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How Research Creates More Inclusive Spaces: Bar Elias, Lebanon

HannaBaumann12 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.

Implementation

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

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

CamilloBoano26 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.

Between Upgrading and Resettlement: Fieldwork reflections from locations in Colombo

TimWickson17 September 2018

This post was prepared by Balint Horvarth, Mateo Lu, Fernando Toro, Nada Sallam and Karlene Stubbs with editorial support from Tim Wickson and Barbara Lipietz

(Ruth McLeod) Rapid urban development in Colombo

 

Introduction

It is not every day that 35 post-graduate students from 21 countries have the opportunity to travel to a new country, partner with local organisations and policy makers and learn from the urban policies and practices at play there. In May 2018, this opportunity was presented to us through our MSc Urban Development Planning field trip. After months of desk-based preparation, we left London for Colombo (Sri Lanka) with only one certainty in mind: we were going to learn, not to solve. Our ambition was to listen to the city and reflect on what the different voices were telling us.

Guided throughout by Sevanatha Urban Resource Centre, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), our work in Colombo focussed on exploring upgrading and resettlement in the context of an active state-led Urban Regeneration Programme (URP). The URP aims to deliver a slum-free Colombo by 2023 by moving 75,000 households out of so-called under-served settlements and into high-rise housing projects. Implemented by the Urban Development Authority (UDA), the programme’s financial model rests on a combination of end-user repayments and market cross-subsidy generated by the release of liberated land for private sector development.

Working in collaboration with recent planning, sociology and social work graduates from three local universities, our research benefited from in-depth discussions with affected local communities; face to face meetings with government officials; as well as structured inputs from a host of Colombo based experts and activists. Based on these experiences, we were able to build up nuanced understandings of how urban and housing policies operate at different scales in Colombo; problematise the under-served settlement and slum-free discourses; and begin exploring cracks for alternative urban development approaches in the city.

During our time in Colombo, we were encouraged to blend an appreciation of theory with an awareness of how urban practices get materialised in the city. This approach helped unpack relationships between different actors; and exposed the differential impacts of vested interests and influences at different scales. We worked with communities from across three sites in Colombo – Muwadora Uyana, Nawagampura and Mayura Place – and each contributed uniquely to our picture of the city.

(Nada Sallam) Solid waste collection in Nawagampura

 

Site 1: Muwadora Uyana

In the case of Muwadora Uyana, we chose to investigate how the Urban Regeneration Programme had impacted the quality of life enjoyed by those families and individuals who had been moved from settlements across the city into the high-rise housing complex that is Muwadora Uyana. As far as possible, and given the limited research time available, our (action) research and propositions were guided by the ideas and themes that arose from initial discussions with residents themselves. This approach enabled us to identify what quality of life meant to the relocated residents; avoiding the imposition of a normative framing.

High-rise housing blocks in Muwadora Uyana

 

Building out from this embedded definition; we pursued a mixed-methods approach comprised of floor by floor spatial analysis; participatory mapping with young people and children; and semi-structured interviews with over 30 residents. In so doing, we were able to unpack why it was that some people who are relocated into high-rises are able to thrive, whilst others struggle to survive.

As well as highlighting the importance of embedded research and face-to-face dialogue with effected communities, this project served to challenge the assumption that all people have the capacity to adapt to living in high-rise conditions. In fact, for many groups and individuals, their agency for adaptation is limited. As such, by introducing agency as a crucial determinant of quality of life, our research problematised the fairness argument often-used to defend a relocation policy based on standardised, one-size-fits-all apartments. Indeed, we argue that this reframing creates space to consider alternative options for both current and future residents alike.

 

Site 2: Nawagampura

Nawagampura is a thriving neighbourhood originally established as a relocation site under the Million Houses Programme in the 1980s. Over the past 35 years, the settlement has evolved and consolidated, stitching its residents into the fabric of the city. However, despite its centrality, the buzz of daily economic activity, and residents’ access to a range of services and facilities, the neighbourhood is still classified as underserved. In the main, this classification relates to the fact that many residents still lack secure tenure; although a number of structures also lack individual toilets and others suffer from periodic flooding issues.

(Nada Sallam) Municipal canal cleaning in Nawagampura

 

The diversity in residents’ experiences and opinions of their neighbourhood served as an interesting point of departure for our research. In the context of state-led efforts to transform Colombo into a world-class city, all neighbourhoods classified by the state as underserved have been slated for future relocation. Though not under imminent threat of relocation, Nawagampura presented a rare opportunity to challenge the stereotypical depiction of underserved settlements and communities that underpins much of the state’s thinking around resettlement in Colombo.

Working directly with residents, community-leaders, and members of resident-associations we sought to provide a more nuanced picture of the challenges and opportunities associated with living in settlements such as Nawagampura. By helping reframe underserved settlements as complex and varied communities, this approach allowed for the development of grounded strategies in defence of in-situ upgrading as a just alternative to one-size-fits-all relocation. 

 

Site 3: Mayura Place

Mayura Place (or Lakhmutu Sevana), sits at the edge of an area previously dominated by textile mills and weavers’ colonies. With the wider site long since shuttered and cleared for luxury real estate development, Mayura Place development is often depicted as a success story of the UDA’s Urban Regeneration Programme’s (URP); an exemplary demonstration of how underserved working-class communities can be successfully resettled into purpose-built high-rise towers. However, as our research unfolded, a more complex picture began to emerge.

(Ruth McLeod) Inside Mayura Place

 

On the one hand, the experience of Mayura Place residents reinforces the value of keeping communities together during relocation from horizontal settlements to high-rise apartments, as well as relocating communities as close as possible to their original homes. Such an approach, contrasting with larger URP projects that drew residents from across Colombo and constituted new communities through a lottery allocation process, has clearly limited the disruptive impact of relocation on the social fabric of Mayura Place and offers valuable learnings for the UDA.

On the other hand, a number of issues were brought up in discussion with inhabitants, questioning the ‘success story’ of Mayura Place. In particular, many residents are grappling with the shortage of common and private space necessary to realise a dignified existence, whilst the appropriateness of high-rise living for certain household industries was raised by a number of our interlocutors. Importantly too, the extent to which the burden of management and maintenance is born equally between residents and the UDA remains unresolved. Meanwhile, there remain serious issues regarding the fact that not all of the original Mayura Place community received rehousing in this block, due to an inconsistency between the UDA’s apartment for a house replacement policy and the reality of multi-family occupancy in former dwellings. Additionally, for those who have received replacement housing, many still lack official documentation recognising their right to secure tenure status.

Whilst our discussions with the UDA hinted at an apparent openness to debate and institutional learning, it remains to be seen how far this is constrained by the programme’s overarching ambition to liberate commercially valuable land and beautify Colombo. Overall, when considering the exceptionality of Mayura Place within the UDA’s broader urban regeneration programme, it is important to look beyond the façade and embrace this case in all its complexity.

 

Closing Reflections

Working across three distinct communities in Colombo provided a unique insight into the overlapping processes of regeneration, resettlement and upgrading at play in Colombo. Whether working in Muwadora Uyana – a labyrinthine high-rise housing complex home to 5,000 residents from across Colombo; Nawagampura – a vibrant working-class neighbourhood that is still classified as underserved despite significant upgrading initiatives; or Mayura Place – a former weavers colony now verticalised and stacked within Colombo’s largest luxury residential enclave – it was clear that the voice of Colombo’s diverse communities was almost entirely missing from formal plan-making in the city.

Delving into this issue further, our time in Colombo focussed on exploring and elaborating the cracks for alternative policy and practice to gain a foothold in the city, proposing grounded strategies for change and laying a foundation for future fieldwork projects to build upon. Example strategies included:

  • Community-led Building Management – Increasing Transparency through Community Contracting: Building on Sevanatha’s existing experience with community-contracting models, this strategy was proposed for two reasons. First, to recognise the capacity of relocated residents to take ownership of common areas within high-rise developments; and second, to increase transparency around the way in which UDA-controlled maintenance funds are currently deployed.
  • Learning Platforms – Bringing People to Policy: This strategy was designed to help systematise and extend the existing learning practices employed by the UDA through the creation of multi-actor learning platforms. These platforms would institutionalise multi-directional communication between actors from the state (UDA, Colombo Municipal Council etc.), representatives from academic, activist and civil society organisations, and local communities. By bringing together conversations and relationships that currently exist in isolation, this strategy aims to build synergies between actors helping identify and resolve issues within existing housing stock and planning processes and allowing the lived experience of residents to inform forward looking policy and design decisions.
  • Changing Planning Language – Challenging the discourse of Underserved Settlements: Building on Sevanatha’s earlier mapping of Colombo’s underserved settlements, this strategy proposed the development of neighbourhood profiles (based on resident survey data, asset and risk mapping, documentation of upgrading etc.). These profiles would then be used to both challenge the idea that all underserved settlements suffer from an identical set of challenges; and strengthen the negotiation position of communities in the context of relocation.

Embedded in the lived experience of three specific communities, the tentative strategies proposed during this project sprung from a common source – the need to reintroduce complexity, diversity and fluidity into a planning context intent on sorting Colombo into the static, binary categories of underserved and regenerated; world class and working class; planners and the planned for. By failing to account for the multiple realities and capacities of Colombo residents, this reductive framing shuts down the space to think differently about urban development in Colombo and encourages the proliferation of top-down, standardised development models. In contrast, a reframed understanding of Colombo’s communities as dynamic, diverse, capable and connected creates room to advocate, adapt and evolve planning processes towards the achievement of more just, people-centred development. This reading of Colombo planning resonates strongly with ongoing work by academics, activists and civil society organisations in the city, some of whom are already actively engaged in efforts to develop and convey this message onwards to decision-makers. In this way, the fieldwork project enabled the DPU to add its voice to a growing call for more socially, spatially and environmentally just development.

Lastly, we would like to express our gratitude for the fantastic support provided by the MSc UDP staff team as well as all of our project partners in Colombo. In particular, special thanks is owed to Chularathna Herath (Executive Director of Sevanatha Urban Resource Centre) and Ruchika Lall (DPU alumna and DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professional).

Cultura Negada: Reflecting on Racialised Urban Violence and Practices of Resistance in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

FedericaRisi9 July 2018

Prominent academic debates around violence in the city most often seem to be concerned with how structural economic and political drivers codify violence into the urban space. To appropriate Harvey’s terminology, with how urbanisation by dispossession – in other words marginalisation – of urban groups contributes to increasing crime rates and gangs-related violence. It is only in recent decades that ‘institutional’ abuse  – perpetrated by police forces under the blind eye of the Hobbesian state – as well as more structural forms of selective and – most often –  race-based violence are confronted[1]. And yet as a category of analysis of the urban, violence emerges as a causally less linear and more nuanced construct.

Measurability of course is an issue and deserves being questioned. What indicators are taken into account when defining urban violence? What types of data are considered? Who collects them? How are they read and  disseminated? The action research conducted in Salvador, as part of the MSc Social Development Practice overseas field trip, has evidenced how municipal – and national – indexes reflecting increasing rates of homicides as related to organised-crime, robbery and drug trafficking overlook important aspects of the realities of violence lived everyday by vulnerable urban communities. Vulnerability on its end also warrant a discussion on methodology. Drawing from the Participatory Action Research (PAR) tradition in urban planning, vulnerability is here understood as socially (re)produced and as related to asset ownership (Moser, 1996; drawing on Sen, 1981) and the capacity to cope with shocks; whether environmental, economic, political or all of these combined.

In this blog series, I undress some reflections on how Salvador, the blackest city of Brazil, epitomises such a nuanced appreciation of how violence is urbanised, that is, how it becomes spatially codified in the city;  and in turn is itself an agent of urbanisation. Graffiti[2] is offered as an entry point for the analysis.

 

Aesthetics of inequality. View of Saramandaia, Salvador, Brazil.


In context..

The Bahian capital is a city of contrasts and embodies the clash between the gentrifying force of globalisation as it manifests in the built environment and locally grounded social action reclaiming identity as forgotten history. Identity as ethnicity. Identity as part of the rich African heritage of Brazil and its institutional neglecting. As Kwame Dixon (2016) aptly elucidates in his book Afro-Politics and Civil Society in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, the country abolished legal slavery in 1888, but provided no institutional mechanism to free former slaves from racial discrimination. Almost a hundred years later, when Brazil returned to democracy in the 1980s, burgeoning blocos afros[3], black social and political movements revendicating Afro-Diasporic consciousness emerged to seek racial justice and equality, to claim their ‘right to the city’ as a right to live and exist in the city.

 

Despite having one of the oldest and largest black populations of the Americas, Salvador has never elected a black mayor nor has the Bahian State chosen a black governor to date (Dixon, 2016). And, if urban violence seems to follow the racial and spatially confined pattern of poverty in the city, with residents of majority black, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods being more likely to be killed than their better-off, white neighbours (Chaves Viana et al, 2011; Huggings, 2004); institutional memory as well as public opinion as shaped by the media exert more intangible, narrative forms of violence on these vulnerable groups. These narrative forms of dispossessions become activating agents of citizenship and identity revindication from within the city.

“Minha Vida” – My Life. Graffiti in Barra District, Salvador, Brazil.


I wanted to talk about cultural syncretism, I ended up taking about violence…

It would be amiss to document and account for the richness and multitude of cultural manifestations in Salvador without engaging with how these are shaped by violence in the city, and how, in turn, they impinge on it.

A graffiti tour of Ladeira da Preguiça, literally “Slope of Laziness” helped vividly retrace the institutionalisation of racialised violence in Salvador. In the 17th century, the road, which historically connected the port area[1] (cidade baixa) to the upper city[2] (cidade alta), was used by African slaves to carry goods on their shoulders while being shouted at “to move faster” (Moreira, 2018). With the development of more easily accessible routes in modern[3] Salvador, the Ladeira and its people were abandoned by public power. The area, as a result of its narrow streets and vacant warehouses, slowly lent itself to organised crime and, most recently, to drug-trafficking.

In recent years, the stigma[1] of violence and insecurity –which is almost as damaging as violence itself– eventually provided the perfect justification for the municipality to push forward a privatisation project that was meant to regenerate –and gentrify– the area. Local moradores (“residents”), however, joined forces and, in 2013, collectively mobilised to rehabilitate the Ladeira, reconstructing collapsed mansions and painting decaying façades with colourful graffiti referencing the African Diaspora; exposing Brazil’s institutionalised culture of exclusion as a means to call for the city to remember and for reclaiming their housing rights. A vibrant cultural centre was founded by residents themselves, Centro Cultural “Que Ladeira é Essa?”, to breath a culture of resistance through art. By calling attention to Brazil’s rich African heritage, the centre offers classes of  capoeira, afro-samba dance and percussions as well as painting and graffiti workshops. Cultural offerings then become an element of aggregation, an instrument for articulating a powerful counter-narrative to deconstruct stereotypes.

To say that civic action is a reaction to violence would be simplistic and necessarily reductionist. Nevertheless, the tradition of survivalism through art and symbolism[2] has permeated the urbanisation of Salvador as emerging from the oppression and structural exclusion of black populations within the city (for a comprehensive analysis of the evolution of Brazilian popular culture read: Assunção, 2003).

 

Reflecting on causality

On the one hand, local practices of resistance rooted in the syncretism of Salvador’s condemned[3] neighbourhoods are an unapologetic expression of resistance to the stereotyping narrative of the city. A violent narrative of violence; one that lexically and imaginatively reduces majority black-afro-descendant communities to urban realities of degradation, crime, and carencias (“deprivations”) . A narrative that is reminiscent of colonial oppression and a revivified vehicle of neoliberal domination.

Capoeira dancer. Graffiti in Pelourinho.

 

On the other, it is precisely because of this concatenated cycle of oppression-marginalisation that non-white urban communities find themselves more exposed to violence stemming from their surrounding, built as well as non-built, environments.

 

In this direction, there is room for critical urban theory to expand its scope to explore how violence – and even more so the fear of it – shapes city making. In fact, if market forces and political discourses are key determining factors in the urbanisation of violence, in its physical as well as narrative manifestations, violence too influences how people (re-)claim the city, how they move inside the city, use collective spaces, build or adapt their houses.

 

Our co-investigation with local urban collectives and social movements in Salvador has revealed how urban violence and fear thereof shape the social production of urban habitats and community practices around culture, housing, use and production of collective space and mobility. Further considerations and findings from our field trip will be collated in a report produced with our partner, the research group Lugar Comum, and published in the coming autumn.

 

References

Assunção, M.R. (2003). “From Slave to Popular Culture: The Formation of Afro-Brazilian Art Forms in Nineteenth-Century Bahia and Rio de Janeiro”. Iberoamericana, Vol.3, No.12, pp.159-176.

Dixon, K. (2016). Afro-Politics and Civil Society in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. University Press of Florida.

Huggings, M.K. (2000). “Urban Violence and Police Privatization in Brazil: Blended Invisibility”, Social Justice, Vol.27, No.2, Issue 80, Criminal Justice and Globalization at the New Millennium (Summer 2000), pp. 113-134.

Manco, T., Lost Art, and Neelon, C. (2005). Graffiti Brasil .Thames & Hudson: London.

Moreira, W (2018). Graffiti Tour, Ladeira da Preguiça. 09/05/2018.

Moser, C.O.N. (1996). “The asset vulnerability framework: Reassessing urban poverty reduction strategies”. World Development, Vol.26, No.1, January 1998, pp.1-19.

Moser, C.O.N. (2004). “Urban Violence and Insecurity: an Introductory Roadmap”. Environment and Urbanization, Vol.16, No.2, October 2004.

Resident. (2018). Interview. Graffiti Tour, Ladeira da Preguiça. 09/05/2018.

Sen, A. (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

 

Federica Risi is the Graduate Teaching Assistant of the MSc Social Development Practice. Herself a DPU graduate from the MSc Environment and Sustainable Development, Federica has experience in participatory action research focused on urban risks. She is also a Research Associate at the Pastoral Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa (PENHA), where she is conducting an investigation on South-South Cooperation between Peru, Brazil and the Horn region.

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[1] Residents reported that identifying as black and “saying you are from the Ladeira, it’s like admitting you are a criminal”, which “[…] stops you to get a job and continue education” (Resident, 09/05/2018).

[2] Capoeira  and Candomblé rituals for example, emerged as practice for African slaves to compensate for the loss of identity (Assunção, 2003, p.160).

[3] Carnival Blocks.

[4] In the sense of being publicly perceived as unsafe and rife with violence.

[5] Where Portuguese ships would arrive to deliver materials and goods, historically, the part of the city dedicated to commercial activities.

[6] Here, were established the main government offices and churches; also where the aristocracy resided.

[7] Referring to the end of Portuguese colonial domination and Brazil’s independence in 1822.

[8] In the October 2004 No.2 Issue Vol.16 of Environment and Urbanization, with the article ‘Urban Violence and Insecurity: an Introductory Roadmap’,  Caroline O.N. Moser draws on Galtung to extend the notion of violence as going “beyond situations of overt brutality to include more implicit forms such as exploitation, exclusion, inequality and injustice” (p.6). In this sense “…violence [can be] built into the structure [of society,] …show[ing] up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances” (Galtung, 1969 cited in Moser, 2004, p.6).

[9] Drawings and writings scribbled or painted through a variety of techniques on public walls; “a vehicle for [the excluded] of the city to assert their existence and self-worth, and to do it loudly” (Manco et al., 2005).