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New Texts Out Now: Ralf Brand and Sara Fregonese, The Radicals’ City: Urban Environment, Polarization, Cohesion

[Cover of Ralf Brand and Sara Fregonese, [Cover of Ralf Brand and Sara Fregonese, "The Radicals’ City: Urban Environment, Polarization, Cohesion"]

Ralf Brand and Sara Fregonese, The Radicals’ City: Urban Environment, Polarization, Cohesion. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sara Fregonese (SF): The book is based on the research project “The Built Environment: Mirror and Mediator of Radicalization?” which ran from 2008 to 2010 at the University of Manchester, UK. It builds strongly on the significant amount of primary research data that the project produced. Our aim was to tell about radicalization and everyday urban conflicts in a way that isn’t limited to local politics, but instead integrates political considerations with concrete locations and, more specifically, built environments. We wanted to show that social tensions and divisions—as well as good relations—do not happen in a void. Rather, they take place amidst specific physical surroundings, artifacts, and architectures that mediate power and human behavior.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SF: The book explores how social conditions and urban environments shape each other in four different cities that present substantially different types of polarization (or even radicalization) and different attempts to achieve higher social cohesion (what we call “positive urban encounters”).

Despite much interdisciplinary work on social cohesion, polarization, and radicalization, the literature has been traditionally the dominion of scholars who address the political, social, and behavioral aspects of the issue: sociologists, historians, psychologists, political scientists, and conflict studies specialists. This book instead places itself within the growing scholarship from architecture, urban studies, planning, and geography that focuses on the spatial and material angles of phenomena of conflict and division.

There is another niche the book fills. While there are numerous studies of the material aspects of open and “established” conflict and/or war (for example, Israel/Palestine), there are fewer studies about the early stages. Often overlooked are the perhaps less dramatic—but crucial—phases of developing polarization and, equally, de-polarization. Rather than explaining the role that urban space and the built environment play in community relations that are already openly hostile, the book examines the process when social relations are getting worse—or better.

We worked within the Science and Technology Studies (or STS) literature, which originates in sociological studies of science. STS is not a monolithic school of thought. However, most STS scholars share the argument that we need to overcome the cognitive split between subject and object, matter and mind, humans and nonhumans. In the book, we argue that there is no clear-cut split between built environment and societies, but rather they both shape each other, as in a process of action and reaction between social and material processes.

The book addresses four topical case studies: Beirut, Belfast, Amsterdam, and Berlin. Very different cities present different modes and instances of polarization and cohesion. In Beirut, we analyzed multi-group polarization (despite the lack of obvious physical divisions), territorial markers, and the use of defensive architectures.

In Belfast, we studied a number of grassroots initiatives towards de-escalation in a city whose peace walls and security infrastructure are tangible expressions of conflict and separation. We also examined the role of urban design and architecture in promoting and implementing the idea of shared space.

In former East Berlin, we addressed the rise of far right extremism, characterized by a high presence of semantic territorial markers in specific locations. We also observed  the authorities’ attempt to “design out” crime through secure infrastructure and surveillance, as well as the attempt to boost counter-discourses into the everyday urban space (through multicultural gardens, membership-only playgrounds, and municipality activities).

In Amsterdam’s neighborhood of Slotervaart, we observed the lack of infrastructure for the local youth. We tracked the inequalities produced by recent processes of urban renewal in parallel to the recent phenomena of Muslim radicalization in the area.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

SF: The book connects to my previous research on conflict, urban geopolitics, and sovereignty in a number of ways. Most importantly, the themes of social division, materiality of conflict, and the connections of cities and specific urban sites with geopolitics were central to my PhD on urban space and conflict in Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war and my subsequent research on the question of sovereignty in Lebanon and its connection to the control of urban space. My specialist knowledge of the Beirut context also helped shape this case study.

There are also interesting ways in which the book departs from my previous research: the use of the STS approach, the proximity to UK counter-radicalization and national security policy, as well as three other case studies that hadn’t been part of my previous research. However, the project also partly informed my subsequent work, for example on the notion of human/nonhuman hybridity applied to sovereignty and, more recently and at an embryonic stage, on the discursive, policy, and technological shifts from counter-terrorism to countering protest and domestic civil dissent.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SF: In targeting our research, we aimed to sensitize an interdisciplinary audience—academic and not—to the role of the built environment in shaping social tensions. The book is illustrated and written in a way that we hope will appeal to practitioners such as architects, planners, and other built environment professionals; municipality representatives and other urban policy makers; community organizations and local government bodies; and also to a certain extent practitioners of urban security.

We hope to sensitize these practice sectors to the notion that architecture, urban design, and, more generally, urban interventions should be “enrolled” in our efforts to create better communities in better cities. The built environment is clearly not the sole cause of—or solution to—conflict and polarization. But neither it is completely innocent or just an inert background. With the exception perhaps of cities with blatant division like Belfast, the importance of the built environment in situations of social tension is overlooked by conflict scholars and by the practitioners of international policy.

There is also a knowledge gap between built environment professionals and social scientists who study conflict: the former do not take conflict into consideration enough; the latter don’t consider the built materiality enough. We hope we contributed to narrow this gap. The other message we also hope to convey is that polarized built environments are more than immobile “texts” where researchers, policymakers, or professionals can simply “read” signs of polarization. Polarization can be less apparent to the non-specialist’s or outsider’s eye. What is required is detailed knowledge of the local context and subtleties, in order to understand the ways in which local micro-geographies influence localized social processes.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SF: I am currently collecting the results of my doctoral and postdoctoral work on Lebanon in a book titled “War and the City: Urban Geopolitics in Lebanon,” which I am preparing for the publisher I. B. Tauris.

I have recently concluded a British Academy project titled “Views from the Holiday Inn: Geopolitics, Urban War, and Memory in Beirut,” which is showcased on its own dedicated website. I am developing my work on hotels as geopolitical sites of violence with further research on hotels as geopolitical sites of peace, looking at the way hotels—their presence, infrastructures, and services—facilitate peace-making and reconciliation, for example by providing space for major peace conferences.

Fairly recently, I became interested in geographies of protest and uprising. I recently convened a special issue of commentaries on the theme, and I just organized an interdisciplinary workshop on the role of uprising and protest in discourses and practices of urban security and resilience.

J: This book combines geographical breadth with theoretical and empirical depth. What are some of the challenges and opportunities in this approach?

SF: Relating the terminology we use in the book with the different empirical contexts we considered was a challenge and an opportunity for reflection. We soon grew unsatisfied with the term “radicalization” contained in the original title of the research project. This term implies the movement and withdrawal of an individual or one group of individuals away from accepted, or at least mainstream, notions within society. “Radicalization” inevitably entailed a judgment towards the individuals or groups seen as “divergent” and didn’t leave much space for consideration of the context and social relationships within which these groups supposedly radicalize. Polarization, instead, implies a more relative phenomenon of mutual distancing, which does not define a priori which one of two (or more) poles moves away from the other and which is the “wrong” direction to move towards; it also takes into consideration the relationships and responsibilities of multiple social actors.

Excerpt from The Radicals’ City: Urban Environment, Polarization, Cohesion

Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project

Luckily, a so-called peace process is under way in Northern Ireland and the consensus that the future should be non-violent is fairly robust. This goal is not easily implemented in hearts, minds and on the ground, however, and part of the problem certainly lies in the obduracy of the built environment. Nevertheless, successful attempts can be reported to remove a few security fences, gates and road barriers. Yet more ambitious than the removal of architecture that keeps people apart is the establishment of material structures that bring people together.

The Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project (SRRP) in outer West Belfast is such an attempt. It deserves extra attention, not least because it is often portrayed as a model that inspires various other grassroots, nongovernmental and state organizations in their efforts towards de-polarization and de-radicalization.

SRRP is located at the interface between the Protestant enclave of Suffolk and the predominantly Catholic area Lenadoon. The Stewartstown Road was the site of countless violent clashes between these two groups, the police and the British Army over several decades and was therefore fortified with a peace wall, intended to keep the warring factions apart. Life in Suffolk was seen by many residents as an existence under siege. Those with the strongest determination or who lacked alternatives felt like the last Mohicans. Many of those who could, however, had moved to a more tranquil life in the suburbs. As a result, many houses in Suffolk were vacant and derelict. Also the small row of shops (with unused maisonettes) had only two retail units rented out and was anything but a community asset.

Over the last ten years, however, courageous individuals—many of whom are women—from both sides took the initiative to develop a more peaceful relationship between their communities. After many years of negotiations, disputes, highs and lows, their efforts resulted in the construction of a jointly owned and managed two-storey building, replacing the old row of shops. Its roughly one thousand square meters accommodate offices for community groups, four retail units and commercially let office space. The scheme is widely considered a financial and social success with a long waiting list for the retail units, general acceptance among most residents of the adjoining communities, absence of sectarian graffiti and income generation for community initiatives. This experience energized the construction of a second phase, which extended the building by two more retail units, more office space and a separate nursery. The urban context during the construction of phase II can be seen here.

Technically, the SRRP building is still part of a peace wall. Its continuation, directly adjacent to the SRRP building, can be seen in Figure 4.33. The SRRP building can therefore not do without metal bollards, CC TV cameras, anti-graffiti coating, toughened window glass, etc. (example in Figure 4.34). The experience so far, however, shows that they are hardly tested. Figure 4.35 shows two different types of fences (sturdy versus see-through), chosen for the two different construction phases of SRRP because the perception of the likely threat has changed. This is a clear example of how materiality mirrors the social situation.

Another example of the target-hardening approach can be seen in Figure 4.36. It shows the front façade of the nursery, which was built as part of SRRP’s phase II. The round windows are meant to make a friendly impression but the need to protect them with metal roller shutters turned out as quite an engineering challenge. What is less conventional and more interesting are other architectural features of the SRRP building, which do not simply harden it as a potential target. Among the design characteristics that make it particularly suitable as a shared space is the decision to create two main entrances; one each from the Lenadoon and the Suffolk side, connected by a corridor on the ground floor (figures 4.37 and 4.38). This, and the identical type of doors, address and house number on both sides (Figure 4.39), underlines the architectural and symbolic non-discrimination and non-preference of either community.

The principle of equal treatment is also visible and tangible on the first floor. Its north-eastern (left on the floorplan, Figure 4.40) half is commercially rented out, the other used by community groups. The shape of the rooms in the right bottom part shows the importance of material fairness, for example with identical L-shaped offices. The architect proposed this design only after complaints about an earlier draft, which had not followed the equal treatment logic to the same degree.

All of SRRP’s efforts and effects have not eroded the identity of either community. This was never the intention any way. It is not about syncretism but about coexistence. Youths in Suffolk still gather anything combustible in early July in preparation of the 12 July bonfire to commemorate a historical victory over Catholic King James in 1690 (Figure 4.41). And while their neighbors in Lenadoon might not applaud this, one can now see them wearing green GAA jerseys (a clear sign of Catholicism) on SRRP premises and sharing a coffee with a Suffolk resident—and vice versa. Before SRRP, the infrastructure—and underlying trust-building process—simply did not exist for this to happen.

The massive and brave efforts for the establishment of SRRP were honored in 2003 with the British Urban Regeneration Association’s award for best practice in community regeneration.

[The complete introduction to the book is available here.]

[Excerpted from Ralf Brand and Sara Fregonese, The Radicals’ City: Urban Environment, Polarization, Cohesion, by permission of the authors. © 2013 Ralf Brand and Sara Fregonese. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]

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