Rethinking housing as an infrastructure of care in violent realities

Large fence with razor wire in Johannesburg, South Africa

by Claudia Hitzeroth and Camillo Boano

The concept of infrastructures of care has been used to describe relations and practices of care as urban infrastructures. Yassine, Al-Harithy, and Boano, for example, described refugees hosting other refugees in Ouzaii, Beirut as an infrastructure of care. While the concept initially referred to social infrastructures, Emma Power and Kathleen Mee recently defined housing as an infrastructure of care to analyze the Australian housing system in a way that encompassed not just physical housing structures but also actions, practices, and intentions of care encouraged or discouraged by the system. As urban practitioners questioning how violence and housing intersect in cities that are often touted as some of the ‘world’s most dangerous cities’ (in this case, South African cities), this piece makes the point that rethinking housing as an infrastructure of care is a way to resist perpetuated violence.

The omnipresence of violence in cities is traumatic. Everyday violence, danger, crime, gender-based violence, and fear of physical harm shape a city, in that they shape urban practices and use of the urban environment: where we perceive we can and cannot go, how we move through the city and with whom, and so on. However, urban planning and the ‘intended city’ rarely speak to everyday violent realities. As such, David Satterthwaite’s concept of the ‘unintended city’ becomes a useful theoretical framework, as it portrays the city as one that is not intended (planned) for its urban majority. While Boano and Astolfo initially adopted the concept of unintended cities to reflect on Myanmar’s urbanization, in a South African context it brings attention to the multiple intentions at play in urban transformations as forms-of-violence reproduced despite the intentions of its dwellers, but also intentionally pursued by the government, the market, and the private sector in a historical continuum.

Care can therefore be understood as one of the affirmative ways in which to rethink effective resistance to violence

In South Africa, these multiple intentions historically took the form of forced removals of the black urban population to the periphery, dispossession of land, violently enforced racial segregation, and the denial of the right to the city. In present-day, democratic South Africa, violence can still be perpetuated through housing despite its supposed intention of redress, as neighborhoods and urban landscapes created through state-led housing programs are marked by homogeneity, peripheral locations, fortification, and the absence of safe public spaces. In a country where citizenship is embodied by access to a brick house, marginalization is perpetuated and enforced through denial of the right to housing. Territories and peripheries are produced by deliberate and intentional acts, made possible by laws and discourses that construct exceptions and exceptionality. Informal settlement dwellers, land occupiers, building occupiers, and people experiencing homelessness are continually exposed to multiple and intersecting forms-of-violence by the government (shack demolitions and evictions), the market (gentrification and market-led evictions), and other city dwellers (xenophobic violence, gender-based violence, and gang violence). It lays bare that in such unintended cities, gangsterism, drug addiction, and everyday violence manifest as a way of living without opportunities.

Yet now, as crime and violence penetrate the planned city, they have become unignorable, and violence prevention is increasingly planned in urban practice. Here, violence prevention is often planned through ‘strong and capable governance’, which depends on enforcement capacity, policing, and access to justice. However, current struggles against police brutality—such as the Nigerian #endSARS or South African #JusticeforCollinsKhosa and #JusticeForNathanielJulius—highlight that the punitive policing system is premised on continued violence solely by state-legitimized actors. Planning violence prevention and crime intervention without acknowledgement of the conditions that enable violent city realities, therefore, perpetuates violence rather than reducing it. 

It is important to realize that how we intervene in violence is dependent on how we understand it. The punitive justice system is rooted in a specific understanding of violence, which needs to be made explicit. Brad Evans expertly outlines how, in dominant discourse, difference is understood as the root cause of conflict and violence, be it difference in nationality, culture, religion, or political worldview. Particularly, click-bait culture, media spectacle, and information filtering algorithms are intensifying feelings of fear of ‘the different other’. As the call for ‘security’ rises, it becomes clear that this can only be done through a making of the same, a homogenization, an imposition of ‘my’ values/culture/views onto ‘yours’. In a punitive justice system only one set of values, namely those of Western morality and justice, are enforced. What becomes clear is that such enforcement, or making of the same, is equally violent. As such, outcomes of violence interventions merely shift violence onto the already marginalized in other, new forms of violence.

How then can we intervene in violence in a way that, more fundamentally, breaks cycles of violence?

By understanding violence differently. Instead of understanding difference as a root cause of conflict and violence, Brad Evans suggests a radical approach in the acceptance and affirmation of difference. Such affirmation is only possible if we reframe life beyond survival; we cannot simply render urban territories silent outcomes of aggressive will to power, violence, and colonial extractions. As Boano and Astolfo expound, the idea of the unintended city equally recognizes that people have territorialization power; they have the ability to subvert an established spatial order and create a new one. It is a recognition that there is movement in the form of resistance, mobilization, and acts of re-territorialization that counter violence. Importantly, we must recognize that precisely such a movement can also lie in everyday actions of care, empathy, compassion, dignity, hope, and imagination, despite multiple forms of violence.

Care can therefore be understood as one of the affirmative ways in which to rethink effective resistance to violence. In an urban context, care expands beyond the care-giver and care-receiver through Emma Power’s notion of ‘caring-with’. This approach builds on the philosophical concept of assemblage thinking to understand care as a socio-material relation that emerges from a complex assemblage of actors; such actors can be human, non-human, physical objects, practices, imaginaries, and intentions. It is a way of investigating the emergence and practice of care in imperfect and complex worlds, where relations of care can be problematic in that they are cut through with power relations, exploitation, and violence. It recognizes that violence and care co-exist, that they are not mutually exclusive, and that one continually affects the other in multiple ways. In this case, care can present an alternative, even if it cannot completely disengage from structural inequalities and normative assumptions regarding social reproduction, gender, race, class, sexuality, and citizenship. Therefore, the point is not to insist on the manifestation of care, but to understand the ways in which it thrives, and how to nurture it in urban environments that challenge our very existence. 

Infrastructures of care can present an alternative way of researching and producing knowledge, in that the concept itself is a commitment to affirmative ethics and counter-negativity

A way of understanding how care thrives across the urban is through this concept of infrastructures of care. This questions how networks of socio-material assemblages that are constitutive of care are enabled. Therefore, reframing housing has an infrastructure of care investigates practices of care, repair, maintenance, and imagination, and how they are shaped through housing. This framing asks: how does care flow through the housing system? It commits to identifying practices, physical design, policy, and systems generative of care. In a South African context, it draws attention to the collective care practices emerging in women-led, self-built housing projects, such as the Victoria Mxenge Housing project; it makes evident how exclusionary housing markets are being undermined through backyard rental opportunities; it challenges acknowledgement that children and their welfare can be protected in building occupations such as Reclaim the City; it demands acknowledgement of the role that land occupations, ‘informal’ houses, and house adaptations play in meeting housing needs of the marginalized. Therefore, asking directly how urban-spatial elements such as housing become an infrastructure of care is enquiring precisely how urban equality is emerging from the audacity of care. It is from this audacity to produce, apply, and affect care despite dark, violent urban conditions and futures that its radical nature emerges. 

Infrastructures of care can present an alternative way of researching and producing knowledge, in that the concept itself is a commitment to affirmative ethics and counter-negativity, as advocated for by Rosi Braidotti. This approach seeks to counter dominant forms of knowledge production, those that perpetuate cycles of violence in different forms, by focusing academic attention beyond critique.  Identifying or viewing existing urban processes as infrastructures of care is a nuanced way for urban practitioners, policymakers, housing activists, and academics to ask ‘what is working’ and ‘what could work’. This by no means ignores or disregards our violent realities; instead, it is the practical commitment of time, energy, critical thinking, and action towards a less violent future. Therefore, reframing housing as an infrastructure of care offers a way of taking responsibility for violent realities through care in order to build more equitable urban futures.

Claudia Hitzeroth is a South African urban scholar currently working in the NGO sector on affordable housing and the spatial transformation of South African cities. She completed her MSc at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, UCL, last year. This piece is a continuation of thinking she developed while writing up her thesis, under the guidance of Camillo. @ClaudiaHitz

Camillo Boano is Professor of Urban Design and Critical Theory at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, UCL, where he is also the co-director of the UCL Urban Laboratory. At Politecnico de Torino he is Professor of Architecture and Urban Design. @CamilloBoano


Astolfo, G. and Boano, C. (2020) ‘Unintended cities’ and inoperative violence. Housing resistance in Yangon. Journal of Planning Theory and Practice, Vol. 21(3), pp: 426-449.

Braidotti, R. (2019b) Affirmative ethics and generative life. Deleuze and Guattari Studies. Edinburgh University Press, 13(4), pp. 463–481. doi: 10.3366/dlgs.2019.0373.

Evans, B. (2017) “Keynote Speech: Conflict and the Art of the Political” in Conflict Matters Conference. London.

Power, E. R. (2019) Assembling the capacity to care: Caring-with precarious housing. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 44(4), pp. 763–777. doi: 10.1111/tran.12306.

Power, E. R. and Mee, K. J. (2020) Housing: an infrastructure of care. Housing Studies. Routledge, 35(3), pp. 484–505. doi: 10.1080/02673037.2019.1612038.

Satterthwaite, D. (2008) Understanding Asian cities: A synthesis of the findings from eight city case studies. Global Urban Development, 4, 1–24.

Yassine, B., Al-Harithy, H. and Boano, C. (2019) Refugees Hosting Other Refugees: Endurance and Maintenance of Care in Ouzaii (Lebanon). Journal of Refugee Studies. Oxford University Press, fez098,

A previous version of this article was published in the print issue of engagée Who Cares #10

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