2018 GILBERT F. WHITE THESIS AWARD (AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF GEOGRAPHERS–HAZARDS, RISKS, AND DISASTERS SPECIALTY GROUP) | Discourses of ‘danger zone’ evictions and the aestheticization and territorialization of disaster risk in post-Ondoy Manila


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 (HRDSG) of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) at the 2018 AAG Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana. The abstract appears below. 


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.

Conference paper | An agnotology of disaster risk reduction and management: Aestheticizing risk in constructing and delineating ‘danger zones’

2017 Philippine Geographical Society – National Conference on Geographical Studies, November 10-11, Quezon City, Philippines

This paper argues that the definition and demarcation of ‘danger zones’, alongside narratives of the slum as the primary cause of the Ondoy disaster, speak to the willful production of ignorance (Slater 2012, 2016), or the agnotology of disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM). I begin by exploring how melding the ‘culpability’ and vulnerability of the slum for Ondoy in particular, and flood disasters in general, created a compelling argument for their removal. The tension between putting the city at risk and being at-risk was translated into ‘danger zones’—a fundamental DRRM concept that lies at the heart of the massive disaster-induced slum evictions across the capital region. I examine the category of ‘danger zones’, beginning with a genealogy of the term as used in Metro Manila DRRM policy. In tracing the origins of the concept, I discuss how slums—and only slums—were rendered evictable by demonstrating that ‘danger zones’ were delineated based on a deeply classed aesthetics of danger targeting informal settlers—a process I describe as the aestheticization of risk. I then explore how this aesthetic governmentality sought a more considerate approach to thinking about and relating to the flood risk of subdivisions in areas of Pasig City with high flood susceptibility. This classed understanding of disaster risk explains how social risks were redistributed onto slums via eviction and relocation, while resiliencies were redistributed onto subdivisions in the form of flood control infrastructure. ‘Danger zone’ evictions accomplished the historically impossible task of clearing entire slum populations across Metro Manila. I argue that this systematic eviction of Metro Manila’s slum dwellers should not be viewed simply as a consequence of or a response to climate change and disasters. Instead, it should be understood as a calculated and opportunistic attempt to rid the city of informal settlers in accordance with an elitist and exclusionary vision of a ‘resilient’ city.


Works cited:

Slater, Tom. 2012. “The Myth of ‘ Broken Britain’: Welfare Reform and the Production of Ignorance.” Antipode 46(4):948–69.

Slater, Tom. 2016. “Revanchism, Stigma, and the Production of Ignorance: Housing Struggles in Austerity Britain.” Risking Capitalism (Research in Political Economy) 31:23–48.

Conference paper | Why the slum is evictable but the subdivision is not: Danger zones, territoriality, and the aesthetic turn of risk

2017 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG), 5-9 April, Boston, Massachusetts 

Drawing on a discourse analysis of policy documents and key informant interviews, I discuss how the delineation of danger zones in Philippine DRM policy explains why slums have become the object of intervention in flood risk management. I begin by recounting anti-slum discourses of the Ketsana disaster in 2009 to draw out the undesirability of the slum both as a geographic space and a population, and show how narratives of blame and attributions of responsibility have shaped the goals of DRM and informed the delineation of danger zones. I trace the basis of danger zones to a law on eviction and demolition, and consider the expansion of its scope to encompass territories of homelessness and poor informality to point out that the concept itself was framed in terms of the spatial illegality and evictability of the slum-dwelling poor. I then relate this to two key points: that danger zones were neither properly defined nor scientifically determined, and that disaster risk functioned instead as an aesthetic category. Following Ghertner’s (2015) idea of aesthetic rule, I argue that the visual appearance of vulnerability served as the basis for adjudicating danger zones. Finally, I examine how the aesthetic turn of risk proved useful to the territorialization of risk, which facilitated the preferential eviction of slums alongside the systematic exclusion of other environments and populations from the same intervention.

Work cited:

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

Conference paper | Disaster-induced slum evictions and exclusionary urban imaginaries of resilience in Metro Manila

2016 International Sociological Association-Research Committee 21 (RC21) Urban and Regional Development Annual Conference, 21-23 July, Mexico City.

In this paper, I discuss the “instrument-effects” (Ferguson, 1994) of Metro Manila’s disaster risk reduction and management program (DRRM) and consider the revanchist aspects of building resilience in deeply unequal cities. I look at the experience of Pasig City, one of the 17 local governments of Metro Manila which is widely held to be a model for DRRM practice but has evicted 6,171 informal settler families (ISFs) living along waterways between July 2011 and February 2016, to argue that DRRM performs a delicate political task. It serves as a powerful recourse and a politically expedient tool to assist the city’s urban resilience and development goals while simultaneously addressing its slum problem. Slum dwellers are evicted from urban centers in the capital region and expelled to the suburbs under the pretext of a compelling regime that insists on its benevolence and relies on its urgency to accomplish the fragile task of removing more than 60,000 ISFs residing along Metro Manila’s waterways.

Drawing on a critical discourse analysis of key informant interviews, policy documents, and government data, I demonstrate that the notion of evictions as necessary “neutral”, “technical”, and “apolitical” acts of governance (Ferguson, 1994) is mobilized toward the displacement of undesirable bodies and abject geographies from the city. I show that hegemonic understandings of risk and resilience—of what constitutes risk and what counts as resilience, of which risks are pertinent and which resiliencies are deficient, and of who is at risk and who is resilient—are necessarily classed in order to construct the slum as the object of intervention and insulate the propertied and the more ‘valuable’ public from the exigencies of DRRM, particularly the linear, template responses deployed against the poor. I devote significant attention to ‘danger zones’, a key concept at the heart of disaster-induced evictions, to explain how defining some of the most essential categories of DRRM facilitates its revanchist aims. The term danger zones, as used in Philippine DRRM policy, was formulated not in reference to hazard maps, risk assessments, or other technologies of disaster risk management, but to a law specifying the territories of homelessness and urban informality as ‘danger areas’ and governing the eviction and demolition of the encroachments and “illegal environments” of the poor (Ghertner 2010). Defining danger zones in terms of aesthetics, poverty, and informality meant that only poor, informal spaces are evicted, while elite enclaves and middle class spaces in high-risk flood areas remain unthreatened.

I conclude by arguing that the perception of slums as obstructions to disaster resilience ultimately explains why evictions are the cornerstone of Metro Manila’s DRRM program and why the slum- dwelling poor are essentially excluded from urban imaginaries of resilience.


Ferguson, James. 1994. The Anti-Politics Machine. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Ghertner, D. Asher. 2010. “Rule by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi.” PhD dissertation, Energy and Resources Group, University of California, Berkeley.