Category Archives: Urban research

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.


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:

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’.

The Urban Politics and Governance of Social Innovation in Austerity

I’m excited to be part of a new project investigating the connections between austerity, social innovation and urban politics in Europe. The project is led by Joe Painter as Principal Investigator, and the co-investigators are Paul Langley, Sue Lewis, Antonis Vradis, and myself (all based in Geography at Durham). It is funded through the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Urban Transformations programme (coordinated by the University of Oxford).

2008_0803Berlin0063 copy

Berlin: took this looking east from the roof of the Reichstag.

In the project, we will compare whether and how austerity impacts social innovation across three
European cities that are experiencing quite different forms of austerity – Athens, Berlin and Newcastle – and will examine the implications for urban politics. We will do so by investigating alternative finance, grassroots mobilisation and community provisioning in the three cities.

Although I live near Newcastle and know one of the other two cities – Berlin – very well, this is the first time that I’ll be involved in a research project on European cities. It’s also the first sustained opportunity I’ve had to be part of a team examining the geographical impacts of austerity on cities. So being part of this is an exciting and challenging prospect!

More information is available here.

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.


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!