The Strange Case of Urban Theory

One of the last things I did before the start of the first lockdown was submit a paper for publication, something which now seems like a very old-fashioned thing; who knows, perhaps time will allow for that sort of thing again, one day in the future. Anyway, the paper is now published, online in advance, in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society: it’s titled ‘The Strange Case of Urban Theory’, and is part of a special issue soon to go live on the theme of ‘Urban and Regional Theory: Negotiating Generalisation and Particularity’. The paper is one of the outputs of the Leverhulme project on ‘the urbanization of responsibility‘ that I held, formally, from 2014-2016, but which of course still lingers in life and mind in various ways. It’s my effort to say something into the debates in and around urban studies about the geographies of theory, comparison, that sort of thing. And it was an opportunity to finally cite David Harvey’s Explanation in Geography, approvingly.

This is the abstract of the paper:

“Recent debates in urban theory have centred on the problem of whether universal concepts can have applications to particular places. These debates could benefit from more serious attention to how urban thought involves styles of analogical reasoning closer in spirit to casuistry than to explanatory theory. The difficult status of ‘the case’ in urban studies is explored through a consideration of different types of universality in this field, leading to a re-consideration of ideas of experimentalism and wicked problems. Further attention should be given to the multiple styles of reasoning through which urban knowledge is produced and circulated.”

Access to the published paper requires a subscription to the journal of course – send an email and I’ll send you a copy; or, you can access the final pre-publication version here.

Learning from other regions: new book on climate change initiatives in Cape Town

Here are details of a new book, co-edited by my friend and sometime co-author Di Scott, elaborating on collaborative urban policy initiatives to address climate change issues in and around Cape Town. The book is just one example of a wide range of innovative theoretical, empirical and applied research on urban issues emanating from South African ‘urban studies’, broadly defined.

Here’s a link to the flyer for the book, and here is the blurb:

“Cape Town’s drought crisis grabbed global headlines in 2018 and its causes and solutions were – and continue to be — hotly debated. But managing water shortages and other climate change impacts have been integrated into the city’s urban policy-making for some time, in response to rapid urbanisation and uncertainty about the exact nature, timing and magnitude of city-scale climatic changes. This book presents initiatives at the local government level, across a range of departments, from environmental resource management to housing, stormwater management, water management, energy management and spatial planning. In addition, it records the progress made and challenges faced in mainstreaming climate change into urban policies, processes, programmes and practices, a problem facing most urban areas around the world. The text was co-produced by academics and municipal officials, including economists, engineers, ecologists, geographers and planners, who worked collaboratively in a process of mutual learning. This hybrid process, where practitioner experience is coupled with an academic and research perspective, has produced an ‘insider’ view of urban development and climate change governance through the lens of theory. The result provides new practice-based knowledge for policy-making in the transition towards more sustainable cities in the face of climate change, particularly those in the global South.”

 

Urban Problems: new paper theorising why ‘the city’ matters

A new paper, entitled The situations of urban inquiry: thinking problematically about the city, co-written by Gary Bridge and myself, is now available in the Early View at the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (Feel free to let me know if you would like a PDF copy of the piece, if you can’t access the Journal direct). The paper is an intervention in ongoing debates about the objects of urban theory (planetary urbanization, comparative urbanisms, southern urbanisms, all that). We argue that ‘the city’ should be approached ‘problematically’ (not the same as saying that it should be problematized), an argument we expand on by way of an engagement with Foucault’s thoughts on problematization and Dewey’s more sustained treatment of problematic situations. 

Here is abstract: 

“In the context of debates about the epistemological and ontological coherence of concepts of critical urban studies, we argue that urban concepts should be conceptualized problematically. We do so by aligning Michel Foucault’s genealogical work on problematization with John Dewey’s pragmatist understanding of problem formation and responsiveness. This approach brings into view the degree to which debates about urban futures are shaped by a variety of critical perspectives that extend beyond the academy and activism. We elaborate this argument through examples of global urban policy formation and practices of neighbourhood change. Approaching urban concepts problematically suggests a move away from the idea of critique as a form of scholastic correction towards an appreciation of the contested fields of practice in and through which critical understandings of urban problems emerge.”

Environment and Urbanization Issue on the New Urban Agenda

To coincide with an event at the IIED today focussing on the likely outcomes of the Habitat III process, and assessing the so-called ‘new urban agenda’, all of the papers in the April 2016 issue of Environment and Urbanization are freely available between the 5th and 12th May (including the previously advertised paper by myself and Sue Parnell on the place of urban theory in current global urban policy debates). The issue includes a series of papers on the theme From the MDGs to the SDGs and Habitat III. Further details and reflections on the event will be posted on the IIED website in due course. 

Urban Theory in the New Urban Agenda

eanduThe latest issue of Environment and Urbanization contains a collection of papers examining different aspects of the emergence of the so-called ‘new urban agenda’ in global development policy, titled From the MDGs to the SDGs and Habitat III. It includes the paper by myself and Sue Parnell, ‘Ideas, implementation and indicators: epistemologies of the post-2015 urban agenda‘ which tracks some of the intellectual influences circulating around these worlds of policy-making and agenda-setting (Sue also has another piece tracing the longer history of global urban development agendas in World Development).

To repeat a previous invitation, if you would like a copy of our paper, do let me know and I will forward it along. Once more, here is the abstract for the paper:

“The success of the campaign for a dedicated urban Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) reflected a consensus on the importance of “cities” in sustainable development. The relevance accorded to cities in the SDGs is twofold, reflected both in the specific place-based content of the Urban Goal and the more general concern with the multiple scales at which the SDGs will be monitored will be institutionalized. Divergent views of the city and urban processes, suppressed within the Urban Goal, are, however, likely to become more explicit as attention shifts to implementation. Acknowledging the different theoretical traditions used to legitimize the new urban agenda is an overdue task. As this agenda develops post-2015, the adequacy of these forms of urban theory will become more contested around, among other concerns, the possibilities and limits of place-based policy, advocacy and activism; and ways of monitoring and evaluating processes of urban transformation along multiple axes of development.”

Urban Theory and the Urban SDG

IMG_3127Sue Parnell and I have a paper, “Ideas, implementation and indicators: epistemologies of the post-2015 urban agenda, forthcoming in Environment and Urbanization, in a special issue dedicated to exploring the significance of the so-called ‘urban SDG’ and the associated ‘new urban agenda’ associated with the Habitat III conference later this year. Our paper explores the intellectual background to the campaign that culminated in the inclusion of the ‘urban’ goal (Goal 11, which commits to making cities “inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable”).

If you’d like a journal-ready copy of the piece, let me know. Here is the abstract of our paper:

“The success of the campaign for a dedicated urban Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) reflected a consensus on the importance of “cities” in sustainable development. The relevance accorded to cities in the SDGs is twofold, reflected both in the specific place-based content of the Urban Goal and the more general concern with the multiple scales at which the SDGs will be monitored will be institutionalized. Divergent views of the city and urban processes, suppressed within the Urban Goal, are, however, likely to become more explicit as attention shifts to implementation. Acknowledging the different theoretical traditions used to legitimize the new urban agenda is an overdue task. As this agenda develops post-2015, the adequacy of these forms of urban theory will become more contested around, among other concerns, the possibilities and limits of place-based policy, advocacy and activism; and ways of monitoring and evaluating processes of urban transformation along multiple axes of development.”

Urban thought and its problems

IMG_3222Here is the full version of a paper presented last week at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, in Chicago, entitled ‘Problematizations: situating contemporary urban thought‘. It’s the first effort to say out loud something about different strands of work I have been doing as part of my Leverhulme-funded project on ‘the urbanization of responsibility‘. It’s very much a work in progress.

The Urbanization of Responsibility: Live

CBSUKUI have finally made it on to You Tube! Here is a video of a live performance from back in February when I was in Cape Town, when I gave a rather more impromptu talk than I had expected at the launch event of a new programme on the theme of The Future of the City, linking the Universities of Stellenbosch and Leuven.

The sound is quite poor, and I’m not much to look at, but apart from that, this is me trying to explain to an audience of non-specialists what I mean by ‘the urbanization of responsibility‘.

 

 

Doing Research

IMG_2576Today is the formal start date of my Leverhulme Fellowship, the start of 21 months of focused research time exploring the ‘urbanization of responsibility‘, facilitated primarily by funding to cover some of my teaching (I still have plenty of teaching, it seems, and other things to do, too).

Actually, I’m still not quite sure how to set about researching what is potentially a huge and diffuse topic. One reason for this is that it’s been more than a decade since I have worked on an empirical project all on my own. I’ve worked on projects where other people have been doing the bulk of the empirical work, and collaborated with others on the generation and analysis of empirical materials. So this feels a bit like starting out on a PhD, all over again, just without a supervisor (let’s hope it doesn’t drag on and on though).

The project is, rather obviously, about things ‘urban’, whatever that might mean. I’m trying to avoid being captured by some standard ways of approaching urban things. At the moment, I’m interested in approaching ‘the urban question’ along three more or less unrelated paths:

– by thinking about the potential of the notion of problematization as a lens through which to think about how things show up as ‘urban’ things (that is, not thinking of problematization as something one does as a (critical) analyst, but as the object of analysis);

– by thinking a little bit more about the concept of responsibility, subject to a great deal or moralistic commentary in and around geography-land it’s true, but I’m more interested in linking this to the first theme of problematization, as a way of thinking about the ways in which fields of action are configured;

– not necessarily linked to these two speculations, I’ve also found myself collecting various ‘things to read and/or re-read’ on the topic of documents, a rather obvious topic to some extent given the proliferation of reports and commentaries produced about cities and urban problems; I have in mind a range of work coming from various fields in which the status of documents has become a renewed focus of attention: my list includes the work of Richard Freeman, Matthew Hull, Lisa Gitelman, Leah Price, John Guillory. The list also includes dear old Foucault too, as well as Miles Ogborn; and Harold Garfinkel on the ‘documentary method’ in everyday life, which somehow seems an important supplement to these other more or less ‘post-textualist’ approaches.   

The urbanization of responsibility

UntitledI’ve been on leave for a week or so, swapping the hustle and bustle of both Swindon and Exeter for the relaxing byways of New York City. Just before leaving, I found out that I had been awarded a Leverhulme Trust Fellowship, which I applied for before Christmas. The fellowship will provide space and time to work on a two-year project exploring the theme of ‘the urbanization of responsibility’. This is something I have written about in passing over the last few years (here and here, for example). Theoretically, the project builds on the ideas I have tried to articulate around the theme of ‘emergent publics‘ as well as ideas about the problematization of responsibility, amongst other things. It also develops some ideas that I first worked out as contributions to teaching programmes around the theme of ‘changing cities‘. I’m not sure if that means that the fellowship counts as ‘teaching-led research’?

Here is an outline of the research that I will undertake over the two years of the fellowship (along with other commitments, like book-writing, new teaching, school runs, that sort of thing). I still have to sit down and work out just what sort of real-world work this is going to involve (it’s a while since I actually had to do research on a project all on my own), and there are all sorts of routes down which this could lead, so if anyone has any thoughts about what to look at or who to talk to or what to read, I’d welcome any advice.