X Close

The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Archiving border(ing) knowledge through networking

Rita Lambert20 October 2022

By Rita Lambert, Ioanna Manoussaki-Adamopoulou and Jessie Sullivan

Apart from legal categories and physical markers delineating the limits of nation states and transnational configurations, borders are also socially productive places (Green 2010) fostering experimentations with collaborative models of coexistence. These often develop through cross-cultural, agentive practices that shape, challenge and reconfigure their effects. What kind of knowledge is being produced in borderscapes and how can it support more inclusive and sustainable futures? How and why is it threatened? How can we collect and use this knowledge to inform better migration policies and refugee reception?

Given that population displacement due to conflict and climate change is increasing, a qualitative analysis of borderwork is imperative for future planning. In the Hotspot action-research project[1] we seek to answer these questions by drawing from the experience of five Greek islands close to Turkey, where the life of inhabitants has been shaped by the humanitarian reception crisis that developed within their shores. Following the arrival of over 1 million people escaping conflict, violence and unsafe living conditions in 2015, the islands of Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesvos and Samos (Figure 1) were designated as ‘Hotspots’ by the EU, becoming one of Europe’s more securitized borderfronts. Approaching the five islands as a comparative interactive system and involving independent care practitioners working in them as project partners, we attempt to map the evolution of border processes and practices, using participatory research methodologies that focus on reflexivity and interconnection.


Figure 1: Map of five Aegean islands ( Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos) designated as hotspots


Bordermaking, innovation and displacement of knowledge

Bordermaking is a process in constant flux, marked by violence, enclosures, shifts in notions and practices of care and hospitality, of legal concepts and categories such as internationally defined rights, as well as by resistance and social innovation. As a new mode of governance in the Aegean, it has had profound social, political, and environmental consequences for local societies, and for the neoliberal management of migration more broadly. Historically, the Aegean islands have been loci of transnational encounter, and in the past seven years they have fostered multiple experimentations with innovative, sustainable, and re-humanising care practices in response to insufficient humanitarian/governmental aid and increasing bordering restrictions.

The care innovations that have been identified by our project partners in the research (Figure 2), share five key characteristics that are important for designing care provision in wider contexts : (1) inclusivity – connected with the ability to both provide for communities and include them in decision making; (2) equitable and fair participation of recipients in the care initiative; (3) embeddedness in the physical, economic, and social environment to benefit the local context – wellbeing, economy, and ecosystem; (4) capacity building, both short- and long-term of stakeholders involved; and (5) sustainability, by centring flexibility and adaptation capacity to overcome challenges and remain operative over time. Understanding how these characteristics are maintained within an increasingly hostile environment and how people in the Aegean experience and mitigate the effects of the EU’s evolving border policies, hold broader lessons for socially sustainable practices of living with migration.


Figure 2: Extract from selected initiatives in the island of Chios


Despite the depth of knowledge and experience that exists in this context, we observe that this valuable knowledge is being displaced. Analysing the interaction between top-down and bottom-up practices by plotting them on a timeline spanning from 2015 until now, the research evidenced how the institutionalisation of the hotspot approach goes hand in hand with increasing bureaucratisation and criminalisation of solidarity networks and other independent care initiatives. In parallel, we also observe that the presence of Frontex – the EU Border Agency – on the islands since 2015 has not prevented border-crossing deaths and illegal pushbacks, which have instead radically increased since 2019, highlighting the crucial role of independent practitioners in monitoring legal violations.

Prior to 2015, migrant detention facilities operated on some of the islands. Border-crossers were largely treated by authorities as illegal and were swiftly transported to the mainland, where they had a chance to apply for asylum, work undocumented until they were able to apply for residency papers, or continue their journey into Northern Europe at their own risk. While the islands acted as the physical EU border and entry point, the legal border defining the first country of entry in the EU as the one a person could legally claim asylum in was instituted in Brussels,[2] and was implemented in Athens.  Following the arrival of an unprecedented number of refugees in 2015, local authorities and the few international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) operating on the islands at the time, were unequipped and unable to effectively respond to their multiple needs (Rozakou, 2017). Civil society stepped in to provide emergency care, organising projects in solidarity with border-crossers, that further diversified with the arrival of international volunteers. Dozens, if not hundreds of independent non-profit organisations mobilised or were created for this purpose. The European Commission responded to this infrastructural gap with the introduction of the hotspot approach, coming into effect in 2016 with the opening of five Reception and Identification Centres (RICs) on Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesvos and Samos. It was coupled with the release of humanitarian funds through set contracts with listed INGOs and a selected number of national NGOs, that subsequently begun operating on the islands.

The hotspot was conceived as a camp structure and a legal mechanism for the registration of people on the move, where all relevant EU agencies – Frontex, EASO, Europol and Eurojust – were concentrated. While its proposed purpose was a more effective and humane approach to migration management, the signing of the EU-Turkey agreement in March 2016 recognising Turkey as a ‘safe third country’ for the return non-Syrian nationals, imposed illegal geographical movement restrictions to incoming migrants, turning RICs into captivity devices and the islands into a liminal territory through the suspension of their rights (Papoutsi et al. 2018). This led to the subsequent entrapment of thousands of people in dehumanizing and lethal living conditions in camps such as Moria for indeterminate periods of time, paving the way for a systemic adoption of illegal pushback tactics[3], and more recently, for the construction of prison-like closed camp facilities.


Through state-enforced institutionalisation of care provision, the role of independent NGOs and civil society groups is intentionally diminished, though many recognised needs are still not covered. Moreover, several independent aid workers supporting refugees were criminalised as ‘human traffickers’. As a result of increasing criminalisation and restricted access to the new closed camps, many independent NGOs have recently stopped operating. These escalating hostile conditions have created an anti-social environment where migrants, volunteers, and local people on the hotspot islands have become less able to work together sustainably, with vital knowledge about service provision and the migration experience of the hotspot approach being ‘lost’ with each person who moves away or moves on.


Participatory archiving through networking

A qualitative analysis of the evolution of the securitization/care border nexus does not only salvage a piece of transnational world history, but also allows us to envision more sustainable futures rooted in the praxis of the present. Beyond documenting institutional and policy shifts, it is imperative to record the multiple perspectives and experiences of the social actors involved in them overtime, to recognise their long-term social effects. Archiving and critically analysing this transient knowledge can, in turn, inform the design of better policy and care provision. However, conducting research in situations in constant flux, such as this one, presents several methodological and ethical challenges. The continuous turn-around of people on the move and many of the care actors themselves, puts knowledge on innovative practices that carry important leanings, at risk. The increasing criminalisation of both refugees and independent civic actors adds extra pressure to an already volatile context, pushing us to think beyond the notion of ‘doing no harm’, towards devising methodologies that promote sustainable and supportive research practices.

Adopting an engaged, participatory approach to archiving that involves local actors as knowledge producers can help us identify knowledge gaps, co-design locally relevant research categories and produce spaces for collective reflection that are often lacking in emergency contexts. Research approached in this way can contribute to better archiving practices in rapidly shifting contexts and to processes of healing through collective remembrance centring marginalised voices. It can also support resilience, allowing for challenging experiences to be unpacked and reflected upon in a controlled and caring environment. This engaged approach to knowledge production can lead to the creation of sustainable practitioner networks by connecting actors through continuous knowledge exchange, action and advocacy coordination across islands, civic society, humanitarian and academic spaces.

Archiving through networking was a central research method from the start of the Hotspot action-research project; from the initial stage of identifying relevant analytical categories, through to data collection and analysis. The core research team network involved foreign and native cross-disciplinary academic researchers and independent care practitioners working on the five islands. The latter were selected based on the independent and holistic nature of the projects they worked in and their current knowledge of the bordering context. We subsequently met regularly online over several weeks to share experiences, ideas and epistemological lenses and co-establish the research framework. In order to document the evolution of the hotspot approach we adopted a longitudinal, essentially decolonising, method that materialised in the collective construction of a timeline spanning from 2015 until the spring of 2022, that included the different organisations that operated on the islands, alongside key local, regional and national events, policy and political shifts and human rights violations (Video 1).


Video 1: Extract from timeline showing main events in each of the five islands and the evolution of the hotspot approach and changes to RICs.


For data collection on each island, project partners mobilised active and former local care networks and networked across boundaries, acting as and reaching through other gate keepers, former care practitioners and displaced people, populating the timeline with multiple and diverse temporal accounts. In that way, the timeline acts both as a reconstruction of the evolution of bordering processes and as a space of shared memory for each island, including local voices and those of people that have lived and worked on them, that have shaped and have been shaped by the bordering experience. Although certainly incomplete, it allows for a cross-comparison between islands and a reading of the dialectical interaction between policy shifts and their on-the-ground effects over time, which can be analysed in several ways. For the purpose of this project, we focused on a qualitative analysis of the development of care provision, colour-coding data based on the type of care provided and their organisational form; solidarity, grassroots humanitarian, EU-funded, governmental, etc. This allowed us to understand the kind of needs that were identified by the different actors, the various ways that care provision was organised and how it was affected by subsequent policy changes.

The feedback on the method of collecting data and archiving through networking from each island, was overwhelmingly positive. New care providers had the chance to familiarise themselves with older practices and care actors, bringing them together into a fertile dialogue that validated previously ‘silenced’ experiences and allowed healing through collective reflection. An expanded network focusing on alliance-building across islands and partners was established during our physical workshops in Athens, where we invited academics from the Aegean Observatory into the conversation, that have the capacity to actively maintain and strengthen this alliance for the future. Our discussions focused on new learnings from collected data and on how we can work together to mitigate the effects of increasing bordering hostility through coordinated monitoring and advocacy.


Figure 3: April 2022 workshop in Athens with the five NGOs (Samos Volunteers, Zaporeak, Echo100 Plus, Glocal Roots and Refugee Biriyani and Bananas) to presenting selected initiatives in their island.



Exposing the unorthodox colonial practices that continue to disenfranchise refugees, local people and territories becomes pertinent, as displacement defines the future. Placing particular attention on how knowledge erasures occur unintentionally, but also as part and parcel of a bordering strategy that institutionalizes the hotspot approach, is key for exposing and understanding ‘colonial’ tactics and raising awareness on what is at stake. In the case of the Aegean islands, at stake is the loss of a wealth of knowledge for doing things differently – more humanely, equitably, and sustainably. Recovering, protecting and continuously learning from this knowledge requires methodologies that feed into live archives, fostering and strengthening knowledge exchange networks and the inclusion of multiple voices, especially of those that are typically excluded or less heard in decision making. Beyond drawing learnings for policy design and care provision, such methodologies can also better support the reconstruction of the long-term social memory of contested and multifaceted governance periods marked by violent separation, as well as by cross-cultural contact, collective resistances and social ingenuity. Equally important when conducting research in such contexts, is the need to move beyond ‘doing no harm’, by conceiving research processes as healing and empowering for the different actors dealing with the effects of bordering on a daily basis.


[1] The project is led by Dr Rita Lambert with Ioanna Manoussaki-Adampoloulou and Jessica Sullivan from UCL, in collaboration with the University of Deusto (Dr Edurne Bartolome Peral) and five NGOs working in Greece (Samos Volunteers, Zaporeak, Echo100 Plus, Glocal Roots and Refugee Biriyani and Bananas).  The project was funded by UCL Knowledge Exchange and Innovation grant and aims to support institutional memory and create a platform for transdisciplinary knowledge exchange between academics, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations (CBOs) working in/and from Greece on the refugee crisis.

[2] For a critical approach to the Dublin regulations, see https://www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/publications/MPIe-Asylum-DublinReg.pdf

[3] https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2022/07/04/violent-and-illegal-migrant-pushacks-must-end-now-eu-warns-greece


Green, S. 2010. ‘Performing Border in the Aegean’. Journal of Cultural Economy 3(2): 261–278.

Papoutsi, A., Painter, J., Papada, E., and Vradis, A. 2018. ‘The EC hotspot approach in Greece: creating liminal EU territory’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, pp.1-13. DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2018.1468351

Rozakou, K. 2017. ‘Solidarity humanitarianism: The blurred boundaries of humanitarianism in Greece’.  Allegra Labhttps://allegralaboratory.net/solidarity-humanitarianism/

Just Sustainabilities and the New Urban Agenda

ucfuvca5 August 2016

Originally published by Urban Transformations

Will 2016 be an urban year in international development policy? In September 2015, the United Nations Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to supersede the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). One notable feature was the introduction of an ‘urban goal’, Goal 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Planning is at the centre of the new urban goal. It includes an explicit planning target, Target 11.3: “By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.” Target 11.3 synthetizes a long history of international development thinking to make cities sustainable through planning.

The target also emphasises the relationship between inclusive development and sustainability. In doing so, the target expresses explicitly the interconnection between social and environmental issues in planning. By emphasising capacity, the target also points to a fundamental issue in planning for sustainable cities: that institutions with the power to carry on sustainable action, or even to understand what sustainable action is, are frequently absent. The target specifies how planning has to be: it has to be participatory, integrated and sustainable. This last adjective emphasises that sustainability is both a characteristic of the output, i.e., a sustainable city, and of the process whereby that output is achieved: i.e. participatory, integrated.14157883749_8f55b61a29_k

To a certain extent, Target 11.3 follows on from the guidelines of Chapter 7 in Local Agenda 21 that was later consolidated in the Habitat II agenda in Istanbul, 1996. The assertive formulation of Target 11.3, putting at its core both participation and integrated planning, suggests an association of planning and urban management with social and environmental justice objectives. As part of the preparations for the Habitat III conference in Quito 2016, UN-Habitat has promoted the slogan “the transformative force of urbanisation”. The slogan is designed to harness the energy emerging from positive views of urbanization which do not just see it as an unavoidable global phenomenon, but embrace it as a positive force with the potential to change unsustainable societies. The use of the word ‘transformative’, however, suggests a radical departure from business as usual scenarios, a deep structural change that will not only reconfigure cities but also, will reconfigure contemporary societies and economies towards a fairer world which respects its environment. Overall, the link between inclusive and sustainable cities, the emphasis on the sustainability of both processes and outputs, and the framing of planning as a tool for radical change towards a better society all point to a greater interest on achieving environmental and social justice in urban areas. The central question that should be asked in the road towards implementation of SDG 11 and in the preparations for Habitat III is: what kind of planning can bring about cities that are both sustainable and just?


The protection of the Earth’s life-support system and poverty reduction are twin priorities for development. In relation to the new urban agenda, this is akin to achieving ‘just sustainabilities’ through linking social welfare and environmental protection (Agyeman et al. 2003, Agyeman 2013). Just sustainabilities approaches have the potential to reinvigorate notions of sustainability in the new urban agenda, helping link environmental concerns with the needs and perceptions of citizens, and their articulation in social movements.

23090523285_5b350f70ae_kThe notion of just sustainabilities emerged as a response to the 1990s debates on sustainable development, and how sustainability goals in an urban context reproduced, rather than prevented, the conditions of inequality and environmental degradation. In urban planning, there has long been a concern about the limitations of using sustainability-oriented urban policies to address social justice issues (Marcuse 1998). Political theorists have questioned broadly where social justice and environmental sustainability are actually compatible (Dobson 1998, Dobson 2003). However, for proponents of just sustainabilities, social justice and environmental sustainability are interdependent problems that challenge existing power structures (McLaren 2003).

The linkages between environmental change and social justice are apparent in empirical evidence of how environmental degradation and resource scarcity is experienced by the urban poor. Unsafe and inadequate water supplies, inadequate provision of sanitation and waste management, overcrowding, lack of safety, and different forms of air and water pollution continue to shape the lives of many citizens around the world (e.g. Hardoy and Satterthwaite 1991, Forsyth et al. 1998, Brennan 1999, HEI 2004, WHO 2009, UNDP 2014). For example, almost 10% of deaths in low-income regions are directly attributed to environmental risks such as unsafe water, outdoor and indoor air pollution, lead exposure and impacts from climate change (WHO 2009). Poverty and inequalities in access to resources and livelihood opportunities increase the vulnerability of the urban poor to climate change impacts and natural disasters (Revi et al. 2014). By 2030, the global demand for energy and water will likely grow by 40%, while for food it may increase by as much as 50% (ODI/ECDPM/GDI/DIE 2012). This is likely to further hinder poor people’s access to even basic resources. For example, the number of people without energy access is raising, regardless of infrastructure developments or urbanisation rates (IEA 2014).


Incorporating notions of justice in environmental policy and planning emphasises both the distributional impacts of environmental degradation and resource scarcity and the need to adopt decisions that emerge from a fair and open process of policy-making. This also requires broadening the notion of justice beyond a narrow distributive conceptualisation with a recognition of how environmental problems are experienced by diverse groups of actors – especially those which are disadvantaged and struggle to make their views known – the extent to which they are represented and participate in environmental decision-making, and how environmental policy influences people’s opportunities for fulfilment (Schlosberg 2007).


Civil society organisations and local community organisations have already made substantial contributions to demonstrating and acting upon the nexus between social justice and environmental sustainability, which have in turn inspired the ideals of just sustainabilities (Agyeman et al. 2002). These are initiatives that recognise the need for people to participate in environmental decisions; the imperative to meet people’s basic needs’ and the normative requirement to preserve the integrity of nature for future generations (Faber and McCarthy 2003). Justice-oriented discourses are already inspiring environmental action for climate change in urban areas (Bulkeley et al. 2014, Bulkeley et al. 2013). Yet, addressing the environmental crisis will require a concerted action between public, private and civil society actors for a sustainability transition.

Demonstrating that just sustainabilities have purchase to deliver an urban future that is both just and sustainable will require operationalising this notion within current governance possibilities. In particular, following Rydin’s (2013) pioneering work on the future of planning, there is a need to think how just sustainabilities can help challenge and redefine environmental planning. Just sustainabilities emphasises the “nexus of theoretical compatibility between sustainability and environmental justice, including an emphasis on community-based decision making; on economic policies that account fiscally for social and environmental externalities; on reductions in all forms of pollution; on building clean, livable communities for all people; and on an overall regard for the ecological integrity of the planet” (Agyeman and Evans 2003; p. 36-37). It adopts an expansive notion of environmental justice which also recognises the just practices of everyday life (Schlosberg 2013). In doing so, it calls for a to move away from current dominant paradigms of growth, using planning as a means to address social and ecological concerns within an unsustainable and unjust economic system (Rydin 2013).


In this vein, just sustainabilities may be thought as the attainment of four conditions simultaneously:

1. Improving people’s quality of life and wellbeing;
2. Meeting the needs of both present and future generations, that is, considering simultaneously intra- and intergenerational equity;
3. Ensuring justice and equity in terms of recognition, process, procedure and outcome; and
4. Recognising ecosystem limits and the need to live within the possibilities of this planet (Agyeman et al. 2003).

There is already a body of empirical evidence about the practice of just sustainabilities (Agyeman 2005, Agyeman 2013). However, does it represent a viable perspective for sustainable planning agendas? Does it have relevance beyond the environmental justice movements from which it has emerged? Can it be integrated into current practices of environmental planning? These are open questions which will unfold as the New Urban Agenda begins to be implemented on the ground. The concept of just sustainabilities emerges as a positive discourse that can support action to deliver urban transformations. Clearly, there are tools available to deliver just sustainability action in urban environmental planning and management, but their applicability, effectiveness and impacts depend on the context in which they are implemented. More ambitious efforts are needed in the New Urban Agenda to redefine urban development possibilities and the way environmental limits are experienced in different cities. Local governments will play a key role in developing strategies to challenge growth-dependence paradigms and to enable collaborative forms of environmental governance.



Agyeman, J., 2005. Sustainable communities and the challenge of environmental justice. New York University Press: New York.
Agyeman, J., 2013. Introducing just sustainabilities: Policy, planning, and practice. London: Zed books.
Agyeman, J., Bullard, R. D. and Evans, B. 2002. Exploring the Nexus: Bringing Together Sustainability, Environmental Justice and Equity. Space and Polity, 6(1), 77-90.
Agyeman, J., Bullard, R. D. and Evans, B., 2003. Just sustainabilities: development in an unequal world. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Agyeman, J. and Evans, T. 2003. Toward Just Sustainability in Urban Communities: Building Equity Rights with Sustainable Solutions. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 590(1), 35-53.
Brennan, E., 1999. Population, Urbanization , Environment, and Security : A summary of the issues. Comparative Urban Studies Occasional Paper Series. Washington.
Bulkeley, H., et al. 2013. Climate justice and global cities: mapping the emerging discourses. Global Environmental Change, 23(5), 914-925.
Bulkeley, H., Edwards, G. A. and Fuller, S. 2014. Contesting climate justice in the city: Examining politics and practice in urban climate change experiments. Global Environmental Change, 25, 31-40.
Dobson, A., 1998. Justice and the Environment: Conceptions of Environmental Sustainability and Dimensions of Social Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dobson, A. 2003. Social justice and environmental sustainability: ne’er the twain shall meet. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world, 83-95.
Faber, D. and McCarthy, D. 2003. Neo-liberalism, globalization and the struggle for ecological democracy: linking sustainability and environmental justice. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world, 38-63.
Forsyth, T., Leach, M. and Scoones, I., 1998. Poverty and environment: priorities for research and policy – an overview study. Sussex, 49.
Hardoy, J. E. and Satterthwaite, D. 1991. Environmental problems of third world cities: A global issue ignored. Public Administration and Development, 11, 341-361.
HEI, Health Effects of Outdoor Air Pollution in Developing Countries of Asia. ed., 2004 Boston.
IEA, Africa Energy Outlook. ed., 2014 Paris.
Marcuse, P. 1998. Sustainability is not enough. Environment and Urbanization, 10(2), 103-112.
McLaren, D. 2003. Environmental space, equity and the ecological debt. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world, 19-37.
ODI/ECDPM/GDI/DIE, 2012. Confronting scarcity: Managing water, energy and land for inclusive and sustainable growth. Brussels: European Union Report on Development, 9789279231612.
Revi, A., et al. 2014. Towards transformative adaptation in cities: the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment. Environment and Urbanization, 26(1), 11-28.
Rydin, Y., 2013. The future of planning. Policy Press.
Schlosberg, D. 2007. Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature.
Schlosberg, D. 2013. Theorising environmental justice: the expanding sphere of a discourse. Environmental politics, 22(1), 37-55.
UNDP, Human Development Report 2014. ed., 2014 New York, 239.
WHO, Global Health Risks: Mortality and Burden of Disease Attributable to selected major risks. ed., 2009 Geneva.

Vanesa Castán Broto is a senior lecturer and co-director of MSc Environment and Sustainable Development at the DPU. Her work spans a range of issues in developing cities, including disaster preparedness, climate change adaptation and energy supply. Vanesa is also Principal Investigator of the Mapping Urban Energy Landscapes (MUEL) in the Global South project at Urban Transformations.