UCL Urban Laboratory


COVID and the Urban: cross-disciplinary perspectives on emergency

26 March 2021, 11:00 am–3:30 pm

Still from Laki Haze (2020) William Raban

The first major event as part of UCL Urban Laboratory's annual research theme 'Emergency Urbanism' in collaboration with UCL IRDR

This event is free.

Event Information

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UCL Urban Laboratory

As the COVID emergency has unfolded over the last year, we have seen urban life subject to critical governance and management interventions which have varied significantly across the international context, both in their form and in the way they have been received or contested by the public.

These events have highlighted deep social and cultural differences and inequalities between ‘pandemic cities’ in the way they are managing the present and planning the future, particularly in regard to the viability of cities within the planetary ecology.

This event hosted by UCL Urban Laboratory and Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction provides a platform for seven speakers from different disciplinary backgrounds to draw together technical, social and design perspectives on the four stages of the COVID emergency in relation to their work in different and comparative global contexts: improvisation, planning, dissent, and reconstruction.

11.00 - 12.30 Scrutinising infrastructures of risk and recovery across uneven urban landscapes

This interactive discussion features three different technical and infrastructural approaches to exploring 'Covid and the Urban'. They will ask, 'to what degree is what we are seeing now different to how we think of issues of risk and vulnerability in the past? How do we understand ‘urban expertise’ in light of Covid? If placed under scrutiny, which types of systems might have longer term consequences to living with Covid? When looking at the nexus of climate health and equity health, will our responses have benefits for the long term, in the capacity of recovery and reconstruction? ' With examples from Latin America, Asia and the UK.

Through presentation and discussion we will gain a sectoral overview on the nexus of climate health and equity health with insights from a mayoral task force and their responses in the short, medium and long term to Covid, learn of the interweaving of infrastructural systems and the claim that they have been repurposed to change or modulate the transmission of Covid, and better understand what Covid means for an intellectual response to contemporary urban issues. With examples from Latin America, Asia and the UK.

Chaired by Clare Melhuish, Director of UCL Urban Laboratory


Mehrnaz Ghojeh, Head of City Finance Facility at C40 Cities

Simon Marvin, Director of the Urban Institute, the University of Sheffield

Austin Zeiderman, Associate Professor of Geography, LSE

13.00 - 13.45 Live Film Screening of Laki Haze (2020) followed by William Raban in conversation with Carina Fearnley

Following the eruption of the Lakakigar volcano, Iceland in 1783, a sulphurous haze shrouded vast swathes of the northern hemisphere, causing widespread crop failures, consequent famine and disease across Europe, parts of America, North Africa, and India. It is estimated to have killed millions of people. Using first-hand accounts from Iceland and from across Europe. The film continues Raban’s recent research into the use of the single long take and revisits his preoccupations with landscape film from the early 1970s.

In conversation:

Introduced by Matthew BeaumontProfessor of English, UCL and Co-Director, UCL Urban Laboratory

Carina FearnleyAssociate Professor in Science and Technology Studies, Director, UCL Warning Research Centre

William Rabanartist filmmaker, Professor Emeritus in Film, London College of Communication

14.00 - 15.30 Improvise, innovate, adapt: perspectives on emergency from beyond the city

In our closing session we bring together a diverse mix of academics from comparative literature, jazz improvisation and early warning systems, to apply transdisciplinary approaches to crisis management. What relations of call and response - of voicing, listening and attending - do urban emergencies put into play? Does emergency have a colour? Is it whitewashed? What if emergency is not an interruption but a state of being, a permanent productive one? How do we refocus emergencies as a human issue rather than a technocratic or an environmental one?

Chaired by Ilan Kelman, Professor, UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction and UCL Institute for Global Health


Carina Fearnley, Associate Professor in Science and Technology Studies, Director, UCL Warning Research Centre

Ajay Heble, Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph, Director, International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation

Kasia Mika, Lecturer in Comparative Literature, Queen Mary University of London

15.30 Closing remarks

About the Speakers

Simon Marvin

Director of the Urban Institute at The University of Sheffield

Simon Marvin is an internationally recognised academic with an excellent publication profile, with expertise in constructing conceptual understanding and empirical evidence of the changing relations between socio-technical networks and urban and regional restructuring. He has extensive experience of directing successful urban research centres in previous roles at Newcastle University, Salford University, and Durham University, where he was Chair in the Department of Geography.

Simon’s work is noted for the way it develops innovative, interdisciplinary perspectives to help open up and explore important new agendas for urban studies and infrastructural research. He has played major roles within urban and planning research towards addressing important questions surrounding telecommunications, infrastructure and mobility, sustainability and, most recently, systemic transitions, climate change, ecological security and smart cities.

He is currently working as either PI or Co-I on five RCUK funded grants, including two projects, one impact grant, and two international networks employing five researchers as well as research work for the Swedish Mistra Urban Futures Foundation.  Finally, he regularly undertakes work for policy users, including central government and urban and regional agencies in the UK, Europe, and internationally. Simon is currently an urban expert on the JPI Urban Europe Scientific Advisory Board.

Kasia Mika

Lecturer in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University London

I joined QMUL’s Department of Comparative Literature in September 2019 as a Lecturer in Comparative Literature. Prior to that, I was a Lecturer in Literary and Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam and held a postdoc fellowship at KITLV (The Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies) in Comparative Caribbean Studies.

My research and teaching focus on topics that are socially and politically urgent with crisis, vulnerability, justice and futures being key to my pedagogy and my wider work in disaster studies, environmental humanities and postcolonial studies. I work across literature, film, and visual art and see creativity and imagination as central to the how we make sense of the world around us. 

My monograph, Disasters, Vulnerability, and Narratives: Writing Haiti’s Futures (Routledge 2019) uses narrative responses to the 2010 Haiti earthquake as a starting point for an analysis of notions of disaster, vulnerability, reconstruction and recovery. In my analysis, I turn to concepts of hinged chronologies, slow healing, and remnant dwelling, offering a vision of open-ended Caribbean futures, full of resolve.

Building on this work, I have recently produced a short documentary, Intranqu’îllités (2019), on art and creativity in Haiti (filmed on site) which won the AHRC Research in Film Award (2019).

My seminars are all about working and reading together towards a better, more critical understanding of the world around us. All courses I teach are rooted in an inclusive dialogue and encourage everyone to participate and learn from each other.

“Dialogue, as the encounter of those addressed to the common task of learning and acting, is broken if the parties (or one of them) lack humility. How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own?’  (Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed 2000:90)

More about Kasia Mika

Austin Zeiderman

Associate Professor of Geography at LSE

Austin Zeiderman is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Environment at the London School of Economics. He is an interdisciplinary scholar who specializes in the cultural and political dimensions of urbanization, development, and the environment in Latin America and the Caribbean, with a specific focus on Colombia. His 2016 book, Endangered City, examines the political imperative to govern the present in anticipation of future threats, and its implications for cities and urban life.

William Raban

Artist filmmaker, professor emeritus of film at London College of Communication

More about William Raban

Mehrnaz Ghojeh

Head of City Finance Facility at C40 Cities

Mehrnaz Ghojeh is the Head of City Finance Facility where she is leading efforts on implementation on inclusive and equitable climate projects globally. Prior to C40 Mehrnaz was an urban development specialist at BuroHappold and has held positions with the Greater London Authority and Tehran Municipality. Her research focuses on the evolving role of city networks and the urban governance challenges facing action on the nexus of climate, health and equity in cities. Mehrnaz holds an MPhil in Architecture and Urban Design from University of Cambridge and is a regular guest lecturer at universities both in the UK and internationally.

Carina Fearnley

Associate Professor in Science and Technology Studies, Director, UCL Warning Research Centre at UCL

Carina is Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at University College London and Director of the UCL Warning Research Centre, the world’s only Centre dedicated to international research and collaboration with stakeholders to devise better warnings for all hazards. She is an interdisciplinary researcher, drawing on relevant expertise in the social sciences on scientific uncertainty, risk, and complexity to focus on how natural hazard early warning systems can be made more effective, specifically alert level systems. She also has passion in the transdisciplinary potential of art and science collaborations around environmental hazards. Carina established the World Organisation of Volcano Observatories Volcano Alert Level Working Group, and edited the first publication dedicated to Volcanic Crisis Communication (Observing the Volcano World: Volcanic Crisis Communication).

More about Carina Fearnley

Ajay Heble

Director of the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI), and Professor of English at The University of Guelph

Ajay Heble is the founding Director of the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI), and Professor of English in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. His research has covered a full range of topics in the arts and humanities, and has resulted in 15 books,  numerous articles or chapters, and over 100 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows trained and mentored. He was the founding Artistic Director of the award-winning Guelph Jazz Festival and Colloquium (from 1994 to 2016), and he is a founding co-editor of the peer-reviewed journal Critical Studies in Improvisation/Études critiques en improvisation (www.criticalimprov.com). He is also an improvising musician.

More about Ajay Heble