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Invitation to Apply: Heterogeneous Infrastructures in African Cities

As part of broader efforts to develop regional learning across the continent, the Situated Urban Political Ecology collective and Urban Action Lab at Makerere University will be hosting a workshop on urban infrastructures in Africa from November 12-15, 2018 in Kampala, Uganda.

Scholars and practitioners are increasingly grappling with alternative modes of infrastructural provision. This is motivated by scholarly interest in everyday infrastructural practices and politics as well as concerns about the economic, environmental, social and political viability of universal, uniform infrastructure networks. In theory and practice, this is resulting in challenges to existing urban theorization, political agendas and infrastructure provision.

The multiplicity of infrastructures undoubtedly creates challenges for both our scholarly generalization and normative practices. While there has been a growth of scholarship, much of this is case-based and performative, usefully focused on what is there and how it works.

At this workshop, we will seek to develop new research questions, outputs and networks with the aim of thinking through the heterogeneity of infrastructure provisioning in cities across sub-Saharan Africa (see e.g. Lawhon et al., 2018; Monstadt and Schramm, 2017; Jaglin, 2016; please contact us at if you have difficulties accessing any of these materials). We are interested in thinking beyond individual artefacts towards understanding dynamic configurations of people and technology. Key questions might include:

  • How does/might socio-technical and urban heterogeneity shape user practices, experiences and everyday urbanisms?
  • How does/might heterogeneity enable or restrict specific managerial and governance approaches to the urban?
  • How are standardization and (in)compatibility challenges addressed by decision-makers, and with what impacts?
  • How does/might heterogeneity shape responses to disruption, displacement and future uncertainty and what risks emerge in heterogeneous contexts?
  • How does/might heterogeneity shape politics and (re)distribute power?

With this in mind, we are hosting a four-day workshop (including both early career and established researchers). We will request short papers (3000-5000 words) to be submitted and circulated by 1 Oct, 2018. Session will explore these pre-read papers through facilitated conversation, with discussants drawing out the key debates from the contributions. Participation in the workshop will thus require a submitted paper and reading of all our colleagues work in the run-up. Day one will also include optional field visits and an opening plenary.

There is no cost for the workshop itself. Some funding is available for travel/accommodation (early career scholars from Africa will be prioritized).

To apply, please submit a single pdf by email to with the subject line “Workshop Application” (1) Abstract that specifically addresses heterogeneity in urban African infrastructure, (2) A brief letter of application, including your position and institution, motivation and your own ideal goals for the workshop, (3) A brief statement of research interests, outputs (e.g. relevant publications) and experience (4) Funding statement (if you are requesting our support, and/or have applications for support received or pending; only limited funds available). Funding status will not impact your application but enable us to move quickly to allocate support.

Applications due May 30.

Our thanks for this support to

  • ESRC, UK (for the project Turning Livelihoods to Rubbish, ES/M009408/1),
  • The German Research Foundation (for the project “Translating the networked city”, MO 1804/7-2, under its Priority Programme 1448 “Adaptation and Creativity in Africa”)
  • The Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet, for the project Heterogeneous Infrastructures of Cities in Uganda Project: Thinking Infrastructure with the South; Dnr 2015-03543).

We are also grateful for support from the following institutions:

African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town; Department of Geography, Geo-informatics & Climatic Sciences, Makerere University; Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability, University of Oklahoma; Department of Geography, The University of Manchester; Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning, Utrecht University; Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, KTH Royal Institute of Technology; and the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield.

Organizers include: Henrik Ernstson, Peter Kasaija, Mary Lawhon, Shuaib Lwasa, Jochen Monstadt, Jonathan Silver and Sophie Schramm.


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Reflections on Situating Urban Political Ecology at the African Centre for Cities’s International Urban Conference

As part of the African Centre for CitiesInternational Urban Conference, Kathleen Stokes and Nate Millington organized a series of sessions dedicated to thinking about the relationships between labor, infrastructure, and politics in cities of the global south. We received numerous papers from scholars working in cities all over the world, from Accra to Delhi. Below, we highlight the presentations that were given in order to highlight the work being done by researchers interested in situating urban political ecological research through sustained engagements with cities of the global south.

Old engines, pipes, pumps, and cables at a SACMEX workshop. Photograph by Alejandro De Coss.

In his presentation, Maintaining Mexico City’s Lerma water supply system: an ethnography of labour and infrastructure, Alejandro De Coss (Sociology, London School of Economics and Political Science), looked at the ways in which the Mexico City water system is maintained and repaired. In particular, he focused on the Lerma System, an inter-basin transfer built between 1942 and 1951, which still supplies the city with approximately 14% of its daily water use. During the course of one year, Alejandro worked alongside the repair and maintenance teams of the Mexico City Water System in two different sites. One was the Lerma area, located roughly 50 kms away from downtown Mexico City; the other, the western neighbourhoods of Mexico City itself. There, he could see that the repair and maintenance of this system depends on the ingenuity, creativity, and practical knowledge of the workers. Facing budget cuts, and lacks in materials, tools, and personnel, these workers keep the systems infrastructures running by fixing it through what they call patchwork. This work is one of scavenging, sorting out, and transforming apparent junk into new functional pieces, and, in turn, fixing failing infrastructures – pumps, pipes, wells – with them. Moreover, this repair and maintenance work is also crucial in reproducing the diverse social and material relations that are created through water infrastructures. The processes and politics of water supply, distribution, and appropriation are reproduced too when workers repair and maintain the water system. Through this finding, he calls for a dual attention both to infrastructures and labour when analysing the work that the former do in producing space, society, and their many relations.

The entrails of the city: fixing a leak in a commercial district in Mexico City. Photograph by Alejandro De Coss. 

In their paper, Imperial remains and imperial invitations: Theorizing fugitivity and raw-life within the infrastructure(s) of African cities, Wangui Kimari (York University and Mathare Social Justice Centre) and Henrik Ernstson (The University of Manchester, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and University of Cape Town) made two core arguments: first, they emphasized the racial disposability immanent to large-scale infrastructure projects in East Africa. They foregrounded racialization and through this simultaneously traced how empire continues to be made through what they understand as both “imperial remains” and “imperial invitations.” These imperial infrastructural arrangements belie popular notions of colonial rupture and post coloniality. While remains are more explicit reinstantiations of empire, imperial invitations are novel forms where, in the guise of “development,” African countries invite China, Brazil and others to finance, design and develop large scale infrastructure projects. Since these recent invitations are enabled by the skewed power dynamics established in the colonial period and reentrench, in many forms, Africa as pathology, they argued that they are still heavily engaged in perpetuating empire on the continent. Second, while highlighting the “raw life” implicit in these imperial road, rail and communication architectures, they make evident the “fugitive movements” and “genius” of marginalized people to resist, challenge and make evident the “eliminatory logics” of empires over the longue duree.

The ‘Lunatic Express’, Kenya’s first train, built by the Imperial British East African Company (IBEAC), circa 1898

In their presentation, Uneven Logistics and Labour: Seeking Value in South African Urban Household Recycling, Kathleen Stokes (University of Manchester) and Nate Millington (University of Cape Town) considered different ways that the South African state is attempting to turn recyclables into a source of value throughout the country. They focused on the development of Separation at Source initiatives as well as efforts to incentivize participation in low-income communities. They argue that schemes to unpack value from recyclables are reliant on a series of incentives that in effect generate an economy that requires subsidizing and requires serious state involvement. This has implications for attempts to tie job creation goals to waste, and suggests a kind of structural paradox within the recycling economy. Second, they argue that subsidizing recycling relies on different forms of labour and different subject positions, in particular the idea of the entrepreneurial self. Finally, they argue that in promoting an enabling environment for recycling and job creation, the state seeks to outsource risk and responsibility for service provision/functioning. This means that that state responsibility for waste management increasingly becomes one of oversight, and that infrastructure and labour configurations become the responsibility of others and context specific. This has implications for how we understand the nature of the contemporary state.

 Recycling Plastic in Cape Town, 2017. Photograph by Nate Millington

Pascale Hofmann (University College London) explored the “dialectics of urban water poverty” through her presentation, Exploring water infrastructure and services through everyday trajectories. Pascale’s research examines how ‘the urban water poor’ move in and out of urban water poverty and how they do so in different ways, exploring the interrelations between policy-driven and everyday practices and their influence on individual trajectories. She adopts a normative perspective based on principles of environmental justice, including distribution, recognition and parity of participation, and applies a relational approach that draws on intersectionality scholarship and emphasises intersections of time, space and socioenvironmental relations. Pascale’s presentation focused on access to water in Dar es Salaam, a city facing growing challenges with the equitable provision of water services. While the actual number of people that gained access in urban areas since 1990 may have increased, in Tanzania the percentage of people with improved access to water has declined. Failure of policy-driven practices (those by government, private sector providers, external support agencies and other key players in infrastructure development) to adequately address urban water poverty has increased the reliance of poor women and men on a range of everyday practices to meet their WSS needs, including community-managed systems and informal private providers.

Storing water in Dar es Salaam. Photograph by Pascale Hofmann. 

Pascale’s findings confirmed a dialectic relationship between policy-driven and everyday practices with multiple examples where conditions under which urban water poverty prevails are produced, reproduced and normalised. But evidence further shows instances of more transformative practices that challenge unjust processes and outcomes with a potential for people to move out of it. Research findings highlight how spatial and temporal specificity alongside people’s intersectional identities and relations shape individual trajectories and define who can and cannot escape water poverty traps and why. She argues that a relational investigation of urban water poverty trajectories can help tackle the problem by spelling out which factors pull people out of urban water poverty and which ones push them deeper into it.

Delivering water in Dar es Salaam. Photograph by Pascale Hofmann. 

Cecilia Alda Vidal (University of Manchester) presented findings from the paper, Mapping operation and maintenance: an everyday analysis of inequalities within piped water supply in Lilongwe, Malawi (written with Maria Rusca and Michelle Kooy). The paper begins from the premise that in Lilongwe, Malawi (along with many other cities), a connection to the water network does not ensure that water will run when one opens the tap. While some users receive water round-the-clock, those located in the Low Income Areas of the city frequently face intermittent supply or lack of water for up to 4-5 days. To explain this situation the authors follow the engineers and operators of the water utility as they conduct daily operational and maintenance work and show how their routines and decisions contribute to produce a highly differentiated service. Inequalities in water distribution are produced and maintained not only through the construction of infrastructure but through its daily operation and maintenance and reflect and reproduce other inequalities within the city.

Jonathan Silver (University of Sheffield) presented his paper from Environment and Planning AThe climate crisis, carbon capital and urbanisation: An urban political ecology of low-carbon restructuring in Mbale. Using the theme of the session to rethink the role of labour in the waste process and the role of workers in contesting low-carbon restructuring in African towns and cities Silver showed that the impact of climate change will not just be in the hazards and risks associated with bio-physical change. Rather precarious workers such as waste-pickers are deemed as blocking progress towards addressing the emergency of climate change and the role of waste in helping to cut carbon emissions. And new forms of infrastructure operation such as in Mbale show that attempts to address the carbon crisis are likely to reinforce existing working conditions and social relations between the poor and global institutions such as the World Bank.

Collecting waste in Mbale. Photograph by Jonathan Silver. 

Joseph Chambers (University of Manchester) explored the role and development of ICT innovation in Nairobi’s energy and water InfrastructureLike many cities, Nairobi faces a myriad of infrastructural challenges. Recently, greater hope and efforts are being placed in ICT Innovations (ICTIs) helping solve these problems. This digital injection is occurring against a backdrop whereby Kenya has become a central node in the digital globe and active voice in technologically mediated city discussions. Whilst glossy images of new, Kenyan smart cities remain, the everyday metabolisms of Nairobi are being increasingly mediated by ICTIs within urban infrastructure.

Whilst research has explored the development of ICTIs within smart cities of the global North and their incorporation within urban infrastructure, African cities are under-researched. Joseph’s ongoing research, based in Nairobi, examined how these ICTIs have been developed within urban energy and water infrastructure and their impact on the population’s everyday experiences. Focussing on four main projects (Water ATMs, water tank sensors, ethanol and LPG IoT-networks), the research engaged a variety of key agents (designers/engineers/government officials) and stakeholders, whose lives are reconfigured by these ICTIs. Further research is beginning to go into greater depth, exploring how these ICTIs within urban infrastructure are altering the daily lives for numerous citizens.The findings from the research highlight the lessons learnt by home-grown ICTIs, the need to engage and train local populations and the benefits of making ICTIs adaptable.  Secondly, the research identified the everyday impacts of these ICTIs including; clearer financial planning, greater time-management in water/fuel collection and greater political representation enabled through ICTIs. Finally, the research examines how these ICTIs have opened up new discourses about the role of informal infrastructures, mediated by digital technologies, within the resilient smart city of the future.  As the research continues, new insights will hopefully be uncovered over the coming months.

Monitoring Water. Image courtesy Kelvin Gacheru (2017) TechWaterSolutions

In her presentation drawn from research in South Delhi, Sushmita Pati explored how the field of political economy looks like when we look at it from the ground. She asks, “How does the field of political economy appear in everyday conflicts, negotiations and practices?” In her research and presentation,The Life and Times of Lowly Infrastructure, Sushmita looked at two urban villages ethnographically. She documented their progression since the time of land acquisition to see how networks of caste and kinship become important to sustain the logic of finance, rent market and accumulation, while understanding the urban village as central in this formation. As Delhi needed to expand post-independence, agricultural lands of these villages were acquired in order to make what we know as South Delhi today. The residential lands of the villages were retained, however. Urban villages, as caught in between the expensive localities of South Delhi today are exactly the oxymoron that the terminology reflects. Both these villages are dominated by Jats, traditional landlords, who have been able to make the most of the exponential increase of real estate value. They are therefore villages in the middle of the city where geographies of caste and that of capital get entwined and mapped onto each other. This does not make them unique, as such overlaps exist all over the city space. But studying this form gives us an entry into questions that are beyond the form itself. This research is as much about the villages as it is about the relationship the villages have with the city. These villages have been integrated into the city in ways that are not neat and systematic. This work goes beyond the rural-urban continuum story and look at the ways in which rent figures as central in the postcolonial global cities. Caught in between the ‘city’ and the ‘village’ as a form, these villages have come up as renting spaces for lower middle class new migrants to the city. Erstwhile agrarian-pastoralist landlords begin to emerge as property owners by erecting cheaply constructed buildings meant entirely for renting purposes which Sushmita calls, ‘lowly infrastructures’. These lowly infrastructures are built and sustained through a vernacular form of capital that works as the underbelly of the global capital. Her larger research looks at these very circuits of economy and their presence within global city spaces.

Image courtesy Dwayne Leonard Fernandes

Antje Bruns, Rossella Alba and Lara E. Bartels (all from Universität Trier) presented findings from WaterPower, an on-going collaborative research project that explores the dynamics of urbanization, resource governance, and global environmental change in the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area.

Tanker drivers and residents purchase pipe-born water from a filling point installed by the water utility. Photograph by Rosella Alba.

Rossella and Lara discussed the role of multiplicity in the production of uneven urban and peri-urban water geographies by bringing together research on the everyday practices of water vending within and outside large-scale networked infrastructure, and research on the strategies put in place by residents to access water and land in peri-urban Accra. By looking at the urban waterscape through the perspectives of water provision and access, their work analyses the relations between different sources of water as well as between multiple infrastructural configurations for urban water provision. This approach contributes to build detailed understandings of the everyday flow of water not only within a neighborhood, or in relation to a particular type of infrastructure but across the city and across multiple delivery configurations. For instance, it shows that groundwater abstraction in peri-urban Accra is a strategy put in place by residents to access water in face of infrastructural deficits as well as a source of water for tanker operators when they are excluded from purchasing pipe-born water from the large scale networked infrastructure run by the city´s public water utility. It makes visible the overlapping roles of residents who are at the same time water providers, customers of the water utility and of water vendors.

Water selling in peri-urban Accra. Residents set up small scale (ground)water selling facilities in their backyards. Photograph by Rosella Alba.

Building on the above insights, Antje´s presentation discussed how urban political ecology can contribute to illuminate the contested production of urban environments and move beyond a narrow technical, managerial and state-centric focus in research on urban metabolic relations. She advocated for an approach to metabolic analysis that views the urban environment as a dynamic, nested and co-evolutionary network of complex biosocial and material relations, which in itself shapes how various metabolisms interact across scales. Her presentation illustrated how a metabolic analysis makes visible the interconnections between the uneven flow of water and energy across the GAMA. Drawing from the experience of interdisciplinary research within WaterPower, she emphasized the need for metabolic analysis to remain open to a plurality of different knowledge forms and perspectives, and to remain attentive to the inherently political nature of material and technological phenomena.

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Provincializing Urban Appropriation

In a new article, SUPE members Joseph Pierce, Mary Lawhon, and Anesu Makina reflect on theorizations of urban appropriation in South African urban contexts. Engaging with Lefebvrian theorizations of the ‘Right to the City‘ as well as Bayat’s idea of ‘quiet encroachment,’ the authors argue that actors in South Africa operate using a different model of appropriation. They note that urban actors in South Africa often act in ways that could be characterized as appropriative, yet do not work to consolidate a right to occupy or appropriate land founded on durable permission. These acts are, they argue, not adequately explained as apolitical or individualistic even as the logic used to justify them is often based neither on rights nor needs.

Drawing from these dynamics, the authors propose a ‘third’ mode of urban appropriation, alongside Lefebvre’s and Bayat’s, that they argue is present in South African cities. They label such appropriation ‘agonistically transgressive,’ and argue that it can be tentatively defined by three conceptual characteristics:

  1. Agonistic transgression is not oriented toward securing use of the city in an ongoing way, but entails always-ongoing efforts to appropriate. Agonistically transgressive appropriation thus deflects rhetorical efforts by both state and private actors to invoke authoritative adjudication or closure, because closure (whether ultimately advantageous or disadvantageous) is not how appropriation proceeds.
  2. Relatedly, agonistic transgression is not understood by actors as playing by any one specific set of agreed-upon rules—even rules outside of the law—but is instead seen as essentially transgressive of efforts to enumerate rules and order. In this way agonistic transgression troubles official claims of law and order, instead cultivating an ethic of the presently-possible based on the limits of state and private regulation. Such actions are not, however, the kind of spontaneous actions described by Bayat but instead are underpinned by broader rationalities
  3. Agonistic transgression is a mode of appropriation which both employs contemporary loci of political conflict while also identifying and cultivating new conflicts. The ongoing/unfolding process of appropriation involves an endless probing of physical and political landscapes for vulnerable disagreements between empowered actors about what the rules of the urban game really are: these disagreements constitute locations where opportunities exist for current or future acts of appropriation.

For the authors, engaging with these particular models of urban appropriation is critical to avoiding the overuse of scholarly concepts, whether derived from the global North or South. They note that:

Collectively, these moments of interstitial transgression substantively (re)make the logics of urban circulation and use. The formal spatial logics of capital and the state have often capitulated to the logics of incremental agonistic transgression—at least for a time, and at least in some places. While the abilities of both the state and capital to regulate space are always partial and contested, contestation is particularly evident in the dynamic urban conditions of post-apartheid South Africa. We argue that agonistic transgression is, therefore, particularly salient in South Africa, but may occur anywhere that contestations over space occur (i.e. anywhere). Analytically, our core concern is that researchers inquire into different modes of urban appropriation rather than beginning with a priori frameworks.

Using examples of urban land appropriation for housing in South Africa, the authors illustrate how thinking pluralistically about urban appropriation might help better understand its actually existing forms in—and beyond—the global South. As they note, “Our aim is to push back against overbroad claims and make room for more specific theories of urban participation and reproduction rooted in justificatory logics that are place-specific, and increase our insight into the production and contestation of spatial orders.”


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CFP: Working infrastructures in cities of the Global South

Call for Papers: African Centre for Cities International Urban Conference, 1-2 February 2018

Session: Working infrastructures in cities of the Global South

Organisers: Kathleen Stokes (University of Manchester) and Nate Millington (University of Cape Town)

Infrastructures contribute to the collective flows and metabolisms that produce urban space. From sanitation to transport, electricity to water, these socionatural configurations are essential to the organising and delivering of the resources that shape human livelihoods, economic markets, and urban environments. Urban inhabitants not only draw upon and contribute to infrastructural flows and processes – their environments and lives are influenced and informed by the nature of infrastructures themselves. According to Easterling, “far from hidden, infrastructure is now the overt point of contact and access between us all – the rules governing the space of everyday life” (2014, 11).

Recent scholarship has theorised infrastructure as ‘splintering’ (Graham & Marvin, 2001), ‘lively’ (Amin, 2014), ‘incremental’ (Silver, 2014), and ‘vital’ (Fredericks, 2014). Meanwhile, efforts to situate and decolonise research concerning urban life in the global South have challenged conventional or universalist approaches to researching urban infrastructures, along with their associated actors and processes (Lawhon, Ernstson, & Silver, 2014; Roy, 2009; Simone, 2015). How can we continue to generate new understandings of urban infrastructures and their relation to human livelihoods within and across different times and spaces?

This session seeks papers and interventions that rethink, politicise and diversify understandings of infrastructural dynamics and processes in cities of the global South. We are especially interested in papers that take seriously the role of labour within existing infrastructural systems, and welcome papers that consider the active processes of maintenance and repair that are essential to infrastructural functionality in diverse contexts. We welcome proposals for presentations of academic papers, as well as non-academic and non-text-based mediums.

In particular, we seek presentations that consider:

  • Considerations of the role played by labour within existing infrastructural configurations
  • The political economy of infrastructural provisioning at the urban, national, and regional scale
  • Embodied, ethnographic, and aesthetic engagements with infrastructural systems in cities of the global South
  • The differentiated experiences of infrastructure due to intersectional dynamics including, but not limited to, consideration of race, class, gender, sexuality, geography and ethnicity
  • Critical interpretations of colonial/postcolonial/neocolonial power relations as they are mediated by and through infrastructural systems
  • Theorisations of infrastructure(s) which attempt to disrupt or extend prevailing Marxian, poststructuralist, or positivist accounts
  • Critical engagements with engineering practices and North-South/South-South knowledge transfers

Please submit your paper title and a 250 word abstract to Kathleen Stokes ( and Nate Millington ( by June 1, 2017. More information on the conference can be found here. 

Referenced works

Amin, A. (2014). Lively Infrastructure. Theory, Culture & Society, 31(7-8), 137–161

Easterling, K. (2014). Extrastatecraft : The Power of Infrastructure Space. London ; New York: Verso Books.

Fredericks, R. (2014). Vital infrastructures of trash in Dakar. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 34(3), 532-548.

Graham, S., & Marvin, S. (2001). Splintering urbanism: networked infrastructures, technological mobilities and the urban condition. London: Routledge.

Lawhon, M., Ernstson, H., & Silver, J. (2014). Provincializing Urban Political Ecology: Towards a Situated UPE Through African Urbanism. Antipode, 46(2), 497–516.

Roy, A. (2009). The 21st-Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory. Regional Studies 43, 819-830.

Silver, J. (2014). Incremental infrastructures: material improvisation and social collaboration across post-colonial Accra. Urban Geography, 35(6), 788–804.

Simone, A. (2015). Relational infrastructure in postcolonial urban worlds. In S. Graham & C. McFarlane (Eds.), Infrastructural Lives: Urban Infrastructure in Context (pp. 17–38). Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

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Reflections on ‘Opening the Bin’ (and waste research more generally)

On the 27th April, over fifty scholars met in Helsingborg, Sweden for a three-day workshop dedicated to waste research in the social sciences and humanities. Organised by Lund University, the ‘Opening the Bin’ workshop sought to critically investigate waste perceptions, materialities, politics, and practices.

One of the first workshops of its kind, this gathering provided an unprecedented opportunity for scholars to share research and develop international transdiciplinary connections. Most participants were based in Europe, although several participants joined from further afield – including India, Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Over the course of the workshop, paper presentations reflected a variety of social science and humanities disciplines, including STS, history, philosophy, and anthropology. By examining different contexts, infrastructures and conditions surrounding waste, participants also connected waste scholarship to broader academic discussions surrounding urban governance, de-growth, and the circular economy.

While diverse in subject matter and approach, these interventions highlighted several recurring themes and questions within contemporary waste research. Given concurrent sessions ran throughout the workshop, these themes were only drawn from sessions I had the privilege of attending. Nevertheless, I believe these themes and questions point to fruitful areas of investigation for contemporary waste scholarship.

Themes and questions in waste research

Perhaps the most common, and arguably fundamental, refrain of the workshop was how to make sense of waste, and its management. Most presentations offered some kind of definition for waste, which suggested an implicit agreement that waste is neither a definitive nor permanent status. We can appreciate waste status is not only fluid, but also subjective. Materials deemed waste could suddenly be identified as resources for a state or industry, as well as gift or material dependence for marginalised inhabitants. Furthermore, waste is often seen to be problematic and commonly associated with environmental burden and controversy. In turn, scholarship must help to disrupt and problematize popular understandings of waste – questioning what comes to be seen as waste, as well as its surrounding material, social, and political conditions.

To disrupt normative understandings waste, value must be taken into account. But value means many things. In this regard, we are not only talking about only price, but also uses (or lack thereof). To consider value, we must also take into account the broader configurations that enable someone to access and interact with waste – such as personal ownership or commons (O’Hare). Many presentations invoked value for in cases where specific waste materials were reclaimed or transformed – such as gathering rubbish at landfills or composting – thereby associating value with consumption or exchange opportunities. However, some presentations also noted the potential affective value of waste engagements, or the subjective importance people attribute to particular waste objects.

Given the myriad of ways value can be understood, this was a recurring and challenging point for making sense of waste processes, practices and politics. As such, emphasis on engagement – between the subject and waste object as well as between waste materials more generally – emerged as an interesting positioning within several presentations. For waste to exist, it must be identified and enacted. A dumpster diver develops certain sensibilities and skills so they can recognise edible food (Lehtonen & Pyyhtinen; Le Moal), while bike kitchens produce a common space where individuals can learn and practice bicycle repair (Zapata, Zapata Campos & Ordoñez).

Embodied skills, knowledges, and practices permit different forms of coexistence and interaction with waste. Through their encounters, people can identify different values and uses for waste, which in turn cultivate sensibilities and relations to so-called waste materials. For instance, practices like Bokashi composting shows how we cohabit with waste in different ways, creating matrixial borderscapes (Kinnunen, citing Ettinger) through ethical encounters. Closeness and visibility forge new perspectives of waste, and possibilities with their material properties. However, presentations often considered these examples to be liminal spaces – instances that demonstrate what is possible (Akponah; Zapata, Zapata Campos & Ordoñez). Instead, many prevailing waste infrastructures strive to make waste invisible (Ektander). When infrastructures and their associated flows break down, waste halts and becomes painstakingly visible. Likewise, obsolete materials and infrastructures are erased from official plans and public consciousness only to unexpectedly re-emerge in future (Wallsten & Corvellec). Alienation and invisibility foreshadow any collective appreciation of waste, and possibilities for different types of engagement.

Despite this, waste is an imminent presence in our worlds. Intricately related to value, consumption, and market economies, waste is presented as an entry point into wider discrepancies and uncertainties surrounding everyday life and socio-economic processes. Accounts of material recovery and recycling in Nazi Germany (Berg), as well as waste references in American television (Verrax) signal more than a society’s perspective of waste. Situated accounts of waste can help make sense of broader political ideologies, social temporalities, and cultural relations.

Today, individual waste management practices are commonly presented as the enactment of environmental citizenship. The waste hierarchy is dominant in many discourses, but difficult to realise (Johansson & Corvellec; Valkonen, Huilaja, Saariniemi & Kinnunen). Some presentations suggested novel ways of comparing people’s desired waste practices with their actual efforts (Widder, Braden & Ko; Lazell). In other instances, we heard how policymakers and industry are looking for ways to increase recycling and reusing, while paying comparatively less attention to lowering consumption, increasing material longevity, or closing resource loops. Accountability and responsibility emerge as the ultimate bugbear. How do we determine who should contribute to waste flows, shape processes of waste management, and work towards the minimization and ensure proper treatment of waste?

Keynote interventions

These themes were reinforced by the two keynote presentations from Prof Gay Hawkins and Prof Myra J. Hird, whose interventions deserve particular attention.

As the opening keynote, Prof Hawkins noted that researching waste in the social sciences and humanities is a relatively recent trend. While an abundance of research and theoretical work concerning waste has emerged over the last 15 years, she suggested three areas of waste research merit future investigation by the academic community: disrupting our waste definitions, configuring waste as political, and living in waste cultures. By constituting waste as political, and associated with broader relations, flows and sectors, we can appreciate that waste has become a mode of being in contemporary life. Paradoxically, waste management and its associated infrastructures are often invisible or unnoticed, resulting in an “ontology of the present” (Hawkins) where reusability, replicability and disposability are coupled with a sense of perpetual immediacy.

Building on this inaugural provocation, Prof Hird challenged participants to see waste as a global issue, deeply intertwined with circuits of capital. Focusing disproportionately on solid municipal waste tactically privileges recycling as an individualized and depoliticized manifestation of environmental citizenship and diverts attention from more significant waste forms. Instead of looking in the recycling bin, we should focus our attention to spaces where industrial and military waste are produced, dumped and disregarded. These encounters and circumstances shed light on another critical dilemmas facing contemporary waste management. In turn, Prof Hird suggested that forced coexistence and denied accountability for waste is in fact a form of continued neo-colonialism.

Hird’s point seems particularly important, and rests as the basis for one final reflection I would offer to the workshop. While the presentations at Opening the Bin offered fascinating insights and shared a multitude of approaches to understanding waste, the fact that most interventions were predominantly based within a European context should be explicitly recognized. Waste is produced through and associated with globalizing and neoliberal relations, but it is also very much “matter out of place” (Douglas, 2005) within a place, time and context. The handful of presentations engaging with waste beyond the European or North American context help to remind us of this, but it would be interesting to explore the divergences and connections between different contexts more explicitly in future.

While this reflection offers a possible trajectory for future gatherings of waste scholars, it should not take away from the overwhelming value of the workshop. Indeed, attending Opening the Bin has been incredibly productive and inspiring. With my research presently underway, this was a critical moment for gathering questions, reactions and feedback from fellow waste scholars. Furthermore, general discussions and encounters have opened the potential for new conversations and collaborations across geographies and disciplines. I suspect the ideas shared and connections made in these three short days will lead to interesting developments in waste scholarship over the coming years.

Thank you to the workshop organisers of Opening the Bin, and to Manchester Geographical Society for supporting my participation in this workshop.

Presentations referenced

Workshop abstracts and programme available at:

Akponah, Precious O. (University of Leicester): Rethinking Rubbish: Unwrapping the Transformative Potential of Rubbish in Lagos, Nigeria.

Berg, Anne (University of Michigan: Waste’s Social Order. A Historical Perspective.

Ektander, Caroline (Independent Researcher): Envisage Waste: Design Engagements from within a Bureaucracy.

Hawkins, Gay (Western Sydney University): Accounting for the Social in Sociotechnical Accounts of Waste?

Hird, Myra J. (Queen’s University): Looking for Redemption in all the Wrong Places: Environmental Citizenship and the Long Duré of Waste Contamination.

Johansson, Nils (Linköping University, KTH Royal Institute of Technology), Corvellec, Hervé (Lund University): Why do Policies Fail to Reduce the Amounts of Waste? An Investigation of Swedish Planning for Waste Prevention.

Kinnunen, Veera (University of Lapland): Cohabiting with Trash.

Lazell, Jordon (Coventry University): Food Waste Across Space and Place: Understanding the Transition of Food into Waste in the Context of Urban Lives in the UK.

Le Moal, Fairley (University Lyon 2, Stockholm University: Recovering food waste and the appropriation of spaces in the city of Lyon.

Lehtonen, Turo-Kimmo; Pyyhtinen, Olli (University of Tampere): Valuating Waste: Containers, Bags, Bins and other Technologies of Dumpster Diving.

O’Hare, Patrick (University of Cambridge); Exploring the Landfill Commons.

Valkonen, Jarno; Huilaja, Heikki; Saariniemi, Johanna; Kinnunen, Veera (University of Lapland): Bringing Environment Back to Waste Management: a Case Study of Waste Policy in Finnish Lapland

Verrax, Fanny (INSA): Waste as Intention: the Representation of Waste in American TV Series.

Wallsten, Björn (Linköping University), Corvellec, Hervé (Lund University): The (Un) becoming of Urks: Infrastructure Maintenance as a Liminal Condition.

Widder, Lynnette (Columbia University), Jessie Braden (Pratt Institute), Joy Ko (RISD): Studies in Eating, Walking and Wasting in the City.

Zapata, Patrik; Zapata Campos, María José (University of Gothenburg), Ordoñez, Isabel (Chamers University of Technology): Repair Movements’ Commoning Practices. The Case of the Bike-Kitchen in Sweden.


Reference made to Douglas, M. (2005). Purity and danger: an analysis of concept of pollution and taboo. London ; New York: Routledge.


Announcements Public lecture TLR Waste

Re-blog: Talk in Cape Town by Erik Swyngedouw “The Return of the Political: Insurgent Architects and The City.”

To keep our new site SituatedUPE post up-to-date on our various activities, I am re-posting this blog that announced the talk by Professor Erik Swyngedouw who gave an ACC Special Lecture at The Cape Institute for Architecture (CIFA) on 8 March 2017. We have yet to create the link to the video we did of the event (AAG and book submission came in between).

Carlos Carmonamedina, “Ayotzinapa” 2017.
Cut-out from artwork “Ayotzinapa” by Mexican artist Carlos Carmonamedina, 2017,

Departing from the aftermaths of the magical year of 2011’s urban insurrections across many different cities, Professor Erik Swyngedouw will aim to understand our present historical moment under capitalism through re-configuring how we think about urban struggles, politics and the political. This will be followed by a discussion moderated by Dr. Henrik Ernstson centering on what it means to politicize and radically democratize the city, making connections to ongoing urban struggles in Cape Town and South Africa.

The event is co-hosted by the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town and The Cape Institute for Architecture (CIFA). We welcome you at 18:00 for drinks and snacks with the talk starting at 18:30 (sharp), followed by a discussion. Please join us at CIFA in Cape Town CBD, 71 Hout Street, 18:00-20:00. Free entry with drinks and snacks. RSVP by 3 March to Dr. Nate Millington at ACC (nate[DOT]millington[AT]uct[DOT]ac[DOT]za).

More information below.



The Return of the Political: Insurgent Architects and The City

By Erik Swyngedouw

Date: 8 March 2017

Time: 18:00 – 20:00 (Talk starts at 18:30 sharp, preceded by drinks and snacks)

Venue: The Cape Institute of Architecture (CIFA) building, 71 Hout Street, Cape Town CBD

RSVP to Nate Millington ( by 3 March 2017.

Abstract. This talk aims to understand our present historical moment through re-configuring how we think about urban struggles and politics. How can we stop what we are doing, reflect, and maybe move towards becoming insurgent architects of a new politicized and democratized city?

I will depart from the magical year of 2011, from which we have seen a seemingly unending row of rebellions in European cities and beyond. These rebellions have disturbed a cozy neoliberal status quo, and unnerved economic and political elites in cities as different as Athens, Madrid, Lyon, Lisbon, Rome, London, Berlin, Thessaloniki, Paris, Bucharest, and Barcelona. This ability to deeply challenge the elite’s political legitimacy within our (neo)liberal states, was not made by professionals—but by people, by amateurs that had had enough. Those who was not counted, went ahead to organize and demand a new process for producing space, producing the city, becoming insurgent architects, which at times also formed political movements, most notably Syriza in Greece and PODEMOS in Spain. It is the aftermath of these urban insurrections that provides the starting point for my presentation. From a political perspective, the central question that have opened up is: what to do and what to think next? What thought and practice is possible after the squares are cleared, the tents broken up, the energies dissipated, and everyday urban life resumes its routine practices? The talk will use political theory from Rancière, Žižek, Mouffe, Dikeç, Badiou and others, to re-centre the political in contemporary debates on the urban. This means to first distinguish “politics” from “the political” in order to understand how late capitalism and its obsession with governing and management have depoliticized the city. This has replaced debate and dissensus with technologies of governing, which also includes the enrollment of NGOs and many so called social movements. It seeks to nurture consensus and uphold a depoliticizing police order. However, while the city as polis may be dead, spaces of political engagement occur within the cracks, in-between the meshes and the strange inter-locations that shape places that contest the police order. It is here that concrete political interventions germinate new and fully politicized realities and imaginaries.

My talk is meant to provoke us to see how we might—even if we call ourselves activists or critical intellectuals—still participate in nurturing a depoliticized police order. By recuperating the political, I hope to open a discussion that can connect across geographical locations, say between Europe and South Africa, to understand our present historical moment and provoke our thinking away from what we are busy doing now (within the police order), toward a space of politicization and the becoming of insurgent architects.


Professor Erik Swyngedouw is Professor of Geography at Manchester University and a prolific writer and speaker on political ecology, urban governance, political theory and radical thought. He was previously professor of geography at Oxford University and held the Vincent Wright Visiting Professorship at Science Po, Paris, 2014. He has recently published Liquid Power (MIT Press, 2015) on water and social power in 20th century Spain and co-edited with Jason Wilson the book The Post-Political and its Discontents (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). He is currently preparing a book manuscript politicization and “the political” through urban and environmental processes. With Dr. Henrik Ernstson he is preparing the edited volume Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-Obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities (for Routledge).

The Cape Institute for Architecture (CIFA) was formed in 1899, and is the largest regional architecture body in South Africa, with the potential to influence development in the city of Cape Town and the wider region. The Institute’s core objectives are to promote the practice of architecture, to serve the interests of its members, and to support the integrity of the profession.

Dr. Henrik Ernstson is an urban political ecologist that combines critical geography with postcolonial urbanism with studies in South Africa, Uganda and Louisiana (USA). He is a Research Fellow at the African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town and the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory in Stockholm, with a Postdoc at Stanford University (2013-2015) and a PhD from Stockholm University. Apart from his writing he is currently finalizing the documentary research film One Table Two Elephants (with Jacob von Heland) that focuses on how race, nature and history is interconnected in Cape Town, and in 2016 he helped produce the theatre production STOMPIE in Grassy Park/Lavender Hill. He is also finalizing two edited book projects: Grounding Urban Natures: Histories and Futures of Urban Ecologies (for MIT Press, with Prof. Sverker Sörlin) and Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-Obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities (for Routledge, with Prof. Erik Swyngedouw). At UCT he gives the PhD winter school in June every year on Democratic Practices of Unequal Geographies (with Dr. Andrés Henao Castro). More information here.


Directions to venue: CIFA in Cape Town CBD, 71 Hout Street



Commentary TLR Waste

Report from ‘Turning Livelihoods to Rubbish?’ Project Workshop

Report from “Turning Livelihoods to Rubbish? Project Workshop” with stakeholders at UCT, Cape Town, 17 February 2017

Nate Millington reports from a rewarding and constructive stakeholder workshop in Cape Town on the politics of waste management in South Africa.

TLROn 17 February 2017, researchers from the ‘Turning Livelihoods to Rubbish?’ (TLR) project met with researchers and activists associated with the waste sector in South Africa. The purpose of this meeting was to create connections between researchers and learn from local activists and experts. During a wide-ranging conversation that moved from the specific dynamics of research to broader questions about the nature of politics, TLR researchers explained their interests and were given suggestions about how best to conduct their projects. Participants in the workshop included Dr. Derick Blaauw (North-Western University),
 Musa Chamane (groundWork), 
Rico Euripidou (groundWork), 
Dr. Linda Godfrey (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research), Dr. Melanie Samson (University of the Witwatersrand), Dr. Andreas Scheba (Human Sciences Research Council), Dr. Catherina Schenck (University of the Western Cape), Caitlin Tonkin (Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation), Dr. Kotie Viljoen (University of Johannesburg), 
Dr. Harro von Blottnitz (University of Cape Town), and Quinton Williams (Green Cape), alongside the TLR research team.  

After an introductory presentation by Dr. Henrik Ernstson that situated the project within four wider trends in waste management (including the internationalising of waste finance alongside ongoing dynamics of community responsibility, automation, and institutionalisation), each member of the TLR research team gave an overview of their project. Presentations focused on the politics of waste governance at the local, national, and international scale, part of our broader interest in the generation of value from waste and the implications of these processes for informal recyclers. Specific projects focused on:

  • The institutionalisation of recycling in South Africa (lead: Dr. Nate Millington)
  • Community responsibility and workers’ livelihoods (lead: Kathleen Stokes)
  • The internationalisation of waste finance (leads: Dr. Erik Swyngedouw, Dr. Henrik Ernstson)
  • The technologization of waste management: Waste-to-energy, livelihoods, and multi-scalar governance (leads: Dr. Mary Lawhon and Anesu Makina)

After each presentation, workshop participants offered feedback on next steps and gave insight into ongoing dynamics at a variety of scales. The conversation offered a broad panorama of ongoing issues and controversies affecting the waste sector, with implications that connect to national-level industrial policy, the global trade in recycled goods, and localized labour dynamics.

2017-02-17 10.31.44

In keeping with the broader goals of the project, participants discussed the implications of ongoing changes to the recycling sector and the implications for informal waste reclaimers. Additional conversations focused on the politics surrounding clean development mechanism funding for waste projects in South Africa as well as broader discussions around the nature of politics in contemporary South Africa. Project participants discussed the implications of more legislation, and the often-conflicting legislation at both the national and local scale. Throughout the conversation, project participants returned to the fundamental questions that mark this project: how is value being generated from waste, and what are the implications for workers who regularly work with waste?

Thanks to the insights offered by workshop participants, members of the TLR team were left with a series of concrete next steps. These include:

  • Continuing to dialogue with workshop participants about specific possibilities for involvement with ongoing policy processes related to the incorporation of informal recyclers into waste management programmes at the national level.
  • Working with groundWork and the South African Waste Pickers Association to build connections with waste pickers and understand their organisational structures and political desires.
  • Organising a second workshop in early 2018 to continue the conversation initiated through this project and further possibilities for collaboration.
  • Developing connections with ongoing research activities across the various universities represented focused on waste.
  • Continuing conversations at the academic level through further collaboration between all universities present at the workshop.

As the first workshop in what is a long-term, collaborative project in South Africa, this workshop demonstrated the importance of situating research projects and developing them in conversation. Thanks to all of the workshop participants for taking the time to come to Cape Town and share their insight with us. We hope that this workshop will be the start of a sustained conversation, and look forward to future collaborations as our research goes forward.

By Nate Millingtonon behalf of the TLR Team which includes: Dr. Henrik Ernstson, Dr. Mary Lawhon,  Anesu Makina, Dr. Nate Millington, Kathleen Stokes, and Dr. Erik Swyngedouw.

Commentary News Projects TLR Waste Uncategorized

Waste management in Cape Town: understanding responsibility and labour

Kathleen Stokes reflects on waste management and political ecology in Cape Town. Kathleen is a PhD student in Human Geography at the University of Manchester with a research focus on community responsibility and labour in waste management. She is part of the Turning Livelihoods to Rubbish Project, which is run in collaboration between the University of Cape Town, the University of Manchester and Florida State University.

TLR project in Cape Town SAWhile attending the ACC’s winter school on democratic practices, I was fortunate enough to meet with a range of people involved in Cape Town’s waste management system. Through these discussions, and my own encounters with the city’s sites of disposal and decomposition, I was struck by the variety of imperatives driving waste management, and the relations between people whose livelihoods depend on the sector.

Managing rubbish is a complex affair in any city. In Cape Town, the municipal government is responsible for waste management services, and informed by legislation and policy imperatives from national and provincial government. Within the context of rapid urbanization, enduring inequalities, and state promises of universal service provision, municipal strategies have tended towards neoliberal strategies of contracting out, public-private partnerships, and cost recovery. In addition to contracting service responsibilities out to businesses, Cape Town’s municipal waste management service also looked towards residents to play their part.
As part of its strategy, Cape Town has launched public education and engagement campaigns like Waste Wise, which seeks to raise public awareness of waste reduction and encourage residents to start and help with community schemes – such as local compost to school recycling schemes. In recent years, this programme has focused on supporting Green Zones, designated neighbourhoods that receive support to pilot a holistic approach to community waste education and engagement. While the project has been on hiatus since 2014, some follow-on activities appear to be underway in Green Zones and other parts of the city.

Such initiatives profess a positive impact amongst residents, and align themselves to discourses of empowerment, job creation, and sustainable communities. However, they do not exist in a vacuum. If we understand waste management to be a sort of lively infrastructural assemblage (for instance, see Amin, 2014 and Graham & McFarlane, 2015), we can appreciate that community responsibility is undoubtedly related to formal provision of services, and the practices of informal waste collection. What happens to waste, who is contributing their effort, and how is their labour valued?

Over 2017, I will look more closely at Waste Wise and other initiatives promoting community responsibility for waste management in South Africa’s cities. By investigating changes to waste management in areas involved in such schemes, I hope to understand what transformations have occurred to the everyday functioning of waste management, and to the livelihoods of whose who those labour is keeps the frontlines going.

As this project unfurls, I am left with more questions than answers. Still, focusing on the relationship between community responsibility and worker livelihoods can provide us with a better understanding of how value and labour are manifested within the processes and dynamics of urban waste management. Drawling upon a SUPE lens, I will frame my research by integrating urban political ecology with neo-Marxian, post-colonial and South African understandings of labour, infrastructure and livelihoods. Most of my research will take place over 2017. Fortunately, I am supported by my supervisors and colleagues in the TLR project. As this time draws nearer, we are making final preparations and continuing to review the discourses, policies, and practices shaping waste management in different urban contexts across South Africa.

As ever, my colleagues and I hope this process will be of interest to others. If you would like to hear more, or have any comments or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch (kathleen.stokes(at)

Thank you to Dr Henrik Ernstson, staff and colleagues at the African Centre for Cities and KTH Stockholm for supporting my participation in the democratic practices winter school. Likewise, thank you to the University of Manchester and the ESRC-DFID Poverty Alleviation Fund for their support of my PhD.