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.

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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.

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