Understanding the Dynamics of Urban Flexibility and Reconstruction

In the wake of catastrophic disruptions (natural disasters, pandemics or civil conflict) a city’s infrastructure and identity can either be restored or radically transformed. This project, led by the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) will look at regions such as the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa where such disruptions are endemic to understand how cities respond to and emerge out of reconstruction.

About the project

This project explores notions of ‘urban flexibility’ in cities undergoing processes of reconstruction after a disaster or coping with situations of endemic crisis in Africa and the Caribbean. We hope this research will contribute to the study of urban governance through a novel, interdisciplinary framework and a solid comparative analysis of the dynamics of change in African and Latin American cities.

Why ‘urban flexibility’ ?

In the wake of catastrophic disruptions – natural disasters, epidemics or protracted civil conflicts – different dimensions of urban flexibility are put to the test. As cities become the site of ambitious reconstruction efforts, the imagination of plausible futures expands and new possibilities for redesigning the physical, social and political conditions of urban life emerge. The flexibility of the city’s material fabric is up for grabs; its infrastructural and aesthetic identity can either be restored or radically transformed and upgraded; the nature, complexity and density of social networks acquire fundamental relevance in coping with the disruption. As the governance capacity of local actors is challenged or called into question, the institutional architecture of urban governance becomes infiltrated by a variety of external actors, forms of expertise and policymaking institutions. The result is typically hybrid forms of governance, unstable and fragile balances of local, national and international organisations deploying a variety of expert knowledges and forms of rule. In sum, understanding how the city responds to and emerges out of reconstruction efforts requires a deep examination of how its strengths and fragilities align in different constellations of physical, social and political flexibility.

Questioning ‘urban flexibility’

The research focuses on examining the following questions:

Examining ‘flexibility’

Notions of flexibility regarding governance, expertise and identity are multiple and at times elusive. Often times ‘flexibility’ is taken to mean something inherently (and normatively) good, but that raises questions – flexibility of what? flexible for whom? Other times, the concept gets compounded by notions of resilience or adaptation. Are these all the same or different? What can be learned from an exploration of different logics of flexibility that can inform action for those involved in reconstruction efforts or coping with endemic crisis in urban areas?

Exploratory Workshop, 13 July 2010

To explore some initial analytical foundations for our project, we held a workshop in July 2010 to hear from people whose work is relevant to theoretical and empirical notions of ‘flexibility’. The colleagues we heard from – Alberto Corsín Jiménez(CSIC), Sunil Kumar (LSE), Line Bonneau (InSIS), Mark Pelling (King’s College London), Gisa Weszkalnys (University of Exeter) – inspired insights on how to conceptualise ‘flexibility’ from contexts other than cities.

Fieldwork, Autumn 2010

We will be conducting fieldwork at two sites: Cancún, Mexico, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Cancún, Mexico

Cancún is a site of punctuated, recurrent disasters. The so-called ‘Cancún Project’ was developed in the early 1970s by the Mexican Fondo Nacional de Fomento al Turismo and the Bank of Mexico as an attempt to create a new tourist city with a support village of 150,000 inhabitants in the virgin marshlands of the Caribbean coast. In less than four decades, Cancún became one of the most successful tourist destinations in the world, attracting over 4 million tourists a year. Explosive and uncontrolled urban growth followed this transformation. From an initial population of nearly 100 inhabitants, the population of Cancún rose above 700,000 people in 2009. This exceptional growth took place in the context of recurrent natural disasters. Located in one of the most active zones of tropical cyclones in the world, Cancún is brushed by a tropical storm every 2.5 years, some with devastating effects (e.g. hurricanes Gilbert, in 1988, and Wilma, in 2005). Cancún constitutes an exceptional test case to question notions of urban flexibility through the lenses of hybrid forms of urban planning and governance required to anticipate and legislate over multiple, and sometimes conflicting, images of the future and the catastrophic disruptions it will bring. Specifically, this case presents the opportunity to identify and explore the complex coalitions of expert advisory institutions, civic networks, and local, national and international organizations involved in the definition of these futures, as well as the effects that these imagined futures have on city planning and governance.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Dar es Salaam is the site of multiple endemic crises. When it became the capital of German East Africa, the streets of Dar es Salaam – ‘the healthy city’ in Arabic – were built according to the economic, scientific and political interests of an imperial project; the urban topology is informed by urban and health reforms in Europe. Today, Dar es Salaam confronts the endemic effects of decades of rapid, unregulated urbanisation: informal housing, inadequate systems of sanitation and electricity, and a fragile security situation. With HIV/AIDS declared a national disaster, this growing, densely populated city is now the site of multiple international public health interventions, including those for tuberculosis, malaria and malnutrition. Intensive investment by charitable and private foundations has introduced new and powerful actors into health provision in the city, and thus into the management of everyday urban life. Dar es Salaam presents an excellent opportunity to deconstruct the concept of urban flexibility through the lenses of reactions to concurrent endemic crises. We seek to give empirical texture to the governance of the city through the all-encompassing lens of public health intervention, and to do so in an urban context that represents a paradigmatic example of the intersection of multiple endemic crises and their management by local, national and international organisations.

Final Conference, 2011

We will conclude the research with a final conference, open to researchers, stakeholders and beneficiaries of this research. A preliminary analysis of the two case studies will be shared and discussed.

About the research team

The team is composed of an interdisciplinary group of social science researchers who share common interests around the themes of governance, expertise and identity.

Idalina Baptista (co-PI) is a Research Fellow in the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities. She holds a PhD in City and Regional Planning from the University of California, Berkeley. Her main research interests focus on understanding the diversity of governance strategies at work in urban areas and how these shape the social and material fabric of the city. She is currently also working on publishing her doctoral dissertation on the use of regimes of exception as alternative forms of governance, its potential, limits and unintended consequences.

Javier Lezaun (co-PI) is James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) where he is co-convenor of the Governance, Accountability and Innovation research group (GAIn). He has recently edited the volume Catastrophe: Law, Politics and the Humanitarian Impulse (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) and holds a PhD in Science and Technology Studies from Cornell University.

Matilde Córdoba Azcárate is a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow in the Earth and Environmental Science Program at the City University of New York. She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain. Her research has focused on the problematic intersection between development policies and tourism in Mexico and, more specifically, in the use of alternative forms of tourism as development tools. As a member of the international research Tourism, Territory and New Mobilities, she is currently investigating environmental conflicts in Yucatan, Mexico.

Fernando Domínguez Rubio is a Marie Curie Postdoctoral fellow in the Sociology Department at the New York University and the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), UK. He holds a PhD in Sociology from Cambridge University. His work focuses on the politics emerging from the preservation of cultural and artistic heritage. He has conducted fieldwork in Yucatán as part of the international research Tourism, Territory and New Mobilities exploring the risks of cultural heritage in the face of massive tourism and cyclical natural disasters.

Michael Guggenheim is a researcher at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Zürich and from January 2011 at the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His PhD (University of Zürich) was an ethnography of environmental expertise firms. His current work focuses on change of use of buildings. He is preparing a project on the work of civil protection organizations. He is working on a research project on “Anticipatory and Participatory Politics of Emergency Provision” funded by the WWTF Vienna. He most recently edited Re-Shaping Cities: How Global Mobility Transforms Architecture and Urban Form (Routledge 2009).

Ann Kelly is a Lecturer with the Anthropologies of African Biosciences Group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from Cambridge University. Her work focuses on international public health research and interventions. Her ethnographic work in Tanzania, The Gambia and Benin explores the production and use of scientific facts in Africa, with special attention to the built-environments, material artifacts and practical labors of experimentation. She is currently developing a project exploring the memories of biomedical research in African cities.

Ella McPherson recently completed a PhD in Sociology from Cambridge University. She is currently a Research Fellow in Sociology and a Director of Studies at the University of Cambridge’s Wolfson College. Her work looks at the struggles between the state, civil society organisations, and the media over crucial resources, particularly access to the public sphere, in the context of democratisation. Her dissertation fieldwork took place in Mexico City, where she examined these struggles as manifested in human rights reporting.

Contact the team

For further questions regarding this project, please contact the project PIs, Idalina Baptista (idalina.baptista@insis.ox.ac.uk) or Javier Lezaun (javier.lezaun@insis.ox.ac.uk).