Monthly Archives: May 2012

‘Every Revolution has its Space: from Occupying Squares to Transforming Cities?’: Audio Recording

Image from Elentari86 via flickr

25th April, 4-6.30 pm,  Cordingley Lecture Theatre, Humanities Bridgeford Street

Presentations by:
Erik Swyngedouw, Professor of Geography, University of Manchester
Andy Merrifield, Leverhulme Visiting Professor, Department of Geography, University of Manchester
Neil Smith, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography, CUNY Graduate Center, New York

Play audio recording 

A conversation among three geographers exploring the relationship between contemporary political movements, symbolic and material spaces of the contemporary city, and strategies for radical social change in an era defined by consensual party politics.  The presentations and audience participation extend from theoretical considerations of politics and urban society to speculations on what contemporary political manifestations might mean, and how they might be interpreted and encouraged.

This event was organised by:
OpenSpace:  An interdisciplinary forum for doctoral and postdoctoral research supporting dialogue on cities and beyond, initiated by PhD researchers in the Department of Geography

And was supported by:
The Leverhulme Trust: Visiting Professorships
cities@manchester
The Urban Transformations Research Group, Geography, University of Manchester

For further information, please contact brian.rosa@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk

Towards a Sustainable Manchester?

In the context of the ever-deepening financial crisis and a series of environmental uncertainties, attention has turned to how cities can be adaptable, resilient and sustainable. In addition to actions by government, there is growing acknowledgement that local groups will need to play a role in redefining what constitutes economic activities. Building upon their existing contributions, these groups will be required to be involved in the production of a more economically robust Manchester.

On 21 June 2012, cities@manchester will host a panel discussion (view full details and book a free place here) to explore the opportunities and challenges for Manchester to realise a more sustainable future. This forum will bring together stakeholders with a wide range of views to debate this vital issue. The aim is to develop understandings that can inform further developments in the city. Below are some brief provocations from each panellist to initiate reflection and debate.

Charlie Baker, URBED

‘Carbon mitigation as an urban development strategy’

If you take the view that we are powerless in the face of climate change, then we cannot adapt to it any better than the people of Pompeii adapted to living near a volcano – partly because, like them, we’re not really sure how bad it will get. But it’s not a volcano, it is something we as a species are doing to ourselves and by definition we can and therefore must do something about.

Manchester has a strong history of leading change and with efficient planning could make the Low Carbon Economic Area an example to the world. URBED have proved through a set of real world projects that, with a proper assessment method, it is possible to take a very ordinary house and reduce its carbon footprint by 80% without resorting to eco-bling, while making it a more comfortable, healthier place to live and getting households off the fuel cost escalator which is pushing many towards fuel poverty. Retrofitting Manchester’s housing stock would cost £15-20 billion, which over 30 years would support substantial local job creation and manufacturing. ‘Made in Manchester’ could become a sign of a reliable retrofit product, with an ecosystem of local suppliers who can make things like properly fitting triple glazed windows.

But Mancunians need to want to do this to make it happen. Informing people through local examples where they can see what can be done and using co-operatives and community organisations to identify trusted suppliers can expand the number of houses retrofitted, moving up the adoption curve until it becomes culturally normal. Allowing people with spare cash to invest in a bond which helps fund other people’s retrofits will get them a better return than banks currently offer with a carbon savings return as well. Once people understand housing retrofits, many of the ideas can be applied to community and commercial buildings. At a city scale, a network of decarbonised renewable power generation would be owned by the consumers who would get the financial benefits. This is how Manchester can transform the contemporary carbon mitigation challenge into a long-term economic opportunity.

James Evans, University of Manchester

‘Transforming Manchester through experimentation’

Sustainability lays down a moral challenge to figure out how to do things differently, to live differently. Perhaps the most important characteristic of cities that are held to be more sustainable is an ability and willingness to experiment with new regulations, technologies and forms of organisation. This is a win-win scenario – novelty is also the key to making cities more interesting and, subsequently, more successful as people flock to them to live, work and play. Difference generates both pride and revenue. Manchester’s own Gay Village is testimony to this. But what would the sustainable equivalent of Canal Street be?

Running a city in a radically different way requires us to learn from other cities that have experimented successfully. For example, Copenhagen’s reduction of central area car parking by 3% every year has had the effect of creating a city in which cycling is more prevalent than Amsterdam. Changing laws changes how people live, but it also opens up rich new niches for experimentation. Staying with the example of cycling, the Dutch law of strict liability means that in any collision between a motorised and non-motorised vehicle the motorised vehicle is liable. This simple change of law transformed Dutch cities into cycling paradises and stimulated a mass of inventions in bike engineering and planning, such as the utility bike that makes cycling easy, comfortable and thus popular, and the woonerf, or bike-centric suburb. The pace of change can be quick. In 1950, rates of cycling were higher in the UK than in Holland. Today, a third of journeys in Holland are made by bike compared to just 1% here.

Experiments don’t just happen, they need the right conditions in which to propagate. Evidence from elsewhere suggests that people are ready and willing to take up the challenge – it is simply a matter of changing regulations in line with accepted goals to let a thousand flowers bloom. Some of the changes that would breed more sustainable lifestyles are easily defensible. The idea of Nudge economics suggests that policy makers need to meet people half way when it comes to prompting change. In a nutshell, make it easier for people to do things that are part of the solution, and harder for them to do those that are not. This requires fairly brave decisions from those in charge, but then what better reason to sacrifice a little pragmatism on the altar of radicalism than the alarming consensus that humanity is facing a four degree rise in global temperature over the next century? Lots of exciting experiments are already happening in Manchester and the city has a proven willingness to pursue sustainability through its transport and planning system. But experiments will remain just that without the fillip of regulatory change.

Neil McInroy, Centre for Local Economic Strategies

‘A resilient Manchester needs to come out fighting’

From Cottonopolis to the present, Manchester is a great example of a durable city. However, unlike never before, this durability is challenged. The world is faced with unprecedented levels of global, national, city and local environmental change, with significant social and economic turbulence. These changes are not predictable or singular, but highly unpredictable, interconnected and complex. There are many views to this crisis.  Some are active ‘deniers’, some choose to turn a blind eye, some have more pressing everyday ‘here and now’ problems, whilst others hunker down under old securities. But it is clear that Manchester cannot avoid these changes (this is simply beyond the ability of all cities) or merely seek to lessen the worse of the impacts (the poorest and most vulnerable will suffer).

Some enlightened individuals and organisations focus on adapting for and mitigating environmental change. Of course, flood defence plans and a move to a low- or no-carbon future is of vital importance. However, Manchester is not going to be resilient if we merely think about environmental sustainability. Instead, we need Manchester to develop a more broad-based proactive capability – rolling with the inevitable economic, environmental and social punches – and bouncing back from adversity or springing toward opportunity. In a city of social and economic inequality, we must also create a broad and penetrative transformation of Manchester’s economic development model, in which prosperity, social and economic justice and well being for all stands alongside the physical limits of our environment.

In this, I believe the city requires a broad ‘development strategy’ – a new deal for Manchester. In practical terms, this means transforming our economy toward a more steady state and closed loop economic system whilst maintaining (in the short term) traditional economic growth. It means investing in people through pre- and re-distribution of wealth policies (i.e Manchester Living Wage). It means building social groups and citizenry to take more individual and collective responsibility. It means making this city greener, more energy self-sufficient and reducing its carbon footprint. Above all, it means developing a comprehensive social, environmental and economic transformation. Manchester needs to have resilience in its DNA and be capable of coming out fighting. This is Manchester’s future.

Todd Holden, Director Low Carbon Policy and Programmes at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

‘We started it, so we’ll finish it’

A few hundred years ago here in Manchester, we changed the way the world worked forever through the industrial revolution and the social benefit and wealth it created. The economic model which drove this industrialisation has not changed in the intervening centuries and it has clearly brought lots of benefit. At the same time, a simple look around us says it’s not without its faults but few would say it’s fundamentally flawed, it just needs tweaking.

Business economics is the same as Darwinian evolution, it’s the survival of the fittest. So every year companies get better at doing what they do. In the beginning, this was fine as it meant that year on year, people had to work less hours to earn a living wage. But since the 1970s there has been little reduction in the working week. So the only way companies could carry on employing the same number of people is if they and the economy grew. The problem isn’t that we need growth, it’s that growth is based on the consumption on energy and materials which on average get disposed of within six weeks of being extracted from the ground. So every year, we use and dispose of more and more stuff.

But – and it’s a significant ‘but’ – as every Star Trek fan knows ‘you cannae change the laws of physics.’ In a world where there is only a finite amount of resources, the faster we use them the faster they will run out. What then? As Paul Ekins (Professor of Energy and Environmental Policy at the UCL Energy Institute) has said, when the laws of physics clash with the laws of economics, physics wins every time. Yet we live in a world which, as far as it can, tries to ignore this simple fact. This is a challenge of our making, it seems only right that we recognise this reality and work towards finding the solutions.

Challenging Homophobia in Manchester: Theatre and Education

Royal Exchange Theatre - image from purplemattfish via flickr

Many of you will know the stunning Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester City Centre. A grade II listed building it was originally used as a cotton and textile exchange and like much of Manchester’s industrial heritage has been reappropriated for cultural purposes. The main theatre has a unique architectural design; a seven-sided construction free-standing in the centre of the Great Hall. Designed by Richard Negri it is the largest in-the-round theatre in the UK. The theatre hosts a full schedule of high profile touring performances (drama, music and dance) as well as working with local and emerging writers and directors. However the Royal Exchange’s role in the city is not limited to staging productions.

While in some ways it is less visible, the work of their Education team is central to what the theatre does. Through this they engage with adults, children, schools, colleges and community groups from all kinds of backgrounds. Part of this work is simply making it easier and cheaper for people to attend performances who might not otherwise do so.  They also run a host of events and activities aimed at opening the Exchange to a wider range of people and enhance their theatre experience. Amanda Dalton and her Education team collaborate with all kinds of individuals and organisations to deliver workshops and classes as well as projects attached to specific plays.

One recent example of a play-attached project is ‘I Can Dream, Can’t I?’ which ran alongside a staging of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing in November 2011. The play deals with the emerging sexuality of two teenage boys who develop a relationship in a working class area of London in the 1980’s. Supported by Manchester Pride, other partners on the project were the Albert Kennedy Trust (who help vulnerable LGBT young people find supportive places to live) and the Lesbian and Gay Foundation.

For this project workshop facilitator Mandy Precious (currently Director of Burnley Youth Theatre) devised and led a series of workshops at LGF and in communities around Greater Manchester, in response to a brief from the Exchange. The workshops were attended by LGBT teenagers who were interested in trying their hand at playwriting. Mandy has lots of experience co-ordinating workshops and as a director and writer and has worked with the Royal Exchange Education team on numerous projects over the years.

Working with Mandy the young people responded to extracts from the play Beautiful Thing and explored their perceptions and experiences of being LGBT teenagers today. Professional actors were engaged by the theatre and directed by director Sam Pritchard to create a presentation of the work of the young people alongside commissioned pieces from prominent lesbian and gay professional writers including Jackie Kay, Antony Cotton, Tom Wells and Stella Duffy.

It was this project which inspired Jackie Stacey, organiser of the Sexuality Summer School at the University of Manchester, to get in touch with the Royal Exchange about working together.  Now in its 5th year, the Summer School brings together postgraduates and researchers working in the broadly defined area of sexuality studies. The Summer School is comprised of an intensive programme of masterclasses and discussions, lectures, film screenings and performances and always has some public elements (details below). Over the years the Summer School has worked with Cornerhouse, the Library Theatre and (the now sadly defunct) Queer Up North festival.

Sexuality School Poster

The theme for this year’s Summer School is ‘Homophobia and Other Aversions’ and Jackie was keen to find creative ways for the students to think this through.  Working with the Royal Exchange and Mandy Precious, and funded by cities@manchester, the Summer School will run a writing workshop for students called ‘Challenging Homophobia in Manchester: Empowering LGBT young people through creative writing and theatre’.

Participatory work like this and the ‘I Can Dream, Can’t I?’ project are a central and vital part of the life of the Royal Exchange.  Amanda Dalton explains, “we genuinely believe that taking part in theatre, as audience, writers, makers or performers, can transform people’s lives. We hope that projects such as these really do empower participants and enhance their confidence and self esteem, as well as celebrating their creativity, voice and the power of the written word – especially powerful when it is shared in a live space.”

The collaboration is also a great example of how the University can work together with cultural organisations in the city around common interests.  The Summer School students will get a chance to think about homophobia from a new perspective and with a different set of critical and creative tools.  These partnerships are very important to the Summer School.  Jackie Stacey explains, “since the demise (due to Arts Council funding cuts) of the international Arts Festival, Queer Up North, with whom the Sexuality Summer School used to collaborate, it has become crucial for us to find new partners in Manchester with whom we can work to sustain the more creative aspects of this postgraduate event. This year’s collaboration with the Royal Exchange Theatre (via the Albert Kennedy Trust) is very exciting and promises to be a highlight of the summer school.”

About the Sexuality Summer School:

The Sexuality Summer School has been held annually by the CSSC since 2008. The Sexuality Summer School is coordinated by the Centre for the Study of Sexuality and Culture (CSSC) and the Research Institute for Cosmopolitan Cultures (RICC). This year’s collaboration with the Royal Exchange is sponsored by cities@manchester.

Events Details:

The Sexuality Summer School: Homophobia and Other Aversions is fully booked for this year.  However there are three free public lectures this year which are open to all:

Tuesday 22nd May: 5pm, John Casken LT, Martin Harris Centre, University of Manchester, Oxford Road

Ann Cvetkovich (Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Texas): “To Be Able to Stand Not Knowing”: Depression, Creativity and Self-Aversion

Drawing from her forthcoming book, Depression: A Public Feeling, Cvetkovich will address the summer school theme by considering the prevalence of self-hatred within everyday life and creative practices that address it, as well as ongoing debates within queer theory about the politics of positive and negative affects.

Wednesday 23rd May: 5.15pm Kanaris Room, 2nd Floor Manchester Museum, Oxford Rd.

Lois Weaver (Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice, Queen Mary, University of London): A Long Table on Senses of Aversion

A Long Table is a performance installation that uses the form of a dinner party as a structure for public debate to encourage informal conversation on serious subjects and to experiment with formats that inspire public engagement.

Thursday 24th May: 5pm, John Casken LT, Martin Harris Centre, University of Manchester, Oxford Road

Mary Cappello (Professor of English, University of Rhode Island): Vice Viscera: The (Dis)gustatory Implications of Aversion

Mary Cappello recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship for her literary non-fiction, which explores forms of disruptive beauty, figuring memory in a postmodern age, bringing incompatible knowledges into the same space, and working at the borders of literary genres.

For more information go to the Sexuality Summer School webpage.

Caitriona Devery.

Drawing a square upon the ground: the complexity of memory in a changing environment

Guest blog by Annie Harrison.

This article draws on the work Annie is doing for her MA by Research in Art Practice at MIRIAD, Manchester Metropolitan University and an associated artists’ residency at Lime, an arts and health organization. Annie also works as a Project Assistant in the School of Medicine at the University of Manchester.

My art practice is concerned with place and memory.  Both contribute to our sense of belonging, which in its turn plays a part in social cohesion.  I am particularly interested in how memory is affected by the loss of place, and how the visual arts can aid memory in a rapidly changing urban environment.  In my MA, I am researching the site of the recently redeveloped Central Manchester Hospitals and working with hospital staff to recover what the Swiss artist Christian Boltanski calls ‘small memories’, the memories of ordinary people.

Dickens knew all about small memories. I recently came across this quote from the final chapter of The Old Curiosity Shop. Kit takes his children to the site of Little Nell’s house, demolished in the slum clearances of the mid 19th century.

The house is gone, but he has the need to locate, not just remember it.  Placing the memory gives it substance, and he wants to pass on the whole memory, not just the story.  I recognize this from my own history.  Whenever our family travelled along the M6 to Birmingham, my mum would point out Frankley Service Station and tell us about her grandfather who worked for the water company and lived in a tied cottage at Frankley Beeches.  The memory was only ever recalled and retold in its proper place.

The locating of visual images in particular places has long been used as a memory aid. In traditional memory techniques, a familiar environment is recreated in ones mind, and inhabited with visual triggers. For this method to work, a pre-existing relationship between place and memory is not important, because the connection is established by the method of remembering. However in his book, ‘How Modernity Forgets’, Paul Connerton writes that the pace of modern life and the rate of change of our surroundings is causing a crisis of memory because our lack of deep familiarity with place makes this technique more and more difficult.  (Connerton, 2009)

It is not only in such specialist techniques that place is an important trigger to memory.  In the documentary, ‘The London Perambulator’ Russell Brand describes returning to the place he grew up and seeing a wall next to an ambulance station.  He suddenly remembers walking along the wall as a child, holding his mother’s hand and says ‘it was as if the memory had been left there … as if it was an object rather than something that had been carried in my mind.’ (Rogers, 2009)

Last remaining hospital corridor from the 1908 building

In my research I take people to the remaining parts of the original 1908 hospital site, and show them photographs of places which have now been demolished.  These actual places and photographic representations of place elicit not only rehearsed memories about the site like my mother’s story about Frankley Beeches, but other memories, forgotten in the interim, which are discovered as if they had been left in the place, rather than carried in the mind of the interviewee.

I interviewed a retired nurse who trained at the hospital and went on to have an extraordinary career, nursing in ward zones across the world.  Nevertheless, visiting the site triggered a small memory, more than 50 years old, of looking through the hospital railings and seeing policemen arresting prostitutes working on the other side of the road.

Sketchbook drawing of the hospital railings

The ‘new’ memories that my interviewees discover are triggered by particular places but when the places are gone, and there are only photographs to rely on, the possibility of unrehearsed memory is limited, whereas every stone, every view, smell, light condition, sound of the original building, could have been the trigger for some new memory. The loss of place leads to the loss of memories and weakens the sense of belonging, of being connected to a wider community.

Dickens suggests that when place changes, it leads to confusion. Certainly, people who suffer from memory impairment are often confused and distressed by being moved away from their familiar environment. Even a new kitchen or redecorated room can dislocate them from the past memory that they use to guide them in the present.

When I interviewed a psychiatric nurse whose association with the hospital stretched back almost 30 years he confidently showed me the place where the old unit used to be, where they used to play football with patients, where the patients used to run a car-wash as part of their therapy. But later we met his colleague who identified completely different locations for the same sites.

Manchester Royal Infirmary Outpatients Department (1948)

Visiting the post graduate training centre, the receptionist knew that round the corner, you could see the façade of the old Outpatients Department, but had no idea that the new entrance where she was sitting was built on the side of that very same building and that the lecture rooms she directed students to, were where people queued for treatment.

Returning to Dickens’ novel, Kit not only needs to find the exact place where the house stood, but he attempts to memorialize it by marking out its shape. The urge to describe memory by some physical manifestation in place is also a common experience. For example, people are drawn to leave flowers at an accident site – sometimes with a photograph or a poem. This same impulse inspires me to create work that memorializes lost sites. In my artwork, I, like Kit, am attempting to draw ‘a square upon the ground’, and in the process, I am insisting on the value of small memories, and their importance to people and to society.

For more examples of Annie Harrison’s art work, see her website: www.annieharrison.co.uk.

References

Connerton, P. (2009) How modernity forgets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, J. (Writer) (2009). The London Perambulator. London.

British Modern Remade

Martin Boyce, Dark Unit and Mask, 2003, detail, Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist. Photo Anna Arc.

 

Curator Helen Kaplinsky talks about her exhibition at Sheffield’s iconic Park Hill estate which makes no secret of capitalising on the emergence of a new concrete loving class.

In 1980 The Firestone Factory, where sports cars were manufactured in the 50’s and 60’s was demolished. The factory was one of many on a stretch in Brentford known as the Golden Mile, in the 1920’s the preferred location for industry, gloriously celebrated in Art Deco style. Soon after the demolition of Firestone the Historic Buildings Committee of the Department of Environment recommended 150 inter-war buildings for listing and Modernism officially entered the canon. In 1998 English Heritage listed a whole raft of post-war buildings, most of them not quite as glamorous as Firestone. In fact they had distinctly unglamourous associations, slum estates, otherwise known as British public housing: Trellick Tower (Erno Goldfinger, 1968-72) Spa Green Estate (Lubetkin & Skinner, 1946-50) and Alton Estate (LCC Architect’s Department, 1952-60) – all in London – are examples. However, London was not the only forward looking planning office in the country. Sheffield city architect Jack Wormsley had a vision to raise the Victorian slums and put the ‘socialist republic of the north’ on the map for its courageous urban planning.

Sculpture in the Home, Arts Council exhibition at New Burleigh Gardens, London. (c) Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

 

I’ve curated an exhibition from the Arts Council Collection within two show flats in Sheffield’s redeveloped Park Hill, commissioned by Wormsley, completed in 1961 and today the largest listed building in Europe. The exhibition includes works all the way from the advent of British Modernism when the Arts Council Collection was founded in 1946 up until today. My approach was in part inspired by a series of exhibitions run by the Arts Council in their first decades, the 1940’s and 50’s. Sculpture in the Home, as the name suggests, featured artworks in a domestic environment amid modern furnishings in order to encouraging a cultured consumer class to purchase small scale sculpture for the home. The exhibition at Park Hill includes works by some of the ‘Geometry of Fear’ artists such as Lynn Chadwick who also featured in these early Arts Council programs, as well as Constructivist artists Kenneth Martin and Mary Martin who were, like the architects of Park Hill, proponents of a pragmatic but nonetheless optimistic British version of European Modernism.

Alongside these works are muddied and nostalgic ruminations on Modernism by contemporary artists such as Toby Paterson and Martin Boyce.  The pioneering architectural work and furniture design of Charles and Ray Eames are of particular interest to Boyce. With Dark Unit and Mask (2003) Boyce remodels a small replica Eames storage unit and a little known Eames’ design for field splints produced for the navy during World War II. The splint becomes objet d’art reminiscent of the African and Oceanic artefacts collected by Picasso and his contemporaries with a mounting formed of fragments from mid twentieth century Ant and Series 7 chairs by the Danish designer Arne Jacobsen.

Most unexpectedly for visitors, I have included some key post-modern work. Only when the stories behind production are discussed does the relationship to the site of Park Hill speak. Homage to the New Wave was made in 1977 while Andrew Logan was living and working at Butler’s Wharf at Bankside, London in a community of artists, musicians and punks who occupied the post-industrial wasteland on the edge of the Thames. In 1984, Butler’s Wharf was purchased by founder of Habitat and former owner of Heals furniture store, Terence Conran, who converted it into loft-style apartments. The post-industrial space became chic, and punk was absorbed into the culture of consumerism, a move which Logan’s sculpture seems to foresee by making a unique commodity from the safety-pin, a symbol of the radical provisionality of punk.

If you hadn’t noticed already Brutalism is back in fashion and not just because English Heritage says so. In the 1950’s, British architects of Park Hill, Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn, then still in their twenties, fell for the aspirational promise of Le Corbusier. They believed society could be made better and happier through their well considered designs. Saving Park Hill from demolition in the 1990’s was seen as crucial to preserve the legacy of post-war Britain and its idealist architecture. Yet its huge scale made it too monumental to be a simply a monument, it must be occupied. Manchester based developers Urban Splash have led on a large scale renovation project. However it has not just been that good old British pragmatism which has made British Modernism a cultivated taste today. These buildings are a valuable aesthetic, they are useful for now. Most of the public housing I’ve mentioned has undergone a transformation since changing from public council housing to private. The aspiration embodied in the Brutalist Modernist soaring hulks of concrete and glass are a remade Modern. As Urban Splash have very convincingly argued they are desirable duplex apartments close to the city centre and their *unique selling point* is retro modern appeal which perfectly matches our affordable Ikea furniture.

Exhibition Details

BRITISH MODERN REMADE — STYLE . DESIGN . GLAMOUR . HORROR.

Park Hill Estate, Sheffield, 4th May – 16 June 2012.

An Arts Council Collection exhibition curated by Helen Kaplinsky.

Exhibition Press Release.

Associated Event

Symposium with Steven Gartside (Manchester Metropolitan), Jaspar Joseph-Lester and Dale Holmes (Sheffield Hallam University), Lisa Le Feuvre (Henry Moore Institute) and Matthew Poole (University of Essex). Chaired by curator Helen Kaplinsky. View Programme.

Tuesday 22nd May 2.00 – 6.00pm, Sheffield Institute of Arts Gallery.

World of Cities Workshop: One or many Mumbai’s? Sanitation in comparative perspective

by Colin McFarlane, Durham University

Cities have always been understood comparatively. When we read about, visit or talk about a particular city, we often do so by comparing it with other cities. Comparison may ostensibly appear as a prosaic set of methodological questions around case studies, but in practice it is a critical part of how understanding, theory and research about cities are produced and contested. In urban geography, recent years have witnessed not just a resurgence of comparative thinking and research, but a new experimentalism with comparative thinking and methodologies. This is in part a response to the globalisation of urban policy, planning, economies, cultures and ecologies, but it is also an attempt to internationalise urban geography by thinking across intellectual and imaginative divides that that separate out the cities of the global North from those of the global South, or the ‘developed Western’ city from the sprawling megacity. The revival of debate on comparison has, then, tended to think about comparison between cities. There has been little effort to think about the potential value of comparisons within cities. If a key objective of the new comparativism is to develop a pluralised conception of the urban politics, economies, cultures and ecologies, I argue that intra-urban comparisons have an important place in this effort.

For the last two years, I have been involved in a project to understand everyday experiences and perceptions of sanitation in Mumbai’s informal settlements (with Renu Desai and Steve Graham). Sanitation provision, access, use, and conditions vary greatly across the city and we believed it was important to foreground the difference that this geographical diversity makes to the lived experience and politics of sanitation. The research examined two informal settlements: Khotwadi, an authorised, established neighbourhood in the west, and Rafinagar, an unauthorised, poorer neighbourhood in the east. Rafinagar comprises two parts: Part 1, which has been provided with some basic urban services, and Part 2, with almost no basic urban services.

Khotwadi (Figure 1), with a population of approximately 2000 households, has 24 toilet blocks and a total of 180 seats, whereas Rafinagar (Figure 2), with approximately 4000 households, has 6 toilet blocks with a total of 76 seats. Rafinagar, then, has twice the population and half the number of toilet seats, and Rafinagar Part 2 has only one formal toilet block and is also serviced by a range of temporary hanging latrines. The condition of solid waste management in the two settlements is also uneven. Rafinagar in particular, partly due to its illegality and partly due to its marginal status as a predominantly Muslim settlement, suffers from infrequent instances of municipal cleaning of drains and collection and disposal of garbage.

Figure 1: Khotwadi. Brick-and-concrete (pukka) housing surrounding a well

Figure 2: Rafinagar Part 2. Sackcloth (kutcha) housing and absence of basic services

We found significant differences between the two neighbourhoods. As a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood, Khotwadi is administered by the dominant political party in the city, the right-wing ethno-religious and anti-Muslim Shiv Sena. The Sena operates a ‘complaint space’ at its local office, and residents usually go to this office if there is work needing done in the area, from blocked drains and broken toilets to uncollected garbage. The party is able to take up and expedite requests far more quickly than if the residents had directly contacted the relevant municipal department. This constitutes a form of patronage in the area that helps promote the Shiv Sena electorally through the soft politicisation of basic infrastructure.

In Rafinagar, however, given that it is predominantly Muslim, residential links are less to the Shiv Sena and more to marginal political parties like Samajwadi (socialist), and given than it is illegal, it is far more difficult to have any complaints dealt with. There are few assurances that requests will ever by met, and people often feel left without any viable political outlet to meet basic sanitation needs. For example, on one occasion when a privately run toilet block in Rafinagar Part 1 increased pay-per-use charges from Rs. 1 o Rs. 2, local women protested by using their bodies. They defecated in the area around the toilet block until the caretaker gave in and reduced the costs. These kind of temporary, below-the-radar forms of protest are distinct from protest in Khotwadi and indicate that politics in Mumbai is less a universal sphere of action and instead a set of possibilities highly influenced by, if not determined by, local context, resources and connections.

There are other important differences. For example, while in Khotwadi most residents regularly use toilet blocks, in Rafinagar – especially in Part 2 – open defecation is regular. During the monsoon, residents often construct makeshift hanging latrines from rudimentary materials in order to provide a nearby toilet when the rains make it difficult to wade to the spaces used for open defecation. The latrines are vulnerable to erosion from rising tides and from demolition by the municipality. Residents have their own comparative framings for valuing these infrastructures. For example, one woman said of one hanging latrine: “There is a world of difference between this and a pukka [brick-built] toilet. This one remains a bit open, there is a fear of children falling, there is fear that it will get washed away in the high tide, there is a fear that it will break.”

Taken together, the uncertain rhythm and largely distinct politics of sanitation in these two neighbourhoods is predicated on a series of changing conditions and catalysts, from demolition, land erosion and changing land use, to reciprocal relations amongst residents and civil society groups, changing tariffs of toilets, and the identity politics connected to political parties. The contrasting sanitation conditions in Rafinagar and Khotwadi reflect not just different urban histories, social composition, and state-based or legal (dis)connections, but two quite different Mumbais, with distinct modes of infrastructure production and politics. Here, intra-urban comparison widens our conception of infrastructure politics and the conditions through which urban life is collectively made and remade. If comparison is in part a strategy for pluralising the urban imagination, then intra-urban comparisons can be a fruitful reminder of the value of sticking with one city before rushing off to compare with the next one.

Colin is speaking at the cities@manchester ‘World of Cities: comparison across the disciplines’ workshop, 17-18 May 2012. The workshop is fully booked but will be audio recorded. This and a collection of the workshop papers will also be added to the workshop page after the event. 

World of Cities Workshop: Global Urbanism – Some Reflections from the South of Africa

by Sue Parnell, University of Cape Town

For the last 6 months I have been based at UCL on sabbatical leave. The somewhat embarrasing purpose of my Leverhulme Visiting Professorship has been to offer my expertise on Cities of the South to colleagues in London and across the UK. Needless to say, despite consistently making the argument that Southern scholars have much to bring to the global academy, I have found it hard to be clear about what exctly I personally know and why this might be helpful or provocative for others. Reflecting on the current discussion about what constitues global urbanism in general and the more specific issue of how to undertake comparative urban research in a ‘world of cities’ helps me, based on my expreiences of living and working in post-aparthied South Africa, to put some specific points forward for us to engage.

My point of departure is that a comparative research that takes full account of where cities are today has to start with new empirical research on individual cities in the Global South not just because the work that has been done has been shaped by a Northern agenda, but much more importantly because these cities have not yet been fully described, analysed or compared.

The new primary urban research will create the platform for twenty first century comparative research and transformative action. This latter point about action is key because the demand for our academic expertise is likely to be from residents and practioners keen to inform the future, rather than interpreting the past. This does not mean that there is no case for doing urban history. Rather, given the problems they face, our readers will be seeking comparative insights to enrich their transformative agendas. Unlike the past decades where academics have battled to ensure take up of their findings, the new urbanism has an expectant audience that anticipates that our knowledge will be useful. This rraises the bar on how we undertake urban research.

The combined drivers of a new global urbanisim are the quest to fill the critical gaps in our knowledge about cities everywhere and the imperative to secure local relevance (if not acccetance) of our assessemnts of the drivers of change and the possibilities of the urban future. To achieve these expectatins the urban studies community has to rethink what we need to know, how we find out what we need to know and what the ethics are of constructing new accounts of city development. To this end I have five reflections.

a) Being careful about categories (two examples that have no real purpose include two terms I invoke on an almost daily basis – cities of the South and African cities).

b) Learning from theory

  • We cannot and should throw the baby out with the bath water. We must ask instead what can and should be extracted from the urban cannon of the north and how different examples challenge the theory.
  • We have to find a way for scholars of the South to challenge Northern urban scholarship on substantive points (rather than the cheap shot that there is a distortion in the published work and its orientation).

c) Learning from practice

  • In places where there are no/few scholars there is no option to learn from practioners and residents – in many places where there are many urban scholars it may be that there is untapped knowledge outside of the academy.
  • This is the opposite of the impact agenda currently put out by UK funders –and the impact question almost certainly needs to critically reframed to allow the kind of relevant critical urban research, for wich there is an appetite, to be undertaken.

d) Affirming the importance of robust research methods

  • Working alone or outside of areas of intense academic scrutiny does not justify sloppy research – it argueably increases the imperative for replicable, reliable and ethical practices. If work is to be comparative how the knowledge was gleaned has to be transparent.

e) Reflecting on the ethics of urban research

  • See the paper where I navel gaze on my own research ethics. I will pull key points from this into the workshop presentation.

Sue is speaking at the cities@manchester ‘World of Cities: comparison across the disciplines’ workshop, 17-18 May 2012. The workshop is fully booked but will be audio recorded. This and a collection of the workshop papers will also be added to the workshop page after the event.