A master thesis in the market – Elias Estermann

I took part in last year’s summer school and decided I really wanted to continue working on the city of Barranquilla. Since January, I have been using this case study for my master thesis here at the ETH in the environmental systems department. I am doing this research under the supervision of Pius Krütli, Michael Stauffacher and Alice Hertzog at the TdLab and hope it will contribute to improving this years summer school. Here is a short over view of what I have been up to!

To create a multidisciplinary systemic understanding of urban complexity, several approaches exist. Mostly they are based on quantitative data such as statistics and sophisticated maps. The collection and interpretation of this kind of data needs a long period of time and therefore can be expensive. It can also happen, that the system under investigation already has evolved when the final report with ideas for development is published.
In my masters thesis I try to adapt well-known tools for a rapid analysis of rural contexts into an urban context. These tools should be “fairly quick” and “fairly clean”, so no statistics and other quantitative data needed! As example for those tools one can name qualitative interviews, observations, price comparison, traffic counts but also basic mapping. The gathered information should still allow clear recommendations for sustainable development of the system as output.
After a review of literature, I started the preparation of my fieldwork in Barranquilla, a Colombian city with a population of about 1.9 million inhabitants. Located at the Caribbean coast, Barranquilla is a city with economic importance for trade with North America and Europe. This attracts big investments from foreign countries, speeding up Barranquilla’s development. This city development was one of the reasons, why the “Avenues in the Tropics” joint Summer School event of ETH Zurich and UniNorte took place in Barranquilla. I had the chance to be part of this first teaching event, an unforgettable experience.
The system under investigation in my thesis is the fresh-food market, a daily meeting point for thousands of people from different social classes and regions in the historical center of Barranquilla. You can buy everything: Fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, living animals and many other things shipped from China or elsewhere. Astonishing is not only the variety of products but also in which quantity they are offered by formal but also informal vendors.


Vivid market life during the morning.

This living system has to deal with several problematical situations: Dilapidated infrastructure, environmental pollution, lacking organization of traffic, hygienic grievances, social insecurity, drug abuse and violence, just to name the most obvious. How to deal with these issues is actually a big political discussion and appeared several times in local medias during my stay.


A community worker cleaning el caño de la auyama, close to the mercado.

By talking to stakeholders and decision makers, as well as applying different tools, I could generate a good understanding of the interrelations in this complex system. Right now, I am sorting and interpreting the collected data, fitting it into a consistent report. I am looking forward to coming back to Barranquilla in June, as part of this years program “Markets in the Tropics” and hope we can test out some of these tools collaboratively!

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