Reflecting on the Chicago AAG and urban debates

I got back from the Association of American Geographers annual conference a couple of days ago. The conference was great – one of the best AAGs I’ve been to – and it was lovely to be in Chicago again, a genuinely stunning city. I got the chance to take in some of the architectural heights with friends, especially through the architectural boat and walking tours organised by the wonderful not-for-profit Chicago Architectural Foundation. The foundation has some fantastic volunteers who are both enthusiastic about the city’s remarkable architecture while critically-minded about some of the challenges of urban development.

A lot of people find the scale of the AAG daunting and sometimes alienating, and of course I can see why (over 9000 delegates in a colossal hotel), but the scale of it also creates a buzz and excitement. There is of course too much to get to, and lots that I missed – I was particularly disappointed to miss Nik Theodore’s IJURR lecture, which I have heard lots of great things about since and will look forward to reading in due course.

ChicagoMost of the sessions I went to were urban in focus. It’s an interesting moment for urban geography, one of introspection and sometimes quite fiesty debate that we perhaps don’t quite see – for now at least – in other parts of the discipline. The debates going on in urban geography at the moment are important, and the stakes are not insignificatant, and to its credit the AAG usually provides a good staging for airing some of those debates. A lot of the conversations I had with people at the conference – other than those around where on earth the room is for the next session! – were related to this question of how to characterise the current moment for urban geography. Is urban geography going through a period of creative crisis? Is it a good or a bad moment for urban research in geography? Should we worry, for instance, about a sense of fragmentation, a pluralisation of not only different perspectives, but different definitions of ‘city’, ‘urban’, ‘urbanization’, as well as a family of linked terms from ‘city-region’ and ‘suburb’ to ‘global urbanism’ and ‘planetary urbanisation’? Or should we see the present condition of urban research as a healthy one, in which the fact that key questions are being debated and different approaches are being experimented with is something we should not just reluctantly tolerate but actively promote, celebrate even?

While I can understand the concerns people have around some of these issues and I can see why they come down on either side of those questions, I would take the latter view. I find the drive to consensus that would seek out shared definitions on key terms or seek to endorse particular theoretical approaches or modes of abstraction over others to be the most concerning element of some of these debates. The existence of different understandings of key terms, and the pluralisation of approaches, is a reflection of the strength of the field both because it promotes debate and critical reflection, and because it encourages consideration not of whether this or that definition or theory or method is legitimate, but on the stakes of different approaches and whether and how they may be useful.

Ananya Roy’s excellent Urban Geography lecture made an important intervention in this context, and did so through offering a careful critique of current debates around ‘planetary urbanization’ and the status of key terms such as ‘urban’ and ‘non-urban’. Arguing for the centrality of the land question to the urban question and drawing in particular on feminist and postcolonial thought, here was a vision for urban research that positioned the uncertain, provisional, and revisable nature of urbanism and theory not as the weak points of a hamstrung urban research in crisis, but as a vital part of the challenge global urbanism presents to us.

These debates also carried through some of the sessions I was fortunate enough to be involved with – including Theresa Enright and Ugo Rossi’s sessions on ‘The urban political at a time of late neoliberalism’ – an excellent set of papers in which Rancière in particular loomed large – and in Asher Ghertner and Austin Zeiderman’s provocative sessions on the status of the category of ‘displacement’ in urban theory, ‘Outcast Cities: Displacement in (and of) Urban Theory’. The sessions I co-organised with Alex Jeffrey and Alex Vasudevan – ‘Political enactment: learning, improvising, experimenting’ – also picked up on debates around how we might understand and research the contemporary urban political. We were fortunate to have a great set of papers, and I was struck by how most of the papers either focussed on the centrality of the politics and political economies of land and housing, or on the production of urban political subjects – both concerns, of course, in their different ways that have been central to the history of critical urban thought, and which are being recast in different ways today.

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