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.

 

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!