On 14 June 2017, a devastating fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, west London. On the same day, a tower block collapsed in Kariobangi estate, Nairobi, Kenya. In different ways, both tragedies exposed the injustices of urban politics, the volatility of construction materials, and disregard for regulations and planning. They also reanimated debates about 'proper' forms of urban living, the widening inequalities of contemporary urban life and what a desirable city should look like.
This project will examine tower block failure as both physical event and in wider public discourse. I will investigate how failure emerges across multiple scales, from design and materials to politics and public opinion, and how this can set in motion new processes of demolition, construction and renewal. In this way, failure events act on the wider landscape of a city, animating webs of political, social and material effect. A Future Leader Fellowship will provide the flexibility and support to address such dynamics as they unfold, engaging with researchers, built environment professionals, artists, communities and buildings themselves to generate novel insights, exhibitions and impact-oriented strategies that work with the processes, materials, sites and people experiencing urban change.
Cities in Africa, with high levels of informality, infrastructural breakdown and poor governance, are frequently depicted as places of urban failure. Yet these assessments are usually made through reference to urban norms established in the cities of Europe and America, as though there is a universal urban standard against which all cities should be measured. Whilst the Kariobangi collapses clearly reveal major concerns in Nairobi, this universalist approach is not necessarily the most productive for understanding urban failure. Not only does it mask diverse modes of city-making and context-specific issues, it assumes that Euro-American cities are a desirable baseline. But as Grenfell and the potent critique it ignited make clear, concerns about the failure of urban neighbourhoods, housing design or local governance in London are far from resolved. In the aftermath of catastrophic high-rise failures in London and in Nairobi, the question of what a resilient and sustainable urban world might look like has emerged with renewed force. These concerns are particularly pressing at a time of unparalleled urban change: by 2050, two-thirds of the world's population will be living in urban areas, with highest urban growth occurring in developing regions, particularly Africa. These are crucial challenges that this project aims to address through two critical objectives: how can the specificity of urban disaster in one city help to inform understandings of, and responses to, catastrophe in another? And what new approaches and collaborative methods do we need to grasp how the afterlives of failure are reshaping urban space, at a time of increasingly diverse urbanisation, as well as growing connectivity between cities of the world?
As such, my research will have important potential applications and benefits for society and community wellbeing. This is a crucial and timely opportunity to develop new research pathways that address the resilience of urban communities and the nature of urban futures, strategic concerns vital to the development of the UK and Kenya. Using the tower block as a lens and combining urban anthropology with methods from urban studies, material culture studies and urban design, I am in a unique position to develop innovative empirical and theoretical approaches to advance understandings of what constitutes urban success or failure, not just for scholarship but for urban practice and urban life.
Project funded through UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship