Changing Cities: how to think about urban politics

CollegeFreely available online at OpenLearn, a new open access teaching resource called Changing Cities, which provides a framework for thinking about the contemporary ‘urbanization of responsibility’:

“Urban processes are increasingly held to be responsible for causing a variety of problems – environmental destruction, social injustice, global financial instability. They are also identified as harbouring the potential to meet these challenges – through urban experiments in sustainably living, creative culture and alternative economies.   This unit explores how contemporary processes of urbanisation challenge how we think about political agency, providing a framework for the analysis of the causes, implications and responses to issues of common concern.”

equation-robin-wilson-newsThe Changing Cities unit is a taster of sorts from the Masters level course (D837 in OU-speak) of the same name – Changing Cities: urban transitions and decision-making. It was written by myself and Nigel Clark, and draws on material in the larger module authored also with Parvati Raghuram; the unit includes an audio discussion with Margo Huxley. The aim of the whole project was to find a way of making various traditions of ‘critical’ urban and spatial theory do more than provide easy ‘critical’ reflexes to contemporary issues – to make these ideas useable by turning them into machines for generating questions which can be investigated in different contexts:

“This unit explores the ways in which urbanisation processes help to generate issues of public concern. It elaborates a theoretical framework of critical spatial thinking that can be used to analyse the complex ‘agency’ of urban processes in generating, identifying and resolving the myriad issues associated with contemporary urbanisation. This framework draws on traditions of urban thought and spatial theory in disciplines such as geography and anthropology, development studies, planning, political science and sociology.”

The module also sought to make a virtue out of what is often thought of as a problem, namely the chronic problem of conceptualising the ‘object’ of urban analysis. Taking some inspiration from our former colleague Allan Cochrane, as well perhaps as from a stray thought or two in one of Foucault’s lectures on the theme of ‘the town’, it seeks to develop the idea of thinking of ‘the urban’ as the name given to various sorts of problems:

“The framework is intended to serve as an analytical device for investigating the key questions raised when presented with a pressing urban issue or a spatial problem. It is based on a threefold understanding of the problematisations to which definitions of the urban are a response:

  1. The urban represents a complex of issues, problems and objects which generate contention, gathering together myriad indirect consequences that are generated both locally and from afar.
  2. The urban is a field where the diversity and interconnectedness of effects operate as a seedbed for issue recognition. The recursiveness of urban life is also important in the formation of signs and symbols that can represent purposes and help anticipate consequences. These objects of recognition and intervention are also the medium out of which political subjectivities can be enhanced and people can learn to be affected.
  3. The urban remains the site of institutional architectures that might be useful in the development of further democratising impulses, either through challenge and alternative institutions or through further democratisation of institutions that already exist.”

So, if you have a spare 15 hours, take a look, and enjoy!

Politics and public space

DSCF1014If you are stuck for holiday reading, perhaps a short debate on how best to theorise the relationship between public space and politics is what you are looking for? If you have access to the journal Policy and Politics, you will find a couple of responses in the current issue by myself and Quentin Stevens to a short provocation in the previous issue by John Parkinson entitled ‘Political public space: what it is, why it is special and why standard spatial nostrums mislead’. My contribution is really an elaboration of some aspects of Parkinson’s argument, an appreciation, just to show I am not only ‘critical’ when writing in critique-mode. To cut a long story short, Parkinson’s argument is that the ‘big-P’ political significance of certain sorts of public spaces is dangerously sidelined by arguments about the ‘little-P’, or shall we say, ‘cultural politics’ significance of public space understood as a field of broad, dispersed sociable encounters. I think he might be right. What is interesting about the ‘debate’ is that it does underscore the degree to which the precise relationship between political-politics uses of public space and cultural-politics uses of public space, to make a simple distinction, remains poorly theorised and difficult to investigate empirically in interesting ways (I think the significance of Parkinson’s argument, in his work on public space and democracy, lies precisely in focussing clear attention on the Big-P political relevance of uses of public space, something which is often taken for granted in more or less dismissive ways by arguments which are keen to claim ‘political’ relevance for any and all uses of public space).

The same issue of the journal also has an interesting collection of essays exploring the theme of Reconfiguring the Local Public Realm, which comes out of a workshop held in Bristol a couple of years or so ago, which I did attend and present a paper at, but was unable to contribute a final paper towards. It includes a range of pieces from planners, political scientists, and others – I would recommend the paper by Jeremy Seekings in particular, on the question of ‘Is the South Brazilian?