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

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.



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.


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.

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!

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.