BSRS Module 4: Urban sites of protest, dynamism, inequality (Bjørn Bertelsen)

Introduction video:

Main objective

Being the prime containers for human life, cities across the globe are increasingly important sites for confrontations as well as dynamic transformation and multiform flux. The main aim of this module is, drawing on cases from the global south as well as north, to appreciate how non-formalist readings of cities may help us analyze how inequality is structured, addressed and perceived.

This module’s texts address urban terrains of inequality from different positions: Drawing on poststructuralist readings of Maputo, Bertelsen’s two texts on the curriculum underline how, for instance, urban uprisings must be read as political engagements with both elites and state formation. The two other texts probe the dynamic relation between formal and informal, as well as the contradictions inherent to neoliberal planning—again drawing on situated knowledge.


Bertelsen, B. E., Tvedten, I., & Roque, S. (2014). Engaging, transcending and subverting dichotomies: Discursive dynamics of Maputo’s urban space. Urban Studies, 51(13), 2752-2769. (Links to an external site.)

Bertelsen, B. E. (2016). Effervescence and ephemerality: Popular urban uprisings in Mozambique. Ethnos, 81(1), 25-52. (Links to an external site.)

Caldeira, Teresa PR. 2017. Peripheral urbanization: Autoconstruction, transversal logics, and politics in cities of the global south.  Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 35 (1):3-20. (Links to an external site.)

Tulumello, S. (2016). Reconsidering neoliberal urban planning in times of crisis: Urban regeneration policy in a “dense” space in Lisbon. Urban Geography, 37(1), 117-140. (Links to an external site.)



View the videos below

(a short interview with Teresa Caldeira on new forms of urban collectivity)

(a mash-up of the uprisings in Maputo in 2010 with the music from famous Mozambican rapper Azagaia, also demonstrating forms of urban collectivity)

Arguably, these two video clips allude to very different forms of urban collectivity. You are encouraged to juxtapose these representations and think through:

1) What are helpful notions of collectivity and citizenship when approaching, for instance, megacities of the global South?

2) How may researchers from various disciplines tap into the energies of such collectivities in our work towards “actionable knowledge”?

3) What may popular protests and engagement with change (as in Tulumello’s and Caldeira’s work) tell us about the possibilities to transform the urban in bottom-up fashion?

Class discussion:


Materials for Discussion:

Richard Sliuzas: Mapping informal settlements

Global Urban Commons website


Interactive al Jazeera piece: Drowning Megacities

Discussion prompts:

1. Discuss the importance of participatory approaches in cartography and to rendering previously invisible settlements legible to planners

2. Discuss the methodological challenges of mapping rapidly changing areas and distinguishing between ‘temporary’ and ‘permanent’ settlements

3. Discuss the term climate apartheid

4. Can a city with built in social injustice be sustainable?

Class discussion:

Written response from WG 4 (Marie Thorsen, Patricia Oviedo Toral, Yahia Gamalaldin, Katinka Wågsæther, Mahir Yazar)

1. Discuss the importance of participatory approaches in cartography and to rendering previously invisible settlements legible to planners

Enabling: localised emergency planning; detailed vulnerability mapping; location specific development or upgrading of infrastructure; unpacking of local context and attaching meaning to places and objects; agency and inclusivity

Participatory approaches emerge to fulfill needs to map out the different types of informal settlements, their conditions and vulnerabilities to the extreme weather events. Mapping locations by interacting with locals could help to identify emergency planning, and to gain recognition of their existing vulnerabilities by the authorities. More importantly, sharing the generated maps with the urban dweller could immensely help them in preparing to cope with the existing weather events through their own agency.
Participatory mapping approaches extract the local knowledge as spatial constructions. This spatial local knowledge can then unpack the context related vulnerabilities and potentially spatial injustices; for instance, these include the vulnerability of specific groups to extreme climate conditions and/or inequality in the distribution of spatial amenities. While the presentation’s view of space is diverse, it still strictly aims to construct space in its objective dimensions, and potentially attach meanings to it using participatory approaches. Participatory approaches, in fact, can take a step further by constructing the subjective dimension viewed through the eyes of the participants. For instance, some studies allow participants to construct maps without using satellite maps or digitally drawn spaces; this allows the participants to draw for themselves how they view their spatial environments in terms of biased dimensions and interpretive meanings.
Ananya Roy 2005 on “Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning.”

2. Discuss the methodological challenges of mapping rapidly changing areas and distinguishing between ‘temporary’ and ‘permanent’ settlements

Urban morphological features are fragmented and there is not a linear way to categorize informal and formal settlements as in some cases urban slums are intertwined with the high raising apartment complexes, or built around old-historic architecture.
The temporary/permanent binary ignores the fast-paced and often unpredicted movement of people and households. It can further lead to exclusionary policies, in which the permanent areas included and incorporated while the temporary areas are not prioritised.
There are inherent methodological challenges in mapping the informal in itself, aside from it being temporary and permanent. To begin with, the informal is spatially intertwined with its formal counterpart that in a lot of cases, it is not possible to define a spatial container for informal settlements. In reaction, researchers, such as Ananya Roy, proposed looking into the formal and informal as a continuum; this extends to the physical and non-physical aspects. In that sense, the informal space is constructed by its inhabitants interconnected, or rather continuous, with its formal counterpart. In other words, this divide between the formal/informal is apparently vague within the informal inhabitants’ interpretation. This interpretation provides a starting point for discussing the point of informalities being temporary or permanent. This definition can drastically vary between the informal inhabitants, their formal counterpart and the policy makers. In this case, participatory mapping can unpack how the informal inhabitants actually perceive their space, as formal/informal and as temporary/permanent. This is essential to assure that the criteria of judging the type of space and its temporal dimension is not biased by external views rather than the inhabitants themselves.

3. Discuss the term climate apartheid
There are pervasive inequities in the distribution of climate change impacts in urban areas and climate apartheid must be contextualized with the vulnerability perspective. Many academic research and analytical frameworks raise questions around whether the existing institutions, organizations, groups and individuals are actually capable of overcoming their current state of vulnerability in the midst of changing climate. The coastal cities shown in the videos are great examples of how addressing climate change related issues are distributed unevenly (e.g. on one hand there are communities tackling issues with their own limited capacity, whereas the government invests huge infrastructure projects to attract affluent residents and global community).
Vulnerability of people under climate change focuses the degree to which they are likely to expose extreme weather events, and their adaptive capacity to recover from the exposure. People’s vulnerability to climate change related extreme weather events is conceptualized as multi-dimensional which includes biophysical vulnerability (e.g. outcome of the physical event) and social vulnerability (e.g. housing conditions, access to infrastructure and resources that determine the capacity to overcome after the physical event). In this sense, climate apartheid can be defined as the systematic spatial, economic, institutional exclusion of people and communities that exacerbate power asymmetries in decision-making and perpetuating climate injustice for vulnerable populations in the midst of changing climate.

Climate change carries immense implications for human rights, including to life, food, housing and water. It will also impact democracy, as governments struggle to cope with climate consequences and persuade citizens to accept the major social and economic transformations required. While people in poverty are responsible for just a fraction of global emissions, they will bear the most of the burden of climate change, and have the least capacity to protect themselves. Few decisions are left on the vulnerable who will face to choose between starvation and migration. Climate change will have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable, and will have the most severe impact in poor countries and regions. Maintaining the current course will lead us to a catastrophe. Governments, corporations and even human rights organizations (including the U.N.) have been aware of these climate-related threats for decades, but have failed to implement successful policies that could mitigate the likely damage.

4. Can a city with built in social injustice be sustainable?

The answer can vary depending on the attribution given to sustainability. The academic literature on urban sustainability whether using socio-technical transition lenses or not, generally glosses over the distribution of sustainability transitions among urban populations. In addition, the technical reports provided by regional or global networks mostly intertwine the term sustainability with mitigation goals and improvements in low-carbon innovations. Such reductive understandings of sustainability, consequently do not deal with social injustice or evenly distribution sustainability in urban areas. From the SDGs perspective, building sustainable and resilient cities cannot be achieved without including a social justice perspective. Yet, the current state of efforts and implementations for urban sustainability lags behind addressing justice issues.

By understanding sustainability broadly to include social, economic and environmental aspects, a sustainable future is not possible with inherent social injustice. In fact, social injustice can also lead to a spill-over effect where socially vulnerable groups might end being less represented and have less of a share in the sustainable economic and environmental future. This is vivid in the formal-informal contexts where such groups consistently have less shares of services, such as infrastructure, that are key to reaching a sustainable future.
The concept of injustice also opens up a discussion of what justice and fairness are in the first place. Within a sustainable transition of socio-technical change, it is essential to identify the procedural and consequential embedded justices. Further, one should consider how such justice is contextually interpreted, and how equity of sustainable-transition distribution is reached.

Claims for social justice are not about political correctness or environmental awareness but about claims of inclusion for people who have been marginalized by urban processes. Justice and equity claims are challenging to realize but social justice remains an important concept that should be closely examined. Central to social justice is the right to participate. The reinsertion of the social into the political and economic enables the practices and performances of everyday rights (right to work, education, health, housing, services, etc.) the right to claim rights.

Social sustainability is an often overlooked aspect of sustainability, it occurs when the formal and informal processes, systems, structures and relationships actively support the capacity of current and future generations to create healthy and liveable communities. Socially sustainable communities are equitable, diverse, connected and democratic and provide a good quality of life. According to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, socially sustainable communities are equitable, diverse, connected & democratic and provide a good quality of life. In these types of communities, there is not a place for social injustice.


Bjørn Enge Bertelsen is a professor in social anthropology at the University of Bergen. He is the Executive Director of the Global Research Programme on Inequality, which is linked with the International Science Council. This entails transdisciplinary work that is especially focused on the multiple challenges related to inequality in urban areas across the world. His research focuses on Southern Africa and Mozambique. Particular interests include issues of egalitarianism, urban transformation, future practices, violence, state, memory and tradition within political anthropology. He leads a large-scale project entitled ‘Enclaving: Patterns of global futures in three African cities’.