Author Archives: colinmcfarlane

Fragment Urbanism: Politics at the Margins of the City

I’m pleased to have published a new paper with Society and Space on ‘fragment urbanism’. The paper explores how the idea of the ‘fragment’ might be used to understand the nature and politics of urban life. The PDF is behind a paywall, but a pre-proofs Word version is available here.

Focussing on cities in the global South, I try to develop a particular account of fragment urbanism. I examine some of the ways in which the material fragments of the city act politically or become enrolled in urban politicisation. Central to this is an effort to approach fragments not just as the products of historical processes of urban fragmentation, but as generative in the politics of urban life and the city.

At its simplest, a material fragment is a detached portion or piece. In the city, this includes all manner of broken or inadequate objects and things, from insufficient infrastructure to the ruins of former factories and housing or discarded commodities. Bits and pieces that either demand constant maintenance just to work, or which constitute the remnants and leftovers of previous activities that are no longer operational.

Godiwala Complex, Khar, Bandra (W) - electricity, water (stored from taps in blue bins)

Mumbai – one of the cities discussed in the paper

I develop two key conceptual starting points for the fragment urbanism I develop in the paper. The first is that fragments are always caught up in distinct forms of ‘whole-fragment’ relation. The second, following on, is that the politics of urban fragments are not fixed. Here, I identify three broad ways in which urban fragments are often politicized on the economic margins of cities in the global South: attending to, generative translation, and surveying wholes.

The rest of the paper is organised around these three forms of politics. I also reflect on some of the tensions and possibilities of shifting between these three forms, and argue for seeing each of these politics not in terms of one being ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another, but as products of context, and specifically as forms of becoming driven by particular conditions and aims.

In the early discussions I set out how the term ‘fragment’ differs from more familiar vocabularies of urban fragmentation in critical urban theory, such as ‘splinter’ (thinking in particular of Steve Graham and Simon Marvin’s brilliant book, Splintering Urbanism). My focus is on how material fragments are drawn into different kinds of urban relations, so that they are not just the products of urbanization – not just nouns ‘there’ in the city – but verbs, processes that can be made and remade through different forms of politicisation.


3 Postdoc opportunities on ERC Urban Density Project

The application process for three Postdoctoral Research Associates on an Urban Density project is now open on the Durham University website ( Each postdoc is a full-time 3 year post. The deadline for applications is 16th May (12 noon GMT), and the plan is for the postdocs to be in place by September 1st 2018.

The project is funded through the European Research Council’s (ERC) Consolidator scheme – a short description is available here. It aims to develop a fresh approach to an Mohammed Ali Road 10enduring and central element of the city and urban life. It will examine how high urban densities – or ‘intensities’ -are lived and perceived in Asian cities, focusing on Mumbai, Dhaka, Hong Kong, Manila and Tokyo. In doing so, the project will explore several themes that cut-across different sites in urban Asia: urban markets, waste and informality, urban mobility, vertical densities, and ways of seeing and knowing intensity.

Detailed information on the roles, project, and what we’re looking for in applicants is provided on the application website (

Please do let your colleagues and friends know about the opportunity! I’m keen to talk to interested applicants and to answer questions (email me in the first instance on The start of the recruitment process is an exciting moment and I’m really looking forward to getting into the project with new colleagues!

A public good: the pension dispute and the idea of the University

In a recent piece in The Guardian, Sally Hunt, Director of UCU, ended with a simple but fundamental injunction: we must the case anew for the University as a public good. To an outsider, it may seem odd that she would end a piece about a quite specific issue – the attempted transformation of pensions from a Direct Benefit to Direct Contribution scheme – by making a point about the University as an idea. But it is precisely this sort of connection that so many people are increasingly making and discussing.

I think there are two key reasons for this. The first, straightforwardly, is that many academics have had enough. They are often overworked, increasingly casualised, often feel undervalued, and have increasingly heavy demands put on them. And all of this on the back of student fees that so many of us oppose. And second, because understanding the pension dispute demands much closer and sustained attention to the political economies, governance, and labour practices of Universities. Briefly, there are at least four specific issues that the strikes have focussed in on and magnified, all of which come back to the challenge posed by Sally Hunt:

1: The growing role of private capital in Universities. From companies seeking to turn the pension fund into an arena of speculation and commodification, to Universities acting as urban development agencies speculating on real estate and taking loans from financial institutions to expand (eg see here and here);

2: Student fees. Just as the current pension plans would shift the cost and risk of pensions from institutions to employees, so too has the state shifted the funding of Universities from public subsidy to students (not just fees but interest rates – even Nicky Morgan, who chairs the Treasury select committee, has questioned the 6.1% interest rate on loans). The issues of student fees and pensions are not the same issues, but they are shared struggles. They are both shaped in part by discourses of ‘affordability’ and ‘responsibility, and narrow conceptions of ‘value’. Many of the staff on strike resisted the imposition and increases of student fees, just as they now campaign against the attack on pensions, often with great support from students;

3: Labour practices. While Vice-Chancellors’ pay has rocketed, UCU has shown that 46% of Universities and 60% of colleges use zero hour contracts to deliver teaching, and a staggering 68% of research staff are on fixed-term contracts. While not all of these, of course, are bad or undesirable contracts, the reality for many new staff is that they are forced to compete for ever more difficult to get temporary jobs, meaning they often have to move from place to place, with all the impacts that has on career plans, housing costs, families and relationships, and they may wait well into their 30s and even beyond before they have a permanent position. In other words, the attack on future pay in the proposed pension reform is a mirror to labour precarities and inequities that are intensifying now;

4: Governance. Many of those who govern higher education appear to have bought the ideology of the University as a market actor operating on principles of competition, marketization and speculation. Too often, the financial decisions and plans of Universities and the wider HE sector are opaque to staff. Most of us have no idea what the financial models are at our Universities. The governance of Universities and higher education needs to not only be more transparent, but to better reflect the actual values of the staff who see knowledge and learning as social goods that enrich individuals and the country as a whole.

No surprise, then, that for Sally Hunt the wider issue here is the University as a public good. A public good is a provision given without profit for the welfare of the community. What kind of ‘welfare’ is this? We can think here of the University in rather instrumental terms: creating jobs, educating the next generation of employees, tackling diseases or developing technologies, and so on. But the last point I want to make is about learning itself, which to me goes to the heart of the idea of the University as a public good.

On the first day of my undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow in October 1996, I vividly remember standing at the bottom of the hill on University Avenue, and looking up at the imposing Gothic cloisters and tower at the top of the hill. As the first member of my family ever to go to University, I felt both elated and terrified, butterflies fluttering frantically away in my stomach. The 4 years that followed changed my life and left an indelible mark on me. University life was enthralling. All around me were people who cared passionately about ideas, knowledge and learning. Worlds opened up.

I don’t mean to sound nostalgic – there were surely all manner of problems then as they are now with higher education – but the world of Universities has transformed radically since then. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that the University was ‘world class’, or where it ranked in league tables for research or teaching. I was educated in a wonderful Geography department by staff who clearly cared deeply about education, just as we on strike do today. I was fortunate enough to have a maintenance grant, much of which – along with my student loan – ended up being drunk as cheap beer through long debates about football, New Labour, or recent lectures in pubs in the West End. No one, as I recall, every talked about learning or knowledge as financial investments, or even thought about higher education in economic terms at all. When I graduated, I went to a funded PhD and later was lucky enough to get a permanent position in what was then quite a different and less precarious job market.

In making the case for the University as a public good, this sense of the University as the buzz and excitement of knowledge and learning seems to me to be crucial. Other kids growing up in low-income parts of Glasgow or other parts of the country will not get the opportunities I had, and if they do go they will often by met by the language of consumers and world-class Universities, taught increasingly by often over-worked and temporary staff who may feel under-valued, and they will leave with eye-watering debts. They will still experience the spark and thrill of learning, of course, but it feels like the space for that is being evermore denuded and displaced. The case for the University as a public good needs, I think, some of the romance of knowledge and learning, alongside the shifting forms of political economy, labour practices and governance described above. As much as my 17 year-old self stood at the bottom of University Avenue was frozen with fear, I think that’s what he rightly expected of University.



New project: Intensity and the city in a global urban age

I recently found out that my proposal to the European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator scheme has been funded! I’m delighted and feel very fortunate about it, and really looking forward to getting started on it next year.

The project examines how high urban densities – or ‘intensities’ – are lived and perceived in Asian cities: Mumbai, Dhaka, Hong Kong, Manila and Tokyo. It will run for four years and will involve three postdoctoral researchers working with myself and local collaborators. Together we’ll examine (a) what intensity is from the perspective and lives of residents, especially the urban poor, and (b) what understanding intensity from the position, vocabularies and priorities of residents means for how we conceptualise and transform the city in a global urban age.

I had two central motivations for wanting to focus on urban density in this project. One is that density has always been a defining feature of cities. It is central to urban life, and a fundamental domain of the urban 21st century.

trainIn the face of a general global decrease in urban density, ‘compactness’ and ‘intensification’ have been positioned as vital for economic, environmental, and social success. Some forms of densification are celebrated, while others are portrayed as a problem or even a threat.

The second is more overtly personal. Density has always fascinated me. I’ve been drawn to urbanisms of compression, especially spaces where people and things are assembled into complex and changing configurations. I’ve been intrigued by the interactions and combinations of going-ons, mixtures, affective atmospheres, possibilities and struggles that take place in, and are sometimes actively generated through, dense spaces. VerticalThese are spaces that sometimes fizzle with possibility, but which are also spaces of control and alienation. They can be spaces of loose or strong sociality and community, but also of poverty, inequality, and hardship. They can be energetic and dynamic sites, but can also be oppressive, exhausting, and disabling. I’m really looking forward to learning more about how intensities are differently lived and perceived, and about what residents and others think needs to change to ensure more socially and ecologically just urban configurations. I see intensity as central to what urbanism is and to the drama of the city, so the project is an opportunity to ask big questions about the nature and possibilities of urban life today.

The project will allow a deeper comprehension of how intensity relates to everyday urban life, to what that means for how we conceptualise the urban condition, and for how intensity connects to the wider processes and possibilities of the contemporary city. It will focus on Asian cities, given that they have the highest densities in the world, and many of them buck the global trend in that their density is increasing. The project examines and juxtaposes several themes that cut-across different sites in urban Asia: urban markets, waste and informality, urban mobility, vertical densities, and ways of seeing/knowing intensity. Rather than a comparison of the cities themselves, the project will explore how these themes take shape and are remade amongst intensities across several contexts in Mumbai, Dhaka, Manila, Hong Kong and Tokyo.



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.


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: