Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation this set of projects interrogates the role of conflict in structuring urban space and experiences.

Conflict Urbanism: Colombia
Spatial analysis as a tool for transitional justice in Colombia.
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On the eve of an historic and controversial peace agreement in Colombia we have launched an investigation into the spatial characteristics of the decades long conflict between multiple state and non-state actors in the country. We have provisionally titled this research Conflict Urbanism: Colombia. Our work is still in the beginning phases. We have formed a relationship with the interdisciplinary M.A. Program in Peacebuilding at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá.

We aim to analyze and visualize the documented aspects of the conflict in Colombia in order to put forward policy recommendations for the transitional justice and peacebuilding process. These recommendations will be informed by rigorous mapping, spatial analysis, and in-depth research on the socio-historical context of the conflict. The project engages with existing efforts to construct diverse historical memory in transitional justice projects, especially those in Latin America, and at the same time brings new modes of visualizing violent conflict and its aftermath into discourses of truth and reconciliation. 

Origin and destination cities of more than 5,000 displaced people
Origin and destination cities of more than 5,000 displaced people
 Origin and destination cities of displaced people
Origin and destination cities of displaced people

Our initial maps look at internally displaced peoples in Colombia and their patterns of migration over the course of the conflict using data from the Registro Unico de Victimas. By spatially analyzing and visualizing data about the victims of the conflict - which wasn't collected for this purpose - we are helping build the historical memory of the country, and in doing so, contributing to the ongoing peacebuilding process. In these maps lines connect cities where people were displaced to the cities where they moved to. Often we can connect large displacements with specific historic events such as significant massacres, where such as in Bojayá in 2002 when a massacre caused nearly the entire town to relocate. 

Project Team
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Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo
An evolving and interdisciplinary study of urban damage in Aleppo, Syria.
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Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo is the first in a series of interrelated projects as part of our multi-year year research initiative on Conflict Urbanism.

In January 2016 we launched the Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo interactive map, amidst intense violence in Aleppo more than five years after the start of the civil war in Syria. The map served as a research tool for the spring 2016 Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo seminar and as a new window into the conflict for the world at large. The map combines layers of high-resolution satellite images together with data gathered by human rights organizations and the UN to show the historic city from 2012 to the present. Using the logic of a typical geographic information system (GIS) map, the Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo project overlaps these layers, accruing two kinds of evidence: evidence about the physical destruction of the city and evidence about how urban warfare is tracked and monitored from a distance.

We are continuing to release additional case studies that shed light on the effects of the conflict on the urban fabric of Aleppo. We have combined several experimental methods in order to look at the conflict and the urban context of Aleppo in new ways: by cross referencing YouTube videos we have geocoded with bi-weekly change maps we created using low resolution and free Landsat satellite imagery we have been able to identify intense areas of damage on high resolution satellite images that have gone undocumented by the international human rights community, which uses other methods to look at these same high resolution satellite images. 

The project has been exhibited at the 2016 Istanbul Design Biennale (October 22- November 20, 2016) and has been the subject of several invited lectures and articles including in the Harvard Graduate School of Design Magazine, Architecture Design, and at the Unknown Unknowables conference in Copenhagen, and a Curating Data conference at Harvard. 

Project Team
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Spring 2016 Lecture Series: Disrupting Unity and Discerning Ruptures: Focus Aleppo

Four outstanding speakers will visit campus this spring as part of the Disrupting Unity and Discerning Ruptures: Focus Aleppo lecture series. CSR has been thrilled to work with Professor Avinoam Shalem to organize this series and to cosponsor it the Art History Department and the Middle East Institute. The series is running in conjunction with the CSR seminar Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo and aims to give historical, and art historical, context to the contemporary conflict in Syria and in particular in Aleppo

February 18
Yasser Tabbaa
Independent Scholar
“The Remaking of Aleppo under Nur al-Din and the Early Ayyubids”
612 Schermerhorn Hall, 6pm

March 24
Heghnar Watenpaugh
Associate Professor of Art History
University of California, Davis
“Ottoman Aleppo: Experiencing Architecture, Narrating Space”
Wood Auditorium, Avery Hall, 6pm

March 31
Patrick Ball, PhD
Co-founder, Director of Research
Human Rights Data Analysis Group
“Seeing the Forest: Analyzing hidden patterns using (mostly) public data  about people killed in Syria, 2011-2015”
Brown Institute for Media Innovation, Journalism Building, 6pm

April 7
Sussan Babaie
The Courtauld Institute of Art
University of London
“Urbanity and Mercantile ‘Taste’: the Houses of Aleppo”
612 Schermerhorn Hall, 6pm

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Launch Preview of Conflict Urbanism Aleppo on November 17th, 2015
Nov 18, 2015 — Dare Brawley

On November 17th, 2015 the Center for Spatial Research, in collaboration with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, hosted a launch preview of Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo.

Laura Kurgan and Madeeha Merchant were joined by collaborator Jamon Van Der Hoek in presenting the research and development that has led to the interactive map of the city of Aleppo, Syria.

The event also featured presentations by Josh Lyons of Human Rights Watch, Tyler Radford of Humanitarian Open Street Maps, and Timothy Wallace of The New York Times about how their work might ineract with a project like Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo. 

Acknowledging that conflict zones are information rich and analytically poor, we hope to begin an interdisciplinary discussion about the potential of detecting the effects of urban conflict through satellite imagery analysis.

Focusing on the current catastrophe in Syria, the Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo project began with an attempt to link eyes in the sky with algorithms and ears on the ground. Towards these ends, we have created an open-source web platform that allows users to navigate maps and satellite images of the city of Aleppo, at the neighborhood scale, across multiple data sets. Working with data from Human Rights Watch, UNOSAT, and the Violations Documentation Center, the platform combines our algorithmically-derived damage identification with their expertise.

We discussed what the correlation of human rights data with satellite imagery analysis tells us about the conflict in Syria, and Aleppo in particular. What possibilities do machine learning and remote sensing algorithms promise for damage detection?  Can and should we use crowd-sourcing and citizen science to better train our algorithms?  We invite advocates and researchers from human rights organizations, humanitarian and development agencies, the academy, and the news media to join us in exploring potential uses of the platform and our tools.

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Conflict Urbanism Aleppo
The first in a series of Mellon Foundation supported seminars on Conflict Urbanism.

This is the first in a series of multidisciplinary Mellon seminars on the topic of Conflict Urbanism, as part of a multi-university initiative in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities. This year, we will focus on Aleppo in Syria. Conflict Urbanism is a term that designates that cities are not only destroyed but also built through conflict.

This spring, the seminar focus will be on the city of Aleppo and the places now inhabited by refugees from the city. We will begin with an art historical, and historical survey of one of the most continuously inhabited cities in the world dating back to 10 000 BC. We will examine the urban artifacts of colonialization, the diverse religious and cultural monuments, and the trade routes that have formed the city as it existed until 2011. Then we will look beyond the recent dramatic eruption of state violence and civil war to its antecedents and contexts in rural-urban migration, largely driven by other factors, including poverty and drought. We will examine the time-based destruction of Aleppo at macro and micro levels, analyzing conflict patterns in its social and urban structure. We will then expand what we call "Aleppo" to include the tens of thousands of former residents now sheltered in other cities and in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan. In order to re-imagine the city in it’s post-conflict state our work will be informed by an analysis of the problems encountered in the rebuilding of cities as diverse as Beirut, Kabul, and Sarajevo, which are in various states of rebuilding post-conflict and offer a range of results that need interrogation.


Our work will be by necessity multidisciplinary and include the history, architecture, politics, media, culture, literature and contemporary manifestations of particular cities as they relate to the topic of Conflict Urbanism. Our work will also be multi-media. To study cities today, we have an abundance of data and databases accessible to focus our research. Students will have access to a platform developed by the Center for Spatial Research for their work. It provides students a user friendly framework for navigating, analyzing, and interpreting a series of maps and imagery, characterizing changes resulting from social conflict or natural disasters during the conflict years in Aleppo. The platform can be used in one of two ways: to facilitate navigating and understanding the conflict from a distance, in order to and write about a topic; or, to add to the platform, in a multi-media format on a specific topic or issue, with regard to a specific neighborhood, monument, institution or network.

Final Projects

The final projects which emerged from the course were diverse in focus and approach. Students worked in groups (often composed of members from multiple schools or departments) and drew on diverse archives about the city including: data about the conflict, reporting on social media, official and ‘unofficial’ planning documents in the lead up to the war, records of cultural and religious artifacts in order to produce rich multimedia projects. 

The results of the student work have been collected and published online here

Course Files