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Cities and urban infrastructure of Global South to be stretched beyond breaking point

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A special edition of the Journal of The British Academy published today highlights how environmental factors and informal urban populations in the global South, forecast to triple in size by 2045, will stretch cities and urban infrastructure “beyond their current breaking point”. The new edition, Cities and Infrastructure in the Global South, presents findings from the British Academy’s Cities & Infrastructure Programme, a research programme on urban life in nine cities across Africa, Asia and South America.

This edition of the Journal of The British Academy includes a range of critical and insightful findings:

  • In Ghanaian cities traditional, indigenous knowledge of flood warning indicators such as sudden rises of certain insects or buds flowering at unusual times are more effective at predicting weather patterns than Met Office warnings.
  • One study in Hanoi, Vietnam found that floods posed greater risks to women; informal responses to floods such as clearing ditches and waterways relied on highly gendered roles, meaning floods are more dangerous for women. Women are also often left behind to care for sick family members during floods.
  • A study of disaster recovery operations following the 2015 Kathmandu earthquake and Typhoon Haiyan reveals that relief initiatives can detrimental to communities’ long-term resilience where poorer citizens, the elderly and widows are unwilling or unable to use compensation and aid effectively.
  •  A Kathmandu study found new ways to preserve and reinforce historical and cultural monuments against earthquakes by combining archaeology and geoarchaeology with innovative 3D visualisation, and geotechnical and structural engineering techniques.
  • In Bar Elias, Lebanon – the country with the highest per capita population of refugees in the world – researchers found that giving local people a greater say in infrastructure and planning decisions broke down divisions and encouraged integration between refugee and existing communities.

This latest edition of the Journal was edited by Caroline Knowles, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and Director of the British Academy’s Cities and Infrastructure Programme. This programme funded seventeen international, interdisciplinary research projects to identify and address the challenges of creating and maintaining sustainable and resilient cities in developing countries.

Professor Caroline Knowles said:

“Cities present a huge challenge: those with the greatest concentrations of the poor and marginalised are growing the most rapidly and uncontrollably. Our response to this must be based on an everyday understanding of how cities actually work, drawing on street-level fieldwork and close participation from city residents in planning and development.

“Research such as that supported under the Cities and Infrastructure Programme demonstrates the power and limitations of a localised approach; traditional knowledge and understanding can beat the latest technology, but at the same time may reflect and ingrain long-standing inequalities. What it really underlines is the importance of collaboration between the Global South and North in generating new knowledge and approaches and in making cities liveable and sustainable.”

Professor Fiona Williams FBA, Editor of the Journal of the British Academy and Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the University of Leeds, said:

“This collection of studies provides excellent analysis of the challenges shared by cities across the world and is exemplary of the interdisciplinary, collaborative work that will play a vital role in identifying and facilitating our response. It is informative, inspiring and, at times, moving.

“By building on North-South connections, this innovative research programme has made a valuable contribution to existing knowledge, to strengthening the research base in developing countries, and to informing policy thinking and responses to key urban challenges.”