Abstracts and bios 5

places “off the map”: bringing to light the hidden locations of urbanisation

Heini-Emilia Saari

Re-constructing the Finnish taajama: Spaces of fragmented urbanisation in the Northern peripheries

This paper draws from an on-going research examining the regulation of peripheral spaces and subjectivities in the urbanising Nordic welfare state of Finland, a ’borderland’ at the edge of Europe (Tiilikainen, 2006; Moisio & Harle, 2002). In the emerging national imaginary, urbanisation has become a ’matter of survival’ demanding new ’urbanised’ models of citizenship to pursue competitiveness in the global markets (Moisio, 2018; 2012; Moisio & Paasi, 2013). However, in a country where spatial regulation has historically relied on programs of ”ruralisation” (Krause, 2013) rather than urbanisation, the urban aspirations imply a radical restructuring into few growing centers and a vast declining periphery.

Destabilising and defamiliarising universalising claims of the urban and how we come to know it has been a central tenet of both postcolonial and feminist urban research. This has led prominent scholars to mobilise the ’absent’ registers and peripheries of knowledge production for alternative modes of urban inquiry (e.g. Simone, 2010; 2019; Roy, 2009; 2016; Robinson 2002; 2016; Peake, 2016). Furthermore, as ’the urban’ is understood as incomplete, uneven and contested (Roy, 2016), the notion of urbanisation must equally come under rigorous questioning (Jazeel, 2018; Krause, 2013; Sheppard et al., 2013). As part of this critical project, the margins of the so-called global North emerge as spaces where the unity of Western modernity can be contested and its underpinning contradictions laid bare from within (de Sousa Santos, 2009; Hall, 2015; von Weyenberg, 2016; Ferenčuhová, 2016). In particular, I leverage the Finnish notion of taajama to capture place-based forms of peripheral urbanisation. Commonly used as a statistical concept for describing urbanisation, taajama refers to a settlement cluster of at least 200 inhabitants (StatFin, 2020). However, taajama landscapes have been subject to fragmentation by past layers of urban-rural restructuring, and today they represent a particular spatio-cultural form that evades definition as either city or countryside (Kalliala, 2014). The taajama thus embodies an empirically rich concept for studying urbanisation while challenging inherited notions of the urban.

In this paper I focus on how urbanisation is configured through the ”spatial imagineering” (Yeoh, 2005) of architectural competitions in peripheral taajama localities. Architectural competitions are a ’powerful social technology’ to translate ideals and aspirations into concrete development plans (Van Wezemael et al., 2011), and in Finland they have a remarkably prominent tradition. I trace the discursive re-imagining of peripheral taajama sites in a study of 16 architectural competitions completed between 2015–2020. The study comprised of a thematic document analysis of competition programs and jury reports. The documents combine visual and textual elements in describing the local environment, its perceived qualities, and assessments of alternative future plans. The analysis of competition documents illuminated how the taajama communities experience and interpret their present condition, as well as the interventions they seek with the aspirational architectural imaginaries. More specifically, the findings point towards a rejection of the modernist architectural forms of welfare state construction, to be replaced by a competitive ’urbanity’ as a resonant spatial metaphor in the urbanising society.

Francesca Ferlicca

Collective action and co-production of the city in the Guernica land-seizures process in the periurban periphery of the Metropolitan area of Buenos Aires. 


Popular urbanization in Latin America is generally related to irregular urbanization since the legal standards imposed on the formal production of residential space are extremely difficult to reach by low-income sectors. Some studies have analysed the relations between informal settlement dwellers and State institutions and public policies. However, dichotomous perspectives tend to classify collective action as either a result of autonomy or institutionalization, neglecting the intermediate situations and the more general effects of this interaction, which are based on popular capacities of organization, negotiation and proposal through resilience strategies.

Since July 2020, about 30 attempts of ‘land takings’ have been registered in Argentina in the areas of Great Buenos Aires and La Plata, concentrated mainly in the outskirts of the metropolitan area. These land invasions -known in the local context as tomas de tierras- are shaped as housing responses by popular sectors that struggle with situations of extreme labour and economic precariousness and, as a result of the government’s lockdown measures and the socio-economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, could not afford to pay rent anymore.

In this paper we intend to analyse the collective action developed in the recent process of occupation of a peri-urban land in Guernica, a locality in the South of Great Buenos Aires, and their informal establishment of a residential neighbourhood. This case-study is a remarkable example for understanding the resilient co-production of an informal city by means of its inhabitants’ bottom-up organizational capacity, achieving alternative proposals beyond the actions of the State.

As part of the theoretical framework, which addresses the specificity of the Latin American urban context and the history of land-related struggles in the region, the concept of ‘land invasion’ can be replaced with ‘land reestablishment’ or ‘recuperation’ (in Spanish recuperación de tierras), privileging the perspective of popular sectors. We propose to reconstruct the genesis and the process of land reestablishment and to analyse the interaction between the stakeholders involved. We also intend to analyse the inhabitant’s collective strategy to comply with local regulations and urban planning local structures. This experience of bottom-up spatial practices in the Global South can inform social innovations for resilience-informed urban planning and design initiatives in the Global North.

Esther Yeboah Danso-Wiredu

How The Urban Poor Define Preferred Places, Accra’s Old Fadama Slum Dwellers Case

The inability of the Ghana government to provide homes for its low-income citizens have forced many urban dwellers to rent ‘cheap’ homes in poor communities or become care takers of uncompleted houses. Old Fadama, the largest squatter-slum community in Ghana is an example of a poor community which accommodate most migrants in Accra, especially those migrating from Northern Ghana. The paper explores Old Fadama as a preferred space of urban dwelling in Accra for most poor people despites its ‘slummic’ nature. It is an alternative dwelling to the normal dwelling spaces for the average urban dweller in Accra and this is evidenced in this case as not a matter of choice, but rather one of necessity. The influx of rural migrants from the North produced a housing scarcity in Accra which has yet to be adequately addressed by state actors at either urban or national levels. The poor migrants need shelter and when they found the formal housing market to be inaccessible, they had to look elsewhere. The vacant, waterlogged tract of land now known as Old Fadama is one of the places the poor immigrants can access. Deprived of even the most basic services and infrastructures, residents are not only neglected but also vilified as squatters and parasites by state authorities and media alike. Instead of sinking into complete chaos, however, the slum has gradually been transformed into a self-governing community existing and evolving in spite of formal neglect and vilification. The paper makes a contribution to knowledge in that the urban poor largely settle on their preffered places not because of amenities and good housing conditiond but to them, any place they can ‘get-by’ regardless of the environment is readily preffered by them. A key finding of the paper is how local associations directly influence access to general housing resources.

Raffael Beier

Ordinary Neighbourhoods – Stigma and Realities in Casablanca’s Shantytowns

Globally, slums have become the symbol of putatively underdeveloped and fast-growing megacities of the Global South. Cities Alliance and the Millennium Development Goals made ‘Cities Without Slums’ the ideal of the ‘developed’ city that served governments around the world as a justification for evictions. Throughout the last two decades the stigmatisation of slums has led to the renaissance of large-scale, standardised housing programmes that displace and resettle slum dwellers to the urban margins. In the case of Morocco, the negative image of slums has led to the Villes Sans Bidonvilles programme (VSBP) – a direct reference to the international slogan ‘Cities Without Slums’. VSBP’s central aim is not to improve living conditions of slum dwellers but to eradicate all shantytowns in the country by resettling people to apartment houses at the urban peripheries. The paper shows that the VSBP is largely based on superficial and homogenising judgments about living conditions inside neighbourhoods, whose heterogeneity often remains hidden to external eyes. Beyond displacement pressures, such prevailing stigmatisation of slums affects its inhabitants on an everyday basis. In Morocco, shantytown dwellers are discriminated on the job market, are blamed for a putative rent-seeing behaviour, and often report a feeling of shame that prevents them from hosting friends and family at home.
The paper’s main objective is to deconstruct common stigmas of the slum by contrasting them with own empirical data gathered during four months of field research in Casablanca, Morocco. It builds on a mixed methods approach that includes a household survey (n=400), about 50 qualitative interviews with residents, and own observations. The empirics show that is inadequate to equal slums with bad housing, poverty, and exclusion, or to associate them with rural-to-urban migration. Hence, the author argues that slums are heterogenous neighbourhoods that do not naturally differ from others and, hence, do not require ‘special’ treatment. Inspired by Robinson’s (2006) concept of ‘ordinary cities’, the paper therefore advocates for a renewed conceptual understanding of slums as ‘ordinary neighbourhoods.’
Moving Robinson’s concept to the neighbourhood level calls for three main ways forward that will help to decolonise ‘the slum’ (singular) as the symbol of Southern urbanism. First, there is no one ‘slum’. Like global urban theory being inspired by few urban contexts, there is a tendency to generalise from very few typical slums such as Dharavi in Mumbai or Kibera in Nairobi. It needs more comparative research that emphasises heterogeneity and difference between ‘slums’ (plural) in different parts of the world. Second, within cities of the South, critical and postcolonial research should engage more often with neighbourhoods ‘off the map’ – questioning the specificity of so-called slums through comparisons between neighbourhoods in one city. While most researchers seem to be attracted to ‘slums’, similar or even worse living conditions might be found in other, inconspicuous, and less researched neighbourhoods such as inner-city shared rentals. Finally, it needs more in-depth empirical research within disadvantaged neighbourhoods that highlight the pluralities within neighbourhoods threatened by oversimplifying judgments.