Category Archives: Publications

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.

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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:

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02723638.2016.1243386.

Life at the urban margins: sanitation infra-making and the potential of experimental comparison

Very pleased that this paper by Michele Lancione and myself has been published with Environment and Planning A. The paper seeks to contribute to two sets of debates: first, on comparative urbanism, and here we think through what we call ‘experimental comparison’; and, second, on urban infrastructure, and specifically through the idea ‘infra-making’, which we use to explore forms of agency and atmosphere through which infrastructure is lived on the economic margins of the city.

The paper examines the role of sanitation in everyday life in the city, and compares Michele’s work on homelessness in Turin and work I’ve been doing on low-income neighbourhoods in Mumbai. Drawing on these examples we make a case for infra-making and experimental comparison as conceptual and methodological resources for critical urban research, by considering some of the implications for the relations between generalisation, specification, and intervention.

The Poolitical City: ‘Seeing Sanitation’ and Making the Urban Political in Cape Town

Jonathan Silver and I have just published a new paper with Antipode on the politics of sanitation in Cape Town. The paper – ‘The Poolitical City: ‘Seeing Sanitation’ and Making the Urban Political in Cape Town’ – is available here (via paywall).

The paper builds on work Jonathan and I have both done on urban infrastructure in different cities. In this piece, we connect infrastructure to the city in several ways: as a metric of urban inequality, as an active and constitutive force shaping the city’s contemporary and historical geographies, and as a vital part of different forms of political response. In particular, we are concerned with how sanitation is seen and politicised, and here there are deep-seated politics of race and space at work.

What drew us to research sanitation in Cape Town was a remarkable political movement in the past few years that has challenged the dominant historical associations of race and waste in Cape Town’s townships and informal settlements. The movement took excess uncollected shit from the spaces where people live and dumped it over key political targets in the city, sites of economic and political power. It is a profoundly geographical story that takes a crisis of infrastructure and turns it into a wider politics of the city, and does so through a selective geographical that it operates not just on discursive levels, but as a powerful sensorial politics.

Across a variety of actors – social movements, the state, NGOs, and others – we show how sanitation is not just a service delivery problem (although it is of course in part this), but a politics of the city more widely. Sanitation connects not just to service or infrastructure delivery, but to race, history, the organisation of urban space, and a politics of dignity and the Constitution. It is in this sense that we talk about shifts between sanitation as a ‘poolitical’ problem – ie one of service and infrastructure in particular spaces – to sanitation as an ‘political’ problem, ie a politics of the city per se.

Here’s our abstract:

‘In an urbanizing world, the inequalities of infrastructure are increasingly politicized in ways that reconstitute the urban political. A key site here is the politicization of human waste. The centrality of sanitation to urban life means that its politicization is always more than just service delivery. It is vital to the production of the urban political itself. The ways in which sanitation is seen by different actors is a basis for understanding its relation to the political. We chart Cape Town’s contemporary sanitation syndrome, its condition of crisis, and the remarkable politicization of toilets and human waste in the city’s townships and informal settlements in recent years. We identify four tactics—poolitical tactics—that politicize not just sanitation but Cape Town itself: poo protests, auditing, sabotage, and blockages. We evaluate these tactics, consider what is at stake, and chart possibilities for a more just urban future’.

New Book – Smart Urbanism: Utopian Vision or False Dawn

Andrés Luque-Ayala, Simon Marvin and myself have just published a new edited book on the ‘smart city’ debate. The book, Smart Urbanism: Utopian Vision or False Dawn? (Routledge), is a critical examination of the claims, drivers, imaginaries and consequences of smart city discourses.

As we all know, there is an incredible amount of hype and noise made about smart cities, much of it by multinational corporations like IBM and Cisco in their effort to sell expensive ‘urban solutions’. In this book, we sought to take this debate on by bringing together a group of critical, international and interdisciplinary researchers.Smart urbanism

The book examines how smart city initiatives are being rolled out, and makes a series of arguments that seeks to advance a critical research agenda. It finds, for example, that the discourse is often in reality a justification for the latest round of neoliberal development and displacement. It finds a common tendency to place far too much faith in technology, with far too little attention to the actual urban context. It also finds that most of the time, and despite high profile cases such as Rio’s control room, the smart city discourse is little more than discourse, bolstered by pervasive imagery that globally circulates and effectively constitutes a powerful form of marketing.

But the book also finds openings in the smart city discourse, including in the actions of social movements, civil society groups, and critical researchers to use or promote digital technologies in more socially and ecologically relevant ways. In these efforts, it is urbanism and social justice that inform whether or not digital technologies are useful, as opposed to the positivist view that technology can be added to cities awaiting ‘enhancement’ through sensors, dashboards and real-time data management. But as the book shows, it would be far too simple to argue that there is an ‘alternative’ smart city discourse that opposes a ‘mainstream’ discourse, partly because the various overlaps between what may initially appear mainstream and alternative, and partly because many critical initiatives with digital technology reject the entire smart city discourse altogether while others seeks to reframe it.

Here’s the list of contributors and chapter titles:

  1. IntroductionAndrés Luque-Ayala, Colin McFarlane and Simon Marvin
  2. Smart cities and the politics of urban dataRob Kitchin, Tracey Lauriault and Gavin McArdle
  3. IBM and the visual formation of smart citiesDonald McNeill
  4. The smart entrepreneurial city: Dholera and a 100 other utopias in IndiaAyona Datta
  5. Getting smart about smart cities in Cape Town: Beyond the rhetoricNancy Odendaal
  6. Programming environments: Environmentality and citizen sensing in the smart cityJennifer Gabrys
  7. Smart-city initiatives and the Foucauldian logics of governing through codeFrancisco Klauser and Ola Söderström
  8. Geographies of smart urban powerGareth Powells, Harriet Bulkeley and Anthony McLean
  9. Test-Bed as urban epistemologyNerea Calvillo, Orit Halpern, Jesse LeCavalier and Wolfgang Pietsch
  10. Beyond the corporate smart city?: Glimpses of other possibilities of smartnessRobert G. Hollands
  11. ConclusionsColin McFarlane Andrés Luque-Ayala and Simon Marvin

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.