Self-organisation in the shadow of hierarchy

The reason why I came to Bangladesh was to get to know more about self-organisation in slums. As soon as I reached Dhaka, I realised self-organisation is not only an issue in the slums of the city: it is inescapable, it is everywhere, but in a different way than it may be perceived by the western observer. For instance, people do not seem to queue in places where I would expect them to do so (e.g. at the immigration desk, at taxi stands, etc.). Then there are the countless street vendors trying to sell their goods at the top of their voices from improvised, apparently informal, little stalls to the passing crowd. Finally I need to mention crazy, bustling traffic that does not seem to follow any rules. At first sight, this all seemed like chaos to me.

After some time in this city, I got used to these things and I started to understand how they work. I realised that there is some order within this, at first perceived, chaos that is attained through self-organisation. Of course, there has to be! Without it, the initially described situations would grind to a halt or end in frustrated violence. To a certain degree, it is the power of the strongest (e.g. the most committed person in the queue, the loudest street vendor, or the biggest car) mixed with mutual respect that drives the outcome of these encounters. The chaotic system self-organises itself to attain a kind of order that I, as a European, was not used to.

After this first insight, I was even more curious to find out more about the self-organisation within Bhola Bosti (bosti means slum in Bangla): the slum I intended to research. I want to find out about the actual role of horizontal networks that are, according to some authors, crucial for slums to get along. In order to test the hypothesis that hierarchical factors play a major role especially when it comes to overcoming the limitations of self-organisation (“shadow of hierarchy” after Scharpf 1994), I need to know more about how this social structure contributes to making the slum dweller somehow more resilient to the main risks they are exposed to: eviction, fires and water-logging (McNamara et al. 2016). In this regard the social structure is seen as reflection of self-organisation and hierarchy. My approach has been so far mainly to gather first-hand information about the everyday life of the slum dwellers using unstructured interviews. Unstructured, in this case, means to let people talk about their issues without giving them too many structuring questions. By doing so, the slum dwellers get to talk about how they get on in their own voice. This is particularly crucial when it comes to talking about their everyday life. To get access to the slum dwellers more easily and to gather “expert” information, I have been conducting structured interviews with NGOs that are active in the slum.

Through talking to NGO workers and an initial survey of slum dwellers, it is already clear that there is a set of hierarchical relationships operating within the slum including community leaders. The slum dwellers have a strong community identity due to their collective origin of Bhola Island (hence the name Bhola Bosti). It has been a set of environmental threats to their livelihoods (such as river erosion) that has been driving people to the slum. But, living in the capital Dhaka does not always mean a better livelihood. Many migrants still live in precarious conditions. These risks and the neglect by society demand some kind of organisational structure of the slum dwellers, to maintain their livelihoods and to meet their basic needs (e.g. sanitation, sewerage, electricity, etc.). My experiences so far have given me the impression that Bhola Bosti strongly relies on its hierarchical structures to meet the demand of its dwellers for basic services and on self-organisation when it comes to livelihood. Although the hierarchy seems to benefit the slum at first sight, it is difficult to believe that there are not also negative effects for the slum dwellers. To get to the bottom of this, I want to do more interviews with the common residents of Bhola Bosti.

For now, I only have a very one-sided view from the interviews with NGOs, the community leaders and their related persons. Furthermore, I had to switch my approach from simultaneous translation to recording the monologue of the interviewee for transcription into English afterwards. It appeared as though people feel interrupted when a person is continually translating what they are saying. It also fosters a more rigid ‘questioning-answering’ feeling during the interview, and therefore does not match the idea of an unstructured approach. However, my first attempt of testing this new approach seems to deliver very good information. Even though the conversation has not been transcribed yet and, for now, I can only guess at what they were saying.

In addition to this insight into the social life of Bhola Bosti, I came to know the place very well. This is not very surprising since the slum is squeezed into an area of a football field between a drainage channel and several high-rise buildings. Considering that at least 2,000 people live in this small space, it is self-explanatory that the houses have to be multi-levelled and that paths are narrow. Two small paths with barely enough space for two people to pass, lead into the slum and connect on the other side. Since the slum dwellers use the wall separating them from the adjacent drain as support for their second story, the path along the wall is completely dark besides sporadic light bulbs. This path gives more the impression of a creepy basement than a “public” thoroughfare. The second path is approximately the same size but the atmosphere is completely different. You can actually see the people passing you, and it seems that people are more comfortable in this part of the slum. It will be interesting to know more about the social status of people living in both parts of the slum, while delving deeper into the everyday life of an average slum dweller.

About the author:

Uwe Roth is currently doing fieldwork for his Master’s thesis (Resilience in the shadow of hierarchies. A qualitative study of self-organisation in Bhola Slum, Dhaka) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He studies Human Geography at the University of Bayreuth and writes his thesis under the supervision of Prof. E. Rothfuß. At site he collaborates with GIBIKA (, a project within the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD).

More information about Bhola Bosti and references:

Lund, Erik (2013): The Slums of Dhaka: Bhola Slum.

McNamara, Karen E.; Olson, Laura L.; Rahman, Md. Ashiqur (2016): Insecure hope: the challenges faced by urban slum dwellers in Bhola Slum, Bangladesh. In: Migration and Development 5(1), 1–15.

Scharpf, F. W. (1994): Games Real Actors Could Play: Positive and Negative Coordination in Embedded Negotiations. In: Journal of Theoretical Politics 6(1), 27–53.



Dark path

Bright path

Cool Communities in Winchester, England

cool communities logo

As part of the SELFCiTY project team, I attended a workshop for neighbourhood leaders for the implementation of a Cool Communities Programme in Winchester (England).  Winchester Climate Action on Climate Change (WINACC) are running training courses for volunteers who want to engage their neighbours on the issue of lowering their carbon footprint.  We (as the SELFCiTY team UK) are looking at ways we can support and complement this project and the volunteers who will be pounding the streets of their neighbourhood over the next couple of weeks.  These brave volunteers are looking for advice from others who might have already done this…..

For more information about this project see:


Forthcoming books about cities and climate change

We want to present some books about the topics cities and climate change. Some of them will be published soon. More information about the books are available by clicking on the title.

Inclusive Urbanization

Rethinking Policy, Practice and Research in the Age of Climate Change

Edited by Krishna K. Shrestha, Hemant R. Ojha, Phil McManus, Anna Rubbo, Krishna Kumar Dhote

How do we include and represent all people in cities? As the world rapidly urbanizes, and climate change creates global winners and losers, understanding how to design cities that provide for all their citizens is of the utmost importance. Inclusive Urbanization attempts to not only provide meaningful, practical guidance to urban designers, managers, and local actors, but also create a definition of inclusion that incorporates strategies bigger than the welfare state, and tactics that bring local actors and the state into meaningful dialogue.

Building for a Changing Climate

The Challenge for Construction, Planning and Energy

By Peter F. Smith

There is now a practically universal consensus that our climate is changing rapidly, and as a direct result of human activities. While there is extensive debate about what we can do to mitigate the damage we are causing, it is becoming increasingly clear that a large part of our resources will have to be directed towards adapting to new climatic conditions, with talk of survivability replacing sustainability as the new and most pressing priority. Nowhere is this more evident than in the built environment – the stage on which our most important interactions with climatic conditions are played out.

City Futures in the Age of a Changing Climate

By Tony Fry

This book goes beyond current ways that the impact of climate change upon the city are understood. In doing so it addresses climate in a variety of its connotations. It looks to the nomadic behaviour patterns of the past for lessons for today’s population unsettlement, and argues that as human survival will increasingly be linked directly to movement, the city can no longer be defined as a constrained space. The impacts of climate change must be understood as a combination of the actual and the expected, and have to be addressed both practically and culturally.

Low-Carbon Land Transport

Policy Handbook

By Daniel Bongardt, Felix Creutzig, Hanna Hüging, Ko Sakamoto, Stefan Bakker, Sudhir Gota, Susanne Böhler-Baedeker

Practical guide for transport policymakers and planners to achieve low-carbon land transport systems.

Based on wide ranging research, it shows how policies can be bundled successfully and worked into urban transport decision-making and planning strategies.

With case studies from developed and developing countries, it outlines measures for reducing emissions, tailoring these to specific circumstances. It also highlights how greenhouse gas savings are measured, as well as success factors for implementing policies and measures in complex decision-making processes.

For students of sustainable transport, professional planners and decision makers, Low-Carbon Land Transport is an invaluable reference for all those looking to help transport networks flow in a sustainable direction.

Planning for Climate Change

Strategies for Mitigation and Adaptation for Spatial Planners

Edited by Simin Davoudi, Jenny Crawford, Abid Mehmood

Climate change is changing the context of spatial planning and shaping its priorities. It has strengthened its environmental dimension and has become a new rationale for coordinating actions and integrating different policy priorities.

This book sets out the economic, social and environmental challenges that climate change raises for urban and regional planners and explores current and potential responses. These are set within the context of recent research and scholarly works on the role of spatial planning in combating climate change. Addressing both mitigation measures for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation to the effects of climate change, the book provides an overview of emerging practice, with analysis of the drivers of policy change and practical implementation of measures. It scopes planning issues and opportunities at different spatial scales, drawing on both the UK and international experiences and highlighting the need to link global and local responses to shared risks and opportunities.

Don’t Even Think About It

Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change

By George Marshall

Why, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, do we still ignore climate change? And what does it need for us to become fully convinced of what we already know?

George Marshall’s search for the answers brings him face to face with Nobel Prize-winning psychologists and the activists of the Texas Tea Party; the world’s leading climate scientists and the people who denounce them; liberal environmentalists and conservative evangelicals.

Wie erreichen (Interkulturelle) Gemeinschaftsgärten Flüchtlinge und AsylbewerberInnen?

Am 3. November war das SELFCITY-Team zu Gast bei der Umweltstation in Waldsassen, um sich über eine mögliche Kooperation in Bezug auf “Interkulturelle Gartenarbeit” mit Flüchtlingen auszutauschen. Die Stiftungsgemeinschaft anstiftung&ertomis hat zu diesem Themenkomplex einen interessanten und hilfreichen Beitrag veröffentlicht, in dem es unter anderem um das Knüpfen der Kontakte, die Ideenvermittlung des Gemeinschaftsgartens sowie die Rolle der Sprache geht. Der Text ist an dieser Stelle zu finden.

TRANSIT – transformative social innovation theory

There is a further very interesting research project we want to report about. TRANSIT (TRANsformative Social Innovation Theory) investigates the interactions between social innovations and other forms of transformative change. The project will run until the end of the year 2017 and will develop a theory of transformative social innovation which is about empowerment and change in society. You find more about TRANSIT on their homepage.

eurotopia – A directory of Communities and Ecovillages in Europe

The Eurotopia Shop offers a book with detailed descriptions of 430 communities, ecovillages, settlements and cohousing projects. Next to interesting community data, this directory provides useful addresses from all of Europe. The current edition is from 2014 and available in English and German. Interested persons find more informaion and options to buy this book here.

Forschung und Forschungsbedarf zu Transition Initiativen

Das Transition Netzwerk Deutschland/Österreich/Schweiz bietet eine Gruppe an, in der aktuelle Forschung zu Transition Initiativen kommuniziert werden kann. Aber auch Hinweise zum Forschungsbedarf sowie zu Forschungswünschen sind dort herzlich willkommen.

Das Ziel dessen ist es, Doppelarbeit zu vermeiden sowie die Forschung auf die Bedürfnisse der Initiativen auszurichten. Des Weiteren bietet diese Plattform die Möglichkeit, den Initiativen eigene Forschungsarbeiten zugänglich zu machen und sie auf diese Weise zu unterstützen. Die entsprechende Gruppe ist hier zu finden.