Category Archives: Reflections

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.


HG Wells, global urbanism and the city

Just came across this passage by HG Wells in his 1902 essay, ‘Anticipations’. Interesting to see Wells anticipating some of the debate going on now, in urban research and in policy and public domains, about a world becoming urban:

“And as for the world beyond our urban regions? The same line of reasoning that leads to the expectation that the city will diffuse itself until it has taken up considerable areas and many of the characteristics, the greenness, the fresh air, of what is now country, leads us to suppose also that the country will take to itself many of the qualities of the city. The old antithesis will indeed cease, the boundary lines will altogether disappear; it will become, indeed, merely a question of more or less populous. There will be horticulture and agriculture going on within the “urban regions,” and “urbanity” without them. Everywhere, indeed, over the land of the globe between the frozen circles, the railway and the new roads will spread, the network of communication wires and safe and convenient ways”.Wells

Wells anticipates not just cities simply spreading across the surface as they become more populous, but the world itself – ‘between the frozen circles’ – becoming urban. Through infrastructure and communication, the air itself will be urbanised, and notions of ‘city’ and ‘country’ will lose their meaning as boundaries disappear into a pattern of more or less dense distributions of ‘urban regions’. Terms like ‘town’ and ‘country’ will become as “obsolete”, he argues, as the mail coach.

I was left wondering whether Wells would have used terms like ‘city’ had he been writing today. By coincidence, I was re-reading a recent piece by Mark Davidson and Kurt Iveson (2015: 652) in City that takes up some strands of this debate. I’ve found this passage useful for thinking about this question, in which they summarise some of the ‘generative affects’ of the notion of ‘the city’ as part of a broader argument about why it remains an important concept to hold onto even in the face of an increasingly urban world:

“‘The city’ is multiple things, such as an object, a political boundary, a geography identity, a brand, a community, a unit of collective consumption, and more. A term such as ‘London’ therefore refers to an object with multiple socio-spatial configurations which, in ways not always directly tied to the said object, have various generative affects”.

The global nature of urbanism presents one of the most challenging and fundamental epistemological debates for contemporary critical urban research. I don’t think Wells offers a great deal of help in thinking these problems through, but it is worth keeping in mind that the debates have histories, speculative or otherwise, that likely inform some of the ideas buzzing around now in various publics.


Davidson, M. and Iveson, K. (2015) ‘Beyond city limits: a conceptual and political defense of ‘the city’ as an anchoring concept for critical urban theory’. City, 19:5

World Toilet Day: On Being Post-Toilet

Today is World Toilet Day. The event was inaugurated at the 2001 World Toilet Summit to raise awareness about the global sanitation crisis. This is an important initiative and it gathers a great deal of public attention. Long a taboo subject, sanitation is now increasingly discussed openly in public, policy and practice. The World Toilet Day initiative is partly responsible for that.

Part of the purpose of World Toilet Day is to raise awareness not just about toilets, but about the range of issues linked to them. As most people involved in the global sanitation debate will tell you, sanitation cannot be reduced to questions of access to toilets alone.

But even while the global sanitation debate strains to emphasize the ‘post-toilet’ (there’s a term you don’t use everyday!) nature of sanitation, there is a tendency for the debate to remain oddly narrow. The debate very often remains within the confines of questions around access to toilets, along with a series of linked questions about how those toilets might best be paid for, maintained, and governed, or around whether ‘users’ should be charged for using public toilets or educated about the importance of toilets and hygiene. These are, of course, vital issues, and issues I myself have researched, but the issues at stake are far wider.


Post-toilet? Took this recently at a public toilet in Bombay

This problem is exacerbated by the constant bombardment – not just on days like World Toilet Day – of numbers, percentages, graphs, charts and statistical maps measuring the extent of ‘inadequate’ toilets based on access or ‘improved’ toilets based on maintenance, which are continually played out globally. I am not saying, of course, that we should not collect data. The data is vital and we all depend on it, even if it is often inconsistent, unreliable, and tends to underestimate the scale of the issue. But part of the effect is to reinforce the isolation of sanitation form other issues intimately connected to it, and to reinstate the narrow link to toilets that so many people working on sanitation believe we need to get beyond.

What we’re left with is a largely liberal discourse on sanitation that obscures seeing what is blandly called ‘inadequate sanitation’ for what it really is: a human catastrophe caused by economic, cultural and political inequality and oppression. In a curious sense, the sanitation debate sanitises sanitation.

The liberal sanitation discourse as it is currently constituted obscures the fast and slow suffering and oppression that emerges from people being denied the ability to safely separate themselves from human waste across urban and rural space. For example, diarrhea, usually the result of food or water contaminated with fecal matter, kills a child every fifteen seconds, and in each decade that passes the number killed exceeds all World War II fatalities (see Rose George’s The Big Necessity). In India, forty-two children die each hour due to inadequate sanitation. Thousands of children will die in this way today, tomorrow, and the day after, and on and on. We hear time and again about harassment and rape of women on their way to using public toilets or open space.

These issues are not so much problems of toilets as problems of political economy and the disinvestment in housing, water, sewers, drainage, subsidized food, and in infrastructure and health provisions for poor areas. They are not so much problems of ‘access’ or ‘maintenance’ as problem of exclusion or exploitation based on class, gender, ethnicity, caste and religion.

The liberal discourse attempts to grapple with the range of issues that produce and emerge from inadequate sanitation. But it struggles to deal with the causes of inequality and oppression that shape sanitation conditions, and it often seems unable (and perhaps in some cases unwilling) to shift sanitation from a toilet-problem to a political economic and societal problem that is differently constituted globally. This at the heart of the writing I’m now doing on sanitation, which is to try to see sanitation differently, to de-sanitise the discourse, and to shift it beyond the confines of a service-delivery or development problem.



Exhibiting urban life: informal settlements in Kampala

For the last few weeks, the Uganda National Museum has held a temporary exhibition that a group of us have organized on everyday life in an informal settlement in Kampala. The exhibition is based on research we conduced in a neighbourhood called Namuwongo earlier this year. The aim of the event is to generate debate in the city about the nature of struggle, negotiation and opportunity in informal settlements.
20150525_160353The exhibition is entitled ‘Celebrating Namuwongo’ and aims to challenge the terms of debate about a neigbourhood that is often wrongly vilified by outsiders as dangerous, unclean, and illegal. Our hope is that it helps to create a more progressive conversation about the present and future of the neighbourhood, including with public authorities. At the moment, Namuwongo’s residents barely register in the city’s main planning documents.

20150228_110722Five of us were involved in the project – Jon Silver, Joel Ongwec, Josephine Namukisa, Helen Friars, and myself, although we depended on the help and advice of quite a few others.
We set out to develop an understanding of how different people navigate urban space, encounter and respond to the rhythm, people and networks that make up their experience of urbanism, and to consider the implications for how urban life is understood in terms of research, policy and practice. Our work combined interviews, follow along methods, focus groups, and workshops with local civil society groups, and culminated in the exhibition (which runs until the end of June).


We tracked the daily lives of six different residents from the
area, and the exhibition documents moments in the lives of these residents through photographs and maps.

The six residents have quite different lives: a young carpenter, a widow who sells fruit in the city centre, an older woman who runs her own business making beads in the neighbourhoood and who plays an important role in community support groups, a relatively better off man who runs a dynamic fruit and vegetable stall in the neighbourhood, a taxi driver, and a local power broker who 20150528_170449holds considerable sway over most changes that take place in particular parts of the neighbourhood.

Namuwongo is located on the edge of the city centre, squeezed into a slither of land across a disused railway track, a wetland area, and an industrial area. These land pressures have led to demolitions by the railway and the National Environment Management Authority (responsible for the wetland), who claim that much of the residents are living in the area illegally.20150225_081614

Any demolition is a trauma, but in Namuwongo what’s been particularly brutal is demolition that took place in the middle of the night, as children slept in small shacks only to be woken by the noise of bulldozers and terrified voices.

The research process was quite an experience – exciting, fun, and emotive in different ways. The opportunity to example people’s different urban experiences and perceptions of Kampala and to translate those knowledges into different contexts – the exhibition was a first for me and a steep learning curve! – was a rare privilege.


Reflecting on the Chicago AAG and urban debates

I got back from the Association of American Geographers annual conference a couple of days ago. The conference was great – one of the best AAGs I’ve been to – and it was lovely to be in Chicago again, a genuinely stunning city. I got the chance to take in some of the architectural heights with friends, especially through the architectural boat and walking tours organised by the wonderful not-for-profit Chicago Architectural Foundation. The foundation has some fantastic volunteers who are both enthusiastic about the city’s remarkable architecture while critically-minded about some of the challenges of urban development.

A lot of people find the scale of the AAG daunting and sometimes alienating, and of course I can see why (over 9000 delegates in a colossal hotel), but the scale of it also creates a buzz and excitement. There is of course too much to get to, and lots that I missed – I was particularly disappointed to miss Nik Theodore’s IJURR lecture, which I have heard lots of great things about since and will look forward to reading in due course.

ChicagoMost of the sessions I went to were urban in focus. It’s an interesting moment for urban geography, one of introspection and sometimes quite fiesty debate that we perhaps don’t quite see – for now at least – in other parts of the discipline. The debates going on in urban geography at the moment are important, and the stakes are not insignificatant, and to its credit the AAG usually provides a good staging for airing some of those debates. A lot of the conversations I had with people at the conference – other than those around where on earth the room is for the next session! – were related to this question of how to characterise the current moment for urban geography. Is urban geography going through a period of creative crisis? Is it a good or a bad moment for urban research in geography? Should we worry, for instance, about a sense of fragmentation, a pluralisation of not only different perspectives, but different definitions of ‘city’, ‘urban’, ‘urbanization’, as well as a family of linked terms from ‘city-region’ and ‘suburb’ to ‘global urbanism’ and ‘planetary urbanisation’? Or should we see the present condition of urban research as a healthy one, in which the fact that key questions are being debated and different approaches are being experimented with is something we should not just reluctantly tolerate but actively promote, celebrate even?

While I can understand the concerns people have around some of these issues and I can see why they come down on either side of those questions, I would take the latter view. I find the drive to consensus that would seek out shared definitions on key terms or seek to endorse particular theoretical approaches or modes of abstraction over others to be the most concerning element of some of these debates. The existence of different understandings of key terms, and the pluralisation of approaches, is a reflection of the strength of the field both because it promotes debate and critical reflection, and because it encourages consideration not of whether this or that definition or theory or method is legitimate, but on the stakes of different approaches and whether and how they may be useful.

Ananya Roy’s excellent Urban Geography lecture made an important intervention in this context, and did so through offering a careful critique of current debates around ‘planetary urbanization’ and the status of key terms such as ‘urban’ and ‘non-urban’. Arguing for the centrality of the land question to the urban question and drawing in particular on feminist and postcolonial thought, here was a vision for urban research that positioned the uncertain, provisional, and revisable nature of urbanism and theory not as the weak points of a hamstrung urban research in crisis, but as a vital part of the challenge global urbanism presents to us.

These debates also carried through some of the sessions I was fortunate enough to be involved with – including Theresa Enright and Ugo Rossi’s sessions on ‘The urban political at a time of late neoliberalism’ – an excellent set of papers in which Rancière in particular loomed large – and in Asher Ghertner and Austin Zeiderman’s provocative sessions on the status of the category of ‘displacement’ in urban theory, ‘Outcast Cities: Displacement in (and of) Urban Theory’. The sessions I co-organised with Alex Jeffrey and Alex Vasudevan – ‘Political enactment: learning, improvising, experimenting’ – also picked up on debates around how we might understand and research the contemporary urban political. We were fortunate to have a great set of papers, and I was struck by how most of the papers either focussed on the centrality of the politics and political economies of land and housing, or on the production of urban political subjects – both concerns, of course, in their different ways that have been central to the history of critical urban thought, and which are being recast in different ways today.

Civil disobedience meets civil aviation: shit and urban critique


Toilets in Sweet Home Farm, Cape Town

Cape Town’s poo protests, which were led by the Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement in 2013, were an inventive and frustrated cry of civil disobedience. The protestors, who had more than enough of living with shockingly inadequate sanitation conditions in townships and informal settlements more than 20 years ‘after’ apartheid, turned living with shit into an act of urban critique. They took the old apartheid-era bucket system toilets and emptied the waste – waste that wasn’t being collected due to a city conflict over salaries for maintenance staff – over targeted (and sanitised) sites that are associated with the ‘success stories’ of Cape Town. This included, amongst other places, the international airport, a site linked to elite Cape Town’s image of itself as globally dynamic and successful.

Toilets in Sweet Home Farm, Cape Town

Now, nine protesters involved in that airport action have been found guilty by the Bellville Magistrate’s Court of contravening the Civil Aviation Act in 2013, a municipal bylaw dictating the proper removal of human waste ( The authorities have struggled to find a way of criminalising what was a powerful act of civil disobedience, and appear to have found their solution in civil aviation law – and the punishment is potentially draconian: the protestors could serve 15 years in prison. The guilty verdict and upcoming sentencing is the latest in a long line of attempts by various city elites to close down debate on urban metabolic inequalities – previous efforts include claiming that the protests were more about ANC politicking than sanitation conditions (the Western Cape is the only area of South Africa controlled by the Democratic Alliance), or that blame should be placed with residents themselves for allegedly ‘vandalising’ the infrastructure the state provides, or that conditions were not as bad as the protestors implied, and so on…

The protests, and the Ses’khona movement that grew from it, took a fundamental and everyday metabolic process – being able to cleanly and safely dispose of bodily waste – and turned into a powerful and sensorial political act of urban critique, and in the process generated a debate in the city about adequate and equitable sanitation conditions. But if the state believes that this sort of revanchism will work, there is little to suggest that the movement will go away, and it may even grow in light of the guilty verdict. The story is a powerful illustration of the contradictions of urban life in post-apartheid South Africa, where the sanitary spaces of elite political economies such as the airport and the sanitising force of draconian legal provisions take their revenge on an urban poor who are not only excluded from such spaces but forced to live in hazardous and profoundly racialised urban ecologies.

The Ugandan poet, Harriet Anena, in her short poem Political Poop, plays on the relation between the sanitising spaces of politics and the realities of being treated politically like shit. In the poem, the ‘blessed words’ of the ‘man in-charge’ are juxtaposed with the ‘political poop’ that is thrown at ordinary citizens, and people cope by purging their memories of everyday struggles with ‘counterfeit laxatives’. How can a sanitised political system that throws shit at its citizens be contested? For the poo protestors, the answer was in part to throw shit back at it. In Anena’s poem, the choice is between the violence ditched out to those who choose resistance and the violence of immersion in everyday struggle: between “the whip, the shotA-Nation-Final-1050x1342, flashes of teargas” and “our life’s vomit”. Anena’s evocative metabolic poetics seems particularly apt for Cape Town’s visceral and ongoing politics of shit (for reviews of Anena’s excellent book, A Nation in Labour [2015, Millenium Press: Kampala], in which the poem appears, see and

Cape Town’s ‘poo protests’

I will soon be in Cape Town as part of a new research project with Jonathan Silver on sanitation politics in the city. All my previous work on sanitation politics has been on Mumbai, and I’m continuing that work, so Cape Town is a challenging shift. We’re particularly interested in the city’s so-called ‘poo protests’. The poo protestors have thrown shit at various symbols of political and economic power in the city: the steps of the Western Cape legislature, the Cape Town International Airport departures terminal, Premier Helen Zille’s convoy, the N2 highway, and at the Bellville Civic Centre. A whole variety of groups – political parties, NGOs, social movements – have been tied up in the acts and the fall out, which has included ongoing legal processes and a lively public debate which I’ve been following.South-Africa-Poo-Wars

Our aims are fairly straightforward but open up a set of complex issues: how did these protests emerge and why did they pursue this form of politicisation? How might we understand the protests and the corporeal, sensory relations around them, and how might we evaluate the different responses to them across the city? What do the geographies of shit and protest tell us about the nature of urban politics in the city?

There is a long history in South Africa between sanitation and segregation. Sanitation was a key driver of apartheid logics, a process Maynard Swanson once neatly referred to, in his study of  Cape Town, as a ‘sanitation syndrome’ ( The poo protests appear in part to be about contesting those inherited urban conditions. Much of the activism has been linked to the township of Khayelitsha. As Steve Robins, in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the University of Stellenbosch, has argued over a series of pieces in the Cape Times, the activists might be read as throwing human waste across both the apartheid city and new urban centres of economic and political power, and doing so through a politics of spectacle (see his recent piece in the Journal of Southern African Studies here:

The protests are also tied to a range of other specific issues, including a labour dispute over contractors who are supposed to be responsible for sanitation delivery, frustration at the provision of portable toilets which appear to many as mere updates of the old apartheid manual bucket system, and a set of party political machinations in the city involving the ANC and the ruling Democratic Alliance.