Situating Spatial Appropriation within Decolonial & Feminist Frameworks: Thinking through Research Methodology

In September 2017, I began PhD studies at the Sheffield School of Architecture (SSoA) as part of a long desire to engage in research that examines spatial appropriation in two West African cities – Accra, Ghana and Lagos, Nigeria – with the aim of documenting and theorising about space from the local, southern perspectives of these places. The following text from a recent presentation at the SSoA PhD Manifesto/s Research Conference on my current research progress and plans for my research methodology. I co-organised this first-ever student-run conference at SSoA with a group of female colleagues (and also designed the website!).


As way of context, we know that many African cities are experiencing high rates of urbanization. We know that an increasing number of urban dwellers are living in marginalized settlements and in sub-standard conditions in cities — we are speaking of access to housing and to space in which to live out the full spectrum of private and public life. We know that government and profit-oriented development are capitalizing on urban space, and that in many cases, existing “formal” public spaces are exclusive (inaccessible, gated) and in other cases such spaces are vanishing due to transformations to more economically profitable usages.

I describe spatial appropriation as the everyday spatial practices in which urban dwellers take over spaces in the city (streets, open spaces, in-between spaces, vacant spaces, public spaces) in the city for individual and collective use. For example, homeless persons making shelter under bridges, traders setting up commercial vending activities at streets and transport points, youth pick-up football games in vacant, unused lots and streets, community residents closing off their streets in order to enact processional cultural rites and festivals, as well as for funerals and other celebrations.

Within the architecture, design and planning disciplines, we often conceive of we practitioners as the catalysts and interventionists who conceive, plan, design, and implement changes that create vibrant formal places in the city. But what about when urban dwellers create place themselves and through independent, subversive, contested, prohibited practices?

Through spatial appropriation, urban dwellers contest the existing form and function of the city – through their spatial practices and their ways of being in these spaces. These are spatialized manifestations of the discordance between local and national governments’ conceptualizations of the city (in their maps, designs, and plans) and citizens’ ways of navigating the leftover spaces in the city to make life in available place – these discordant ways of thinking and doing in space are what the South African southern theorist Vanessa Watson calls “conflict of rationalities.

We know that with the exception of Ethiopia, the African continent was partitioned and subjected to colonial rule. Walter Mignolo, a decolonial theorist, describes three domains of coloniality: the coloniality of economy, of political authority, and of knowledge/being. The European colonial project in the African continent was an economic, political and onto-epistemological project that officially lasted 99 years in Nigeria and 90 years in Ghana. Decolonial theorists asserts that we are not in a “post-colonial” period, but that coloniality is still with us today.

I will speak about one level: Colonial occupation was a seizing of control over physical geographical areas and writing on the ground of these spaces “a new set of social and spatial relations,” according to Achille Mbembe: Producing boundaries and hierarchies, zones and enclaves, subverting then-existing property arrangements, re-categorizing groups of people (citizen v. subject), resource extraction, manufacturing cultural imaginaries.

Many African countries still use planning legislation based in European planning laws from the 1930s or 1940s. So today’s governments still tend to reinforce and entrench colonial spatial plans and land management tools – sometimes even more rigidly than the colonial governments do themselves in the present day.

Master planning, reflecting early urban European and US modernist thinking, carries a particular vision of the “good city.” Planning and design for urban form is shaped by top-down concerns of aesthetics (order, harmony, formality and symmetry); efficiency (functional specialisation of areas and movement, and the free flow of traffic); and modernization (slum removal, tower buildings, connectivity, plentiful open green space).

Particularly in the African context, southern theorists use the framework of “Informality” to refer to the survivalist efforts of urban dwellers who are excluded from, or only partially or temporarily included in, formal aspects of the city. “Informality” (which I rather define as spatial appropriation) has become the dominant mode of behavior in global south cities. The conflict of these different logics is spatialized at the urban commons – where we see urban dwellers appropriate space for their own needs – to use space in ways otherwise to how they have been designed, In the process, these individuals and groups are at constant risk of the state’s revanchist policies and urban management measures (evictions, demolitions, relocations, harassment, rent-seeking, etc) that displace these individuals from these spaces.

Decolonial Ways of Being and Doing (Research)? 

If the functions of the “post-colonial” state (government) in essence re-produce colonial frameworks, inherently grounded in Eurocentric (and US) ways of being and doing, perhaps spatial appropriation can provide a point of departure from which to explore (decolonial) ways of being and doing that challenge, resist, and subvert colonial domination. [TBD: if they are decolonial or just challenging dominant constructs.]

Through this research process, I aim to document forms of spatial appropriation, and to connect these spatial practices to local meanings and knowledge that residents hold about space:

  • What are the ways in which individuals and groups appropriate open, vacant and public spaces?
  • What are the meanings and knowledges that residents possess about space that contribute to their everyday adaptations to space?
  • How do the dynamics of power, as relayed through gender, status, identity, etc., inform access and use to (or alternatively, exclusion from) these spaces?

My research project is concerned with decolonial ways of being and doing, and this is at multiple points of interaction:

  • at the point of focusing my research topic (the perspective from which I examine this research topic and seek to make theoretical connections);
  • at the point of my stance as researcher in charge of my research project (knowledge production as a co-productive process).

I situate my research using the discourses of decolonial/postcolonial/southern theory and feminist methodology. I see these discourses as speaking to each other in important ways (theorizing from the subjective vantage point of the oppressed and marginalized, challenging assumptions of objectivity, showing that we are in a “multiple-world-world” rather than a “one-world-world” of being, knowledge and experience). These discourses also speak to me with respect to my approach and my positionality.

It is not lost on me that I am based at a UK institution and conducting research in two former colonial capitals who are densely intertwined in the frameworks of coloniality and neocoloniality. It would be entirely possible (and perhaps quite easy!) to uncritically participate in and contribute to the centering of European way of being and knowledge in my African cities-focused research, and to participate in problematic, yet dominant activities of transplanting theory from the “center” to the “periphery;”, asserting myself as expert in a hierarchically designed research process; treating these cities as spaces for data collection only; theorizing ON these spaces rather than theorizing IN these spaces; and using this research as my opportunity for non-reciprocal self-aggrandizement at the expense of marginalized communities.

Instead, I am interested in trying to achieve what Walter Mignolo describes as the two basic tasks of decolonial thinking and doing:

  • Revealing the work of the coloniality of power (domains of economic, authority, knowledge/being and supported by pillars of patriarchy and racism).
  • Building communities based on a vision of society that de-links from coloniality.

So I see spatial appropriation as a potential everyday spatial practice that de-links from the coloniality of the existing built environment, and I see my role as one of a facilitator, rather than claimant to knowledge or knowledge processes.

Engaging Feminist Methodology                                                                                        

Feminist research begins from the premise that the nature of reality in western society is unequal and hierarchical.

Feminist standpoint epistemologists challenge the differential power that groups have to define knowledge, and they argue that marginalized groups hold a particular claim to knowing – these groups represent the world from a particular, socially situated perspective. There are a plurality of perspectives, many situated standpoints, none of whom can claim objectivity, as Donna Haraway describes as a “view from nowhere.” Experiences must be located and analyzed within the broader social relations of political, social, economic power structures.

Feminist researchers advocate that feminist research should not just be ON women, it should be FOR women, and done WITH women.

Feminist have actively engaged in innovating research methodologies by challenging “mainstream” ways of collecting, analyzing and presenting data.

Feminist research is concerned with issue of broader social change and social justice.

Feminist research is critical by focusing on issues of power and reflexivity within the research process, particularly to the question of doing research in ways in which participants’ voices can be heard, and my presuming to know, speak for, and advocate for others. To what extent can I claim to speak for others across the complexities of difference (class, age, ethnic group, nationality, social group, etc.)?

So I will implement my research as a collaborative, participatory process and using creative methods. Accra and Lagos are my general points of investigation, and in partnership with my collaborators, I am developing a research design that includes participatory methods for data collection, analysis and dissemination.


Selected References

Arturo Escobar (2015). Thinking-feeling with the Earth: Territorial Struggles and the Ontological Dimension of the Epistemologies of the South. AIBR Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana 11(1): 11-32.

Donna Haraway (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives, Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-599.

bell hooks (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center (1st ed.). Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Achille Mbembe (2003). Necropolitics. Public Culture. 15(1): 11–40

Walter Mignolo (2007). Delinking. Cultural Studies 21(2-3), 449-514.

Walter Mignolo (2009). Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De-colonial Freedom. Theory, Culture & Society, 26 (7-8), 1-23.

Walter Mignolo (2011a). Epistemic Disobedience and the Decolonial Option: A Manifesto. Transmodernity: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1 (2), 44-66.

Walter Mignolo (2014). Further Thoughts on (De)Coloniality. In Broeck, S; Junker, C. (eds) Postcoloniality – Decoloniality – Black Critique: Joints and Fissures. University of Chicago Press.

Jennifer Robinson (2006). Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development. Milton Park, UK: Routledge.

Ananya Roy (2005). “Urban informality: An epistemology of planning.” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol 7, No. 2, Spring 2005: 147-158.

Ananya Roy & Nezar AlSayyad (2004). Urban informality: Transnational perspectives from the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

AbdouMaliq Simone (2004). For the City Yet to Come: Changing African Life in Four Cities. Durham: Duke University Press.

Vanessa Watson (2009). Seeing from the South: Refocusing Urban planning on the Globe’s Central Urban Issues. Urban Studies, 46(11): 2259-2275.

Vanessa Watson (2014). The Case for a Southern Perspective in Planning Theory. International Journal of E-Planning Research, 3(1): 23-37.