who was affected and what was the impact of the fire.

This information was subsequently handed to the local leader of the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDURP) and of the Community Based Disaster Risk Management Committee to facilitate the provision of relief for victims and temporary shelter for the night. While the source of the fire was yet to be determined, the rapid assessment conducted by partners on the ground speculated the possibility of an electrical fault. The Office of National Security (ONS) responded hours after the event and is reportedly conducting a more detailed assessment to identify the origin of the fire.

DPU team supporting the enumeration of those affected by fire in Cockle Bay. Photo by A. Allen.

The absence of external support during small-scale disasters is not unusual for informal settlements. In most circumstances, external actors such as governmental institutions and non-governmental organisations have to conserve their limited resources. Consequently, they can only respond to severe incidents. For example, a prominent local NGO was only able to support 144 of the 2,048 victims during the 2015 fire in Susan’s Bay due to the lack of funding. Minor disasters such as that in Cockle Bay accordingly tend to be overlooked and underreported. Moreover, dismal planning characterised by limited road access and dispersed and insufficient water sources also hinder evacuation and relief efforts and exacerbate the everyday risks facing local communities. Moreover, although preliminary relief is given to the victims of disasters, this is often insufficient to ensure that those affected can recover from such events, let alone to escape risk accumulation and poverty cycles.

It is estimated that about 547 fires outbreaks affected those living in informal settlements in Freetown between 2011 to 2015 (Di Marino et al, 2018). Fires are only one of the multiple hazards facing poor and impoverished women and men in the city on a regular basis. Other hazards include floods, mudslides, landslides, waterborne diseases, and occupational hazards, amongst others. Each of these disasters, small and large-scale, disproportionately impact the urban poor – destroying their housing, disrupting their education and in some case, even terminating their sources of livelihood.

Photo by S.N. Vo

The fire outbreak in Cockle Bay brings to light the broader issue of prolonged systematic oversight of informal settlements and the invisibility of certain segments of the city population, such as tenants. As the fire was confined to a mere 8 compounds within a small area of about 100m2, initial estimates speculated that about 20 people had being affected. However, the enumeration process conducted by the team in collaboration with local residents revealed that it was in fact a total of 97 people, a third of whom were children. About 80% of the victims were tenants. This yields an abrupt indication of how vulnerable groups such as tenants and the youth in households are often inadvertently not accounted for, leaving them virtually invisible by the community themselves in times of disasters.

Lacking the means to enter the housing and land markets elsewhere in the city, many women in men are forced to reside in informal settlements like Cockle Bay. Therefore, these areas have experienced consistent densification and land reclamation over the years, particularly since the Civil War. Aside from high housing densities, most informal settlements also face scarce provision of basic services. Communities are forced to utilise improvised infrastructures, causing overloading of electrical points. In the area affected by the blaze, all 34 families relied on two metered connections for electricity.

Everyday life in Cockle Bay. Photo by: A. Allen

Some might posit that informal settlements are hazards in themselves and ought to be eradicated. However, these settlements house a sizeable proportion of Freetown’s population, with no alternative dwelling options. Moreover, their residents perform jobs that support the daily functioning of Freetown; quietly they run the city. Demolishing their living quarters as a ‘protective measure’ against risk simply displaces the issue – disrupting lives, livelihoods, family ties and social organisations – making poor women and men even more invisible. Events like the fire in Cockle Bay remind us of the need to stop blaming the victims and victimising the poor, the need to acknowledge that they live at risk not as an exception but as a common reality, the need to seek pathways for more inclusive urbanisation beyond risk.



Di Marino, Marco; Lacroix, Lea; Nastoulas, Illias; Simpson, Paul; Trintafillides, Georgina; Williams, Cai Anwyl ; and Yang, Deyu. (2018) Urban Risk Trap: Fire Dynamics in Freetown’s Informal Settlements. Policy Brief No. 2. SLURC/DPU Action-Learning Alliance.