Category Archives: Density

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.




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.


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.

Sanitation and everyday life in Mumbai

We have just published the final publication from our ‘everyday sanitation’ project (it is open access here for the next few days). The project, which involved Renu Desai, Steve Graham and myself, explored the everyday life and politics of urban sanitation in two informal neighbourhoods in Mumbai – Rafinagar and Khotwadi. Our aim was to address a gap in research and policy on how people experience, perceive and politicize sanitation. We set out to understand how those experiences and politics varied across the city, hence the comparison between two (very different) parts of Mumbai.

Given that the publications are now completed, I thought it would be worth providing a summary of the main arguments, findings and publications…

The most recent paper is ‘Sites of entitlement: claim, negotiation and struggle in Mumbai’, and is Toilet block 2 Desaionline early in Environment and Urbanization. In this paper, Renu and I argue that different residents in the two neighbourhoods shape a sense of entitlement through relationally produced moral economies.  ‘Sites of entitlement’ are unevenly produced, contested, often in flux and ambivalent, sometimes made through collective struggle and at other times through quiet individual practice, and always constituted by sociospatial relations. We argue that sites of entitlement are vital for thinking through the possibilities of realizing the universal right to sanitation and water.

The question of how people perceive informal sanitation was also at the heart of two other publications from the project. The first, ‘Informal urban sanitation: everyday life, comparison and poverty’ was published in Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Here, Renu, Steve and I argued that certain key processes anchor the ways in which sanitation emerges in everyday life, and highlight four in particular: self-built incremental infrastructure, an uneven politics of patronage, politicised processes of solidarity and exclusion, and shifting geographies of open defecation.

Well, KhotadiThe second – ‘The politics of open defecation: informality, body and infrastructure in Mumbai’ – was published in Antipode, and in this paper Renu, Steve and I examined the everyday embodied experiences, practices and perceptions forged in relation to the materialities of informality. We explored the micropolitics of provision, access, territoriality and control of sanitation infrastructures; everyday routines and rhythms, both of people and infrastructures; and experiences of disgust and perceptions of dignity. Our aim here was to deepen understandings of the relationship between the body, infrastructure and the sanitary/insanitary city.

Being forced to defecate in open spaces is a form of societal violence, and women and girls suffer the most. I wrote a short piece for Open Democracy on some of these themes. The often deeply gendered violence enacted against informal neighbourhoods was also a focus of our paper in Public Culture, entitled ‘Water Wars in Mumbai’. Here, Steve, Renu and I examined the predatory activities of the state on the water infrastructure of Mumbai’s poor neighbourhoods, focusing in particular on Rafinagar. At times of ‘crisis’, it is the poorest who pay, often accused of ‘stealing’ water from ‘proper citizens’. The withdrawal of water has severe impacts on people’s lives in a neighbourhood that has one of the lowest Human Development Indexes in India’s most unequal city. Clearly, there are profound consequences on sanitation, from people’s ability to stay hydrated, clean and healthy, or to prepare food safely, to the possibility of keeping the house clean or wash dishes and laundry.

Rafinagar pipes TIFFWe published a different version of these arguments around water in an edited volume Steve and I put together entitled Infrastructural Lives. Each chapter examines how infrastructure is lived, perceived and contested on an everyday basis, and thereby begins to address what we saw as a relatively neglected set of issues in research on urban infrastructure. The book emerged from a conference organized through the project at Durham University.

We also produced a series of public reports in English and Hindi that were distributed amongst practitioners, policy makers, civil society activists, and residents. The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

It was fantastic to work with Renu and Steve on this, and I’m looking forward to future work on some of these themes in Mumbai and elsewhere.

And finally, on a quite different note, there was this – me attempting and just about getting through a different form of ‘dissemination’ at ‘Bright Club’, an academic stand up comedy evening (if you can belive such a thing exists) – both fun to do and terrifying!