Grounding and Worlding Urban Infrastructures (GROWL)

Goal: To develop in-depth case studies and astute mid-level theory of urban infrastructure at the intersection of political ecology and postcolonial urbanism focusing on "Petro-urbanism" in Luanda with comparative infrastructure studies in Nairobi and Kampala.

Date: 12 January 2018 - 11 January 2021

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Project log

Henrik Ernstson
added an update
These first 12 months has been devoted to literature reviews, preparing for field work in Luanda, doing extensive field work in Luanda and Brazil, alongside project management to enrol postdocs and formalize relations to Angolan higher education institutions. The administration to enrol postdocs took far more time than expected due to administrative and visa reasons beyond our control. Postdocs were not enrolled until August 2018. However, we have been really productive anyway, in particular in terms of the most crucial activity of field work that has impacted on our ability to produce novel scientific results.
In mid-September 2018, the team was in Luanda to conduct preliminary fieldwork for a period of 2 weeks. This provided the group with an opportunity to explore the city together and to lay more concrete foundation for what the next two years of the project will look like. Through a back and forth process of field visits, conversations, and periodic meetings, key sites were mapped out, main questions were outlined, and administration needs were identified. In addition, the main outputs required from each team member were also established. This was followed up with that Postdoc Ricardo Cardoso did 3 months of extensive field for in Luanda during September, October and November, followed by another 1,5 months of field work in Brazil. The second Postdoc, Wangui Kimari is preparing for 6 months of field work starting in February 2019. The majority of field work will have been done by October 2019. This will leave Year 3 for analysis, writing, and presentations, and outreach of results.
The AXA grant has been absolutely crucial in generating new field work data in a time of economic and social change in Angola. Our first field work has shown interesting and previously under-studied dynamics in how massive “New Centralities” (NCs;a range of new town and urbanization projects led by Chinese companies since the mid-2010s) have been complemented in the last couple of years with auto-constructed “slum” dwellings, what we have tentatively called “New Peripheries” (NPs). It also became clear that the production of cement-blocks, which is used in the building of vast parts of the rapidly growing auto-constructed areas of Luanda, including the New Peripheries, have shifted from artisanal production to Chinese companies producing them at an industrial scale.
We have used these early field work data to structure the remaining work in three main components:
  1. The New Centralities (NCs) will be analyzed (focusing on Kilamba) through the angles of (state) planning, commodity housing markets, land acquisition and allocation systems as well as social housing in state-segmented markets and subsidized provision.
  2. The New Peripheries (NPs) willbe analysed in terms of auto-constructed urbanism (household and collective), service sector development, and household land tenure rights.
  3. Finally, our grounded approach to the study of urbanization processes in the Angolan capital has begun to reveal the key role that blocks of various typeshave had as material components in its expansion over the past two decades. These building blocks of contemporary Luanda include oil blocks, a foundational material-institutional element of the Angolan political-economy; tower blocks, one of the preferential solutions for solving the housing crisis in Angola in the NPs; and cement blocks, the key material element of auto-construction all throughout the city, amongst them the NCs. This makes cement blocks (BLs) a key material linkage between NCs and NPs. These three grounded concepts/elements—New Peripheries, New Centralities and Blocos—will guide the field work during Year 2 and the analysis during Year 3.
The AXA grant has also been absolutely crucial in identifying crucial field work contacts in Kilamba, Zango, and intermediaries, and in creating new collaborations with Luanda-based scholars from Agosthino Neto University (UAN) and Catholic University of Luanda (UCAN).
Henrik Ernstson
added an update
African cities grow in novel and complex ways, yet they are intimately connected to wider geographies. In preparing for tomorrow’s challenges, in-depth historical and social studies are needed to understand what shapes contemporary urban infrastructures in the Global South. Dr. Henrik Ernstson’s scientific program aims to shed light on the complex realities that shape the heterogeneity of infrastructures in cities such as Luanda, Kampala and Nairobi. His team will look at how urban realities and risks are connected via urban infrastructures with the purpose to provide governments, civil society and external funders with insights that can help to better ground sustainability strategies adapted to urban conditions of the Global South. 
“The core output of our project,” Dr. Ernstson says, “is an in-depth multi-sited case study about Luanda’s connection with Brazil and China through the selling of oil to secure urban infrastructure investments. Such in-depth case studies that connect ‘local’ and ‘global’ dynamics in African cities, especially through South-South linkages, are missing but sorely needed.” Dr Ricardo Cardoso, who is one of two postdocs in the project, continues: “Oil sits at the nexus of a whole range of exchanges that shape Luanda, including building norms and standardizations, but also how the sudden influx of capital after the long civil war of Angola came to interrupt and displace working class people to give space for new and often prestigious building projects in the name of progress and development.”
It was Dr. Cardoso’s PhD studies on “petro-urbanisation” between Angola and Brazil that prepared for this more extensive project, which includes recent linkages to China. From the 2000s, China took over the role Brazil had played since the 1980s: “When China emerged as a global power,” says Dr Jia-Ching Chen who will do field work there, “it secured oil and energy in far-off places but also embarked on creating an international market for its newly-found technical and engineering expertise.” While there are many studies that look at how former colonial European powers shaped African cities, this project focuses on novel South-South connections.
Looking at trends driven from 'above' but also from 'below'
However, while the building of a city through the exchange of oil is certainly a global story, it is also a story that must be deeply situated: “While we examine the political economy of infrastructure planning and construction from ‘above,’ our analysis is also driven by closely grounded attention to the way infrastructures are negotiated through everyday politics from ‘below’,” says Dr. Wangui Kimari, another postdoc in the project.
To deliver cutting-edge outputs, the team will develop a “theory lab” with an international workshop at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town that focuses on how African cities continues to be “targets” for infrastructural projects and how these could sustain colonial and neo-colonial legacies. Dr Ernstson will also develop a “street lab” building on previous work across art and research. This will facilitate workshops with residents to surface everyday understandings and contradictions with two planned outputs; a paper zine and a film. The long-term aim is to use the AXA Research Award as a foundation towards a 10-year research programme at The University of Manchester into comparative urban environmentalism with a focus on the Global South.
Henrik Ernstson
added an update
The GROWL project will contribute to two recent turns in urban environmental studies. One is the strong move within urban studies to situate and learn from cities of the global South about environmental risks and their politics (Ernstson, Lawhon, and Duminy 2014; Lawhon, Ernstson, and Silver 2014; McFarlane, Desai, and Graham 2014; Myers 2016; Simone and Pieterse 2017; Ernstson and Sörlin 2018, forthcoming). The second is to engage with how critical geography has explored how global environmental risks and challenges—e.g., climate change, habitat destruction and energy provision—are tied to urbanization as an expanding planetary scale phenomenon (Harvey 1996; Heynen, Kaika, and Swyngedouw 2006; Ruddick 2015; Ernstson and Swyngedouw 2018, forthcoming). Placed in tension between these literatures, the GROWL project responds by developing rich, textured and historically rooted case studies from urban regions in Africa to contextualize and better understand how colonial legacies, racial and class politics, and world-spanning capitalist dynamics and its effects on ecosystems, shape contemporary urbanization, infrastructures and futures for urban sustainability.
Henrik Ernstson
added an update
The Grounding and Worlding Urban Infrastructures (GROWL) research group will during three years develop:
(i) one in-depth, multi-sited case study of ‘petro-urbanism’ in Luanda with linkages to Brazil and China;
(ii) a comparative case study of urban infrastructure based on ongoing research of ‘autoconstructed’ and ‘heterogenous infrastructure’ in Kampala and Nairobi; and
(iii) a writing and video collaborative project in Luanda on how climate transformation, risks and sustainability can be thought and acted upon within contemporary contradictions of an African city.
Building on collaborations with universities in South Africa and Uganda, we will also use the three years to submit additional funding proposals to the EU, UK, South Africa and Sweden to expand the project to realize a 10-year programme on "comparative urban environmentalism" with a base at The University of Manchester.
  • Henrik Ernstson (PI), Geography, The University of Manchester and Honorary Associate Professor at African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town
  • Ricardo Cardoso (Co-I), Yale NUS College, Singapore
  • Wangui Kimari (Postdoc), African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town
  • Jia-Ching Chen-Ching Chen (Co-I), Global Studies, University of California Santa Barbara
Henrik Ernstson
added a project goal
To develop in-depth case studies and astute mid-level theory of urban infrastructure at the intersection of political ecology and postcolonial urbanism focusing on "Petro-urbanism" in Luanda with comparative infrastructure studies in Nairobi and Kampala.