Stuff, stories and spaces: talking at cross-purposes about the city

C. Crawford, C. Boano, B. Pilkey


In this paper, we analyse the conversations of teams tasked with an artificial exercise in humanitarian response during a workshop on urbanism in humanitarian settings. Three nested themes emerge from the discourse that give us an initial theoretical approximation for the ways that participants talked about working in, conceptualising and fixing spaces in a city. A number of paradoxes interweave these themes and are developed here, not with the aim of pinning down solutions for humanitarian response in cities, but to show and reflect on the quirks of professional interactions and the ways that these are shaping the discourse on international humanitarian intervention.

Notes on progress:

I. Feedback so far: Vanesa Castán Broto at the DPU kindly gave me some initial feedback on the missing justification for and methodology of discourse analysis and said that: "the bits of random literature introduced in the empirical section are really not useful. In the end you seem to be trying to prove with discourse analysis what is in that literature, rather than looking towards the most interesting part of the argument." This is spot on but hard to address. She sent me three papers which I liked a lot. One refers to Douglas and a cultural theory of risk to look at lay/expert knowledge and she suggests thematic analysis for an "initial theoretical approximation" (Castán Broto, 2012a); another to sociology of expectation in which she justifies, partly by analogy, the application of theories from technological development and public discourses to a specific case in space and time (Castán Broto, 2012b); and the third to the performance of scientific teams by dramaturgical analogy and references to Goffman (Castán Broto, 2011). Since this draft I also read The Anti-Politics Machine (Ferguson, 1994) and a methodology book suggested by Vanesa (Potter and Wetherall, 1987). What this made me realise is that authentic and mind-blowing scholarship in this field seems to mean taking the data, the discourse, and letting freeform themes emerge and then writing them into flourishing and different analyses, each packet or cluster of ideas building out through one set of theories about those phenomena. This is not the formula I applied! Many, many things emerged by delving into these texts - including renewed fury and bewilderment at my experiences in Haiti - but I could only see them through limited, naive and eclectic bits and pieces of reading (basically books I've liked). The reason for making this public is to get help finding the theories that might help.

II. Footnote on taxonomy of reactions: one of the difficulties with getting feedback on this paper is that the two colleagues still in "the sector" who read it either had "no comments" or wanted to restructure it with opening sentences like "the growth of cities means increasing urban disasters" which I just can't sign up to anymore. The people outside the sector who read it (a film maker, ex-Lacan scholar, and an archaeologist working in the Caribbean) really liked it but could not help with the theoretical stuff. When I have presented it orally to engineers at UCL or the Shelter Meeting in Geneva, they ask "what is the practical application" or they say "why is anything you are saying specific to urban, surely agencies have been playing God everywhere and anywhere for years". My response is to say that it is in the "urban" that the confrontations between professionals will have to play out: the glaring power difference between "beneficiaries" and "humanitarians" might overshadow the subtle, insidious professional dynamics in the city that obviously exclude beneficiaries but are also blind to their own talk and interventionism.

III. Films: you can watch our films here. I find them super disturbing but not as disturbing as people's reactions to them (how can I get a job in this industry? can you not make films with happy endings? sigh)

1     Introduction

When asked at the recent World Urban Forum about the intervention of international humanitarian organisations (IHOs) in Haiti, one of the government’s senior urban planners responded:

"as planners, we just did not have a strong enough narrative after the earthquake; one that would convince those making early decisions that we had to respond to the needs of the city" (Rose-May Guignard, CIAT 2014)

These narrative obstacles, when professionals are brought into dialogue with each other about a city and find themselves talking at cross purposes, are not unique to Haiti or to disasters. This paper explores these obstacles from an epistemological and ethnographic perspective: questioning both the ways that knowledge is produced and the ways that people talk about a city.

It introduces the current humanitarian discourse on urban disasters and looks at tensions that underpin it by analysing transcripts from a workshop that brought together staff from IHOs, urban planners, designers, architects and academics. The workshop centred on a design exercise conducted in small groups and was interspersed with short films, made in Haiti for the workshop. This format was intended to bring professionals from different backgrounds to the same point of analysis through vignettes: extracts of critical theory and visual material that set the scene. A similar idea is employed in this paper. The transcript data are presented using images, bits of theory and excerpts from what participants said: an analytical approach which took each group discussion as a whole and went back and forth to theory to push forward a complex narrative. 

The following themes emerged from the discussions of the city: ways of working, conceptualising and fixing. A number of paradoxes interweave these themes and are developed here, not with the aim of pinning down solutions for humanitarian response in cities, but to show and reflect on the quirks of professional interactions and the ways that these are shaping the discourse on international humanitarian intervention. More research is needed and more reflections are welcome.

This work focuses on professionals working in IHOs. The authors recognise that this gives these actors disproportionate attention and distracts from the legitimacy and humanity of those already dwelling in and governing cities.

2     Approaching the research

2a   Humanitarian discourse: what international agencies are saying about themselves

There has been increasing attention to urbanisation and urban disasters in the documents produced by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee[1], the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies[2] and the World Bank[3]. These agencies anticipate that they will be called on to work in urban areas (Carpenter, 2013; IASC, 2014; IFRC, 2010; Ramalingam and Knox Clarke, 2012; World Bank, 2010) and have begun to ask: 'what is urban' or 'what are the implications of urban disasters'. Our examination of these documents finds that the rhetorical response  often conflates a growing global urban population with a growth in all cities and with a generalised set of 'urban' consequences; and conflates the risks faced by urban dwellers with the risks faced by IHOs.

Cities are described as “game-changers” (World Bank, 2010) that require “paradigm shifts” (IASC, 2014) and “sea-changes”(IFRC, 2010). The 'game' or 'paradigm' appears to be short-hand for an organisational modus operandi and this means the bureaucratic prescription confuses, on one hand, calls for a change in perspective with, on the other, specific 'lessons' or 'solutions' to their own operational problems. These organisations see themselves as ill-equipped to respond to urban disasters because their largely rural experience has not exposed them to the problems of a city, frequently characterised as places with complex social and economic systems, lack of land (IASC, 2014; IFRC, 2010), density, diversity and dynamics (Ramalingam and Knox Clarke, 2012).

The remedies put forward to the problems of the city ((Davis, 2012; EPYPSA, 2011; Grünewald and Binder, 2010; Levine et al., 2012a; UN-HABITAT, 2012) are for humanitarian organisations to adapt to the 'urban' via partnerships, the production of toolkits and embedding skilled urban experts[4] (IASC, 2014). At an operational level this may mitigate some of the reported problems, but, it leaves systemic questions untouched and avoids underlying and unacknowledged conflicts in the different ways that humanitarians, urban planners and politicians might view problems in the city.

2b  Starting a conversation: questioning the role of urban design in humanitarian response

Responding to this emerging discourse, this research began by questioning the approach of IHOs in Port-au-Prince, Haiti after the earthquake in 2010. A literature review (Killing, 2011) and site visits raised questions around which interviews were organised with architects, urban planners and managers. Interviewees, generally not from Haiti but working for international organisations in Port-au-Prince, were filmed reflecting on their work two years after the earthquake to the backdrop of scenes from the city and footage of their projects.

The film titles were: what is urban design; why don’t humanitarians draw plans; how can a holistic approach to reconstruction work in a system divided by sector; how do you deal with questions of community and society when your mandate is to target (vulnerable) individuals; how do humanitarian efforts contribute to the long term process of (re)construction?; urban planning is a political process: how can humanitarians legitimately engage with it; how can the need for temporary shelter and permanent reconstruction be balanced; how can neighbourhood scale interventions fit with the wider city; rubble and recovery; urban responses[5].

2c   Workshop and transcripts: contriving narratives

The questions and films were then used to structure a workshop (Figure 1) billed as bringing together humanitarians and urbanists. However, participants did not cleave neatly into these two categories but comprised a mix of academics and professionals including urban planners, architects and staff from IHOs. To resist any further false dichotomy between humanitarians and urbanists, each group has been given a name that captures and plays on the eclectic composition of the groups. (Table 1).

The films presented participants with a multiplicity of narratives and scenes with the intention of bringing them to the same point of analysis. They were - at least to the film producers - also arresting for the voices that were missing: important to the ways in which participants characterised those who were absent.

Participants were assigned to groups (Table 1) for a design task, described in Figure 2. Outputs and roles were left deliberately undefined. The facilitators then observed tensions playing out within the groups that begged further reflection. Four of the group discussions, covering the first twenty minutes of participants embarking on the task (outlined in red in Figure 1), were transcribed and analysed.

Figure 1 Workshop Structure

Figure 1 Workshop Structure

2d  Theory: a resource in the analysis of transcripts

Our discourse analysis, a technique for looking at what was talked about and the way it was talked about[6],[7], then used the raw material of the transcripts, the researchers readings of these and theoretical vignettes to try to understand what was happening and what this might mean. It involved: i) content analysis of topics and flows of conversation; ii) coding transcripts for the way language is used and intended[8]; iii) examining the discourse, beyond the text, by visualising patterns of exchange, charting interactions with the images and moments when participants resorted to speculation about the visible and invisible spaces in the city (after Foucault); iv) writing out emerging themes, asking what was missing or surprising; and, v) a final reflection to check our interpretations with a wider group.

Figure 2 The Task: instructions, aerial images and base plan

Figure 2 The Task: instructions, aerial images and base plan

2e  Groups: exaggerating the group identities with pseudonyms

To characterise and distinguish between each discussion, the groups have been named to reflect the mix of people but to maintain the anonymity of participants (see Table 1 and Figure 3). These pseudonyms exaggerate and play on who was speaking and what was said:

  • the Experienced Non-humanitarians who talked in stories, questions and interventions, not looking at images;
  • the Curious Generalists who read and talked about the images and the task at hand;
  • the Independent and Institutional Practitioners who started by defining objectives and interventions but then talked about the images and told stories; and
  • the International Designers who read the images and drew first and then got diverted into a preoccupation with their own role.
Anonymised composition of group Approximate pattern of exchange
“Experienced non-humanitarians” Roles: 5 people: 1 urban planner, 1 donor, 1 development-sector researcher, 2 architects Gender: 3 men and 2 women Age brackets and work experience: 1 over 40 with commensurate UK work experience; others 30-35. 3 had experience living and working outside the UK; 2 had 1-2 years of experience of the NG and governmental humanitarian sector in the UK and abroad. Education: 3 architects, 1 anthropologist, 1 geographer. 2 PhDs. All English speakers. Talked in stories, questions and interventions, not looking at images Words: this group most frequently used the words people, think, land and things (know, infrastructure, needs, camps)
“Curious generalists” Roles: 4 people: 2 researchers, 1 urban planner, 1 NGO manager; Gender: 4 women Age brackets and work experience: all 30-40; 1 had 5-10 years of experience of the humanitarian sector in the UK and abroad. Education: 2 architects; 2 humanities. 1 PhD. All English speakers. Read and talked about the images and the task at hand Words: this group most frequently used the words like, looks, know, think (road, area, need, information)
“Institutional and Independent Practitioners” Roles: 5 people: 2 academics, 2 humanitarian practitioners, 1 architect/community activist Genders: 2 women, 3 men; Age brackets and work experience: 3 over 40, 2 persons 30-35. 1 person 5-10 years of experience of the NG humanitarian sector in the UK and abroad, 1 person 2 years of experience of the NG humanitarian sector outside UK; 1 person 10 years urban design experience outside UK. Education: 3 engineers, 2 architects. 1 PhD. 3 English speakers. Started with defining objectives and interventions but then talked about the images and told stories Words: people, community, think, thing (space, see, land, objective) (which in the context of this transcript generally meant the objective of the exercise or humanitarian agency)
“International designers” Roles: 5 people: 1 architect, 1 urban planner, 1 architectural researcher, 1 humanitarian relief worker (home country) Genders: 2 women, 2 men; Age brackets and work experience: all 25-35, 3 persons with 5 years as architects or urban planners. Education: 3 architects, 1 international development. 2 English speakers. Read the images and drew first and then got diverted into a preoccupation with their own role Words: like, people, make, think, (community (working, know, different)

Created with the HTML Table Generator

Table 1 Group Pseudonyms and Identities

3     Analysis: urbanism in humanitarian settings

Each of the three analytical themes – working, conceptualising and fixing - is introduced via theoretical vignettes, narrated through excerpts and closed by weaving together the two. Tensions emerge under each theme and because these tend not to have erupted into conflict between participants or to have been explicitly recognised, they are gathered together as paradoxes of practice to be challenged.

3a   Handling the Task: ways of working

This theme is about the practices that go to make the work of different industries and disciplines. Theory has long been concerned with such questions from the argument that a separation of thinking and doing (Crawford, 2012) is unhelpful to analysis of human practice in the world (Harvey, 1973) to the idea that historically western culture, through the division of labour and specialisation (after Marx), has privileged some ways of knowing over others (e.g. writing over drawing), privileged specialists over the lay (Chambers, 2005, 1997; Scoones, 2009) and overlooked the sensory, experiential and intellectual value of tinkering with something that already exists and may be unknowable (Crawford, 2012). This has fed various critiques of professionals and their networks, in particular that they tend to presume doing something rather than nothing and fail to recognise the difficulty of knowing when to engage or withdraw or to question the limits of their own knowledge and its intersection with their power (Boano and García, 2011; Boano and Hunter, 2012; Stoppani, 2012).

Several of these tensions are expressed by participants as they navigate the ambiguous challenge of the task and express both urgency and uncertainty about their work. The first tension is between those comfortable to start without a final objective in mind and those who preferred to write a list or categorise before drawing (compare Excerpt 1and Excerpt 2). A second was between those who interpreted the task as being about working as a group and those that assumed the task was to decide on an intervention in the neighbourhood itself (Excerpt 3and Excerpt 4).


Excerpt 1 Independent and Institutional Practitioners

3a: I would like to suggest that the first thing we do is to take a stab at setting an objective. What is it we’re here to try to do? Rather than just a task of drawing, what it is that we want to do? Our overall objective for today? Is that too NGO “wishy washy”?


Excerpt 2 Curious Generalists

2c: I wonder if this....this is to draw a plan wasn’t it the exercise?

2d: Was it to map it, was it to identify what we thought was where or…

2a: I wrote down to translate areas of damage.

2c: So it’s not thinking about solutions of what we would do.


Excerpt 3 Independent and Institutional Practitioners

3a: The objective. This exercise, not the aim of the day, but what we hope to accomplish with this map and this community.


Excerpt 4 Curious Generalists

2d: Our objectives are what information do we need? And our objective is to find that information. I can’t see how we could make an action plan based on this information.


A third tension is in how participants gleaned something from the images by describing information out loud, writing or drawing. Some participants ignored the images altogether while others talked about drawing as integral to identifying or translating what might make up the neighbourhood. A francophone participant talked of "diagnosis" (XXREF dictionaryXX) interesting for its association with intervening in something that already exists, something impossible for an expert to fully understand or mend ((Crawford, 2012) after Aristotle).


Excerpt 5 International Designers

4c: But I think we have to make the short analysis and diagnostic of the neighbourhood.


A common tendency was to downplay the act of drawing itself from dismissing drawing in favour of lists or as childish "scribbling" or casual "whacking down" (EN-H and CG) to stronger, if joking, sentiment that it was "bold" (IIP) or "dangerous" (Excerpt 6).


Excerpt 6 Experienced Non-Humanitarians

1c: should we whack some tracing paper and scribble something?

1d: I think we are all agreeing that we don’t want to draw anything.

1c: But maybe what we can draw is like this is our meeting point when we meet the community leaders and they take us around the community.

1d: Maybe we just draw a line that says this is the route we’re going to take when we do a survey. That’s what we draw.

1f: it’s identifying the territory, what is in the neighbourhood. And it’s not you who does it on the paper.

1e: Maybe we should make the point, maybe we should make a point that we’re not going to draw because the community is going to draw for them.

1f: Drawing is so dangerous!


A reluctance to draw, that belittles its usefulness and magnifies its dangers, confounds two notions: that drawing cannot generate knowledge of the place because this is only possible for the "community", people who know the place through their lived experience; and that drawing should not be done from the top down or by outsiders. Artificially separating these questions helps to expose the patchy absorption of critical thinking into the practice of these participants. Seminal work that disrupted the position of 'experts' and expert knowledge in the international development arena nearly  twenty years ago (Chambers, 1995) has filtered into a rhetorical emphasis on downward accountability and participation (Sphere, 2011)(XXX HAP XX) in IHOs. Integral to methodologies associated with these critiques, like participatory rural appraisal, was the mapping by communities of themselves (Chambers, 1997; DFID, 1999). This is now appearing in the humanitarian discourse about urban settings with an emphasis on 'participatory approaches for safer shelter' (BRC XXX) and 'self-recovery' (UNHXXX) that borrow from the literature on housing and urban development that talk of 'self-enumeration' and 'enabling' (UNHXX). This discourse deems drawing and mapping (if expertly facilitated) to be desirable, suitable and possible as alternative ways of knowing for an illiterate and inexpert 'community' but dangerous if imposed by experts. The corollary: the unconcerned illiteracy of professionals with forms of information other than text (and the way that drawing in particular is subordinated by everyone including those for whom it is their profession) is at odds with participatory approaches that assume anyone can represent their place by drawing and that it is potentially a superior form of representation for a population that might be illiterate in the conventional sense.

The paradoxes here are that professionals (even ones that draw) can reject drawing as a way of drafting and as a way of coming to know. Professionals also easily assume their objective is to intervene when a task is framed as design.

3b  Tales of the city: ways of conceptualising

The next theme emerges from what participants, armed with different experiences and disciplines, made of a small piece of the city. Again, theory has plenty to say about the how the 'stuff' of a city comes about. Mirroring critiques of the separation of thinking and doing, urban theorists have argued that analysing people and things (Latour, 1993) or the social and technical and ecological in isolation from each other (Marvin and Graham, 2001; Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003) ignores the way that people make stuff and stuff makes people (Bourdieu, 1977; Miller, 2010). A recognition that social space is a social product ((Boano and Hunter, 2012) after Lefebrve) and that social processes are paramount (Harvey, 1973) - particular in the production of cities and housing - has been taken up in humanitarian rhetoric (Davis, 1978; IFRC, 2013; UN, 2010) but not so easily in practice (Boano and García, 2011; Davis, 2011; Lyons et al., 2011; Schilderman and Lyons, 2011). Preferring to see livelihoods (modes of life), shelter or the urban (modes of production) or humanitarian intervention and urban design (modes of planning) only as wanting some process on the basis that, unlike the uncomfortable-to-examine products, participatory processes have some inherent justice about them (Boano and Hunter, 2012), misses the importance of material form, power relations, history and the everyday in shaping the place of intervention (Scoones, 2009). Historically, the intellectual tension is between breaking apart the analysis (of stuff, cities) and keeping the mutually constituted totality of a whole territory, discourse or story. The challenge for an understanding of urbanism, is that there is simultaneously a need to engage with the visible stuff of the everyday while not letting this distract from what cannot be seen: critical theory and social and spatial transformation. In this regard, two spaces of concern that have been interrogated are camps (Alsayyad and Roy, 2006) XXXXAgamben, Roy, Boano) and risky places (Cannon and Müller-Mahn, 2010; Folke, 2006; Levine et al., 2012b; Scoones, 2009; Zeiderman, 2012).

Stuff of the city: categories or places

The original instructions to participants were not to categorise. Two groups, however (Excerpt 7and Excerpt 8), set about identifying objects, elements and boundaries, finding something to say about the texture of the images, densities (of buildings), surface colours, contours and slopes and shadows. Note that both groups are named for their combination of non-architects and participants used two dimensional plans[9].


Excerpt 7 Curious Generalists

2d: So what are our categories then? There’s circulation. Still untouchable perhaps/dangerous areas. Informal settlements. Formal settlements.  I guess informal is too vague....


Excerpt 8 International Designers

4c: ... we need to see the main roads, camp, empty spaces, typologies, then we can see more easily the extent of the situation.


Spaces were described by the International Designers as "empty", "open" and "clean", rubble-filled and "damaged" or as "camps" (Excerpt 8). Using more dynamic or emotive adjectives as they exchanged stories, the Curious Generalists assumed and assigned more information than the limited representation offered by polygons, lines or points, talking about: "untouchable" or "dangerous" areas and an "impassable pattern". This group also recognised some prior historical process and that boundaries were socially constructed: neighbourhoods and roads already had names and fences, cordons and boundaries related to the prior "status" and function of different spaces (Excerpt 9). 


Excerpt 9 Curious Generalists

2d: It would be nice to know what the original boundary was. It seems likely that this would have a name as a particular community area and these were parks previously.


2d: It would be interesting to know what the status is. Are they social? Are they community buildings like schools churches? Or would that have previously been an area cordoned off?


The Institutional and Independent Practitioners interspersed talking, tracing and attempts to describe physical and social features, weaving together observations, like the disappearance of green space, with speculation about "camps" and stories about "congregational space" being integral to community life.

One participant explained the act of plotting out infrastructure routes as a useful way to knowing more about the boundaries of (social spaces) neighbourhoods and as underpinning a "sense of ownership" (Excerpt 10). This group went furthest from categories and typologies, recognising something 'urban' that this is changing, developmental, technical, interconnected and relational.


Excerpt 10 Institutional and Independent Practitioners

3b: I like that, the long-term development. I tend to see it in layers. For me I can see the urban design layer. That this community isn’t going to survive unless it’s connected with the rest of the world. And that’s physical for me. Those are roads. Those are public space networks.


Invisible social city: stories, systems and spaces

Participants trained in two dimensional representation found a rich seam for their discussion, if only because images prompted a common set of spatial questions. What is more intriguing is how participants dealt with the many things that could not be known from the information at hand. Non-architects were more inclined to express difficulties reading the images (Excerpt 11) and to confront the constraints of static, two dimensional images but all the groups found that it was often "hard to tell" what was happening.

Aspects that could not easily be made out were dynamic, institutional and relational: whether things were "temporary" or "already existed"; why people move from one place to another and how land and space were bounded, not by infrastructure, but by (social) "negotiations" (see Section XXX below).


Excerpt 11 Experienced Non-Humanitarians

1e: It’s interesting that there’s a spot of green land there that’s still there. No-one has moved onto it. And you sort of think “why?”.


In tackling this, participants revealed conflicting perspectives. Firstly between those (urbanists) trying to weave together a "whole" "urban fabric" of "relationships" (Excerpts above) and those (humanitarians) describing: actors as definitive, homogenous entities like "the community", "the municipality"; actions as gentle, neutral "processes" (see next section); changes by the features that continued, transitioned or disappeared; and time as abstracted "phases", "timeframes" and "terms" (particularly the architects, for example, in Excerpt XXX).


Excerpt 12 International Designers

4d:… yeah people might be preoccupied with the present. And we have to look beyond.


Secondly, alongside a common willingness to imagine and demarcate "camps" and "risks" participants had contrasting priorities. These ranged from physical "rubble", "hazards", "slopes" (Excerpts XX); to "settlements", "situations" and "vulnerable areas" and places "at risk" that were social and physical; to vulnerability or precariousness as a property of people or described in terms of "fear" and "violence".


Excerpt 13 Experienced Non-Humanitarians

1e: ... I think in Haiti given the levels of sexual violence that were in Port au Prince prior to the earthquake and now you have got girls, vulnerable women living under canvas..., I think that for me is a massive priority...

1D: Well that’s part of the infrastructure isn’t it?


Excerpt 14 International Designers   

4d: … Can we sort of suggest that we are a listening device? We are a way to make various moves that turn whoever all of these people are in this big sheet, a way of turning all of their thoughts and hopes for that place into… like just hearing those thoughts and turning them into something. Set ourselves up as being… trying to come up with that infrastructure…


These tendencies to categorise, demarcate and divorce stuff and space from social processes resonate with the theoretical pitfalls of separating social product and process and thinking and doing. In demarcating camps those drawing the boundaries can assume some unwarranted control; in categorising space it becomes possible to disassociate from place, fabric and power in the rest of the city; in abstracting time as urgent or disastrous action can be constrained and determined and the lived experience made uniform and simultaneous; in categorising people, they become homogenous, needy, disembodied and targeted; and, through the neat categories of engagement, process and community, the possibility for interaction and exchange are prescribed and diluted. All of these distortions, fit with a discourse that legitimises by presupposing spaces and moments of exceptional need or dysfunction that necessitate intervention.

The paradoxes here are that categorising and abstracting space and time allows easy conflation of organising principles with justifications for intervention. By limiting the range of urban response to vague varieties of ‘infrastructure’ this becomes a cure-all for anything human.

3c   Doing something: ways of fixing

The final theme concerns the way the groups - mixed by experience, discipline, age and gender - talked about fixing the city. Distinctive features of the talk itself appear to shape how the groups talk about intervention (particularly around land, community engagement and process) and perceive their own roles, powers the traits of others (negatively caricaturing both those present and the absent "community").

Critical theoretical studies in architecture ((Boano and Hunter, 2012; Stoppani, 2012) after Lefebvre), urban planning (Schumacher, 1974 XXXXHAMDIXXXX), international development (Chambers, 1997; Gill, 1993) and humanitarian intervention share common concerns with the reflex to order the world (de Waal, 2009) and bound and confine analysis to manageable spaces, populations (XXXX) and stylised ways of seeing life (ALNAP, 2009). This, it has been argued, is intimately bound up with a failure to let the least powerful speak for themselves or to challenge the status quo (Chambers, 1997). Thinking critically is also way of examining how particular knowledge and power relations manifest and entrench in discourse, bureaucracies and interventions (Fan, 2012). What an understanding of urbanism "and of the social-process-spatial-form theme requires [is] that we understand how human activity creates the need for specific spatial concepts" (Harvey, 1973). In this case, the ways in which different groups privilege different interpretations of space, which then come to determine what is done.

Patterns of exchange: just talking is intervention

By visualising the conversations (Figure 1 and Table 1), we can see that moments where participants were reading the images or trying to get to grips with the task itself, the conversation was dominated by short exchanges: people did not speak for long and different participants contributed. In the two younger groups, more homogenous in age and experience, a participant aware of her greater experience volunteered gently to "shut up" and there was a certain openness to new or two dimensional information and an inclination not to settle too soon on fixing an intervention.

Conversations that started with the images, only returned at the end to discuss the task itself and interventions. By contrast, the conversation that was without reference to the images comprised a series of stories, questions and interventions wherein participants asserted early and talked for longer about their prior knowledge. The group that dwelt first on their objective and interventions, was then steered - by a balance between the forcefulness of the two older and most experienced participants who had quite different perspectives - towards a discussion that interspersed reading the images, telling stories, asking questions, driving the task forward and proposing interventions. In alternately pointing to the space and distinguishing "issues", they began arguing for the inseparable connections between spaces, infrastructures, people and their land (Excerpt 10).

From identifying space to intervening in land

The groups that embarked on telling stories from or about Haiti drew the conversation away from categories of space and towards land. Realising that important social boundaries - the institutional and relational influences on whether people stayed, squatted or moved - could not necessarily be read from the images, even if physically manifested there, one group's intervention was simply to find out more (Excerpt 9, Excerpt 4).


Excerpt 15 Curious Generalists

2b: ... there are some open spaces that aren’t filled in. So there must be something about. I don’t know whether it’s privately owned.


The group that threw doubt on the veracity of the images, instead asserting experience, produced stronger, value-laden distinctions between places of implied agency ("self-settlement"), limited choices ("planned IDP settlements") and, "camps" as places of opportunism and a magnetism to which people succumb from a distance (Excerpt 16). Humanitarians in this group described land in terms of "issues", "processes", "assessment", "claims", while the urban planners talked about "opportunities", "accessibility"[10]; "logical patterns"; "sustainability", "development", "infrastructure", "services" and "rights". The accompanying ideas about what to do included planning "an intervention on a neighbourhood" and different varieties of infrastructure - physical things that would function to demarcate plots and underpin invisible/hard to determine aspects of land such as tenure, claims and rights - all discussed with continual references to processes that would "make [landowners] part of the community" or involve "the community" in "the process".


Excerpt 16 Institutional and Independent Practitioners

3a: As you know, the interesting thing about the data here is that all of this… these are all self-settled camps. These are people that themselves decided this is where they are going to go. This is no planned IDP [internally displaced persons] settlement.

3a: But as we also know what also happened in Haiti is that these camps became magnets for people living in other places .... A map suggests to us, okay this is where we were affected so were moving to the nearest area. But that wasn’t the reality ... People came from different places.


In the group that disregarded the images, land was discussed in terms of "arrangements" and "envisaging situations", "claims" and "opportunism". Interventions emerged as participants used passive constructions, like "there needs to be", to couch normative suggestions including "removal" of people, "acquisition" of land, "corroboration". Together with the third person plural pronoun to refer to people on the ground (Excerpt 18), this had the effect of distinguishing the participants from those in the place (common to all groups) and attributing the participants with the power to intervene while softening the extent of this agency by projecting the responsibility for intervention onto "you" rather than "we".

Acknowledging power through empathy or caricature

Participants had not been told who they were nor for whom worked (Excerpt 17) and this makes all the more arresting the two moments in the transcripts where a participant asked "but we are not Haitians, right?" (Excerpt 17) or suggested the group "imagine" being there (C.G.). The combination of talking heads in the films - foreigners working as planners for IHOs in Haiti - and the impulsion to look down from above implied by aerial images and two dimensional plans, overlaid onto the prior experience and training of these participants created the automatic assumption of intervention from outside and above.


The group most intent on categorising and tracing over visible objects found themselves quickly in  a cul-de-sac, explicitly confused about the role of their team and, implicitly, unsure about what identifying the spaces was for (Excerpt 17), preoccupied with how they themselves, as a group, related to other structures, organisations and functions.


Excerpt 17 International Designers

4a: I think that we should just say like we are like a group that is in the hierarchical, we are kind of the top, otherwise we have… we have to do a lot of assumptions here. Like things we don’t have…

4b: But we are not Haitians right? So…

4a: No, of course not.

4b: But we still need to connect with Haitian power.


As this group struggled to reconcile their own position and what this meant they could or should do, fascinating contradictions emerge between: being close to reality and thus somehow positioned to make logistical or technical decisions[11] versus the opposite (but similar!) condition of being "on the ground" which allows "listening" as a passive non-executive "device"; being at the top of a hierarchy but one that is "obviously" not Haitian; recognising that there is "Haitian power" but then being preoccupied with clashing/coordinating with other organisations that are, somehow by virtue of being "technical", not Haitian; and describing an idealised situation where "the community" dictates what should happen but then applying an exemption in "the short-term" where the ideal situation is evidently impractical. In attempting to resolve these dilemmas, the group tries to separate who they are from how they will work and what they will do: a separation of action from actor that also serves to justify intervention because the detached actor is afforded a forward looking, bird's-eye vantage point.

Other groups concerned with how their processes and actions related to the neighbourhood, the community, the municipality, caricatured urban planners as compelled to order and clean up a place (by removing the messy, slummy, informality of pesky people) or able to carve out, a city-sized space and authoritative abstract time called the "long-term" where special rules apply that conflict with the present and with the community.

The group that explicitly confronted their bird's eye view discussed a wider variety of other actors (humanitarians, landlords, decentralised local government, gangs)  and relationships (negotiations, situations, arrangements, prior conditions). By mixing assertions from their own knowledge and imagining the motivations of (absent) people, alongside concern for the abysmal conditions people faced emerged a story of opportunism and connivance on the part of Haitians (Excerpt 16); inaction, failure, slowness or incompetence on the part of humanitarians; and local power structures that were non-existent, untrustworthy, unreliable or monopolistic (Excerpt 18). This tendency was not unique to this group. Other participants ascribed behaviours or traits to uniform/faceless groups of people as chaotic, ignorant, similarly careless everywhere in the world.


Excerpt 18 Experienced Non-Humanitarians

1c: Are we just assuming local government is non-existent as I have heard it is?


1a: Presumably there’s some sort of social/political structure in place that enable…

1e: Yeah gangs!

1a: In a way they are a source of information. Is it possible to work with some of those people? ...

1b: the flood in Gonaive, these gang leaders saw it as an opportunity to be able to just syphon off all the aid stuff .... They know the area ..., however they just can’t be trusted.... It’s not a reliable source of information…

1c: What you often find in very informal areas is that a few people will own a lot of the structures or monopolies…


The paradoxes emerging are that (dramatic) interventions are justifiable providing there is a participatory process and the area is delimited. Personifying enriches the story but can stray from empathy to caricatures that justify intervention and a rejection of looking down can become a rejection of looking.


4     Professional or habitual paradoxes

  • Rejecting drawing as a way to draft: It was possible for these professional participants simultaneously to value drawing and value non-professionals (and their drawing efforts) but reject drawing as worthwhile for themselves as professionals. This was not just because it is considered better done by 'the community' but because it is seen as an unnecessary, even second-rate way of knowing. Participants, instead, revert to a default hierarchy of ways of knowing (deeply rooted in western divisions of thinking, doing and specialisation) that privileges writing and measuring and accords prestige to propositional knowledge over drawing, imagining or craft. Work is valued in narrow terms as ‘strategic’, ‘technical’, ‘urban expertise’ and the relative harms or utilities implied by writing, talking, drawing or making are confused: participants draft written policies without flinching but are horrified by drafting sketches.
  • Intelligent design only as a professional perspective: Framing this as a design exercise meant participants assumed themselves to be professionals arriving to do something, rather than nothing. The temptation then was for this ‘something’ to be defined by objectives, and for the definition of objectives not to be confined to the collaborative work of participants but to “improvements” and “achievements” in the depicted place. Participants were compelled to distinguish themselves from the 'community' and this, by dramatically drawing attention to one inequality of voice and power, obviated the need for participants to talk about their own relative power within the group - age, experience, gender, prestige of discipline. This brought to the fore and without challenge the essential disciplinary assumption that it is possible to know something, even from the ludicrously limited information to hand and in a neighbourhood that is non-designed and potentially non-designable.
  • Categorising and abstracting space and time and  thus conflating organising principles with justifications for intervention: there was, in some groups, an instinct to list, categorise and demarcate space and then to imagine and qualify these categories as "camps" (not visible but invoked by this “specific spatial concept” Harvey) and "risky” spaces (not visible but evoked through language that incorporates social and physical dimensions of "vulnerable” or “damaged” “areas" and people or places "at risk"). This muddles organising principles (go to displacement camps and target the needy) with the presupposition of intervention: by finding affected or dysfunctional spaces, needy targets are produced. Exposing this is not to claim that there are no camps or no displaced people but is, rather, to question whether these are, in every setting, the most useful demarcations for understanding and whether these categories serve organisational interests more than they serve understanding. Similarly, talking about time as "phases", "timeframes" and "terms" and change as features that continue, transition or disappear allows the counter-posing of a history-less "emergency" phase with a “long term”. This also seems to serve as both an organising principle (probably following the practical separation of funding for relief and development) and as a justification for intervention based on vantage point of (experts) removed from the situation and thus able to see ahead.
  • Infrastructure as a cure-all: even as groups described a rich social world with vulnerability as a property of people,  "fear" and sexual violence (Excerpt 13) and thoughts and hopes (Excerpt 14)), they conflated many types of abstract infrastructure and, by default, responded to all things human, psychological or vulnerable with “infrastructure”[12].
  • Intervention is ok as long as there is a process: talking about process had a way of simultaneously presupposing intervention and softening the otherwise dangerous separation of who is intervening from what is to be done. The process is prescriptive and normative but dressed in a terminology deliberately designed not to be presumptuous, pre-emptive or pre-deterministic. As one participant observed, the tendency to look down from above on the part of planners and humanitarians, may be less a clash of disciplines and more a routine practice of various disciplines and experts (Excerpt 19).
  • Caricature to empathise or to justify intervention: personifying absent voices was necessary to go beyond the aerial images and the simplistic evocation of homogenous "community" or monolithic "Haitian power" and had the potential to go beyond idealised or romantic stereotypes (e.g. that the local is automatically good and small-scale is automatically subversive). The groups that did this were able to invoke multiple actors, motivations and relationships. But somehow the stronger the rejection of a bird's eye view, the more stories emerged and the more disparaging the caricatures of others. If local wants or needs are caricatured as inconsistent or myopic, this muddles empathy with justifying intervention as something legitimised by those with a privileged vantage point.
  • A rejection of looking down or a rejection of looking (Excerpt 19): in being forced to engage with the world from above participants began to speculate about space, expose their pre-dispositions and prejudices, not just about who knows but how they expected to come to know. The group so resistant to "playing god" challenged their bird’s eye view as a way of challenging the position of professionals. This rhetoric was hard to reconcile. They were themselves professionals (between them having the most influence by seniority, experience or employer) but in rejecting the bird’s eye view they left aside the images and, instead, fleshed out caricatures that left them unable to resist positing interventions, albeit passively or tentatively. By contrast, when participants did engage with the images they had to forget in some way the assumption of prior knowledge and expertise, following the idea that drawing requires "that you short-circuit your normal mode of perception, which is less data-driven than concept-driven"... "trying to attend to the visual data more directly" (Crawford, p91-93). Perhaps, this also shows that there is room for any discipline to become more comfortable or open to knowing nothing and the impossibility of pre-determining the exact consequences of writing, talking, drawing or making.

Excerpt 19 Plenary

... I was really struck by everyone talking about roads and rubble. The thing is if you give architects and urbanists some maps, they’re just going to do what they always do. It just occurred to me that half of us deal with nothing but data in terms of the number of people with access to latrines, amount of water people had before the earthquake, how much they have now… I feel we’re being encouraged to look at this thing from above with no data apart from the vision, which is for me an incredibly weird place to start. But for some people that’s what they always do, they always start with a map. I appreciate that humanitarians need to think about space, some people only think about space. So to say that urban planning can deal with this because it’s more about space, when actually it’s about politics, it’s about culture, society and an extremely difficult, dangerous urban environment. It’s not to do with space, it’s to do with so many other things too.


Two paradoxes ran through all others. A tension between weaving and cutting: those with urban planning backgrounds, who tried to interweave a "whole" "urban fabric" of "relationships", and those – including humanitarian staff and engineers, who tried to break down the space, process and analysis into solvable elements. Lastly, just talking, as exhibited in the patterns of exchange (who talked, what was talked about, when and how), is intimately connected to the manner of intervention proposed for this real place.

5     Conclusions: just talking is intervention

This study examined the discourse on humanitarianism in urban settings and transcripts from an inter-disciplinary workshop. A variety of factors shaped how people talked about a post-disaster neighbourhood planning exercise: discipline, experience, gender, age, language and the composition and combination of voices as a whole in each group. Differences that emerged were in the ways participants talked about of working in, conceptualising and fixing spaces in a city.

Two particular paradoxes, a tension between wanting to interweave analysis or break it down into solvable elements and the idea that just talking is powerful in shaping intervention, are fundamental not just to this analysis but to managing our project, making our films and, arguably, to humanitarian practice in the city. Indeed, they throw into relief the blandness of humanitarian solutions to urban response: partnerships, tools, skills and area-based intervention.

In managing this project, the work ran over time and over budget because the analysis and theorising were inseparable and thus impossible to break down into project activities that could be "outsourced" (you transcribe, you analyse, you theorise) and then reassembled. This is mirrored in the essential inseparability of partnerships from tools from skills and from spaces. Just as urbanism is concerned with problems in the city rather than problems of the city; humanitarianism must look at problems in its own ways of organising.

In writing, making sense of the data was not by drawing diagrams prior to sentences or moving from categories and matrices to narrative. Instead, it became necessary to cut up, handle and move the text around, navigating not by nodes but by what people said at different moments, eventually accepting that the work could still be compelling without ever being complete. More urban tools, skills and experts may not help to overcome fundamental professional (and corporate/bureaucratic) discomfort with ambiguity, whether it be slippery theory or the unpredictable ramifications of making films, telling stories or designing space.

In producing films, the intention was to show Haitian urbanists and politicians challenging the action and legitimacy of the organisations that had entered the city. Instead, the stories were told by our peers and showed how difficult it is not to privilege the familiar and accessible when there is limited time to build the trust needed to get other voices on camera. That "partnership" and "engagement" might be a 'solution' is banal in the extreme, then, given the things that need to happen to make such relationships.

In convening workshops, the paradoxes of professionals working with each other were foregrounded. Forcing aside the usual refrain about the inequality of power between professional, elite groups and the excluded, exposed some of the assumptions about the absent: homogenous "communities", monolithic or monopolistic power structures and idealised or romantic stereotypes that the local as automatically good.

These layers are about recognising that in human practice - research, design or encounters at workshops - theory, method, analysis and action are nested and integral to each other: as integral to producing conversations as they are to producing places in the world. Urban design is fundamentally about the production of space and is a 'mongrel' discipline: unclear, not neutral, and unfixed (XXXXCarmona 2014); embroiled in the production of space and knowledge (XXXBoano and Talocci, 2014:703); and about place and the processes that for good or ill, intentionally or unintentionally shape it.

Consider how this would or should play out for the professionals and officials of a city that has experienced a massive earthquake: is there some way - like the use of images and exercises - to unearth and confront disparities of power during such encounters, while distracting people from what they assume to be their own prior expertise and know-how and making them comfortable with ambiguities that professionals find unsatisfying and inconclusive? This might be critical practices: an ethos that is ready to do nothing or shut up; a humanitarian urbanism that questions the what and the why of its categorisations; a politic that questions what cannot be known and what is missed out entirely, when both vulnerability and expertise are seen as properties associated only with individual, human bodies, disassociated from any interrogation of institutions and power; narratives that acknowledge whose stories are interwoven and whose evidence is being marshalled; and interventions that don't respond to all things human, psychological or precarious with infrastructure.

Uncomfortable or bewildering interventions in Haiti cannot be explained as simply irresponsible accident or deliberate conspiracy. They emerge as messy, continual and poorly accounted for social and political processes. The assumption that humanitarian intervention can somehow stand apart from these processes also serves as a justification to intervene. Rather than ignoring these processes, circumventing them by convening agency own-brand processes or confining efforts to small areas of a city, critical practice must address the broken language that is intertwined with broken practice. Through critical practices, spaces are not just for ideas to be drawn, designed or built but are places that are already inhabited where space is interpreted and encountered.




6     Acknowledgements


This work was funded by RIBA Research Trust, UCL Grand Challenges, EPSRC Post-Doc. Thank you to Alice Samson and Sabrina Doyle for commenting on early drafts. Filming in Haiti was supported by:  Architectes D’Urgence Paul Gallois; Architecture for Humanity, Darren Gill, Laura Smits; American Red Cross, Sandrine Capelle Manuel, Achala Navaratne; British Red Cross: Melvin Tebbutt, Gabriel Constantine, Amelia Rule; CARE: Carolina Cordero and Vera Kreuwels; Cordaid: Henk Meijerink; CHF: Aram Khachadurian; GRET Alexis Doucet; Habitat for Humanity: Barth Leon, Nixon Cyprien, Dominique Rattner; J/P HRO Benjamin Krause; UN Habitat: Maggie Stephenson, Adeline Carrier; Vladimir Cadet – interpreter – English/French/Creole. Research and events in the UK were supported by: Camillo Boano, Development Planning Unit, University College London; David Sanderson, Centre for Development and Emergency Planning, Oxford Brookes University, UK, who hosted the workshop; Pete Newton and Rowan Salim supported the workshop facilitation; Workshop rapporteurs from CENDEP: Katie Shute, Matt Nazemi, Megan Passey, Lucy Ottewell, Avar Almukhtar, Pamela Sitko, Emily Berry; Daryl Mulvihill, film editing; Andrew Taylor, Creole transcription and translation; Laura Heykoop for transcription; David Luque, Ania Molenda for reviewing.



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[1] The IASC is the forum for coordination, policy development and decision-making involving the key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners, established in 1992 in response to a UN General Assembly Resolution.

[2] IFRC is the world's largest humanitarian network and jointly co-chairs, with UNHCR, the Emergency Shelter Cluster. This is supports coordination mechanisms in order to improve humanitarian response.

[3] The World Bank is part of the United Nations system; has a historic role financing reconstruction; manages the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR - a global partnership to assist high-risk, low-capacity developing counties better understand and reduce their vulnerabilities to natural hazards and adapt to climate change); and supports the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (a single, consolidated report on the physical impacts of a disaster, the economic value of the damages and losses, the human impacts as experienced by the affected population, and the resulting early and long-term recovery needs and priorities).

[4] Strengthen partnerships among urban stakeholders for more effective humanitarian response, ii) Strengthen technical surge capacity with urban skills, iii) Develop or adapt humanitarian tools and approaches for urban areas, iv) Protection of vulnerable urban population against gender-based exploitation and violence, v) Restore livelihoods and economic opportunities during initial phase for expedited early recovery in urban areas, vi) and Improve preparedness in urban areas to reduce vulnerability and save lives

[5] Films can be viewed here:

[6] Hay, Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography / [edited By] Iain Hay. (Melbourne; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 124.

[7] Ibid.

[8] 'coding' of the transcripts is a process whereby the researchers read and underline words, sections of text and other ways that participants expressed ideas to look at recurring themes, tensions, surprises or pertinent, illustrative quotes. The software package QSR NVivo was used to do this and to generate a list of 'nodes' or labels, each linked to highlighted pieces of text.

[9] Used by G4 to mean both a bird's eye view and that there is some prior layout, intended if not planned

[10] used here to described the infrastructure of a neighbourhood not the need to make sure vulnerable people i.e. the disabled people have access as in humanitarian discourse

[11] where these are described as decisions about "this goes there and this goes there"

[12] The humanitarian architecture, meanwhile, has no infrastructure coordination or planning function.

[13] The humanitarian architecture, meanwhile, has no infrastructure coordination or planning function.