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?


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.


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,

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.



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