Category Archives: Infrastructure

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.


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.

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!

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.

Infrastructural Lives: Urban Infrastructure in Context

I’m delighted that a new book that Steve Graham and I have edited has just come out, Infrastructural Lives (

Steve and I wanted to produce a book that examined the everyday experience of urban infrastructure – its politics, cultures, economies and ecologies – and to show how this experience varied within and across urban contexts. We’re very pleased with the result, in which a great group of contributors examine how infrastructure is made and unmade, politicised and lived, stabilised and rendered fragile, in Rio, Kampala, Ramallah, Jakarta, Bangalore, Mumbai, and various urban contexts in the UK.

The book revolves around four key questions. First, how does a focus on the everyday help us to understand how urbanites know and use infrastructure? Second, how do processes of urban violence, pacification and dispossession through infrastructure impact everyday urban lives? Third, what everyday practices and discourses allow for the production and management of urban waste infrastructure? And finally, how do forms of everyday infrastructure adjustment and experimentation emerge from and reshape everyday urban life?

Contributors include AbdouMaliq Simone, Maria Kaika, Vyjayanthi Rao, Mariana Cavalcanti, Stephanie Terrani-Brown, Omar Jabary Salamanca, Rob Shaw, Harriet Bulkeley, Vanesa Caston-Broto, Simon Marvin, Mike Hodson, Renu Desai, Steve Graham, and myself.  Arjun Appaduria kindly provided a thoughtful foreword for the book.