SITUATED ECOLOGIES gathers art, design and research collaborations to contest and democratise ecologies.

Project: Grounding and Worlding Urban Infrastructures (GROWL, 2018-2021)

The objective of the Grounding and Worlding Urban Infrastructures (GROWL) project was to contribute to new directions within critical environmental studies. First, to situate and learn from cities of the global South about environmental risks and their politics (Ernstson, Lawhon, and Duminy 2014; Lawhon, Ernstson, and Silver 2014; McFarlane, Desai, and Graham 2014; Myers 2016; Simone and Pieterse 2017; Ernstson and Sörlin 2019), and second, how global environmental risks and challenges are tied to urbanization as an expanding planetary phenomenon (Harvey 1996; Heynen, Kaika, and Swyngedouw 2006; Ruddick 2015; Ernstson and Swyngedouw 2019).

The GROWL project was above all designed to develop textured and historically rooted case studies from urban regions in Africa, in particular how Luanda has been shaped by oil extraction but also to develop comparative findings from urban environmental politics in Nairobi and Kampala.

Below follow the specific objectives of the project. We have also summarised our key findings and key outputs.

The specific objectives of GROWL, with a short comment on the status of these at the end of the project in 2021, were:

  1. Develop one in-depth case study of ‘petro-urbanism’ in Luanda and its linkages to Brazil and China. This objective has been accomplished and reported in several research reports and peer-review articles, with several more submitted or in advanced draft forms. The field work itself has resulted in an archive of over 200 pages of field notes, dozens and dozens of interview transcripts,  hundreds of photos, historical documents, and GIS-based maps. While not a result in itself, these first- and second-hand source materials form an important database and archive for further comparative projects to build on. Of the six articles that were initially outlined to guide the field work for this case study, the project team has published one, three are in review, two are in advanced draft and one is drafted.
  2. Develop a comparative case study of energy infrastructure based on ongoing research of ‘auto-constructed’ and ‘heterogenous infrastructure’ in Kampala and Nairobi. We have submitted several empirical papers, some are based on my parallel project HICCUP in collaboration with Professor Shuaib Lwasa Makerere University, also an AXA Award recipient. See list below.
  3. Create a research video based on field work and analytical findings. This video, called “Blocos Urbanism: From Oil to Infrastructure in Luanda,” is now finished and will be published on Vimeo and on our lab group’s webpage The Situated Ecologies Platform ( The initial objective to develop a closer collaboration with Luandan artists was however not possible because of COVID-19 making necessary travels to Luanda impossible. The film was instead developed together with a science journalist in Sweden and a Luanda-based video assistant, paired with photos from our earlier field work. The 20-minute video unpacks several of our main findings and will be available for teaching undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students (with associated articles and background material). It also reaches out to researchers, government agencies, funders, civil society and corporate actors who want to gain insights into petro-urbanism, Angolan-Chinese relations, geopolitics and resource extraction, and urban planning.
  4. Develop additional funding proposals to expand the project to further develop “comparative urban environmentalism” (Ernstson and Sörlin 2019). We have submitted grants to the UK, EU and Swedish funders in 2021 and will develop further for 2022.

The Grounding and Worlding Urban Infrastructures (GROWL) aims to develop in-depth case studies and astute mid-level theory of urban infrastructure at the intersection of political ecology and postcolonial urbanism focusing on “petro-urbanism” in Luanda with comparative infrastructure studies in Nairobi and Kampala.


  • Henrik Ernstson (PI), Geography, The University of Manchester and Honorary Associate Professor at African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, now at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.
  • Ricardo Cardoso (Co-I), Yale NUS College, Singapore
  • Wangui Kimari (Postdoc), African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town
  • Jia-Ching Chen (Co-I), Global Studies, University of California Santa Barbara

Funding for this project is from the AXA Research Foundation based in France. The funding was provided to PI Henrik Ernstson as a AXA Research Award in recognition of his “innovative work on urban sustainability in the global South”.

For updates in the project, see also the project’s log.

A popular description of the project was posted on the AXA Reserach Foundation webpage:
Risks and contradictions of urban sustainability in Africa
African cities grow in novel and complex ways, yet they are intimately connected to wider geographies. In preparing for tomorrow’s challenges, in-depth historical and social studies are needed to understand what shapes contemporary urban infrastructures in the Global South. Dr. Henrik Ernstson’s scientific program aims to shed light on the complex realities that shape the heterogeneity of infrastructures in cities such as Luanda, Kampala and Nairobi. His team will look at how urban realities and risks are connected via urban infrastructures with the purpose to provide governments, civil society and external funders with insights that can help to better ground sustainability strategies adapted to urban conditions of the Global South.
“The core output of our project,” Dr. Ernstson says, “is an in-depth multi-sited case study about Luanda’s connection with Brazil and China through the selling of oil to secure urban infrastructure investments. Such in-depth case studies that connect ‘local’ and ‘global’ dynamics in African cities, especially through South-South linkages, are missing but sorely needed.” Dr Ricardo Cardoso, who is one of two postdocs in the project, continues: “Oil sits at the nexus of a whole range of exchanges that shape Luanda, including building norms and standardizations, but also how the sudden influx of capital after the long civil war of Angola came to interrupt and displace working class people to give space for new and often prestigious building projects in the name of progress and development.”
It was Dr. Cardoso’s PhD studies on “petro-urbanisation” between Angola and Brazil that prepared for this more extensive project, which includes recent linkages to China. From the 2000s, China took over the role Brazil had played since the 1980s: “When China emerged as a global power,” says Dr Jia-Ching Chen who will do field work there, “it secured oil and energy in far-off places but also embarked on creating an international market for its newly-found technical and engineering expertise.” While there are many studies that look at how former colonial European powers shaped African cities, this project focuses on novel South-South connections.
Looking at trends driven from ‘above’ but also from ‘below’
However, while the building of a city through the exchange of oil is certainly a global story, it is also a story that must be deeply situated: “While we examine the political economy of infrastructure planning and construction from ‘above,’ our analysis is also driven by closely grounded attention to the way infrastructures are negotiated through everyday politics from ‘below’,” says Dr. Wangui Kimari, another postdoc in the project.
To deliver cutting-edge outputs, the team will develop a “theory lab” with an international workshop at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town that focuses on how African cities continues to be “targets” for infrastructural projects and how these could sustain colonial and neo-colonial legacies. Dr Ernstson will also develop a “street lab” building on previous work across art and research. This will facilitate workshops with residents to surface everyday understandings and contradictions with two planned outputs; a paper zine and a film. The long-term aim is to use the AXA Research Award as a foundation towards a 10-year research programme at The University of Manchester into comparative urban environmentalism with a focus on the Global South.
All photos by Jia-Ching Chen and Henrik Ernstson (2018).