Cecilia Cassidy
Climate Change
Fall 2023
Madhura Shembekar
Summer 2023

Building a Better Future: Urbanism and Conflict in Environmentalism

A dialogue with Dr. Silvia Danielak and Common Home Editor Madhura Shembekar

Illustration of two hands letting go of a dove against a green skyline and dark gray speckled background. Design by Cecilia Cassidy

Dr. Silvia Danielak is an urbanist and peace scholar. She studies socio-spatial planning in the context of conflict, disaster risk, and post-conflict/post-disaster reconstruction. Her research has been supported by the International Studies Association’s Dissertation Completion Fellowship Award, the US Institute of Peace’s Minerva Peace and Security Dissertation Scholarship, the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center, the MIT Center for International Studies, the MIT DUSP Rodwin Travel grant, the Harvard Center for African Studies, and the Harvard Program on Negotiation, among others. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Earth Commons Institute for Environment and Sustainability at Georgetown University.

MS: Your work is very unique in that it delves into concepts that many people don’t think twice about: socio-spatial planning and post-disaster reconstruction, for example. What first interested you in the intersection between infrastructure, peace, and the environment?

SD: I am fascinated by what is commonly perceived as pretty ‘boring’: infrastructure! Even in urban planning, which is the field in which I did my doctoral work at MIT, infrastructure is typically considered the domain of engineers, whereas it is in fact a social and political issue. 

Infrastructure is often a way to advance specific politics, and make decisions about who is excluded and included, who can participate in public life, etc. Think of public transport in disadvantaged neighborhoods, or the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. These are all infrastructure questions. So, having studied and professionally worked  in the field of peace and conflict for a long time, I was curious to see what role infrastructure plays in violent conflict and also how it is thought of as a barrier—or perhaps enabler or crucial ingredient—of peacebuilding.

MS: Fascinating! Can you briefly describe the research you are conducting through the Earth Commons’ post-doctoral fellowship?

SD: I began the post-doctoral fellowship to work on my book project on the role of infrastructure in United Nations peace operations. Peacekeepers build a lot of infrastructure in the places they intervene, with significant impact on the environment and local communities, which have so far remained relatively neglected.  In the last few months, I conducted research in the United Nations’ archives in New York. I also conducted interviews with professionals currently working at the UN, from diplomats and military personnel from troop-contributing countries to NGOs and businesses working with peacekeepers on the ground on environmental management and climate change mitigation. The manuscript is out for review now—right in time as I and my collaborator Meredith McKittrick, at Georgetown’s History department, received the Earth Common’s Impact Award for a new research project. This will keep me busy for the second year of the postdoc!

MS: You are currently writing a book about the UN’s use of infrastructure projects as a peacekeeping tool, and you’ve previously examined this topic in the context of UN efforts in Mali and urban peacebuilding in South Africa. Generally, what has your research shown about the impact of infrastructure projects, particularly concerning the environment? 

SD: Infrastructure—public works like roads and train stations, pipes, boreholes, or solar panels—are generally considered invisible to the public as long as they function well. My research has shown that this is not true! In fact, infrastructure is often conceived as part of peacebuilding strategy: to win the population’s approval for the United Nations’ military peacekeeping intervention and ensure that peacebuilding efforts are connected to long-term development in order to make peace sustainable. But, those infrastructure projects also introduce new risks into communities. They may enhance competition, marginalize some groups, or lead to the depletion of resources. For example, a new asphalted road allows peacekeepers to travel faster but it might make it more dangerous for children to walk to school or block pastoralists from accessing their pastures. Similarly, boreholes dug by peacekeepers might reduce groundwater levels, ultimately leaving local populations scrambling for this precious resource in an environment already affected by drought.

MS: Have you had any surprising findings about the role of the environment in peacebuilding efforts? Does the environment play a larger role in conflict than you initially anticipated?

SD: There has been a lot of research lately on the links between climate change, environmental degradation, and conflict. We often talk about environmental issues as potential risk multipliers, where disasters and environmental degradation add stress to communities that already face—often decades of—communal conflict and violence. Those communities often do not have the resources to address climate adaptation and pursue environmental protection.

In my research, though, I was most surprised to find out how far peacebuilders—agencies like the United Nations and its troop-contributing countries—have already come in considering environmental action as part of peace efforts. Environmental peacebuilding is not a new concept, but it has been taken up by UN bureaucrats over the last few years to address the environmental footprint of peacekeeping missions. It turns out that some of these initiatives are not only good for the environment, but also have military and political advantages! There still remains a lot to do, but we also need to credit the efforts undertaken already in those very complex conflict situations.

MS: What do you hope to research/explore next (after the completion of your book)?

SD: While doing research for my first book, the links between climate change, conflict, and security became very obvious. Policymakers are concerned with the consequences of climate change on collective security and peace. But I have often found this narrative to be simplistic and therefore, I wanted to better understand how climate adaptation and mitigation activities (which again, often involve an infrastructure component) shape people’s capacity to live together peacefully. What kinds of conflict does climate action create? When, where, and how is it part of peacebuilding? How do communities manage conflicts that emerge in the context of climate adaptation and mitigation? I hope to explore those questions in urban areas in Morocco, given the country’s climate vulnerability and rapid urbanization, as well as its status as a trailblazer regarding renewable energy generation.

MS: Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself or your work?

SD: Well, thank you for the opportunity to shed some light on my work! As I mentioned, Meredith McKittrick and I were very fortunate to have been granted the ECo Impact award. It will kick-start a comparative research project on energy infrastructure in Morocco and Namibia as part of the countries’ plans for “green futures.” We seek to better understand who bears the cost of energy transition, who is included and who is not—and are those sustainable development plans really sustainable? Research on the socio-political and historical dimensions of climate change, sustainability, and peacebuilding is by definition interdisciplinary, so we are grateful to the Earth Common for supporting us! 

climate change
sustainable urban planning
urban planning