Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Squatters and migrants in Madrid: Interactions, contexts and cycles

Miguel Angel Martínez López

City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

I hold a research interest in squatting dating back to the late 1990s. Recently, I have been exploring the relationship between squatting and migration. The illegal occupation of vacant buildings is usually a hidden way to access shelter. Migrants also tend to remain invisible or are pushed into marginality when their legal status does not enable them to enjoy citizenship rights. These two sets of social phenomena may intersect, making the outcomes even less easy to observe. The research I present in Urban Studies aims at bringing to light some of the complexities of the intersection between squatting and migration.
First, I question the conventional distinction between the political and social dimensions of squatting. It is widely assumed that most migrants who squat do so primarily because of deprivation. Similarly, squatting is usually portrayed as a social action to satisfy urgent housing needs without paying attention to the political claims and dynamics around this practice. However, some migrants become very active in political squats, which function as social centres where cultural and political activities are performed. This observation requires that we challenge conventional views of migrants and squatters and explore the issue beyond the standpoint of political solidarity. Second, I explore the mechanisms, organisations or events that could help illuminate the interactions between squatters and migrants. In particular, I examine the protest cycles of urban movements in Madrid. I deploy a qualitative methodology given the slippery, complex and stealth nature of the phenomena under examination.
In doing so, I distinguish four major forms of interaction. As anticipated, I show that deprivation-based squatting is not necessarily the prevailing type among migrants.  I identify forms of squatting that are more appropriately defined according to the following qualities:
1) Autonomy – when immigrants squat alone without the initial help of native political squatters, although some cooperation may occur later on.
2) Solidarity – either migrants or political squatters launch protest campaigns, actions or events in which the issues of migration, citizen rights, police controls, etc. are the main claims at play. Both groups cooperate with each other and the squatted spaces are used to develop these ties.
3) Engagement – migrants participate in the activities and the self-management of political squats, usually initiated and run by natives, with different degrees of involvement and in different numbers in each case.
4) Empowerment – when political squatters help migrants to squat and they both may occasionally cohabit in the occupied building.
I argue that these variations occur due to specific drivers within urban protest cycles -in particular, the waves of protest surrounding global justice issues (since 2000) and the 15M/Indignados (since 2011), which served to facilitate cooperation between squatters and migrants. More specifically, two key social organisations (ODS-Office of Social Rights and PAH-Anti-Eviction Platform of People Affected by Mortgages) and their practices triggered the interactions between migrants and squatters.  I also show, despite the over-representation of Latin American migrants, that the political squatting movement in Madrid has consistently incorporated groups of migrants and their struggles in accordance with anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-xenophobic claims and practices.
The striking conclusion is that beyond expressions of ideological solidarity or the tendency towards hidden deprivation-based squatting, different forms of interaction have prevailed in different historical periods. In particular, ‘engagement’ has increasingly occurred along with the rising numbers of migrants in Spain, but also given the crucial influence of some initiatives such as the ODS. Moreover, ‘empowerment’ based interactions were boosted by the 15M movement. ‘Autonomy’ and ‘solidarity’ based interactions remain constant features but their capabilities, public visibility and political support have grown in parallel with the increased social recognition and legitimation of squatting.
An additional consequence is that the political squatting networks have retained a relatively consistent left-libertarian discourse of ‘solidarity’ in order to add the migrants' struggles to the range of their concerns. However, it is worth noting that the process of mutual cooperation was slow over the first decade and a half (1985-2000) and some structural limitations are still at play, such as the hierarchical relations that occur when migrants ask native political activists for help.  No autonomous organisations have emerged as a consequence of these interactions.  Language barriers tend to distance migrants from struggles where natives are dominant, as do the gender relations within some ethnic and immigrant minorities which are incompatible with the egalitarian views of political squatters.

My research was made possible by the support and feedback of the Squatting in Europe Kollective (SqEK), my informants, assistants and fellow activists. Hopefully, this research will shed some light on the problems faced by European citizens, incoming migrants and urban activists during the current refugees’ crisis.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

‘Joburg has its own momentum’: towards a vernacular theorisation of urban change

Aidan Mosselson (University of Johannesburg and Gauteng City Region Observatory)
This paper came out of my recently completed PhD thesis. The aim of the PhD project was to examine the effects which private-sector led regeneration is having on Johannesburg’s inner-city and the communities who are living there. The arguments and theoretical positions which I develop in this paper emerged largely as a response to what I found to be the inadequacies of the contemporary urban studies literature to do justice to and make sense of the changes taking place in the area.

The research involved 9 months of qualitative fieldwork, during which 103 interviews were conducted. A broad range of actors were interviewed, including social and private-sector housing providers, building managers, employees of agencies financing urban regeneration projects, local government officials, security personnel, members of the local Community Policing Forum (the South African equivalent of a neighbourhood watch), activists and residents living in renovated inner-city buildings. These interviews were supplemented with participant observation, including attending practitioner workshops, planning meetings and social events in the inner-city and participating in security patrols.

As the research unfolded I found that what I had initially hypothesised to be a negative and exclusionary process was in fact much more nuanced and complicated. The findings which emerged constantly pointed to diverse practices, intentions, ideologies and outcomes which consistently did not add up to one coherent narrative or conclusion. Whilst the process is private-sector led, the state remains proactively involved; housing companies are commercially-oriented and profit-seeking, but they still actively find ways to provide housing for lower-income communities; making the area conducive to upgrading and investment relies on, at times heavy-handed, private policing, but even amongst those doing the policing there are discourses and practices around community-building, social cohesion and inclusion; privatised and securitised public spaces are being created, but these are creating opportunities for people to utilise and enjoy these spaces in ways they previously could not; evictions were rife at the start of the process and poor communities continue to be displaced, but at the same time other marginalised and previously excluded people are being integrated into the central region of the city.

I explain these findings and dynamics as emerging out of the politics which characterise contemporary South Africa and the particular lived and material realities of the inner-city. Whilst the post-apartheid government has been criticised for the widespread adoption of neoliberal policies and practices, there are also concerted efforts in place on the part of the state and local actors which serve more inclusive and redistributive ends. Despite ongoing tensions, deprivations and inequalities, South African society has also undergone momentous change. I demonstrate that the conditions of democratic transition and the developmental/redistributive inclination in policy frameworks and state projects has created dispositions amongst those involved in urban regeneration which, whilst still retaining commercial/neoliberal impulses, also prompt them to conceive and practice regeneration in ways which make inclusion of the marginalised real priorities and outcomes. Simultaneously, the inner-city is characterised by dire living conditions, poor service delivery and maintenance standards and precarious livelihoods. Rather than being disconnected from these circumstances, urban regeneration practitioners have internalised them and formulate responses which are sensitive to the difficulties which many people living in this environment face. They therefore adopt more socially–aware and developmentally-focussed practices, even though they remain confined within a market-based paradigm. I consequently theorise the contradictions, ambiguity and hybridity of the process as a vernacular approach to urban regeneration.
Through this theorisation I try to demonstrate the importance of understanding the motivating logics, spatial and structural conditions and agency which shape all processes of urban change. My approach is informed by and aims to contribute to post-colonial theory and comparative urbanism. The paper draws on the emphasis in post-colonial theory that concepts and ideas emanating from the West are parochial and limited in their scope. Therefore rather than reading the process unfolding in Johannesburg as another iteration of globally pervasive gentrification, the paper argues that it is a process shaped by the logics, politics, competing agendas and idiosyncrasies of a particular spatial and temporal context. But drawing on and adding to the comparative urbanism literature, it argues that rather than seeing this case as a unique exception, it is one which draws attention to the multiplicity, diversity and contradictions which are shared by all urban societies. The article therefore aims to be propositional in advocating vernacular approaches to researching and understanding process of urban change. It is hoped that a vernacular framework does justice to the variety which exists in all urban settings and calls attention to the complex dynamics and outcomes which are always unfolding. Rather than seeing gentrification or neoliberal restructuring as inevitable outcomes of global processes, research needs to understand the particular confluences of agendas, actions and factors which give rise to these outcomes, or potentially prevent them from occurring. Thus although the research and this paper tells a unique story, the aim is to understand why it is unique and, through this, to inspire other studies which take individual cases seriously, but weave them into a shared account and appreciation of urban diversity.    

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Do neighbourhood facilities matter for slum housing? Evidence from Indian slum clusters

Saudamini Das, Arup Mitra and Rajnish Kumar

Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, India

Slum dwellers in developing countries reside in inhuman conditions with meagre access to basic amenities. There is a strong possibility that drinking water becomes contaminated by sewerage or general garbage. Why is it so? Is it because they do not care about living in a clean environment or is it simply because they cannot afford to do so?

We examine these questions in the context of the registered slum clusters of four Indian cities--Mathura, Ujjain, Jaipur, and Ludhiana. Mathura and Ujjain are located in central part of the country and are predominantly religious cities whereas Jaipure and Ludhiana, located in western part of the country are more developed with wide spread business and industrial clusters. Thus, all the four cities witness large scale migration from rural areas in search of livelihood.  Most migrants end up residing in slums.

A primary survey was conducted by some of the authors in the year 2006-07 in these cities under a project on urban poverty sponsored jointly by the United Nations Development Programme and the Government of India. The detailed data on demography, income, health, housing, neighborhood, migration, etc. of the slum dwellers were collected.  We analyzed the house prices of the owned residential sample units using a reduced form hedonic equation to find out which features determine the prices of residential units in slums, and in particular whether neighborhood cleanliness plays any role or not?

The hedonic price theory is an extension of the theory of attributes. It assumes that commodity prices are functions of the attributes that the commodities possess and thus, by studying the changes in the price of a product with respect to marginal change in the attribute it possesses, one can find out the premium the consumer pays for the attribute. In other words, by differentiating the price function with respect to a characteristic, one can derive the consumer’s marginal willingness to pay for that characteristic. Using this logic, house prices are considered to be a function of structural, neighborhood and environmental features of the house, and residents’ willingness to pay for each feature is derived from the differential of the estimated hedonic house price equation. We conducted such analysis of slum house prices using a set of structural, neighborhood, environmental and legal features of the respective houses. Slums being illegal structures in many places, features like demolition threat, whether the slum is situated in public or private land, etc. are likely to affect house prices.We categorized these variables as legal features. We included two features – presence of flowing open drain in the neighborhood and presence of chocked open drain in the neighborhood as two neighborhood cleanliness variables. First we estimated the reduced form hedonic equation of house prices and then using the differential of house prices with respect to features having significant effect on house prices, we calculated slum residents’ marginal willingness to pay for the specific feature. The significant features reflect the slum dwellers’ preferred attributes in house selection.

 We find house prices varying consistently with many structural variables – built up area, number of rooms, if having brick wall,concrete roof, separate kitchen, attached bath and toilet, attached balcony and courtyard, piped water connection, etc. Temporary window and doors had strong negative effect on house prices. But only few of the neighborhood features—proximity to central business district, presence of streetlight and  house being connected tosewage facility from government showed significant positive effect on house prices. Such results were consistent across cities. Most of the other neighborhood variables like provision of water, garbage collection, presence of healthcare etc including presence of open drain, both chocked and flowing, in the neighborhood showed insignificant effect on house prices. Demolition threat had a significant negative effect on house prices.

These results indicate that house selection by slum dwellers is mostly being guided by features related to house quality, availability of facilities inside the house and some basic amenities like provision of street light or sewage system provided by the local authority. However, they seem to be paying high prices for a good quality house even if it is situated next to an open drain. Such results have strong implication for Indian cities, especially with the Swachh Bharat Campaign of the Government of India. First slum dwellers need to be better informed concerning the importance of  cleanliness through campaigns which create awareness.

Slum dwellers expect public provisioning of most of the neighborhood facilities, but they are very willing to pay for features like government supported sewage, street lights, and for being permitted to reside within the city. Thus, cost sharing is possible in order to provide these facilities and the revenue generated can be used for information campaigns to inform residents of the importance of cleanliness.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Is empowerment a route to improving mental health and wellbeing in an urban regeneration (UR) context?

Camilla Baba

University of Glasgow, Scotland

Throughout the UK, large-scale urban regeneration (UR) interventions are increasingly recognised as Population Health Interventions (PHI). As complex, multi-sector programmes, UR programmes have the unique opportunity to ameliorate health inequalities. Indeed, there is an established evidence base on how population health improvements can be identified as potential outcomes of regeneration programmes. The research behind our recent paper in Urban Studies builds on previous evidence of a positive link between health and empowerment and applies this to the specific UR context.

The work presented is part of a wider, longitudinal research programme in Glasgow ( investigating the impact of UR on the health and wellbeing of affected individuals, families and communities. Central to this on-going city regeneration is the Scottish Government’s commitment to the empowerment for all communities, especially disadvantaged communities. It is envisaged that as empowerment has been positively linked to health within the other fields, investment in empowerment as part of UR programme delivery will improve residents’ overall wellbeing. However, currently there is a lack of evidence as to whether such investment could result in health gains.  Therefore, we sought to investigate this.

 We examined if feelings of empowerment were associated with;

  • different personal/socio-demographic characteristics;
  • different types of engagement activities;
  • neighbourhood perceptions and resident interactions;
  • physical and mental health and wellbeing outcomes.

Our analyses present a compelling argument for the inclusion of empowerment promoting activities within UR programmes. Sense of empowerment was shown to act as a positive predictor of both general and mental wellbeing, with householders reporting a stronger sense of empowerment also reporting better health.

However, our work also illustrates the need for changes to current stakeholder engagement practices. Long-term illness or disability was shown to impact negatively on feeling empowered and speaks to other research where financial difficulties and lack of peer interaction were influenced by long-term illness and disability. We suggest that stakeholders should pay particular attention to socially excluded individuals to prevent this growing sense of isolation and adopt other working practices for engagement.

More positively, higher satisfaction with housing /landlord services and a stronger sense of belonging to neighbourhood, were predictors for empowerment.  Householders who felt respected, had neighbourhood pride/ identity and felt they were given opportunity to contribute to local area decisions through feedback mechanisms also reported feeling empowered.

Our key message is that the delivery of empowerment promoting activities shows initial, very promising, links to health improvements and could ultimately prove to be a cost-effective pathway for such health benefits. However, a current lack of understanding over ‘what-works’ in sharing key decision-making processes with communities is preventing its progress. Thus, through examining what behaviours are linked with empowerment in an UR context, we argue that stakeholders wishing to promote empowerment must first examine residents’ PE, their capabilities/assets and how they work collectively. Such work future resource allocation in the pursuit of improved and more equitable health and wellbeing within and across communities.


Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Choice and segregation: Why are Finnish schools and neighbourhoods falling?

Venla Bernelius - University of Helsinki, Finland

Mari Vaattovaara - University of Helsinki, Finland

Throughout the last decade Finland has been globally known as the Nordic PISA-wonder. The country has not only been among the global top in learning outcomes, but also particularly equal. The high share of excellent performers has been followed by small differences between the students; the poorest learners and schools have outperformed their reference group in all other countries.

Our article builds on two observations: Firstly, that the same pattern observed in education has been the defining feature of the Finnish society, both in cities and in schools in general. It has for long been assumed in research and policy-making that the social differences are small and if they grow, they mainly do so by the wealthy taking off, while the tail end of the society remains stable. Reflecting this, even the city planning documents from the capital, Helsinki, have contained worries about new areas becoming “too elitist”.

The second observation is that all of these observations are now being challenged. New research has shown that the learning outcomes are declining and especially the poorest learners are falling further behind. At the same time, the cities are getting more segregated – not through the rising status of the well-off areas, but a through concentrating disadvantage in some neighbourhoods.

Our interest has been to track down some of the possible mechanisms behind the observed changes in the cities and schools of Helsinki. We concentrated on the role of choice – i.e. the choices people make when moving to different neighbourhoods or the choice of school for their children – since the effects of choice has been debated in international literature. On one hand, choice has been identified as a possible mechanism for alleviating segregation, and on the other, as a mechanism for fueling further segregation.

The article is based on multiple data sets, containing statistical data and a survey on families’ location decisions, as well as data on school choices and learning outcomes. Our analysis shows that both the choice of neighbourhood and school choices have the potential to increase segregation. The effect of location decisions operates through avoiding or moving out of disadvantaged neighbourhoods. School choices also deepen the differentiation of schools. Although there are no public ranking lists of the neighbourhood schools, the student flows are directed systematically from more disadvantaged schools to the ones with higher attainment level. While the average schools are not affected by choice, the process weakens the learning results in the schools with lower initial attainment level and pushes up the attainment level in the schools with the highest level to begin with.

Based on our analysis, segregation – and the changing pattern of segregation through decline – operates at by the behavior of individual families navigating the city and its schools. Rather than alleviating differences, choice appears to act as a driver of segregation. The observation is particularly interesting for the theoretical debate on the effects of choice, as the Nordic welfare context with its strong support network and relatively low levels of ethnic and socio-economic differentiation is argued to maximally alleviate the negative effects of social processes. The observation can thus be assumed to be relatively robust through contexts of higher segregation and weaker welfare networks.