Projects

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

Current status of the project...

I am currently conducting unstructured interviews in rural areas around Lake Baringo and informal settlements in the city of Nakuru (in the Rift Valley in western Kenya) and with urban pastoralists in the city of Kitengela (outside Nairobi) to begin establishing relationships with participants and to define questions for subsequent semi-structured and focus group interviews and a survey.

About the research agenda

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

The majority of displaced people now seek refuge in cities[1]—often alongside the urban poor in informal settlements—a trend with grave equity and health implications for both displaced and host populations, putting stress on already poor infrastructure (Andrews, 2020) and deeply inequitable land development patterns and tenure systems. As climate change[2], forced displacement and rapid urbanization accelerate worldwide, I believe it is crucial to develop novel responses that address them as interrelated dynamics, with special attention to struggles over rights to urban citizenship that increasingly pit the urban poor against the displaced poor (Yiftachel, 2015).

While urban migration is not new, the scope and complexity of responses needed going forward will be unprecedented: In addition to sheer scale, climate factors will create new dynamics in people’s decisions to migrate. While historically men, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa, have sought work in cities to send remittances home to women in rural areas, growing numbers of women are now also migrating to cities. As climate instability intensifies and vulnerable regions become increasingly uninhabitable, displacement will become more and more protracted (Rigaud et al., 2018). Rural gravities will likely wane as migrants, in particular women, remain in cities indefinitely.

There is a growing consensus that national governments are poorly positioned to respond to displacement. Recent research calls for more attention to and resources for city-led responses (Roderick et al., 2021; Saliba & Wolff, 2018). Continued international and national camp containment policies undercut support needed for displaced people in cities (Darling, 2016). Moreover, humanitarian frameworks today fail to understand urban protection as a long-term process inseparable from urban politics and development (Landau et al., 2016). Emerging research has framed displacement as accelerated urbanization and situated displaced people as rights-bearing urban citizens and local governments as frontline responders to displacement. It identifies incentives for local political will as crucial for investment in urban services that will benefit both host and displaced communities (Earle et al., 2020).

However, city governments have their own challenges in responding to displacement: Decision-making is often fragmented and local authorities are reluctant to recognize displaced people as urban citizens and therefore take responsibility for providing them housing and services (Landau et al., 2016). Moreover, international climate funding for urban adaptation remains sidelined[3], undercutting city governments' ability to invest in infrastructure to absorb displaced people. Finally, the urban poor often obtain land and shelter not because of the state but despite it, through insurgent claims[4]. Therefore, relying solely on local government responses will likely fail to meet the urgent housing and basic infrastructure needs of displaced people.

Building on the increased attention to city-led responses, I seek to evaluate the role local knowledge, community science, and social movements could play in building political will for informal settlement upgrading (i.e. place-based improvements in land tenure, housing, and basic services) to benefit both host and displaced populations. In particular, the role of two key strategies refined by urban poor federations over decades: neighborhood-based savings groups, which draw in new groups (in particular women) and community-led data collection as the basis for negotiating the co-production of upgrading plans with city governments (Satterthwaite & Mitlin, 2013). Because intensifying displacement and accelerating urbanization will likely transform migration and urban development dynamics, I believe it is urgent to examine the interrelationship between the two and its implications for upgrading as well as inclusive urban development more broadly.

Broadly defined, my inquiry 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 that we can adapt to serve displaced populations and to new contexts and new urban climate futures?

This includes questions in three key arenas:

  1. Collaboration/Competition – e.g. While federations’ upgrading strategies have proven successful for established residents to negotiate with planning authorities and offered a common learning platform to reconcile differences between households, will the same prove true for newcomer displaced populations? If hosts and displaced instead compete for scarce resources, what implications does this have for political will for upgrading?

  2. Gender – e.g. As rural gravities wane and women make up a greater share of the displaced, will savings groups mobilize their grassroots participation like they have women in existing urban communities?

  3. Urban adaptation – e.g. Can community-led data collection by displaced people attract climate and humanitarian resources to local governments for urban adaptation projects and help create broader coalitions to build political will for upgrading?

Notes and references

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 See Holston (2008); Miraftab (2009); Roy (2011); Pithouse (2014); and Huq & Miraftab (2020) amongst many more
Andrews, C. J. (2020). Toward a research agenda on climate‐related migration. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 24(2), 331–341.Baler, A. (2021, April 22). Environmental Crises Are Forcing Millions Into Cities. Mayors Migration Council. Darling, J. (2016). Forced migration and the city: Irregularity, informality, and the politics of presence. Progress in Human Geography. Earle, L., Aubrey, D., Nuñez Ferrera, I., & Loose, S. (2020). When Internal Displacement Meets Urbanisation: Making Cities Work for Internally Displaced People. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 39(4), 494–506.Holston, J. (2008). Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil. Princeton University Press.Huq, E., & Miraftab, F. (2020). “We are All Refugees”: Camps and Informal Settlements as Converging Spaces of Global Displacements. Planning Theory & Practice, 21(3), 351–370.Landau, L., Wanjiku-Kihato, C., Misago, J. P., & Edwards, B. (2016). Becoming Urban Humanitarians: Engaging Local Government to Protect Displaced People. Urban Institute.Miraftab, F. (2009). Insurgent Planning: Situating Radical Planning in the Global South. Planning Theory, 8(1), 32–50.Mosel, I. (2016). 10 things to know about refugees and displacement. ODI. Pithouse, R. (2014). The Shack Settlement as a Site of Politics: Reflections from South Africa. Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy, 3(2).Rigaud, K. K., de Sherbinin, A., Jones, B., Bergmann, J., Clement, V., Ober, K., Schewe, J., Adamo, S., McCusker, B., Heuser, S., & Midgley, A. (2018). Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration. World Bank. Roderick, W., Garg, S., Miranda Morel, L., Brick, K., & Powers, M. (2021). Cities, Climate and Migration: the Role of Cities on the Climate-Migration Nexus. C40 and Mayors Migration Council. Roy, A. (2011). Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35(2), 223–238.Saliba, S., & Wolff, J. (2018). Urban Refuge: How Cities Are Building Inclusive Communities. International Rescue Committee. Satterthwaite, D., & Mitlin, D. (2013). Reducing Urban Poverty in the Global South. Routledge.UNHCR. (2018). Global Trends - Forced Displacement in 2017. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Yiftachel, O. (2015). Epilogue-from “gray space” to equal “metrozenship”? Reflections on urban citizenship. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

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 project and support the research agenda long-term — I am also applying to PhD programs.

In partnership with the Kenyan federation Muungano wa Wanavijiji and the affiliated NGO Akiba Mashinani Trust, I am collecting interview and survey data from displaced people living in informal settlements in Nairobi and other cities. Kenya is an ideal location for this research because of its history of distress-driven migration, rising climate-linked displacement, rapid rates of urbanization, innovative research[1], and urban social movements at the forefront of community-led data collection and multi-sector collaboration for upgrading[2].

While upgrading strategies refined by federations over decades[3] 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.


1 e.g. SDI/IIED’s ongoing project Protracted Displacement in an Urban World.2 See Sverdlik, A., Makau, J., Kimani, J., Mumbi, C., Njoroge, P., Otibine, E., Nyambuga, K., Wairutu, J., & Waithaka, J. (2020). Achieving Scale, Social Inclusion, and Multifaceted Shelter Solutions: Lessons from the Special Planning Area (SPA) in Mukuru, Nairobi. International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED).3 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.

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?