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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.”

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

Haim Yacobi21 April 2020

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

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is already strong evidence that isolation, following the COVID-19 outbreak, exposed women and children to domestic violence across China, the UK and the USA as well as in other countries all over the world. Looking through these lenses, the current situation in Gaza is alarming since there already exists a high rate of (a growing) gender-based violence. In 2016 more than 148,000 women were subjected to psychological and physical abuse. Studies show a link between violence against women and the worsening living conditions.

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

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

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

Ignacia Ossul Vermehren26 February 2020

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

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

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


Photography: Making research more accessible

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

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

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


rATA survey: Measuring gaps and tracking progress

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

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

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


Mainstreaming disability in urban research: The role of grassroots organizations

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


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

How Research Creates More Inclusive Spaces: Bar Elias, Lebanon

h.baumann12 November 2019

Co-authored by Joana Dabaj

Originally published by UCL Institute for Global Prosperity

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

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

A Town Transformed

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

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

Participatory Planning

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

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

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


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

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

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

(c) CatalyticAction – shade from recycled materials


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

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

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

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

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

(c) CatalyticAction – rehabilitated green space

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

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

(c) CatalyticAction – mural painting

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

Next Steps

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

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

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

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

(c) CatalyticAction – new shaded seating area with mosaic

Further Reading:

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

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

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

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

What is Citizen Science? London Prosperity Board

Launching a Citizen-Led Prosperity Index, Bartlett 100

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

Taste of Cement

uclesen16 August 2019

In Spring 2019, I received three invitations to participate in or lead workshops about urban planning and conflict. One was a staff workshop, another was a student-led workshop, and the final email was about workshop I had proposed to run as part of the Royal Geographical Society’s International Conference. Academics and practitioners have been discussing planning in the context of conflict and ‘post-conflict’ states for decades, but it feels as though there is a lot more to say, figure out, and do, in the urban planning discipline when it comes to conflict, violence, and contestation.

I’ve been working in/on Lebanon since 2016: a country which is typically labelled ‘post-conflict’ by journalists and academics. But conflict is not consigned to Lebanon’s history. The Lebanese Civil War might have ended in 1990, but, as the label suggests, conflict is not irrelevant. Lebanon, according to those who use the label, exists in an in-between time: shaped and haunted by its past, whilst trying to look forward, striving to locate itself beyond the ‘post-’.

Such efforts do not happen in a vacuum. Whilst planners, architects, policy-makers and other residents might focus their energies on rebuilding their cities and putting conflict behind them, there is always something which complicates, or disrupts, a smooth transition out of conflict and into peace. Art is very good at reminding us of that which exceeds our intentions and actions. It points to the margins of our view, signals the existence of an uncomfortable truth, and asks us to take notice.

Ziad Kalthoum’s film, Taste of Cement, was launched in 2017, six years after the outbreak of war in Syria. The Development Planning Unit, the Institute for Global Prosperity and the RELIEF Centre hosted a screening of Kalthoum’s film in June, as a continuation of the conversations many of us had been having about planning in times of conflict. The screening was followed with a Q&A with the director, who answered questions from his home in Berlin (he is no longer allowed into Lebanon following the release of Taste of Cement).

In his film, Kalthoum follows a group of construction workers from Syria as they go about their daily lives building a high-rise block in Beirut. Trapped in a circadian rhythm that seems particular to the mundane, repetitive work on the high-rise building, the construction workers rise, march solemnly through the basement floor and into the whirring lifts, up and up into the Beiruti skies. They spend a day drilling, mixing and fitting, before they descend into the basement of the building, where they sleep.

And yet, their day is punctuated by moments of intensity. Once they’ve got back into their makeshift rooms, they meticulously search news websites and local updates on their phones and on the TV screens. Kalthoum does not provide his audience with any explanation of what this means, but we can imagine this is the painstaking filtering of images and text for news about home towns, neighbours and family members.

The film is reminiscent of a song. There’s the lulling effect of a steady rhythm (the circadian rhythms of daily life on the construction site) and the brief crescendos which arrest our attention (the footage from tanks as they crunch their way through debris of Syrian towns and cities) before a plunge into quiet respite (underwater scenes of wartime debris off the Lebanese coastline). The song envelops both Syria and Lebanon, periods of destruction and construction, linking places and times in visual and aural motifs. We are left with a sense of inevitability, of being trapped in a cycle. The construction workers don’t explain how it feels to live this life. Kalthoum gets us to feel it, before we’ve even thought it.

By dwelling on the movements of migrant workers in Lebanon, Kalthoum signals the reliance of reconstruction efforts on continued conflict in Syria. By gaining access to the building site, Kalthoum shows us that which threatens our sense of linear progress out of wartime and into peacetime.

Of course, this relationship is not inevitable. People, corporations and governments stand to gain from it, and do what they can to hide the uncomfortable truth from publics. However, these characters are conspicuously absent from Kalthoum’s film. At least, they are absent in human form. But inequality is felt in the atmosphere: the expansive view of the city’s coastline from the top floor, the bright lights from digital billboards which illuminate the night, gesture towards another way of life that is completely inaccessible to the migrant workers who are not allowed outside after 7pm. In the Q&A, Kalthoum dwelt on the powerful actors implementing these rules and facilitating the continued inequalities which trap people. Kalthoum himself had to navigate them: he only gained access to the building by pretending to be making a positive film about the developer’s ‘beautiful building’, having been refused access to other sites several times.

However, something does tie these people – migrant workers, elite purchasers, developers, residents of Syria and military men – together. Cement is the material that intimately connects lives across the divides, international and social. In Kalthoum’s film, cement is multifaceted. It is hard and liquid, immobile and unfixed. This, I believe, is where the hope is supposed to lie. In his focus on cement, Kalthoum is saying there is something that is not inevitable about the cycle that traps places and people. In cement, there is chance, change and choice. And that is what we, as planners, architects, residents of cities, need to remember. Film, as a critical art form, leads the way for thinking about and simultaneously outside of the frameworks that seem to define places as contested, in conflict, or emerging out of war.


With thanks to the Development Planning Unit at UCL and the RELIEF Centre for funding the screening rights to Taste of Cement. Taste of Cement was screened as part of the DPU’s Urban Transformations [https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/development/research/urban-transformations] and State & Market [https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/development/research/state-and-market-development-actors-and-roles] research clusters’ initiatives, and the RELIEF Centre’s film series.

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

ucfupas14 January 2019

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

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.


In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s main economic and administrative centre, high population densities, the accumulation of informal lower-income residents, lack of access to clean water and poor sanitary conditions have been associated with a range of water and sanitation-related diseases. Cholera outbreaks are a frequent occurrence during the rainy season and some settlements in the city are among the worst affected in the country. In this context, I argue that urban water poverty needs to be tackled using a proactive rather than reactive approach at the local level to yield long-lasting health benefits.

Main access road in an informal settlement in Dar es Salaam after an episode of heavy rainfall (Photo © P. Hofmann, 2015)


Tackling urban water poverty and community health promotion

Internationally, the link between urban water poverty – i.e. inadequate access to water supply and sanitation facilities, and public health – is widely recognised whereby improvements in accessing water and sanitation are deemed crucial in tackling a diverse range of diseases and improving the lives of the poor.

Such thinking calls for integrated and consistent approaches, which, as emphasised by a UNICEF WASH specialist in Tanzania are evidently lacking in most policy-driven practices on the ground.

“Hygiene and sanitation awareness, behaviour change, communication and empowerment are maybe done in urban areas but erratically, not systematically. When the rains are coming and there is threat of cholera etc. then you will find people will announce:  ‘food vendors cover properly your food and make sure it is hot and whatever, please clean your surroundings, no solid waste should be seen and liquid waste, please drain it out completely’ etc. […] or there is a cholera outbreak in a certain locality in Dar es Salaam and it is feared that it might spread, so that happens but on a regular basis there is not a lot done” (quote from UNICEF WASH specialist).

During the recent cholera outbreak in 2015 government spending increased significantly to treat the affected population. While curative measures are vital, efforts to improve water supply and sanitation constitute essential steps towards future outbreaks. Similarly, some municipalities in Dar es Salaam have put continuous support into household fumigation programmes to impede the spread of malaria but fall short of investing in preventative measures to keep people healthy – i.e. reduce mosquito breeding sites through the provision of safe drinking water, improved sanitation and hygiene. Currently, the onus is predominantly on residents themselves to be pre-emptive in their everyday practices with regards to potential health implications but not everybody is equally aware or shares the same ability to act. In the absence of sufficient government action, those who can have invested in better access to water, improved sanitation facilities and even flood defences.

Drainage channel built by two neighbouring households to divert water from the Msimbazi river, which carries wastewater from nearby wastewater stabilisation ponds (Photo © P. Hofmann, 2015)


“In 2011 there was flooding and we lost our livestock and we had to start afresh. What actually happened is there has been increased silt in the Msimbazi river. At the same time, there is wastewater that comes from the ponds and where these meet, that impact pushes the water towards our land. […] we constructed this drainage channel jointly with my neighbour after the flooding to try and divert the water from coming in” (quote from a resident in an informal settlement in Dar es Salaam).

The need for a proactive, decentralised approach

Ward health officers are officially tasked with preventing water-related diseases and promoting environmental health in their jurisdiction through regular water quality tests at local water supply schemes and inspections of businesses and households with no equivalent paid staff at sub-ward level. However, with limited resources at ward level much of the action regarding water supply, sanitation and environmental health depends on voluntary efforts in the communities by residents themselves and facilitated through sub-ward committees, water committees and community representatives. Many health officers at the ward level understand the importance of sanitation, drainage and safely-managed water supply but struggle to influence the agenda at higher levels of government. The Decentralisation by Devolution Policy introduced in the 1990s transferred responsibilities to local government for service improvements but without fiscal decentralisation or devolution of decision-making power. Decentralisation should pave the way for bottom-up participatory planning processes but municipalities in Dar es Salaam focus on central government priorities while continuing to disregard lower levels of government and their efforts to address local challenges. Decentralised decision-making structures are therefore not a guarantee for more democratic processes.

The importance of engaging urban poor communities

To lower the burden of water and sanitation-related diseases, engagement of communities with the authorities (utility and municipal government) is crucial but often limited and slow. Until recently, one of Dar es Salaam’s municipalities prohibited low-income communities living near wastewater stabilisation ponds to use them for safe sewage disposal. A lengthy period of continuous interaction between the local community, the municipality and the utility, facilitated by a local NGO, eventually led to a pilot initiative that connects household toilets to the nearby ponds using simplified technology. This has reduced the number of pits being informally emptied during the rainy season and led to a safer and healthier environment for residents.

Inspection chambers of the simplified sewerage pilot in an informal settlement of Dar es Salaam (Photo © P. Hofmann, 2015)

The utility seems keen to replicate the scheme elsewhere in the city, which shows potential that policy-driven practices can be transformed, scaled up and institutionalised in ways that are more integrated and sensitive towards the needs of the urban poor if sufficient consideration is given to the scope for scaling up and sharing the benefits more equally within a settlement.


Pascale is a Lecturer at the Development Planning Unit, UCL, where she leads the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development Programme. Her current research is particularly concerned with the dialectics of urban water poverty, examining different policy-driven and everyday practices and their impact on everyday trajectories of the urban water poor. She is interested in generating knowledge towards developing feasible pathways out of urban water poverty.

The Better to Break and Bleed with: On Research, Violence, and Trauma

Ariana Markowitz19 December 2018

NB: This post contains graphic content.

In March 2018, I interviewed a Salvadoran artist who lives in the United States about his work on violence. As we discussed a project, he recounted seeing the body of a teenage girl that had been disinterred, raped, and left on the ground of the cemetery where she had been buried the previous day. “I remember the colour of her dress, the texture of the fluids on her body,” he told me. There was an anguished pause. “I’ve only told my partner, a friend, and you. It’s been years and I still see her.”

El Salvador is one of the most violent countries on earth, so I knew going in that I would be speaking with people who have experienced trauma about that trauma. Unlike a mental health professional or a faith leader, however, I entered these conversations for information, not to directly support recovery and healing. Fearful that my questions could cause harm, I sought guidance from friends who work with asylum seekers and survivors of sexual assault. Despite that preparation, I still struggled to respond to the artist in the moment, shunting aside my own reactions to ensure that he felt heard and that our conversation remained centred on him. Afterwards, overwhelmed with disgust and unease, I told myself that what the artist described had to be an aberration—an exceptionally violent incident, even in an exceptionally violent place.

But then, in the following weeks, I heard versions of the same story about different bodies in different places from different people. I came to understand that these stories were more about tactics than necrophilia: Salvadoran gangs use the rape of a corpse to taunt or exact revenge upon the family and community of the victim, tainting and deforming their grief and ratcheting up the ongoing conflicts amongst the gangs, and between the gangs and the Salvadoran state. A play I saw in San Salvador depicted this tactic, though I failed to recognize it for what it was, assuming the victim was drugged or unconscious. Now, months later, I was realizing that the rest of the audience, for whom this violence was part of their reality, did not make the same mistake.

All of this heightened my awareness of and sensibility to violence, and the more time I spent in the field, the more the stories and images of violence piled up. I had nightmares that turned into sleepless nights, and despite being exhausted I remained unable to rest. I took impulsive decisions to regain some agency amidst circumstances that felt beyond my control. Normally an extrovert, I often preferred to be alone, and apart from an occasional thrill of warmth or wonder, the luster of the world around me faded.

My agitation pursued me back to London where I took two months off. Once I tried to watch a film to distract myself, but the film’s negative foreshadowing unsettled me and I had an agonizing night struggling to keep my mounting panic at bay. When I got my hair cut, the stylist commented that my hair had grown during the months I was away and asked how my trip went. Without meaning or wanting to, a torrent of horrific stories streamed out of me. I watched people’s eyes widen behind me in the mirror.

Other academics and practitioners who work on similar topics reassure me that all of this is par for the course. I have heard about nightmares, insomnia, compulsive exercise, benders of all kinds, addiction, and the straining and splitting of relationships with friends, relatives, and lovers. Some people abandoned researching violence altogether, with one explaining simply that, “The work damaged my spirit.”

Despite the prevalence of trauma in the field, however, I received little formal guidance related to research challenges in violent contexts prior to beginning my fieldwork. Throughout the world, university ethics protocols for all disciplines draw primarily from biomedical research that prioritizes physical over mental harm and research participants over the researcher. To that effect, I was asked to consider earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, mosquito-borne illnesses, crime, and more, and I wrote thousands of words about them in my risk assessment because they were valid concerns that I needed to take into account. I also read Salvadoran legislation on data protection, determined that the GDPR was more robust, and spelled out the measures I would take to protect my research participants’ personal information, per GDPR requirements. I sought advice from friends on how to talk about trauma because I identified it as a crucial skillset that I needed and lacked, not because an ethics committee alerted me to my potential for inflicting mental or emotional harm on my participants.

Social science methodology literature likewise comes up short in this regard. Most often, texts discussing research about violence neglect to mention the researcher at all, treating us as just the instruments for doing research. More reflexive pieces tend to focus on four topics: the ethics of working with victims and victimizers, difficulties accessing people and places, the absence or unreliability of data, and threats to researchers’ physical health and safety. As with the concerns above, these topics pose real challenges to the successful undertaking of fieldwork and merit serious debate and consideration.

But none of that illuminated any path that I could see towards feeling whole again, returning to the field, and finishing my work. Eventually, finally, I came across work that addressed the gaps. The scholars who produce it, most of whom are anthropologists, contend that shame around mental health in general, and concerns about bias and subjectivity in academia in particular, silence our ability to engage with what we see, hear, do, and feel as we gather information. More progressive criticism faults researchers for focusing on ourselves while the people we study are the ones who are actually suffering. Plus, unlike the privileged researcher, our participants may have few avenues to alter their circumstances.

Humility, perspective, prudence, and grit are essential in this type of work, but they do not change the fact that researching violence implies experiencing it. Breaking the silence around researcher trauma, rather than being unscientific or self-indulgent, permits clarity in the theories, concepts, and methods we develop to make sense of violence as a social phenomenon.

In January I am organizing a workshop at UCL called “Fortify and Heal: Researching Sensitive Topics and Violent Places” that will be the starting point for a collective process of seeking and finding guidance and support. The workshop will bring together students and staff for sessions on defining and managing trauma, supervising sensitive and violent research, and recalibrating risk and ethics protocols. Many researchers lament the external barriers to researching violence—earlier this year a charity rejected my funding application because “the successful candidates are carrying out less risky fieldwork”—so this is an opportunity to explore our individual and collective needs and how our institutions’ can comply with their duty to care such that more people, not fewer, feel able to research violence. Outside scholars will facilitate each session so that our ideas and debates reverberate around other campuses.

Jeff Hearn, who studies men and masculinities, writes about finding a paradoxical positiveness in violence from the possibility of change to non-violence. Engaging with our trauma—bracing ourselves, finding comfort, rejuvenating each other—is a first step.

“Fortify and Heal” will take place at UCL on Tuesday 8 and Wednesday 9 January 2019 from 14:00 to 17:00 each day. For more information or to attend any or all sessions, please contact Ariana at ariana.markowitz.15@ucl.ac.uk by Sunday 6 January 2019.

Ariana is a PhD student at DPU researching how fear and trauma manifest and become defining parts of urban landscapes. Taking cues from this damage, especially in marginalized communities, she looks for alternative ways of repairing frayed social fabric and healing.