What is a Conflict Diagram?

In our lab, designing inclusive cities is not primarily about spatial intervention, but about designing reorienting urban policy, institutional protocols, knowledges and resources. For us, intervention in the contemporary city must begin with exposing the histories of domination and violence, the political and economic forces, that undergird urban inequality. We are interested in practices of intervention that engage the spatial, territorial and environmental conditions across critical thresholds, whether global border zones or the local sites of conflict generated by discriminatory zoning and neoliberal economic development in the contemporary city.  The urban practices we design aspire to disrupt the privatization of public domain and infrastructure, the rigidity of institutional thinking and the current obsession with an ownership society.  Our approach manifests a double desire: on the one hand, to interrupt urban policies that have spatialized exclusion and marginalization; on the other, to imagine new interfaces between top-down and bottom-up institutions and agencies that can produce new frameworks for urban inclusion.

Our projects always begin with visualizing and diagramming conflicts and contradictions.

The Conflict Diagram
Conflict diagrams are visual narratives, composed of text, images and graphic elements.  They enable us to 1) construct a relational cartography of the multiple conditions of a contested site, and 2) identify opportunities, creative possibilities and fertile zones for investigation and urban / architectural intervention.  The Conflict Diagram is a “scaffold for things to happen”, a generative tool for proposition that is rooted in the contingencies and opportunities of a site.  A Conflict Diagram is an anticipatory framework that sets up the terms for intervention.

In other words, conflict diagrams suggest that designing political, social and economic process is prerequisite to urban / architectural intervention.

Designing a Conflict Diagram proceeds in two stages:

Stage 1: A Critical Investigation Of Conflict: The 5Ws
Developing a Conflict Diagram begins with asking “5Ws” about the contested site:


WHERE is the space, site, zone, geography of investigation and potential intervention.  Narrativize the conditions, the context.  As much as this has to do with physical place, it also has to do with non-place.  WHERE must engage the geography itself, but also, more critically, the power dynamics inscribed in that geography: the allegorical and metaphorical meanings (and for whom), the institutional entanglements, the regulatory frameworks, the jurisdictional designations, the economic interests, the cultural meanings, and networks of control.  What are the visible and invisible conditions that constitute the location – conceptual, material, infrastructural, environmental, institutional, political, jurisdictional, regulatory, economic, historical, cultural and social forces that define the territory and the objects it contains?


WHY pertains to the critical issues, questions, challenges, conflicts, controversies, provocations, violations, injustices and indignities that arise in your case study, sometimes visibly, sometimes invisibly.  WHY motivates your urban / architectural proposition?  WHY do you care?  WHY should others care?  WHY will you propose what you propose?  And WHY should others support it?  WHY refers to the issues of concern – political, ethical, social, cultural, economic, environmental – embedded in your case, the fire behind your investigation and urban / architectural proposition.


WHAT refers to the impacts of the WHY, on real people, on communities, on the environment, on the public.  If the WHY is racial injustice, for example, the WHAT refers to the impacts of this: perhaps higher rates of disease and mortality, poorly funded schools, neighborhood divestment, decay, abandoned buildings, homelessness, gentrification, perhaps despair, loss of hope.  The WHAT is your evidence of the WHY.  The WHAT is the causal output or detritus of the WHY that animates your interest in the case study, and the possible urban / architectural interventions you will propose.  The WHAT can be about visible material things, objects, but also about invisible ephemeral, emotional, or aspirational things.


WHO pertains to the people and groups invested in the site, who are impacted by its evolution over time, who have capacities to alter the conditions, and who are the potential audiences of your proposal.  WHO is harmed and WHO benefits from the status quo, and from a change in the status quo?  WHO must be negotiated with, exchanged with, persuaded, infiltrated?  WHO are the institutions you must ‘deal’ with, learn from, utilize, disrupt, encroach into?  WHO must be engaged in any potential proposition?  There may be people / institutions / stakeholders that don’t yet exist.  Sometimes WHO needs to be imagined, narrativized, designed, created, incubated, choreographed, manipulated.  Remember too that we as architects and urbanists are part of the WHO: How can we identify, understand, translate, communicate, narrativize, visualize, represent the impacts, if we are newcomers to the contested site?  WHO is best situated to represent the WHAT?  WHO narrates the city?


WHEN pertains to the temporal dimensions of the condition — the histories, sequences, durations, rhythms, processes, that constitute the condition, and must drive any potential urban / architectural proposition.  Characteristics of slow, “laggy”, early, late, rapid, urgent, regressive, progressive, incremental and gradual, anticipatory, innovative, reactionary, revolutionary are all examples of temporal descriptors.  The temporalization of space is necessary understand the WHY and ultimately to manifest your vision.

Stage 2: Proposition And Process: Designing A Script For Urban Intervention


What emerges from the 5Ws is a narrative that exposes the vectors and forces that are play in the contested site.  They become the building blocks, the materials for the second stage of designing our Conflict Diagrams: identifying opportunities and creative possibilities for urban / architectural intervention.


HOW is the process of advancing that proposition. HOW is the activity of mobilizing the materials of the 5Ws – the varied and intersecting conditions of the site – into process map, a script for urban intervention. HOW do we move from what is to what might be?  HOW do we choreograph time and things to perform a desired effect?  HOW is visualized in the Conflict Diagram as machine of concepts, animated by a graphic system.

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