How might we conceptualise and research everyday urbanism?

How might we conceptualise and research everyday urbanism? This is the question Jonathan Silver and I respond to in a new paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Our case is that understanding the practices through which different residents make their way around the city is an important part of the answer. In particular, we argue that examining how people navigate home, neighbourhood, work, socialities, and events reveals insight into the practices – or what we call social infrastructures – through which people anchor their everyday urban lives.

We argue for using ‘Follow Along Participant Observation’, amidst other methods, as a basis for understanding how people differently perceive, experience, and negotiate urban worlds. Our context for this is Kampala, and in particular the low-income neighbourhood of Namuwongo, a fascinating, dynamic, impoverished and neglected area on the edge of the city centre, constantly at threat of demolition by various state authorities. Following the stories of six quite different lives, we argue that social infrastructures of care are vital as people differently seek to get on and get by.

These infrastructure of care operate alongside vital practices of coordination, consolidation, and speculation that play important and differentiated roles in the reproduction of everyday life. These relations between people and things sit in dialectical relation to the political, economic and social forces that shape inequality in the city and fragmented conditions residents inherit in the neighbourhood.

As part of the research we organised an exhibition with colleagues in Kampala entitled ‘Celebrating Namuwongo’, at the Uganda Museum. The event created a useful space for reflecting on how the neighbourhood is represented in the city and for staging conversations about the opportunities and challenges of everyday life on the margins of the city.

Researching Urban Diversity: Making the Case for Intra-Urban Comparison

The debate on comparative urbanism in urban studies is a lively and productive one, and over the past decade and more the whole question of comparison – as both concept and method – has been radically rethought in urban research. In a new paper just published online in Urban Geography, and co-written with Jonathan Silver (Sheffield) and Yaffa Truelove (NUS-Yale), we argue that the potential of ‘intra-urban comparison’ (IUC) has often been over-looked in these debates.

We begin the paper by questioning an assumption that is built into many of the interventions around comparative urbanism, even as the interventions themselves differ. Running through these debates is an assumption about how and where we locate urban complexity and diversity. 20151021_125056The claim tends to be that including more cities within our research purview will lead to a more plural and nuanced understanding of urbanism. This is a reasonable assumption, one that has demonstrably borne fruit in a number of cases, and one that we subscribe to. However, for those of us concerned both with how diversity can form a basis for urban insight, and with how everyday practices and grey areas of the city can enter into theorisation of global urbanism, is bringing more cities into view the only route forward?

We examine how comparison of the moving trajectories within cities can foreground urban diversity and contribute to efforts to construct a theorisation of urbanism more

101_0238attuned to the similarities and differences of the majority of urban life. Drawing on research in Delhi, Mumbai and Cape Town, we argue that IUCs are a powerful method for revealing and thinking through the consequences of the diversity inherent in the category ‘city’.



We consider both how these three cities have been historically understood as different urban worlds within a city, and discuss key dsc02024findings from IUCs we have conducted on
infrastructures. In particular, we argue for the potential of IUCs to contribute to reconceptualising urban politics, attending to the varied and contradictory trajectories of
urban life, and bringing visibility to the diverse routes through which progressive change can occur. We find that IUCs can enhance comparative work both within and between cities.

The paper can be accessed here:

Life at the urban margins: sanitation infra-making and the potential of experimental comparison

Very pleased that this paper by Michele Lancione and myself has been published with Environment and Planning A. The paper seeks to contribute to two sets of debates: first, on comparative urbanism, and here we think through what we call ‘experimental comparison’; and, second, on urban infrastructure, and specifically through the idea ‘infra-making’, which we use to explore forms of agency and atmosphere through which infrastructure is lived on the economic margins of the city.

The paper examines the role of sanitation in everyday life in the city, and compares Michele’s work on homelessness in Turin and work I’ve been doing on low-income neighbourhoods in Mumbai. Drawing on these examples we make a case for infra-making and experimental comparison as conceptual and methodological resources for critical urban research, by considering some of the implications for the relations between generalisation, specification, and intervention.

The Poolitical City: ‘Seeing Sanitation’ and Making the Urban Political in Cape Town

Jonathan Silver and I have just published a new paper with Antipode on the politics of sanitation in Cape Town. The paper – ‘The Poolitical City: ‘Seeing Sanitation’ and Making the Urban Political in Cape Town’ – is available here (via paywall).

The paper builds on work Jonathan and I have both done on urban infrastructure in different cities. In this piece, we connect infrastructure to the city in several ways: as a metric of urban inequality, as an active and constitutive force shaping the city’s contemporary and historical geographies, and as a vital part of different forms of political response. In particular, we are concerned with how sanitation is seen and politicised, and here there are deep-seated politics of race and space at work.

What drew us to research sanitation in Cape Town was a remarkable political movement in the past few years that has challenged the dominant historical associations of race and waste in Cape Town’s townships and informal settlements. The movement took excess uncollected shit from the spaces where people live and dumped it over key political targets in the city, sites of economic and political power. It is a profoundly geographical story that takes a crisis of infrastructure and turns it into a wider politics of the city, and does so through a selective geographical that it operates not just on discursive levels, but as a powerful sensorial politics.

Across a variety of actors – social movements, the state, NGOs, and others – we show how sanitation is not just a service delivery problem (although it is of course in part this), but a politics of the city more widely. Sanitation connects not just to service or infrastructure delivery, but to race, history, the organisation of urban space, and a politics of dignity and the Constitution. It is in this sense that we talk about shifts between sanitation as a ‘poolitical’ problem – ie one of service and infrastructure in particular spaces – to sanitation as an ‘political’ problem, ie a politics of the city per se.

Here’s our abstract:

‘In an urbanizing world, the inequalities of infrastructure are increasingly politicized in ways that reconstitute the urban political. A key site here is the politicization of human waste. The centrality of sanitation to urban life means that its politicization is always more than just service delivery. It is vital to the production of the urban political itself. The ways in which sanitation is seen by different actors is a basis for understanding its relation to the political. We chart Cape Town’s contemporary sanitation syndrome, its condition of crisis, and the remarkable politicization of toilets and human waste in the city’s townships and informal settlements in recent years. We identify four tactics—poolitical tactics—that politicize not just sanitation but Cape Town itself: poo protests, auditing, sabotage, and blockages. We evaluate these tactics, consider what is at stake, and chart possibilities for a more just urban future’.

HG Wells, global urbanism and the city

Just came across this passage by HG Wells in his 1902 essay, ‘Anticipations’. Interesting to see Wells anticipating some of the debate going on now, in urban research and in policy and public domains, about a world becoming urban:

“And as for the world beyond our urban regions? The same line of reasoning that leads to the expectation that the city will diffuse itself until it has taken up considerable areas and many of the characteristics, the greenness, the fresh air, of what is now country, leads us to suppose also that the country will take to itself many of the qualities of the city. The old antithesis will indeed cease, the boundary lines will altogether disappear; it will become, indeed, merely a question of more or less populous. There will be horticulture and agriculture going on within the “urban regions,” and “urbanity” without them. Everywhere, indeed, over the land of the globe between the frozen circles, the railway and the new roads will spread, the network of communication wires and safe and convenient ways”.Wells

Wells anticipates not just cities simply spreading across the surface as they become more populous, but the world itself – ‘between the frozen circles’ – becoming urban. Through infrastructure and communication, the air itself will be urbanised, and notions of ‘city’ and ‘country’ will lose their meaning as boundaries disappear into a pattern of more or less dense distributions of ‘urban regions’. Terms like ‘town’ and ‘country’ will become as “obsolete”, he argues, as the mail coach.

I was left wondering whether Wells would have used terms like ‘city’ had he been writing today. By coincidence, I was re-reading a recent piece by Mark Davidson and Kurt Iveson (2015: 652) in City that takes up some strands of this debate. I’ve found this passage useful for thinking about this question, in which they summarise some of the ‘generative affects’ of the notion of ‘the city’ as part of a broader argument about why it remains an important concept to hold onto even in the face of an increasingly urban world:

“‘The city’ is multiple things, such as an object, a political boundary, a geography identity, a brand, a community, a unit of collective consumption, and more. A term such as ‘London’ therefore refers to an object with multiple socio-spatial configurations which, in ways not always directly tied to the said object, have various generative affects”.

The global nature of urbanism presents one of the most challenging and fundamental epistemological debates for contemporary critical urban research. I don’t think Wells offers a great deal of help in thinking these problems through, but it is worth keeping in mind that the debates have histories, speculative or otherwise, that likely inform some of the ideas buzzing around now in various publics.


Davidson, M. and Iveson, K. (2015) ‘Beyond city limits: a conceptual and political defense of ‘the city’ as an anchoring concept for critical urban theory’. City, 19:5

New Book – Smart Urbanism: Utopian Vision or False Dawn

Andrés Luque-Ayala, Simon Marvin and myself have just published a new edited book on the ‘smart city’ debate. The book, Smart Urbanism: Utopian Vision or False Dawn? (Routledge), is a critical examination of the claims, drivers, imaginaries and consequences of smart city discourses.

As we all know, there is an incredible amount of hype and noise made about smart cities, much of it by multinational corporations like IBM and Cisco in their effort to sell expensive ‘urban solutions’. In this book, we sought to take this debate on by bringing together a group of critical, international and interdisciplinary researchers.Smart urbanism

The book examines how smart city initiatives are being rolled out, and makes a series of arguments that seeks to advance a critical research agenda. It finds, for example, that the discourse is often in reality a justification for the latest round of neoliberal development and displacement. It finds a common tendency to place far too much faith in technology, with far too little attention to the actual urban context. It also finds that most of the time, and despite high profile cases such as Rio’s control room, the smart city discourse is little more than discourse, bolstered by pervasive imagery that globally circulates and effectively constitutes a powerful form of marketing.

But the book also finds openings in the smart city discourse, including in the actions of social movements, civil society groups, and critical researchers to use or promote digital technologies in more socially and ecologically relevant ways. In these efforts, it is urbanism and social justice that inform whether or not digital technologies are useful, as opposed to the positivist view that technology can be added to cities awaiting ‘enhancement’ through sensors, dashboards and real-time data management. But as the book shows, it would be far too simple to argue that there is an ‘alternative’ smart city discourse that opposes a ‘mainstream’ discourse, partly because the various overlaps between what may initially appear mainstream and alternative, and partly because many critical initiatives with digital technology reject the entire smart city discourse altogether while others seeks to reframe it.

Here’s the list of contributors and chapter titles:

  1. IntroductionAndrés Luque-Ayala, Colin McFarlane and Simon Marvin
  2. Smart cities and the politics of urban dataRob Kitchin, Tracey Lauriault and Gavin McArdle
  3. IBM and the visual formation of smart citiesDonald McNeill
  4. The smart entrepreneurial city: Dholera and a 100 other utopias in IndiaAyona Datta
  5. Getting smart about smart cities in Cape Town: Beyond the rhetoricNancy Odendaal
  6. Programming environments: Environmentality and citizen sensing in the smart cityJennifer Gabrys
  7. Smart-city initiatives and the Foucauldian logics of governing through codeFrancisco Klauser and Ola Söderström
  8. Geographies of smart urban powerGareth Powells, Harriet Bulkeley and Anthony McLean
  9. Test-Bed as urban epistemologyNerea Calvillo, Orit Halpern, Jesse LeCavalier and Wolfgang Pietsch
  10. Beyond the corporate smart city?: Glimpses of other possibilities of smartnessRobert G. Hollands
  11. ConclusionsColin McFarlane Andrés Luque-Ayala and Simon Marvin

World Toilet Day: On Being Post-Toilet

Today is World Toilet Day. The event was inaugurated at the 2001 World Toilet Summit to raise awareness about the global sanitation crisis. This is an important initiative and it gathers a great deal of public attention. Long a taboo subject, sanitation is now increasingly discussed openly in public, policy and practice. The World Toilet Day initiative is partly responsible for that.

Part of the purpose of World Toilet Day is to raise awareness not just about toilets, but about the range of issues linked to them. As most people involved in the global sanitation debate will tell you, sanitation cannot be reduced to questions of access to toilets alone.

But even while the global sanitation debate strains to emphasize the ‘post-toilet’ (there’s a term you don’t use everyday!) nature of sanitation, there is a tendency for the debate to remain oddly narrow. The debate very often remains within the confines of questions around access to toilets, along with a series of linked questions about how those toilets might best be paid for, maintained, and governed, or around whether ‘users’ should be charged for using public toilets or educated about the importance of toilets and hygiene. These are, of course, vital issues, and issues I myself have researched, but the issues at stake are far wider.


Post-toilet? Took this recently at a public toilet in Bombay

This problem is exacerbated by the constant bombardment – not just on days like World Toilet Day – of numbers, percentages, graphs, charts and statistical maps measuring the extent of ‘inadequate’ toilets based on access or ‘improved’ toilets based on maintenance, which are continually played out globally. I am not saying, of course, that we should not collect data. The data is vital and we all depend on it, even if it is often inconsistent, unreliable, and tends to underestimate the scale of the issue. But part of the effect is to reinforce the isolation of sanitation form other issues intimately connected to it, and to reinstate the narrow link to toilets that so many people working on sanitation believe we need to get beyond.

What we’re left with is a largely liberal discourse on sanitation that obscures seeing what is blandly called ‘inadequate sanitation’ for what it really is: a human catastrophe caused by economic, cultural and political inequality and oppression. In a curious sense, the sanitation debate sanitises sanitation.

The liberal sanitation discourse as it is currently constituted obscures the fast and slow suffering and oppression that emerges from people being denied the ability to safely separate themselves from human waste across urban and rural space. For example, diarrhea, usually the result of food or water contaminated with fecal matter, kills a child every fifteen seconds, and in each decade that passes the number killed exceeds all World War II fatalities (see Rose George’s The Big Necessity). In India, forty-two children die each hour due to inadequate sanitation. Thousands of children will die in this way today, tomorrow, and the day after, and on and on. We hear time and again about harassment and rape of women on their way to using public toilets or open space.

These issues are not so much problems of toilets as problems of political economy and the disinvestment in housing, water, sewers, drainage, subsidized food, and in infrastructure and health provisions for poor areas. They are not so much problems of ‘access’ or ‘maintenance’ as problem of exclusion or exploitation based on class, gender, ethnicity, caste and religion.

The liberal discourse attempts to grapple with the range of issues that produce and emerge from inadequate sanitation. But it struggles to deal with the causes of inequality and oppression that shape sanitation conditions, and it often seems unable (and perhaps in some cases unwilling) to shift sanitation from a toilet-problem to a political economic and societal problem that is differently constituted globally. This at the heart of the writing I’m now doing on sanitation, which is to try to see sanitation differently, to de-sanitise the discourse, and to shift it beyond the confines of a service-delivery or development problem.