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.



The Geographies of Urban Density

I have a new paper available online early with Progress in Human Geography, entitled ‘The Geographies of Urban Density: Topology, Politics and the City’.

The question of ‘density’ may appear an old urban agenda, but scratch the surface of any theory of urbanization or urban life or the city, and density appears as a central factor. For most urbanists, density is one of the concepts reached for when asked that ever-elusive question: what makes a city? I doubt it is possible to build a thorough and coherent conceptualization of the city or urbanization without developing a serious consideration of density as part of it.

Yet we lack systematic studies of the past, present and future geographies of urban density. Density is too often taken to be apolitical, topographical, and linked to city centres or residential locations. This paper offers a different argument: that we need a new spatial and political understanding of density. Density, I argue, needs to be understood as key not just to particular urban issues, but to urbanism in general.


Central Kampala, Uganda

The representation and production of density in urban space is shaped by dominant political economic shifts, ideologies, and planning processes, and is experienced and contested in often highly divergent ways. This means that while density is often linked to centrality, in practice it has no pre-given geography, and entails a constant play between different kinds of centres and periphery (this is one of the reasons why it is always a topological as well as a topographical problem).

So, in addition to offering a review of the historical career of density in the city, I argue in the paper for a research agenda around density as topological and constituted through ‘intensive heterogeneities’. By intensive heterogeneity, I mean the ways of experiencing, negotiating, controlling and mobilizing lived densities as vital components of the urban question (examples in the paper include slums and other neighbourhoods, markets, activism, density-in-motion, and changing socialities, and across these I include the increasingly prominent role of digital densities). The issues discussed to illustrate these arguments are, then, necessarily wide-ranging, and include the slum, the suburb, modernist skyscrapers, social mixture, urban activism, experiences of density ‘on the move’, and recent preoccupations with ‘New Urbanism’ and ‘Smart Urbanism’.

Mohammed Ali Road, Mumbai

I wrote the paper for two reasons. First, density has always been a keyword in my research (on the politics and experience of informal settlements), but has remained largely in the background to my work. Writing the paper was an opportunity to think more closely about density in some of the other work I’m doing. Second, density is back at the heart of global urban agendas. Whether the density fetishism of planners and developers creating new elite and gentrified enclaves, or efforts to foster density in the interests of lower-carbon urbanisms or affordable housing, or in calls to build density to promote and agglomerate post-recession job creation, or international agencies concerned with how low-density sprawl increasingly exceeds the governmental boundaries of municipalities, density is continually positioned against an allegedly less environmentally smart and economically unproductive sprawl. I wanted to examine the different ways in which density has been put to work conceptually and politically over time and space and to use that to speak back to some of these recent debates and to emerging research agendas.

I’m aware of course that there is a lot more to say about density that I don’t examine in the paper. In a paper that covers a long time period and wide terrain there are debates around density that I couldn’t give much space to, such as those around climate change, as well as the role of density (and linked terms) in the work of particular theorists, such as Walter Benjamin or Henri Lefebvre. That said, writing the paper has helped me see some of that those debates in a new way.

The Urban Politics and Governance of Social Innovation in Austerity

I’m excited to be part of a new project investigating the connections between austerity, social innovation and urban politics in Europe. The project is led by Joe Painter as Principal Investigator, and the co-investigators are Paul Langley, Sue Lewis, Antonis Vradis, and myself (all based in Geography at Durham). It is funded through the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Urban Transformations programme (coordinated by the University of Oxford).

2008_0803Berlin0063 copy

Berlin: took this looking east from the roof of the Reichstag.

In the project, we will compare whether and how austerity impacts social innovation across three
European cities that are experiencing quite different forms of austerity – Athens, Berlin and Newcastle – and will examine the implications for urban politics. We will do so by investigating alternative finance, grassroots mobilisation and community provisioning in the three cities.

Although I live near Newcastle and know one of the other two cities – Berlin – very well, this is the first time that I’ll be involved in a research project on European cities. It’s also the first sustained opportunity I’ve had to be part of a team examining the geographical impacts of austerity on cities. So being part of this is an exciting and challenging prospect!

More information is available here.