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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


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

By Haim Yacobi, on 21 April 2020

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

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Stay at Home’: Housing as a pivotal infrastructure of care?

By ucfurti, on 6 April 2020

Co-authored by Catalina Ortiz and Camillo Boano

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

“people survive difficulty by coming together as communities of care, not pulling apart in a retreat into individualism”  OluTimehin Adegbeye, 2020

“Housing is a condition to the right to life” Laia Bonet, 2020

Yangon public housing – Catalina Ortiz

It is always difficult to write something meaningful when the categories we often adopt are not sufficient to grasp the severity and the globality of the present condition. In pandemic times, the linchpin strategy to prevent the spread of disease relies on a ‘Staying at home’ mantra of securitization and immunization. But staying home proved to be a privilege not feasible for many and social distancing impossible for the majority of urban inhabitants.

This universal measure allows inequalities, vulnerabilities and structural perversions to emerge more violently. Now, more than ever, the centrality of housing and the practices of living are fundamental for population’s care and health. While many are interrogating on the future, if any, on the post-, and the surely extreme consequences at economic and political levels, the zeitgeist calls for fostering radical care.

In this short piece, we want to expand our understanding of the interdependent nature of housing and urbanism as well as possible directions for guiding the synergies of efforts of response and recovery.  The departing point for global solidarity, we argue, needs to frame housing as the pivotal ‘infrastructure of care’ for surviving in the present and for reimaging the future of cities.

What if we rethink housing as the key infrastructure of care?

The crisis has releveled as ‘essential’ not only the invisible precarious workers that sustain the maintenance and care that make cities operate; as well as, the gendered reproductive labour that sustain the collective responsibility of care. Care refers to “an affective connective tissue between an inner self and an outer world… and as a critical survival strategy” (Hobart & Kneese: 2020: 2). Here, housing conditions represents a matter of life and death and mediates the relations between individuals and societies.  We can think housing as ‘infrastructure of care’ inasmuch as the networks of solidarity in the proximity or from afar contained in the practices and tactics to sustain wellbeing. Here the infrastructures of care is what allows to weave “the individual body, the social body, and the body politic” (Neely & Lopez, 2020: 1). As a result, thinking on housing in a COVID-19 present is thinking on embodied, relational and affective cartographies of the space in our inhabiting practices.

In this context, as Hobart and Kneese (2020) remind us “care is unevenly distributed and cannot be disentangled from structural racism and inequality” (8). In some of our work we thought on inhabitation “as a form of care that emerge from the overlapping, simultaneous, and incremental encounters with and between different people, places, and services, and the spatial practices that develop to endure and maintain life” (Boano & Astolfo, 2020: 222), “support one another to sustain a meaningful life […] where the socio-political tensions are one challenge and the lack of governmental refugee policies is another (Yassine, et.all, 2019). The ‘Stay at home’ rhetoric is exacerbating racial and class prejudices, producing an uneven emptying of cities from certain bodies but also the filling of bodies in domestic spaces not all apt for healthy and peaceful coexistence. This crude reality urges us to call global solidarity to leverage the ‘Stay at home’ to champion the right to the adequate housing and the right to be in the city.

The pandemic resurfaces the existing housing crisis

Havana Alamar – Catalina Ortiz

The UN has shed light on an “international housing crisis” (Farha, 2019; Rolnik, 2013), from volatility of housing systems, to evictions, overcrowding, unaffordability, substandard conditions, homelessness, and displacement (Fields & Hodkinson, 2017). But the pandemic resurfaces a housing crisis not tackled systematically across sectors and now a becomes a long overdue duty.

Urban homes are part of a complex system, the outcome of many interdependent elements interacting within the city as a connected whole. Rediscover the centrality of the domestic dimension is to re-discover its political potential of housing as the central role in any society reveals how it contains many of the global challenges of the current urban condition and its possible futures: rapid urbanisation, inequalities, segregation, informality, resource depletion, ecological crisis, displacement and migration, privatisation, financialization, securitization, economic development, ageing, health and well-being.

Much of this is concentrated in cities of the Global South where a ‘second wave’ of global urbanisation is occurring and where inadequate housing puts at risk political, economic and ecological urban futures (Simone & Pieterse, 2017). Some estimate at 330 million the number of urban households living in sub-standard housing or facing financial strain, while in many cities a vast proportion of households and individuals resort to living in ‘informal settlements’ with no secure tenure and poor basic services.

The response has to enact a healthy recovery

This unprecedented challenge requires also inedited responses for building a long term progressive response to bring about healthy and more equitable cities. Housing, according to World’s Health Organisation’s Social Determinants of Health, along with infrastructure, socio-economic conditions, and social exclusion, are key determinants of population health. Therefore, an adequate response can only come from inter-disciplinary, cross-sectoral, situated and trans-regional knowledge, new paradigms of practice as well as new institutional capacities.

Such capacities are sorely lacking, particularly in contexts where specialisation and the action of governments has tended to become fragmented and siloed. Globally, but especially in cities of the Global South, housing policies have failed to respond adequately. This failure is at least partially due to a narrow conception of housing leading to policies that either worsen housing problems or create new ones (Monkkonen, 2018). Unidimensional approaches to housing have perpetuated policies that fail to adequately deal with marginalisation and environmental deprivation and racial capitalism (cf. Madden & Marcuse, 2016; Fiori, 2014; Gilbert, 2004; Goodchild, 2008; Martin et al., 2015).

Being both a commodity and a right, a new examination of housing requires a complex systemic approach to untangle this vast and multidimensional challenge, addressing simultaneously the domestic scale and broader political, institutional and financial issues. Thinking housing as infrastructure of care seeks to capture urban living as a dynamically complex system to help shape urban form and influence urban life.

Periurban Yangon – Catalina Ortiz

Survival unite us and a collective vision guide us

The COVID-19 present urge us to lure our collective imagination to enact a vision of the future we want to shape posing the ethics of care as a transversal axis. Inscribed in already agreed common goals contained in the international agendas such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we propose the following vision and objectives:

In thinking housing in this transformative time we call for urgent actions to develop an adequate response that lay the foundation for a housing, infrastructure of care, that helps foster non-discrimination while promoting equitable, low-carbon forms of livelihood creation and sustainable development, as well as physical and mental health and well-being.

A recovery that enacts:

  • Improved urban governance for spatial justice (SDGs 5-17): Urban governance operates at different scales through an ecosystem of formal and informal institutions where the state, civil society and private sector actors negotiate regulatory frameworks and practices around the production and use of housing. However, major gaps exist in understanding the complex multidimensional nature of housing within the urban development conditions. We need to push for open access spatial data on housing and harvest the myriad situated co-produced knowledges of different networks across regions.
  • More just financial mechanisms and markets for land and housing (SDGs 8-12): ‘Markets’ are a core component of housing, relating to how land, finance, materials, construction and sales are accessed and valued. Nonetheless, we experiment lack of consistent definitions, situated data and geographical evidence on the links between housing production, land, infrastructure and labour markets. We need to activate trans regional and trans disciplinary networks for policy and practices and resistance exchange.
  • Better living conditions for migrants and people in temporary housing (SDGs 8, 9, 13,16): Temporary dwelling is the result of conflict, disaster and economic shocks that is why we need to better understand of how state institutions, civil society, businesses, community organisations and people themselves respond to crises. But we witness a lack of capacity of housing institutions and decision makers to address housing inequality and affordability. We need that humanitarian agencies and a broad range of stakeholders to develop new forms of collaboration with practitioners, researchers, and activists.
  • Improved urban resilience and physical and mental health through housing (SDGs 3, 5, 16): In most cities, mental and physical illness and premature death are disproportionally concentrated in poor communities and ethnic minorities in as much as the links between housing and health are understood in relation to dwelling features. However, the long term state withdrawal and poor governance has caused the abandonment of housing as a political urban process. We need to push for the kind of institutional transformations to enable structural improvements in both housing and health and shifting urban politics towards more healthy cities.
  • More energy efficient -low-carbon-, innovative and sustainable housing (SDGs 7, 9, 12, 13): Cities across the world perform like linear metabolisms where housing and built infrastructure have a fixed design life expectancy. An appreciation of the city as a ‘circular metabolism’ will further the transition towards a more sustainable and inclusive future, with nature and non-human environments. Nonetheless, we have dysfunctional policy-action systems for housing provision producing energy intensive consumption. We need advocacy for innovative modes of housing production in Global South cities.

Opening an uncharted territory of infrastructures of care

Central Havana – Catalina Ortiz

Thinking housing is to transform the way we think we inhabit the bodies, the collective and the city. The COVID-19 present urge us to rethink, radically our housing future as it is the way we are inhabiting the word (Boano & Astolfo, 2020). Stay at home, at least the in the meaning we want to provocatively frame it here, is not to be interpreted with its a shut-up, privileged immunological meaning, but more stay-with-home as to re-centre home as the significant infrastructure through which we care of each other’s and out cities and territories. Re-centre housing in its global significance as infrastructure or care is to think the problems (economic crisis, migration crisis, ecological crises, violence) from another framework.

If, on the one hand, housing has returned to the centre, at least in the simple public imagery of the pandemic, inhabiting needs a continuous rethinking outside of contemporary nuclear living, governed and imposed by states. Care practices have always emerged in time of crisis, and thinking housing as infrastructures of care is materialising resistances, as adaptations, as desires and networks. It is an attention to bodies and spaces, is revisiting rhythms, collectives, redefining proximity, and coding new positive passions, but also re-inventing spaces and finding new trajectories.

We are all scared of a ‘new normal’ being presented to us, we are also scared of ‘getting back to a normality’ that was complicit if not the whole problem. We have to inhabit the present, inhabitation is a form of caring (Boano and Astolfo, 2020). To live is to be present is caring the present.


* Note – Some excerpts are adapted and come from a collaborative research proposal for GCRF on Housing Hub led by DPU, UCL.

Works cited:

Boano, C., Astolfo, G., (2020) Notes around hospitality as inhabitation. Engaging with the politics of care and refugees dwelling practices in the Italian urban context. Migration and Society: Advances in Research, Vol.3, pp: 222–232.

Corburn, J. (2015), ‘Urban Inequities, Population Health and Spatial Planning’, in Barton, H., Thompson, S., Burgess, S., and Grant, M. (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Planning for Health and Well-Being, London, Routledge. and Grant, M. (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Planning for Health and Well-Being, London, Routledge.

Farha, L. (2017), ‘Commodification over community: financialization of the housing sector and its threat to SDG 11 and the right to housing’, Civil society report, Spotlight on Sustainable Development.

Fields, D.J. and Hodkinson, S.N. (2017), ‘Housing Policy in Crisis: An International Perspective’, Housing Policy Debates, 28(1): 1-5.

Fiori, J. (2014), ‘Informal City: Design as Political Engagement’, in Verebes, T. (ed.), Masterplanning the adaptive city: computational urbanism in the twenty-first century, London, Routledge.

Gilbert, A. (2004), ‘Helping the Poor through Housing Subsidies: Lessons from Chile, Colombia and South Africa’, Habitat International, 28(1):13-40.

Goodchild, B. (2008), Homes, Cities and Neighbourhoods. Planning and the Residential Landscapes of Modern Britain, Hampshire, Ashgate.

Hobart, H and Kneese, T. (2020). Radical Care: Surviving Strategies for Uncertain Times, Social Text 142, p. 1-16 .

King, R. et al. (2017), ‘Confronting the Urban Housing Crisis in the Global South: Adequate, Secure, and Affordable Housing.’ Working Paper. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

Lancione, M. (2019) Radical housing: on the politics of dwelling as difference, International Journal of Housing Policy.

Marcuse, P. and Madden, D. (2016), In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis, New York, Verso. Martin, R., Moore, J., and Schindler, S. (eds.) (2015), The Art of Inequality: Architecture, Housing, and Real Estate. A Provisional Report. New York, The Trustees of Columbia University.

Monkkonen, P. (2018), ‘Do we need innovation in housing policy? Mass production, community based upgrading, and the politics of urban land in the Global South’, International Journal of Housing Policy, 18 (2): 167-176.

Neely, A. & Lopez, P. (2020) Care in the Time of COVID-19, Antipode online blog, retrieved at:


Rolnik, R. (2013), UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, ‘Guiding Principles on Security of Tenure for the Urban Poor’, UN doc. A/HRC/25/54.

Simone, A. and Pieterse, E. (2017), New Urban Worlds: Inhabiting Dissonant Times, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Yassine B., Al-Harithy, H., Boano, C. (2019) ‘Refugees Hosting Other Refugees’ in Ouzaii (Lebanon): Endurance and Maintenance of Care. The Journal of Refugee Studies.

Urban economics in the time of Covid-19: What happens when the thing that makes cities great also makes them dangerous?

By ucfuap3, on 1 April 2020

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

Many of the world’s most iconic cities are in lock-down. Bustling public places have emptied overnight. As the images below show, Times Square (New York) is eerily quiet, traffic disappeared from the streets of Shanghai. Even the pigeons are staying away from St. Mark’s (Venice).

Image sources: New York Magazine, Reuters, and thejournal.ie

This physical distancing is a vital response to Covid-19. To reduce the human cost of the crisis, we must ‘flatten the curve’ and slow the speed of the spread of infection to a rate that will not overwhelm our health services.

Yet physical proximity is also what makes cities great. As urban economists love to say, it makes cities ‘engines of economic growth’. The theory is that density boosts productivity through three forms of ‘agglomeration economies’: ideas and new technologies spread much more quickly (learning); workers and companies have more choice, so they are more likely to do things they are good at (matching); and we can use resources more efficiently (sharing).

So, what happens to cities when it is dangerous for people to be close to one another?  In what follows I’ve set out some ideas and questions. These are not predictions, just thoughts that I hope can stimulate a productive conversation. Please share your experiences from where you are in the world.


Paris, Madrid, Washington and Rome: Urban Change begins at Home?

Imagine how many people in London are currently sitting at home, deliberately avoiding each other. Covid-19 has caused millions, no, billions, of people to alter their behaviour in unprecedented ways. The closest parallel is the Second World War; although, as memes like the one below jokingly remind us, we may want to keep the level of sacrifice demanded in perspective.

The last weeks, however, have felt more like sprint up a steep technological learning curve than a break on the couch.  Along with my colleagues, I’ve had to pivot to deliver teaching, research, and pastoral responsibilities from home. And we are not alone: universities across the world have gone virtual; companies of all sizes have introduced remote working; and even hospitals have shifted some functions online.

Will this change the way we work in the long-term? We may rush back to the office once the crisis is over. After all, predictions in the 1980s and 1990s that technology would transform our economic geography largely failed to materialize. Even as it became technically possible to live and work in different places, demand for face-to-face contact remained.

Yet things may be different this time. The technology we’re scrambling to adopt has existed for a while. The big change is that we’ve been forced learn how it works. As a recent randomized control trail found, the benefits of remote working can come as a surprise to companies and employees, something we can only realise if we try it out.

Perhaps even more importantly, we are doing this together.  After all, there is no point in getting to grips with new technology if you can’t convince others to learn it with you. It also means that the number of people thinking seriously about the downsides of remote working and looking for ways to mitigate them is expanding as well. Managers are trialling measures to keep teams connected and ideas flowing, and there has been a proliferation of advice on mental health (mostly serious, some hilarious).

In short, while I don’t think I’m alone in saying (to my surprise) that I miss the office, I can also imagine reaching for remote working tools more easily once this is over. If that’s true for many, or if companies demand it, other changes could follow. People may not abandon the city just because they started working from home 3 days a week, but they may reevaluate where they want to live within cities. If commuting times become less important, the persistent global trend of sky-rocketing downtown rents could start to reverse.


Bowling alone: will the appeal of cities change?

In the opening line of a seminal paper, Edward Glaeser and others state that the “future of the city depends on demand for density”.  This demand, the authors argue, does not only come from jobs. People are also attracted to the range of goods – commercial, aesthetic, public – that cities can provide.

Will Covid-19 change this? Fear of mass outbreaks could impact our leisure choices. One of the great benefits of cities – that you can find enough kindred spirits to make your favourite hobby viable, whether it’s theatre or a specialist yoga class – may disappear. If physical contact with strangers is scary, the draw of big city lights may start to dim.

We may also start to pay more attention to our neighbours. Anonymity is one of the hallmarks of big cities: we move through our day without acknowledging most of the people around us. Ironically, however, the current quarantine underlines that do not actually live in isolation; we are connected, for good and for bad.

On the good side, we’ve seen mutual aid groups spring up all over the world. On the bad, the realization that our safety is in other people’s hands (or at least hand washing, as well as where they go and who they interact with) can lead to fear and suspicion. At its most ignorant and extreme, this manifests as violent xenophobic attacks.

How might these changes affect city life? Fear may lead communities to find ways to stop strangers moving in, whether in the form of promoting people they know or discrimination against ‘outsiders’. These shifts could accelerate socio-spatial inequality, since, as Raj Chetty and others show, neighbourhood quality is central to life opportunities in cities.

Hopefully the future is brighter, and a rise in contagious diseases is not the new normal. Yet important shifts may nonetheless be occurring. Online shopping through companies like Amazon is booming as high-street shops close. This presents a public policy challenge, since high-street shops anchor public spaces and thus have considerable social value. While some are optimistic that new uses for this land will arise, these are goods with ‘positive externalities’, which markets notoriously underprovide.

To end on a note of optimism, one factor working in favour of cities is that more remote working could lead to improvements in urban air quality.  In the current crisis, carbon monoxide indicators in New York are down 50 percent. Since air pollution is a major ‘cost’ of living in cities, improvements may help make urban areas more attractive places to live.


How will the situation differ for cities in the Global South?

The WHO recently warned that Covid-19 will hit the world’s most vulnerable hardest. Since the mortality rate of the virus cannot be separated from health and social protection infrastructure, it seems devastatingly inevitable that the impact will be severe in the Global South.  It is too soon to reflect on the long-term outlook. Yet given the trends discussed above, divergence seems likely.

In cities like Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), where my recent research has been based, most households live in one or two rooms that they rent from a live-in landlord. They may share their toilet with 13 or 14 other people.  Work is largely informal and social support, such as sick-pay or unemployment benefits, are rare. Social distancing may be unfeasible. Remote work will be an option for only a minority.

Instead, those who can may well leave the city. Although we still know too little about urban mobility trends in the Global South, one insight from the 2014/5 Ebola crisis in West Africa was increased movement between urban and rural areas. Yet as with Ebola, this may further spread the virus.

As such, movement may not translate into a longer-term shift in urbanisation trends.  Life in cities in the Global South can be tough, but as long as is wages and urban amenities are higher than in rural areas, people will continue to be drawn to them despite a precipitous decline in living conditions. This, combined with a global recession that now looks inevitable, means that we must urgently look ahead and anticipate the new ways that urban, national, and international policymakers can support people and livelihoods.

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

By ucfumio, on 26 February 2020

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

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

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


Photography: Making research more accessible

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

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

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


rATA survey: Measuring gaps and tracking progress

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

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

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


Mainstreaming disability in urban research: The role of grassroots organizations

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


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

How Research Creates More Inclusive Spaces: Bar Elias, Lebanon

By h.baumann, on 12 November 2019

Co-authored by Joana Dabaj

Originally published by UCL Institute for Global Prosperity

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

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

A Town Transformed

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

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

Participatory Planning

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

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

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


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

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

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

(c) CatalyticAction – shade from recycled materials


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

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

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

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

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

(c) CatalyticAction – rehabilitated green space

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

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

(c) CatalyticAction – mural painting

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

Next Steps

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

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

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

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

(c) CatalyticAction – new shaded seating area with mosaic

Further Reading:

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

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

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

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

What is Citizen Science? London Prosperity Board

Launching a Citizen-Led Prosperity Index, Bartlett 100

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

Taste of Cement

By uclesen, on 16 August 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Housing, displacement and the elderly: intersectional spatial narratives from Tareek el Jdeede, Beirut

By Camillo Boano, on 26 June 2019

By Monica Basbous, Nadine Bekdache and Camillo Boano

The current habitability crisis, the failure of progressive policies to consider the way cities adapt to different forms of displacement and resisting the three interrelated venomous practice of expulsions, extraction and externalisation are clear to everyone engaging with urban spatial practices. Displacement is a key characteristic of the urban present that requires interrogations across different geographies and with different methodological approaches. This short contribution stems from a current research partnership between Public Works Studio and DPU in the remit of the RELIEF Centre Project to study the effects of real estate policy and the financialisation of housing markets, which have resulted in the eviction and displacement of the most vulnerable social groups in Beirut turning the capital city into an exclusive, unjust and vulnerable place. The brief reflections below stem from the first part of the study, focusing on the eviction of the elderly in the neighbourhood of Tareek el Jdeede in Beirut, and were presented last week in London by Nadine Bekdache, Monica Basbous, Abir Saksouk and Camillo Boano in the symposium “Vulnerability, Infrastructure, and Displacement: The role of Public Services, in Lebanese spaces of Migration”.

Methodologically, the research develops housing narratives and spatial stories that, situated within a larger research, are narrated as the crossing point between the impact of market-driven urban development on housing rights in the context of Lebanon, and the strategies, opportunities, expectations and disappointments of elderly women in mitigating evictions, displacement and the social security of their families. Housing stories and diagrams were investigated with design research and drawings that were published on The Housing Monitor an interactive online platform for consolidating research, building advocacy and proposing alternatives to advance the right to housing in Lebanon.


Dwelling in Tareek el Jdeede

In this phase of the study, we examine the eviction of the elderly in the neighbourhood of Tareek Jdeede and in the wider city. Although today’s urban transformations in Tareek Jdeede may seem similar across most of Beirut’s neighbourhoods, the urban history and socio-spatial make-up of each neighbourhood determines a particular set of interactions, strategies of resilience, housing typologies and vulnerabilities. 

Mazraa – the larger administrative zone containing the neighbourhood of Tareek Jdeede – gathers around 30% of Beirut’s tenants living under the old rent law. These tenants – whose contracts were established prior to 1992 – have been subject to case-by-case eviction through a candid reconfiguration after the civil war that aligned the interests of local bureaucrats with real estate development[1]. Yet with the new 2014-rent law, evictions became a city-wide condition. Many of Tareek Jdeede’s old-rent tenants, today aged 45 and above, have been evicted or threatened with eviction at an increasing rate (Public Works Studio, 2015-2017). Among these, the elderly (and the retired) carry as a social group a set of particularities that places them at odds with state housing policies, which are basically reduced to homeownership loans. They also face the threat of displacement in the absence of social housing programs and with limited social-security benefits. The elderly in some neighbourhoods are nonetheless protected by family connections and attract charity organisations that are often affiliated to sectarian institutions. When it all fails, displacement has severe impacts on the elderly’s ways of life and on their physical and mental health well-being. While their relocation generates a number of possible scenarios, we focus on two cases: on the one hand, a case of eviction and relocation within the neighbourhood; and on the other, a case of eviction and relocation to a distant suburb. Through these case studies, we set out to investigate two main questions: in what ways do urban processes and property frameworks impact the displacement – and more generally the housing conditions – of vulnerable social groups? And what urban and architectural forms are being generated as a result of housing-related displacement?


Em Yumna and Em Hassan graphic stories 

Em Yumna and Em Hassan lived a few meters away from one another, yet they had never met. While Em Yumna’s eviction led to her displacement outside of the city, Em Hassan managed to relocate across the street from her previous dwelling.

Em Yumna was 14 years old when she moved from Beqaa to live in Beirut. She had married a young Berjaoui man who worked at a company in the city, and they settled in one of the small homes of Ras Al Nabaa in the mid-fifties. A year or two later, the country would be shaken by a series of earthquakes. Entire villages collapsed in Chouf Al Aala and Iklim, and Em Yumna’s house in Ras Al Nabaa came apart. In 1957, the young family packed up their belongings and moved. At the time, Em Yumna did not intend to spend the next 55 years of her life in that little three-room house atop Zreik Hill in Tareek el Jdeede. 

Em Yumna was evicted in 2012 when the owner made a development agreement with an investor to demolish the 3-storey building, and moved to Barja, a town located 35 kilometres south of Beirut. Her social relations and daily activities were severely ruptured, as they revolved around practices in the alley behind her house.


In 1982, Em Hassan, aged 18, moved from the neighbourhood of Noueiri to Tareek el Jdeede with her two children. Originally from the south of Lebanon, she married a relative of hers who resided in Beirut. Today, Em Hassan is in her late fifties, and continues to live in the same quarter of Tareek el Jdeede, but in a different house, after she was evicted from her previous home in 2016. A real estate company bought the building in 2011, and Em Hassan agreed to evict, using the compensation money – in addition to other resources including a loan from a religious institution – to buy the adjacent house. By doing so, she bought into a shared property, which is by itself another form of vulnerability.

Between her two dwellings lies a small courtyard that holds the past, present and future of Em Hassan’s housing. One can find her there every afternoon, having coffee and a cigarette, while at her right lies the window of the house she lived in for 34 years but is no longer hers, and facing her, the door of the house that allowed her to remain in the city. After having lived as an old-rent tenant for decades, Em Hassan’s eviction led her to buy her new home as her only means of resisting displacement. 

Em Hassan’s courtyard (1982)


Em Hassan’s courtyard (2019)

The similarities and differences of these two cases allow us to draw a comparative analysis, looking at the impact of both the process and destination of displacement on evicted elderly and their wellbeing, by looking into the following questions: what means do the elderly have to resist displacement and what role do socio-spatial networks play in this dynamic, especially in the case of Tareek Jdeede? Does relocation within the same neighbourhood mitigate the negative impacts of eviction on the elderly and how? How do eviction, displacement, and spatial typologies impact the socio-spatial practices of the elderly, their mobility and their relation to the neighbourhood? 

Reflections from the comparative analysis

Despite accessing housing for most of their lives through rent, the perception associated with property ownership as the primary means of achieving socio-economic and housing security, prompted both women to seek homeownership after eviction through mobilising a complex web of resources. The capital required to attain homeownership is tightly enmeshed with the relocation options available for these elderly women, and provisions for their children were deciding factors in this decision-making.

Nonetheless, the sense of security that homeownership might bring is accompanied by multiple forms of precarity and vulnerabilities. There are no affordable options to buy in the city where new unaffordable high-rise buildings are replacing the older fabric. As such homeownership for the aspiring middle class has mainly meant displacement from their city to nearby suburbs in the making, usually chosen in conformity to sectarian affiliations or origins. In contrast, the working class access substandard housing in the city, usually in the urban fabric built before 1992 that is threatened with sudden changes emanating from real estate investment or planning implementations. In the meantime, the gap between housing conditions is widening in the city. This takes a heavier toll when the same evicted units are used to exploit politically and economically vulnerable groups, particularly refugees and their families, whereby developers grant them temporary housing in order to generate profit while retaining the power to evict them spontaneously to proceed with building demolition.

Other forms of vulnerabilities linked to the production of housing in Lebanon manifest in the making of the suburbs. Apart from the poor urban planning practices resulting in environmental and spatial injustices in urbanising suburbs, the arrival of the displaced to these towns sheds light on the psychological violence exerted. The elderly endure the crumbling of social networks and support systems, the difficulty in fostering new ones, the reduction of mobility and autonomy, the deterioration of health, the loss of spatial references, and consequently the loss of sense of place and belonging. Concurrently, it was intriguing to observe how the urban morphology – spatial typology or density- can impact the building of social ties. Em Yumna was unable to adapt to her new surroundings in the suburbanizing town of Barja. Sparse urbanization and lack of accessible mobilities have led to feelings of alienation, which pushed her to seek a different spatiality for socialization: the grocery-store by the side of the road. This is echoed by Em Hassan’s husband who also opened a shop in the city, primarily as a means to socialize after the neighborhood was progressively emptied of its older inhabitants.

Through this study, we situate urban evictions beyond the confines of the city, shedding light on an emerging territorial dynamic between inner-city neighbourhoods undergoing waves of eviction and radical spatial changes, and the suburbanising towns that are hosting displaced households. Along this process, the myth of homeownership as a secure form of housing is revisited in its relation to poor urban planning practices and precarious ownership frameworks. These cases both present narratives that portray housing in the city as an access point to vital economic resources, in a context where urban space is commodified and financialised, both in practice and in discourse. They also highlight the importance of socio-spatial networks for the elderly – and the urban and suburban processes that threaten them – whereby the understanding of home takes on a larger, more social dimension than that of the physical domestic space. 

Urban density as economic resource: Em Hassan’s son and his service business

Looking further into the vulnerabilities associated with homeownership, we will next investigate how the legal framework for inheritance in Lebanon perpetuates women as minority-shareholders in collectively inherited properties. Our previous research has shown that these women are often the only shareholder still living in the inherited property but have limited negotiating power and constrained agency over their housing conditions and their susceptibility to displacement.

Through an in-depth study of such a case, the next phase of our research will aim to identify the social and legal conditions that systemically place female heirs in a position of weakness regarding the future of their dwelling.


[1]“Evicting Sovereignty: Lebanon’s Housing Tenants From Citizens to Obstacles”, Nadine Bekdache – Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015 – p.p. 320-350


Monica Basbous is an architect, designer and urban researcher. Producing maps, images and writings, her work tackles questions of urban mobility, informal spatial practices, politics and representations of space, and speculative geography. Monica teaches architectural design at the Lebanese American University since 2017, and is a researcher and partner in Public Works Studio since 2016. She holds a MSc. in Architecture from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.

Nadine Bekdache is a practicing designer and urbanist and co-founder of Public Works Studio. She researches socio-spatial phenomena through multidisciplinary methods; including mapping, imagery and film as both processes of investigation and representation. As part of her research on urban displacement, she authored “Evicting Sovereignty: Lebanon’s Housing Tenants from Citizens to Obstacles”, and co-directed “Beyhum Street: Mapping Place Narratives”. She is also a graphic design instructor at the Lebanese University.

Camillo Boano is Professor of Urban Design and Critical Theory and Joint Programme Leader of MSc Building and Urban Design in Development at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit, where he is also the Director of Research. Camillo is also co-investigator of the the RELIEF Project.

Transmedia Storytelling: Activating Urban Learning for Slum Upgrading

By ucfurti, on 9 May 2019

By Dr. Catalina Ortiz and Gynna Millan

A research collaboration between The
 Bartlett DPU staff, UN-Habitat, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Habitat International Coalition (HIC), Cities Alliance, the Municipality of Medellin and six grassroots organisations part of Movimiento de Pobladores and Sandelion – a local transmedia production organisation- to co-design a digital platform that helps to learn about slum upgrading strategies.

For a Spanish version of this blog click here

Graphic recording of the workshop ‘Co-designing a transmedia storytelling platform’. Drawn by Melissa Avila (@MelissaDibuja)

Learning across cities is vital to building cities ‘that leave no one behind.’

Global slum dwellers have grown on average six million a year since 2000, and by 2030, about 3 billion people will require proper housing (UN-Habitat 2014). Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, expressed to the UN Assembly that “the living conditions in informal settlements are one of the most pervasive violations of human rights globally and yet this is being ignored by most and exacerbated by many” (2018:1). In this context, slum upgrading “remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums” (United Nations 2014:15). World leaders have committed to ensure ‘access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing, basic services and to upgrade slums’ as well as to ‘strengthen global partnerships to support and achieve the ambitious targets of the 2030 Agenda’ (UN Habitat, 2016). Following this, SDGs 11 and 17 as well as the UN-Habitat New Urban Agenda highlight the need for people-centred approaches and peer learning platforms as crucial preconditions to engage stakeholders across cities to implement international agendas locally, particularly about Slum Upgrading Strategies (SUS).

Even though learning about SUS across cities is imperative for urban governance and planning in contemporary cities, how such learning occurs and the types of knowledge that are valued, documented and circulated have been less scrutinised and understood. The research project “COiNVITE: Activating Urban Learning for Slum Upgrading” financed by the Bartlett ECR-GCRF, led by Dr Catalina Ortiz  -@CataOrtizA- and Gynna Millan -@Gynaji- (PDRA) at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU) aims at finding alternative spaces and methodologies to recalibrate the debate on slum upgrading policies and the role of the circulation of urban knowledge across cities through new visual and digital tools. To achieve this, COiNVITE will deliver the prototype of a Transmedia Storytelling Platform co-designed by multiple urban actors.

International workshop in Medellín with the new actors alliance. Photo by Sandra Tabares

Transmedia Storytelling for Learning

Storytelling has been as a powerful tool for planning practitioners to connect with more human-centred approaches to urban development. Storytelling is emerging as a key tool to raise public awareness (Anderson & McLachlan 2015; Cities Alliance 2018), policy advocacy (Davidson 2017, Brown & Tucker 2017) and peer to peer learning (Hara 2008, UCLG 2018) since generating emotional connections is essential for triggering social change. In this light, urban planning in itself has been described as a ‘performed story’ (Sandercock 2003:13) and storytelling in the field has received recent attention as a means for persuasion and empowerment (Sandercock 2003; Throgmorton 2007; van Hulst 2012; Mager & Matthey 2015; Olesen 2017; Devos et al. 2018). In sum, storytelling helps to foster empathy, to understand the meaning of complex experiences and to inspire action.

With the rise of the digital era, new digital technologies at hand have redefined the way we tell, connect and engaged with stories. The world of entertainment and the field of media and communication studies have framed the emerging strategies of communication as Transmedia Storytelling (TS). Transmedia implies using multiple channels to tell a story from different angles in a coordinated and unified way. It also offers as an expansive and immersive experience using multiple platforms where each media provides a unique contribution to the development of stories (i.e. community radio or newspapers, WhatsApp, Instagram, cartoons, etc.). This new way to engage with storytelling is “by nature fluid and fragmented… in transmedia, meaning changes with exploration… this suggests that knowledge is fluid; it changes with time” (Pence 2012:137). In that way, TS offers new avenues to mobilise learning.

In urban learning codified knowledge is more easily expressed since it is written, and tacit knowledge –the one that often communities have- does not travel as well and is more difficult to communicate (McFarlane 2011). Transmedia helps to translate tacit knowledge and make it travel in different formats. Henry Jenkins, who coined the term, argues that TS “is the ideal aesthetic form of collective intelligence”, that is to say, “those new social structures that facilitate the production and circulation of knowledge within a networked society” (2007: 1). That is why, TS, translated into the development and planning field, offers enormous potential for the circulation of diverse urban narratives and alternative tacit knowledges that reside in local urban communities.

Going beyond the ‘best practice’

Urban decision-makers look for best practices to inspire action and speed up effective urban interventions. The research project uses as a pilot case the city of Medellin, Colombia that has been considered a benchmark for urban transformation and social innovation becoming an inspirational case for Global South cities dealing with entrenched violence and informality. Medellin has shown a decisive convergence of extended practices of strategic planning, urban design and architecture, which have focused local state interest and public investments in traditionally excluded peripheral neighbourhoods. These spatial interventions have included expanding the interconnected transit system (i.e. metro, tramway, cable cars, BRT, and so on), the generation of public spaces and the construction of multiple iconic public facilities.

Medellin demonstrates that ‘informal settlements’ of global South cities are sites of urban planning innovation and collective agency, thus challenging orthodox urban planning narratives that argue otherwise. Learning about the conditions under which transformation is possible goes beyond only listening or praising official narratives about success. For this, TS helps to build a more comprehensive picture of the plurality of stories and learnings that have produced the city and the trade-offs of slum upgrading strategies. In this sense, the main objective of the co-designed Transmedia Storytelling Platform is to make visible those alternative –but often ignored– voices, memories, and learning spaces that have disrupted upgrading urban practices. Thus, the project challenges the notion that slum upgrading is an expert-driven and state-led activity by engaging with community-led processes in the epistemology of knowledge co-production.


Working group discussions. Photo by Gynna Millan

COiNVITE: Building a strategic learning alliance

‘Convite’ is a word in Spanish that designates the celebration of collective actions that result from solidarity and empathy networks among urban dwellers. In Medellín, ‘Convite’ has been a social, cultural and technological tool to build urban infrastructure at the neighbourhood level with a city scale impact. During a ‘Convite’, learning and knowledge exchange is essential to achieve common goals. In a ‘Convite’ everyone has knowledge and expertise that can be shared and transferred through storytelling and collective practice, something like “doing while telling”. Medellín is a city that has been transformed significantly by urban ‘Convites’. As a result, we named the -digital and social- platform after this meaningful practice.

A key challenge for effective urban learning is the ability to bring together multiple actors operating at different scales and times and who often have confrontational perspectives. Building on this, COiNVITE’s methodological approach was to first established a learning alliance with multilateral agencies and global coalitions –UN-Habitat, Cities Alliance, UCLG, the Global Platform for the Right to the City and the HIC–, along with the Municipality of Medellin, National University of Colombia, Los Andes University, University of Colorado Boulder and several grassroots organisations linked to the social movement ‘Movimiento de Pobladores’ in Medellín, to shape the content of the Transmedia Storytelling Platform and provide their knowledge and expertise in a collaborative way.

On the other hand, one of the significant challenges of assembling a platform for urban learning is the expertise that it requires. This journey cannot be made without the alliances between usual urban actors but neither without a team that can translate urban knowledge into the technicalities that make possible the new digital environments. This is why we collaborate with a local transmedia production organisation – Sandelion Productions @SandelionPro –  an expert on linking co-creation processes, storytelling and transmedia experiences. Creating a transmedia experience is a complicated endeavour, as they involve multiple dimensions such as narrative, cultural and historical contexts (Rampazzo 2013). For Jenkins (2010), this is in part because transmedia represents the intersection between fields that are typically separated. To ‘fast’ prototype a transmedia platform is even more complex as it goes against the long periods that can take generating multimedia material that is this case should be meaningful human centred stories. To overcome this, we partnered with the NGO Mobility / Movilidad that since 2012 has been producing what is now an extensive archive of stories about dwellers’ struggles in Medellin informal settlements. This combination of actors made it possible to assemble a strategic learning alliance to explore the potentials of bringing TS to processes of urban learning.

The exploration of a methodological repertoire and the encounter of the multi-actor alliance took place between the 27th March and 2nd April and was hosted our partners at Exploratorio – Parque Explora and Moravia Cultural Centre in Medellin. The international workshop served as a disruptive action to bring about innovative urban learning strategies for: a) fostering togetherness across partners under the equalising notion of ‘we are urban storytellers’ and bonding through creative thinking activities; b) sensitising about the key learnings on local slum upgrading using character-driven stories; c) experimenting with unconventional methodological tools for creating transmedia storytelling; and d) linking partners’ initiatives working at different scales on slum upgrading to act collectively.

In sum, from The Bartlett, we are leading an effort to co-design a learning TS platform as methodological experimentation to localise critical targets of the Sustainable Development Goals 11 and 17 as well as the UN Habitat New Urban Agenda. COiNVITE will deliver a fast prototype of the platform that will be publicly tested in June 2019. If you are interested in any way about this project, get in touch by email or by following any of our social media channels using @coinvite.

Twitter @COiNVITE, FB StorytellingUrbanLearning y en Instragram coinvite


Walkshop around Comuna 13. Photo by @Zootropico films.


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McFarlane, C. (2011) Learning the city, Knowledge and Translocal Assemblage. Willey-Blackwell, 218 p.

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Therapy Gardens – Urban Green Space and Better Health

By Liza Griffin, on 24 April 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowdsourcing inputs for future impact evaluation? Pilot participatory mapping for liveability and health baselines of a transport-centred project in Cali, Colombia

By ucfudro, on 2 April 2019

This blog is part of the health in urban development blog series – the full series can be found at the bottom of this post.


Urban transport and mobility are critical instruments for development, health and sustainability. Transport is one of the most data-, land- and resources-intensive sectors in urban public policy, consuming often more than a third of public budgets in Global south cities and being explicitly linked with many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. However, conventional transport planning lacks sufficient tools, policies and methods that make explicit the links between transport, liveable and sustainable cities, and health. This blog showcases a participatory methodology for drawing a baseline and developing future impact assessment on liveability and the social determinants of health in transport-driven large-scale urban interventions. The blog argues for the use of health-informed methods using our research experience in Cali – Colombia’s third largest city – in the implementation of web-based participatory mapping tools for a project in the implementation phase.

The centrality of transport to urban development trajectories

Transport is a very effective instrument for urban policy definition and delivery. As showcased by the rapidly increasing number of kms of Bus Rapid Transit (BRTs), cable-cars, cycling lanes and many such other projects built in recent years throughout Latin America, transport has claimed a central role in current urban development trajectories. For instance, out of the 170 cities that have implemented Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems globally, 55 (32%) are in Latin America, with 1,816 km of BRT networks built regionally (BRTDATA.ORG, 2018). Investments in mass public transport infrastructure have opened the door for urban transformations driven by transport developments via promotion of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), reclaiming of public spaces, development of non-motorised infrastructure, and other transport-land-use integration strategies. Strategies such as the above have enabled sustainability and climate-change adaptation agendas to redefine some of the relationships between built environment and transport infrastructure across the region (1; 2). There is also larger awareness in the research and policy spheres about the health implications of transport, from a preventive medicine and physical activity perspective, to access to healthcare, environmental exposures and road safety (e.g. 3; 4; 5).

The Caliveable project

The Caliveable project (www.caliveable.com) is a research initiative led by Dr Daniel Oviedo at the DPU and funded by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The project involves a multi-disciplinary team of UK-based and Colombian researchers seeking to develop frameworks and methods for baseline studies of liveability and the social determinants of health of nascent transport-centred urban projects. The project argues that by building on rigorous and tested frameworks such as liveability, which are cross-cutting to both the built environment and health, it is possible to construct tailored baselines for the design, monitoring and evaluation of the effects of transport-centred interventions on the social determinants of health. The project studies Cali’s Corredor Verde (CV) as the empirical context for the development and implementation of the study. The CV is a large-scale infrastructure and public space investment programme aimed at enhancing social, economic and regional integration with a regional train at the centre of urban interventions traversing the city from north to south.

The Corredor Verde project has a modern public transport system intending to serve as regional link with emerging poles of population and economic growth near Cali (e.g. Yumbo, Palmira). The corridor also intends to become an environmental anchor and axis for supporting urban biodiversity, linking interconnected biodiversity points and support structures – such as waste and recycling plans, nurseries and educational trails. The transport dimension of the project aims to promote active travel and urban transformations based on the notions and principles of TOD, which align with the overall objective of re-unifying the eastern area of Cali with the rest of the city. However, there is no evidence on how this is consistent with the implementation of measures that promote determinants of health and liveability neither on the guidelines or the project’s masterplan. Moreover, given the socio-spatial distribution of the population, the investment rises questions regarding its distributive effects. Will the citizens from both sides of the corridor be benefited equally? Could the CV create an increase in land value and consequently ignite processes of gentrification and expulsion of low-income residents?

Source: Caliveable, 2019; OPUS, DAPM and Espacio Colectivo Architecture team, 2016.

Harnessing the links between transport, liveability and health

We aim to examine liveability in seven domains – employment, food housing, public space, transport, walkability and social infrastructure – linked with health and wellbeing outcomes (6). Two challenges emerge when approaching a project such as the Corredor Verde from a liveability perspective: the first is lack of purpose-built data for comprehensive analysis of the different dimensions of the concept, the second is lack of resources for collecting a sufficient sample that can serve in later stages for impact evaluation. The Caliveable project addresses these challenges using web-based geo-questionnaires designed for participatory mapping. We optimised resources available to deploy targeted field data collection campaigns in areas with lower income and access to technology and neighbourhoods with high levels of illiteracy and other restrictions for self-reporting. Using  Maptionnaire (www.maptionnaire.com) the team has designed a comprehensive 15-minute questionnaire dubbed The Calidoscopio, that allows building indicators based on numerical scales, Likert, multiple choice question, multiple choice grid and draw buttons. Drawbuttons are a feature of the approach of participatory GIS as it enables respondents to map out different features of their behaviour and their urban environment.

The Maptionnaire platform enables the construction of geographical-based features, making it possible to crowdsource mapping for different purposes. For example, a respondent is asked to draw the area of the neighbourhood they perceive as more polluted and then evaluate how they perceive how this contributes/affects their quality of life. The graphical result allows both the interviewee and the researcher to work with a superposition of georeferenced and self-completed information layers. The platform also allows mapping routes and points in the city, which are relevant for transport-specific analysis such as accessibility and walkability. The superposition of layers of analysis through easy visualisation is one of the key advantages of the web-based tool for participatory GIS.

Source: Caliveable, 2019

Initial findings from the deployment of the liveability questionnaire in Maptionnaire have produced comprehensive information about behaviours, preferences, needs and perceptions, not often captured by traditional data collection methods applied in transport studies. The tool enabled the research team, even from the pilot stage, to add a spatial dimension to variables explicitly linked with the social determinants of health, informing location, distribution and characteristics of the built environment from an urban health perspective. This will inform not only planning and development of the Corredor Verde and other relevant transport infrastructure projects in Cali, as well as leaving a replicable methodology for monitoring and evaluation. The Caliveable project seeks to establish alliances with government authorities and researchers for the appropriation of the tool and scaling-up of the methodology for future health monitoring and impact assessments of the Corredor Verde.


Learning from the experience: transport equity and participatory mapping

Experiences with the use of alternative methods for data collection have been introduced in the DPU’s curriculum for years. Such practice has continued in the context of our Transport Equity and Urban Mobility module of the masters in Urban Development Planning course. Students have received training in the Maptionnaire tool and have had the chance of designing and deploying a small-sample test survey in the London Bloomsbury area. Students from across the DPU and the Bartlett have used participatory GIS questionnaires to address issues such as night-time mobilities, liveability and well-being related to transport, transport and security, and walkability. The experience with the use of innovative methods and technological tools for data collection have served for collective reflections about the role of data in leading to more inclusive and sustainable urban transport planning and the need for grounding innovative methods in rigorous conceptual frameworks and context-specific considerations as those covered during the module. The exercise also informed reflections related to research ethics, data management and privacy and the challenges of development research in the digital age.



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Health in urban development blog series

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

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

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

Gaza: Cage Politics, Violence and Health
By Haim Yacobi


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