Tag Archives: Theory

‘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
The Urban Transformations Research Group, Geography, University of Manchester

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

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. 

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.