From grassroots to scale: Urban responses to climate migration and protracted displacement

Do climate-displaced people living in Kenya's cities participate in urban social movements?

Ongoing | Research

Urban climate & mobility justice • Protracted displacement & urban migration • Urban climate adaptation, informal urbanization, upgrading & urban social movements • CBPR & policy/plan co-production • East Africa

About the research agenda

From grassroots to scale: Urban responses to climate migration and protracted displacement

As protracted displacement accelerates the global trend towards rapid, informal urbanization [1]; regions become increasingly climate unstable [2]; and urban climate adaptation remains sidelined [3], there is an urgent need to investigate the promise and challenges of an urban developmental response to displacement. Leveraging my research, cross-cultural and grassroots experience, I have taken the first steps in Kenya in a research agenda that considers the role local knowledge, community-rooted research, and social movements could play in that response. Kenya is an ideal location because of its history of distress-driven migration, rising climate-linked displacement, rapid rates of urbanization, innovative research, and urban social movements at the forefront of community-led data collection and multi-sector collaboration for informal settlement upgrading.

Building on emerging research [4] on the interrelationship between climate displacement, forced migration and accelerated urbanization, I believe it is urgent to explore—in addition to local government response—how people experiencing protracted displacement in urban communities might tap into—and even strengthen—existing social infrastructure (e.g. urban poor federations) to improve their shelter, access to services, and land tenure. As the intersecting climate and displacement crises become increasingly global issues—crossing both national borders and North-South divides—we should learn about and build on inclusive research, governance, and development solutions from those on the frontlines—the urban poor, displaced people in cities, and local governments in the Global South.

My working research question, therefore, is:

With the inevitable overload of our institutions and infrastructure due to climate and displacement crises—exacerbated by shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic—are there aspects of proven grassroots strategies[5] that we can employ from Kenyan cities, adapting them to serve displaced populations and to new contexts and new urban climate futures?

1 More than 82M people are forcibly displaced in the world today, the most ever recorded (UNHCR 2021). Most displaced people now seek refuge in cities: 58% of refugees (UNHCR, 2018) and at least 80% of internally displaced persons (Mosel 2016).2 Absent migration, up to one-third of the Earth’s population could live in uninhabitable areas by 2070 (Xu et al. 2020). 3 Most climate action funding goes towards mitigation instead of adaptation and of the funds spent on adaptation to date, only an estimated 3-5% have been made available for urban adaptation projects (Baker 2021).4 e.g. Earle et al (2021) When Displacement Meets Urbanization; IIED (2021) Protracted Displacement in an Urban World; Mayors Migration Council (2021) Cities, Climate and Migration; Saliba (2018) Urban Refuge; Landau et al (2016) Becoming Urban Humanitarians5 In particular, neighborhood-based savings groups, community mobilization to co-produce upgrading plans with local authorities, and learning exchanges between settlements and across international networks.

About this project

Do climate-displaced people living in Kenya's cities participate in urban social movements?

I am pursuing this pilot project as the first step in the larger research agenda (outlined above) to begin assessing the landscape of research and practice in the field. To expand on this projectand support the research agenda long-term—I am also applying to PhD programs.

In partnership with the Akiba Mashinani Trust and Muungano wa Wanavijiji in Kenya, I am collecting interview and survey data from displaced people living in informal settlements in Nairobi and other cities.

While upgrading strategies refined by federations over decades (i.e. savings groups, co-producing upgrading plans with local authorities, and learning exchanges) have proven successful for established residents to negotiate with planning authorities and offered a common learning platform to reconcile differences between households, it is not understood how well they serve displaced, newcomer populations. Given that displaced people often face even greater housing, services and livelihood challenges than established host populations—as well as vulnerability to repeat displacement—these practices could represent a critical lifeline (in particular for women). However, even though this existing social infrastructure might prove a valuable resource, I hypothesize that it is difficult for displaced households to access (due to lack of coordination between the humanitarian and development sectors, local hostility, cultural barriers, and the ‘in limbo’ nature of protracted displacement itself).

My questions, therefore, are:

Among internally and climate-displaced households living in informal settlements: (a) how many participate in local savings groups; (b) to what degree and with what outcomes; and (c) what practices aid or impair meaningful participation?

As displaced people make up a greater share of the urban poor, their participation in social movements might improve social cohesion with host communities; attract climate and humanitarian resources for urban adaptation; and create broader coalitions to build political will for upgrading. In the near-term, broader, more representative movements might aid local government response while the urban, humanitarian, and climate sectors catch up and, in turn, help shape inclusive development policies and investments from the ground up in the medium- and long-term.

Research proposal

Check out the DRAFT proposal document below for details on the project, including context, research questions, methods, etc

Research proposal: Do climate-displaced people living in cities participate in urban social movements?