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Narrating Displacements: A Radical Way to Rethink Urban Theories and Politics

RGS-IBG Annual Conference, August 30 to September 2, London, UK


Hyun Bang Shin (The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK)
Yimin Zhao (The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK)
Mara Nogueira (The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK)

Session abstract

We have been witnessing the rise of urban expansion, gentrification, mega-events and many other political economic events in urban space; all of them have direct impacts on the daily life of local residents through large- or small-scale displacements. Displacement hence becomes a term that has been widely used for critical urban theories in analysing contemporary urban change, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. When people use this word in the literature, however, relatively few attentions are paid to mechanisms through which place-based understandings and discourses of displacement are enabling/ bounding the historical-geographical conjuncture of domination and resistance.

Discourses of displacement are diverse geographically; they are also narrated and deployed by different subjects from distinct perspectives in displacement processes. Expressions like “chaiqian” (demolition and relocation), “qianyi” (relocation), “qiangpo qianyi” (forced relocation) are used in China to express actions through which the state institutions and businesses operate. In South Korea, “cheolgeo” (demolition), “gangje cheolgeo” (forced demolition) or “yiju” (relocation) are more frequently utilised by those subject to displacement. Elsewhere in Latin America, for example in Brazil, “despejo” (eviction) “desalojamento forçado” (forced eviction) and “expulsão” (expulsion) are common concepts deployed by those suffering displacement threats and their allies. On the other hand, the actors promoting displacement prefer to deploy milder terms such as “desocupação” (evacuation) or “realocação” (reallocation).

The use of these particular expressions shifts the focus towards the final act of displacement; even though in reality people would experience (the feeling of) displacement long before actual demolition, eviction or relocation. Moreover, discussions about belonging and the sense of place show how displacement may occur even in the absence of such events. In this regard, abrupt changes to space might cause people to feel “out of place” even though they remain in the same location. To narrate the experience of displacement focusing only on the final acts has serious negative implications for formulating effective strategies that allow pre-emptive earlier contestations to resist and counteract displacement pressure. Furthermore, how displacement is actually narrated in a given local context is not trivial, for conceptualising displacement is itself political.

This session invites papers to reflect on narratives and discourses mobilised around displacement in a diverse range of social, political, economic and cultural settings by attending specifically to the tensions emerging from conceptualisation of displacement by different subjects in daily practices. The aim is to collaboratively reveal the role of displacement discourses in constructing the historical-geographical conjuncture of domination/ resistance, and to uncover power relations/ mechanisms and state effects produced within this conjuncture. Suggestive topics include:

  • Place-based understanding (especially outside the Western context) of displacement and its socio-spatial effects;
  • Conceptualising displacement by different subjects;
  • The role of space in enabling or bounding people’s conceptualisation of displacement, or in affecting their reflections on the gaps between different conceptualisations;
  • The state manoeuver and tactics in promoting displacement with legitimised (sometimes hegemonic) ideology;
  • The effects of different narratives in reshaping understandings of displacement and in opening up possibilities for resistances.

Abstracts of presentations – Session 1

Chair: Hyun Bang Shin
Time: Friday 02 September 2016, 14:40 - 16:20
Venue: TBC

Antagonistic Space and Subjects in Beijing’s Greenbelt

Yimin Zhao (The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK)

In the mainstream literature of contentious politics, space is frequently assumed as a container or a bounded entity. This view has been gradually altered by political geographers, who attend more to the constitutive role of space in understanding socio-political changes. Yet what has been under-examined in the literature is how and to what extent individuals become both spatial objects and political subjects simultaneously in the rise and fall of social movements. This research, drawing on the observation of contingent construction (and decaying) of collective actions in Beijing’s Greenbelt, aims to demonstrate that space and subjects of resistances are mutually constitutive of each other. The paper will illustrate that this mutual constitution needs to be identified by focusing on residues of the hegemonic logic underlying the rise of spatial antagonism. In Beijing’s Greenbelt, the local state’s urbanisation project not only transforms the territorial structure of the rural-urban continuum and the political economy within this structure but also shapes the way villagers view their land, houses and (property) rights. Following transformations of their lifeworld, villagers’ bodies and subjectivities are remade to the extent that their consciousness, identities and discourses are all affected and redefined by the local state’s hegemonic logic. For example, money, rather than the sense of place, becomes the predominant evaluation principle in the displacement process, deployed by both local state and villagers themselves. These impacts altogether make their resistances to displacement possible, but at the same time make these actions contingent and render difficult, if not impossible, the call for wider and stronger resistance alliances for “the right to the city”.

Disciplining Street Life in Hong Kong: Narratives of Displacement and Urban Resistance

Maurizio Marinelli (University of Sussex, UK)

This paper investigates the mega-project of transforming the physical and socio-economic structures of retailing and dwelling in colonial-global Hong Kong. The selected focus is on the progressive annihilation of street markets to create space for ultra-modern, luxury high-rise buildings. Street markets play a crucial role in the policies of urban regeneration, heritage, place making, healthy eating, sustainability, environmental impact, social and community cohesion (Watson, 2005; Stillerman 2006; Shepherd, 2009). Based on the premise that street hawking and street markets are historically part of a wider socio-economic, political, and cultural system, this paper will concentrate on the stories of survival, resistance and metamorphosis of the ‘vital living past’ of Graham Street Market in Hong Kong’s Central District. This 150 years old market, a remarkable example of ‘living heritage’, is currently under threat due to neo-liberal logic of redevelopment and gentrification of colonial-global Hong Kong: in 2007 the Urban Renewal Authority announced its plan to destroy the vibrant market (which was declared ‘a slum’), and replace it with four brand new, sleek, luxury high-rise office buildings, hotels and shopping malls. The paper analyses the role of concerned civil society organisations (such as ‘Savethemarket’) vis-à-vis Government authorities, urban planners and developers in the battle against domicide: the destruction of home which also implies the destruction of memory (Porteous, Smith, 2001). The analysis of this historical market will shed light on the entanglement between the condition of precarity of the street hawkers and the complex socio-economic and political mechanisms which are leading to the annihilation of this ‘living heritage’.

Who has the right to remain in place?

Mara Nogueira (The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK)

How far can we stretch the concept of displacement? This paper discusses this question drawing on qualitative data collected during five months of fieldwork in the city of Belo Horizonte/Brazil regarding three cases of “displacement” connected to the World Cup. The first one concerns an informal settlement, evicted to give room for an urban mobility project. The second focuses on a group of informal workers displaced for the modernization of the local stadium. The third case discusses the struggle of a neighbourhood association to stop the construction of a hotel in their residential street. I argue that only the first case is rightfully considered a “displacement” case, in the sense that the State recognizes the right of the occupiers to be reallocated. I further discuss how the past historic struggle of the social movements for the right to dwell has engendered both legislation that acknowledges their rights and institutions that manage the process, guaranteeing some minimum rights. On the other hand, in the case of the stadium workers, their claims for the right to reallocation are based on weaker assumptions that are not covered by appropriate legislation and, therefore, not recognized by the State. In their struggle for the recognition of their rights, the workers have employed many strategies and alliances that are described in the paper. Finally, the paper raises the question of how appropriate is the use of the concept of displacement to categorize the processes unfolding in the third case. The neighbourhood association wants to keep their residential neighbourhood from changing. I argue that, although they’ve deployed a series of arguments (legal and political) to stop the hotel construction, what motivates their struggle is the desire to remain in place. However, the search for a place within the urban is a conflictive process. Who has the right to remain in place and who doesn’t? Is every claim against displacement equal through the lens of social justice? Does the concept of displacement become a-political once you stretch it too far?

Understanding multiple voices within the resistance movement of the Occupations of Izidora in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Luciana Maciel Bizzotto (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil)

Urban occupations stand out as a strategy to fight for the urban re-appropriation in the current political resistance scenario in Brazilian metropolis. What has been observed is the multiplication of horizontal occupations of empty or abandoned lands, with the support of social movements organized against the eviction of thousands of families that make up the current housing deficit in the country. This form of resistance comprises a series of discourses, considering the different actors that are activated by it. To illustrate this point, I present the case of the resistance movement of the Occupations of Izidora, located in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais. The network of supporters that formed the resistance process of these urban occupations – #ResisteIzidora movement – is inserted in a context of strengthening social mobilization in the city and has helped to prevent the eviction of about 8,000 families that now resist to a project that fits in strategic planning’s logic. Based on the methodology of Mapping Controversies, data were compiled through interviews, newspaper reports, blogs and Facebook pages, which were analyzed by the various discourses made by the actors of the resistance network settled – social movements, residents, universities, public institutions and others. The study has shown how even within a resistance movement, in which different actors fight jointly to the non-eviction of the occupations, they do, however, adopt different speeches, ultimately attributing the resistance process itself different meanings.

Abstracts of presentations – Session 2

Chair: Yimin Zhao
Time: Friday 02 September 2016, 16:50 - 18:30
Venue: TBC

The Revanchist Politics of Benevolent Disaster-Induced Evictions Across Metro Manila: Pasig City in the Post-Ketsana Moment

Maria Khristine Alvarez (University of the Philippines, The Philippines)

In this paper, I examine the discourse of disaster-induced evictions in Metro Manila using Pasig City as case study. I draw on critical discourse analysis of interviews and policy documents to discuss the peculiar portrayal of ‘danger zone’ evictions as both apolitical and political, and reflect on the political expediency of this particular configuration, to point to a nascent mode of enunciating and enforcing evictions. I demonstrate how portraying slum evictions as logical interventions and as “technical”, “neutral”, and “apolitical” acts of governance (Ferguson, 1994) de-problematizes the common wisdom of disaster risk management and depoliticizes ‘expert’ opinion in order to diminish the hostility at the heart of evictions. I argue that the deployment of benevolence, which materializes as performance of concern for safety, is instrumental in facilitating outward flows of unwanted bodies. Yet, I show that this benevolence is betrayed by the insistence on contested vulnerabilities and the persistence of eviction orders, by the harassment to self-demolish and ‘voluntarily relocate’ to off-city resettlement sites, and by stories of relocation that dispute the peddled promise of a safe future. I conclude that mobilizing the discourse of ‘apolitical’ yet ‘benevolent’ evictions conceals the revanchist politics of Metro Manila’s disaster resiliency program.

Gusur and Rusunawa: Rebuild Indonesia Cities from the Scratch

Syarifah Aini Dalimunthe (Indonesia Institute of Sciences, Indonesia)

Jakarta current inhabitant is 19 million and 5 million of them are occupied and clogged waterways. This has created flood, then frequently resulting in severe socioeconomic damage. City administrator is now looking for options to reduce the risk. Current city administration terms and operating procedures to reduce the risk are gusur (violent eviction) and rusunawa (low-cost apartment). By December 2015, the city administration conducted gusur program to 12,000 families occupying riverbanks in a single slum neighborhood namely Kampung Pulo in order to speed up its river normalization program. The victim of gusur is set to be relocated to the nearby rusunawa expected to be able to accommodate 4,500 families. While the rest has to survive on their own such as rented a house nearby or send their children back to hometown. Despite the housing backlog, the city administration pledged not to stop the gusur project. The term gusur is now a formula spread among city administration across Indonesia. Gusur claimed to change Indonesian cities to meet global standard, ensure public order, remove squatter settlement or clear land for infrastructure projects. However, the government has used excessive force to conduct gusur across Indonesia cities and failed to provide alternative housing or other assistance to the displaced. It has created discourses which emphasize the right of the poor in the city and their right to make a viable living.

(Re)location, Resistance and Memory: Narratives of displacement amongst earthquake relocatees in Christchurch, New Zealand

Simon Dickinson (University of Exeter, UK)

Forced relocation as a result of government initiative and intervention has received significant attention. Much of this work has focused on the entrepreneurial politics of market-orientated development (Wu, 2014) and discourses surrounding the deconcentration of the urban poor by way of clearing-the-way policy (Goetz, 2003). Yet, disasters, and the subsequent relocation of affected populations during ‘recovery’, has received less attention – presumably because the pre-text of chaos and ‘public safety’ seemingly obscures the need to examine how particular power relations/mechanisms play out under the context of ’emergency’. With this in mind, this paper develops an account of resistance and place-making amongst forced relocatees after the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010-11. Relocation was prompted following a government decision to compulsorily acquire property based on damage and future risk – the criteria for which have never been published. Arguing that local coverage has shaped discourses that speak of romanticised, homogenous forms of ‘pushing back’, I draw attention to the ephemeral and interminable acts of resistance that may not otherwise be observed during relocation. Pointing towards these alternative narratives, the paper highlights the various (and often illicit) ways in which movers sought to maintain connections with their earthquake-damaged community/property. Given the contentious process by which relocation was dictated, these acts of resistance derive from a complex interplay between exhibiting agency in ‘place-making’ and the perceived capacity to subtly undermine the power mechanisms at play in the post-quake environment. I contend that these acts have a distinct temporality and speak to motifs of absence, presence and memory.


Hyun Bang Shin (The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK)