Editorial: Learning from Conflict

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 47 – Number 1


The aim of this issue is to contribute to a better understanding of conflict and contradiction as potential forces for urban transformation and to explore how citizens negotiate with institutions and vice versa. Case studies from the United States, Columbia, Belgium and France each reveal a form of urban change that occurred through conflict but at different scales and in contrasting circumstances. In their conclusion, the editors propose a new methodology for learning from conflict which they call ‘a phenomenology of change’ approach.

Learning from Conflict


As Chantal Mouffe and others have argued, conflict is part and parcel of democratic politics; it is something to be embraced more than eliminated, and in fact it may be impossible to live without conflict in a world of difference.1 This appears ever more the case in the contemporary era, as we see a surge in conflicts and protests in which citizens pit themselves against each other or the state, often in response to local policies or spatial interventions related to inequities in cities and the built environment. Many of those involved in mobilizations or protests around these issues do not necessarily aim to dismantle the state, but rather, are seeking opportunities to negotiate transformative change with their neighbours or institutions of power. Even among those who seek to radically challenge unjust social and spatial conditions or abusive institutional practices, some form of negotiated engagement often results. There is, however, very little theorization of the longer-term impacts of such conflicts, and the conditions under which contestation and struggle in and over the built environment will transform political, social, and spatial practices as opposed to reinforce existing power structures and conditions of socio-spatial exclusion and privilege.

The aim of this special issue is to contribute to a better understanding of conflict and contradiction as potential forces for urban transformation. Our contribution is based on four distinct aims. First, we build on the literature in conflicts studies to argue that the transgressive value of conflict can help citizens mobilize around an oppositional goal and thereby enhance the possibilities for social change (Coser, 1957; Oberschall, 1978; Verloo, 2018b). Scholars and government actors generally approach conflict as a problem that requires to be managed or controlled (Lan, 1997; Mouffe, 2000, 2014). Situations of conflict are understood as a risk; they might destabilize the existing order, question established power relations, or criticize normalized forms of inequality. Although these risks should be acknowledged, they also may hold the potential to produce transformative change. Therefore, we seek to get a better grip of the spaces of agency that exist or are developed in episodes of conflict, and how they may enable transformation in people, places, or institutions. As earlier studies have shown, contentious action contributes to the creation of new political subjectivities and the strengthening of movements that may help enable successful strategies for challenging power structures and improving the urban environment (Tilly and Tarrow, 2006; Rosannvallon, 2008; Cuppen, 2012; Dikeç and Swyngedouw, 2017; Verloo, 2018b). 

But certain forms of conflict can also provide opportunities or incentives for private actors, governing authorities, or other antagonists to repress, ignore, or punish citizen contestation. Understanding these dynamics requires us to emphasize how and where efforts for making change take place rather than why. Our second contribution is thus to move beyond the dominant focus of understanding the root causes of conflict and foster instead a renewed interest in the actual ‘practices of conflict’ (Griggs et al., 2014). How exactly do citizens negotiate with their antagonists and vice versa? Where do negotiations for change take place? In such settings, who or what might drive the creation of dialogic or programmatic spaces that allow negotiation over the city and its future? Not knowing how actors both react to and negotiate conflict would leave urban theory in the dark about such unintended consequences.

This brings us to our third contribution: our focus on negotiating with institutions. From social movements theory we learned that successful protest and related change are hugely dependant on the responses of actors in positions of authority (Jenkins and Klandermans, 1995; Jasper and Duyvendak, 2015). At the very moment of contestation, the legitimacy of government is revealed or undermined. Through their responses to contestation, institutions limit or shape the space for agency. Conflict can therefore be understood as a negotiation of authority. Without specifying what negotiating entails, how it is done and where, we cannot have a full theoretical understanding of the dynamics of urban governance, democracy, or the likelihood of constructive and inclusive change.

In order to make these contributions we need a methodological apparatus that deconstructs the nature of conflict and its sequence of events in space and time. In this special issue we present the work of a range of scholars who have examined conflict or contestation in the built environment. Based on these and other materials we conclude the issue with a proposal for a new framework to ‘learn from conflict’: a phenomenology of change. With this approach we hope to better understand the ways that social, political, and spatial encounters in the built environment are shaped and reshaped through conflict, and whether the combined impacts of these practices will produce more equitable cities, and if so how and why. 
In what follows, we first rethink conflict and its particular meaning in the urban environment based on existing literature. We then reflect on the nature of conflict and offer tools to deconstruct urban conflicts empirically. Finally, we introduce the case study analyses presented in this special issue and their overarching themes, contexts and opportunities for learning.

Cities and Conflict 

Conflict and protest are central topics in the study of the city. Even before the path breaking turn to class struggle in the context of urban studies (Harvey, 1985; Castells, 1978, 1979), the classic work of Wirth (1938) characterized the urban way of living as diverse, complex and accentuated with friction. Contemporary developments such as refugee resettlement and anti-migrant sentiment continue to make cities the locus of conflict, and scholars are responding with new questions about the nature and impacts of xenophobia and race, culture, or identity-based exclusionary practices at the scale of the city. These trends suggest that ‘the terrain of everyday political struggle over who has the legitimacy to govern and on the basis of what identity categories, seems to be scaling down from the nation state’ towards the city (Davis and Libertun de Duren, 2011, p. 2), thus producing new questions about the right to the city (Lefebvre, 1967), the nature of urban governance, and the ascendant role of social conflict in a world of rescaled political power (Brenner, 2004). Such developments not only raise questions about the extent to which cosmopolitanism and toleration of difference – long associated with cities and the urban condition – are disappearing. They also put the study of conflict at the centre of the urban experience in today’s world. To be sure, cities have long hosted exclusionary practices, and few have achieved the promise of social justice embodied in the progressive urban ideals around which residents have commonly dedicated their struggles. But the stakes seem to be higher now, because as cities are becoming more diverse and we are seeing heightened ethno-national tensions, many urban landscapes are also becoming more polarized.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the pages of Built Environment and other urban research journals are filled with case studies and analyses of urban conflict. The majority of these studies, however, treat urban conflicts categorically. That is, scholars analyse conflicts that centre around specific issues, such as struggles over land use or gentrification (Smith, 1979; Madden, 2014; Roy, 2017), identity and ethnic tensions (Kemp, 1986; Bollens, 1998, 2003, 2007; Nagel, 2000), as contestations over citizen participation and urban governance (Silver et al., 2010; Raco et al., 2011; Kourit et al., 2014; Verloo, 2018a), demands for public space and urban justice (Low, 2000; Nikšič and Sezer, 2017), or mobilizations over climate change (Menegat, 2002; Aylett, 2010), and so on. These studies have expanded our knowledge of which forces engaged in conflict and why and provided a deeper understanding of what those involved in conflict have been fighting for. Even so, there has been very little systematic study or theorization that would help understand the transformational impacts of urban conflict across these various issues. With this special issue we seek to fill that gap by analysing the transformational potential of conflicts across categories, subjects, scales and geographical locations.

Deconstructing Conflict 

The nature of conflicts greatly depends on the specific context: on the stakeholders involved, their action repertoires, the nature of institutions and regime practices, and the spaces for negotiation deployed in the process. Before we can start to analyse whether and how various categories of conflicts might lead to transformative change, we need to understand the specific nature of conflict and the matter under contestation. Since our approach to analysing conflicts is grounded in the particular empirical practices of citizens, social movements, and institutions, we also propose to deconstruct the nature of conflicts based on five empirical qualities. 

First, we articulate the central issue around which contestations arise. A common way to categorize conflicts is by defining them as typologies, for example as ethnic conflicts (Azar, 1990; Bollens, 2003) or policy conflicts (Weible and Heikkaila, 2017; Wolf and Van Dooren, 2017). These typologies can be helpful as analytical classifications, but they are problematic because they often simplify what is more layered and complex. Underlying grievances tend to crosscut these typologies; identity conflicts can have roots in the distribution of public goods, yet certain policies become contested because migration and consequent demographic changes reveal new inequalities. In an attempt to stay as close as possible to the meaning that stakeholders themselves apply to conflicts, we adopt their definitions of the central issue of conflict, as revealed through case study research. It has to be noted, however, that the definition of a central issue will be nuanced because conflicts tend to be around a complex web of interrelated issues and different stakeholders tend to define the issues at stake in different ways. 

It is therefore important to deconstruct the array of stakeholders involved in the process of conflict. Stakeholders can be individuals or groups that identify with the issue at stake and are in a position to alter conflict dynamics in one way or another (Jeong, 2008, p. 22). The range of stakeholders tends to be much wider than the parties directly involved. Analyses of the stakeholders involved should therefore make an effort to include also those who are affected by the outcome of a particular conflict but are not directly seeking to steer the sequence of events. Also, because these parties are likely to become directly involved once the consequences materialize, we must be prepared to identify the temporally shifting array of stakeholders that become party to a conflict. This would include institutions, whose involvement may come in the beginning, middle, or end of a conflict. Although they often understand themselves as a mediator or legislator in a conflict, stakeholders representing institutions also have their own independent goals, attitudes towards particular issues, motivations to realize their interests and capacities, and established strategies to negotiate with other stakeholders.

Goals, attitudes, motivations and interests shape the third focal point necessary in order to deconstruct the nature of conflict: the action repertoire of stakeholders. Defining stakeholders’ action repertoires will allow us to analyse their interactions, dynamics, relationships and their degree of contestation in a later stage of the analysis. The degree of contestation is noteworthy because there is an important distinction between violent and non-violent conflict, and this should be taken into account in any conflict analyses. In this special issue we only discuss conflict situations that did not lead to physical violence among adversaries.

Finally, to understand how conflicts unfold and what happens in conflict we also need to focus attention on its territorial and institutional scales, where issues are contested and where negotiation takes place, both in terms of space and institutions. Traditionally, scale has been defined as an entity that is seemingly enclosed within discrete juridical, territorial, or spatial boundaries, such as local versus national governments. Some political geographers argue that this division of the workings of the state in terms of scale may be necessary, but others see it is an over-simplification of how politics work (Cox, 1998; Massey, 2005). To better understand the politics of scale, Cox differentiates between a ‘scale of dependence’ and the ‘scale of engagement’. The former is defined as ‘those more-or-less localized social relations upon which we depend for the realization of essential interests and for which there are no substitutes elsewhere’ (Cox, 1998, p. 2). It refers to, for example, the local housing or job market, the neighbourhood, or the organization of state agencies. In contrast, the ‘scale of engagement’ refers to the more fluid parameters for conflict mediation, and could be thought of as social, political, and economic conditions under which ‘the securing of the space of dependence unfolds’ (ibid.). This differentiation is useful for our approach to understanding how conflict is negotiated, because it allows us to understand both the territorial scale of action in which central issues of a conflict emerge as being somewhat separate from the socially produced spaces for negotiation, with both affecting how and where contestation takes place as well as the processes through which change occurs. The point here is to provide a more nuanced understanding of conflict that simultaneously acknowledges but moves beyond physical location to understand the action domains which become mobilized in the process of contestation.

To recap, before offering an analysis of the transformative potential of conflict it is important to deconstruct the nature of conflict. We do with a focus on five interrelated empirical specificities: the central issue; stakeholder analyses; action repertoires; the scales of action; and the space for negotiation. 

The Case Studies

This special issue emerged out of a conference panel we organized at the RC21 in Mexico City in 2016. Our open call for a panel titled ‘Learning from Conflict’ solicited a wide range of papers about conflicts around various issues, across scales and geographical locations, and from a variety of contributors ranging from early career to established scholars. This diversity in experience and subject matter allowed us to juxtapose traditional approaches to studying conflict with newer takes on the topic, and to make comparisons across both time and space. Based on our panel conversations, and the questions that emerged by comparing different methodological approaches and subjects of study, we developed a set of questions to guide the next stages of writing. Over the several years that followed, we worked closely together with the authors in order to develop their case study analyses, highlighting the importance of focusing on how and where conflict unfolds rather than why. The cases we finally selected for this special issue represent a range of geographical, institutional and cultural contexts. The logic of selection thus had a wider epistemological aim, aligning with the following: 

by understanding human agency in diverse cultural worlds, we will be able to engage with movements not simply as objects to be explained by the distanced analyst, but as lively actors producing their own explanations and knowledges. These knowledges take the form of stories, ideas, narratives, and ideologies, but also theories, expertise, as well as political analyses and critical understandings of particular contexts. Their creation, modification and diverse enactments are what we call ‘knowledge-practice’. (Casas-Cortés et al., 2008, p. 21) 

As we hope will be clear in what follows, both in the case studies and through our summary conclusion, knowledge about conflict practices derives from a meta-theoretical analysis of findings drawn from wide-ranging geographical, cultural, and institutional contexts. Our issue brings together contributions of conflicts in the United States, Colombia, Belgium, France and Israel. This also means that the case analyses in the volume feature different regime types that provide different conditions under which citizens can or cannot easily contest government. Besides the empirical conditions discussed above, each paper also reflects on situations where open struggle is more or less beyond the boundaries of politically given or institutionalized norms.
Table 1. Case studies: five dimensions of conflict.


Central Issue


Action Repertoire


Scale of Action


Spaces of Negotiation

Milwaukee, USA

(Perry, 2021)

Community and public space


Citizens – Citizens


Everyday interactions

Block level

Everyday encounters at the street-level

Bogotá, Colombia

(Pinilla and Arteaga, 2021)

Urban renewal


Citizens – Private investor – Local government


Protest – Inclusive deliberative practices – Land readjustment


Formal participation process – Law

Antwerp, Belgium

(Wolf, 2021)

Citizen participation


Citizens – Local government


Protest – Citizen participation


Formal policy process

Paris, France

(Belkind, 2021)

Infrastructure development

National – Regional government – Professionals

Political contestation – Mediation


Formal planning process

Tel Aviv, Israel

(Hatuka and Wijler, 2021)



Citizens – State


Demonstration – Juridical procedures


Street-level – National Law


Table 1 provides an overview of the nature of conflicts discussed in the issue. The first case analysis takes place at the lowest scale of action, the block-level of an urban neighbourhood in the mid-sized US city of Milwaukee (Perry, 2021). It analyses everyday conflicts among neighbours and shows how their repertoire of everyday interactions unsettle spatially embedded power relations and challenge social and racial norms. The second case analysis tells the story of a private university in Bogotá, Colombia that took on the challenge to facilitate a participative inner-city urban renewal project (Pinilla and Arteaga, 2021). Although a wide diversity of citizens engaged, they also contested the project at various moments in time. Professionals learned through the process of conflict by facilitating spaces for inclusive deliberation and land readjustment. In Antwerp, Belgium, citizens contested the planning of a large infrastructure development at the city level (Wolf, 2021). Through protest they demanded citizen participation and forced authorities to formulate a new policy process. A fourth case study in the larger Paris region analyses how various scales of local, regional and national government struggled over a regional infrastructure project (Belkind, 2021). An unexpected group of actors, architects, positioned themselves as mediators in the planning process. Finally, in Tel Aviv, Israel, citizen groups protested for and against the influx of refugees (Hatuka and Wijler, 2021). They used various tactics that crosscut the local scale of street-level protest and the rule of law to negotiate with national state legislative institutions.

Finally, since our goal is to analyse the conditions under which urban conflict leads to some form of urban change, we selected the contributions that allowed us to speak to outcomes and not just process. Indeed, all the cases reveal a form of change that happened through the process of conflict. For this reason, we do not include cases where conflict failed to produce change, in part because our approach builds on the assumption that protest or conflict will always have an impact, albeit perhaps at different scales and through different forms of engagement and with greater or lesser transformative potential. It is important to note that ‘positive’ or ‘equitable’ change was not one of our selection criteria; change can also take place via increased inequality or less access to human needs for certain groups. Critical reflection on who gained and who lost through change is part of the analyses of the cases studies. 

In the final article of this issue, we offer a conclusion of sorts. It is built around a methodological framework that we identify as a ‘phenomenology of change’, through which we draw general principles from the case study analyses that reveal the conditions under which conflict can generate urban transformation. In this final article, and overall, we aim to understand how conflict writes itself on the city, and how professionals, citizens and other stakeholders may change their attitudes towards conflict in order to engage in a process of contextual learning from conflict situations.


  1. According to Mouffe (2016, p. 1) ‘Conflict in democratic societies cannot and should not be eradicated since the specificity of modern democracy is precisely the recognition and the legitimation of conflict. What democratic politics requires is that the others are not seen as enemies to be destroyed, but as adversaries whose ideas would be fought, even fiercely, but whose right to defend those ideas will never be put into question.’ To put it in another way, what is important is that conflict does not take the form of an ‘antagonism’ (struggle between enemies), but the form of an ‘agonism’ (struggle between adversaries). We could say that the aim of democratic politics is to transform potential antagonism into an agonism.
  2. We believe that violent conflicts may have transformational potentials for change, but to study how, where, and when these may occur would require another special issue and would be a great topic of further research. We did not see fit to compare the transformative potential between violent and non-violent conflicts, as this would be like comparing apples and pears. We therefore limited our case study selection to conflicts that did not lead to physical violence among adversaries.


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