RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2015

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130 Urban Precarities (1): Precarity and urban imaginaries in declining, derelict and unregulated spaces
Affiliation Urban Geography Research Group
Convenor(s) Ella Harris (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK)
Mel Nowicki (Oxford Brookes University, UK)
Chair(s) Ella Harris (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK)
Timetable Thursday 03 September 2015, Session 1 (09:00 - 10:40)
Room Peter Chalk - Room 2.4
Session abstract Judith Butler argues that although our overwhelming dependence on and vulnerability to others means that precariousness is an inherent state of humanity, precarity is on the other hand a politically induced phenomenon (Frames of War, 2009). The onset of the Anthropocene gives this statement renewed importance, bringing to the fore the fact that human actions structure how, where and by whom precarity is experienced. It is clear that the actions of certain groups impact on environments in ways which in turn affect different demographics, across both space and time. For example, the disproportionate contribution of the Global North to climate change via carbon-centric lifestyles instigates precarity for both present and future populations across the world in myriad ways. Equally, we can see how gentrifying populations change city peripheries in ways that reformulate geographies of the middle classes, whilst simultaneously unmaking home for more working class demographics; or how the success of establishing settlements in areas prone to extreme geo-physiological conditions, such as along tectonic plates or in close proximity to live volcanoes, depends vastly on socio-economic power relations.

This session seeks to consider the ways in which precarity is enacted, exploited and resisted in the particular context of the urban. In recent years, urban living on a global scale has superseded rural habitation as the most common environment in which we live. This given, it is crucial to understand the particular ways in which precariousness is politicised and precarities are formulated and maintained in urban landscapes. The session aims to conceptualise urban precarities through understanding cities as sites of power from which precarity can be induced, as the meeting points of trajectories which structure and stabilise precarity's global distributions, and as environments which offer the potential for precarity to be resisted.
Linked Sessions Urban Precarities (2): Precarity in Urban Places of Work and Residence: Experiences and Resistances
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: AC2015@rgs.org
Precarious pasts: Regeneration, gentrification, and contested urban imaginaries
Emma Fraser (The University of Manchester, UK)
As regeneration narratives increasingly take hold of declining urban neighbourhoods, local spaces – from factories and docklands, to pubs, markets, and housing – become sites of contested visions for the future development of the area. Already precarious, such spaces are doubly threatened by both demolition and gentrification, which may render them inaccessible to local or prior communities, despite opening them up for potential reuse and renovation.

With an emphasis on the language of planning policy and guidelines; and local media coverage of redevelopment, this paper will discuss contested urban imaginaries in relation to regeneration and gentrification, with reference to the work of Saskia Sassen on expulsions, and Cinar and Bender on urban imaginaries.

Each imaginary presupposes an ideal urban lifestyle, but in the context of (particularly post-industrial) decline, these visions are rarely sympathetic to one another. What is often at stake is a perceived past and future - on the one hand, local communities interested in maintaining a link to the spaces in which their everyday experiences have been situated; on the other, developers and councils focused on a positive reversal of perceived failure, often by bringing in new stakeholders.

For the communities concerned, sites that are initially precarious due to material decay and decline, shrinking populations, isolation, underfunding, and associated crime and other social issues, become precarious in a different way - as commodities to be traded, opened up for opportunistic investment, often distanced from the experiences of current residents or occupants. For developers, planners, and others, the precarity inherent in decline is ideally solved via economic means – bringing investment into empty, uncapitalised space, and thereby improving the community.

This paper considers the current gentrification-in-progress in Detroit’s downtown area, and the previous redevelopment of London Docklands, as a means to contrast different urban imaginaries and their manifestations, and discuss the process and impact of gentrification in relation to already precarious populations and locations.
Precarious geographies of temporary urbanism
Mara Ferreri (Queen Mary University of London, UK)
Over the past fifteen years temporary and interim uses have become an emerging component of cities’ social and cultural landscapes (Mould, 2014; Bishop and Williams, 2012) and have gained recognition by planning authorities, policy-makers and developers (Colomb, 2012; Reynolds, 2011). Municipal and local authorities have recently expanded the deployment of temporary use from post-industrial or recessional landscapes to programs that ‘activate’ the vacancy produced by small and large regeneration and urban development schemes. From the standpoint of practitioners, however, interim uses are often symptomatic of precarious relationship to urban spaces and are predicated upon contingent comings-together of people.

This paper seeks to explore the ways in which notions of precarity can be useful to critically understand emerging cultural imaginaries and practices of temporary urbanism. Drawing on examples of interim uses in London, it addresses the normative imaginary of the creative ‘temporary city’ through a situated critique of the interplay of material conditions and seductive discourses of urban ‘waste’ and creative entrepreneurship.

This paper questions; what are the implications of thinking about temporary urban landscapes through the lens of precarity? What can concrete instances of temporary uses reveal about the ongoing shift from spaces and practices of alterity to mainstream urban policy and planning? If the co-production of precarious people and space through interim uses (both residential and commercial) embodies ideas of permanent temporariness as a mode of urban inhabitation, how can these instances be productively analysed as sites that not only enact but might also resist and rework existing precarious urban geographies?
Short-cycling urban waste circuits: reimagining routes out of the periphery of volatile recycling markets
Francisco Calafate-Faria (Goldsmiths, University of London, UK)
In much of the literature on urban ‘scavengers’ (catadores, in Brazil), living off the waste of the urban South is seen as a manifestation of total deprivation and a condition that undermines basic human dignity. In such discourses, the obvious ambition would be to overcome the need to pick through waste, or the formalisation of this activity. In this paper I discuss the ways in which waste-pickers themselves express their aspirations in ways that reinstate their precarious activity as an imagined route out of poverty. This reinvention of aspiration contributes to the reticulation of people and transactions into a historically coherent infrastructure in which precarity becomes the norm.
This paper begins by presenting the precarious positions of catadores in Curitiba, a city where the official environmental discourses tend to appropriate the results of the work of informal recycling circuits. Thus catadores and the traces of their labour are made to disappear, along with the waste they carry, through the very circular dynamics of recycling. Subsequently this paper discusses how these active urban poor, many of whom are migrants, are attracted by the wasted value of the city’s discards and continuously reinvent tantalising aspirations of short-circuiting the markets. They imagine different ways in which they could leave their peripheral position and hope that their knowledge and experience one day will afford them the possibility of acquiring more advantageous and stable positions in the city, or in another city. In this paper, I argue that these hopes of individual mobility are at the constitution and reproduction of catadores’ marginality and precariousness. Finally I conclude by showing how collective claims for recognition of catadores in the city’s official discourses and in its urban history can more effectively counter urban precarity.
Madreterra, Mother-earth, Motherland: Precarity, nativism and crisis in the new borderlands of ‘Fortress Europe’
Alessandro Tiberio (University of California, Berkeley, USA)
In this paper I explore the effects of the 2008 crisis on the rise of nativist, xenophobic and neo-fascist sentiments among European youth, focusing on young Italians involved in the booming back-to-the-land movements around the border-town of Trieste and across the newly-opened borderlands of Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. While in 2007 the Schengen area of free trade and movement expanded beyond the old Iron Curtain borders, in 2008 Europe was hit by the most damaging economic crisis in decades. Since then, groups of Trieste's highly-mobile unemployed or precariously employed youth, in order to cope with both professional and personal crisis, have reopened hundreds of abandoned gardens along and across the old borders as collective gardens, community centers, de-institutionalized mental health centers, and ecological villages. Among them, radical no-global activism and communitarian spirit today coexist with growing xenophobic sentiments, as they increasingly support anti-EU and anti-immigration populist movements and the strong nativist group Free Trieste, arguing for the independence of the city from Italy and reclaiming “ancestral lands” now part of Slovenia and Croatia. They in fact claim to be going back to a “madre terra” (in the double sense of “mother Earth” and “motherland”) that is gendered and romanticized as pure, safe and immobile. My paper explores the ways in which nativist fantasies crumble in their hands, as new relationships between a schizophrenic self and a dynamic earth are renegotiated in everyday material encounters. In the context of the recent rightward shift in many parts of “Fortress Europe”, my project in fact builds on an understanding of “borderlands” as spaces of inescapable encounter with difference, critically challenging reductive views of contemporary Europe as a monolithic fortress.
Infiltrating Urbanism: extra-legal solutions from Delhi
Vandini Mehta (SPA (School of Planning and Architecture), Delhi)
Delhi is an ancient city with hundreds of village clusters around its peripheries which over the years have been slowly getting included or engulfed in its city limits. A village settlement that became part of the city was given the loose term ‘Lal Dora’ in planning documents since the British era and this continues even today. This demarcation allowed a dichotomy of the urban-rural to co-exist, creating tensions but also opportunities of informality and infiltration to arise. Legally the governance in such areas is independent of the city as are the land, property records and building laws. Thus, these almost unregulated areas have become a vortex of property mafia, encroachments, land grab and extra-legal urban development programmes especially since liberalization of the Indian economy.
This paper focuses in particular on the gram sabha lands in Lal Dora and extended Lal Dora areas, which were the village common lands that have offered settlement options for the masses who have otherwise been priced out of urban land markets. It investigates, first, how unclear land-titles and illegal deals allow the sub-divisioning of these common lands through negotiations of petty land and property dealers, corrupt officials and populist-party politics; and second, attempts to unravel the precarious means and processes that assist low-income and migrant populations to enter or infiltrate these land markets for affordable housing options. Navigating this terrain is implicitly engaged in an ethnographic involvement which belies any stable or formal urban process and that relies, not on facts and documents, but on stories and traces.