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Spatial Justice Matters – Designing and Running Urban Community Gardens for Older People’s Wellbeing’

Marissa Lam9 March 2022

Research has highlighted the importance of accessible community gardens in providing a space to protect and enhance older people’s wellbeing as they age. This is particularly pertinent in the context of UK’s ageing population as it is juxtaposed with other public spaces become increasingly exclusive, to the exclusion of older people. Through adopting a spatial justice perspective, it is discerned that whilst many community gardens across the UK are ostensibly open for everyone to enjoy, not everyone can equally access these coveted spaces. In particular, older people may face barriers to participation through accessibility issues such as spatial designs deficiencies that fail to address people with disabilities, which may be associated with ageing. By actively identifying who can access these spaces and in what ways different user groups can participate, community gardens can continue to move towards making these green spaces easily accessible to all social demographics to improve wellbeing.


Project Focus and Description of Fellowship

Through a dissertation fellowship with Marina Chang Chair of Calthorpe Community Garden (‘Calthorpe’) and my supervisor Liza Griffin, I examined the ‘Diversity and Inclusion of Community Gardens for the Wellbeing and Participation of Older People’. A case study of Calthorpe enabled me to explore the particular opportunities and barriers to diversity and inclusion that may impact upon older people’s wellbeing and participation in community gardens using a spatial justice lens. Situated within the Kings Cross ward in the London Borough of Camden, Calthorpe is a suitable site to study as it is easily accessible via public transport and has users both from the local community and those who travel in specifically to use this space. Furthermore, as acceptance and inclusiveness form part of Calthorpe’s values, this is a seemly site to explore how diversity and inclusion may impact older people’s wellbeing.


Community Gardens

A community garden is a piece of land gardened by people individually or collectively. In the UK, community gardens are likely to have a duality of functions, such as providing open spaces whilst also offering plots for interested parties. Personally, when I think of ‘community gardens’, connotations of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ spring to mind as notions of ‘community’ and ‘gardens’ often instil tranquillity and evoke a sense of belongingness. However, exploring the diversity and inclusion of community gardens for the wellbeing and participation of older people through a spatial justice lens highlights unequal access to these green spaces.  Employing a spatial justice lens allows us to scrutinise the different factors that may increase inclusion or inequalities within the space of community gardens and how to move towards achieving greater justice.


Spatial Justice

Whilst the theory of spatial justice is complex and multifaceted, simply put, it links the notions of social justice and space. Centrally, spatial justice encompasses the equal and equitable distribution of, and the ability to use, socially valued resources within a space (Soja, 2009:1). Adopting a spatial justice lens reveals the nuances of spatial injustice within a space. Within the context of community gardens, spatial justice considers the elements necessary to investigate hitherto overlooked barriers towards (re)producing a diverse and inclusive community garden for everyone as it comprises and considers both ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ space equally. It examines who can access different spaces within community gardens and how individuals can participate meaningfully in such spaces. For instance, the spatial design may not be inclusive for everyone, impeding the diversity of users as some cannot access the space. By way of illustration, despite aiming to be universally inclusive, Calthorpe remains inaccessible to certain older people, preventing them from enjoying the green spaces that community gardens offer. Whilst Calthorpe’s ‘wild garden’ provides gardening opportunities to improve wellbeing, it is hidden away. The secretive element makes this space attractive to children, but for older people, the paths to reach the ‘wild garden’ may present difficulties to exercising their right to use this space. Consequently, some less physically mobile people may feel excluded as the paths and gardening plots are not designed to enable wheelchair access. Additionally, whilst clear signage is desirable for all users, they are particularly useful for those with impaired sight. As Calthorpe’s existing signage is small and not always easily visible, this may reduce the engagement of visually impaired older users as they may not be able to navigate the space independently.


What can Community Gardens learn from taking a Spatial Justice Perspective to their Governance?

Spatial (in)justice manifests in various ways and for community gardens, there are some ‘easy fixes’ that can help them move towards achieving spatial justice. Through a spatial justice perspective, practical steps that community gardens can adopt include looking at how the benefits and burdens in society may impact diversity and inclusion and therefore have ramifications on users’ wellbeing and participation in these spaces. Taking a spatial justice approach to the unjust and uneven development of community gardens can both reveal how people’s experiences of the space can impact wellbeing, and consider the less tangible aspects of the spatial experience. Diversity and inclusion in community gardens manifest both tangibly, whether there are physical barriers to participating, but also intangibly, through the feeling of belonging. To demonstrate, a survey found that a ‘community feeling’ is fostered at Calthorpe. This survey also spotlighted a group of Latin American women who explained how gardening at Calthorpe provided them the opportunity to become more independent, learn to use London’s buses and expand their social circles. Additionally, the sense of belonging cultivated extends further than the Latin American group. A broader community appeal exists as most of the ‘family allotments’ at Calthorpe belong to local residents of various nationalities. Survey respondents expressed ‘feeling at home’ at Calthorpe and having a ‘strong sense of ownership’, cultivating good spatial justice and wellbeing.


A spatial justice framework can provide insights for community gardens when designing or planning their space, whether it be to increase the diversity of people able to access the space or to diversify the voices of those partaking in decision-making processes. By understanding how space relates to justice, community gardens can scrutinise the different facets that produce the space: for example, evaluating how spatial design, physical accessibility and cultural factors impacts the wellbeing and participation of people in community gardens.


Practical learning taken from this research on Calthorpe highlights the many ways in which a community garden can facilitate the (re)production of a diverse and inclusive space. By placing diversity and inclusion at the heart of its core values, Calthorpe emphasises the importance of providing a welcoming environment for all users by opening the space to everyone irrespective of background to enjoy its diversity and benefits. It also provides an office where people can ask questions. What’s more, the abundant greenery and benches throughout Calthorpe’s space fosters a tranquil environment for older users in particular. Community gardens can also enhance the engagement of visually impaired users by providing them with the ability to manoeuvre through the space autonomously. As aforementioned, having large and visible signage is also essential.


Offering opportunities for users to garden or participate in activities independently can increase both the diversity of users and increase their feeling of inclusion through fostering strong social bonds. Calthorpe offers numerous age-specific activities, such as ‘walking football for ages 55+’ and ‘meditation for ages 60+’. Such activities can encourage wellbeing and participation through the creation of an environment that allows older people to carry out a range of activities adapted to their specific requirements.


Moreover, requisites to establishing a community garden that feels welcoming includes both the construction of a positive culture and ensuring that the different spaces within and across it are physically accessible. Whilst a community garden may in theory be open for all, certain areas may remain inaccessible for some socio-demographic groups. For example, narrow and uneven paths without handrails may reduce navigability for those with reduced mobility, presenting difficulties for them to exercise their right to use the space.


Nonetheless, there are simple design modifications that can improve access. For instance, adapting spaces by raising container beds enables less physically mobile users to participate as fully as possible in gardening. Community gardens that foster environments where people can work with others can create a sense of belonging as collective gardening is said to build social capital and enhance community cohesiveness, thereby improving wellbeing overall. Research has highlighted that a sense of belonging can also be cultivated through the inclusion of users in the decision-making process. Whilst Calthorpe currently does not have a formal systematic procedure to facilitate the inclusion of users and for community groups to raise issues or voice relevant concerns, implementing procedures such as an anonymous suggestions box may enable participation and provide opportunities to include previously overlooked voices.


Nevertheless, extrinsic forces that should be considered in an analysis of spatial justice include the distributive injustices at play in the wider geographic area where a community garden is situated. For example, the monetisation of community gardens in the UK can negatively impact on their diversity and inclusion. As an illustration, Calthorpe is unable to extend their opening hours due to funding constraints from the local council, restricting access to this socially valued space. Whilst this may impede spatial justice, community gardens may be creative in finding solutions. For instance, community gardens could potentially capitalise on the surrounding population, drawing on volunteers to oversee the organisation and running of activities. By actively engaging with local communities, community gardens may be able to overcome some of the many constraints they face.



Soja, E.W. (2009). The city and spatial justice. Justice spatiale/Spatial justice1(1), pp.1-5.

World toilet Day 2021: toilets are seats of gender equality! Why? Because the gendered taboos surrounding toilets & sanitation deeply impact women and girls

Nelly M Leblond14 December 2021

Authors: Claudy Vouhé (L’être égale) and Nelly Leblond (DPU), with contributions from Penda Diouf (OGDS), Angèle Koué (GEPALEF), Astrid Mujinga (CFCEM/GA), Jeannine Raoelimiadana (SiMIRALENTA) and Mina Rakotoarindrasata (Genre en Action), and Adriana Allen (DPU)

//See online version published on OVERDUE website: https://overdue-justsanitation.net/?page_id=3514

According to Tatu Mtwangi Limbumba, a sanitation expert and member of the Tanzanian OVERDUE project team, traditional taboos surrounding excreta and toilets have been eroded in African cities. For example, in Kenya or Tanzania, the mixing of a mother-in-law’s excreta with that of her son-in-law, which once prohibited the construction of indoor latrines, is no longer an issue, and is being replaced by “modern aspirations” such as indoor and public toilets. Are these modern aspirations free from taboos?


When the feminist organisations CFCEM/GA (Coordination des Femmes Congolaises pour l’Équilibre dans les Ménages/Genre en Action) in the DRC, GEPALEF (Genre, Parité et Leadership Féminin) in Ivory Coast, SiMIRALENTA in Madagascar, and OGDS (Observatoire Genre et Développement de Saint-Louis) in Senegal interviewed women for the Voicing Just Sanitation campaign launched by OVERDUE with support from L’Etre Egale, few of these “traditional” taboos were mentioned. Instead, respondents spoke of :

  • enduring social rules that silently organise sanitation practices along gender lines, distributing opportunities and constraints, often to the detriment of women,
  • prejudices which surreptitiously relegate women to the end of the toilet queue, as well as to the very end of the list of employable people for paid sanitation jobs, in the private or public sector,
  • multiple constraints, preventing their safe access to toilets in public spaces, especially in urban areas, and in particular during their menstruation,
  • Above all, the women interviewed described the non-recognition of their contributions to sanitation from families and communities, but also from politicians and public authorities.

Figure 1: Nyawera Market public toilets, Bukavu, DRC (CFCEM/GA, 2021)

So what are we talking about?

Harmless or even positive (protective?) “modern taboos” for women, or prejudices that feed gender discrimination, rooted in social gender relations and endorsed by public authorities? On the basis of the testimonies collected and to open the conversation, we have drawn up an initial list of ten points (not prioritised) which articulate taboos, clichés and prejudices, that push intimate bodies and gender hierarchies into the field of public policy: 


1. Women’s digestive systems are different from men’s

This is what one might think when listening to Angèle Koué, a feminist activist in Côte d’Ivoire, talking about the taboos and prohibitions that surround women’s use of the toilet. In the courtyards of the concessions, women must not be seen too often around the toilets and must go after men. They should not make any noise or leave any smell when using the toilet. They can be repudiated for this. Women’s bodies, even in their most basic biological functions, must respond not to nature, but to patriarchal culture. However, the privacy and dignity of girls and women are often undermined by inappropriate facilities in both private and public spaces.

Figure 2: Visual minutes from OVERDUE workshop (Ada Jusic, 2021)

2. No one should know that a woman is menstruating

From the first to the last, menstruation should remain hidden, explains Emilie Tapé, a sex blogger in Abidjan. You shouldn’t stain yourself; you shouldn’t leave dirty towels lying around. Everything that revolves around menstrual blood is considered shameful, even for the many women and girls who have internalized these injunctions. And yet, changing in public toilets, especially, is a challenge, a feat and a risk! Inadequate facilities turn menstruation into a cyclical dread.


While toilet paper is considered a basic element of the toilet, sanitary napkins and bins for disposing of them are forgotten. As a result, women are singled out when pads clog septic tanks.


To stimulate engagement around this taboo, the OGDS in St Louis, Senegal, is countering with a short play illustrating what a caring and non-stigmatising handling of girls’ first periods in school might look like.

Figure 3 : Women and girls are key sanitation providers yet their needs, including menstrual, are sidelined (OGDS, 2021)

3. Sanitation work is too dirty and difficult for women

This prejudice is quickly invalidated by the fact that women overwhelmingly take charge of the maintenance of the sanitary facilities of the house, manually evacuating the family’s wastewater and excrement on a daily basis when the infrastructure is lacking or failing. This work is invisible and, of course, unpaid.

Prejudice also obscures the key roles of women in neighbourhoods as described by Mariam Bakayoko, a community leader in the Treichville neighbourhood of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

Nadia Ramanantsara, in charge of public sanitation in the Urban Municipality of Antananarivo, also tells how women are involved as agents but also through associations that pool funds to remove waste and wastewater. Although, she also describes a very standard division of sanitation work within the community: women in communication, men in the field.

Figure 4: In Antananarivo, women are well represented in RF2 associations (Rafitra Fikojàna ny Rano sy Fidiovana, or “Water and Sanitation Management Structures”) and look after the daily sanitation of neighborhouds (SiMIRALENTA, 2021)

4. Women’s sanitation practices contribute to the insalubrity of cities and neighbourhoods

Abdoulaye “Pelé” observes that women “carelessly” dump their wastewater in the street in his neighbourhood in Saint-Louis, Senegal. In response, Awa ba, a resident of Diamaguene in Saint Louis, explains that families do not have sewer connections, private toilets, or the means to access them. In fact, they manage as best they can when the infrastructure is insufficient, especially when they have little money.

Whereas women are often blamed for their “irresponsible” management of wastewater and family excrement, the fact that men use public space to relieve themselves is little questioned in the discussion on unhealthy urban environments, according to Félicité Naweza, Provincial Deputy Mayor for South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Figure 5 : Women should be celebrated for their sanitation work not blamed for deficient infrastructure and services (OGDS, 2021)

5. Sanitation jobs are not for women

This cliché perpetuates the idea that women have no place in the paid sanitation sector as employees of companies or communities, or as company managers. This view is contradicted by the testimony of Véronique Randriaranison, manager of a waste disposal company in Antananarivo which deals in particular with mobile urinals.

Defying the stigma, Prisca tells why she accepted the job of “pee lady” at one of these mobile urinals and now wishes that her work would never stop. Solange Tiémélé, deputy mayor in the commune of Treichville in Abidjan, also advocates opening up sanitation jobs to women and calls for private-public partnerships to achieve this.

Figure 6 : The sanitation sector contains job opportunities for women (SiMIRALENTA, 2021)

6. It is better to hold back than to risk infection or aggression in unsanitary and unsafe public toilets

Lack of hygiene and safety has given rise to this prohibition, a sort of “protective” taboo. In Abidjan, for example, the poor maintenance of public facilities in working-class neighbourhoods and their mixed accessibility generate a widespread fear of urinary infections, as noted by Emilie Tapé, a sex blogger; but also a fear of sexual harassment and assault, according to Brigitte Taho, president of a feminist NGO.

This “retention“, which women and girls have internalised “for their own good“, puts their health at risk. The fear of sexual harassment and assault weighs heavily on women’s peace of mind and well-being in public spaces, and therefore on their citizenship and rights.

Figure 7: A shower in Abidjan (GEPALEF, 2021)

7. Toilets at any cost

Access to toilets is a right, not a luxury. However, this right continues to come at a price, especially for women. Lanto, a cleaner and tenant in the Malagasy capital, tells how landlords turn the improvement of toilets on their property into power and profit. By threatening to raise the rent, they easily put an end to the demands of poor tenants, especially women who are alone with their families.


Having a “proper” toilet in the home becomes a symbol of social success. The lack of social and economic power keeps women and families in degrading situations and increases their dependence on paid public toilets, which are often non-existent or inadequate. It also increases dependence on toilets and bathrooms at workplaces, which then become a real bonus.


Félicité Nawaza, deputy mayor of a commune in Kivu (DRC), points out that in public spaces, women spend more than men to use the toilets because, unlike men, they do not undress to pee behind a pole! Paradoxically, due to a lack of options, they are forced to contribute to the profitability of companies or communities that are reluctant to employ them because they are women.

Figure 8: The lack of accessible facilities near markets particularly affects women (Source: GEPALEF Abidjan, 2021)

8. The toilet is for “relieving oneself”

Of course, but that’s not all it is! It is also a place that is often used for washing or changing (especially during menstruation). This multi-purpose use remains unthought of, as does the mixing of spaces.

Nathalie Musau, deputy spokesperson for the students of the Institut supérieur d’études commerciales et financières (ISECOF) in Bukavu (DRC) explains how, at the university, mixed sex toilets generate discomfort. Female students want to use the university toilets to change clothes or put on make-up, but they come across their (male) professors or fellow students.

Mixed toilets also encourage sexual assault. Women are encouraged to go to school and to attain higher education degrees, but the infrastructure and buildings are not adapting to their bodily needs. In schools, says Anjara Maharavo from the urban commune of Antananarivo, the issue of mixed toilets is starting to be taken into account.

Figure 9: Relieving oneself, changing, washing, checking one’s outfit … toilets are used for multiple purposes (OGDS, 2021)

9. You don’t fight over a toilet: well, yes you do!

Women and their associations play a decisive, but invisibilised role in the collaboration between communities and municipalities. The problem is that they receive little recognition and support for the work they do on a daily basis, sometimes with shame and without any social or economic reward, to make up for the lack of infrastructure and the deficiencies of states and communities.

Collective demands on sanitation issues revolve more around the issue of access to water. Toilets, symbols of (still taboo) bodily needs and intimacy, are struggling to find their place in community advocacy, with an impact that weighs even more heavily on women and girls. However, women are mobilised in the struggle, as in Saint-Louis, but everything remains to be done!

Figure 10: Women speaking up to make toilets seats of gender equality!

10. Toilets, a political taboo?

The reluctance of decision-makers to talk publicly about excreta, latrines and bodily needs keeps sanitation low on the agenda, according to Astrid Mujinga of the NGO CFCEM/GA. A double gender discrimination is in place:

On the one hand, limited investment in neighbourhood facilities to serve residents, as well as poor infrastructure in public space or educational venues, mainly affects girls and women. Why are they affected? Because they do not use the street as a urinal, they need privacy, security and appropriate spaces; and because they use toilets more than men for physiological, but also social, reasons (they are mainly the ones who accompany small children to the toilet, for example). This calls for gender-sensitive budgeting for sanitation.

On the other hand, when infrastructure is in place, employment opportunities in the private and public sectors are reserved for men, whereas women have sanitation skills (acquired at home), or can develop them. A political will to act in favour of professional equality and gender diversity in the workplace would enable women who so wish to enter this promising field of employment. This is what Fatoumata Djiré Ouattara, deputy mayor of the municipality of Koumassi (Abidjan), would like to see.


In cities, taboos and prejudices linked to gender are constantly being re-created. They feed political and technical blind spots and legitimise the unequal distribution of rights, benefits, advantages and disadvantages between women and men in the field of sanitation. By highlighting and deconstructing these gender issues, the feminist organisations of the OVERDUE project are lobbying for real gender equality around the toilet seat and throughout the sanitation chain.



  • Discover the films produced in Antananarivo, Bukavu, Saint Louis and Abidjan, presented during a webinar on 12 November 2021 titled “Toilets, seats of gender equality?” and discussed by OVERDUE researchers and guests.


DPU, CatalyticAction, UN-Habitat and UNICEF create a practical handbook for co-designing with children affected by displacement

Aishath Green9 December 2021

The DeCID handbook is a practical toolkit for actors involved in co-designing with children affected by displacement. It stands for ‘Designing with children in displacement’, an abbreviation that plays on the word ‘decide’ – a right the handbook believes children and communities affected by displacement should be entitled to. Indeed at the core of its approach is the belief that children are agents and right holders who have the knowledge and expertise with which to shape their own lives. Based on this premise, the handbook sets out the importance of co-designing with children affected by displacement, the benefits it can have for displaced children and their communities, and the tools needed to make this happen. Its aim is to raise the number and quality of built interventions that are co-designed with children affected by displacement in the urban context, ultimately advancing their wellbeing and increasing democratic responses to global displacement.

Illustration by Ottavia Pasta

The handbook is a partnership between the DPU, CatalyticAction, UN-Habitat and UNICEF and is a product of extensive research around the area of participatory design. In line with its inter-sectoral approach, the research, case studies and tools found in the handbook, are the cumulation of work conducted by academics, designers, humanitarian actors, municipalities, local communities and children! In addition to the main handbook, we’ve also produced a series of thematic briefs and short videos containing interviews we conducted with experts around the process of co-designing with children. Our research also engaged MSc students who led 8 dissertation projects on themes related to the handbook. While the focus of the DeCID handbook was to condense research at the intersection of child displacement, co-design and urban contexts into one handbook, throughout the project we found and built upon a number of excellent resources. Therefore, to complement the DeCID project, we’ve created an open-access online resource library to allow for further reading around areas of particular interest.

The DeCID handbook and interactive website were officially launched on the 2nd of December with an online event about co-designing with children affected by displacement. Speakers from DPU, UN-Habitat, UNICEF and CatalyticAction each presented their take on the importance of participatory design, the benefits it brings to displaced and host communities and their experiences of how it can and should be implemented. With attendees present from 27 different countries and translations in both Spanish and Arabic (the other languages of the handbook), it was the perfect way to introduce the handbook to a much wider global audience.

Illustration by Ottavia Pasta

The key messages and ideas from DeCID can be summarised as follows. 

  • With protracted refugee situations now lasting an estimated average of 26 years and 60% of refugees living in urban areas, it is vital that social infrastructure including schools, playgrounds and public spaces are of good quality. For children specifically, high quality infrastructure can lead to healthier development and positive wellbeing. 
  • By using co-design methods to engage children in the creation of high quality social infrastructure, actors can ensure that it appropriately meets their needs. Indeed every child’s experience of displacement is different, defined by age, culture, gender, family structure amongst other factors that require tailored spatial interventions. 
  • Successful co-design interventions also rely on a collaboration between actors, each of whom can bring different and suitable expertise to a project. This means working with designers, engineers, construction workers but also educators, psychologists and caregivers who can bring their specific knowledge to a project. 
  • There are numerous benefits of taking a co-design approach. These include: improving social cohesion between displaced and host communities; boosting the local economy by providing work, training and a demand for locally sourced materials; an increased sense of ownership towards public spaces and sustainable infrastructure in the long-term. 

The DeCID handbook provides a framework of tools, templates, guidelines and case studies that can be used as a base for different co-design initiatives. You can access the open-source handbook here:

Reflections from the frontline: Does environmental sustainability have a problem with social justice? (Part 1)

Nick Anim1 April 2021

Read Part 2 here.

The question about whether environmental sustainability has a problem with social justice seems rather wrong, right? At first glance, it appears a bit abstract because what it is asking us to do is to interrogate a dialectical relationship between two contested concepts that have no determinate meanings. Upon further thought, the question beckons a somewhat counterintuitive analysis because in many spheres we simply assume to be true, and therefore take for granted, the proposition that environmental sustainability and social justice are not only interconnected but also interdependent in a relationship of mutual reinforcement on the same virtuous circle. Indeed, notions such as sustainable development, environmental justice, climate justice and just sustainabilities, whilst being conceptually distinguishable, all endeavour to promote and/or uphold that assumption. Here at the DPU, our main goal of “planning for socially just and sustainable development in the Global South” also contributes to the omnipotence and omnipresence of that canon.

It has been argued elsewhere that whilst environmental sustainability and social justice share a common organising concern around issues of scarcity, they do very different things with it (cf. Campbell, 2013; Dobson, 1998; Irvine and Ponton, 1988). On the one hand, environmentalism centres on questions of extinction, reducing the consumption of non-renewable resources, increasing the use of renewable resources, and decreasing the aggregate amount of waste generated by industrial and other processes of production. On the other hand, social justice concerns centre around the fair sharing or distribution of benefits and burdens in the socio-political community.

On that basis, having different centres of gravity means their objectives will almost always conflict as environmentalists focus on intergenerational justice, and social justice activists demand intragenerational justice. From that perspective, the differences between them are not merely of ambition, but also of tactics. Any convergence of the two ideologies, then, it has been argued (ibid), should be taken as a temporary marriage of convenience with no conjugal rights, and will thereby produce no empirical evidence to validate claims of their universal compatibility.

Now, although those arguments about the lack of empirical evidence may hold true and excite theoretical discussions and diagnoses in the ivory towers of academe, it is not my intention here to excavate, re-examine and confirm or contest them in this short piece. Rather, what I propose to do is to interrogate that opening question through the reflexive lens of my activism with two prominent environmental movements, Extinction Rebellion (XR), and the Transition Network (TN). Both movements can be understood in terms of adopting a glocal focus in their approach to environmentalism; think globally, act locally. In that regard, their organisational structures are very similar; place-based, decentralised and highly networked.

Where XR and TN differ is in their collective action repertoires and processes. XR pursues a broad spectrum of high-impact performative ‘Capital-A activism’ repertoires of civil disobedience that show a moral outrage against the machinations of predatory capitalism and its inherent contradictions which perpetuate environmental despoliation (see Harvey, 2014). In contrast, the TN model subscribes to Buckminster Fuller’s aphorism that “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Accordingly, the TN promotes a solutions-based approach which encourages groups to experiment with niche innovations such as local currencies, local energy production, and food initiatives.

It is worth noting here that whilst XR and TN occupy distinct spaces in the ecosystem of contemporary environmental activism, there is some level of cross-pollination of activists between the two movements. Perhaps most importantly for the purpose of this piece, there is considerable consistency in the viewpoints of activists regarding the question of whether environmental sustainability has a problem with social justice. Bringing that question down from the ‘ivory tower of academe’ to the frontline of activism, the kindred question to ask, then, is, do environmentalists have a problem with incorporating social justice claims into their strategic demands?

Drawing from my reflexive diaries of notes taken following conversations with over a hundred activists in both groups, it is clear that there is a significant minority of just under 25% of activists in XR and TN who strongly believe that the clear course of their demands will somehow be muddied by incorporating issues of social justice. That figure increases to just over 32% when the proposed pivot is towards accommodating matters of racial justice. To be clear here, almost all activists sympathised with, and showed enlightened concern for, the cries and demands of social, economic, and racial justice. However, many argued that the introduction of the aforementioned justice concerns might prove too politically divisive and thus threaten the critical ‘mass factor’ necessary to trigger the tipping points for regime change (see, Centola et al., 2018) with regard to the status quo of damaging environmental practices.

Further, as many activists pointed out, there are a plethora of well-established social, justice, economic justice, and racial justice movements already attending to those issues. On that last point about the existence of other movements for various issues of social justice, the inescapable question to ask here at this point, then, is ‘how can environmental movements and movements for social justice build solidarity across differences?’ That is the question I propose to tackle in the next offering of my ‘Reflections from the Frontline’. For now, I will end this short piece by suggesting that the opening question is one that in many ways reflects the state of the union in terms of how humanity is organised on Earth. We find ourselves in the middle of two simultaneous emergencies. On the one hand, we face the twinned climate and ecological breakdown, and on the other hand an emergency of persistent inequalities within and between countries.

Taken together, it becomes clear that humanity is facing something of an identity crisis; a crisis of belonging and othering. As Covid-19 stalks the Earth, threatening to, as viruses so often do, mutate the living daylights out of available vaccines and continue to disrupt everything, we are forced to pause and reflect on how rapidly things can change. In the last twelve months during the pandemic, so many things that we were always told were not possible, suddenly became possible. Amidst speculative visions of dystopian futures predicated on haphazard government responses that demonstrated a mixture of chaotic politics and politicised chaos, measures such as national lockdowns, social distancing and quarantining, fuelled cycles of fear, despair, social isolation and division, and great uncertainty.

Against that backdrop, many place-based movements such as XR and TN have taken a leading role in engaging in mutual support, providing basic needs and solidarity in their community and beyond. What lessons can activists learn from this experience to help the coalescence of environmental movements and movements for social justice in post pandemic activism?



Campbell, S.D., 2013. Sustainable development and social justice: Conflicting urgencies and the search for common ground in urban and regional planning. Michigan Journal of Sustainability, 1.

Centola, D., Becker, J., Brackbill, D. and Baronchelli, A., 2018. Experimental evidence for tipping points in social convention. Science, 360(6393), pp.1116-1119. Accessed via: https://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/20031/1/

Dobson, A., 1998. Justice and the environment: Conceptions of environmental sustainability and theories of distributive justice. Clarendon Press.

Harvey, D., 2014. Seventeen contradictions and the end of capitalism. Oxford University Press, USA. Accessed via: https://www.marefa.org/images/3/3f/Harvey14.pdf

Irvine, S. and Ponton, A., 1988. A Green Manifesto: Policies for a Green Future. Vintage.

Designing safe cities for women: The green space, gender, safety nexus in London

Reshma Kumar18 March 2021

Part of the HUD Urban Profiles blog series.

Designing safe cities for women: The green space, gender, safety nexus in London

The Healthy Cities movement from the World Health Organisation, established a focus for understanding the relationship between our environment and health, including the responsibility of local governments. A healthy, sustainable city is one that provides access to safe and inclusive public green space. This is highlighted, specifically for vulnerable populations, including women, under Sustainable Development Goal 11.

Data from the ONS shows that 44% of London residents live within a five-minute walking distance of a park. This is important as Londoners are less likely than residents living in the rest of the UK to have access to a private garden, and the Mayor of London has incorporated the promotion of green spaces in to cross-sectoral policy, as illustrated in the Health Inequalities Strategy.

However, poorly designed public space can increase the occurrence of harassment and threats. It is important that we pay attention to how the experience of green space can differ across gender, race, age, sexuality, disability and economic status. In London, women report, at twice the rate of men, that safety is a barrier to walking in public space.

What are the benefits of green space?


The positive effects of green space are well documented. Physical benefits include healthier immune systems, improved cardiovascular health, decreased exposure to noise and air pollution and promotion of physical activity. To add to this, the mental health benefits consist of promoting social interaction, lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and lifting mood.

More must be done to question how accessible these spaces really are, and who benefits from them. 59% of people surveyed in London found they had become more attune to the importance of green space for their wellbeing during lockdown. Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of green space, as well as concerns around women’s safety. The pandemic has not only affected access to services and livelihoods, but has also restricted women’s freedom of movement, and freedom from violence.

Lived experiences and safety perceptions

The intersection between space and gender is influenced by subtle, underlying power dynamics within society. Women are one of the groups who are underrepresented in green spaces and hence feel unsafe. Reflected across the UK, disaggregated data further shows that BAME women in particular are less likely to be visibly present in green spaces.

Despite green spaces being recognized as places of escape, the fear of violence can present as a barrier to accessing them. Our identity influences how we experience and shape space and place, including the levels of psychosocial and physical risk we face. 1 in 5 women in London go through sexual assault, with 40% recorded having taken place in public spaces.

In quieter spaces there is the appearance of having fewer ‘eyes on the street’, leading to the impression of weaker public safety. Throughout green space in London other factors accompanying this include poorly lit areas, badly constructed pathways and enclosed, less visible areas with blind spots.

How can we create safer green spaces?

Multiple tools have been used globally to encourage women friendly spaces and increase awareness of these issues. Recording this sensitive data whilst also paying attention to anonymity are essential to guaranteeing reporters’ safety and encouraging women to disclose this information to create safer, more accessible green spaces.

  • The UN Safe Cities and Public spaces programme works with local organisations and governments to eliminate violence and sexual harassment in public spaces; empowering women and enhancing their freedom of movement, access to services, cultural activities and in turn better health.
  • The ‘Hollaback!’ project is an app and website to anonymously document harassment that occurs in public spaces. It uses this data to drive dialogue and action with stakeholders such as Transport for London and the End Violence Against Women Coalition.
  • The ‘Women’s Safety Audit’ is a checklist incorporating the lived experiences of women, identifying safety concerns specific to a local area. A recommendations report is presented to planners to improve design features which may not have been recognised as causing concern.
  • Finally, lack of diversity and understanding of these spaces is reflected in industry. In the UK in 2018, 74% of architects were male. And within horticulture, only 15% of employees were female, with 10-20% from a BAME background. Working towards encouraging women into these industries can aid in bringing an intersectional perspective in to planning and design.


The urban environment is constantly adapting to the needs of its residents. But cities continue to be spaces of inequality, and it is necessary for our green environments to be inclusive spaces, if all groups within society are to gain from the positive effects of nature. Allowing the spaces for different voices and perspectives to be heard throughout policy and design processes will aid in producing safer, more equitable green spaces across London.



Braubach M., Egorov A., Mudu P., Wolf T., Ward Thompson C. and Martuzzi M. 2017. Effects of Urban Green Space on Environmental Health, Equity and Resilience. In: Kabisch N., Korn H., Stadler J., Bonn A. (eds) Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change Adaptation in Urban Areas. Theory and Practice of Urban Sustainability Transitions. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-56091-5_11

Centre for London. 2019. Fair Access: Towards A Transport System For Everyone, Chapter 3: Impacts On Different Groups. [online] Centreforlondon.org. Available at: <https://www.centreforlondon.org/reader/fair-access/chapter-3/#health-and-wellbeing> [Accessed 18 January 2021].

Collier, B.. 2020. The Race Factor In Access To Green Space. [online] Runnymedetrust.org. Available at: <https://www.runnymedetrust.org/blog/the-race-factor-in-access-to-green-space> [Accessed 5 December 2020].

CPRE London. 2020. Appreciation Of Green Space Grows During Lockdown. [online] CPRE London. Available at: <https://www.cprelondon.org.uk/news/cpre-poll-of-londoners-shows-appreciation-of-green-space-during-lockdown/> [Accessed 18 January 2021].

Glouberman, S., Gemar, M., Campsie, P., Miller, G., Armstrong, J., Newman, C., Siotis, A., and Groff, P. 2006. A framework for improving health in cities: a discussion paper. Journal of urban health: bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. Vol.83. Is.2. Pg.325–338. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-006-9034-9

Greater London Authority. 2018. The London Health Inequalities Strategy. [online] Greater London. Available at: <https://www.easy-read-online.co.uk/media/52136/health_inequalities_strategy_easy_read_lores_v4.pdf> [Accessed 17 January 2021].

Greenspace Scotland. 2020. COVID-19 And Ensuring Safe Cities And Safe Public Spaces For Women And Girls. [online] Available at: <https://www.greenspacescotland.org.uk/news/covid-19-and-ensuring-safe-cities-and-safe-public-spaces-for-women-and-girls> [Accessed 21 November 2020].

Hollaback London. Undated. About Us And Faqs. [online] Ldn.ihollaback.org. Available at: <https://ldn.ihollaback.org/about/> [Accessed 19 January 2021].

Kalms, N., 2019. To Design Safer Parks For Women, City Planners Must Listen To Their Stories. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/to-design-safer-parks-for-women-city-planners-must-listen-to-their-stories-98317> [Accessed 21 November 2020].

London Green Spaces Commission. 2020. LONDON GREEN SPACES COMMISSION REPORT. [online] Available at: <https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/4244_-_gla_-_london_green_spaces_commission_report_v7_0.pdf> [Accessed 18 January 2021].

Massey, D. 1994. Space, Place and Gender. In: Space, Place, and Gender. University of Minnesota Press. Pg.185-190. Retrieved November 9, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.cttttw2z.15

Naylor, C. and Buck, C. 2018. The role of cities in improving population health. International insights. [online]. Available at: < https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-06/Role_cities_population_health_Kings_Fund_June_2018_0.pdf> [Accessed 22 November 2020]

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O’Brien, L., Owen, R., Singh, J. and Lawrence, A. Undated. Social Dynamics Of London’s Trees, Woodlands And Green Spaces. [online] Forestry Commision England. Available at: <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/718113/100000FCGuidanceSocialDynamicsofTreesinLondon.pdf> [Accessed 18 January 2021].

ONS. 2020. One In Eight British Households Has No Garden – Office For National Statistics. [online] Ons.gov.uk. Available at: <https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/oneineightbritishhouseholdshasnogarden/2020-05-14> [Accessed 17 January 2021].

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Lockdown and inequalities in green spaces distribution: side effects on mental health, a French case study

Theophile altuzarra9 March 2021

Part of the HUD Urban Profiles blog series.

10 months ago, governments across Europe imposed movement restriction policies, often resulting in lockdown measures, in order to contain the spread of Covid-19. In addition to curfew periods, France has witnessed 104 days of strict lockdown measures, in two periods, and is now expecting a highly probable third one.

These measures, have nevertheless resulted in side effects, degradation of well-being and mental health of inhabitants, particularly among the most vulnerable groups. With a few months’ hindsight, we are now able to better understand the underlying drivers of the increasing depression symptoms, stress and anxiety among the population resulting from the anti-Covid measures, with a growing body of studies and evidence. One of the main reason for the deterioration of mental health under lockdown measures is the lack of access to nature and green areas for urban dwellers.

Barbed wire, Creac’h Gwen Park, 08/10/2020, Quimper, France.
Photo: personal realisation.

I. Green-and-blue areas and mental health

The positive impact of natural areas, urban parks and forests, on mental health is now well known. These areas are contributing to the reduction of stress for urban dwellers, as well as the reduction of depression symptoms. Moreover, urban parks are places of socialisation, particularly for the youth, providing them areas for physical activities and social practices, positively contributing to their well-being.

II. Lockdown highlighting the inequalities

During lockdown, natural areas became really important for residents. But this access was hindered in some countries, like France where lockdowns were strict. During the first French lockdown, the access to seashore, beaches, forests and even urban parks and other green spaces was forbidden, with important consequences on mental health. For the second lockdown, if natural and green spaces were theoretically opened, population movement was restricted to a strict radius of 1 kilometer from residence.

Creac’h Gwen Park, empty during lockdown, 08/10/2020, Quimper, France.
Photo: personal realisation.

This 1km radius restriction, neutral in appearance, was in fact reinforcing preexisting inequalities, particularly regarding access to natural areas in urban environments. More than just access to blue and green spaces, the access to quality spaces is important. In the Paris Metropolitan Area, nature is unequally distributed among the population, targeting particularly the poorest neighbourhoods. The restrictions have been added to inequalities in urban park distribution, where priority neighborhoods in France, with higher population density and poor housing conditions, usually have less access to quality green spaces than other neighbourhoods.

Under normal circumstances, home is considered as a restorative space. But during lockdown, home becomes the only place for living, working, leisure. As boundaries between personal and professional spaces are fading, the indoor area is no longer this restorative place it used to be. Having access to green areas can compensate for this loss of restoration. And being deprived of these areas, particularly in the most deprived neighbourhoods where poor housing conditions and overcrowding are exacerbated, is a second burden in pandemic times.

III. Consequences on mental health

By preventing most urban dwellers from natural areas, lockdown restrictions are resulting in a degradation of mental health. Depression symptoms are rising, particularly among those who don’t have access to nature, and even people who don’t have views on natural elements from their windows. There is therefore a direct correlation between mental health and natural elements, and this connection is exacerbated in difficult, stressful times such as pandemic and lockdowns, creating a gap in mental health between people living in overcrowded, deprived, with poor housing, and no access to blue and green spaces, and people living in more favourable conditions.

Correlation between poverty and lack of access to green areas
in Marseille, one of the most unequal cities in France.
Source: Hugo Botton in Accès aux espaces verts : des
inégalités révélées par la Covid-19.


Green areas are known for their positive outcomes, and psychological restorative impact, particularly needed under stressful conditions such as a pandemic or the restrictions resulting from the pandemic. Preventing some part of the population to have access to it, by implementing an arbitrary 1km restriction is the same as depriving them from opportunities to cope with the situation, in a very unequal way, particularly because this part of the population is composed of vulnerable groups.

IV. And now?

Therefore, as France is now expecting to know a third lockdown, which is just a matter of weeks, it seems urgent to think what kind of city do we want to build, regarding normal time, lockdowns period, and even future pandemics. One of the most important issues is to deal with the ‘’side-effects’’ of the containment measures, on psychiatric and mental health level, to deal with the increasing depression cases, particularly among the youth.

Photo: Pierre Faure, Fondation Abbé Pierre

One of the solutions for future policies can be to guarantee for all citizens an equitable access to quality blue and green areas more spread in the city, regarding the rights to nature. For example, policy measures regarding the access to nature for future urban planning can provide an access to a close urban park for new housing units built. Furthermore, new houses or collective accommodation buildings can be designed in a way that each resident can have at least an access to a balcony, a terrace or a view on natural elements.

Finally, regarding the more than likely third French lockdown, it seems urgent to abolish the 1km restriction, or at least adapt it to mitigate the too important negative outcomes.

What specific processes produce and reproduce epistemic injustices? What strategies to co-produce actionable knowledge are most fruitful to challenge them?

Edoardo Repetto24 July 2020

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

“From this moment despair ends and tactics begin” – probably Banksy
Picture by Andrew Davidson at English Wikipedia licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

That moment in which you realize you are a racist, a patriarchist, maybe a classist, a homophobe, probably an ableist or simply a privileged detached person, at that moment you clash with epistemic injustices. Before defining what epistemic injustices are, it is important to reflect on the role of knowledge. Consider what we do with knowledge and rethink the original ethic ascribed to it thus reaching its practical consequences. First, knowledge as information is power[1], and power means opportunity. Closing the syllogism, knowledge is an opportunity.

Secondly, what you do with knowledge depends on what it is. Is knowledge a monolithic block or an open box? In the case of rigorous sciences, there is an important need to rely on the pillars raised before. However, this need has shaped patterns of vertical education that even among the social sciences reproduce a passive understanding of knowledge as “imperial gallons of facts poured into them (the little vessels of Thomas Gradgrind) until they were full to the brim”[2].

The content of the block is likely to be unquestionable and the reproduction of the system is assured. On the opposite open box side, knowledge production involves a complex process formed by multiple actors, variables and contexts influenced by bias, interests and scopes.

Third, applying ethic to the previously mentioned opportunity, one moves towards a new variation of power frequently understood as responsibility. Here is the shift from theory to practice. When a study regards the life of another, the theoretical approaches must be redefined under a situational, positioned and relational[3] awareness of the multiple expectations and needs in play.


Production humanum est, reproduction autem diabolicum

From an ethic perspective, the previous static knowledge possession switches to knowledge- making. Fricker’s epistemic injustice is built upon the concepts of testimonial injustice, hermeneutical injustice and hermeneutical marginalization[4]. In a nutshell, substantial social difficulties emerge from the deficit of intelligibility. In other words, the ability to communicate and understand forms of marginalization affecting someone else’s life. When marginalized social groups that “under-contribute to the common pool of concepts and social meanings”[5], feel direct or indirect frustration related to the personal or external communication of social experiences, hermeneutical injustices occur.

The problem is not the production of injustices per se, but its reproduction. The myth of modernity, against which the planet and humanity as a whole are clashing, has to be sustained by dominant social groups to support the socio-environmental unsustainable premises underpinning it. Consequently, the dominant model visions periodically change according to the requirements of different historical periods. Once the trajectory is determined in linear often hierarchical rigid systems, the identification of different and diverse needs has to face the communicative and physical violence of marginalization.


Normalization of the absurd

Normalizing is the first process of epistemic injustices reproduction such as diversified social treatments, economic conditions and different access to basic services and infrastructures. From local to global, reasons of force majeure postpone the rights’ vindication, impose different priorities to people’s agenda, press the common narrative to the acceptance of the status quo. For instance, in these days, the Black Lives Matter movement is shedding light on the systemic inequalities shaping modern society. And such movements are only the tip of the iceberg[6].

With different grades of visibility and levels of exposure, current society has normalized the marginalization and the consequential direct/indirect deprivations harming social groups from all geographical, cultural, sexual, economic, and physical perspectives. In this scenario, detachment from “the other” directly reproduces systemic injustices often based on private interests lacking long-lasting socio-environmental visions. The COVID-19 crisis shows how multinationals offering distancing services – Amazon, Microsoft, Zoom etc – are growing[7] at the socioeconomic expenses of vulnerable groups, local economies, taxpayers, and physical social services such as healthcare and education.


 Hyper connected, nano collective

After normalization comes detachment, the vision of the other as a far-from-us problem thus less manageable or irrelevant. The hyper-connectivity of our time has not been followed by hyper- collectivity and the constant passive acceptance of unjust practices deflect attention from the understanding that, in the highly uncertain present, normal is over[8].

Coming back to knowledge-making and the shift to action, co-production is strategically unavoidable in the making of cities. While in the so-called Global North cities are more likely to appear as given entities, in the Global South dwellers daily reclaim their spaces through concrete do-it-yourself building practices. Many are the cases of informal organization and bottom-up action showing the success of such practice both in terms of housing and socio-political recognition. The built environment daily produces and reproduces epistemic injustices and vice-versa is capable of interrupting such reproduction.


Collective city making is future shaping

Fruitful processes altering perceptions and behaviors are part and parcel of the direct democracy experiences of city-making. Do-it-yourself urbanism, although frequently ascribed to northern practices based on the wrong premises of state-failure and the citizens’ capacity to act, is everyday matter in global informal settlements. Through the collectivization and organization of such practices, in a local to global understanding involving both Global North and Global South realities, urban trajectories can move from external master plans towards locally designed spaces meeting the needs of the population.

The urban and environmental justice lenses are based on the principles of participation, recognition, and distribution[9]. To assure inclusivity and tackle epistemic injustices both civil society and local governments must enhance these processes towards horizontal and multifaceted participation. Forms of late vertical consultation must be avoided in favor of participatory planning and understanding. Recognition of diverse actors from both bottom-up and top-down processes empower marginalized groups and enhance civil action. Planning for the known, the average, for the visible, for the data majority, reproduces marginalization and unequal access to opportunities. Distribution is the new imperative to tackle present challenges towards cities made by and for the people.

To conclude, it is not necessary to be a racist, patriarchist, classist, homophobic, ableist or privileged detached person to reproduce epistemic injustices. Let’s challenge normalization and social detachment acting for a meaningful and inclusive participation of the ‘invisibilised’. A new future has to come.

[1] Written in the wall of the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC) office.

[2] Dickens, C. (1854). Hard Times. 1969 ed. Penguin Books, p.48.

[3] Allen, A. (2020). Decolonising Urban Knowledge And Research Ethics. Lecture n.14 – 7th of February.

[4] Fricker (2007) in Fricker, M. and Jenkins, K. (2017). Epistemic Injustice, Ignorance, and Trans Experiences. Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, p.1.

[5] Fricker, M. and Jenkins, K., 2017. Epistemic Injustice, Ignorance, and Trans Experiences. Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, p.1.

[6] Mestre, A. and Couvelaire, L. (2020). «Ça nous dépasse et c’est ce qu’on veut »: comment le comité Adama a réussi une mobilisation surprise contre les violences policières. Le Monde.

[7] Collins, C. (2020). Let’s stop pretending billionaires are in the same boat as us during this pandemic. The Guardian.

[8] Normal is over 1.1. (2019). [film] Directed by R. Scheltema. Netherlands.

[9] Lambert, R. (2019). Resilience And Justice: Tensions And Synergies. Lecture n.3 – 15th of October

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

Alessio Koliulis30 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.

Naji P Makarem5 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


Chile: Protect the campamentos!

Camillo Boano11 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.”