Resilience and vulnerability at the urban Nexus

Investigating resilience and vulnerability at the urban nexus of food, water, energy and the environment.

Three SPRU researchers; Professor Fiona Marshall, Dr Saurabh Arora and Dr Ralitsa Hiteva have been awarded a grant by the ESRC for a project investigating ‘Resilience and vulnerability at the urban Nexus of food, water, energy and the environment (ResNexus).

Dubbed ResNexus for short, the project team, which includes partners at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and University of São Paulo in Brazil will examine how vulnerabilities within urban communities are constructed by through trade-offs and aggravations at the food, water and environment nexus, in three mid-sized highly-dynamic cities in East Africa (Kampala), Brazil (Guarulhos) and Europe (Sofia).

Cities are complex networked spaces and access to key services is unevenly distributed among city dwellers. Due to rural-urban migration and climate change, augmented by other pressures (e.g. from ‘global’ markets), provisioning of many basic services and commodities such as food, water and energy requires constant adaptation and reform. With increased demand on these services, there are urgent needs to improve access in an equitable way, increase efficiency of use, and to preserve the ecosystems that support the natural resources upon which these services depend.

However, mainstream interventions aimed at creating ‘resilient’ urban food, water and energy systems’ are associated with a number of critical challenges.  For example, vulnerability to water contamination may be exacerbated by vulnerability to hunger and lack of access to energy.

Professor Marshall said “We are really delighted to have support for this project, which enables us to further develop some key strands of sustainable urbanisation research at SPRU in these crucial areas of food-water-energy interactions and resilience. It will strengthen our network of international collaborators, and we are particularly excited about the possibilities for positive impacts for vulnerable urban communities…”

Focussing on access to infrastructures and resource flows by the urban poor in the three cities, the project team will explore how any new vulnerabilities engendered by a social, technological or ecological ‘events’ interact with existing forms of insecurity and injustice. For instance, squatters cultivating a peri-urban riverbed for their own food provision may be most directly affected by cyclical flooding.

Dr Ralitsa Hiteva will lead research activities for SPRU’s research site in Sofia, Bulgaria, focusing on the practices of

1) heat and hot water provision and use in multifamily buildings/blocks of flats, and

2) food provision and consumption

Through participatory vision-building workshops and inter-city exchanges of policymakers and NGO representatives, the project attempts to involve these groups directly in the research process. The project aims to work with local communities policy makers and practitioners to identify opportunities to exploit synergies (such as how improved energy access can benefit flows of food and water), and to rethink the trade-offs in energy, food and water access to build more equitable and resilient cities.  Placing central importance on users’ practices and their (re)connection with policy-led interventions, the project introduces an ‘ecology of practice’ approach to contribute new insights into the deepening of democracy in urban governance. The project engages with two policy areas; poverty, inequality and vulnerability issues and with infrastructure and the built environment.

Professor Marshall said “We think that the new ‘ecology of practice’ approach that will be developed through this work, can provide really valuable insights into the possibilities for achieving more equitable and resilient cities”.

Method for data collection and analysis: 

The project uses a variety of research methods for mapping the nexus of vulnerabilities, through the lens of ecology of practices. These include canvassing of policy documents and urban plans, and the integrated use of shadowing, conducting semi-structured interviews and participatory vision-building workshops with practitioners.

Shadowing is a form of non-participant observation where the researcher moves with selected practitioners, while conducting semi-structured interviews with them, for a time in their everyday occupations to observe their practices while preserving a position of ‘outsidedness’, allowing the observer to note the importance of things that practitioners may take for granted in their everyday actions. For example, shadowing could include following the flow of water into an informal settlement through a public water point or a tank. Shadowing this water forward to the users’ home and backward to its ‘source’, researchers can identify junctures at which the practices of its provisioning interact with those of food and energy, uncovering the different vulnerabilities encountered by the practitioners. This helps us understand and analyse how (using whose help, mixing what elements) more and less powerful practitioners are able to address urban vulnerabilities. In addition, by shadowing policymakers and planners, we will map how their governance efforts interact with practices of other practitioners (particularly the poor).

Due to its emphasis on following humans and objects, shadowing will also make use of photo- and video-ethnography. Photo and video materials will be regularly uploaded as fieldwork blogs, allowing website users to also experience the shadowing of resources and practices from the 3 field sites. All field notes, written and visual, will be coded focussing on one key intersection between different practices. Multiple such codings will be carefully assembled to produce narratives on the nexus of vulnerabilities-in-the-making.

Finally, to facilitate collective imaginings of new pathways to urban resilience, we will organize participatory vision-building workshops between a multitude of diverse practitioners. The aim is to build ‘hybrid forums’ in which policymakers, planners, producers and users meaningfully engage with each other, and collectively reimagine resilience-building that is geared toward addressing everyday vulnerability.