August 26, 2011

Academic Conferences on #Conflict, Reconstruction, #Architecture and Urban Planning 2011-2012

Every time I look for a conference to present research on the intersection of Architecture, Conflict, and Urban Planning, all the best conferences just happened or I missed the call for papers.  Of course one has to be flexible and try to find fitting venues, but it can be a challenge.  Fortunately this week I found a large collection of upcoming conferences for 2011-2012.  I definitely intend to attend at least one of these and I hope to see you there.

Spaces and Flows 2011. Prato, Italy
Conference: November 17-18, 2011.  Call for Papers Deadline: September 22, 2011.
  • This conference is dedicated to mapping the transformative interchange between the global north and south, attempting to map the dynamic power flows and interactions.

Conference: April 11, 2012.   Call for Papers Deadline September 23, 2011.
  • This broad conference is focussed on issues ranging from globalization to war, peace and reconstruction, social transformation and collective healing through media and imagery.

Conference: March 28-31, 2012.   Call for Papers Deadline: November 30 2011.
  • Rooting the discussion in the context of the Berlin Wall, this conference examines how borderlands and contested spaces are not marginal phenomena, but rather contain complex layers of social, political, and urban interactions.  Research grants available.

Conference: August 29 - September 1, 2012. Call for Papers Deadline: October 1, 2011.
  • Discussion of violence as a communicative form, embedded in the built environment and articulated through broader social processes.  

August 22, 2011

A Vertical Menagerie; #kabul,#afghanistan, #city

As mentioned in my previous post,  the most fascinating characteristic about Kabul is the way in which a single space can contain multiple layers of meaning and value.  Social spaces are loaded with complex combinations of use, symbolism, risk, respite, and value.  Yet another intriguing element about Kabul is the manner in which urban spaces are vertically stacked.  This is of course true of all settlements, yet in Kabul, these spaces and their traffic extend arguably higher, far beyond the rooftops.
All throughout the city are men digging drainage ditches alongside the streets.  The nicest streets are paved with concrete and have drainage canals covered with steel grating along the side.  The lowest order of streets consist of entirely of compacted dirt and rock with no drainage, and throughout the city are mixed combinations of both types.

I know there are some underground sewage systems, but these are only in wealthier or new neighborhoods.  For the most part, roadway drainage (about 2-3 feet deep and 1 foot wide) is the most prevalent form of subterranean infrastructure.  Yet given the large quantity of local infrastructure projects, I can only think of the this space, the space below the ground, as an important part of the urban fabric.

As you rise upward, the landscape shifts from the sewers to the streets, which vary tremendously in quality and traffic.  Neighborhoods composed of international agencies and residents are lined with massive walls, hiding families away behind compounds while the average street is comparable to most throughout the world with shops, restaurants and markets.  Dotted throughout the intersections are large defense posts, often adorned with light weaponry and dusty camouflage netting. Overhead is a tangle of power lines and cell phone towers, with mountains in the background.  Political imagery and signage is typically visible, sometimes entangled with advertising and shop signs.  Large posters of President Karzai, photos of political leaders and signs denoting signs of progress dot the roadways. The dust permeates all spaces and layers all structures with a thin velvet layer.

My favorite time of day in Kabul is just a few minutes after sunset, when distances are suddenly squashed by the fuzzy ambiance of light and the hillsides begin to glitter with electricity.  The massive dark mountains begin to flicker and move as all the houses, one by one, light up for the coming evening.  The call to prayer goes out, mixing with the sounds of children and barking dogs floating upward from the streets.  When the sun goes down, the hills abound with the humanity of family life.

Yet during the day, the hills take on a different sensibility.  Not because the houses, the families, or the people are different, but because in the light of day it is difficult to focus upward eyes upon anything but the large white reconnaissance balloons floating in the sky.  The Eyes in the Sky, large white zeppelin-like balloons called aerostats hover above the city, collecting information from conversations, watching people on the street, and attempting to determine sources of threat from normal social behavior.  Part of me wonders if the data from these balloons is integrated in the DOD's project, Nexus 7, in which complex computational tools attempt to measure common social behavior and extract outlying incidents as a means to predict conflict.  

When not focussing attention upon the aerostats, then my vision is often distracted by the helicopter traffic.  Always traveling in pairs, I've quickly learned to distinguish helicopter typologies, and more often, learned that when the sound of chopper interrupts conversation to wait until the second passes before resuming.  

I've never been anywhere in which I felt the airspace was as much a part of the general urban space as I have found in Kabul.  So often the energy of a community ends mid-way up the tallest buildings, and yet here it seems to just go onward into the clouds.

August 19, 2011

Welcome to Kabul: #Kabul, #Afghanistan,

First impressions are always a little complicated.  Sometimes they are perfectly accurate and sometimes they are completely off-base.  In a place like Kabul, it can be far more difficult to know if such impressions are remotely accurate.  (Unfortunately I lost my camera or it was stolen from my luggage, so I cannot supply any photos at this time.  However I will certainly add more later).

The only thing I can say about Kabul is that each space is loaded with inconsistencies.  A street corner might contain children playing, old men talking, a successful business, an armed security guard, goats on the street and a new glass building.  The greatest danger is that it generally doesn't feel dangerous, yet war manages to permeate the landscape.  Not through obvious means - the buildings are not riddled by bullets etc., but rather, each building is so heavily fortified and the pretense of security dominates.  The sense of risk and aggression is 'omni-present' rather than 'ever-present,' whereas war saturates all things merely as atmosphere and does not otherwise obstruct or become manifest in daily reality.

There were some explosions today and one was audible from my house, yet it didn't actually change anything. Life carries forward for all those who do not take part in the conflict, which is ultimately the majority.  Consequently, the greatest threat I believe one could have is to become complacent and become lulled into a sense of safety and thus be arrive at the wrong place at the wrong time.  After all, safety is not a feeling, it is a condition and the best determination of security is not to measure one's feelings, but rather to vigilantly assess and monitor the surrounding environment.  Even more so, to pay attention to where one is located and how one interacts in that environment is critical, because there are always ways to adjust personal behavior to mitigate threats before they happen and to reduce the potential for threats to become actions.

As time goes by, all such things will be in flux, and so will my understanding of this city.  Yet based on the last 24 hours, if I have one goal, it is to always remain vigilant and objective as long as I continue to make this my home.

August 12, 2011

Stability Planning amidst Global Conflict and Chaos: #London, #riotinlondon, #

Poverty and Riot Clusters UK
Massive riots in the UK. 

Uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Conflict and famine in the Horn of Africa.

Poverty and conflict in South/Central Asia.

Riot Activity Distribution UK
The situations listed are all unique, with individual drivers, contexts, and actors.  Yet there remain consistent trends among these situations.   It is easy to quickly fall into a Marxist critique of all situations, wherein the conflict is described by class battles, especially considering how insecurity and poverty are strongly correlated.  One can see from a map of wealth distribution in London (the bluer the richer, the more red is the most poor) that the riots are most concentrated in low-income neighborhoods.  Yet as riot participants are mobile, it is difficult to determine from afar who is participating etc.  A broader picture of riot-related activity may reveal that the mobility of its participants and the broad distribution of activity negates the viability any land-use/gis analysis.

The UK is generally considered to have a stable and accessible government with a low corruption index and is considered one of the most developed nations in the world.  Consequently, one can only assume that the the riots are grounded in stresses between internal social structures, and is likely based on a socio-economic dilemma.  All nations suffer from such conditions, but in general, the international community would become distraught if the UK government attempts to suppress the riots through aggressive or military intervention, as has been the approach to suppressing protests and social upheaval in Syria, Libya, Iran, and so on.  Consequently the government has been left to explore other stabilization options, such as technology-based solutions and an expanded police presence.  It is reasonable that the government would implement a large body of force to secure the city of London from future disruption, but then what?  How do things change so that it stays pacified and such events don't happen in the future?

Theorists and practitioners always want to determine and address root causes. The greatest difficulty is that is it nearly impossible to determine why the riots are taking place.  If one were to ask 100,000 rioters why they are participating, there would be 100,000 responses.  Responses could vary from deeply rooted experiences of social strife and racism, or for many, they could simply be youth looking for a good time who want to steal a television or get  a new ipod.  Consumerism and "first world problems" concerning cultural identity and alienation could be a major undercurrent.  Regardless of the reasons underlying the riots, the question emerges, is there an alternative way to pacify and avoid future riots?

An urban planning approach would advocate the fusion of participatory processes with local community institutions to create pathways for social mobility,  community cohesion, and economic growth.  The difficulty however is the determination and mobilization of viable institutions.  Many classic institutions - such as churches, schools, and local government - simply lack the capacity to facilitate any real change.  With the constant slashing of institutional budgets offset by raising demands in services, one could argue that the riots taking place in the UK are not the consequence of poverty, rather that the riots are the consequence of incapable local  institutions.  Such institutions are not inept, but in contrast are merely unable to accommodate demands.

One could change this situation in a variety of ways.  There could be an effort to return classic institutions to function on par with demand.  One could also work to create new institutions altogether, although this often requires new infrastructure such as sports facilities, buildings for meetings and administration, recreational spaces.  Even if consumerism were a driver of conflict, are there shopping centers and jobs for youth to indulge themselves?

Unfortunately no matter the approach, it requires resources to be injected into the community.  To measure the amount of resources injected in relation to the rate of absorption and local re-production reveals that any viable solution will also require a sufficient body of time.  Ultimately the only way to offset that time-demand is to quickly allocate and facilitate the already functioning nodes of production (churches with successful youth groups, community outreach programs, amateur sports leagues).  Of course this is easier said than done, and it still requires a vast supply of resources.  But in the end, good governance is not enough, as a community needs not only a shelter over its head, it needs to stand on a strong foundation.

August 9, 2011

Analysis of #alShabaab withdrawal from #Mogadishu; #Dadaab pushed to the Edge

Quite a bit has taken place within Dadaab and Somalia in the last few weeks and it is  difficult to summarize everything.  The Dadaab camps have received a great deal of media attention while the regional draught rages.  Somalia has a long history of internal strife, yet arguably the current draught is far more damaging than past instances as the country no longer contains sufficient infrastructure for aid agencies to deliver services.  The inadequacy of infrastructure prompts dramatic repercussions, not only in terms famine relief but also through the inability to provide broader public health support.  With the surge of displacement, many have been refused admission to the camps, as there are not enough resources available.  The constant influx of refugees also continues to place great strain on the local communities.  

Within Somalia there have been a variety of reports on al Shabaab preventing the delivery of aid.  In addition to reports of fake NGOs attempting to take advantage of the incoming aid money, Shabaab has also listed several agencies to be banned with the area for attempting to do more than deliver basic assistance.

Most notably, al Shabaab has withdrawn from Mogadishu. There are still reports of fighting, yet the group publicly announced its withdrawal, citing a change in tactics and to save civilian lives.  The city is not yet safe for return as the group has established checkpoints outside of the city, intercepting returnees for money and recruitment.   It is suspected Shabaab has been heavily affected by the drought and cannot sustain combat within the capital city while some analysts argue that Shabaab suffers from divided leadership.  This is similar to the 2009 when the group withdrew from Kismayo, abandoning training camps and strategic points. 

I suspect the withdrawal may be a true change in tactics rather than a sign of loss or weakness. Considering that Shabaab fighters have ambushed AMISOM soldiers sweeping into newly vacated areas, taking advantage of the urban terrain, this may be a legitimate attempt to maximize available resources and keep AMISOM forces off-balance.  

Shabaab's quick acquisition of power within Somalia was possible because Shabaab groups concentrated their forces in urban areas where they could utilize transportation and communication resources, tap into ports and markets, and tax local populations.  As the Somalia conflict developed and became more binary between Shabaab and the TFG, Shabaab's approach to conflict became less networked and more one-dimensional.

Since the TFG is a major supplier of arms to non-state groups within Somalia and that unpaid soldiers often sell ammunition for goods, there is a sufficient flow of arms and ammunition throughout the region for Shabaab to continue its military objective yet there must be an adaptation to the changing geography.  Somalia presently has 5 major cell phone providers, populations have shifted from the urban core to the corridors between towns and scattered among IDP camps and Mogadishu only contains a small fraction of its original population. 

al Shabaab Supply Trench in Mogadishu, Somalia
Amid the geography transformation, Shabaab has grown and annexed territory yet not adapted to the changing resources.  Simultaneously, the conflict has slowly become more symmetric, with Shabaab and the AMISOM forces fighting along a frontline in Mogadishu, utilizing a mixed combat method of hit-and-run tactics and trench warfare.  AMISOM has been working to cover the trenches before any future return by Shabaab troops.

The sudden withdrawal may be a sign of weakness.  Yet it may also be an indicator that the conflict is about to change abruptly, to become something far more unorthodox and challenging than the TFG is equipped to confront.

**Update: Just a few hours after posting this reports have rolled in that multiple attacks have taken place in Mogadishu with al Shabaab utilizing hit and run tactics and hidden explosive devices.