Precarious Geographies workshop, 10th February, 11 Bedford Square, sponsored by the Royal Holloway Social & Cultural Geography Group (organised and convened by Ella Harris and Mel Nowicki)

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Keynote Speakers Hannah Lewis, Louise Waite and James Rhodes 


On Tuesday 10th February at 11 Bedford Square, Ella Harris and Mel Nowicki ran a workshop, kindly sponsored by the Social & Cultural Geography Group here at Royal Holloway, exploring the theme of ‘Precarious Geographies’. The day was divided into two parts. The first consisted of two keynote talks: Hannah Lewis and Louise Waite from the University of Leeds discussing their ‘Precarious Lives project, and James Rhodes from the Sociology department at the University of Manchester exploring urban decline in Youngstown, Ohio.  The second part of the day consisted of seven short (5 minute) presentations, in which presenters outlined their work, followed by in-depth discussion of the topics raised.

Precarious Geographies is an ongoing project of ours, and follows on from the Landscape Surgery session we led on the same theme last November. This workshop was the first of a series of sessions relating to Precarious Geographies that we are running throughout 2015. On 23rd April we will be convening three sessions at the AAG Annual Meeting in Chicago, and in September will be convening a UGRG-sponsored session at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference on ‘Urban Precarities’.

The Precarious Geographies project was born out of a discussion around our own PhD research, and the realisation that precarity of place was a concurrent theme in both of our work.

Mel’s research broadly assesses the impact of Coalition housing policy on inner London residents, with a particular focus on the under-occupation penalty, or ‘bedroom tax’, and the criminalisation of squatting as key case studies. Precarity runs throughout Mel’s research in relation to how housing policy targets the precaritization of the homespaces of particular societal figures, namely social tenants and squatters. Mel is particularly interested in the ways in which this precaritization becomes normalised through housing policy being framed as morally just, feeding into an ongoing ‘deserving vs. undeserving poor’ rhetoric in the UK.

Ella’s work looks at geographies of pop-up places in London.  She is specifically interested in the spatiotemporal logics of pop-up culture and their instrumentality within the city. For Ella, precarity comes into this in multifaceted ways. Pop-up can be seen as a phenomenon framed by precarity, given that it has been promoted as a way to tackle post-recession urban decline; valued as a solution to vacancy rates on high streets and a way to utilise interim sites awaiting development. But pop-up culture can arguably exacerbate precarity too by turning urban turbulence into an opportunity for commercial enterprise or normalising temporariness and uncertainty.

Whilst there has been an important and growing body of work in geography that considers precarity in relation to the labour market, spearheaded by academics such as Louise Waite (2009), we feel that precarity as a concept would be a really useful tool in other areas of geography as well, and that there is much to be gained from a focused interrogation of the ways in which precarity is spatialized. This and future sessions seek to extend the existing conversations around precarity, and in particular to further tease out the many and varied relationships between precarity and place.

Below we briefly outline the presentations given, both by our keynote speakers and our short-paper presenters.

Drs Hannah Lewis and Louise Waite, (Critical Geography Research Fellow & Senior Lecturer, University of Leeds): ‘Precarious Lives’ project

Hannah Lewis and Louise Waite got the day off to a fascinating start in their keynote talk on their ongoing ESRC funded ‘Precarious Lives’ project. Alongside their colleagues Peter Dwyer and Stuart Hodkinson, Hannah and Louise have been exploring the experiences of forced labour among asylum seekers and refugees in England. Recent outputs of the project include a book entitled Precarious lives: Forced labour, exploitation and asylum, and a journal article in Progress in Human Geography, ‘Hyper-precarious lives: Migrants, work and forced labour in the Global North’.

In their keynote talk, Hannah and Louise discussed forced migration and precarity of labour as a normalised outcome of neoliberalism, globalisation and austerity, and cautioned against understanding precarity as an exceptional state. They highlighted the multi-dimensional insecurities experienced by refugees and asylum seekers in forced labour. This condition, termed ‘hyper-precarity’, sees a continuum of exploitation that is defined not only through labour conditions, but is compounded through various aspects of the migrant’s journey into forced labour, from dangerous homelands to border trafficking, to the hostility experienced when arriving in the UK.

Hannah and Louise emphasized the difficulties faced in mobilising those experiencing hyper-precarity due to their fear of deportation and their fragmentation and isolation as a group. They did however suggest that a useful way of using precarity as a potential tool for resistance and change may be through linking migrant exploitation to broader instances of exploitation occurring throughout the labour markets of the Global North, for example zero-hour contracts.

James Rhodes (Lecturer in Sociology, University of Manchester): Shrinking cities, urban marginality and socio-spatial inequalities

The second keynote talk was given by James Rhodes, a Sociologist from the University of Manchester. Although not a Geographer by trade, James’ presentation offered a captivating insight into the spatialities of precarity in Youngstown, Ohio which has lost over 60% of its population since 1950, seen drastic declines in employment levels, and experienced falls in house prices so severe that residents sometimes simply cut their losses and walk away. As James described, Youngstown has lost urban density to the point where many areas of the city are food deserts (where no fresh food is sold within a mile) and streets which used to be lined with houses are now only sparsely populated. James considered the production of precarity in Youngtown as relating to a convergence of concentrated disadvantage, high vacancy and demolition rates and the development of insecurity as a structure of feeling. However, his presentation also questioned whether precarity is a forceful enough term to describe the situation in Youngstown. If precarity implies being in-between or on the edge then how can it account for the unremitting deprivation of such a place? Having raised this provocation, James considered precarity as relational and subjective and opened up fascinating questions about the role which imagined geographies play in structuring experiences of precarity, suggesting that desired or remembered places function as bench marks against which present realities are measured.

Mara Ferreri (Research Assistant, Queen Mary’s, University of London): Temporary, Precarious

The first short presentation was from Mara Ferreri, a research assistant at Queen Mary’s University. Mara’s presentation considered the complex precarities of temporary occupations of space including pop-up shops and property guardianship schemes. Describing the rise of policy around temporary use and its instrumentality in delivering social regeneration, Mara positioned pop-up as paradigmatic of neoliberal urbanism and as increasingly entrenched in the ways we imagine future cities. She suggested that temporary urbanisms can be sites of resilience for creative practitioners despite their neoliberal affiliations, and explored tensions between imaginaries of neo-bohemianism and flexibility and the underlying precarities which typify temporary use. Mara ended by questioning what alternatives and forms of resistances to precarity might be emerging, and where we might locate alternative urban futures.

Alexander Proudfoot (Undergraduate Geographer, Oxford University): Solidarity in Precarity

Alexander Proudfoot presented research he has conducted into precarious employment in London as an area where multiple forms of precarious labour exist in close proximity and precarity is growing in the aftermath of financial crisis. He research involved interviewing untenured academics, retail workers and business-service interns and looked to question whether solidarity existed amongst precarious labourers, testing the applicability of Guy Standing’s assertions that such workers are forming a new social class, ‘the precariat.’

Alex explored the different ways in which precarity is experienced across these diverse sectors of work and argued that precarity is often seen as a necessary stage in building towards future aspirations, in particular noting a narrative of “short term pain for long term gain” amongst interns. Alex concluded that although commonalities exist across precarious work, experiences are ultimately diverse and solidarity is rarely felt given the individualistic nature of work in post-fordist, neoliberal labour regimes. His presentation contested the utility of ‘the precariat’ given these realities of neoliberal work.

Ruth Solomons, (Practiced based PhD candidate, Birkbeck, University of London): 2008-2010: The ‘First Phase’ of Artists in Balfron Tower

Ruth Solomons described her experience as one of the “pioneer phase” of artists occupying the Balfron Tower in east London where in 2014 Turner Prize nominee Catherine Yass controversially proposed to drop a piano from the tower, prompting a series of media articles which questioned the ethics of making art in council estates. Ruth’s presentation explored tensions between the deployment of artists for the ‘art washing’ and gentrification of the tower and the precarity of the artists themselves as paying occupants of properties deemed unfit for habitation. She documented worsening conditions for artists across each ‘phase’ of artist occupancy, but also emphasised that her own experience was in many ways positive and that she lived harmoniously among the tower’s existing residents. She raised interesting issues around how the realities of artists’ lives and practices might be negated in narratives of art washing.

Andrew Wallace (Senior Lecturer, University of Lincoln): Regeneration of Salford

Returning to ideas around urban decline and renewal, Andrew Wallace explored the impacts of regeneration practices in Salford as a peripheral, deindustrialised UK city which has seen a barrage of renewal schemes in recent years, bolstered by the infamous relocation of parts of the BBC to the area. Andrew outlined Salford as a deprived area struck badly by austerity and explored how precarity is commonly experienced as an anxiety over the security of private property amidst high levels of crime.

Andrew’s paper drew out tensions between gentrification, abandonment and renewal. He positioned residents of Salford as enveloped within a ‘chaotic alliance’ of projects within which they are subject to multiple place re-brandings yet remain unsupported on the level of service and housing provision, illuminating how regeneration schemes can make residents feel in limbo yet do little to alleviate local problems.

Dr Andrew Burridge, (Associate Research Fellow, University of Exeter): “Where is your solicitor?” Unrepresented hearings and precarious geographies of legal aid in UK asylum appeals

Andrew’s presentation was based on ethnographic research conducted between July 2013 and July 2014, which included daily observations of first tier asylum appeals hearings at Immigration and Asylum Chambers Tribunal (IAC) hearing centres. A particularly concerning realisation emerging from his research has been the high frequency of unrepresented hearings in certain regions of the UK. In these hearings judges are expected to take on an ‘enabling’ role, yet with little clear guidance, while asylum seekers are left to defend themselves against the Home Office. At some hearing centres over a quarter of hearings have no legal representative present, a clearly spatialized precarity that has left some regions of the UK ‘legal deserts’, where the chances of a successful hearing are severely reduced by a lack of representation. Indeed, success rates for asylum seekers are typically below five per cent when unrepresented.

Andrew drew on Waite’s (2009) call for a critical geography of precarity, in which she identifies instability, lack of protection, insecurity, and social and economic vulnerability as central components, and considered whether precarity is helpful in understanding the position of asylum seekers against the broader impacts of cuts to effective legal representation, and uneven geographies of access to legal advice and support.

Dr Geoff Deverteuil, (Senior Lecturer, University of Cardiff): Precarity and violence

Geoff’s paper explored the relationship between precarity and violence, where violence is defined as “…individual, group, or institutional actions, or a consequence of the dominant social relations, that inhibits self-development and self-expression of individuals or communities’’. Geoff proposed three forms of violence – interpersonal, structural and mass intentional – and explained how precarious populations are both receptors and agents of precarity; they both experience violence but also have the potential to inflict it on each other.

Geoff also considered precarity as a medium through which violence becomes institutionalised; a slow-moving violence that is inherent in the everyday lives of particular populations. He emphasised that precarity and violence have a distinctly geographical relationship, and that space and place have both passive and active roles to play.

Dr Menah Raven-Ellison, (Queen Mary’s, University of London, & Senior Occupational Therapist): Negotiating homes beyond the detention centre: Experiences of asylum seeking women

Menah’s paper was based on qualitative research undertaken for her PhD on the experiences of women who have been detained and then released from UK Immigration Removal Centres. Her presentation highlighted that, even after women are released from spaces of detention, they continue to negotiate multiple and fluctuating boundaries in relation to subjective accounts of home and belonging post-detention. Menah argued that the experiences of ex-detained women are best understood within a discourse of precarity. She suggested that the ‘state of precarity’ implicit within narratives of detention can seep into and define the everyday geographies of home beyond release, with erosive impacts on the mental wellbeing and sense of belonging for ex-detained women. For these women, the discrimination they experienced in the detention centre followed them into other forms of homespace. For them, the borderlands of the home and the state were highly blurred in their everyday experiences, through continued surveillance and ongoing experiences of discrimination.

Menah suggested that precarity itself is strategically employed by the state through geopolitical interventions in the name of security and immigration enforcement which are played out in part within (in)secure spaces of home with implications for feelings of safety, belonging, and gendered identities.

Concluding remarks

All the presentations were well received and sparked a really interesting and lively afternoon of debate and discussion, with many provocative and insightful questions from attendees. Particular issues which came into focus were;

  • The utility of ‘the precariat’ as a concept
  • The temporalities of precarity – including the challenges of thinking through slow moving violence and crisis
  • ‘Deserts’ as a type of precarious geography, including food deserts and legal deserts
  • The subjectivity of precarity and the roles played by imaginative geographies of place in experiences of precarity
  • The recurrence of narratives around ‘short term pain for long term gain’
  • The ways in which precarity is made structural, with a particular focus on the relationships between structural precarity, ‘investor ready cities’ and ‘the temporary city’ as the model for the future

Overall we felt that the workshop as a great success and were really excited by the ideas and questions which emerged. There was a fantastic energy all afternoon and we are very grateful to all the speakers and attendees for their enthusiasm and their contributions to the debate.

In particular we would like to thank Phil Crang and the Social and Cultural Geography Group at Royal Holloway for enabling the event through their generous provision of funding, as well as all of our key note speakers and short paper presenters for their fascinating presentations.

Ella Harris and Mel Nowicki

2 thoughts on “Precarious Geographies workshop, 10th February, 11 Bedford Square, sponsored by the Royal Holloway Social & Cultural Geography Group (organised and convened by Ella Harris and Mel Nowicki)

  1. […] Precarious Geographies (Ella Harris and Mel Nowicki) will then host a discussion with Dr Oli Mould (Royal Holloway) and Dr Will Davies (Goldsmiths) about the ethical landscape and precarious labour markets of contemporary urban environments. […]

  2. […] event is hosted by Precarious Geographies (RHUL Geographers Ella Harris and Mel Nowicki), who will be joined by panelists Dr. Oli Mould […]

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