Monthly Archives: May 2012

World of Cities Workshop: What Makes a ‘World City’? Local World Views and Global Knowledge

by Jan Nijman, University of Amsterdam

About twelve years ago, during a lecture at the Indian Institute for Technology in Mumbai, I was confronted with a question from the audience as to ‘where Mumbai ranks among world cities’ (the lecture was not about that topic and the question came out of left field). This was just over a decade ago, and the city hardly figured in any of the existing studies at that point. I remember trying to bring the news gently but to no avail. The audience was taken aback by what they considered a striking lack of appreciation by ‘world city scholars’ of Mumbai’s ‘obvious’ significance as the economic capital of a country with nearly one-sixth of humanity. While I was not ready to submit to the biases of local city boosters, I vividly remember feeling compelled to rethink the validity of world city theory. As the audience would have it, surely something was wrong with it.

About six months later, I gave a talk at UCLA and I reiterated my experience in Mumbai. The reaction of the audience there was, as I recall, quite blunt: surely we should not let our understanding of the urban world base on the subjective views of Mumbaikars?! I was left somewhat frustrated with this point of discussion because, at the time, I could not quite articulate what I felt was the crux of the issue and why it mattered. But in hindsight it did become more clear, and it actually was not that simple.

While it is not necessarily true that all knowledge is local, there is a good deal of truth to the point that world views are – from Mumbai to Los Angeles. There is no such thing as a view from nowhere. The fascinating confluence of urban studies and globalization studies exhibits this inherent tension between the ‘local’ and the ‘global’ – not just in terms of broad perspectives but also in terms of methodological approaches. It is especially manifest in the hugely interesting and important concept of the global urban network which is a lot easier to theorize than to circumscribe empirically.  They are almost without exception constructed from ‘the’ center outwards, i.e., London, or New York or other places centrally placed on the mental maps of (predominantly western) scholars. And, almost by definition, other cities in the world then appear on the map on the basis of their importance to that center. It is bias, systematized.

From an empirical, methodological point of view, the global urban network (if we want it to carry a semblance to reality) must be constructed from ‘the ground up’, node by node, dyad by dyad, flow by flow. To be sure, it would involve an outrageous amount of localized data collection across the globe. Unless, of course, we are not really interested in the global urban network per se but rather in the ways that the rest of the world relates to us, connects to us, how important other cities are to us.

Imagine, for a moment, that Mumbai were not at all connected to Europe or to the USA but it would still be urban centre to all of India – wouldn’t it still matter on the global stage, even as the main node of a ‘global subdivision’?

World-views, whether espoused in LA, Mumbai, or Amsterdam, are intrinsically biased. But if it is really the global that we are interested in, then a billion people can’t be wrong.

Jan 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: 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. 

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. 

Railways, Red Barrel and Robin Hood: Interrogating the Modernist revival

Guest post by Kenn Taylor.

With the recent campaigns to save Preston’s Bus Station, Birmingham’s Central Library and Portsmouth’s Tricorn Shopping Centre. Not to mention the emergence of Manchester’s The Modernist magazine, books like Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism and critic Jonathan Glancey’s numerous broadsheet eulogies, it seems that we are now going through a period of revisionism in relationship to the Modernist architecture of the 1960s and 70s. That which was reviled by so many for so long is now being venerated.

It many respects this is inevitable. In the cycles of something changing from ‘old fashioned’ to ‘classic’ in the public consciousness, 30 or 40 years usually about does it. It’s also about time. This period of architecture produced many fine buildings of international importance in Britain’s towns and cities, and too many of these have already been lost to indifference. We must protect the best examples of buildings from whatever era from the mere whims of fashion. How much great Art Deco architecture was destroyed, like the Firestone factory in West London, before we realised its value?

Yet, despite the need to acknowledge the importance and value of such buildings, I don’t think we can truly celebrate the best architecture and design of the post-war Modern era without simultaneously acknowledging the failures.

DRU Railway Logo

This was starkly highlighted to me when I visited an exhibition held at the Liverpool School of Art in 2011 – Design Research Unit 1942-72. You may never have heard of the Design Research Unit (DRU) but you will know its work. Their 1965 British Rail logo is still used on every station in Britain, now no longer the brand of the long defunct British Railways Board, instead a generic symbol for railways, and probably DRU’s most prominent legacy.

Their other work was as many and varied as it was influential, as the exhibition displayed. Ranging from the interior of the P&O ocean liner Oriana and sections of the 1951 Festival of Britain, to the ICI logo and the 1968 City of Westminster street signs, which have become as an integral part of London’s streetscape as red buses and black taxis.

The DRU was formed in 1943 by the poet and art critic Herbert Read, architect Misha Black and the graphic designer Milner Gray. It was arguably the first multidisciplinary design agency in the UK, working across architecture, products and graphic design. The DRU was a product of the Modernist belief in the power of the new and optimism for the possibilities of the post-war era. Founded to help build anew Britain after the horrors of war and depression, when everyone, designers included, was desperate to break with the past.

Watneys Cock & Lion

For me though, the most telling part of the exhibition was that which looked at Milner Gray’s work forLondon’s Watney Mann brewery in the 1950s and 60s. Watneys commissioned DRU to provide a coherent look for its huge range of premises. In response, Gray developed a new identity with five different types of lettering and decoration to be used, depending on the architectural style of each public house. Watneys new signage used a ‘slab serif’ font made in pressure-formed plastic, a style which soon became a high-street craze.

Yet, despite its pioneering nature, to me the Watneys project highlights the negative aspect of not only DRU’s work, but the wider failures of Modernist design. After it, many other breweries adopted similar makeover schemes in a period which saw many pubs have their individual characteristics, developed over decades, ripped out in favour of a plasticised standardisation. Designs imposed from on high that reflected little of the culture or history of where they were being dropped in. Looking only modern and fresh for a brief time, before ageing poorly due to changes in fashion and the low quality of the materials they were made of.

Watneys thrusting attitude towards modernisation even spread to their beer, with the revulsion against the mass-produced blandness of its Red Barrel ‘modern’ keg beer helping to spark the foundation of the Campaign for Real Ale and its fight for traditional, quality, regional brews.

Even looking at the simple brilliance of DRU’s British Rail logo, the over-arching brand identity they developed for the railway often took no account of the great diversity of historic architecture that it was being pasted on. It also reflected the wider ‘modernisation’ of Britain’s railways that saw the destruction in the 1960s of many historic stations, including London Euston, which was replaced with the Modernist mediocrity that greets me on every trip to the capital. Euston’s uninspiring shopping arcade descending into dank concrete platforms stands in negative contrast to the still stunning Victorian glass barrel roofs of Liverpool Lime Streetwhich I meet at the other end of the line.

As well as being its strength, Modernist architecture and design’s ubiquity, utopianism, universalism and uniformity were also its undoing. In trying to re-make everything and escape the horrors of recent history, it destroyed not only what was bad of the past, but what was good as well. With a missionary zeal that also saw a huge chunk ofBritain’s Victorian and Georgian architecture demolished, one of the reasons that 60s Modernism is still so despised by so many today.

Many of the arguments around supporting such Modernist architecture seem to hang on the idealism and optimism that surrounded such buildings. In contrast to the cynical vapidness and blandness of so much contemporary ‘ laissez-faire’ architecture that is in many cases replacing Brutalist post-war structures.

Yet such bland homogenisation is just as resplendent in much of the worst of mediocre Modernism as it is in any contemporary neo-liberal urban development. Neither does such thinking acknowledge the dark arrogance that underpinned the philosophies of Modernist design; that educated elites could engineer the world into a utopia through planning and design. The idea that an internationalist aesthetic could be imposed on a specific culture and that it would ‘improve’ the people living amongst it.

Interestingly, this resurgence in the support for Modernist architecture is almost the same as in the 1960s, when civic worthies first really began to fight to save Georgian and Victorian heritage from redevelopment. This was inevitably led by middle class outsiders, whilst many living in such areas were glad to see the back of such buildings, even if they disliked being moved from old neighbourhoods to new estates. So now, while many are now striving to protect Modernist buildings, they are rarely are the ones who have to shop in Portsmouth, get a bus in Preston or borrow a library book in Birmingham. It is precisely this placing of aesthetics and ideas over people and function that caused so much Modernist architecture to fail.

Robin Hood Gardens, London

I saw this illustrated glaringly in a Guardian article by curator and writer Stephen Bayley, about the attempt to preserve from demolition the Brutalist concrete housing complex, Robin Hood Gardens, in a deprived part of East London: “the unintelligent housing policies of Tower Hamlets populated Robin Hood Gardens with the tenants least likely to be able to make sensible use of the accommodation. We have to whisper it, but the Unité d’Habitation [Famous Modernist housing block in Marseilles] works because it is populated by teachers, psychologists, doctors, graphic designers, not by single mothers struggling with buggies.” This is a striking example of an aesthete criticising a deprived population for not being appreciative of what they have been ‘given’. Whilst forgetting the very reason such buildings were constructed was to improve living conditions for poor families, something which they have so often resolutely failed to do.


Meanwhile, fellow Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins pointed out that nearly 80% of Robin Hood’s residents wanted the estate demolished and rebuilt so they could stay in the neighbourhood and, even more tellingly, that no one on the preservation campaign actually lives there. Its brash, Brutalist structures may look impressive, yet apparently remain not great to live in.

We should acknowledge the positives of the Modern era. It pioneered techniques and materials we now take for granted and saw many important buildings and designs produced in what was ahigh pointof British construction and production. Yet we cannot view it through rose-tinted spectacles.

The people behind such designs may have truly believed they were making places better for ordinary people, but their bold visions were in many ways also arrogant, and have so often failed. You cannot celebrate the visual power and utopianism of post-war Modernist design without acknowledging how quickly all that decayed and how much that negatively affected many people’s lives. Just as preservationists of the Victorian era who emphasise its pioneering, graceful designs should also acknowledge the poverty, repression and exploitation that marked that era also.

Looking back at that Design Research Unit exhibition, its final section was about how the DRU’s headquarters, a standard-looking brick office building in London’s Aybrook Street, were given a radical, brightly-coloured, rooftop extension by the then young architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers in 1972. Piano and Rogers of course went on to design the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, one of the most influential buildings of the late 20th century and a pioneer of Post-Modern architecture.

Today, that dramatic extension of Aybrook Street has been re-covered in something bland and grey, more in keeping with the style of the older building, its Modernist zeal hidden as if in embarrassment. This is a shame, we should not just cover up or destroy this era of architecture, if it is still of use, but when we look at it, not only remember the power and vision of its designs, but also the danger, as ever, of rapid, destructive change, of putting ideas above people, or of believing in grand solutions, imposed from on high, to any problem. We should preserve these buildings to remind us of our past, not just the good, but the bad as well.


Kenn Taylor is a Liverpool-based writer and researcher with a particular interest in community, culture and the urban enviroment.