By Catalina Marino, on 8 June 2022
‘Look what I was like when I moved to the ‘villa’’, Sara told me, sending me her photo via WhatsApp. We have been talking about her housing story for weeks now. According to her grandma, the picture was taken in their first home in Villa 21-24, in the south of Buenos Aires.
A decade later, with a partner and a kid, the girl in the photo would move to a bigger house near the Riachuelo’s riverbanks. The location of this second home will change her story. In 2008, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that, due to pollution, all families living within 35 meters of the river should be relocated. Paradoxically, from then on, being registered next to the Riachuelo became a golden ticket to access social housing.
I met Sara in 2018 when I joined the Housing Institute of Buenos Aires to coordinate the second phase of the relocation program. Over time, our bureaucratic exchanges turned into long afternoons of conversations and mates. Sara and her husband told me multiple stories about the community and helped me understand some slum dynamics. Now, I once again rely on them to re-discover Buenos Aires’ housing policy.
Image 1: Sara (left) and her brother Walter (right). Source: provided by the interviewee (date unknown).
Since their emergence, the villas (squatter settlements) have been subject to eclectic government policies. A product of internal migration in the late ’30s, they were first seen as a temporary phenomenon that enabled the country’s industrialization. Later, the successive military governments considered that these ‘illegal occupations’ entailed a social threat. During the ’70s, families were expelled to their ‘places of origin’ or simply dumped on vacant land outside the city’s limits. Eradication policies and forced disappearances explain the drastic decrease in slum population: from 213,823 in 1976 to 34,064 in 1980 (Dadamia, 2019). ‘Living in Buenos Aires is not for everyone but for those who deserve it’, synthesized the Housing Minister of that time (in Oszlak, 1991).
Fortunately, Sara’s story begins at a brighter time. She was born in 1985, during the first years of democratic rule. Committed to prosecuting human rights violations, the new government definitely abandoned the eradication paradigm towards the long-settled villas. In Buenos Aires, the ‘Slum Settlement Program’ (Act 39.753/84) recognized the right of slum dwellers to remain in their place. Later, the right to housing would be guaranteed in the 1994’s National Constitution.
However, none of the successive housing and land regularization programs achieved widespread implementation. As part of the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s, the ‘Plan Arraigo’ (Law 23,967/1991) promoted the sale of all public land deemed ‘unnecessary’ and the transfer of property titles to their occupants. But even this policy designed to guarantee tenure security was limited and suspended shortly after. In Buenos Aires, only a few received housing through some short-lived ‘street opening’ programs and even less acquired their land titles (Di Virgilio, 2015).
Our story begins with a State that, while recognizing its responsibility in guaranteeing housing rights, systematically fails to fulfill it. Describing the literal waiting process inside welfare offices, Javier Auyero argues that the urban poor are forced to become ‘patients of the state’. Because even this ‘downsized, decentralized, and “hollowed out” state’ can still provide them ‘limited but vital welfare benefits’ (Auyero, 2012, p. 5). But as others have said before, this waiting process is always active. Individually or collectively, the urban poor deploy different strategies to dispute or negotiate with the State (Fainstein, 2020), and they learn which are the ‘correct ways to ask’ (Olejarczyk, 2017). They embrace ‘survivability’, because while the existence of the villas has ceased to be threatened, their residents still live a life ‘in a constant state of instability’ (Lees and Robinson, 2021, p. 594). As we shall see, Sara’s story is one about survival.
Sara arrived at Villa 21-24 when she was still a kid. Established on public land, near industrial areas and railways, the settlement had reached 12,000 families in the ‘70s before the eradication policy reduced the number in half. Sara’s father, Ángel, had endured the military rule in the villa but eventually managed to move to his father’s house 30km away from Buenos Aires. However, with three kids and a wife who did not adapt to the new town, he decided to return.
They bought a house there in the late ’80s, taking advantage of the new democratic approach. The certainty that they will never be evicted by the State is strongly felt throughout Sara’s narration. ‘We were never afraid of being evicted. Here in the villa, (…) I never saw bulldozers go by.’
Of those early years, Sara’s memories are somewhat blurred. Her parents separated shortly after their return. Sara stayed in the house with her father and her younger sister Yanina. There were times when they also lived with Walter and Pablo, her mother’s children, but dates are not clear. What is certain is that the house was small, made of corrugated metal and wood, and had two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bath.
Like most houses, theirs had an informal power line, but it did not have an independent water connection. They had to go to the community faucet in the ‘middle corridor’ (pasillo) to get water. She recalls that many people went to look for water there. Maybe it was the only faucet for the entire neighbourhood, but she is not sure. What we know is that all the infrastructure was developed by the community. A true example of ‘social production of the habitat’. Even today, official water and electricity lines are found only on the villa’s perimeter and on the two avenues that cross it. They only reach what the public services providers persevere in calling the ‘formal city’.
Although the house was small, they did not reform it until Sara got pregnant at the age of 14. To give them some independence, her father decided to fix a small ‘brick room’ on the side of the house. She moved there with her partner, Leonardo, when their son Ezequiel was born.
Image 4: Villa 21-24 in 2002. Source: Google Earth
‘ – Did you ever think about leaving?
– One always dreams of leaving (…). But the opportunity didn’t come along. (…) Leonardo was 16 and didn’t have a permanent job. He did informal gigs, waste-picking with a cart. (…) We lived day to day’.
Sara could not afford to move alone, even less outside the villa, where landlords usually request tenants to guarantee the lease with another proprietor’s deed. Buying a house through the market was even less of an option, as access to long-term credit and loans is restricted to those with formal income, not to say, with substantial previous savings in US dollars. She was also skeptical of state programs. Her grandmother had tried to access a home through the cooperative in charge of implementing the ‘land regularization program’. But despite having paid several installments, the cooperative leader ended up arbitrarily assigning the land plots in exchange for cash. Dozens of families were scammed, and the State did nothing. They were on their own.
However, even with their daily struggles, they managed to save some money. Eventually, in the early 2000s, they had the opportunity to move to a larger house within the villa, which they jointly bought with Sara’s father. This was a ‘brick house’, with water and electricity connections, a living room, a bathroom and a large patio. It also had three bedrooms, which could accommodate what were now three distinct families: Sara’s, Yanina’s, and Angel’s.
Interestingly, in Sara’s account, there are no references to the Riachuelo river, even when the new house is located a few meters from it. However, in 2004, on the opposite riverbank, a group of neighbors filed a lawsuit denouncing the environmental damage they had suffered due to the Riachuelo’s high pollution levels. In 2008, the Supreme Court of Justice would order the National State, the Province and the City of Buenos Aires to clean up the river’s basin and improve the resident’s livelihoods. Two years later, the Court would further rule that all the people residing 35 meters from the Riachuelo had to be relocated. With this decision, 1534 families living in Villa 21-24 were granted the right to social housing.
Image 5: Villa 21-24 in 2010. In purple, the relocation area. Source: Google Earth (2010)
In 2011 the Housing Institute conducted a census to identify which families would be affected by the relocation. By this time, the residents had managed to organize themselves into a Body of Delegates elected by each ‘block’. They had also requested the presence of the Public Defense and other judicial institutions to monitor the government’s procedures. But Sara never actively participated in those spaces.
“We didn’t believe it (…). The 2011 census was like any other census, once again. They didn’t tell us that one day that census would help us have an apartment… or a different life… like open the tap and getting hot water’.
However, with time, the 2011 census certificate became the most precious document, the one that could guarantee, essentially, an improvement of the living conditions, the ‘hot water’. Eventually, even houses were sold ‘with the former owner’s census certificate’, as a strategy to transfer with it the ‘relocation right’.
Image 6: Villa 21-24 immediately after the relocation. Source: City Housing Institute (2014).
The first relocation began in 2013. The Housing Institute was willing to start from the western end of the villa, where the houses’ demolition would allow the extension of the coastal road, but the Delegates refused. San Blas was the newest neighborhood, ‘squattered’ in 2006. Although they held the same relocation rights, community criteria valued ‘seniority’, that in this case also meant longer exposure to pollution. Backed by the Public Defense lawyers, they convinced the government to relocate the families suffering critical health issues first. This meant starting from the middle, closer to Sara’s house.
In a process denounced for its limited community participation, between 2013 and 2015, 165 families would be moved to the ‘Padre Mugica’ complex, 11 km away from their original homes. However, those years are blurred in Sara’s memories. Around this time, Leonardo’s older brother is murdered by one of his longtime neighbours. When arrested, his relatives come out to threaten Sara and Leonardo’s family. So in an act of explicit survival, leaving all their belongings behind, they abandon their house. For the next few years, they will become tenants in Zavaleta, a settlement located next to the Villa 21-24.
From my reconstruction of the story, I know that Sara’s father moved to ‘Padre Mugica’ in 2015. According to Sara, by this time, Ángel was suffering from health issues, and their house, which before stood out for its spaciousness and comparative beauty, had deteriorated sharply. Because of the ‘imminent’ relocation, ‘new construction’ was banned by the government, and even emergency improvements were seen as a waste of resources. Angel’s situation did not go unnoticed by ‘el Choro’ and ‘la Pety’, the Delegates of Sara’s block. Mostly because of their claim, he was prioritized in the relocation, even though his house was not scheduled for demolition at this stage.
Sara remembers accompanying her father to some government meetings before the relocation. There she was able to tell her story to a social worker: she had been forced to leave her home, and although she was no longer living by the Riachuelo, she needed to secure her relocation right. The following years, she would tell her tale multiple times to different government employees, including the Public Defense lawyers. The Housing Institute finally gave her a ‘signed compromise’ where they guaranteed her an apartment in the ‘Padre Mugica’ Complex, which was still under construction.
During the five years she lived in Zavaleta, Sara had to move three times. She suffered the instability of the vast majority of tenants, aggravated by the informality of contracts. Fortunately, the new monthly rental costs were not a problem. By that time, Leonardo had a formal job that provided a stable income. At some point, Sara applied for a ‘housing subsidy’ from the local government. But she did that to reinforce her housing rights. ‘I asked for the subsidy because I was told that (…) if I left [the Housing Institute] alone and didn’t bother them (…) they would forget about me’.
However, this ‘active wait’ was long. Sara was meant to be relocated to the ‘Padre Mugica’ complex, but the government decided to cancel its construction when the building’s quality proved to be deficient. Learning from this failed experience, the Delegates mobilized to get the new houses built next to the villa. But even when they managed to get a bill sanctioned (Law Nº 5172/14), the construction was extremely slow. Four years passed by without progress.
Image 8: Sara’s housing story. Source: Google Earth (2020).
At the beginning of 2018, the Housing Institute carried out a new survey to update the 2011 census, although no new ‘housing rights’ were granted. This time, the relocation would begin from the San Blas neighborhood, but some ‘urgent’ cases would be considered.
‘And that’s when my aunt Elsa told me, ‘Sari, go find out because they already called me twice’. When I went, the guy told me that I wasn’t on the list. So I brought him the census certificate and the signed compromise’.
Unlike most families, whose fight had been to relocate closest to their original homes, Sara needed to move far from her former neighbors. ‘San Blas’ neighborhood was the best option for her. In that process, she surrendered yet again to State inspection, of which, this time, I was a part. She registered with her family in a new census. She told her story for the umpteenth time to the new government’s team. She participated in ten relocation workshops to meet her new neighbors. She voted to elect their ‘building’ leader. She actively argued to be assigned an apartment next to her son, Ezequiel, who by this time had his own child and therefore required an independent home.
I was there when, in January 2019, Sara signed the 30-year loan and her apartment’s deed. A week later, she finally moved into her new home.
Sara’s story is one about survival. In a country where only the wealthy can access housing through the market, Sara learned how to patiently deal with the State. She faced first the State as an absence: one that at least would not violently evict her from the house she self-procured but that provided little else. Later, the State became the inevitable intermediary, the one from whom to demand access to safe, secure and proper housing. A right granted to her as a way of exception, of which so few were beneficiaries. And in that process, she became a ‘patient of the state’.
But Sara’s waiting was also active. She toured countless public offices, reminding the ever-changing state employees of her story. Being registered on the 2011 census became her best narrative. But, as the 900 families still living by the Riachuelo prove, this was not enough.
Image 9: San Blas’s housing complex. Source: City Housing Institute (2020).
Excused behind budgetary constraints, the State demands the urban poor to be worthy of the public benefits. In a reinvented ‘meritocratic’ logic, it forces them to build their stories around ‘topics of misfortune’. Rights are granted according to a proven critical ‘urgency’. With a kinder face, the democratic State creates new categories to measure who ‘deserves’ and who ‘does not deserve’ to be benefited from the right to housing.
But Sara understood how to tell her story. She learned how to play the game. She strategically negotiated with the State and won. She showed she ‘deserved the city’.
Since 2016, the new local government has promoted upgrading projects in four of the city’s largest villas. The programs contemplated the construction of social housing for those affected by the construction of new roads and public spaces. Unfortunately, scarce resources were granted to incremental in-situ improvements. The delays in infrastructure works (water, sanitation and drainage) mean that, in the short term, proper housing is only guaranteed for those few relocated to the ‘new homes’. This time, different rules determine who is worthy of State benefits.
But no housing story ends with the relocation. Because living in the ‘formal’ city and paying the mortgage, services and public expenses create other challenges for the urban poor. And once the ‘urgency’ is resolved, the State tends to disappear.
Sara’s survivability (like many others) will undoubtedly be displayed thousands of times more.
Auyero, J. (2012) Patients of the State. The Politics of Waiting in Argentina. Duke University Press. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
Dadamia, R. (2019) ‘Asentamientos precarios en la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires’, Población de Buenos Aires., pp. 20–33.
Di Virgilio, M.M. (2015) ‘Urbanizaciones de origen informal en Buenos Aires. Lógicas de producción de suelo urbano y acceso a la vivienda’, Estudios demográficos y urbanos, 30(3), pp. 651–690.
Fainstein, C. (2020) ‘Problemas del mientras tanto: espera y justicia en la causa “Mendoza”.’, Avá, (36), pp. 165–193.
Lees, L. and Robinson, B. (2021) ‘Beverley’s Story: Survivability on one of London’s newest gentrification frontiers’, City, 25(5–6), pp. 590–613. doi:10.1080/13604813.2021.1987702.
Najman, M. (2017) ‘El nacimiento de un nuevo barrio: El caso del Conjunto Urbano Padre Mugica en la ciudad de Buenos Aires y sus impactos sobre las estructuras de oportunidades de sus habitantes’, Territorios, (37), p. 123. doi:10.12804/revistas.urosario.edu.co/territorios/a.4978.
Olejarczyk, R. (2017) ‘El tiempo de la (in)definición en las políticas de vivienda: De “tópicos del infortunio” a “saberes expertos” [The time of (in)definition in housing policies: from “clichés of misfortune” to “expert knowledge” ]’, Trabajo Social Hoy, 82(Tercer Trimestre), pp. 89–110. doi:10.12960/TSH.2017.0017.
Oszlak, O. (1991) Merecer la ciudad. Los pobres y el derecho al espacio urbano. Buenos Aires. Argentina.
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.
By Rita Lambert, on 18 May 2022
By Rita Lambert and Edurne Bartolome
Entrance of Mória Refugee Camp in Lesvos. Image source: Rita Lambert
As the EU welcomes tens of thousands Ukrainians fleeing war described by the UN as the largest humanitarian crisis Europe has seen since World War II, those escaping conflicts and hardships from places in the middle East or Africa, are denied similar humanitarian consideration and receive a more hostile treatment. Although the double standards and racialised approach of the EU and US has been criticised by many, limited attention is placed on the experience of these ‘other’ asylum seekers entering into the EU reception system. Almost a decade since the start of the 2014-15 crisis, that saw the world’s refugee population increase by about 9 million according to United Nations Refugee Agency data, important lessons can be learnt from examining how the EU’s policy has evolved and how it materialises in particular places.
Greece has been a major gateway into the rest of Europe. In particular, the five Greek islands closer to Turkey- Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos- are the first port of entry and thus major sites for refugees reception. The EU’s designation of these five islands as ‘hotspots’ in the Aegean Sea since 2015, means that refugees and asylum seekers that arrive on these islands cannot continue their journey into Europe and are instead taken to camps to wait for the outcome of their applications. After the signature of the EU-Turkey Statement in March 2016, the hotspots essentially became centres for returns to Turkey and provided for the automatic detention of new arrivals for up to 25 days in Reception and Identification Centres (RICs), even if an asylum application has been initiated. In many cases, the time spent in the RICs can extend by many months or even years before a definitive decision is made on the asylum application.
Dehumanising spaces and practices of the hotspot approach
Examining the trajectory of the hotspot approach, it is difficult to ignore the adoption of increasingly dehumanising spaces and practices and how these become institutionalised over time. Having visited the sites of the previous and current camps (in Lesvos- Mória Refugee Camp (figure 1) and its successor Kara Tepe; in Samos- Vathi Camp, the ‘jungle’ (Figure 2) and reports from the new Zervou camp; in Chios- Vial Refugee camp), as well as the proposed sites for new RICs, we see increased restrictions on camp dwellers’ movements, their isolation from the social and economic life of the islands, and restrictions that impact their agency and autonomy. The newest camps are even more disconnected, out of sight, and disempowering for migrants, who are spatially and symbolically bundled with all that is ‘unwanted’. In Lesvos for example, the proposed RIC is located by the largest dump site, while in Chios it will be built in a rocky, barren and water scarce area in the Northeast of the island. The new phase of the hotspot approach, based on establishing remote and inaccessible camps away from city centres, is condemning thousands of displaced people (of all ages and backgrounds) to challenges that impact their ability to act in the present and also plan their future.
Figure 1: Boundary wall of Mória Refugee Camp in Lesvos
Image source: Rita Lambert
Figure 2: The jungle outside Vathi camp in Samos
Image source: Edurne Bartolome
In Samos, the Zervou RIC has already been built. Despite numerous reports highlighting the dehumanising architecture and practices, it is hailed as the cutting edge of refugee reception and a prototype for others to emulate. The land is cleared of all trees and grass, tons of concrete has been poured to support the structures, and a gridded street layout facilitates surveillance and control. The environment is hostile and stark, devoid of social spaces or children’s play areas.
These RICs require considerable infrastructure investments to connect water, electricity, sewerage, and roads to their remote locations. The way they are planned clearly indicates their physical permanence. At the same time, they operate through a seemingly temporary logic. This logic is deeply problematic, as it manifests in processes that are dehumanising. This is evident in the practices adopted by RICs around food amongst others. Instead of preparing meals in situ, the camps depend on ready-made meals and a bottle of drinking water per person brought from outside. These meals do not always provide for a balanced diet and overlook recipients’ cultural or religious preferences. They also produce a lot of waste as one refugee highlights: “Every meal comes in a disposable container, so if we are getting it three times a day and there are 4000 people within the camp, that is 12,000 plastic containers that go straight to the island’s dumpsites every day since there is also no recycling”.
Despite the allocation of EU funds to meet camp dwellers’ needs, the food provided does not reach all who need it, and some might forego it because it is not in line with their religious beliefs. Hence many people still experience food and water poverty. Daily cooking in camps is prohibited. Accessing food is also difficult due to the limited resources asylum seekers might have, the remote locations of camps and the restrictions on movement. Asylum seekers and refugees are thus reduced to passive agents receiving food over months and even years, not being allowed to decide how to fulfil the basic human need of feeding themselves and their families. Moreover, the endless queues, held in cage-like structures, stretching for hours to receive the cooked food, contribute to the experience of dehumanisation, oppression, and control. As a refugee, who experienced life in the camps told us: “we have time for little else but queuing, it’s exhausting, demoralising and frustrating. Food can run out without everyone receiving their share and fights can easily break out in such a tense environment”. Authorities who work in the camp, as well as informal leaders within the camps, can exacerbate the unequal access to food and other supplies, also contributing to the experience of scarcity.
Rehumanising practices of solidarity care networks
Despite the fact that Greek authorities seeks to take full control of the refugee reception services, various NGOs and civil society organisations have stepped in as solidarity care networks to attend to the unmet needs of camp dwellers. Although discouraged, and sometimes criminalised by the state, the NGOs we met take the role of service gap fillers. They also play an important part to counteract the hostile experience in RICs and rehumanise reception for migrants. There is thus a dehumanisation-rehumanisation dynamic in place. This plays out between the space within the camps and the space just a few meters from the tall fences where NGOs can operate out of full view.
The NGOs and grassroots organisations we visited highlight the importance of food beyond its nutritional value. Food and cooking represent not only activities of one’s daily life, but are also implicit carriers of cultural and religious identity, deeply rooted in people’s daily practices and cultural codes. Cooking and eating together represents an important social moment where families sit and share their experiences and exchange thoughts. Food practices are acquired and transmitted through habitual socialisation processes, and find themselves at the core of culture. If families are prevented from cooking, and conversely, have to queue for prepared food, this daily cultural practice is interrupted, and a relevant part of identity and collective family life is negated.
To counteract this, the NGO Refugee Biryani and Bananas in Chios, delivers dry provisions, carefully selecting the type of food and tastes people want, so families have the ability and autonomy to cook. They can also choose the right moment for them to do so within the course of the day and eat according to their cultural codes. This is only possible where camps authorities turn a blind eye to cooking in camps or for those refugees and asylum seekers who have had the possibility to move to alternative accommodation outside the camps. When independent cooking is not possible and ready-made meals are the only option, the example of the NGO Zaporeak’s practice, displays a number of respectful considerations. Zaporeak hires people from the refugee community, who are trained and employed as chefs to cook food which is sensitive to people’s desirable tastes and customs. These NGOs take considerable care to build and maintain trust with asylum seekers, by providing a sense of predictability and fairness in the delivery process amongst other strategies. A lot of effort is placed on the micro-processes of re-socialising the experience of receiving food by exchanging smiles and greetings in the many different languages and by considerably shortening the length of queues, avoiding preferential treatment, and minimising the potential for conflict.
Although they fill an important gap, these NGOs are forced to adopt a temporary logic too, through practices based on emergency response rather than sustainable solutions that acknowledge that the displacement of people is here to stay. The supplementary cooked meals, for example, can only reach recipients if packed in disposable containers. This produces considerable waste which impacts the islands’ fragile ecosystem. As our interlocutors have also highlighted, when the process of supplying food is perpetually based on a crisis mode, opportunities to work closely with food producers and local vendors from the islands to enhance sustainability along the entire food value chain are missed. In the Greek hotspot islands, ‘crisis mode’ has been the dominant operational temporality for almost a decade now and is ongoing.
Image source: Rita Lambert
“We had to listen to people and adapt the type of meals we cook. Our flat bread is especially popular and now famous in Lesvos“ (volunteer from Zaporeak)
Image source: Rita Lambert
“People‘s lives are spent queuing, for food, for water, for the toilet, for permits… we seek to make the queues as short, as fair as possible, and provide essentials that people want“ (volunteer from RBB)
Working through the paradoxes of permanent temporariness
Dominant paradoxes are found within the hotspot approach, that have long term destructive consequences. Although hotspots give all indications of being permanent, their practices are still firmly lodged in the temporary logic of emergency. Consequently, this clash not only negatively affects asylum seekers and refugees’ mental health and self-worth, but also the islands’ fragile social, economic and ecological systems. The large amount of waste and intractable problems that this logic creates will accumulate over time on the islands but will also be felt across geographies, as the final destination countries will have to address migrants’ traumas that have been produced in the process.
The very conceptualisation and planning of the hotspots, and the RICs within them, through a permanent temporariness, is deeply problematic. The seemingly permanent, stark and controlling physical environment is socially violent and ultimately, dehumanising. Furthermore, the practices that are embedded in the temporary logic legitimise further dehumanisation to the point of institutionalising it with every iteration of this camp model. This also serves to deter newcomers and asylum seekers from remaining in the EU entry point and amplifies the message for those still coming to seek refuge, no matter their circumstances. It is therefore important to understand how the hotspot approach can become part and parcel of a hostile strategy for dissuading and preventing migrants from arriving into Europe. In this environment, we see that NGOs and grassroots organisations try to compensate through rehumanising practices. Despite their efforts, they are also forced to adopt a temporary logic that in turn can create unintended negative impacts. There is thus an intricate connective link between the top-down and bottom-up approaches. Although the two seem to be disassociated and to work in parallel, the top-down policies are preventing the bottom-up responses from becoming more sustainable.
Given that displacement of people due to conflict and climate change will continue, and is expected to grow across the globe in the following years, it is important to better understand the impacts of the hotspot approach as it guides the way that refugee movements will be dealt with more widely, producing rather than mitigating crisis. Many lessons can be drawn from solidarity care networks as they retain the flexibility, adaptability and creativity to respond to people’s shifting needs. The externalities produced by the present approach could be avoided if the role and lessons of solidarity care networks were recognised in EU policy and planning circles dealing with migration. The inclusion of these networks becomes vital to devise strategies for dignified, socially and environmentally sustainable refugee reception. Understanding the top-down and bottom-up approaches, their interaction and possibility for working together is key for enhancing a more just system.
This blog draws from the project ‘Understanding the impact of the ‘hotspot approach’ to tackle the refugee crisis on fragile island systems’ funded by the UCL Global Engagement Fund. The project is led by Dr Rita Lambert from the DPU-UCL, in collaboration with the University of Deusto (Dr Edurne Bartolome Peral) and five NGOs in Greece (Samos Volunteers, Zaporeak, Echo100 Plus, Glocal Roots and Refugee Biriyani and Bananas).
To cite this blog please use:
Lambert, R. and Bartolome, E. (2022) The paradox of refugee hotspots: De/Rehumanisation within logics of permanent temporariness, The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, University College London. Available online at: https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/dpublog/2022/05/18/the-paradox-of-refugee-hotspots-de-rehumanisation-within-logics-of-permanent-temporariness/
By Ignacia Ossul Vermehren, on 29 April 2022
By Fildzah Husna Amalina, Kirana Putri Prastika, Ignacia Ossul-Vermehren
DPU’s partner NGO Kota Kita, reflects on the role of documentary making as part of the action-research project Re-Framed conducted in two low-income neighbourhoods in Solo, Indonesia and Lima, Perú. The project aims to advance collective narrative construction, and to develop an ethical and practical framework for working remotely on visual outputs.
Facilitators from both countries joined a series of trainings and webinars led by DPU, and then conducted participatory sessions in a low-income neighbourhood in their city. Participants – female ad male residents from a range of ages – scripted, directed and edited their own documentary.
Source: Kota Kita
Reframing community’s stories
The process started with questions: “Why tell a story?” and “what story to tell?”. In the beginning, we wanted to encourage more conversations on what stories mean and what role they play in the community—and reflect on what kind of stories residents wanted to tell that reflected their own experiences and reality.
Kampung Ngampon is a neighbourhood that is located in Mojosongo, Solo, known for its bamboo birdcage craft. Ngampon is a dense neighbourhood in an urbanised area of the city, with a total population of 700-800 inhabitants. Most of the residents are birdcage makers and rely on home-based craft businesses for their livelihood.
We asked the participants: “What comes to mind when you hear about Kampung Ngampon?” “What do you want to tell others about your neighbourhood?” As challenging stereotypes and reframing narratives was a key part of the project. Some participants felt that a story that could reflect on gotong royong – an Indonesian term translated to togetherness and mutual cooperation – would be a good angle when telling a story about their solidarity within the neighbourhood. They wanted to share a story that could be an example for the younger generation in the community and, at the same time, make more people interested in learning about their neighbourhood. This process then was not about finding a story only for the film. It also came as an important reflection of the values they appreciate—from their togetherness as a community to their image as a birdcage makers’ neighbourhood.
The facilitation process acknowledged that each individual might have their own vision of a good story—and to ‘choose’ one out of many ideas wouldn’t be an easy task. We divided the participants into two smaller groups so that everyone could have more space to share their thoughts and explore their creativity. The first group wanted to tell a story about the reality they faced through one young character; meanwhile, the other wanted to show their community’s collective solidarity and togetherness as part of their identity. When discussing again in the larger group, the participants didn’t compete to pick only a single story. From two different stories they had identified, we worked collectively to prioritise, compromise, and decide on a general plot. We combined and incorporated the main messages and made them into one.
Doing a narrative-driven process was helpful because it provided a room for imagination in seeing the situation around us. It was not only about the challenging circumstances, but also about the possibilities. Eventually, in Kampung Ngampon, the film’s ending reflects a more hopeful vision of the community; as Bagus, the main character, put it, “From my perspective, the main message of this film is (for everyone) to keep up a resilient spirit and not give up. When there’s a will, there’s a way!“
Source: Kota Kita
Exploring Creative Approaches for Community Facilitation in Kampung Ngampon
When it comes to facilitation with the community, it is not only the participants who learn and gain something from the process. In Ngampon, the initiative provided an opportunity for the team of facilitators of Kota Kita to reflect on some of our current practices and what we can explore more.
Storytelling and videography as tools of sharing thoughts and aspirations in a more meaningful way—beyond social media posts they were already familiar with—were new for the community of birdcage makers we had worked with during the project. The sense of newness and their curiosity about the tools brought up their spirit in engaging and contributing to the dynamics of the discussion. The more practical filmmaking skill set that we exchanged throughout the training was something that the participants found challenging but also exciting to learn—which then ‘bound’ the participants to the end. During the discussions, imagining the visual output, for instance, in the storyboarding workshop, also helped encourage more imaginative ideas and visual forms of aspiration, which would have been more unlikely to come up from conventional facilitation methods.
The power dynamics between facilitators and participants was something we reflected together through the training and filming process. The use of stories as facilitation tools meant that the participants had enough room to shape and direct the story they wanted to tell. As facilitators, we usually position ourselves in a place where we have the control to structure the discussion, but still allow people to feel comfortable to participate. Through the process, we compromised and intentionally gave up our control to allow the narrative to be owned by/and created organically by residents.
Beyond a Film
In a participatory initiative, it is important to produce a collective output that is able to incorporate collective messages. The participants decided and shaped the story together, came up with the dialogue that best portrayed their daily interaction naturally, acted in the film, decided the angle and shot the video footage, assisted the editing process—they are not only part of the film, but also the filmmakers. As facilitators, we noted that having one output that the community can claim as something they owned is important to redefine that participatory process is not always used only for conventional ‘data collection’ as part of a research whose the result may not be directly ‘rewarding’ for the community.
In the end, it is not only about the film. The overall process was also a learning opportunity. The discussions have enabled a space for reflection for the community about their own narrative and what they wanted to share with everyone else through the film. It was also a capacity-building experience not only in the sense of technical skills, but also a space to strengthen their collective awareness and agency—while, of course, having a lot of fun together in the process.
Source: Kota Kita
Re-Framed is an action research project led by DPU´s Dr. Rita Lambert, Dr. Ignacia Ossul-Vermehren and Alex Macfarlane. Its objective is to advance collective narrative construction through remote, participatory documentaries, and to develop an ethical and practical framework for working remotely on visual outputs produced by urban dwellers in low-income neighbourhoods. The implementing partners are NGO Kota Kita in in Solo, Indonesia and CENCA in Lima, Peru. The project received funding from DPU’s Internal post-COVID research initiative.
Fildzah Husna Amalina and Kirana Putri Prastika work at NGO Kota Kita, a non-profit organisation based in the Indonesian city of Solo with expertise in urban planning and citizen participation in the design and development of cities.
By Marissa Lam, on 9 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.
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.
Whilst the theory of spatial justice is complex and multifaceted, simply put, it links the notions of social justice and space. Centrally, spatial justice encompasses the equal and equitable distribution of, and the ability to use, socially valued resources within a space (Soja, 2009:1). Adopting a spatial justice lens reveals the nuances of spatial injustice within a space. Within the context of community gardens, spatial justice considers the elements necessary to investigate hitherto overlooked barriers towards (re)producing a diverse and inclusive community garden for everyone as it comprises and considers both ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ space equally. It examines who can access different spaces within community gardens and how individuals can participate meaningfully in such spaces. For instance, the spatial design may not be inclusive for everyone, impeding the diversity of users as some cannot access the space. By way of illustration, despite aiming to be universally inclusive, Calthorpe remains inaccessible to certain older people, preventing them from enjoying the green spaces that community gardens offer. Whilst Calthorpe’s ‘wild garden’ provides gardening opportunities to improve wellbeing, it is hidden away. The secretive element makes this space attractive to children, but for older people, the paths to reach the ‘wild garden’ may present difficulties to exercising their right to use this space. Consequently, some less physically mobile people may feel excluded as the paths and gardening plots are not designed to enable wheelchair access. Additionally, whilst clear signage is desirable for all users, they are particularly useful for those with impaired sight. As Calthorpe’s existing signage is small and not always easily visible, this may reduce the engagement of visually impaired older users as they may not be able to navigate the space independently.
What can Community Gardens learn from taking a Spatial Justice Perspective to their Governance?
Spatial (in)justice manifests in various ways and for community gardens, there are some ‘easy fixes’ that can help them move towards achieving spatial justice. Through a spatial justice perspective, practical steps that community gardens can adopt include looking at how the benefits and burdens in society may impact diversity and inclusion and therefore have ramifications on users’ wellbeing and participation in these spaces. Taking a spatial justice approach to the unjust and uneven development of community gardens can both reveal how people’s experiences of the space can impact wellbeing, and consider the less tangible aspects of the spatial experience. Diversity and inclusion in community gardens manifest both tangibly, whether there are physical barriers to participating, but also intangibly, through the feeling of belonging. To demonstrate, a survey found that a ‘community feeling’ is fostered at Calthorpe. This survey also spotlighted a group of Latin American women who explained how gardening at Calthorpe provided them the opportunity to become more independent, learn to use London’s buses and expand their social circles. Additionally, the sense of belonging cultivated extends further than the Latin American group. A broader community appeal exists as most of the ‘family allotments’ at Calthorpe belong to local residents of various nationalities. Survey respondents expressed ‘feeling at home’ at Calthorpe and having a ‘strong sense of ownership’, cultivating good spatial justice and wellbeing.
A spatial justice framework can provide insights for community gardens when designing or planning their space, whether it be to increase the diversity of people able to access the space or to diversify the voices of those partaking in decision-making processes. By understanding how space relates to justice, community gardens can scrutinise the different facets that produce the space: for example, evaluating how spatial design, physical accessibility and cultural factors impacts the wellbeing and participation of people in community gardens.
Practical learning taken from this research on Calthorpe highlights the many ways in which a community garden can facilitate the (re)production of a diverse and inclusive space. By placing diversity and inclusion at the heart of its core values, Calthorpe emphasises the importance of providing a welcoming environment for all users by opening the space to everyone irrespective of background to enjoy its diversity and benefits. It also provides an office where people can ask questions. What’s more, the abundant greenery and benches throughout Calthorpe’s space fosters a tranquil environment for older users in particular. Community gardens can also enhance the engagement of visually impaired users by providing them with the ability to manoeuvre through the space autonomously. As aforementioned, having large and visible signage is also essential.
Offering opportunities for users to garden or participate in activities independently can increase both the diversity of users and increase their feeling of inclusion through fostering strong social bonds. Calthorpe offers numerous age-specific activities, such as ‘walking football for ages 55+’ and ‘meditation for ages 60+’. Such activities can encourage wellbeing and participation through the creation of an environment that allows older people to carry out a range of activities adapted to their specific requirements.
Moreover, requisites to establishing a community garden that feels welcoming includes both the construction of a positive culture and ensuring that the different spaces within and across it are physically accessible. Whilst a community garden may in theory be open for all, certain areas may remain inaccessible for some socio-demographic groups. For example, narrow and uneven paths without handrails may reduce navigability for those with reduced mobility, presenting difficulties for them to exercise their right to use the space.
Nonetheless, there are simple design modifications that can improve access. For instance, adapting spaces by raising container beds enables less physically mobile users to participate as fully as possible in gardening. Community gardens that foster environments where people can work with others can create a sense of belonging as collective gardening is said to build social capital and enhance community cohesiveness, thereby improving wellbeing overall. Research has highlighted that a sense of belonging can also be cultivated through the inclusion of users in the decision-making process. Whilst Calthorpe currently does not have a formal systematic procedure to facilitate the inclusion of users and for community groups to raise issues or voice relevant concerns, implementing procedures such as an anonymous suggestions box may enable participation and provide opportunities to include previously overlooked voices.
Nevertheless, extrinsic forces that should be considered in an analysis of spatial justice include the distributive injustices at play in the wider geographic area where a community garden is situated. For example, the monetisation of community gardens in the UK can negatively impact on their diversity and inclusion. As an illustration, Calthorpe is unable to extend their opening hours due to funding constraints from the local council, restricting access to this socially valued space. Whilst this may impede spatial justice, community gardens may be creative in finding solutions. For instance, community gardens could potentially capitalise on the surrounding population, drawing on volunteers to oversee the organisation and running of activities. By actively engaging with local communities, community gardens may be able to overcome some of the many constraints they face.
Soja, E.W. (2009). The city and spatial justice. Justice spatiale/Spatial justice, 1(1), pp.1-5.
By Marina Kolovou-Kouri, on 23 February 2022
Blog originally published by LSE
In light of the recent forced evictions of squatter settlements in Yangon, this blog serves as a reminder that, beyond the grave human rights violations, significant living heritage is being lost. Informal housing practices are entangled with the city’s development, history, identity, and resistance. A women-led collective housing model is presented as a pathway that enables the preservation of that heritage while also improving people’s access to material, social and political capital, writes Marina Kolovou Kouri
Forced evictions of squatter settlements have a long and multi-layered history in Myanmar, most notably Yangon—its largest city attracting rural migrants and people fleeing conflict or natural disasters. Several months into the February 1st 2021 coup, local administrators across Yangon started distributing eviction notices to dozens of settlements, following orders of the State Administration Council. Within days or weeks utmost, informal dwellers were ordered to demolish their houses and leave the areas they occupied. Fearing violence and arbitrary arrests, thousands of people in different townships started disassembling their homes from roadsides, industrial zones, and along railway tracks. Beyond the evident human rights violations such evictions constitute, another much less discussed dimension of this punitive displacement is the loss of significant living heritage.
Understanding heritage in Yangon continues to be relatively narrow, rarely extending beyond colonial buildings, and usually accompanied with an emphasis that Yangon is the last metropolis in Southeast Asia with such a large stock of colonial architecture. At the same time, informal practices of producing space continue to be misrecognised and deliberately erased. This refers not only to housing but also to informal labour and the progressive displacement of street vendors from certain neighbourhoods. There are many reasons for such erasure, including the dominant view of informality as having no place in a ‘modern’, ‘clean’ and ‘beautiful’ city. To a great extent, such representations are internalised, making it difficult to identify heritage that is not seen as worthy, even by its own carriers.
Informal settlements as living heritage
One of the premises of our research project that began in 2019 has been to frame informal settlements as an integral part of Yangon’s living heritage. The application of the living heritage concept on such types of urbanisation has been relatively rare, yet it allows to unpack important elements. The emphasis of living heritage on continuity—of use, community connections, cultural expressions, and care (Poulios, 2014)—can potentially equip us with an additional argument to contest the displacement of such settlements. This is attempted not only from a ‘strategic’ (ibid.) perspective, i.e., as a compelling entry point to engage with different stakeholders, but also as a way to encourage urban poor communities to re-evaluate their own practices and environments and recognise their value from a heritage point of view. In this short blog, I attempt to present (some) aspects where we can locate living heritage within informal housing practices.
Figure 1: An informal roadside settlement in Yangon (photo by author)
Starting from the affective dimensions, one point Alawadi (2016) raised is that place attachment should justify preservation even if the physical attributes of a place do not comply with conventional understandings of heritage. Reinforcing this idea, Jones (2017) notes that the social value of heritage may not be linked to the physical fabric at all. Various scholars argue that living heritage resides just as much in meanings that people attribute to their environments and practices and in memories tied to places and communities. By all definitions, informal settlements constitute sites of living heritage for enacting a collective identity, bearing different imaginations, aspirations, and untold stories.
Besides that, informal dwellers are integral to Yangon’s complex history of development, shaped by the movement of people in all directions, in many cases by force. Successive waves of evictions from the center outwards, the city’s restructuring around new employment zones, and rural-urban migration flows have played a defining role in the proliferation of informality in peripheral areas. Hence, these communities can be viewed as sites containing the imprint of the dynamics that transformed Yangon and Myanmar more broadly. Informal dwellers are carriers of the history of these defining moments that are critical to document and understand to shape more inclusive visions for the future of Yangon.
These sites also hold the knowledge of people’s coping strategies with adverse circumstances, relying on ‘informal’ arrangements to navigate exclusionary systems. Engagement with poor communities has time and again revealed practices that carry a lot of wisdom that is somewhat lost in the obsession for ‘universal’, one-directional development. This can be construction techniques, unconventional use of materials, or vernacular ways to adapt to climate change. What we find in the peripheries of Yangon resonates strongly with what Shafqat, Marinova, and Khan (2021) document in a settlement in Pakistan, namely that informal urban settlements are “places of rural remnants, reservoirs of regional cultural heritage […] that are brought to the urban realm by rural migrants.”
At the same time, informal settlements have been significant hubs of either subtle or more heads-on resistance against different oppressive regimes of Myanmar. For example, soon after the popular uprising of 1988, hundreds of thousands of so-called squatters were evicted from areas where resistance was organised (Kyed, 2019). This disproportionately harsh treatment is a testament to their role in the pro-democracy movement. This is seen again today, with the urban poor being at the frontlines of the opposition through the organisation of protests, strikes and otherwise support of the revolution, which has revived the regime’s same old strategy to punish them with evictions.
Lastly, informal dwellers have played a vital part in shaping a regional housing movement. Urban poor communities have been organizing in different ways to resist evictions and dispossession. Many have also been active in putting themselves on the map by doing enumerations and using that information to leverage service delivery and resettlement support. In addition, urban poor networks and their allies have been influential advocates for better housing, finance, and land access. Notably, low-income women have been at the forefront of a community-led housing practice that managed to gain recognition from the government after a decade of operation and will be discussed below.
Enabling continuity through a collective housing practice
All these qualities and significance of informal settlements for Yangon’s heritage do not outbalance the precarious living conditions of their dwellers through multiple forms of exclusion. A pathway that allows and encourages the preservation of said living heritage while also improving people’s access to material, social and political capital is encountered in a grassroots-driven housing model supported by a small NGO and a citywide women’s network. This practice is built on the principle of collectivity, from how people pool their funds through savings groups to how they organise, find land, design and construct their houses, and build their infrastructure.
Figure 2: One of the collective housing projects in the outskirts of Yangon (photo by author)
First, this housing approach allows for long-term continuity of use—simply put, people’s dwelling and livelihood strategies. The threat of displacement discouraged people from investing in their homes—not only financially but also in putting the care and time into creating comfortable living environments. Yet, we see a radically different motivation to improve their habitat once they feel a sense of permanence. Securing land and housing gives them both the mental space and the actual means to plan for their future. Starting from basic structures, people incrementally transform their units, and continuously upgrade them as their needs and capacity change.
Another aspect is the continuity of cultural expressions and the valorisation of people’s ways of life. This manifests just as much in their physical environments as in their daily practices. For example, the familiarity of housing typologies—in contrast to high-rise public housing—allows them to forge deeper connections to their communities and use their spaces for more than just shelter. People establish home-based businesses, grow their food in front of their house or communal gardens, pass on the knowledge of their traditional games and customs to the children, share their stories and recipes. Moreover, social and religious events are organised and celebrated together, continuously nurturing their collective identity.
The scheme also cultivates community connections. It brings people together, who, although not necessarily familiar with each other from the start, grow into tightly knit communities. The practice of collective savings is a vehicle through which members establish trust, share accountability, and foster relationships across a citywide network of women’s groups. These connections enable the exchange of knowledge, practices, strategies, and experiences, reinforcing their solidarity and self-recognition.
Fig. 3 An artwork depicting a typical meeting of a women’s savings group (photo by author)
Lastly, this grassroots-driven practice allows people to rebuild mutual support systems, which often suffer either from the actual act of displacement or even from the threat thereof. These systems of care are an infrastructure that, especially the urban poor, are very much reliant on since they are often excluded from social services. Collective action and shared responsibility strengthen people’s bonds over time, leading to descriptions of the community as a big family. Parents help each other with childcare; neighbours dedicate time and labour to assist someone upgrading their house; they support each other in sickness. Such networks are critical to people’s sense of resilience, confidence, and safety.
This housing practice continues to survive during the ongoing crisis, largely thanks to these infrastructures of care and collective organisation. The same cannot be said about thousands of households that faced forcible eviction over the past few months. Many communities have had no choice but to scatter, with some returning to their villages and hometowns, while others have tried finding different corners of the city to set up what was left of their houses, with the promise of “meeting again when this is over.” The extent to which the re-conceptualisation of informal housing practices as living heritage would be a convincing argument against their displacement, at least during the ongoing crisis, is rather faint. Nevertheless, as more and more settlements are being forcibly evicted across many towns and cities, it is important to underline that there is more at stake than a housing and rights crisis. What is at stake are also memories, practices, bits of knowledge, livelihoods, networks, friendships.
Alawadi, K. (2016). Place Attachment as a Motivation for Community Preservation: The Demise of an Old, Bustling, Dubai Community. Urban Studies, 54(13), 2973–2997. doi.org/10.1177/0042098016664690
Jones, S. (2017). Wrestling with the Social Value of Heritage: Problems, Dilemmas and Opportunities. Journal of Community Archaeology & Heritage, 4(1), 21–37. doi.org/10.1080/20518196.2016.1193996
Kyed, H. M. (2019). Informal Settlements and Migrant Challenges in Yangon. Moussons, 33, 65–94. doi.org/10.4000/moussons.4909
Poulios, I. (2014). Discussing Strategy in Heritage Conservation. Journal of Cultural Heritage Management and Sustainable Development, 4(1), 16–34. doi.org/10.1108/JCHMSD-10-2012-0048
Shafqat, R.; Marinova, D.; Khan, S. (2021). Placemaking in Informal Settlements: The Case of France Colony, Islamabad, Pakistan. Urban Science, 5(2), 49. doi.org/10.3390/urbansci5020049
 This work is part of the research project “Yangon Stories: Living heritage as a tool to prevent spatial violence” led by Dr. Catalina Ortiz, Associate Professor at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, University College London.
This work was presented as part of the Roundtable event: ‘Living Heritage and Urban Informalities: Perspectives from Southeast Asian Cities’ hosted by the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre in collaboration with the Development Planning Unit at UCL and the Urban Salon. A video recording of the event is available to view here.
*Banner Photo by Eric Stone on Unsplash
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the author alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
By Nelly M Leblond, on 14 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.
By Aishath Green, on 9 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/
By Ignacia Ossul Vermehren, on 24 November 2021
On International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Ignacia reflects on the importance of securing women´s safe spaces for female refugees and asylum seekers and shares her experience working with refugee women in Samos, Greece, one of the five EU designated ´hotspot islands’ with newly imposed restrictions on refugees.
Photo credit: Author
Women and girls have less access and power in public spaces than men. The creation of safe, female-only spaces has been a key counterspace created for women to feel safe and for feminist movements to organise. In humanitarian contexts and emergencies – in which the existing social networks and institutional structures disintegrate – safeguarding women and girls’ rights is crucial. In this context, Women and Girls Safe Spaces (WGSS) have become a strategic intervention to protect female refugees. In a male dominated environment, they aim to create a place safe from violence, but also safe to connect cognitively, intellectually and emotionally, to receive psychosocial support, create solidarity amongst women from different countries, and claim rights.
Adult women represent a fifth of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Europe. This smaller overall proportion (in the last 2 years, 42.6% are male, 23.1% are women and 34.3% are children), has been explained by the risks and the high cost that the journey entails, with young men opting to travel first and then reunite with their families. Although Greece has been one of the preferred points of entry to the EU, the designation of five islands – Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos – by the EU as ‘hotspots’ in the Aegean Sea means that refugees and asylum seekers that arrive on these islands cannot continue their journey into Europe, but are instead processed there, often waiting indefinitely for the outcome of their applications.
In addition to the current Covid restrictions in Greece, the controversial new EU-funded Reception Centre in Samos – a closed space, with double barbed wire, metal detectors and a strict entry and exit policy – has drastically reduced the possibility for women to access female-only safe spaces, legal advice and health care outside the camp.
What do WGSS do for female refugees and asylum seekers?
Female refugees are at high risk of gender-based violence, exploitation, and human trafficking. This is an issue that civil society organisations, alongside asylum seekers, have been campaigning for across Europe. In this context, WGSS aim to provide:
“(…) physical spaces where women and adolescent girls can be free from harm and harassment. They are also places where women and adolescent girls can gain knowledge and skills; access GBV response services or other available services, and foster opportunities for mutual support and collective action in their community.” International Rescue Committee-International Medical Corps
The ultimate aim of WGSS is to foster transformational change, serving as a counter space within a larger unequal space, such as in humanitarian settings. Specifically for GBV interventions, evidence of WGSS around the world shows that safe spaces for women and girls represent a key intervention and entry point for meaningful access to lifesaving services for GBV survivors seeking access to case management and psychosocial support services hosted in the WGSS.
Holding the space for women and adolescent girls within new Reception Centre restrictions in Samos island
There are at least two spaces dedicated exclusively to female refugees and asylum seekers in Samos, both of which are managed by NGOs: WGSS from Samos Volunteers and We Are One Centre from Glocal Roots. Both spaces have been operating for several years and have adapted to the needs of female refugees and the changing situations for refugees in the island. Until September 2021 (when refugees were transferred to the new Reception Centre), both WGSS catered for thousands of women that lived in the ‘old camp’ just outside of the city of Vathy.
In the last 2 months however, women’s access to these spaces has been drastically reduced. The new Reception Centre – one of five multipurpose reception and identification centres – was built in an isolated area 6km away from the city centre, far from services and NGO support, and has reduced the possibility for women to access WGSS. In this context, holding the space is not only creating and maintaining a physical space for women, but also advocating for these spaces to exist.
Since 7th November, Covid restrictions in Greece stipulate that a vaccination pass is required to enter any building. However, the camp only vaccinates once a week and women have said that they need to arrive at 6am as the doses available are limited, and then they need to wait 2 weeks for the certificate. Most importantly, on 17th November, further restrictions were introduced in the Reception Centre further reducing women’s possibility of leaving the camp.
The Reception Centre operates with a card reader and metal detector. The new restrictions affect new arrivals who have to wait between 1 to 2 months for vaccination and an ID card; people with a second rejection in their asylum claim, whose card is taken from them and who are waiting for legal aid to make a new case or to be sent back; and people with residency whose card has also been taken until they are allowed to leave the Reception Centre.
The Reception Centre’s drastic restrictions measures means that women – the majority from Somalia, DRC and Afghanistan – have very few places to congregate. Each container sleeps eight people (two bunk beds in each room and a kitchen). There are no communal spaces in the containers. There is a football pitch which women do not use, and a communal area, mostly occupied by men. Where do women meet in the camp? What places do they find safe? It is hard to know. Women are just getting used to this new arrangement. Some women find solidarity with women from their same country of origin, as they share the language and everyday practices.
Providing a space that can foster solidarity, empowerment or even just a basic nurturing environment which is free of violence has been severely constrained. And so, amidst the uncertainty, holding the space is fundamental.
Dr. Ignacia Ossul-Vermehren is an Associate Staff at Development Planning Unit (University College London) and is currently based on the island of Samos, Greece.
By Nick Anim, on 18 November 2021
Read Part 1 here.
Mainstream environmental movements in Occidental countries such as the UK have long been challenged by what I call a ‘chronic affliction of diversity deficiency syndrome’. A consistent criticism levelled against them is that of ‘elitism’, which comes with a charge that their activists tend to be predominantly White, middle-class, well-educated, and post-materialist people who often have the time, space, and wherewithal to engage in environmental activism. Implicit in that charge is that environmentalists are constantly preoccupied with, for example, the conservation of nature and the increasing parts per million of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but otherwise characteristically silent or seemingly apathetic to the hostile environments billions of people endure and navigate daily due to a variety of persistent and durable inequalities (Cf. Tilly, 1998; Morris, 2000).
Relatedly, from my research exploring the perennial challenges of inclusion and diversity in glocal environmental movements, movements which ‘think globally and act locally’ on issues of environmental degradation – case study the Transition movement – a question that I have wrestled with is ‘do environmentalists have a problem with social justice?’
Introducing that question in my previous piece (Anim, 2021a), I signposted research by various political theorists and urban planners which problematise and challenge the widely-held assumption that environmental sustainability and social justice are not only interconnected, but also interdependent in a relationship of mutual reinforcement on the same virtuous circle of development (see, for example, Dobson, 2003; Marcuse, 1998). Theories and debates examining their immanent antagonisms, tensions, ambiguities and universal compatibility notwithstanding, my longitudinal autoethnographic research of, and hence activism with, diverse environmental movements and organisations, indicate that two recent global events – the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations – ushered in something of a critical inflection point regarding how, and perhaps even more importantly why, movements for environmental sustainability should try to build solidarity across differences with groups fighting against persistent issues of racial and social injustice, in order to achieve their shared demands for systems change.
Against the backdrop of social justice grievances being filtered through the lens of racial justice and propelled to the fore by those two recent events, I reflect in this piece on trying to help the Transition movement (TM) better understand and address its diversity deficiency syndrome, and consider how the movement has been recalibrating its notions and narratives of environmental transformations to include concerns about social justice.
Transition and the collective action dilemma of ‘all lives matter’
Since its emergence in 2006 as an environmental movement predominantly concerned about peak oil and energy descent, the TM has always been in transition; a real-life, real-time global social experiment that periodically revises its principles and core-values through iterative processes of learning and unlearning. Based on its ideological roots and references to the principles of permaculture, the TM’s community-led model for change has frequently emphasised the importance of diversity as a segue to encouraging local Transition groups to engage with matters of social inclusion and, relatedly, social justice. However, in practice, the approach adopted by many groups has, at best, been passive and, at worst, non-existent. My research suggests that for many activists drawn to the movement by its defiantly positive solutions-based approach, and its staunchly apolitical stance, ‘wicked problems’ of social and particularly racial injustice are often seen as far too political and divisive, especially in our current moment of polarising identity politics.
Advising on that reticence to engage in race matters and why matters of race matter in environmental matters, I have, in numerous presentations and workshops delivered to various Transition groups and other environmental organisations since the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent BLM protests, argued that to demote, sidestep, hold at arm’s length or strategically swerve persistent matters of racial and social injustice in the dogged apolitical prioritisation of ecocentric resilience and sustainability, is to appear well-adjusted to injustice, well-adapted to indifference, or to live in cognitive dissonance.
On that last point of living in cognitive dissonance, an apolitical stance that is grounded in the post-political conditioning and configurations often deemed necessary for the disciplining role of consensus-building in environmental activism, betrays an ignorance borne of and maintained by a social, moral, and epistemic imaginary of self-deception and structured blindness. And that, as Charles W. Mills has argued, reveals an implicit ‘agreement to misinterpret the world’ (1997:18). Seen as non/mis/mal-recognition, that approach functions to effectively filter out any empirical evidence about the durable inequalities that conspire to create and perpetuate social and, relatedly, racial injustices. Such self-deception and structured blindness are axiomatic in the recursive and pervasive ecologies of wilful ignorance intrinsic to the colour-blind perspective within environmentalism’s, and hence environmentalists’ de facto ‘all lives matter’ entry point. Yet, ‘all lives matter’ is a promise, an ideal, that is yet to be met. And yet, it must be met. And therein lies an inescapable collective action dilemma – the recognition of difference. Aristotle was right; there is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals. In the context of the BLM protests, ‘all lives can’t/won’t matter, until Black lives matter’.
When allied with power and the ‘invisible knapsack’ (McIntosh, 1988) of race privileges in the unsettled multiculturalisms (Hesse, 2000:2) of countries such as the UK, it becomes clear that the wilful ignorance of colour-blindness, understood as an active and dynamic perspective formed through processes of knowing designed to produce not knowing, is, in the words of James Baldwin, ‘the most ferocious enemy justice can have’ (2007: 149). The silence of wilful ignorance, colour blindness, ‘all lives matter’, is a form of power too. With the power and privilege to speak or act in the face of others’ distress and injustice, to remain a silent bystander, to bear silent witness, is to be complicit. Silence is violence.
Transition’s (a)political pivot?
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, and during the BLM protests, the organisational body of the TM released a statement of solidarity, expressing an ambition to do much better and much more to “become a movement which actively supports social justice and amplifies the work of Black and [B]rown communities striving to create a safe, resilient and regenerative future for all people, [and] to bring clearer focus to the huge shifts urgently required of the Global North if we are to deliver anything remotely resembling climate justice for Black and [B]rown communities in the Global South” (McAdam, 2020).
Overall, the statement captured perhaps the most explicit suggestion of a paradigm shift intention by the TM since its inception. In its entirety, it appeared to orientate the TM towards adopting a more political stance, and a proactive, rather than passive, approach to social justice. How, since then, has the movement operationalised those intentions?
Transition Bounce Forward: (re)locating social justice in the Transition Movement
Following the TM’s BLM statement, the ‘Transition: Bounce Forward’ (TBF) initiative was set up with the express ambition of helping local Transition groups advance its paradigm shift intentions. I joined the nascent TBF team to advise and help assess how emerging Transition projects could better understand and then engage with issues of social justice, looked at through the varifocal lens of race, class, and other constructs of marginalisation.
Under the momentum of that paradigm shift thinking, we, the TBF team, designed and delivered the ‘What Next? Summit’, a series of online events that were held over a three-week period. We grappled with challenging topics, questions, and conversations about the intersections between justice and the environment, and how Transition groups might navigate issues of inclusion and diversity in their community-engagement approaches. For several sessions of the Summit, we platformed and amplified the work of Black and Brown community organisers, as well as projects focused on the concerns of marginalised groups. In my research and activism with the TM, it appeared that the Summit marked a pivotal moment in the movement’s approach to issues of social justice (see, Anim, 2021b).
To say the Summit ‘appeared’ to mark a pivotal moment for the TM is to simultaneously acknowledge and suggest that time will, ultimately, be the arbiter of integrity and success. In that respect, it is also important to question how the visions of paradigm shifting that were widely discussed and promoted during the Summit, have cascaded down to the ways Transition groups are reaching beyond ‘the usual suspects’, their choir of adherents.
To help Transition groups navigate issues of inclusion and diversity in their locality, TBF offered a course on ‘engaging with difference in collaborative community organising’. A key focus was on learning and unlearning to encourage activists to develop an approach to community engagement practices that put connections first by building relationships through trying to understand the lived experiences of disparate community members. With this approach, the course aimed to prompt and help Transition groups to pursue collaborative projects that bring together social justice and environmental sustainability.
It is noteworthy here that although the course was fully funded and open to all Transition groups in the UK – just under 300 – less than 10% of the groups took up the offer. Whilst bad timing and availability of activists were given as the main reasons for the low uptake, the question about environmentalists having a problem with social justice looms large.
In my study of Transition Town Brixton (TTB), guided by my research findings and the discussions during the ’What Next? Summit’, as well as the TBF community engagement course, we conducted some visioning exercises that involved numerous interviews with diverse members of the community, and four online workshops under the umbrella question of ‘What If Lambeth?’ to establish how people envisioned the borough in 2030. Focusing on four themes – food, enterprise, community spaces, and fashion and music –the resulting visions, captured in the composite sketch below, begin to encapsulate our recalibrated ambition of ‘inspiring local action for a sustainable and socially just future’. Whilst there is much more work to be done in relation to what I call ‘hot-button issues’ such as racist policing and the politics of urban poverty, the paradigm shifting has begun.
To conclude this piece, the question of whether environmentalists have a problem with social justice and, perhaps more specifically, issues of racial justice, is one that has long plagued mainstream environmental movements in Occidental countries such as the UK. Regardless of how accurate its analysis of the situation is, no movement can survive unless it is constantly growing and changing. Therefore, it is vitally important, from time to time, to engage in a dose of critical self-inventory. Why? If a movement is unwilling to expose itself and its ideas to some scrutiny and criticism, then it will not grow or succeed. In that regard, the TM has, even if morally coerced to do so by the zeitgeist resulting from recent events, embarked on a journey that I believe will help it become more relevant to different groups beyond its usual adherents. That is especially important in the unsettled multiculturalisms of urban agglomerations where there are often imbalances in available resources, cultural heterogeneity, ethnic and/or class tensions and transient populations. Though the organisational body of the TM, and indeed other environmental movements such as Extinction Rebellion, have seemingly embraced a ‘justice pivot’, many activists remain reticent. It is, therefore, the duty of the core movement organisers to help activists understand why their fight for environmental sustainability and matters of justice are intertwined and inseparable in the long quest for ‘systems change, not climate change’.
Having mainly focused here on the ‘how’ factor of the TM’s efforts to address matters of social justice, I propose, in my third and final piece under the titular question ‘does environmental sustainability have a problem with social justice?’, to look at ‘why’ I believe environmentalism should not be pursued in dogmatic isolation, and hence movements for environmental sustainability should try to build solidarity with social justice groups.
Anim, N., 2021a. Reflections from the frontline: Does environmental sustainability have a problem with social justice? (Part 1). The Bartlett Development Planning Unit. Access via: https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/dpublog/2021/04/01/reflections-from-the-frontline-does-environmental-sustainability-have-a-problem-with-social-justice-part-1/
Anim, N., 2020b. The What Next Summit: a pivotal moment for social justice in Transition? Transition: Bounce Forward. Transition Network. Access via: https://transition-bounceforward.org/the-what-next-summit-a-pivotal-moment-for-social-justice-in-transition/
Baldwin, J., 2007. No Name in the Street. 1972. New York: Vintage.
Dobson, A., 2003. Social justice and environmental sustainability: ne’er the twain shall meet. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world, pp.83-95.
Hesse, B. ed., 2000. Un/settled multiculturalisms: diasporas, entanglements, transruptions. Zed Books.
Marcuse, P., 1998. Sustainability is not enough. Environment and urbanization, 10(2), pp.103-112.
McAdam, S., 2020. Black Lives Matter: A statement written collaboratively by the Transition Network team…Published 6 June 2020. Accessed via: https://transitionnetwork.org/news/black-lives-matter/
McIntosh, P., 1988. White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack.
Mills, C.W., 2014. The racial contract. Cornell University Press.
Morris, A., 2000. Building blocks of social inequality: a critique of durable inequality. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 42(2), pp.482-486.
Tilly, C., 1998. Durable inequality. University of California Press.
By Naji P Makarem, on 24 September 2021
Authors: Naji Makarem, Étienne von Bertrab and Alessio Koliulis
This year our students in the MSc Urban Economic Development embarked on our Overseas Practice Engagement (OPE) by focusing their attention on the Tren Maya project in Mexico, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)’s flagship development project. The Tren Maya project is poised to connect and develop 19 towns and cities in the Yucatan Peninsula, the South-East region of Mexico. Students were split into six groups, with two student groups focusing on the potential impact of the train on three distinct locations: Mérida, one of the region’s largest cities, San Francisco de Campeche, a smaller port city with a run-down economy, and Xpujil, a small community planned to become an urban centre.
Students found themselves immersed in literature about Mexico and the Tren Maya as well as primary research in the form of stakeholder interviews, conducted with our partners at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana – Xochimilco, a prestigious public university in Mexico City. They also participated in a series of professionally-interpreted live sessions with stakeholders based in Yucatan and Mexico City. This allowed live interaction between our international students and stakeholders without language being a barrier.
Current route of the Tren Maya and proposed stations. As with the overall project, the route is having modifications as excavations reveal valuable archaeological sites, technical challenges are reassessed, but also as the project meets social and political resistance in some locations. Image: FONATUR
What makes this research particularly interesting is the wide spectrum of stakeholders we engaged with, from indigenous Mayan and environmental activist groups concerned about the social and environmental impact of the project, to government and international development representatives who believe the project is unique in Mexico’s history with its pro-poor approach. AMLO, who is originally from the region, claims that this project is different to past development projects that have been widely seen by the people as exploitative and destructive of the environment. Will this project be any different? This question to a great extent has shaped the research of UED MSc students at the DPU.
In San Francisco de Campeche, the organisation Colectivo Tres Barrios has opposed the relocation of their homes and brought successful appeals. A recent decision to relocate the station means the train will no longer enter the heart of the city and hundreds of residents will continue to live in their traditional neighbourhoods. Photo: Arturo Contreras (Pie de Página)
It became very apparent that Mexico’s contested history has left its mark on the region in the form of dis-trust of the government and economic actors, including trans-national corporations, and for good reasons: the development model has so far benefitted only a few and the territory has been significantly altered at the expense of local communities, affecting traditional ways of life and of seeing the world. While the government aimed to have (for the first time in the country) an indigenous consultation process for the project in late 2019, it did not meet the standards to ensure a prior, free, informed and culturally adequate consent. Subsequently, the decision to involve the army in its construction, and in the running of the train, has triggered further concerns. The government claims the decision aims at impeding a privatisation of the train in subsequent administrations, something that can be understood considering the country’s troubled past with highly corrupt and problematic privatisation of infrastructure and services.
Some indigenous communities are concerned about losing their lands and communal ways of life, and others are concerned about environmental devastation which they anticipate from a reduction in transport costs for commodities in the region, through the unsustainable extraction of finite natural resources and unsustainable agricultural practices that cause deforestation and pollute the land and waters with toxic chemicals such as synthetic pesticides. Another concern is the anticipated growth in tourism which in the region’s main tourist centre, Cancún, has brought a significant increase in crime and inequality. The question of development for whom and how became a cross-cutting concern of all six research groups.
Will the Tren Maya project simply perpetuate the inequality, violence, and environmental degradation characteristic of past tourism-led development projects in the region, or is this indeed a new era for Mexico where development is aligned with the needs of people and the environment? Anti-capitalist movements such as the Zapatistas (the EZLN) would argue that all state and corporate interventions in the region disrupt their autonomy and are by the very nature of the capitalist system exploitative and violent. They want to expand horizontal models of self-determination outside the domain of state institutions. Other indigenous groups and community organisations echo these concerns which at some level resonate with many Mexicans but are open to engaging with the project to ensure it respects and promotes their way of life and their environment and that it creates meaningful opportunities for their communities.
While sceptical in a context of high levels of distrust in government and corporate institutions, interviews with community leaders shed light on their cautious optimism as they imagine ways they and their communities could benefit from the Tren Maya and the opportunities it may bring to them. The people in the region are predominantly in favour of the Tren Maya when framed as a yes or no to the project in principle. This the government argues is proof of support for the project.
Many national and transnational companies are involved in the project, considered the largest ongoing infrastructure development project in Latin America. The winning consortia for building the trains themselves ensured these will be built with significant national components in Mexico, in the impoverished state of Hidalgo. Photo: Government of Mexico.
What the community organisations have done is carve a wedge between this black or white approach and shed light on the all-important question of how. It is not simply a question of building the train line or not, it is a question they argue of whether the project will ultimately benefit the people or not, which is determined by the intentions and plans and ways of thinking of those implementing the project and its associated development strategies and initiatives.
Our students quickly understood the significance of their engagement and sought to bridge gaps of understanding and dialogue between indigenous community and environmental groups on one hand and the government institutions and their international development partners such as UN Habitat, on the other.
UED will continue its OPE working on the Tren Maya project for the next few years, as it accompanies the project and hopefully contributes to achieving its noble stated aims.
We want to thank all our team: Professor Violeta Núñez, Rocío Itzel Sánchez, Rodrigo Migoya, and DPU alumna Sofía Fernández, in Mexico, our translator, DPU alumnus George Azariah-Moreno, Jing Zhang, and each of our students in the cohort 2020-21, for their meaningful engagement despite the remote nature of this first year of the OPE. They are listed below in alphabetical order: Aisha Abdi, Aya Aboelenen, Ellen Ahn, Izzudin Al Farras, Saad Alsabah, Abdullah Arshad, Juliano Cavalli De Meira, Mao Chen, Qingya Cheng, Chung Ching Lo, Armando Espitia Arevalo, Tanyeli Guler, Heesu Jeon, Tanya Kasinganeti, Adha Khazina Kazmi, Tatsunari Kubonishi, Fasheng Liang, Hope McGee, Consolata Ndungu, Yasin Omar Ashley Richardson, Hoodo Richter, Amin Rirash, Qi Ru, Yasmeen Safaie, Shamira Sendagala, Shuqi Su, Genevieve Sundaresan, Alia Tolba, Yan Xu, Jiaying Xue, Xinyue Yi, Binyu Wang, Siyu Wang and Dixuan Zhao.