The Bartlett Development Planning Unit

Dr Giovanna Astolfo

Dr Giovanna Astolfo

Lecturer in Building and Urban Design in Development

Development Planning Unit

Faculty of the Built Environment

Joined UCL
27th Oct 2014

Research summary

Beyond the imperative of identifying commonalities, trends and patterns across cities, my urban enquiries are connected by an abiding and incessant interest for the social and lived experiences of the often marginalised urban majority, their spatial provisions and power arrangements. Away from disciplinary categorisation, my research focuses on overlapping and inherently plural urbanisms –as the many ways people make space and themselves: unconventional, contested, improvised and feminist. Following the lead of many women researchers and activists before me, my research practice aspires to be situated, reflexive, disobedient, critically inquisitive, and caring.

Ongoing research includes the three-year project ‘European Platform for Integrating Cities’ (EPIC). The project aims to reframe migration and integration away from current dominant, colonial and top-down paradigms, and instead conceptualize them as relational practices constituted by multiple incremental and transformative formal and informal encounters between people, places, institutions and services that are developed to endure and maintain life.  This project is part of an extended research conducted since 2015 to shed light on how governments, host communities and aid agencies are challenged by myths of refugees as subjects and spaces of bare life and bio-politics, and to offer a perspective on the close and complex relationship that cities, refugee spaces and their residents have with each other (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/development/research-projects/2019/feb/refugees-and-politics-urban-space)Between 2016-18, I worked on the Bartlett Materialisation Research Grant  ‘Refugee spaces’ (http://refugeespaces.org/europe) which main output is an open platform to stimulate debates and demystify through evidence the ways in which European countries have responded to the so-called “refugee” crisis. Through mapping and analysis of the openly available data provided by institutional and governmental sources, the platform attempts to spatialise the political and security measures designed to contain migration and the mobility of refugees.


Teaching summary

My teaching practice challenges the boundaries of mainstream and participatory urban design toward more socially just mode of space and knowledge production. Design is ultimately conceived as a form of urban inquiry, a way of seeing and representing the world critically. Hence, a hybrid and vulnerable discipline that moves away from technical self-assured solution-based instances towards embracing uncertainty, subjectivity, and people-centred, ethnographic and activist work. Six pedagogical dimensions (collective, active, embedded, reflexive, relational and trans-disciplinary) are employed in my urban pedagogy to address exclusion and inequality, and global disparities in the production of knowledge and space.

The module Participatory processes examines the multiple meanings and eminent debates on participatory urban design, linking theoretical and methodological approaches with practice. It reflects upon the role of the reflexive practitioner, and that of situated knowledge, drawing upon human geography, post-structuralist and feminist research. The Critical Urbanism studio takes a political ecology perspective to examine normative constructions around the un/inhabitability of urbanised areas in the Amazon basin, between expulsion, extraction and exception. As part of the Urban Intervention Studio: the fieldtrip project every year I embark with students on immersive fieldwork with selected communities and grassroots in the Global South. In the past four years we supported the social mobilisation and ‘quietly revolutionary encroachment’ (Bayat, 2000) of housing activists in Yangon.

In the past years I have engaged with the Liberating the curriculum initiative at UCL. By diversifying and de-colonising the reading list, my aim is to expose students to the very latest thinking on a multiplicity of perspectives and disciplines, and to challenge assured notions of ‘centre-periphery’ of knowledge production. Questions around ‘whose knowledge’ have informed several capacity building efforts undertaken with staff and students in partner organisations. Since 2016, I co-developed a series of initiatives for pedagogy and professional development in Myanmar funded by the Global Engagement Office at UCL.


I am an urban researcher with an architectural theory and practice background. As a Lecturer at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU), University College London, I combine research-based teaching and action learning from several contested and ungovernable urban geographies in South East Asia, the Amazon region and Southern Europe with a focus on non-conventional urbanisms, continuous displacement and migration, spatial violence and housing justice.