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On the Wall/Within the Street: Re-Engaging Urbanites with their Environment

ClaireTunnacliffe30 June 2015

London, December 2014

London, December 2014

Walking along the Regents Canal at the end of last year, this Tasmanian Tiger caught my eye. As Londoners, life can be fast-paced, and not in the least stressful – everything happens at 100 miles per hour, and if it’s not, then you’re probably not doing it right. Or at least, it certainly feels that way… And yet, this encounter made me stop and pause and look and reflect.

The Tasmanian Tiger is extinct, and amongst the bleak backdrop of greying sky and murky canal water – I couldn’t help but wonder if it had been worth it? Did the person who placed this up want me to reflect on the Tasmanian Tiger (okay, not indigenous to London) but on the wider disappearance of the natural world within our very urban existence?

A quick Google search revealed that the artist behind these eulogy-style pieces is Indiana and The Extinction Project, “my work has focused on the idea of wilderness and freedom, in escaping from the current modern society and moving to the country. This society steals most of our time in exchange for money that we spend on things we do not need, and in the process we are destroying what we really belong to: the nature and the world”.

Walking the streets of many cities around the world, I’ve often come across artistic interventions from people having taken to the streets and scribbled, scratched, pasted, created beautiful murals or one-word retorts. While the expanse of what can be described as street art is huge, I define it as the act of taking to the streets and inscribing on the walls artistic, but also a political, social and environmental responses to the state of the world from a very personal perspective.

London, September 2012

London, September 2012

Over the last few years, I’ve researched urban street art as a tool for social transformation. The world has an infinite depth of artists, writers, and creative individuals marking their place in the world. Street art is a powerful tool in reflecting the experience of the urban, provoking an engagement of urbanites with their environment.

As a global artistic and social movement, it repurposes space through experimental interventions and challenging the dominant visual culture (an unending stream of advertising, commodity, industrialisation, consumption and alienation), it provides alternatives to this vision. Encounters with urban street art within the everyday create social interstices, opening up ways of seeing and feeling the world differently.

Through its lens, we reconnect within an increasingly urban existence, one we had forgotten the natural and social entanglements that make up the fabric of the urban context. With urban street art disrupting the mainstream experience of the urban, the spectator is provided with an alternative vision of the world at play.

As a result, at the crossroads between urban street art and everyday life, the spectator evolves from a passive to an active participant. By awakening new understandings and raising consciousness, engaged urban street art provokes a re-engagement of urbanites with the environment, acting as a catalyst for transformative social change.

Marrakesh, May 2014

Marrakesh, May 2014

So, that’s the theory. But in practice? To move beyond the topical and speculative to the practical act of catalysing transformative social change, there needs a more grounded understanding of the cultural effect of urban street art itself: Who are the spectators? How does it make them feel? What do they take away from the encounter? Do they change their routine because of it? How can we understand more fully the role of the active participant?

The same question started rolling itself in my head: “How does urban street art open up new ways of seeing and feeling the world around us?” I began to ask around, artists and academics, everyday encounters and in-depth research. These interviews are part of a wider project around documenting these encounters around the city.

The answer has, up till now, always been a reverberating Yes. But how? Speaking to Lee Bofkin, co-founder of Global Street Art, “Of course street art has the opportunity to encourage social transformation, for so many reasons. It enables talented artists to leave gifts around the city, which are beautiful and site sensitive. It allows artists to be challenging and ask difficult questions. It counters the idea of a single authoritative aesthetic, which allows for a diversity of opinion and a diversity of voices. Its transience gives people something to look out for, to be interested in, less threatened by and maybe even excited by change.”

New York, October 2013

New York, October 2013

In very different ways, illegal and legal street art play a role in the shaping of public spaces; an interplay for confrontation, awareness, beautification, response, anger, activity. It is this activity, which allows people to participate and take responsibility for their public spaces. There is a dualistic role between the counter-culture and anti-capitalist retorts of illegal pieces as there is a desire and need for legal wall spaces, carefully chosen to brighten and breath life into others.

This is not an either/or. The beauty of what is called urban street art today, will be called something different tomorrow, but the act of taking to the street and inscribing on the walls is nothing new.

London, June 2013

London, June 2013

What we should hold onto are the messages; the powerful voices which interlace personal with political, social, and environmental, which momentarily occupy the space on the walls and between the streets as well as living on beyond, once documented online. I would tread carefully in describing urban street art as a subculture, as it has been expunged by the mainstream attempts to monetise it.

Yet, there remain many artists who continue to use the streets, both illegally and legally, to speak about issues they hold important, some of whose notoriety is spread across the timelessness of the internet, and others who remain faceless scribbles.

All of whom, nevertheless, play a part of this artistic and social movement. I would more easily call myself a researcher and an urban planner before an artist, but I strongly believe that one of the greatest attributes of urban street art in creating social transformation is that it awakens a dormant creativity within us all, and with it, a refreshed curiosity in how we shape, create and impact our everyday.

So, the next time you Instagram that piece that caught your eye, ask yourself: what just woke up inside me?

Paris, September 2014

Paris, September 2014


Claire is a DPU MSc Environment & Sustainable Development alumna. Since graduating in 2012, she continues to research the role of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences. She is applying for a PhD to begin in 2015 on urban street art in West Africa and the effect of marking surfaces in public spaces, however her interests are rather more interdisciplinary, lying at the cross-sections of; community engagement, urban street art, public interest design, sustainable development, town planning, creative cities, art psychotherapy, mental health, the psychodynamics of public spaces, and their impact on place making in the city. 

She will be publishing a fuller version of the account above as a DPU working paper in the coming months entitled “The power of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences”.

How can local innovation respond to climate change in cities?

NickAnim31 March 2015

In the final DPU Breakfast Talk of the term Vanesa Castán Broto was in conversation with Étienne von Bertrab about the role of local responses to Climate Change in urban areas.

‘Channeling’ two recent articles by George Monbiot, Étienne opened the discussion by suggesting that: (a) dealing with Climate Change requires the same legislative courage as was necessary to save the ozone layer, and (b), in the absent presence of the required legislation to address Climate Change, the only real spaces of hope and innovation are at the local level.

Nick post header

In Dar es Salaam water is distributed by private vendors using 10 litre jerry-cans in the absence of formal infrastructure. Local entrepreneurial responses may increasing be required to respond to water scarcity.

He posed four opening questions to Vanesa:

  1. What have you been doing recently in relation to climate change?
  2. What do you think is the significance of this work?
  3. As an expert, is there a risk of being too close to the formal governance institutions, such as the Conference of Parties, when they have proven time and time again to be achieving very little and when counter summits, such as the People’s Summit, are emerging?
  4. What is the role of theory building in times of urgency?

Socio-technical innovation is taking place in cites

Drawing from her vast experience in the field, as well as some key lessons and conclusions from her recent book An Urban Politics of Climate Change, Vanesa began by pointing out that most socio-technical experiments and innovations take place in cities. Technical experiments such as capturing energy from the water mains, and social innovations such as Transition Towns were used to highlight this point in the context of urban transitions for climate change.

In reference to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, Vanesa highlighted the fact that there were technical alternatives available at the time, which facilitated the relative expediency of its implementation.

VCD DPU breakfast copy

Vanesa responds to Etienne’s questions at the DPU Breakfast event

Participatory planning for climate change?

A key topic in the discussion was the subject of participatory planning, and perhaps more specifically, participation for Climate Change planning. Climate change is framed almost universally as a global problem; therefore the challenges of addressing its governance have conventionally been approached from the top-down.

The oft-held presumption that national states/governments are best placed to represent the interests of cities in addressing Climate Change is, it was argued, misguided. Vested interests, as highlighted by a recent Oxfam report, have a disproportionate influence in the corridors of power.

What is the role of social movements?

Within the political milieu, what then, it must be asked, is the role of social movements? Can they lobby effectively to counter the prevalence of the vested interests’ lobby groups? How can citizens’ and communities’ voices be amplified, heard and understood in the ‘attention marketspace’ of planning strategies for Climate Change?

Reflecting on her recent work with informal settlements in Maputo, Mozambique, as part of the Public Private People Partnerships for Climate Compatible Development (4PCCD) project, Vanesa argued that the key to participatory Climate Change planning is developing a network of partnerships between civil society groups, municipalities, and businesses.

Nick post - Lima

Residents living in peripheral areas in water-scarce cities, such as Lima in Peru [pictured] are already facing serious challenges due to climate change

Community-based solutions rely on open channels of communication

Within this context, local facilitators are key to building good partnerships that can recognise and access the diversity of voices that constitute any given community. The success of the project in Maputo highlighted the fact that community-based practical actions can work best if the necessary channels of communication are developed and maintained with the different stakeholders from government, business and civil society.

The participatory planning approach had a clear impact in terms of facilitating community organisation, and strengthening their representation through the establishment of a Climate Planning Committee (CPC) – whose expertise and legitimacy has been acknowledged in joint learning events with stakeholders and policy-makers in Maputo.

Are academics too close to formal governance institutions?

In terms of ‘being too close to the formal governance institutions’, it is important as a practitioner, to recognise the institutional milieu within which a project is situated, and in that context, it is equally important to work with, and not against politics

Academia and its inherent practices of theory-building play an important role in planning and development. Although in many instances theories may take time to filter through to the grassroots, iterative processes between academic theories and field practice can ensure that new knowledge can be brought to illiterate communities for example.

Whilst this DPU Breakfast Talk facilitated the discussion about local responses to Climate Change, we should see it as just the beginning of an open and continuous dialogue to which we can all contribute, and through which we can all learn.


Nick Anim is a PhD candidate at the DPU. He completed an MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development at the DPU in 2013. His PhD research looks at Transition Cities as a mean of  exploring the viability and potential of community-based initiatives in a transition to a low-carbon sustainable economy.

Mexico: Where does hope reside? (Part III)

Étiennevon Bertrab18 February 2015

La tierra no se vende, se ama y se defiende. La Parota, Guerrero. Image: Javier Verdin (Agua, Ríos y Pueblos)

La tierra no se vende, se ama y se defiende. La Parota, Guerrero. Image: Javier Verdin (Agua, Ríos y Pueblos)

This post focuses upon the disconnection between the urban population in Mexico (a large majority) and what happens in the non-urban territory, and reflects on the crucial role and state of journalism. However, events that have come to light in the last 7 days demand a short digression:

Just Another Week On

An on going investigation has revealed that the ‘disappearance rate’ in Mexico is currently a shocking 13 people per day. That is one every 2 hours. These people are usually considered as ‘disappeared by force,’ as reinforced last week by the UN Committee of Forced Disappearances. They are mostly marginalised women and men who predominantly belong to poor rural and indigenous communities.

To add to the tragedy 40% are aged 15 to 29, simply too young to go through such experience without life-long consequences – if they survive. The injustice doesn’t end here: confronting a reign of impunity their own relatives face high risks when choosing to do something about it.

This was the case of Norma Angélica Bruno, aged 26, who had recently joined a group of determined to find ‘the other disappeared’ in Guerrero. So far the group has discovered 48 bodies in clandestine graves across the state. In a sickly ironic turn of fate, Norma was assassinated before the eyes of her three children while walking to the funeral of a murdered colleague.

As if living in a parallel world, the Interior Minister Osorio Chong declared that Mexico has the highest levels of security in ten years and that “very important steps have been taken to give back peace and security to all Mexicans”.

National Autonomous University (UNAM), Mexico City. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

National Autonomous University (UNAM), Mexico City. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

The missing link between society and nature

Despite growing awareness of the crises in Mexico, politicians, analysts, mainstream media and even organised citizens who try to reform or rebuild the State, tend to ignore an underlying issue. The country is highly urbanised and most citizens are, willingly or not, alienated from nature, or more concretely, completely dislocated from what happens ‘elsewhere’.

It turns out, however, that Mexico’s land, water and natural resources are being degraded and extracted at an alarming pace. Mexican institutional framework, created in order to join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s, has been largely irrelevant in the rhetorical pursuit of sustainable development.

Take water resources, for instance: after conducting hearings between 2006 and 2012, the Latin American Water Tribunal warned of “possible hydric collapse” and condemned the Mexican State for violation of international treaties and its own legal framework to guarantee the right to water as a fundamental human right.

Indigenous Resistance

Indigenous communities have resisted for centuries. However, as a result of a combination of constitutional reforms and trade deals, resource grabbing has increased significantly over the last two decades; and it often unfolds violently.

For instance, in the mountains of Guerrero communities have been resisting the imposition of the La Parota Dam, which would displace 25,000 and severely affect livelihoods of another 75,000. Their decade-long resistance has been relatively effective, yet at a tragic cost: repression, illegal incarceration and assassination of communal leaders.

But this region is by no means an exception. Another ethical tribunal, the Tribunal Permanente de los Pueblos (TPP), documented over the last few years 220 active socio-environmental conflicts across the country, and observed the normalisation of institutional violence towards those who resist.

TPP’s condemnation of the Mexican State, entitled “The dispossession and degradation of Mexico: Free trade and deviation of power as causes of structural violence, impunity and dirty war against Mexico’s peoples”, can be downloaded here.

For years, active community members have regular meetings where they discuss structural problems and actions. With huge efforts they form regional assemblies and have an annual national assembly. This is the case of the Asamblea Nacional de Afectados Ambientales (ANAA).

In my view, these forms of organisation are poorly supported and understood, and are essential not only in slowing down environmental degradation, but also in addressing a key factor in Mexico’s humanitarian crisis.

Mazahua people confront the dispossession of their water - pumped to Mexico City. Image: Agua, Ríos y Pueblos

Mazahua people confront the dispossession of their water – pumped to Mexico City. Image: Agua, Ríos y Pueblos

The brave world of journalism

Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries to practice journalism, particularly critical, independent journalism. According to the map Periodistas en Riesgo, a recent initiative by Freedom House and International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), 13 journalists have been killed over the last two years (the most deadly period has been May-October 2014) and four journalists are currently thought abducted.

Without brave journalists we would be incapable of understanding what happens in a country whose State machinery has dominated the art of manipulating our mainstream media. On a positive note, as noted by several political analysts, those in power have been completely unable to understand the world of the Internet – despite attempts to monitor and control. Civil society is way ahead in understanding the power and potential of social media, a space where anyone can join in solidarity.

To explore the role of street art in social movements in Mexico DPU and UCL Americas are hosting a unique conversation with artist-activists part of Oaxaca’s Colectivo Lapiztola, on Monday 23 February. Read more and register to attend.

Étienne von Bertrab is a Teaching Fellow at the DPU and a guest lecturer in universities in Mexico. He also works as a consultant in the UK and in Mexico, where he has been a social activist for ten years. Twitter: @etiennista