World of Cities Workshop: Reversing the Flow in Urban Studies

by Garth Myers, Trinity College, Hartford

What if we reverse the flow of ideas in urban studies? What if, instead of starting the conversation from Los Angeles or Chicago or London, we start from unexpected cities? I just moved to a new job, in Hartford, the capital of Connecticut, the US’s richest state. A 2012 Brookings Institution study of world urban economies ranked Hartford first –yes, first – in GDP/capita among the globe’s metropolitan areas; but the actual city of Hartford is one of the poorest, and the most unequal and spatially divided, cities in the US. In trying to understand my new surroundings, I arrived with a seemingly inappropriate toolkit – I’ve spent my career studying cities in Africa. Yet the more I live here, walk around the neighborhoods adjacent to my College, or watch events unfold here, the more convinced I am that ideas and examples from urban Africa make for comparable situations and can inform the processes and outcomes in this historic post-industrial city.

Let me choose two illustrations. Two big hot-button issues here center on urban violence and public transportation. The first has a specific node of concern in the midst of Trinity College. The College struggles with the violent reputation of its inner city neighborhood more than with actual violence, and in fact the most notable crimes on campus are student-on-student. But recruitment and retention depend on tactics, rhetorical and otherwise, designed to enhance security; the College recently signed on to implement a program called “Crime Prevention through Environmental Design.” The second involves a bitter struggle over construction of a 9.4-mile busway to connect inner city Hartford with nearby New Britain. Both urban stories seemed immediately familiar to me.

The first controversy struck me as a South African story. Hartford, with its southern African-level inequalities, segregation, and violence, has much to learn from Cape Town and its program for Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading. The second controversy has its precursor in the decade-long fight over the Dar es Salaam Bus Rapid Transit system. One look at the two projects’ websites shows how much they have in common, with Dar slightly ahead, demolishing houses and building stations for the route while Connecticut is still stomping out the last embers of opposition. Here too, Hartford looks to have much to learn from a city in Africa.

The last thing I’d want to suggest is that these African programs are unvarnished successes to be cut out and plunked down atop Hartford. I’m mindful of other lessons from African urban studies, from the theoretical work of Edgar Pieterse for example, and his critique of UN urban studies for its assumptions about defining a shared urban vision, using dialogue to create rational consensus, or breaking a city’s challenges down into neat little parcels and ticking off solutions. Cities are always in the process of becoming. Perhaps the greatest lesson cities in Africa may have for Hartford is to never lose sight of the fluid, flexible, undetermined, non-linear, ever-changing, unpredictable and surprising things that await us around any corner in a city.

My brief thought experiment of reversing the flow of intellectual authority in comparative urbanism suggests three things to me. First, the key contention is really more about placing cities on a level analytical plain in comparative studies. Second, one vital avenue of commensurable comparability is about circulations of urban policy – what is going on to turn seemingly very different cities toward prevention of violence through landscape architecture or the Curitibazation of public bus systems? Third, any comprehensive, multi-regional comparison is only possible via broad, multi-cultural research teams.

Garth 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. 

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