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. 

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