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Social Networks and Street Changes: A Lagosian Housing Story

Yimika Koya29 June 2022

Introduction

This housing story follows the journey of Mum and Dad, who also happen to be my parents. Characteristically, Mum is Fire while Dad is Ice, but their housing visions and strategies ultimately align in response to two major themes. Through conversations with both characters supported by secondary sources, this essay illuminates the notion of social networks for housing and their socio-economic advantage (or lack thereof) to individuals. Secondly, this essay explores residential land-use conversion, where for specific reasons, residents are displaced because of informal and gradual residential to commercial land-use changes.

 

Starting in the backhouse

Mum and Dad began their housing story at 30 Aramide Street, Ikeja, Lagos. Dad had lived in the compound since 1990 after he migrated from the nearby city of Ibadan. Mum had also relocated to Lagos in 1986 but only joined Dad in 30 Aramide after their wedding in 1994. The couple were part of the massive immigration into Lagos, contributing to the rapid population growth from 350,000 in 1950 to 25,615,703 today (MEPB, 2019).

30 Aramide belonged to Dad’s father, Papa. Papa bought the three-bedroom detached house on a 1247 sqm plot of land in 1963 from the Western Nigerian Housing Corporation (WNHC), a public organisation mandated with the “development, construction and management of housing estates” (Onibokun, 1971) for the Western Region of Nigeria. The establishment of the First Republic of Nigeria in 1963 sub-divided the federal government into four semi-autonomous regions, rendering WNHC a federal entity. On the promise of a new country, WNHC ambitiously established the Ikeja Industrial Estate “consist[ing] of 500 acres developed for industrial establishments and ­­300 acres for housing” (Abiodun, 1976, p.343). Aramide Street was intended to accommodate higher-income managerial staff facilitating the Estate establishment. While WNHC hoped to accommodate lower-income workers in apartment blocks (ibid.) and offer more accessible payment plans, they did not urgently address this agenda. Instead, by the Corporation’s dissolution in 1966 (after the Republic’s first coup), only 505 homes[1] were built and all were sold for GBP1000 to GBP4000 to “top government and quasi-government officials, professionals, big businessmen, and high-ranking politicians” (Stren, 1972, p.504 cited Ogunpola 1969, p. 3). With friends in high places and USD4200 to spare, Papa secured freehold ownership of 30 Aramide.

Figure 1.No photos of homes on Aramide Street were found however this image illustrates a similar high income house model in Bodija estate by WNHC.Photo from Nigeria Nostalgia Project

Papa initially leased 30 Aramide to Chinese expatriate families. In 1973, however, Papa’s seventh child moved into the main house, while the ninth child moved into a newly built structure behind the main house called the backhouse… all at no cost. The backhouse was a small sand-crete one-bedroom bungalow with an open-air kitchen. In 1990, the seventh child moved into his own home, the ninth child relocated to the main house, and Dad (the eleventh child) moved into the backhouse. By 1973, seeking rental income on 30 Aramide was challenging. Nigeria was recovering from civil war, and the Western Region had been further divided into Lagos State and Western State. With such political instability, the country was not in a position to focus on industrial development. Besides, Papa was more than happy not to receive any financial income from 30 Aramide. As far as he was concerned, providing a soft landing for his young adult children in Lagos’s harsh environment was profit enough.

Naturally, the children were delighted to accept Papa’s benevolence because living in 30 Aramide was an opportunity they could not pass. Accommodation costs in Lagos have always been high. In fact, high rents in Lagos contributed to the national general strikes in 1964, and despite increases in minimum wages, rent continued to rise disproportionately (Stern,1972, p.503). In particular, Mum and Dad moved to Lagos at the peak of crisis caused by an economic emergency imposed by the Babangida military regime in 1985, followed by International Monetary Fund Structural Adjustments programmes in 1986. The naira had devalued from NGN0.77/USD in 1984 to NGN7.39/USD in 1990 (Iyatse, 2021). A state-imposed forex embargo encouraged a booming parallel market that demanded NGN10.70/USD (ibid.). In such conditions, how did people without generous families cope? This excerpt by Koenigsberger (1970, p.394) gives a clue: “Available accommodation became overcrowded, clandestine settlements sprang up on the outskirts of the big cities and squatters occupied open grounds near the city centres”.

Without Papa’s generosity, Mum and Dad could not afford to live in such a well-connected location. Fair enough, it was not on the Island.[2] Still, it was close enough to essential transport routes and the Lagos State Government Secretariat. Additionally, if Mum contributed rent towards her matrimonial home, she would not have been able to maintain her two-bedroom rented apartment for twelve years, where all her younger siblings lived at some point… free of charge. Papa and Mum recognised the value of oh-so-common rent-free family houses: Assets that mitigate against the social costs of poverty, particularly in contexts that lack well-developed social security systems such as Lagos (paraphrased from Korboe, 1992).

 

Fixing the backhouse

For a bachelor like Dad, the backhouse had been perfectly adequate. The ninth child had made modifications to include a living room and a dining room; The space satisfied necessary storage, rest, and wash functions. However, Mum had been accustomed to a different standard of living and things would have to change. Some of the modifications were necessary. For instance, the cooking-gas tank residing inside the small kitchen was rightly relocated outdoors. Mum and Dad had just begun building their businesses, and almost all discretionary income was reinvested in their respective ventures. Therefore, modifications were undertaken incrementally and within a tight budget, probably formulated by the ever-frugal Dad. In this case, incremental should not be mistaken for continual. Improvements were few and far between because the couple was willing to wait until they had saved enough money to afford the quality of construction they desired. Till today, Mum would say, “I don’t manage,” and the backhouse was structurally sufficient that they never had to.

Having avoided the cost of residential rent, the couple later indulged in less necessary improvements. Mum fondly recalls the most luxurious modification that literally transformed the couple’s life. In 1998, they converted a large closet into an en-suite bathroom fitted with white tiles and green sanitary wares to ease the burdens of caring for their first-born child (me). Green for no other reason than the joy it sparked in Mum. While they were at it, they repainted all the furniture in the main bedroom a glossy bright green to match the new bathroom. The backhouse served many vital functions for the young family. After all, Mum’s social stationery printing press started in its dining room. However, it was only a matter of time before they maxed out on modification value potential and outgrew their first home.

 

Moving to the main house

Eventually, Mum and Dad moved from the backhouse to the main house under exceptional circumstances. One would have expected the ninth child to leave the main house soon, Dad would move in, and the twelfth child would replace him in the backhouse. But when Papa died in 1999, he willed 30 Aramide to Dad. Papa had freehold ownership of 30 Aramide before the 1978 Land Use Act of Nigeria, “vest[ed] all Land compromised in the territory of each State (except land vested in the Federal government or its agencies) solely in the Governor of the State” (Federation of Nigeria, 1990). After the Land Use Act was ratified, his freehold ownership was replaced with 100-year leasehold ownership signed by the Lagos State Governor. Dad inherited the leasehold with 79 years left on the dial. Why Papa would will this valuable asset to his eleventh child in the backhouse instead of the ninth child in the main house, no one would say. Either way, Mum and Dad relocated to the main house, while the ninth child returned to the backhouse, thus breaking the established tenure arrangement in the family house. Indeed, the couple greatly appreciated the unfortunately circumstanced opportunity. Not only had they outgrown the backhouse, but the main house came with authoritative perks over the entire compound. For instance, they now controlled the operations of the electricity generator, essentially dictating the power supply on behalf of all residents in 30 Aramide – a fantastic privilege considering the incessant power outages that still plague Nigeria.

In 1999, the country had just ended a brutal military dictatorship and turned a new leaf as the Fourth Republic. The economy was on the up; Mum and Dad could have afforded to leave 30 Aramide and relocate to the Island where they would be closer to friends, and Dad could avoid the painful commute to his law firm. Instead, they decided to remain in Ikeja for the following reasons. Firstly, Mum had relocated her printing press to the boys’ quarters of 21 Aramide and wanted to stay within walking distance. Secondly, the couple had already been working the angles to secure a position for their first child in one of the city’s best schools nearby. Lastly, the Island notoriously flooded during the rainy season as the drainage infrastructure for the water-logged landscape was woefully inadequate. Paying rent on a home that flooded annually did not seem like good value for money. Remaining on the Mainland – on solid ground – did.

 

Changes on Aramide street

Unfortunately, the couple’s tenure in 30 Aramide would not last long owing to land-use changes on Aramide Street. In the 1970s, there had been about 60 households. Then came a Chinese restaurant, replacing a residential unit, followed by a furniture store and a logistics centre. The arrival of a mini-mall cemented the fate of the street as commercial. By 2001, only six households remained on Aramide Street. Some new businesses did little to amend the architecture of the homes, while others erected purpose-built offices. Observing the commercial land-use demands in Ikeja, the Lagos State government reactively demarcated some WNHC-zoned residential areas as commercial in the Ikeja Land Use Map of 1982[3] (Oduwaye and Enisan, 2011). Aramide Street is sure to have been rezoned. According to Mum, the transformation on Aramide Street was inevitable. The road was a major thoroughfare linking Alausa, Allen Avenue and Oba Akran Avenue, all major institutional/industrial areas. On the day of the Ikeja Cantonment Bomb Blast,[4] she recalls watching tens of thousands of people flood her street on foot, walking past her gate and observing her in her home. It was then that, with disdain, she realised she lived on the main road.

The tension between the desire for privacy and the reality of exposure was a historical theme for residents of Aramide Street. In 1980, all households replaced their steel mesh and hedge fences with tall brick walls. Every family also had a mai guard[5] who lived in a small gatehouse and provided base-level security[6] for free accommodation and a stipend. Dad went the extra mile and acquired eleven guard dogs. Yet, no measure was enough to fend off crime in light of the depletion of residential homes. The thought process of a criminal was that if no one was watching, one could easily get away with it. So it was, that when 30 Aramide stood between two commercial entities from 1999, several mid-night attempts were made to break into the compound. Mum suffered from anxiety and insomnia, but despite her worries, she did not comment on wanting to leave 30 Aramide.

Dad was grateful to live in 30 Aramide cost-free. But he certainly held no sentimental attachment to the home. It simply is not his nature. He had received many financially enticing offers for 30 Aramide, and he recalls feeling the pressure to be rational. Although, as someone who always plays the long game, he probably could have remained in 30 Aramide, knowing one of the eleven dogs could protect him. Yet, it took only one successful armed robbery attack in November 2001 for the pressure to be rational (financially) and responsible (for his family) to give way.  A week later, he accepted a ten-year leasehold offer from a bank that would pay a substantial lump sum and another payment for demolishing 30 Aramide. He broke the news on an unassuming evening, informing Mum that she had just two weeks to find a new home before the Bank took possession.

Figure 2. The purpose built bank on the right sits where 30 Aramide family house once stood. The Chinese restaurant on the left has made little alterations to the original architecture built by WNHC

Lessons learned

Mum and Dad have since rented a three-bedroom home and now own a four-bedroom house. Both homes are in the gated community of Lira Housing Association (LIRA) Ikeja, a seven-minute walk from 30 Aramide. While their housing story has evolved, the threat of residential land-use conversion persists. Ikeja, in particular, has experienced a reduction in residential land from the initially planned 41 percent to 28.4 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, commercial land has increased from 9.5 percent to 46.06 percent. (Oduwaye and Enisan, 2011). Oosterbaan et al. (2012) highlight the widespread nature of residential to commercial conversations in sub-Saharan African cities. The process is typically informal, and many businesses promoting this phenomenon are small-scale. In response to the violation of land-use legislation, the Lagos State Physical Planning Authority (LASPPPA) is clamping down by sealing uncomplying buildings and imposing charges (Edeme, 2021; Olasunkanmi, 2021). However, Oosterbaan et al. (2012, p.63) rightly note that such sanctions could either stifle economic vitality or prove ineffective “considering the widespread, informal nature of the process, and the inadequate capacity of planning agencies to enforce such a law” (ibid.).

At a community level, LIRA is one of the few housing associations off the main road to resist land-use conversion. Aramide Street and the adjacent Adeniyi Jones Avenue remain favoured commercial axes, and businesses that cannot afford units on the main roads seek cheaper leases within housing associations. By joining the association, every resident within LIRA has agreed never to use, sell or rent their property for commercial purposes. The Executive Council – where Dad served as vice-chairman – fiercely enforces this rule to the extent that a fellow resident has been sued for using their property as an Airbnb. The resident claims an Airbnb does not qualify as a commercial enterprise, but the Council begs to differ. The case is presently pending in court.

Figure 3. Signposts outside the gates of LIRA

­­­Is preserving the land use of LIRA worth the cost? To Mum and Dad, the answer is a vehement yes. Reflecting on the experience of being displaced from 30 Aramide, Dad says the following: “I have a right to safety and privacy. I should be able to stand on my balcony, let my guard down and wave at my neighbours. I should not have to deal with a restaurant or office and their associated trouble, traffic and strangers disturbing my peace. If the government cannot defend those rights, should we not do it ourselves?” The contradiction lies in the fact that Mum would not have been able to use the boys’ quarters of 21 Aramide and later the main house of 26 Aramide for her now thriving printing press presently on 24 Aramide if it were not for the informal conversion processes she opposes today. She would have been dragged to court, which would have been the end of her business. The real question should be, what determines a city’s spatial organisation? The neatly laid colour blocks on a map, the instincts of citizens, or both?


Note

The names of Aramide Street and Lira Housing Association (LIRA) have been altered to anonymise the identities of the main characters.

 

References

Abiodun, J. O. (1976). Housing problems in Nigerian cities. The Town Planning Review, 47(4), pp.339-347.

Dad(2022, April). Interview about 30 Aramide Street.

Edeme, V. (2021, November 19). Lagos govt decries conversion of residential buildings for commercial uses. Punch Nigeria. [online] Accessed April 22, 2022. Available at: https://punchng.com/lagos-govt-decries-conversion-of-residential-buildings-for-commercial-uses/

Federation of Nigeria (1990) Land Use Act, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (ed)

Iyatse, G. (2021, October 18). Osinbajo’s prescription and painful history of naira devaluation. The Guardian Nigeria. [online] Accessed April 9, 2022. Available at: https://guardian.ng/business-services/osinbajos-prescription-and-painful-history-of-naira-devaluation/

Koenigsberger, O. (1970) Housing in the National Development Plan: An Example from Nigeria. Ekistics, 180.

Korboe, D. (1992). Family-houses in Ghanaian cities: To be or not to be?. Urban Studies, 29(7), pp.1159-1171.

Ministry of Economic Budget and Planning’ MEPB’ (2019) Lagos Socio-Economic Profile. [online] Available at: http://mepb.lagosstate.gov.ng/wp-content/uploads/sites/29/2019/11/11.0-LAGOS-SOCIO-ECONOMIC-PROFILE.pdf

Mum (2022, April). Interview about 30 Aramide Street.

Oduwaye, L. & Enisan, G. (2011). Effects of Global Economy on Spatial Structure of Ikeja. Proceedings REAL CORP, pp.1257-1265.

Ogunpola, G. A. (1969). The functioning of a statutory corporation: the case of Western Nigeria Housing Corporation 1958-1966. Quarterly Journal of Administration, 4(1), pp.31-44.

Olasunkanmi, O. (2021, March 3). Lagos set to enforce converted property in government schemes. Lagos State Official Government Website. [online] Accessed April 9, 2022. Available at: https://lagosstate.gov.ng/blog/2021/03/03/lasg-set-to-enforce-converted-property-in-government-schemes/

Onibokun, G. A. (1971). Housing finance in Nigeria: A critical survey of private and public sources. The Town Planning Review, 42(3), pp.277-292.

Oosterbaan, C., Arku, G., & Asiedu, A. B. (2012). Conversion of residential units to commercial spaces in Accra, Ghana: A policy dilemma. International Planning Studies, 17(1), 45-66.

Stren, R. (1972). Urban Policy in Africa: A Political Analysis. African Studies Review, 15(3), pp.489-516.

The Birmingham Post (1963, October 1) Swamp becomes industrial estate. The Birmingham Post, p.14

[1] 505 homes in all housing estates, including the Bodija Estate, Ibadan and the Ikeja Industrial Estate, Lagos.

[2] Lagos is divided into the Mainland and the Island. The Island is home to Lagos Island and Victoria Island, which serve as the city’s Business Districts.

[3] The Ikeja Land Use Map (1982) is not publicly accessible

[4] A armoury explosion at the Ikeja Military Cantonment that killed 1,100 people and displaced over 20,000.

[5] A security personnel. Typically, a rural-urban immigrant. The concept of a mai guard deserves its own housing story.

[6] They did not have any security training but acted as eyes on the street.

 

This housing story is part of a mini-series revealing the complex ways in which personal and political aspects of shelter provision interweave over time, and impact on multiple aspects of people’s lives. Space for strategic choice is nearly always available to some degree, but the parameters of that choice can be dramatically restricted or enhanced by context. The wide range of experience presented in this collection shines a light on the wealth of knowledge and insights about housing that our students regularly bring to the DPU’s learning processes.

The Israeli Shikun Story

Matan Flum23 June 2022

Upon Israel’s establishment in 1948, a public and national housing block(s) programme, referred to in Hebrew as shikun or shikunim (plural), was established to provide dwellings to Jewish refugees and immigrants. The shikunim, the most common dwelling form in Israel, became increasingly controversial, leading to political strife, as well as turning into a symbol of the nation’s birth and of the Israeli government’s discriminating treatment of Mizrahi Jews,[1] most of who became the shikunim residents.

In this housing story, I choose to make a genealogical research and write about the life journey of Ilana Nouriely, my grandmother, and its socio-political meaning, during three time periods between 1928-2021. In order to do so, I made interviews with my close family – mother, and four aunts and uncles. I searched for news articles and governmental and organisational reports regarding the Israeli housing blocks’ conditions as well. I aim to echo the feminist statement that the personal is the geopolitical, as well as to illustrate the fascinating interlinks between geopolitics and various housing and land policies in Israel.

My story will begin with presenting shortly Ilana’s undocumented life story in Tehran, Iran. I will move on to focus on her first years in the Israeli shikun, and then to depict the time period in her second shikun apartment, after the loss of her husband. Finally, I will conclude the story by describing her last few years in her third shikun apartment, where she had to move because of an urban renewal project.

 

“One of the apartment houses for new immigrants from Georgia at Shikun Harakevet in Lod”. Photographer: Moshe Milner. From: Government Press Office (GPO).

Introduction

Our story begins in 1928 at the city of Kashan, the Imperial State of Iran. Iran Nour-Mahmoodi, named after the country, was born in an undocumented address and date. We have no details about her childhood, not even some kind of a family story. Iran was married or forced to be married with Eliyahu at the age of 14. In an unknown date they moved to the Imperial State’s capital, Tehran – but we do not know exactly where to. By 1965 the couple extended the family and had 9 children. In 1968, a year after the Israeli-Arab Six-Day War, and after one of their children had immigrated before to Israel, the Persian-Jewish couple decided to follow him and continue their life in a new environment.

The Shikun as a Frontier

As they arrived to Israel’s airport, they encountered for the first time with one of the government’s main policies – the population dispersal policy. The officials in the airport told Iran that the family must move to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. However, and unlike many other new immigrants, Iran already had a brother who lived in Qiryat Ono, a small town and a suburb of Tel-Aviv city, in the centre of country. The brother who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and knew how the government treats the Mizrahi immigrants, told Iran to refuse to move to Jerusalem, thus she and her family could live next to him. After putting some pressure, Iran agreed to go alone to Jerusalem and see where the officials wanted to settle them. In Jerusalem, the authorities wanted the family to settle in the shikunim of the frontier neighborhood of Katamonim. When Iran got back to the airport the decision was clear – the family refused to evacuate. In a very unique behaviour, the family waited until 12am, when the officials blinked first and agreed to settle them in two shikun apartments – door to door – in the 4th floor of building in Qiryat Ono, Avraham Yair Stern Street 2. The family went up the stairs at night in the dark, because the electricity was not connected, and got some used beds from the Jewish Agency. Each apartment had two bedrooms, and the older and younger children splitted into each.

Ilana’s old Israeli I.D.

 

Israel’s population dispersal policy, by settling Mizrahi immigrants in shikunim, aimed to fulfill at least three formal Zionist ideological wishes (Kipnis, 1988). First, securing control over the new national land and its essential resources, thus strengthening the national security. Second, securing Jewish demographic majority in each of the areas of the national territory. Third, securing that the territorial space will be used only for the Jewish nationality. Nevertheless, it appears that this policy had three other concealed objectives (Yiftachel and Meir, 1998). First, using Jewish settlement to constitute an Ashkenazi[2] narrative of nation-building by implementing collective values of “desert conquest” and “land redemption”. Second, the policy assists the dominant Ashkenazi population in taking control of the lands where Palestinians had settled before. Third, the policy’s implementation distanced the Mizrahi Jews from the power and capital centres by turning them into a settler force. However, simultaneously, they allegedly become partners to the nation building project. Thereby, they were included within the new Israeli-Jewish nation, but in an inferior standpoint that reveals us the racialised power relations.

Dispersing Mizrahi Jews in neighborhoods such as the Katamonim is just one example of the constitution of the Israeli frontier and of Israel’s frontier settler society, especially since the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel occupied many new territories such as Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Kemp (1999, p. 82) defines frontier as “the spread of settlers into new areas, mostly in stateless societies but during state expansion as well”. She suggests that the frontier cultural discourse in Israel after 1967 War became a border-blurring mechanism that prevented, at the same time, the annexation of and the withdrawal from the Palestinian occupied territories. Following Yiftachel (1996), since 1967 War, neighborhoods such as the Katamonim can be seen as an “internal frontier”, which is “zones (physical or mental) within the spatial boundaries of existing states or cultures, into which the expansion of the core society is sought” (p. 494). Yiftachel (1996) argues that the hegemonic group uses the ethos of frontier development and the power of the state to take control of marginalised group’s territories. In the Israeli case, this mechanism was not operated only to limit the Palestinian minority’s living space, but also justified the population dispersal policy, the poor socio-economic conditions of Mizrahi Jews in Israel’s periphery and the state’s political, cultural and economic control over them.

The Shikun During the Neo-Liberal Shift

While settling in, Iran’s name was changed by the government officials to Ilana Nouriely, in order it to be “Israeli”. Eliyahu started to work in one of the most known government’s factories (“Ossem”) and Ilana started to baby-sit other families’ children, in order them to pay the monthly rent to the governmental company owning the apartments, “Amidar”. In 1977, the right-wing “Herut” party won for the first time the elections and started slowly to promote a new housing policy – the privatisation of the public housing stock. A significant discount was made and the couple was able to buy the two shikun apartments for 18,000 Israeli Liras (pounds) each, while taking loans from family relatives and friends. However, many other shikun residents in the neighbourhood did not have this privilege or decided they prefer to continue and pay the low rent.

From that point on, things started to deteriorate. In 1985, Eliyahu passed away from a brutal cancer disease and Ilana was left suddenly alone, only with her youngest child living in the apartment. She decided to sell one of the apartments, rent the other, and to buy her second shikun apartment in the first floor of the same building. But one way or the other, the “outside” began to reflect her feelings “inside”. The shikun itself has been neglected as the Israeli neo-liberal capitalist regime has become more and more dominant. The staircase started to crack, the common yard has become empty of playful children and its grass went dry, the building entrance’s pavement started to have some bumps, and more and more abandoned and sick cats were seen around. It was if the time stopped. Nobody – from the municipal or governmental authorities nor any dwellers committee – took responsibility over the deteriorated conditions, and wealthier population moved away while the poor entered the shikunim (the residualisation process). It appeared the communities and the sense of community disappeared.

At first sight the privatisation policy appears completely different from the quasi-socialist public housing policy. However, reexamining the two policies shows us they are both subjected to the same spatial racialised logic. Unlike the recent critical literature, Yacobi and Tzfadia (2019) argue the neo-liberal policy of selective privatisation of space should be understood through Israel’s neo-setter-colonial politics that allow us expose new mechanism of colonial control. In fact, this new process in that time was only an adaption of Israel’s ethno-national model to the “free market” logic. I.e., the “free” market, which usually is presented as colour blind and neutral, just deepened the marginalisation of Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews (Tzfadia, 2010). As for Mizrahi Jews, it could be explained that after 1977 elections when an imagined “threat” has been created that their socio-economic class will be elevated, the privatisation was used as an answer to oppress them and transfer material capital to the hands of the Ashkenazi hegemony’s hands. As for Palestinians, the privatisation enabled to use new Western economic and militaristic tools, forces and industries to deepen the control over the Palestinian occupied territories and demonstrate its profitability.

“Renovated tenements in Or-Yehuda opposite a pre-renovated building”. Photographer: Marcus Yuval. From: Government Press Office (GPO).

 

The Shikun Demolition: “Evacuation-Construction” Project

In 1998, the Israeli Urban Renewal Project, “Evacuation-Construction” (“Pinuy-Binuy” as referred to in Hebrew), was declared as an official policy by the Housing and Labour Ministry. The new national project takes place by several steps. First, the Construction and Housing Ministry declares an urban plot as an “Evacuation-Construction” site. Second, the majority of the dwellers in the site must agree to sign a contract with the project promoters, that promises the dwellers’ right to new apartments in the same size in the new building after the renewal. The dwellers also get funding for them to rent other houses until the project will be finished. Third, the project itself starts with an often-celebrated demolition of the shikunim, and eventually the dwellers get their new apartments and the promoter sales the remain apartments.

The awaited advantages of the Renewal Project are as follow (Hasson, 2014): First, condensing the cities without harming open spaces, upgrading the public space, and restraining suburbanisation; Second, strengthening from economic and security aspects the inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods by returning them more expensive new apartments with residential secure spaces against rockets and earthquakes (“Mamad” as referred in Hebrew); And third, the enlargement of the housing stock in order to increase the housing supply.

During 2010-2020 an estimated 5% of the housing construction starts were an “Evacuation-Construction” projects, almost all of them in the Israel’s centre or Jerusalem (State Comptroller of Israel, 2016). As a result of the establishment of the Urban Renewal Authority as a branch in the Housing Ministry, this number is expected to continue to grow. The first plan was launched in 2001 in Qiryat Ono, right next to where Ilana lived her entire life. It was clearly chosen because of the high housing prices in what that became a prestigious suburb in the country’s centre. In 2014 the plan was declared as successful by the companies and authorities. 11 first new high buildings were built and 517 apartments were occupied by the residents – 270 of them by former residents Jerusalem (State Comptroller of Israel, 2016).  In 2017 the second plan in the city was completed.

At the same year, the third plan was set to start. This time the target was Ilana’s and her neighbours’ shikunim. Ilana had to rent a new shikun apartment and to move unwillingly in the age of 89. Until her apartment was ready, she already passed away.

The Renewal Project policy continues to operate within Israel’s spatial and racialised logic, but unlike the “usual” privatisation processes, it adds to the equation the demolition of the shikunim and their symbolic cargo. Cohen and Yacobi (2020) argue that the entrepreneurial projects are focused on maximising entrepreneurs’ private profits, and are expressing the idea that the shikunim are a “defective product” that is not reparable and must be destroyed. This is despite the fact that the shikunim are almost the last location, especially in Israel’s centre, that provides affordable housing for immigrants, migrant workers, seniors and the poor.

In light of the above, many of the disadvantages of these projects are quite clear (Bimkom, 2016; Zandberg, 2016). First, the construction of dense towers exceeds the carrying capacity of the public infrastructure. Second, the maintenance of the towers is highly expensive, an issue that will contribute eventually to the displacement of the former residents from the old city centres and to the destruction of the communities. Furthermore, renters in these city areas will not be able to afford the new high rent prices and will have to leave. Third, the high towers are detached from the surroundings, a problem that could result in the negligence of public space and a rise in violence levels.

Instead of forcing the shikunim residents to bear the burden of the housing crisis in Israel, Cohen and Yacobi (2020) suggest to repair the existing shikunim, and even to add a much lower number of new apartments, so the state will provide the budgets and take the planning responsibility in order to save the urban fabric of the cities and protect marginalised groups.

As Cohen and Yacobi (2020) maintain, the shikun’s cultural representations link it to the Mizrahi culture and it became part of the Mizrahi identity, thus it is seen nowadays as a Mizrahi location. Following that, I argue that the demolition process should be understood as part of Israel’s continuous settler-colonial mechanisms. The demolition is not used only for economic profit. It falls as well into Israel’s spatial and racialised logic, that is held by Israel’s hegemonic forces who wish to erase Israel’s Mizrahi identity, and thus reinforce Israel’s self-perception as “Western” state (Shohat, 1988). Moreover, the usage of demolition as a very drastic planning tool, may indicate that the privatisation policy is not sufficient anymore in order to shift material capital to upper racial-classes who managed to enjoy the neo-liberal regime.

Shikun’s demolition in Qiryat-Ono. Photographer: Doron Saar Photography. From: https://ononews.co.il/

Epilogue

While closing this personal-geopolitical housing story of Iran-Ilana, I am thinking about storytelling in our family, about family inter-generational trauma and my grandmother’s undocumented history. It saddens me how little her life and many other shikunim residents were told, and at the same time, surprises me how much power she had to lead her big family into better future. In my mind, I remember her sitting alone in her shikun home almost all day long, listening obsessively to Iranian and Israeli news channels and radio, while the photo of my late grandfather placed on the white wall in front of her, and his eyes stare at her and vice versa. I wonder what she told him and what she felt.

 

Eliyahu’s photo on the wall in Ilana’s home.

 

[1] Jewish immigrants from Muslim states.

[2] Jewish immigrants from Europe and North America.

 

Bibliography

“Bimkom” – Planners for Planning Rights (2016). Appendix to Bimkom’s response to the chapter of the State Comptroller of Israel – “Government’s actions to promote Urban Renewal as a national requirement”.

Cohen, S. & Yacobi, H. (2020). Repair, do not demolish! In Y. Israel (Ed.), South West Jerusalem Newspaper (pp. 72-75). Black Box.

Hasson, N. (22.12.2014). The building program in south Jerusalem: Lifeline or urban disaster. Ha’aretz. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/local/.premium-1.2517944

Kemp, A. (1999). The frontier idiom on borders and territorial politics in post-1967 Israel. Geography Research Forum, 19, 78–97.

Kipnis, B. (1988). Geopolitical ideologies and regional strategies in Israel. Horizons in Geography, 23/24, 35-54 [Hebrew].

Shohat, E. (1988). Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims. Social Text19/20, 1-35.

State Comptroller of Israel (2016). Government’s actions to promote Urban Renewal as a national requirement. In State Comptroller of Israel report 66(3), pp. 1243-1304.

Tzfadia, E. (2010). Militarism and space in Israel. Israeli Sociology, 11 (2), 337-361 [Hebrew].

Yacobi, H., & Tzfadia, E. (2018). Neo‐settler colonialism and the re‐formation of territory: Privatization and nationalization in Israel. Mediterranean Politics, 24(1), 1-19. doi.org/10.1080/13629395.2017.1371900

Yiftachel, O. (1996). The internal frontier: Territorial control and ethnic relations in Israel. Regional Studies, 30(5), 493-508.

Yiftachel, O. & Meir, A. (1998). Frontiers, peripheries, and ethnic relations in Israel: An introduction. In O. Yiftachel & A. Meir (Eds.). Ethnic frontiers and peripheries: Landscapes of development and inequality in Israel (pp. 1-11). Westview Press.

Zandberg, E. (1.6.2016). The State Comptroller ignores the dramatic social consequences of the “Evacuation-Construction” method. Ha’aretz. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.co.il/gallery/architecture/.premium-1.2963093

 

This housing story is part of a mini-series revealing the complex ways in which personal and political aspects of shelter provision interweave over time, and impact on multiple aspects of people’s lives. Space for strategic choice is nearly always available to some degree, but the parameters of that choice can be dramatically restricted or enhanced by context. The wide range of experience presented in this collection shines a light on the wealth of knowledge and insights about housing that our students regularly bring to the DPU’s learning processes.

Now and then. Precariousness, double standards and racism in housing refugees

Giovanna Astolfo20 June 2022

By Giovanna Astolfo, Harriet Allsopp, Maciej Duszczyk, Yvonne Franz, Annegret Haase, Karlis Laksevics, Bahanur Nasya, Ieva Raubisko, Ursula Reeger, Anika Schmidt

The blog presents an initial reflection on emerging challenges that the influx of refugees from Ukraine – about 7 million people since 24 February 2022 – poses to cities and their housing infrastructures. Based on a recent exchange convened within the framework of the JPI-funded research project HOUSE-IN, it focuses on the project’s case studies (Riga, Vienna, Leipzig) and Warsaw. Cognizant of evident differences in refugee numbers and responses across the four countries, the blog discusses the role of humanitarian and state actors and that of grassroots and migrant-to-migrant solidarity, crucial in navigating a volatile and unplannable situation for the urban context. It raises questions around so-called compassion fatigue and its different facets, amongst trauma and loss; issues of temporality vis a vis austerity urbanism, inequality and precariousness; and around double standards and the enduring issue of racism at the core of housing and welcoming culture in Europe.

Referring to the influx of refugees arriving at Europe’s borders in 2015, the network Housing Europe suggested that ‘we don’t have a refugee crisis, we have a housing crisis’ (Housing Europe, 2016) that intersected with a crisis of welfare and the intensification of neoliberal practices, including privatisation and financialization of housing (Soederberg 2018). Six years on, history repeats itself. However, the current housing crisis is also distinct, as it involves a different political context, geographies and relations of proximity. Numbers are quite different, too. It is reported that more than 4 million refugees crossed from Ukraine into Poland between February and June 2022 (Polish Border Guard 2022). Estimates suggest about 2.8 million Ukrainians are currently in Poland. 30,000 people have entered Latvia, around 70,000 Austria, and 750,000 people into Germany. Back in 2015 it was unthinkable that European countries were able to accommodate these numbers. 

Another element of difference is the unpredictability of the Russian war against Ukraine, which makes it difficult to understand when, how and if refugees will actually seek refuge in third countries or will return home. An estimated 1.5 million Ukrainian have probably already returned to Ukraine. But the majority have been accommodated in private houses. In Poland, Austria, Germany and Latvia, as in other countries, people have opened their homes, marking a show of solidarity and care which equals, if not furthers, the civil society response in 2015. Within the void left by regimes of austerity urbanisms, such a strong role and effort displayed by people – and humanitarian organisations behind them – is entirely positive and fundamentally needed. Short-term fill-the-gap strategies are, however, already revealing their limits and, as the situation drags on, imperatives for state institutions to play a stronger role and for longer-term provisions increase, to reach a “much fuller register of the multiple modes of dwelling and inhabiting” (Powell and Simone, 2022, p.838). Civil society organisations in some countries have already “raised the alarm” to governments, calling for longer term housing strategies beyond the emergency response.

Four months after the beginning of the war, ‘compassion fatigue’ is already reported. Such fatigue is experienced by refugees and their hosts, and it is imbricated in the manifold paradoxes and contradictions of hospitality and care. Refugees are casualties of care (Ticktin 2011), and Ukrainians are no exception. If access to safe accommodation and housing is mostly governed through the exceptional principle of compassion and left to a common sense of obligation – whether found within grassroot solidarity or humanitarian intervention – the risk is to erode what we otherwise conceive as a universal right (to housing).

Finally, and more importantly, this current crisis, compared to 2015, demonstrates how housing, as a sociomaterial infrastructure, is governed by selective solidarity (Magni 2021) and double standards (Sanyal 2015) that expose the colonial, orientalist and essentially racist nature of migration management and welcoming culture within European societies. Comparing the kind of policies set up by the EU gives an idea of such racist double standards. While during the crisis in 2015, most policies were highly restrictive, aimed at the externalisation of asylum procedure, at the closure of borders, and criminalization of migration; with respect to the current crisis, the Commission has enabled an open border policy, removing the need for visa or residence permits, issuing funding, although within a limited timeframe, for housing and subsistence. 

A cruel manifestation of racism appears to be present also in the local management of migrants and in grassroots responses. Differential treatments between white and non-white refugees fleeing Ukraine are reported, including African students left waiting indefinitely at the border, and Roma people abused in refugee reception centres (Njai, Torres and Matache, 2022). In Poland and Latvia, people have opened their homes to Ukrainians, while pushbacks of Middle Eastern and African migrants at the border with Belarus continue, resembling what happened in Italy and Spain since 2015, with the acquiescence and participation of Frontex. 

Double standards are seen in housing, too. Our research has found that many of the people willing to rent out a flat or temporarily share their private space will do so only for white Ukrainians, e.g. in Leipzig. Refugees fleeing Ukraine can access housing via expedited routes, while long-term asylum seekers remain on waiting lists. At all levels the system favours and reproduces distinctions between wanted and unwanted, between bodies that qualify and those that do not. Those working on the ground are trapped within the reproduction of white privilege and the danger of playing off different groups of vulnerable people against each other or bringing them into unnecessary competition for empathy, support and recognition.

A closer look at the situation

The Ukrainian population in Warsaw and its vicinity is estimated at 300,000-350,000, or 12% of the region’s total population. Most were family reunifications, the reason why the influx did not yet generate a housing crisis. For refugees, Poland is a transit country, with approximately 1.9 million refugees moving on to other countries or back to Ukraine. Across Poland the solidarity response from civil society and grassroots organisations housed an incredible 600,000 (approx.) refugees in private homes. Yet, there are limits to relying on short-term approaches. Predictions that many Ulkrainians will return to and settle in Poland for winter raises questions of longer-term housing and the challenge of educational provision for 600,000-650,000 Ukrainian children within Polish schools. ‘Compassion fatigue’, ending temporary funding schemes and autonomy desires of homeowners and refugees alike, make existing support systems fragile – says Maciej Duszczyk (University of Warsaw).

Approximately 40,000 people from Ukraine have registered in Austria in the first quarter of the year (Statistik Austria 2022). Recent data suggests many have since left. Language or administrative barriers, as well as distance between Ukraine and Austria, do not make Austria a preferred destination. However, forecasts that around 200,000 more people could arrive in Austria, half of which in Vienna, make housing a significant challenge (Haas et al. 2022). Vienna’s affordable social housing system is solid but, as Bahanur Nasya (Eutropian Director) argues, it works for many not for everyone. Newcomers cannot access social housing but rely on the tight private housing market where prices are soaring. The majority of recent refugees have entered this market. However, contracts are oftentimes precarious, increasing newcomers’ vulnerability. The local government set up a stock of houses for the refugees. Yet, similar to the case of Warsaw, “welcoming culture stops at a point”. 

It is estimated that Riga has received around 10,000 people from Ukraine. Data however, is limited as to how many people stayed in Riga, how many moved to other cities. So far, the municipality has provided accommodation for around 1500 people. As Ieva Raubisko (University of Latvia) explains, Latvia has adopted a Law on Support to the Ukrainian civilians, in-line with the EU Temporary Protection directive, which stipulates a support package, including housing assistance. The support period was extended from 90 to 120 days in May 2022, following pressure from civil society organisations and municipalities on the government. Three types of housing support are now available: monetary support for rent and other expenses, based on a lease agreement between the owner, municipality and tenant; financial support to municipalities that accommodate refugees in their buildings; support to private owners who offer housing free of charge. All have caps. In another initiative, a public database was created for private owners to register properties available for refugees. So far, registration has been limited. 

Leipzig has received around 9,000 Ukrainians and is also a transit city. Ukrainians can stay for 90 days without a visa. Registration, however, offers access to social benefits for up to a year. The tight housing market and insufficient adequate low-cost housing has hindered efforts to enable asylum seekers to live in flats instead of in group or mass accommodation (e.g. Werner et al. 2019). Still, 80% of Ukrainian refugees live in private accommodation, the rest in group accommodation houses, hotels, hostels or emergency accommodation, comparable to arrival infrastructures setup in 2015 (Stadt Leipzig 2022). Response initiatives included free local transport for Ukrainians and bureaucratic processes were simplified and streamlined. Still, racism and discrimination have equally emerged. In terms of housing access, Anika Schmidt (Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research) argues that there is a huge difference between refugees with Ukrainian citizenship and those without it. Private owners have been known to open their flats only to refugees from Ukraine. In turn frustration has increased among refugees from other countries, resident  for a longer time, but who face greater restrictions and less support. Many wait to access the housing market, while Ukrainians are offered faster routes.

All cases point at common issues related to the politics, materiality and temporality of reception, accommodation and housing. The situation is volatile and difficult to plan for – there are no policy provisions to accommodate everyone in the long-term – despite the existence of an arrival infrastructure in certain cities since 2015. Housing is treated as a commodity not a right; austerity urbanism has eroded welfare systems; benefits exist but operate on exclusionary bases. Funding will end soon – then what? The response to the current crisis has shown great levels of solidarity from the ground-up, including migrant-led ones – and the burgeoning role of humanitarian actors taking over state roles, especially in housing provision, our research has found. This could lead to incredible outcomes: new types of relations and governance arrangements. While care and solidarity give us hope in a time of crisis, it also risks depoliticizing the housing struggle in the city. More than anything else, this current housing crisis, and related response, reveals in all its brutality the inherent colonial racism deeply embedded in the management of migration and provision of accommodation, and in the housing system itself.

The JPI project HOUSE-IN is led by Dr. Annegret Haase, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research www.ufz.de/house-in. 

 

Haas, M.; Moussa-Lipp, S.; Verlic, M. (2022): Geflüchtete aus der Ukraine am Wiener Wohnungsmarkt. A&W Blog, 27. Mai 2022. https://awblog.at/ukraine-gefluechtete-am-wiener-wohnungsmarkt/ (retrieved 13th June 2022)

Magni, G. (2021): Economic Inequality, Immigrants and Selective Solidarity: From Perceived Lack of Opportunity to In-group Favoritism. British Journal of Political Science, 51(4), 1357-1380.

Njai, A., Torres, M., Matache, M. (2022) Ukraine: the refugee double standard. Love thy neighbor, but only if they look like you? Foreign Policy in Focus. March 15, 2022. https://fpif.org/ukraine-the-refugee-double-standard/ (retrieved 20th June 2022)

Powell, R., Simone, AM. (2022): Towards a global housing studies: beyond dichotomy, normativity and common abstraction. Housing Studies, 37:6, 837-846.

Sanyal, R. (2015): Refugees and the City: An Urban Discussion. Geography Compass, 6(11), 633-644.

Soederberg, S. (2018): Governing Global Displacement in Austerity Urbanism: The Case of Berlin’s Refugee Housing Crisis. Development and Change, 50(4), 923-947.

Stadt Leipzig (2022): Unterbringung von Geflüchteten in der Zuständigkeit der Stadt Leipzig. Monatsbericht April 2022. Anlage 1 der Informationsvorlage VII-Ifo-07239. 

Statistik Austria (2022): Pressemitteilung: 12.794-092/22. https://www.statistik.at/fileadmin/announcement/2022/05/20220426BevoelkerungApril2022.pdf (retrieved 13th June 2022)

Ticktin, M. (2011) Casualties of care. Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. University of California Press.

Werner, F., Haase, A.,   Renner, N., Rink, D.,  Rottwinkel, M., & Schmidt, A. (2018): The Local Governance of Arrival in Leipzig: Housing of Asylum-Seeking Persons as a Contested Field. Urban Planning, 3(4), 116-128. 

My Grandmother’s Housing Journey: A Tale of Orchards, War, Loss and Generosity

Louai Kaakani13 June 2022

‘Wayn el-Dawleh!?’ (Where is the State!?) is a very popular Lebanese saying, one I heard frequently exclaimed by every member of my family, especially when the power cut in the middle of dinner. I was born in 1993, three years after the end of 15 years of conflict that ravaged the country and devastated its capital, Beirut, which my family calls home. Lebanon today is a country characterised by the nepotism, corruption and neglect of its political elite. It is no wonder, then, that nostalgia and myth-making play important roles in Lebanese society, weaving stories of a glorious past to which the country could return. I grew up with stories of Beirut’s ‘Golden Age’ before the war, when it was still known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East.’ But it was my mother who taught me those stories and she was only four years old when the civil war started in 1975. Whenever I went to my grandmother to ask about her life in pre-war Beirut, her memories were never accompanied by the same romantic nostalgia that my mother deployed.

Through my grandmother’s stories, I came to realise that the question of the State’s presence, or rather its absence, stretched beyond the country’s post-war narrative, and began with her experiences moving from home to home and adapting to a quickly changing space. By sharing my grandmother’s housing journey, this essay aims to provide an answer to the question ‘Where is the State?’ and critically examine the value of public intervention in her life. It will also investigate who and what was there in its place when the public sector was absent.

 

Growing Up in a Growing City:

Haifa, my grandmother, was born and raised in Ras el-Nabeh in 1944, one year after Lebanon had gained its independence from the French. She described the area in her youth as “nothing but farms and orchards, and a few farmhouses here and there.” Ras el-Nabeh, which is located south of Beirut’s downtown, was characterised at the time by its peri-urban agricultural landscape and the low-rise, one-to-two-storey buildings that sparsely dotted the neighbourhood. Haifa and her family lived in one such building, owned by the Nsouli family, who my grandmother explained were major landowners in the area before the war. She lived on the first floor of the building while members of their extended family occupied the ground floor apartment. This pattern of extended family members living in the same building remains a hallmark of Lebanese society to this day. My father similarly, grew up in a building where three of his eight siblings would later settle to be close to each other. My own family at one point even moved to the same neighbourhood to be close to our extended family.

 “It was spacious and comfortable. Each child had their own room and we even had two ‘salons’ (social/gathering spaces) to host guests” my grandmother said. She then added that, while the house was large, the rent was relatively cheap for Beirut at the time. All of that changed once her father developed a cardiovascular condition that would permanently prevent him from working. Her mother, who I knew as Teta Nahla (‘Grandma Nahla’), became the family’s primary provider. While she was a gifted seamstress, she could not afford to simultaneously raise a family, care for her ill husband and pay the rent on her income, so they chose to search for more affordable housing. Luckily, the local Maronite church, ‘Sayyidit Al-Najat’ (Our Lady of Deliverance), chose to develop part of their ‘waqf’ land from orchards to low-rise housing units, to provide lodging for their priests and establish income-generating assets with which they could sustain their community-focused activities.

‘Waqf’ land describes land endowed to a charitable or religious institution. Authorities in Lebanon during the French Mandate, which began in 1920 and ended in 1943, deregulated the development, functional zoning and exchangeability of ‘waqf’ lands to liberate their economic potential and contribute to the national economy (Moumtaz, 2021). Before that point, when the Ottoman Empire still controlled the Levant, lands designated as ‘waqf’ were bound in perpetuity to specific individuals or organisations and to particular functions (ibid.). These changes in land law afforded Sayyidit Al-Najat Church the opportunity to develop their ‘waqf’ for housing, which in turn granted my great-grandmother the ability to relocate her family to a nearby and more affordable household.

Figure 1. A photograph of my grandmother (back left), her brother (centre), her mother (right) and a relative (left)
sitting together in one of their ‘salons’ in the Nsouli building. “It was very large and perfect for guests”, she told me.

 

Teta Nahla had a good relationship with the local church. Though she and her family were Muslim, she was welcomed as a tenant. Like much of Beirut at the time, Ras el-Nabeh had a mixed sectarian community of Muslim and Christian households (Sadik, 1996), including my grandmother’s. In the early 1950s, my grandmother and her family moved to the ground floor of 83 Rue Des Muriers (now called Abdul Karim el-Khalil Street), two doors down from the church that owned their home. The church always renewed my great-grandmother’s rental agreement with minimal increases, despite the local currency’s devaluation through the war years, and she called that house home until she died in 2011.

As my grandmother grew, so did Beirut. The city rapidly urbanised to accommodate the large and rapid influx of foreign and local migrants who came seeking better employment. “Between 1960 and 1970, Beirut’s population more than doubled from 450,000 to 940,000” (Sadik, 1996; p.99). The Nsouli family, on whose property my grandmother grew up, took advantage of the rising demand for housing to develop a new mid-rise apartment building just across the street from my great-grandmother’s. That is where Haifa would find her first home as a young bride.

Map 1. Beirut’s built-up area in 1936, with Ras el-Nabeh highlighted in red. Note the sparse development in the area.

Map 2. Beirut’s built-up area in 1961, with Ras el-Nabeh highlighted in red. Note the full grey fill of the map, indicating
that land in the area had been fully developed.

Maps 3-4. Side by side comparison of the 1936 map (zoomed into Ras El-Nabeh) and the 1958 map. Note the
urbanisation of the area and its transition from sparse buildings to larger development (large grey forms).

 

From Renting, to Owning, then Fleeing:

 Haifa married my grandfather Zouheir in 1966 and moved across the street from Teta Nahla in the Nsoulis’ new development. My grandfather at the time was working as a consultant for a pharmaceutical company, while my grandmother had her job in the Lebanese Central Bank (BDL). As my grandmother already had a good relationship with the family, they were able to negotiate a comfortable rental agreement for their new apartment. Beside their building, the development of another mid-rise apartment building began just a few years later, but this one provided only apartments for sale. Despite the good relationship they had with the landlord, in 1972, my grandparents purchased an apartment in the building next door. To her, renting was only a temporary solution. She asked me “Why would you place your neck beneath the hand of someone who could change the price of your home as they want whenever they want?” Her concerns about the precariousness of the rental market did not prove to be unfounded.

Lebanon has never adopted a public housing strategy (Sadik, 1996). In fact, masterplans developed for Beirut were “essentially little more than road plans” (ibid.; p.94). Planning policies that aimed to control or manage land development were never established, nor were policies regulating the rental market or housing-for-sale (ibid.). Rents in Beirut, as a result of public absence, could “claim 48% to 97% of household income” (ibid.; p.103). My grandparents covered their purchasing costs through a loan from a company named ‘American Life’, in which my grandfather had also taken up life insurance. My mother heard rumours that American Life’s office building was also shared by the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), though my grandmother does not corroborate this. The rumours gained more weight as, allegedly, the office building was never damaged during the war, and my mother suspects that the gossip made American Life loans more desirable, given their perceived security. I could not find any documentation for such a company in Lebanon. Of the 65,000 Lebanese Pounds (LBP) needed for the house, which equated to 20,700 US dollars (USD) at the time (Banque Du Liban, n.d.), 21,000 LBP were secured by the loan. By 1974, only 17% of Beirut residents were homeowners (Sadik, 1996), my grandparents among them. One year later, in 1975, the civil war began.

Figures 2 and 3. Photographs from my grandmother of their rental home in Ras el-Nabeh. To the left, my uncle, Ihab,
as a child on their balcony. To the right, my grandmother, my uncle and my infant mother, Dania, in their living room.

As communities migrated within Beirut and Lebanon, traditionally mixed-sect areas began to homogenise. It was in this period that the division of Beirut into a ‘Christian’ East and a ‘Muslim’ West began to materialise (Sadik, 1996). My grandmother told me that because Ras el-Nabeh was geographically located between both halves, it “saw the worst of its brutality”. Despite the clashes, they chose to stay. The Nsouli family by then had converted one of their building’s basements into a community shelter, in which my family repeatedly sought refuge from the violence. “Even when the Israelis invaded in 1982, we did not leave. But one day, in 1984, the shelling was so severe that I went up to your grandfather, told him we were leaving and that there was no conversation to be had about it.” Early one morning, they packed their belongings and fled to Raoucheh, a neighbourhood on the western shore of Beirut. For a short period of time, they lived with distant relatives. Eventually, they moved to an apartment they received free of charge from my grandfather’s employer, who was also a very good friend. They would live in that one-bedroom apartment with their three children until 1991.

Figures 4 and 5. Photos taken after my grandmother moved to Raoucheh in the 80s. To the left, my grandmother, her
sister and my great-grandmother. Note the office cabinets on the right of the photograph. To the right, my uncle Ihab

 

The Price of Peace and Returning Home:

Despite the severity of the clashes and instability brought by multiple crises, my grandparents chose to invest in real estate. In 1982, just before the Israeli invasion, they purchased a flat in Ain Jdideh, in the mountains south of Beirut. Later in the 80s, they purchased another flat in Aramoun, in the mountains to the south-east. Both purchases were facilitated by my grandmother’s access to loans from the Central Bank that were granted specifically to BDL employees at low interest rates (2.5%). While both apartments were kept for their investment potential, they were not purchased initially for that purpose. My grandparents felt a need to build a new home outside of the city, where the clashes at the time were not as violent.

Both apartments were purchased prior to their respective building’s completion but my grandparents never had the chance to enjoy their new properties once they were built. The first apartment in Ain Jdideh was looted during the Israeli invasion, and the second apartment in Aramoun became too dangerous a location as clashes in the south of the country intensified toward the end of the 1980s. Despite these challenges, my grandparents retained ownership of both apartments as they believed it better to own something they could potentially profit from later.

Map 5. Mapping my grandparents movements, their property acquisitions and their failed attempts to flee the city.

In 1990, conflicts in most of Lebanon, namely in Beirut and the north of the country, had finally ended. It is in this chapter of my grandmother’s journey that, for the first time, she mentions public-sector intervention. When my grandparents decided to return to their original home in Ras el-Nabeh, they found their building devastated and their apartment burnt down. The government’s newly formed Ministry for the Displaced provided them a grant of 2,000,000 LBP (worth 1,333.33 USD by this point) to repair their home. The ministry gave out 47,000,000 USD worth of grants to 16,000 households by July 1993, but their success in covering repair costs and encouraging families to return to their original homes was never measured or monitored (Sadik, 1996). For my grandparents, the grant was inadequate to cover all the costs, so they had to pay the rest of it out of their own savings.

The government ended up taking more from my grandparents than it gave. The reconstruction of the Beirut Central District began in the 90s. The government appointed Solidere, a private development company established by soon-to-be Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, to regenerate the area and gifted the company the entirety of the downtown to redevelop as long as they compensated existing renters and owners (Vloeberghs, 2012). My grandfather was one such renter, with a documented claim to a shop in the central district. Solidere complied with the need to compensate claimants, but it did so by granting renters and owners shares of their stock instead of direct financial compensation (Vloeberghs, 2012). The stocks my grandfather received rarely returned any dividends and, when they did, the sum was meagre. “We keep them now as souvenirs”, my grandparents told me.

The two apartments my grandparents owned outside the city proved their usefulness at the time. The apartment in Aramoun was gifted to my uncle and his wife, who would later sell it and buy a house in Ras el-Nabeh to raise their children closer to family. In 1999, the apartment in Ain Jdideh was sold for 20,000,000 LBP (13’333 USD) to Jihad Al-Arab, a developer with strong political ties to the post-war government who has also been repeatedly favoured for public contracts in development and infrastructure. Most recently, he has been sanctioned by the US Treasury on grounds of corruption and “contributing to the breakdown of the rule of law in Lebanon.” (US Department of the Treasury, 2021)

As the post-war government prioritised rapid reconstruction and economic growth, the public sector did not change its pre-war prioritisation of luxury development and increasing land/real estate values (Sadik, 1996). Real estate prices after the war swelled rapidly and “[in] 2008, the average property sales price was up 26.8% to LBP 116.3 million (US$77,500)” (Global Property Guide, 2009), more than five times what my grandparents had received for their Ain Jdideh apartment. My mother also told me that the area was converted by Jihad Al-Arab into an urban complex of villas and luxury apartments. Amid a backdrop of increasing land and housing financialisation, my grandparents gifted the profit from the Ain Jdideh sale to my parents, who in turn purchased their own new home. In 2000, my family moved to a spacious apartment in Ras el-Nabeh, which I would call my childhood home, a five-minute walk from the homes of grandmother and great-grandmother.

 

Conclusion: Concerning the State, its Absence and those who Filled the Void

My grandmother would certainly agree with the conclusion that “to talk about housing policy in Lebanon is to talk about the consistent nonintervention of the state in housing” (Sadik, 1996; p.88). Except for the most recent chapter in her housing journey, the State has been effectively absent from her life, despite her and her family’s need for affordable housing. That said, my grandmother’s employment at the Central Bank, a public authority, did grant her access to low-interest loans through which she was able to secure new properties she eventually benefitted from in the decade following the war. But the privilege of employees accessing public funds cannot be equated with public sector action. Actions taken by the public sector, at best, had little positive impact on my grandparents’ access to land and housing, like the grant they received, or, at worst, dispossessed them of their ownership and rental claims for the purposes of elite development.

That said, the void left by the government was not left empty as a variety of different agents stepped in at key moments in my grandmother’s life to provide aid and support. The church provided her family affordable rent in her youth, then a private landowner who valued her friendship gave her easier access to rent a home of her own when she married. Friends and family supported her through the war years and, eventually, she adopted that role for the sake of her children and grandchildren. The significance of community and family ties in Lebanon is heavily expressed in my grandmother’s narrative. Today, she and many other members of my family participate in a Facebook group called “Initiative Ras el-Nabeh”, which is dedicated to keeping the neighbourhood’s history alive and encouraging other members of the community to participate in charity works happening in the area. Her housing journey also reveals the value of new questions of increasing relevance as the 2022 parliamentary elections approach and considering the country’s ongoing financial crisis. My grandmother was certainly lucky given her employment at BDL, her homeowning friends and family members, and her relationship with the local church. Many others would not be as fortunate. Suppose a reformed Lebanon State were formed, how can it contribute to the development of a broader network of communally-led and privately-led supportive initiatives in such a way that it can be regionally or even nationally impactful and accessible? Could such an institutionalisation initiative strip these grassroots operations of their flexibility and enshrinement of empathy?

 

 

References and Bibliography:

Banque Du Liban (n.d.). Statistics. [https://www.bdl.gov.lb/webroot/statistics/table.php?name=t5282usd] (accessed 10 April 2022)

Deguilhem, R. (2008). The Waqf in the City. The City in the Islamic World. Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 1: The Near and Middle East, Volume 94, pp.929-956. Brill.

Global Property Guide (2009). How Long Can Lebanon’s Real Estate Boom Last? [https://www.globalpropertyguide.com/Middle-East/Lebanon/Price-History-Archive/how-long-can-lebanons-real-estate-boom-last-1204] (accessed 10 April 2022)

Initiative Ras El Nabeh – Beirut. Facebook Public Group. [https://m.facebook.com/groups/658627484182798?group_view_referrer=search] (accessed 10 April 2022)

Moumtaz, N. (2021). Waqf and the Modern State, Capitalism, and the Private Property Regime. Islamic Law Blog. [https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/04/22/waqf-and-the-modern-state-capitalism-and-the-private-property-regime/] (accessed 10 April 2022)

Sadik, R.L. (1996). Nation-Building and Housing policy: A Comparative Analysis of Urban Housing Development in Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon. University of California at Berkeley.

United States Department of the Treasury (n.d.). Treasury Targets Two Businessmen and One Member of Parliament for Undermining the Rule of Law in Lebanon. [https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0440] (accessed 10 April 2022)

Vloeberghs, W. (2012). The Politics of Sacred Space in Downtown Beirut (1853–2008). Popular Housing and Urban Land Tenure in the Middle East. pp.137-168. American University in Cairo Press.

 

Maps Sources:

Maps 1-3: American University of Beirut (n.d.). Historic Maps of Beirut. Heritage Buildings of Beirut. [https://aub.edu.lb.libguides.com/c.php?g=1090674&p=7967484] (accessed 13 April 2022)

Map 4: MAPSTER (n.d.). Digital collection of Cartographic Materials. [http://igrek.amzp.pl/maplist.php?cat=TPOTHERS&listsort=sortoption11&listtype=mapywig2] (accessed 13 April 2022)

Map 5: Extracted from Google Earth.

 

 

Thanks and Acknowledgements:

 

I would like to thank my grandmother, Haifa, my grandfather, Zouheir, and my mother, Dania, for their help in completing this essay and their willingness to share, with me and my instructors, their photographs and the details of their experiences living through such a turbulent period of the country’s history.

 

This housing story is part of a mini-series revealing the complex ways in which personal and political aspects of shelter provision interweave over time, and impact on multiple aspects of people’s lives. Space for strategic choice is nearly always available to some degree, but the parameters of that choice can be dramatically restricted or enhanced by context. The wide range of experience presented in this collection shines a light on the wealth of knowledge and insights about housing that our students regularly bring to the DPU’s learning processes.

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

Marissa Lam9 March 2022

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

 

Project Focus and Description of Fellowship

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

 

Community Gardens

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

 

Spatial Justice

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

References:

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

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

Nelly M Leblond14 December 2021

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

So what are we talking about?

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

 

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

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

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

2. No one should know that a woman is menstruating

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

 

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

 

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

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

3. Sanitation work is too dirty and difficult for women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Sanitation jobs are not for women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Toilets at any cost

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

 

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

 

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

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

8. The toilet is for “relieving oneself”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Toilets, a political taboo?

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

Aishath Green9 December 2021

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

Illustration by Ottavia Pasta

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

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

Illustration by Ottavia Pasta

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

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


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

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

Nick Anim1 April 2021

Read Part 2 here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reshma Kumar18 March 2021

Part of the HUD Urban Profiles blog series.


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

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

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

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

What are the benefits of green space?

 

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

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

Lived experiences and safety perceptions

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

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

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

How can we create safer green spaces?

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

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

 

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

 

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NHS. 2016. Sexual Violence: The London Sexual Violence Needs Assessment 2016 For MOPAC & NHS England (London). [online] MBARC. Available at: <https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/sexual_violence_needs_assessment_report_2016.pdf> [Accessed 20 November 2020].

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

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

  1. Undated. Goal 11: Make Cities Inclusive, Safe, Resilient And Sustainable. [online] United Nations Sustainable Development. Available at: <https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/cities/> [Accessed 10 January 2021].

UN-HABITAT. 2008. WOMEN’S SAFETY AUDITS: What Works And Where?. [online] Available at: <https://unhabitat.org/sites/default/files/download-manager-files/1404462831wpdm_Women%27s%20Safety%20Audit.pdf> [Accessed 2 January 2021].

UN Women. 2017. Safe Cities And Safe Public Spaces: Global Results Report. [online] New York. Available at: <https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2017/safe-cities-and-safe-public-spaces-global-results-report-en.pdf?la=en&vs=45> [Accessed 2 January 2021].

Waite, R. and Buxton, P. 2018. AJ100: Women Now Make Up A Third Of Architects At UK’S Largest Practices. [online] The Architects’ Journal. Available at: <https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/aj100-women-now-make-up-a-third-of-architects-at-uks-largest-practices> [Accessed 12 November 2020].

Wekerle, G. 2000. From Eyes on the Street to Safe Cities [Speaking of Places]. Places. Vol.13, Is.1.

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

Theophile altuzarra9 March 2021

Part of the HUD Urban Profiles blog series.

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

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

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


I. Green-and-blue areas and mental health

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

II. Lockdown highlighting the inequalities

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

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

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

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

III. Consequences on mental health

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

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

 

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

IV. And now?

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

Photo: Pierre Faure, Fondation Abbé Pierre

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

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