Urban Studies at the University of Basel starts from the premise that the world’s most pressing urban and environmental challenges call not only for new ways of doing but for new ways of thinking. Imagining alternative futures means rethinking the present and the past. Instead of seeking to solve problems as they appear, we interrogate their historical making, their political unfolding, and the ways in which they are represented. We do so by approaching scientific expertise, intellectual constructs, and professional practices through the study of lived experience, in all its complexity and contradictions.
University of Basel
Department of Social Sciences
+41 61 207 58 37
Working hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday 9:30 – 16:00
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Established in 2016, Urban Studies at the University of Basel builds on approaches rooted in geography, architecture, and history, and with perspectives from critical heritage, postcolonial studies, political science, and anthropology. Our research has developed through collaborative interdisciplinary research, in collaboration with the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Speaking from a regional focus on Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, our research and teaching explore the contradictory ways of knowing that shape cities, territories and built spaces.
A key anchor of our research is a focus on Southern urbanisms, inspired by the complex and rapidly changing realities of Southern cities worldwide. In this context, Sophie Oldfield’s research engages empirical and epistemological questions central to urban theory. Her work reflects on political practice and everyday urban geographies, analysing the ways in which citizens and organized movements craft agency to engage and contest the state. Laura Nkula-Wenz works on the nexus of cultural production and urban change in Southern African cities, focusing on the transformation of urban governance and the construction of local political agency through international accolades, urban experimentation and interurban knowledge networks.
Our work on the relationship between housing and the state stretches across Southern and Northern cities, foregrounding how the materiality of home making and the multiple forms of housing expertise shapes inhabitant contestation as well as state transformation. Focusing on the banlieues, Kenny Cupers explores how dwelling serves an object of modernization, an everyday site of contestation, and a domain of expertise. His work on French and other geographies examines the role of housing and architecture in neoliberal transformation. Sophie Oldfield and Anna Selmeczi adopt a collaborative research approach, built with partners engaged in a mix of Cape Town-based debates, struggles and practices around housing and land access. Projects – regularly involving our Masters students as active participants in the research process – track state-funded housing initiatives and how they produce uncertainty for ordinary residents that aspire to, and become, homeowners.
Another cluster of research focuses on (post)colonial infrastructure and how built heritage shapes political and urban geographies. Manuel Herz analyses and documents how architecture is witness to, and provides evidence for, the complexities and contradictions of decolonization and nation building in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ernest Sewordor’s dissertation studies the historical connections between imagined aspirations and colonial infrastructures in the production of mining landscapes in Ghana. Giulia Scotto’s dissertation examines postcolonial questions of logistics, mapping how the infrastructural, architectural and propagandistic operations of the Italian national hydrocarbon agency ENI shaped postcolonial urbanization in Tanzania. Focusing on the Addis Ababa-Nairobi Corridor, Thomas Betschart’s dissertation asks how transportation infrastructure transforms volatile geo-political conditions in the context of rapid urbanization in Ethiopia. Together, these projects comprise the SNF-funded project How infrastructure shapes territory in Africa, led by Kenny Cupers. Saad Amira’s dissertation employs the concept of 'slow violence ' in Palestine to explore the role of nature as a fundamental dimension of Israeli settlers’ colonial paradigm. Dr. Emilio Distretti’s research projects take on interrelated avenues on architectural and infrastructural heritage, Italian fascist colonialism and its legacies, and overall on the question of a ‘colonial continuities’ in postcolonial politics in the Mediterranean world and East Africa.
Research on camps, borders, and the infrastructures of migration management also significantly shapes our programme. Manuel Herz’ research and his collaborative practice with Sahrawi refugees explores how camps can be spaces of social emancipation and are used to prefigure the institutions of a nation by a refugee population living in exile. Maren Larsen’s dissertation explores the city-making, home-making, and world-making potentials of UN peacekeeping camps in Eastern Congo, as part of the SNF-funded project Making the City: Agency, Urbanity, and Urbanisation in Ordinary Cities. A collaborative research project, led by Bilgin Ayata and co-coordinated by Kenny Cupers, explores the newly implemented EU hotspots. Funded by the Swiss Network for International Studies, the project explores how such migration infrastructure reshapes the Mediterranean border regime. Within this project, Alaa Dia’s dissertation explores the design of the hotspots as a new type of bordering device and humanitarian space. Emilio Distretti, together with documentary-photographer Mimi Mollica developed a research project across Sicily and Tunisia that reads contemporary migrants’ deaths at the Mediterranean Sea borders as part of the longue durée of Europe’s colonial history.
A growing area of research explores how design shapes urban, transnational, and planetary politics. Kenny Cupers’ research and forthcoming book focus on German colonialism to reveal how conflict over land in Africa and the borderlands of central Europe shaped modernism. Manuel Herz’ construction of public health and education infrastructure in Senegal, funded by the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation rethinks the practice and implications of design in a Southern context. Future work on this thematic includes, in collaboration with Claudia Mareis (FHNW Academy of Art and Design) and Orit Halpern (Concordia University, Montreal), Kenny Cupers’ new project analyzing how design influenced and changed political thinking and governance in the second half of the 20th century. Funded by an SNF Sinergia grant and starting in spring 2020, the project brings together over a dozen researchers with the aim to open a new field for interdisciplinary design research. As a postdoctoral scholar on the project, Laura Nkula-Wenz will build on her experience researching the diverse and situated expressions of creative cityness in Cape Town to explore ‘design for development’ as an emerging governing paradigm in post-apartheid cities. Michelle Weitzel will focus on resilience in Israeli/Palestine security design, and Kenny Cupers on Eurafrican afterlives in infrastructure design.