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, 1992, 2009), “territorial stigmatisation” (Loic Wacquant, 2007, also Tom Slater, 2016), and “aesthetic governmentality” (Asher Ghertner, 2015) 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.

Conference paper | Benevolent evictions and resiliency revanchism: Protocols of dispossession, social safeguards, and ‘participatory’ housing solutions

2018 Philippine Studies Conference in Japan (PSCJ), 17-18 November, Hiroshima University, Higashi-Hiroshima City, Japan

This paper is part of the session, “Philippine Urbanisation Post-EDSA and Beyond”, organised by Arnisson Andre Ortega (University of Glasgow).

This paper forwards the concept of benevolent evictions to describe a new mode of dispossession whereby expulsions from the urban core to the peri-urban fringe are facilitated through the deployment of benevolence in the form of developmentalist and humanitarian rationales (climate change and ‘resilience’), welfarist rhetoric (‘saving lives’), liberal concessions (rights and entitlements), and social safeguards (eviction protocols). It proposes this term as an analytical category for understanding the expulsion of territorially stigmatized geographies of urban marginality in the name of safety and resilience. Using Pasig City, one of the sixteen cities comprising Metro Manila, as a case study of ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at-risk’ Southern cities, this paper argues that as a technology of ‘danger zone’ evictions, a technique of disaster governance, and the unique language of a new genre of urban dispossession, benevolence is instrumental in the systematic eviction of large swathes of undesirable and ungovernable populations, particularly informal settler families (ISF) in ‘danger zones’. Drawing on a critical discourse analysis of policy documents and in-depth key informant interviews, I synthesize how the discourse of eviction as ‘saving lives’ was produced. I then examine how rights and entitlements were used as liberal concessions, and how social safeguards were mobilized to produce an ethics of eviction that legitimized and facilitated the expulsion of undesired bodies and landscapes. Lastly, I consider how these practices reconfigured community housing struggles, particularly by troubling the contradictions of popular participation in democratizing eviction and resettlement, and reflecting on their implications for radical housing politics.

ESSAY | #OccupyPabahay and the politics of placelessness: Dispatches from Manila, Philippines

45290537_706785706364858_6178791586122432512_nMy invited piece for Issue 20 of The Funambulist, a France-based magazine on the politics of bodies and space and the spatialities of political struggles, is out now. I talk about #OccupyPabahay (OccupyHousing) as the discursive and material instantiation of urban revanchism, but simultaneously an important rupture in Philippine urban and housing politics. In particular, I consider the dangers and radical possibilities of narratives of banishment: how, on one hand, they have rescaled slum unbelonging in terms of a placelessness that does not only demolish the urban poor’s right to the city, but also undermines their fundamental right to housing; and how, on the other hand, they reorient understandings of the city and its problems in terms of dispossession and banishment.

This is the first feature on the Philippines, and I’m grateful for the invitation to write for one of my favorite magazines about housing justice as urban justice—a crucial but severely neglected issue in both local punditry and academic scholarship. I thank Michael Beltran of Kadamay National for granting permission to use the photo that appears below.

I’ve posted the text below and made the PDF version of the essay available at this link: OccupyPabahay and the politics of placelessness: Dispatches from Manila, Philippines

The Funambulist, article screenshot

The past year has seen the emergence of homelessness and housing justice issues in popular discourse in the Philippines, particularly in Manila and its peri-urban fringe. Kadamay (Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap), a militant urban poor group, has played the pivotal role in bringing this conversation to the forefront with the #OccupyPabahay (#OccupyHousing) direct actions, which commenced on March 8, 2017 in Pandi, Bulacan, a suburb north of Metro Manila. Thousands of urban poor families facing eviction and homelessness barricaded the entrance of seven off-city public housing projects and occupied some 5,000 idle and substandard housing units meant for state security forces and ‘danger zone’ evictees. This shock — though not wholly unprecedented considering the long decades of extreme discontent — surfaced the deplorable state of social housing for both government employees and informal settler relocatees, and likewise revealed the crisis of homelessness and the poverty of urban justice in the Philippines.

Until these occupations, housing justice has received scant attention in the media and the general public. It is only now that it is being talked about, albeit in grossly unsympathetic and hostile terms. #OccupyPabahay incurred the rancor not only of displaced beneficiaries of relocation housing, who are evicted informal settlers themselves, but also of the relatively well-off working and middle classes as well as the elite. In thinking about the severe backlash it generated, it is useful to understand that the occupation occurred in a country with a 5.6 million housing backlog, where shelter needs are outsourced to the private sector and where social housing stock is nonexistent beyond informal settler relocation and government employee housing. Despite originating from decades of institutional neglect, these events likewise did not escape the wrath of state officials, notably President Rodrigo Duterte who pejoratively referred to the takeover as “anarchy” and promised to inflict violence against participants in future actions. As the occupation spread to neighboring state housing projects, the widespread condemnation of both the act and its agents revitalized the stigma of the urban poor’s moral depravation and unbelonging, and reinvigorated views of the urban underclass as the uncouth, the migrant, and the rural other who is outside and out of place.

While narratives of banishment against the urban underclass are certainly not peculiar to Manila, they are remarkable in this instance because their exclusionary politics surfaced an unbelonging that does not only erode the urban poor’s right to the city but also undermines their fundamental right to housing. This is neither simply a question of the legality of the occupation nor a concern about the resulting displacement of intended beneficiaries, but rather a resentful conflation of rights with “deservingness,” and a revanchist notion of urban citizenship. Here, the right to shelter — particularly the right to social housing — is cast as foremost, if not exclusively, the right of “legitimate” citizens. The “squatter,” a pejorative Filipinos use to express contempt and indicate undesirability, is denied this right not so much by revoking it but rather by disqualifying them in the first instance — by arguing that they do not possess such right, to begin with. Kadamay’s critics in both the state and the public demolish their right to shelter and assail the morality of their claims by invoking the fulfilment of certain obligations (most prominently, the payment of taxes) and foregrounding the contributions of formal, taxable labor as barometers of citizenship, and thereafter framing such exclusionary notions of citizenship as a measure of deservingness: “Who are they to deserve social housing when legitimate and productive citizens themselves are not entitled to the same? Why should the ‘theft’ of homes merit the awarding of homes?”

Arguments against a just and urgent response to the crisis of homelessness and empty homes have rescaled slum unbelonging in terms of a placelessness that further displaces the urban poor. Indictments against the occupation reinforce what we already know: that the poor do not belong in the city where land is scarce for social housing but immediately available and quite abundant for private developments. But perhaps more important, these judgments also tell us that when the disgruntled among them flock to the peri-urban fringe, where the state has built entire villages with slum-like conditions to segregate the “necessary” casualties of Manila’s world-class dreams and disaster resilience schemes, they find that they, too, do not belong there. They do not belong anywhere.

This placelessness has less to do with “the take” than the belief, clarified in discourses of and responses to #OccupyPabahay, that the urban poor are being denied the fundamental right to housing — or the right to any space for that matter. In depriving them of all kinds of spaces and places (of slums and shanties, or of dignified homes and idle housing), and in blocking all manner of insurgent practices that stake a claim to a space and a place (i.e., encroachment and occupation), their antagonists forbid their existence. They erase them even from the margins, and so dispossess them of life. Nowhere has this discourse been more pronounced in the fraught decades-long history of urbanizing and cleaning up Manila. This banishment is its culmination, as it no longer suffices for the poor to be swept and set aside: the rejection of their right to shelter is in fact a clamor for their disappearance.

There are other aspects to this hostility against the occupation. The leftist roots of Kadamay and the public disdain for militant activism likewise constitute this enmity. But even if it were led by a non-leftist group, the revanchism that undergirds the brutal responses to the occupation still would have surfaced. The contempt for the urban poor, accompanied by the stigma of squatters as simultaneously the site and the source of urban violence coalesce with the accumulated sense of working- and middle-class disenfranchisement, rooted in the state’s historical neglect of the provision of housing, among other dignities of life. Further, this loathing also draws upon inherited antagonisms against the urban underclass — against the squatter who had long been cast as a nuisance to the urbanization of Metro Manila and its surrounding cities.

The backlash against #OccupyPabahay signifies an important rupture in Philippine urban and housing politics. Notably, it reorients understandings of the city and its problems in terms of dispossession and banishment — phenomena which, despite being deeply embedded in processes of urban development and problems of mobility, are conspicuously absent in journalism, punditry, public scholarship, and conversations about Manila. The immense publicity the occupation generated presents a counterpoint to the stories in the metro sections of major Philippine broadsheets, where writing the city has long been confined to traffic, mobility, and crime — and in the last two years, to the spate of killings under Duterte’s murderous anti-drug campaign. Notwithstanding the importance of these beats, particularly the moral urgency of the latter, the vital stories of building, reconfiguring, and transforming Manila have long been absent. They are found instead in the property sections, where the life of our city is filed under real estate and property development, which is reported like advertisements and chronicled as successes.

In important ways, this banality does offer insights into the state of housing not only in Manila but in the Philippines in general. Housing is thriving as investment. It is abundant as elite and middle-class residence, but deeply unaffordable to the working class, and virtually absent for the homeless and the urban poor. But of course, this sort of reportage and the accompanying shallow journalistic engagements with urban transformations substantially miss the point. #OccupyPabahay surfaces the invisibility of the casualties of urban development, raising questions and igniting debates about housing beyond its allies. This is not to say that the media has substantially or substantively engaged the story behind the struggle; however, the reactions that emerge from the coverage help push the agenda of social housing as urban justice further into the center, alongside the argument of housing inequality as urban inequality.

A year and a half into the occupation, the fate of the homeless remains just as precarious: not only have housing units not been awarded, but eviction orders have also been served. Though intended recipients of occupied housing projects for state security forces were enjoined by the President to give up their units in exchange for more dignified ones, it is uncertain whether and when these empty, unfinished, and substandard homes will be formally transferred to their occupants. Until then, the new residents of these ghost towns and suburban slums will have to guard their homes, defend their barricades, and, as they have always done, bring life to spaces where there was none.

Interview | The political ecology of Laguna Lake as Metro Manila’s flood risk sponge: An interview with Dr Kristian Saguin (Geography, UP Diliman)

I wrote about Dr Kristian Saguin’s (Geography, University of the Philippines-Diliman) Virginia A. Miralao Excellence in Research Award and Urban Studies Foundation International Fellowship, over at the Philippine Geographical Society blog. It includes an interview (excerpted below) about his prize-winning article, “Producing an Urban Hazardscape beyond the City”, published in Environment and Planning A. We talked about the production of Laguna Lake as Metro Manila’s flood risk sponge, the disastrous socioecological consequences of the state’s flood management plans, and the need for an infrastructural turn in Philippine disasters research. An open-access version of his paper is available at this link.

KHRISTINE ALVAREZ: This was such an enjoyable read. I personally think it’s one of the most important critical interventions to Philippine disasters research, as it asks a fresh set of neglected questions. Your paper centers attention on a logical, thus popular, yet often unexamined solution to floods and disasters, which is building a better and a more expansive flood control infrastructure system. You talk about its politics beyond the usual framing of the political by examining the intersecting lives of Laguna Lake as an ecosystem, a fisheries resource, a place of residence, and of course, as a flood control infrastructure. You then consider how narratives of the lake as a frontier that is distinct from and simultaneously in service of the city, constituted it as a space where flood risk can be offloaded (by using it as stormwater storage to mitigate flooding in Metro Manila) and how this in turn generated new inequalities. To me, this shows the fascinating lives of waterways and infrastructures, and I’m curious about how you came to study Laguna Lake and how the risk aspect of your work came about.

KRISTIAN SAGUIN: Laguna Lake presented a rich empirical terrain for me as a geographer who was initially interested in examining agrarian change and conflicts in the context of fisheries. However, in doing ethnographic and historical work to understand aquaculture in the lake, I increasingly realized the need to expand my theoretical approach and extend my topical focus beyond fisheries. Urbanization played a significant role in shaping the lake’s socioecological history, and I found it necessary to trace the material flows – and the practices and politics that surround these flows – from the lake to the city. This brought me to other kinds of flows that I saw co-produced city and lake natures, which included drinking water, wastes and stormwater. Risk permeated these urban metabolic flows initiated mainly by the state’s desire of taming nature for progress. In particular, the building of modern flood control infrastructure in Manila intersected with aquaculture as a similarly modern project. I felt that to understand the urbanization of Laguna Lake, I needed to look at risk production and its modern history.

I’ve been following the social science literature on Philippine disasters post-Ondoy, and I’m continuously struck by the very marginal academic curiosity about the politics of techno-managerial solutions to disasters because they are in fact very political. As you discuss in your paper, diverting stormwater flows from Metro Manila to Laguna Lake flooded fish pens and damaged the structures of aquaculture operators, destroying livelihoods and homes. Likewise, constructing the Laguna Lakeshore Expressway Dike (LLED) to alleviate flooding in the city led to the eviction of lake dwellers. What are your thoughts on the neglect of the politics of solutions, particularly of infrastructure, in disasters scholarship in and on the Philippines?

I think the structural roots and the state’s role need to be re-emphasized in the disaster literature in the Philippines. The rich body of work focusing on improving resilience and adaptive capacities of communities needs to be complemented by critical research that probes the production of risk and vulnerability. Production is a key term because it points to a dynamic and processual understanding of risk and vulnerability. It reminds us of the political nature of disasters, whose roots can be traced back to particular moments, sites and relations.

One of the most striking things you mention is how Laguna Lake was conceived as a space “where risk can take place”. You talk about three flood events in your paper – 2009, 2012, and 2013. I wonder if the state’s view of the lake as a risk sponge changed after the 2009 Ondoy disaster, and to what extent these new perceptions reconfigured flood interventions.

The biggest irony in the government’s response to addressing flooding in Laguna Lake – which was in many ways rooted in the design of large-scale infrastructure built in the 1970s and 1980s  – was to revive older plans of constructing more infrastructure around the lake. The LLED emerged as a concrete project after the 2013 monsoon floods, which neatly aligned with the previous administration’s public-private partnership agenda. Fisherfolk who opposed the project were particularly concerned that by building a dike infrastructure on the western shore of the lake, flood risk will be transferred or magnified both for residents in other parts of the lake and for those shoreline communities located next to the dike. The expansion of Mega Manila toward the western bay of the lake has set this section apart from the rest of the lake in terms of its need to be protected and the opportunities that it provides for further urban growth. The discursive distinction between Manila as the urban agglomeration and Laguna Lake as the non-city sink therefore has become increasingly blurred.

How did imaginaries of the city as a space to be protected from flooding vis-a-vis the non-city as a space that fulfils this obligation emerge?

These imaginaries are most explicit in flood control master plans and infrastructure project plans, which I traced as far back as the 1940s. It would be interesting to see also how these imaginaries emerged alongside changing scientific and governance approaches to flood management.

Your paper clearly demonstrates the injurious consequences to residents of producing the lake as a flood risk sink. I’m interested in learning if lake dwellers or the state spoke of any benefits to residents of utilizing the lake as a stormwater basin, and if the state wielded this as justification for infrastructural projects particularly the LLED. 

Based on conversations, residents do not see any benefit from higher water lake levels for a longer period of time unless they damage fishpens and release fish into the lake (as in the case of strong typhoons). On the other hand, state plans have acknowledged that these projects will cause greater flooding in the lake but have downplayed their effects or have framed them as a necessary sacrifice for the greater number of people.

Community resistance to the Napindan Hydraulic Control Structure in the early 1980s is so interesting, especially the motorcade of boats from the lake to Malacanang. It seems like the bold resistance dampened in recent years despite the more disastrous effects of lake policies and projects on the lives of residents. Is that a fair observation, and can you tell us more about the state of organizing in the lake at the time of your last visit? 

For some lake residents, the floods have brought attention back to the flood control infrastructures which have inconspicuously become part of the urban landscape. These infrastructures are often blamed for some of the ecological problems of the lake, including flooding and decreased fisheries productivity. Therefore, lake residents see these infrastructures as important sites of transformation. This became pronounced again in the wake of proposals for the construction of the LLED in 2014-2016. The project has since been shelved in its proposed form because of financial feasibility concerns but it resulted in various forms of community resistance that I think has not been seen in the lake since the 1980s.

I appreciate how you used the city and the non-city as binary categories, rather than the more familiar dichotomies of urban/rural, city/hinterland, etc. This framing is neither too opposed nor too contradictory, yet it conveys clear distinctions. I think this is a brilliant way of drawing a distinction between two materially different spaces while maintaining that they flow into each other. To me, this speaks to your argument that non-city spaces like Laguna Lake are urban because they are imbricated in processes of urbanization in the urban core. Rhetorically, I think it militates against the rather rigid imaginaries of Metro Manila and Laguna Lake as mutually exclusive spaces. How did you arrive at this framing?

Debates about the urban have re-emerged in urban studies in recent years. Reading and hearing urban scholars [notably Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid] speak about “planetary urbanization”, “operational landscapes” and the urban beyond cities (as well as their corresponding critiques) strongly resonated with me as someone who has been thinking about the links between the lake and the city for many years.

If non-city spaces are urban because they are implicated in processes of city-making, where might we draw the line concerning what is urban? Can you talk about what it means to keep the city and the non-city in “productive tension”?

This is one of the contentious points that arises when we rethink the spaces of the urban beyond the city. Some urban scholars [particularly Brenner and Schmid] make the strong theoretical claim of a planetary urban condition – a world that has become or is becoming totally urban. What I think is needed instead is grounded research that empirically demonstrates how non-cities become enrolled in urbanization both in material and discursive terms. We start with the city or the non-city and then see through which processes construct these as urban or non-urban. We can find the urban in non-cities in the same way that the non-urban can exist within cities.

Can you talk more about how shifting the focus of studies of urbanization beyond the city urbanizes urban political ecology (UPE)?

Despite its name, urban political ecology draws much of its theoretical and epistemological language from critical urban studies rather than political ecology. UPE has employed a critical urban studies approach to contested natures in cities, a topic which political ecology has largely avoided. This division of labor I think has prevented scholars from considering the variegated spaces and landscapes brought together by processes like urbanization. However, recent UPE papers are beginning to bridge these divisions.

As an urban political ecologist, how would you explain UPE to those who are unfamiliar with the term? 

Urban political ecology takes as starting point the ideas that urbanization produces particular configurations of nature and that the political permeates this urbanization of nature. UPE rehearses the argument that urban environmental issues are fundamentally political at a time when technocratic and apolitical solutions dominate policy-making and urban governance. UPE’s focus on the political may take the form of emphasizing conflicts over access to nature in cities (as in the case of urban water, food and green spaces), the uneven distribution of risk and harms (as in floods and wastes), or contested knowledge production about urban natures (as in ideas about how to see urban environmental concerns), among others.

What are you currently working on?

I am near the end of a two-year research project on urban agriculture in Metro Manila. One of the interesting findings of the project is different ways that the “urban” (and urban subjectivities) is articulated through urban agriculture projects.

You were recently awarded an international fellowship by the Urban Studies Foundation. Can you tell us about what you’re going to work on?

The Urban Studies Foundation International Fellowship provides me an opportunity to work on two sets of activities that explore the politics of urban nature in Manila. During the fellowship period, I will be based in Durham University under the mentorship of Professor Colin McFarlane, who has produced outstanding research on similar themes as mine, such as the politics of informality and infrastructure, among others. First, I will finish a book manuscript based on my dissertation that brings together eight years of research on the urbanization of Laguna Lake and Metro Manila. Second, I will write articles based on my ongoing research on the dimensions of urban agriculture in Metro Manila.

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


My MA thesis in Sociology 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 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.

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.