World of Cities Workshop: Building a Southern Perspective on Urban Planning using the Comparative Case Method

Cities on Water – Makoko, Lagos

Cities on Water – Venice

by Vanessa Watson, African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town

Recent comparative research in the urban planning field appears to have focused particularly on countries of the EU and the UK, largely driven by EU cohesion and research funding policies. Much of this has been motivated by interest in ‘idea borrowing’ or policy transfer: if it worked in X can it work in Y? As at least one commentator has noted – much of this comparative work has assumed spatial planning and urban policy-making to be neutral and technical processes which operate in similar ways regardless of context.

There is also a relatively recent interest in policy travel from one part of the globe to another, but still very little on South-South comparisons or debate on how such comparisons could be part of a broader theory-building project in planning.  Given that in 2007 some 73% of the world’s urban population was living in global South cities, with this proportion set to rise steadily, there are good reasons to argue for much more planning research interest in this part of the world.

One interesting attempt to move forward the debate on comparative work in planning in the global South was a workshop convened in 2011 at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. It involved participants from India, Brazil, South Africa and Kenya (with further participants from Thailand and China). The purpose of the workshop was to see what common interest there was in comparative planning and policy research across these contexts. However, and different to much of the European work, was the purpose of this networking, which was quite explicitly strategic and political.

The key aim was to begin the development of a body of interventive urban theory from the South to redress global imbalances in the production and exchange of knowledge in the field. Comparative case research was affirmed as a useful means of building a body of urban theory rooted in the nuanced empirical processes of Southern ‘cityness’. It was also seen to have a potentially effective role in pedagogical and curricular innovation.

To an extent the political ambitions of the workshop were inspired by Raewyn Connell’s call for ‘southern theory’ in sociology – to counter northern dominance in scholarship and to draw attention to global relationships: of authority, exclusion and inclusion, hegemony, and partnership. A common concern amongst workshop participants was, similarly, the strong hegemony of Northern theories and ideas which had a poor degree of ‘fit’ with the nature of urban problems that confronted them, and which promoted planning approaches based on assumptions about cities, societies and economies which did not hold in the contexts they worked in. These Northern positions rarely specified the context to which their ideas applied, and assumed a ‘taken for granted’ universalism which erased the reality of the world beyond the Euro-American territories.

Early on in the workshop it became clear that very different ‘theory cultures’ were represented, and that finding a common language and purpose would be a critical preliminary step to further south-south comparative work. There were also different positions on the purpose of comparative work – was it to counter Northern hegemony, to build Southern theory, to create Southern networks or to provide back-up to local and Southern social movements? Finding a research question of common interest would also be an important starting point. The question: ‘why is it so difficult to reduce inequality in city X’ resonated with all partipants.

There appears to be huge scope for using the comparative method not only to ask new and important research questions in urban planning, but also to start to build Southern research networks and to shift the geo-politics of knowledge production.

Vanessa 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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