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What are we learning about urban equality? The importance of justice and care

In January 2020, KNOW partners from twelve cities and thirteen institutions gathered for the Third Annual Workshop, hosted this year by partner institute Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS), in Bangalore, India. This meeting was unique in that it opened with participation in the annual IIHS Urban Annual Research Conference (Urban ARC), this year on the theme of ‘Equal Cities’.


Above Image: 1935 Map of Bangalore, c/o British Library Online Maps Collection

Below Image: Lunch networking at the IIHS Urban ARC Conference, images by David Heymann 2020

Over three days, a rich set of panels brought the diverse geographies of KNOW partners into dialogue with reflections and researchers from a range of Indian cities. Running through many of the conference papers was a clear emphasis on intersectionality, drawing out gendered, raced, classed, or religious experiences of urban equality. This included presentations which deconstructed our often-limited categories in planning—in relation to temporary migrants, for instance; and to the exploration of gender and power through maternal breastfeeding practices on construction sites.

Across the 11 KNOW panels, researchers unpacked grounded definitions of prosperity, resilience, and poverty; explored knowledge co-production and translation; traced the history of UK development aid; examined transformative urban pedagogies; and reflected on the deeply situated nature of ethics in practice. This also included inputs from the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) network, reflecting on the history and work of the Committee of Social Inclusion, Participatory Democracy, and Human Rights, and its links with an urban equality agenda.

Above image: Caren Levy (KNOW Principal Investigator) and Aromar Revi (IIHS Founding Director) open the Urban ARC 2020 conference, Equal Cities, images by David Heymann 2020


What are we learning about urban equality?

After Urban ARC the third annual KNOW workshop continued in an internal programme reflection. This was a chance to collectively reflect on the research content that was presented, and identify learnings which cross-cut the diverse inquiries. In particular, three key themes emerged, which are at the core of the KNOW project.

Epistemic Justice and Care

Firstly, was a revision of the ‘placeholder’ definition of urban equality—defined from the project’s inception as a dynamic interaction between distribution of goods and services, the recognition of diverse identities and status, and participation in structures of decision-making. While these three dimensions still resonate with the work in KNOW partner cities, revisiting this definition allowed for discussions of additional frames to more deeply articulate the multiple pathways to equality.

In particular, KNOW members identified questions of ‘epistemic justice’, and an ‘ethics of care’ as critical in driving the work that they do. Epistemic justice refers to justice in knowledge; this entails elements of testimonial injustice—in which a person’s experience is devalued or not believed as a result of their identity; and hermeneutical injustice— in which concepts or terms do not yet exist to describe particular forms of discrimination. From a KNOW perspective, the concept of testimonial justice reaffirms the need to focus on the recognition of devalued social groups, while hermeneutical injustice shows us the critical necessity of ‘reframing the diagnosis’ of the drivers and experiences of inequalities from the perspective of those that are most vulnerable. Likewise, KNOW members raised the value of focusing on an ‘ethics of care’. Doing so draws attention to values such as respect, responsibility, and solidarity, and how this plays out through research and practice relationships. Following these provocations, the KNOW team has started reflections on how these concepts might inform the approach to urban equality.

Grounded Definitions

Second, the workshop had a strong focus on unpacking the three cross-cutting themes of poverty, resilience, and prosperity. KNOW teams explored the interconnections of these terms in their localities, reflecting on these concepts as processes, rather than only as outcomes. KNOW partners also raised the vital question: who is defining these key terms? In the case of prosperity, for instance, this has entailed the elaboration of locally-specific understandings of ‘the good life’ with different city partners.

Discussions also centred on the inherently political nature of these interconnected development goals. For instance—what would it mean to understand prosperity as ‘aspiration’, rather than as growth? Who defines the drivers of risk, and designs the strategies to build resilience? In contexts where the experiences and knowledge of informal settlement residents often go unheard, establishing grounded understandings of these concepts, and their locally-specific manifestations, is a powerful starting point for building pathways to urban equality.


Above Image: Unpacking placeholder definitions at the third KNOW Annual Workshop, image by David Heymann 2020

Collective Learning

Finally, the workshop entailed a focus not just on what we are learning about pathways to urban equality, but also how we are learning. This included discussions of the range of spaces and instruments through which learning happens—from social movements, grassroots schools, and in everyday practices of producing the city—as much as embedded in planning curricula. While many discussions focused on aspects of learning through knowledge co-production, and knowledge translation, the workshop also offered space to reflect on the ‘non-comparable’ or ‘non-translatable’ in processes of knowledge production.

Also important to the discussion of learning was foregrounding the ethics of co-production. KNOW researchers reflected on several strategies – from the production of an ethics ‘lexicon’, to the collective production of ‘manifestos’, as way of exploring shared and divergent values.

Above images: Collective learning and collaboration. Working together at the third KNOW Annual Workshop​images by David Heymann 2020



The workshop marked the midway point of the four-year KNOW programme. As such, it was a rich space for reflecting on the range of activities already undertaken, as well as collectively strategizing on complementarities between the different strands of inquiry. As the project heads into its third year, a greater focus will be placed on activating the impact strategies which have been identified in different localities, and sharing the research findings and activities with broader audiences of practitioners and policy-makers at different scales. In doing so, the programme aims to foster new partnerships and collective inquiry, which can build towards pathways to urban equality.

Above image: KNOW Investigators at the KNOW Annual Workshop 2020, image by David Heymann 2020



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