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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.

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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.

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’.