2018 GILBERT F. WHITE THESIS AWARD, American Association of Geographers – Hazards, Risks, and Disasters Specialty Group (AAG–HRDSG)

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My MA thesis in Sociology, completed at the University of the Philippines–Diliman, won the 2018 Gilbert F. White Thesis Award given by the Hazards, Risks and Disasters Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers (AAGHRDSG) at the 2018 conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. The abstract appears below. 


Maria Khristine Alvarez
Tin Alvarez

Discourses of ‘Danger Zone’ Slum Evictions and the Aestheticization and Territorialization of Disaster Risk in Post-Ondoy Manila

Maria Khristine Alvarez

This thesis asks why disaster-induced evictions focused only on slums and excluded subdivisions with high flood susceptibility. It also inquires into how ‘danger zones’ are delineated and what becomes of evicted spaces; what the implications are of this process of delineation on slum communities; as well as how notions of resilience are crafted and deployed by the state.

Drawing on a critical discourse analysis (CDA) of key informant interviews and documents spanning laws, policy texts, frameworks, plans, project reports, and eviction notices, this thesis seeks to understand the phenomenon of ‘danger zone’ evictions. It explains why only the slum, as both a geographic space and population, was evictable, and how it was made to be so, through an examination of the production of the discourse of evictability. To explain why only the slum had to go, it traces the origins of ‘danger zone’ evictions to the anti-slum discourse of the 2009 Ondoy disaster, as well as describes how these were assembled from narratives of slums-as-blockages and slum unbelonging. It then examines how expert and elite knowledges re-problematized and simultaneously produced the slum as the cause of flood disasters and as the epicenter of disaster and urban climate risk—processes which made the slum the object-target of Metro Manila DRRM policy. To explain how the slum was made to go, this thesis forwards the concept of aestheticization of risk, which it defines as the adjudication of flood/disaster risk based on an aesthetics of danger informed by the territorial stigmatization of the slum. It also proposes the framework of territorialization of disaster risk to understand the phenomenon of ‘danger zone’ evictions. It defines this concept as the attempt by the state to control and expel undesirable populations from the city by demarcating the areas in which they live as dangerous and uninhabitable. This process unfolds in three discursive and material practices: first, in the aestheticization of flood/disaster risk; second, in the delineation of geographies of homelessness and urban marginality as ‘danger zones’; and finally, in the eviction of informal settlers from the city. This study argues that the territorialization of disaster risk drew from expert epistemologies of the Ondoy disaster, and reproduced revanchist imaginaries of flood, disaster, and climate ‘resilience’, which displaced, re-placed, and replaced riparian slum communities. Finally, it forwards the idea of benevolent evictions to describe the manner by which ‘danger zone’ evictions are enacted and urban revanchism is obscured.

Disaster-induced evictions focused only on slums and excluded subdivisions and private enclaves with high flood risk because only informal settlements were defined as ‘danger zones.’ As the basis of evictions, the political category of ‘danger zones’ is at the center of the systematic expulsion of Metro Manila’s informal settlers in the post-Ondoy era. ‘Danger zones’ were defined as the geographies of homelessness and urban marginality, and were therefore delineated according to this definition, which was drawn from a clause on eviction and demolition of the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992 (UDHA). The classed delineation of ‘danger zones’ led to the dispossession of 6,171 families living along waterways in Pasig City, and some 20,000 families in riparian settlements across Metro Manila. As slums were demolished and informal settlers were removed from the city, evicted spaces were replaced with ‘flood-/disaster-resilient’ infrastructure and linear parks with access roads, or were left barren and overgrown. The state understood resilience as a set of structural mitigation measures to flood-/disaster-proof the city, as well as an urban development agenda obstructed by informal settlers. It defined it, too, in terms of the social capital of affluent residents, as well as of the structural integrity of properly built homes.

Book chapter | An atlas of praxes and political possibilities: radical collective action and urban transformations

In our chapter in “Cities of Dignity: Urban Transformations Around the World” published by Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Mary Ann Manahan and I survey municipalist actions featured in Transnational Institute’s “Transformative Cities Atlas of Utopias”. We then identify de-privatisation, the rise of the urban commons, and social movement unionism as key alternative praxes underpinning radical urban transformations across the globe. Some of the lessons we draw from these transformative initiatives that resonate with my work on dispossession and housing justice pertain to the need to decentre urban expertise, to scrutinise ‘inclusive’ new urban governance regimes, and to shift from liberal notions of citizen participation to collective governance. Our aim is to show how the urban commons as praxis radically reconfigures the spaces we inhabit, reconstitutes social relations, and re-politicises urban citizenship towards the creation of “cities of dignity”.

The book is open access and available for download at the link above, but you can also download our chapter by clicking on the image below.

Op-ed | What ‘relief’ for the poor should really look like

This think piece is less about “what ‘relief’ for the poor should really look like” than why our generosity fails to give relief. Here, Josh Makalintal (University of Innsbruck) and I use relief goods as an entry point for illuminating unreflexive, unempathetic, and exclusionary practices of care and provisioning in times of emergency and disaster. We ascribe this impoverished culture of giving and helping to legacies of classed understandings and attributions of human dignity, which regard the poor as people who matter less and therefore require and deserve less. We consider what it means to think in terms of life rather than survival, and invite a critical reorientation from thinking of the poor to thinking from the poor.

Conference paper | Making the city: A critical review of Metro Manila urbanization and dispossession research

11th International Conference on Philippine Studies (ICOPHIL), Alicante, Spain

This paper is part of the first of two panels on Philippine critical urban studies co-organised with Dr. Noah Theriault (Carnegie Mellon University).

Urbanizing Metro Manila has involved cleaning up the city region through the erasure of poor informal settlements and the elimination of the people who dwell there, to facilitate the reconfiguration of urban space. Since the 1960s, following the trend of transforming postcolonial capitals into national symbols of progress (Singh, et al. 2019), large-scale infrastructural and architectural projects were undertaken by the Philippine state with the specific aim of ‘developing’ the metropolitan landscape into a showcase for modernity (Benedicto 2015) and later, remaking it according to imaginaries of a ‘world-class’ city (Ortega 2016). Throughout the years, this transformation has been accompanied by displacement, dispossession, and death. This paper reviews five decades of Metro Manila urban and housing research to track, identify, and critically assess the drivers of urbanization and dispossession in the city region. Centring attention on the period after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, I consider how contemporary scholarship has approached questions of urbanization and dispossession largely as a consequence of capital accumulation, and how this orientation of explaining the city in terms of neoliberalization consequently scripts understandings of urban expulsion primarily as outcomes of gentrification. I argue that the focus on capital accumulation tends to overlook other equally powerful processes and agendas that drive urban change and dispossession (i.e., disaster risk and resilience), and call for an attentiveness to both new and emerging empirics in the field. 

References:

Benedicto, Bobby. “The Queer Afterlife of the Postcolonial City: (Trans)gender Performance and the War of Beautification. Antipode 47, no. 3 (2015): 580-597.

Ortega, Arnisson Andre C. Neoliberalizing Spaces in the Philippines: Suburbanization, Transnational Migration, and Dispossession. Lanham: Lexington Books. 

Singh, Ganeshwari, Simrit Kahlon & Vishwa Bandhu Singh Chandel. “Political Discourse and the Planned City: Nehru’s Projection and Appropriation of Chandigarh, the Capital of Punjab.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 109, no. 4: 1226-1239. 

Invited talk | South-South itineraries: Alternative routes for mutual learning between Latin America and Southeast Asia

Last 2019 October 1, I gave a talk at the LSE Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre’s event for “Decolonising the LSE Week”. The podcast for our panel, South-South itineraries: alternative routes for mutual learning between Latin America and Southeast Asia”, is available to download and stream at this link.

My talk reflected on the lack of engagement with the work of Southern urban scholars writing on and in the South. I began by situating my work as Southern scholarship that aims to theorise urbanisation, dispossession, and climate displacement in ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at-risk’ Southern cities. Reflecting on names and places encountered in literature reviews, manuscript revisions, conferences, and conversations, I enquired into the invisibility of other Souths in studies of the urban global South. To contextualise the questions I raise, I used my experience and my scholarship as reference points for illuminating absences and silences in a field that constantly challenges itself to diversify and provincialise both knowledge and knowledge creation. Finally, I explored three correctives in support of decentring knowledge production and expanding the intellectual geographies of critical urban scholarship.

JOURNAL ARTICLE | Benevolent evictions and cooperative housing models in post-Ondoy Manila

The second journal article from the MA thesis is out. I am honoured to publish in the first-ever issue of Radical Housing Journal, an autonomous and fully open-access academic journal for “debat[ing] ideas and advanc[ing] knowledge, theory, and practices around a radical approach to housing”. 

Out of the more than 70 submissions for Issue 1, 15 were selected, rigorously reviewed by three activists and scholar-activists, editorially evaluated, and accepted or rejected accordingly.

My article for the Long Read section (focus on critical analysis and theory-making) decenters ‘post-2008’ organising around housing struggles, the theme of this issue, using Manila as a frame. I make the case for a systematic state-led eviction crisis in the city region. Proceeding from this, I argue that Manila’s ‘post-2008’ is not the global financial crisis but rather the 2009 Ondoy flood disaster, and its ‘post-crisis housing situation’ is the mass eviction and relocation of informal settlers from ‘danger zones’ under the Metro Manila Flood Management Project and Informal Settler Families Housing Program. I introduce the concept of benevolent evictions to describe a new mode of dispossession whereby expulsions from the urban core to the periphery are facilitated through the systematic deployment of benevolence as a technology of eviction. Drawing on the experience of Alliance of People’s Organizations Along Manggahan Floodway (APOAMF), a community association in Pasig City, I examine how benevolent evictions, as materialised in The People’s Plan, reconfigured community participation and activist contestations, and end by considering the radical possibilities that emerge from the contradictions of cooperative housing models.

Two research articles in the launching issue are on the Philippines, including Hazel Dizon’s important paper for the Retrospectives section (focus on specific cases, histories, ideas, and actions) which describes the tactics and strategies employed by Kadamay in claiming their right to shelter through the takeover of idle public housing

Presentation | Celebrating Five Years of DPU’s 60th Anniversary PhD Scholarship

I’m presenting my PhD research on 16 May before the people who make this PhD possible. I will talk about resilient city making in Manila via ‘danger zone’ evictions, particularly how the systematic dispossession of informal settlers along waterways, in the name of climate change adaptation and flood/disaster resilience, is spatially reconfiguring Manila and its suburbs. Green spaces and flood barriers are sprouting in the city’s riparian corridors and reclaimed enclaves are being planned along its coast, as relocation hubs are emerging in the peri-urban fringe. Manila and its periphery are being transformed neither solely nor primarily by capital, but also by flood and disaster risk and the anticipatory logics of ‘resilient’ futures. My research attempts to read this transformation through a critical genealogy and ethnography of the Metro Manila Flood Management Project and the Informal Settler Families Housing Program, the main proponents and primary beneficiaries of ‘danger zone’ evictions.

This event marks the 65th year of the DPU and is part of the #Bartlett100 celebrations. It is free and open to all; non-UCL attendees are required to register as indicated in the details below.

JOURNAL ARTICLE | Evicting slums, ‘building back better’: Resiliency revanchism and disaster risk management in Manila

The first journal article on the MA thesis is out now in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (IJURR), coauthored with Kenneth Cardenas. It is part of the symposium issue, “Flood Risk and Littoral Connurbations: Theorising the Asian Experience”, edited by Gavin Shatkin.

In this theoretical and empirical paper, we forward the concept of resiliency revanchism to characterise Manila’s disaster risk management (DRM) strategy, which we argue is predicated on the mass eviction and relocation of informal settlers. We trace the first shift in Philippine DRM policy to the 2009 Ondoy floods, and cast critical attention on the ways the disaster was constructed, as well as the manner by which flooding projections and solutions attend to the further marginalisation of ‘vulnerable’ yet undesirable populations. We deploy the concepts of “risk society” (Ulrich Beck), “territorial stigmatisation” (Loic Wacquant, also Tom Slater), and “aesthetic governmentality” (Asher Ghertner) to examine how the deliberate production of ignorance by disaster and climate expertise (knowledges produced by state officials, DRM practitioners, environmental and climate advocates, and academics) constructed anti-slum discourses of urban flooding and disaster, which in turn produced uneven landscapes of risk and resilience (via the creation of a ‘danger zone’/high-risk zone binary) that justified slum evictions in ‘building back better’.

The image below links to the full text version. 

Conference paper | Benevolent evictions and cooperative housing models in post-Ondoy Manila


2019 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG), 3-8 April, Washington D.C.

This paper is based on my article for the forthcoming first issue of Radical Housing Journal, which will be launched at the 2019 AAG. It is included in the session, “Introducing the Radical Housing Journal: Launch of Issue 1 and Scholar-Activist Work From Forthcoming Issues (Part II)”, organised by Erin McElroy and Michele Lancione, and featuring AbdouMaliq Simone as discussant.

In this paper, I forward the concept of benevolent evictions to describe a new mode of dispossession, whereby expulsions from the urban core to the periphery are facilitated through the deployment of benevolence as a technology of evictions. Drawing on the experience of a community association in Pasig City in Metro Manila, Philippines, I examine how benevolent evictions, as materialized in The People’s Plan, reconfigured community participation and activist contestations. I distil the politics of participation by troubling practices of inclusion in housing affairs and exclusion in flood control matters; and critically assess the implications of non-transgressive co-production models on organizing for housing justice. While democratizing housing solutions did not necessarily result in the democratization of participation, I argue that the contradictions that emerge present radical possibilities for rewriting the politics of participation toward the transformation of slum-state and citizen-state relations.

Conference paper | Constructing anti-slum discourses of floods and disasters: Territorial stigmatization and ‘danger zone’ evictions in post-Ondoy Manila

2019 AAS-in-Asia Conference, Association for Asian Studies, 1-4 July, Bangkok, Thailand

This is part of the session, “Philippine Futures: Ambivalence in the Claws of Dispossession“, organised by Noah Theriault (History, Carnegie Mellon University).

This paper explains how the slum—as both a geographic space and population—was discursively produced as the cause and the epicenter of flood disasters, and therefore the object of intervention of Metro Manila disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) policy. Using the case of Pasig City, it traces and elaborates how a standardized explanation of floods and disasters emerged in the wake of the 2009 Ondoy floods; how blame and responsibility were attributed to specific processes, geographies, and populations; and how these narratives became the basis for a disaster risk management policy premised on slum evictions. It situates this phenomenon in the emergence of a new political moment of permanent climate emergency, which ushered in a re-problematization of the slum (Ghertner, 2015), whereby the problem of the slum as a “problem of ecology” (Rademacher, 2009) came to be viewed as a problem of disaster risk. The affirmation of extant slum transgressions, alongside the redescription of the slum as obstruction to waterways, flood control infrastructure, and DRRM and resilience explain the anti-slum politics of ‘building-back better’ and resilient city making in the post-Ondoy moment.

Works cited:

Ghertner, D. Asher. 2015. Rule by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rademacher, Anne. 2009. “When Is Housing an Environmental Problem? Reforming Informality in Kathmandu.” Current Anthropology 50(4):513–33.