Thinking the city: a short commentary

This commentary was written for session entitled ‘How to think about cities?’, organised by Regan Koch and Alan Latham at the annual conference of the Association of American Geographers, Boston, Friday April 7th, 2017. The session marks the coming publication of Regan and Alan’s new edited book – Key Thinkers on Cities (Sage) – which includes short essays on a wide range of urban thinkers (my own chapter is on AbdouMaliq Simone’s work). This short piece was part of a panel of several respondents asked to speak to the wider question. Regan and Alan provided several prompts for the panel (obviously I don’t respond to all of these in the 1000 words below!): Are there general concepts through which we can make sense of all cities and urban environments? What kinds of urban actors or forms of agency are not getting the attention they deserve? Should urban geography necessarily be critical urban geography? Might we envision a more pragmatic, post-critical urban geography? Is the pluralism of urban geography a strength? Does urban geography need less or more theory? Are we asking the right questions about cities?

We can often work out some of the key economic and political drivers of a city quite quickly. It doesn’t necessarily take a great deal of time or skill to appreciate something of the geographies of inequality in a city. Yet cities are also, as Walter Benjamin (2003) once put it, picture-puzzles: porous, changing, excessive, surprising, improvising. The city is, as AbdouMaliq Simone (2014) has argued, a space where urban activities of different sorts ‘pile up’ and happen upon each other, where multiple trajectories co-mingle, co-exist and conflict, a ‘throwntogetherness’ of different power-geometries that present all manner of openings and closure (Massey, 2005; Blok and Farías, 2016), some we might predict, that seem to repeat or follow a script we know, others that shock or amaze. And just as we seem to have something of a handle on our own little corner of concern and interest in the city, it seems to slip away from us, sometimes throwing our arguments or concepts into doubt…

How, then, does urban thought operate and address this space between the clarity of the city, and the city as picture-puzzle? Here are three brief reflections around this…

First, the way in which we think about cities is a question not just of how we think the city, but how cities make us think. Cities force ways of seeing, thinking and imagining. The primacy we give to a whole range of concepts, from the right to the city to infrastructure or heterogeneity, or the various ways of thinking cities relationally or as difference machines, derives in part from this. Cities are not just test beds in which we apply or experiment with ideas or concepts. They also actively shape how we think and see. In his book, The Manhattan Project: A Theory of the City, David Kishik (2015: 95) writes: “For far too long we have busied ourselves with thinking about ways to change the city. It is about time that we let the city change the way we think”. Kishik’s point is that cities – despite being sites of exploitation, alienation, and oppression – also present, and even sometimes resolve in one way or another, all sorts of heterogeneities and conflicts, by enabling work-arounds and improvisations and settlements, however temporary, to all manner of social, cultural, economic, political and environmental problematics. These work-arounds emerge from the city of the picture-puzzle, the kaleidoscopic city that we don’t just read, but which also surfaces to us in different ways.

This picture-puzzle city offers up different kind of urban archives. Archives that include different ways of knowing the city – pedagogies of writing, talking, seeing, walking, telling, hearing, making, relating, and so on (Mbembe and Nuttall 2004). And so, no surprise then, that one of the questions urban geographers and other often pose is around the kind of urban archives are we listening to or seeing? What kinds of urban agency have a role in how cities makes us think, and what sort of role? Edgar Pieterse (2011: no page) has argued that some of the catalysts of these kinds of archives might include ordinary spaces like the street, the slum, the waste dump, the taxi rank, the mosque and church. Or, writing about urban wastepickers in municipal garbage grounds in India, Vinay Gidwani (2013) has argued that “the primary intellectual and political task of the postcolonial scholar as archivist of the city”, as he puts it, is to derive ways of thinking about urbanism and political change from the “marginalized, remaindered, and stigmatized”. In the space between the legible city of clarity and the picture-puzzle city, what kinds of urban archives are changing how we think, and why?

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Boston, from the Public Garden

The second thing I want to raise in relation to this connects to abstraction. The question of how we abstract is central, of course, to how we understand urbanism. A lot of the debates around global, planetary, or comparative urbanism, and so on, in the last few years have been at least in part about how we abstract (eg Amin, 2013; Brenner and Schmid, 2015; Parnell and Robinson, 2012; Peck, 2015; Roy, 2015). Those debates have provoked a set of useful and provocative questions, including: How do our abstractions make space for multiplicity and uncertainty? What is the basis and reach of our claims? What is the relationship between particularly and locality? Is there a distinction between a generalisation and provinciality in the debates we have? Is there a universal to the city? And so on. And so, for example, Aiwha Ong (2011: 12) – to take just one example – has argued for a form of urban thought that “dives below high abstraction to hover over actual human projects and goals unfolding”. Other forms of abstraction seek out not generalisations per se, but to establish a connection or rapport or resonance across different cases. The point is that different kinds abstraction not only reveal different methods and stories about the city, but that it’s virtually impossible to de-link this question of how we abstract, and the implications of it, from how we think cities. Different modes of abstraction negotiate the space between the seemingly legible city and the picture-puzzle city in quite different ways.

Third, and finally, one of the issues that haunts the question ‘how to think about cities’ is the issue of ‘oughtness’. Urban geographical debate, and I think this is inevitable, is often caught up with sense of ‘oughtness’ – that we ought to be thinking about cities in this or that way, or researching them in this or that way, etc. So, for example, some might insist that there are certain obligatory points of passage through urban theory that need to be made in order to adequately appreciate certain urban problematics. Others may identify ethnography as a kind of vital route to appreciating complexity and generating deep understating. And so on.

We all, I think, carry around different senses of oughtness. The challenge, of course, is that oughtness can take on quite different forms: it can be a provocation, or an appeal to something that matters that isn’t perhaps receiving the attention it might, but if it’s not tempered to enable a spirit of openness and dialogue it can also be performed in ways that shut ideas and debates down. So I think one of the important grounds upon which we – urban geographers and others – explore this question of how to think about cities, and make sense of the picture-puzzles, is around the atmosphere in which oughtness is placed and held. I would want to argue for a kind of urban geography where anything goes in terms of the ways in which we engage the city, the sources we draw on, the methodologies we experiment with, the conceptual elaborations we follow, and so on. The pluralism of urban geography is a strength, but that pluralism is an achievement and an atmosphere of debate, requiring a measure of work and care, and never a given.

References

Amin, A. (2013) ‘The urban condition: a challenge to social science’. Public Culture, 25:2, 201-208.

Benjamin, W. (2003) The Arcades Project. Harvard University Press: University of Harvard (translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin).

Blok, A. and Farías, I. (2016) (eds) Urban Cosmopolitics: Agencements, Assemblies, Atmospheres. London: Routledge

Brenner, N. and Schmid, C. (2015) ‘Towards a new epistemology of the urban?’ CITY, 19, 2-3, 151-182

Gidwani, V. (2013) ‘Six theses on waste, value and commons’. Social and Cultural Geography, 14(7):773-783

Kishik, D. (2015) The Manhattan Project: A Theory of the City. Stanford University Press: Stanford.

Massey, D. (2005) For Space. London: Sage.

Mbembe, A. and Nuttall, S. (2004) ‘Writing the World from an African Metropolis’. Public Culture, 16: 3, 347-372.

Ong, A. (2011) ‘Introduction Worlding Cities, or the Art of Being Global’. In Ong, A. (eds) Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp1-26.

Parnell, S. and Robinson, J. (2012) ‘(Re)theorising cities from the global South: looking beyond neoliberalism’. Urban Geography, 33:4, 593-617.

Pieterse, E. (2011) ‘Rethinking African urbanism from the slum’. LSE Cities, http://lsecities.net/media/objects/articles/rethinking-african-urbanism-from-the-slum/en-gb/

Peck, J. (2015) ‘Cities beyond compare?’ Regional Studies, 49:1, 160-182.

Roy, A. (2015) ‘Whose afraid of postcolonial theory?’. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, DOI 10.1111/1468-2427.12274.

Simone, A. (2014) Jakarta, drawing the city near. University of Minnesota Press.

 

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:

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02723638.2016.1243386.

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.

Reference

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