Announcements Conferences Uncategorized

Screening “One Table Two Elephants” film at ACC International Urban Conference in Cape Town

We now have times for screening our film “ONE TABLE TWO ELEPHANTS” (84 minutes, work in progress) at the ACC International Urban Conference 2018 in Cape Town.

  • Screening including Q&A with Henrik Ernstson.
  • Friday 2 Feb 2018, 13:00-15:00, and
  • Saturday 3 Feb 2018, 13:00-15:00.
  • NEVILLE ALEXANDER Lecture Theatre 1A, Upper Campus, UCT (the venue lies on the ground floor of the Neville Alexander building that lies between the New Lecture Theatre and Leslie Social Science building).
  • These two screenings are especially organised for the ACC IUC 2018 delegates and UCT Film & Media students. No need to RSVP.
  • Short trailer of the film embedded below.

Please join us to see the film and discuss this film-based effort to research and engage African urbanism and Situated UPE.

/Henrik and Jacob


Synopsis and description

ONE TABLE TWO ELEPHANTS is a film about bushmen bboys, a flower kingdom and the ghost of a princess. Entering the city through it’s plants and wetlands, the many-layered, painful and liberating history of the city emerges as we see how biologists, hip hoppers, and wetland activists each searches for ways to craft symbols of unity and cohesion. But this is a fraught and difficult task. Perhaps not even desirable. Plants, aliens, memories and ghosts keep troubling efforts of weaving stories about this place called Cape Town.

Situated and grounded in lived experiences across a range of groups, this film follows different ways of knowing and tries to be a vehicle toward difficult yet urgently needed conversations about how race, nature and the city are intertwined in our postcolonial world where history is ever present in subtle and direct ways.

Based on years of research in Cape Town, this ‘cinematic ethnography’ is directed towards a wider audience, from the general public to students and scholars as it brings texture to understand a city like Cape Town, while providing ample possibilities to translate what is happening “there” to conversations about your own city and surroundings. This film is also an effort to develop a film-based research practice to engage and represent the texture of cities of the global South as departure point for discussing their political and socioecological structures and possibilities. Read more on the film’s official website and about our other on-going film-based projects in Durban and upcoming in Kampala.

Created by: Jacob von Heland and Henrik Ernstson. Photography (DOP): Johan von Reybekiel. Sound: Jonathan Chiles. Production coordination: Jessica Rattle and Nceba Mangesi.

Commentary Uncategorized

Imaginaries on researching and inhabiting a city of sprawling ‘mobile’ infrastructures – Nairobi

Imagine that you just alighted at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, only 25 minutes from Nairobi’s Central Business District. Obviously, the first thing that you will want to do is get connected. At the airport, there are often a handful of enthusiastic mobile telecommunications agents and personnel that are readily on standby, more than willing to introduce you to their product, service or offers. It is at this point that you are often led to a counter or compartment for an authorized agent within the vicinity of the arrival hall.

Buying one of the Subscriber Identity Module (or SIM) cards will involve registration and subscription not only for communication services that include calling and Short Message Service (or SMS) texting, but also for moving money through the encrypted SMS and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (or USSD) platforms. These services provide the baseline infrastructure for a wide range of different services that offer unique and innovative mobile-phone based applications and systems. They rely on text and short code and often – in some ways – fall within different categories including M-Pesa, Airtel Money, Orange Money – the most popular of which is Safaricom’s (Lipa Na) M-pesa.

M-Pesa stand in Nairobi. Image by Fiona Graham / WorldRemit.

For all the systems, registration processes are usually free of charge, require customer-identification, and often end with the ‘Activate’ (or ‘Wezesha’ in Swahili) option and a 4-digit number (or PIN) received from the operator as confirmation. Upon this, the mobile money account is officially ‘open,’ and hard cash can be deposited and transferred through an agent into the mobile phone account as ‘mobile money.’ Alternatively, mobile transfer transactions can be made from a local bank or second or third party. Once the money is ‘in’ the mobile phone account, one can then pay all sorts of bills. This includes taxi-cab or car hire services from the airport. Like the mobile communication operators, taxis are car hire services have strategically positioned counters and agents outside the arrivals terminal with personnel on standby to introduce you to the next cab or car.


In what could be a great opportunity to use the mobile money service (probably for the first time), the ‘transfer’ of ‘mobile money’ from one phone to another is likely to come with great ease given the simplicity of the step-by-step instructions for making a simple mobile payment via SMS text threads and USSD menus. The simplicity of these instructions are explained by the act that the system is designed to make transactions possible even with the most basic ‘feature phone’ or handset.

One is most likely to be amazed by the speed, ease and convenience of making real-time payment transactions to the taxi or cab driver. Or even with the public transport (matatu) systems that have designated routes. In spite of the fact that the matatu cashless fare payment system in Nairobi has hit a snag (although there have been attempts to revamp or reintroduce it), there are up to five transit, navigation and (in-bus) communication applications in Nairobi. These include DigitalMatatu, matatumap, Ma3route, and Flashcast. These and similar applications are essential for one trying to situate and orient oneself in an otherwise chaotic city. They provide collaborative data, maps and visuals within a city whose public transit routes can be quite inaccessible, inconsistent and inconvenient for a stranger and inhabitant alike.

With such systems, my experiences as a researcher in Nairobi has always propelled a certain feeling of presence within a space of unceasing and insurmountable mobile connection, network, encounter and entanglement. This is where I am most likely than ever to tap into the unprecedented applications, systems and services for querying, payment, and other forms of transaction. I am always tempted to make bill payments for services or reservations at a hotel, a guest house, or restaurant for instance through ‘M-Pesa’ or ‘Airtel Money.’ Mobile payments may even seem more suitable for services and goods in malls or arcades, stores and supermarkets, and pretty much for all utility bill payments such as electricity, gas, water, television subscriptions, fueling at petrol-stations, rent, and so on and so forth. In fact, it may almost seem plausible to simply inhabit the city with as little cash as possible if not for any other reason than security, safety and convenience.

And of course, as my research concerns urban infrastructure, mobile technologies and Nairobi, I now increasingly find that software development, mobile-enabled infrastructural engagements, and the mobile money market are indeed key signifiers of the city’s identity. Nairobi’s unfettered innovation vivacity is not exceptional, however. That is, unless one was to count the exceptionally successful stories and the exceptionally targeted initiatives that are aimed at place-making to portray an image or identity of a city that is centrally situated in the region as an economic and industrial hub.

Otherwise, the effects and configurations of the mobile age have not been restricted solely to Nairobi. The case of Nairobi reflects East African cities which are becoming increasingly synonymous with new formations of urbanity caused in part by the emergent reliance on and production of mobile media, devices and technologies as tools or platforms of access, innovation and (financial) transaction. The uptake, appropriation, and domestication of mobile telephony over the last two or so decades has extensively shaped new forms of doing, acting and being, with cities including Nairobi, Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, Kampala, and Mogadishu increasingly becoming synonymous with new orientations and configurations.

This is largely because African cities in large part share colonial histories and post-colonial responses to it. They share an insurmountable presence of global institutions of modernity and urbanity, and configurations of hegemonic capitalism and market-oriented models and ideals of neoliberalism. In the same fashion, they do share a common platform as spheres of a new entrepreneurialism amidst opportunities that the mobile age provides. They share a new positioning where they are increasingly becoming novel sites of commodification, economic opportunity, and thriving industries that are increasingly based on the production of mobile communication technologies such as M-Pesa (in Nairobi) and Hawala (in Mogadishu). The splintered, diversified and fragmented nature of African cities has increasingly given rise to varieties of embedded and pervasive mobile-based platforms that are increasingly becoming key variables in the structural configuration and renegotiation of the urban sphere in which everyday life is animated. This happens even more so within cities muddled by conflicting forces of neoliberal, consumerist and modernist developmental networks on one hand and situated, located and domestic traditions on the other.

The questions that I ponder as a researcher with interest in cities, technologies and infrastructures concern why and how African innovations have become what they are today. I ask how these cities have come to be regarded as some of the most ‘digitized’—or rather ‘mobilized’—in the world, as hubs, nexuses and junctions for some of the most critical technologies in the Global South. My lessons thus far centre around the necessity to re-examine and re-imagine African issues and technologies through situated and located lenses. And in this, to empirically explicate key realities, practices, identities and materialities – especially those that are increasingly deemed to receive less focus in mainstream academia.

Announcements News Teaching Uncategorized

Democratic Practices of Unequal Geographies (Annual PhD Course/Seminar)

The Third Annual ACC Seminar & PhD Course on Democratic Practices focuses on “Understanding Capitalism in Unequal Geographies” and will run from 19-23 June 2017 in Cape Town. Apply here before 20 May 2017. We have 14-18 seats. For more information, keep reading!

ACC Winter School on “Democratic Practices of Unequal Geographies”, year III

PhD Course/Seminar, University of Cape Town

Understanding Capitalism in Unequal Geographies: Reading across Political Philosophy and Southern Urbanism

June 19-23, 2017


Dr. Andrés Henao Castro, University of Massachusetts Boston

Dr. Ashley Bohrer, Hamilton College, New York City

Dr. Henrik Ernstson, KTH and University of Cape Town

Last application date: 20 May 2017.

Enter your application at this website.

Requirements, costs and how to apply

We are inviting PhD students, younger scholars and Master students with different background and specialties. We will give preference to applicants from South Africa and Southern Africa. The seminar is free” (NB! Unfortunately we cannot offer any travel grants this year.) Application: To apply, go to the website indicated above and please submit a short answer to why you would like to attend and how you think the seminar relates to your studies. Decision on attendance: You will know by 22 May 2017 if you are accepted to attend the course through email. Schedule: Monday to Friday, 9–13 with a longer session on Thursday. Venue: Seminar Room 1, EGS Building, Upper Campus, University of Cape Town. Contact and questions: E-mail: henrik[DOT]ernstson[AT]uct[DOT]ac[DOT]za or kathleen[DOT]stokes[AT]gmail[DOT]com.

Aim and Background

The ACC annual seminar series is based on reading political philosophy with and against southern urbanism. The reason for this lies in making an intervention in how we think the emergent city and urbanization of the global south; to seek out and make explicit its emancipatory potential which often gets hidden or silenced, either by overly dogmatic “Northern” frameworks, “developmentalist” techno-managerial approaches; or a sense of defeat that an emancipatory horizon is not any longer possible. In the first seminar in 2015 this meant to recover the birth of democratic politics and re-thinking this in our contemporary moment. In 2016 we focused on “the political and the aesthetical”, thinking politics as a rupture in the distribution of the sensible by those who are not counted in the current order. This year of 2017 we are focusing on capitalism and its wider structuration of cities, bodies and subjectivities. This annual seminar is part of the ACC’s NOTRUC project, Notations on Theories of Radical Urban Change, lead by Henrik Ernstson and Edgar Pieterse.

This year’s seminar will seek to understand how classic Marxist critique and its extension into intersectional analysis can be thought with and against southern/postcolonial urban geographies to make visible contemporary struggles against exploitation. Our key questions are:

  • How does capitalism function in and through its differences across time, space, and social location?
  • How does capitalism interact with and structure gender, race, and sexuality?
  • How does this play out, manifest and structure urban spaces and extended geographies of the south?
  • What spaces, discourses and collectivities can a critique of capitalism help to make visible as locations to struggle against interconnected assemblages and dispositifs of oppression?

Our aim is to create a seminar that can assist participants to re-think their research questions, research projects and their role as contemporary intellectuals. To do so the seminar will unfold through a series of readings of the racialized, gendered, and sexualized implications of particular concepts of capitalism. Each day will focus on one of the following concepts: the commodity, alienation, primitive accumulation, value, and nature. The literature gathers classical Marxist understanding of these concepts and how contemporary thinkers of race, gender, sexuality, and their inter-relations have expanded, revised, and, in the words of Frantz Fanon, ‘stretched’ these concepts in order to speak more directly to lived experience of oppression. With this we seek to articulate how this structures the city, the urban, and the spatiality of unequal geographies.

Seminar Methodology

Using the seminar as a form (i.e., where all participants have closely studied the same texts), we aim to provide the possibility to think through and reformulate our research questions, methodologies and theoretical assumptions and open towards new critical knowledge projects, especially, but not necessarily about southern cities. For an intense week we will meet for 3-4 hours, with free time in the afternoons for further reading and personal reflection. Each day we will let one or two participants shortly introduce the key texts by identifying main points and what is at stake in the texts. This will be followed by complementary comments from the lecturers on where the text stands in wider intellectual debates. Based on this we will open the floor for discussion. We will at times also divide into smaller groups. The lecturers will promote integration between the participants’ ongoing projects and the associated readings. There will be space in the seminars to reflect upon your own research with participants. As before (but this year more than previous years), the seminar will rely on participants’ own reading and engagement with southern cities to engage with the obligatory reading.

Schedule and Readings

Below follow the readings that we are assembling. This list will be complemented later, including with southern urbanism readings and what will be compulsory and suggested readings.

I. The Commodity-Form

We will explore what Marx means by the commodity-form, and what is commodity fetishism, in order to interrogate what happens when we read that concept through an intersectional perspective that interrogates race, gender, and sexuality in the commodification of labor.

  • Karl Marx. 2006. “Chapter 1: Commodities.” In Capital Vol. I. New York: Penguin
  • Ann Mclintock. 1995. “Soft-Soaping Empire: Commodity Racism and Imperial Advertising.” In Imperial Leather: Race and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge, pp. 207-231.

II. Social Alienation of Labor

Focusing on Marx’ section on “alienated labor,” we will explore the concepts of alienation and reification, and the ways in which those concepts are deployed in other contexts that expand our understandings of social alienation with an attention to difference, affect, and critique.

  • Karl Marx. 1978. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 53-65.
  • Angela Davis. 1983. “The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective.” In Women, Race, Class. New York: Vintage, pp. 222-244.
  • Kevin Floyd. 2009. “Disciplined Bodies: Lukács, Foucault, and the Reification of Desire.” In The Reification of Desire: Towards a Queer Marxism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 39-78.

III. Primitive Accumulation

Through a discussion of Marx’ concept of primitive accumulation, we will investigate capitalism’s relationship to that which it frames as its exteriority in both temporal and spatial terms, in order to then interrogate the subject-positionalities that are implicated and potential ways of rethinking that concept today.

  • Karl Marx. 2006. “Chapters 26, 27, 28, and 33.” In Capital Vol. I. New York: Penguin.
  • Saskia Sassen, 2010. “A Savage Sorting of Winners and Losers: Contemporary Versions of Primitive Accumulation.” In Globalizations 7 (1-2): 23-50
  • Federici, Silvia. 2004. “Introduction.” In Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia.

IV. Value

We will focus on Marx’ understanding of value, surplus value, the distinction between use-value and exchange value, and the different ways in which scholars have historicized the problem of value.

  • Karl Marx. 2006. Capital Vol. I. New York: Penguin (selections).
  • Neferti Tadiar. 2003. “In the Face of Whiteness as Value: Fall-Outs of Metropolitican Humanness.” In Qui Parle 13 (2): 143-182.
  • Iyko Day. 2016. “Introduction: The New Jews: Settler Colonialism and the Personification of Capitalism.” In Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 1-40.
  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. “The Two Histories of Capital” In Provincializing Europe: Post-colonial Thought and Historical Difference. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, pp. 47-71.

V. Nature

These readings are devoted to an interrogation of nature’s place within capitalism, the relationship between the human, the non-human, and technology, and the intersectional history of those socially constructed categories and their contested understandings.

  • Karl Marx. 1993. “Fragment on the Machines.” Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. New York: Penguin.
  • Capital Vol. I. New York: Penguin (selections).
  • Jason Moore. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life. New York: Verso (selections).
  • Carolyn Merchant. 1983. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. New York: HarperCollins (selections).
  • Donna Haraway. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth-Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, pp. 149-182.
  • Chapters from edited volume by Henrik Ernstson and Erik Swyngedouw on “Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-Obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities” (Routledge, in review).

Short on the Lecturers and Organizers

Dr. Andrés Fabián Henao Castro is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His research deals with the relationships between ancient and contemporary political theory, via the prisms of de-colonial theory and poststructuralism. He is currently working on a book that explores different subject-positions and forms of agency imagined in the theoretical reception of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. He is also a member of the international research network Performance Philosophy, a columnist for the online journal of political analysis Palabras al Margen (Words at the Margins), and a member of Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine at UMB. (Also found in our seminar folder.)

Dr. Ashley J. Bohrer is a feminist, activist, writer, translator, teacher, and philosopher based in Syracuse, New York. She holds the Truax Postdoctoral Fellowship in Public Philosophy and works as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Hamilton College in New York. Her academic work explores the interstices of philosophy, critical race studies, decolonial theory, intersectional feminism, and Marxism. She holds graduate degrees in both Philosophy and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She has studied, taught, or held research positions in the United States, France, China, and Germany. In addition to her academic work, Ashley is a committed organizer who works with, among other organizations, International Women’s Strike US, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, and Jewish Voice for Peace. Ashley is currently finishing a book project that traces the ways in which the rise of capitalism in the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries was structured intersectionally.

Dr. Henrik Ernstson is a Research Fellow and Principal Investigator from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm; and an Honorary Visiting Scholar at the University of Cape Town, where he has been since 2010. His theoretical and empirical work is focused on the politics and collective organizing around urban ecology, including urban land and wetlands, with his new projects focusing on the access to clean water, sanitation and electricity. His recent studies in Cape Town, South Africa, has been an ethnographic study about ‘who can claim to be in the know’ of urban ecology, and a large social network study that interviewed over 130 civil society organizations to understand different modes of collective action around the highly unequal urban environment of Cape Town. With others, he is developing a situated approach to urban political ecology drawing upon upon critical geography, global South urbanism and postcolonial theory, social mobilization theory and environmental history. Theoretically he has recently tried to think with Jacques Ranciére’s ideas of democracy, politics and the political through everyday settings in Cape Town and the city’s of the global south. For more information, see and his publications at


Commentary Uncategorized

The aesthetic politics of graffiti removal in Contemporary São Paulo

The aesthetic politics of graffiti removal in Contemporary São Paulo

In this commentary, postdoctoral researcher Nate Millington comments on the aesthetic politics of Graffiti removal in São Paulo.

Memorial to those killed by police violence in Brazil and the United States: "They couldn't breathe."
Memorial to those killed by police violence in Brazil and the United States: “They couldn’t breathe.”

In his first few weeks in office, the newly elected mayor of São Paulo—Jõao Doria, a businessman and reality tv star whose election was primarily a rebuke of the city’s rare flirtation with governance by the Worker’s Party—has spent considerable energy painting over graffiti in the city in the service of what he calls a ‘beautiful city.’ This represents a dangerous moment for those interested in urban life and its virtues and for those who celebrate the capacity of the city to give space to those who seek alternative lives. It is one more instance of the crude reshuffling of the visual, sensorial landscape in favor of one more conducive to global grade and elite forms of aesthetic appreciation.

To be sure, Doria’s attempt to clean up the city is one instance in a longer history of the policing of certain kinds of expression. Beset for years by graffiti as well as pixação—a type of tagging specific to Brazil—leaders of São Paulo have long attempted to cohere its landscape through the development of initiatives designed to curb visual disorder. The most notable of these is 2006’s Cidade Limpa [Clean City] law, which outlaws graffiti as well as outdoor advertisements and billboards. Profiled in the 2013 documentary Cidade Cinza [Grey City], the Clean City law attempts to substitute the disordered aesthetics of contestation represented by graffiti for the orderly landscape of grey that marks the city’s monochromatic landscape. Successful in limiting outdoor advertisement, the city has been far less successful in preventing young people from writing on the city’s walls.

IMG_4425Of course, as Marcio Siwi has pointed out, a distinction needs to be made between what is referred to as graffiti and its “angry cousin,” pixação. Graffiti refers to what is increasingly called street art, whereas pixação refers instead to a form of aggressive tagging with a very specific visual language. Those who engage in pixação (often referred to as pixadores) often compete to paint in the most dramatic landscapes possible. In recent years, graffiti or street art has reached levels of acceptance by the art world that allows it to be seen as more than just vandalism. Pixação, on the other hand, lacks this level of acceptability, and is often articulated through the lens of vandalism and criminality.

The distinction made between graffiti and pixação is linked to the fact that cities around the world increasingly employ street art as a form of urban beautification, a way to regenerate purportedly declining neighborhoods and generate central city reinvestment and raise property values. This has created a specific link between processes of gentrification and the funding of street art. This means that narratives about street art’s capacity to give voice to oppositional politics can often be overstated. At the same time, the persistence of graffiti and tagging can still function as a reminder of those who are left out of urban visibility. Both pixação and graffiti are claims made on the city’s landscape, forms of intervening into the complex and often unequal dynamics of the contemporary city. They are, in the words of Teresa Caldeira, forms of “imprinting” on the urban landscape. From Style Wars to Cidade Cinza, the act of writing on public walls tells a consistent story in the global urban landscape: of those excluded from the formal political life of the city, who choose to make themselves known in contentious ways.

What is interesting about Doria’s anti-graffiti politics is that his Beautiful City plan focuses not just on pixação, long a target of municipal authorities, but also on more valorized forms of graffiti or street art. Recent videos shot by residents of the city have highlighted the targeting of by now iconic instances of graffiti in the city, even as he has stated that some works will be allowed to stay. In response to outcry from residents, Doria has recently suggested that he will repaint some of the murals that were removed. It remains to be seen how this process will go, or what artists will be asked to participate.

Because in the periphery the bullets are not made out of rubber.
Because in the periphery the bullets are not made out of rubber.

Of interest here, and it is interest provoked by the film Cidade Cinza as well, is the way in which the act of painting over is also an act of determining artistic merit. In one of the scenes in Cidade Cinza, municipal workers debate which piece of wall art is art, and which is just graffiti. While perhaps a commonsensical distinction—presumably we can all tell tagging from the more refined project of street art—it is nevertheless a question that empowers unexpected people to become a type of art critic, whether they are low-paid municipal workers or highly-paid businessmen turned mayors. Where is the line between art and graffiti, and who should be empowered to police it?

More expansively though, the ongoing painting over of graffiti reveals much about the contemporary politics in São Paulo, the move away from a technocratic left government represented by the previous mayor Fernando Haddad to a type of visual politics represented by Doria’s insistence on a clean, palatable landscape. The painting over of graffiti is matched by ongoing efforts to police spontaneous public space and carnival blocos on behalf of the Doria administration, and is one more form through which São Paulo’s long-standing dynamics of resistance and occupation are being challenged in the sphere of aesthetic politics. In addition to the broader dynamics of austerity and privatization that are marking the political turn in São Paulo (and beyond), Doria’s politics render aesthetics into the mundane canvas of elite respectability. Graffiti removal is the visual corollary to Doria’s anti-poor politics and the move away from efforts to make the city’s landscape more egalitarian.

2014-10-25 10.22.25Those who know me know that my love for São Paulo runs deep, a fact that complicates my capacity to write about the city in a detached way. As I write in my dissertation, São Paulo is a city of undeniable cultural vitality where contestations over the fabric of the city are commonplace. It is a sprawling, complex metropolis, the economic heart of Latin America, and a site of incredible wealth that is bisected by a brutal delineation between center and periphery. It is a city of immigrants and migrants, a place of opportunity and extreme hardship, a famous “city of walls” to reference Teresa Caldeira again. It is a deeply queer city in a country that murders LGBTQ people at appallingly high rates, a working-class city, a global city, a city of ostentatious wealth, a city of fortified enclaves and armored cars, a city with the highest rate of personal helicopter ownership in the world. It is a city of astounding cultural vitality as well as a center of global financial capitalism and brutal inequality.

At times these dynamics overlap productively, and at times not. The queer energy that permeates the city’s center—where decades of outmigration have yielded a space that retains a working-class energy in spite of it all—is not matched by those who experience the city through the windows of armored cars, who celebrate the aggressive and murderous policing of black and brown residents, who celebrate reductive and bland culture over the city’s vital creative spaces. This can be seen in the ongoing proliferation of peripheral cultural production, whether seen through figures like the brilliant rapper Emicida or more high-concept theater and art produced by collectives scattered throughout the city (of which one example is Estopô Balaio, a theater group active in the neighborhood of Jardim Romano in the city’s eastern edge).2016-01-22 15.10.30

Painting over graffiti is one instance of a broader assault on the vitality of urban life in São Paulo. To be sure, aesthetic tastes are multi-faceted and dynamic, and to reduce the city’s complex culture to a story of out-of-touch elites is of course reductive. But if the events of the last 12 months have made anything clear, it is that the task of finding ways to live together across difference is the project going forward. Painting over graffiti is one more small-scale assault on our collective lives, our capacity to take seriously the freedom the city offers. The dynamics of graffiti pale in comparison to the ongoing reshuffling of the city’s broader political life, but they suggest a visual accompaniment to processes of austerity and fortification that are currently remaking the city. In a city with an estimated housing shortage of 230,000 units and a mayor who seems both uninterested in the city’s expansive periphery and its vital center, efforts to police the city’s creative landscape take on an added weight. What is at stake in the painting over of graffiti in the city is not just that the city’s visual language will be changed, or that famous pieces of art will disappear. That is, to be sure, a loss. But what Doria represents is the increasingly hostile assault on what it means to live together by those seemingly disinterested in that project.

Doria’s assault on street art is one more attack on the vitality of what it means to live together, another embarrassing capitulation to those who value order over engagement, another reactionary turn in a moment full of them. The stakes now are too high to take any of this lightly.

Commentary News NEWS: Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies Uncategorized

“Greening” Spatial Apartheid: Op-ed article on “eco-estates” and urban elite spaces of South Africa

Bruce Baigrie and Henrik Ernstson have just published a critique of “eco-estates” in GroundUp (online magazine) based on an initial study in Nordhoek, Cape Town.


In this piece we do a first analysis of the making of an “eco-estate” in Cape Town and its social and ecological effects. These “eco-estates” enroll and depoliticise environmental arguments to create a “green” life-style choice for the rich. Often placed on pristine land outside the urban edge, these “eco-estates” represent a deeply problematic and pervasive urban development in South African cities. Not only do they exploit “green” arguments, consumes a lot of space—but they also form part of a “geographical escapism” that re-produces spatial apartheid (Ballard and Jones 2011) and what SA historian Premesh Lalu (2009) has called a “settler public sphere,” a public discourse that makes invisible ongoing violence and the wider reality of a country and neighbourhood of deep and racialized inequality.


For the GroundUp version, please go here, which is being reproduced under the Creative Commons licence below. If you like to re-tweet, please consider tweeting this ‘original’ tweet at @rhizomia. To cite this, use:

Baigrie, Bruce, and Henrik Ernstson. 2017. “Noordhoek Eco-Estates Protect the Rich from the Reality of Masiphumelele: Apartheid Geography Preserved behind a Concern for the Environment.” GroundUp, January 23. Accessed from URL:


Noordhoek eco-estates protect the rich from the reality of Masiphumelele

Apartheid geography preserved behind a concern for the environment

Photo of Chapman\'s Bay Estate
Lake Michelle estate, surrounding the water body. The cleared land in the right of the section is part of Chapman’s Bay Estate’s property. Photo: Chapman’s Bay Estate website (copied as fair use)
By  and 

A stone’s throw from the working-class township of Masiphumelele, the Noordhoek mountains are being transformed into exclusive “eco-estates” which preserve apartheid geography just as the Group Areas Act did, write Bruce Baigrie and Henrik Ernstson

It is impossible not to notice the construction of Chapman’s Bay Estate as you drive into the Noordhoek Valley along Ou-Kaapse Weg. Splayed out over the mountain slope beside the road, it boasts stunning views, of mountains, beaches and the suburbs of Noordhoek and Fish Hoek. Wetlands glimmer, some with a fence around them, incorporated for exclusive use of the estate.

Further down the valley, in the largest wetland, the entire body of water has been surrounded by the luxury estate of Lake Michelle and made inaccessible to non-residents. Westward and across the valley, other estates stretch along the slope of the mountain, with more construction on-going.

The sheer scale of Chapman’s Bay Estate has drawn three private developers together, including a family trust. Greeff Properties, an affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate, manages the sales, describing it as another of its “most luxurious and exclusive mandates in the Western Cape.” Future residents, who will pay between R3,5 million and R6,8 million for a property, will enjoy a set of newly built amenities. In late 2015, a Virgin Active gym was inaugurated as part of a new shopping mall, which also boasts of its green credentials. Both the gym and the mall feature as incentives in Greeff Christie’s promotional video for the estate, a video that conspicuously only shows white people, smiling individuals and families, doing activities associated with “the lifestyle that comes with Noordhoek.” As if it wasn’t clear already what demographic is desired and expected to live here, the video continues with animations of what it could be like to walk around and live in these houses, again only showing white-rendered people.

That the estate is intended to exclude is clear. On one of our visits in November 2016, two workers from the security company Innoza are running cabling along the bottom of the 3 metre high perimeter fence. CCTV cameras are being placed on even higher poles to produce live video linked into the guardhouse at the main gate.

For the private security industry as well as the banks and the developers, these estates are lucrative.

The development of the estate, originally known as the Dassenberg Residential Estate, has not been without controversy. Opposed by local civic and environmental groups, the initial application was turned down in 1997, only to be approved by a former ANC MEC Pierre Uys in 2009, during the dying days of his term of office. The new Democratic Alliance MEC, Anton Bredell, refused to challenge the approval, and after initial resistance to a rezoning request, the DA-led City of Cape Town abandoned its opposition much to the dismay of residents of the area, and despite the province’s Planning Advisory Board stating the development should have been “drastically scaled back”.

Residents of the Peninsula and the wider Noordhoek valley now seem to have grudgingly accepted the development, though 20-year-old Shelby, who spoke to us from Sun Valley in November 2016, laments the loss of access to her neighbouring wetland and mountain. The mountainside that her family’s home looks onto has been cleared, while most of the wetlands are sealed off by stainless steel and electric fencing.

These “eco-estates,” often on pristine land lying outside the urban edge, represent a deeply problematic pattern of urban development in South African cities. With sustainability as a paramount goal, how do we understand the social and ecological effects of this type of development?

Sustainability is about a connection between ecological processes and social justice. Chapman’s Bay Estate only glaringly omits any such connections. Rather it exploits “green” arguments of sustainability into its sales pitch. This is clear in another video at the estate’s website. The lead architects from the local practice, Lennard & Lennard, proudly proclaim the “symbiotic relationship” that their design has created with the surrounding vegetation, but they omit for instance the destruction of vegetation and animal habitat that their design requires, and the way a once publicly accessible mountain slope is now fenced in. Surely this should be part of any truthful use of “eco” as in ecological?

The sales pitch also does not mention how the“eco-estate” consumes a lot of space and only provides housing for a few people, increasing the city’s footprint with low-density housing. The perimeter fence will eventually encompass 145 houses or “units” on a 45-hectare plot (only phase one appears to be complete). This means only 13 people per hectare if we assume four people in each “unit”. In comparison, fellow citizens in Masiphumelele, with around 17,000 residents in 2011 on 45 hectares, live with a density of 416 people per hectare – 32 times higher. High density and integrated housing development is crucial for Cape Town’s wider sustainability, but in its promotional video, the “eco-estate” turns low density into an argument to serve its sales. Future residents are promised they will “really have that feeling of space” around them.

The Chapman’s Bay Estate’s green credentials are certainly questionable, both in real material terms, and in the way the self-justifying language of conservation and ecology glosses over and waters down environmental and social justice arguments.

But beyond that, these “eco-estates” also serve as cogs within a wider machinery.

On one hand they reproduce exclusionary apartheid geographies. Using green-washing as part of the process, so-called market forces reproduce spaces just as the apartheid-era Group Areas Act once did, leaving behind residents of townships such as Masiphumelele.

The township of Masiphumelele (bottom), where metal shacks use what little space is available, is often described as encroaching on the wetland’s edge. In contrast, the Lake Michelle estate (top), which is completely built within the wetland and appropriating its heart, figures less in analysis of wetland problems. Aerial photo extracted from City of Cape Town maps

“Eco-estates,” the merging of nature with social exclusion, seem also to tap into a settler colonial mentality which dates back to the early 1800s and is difficult to stamp out in South Africa. Back then, the private garden—and, later, botanical gardens and game reserves—displayed settler identity and evoked a sense of accomplishment and home with the planting of European species imported to domesticate the “wild” African landscape. Fast forward to today’s “eco-estates,” where indigenous landscaping has become popular and replaced European “exotic plants” and which offer a tempting life-style choice for the rich: You are not simply buying a house, but you also protect nature.

But we cannot simply see these “eco-estates” in isolation. Rather, they form part of a wider appropriation of urban spaces by the elites. Authorities, finance capital, architects and security companies are providing exclusionary spaces where elite and largely white top-earners can live out what South African and British human geographers Richard Ballard and Gareth Jones have called a geographical escapism, a highly selective interaction with the surroundings. Moving from their securitised homes to spaces of elite consumption built on their behalf, such as the new shopping mall and the Virgin Active gym complex, they are cordoned off from a wider social geography. This renewed “settler public sphere” makes invisible the wider reality of a country and neighbourhood of deep and racialised inequality. Cushioned by a sense of environmental stewardship, residents can ignore the wider reality at their ease.

The Chapman’s Bay Estate, dressed up in artificially planted fynbos on previously undeveloped land, is part of a deeply troubling post-liberation urban development pattern. Part of our motivation for examining this particular estate was to learn how this happens. These exclusionary spaces and the connections between them are not simply “springing up” as if by chance, or as a “natural” consequence of things we cannot tackle. There are identifiable actors, agencies and institutions involved in their fabrication—from banks, municipalities, government agencies and environmental consultants, to architects and landscape architects who are using their knowledge, skills and “green touch” to produce these estates.

We need to work out how we can use our democratic institutions for more inclusionary urban development where sustainability and ecology is tightly wedded to social justice. We need to follow the lead of so many skilled organisers, activists and scholars of this country, now recently under the banner of Reclaim the City.

The way our cities emerge is not set in stone; what seems “natural” can always be contested and ultimately changed.

Baigrie has a Masters in Conservation Biology from the University of Cape Town. Ernstson is a researcher at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. Both authors write in their personal capacities.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp. © 2017 GroundUp. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. You may republish this article, so long as you credit the authors and GroundUp, and do not change the text. Please include a link back to the original article.

Announcements Learning News Presentations Uncategorized

“Decolonizing Urbanism” Trier Summer University, 6-12 June 2017 (Call for Applications 31 January)

Henrik Ernstson is an invited keynote lecturer at the upcoming Trier Summer University on “Decolonizing Urbanism: Transformative Perspectives”, Trier University, Germany June 6-12, 2017. Deadline for application January 31, 2017. For updated information and application details, see their website

Participants in Decolonizing Urbanism Summer School at University of Trier, 2017.

Trier Summer SchoolCall for Applications:

Trier Summer University “Decolonizing Urbanism: Transformative Perspectives”

Trier University, Germany June 6-12, 2017
The Governance and Sustainability Lab at Trier University is now inviting applications for its 2017 Summer University, which will take place June 6-12, 2017. Applications are invited from advanced doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers as well as from early career professionals working in geography, urban studies, urban planning, political science, international relations, development studies, gender studies, native studies, cultural studies, sociology, ecology and related fields. Participants will explore the theme of ‘decolonizing urbanism’ through a mixture of public lectures, seminar sessions, advanced skills trainings, excursions, and cultural activities. The Summer University will be held in English. The deadline for applications is January 31, 2017.

On Our Theme, ‘Decolonizing Urbanism’

When the United Nations was founded in 1945, nearly a third of the world’s population lived in territories that were dependent on colonial powers. Since then, many territories have found freedom, yet a variety of colonial relationships and physical legacies have persisted, such as between military occupiers and surrounding populations, native and non-native populations, and through the presence of major religious organizations, just to name a few. Moreover, a considerable body of critical scholarship has pointed out that contemporary societies are still inextricably linked to coloniality, defined not only as a historically situated and unjust economic model, but also as a racialized, androcentric, and class-based hierarchy of knowing and being which marginalizes non-western cultures, knowledges, and histories.

Today, the coloniality of knowing, being and power also intersects with the negative and unevenly distributed consequences of global mega-trends such as urbanization and climate change, which raises pressing questions. How has the span of urbanism and urbanization – from the related academic disciplines to the physical places, people, politics, infrastructure, and cultures – been affected by the forces of colonization and coloniality? Moreover, as efforts to deliberately steer societal transformations in the so-called ‘Anthropocene’ and the ‘Urban Century’ are unavoidably related to questions of power and politics, we ask what efforts to bring about social change are needed or already underway. We are interested in established themes in the literature as well as forging less obvious and exciting new linkages together among disciplines, practices, and places.

Structure of the Summer University

Well in advance, a number of suggested texts will be made available to participants in preparation for the Summer University. The actual Summer University will last seven days and will include keynote speeches, panel discussions, advanced skills training sessions (e.g. presentation tips), as well as excursions and cultural activities in the city of Trier, the Moselle region, and Luxembourg. Participants will discuss each day’s keynote lectures, workshops, and excursions together in small groups, forging new linkages between readings made available in advance, the presented ideas, and the inputs from participants. Further, participants will be able work on a sub-topic of their interest that is related to the overarching topic of ‘decolonizing urbanism’. Some relevant examples include:

    • Decoloniality in theory and praxis (for example in research, education and urbanism)
    • Urban imaginaries and the relation between space, power and knowledge in the urban sphere
    • Perspectives for societal transformations in the face of everyday coloniality and accelerating global change
    • The neoliberalization of the city and strategies for realizing alternative visions of urban change
    • The role and transformation of colonial heritage in urban settings

We envision that through this intensive interdisciplinary dialog a joint publication such as an edited volume or special issue will emerge, and time will be dedicated to this effort.

Confirmed Speakers

Below you can find our keynote speakers. Additional speakers will be confirmed over the next months. For regular updates on the Summer University program, please visit our website.

  • Dr. Epifania Amoo-Adare. University of Bonn, Germany, Center for Development Research (ZEF)

Dr. Epifania Amoo-Adare is a social science researcher and educator with over 25 years of experience, working in countries such as Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ghana, Qatar, the UK, and the USA. Dr. Amoo-Adare has a Ph.D. in Education from UCLA and is also a RIBA part II qualified architect. Additionally, she has diverse and post- disciplinary interests in areas such as Critical Pedagogy, Critical Spatial Literacy, Cultural Studies, Decoloniality, International Educational Development, Mobility Studies, ‘Third World’ Feminisms, and Urban Studies.

  • Prof. Dr. Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez. Justus-Liebig-University Gießen, Germany Department of Sociology

Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez studied sociology, political science, and Romance languages in Frankfurt, Lyon, and Quito, Ecuador. She has taught and worked at the universities of Manchester and Hamburg, as well as in the USA, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, Austria, and Switzerland. Her areas of interest include global inequality and its local manifestations, and the application of a post- Marxist and decolonial perspective on migration, labor, and culture. Her research projects have been realized in part through support from the DFG (German Research Foundation), the British Academy, the EU, and the Ford Foundation. Gutiérrez Rodríguez has published broadly.

  • Dr. Henrik Ernstson. University of Cape Town, South Africa (African Centre for Cities) KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden (KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory)

Dr. Henrik Ernstson spends most of his time at the African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town, while serving as Research Fellow at the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory in Stockholm. He recently concluded a PostDoc at Stanford University and holds a PhD from Stockholm University. He is developing a situated approach to urban political ecology that combines critical geography, urban infrastructure studies and postcolonial and global South urbanism, with a focus on collective action, radical democratic theory, knowledge practices and the co-production of alternative research ‘outputs’, including film and theatre. This includes workshops for younger African scholars in South Africa and Uganda and a PhD winter school at ACC on ‘Democratic Practices of Unequal Geographies’ with Dr. Andrés Henao Castro. He is an experienced Principal Investigator with case studies in Cape Town, Kampala, New Orleans and Stockholm with grants from Swedish, British and South African funders. He is currently finalizing two edited book manuscripts and the environmental humanities research film called ‘One Table Two Elephants’, which focuses on the ontological politics of how race, nature, city and history is interconnected in Cape Town.

  • Dr. Noa Ha. TU Berlin, Germany, Center for Metropolitan Studies

Dr. Noa K. Ha is an Asian German urban studies scholar based in Berlin and wrote her dissertation in Architecture (Technical University Berlin) on street vending in Berlin. Her research investigates processes of urban production from decolonial, critical race theory, feminist and queer theory perspective. She is on the board of the council of migration Berlin and Brandenburg (Migrationsrat Berlin Brandenburg e.V.), active in the Asian German network orientation e.V. and a board member of Critical Ethnic Studies Association (CESA). Currently she is a post-doc at the Center for Metropolitan Studies, Technical University Berlin, and researches the spatial production of Asian diasporas in European cities. She was a scholarship holder of TU Berlin, Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation and an associate fellow of the transatlantic graduate program ‘History and Culture of Metropolises in the 20th Century’ at the Center for Metropolitan Studies (Berlin).

  • Prof. Dr. David Simon. Mistra Urban Futures, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg and Royal Holloway

David Simon is Director of Mistra Urban Futures, an international research centre on co- production for urban sustainability based at Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden and also Professor of Development Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has vast international experience in research on sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the UK, USA and Sweden. His research in relation to urban areas and climate/environmental change has examined the likely implications of environmental change for cities and their populations, as well as seeking to understand how cities are preparing mitigation and adaptation strategies in response. David Simon has served as specialist advisor to UN-HABITAT on cities and climate change, and was one of only two academics on the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s specialist Africa Advisory Group. He has also served on the Scientific Steering Committee of the international Urbanization and Global Environmental Change (UGEC) program which is now within Future Earth. He holds a B.A. with Distinction from the University of Cape Town, B.A. (Hons) from the University of Reading, and a DPhil from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

  • Prof. Dr. Tuna Tasan-Kok. University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands Department of Human Geography, Urban Planning and International Development

Dr. Tuna Tasan-Kok is an urban social geographer and planner. She graduated from the Department of City and Regional Planning at Dokuz Eylul University of Izmir and completed her M.Sc. in Regional Planning at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey in 1996. Her research focuses on regulation of urban development and change from different angles. Being awarded by Turkish, Polish and Hungarian scientific funds, she worked as a research fellow in Polish and Hungarian Academy of Sciences until 2000. She has received her PhD degree in Social Geography from the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 2004. Dr. Tasan-Kok took up researcher and lectureship positions at the Universities of Leuven (2005-2007), TU Delft, OTB Research for the built Environment (2007-2015), and University College Roosevelt (2011-2014), before taking up her current position in Department of Human Geography, Urban Planning and Inter- national Development at the University of Amsterdam in September 2015.

  • Stokley Towles., M.F.A., MLIS The Evergreen State College, USA Member of the Faculty and Performance Artist

Stokley Towles is a public artist, librarian, and member of the faculty. His work focuses on the relationship of people to their daily working and living environments, be it the publics’ experience on a trail system, the dynamic world of police officers on the street, how patrons interact with the public library, or the environment of a municipal waste- water system. He holds a B.A. in Semiotics from Brown University, USA (1986), a M.F.A. in Art and Photography from the California Institute of the Arts (1990), and a MLIS, Library and Information Science, from the University of Washington (2008).

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.

Announcements Commentary HICCUP News Uncategorized

The Urban Action Lab at Makerere University is in action!

Urban Action Lab at Makerere University, Uganda.
Urban Action Lab at Makerere University, Uganda.

The Urban Action Lab (UAL) at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda has launched their website. The UAL is run by Professor Shuaib Lwasa and his team of urban researchers and students and the Lab will make a crucial contribution from East Africa to pan-African attempts in facing urban challenges of the 21st century.

By Henrik Ernstson

Shuaib just sent out an email to a row of urban scholars that are all serious about contributing to urban sustainable and just cities through the particular experiences and challenges of Africa and the South. He writes:

[A]fter several years of engaging in urban research, conceptual rethinking as well as solutions-oriented co-generation of knowledge with all of you at various points, we now have an online platform for sharing the knowledge while we continue to galvanise the understanding of urbanisation in sub-Saharan Africa. With Uganda and East Africa as the launch pad, the UAL is envisaged to grow into a regional knowledge hub and Centre focused on the various issues in regard to African Urbanism and sustainable urban development.

UN Habitat 3 Conference in Quito, 2016, on the "New Urban Agenda"
UN Habitat 3 Conference in Quito, 2016, on the “New Urban Agenda”

For those going to the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador 17-20 October 2016, the Urban Action Lab will exhibit in the Exhibition Hall. Shuaib Lwasa and PhD student Peter Kasaija, will also be running the networking event on “Emerging innovative solutions to leapfrog towards urban sustainability in Africa”. The event is scheduled to take place on 20 October, from 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. in room MR13 at the venue of the Habitat III Conference, Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana “Benjamin Carrion”.

Pan-African network of similar urban research institutes

The UAL follows a broader trend to re-think urban knowledge, policy and action based on experiences from African cities. Since 2011 the African Urban Research Initiative, or AURI, has been an effort to link urban research labs and institutes in order to form a pan-African response to the particular urban challenges that the continent is facing, an effort “to scale-up applied urban research and practice on the African continent” as stated at the African Centre for Cities webpage, one of the initiators*. AURI brings together no less than 14 research institutes across the major regions and language groups of Africa, including urban research and practitioner institutes that have been around for decades, to more recently formed labs, including institutes from Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Togo, Senegal, Ethiopia, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Niger, and now hopefully also Uganda.

The HICCUP project – supporting the UAL

We are a bunch of urban scholars who are very excited for the UAL and its future. The Situated UPE collective — and my home institutions of KTH Environmental Humanities Lab and UCT’s African Centre for Cities — are supporting the Lab directly through the research project HICCUP. This is a Swedish Research Council (VR)-supported project that runs from 2016 to 2019. It focuses on urban infrastructure challenges in the areas of waste and sanitation in Ugandan cities and with a broader regional learning component. Shuaib Lwasa plays a leading role in this project and we have in collaboration integrated the training of one PhD student and three Master students at Makerere University as part the project. AURI and research collaborations like HICCUP seems crucial in building research capacity and transformative capacity in African cities. To learn more about the UAL, please visit their website.

* AURI originates from a grant that the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town received in 2011.



Announcements Uncategorized

Symbiotic Tactics and Bio-semiotics: Martín Ávila visits University of Tartu, Estonia

Martín Ávila from Konstfack in Stockholm is visiting the leading Semiotics Department at the University of Tartu in Estonia on the 2nd of September 2016. Supported by funds from Henrik Ernstson’s MOVE project at KTH, he will meet with biosemiotician Kallevi Kull and colleagues to extend and strengthen the interdisciplinary dialogue that he and Henrik Ernstson have developed and which seeks new insights into political ecology using speculative design.

Politics of co-habitation

Martín Àvila’s postdoc work on Symbiotic Tactics have been featured on this blog before and it is part of a wider collaboration based at KTH’s Environmental Humanities Laboratory. During his visit in Tartu, Martín Ávila will give a seminar based on the forthcoming manuscript with Henrik Ernstson called “Realms of Exposure: A Speculative Design Perspective of Material Agency and Political Ecology”, based on empirical work in Córdoba, Argentina. In inviting his colleagues, Kalevi Kull writes:

This seminar will address issues of cohabitation among humans and nonhumans on an everyday basis, as mediated by (designed) artifacts. Martin Avila will present his postdoctoral project entitled “symbiotic tactics”, reflecting upon biosemiotic aspects that confront us with socio-ecological challenges.

The manuscript by Ávila and Ernstson, turns around Ávila’s design of an alternative shower grating in people’s homes, one that aims to establish a different link between people of the city and the ecosystems below in the sewage systems (of which one actant is a highly dangerous scorpion); they write:

In this essay we elaborate an approach to urban political ecology and environmental studies that shifts from the descriptive and analytical, toward the propositional and speculative. This is needed we mean in order to create new handles to (re)understand and (re)enact the political in a thoroughly more-than-human, cyborgian and artificial world.

An alternative shower grating.
An alternative shower grating.

Bio-semiotics and the Situated Ecologies Platform

For the Situated Ecologies Platform, and for KTH’s Environmental Humanities Laboratory, the collaboration with Martín Ávila means to expand the registers, tools and philosophies that can engage the political dimensions of our time of ecological crises. The key aim of this trip to Tartu is also to further engage and expand how the field of “bio-semiotics” can contribute to a Situated Ecologies platform. Developed first by Estonian ethologist Jakob von Uexküll in the 1930s, the field has received in creasing attention since the 1990s by the Tartu-based group, including theoretical biologist Kallevi Kull, but also Thomas Sebeok, Marcelo Barbieri and Jesper Hoffmeyer. As summed up by Joshua Ozias Reno (2014: 9):

The core idea of bio-semiotics is that life requires the use of signs, as organisms must engage with the world around them within the perceptual and behavioural limitations of their developing form.

/Reported by Henrik Ernstson

News Uncategorized

PhD positions available in Critical Infrastructure at Darmstadt

Announcement of 12 PhD Positions


The newly formed interdisciplinary Research Training Group

Critical Infrastructures: Construction, Functional Failures, and Protection in Cities

at the Darmstadt University of Technology, Germany (close to Frankfurt), announces twelve PhD positions (3 years) scheduled to begin 1 October 2016. The Research Training Group is funded by the German Research Council, and analyzes critical infrastructures in cities—the networked systems which supply urban conglomerations with energy, water, communication facilities, and transportation services, and which treat and dispose of waste- and stormwater. Those infrastructures have become the nervous systems of modern cities, and their failure can trigger dramatic crises. In recent years, the growing vulnerability that seem to accompany the increased dependency on infrastructural networks has been a controversial topic. That controversy is due not only to multiple external threats such as natural disasters, terrorist and cyber attacks, but also to the growing complexity and increasing inter- dependencies of infrastructure systems.

The basic assumption of the Research Training Group is that critical infrastructures are highly context dependent both in temporal and spatial terms, and that they also manifest multiple spatial and temporal relations. The group’s aim is to understand and to explain these complex systems in their spatiality and temporality, and to explore urban practices of planning, of preventing interruptions and of preparing for them. Its research is inspired by urban studies and science and technology studies and takes place in three specific areas.

(1.) First, we intend to identify the critical aspects of constructing technical infrastructures in light of their historical and spatial contexts, and we attempt to uncover those infrastructures’ social and political aspects, in addition to their technical and functional needs.

(2.) Second, we assume that complex spatial and temporal arrangements are particularly visible in cases of infrastructural dysfunction. We investigate failures and functional crises of urban infra- structures, including the spatially and temporally complex conditions of those infrastructures’ vulnerability and resilience.

(3.) Third, we ask how prevention of and preparedness for urban infrastructure failures are, or can be, organized and which spatial and temporal aspects play a role in the protection of critical infra- structures.

The Research Training Group is truly interdisciplinary and is made up of representatives of the follow- ing subjects: Spatial and Infrastructure Planning, Modern History, History of Technology, Medieval History, Philosophy of Technology and Technoscience, Comparative Analysis of Political Systems, Ubiquitous Knowledge Processing, Design and Urban Development, Rail Systems, and Informatics in Construction Science. More information about the scientific program, the professors participating and about exemplary dissertation topics can be found at: Before submitting your application, we recommend to contact one of the professors for advice on possible research topics/ designs or for any other questions you might have, and to request the summary of the research program.

Within this program we are currently inviting applications for two Ph.D. positions (full-time) in the field of Spatial and Infrastructure Planning ( Candidates applying in

this field of are expected to examine the governance of resilient cities and infrastructures in an interna- tional perspective. Especially welcome are PhD proposals with a focus on the interconnectivity and coordination of various infrastructure sectors, spatial dimensions of cascading infrastructure failures and the planning challenges of urban crisis prevention and management. Sample thesis topics include:

Networked Vulnerabilities? Smart Infrastructures in Urban Crisis Prevention and Management The Governance of Urban Resilience: Preparedness and Prevention Strategies through Utilities,

Technical Agencies, and Local Civil Protection The Making of Urban Security? Urban Infrastructure Governance and the War on Terrorism Territoriality and Networked Space: New Geographies in the Protection of Critical Infrastructures Planning for Daily Interruptions: The Making of Urban and Infrastructural Resilience in Africa

These are just sample themes—you are encouraged to develop your own. Please contact Professor Jochen Monstadt ( for advice on possible research topics/designs.

Tasks: the Graduate Fellows must complete a dissertation within three years in their respective fields with a focus on one (or more) of the above-mentioned three research areas. The rationale of the Re- search Training Group is to support interdisciplinary cooperation among the Fellows, and all members are expected to participate in mandatory seminars, symposia, and workshops. Since course work and seminars are carried out in both German and English, it is expected that applicants are willing to par- ticipate in German courses offered by the university and to learn to read and understand spoken Ger- man. Fellows are also expected to work together in our common office downtown Darmstadt and thus need to take up their residence in the city or in the Frankfurt/Rhine-Main region.

Terms and conditions: The Research Training Group offers an excellent research infrastructure for PhD candidates who would like to complete their dissertations in an innovative, internationally networked program. The Fellows will work in common areas with dedicated office space, will have the support of participating professors, and can use all university facilities to support their work. The special oppor- tunities of this structured training program include the possibility of working together with renowned colleagues for several months at one of our four collaborating European universities. We also are work- ing with various partners in private companies and civil services offering internships to our Fellows.

Salaries depend on each Fellow’s qualifications and experience, and will be calculated according to the collective agreement of TU Darmstadt (TV-TU Darmstadt). The positions are limited to three years and include, depending on the Fellow’s home faculty, a salary at 65%–100% of full-time em- ployment (monthly salaries range from ca. € 1,500 to € 2,100 after tax and include health insurance and social security). Half-time employment is also possible.

Your application: TU Darmstadt intends to increase the number of women scientists and encourages them to apply. Candidates who have a degree of disability of at least 50% are given preferred treatment if equally qualified. Please submit your application by 10 July 2016 in English or German to info@ (as one pdf file, max. 6 MB). You must enclose (1) a CV with information on academic qualifications, language skills and international experience, (2) scanned copies of academic credentials, and (3) a dissertation proposal of up to five pages.

We look forward to your application!