What do cities have to do with democracy?

Scan 130330022-6Following up on the earlier post about the IJURR symposium on the theme Where is Urban Politics? I thought I should plug my own paper in this collection. My piece is titled ‘What do cities have to do with democracy?’ (the answer is that ‘it depends’; you’ll have to read the paper to find out what exactly it depends on). I have been giving a version of this paper as my default seminar presentation for about 4 years now, so I’m not quite sure what I will talk about if and when I’m next invited anywhere, but I do hope that this extensive pre-release touring of the paper will boost sales.

This paper is actually the last in a cluster that I have written on themes such as political agency, urban problemsideas of contestation, and the idea of ‘all affected interests’. When I finished this one (a while ago now), I realised that I really needed to write a book linking these together, since an 8000 word (or so) article is not enough space to elaborate the full sweep of the argument that I have in my head which connects these all together. So that’s what I am doing now, this summer, writing a book about democratic theory, notions of injustice, and the geographical imagination needed to develop open-minded inquiry into these themes – it’s preliminary title is Locating Democracy, contracted with the University of Georgia Press, in their Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation series. I’m saying this out loud and in public as a way of imposing some external discipline on myself, to help me along in the task of actually writing the book.

Anyway, anyway, in the meantime, here is the abstract from the IJURR paper:

“The relationship between urbanization and democratization remains under-theorized and under-researched. Radical urban theory has undergone a veritable normative turn, registered in debates about the right to the city, spatial justice and the just city, while critical conceptualizations of neoliberalism present ‘democracy’ as the preferred remedy for injustice. However, these lines of thought remain reluctant to venture too far down the path of political philosophy. The relationship between urban politics and the dynamics of democratization remains under-theorized as a result. It is argued that this relationship can be usefully understood by drawing on lessons from avowedly normative styles of political theorizing, specifically post-Habermasian strands of critical theory. Taking this tradition seriously helps one to notice that discussions of urbanization, democracy, injustice and rights in geography, urban studies and related fields invoke an implicit but unthematized democratic norm, that of all-affected interests. In contemporary critical theory, this norm is conceptualized as a worldly register of political demands. It is argued that the conceptual disaggregation of component values of democracy undertaken through the ‘spatial turn’ in recent critical theory reorients the analysis of the democratic potentials of urban politics around the investigation of the multiple forms of agency which urbanized processes perform in generating, recognizing and acting upon issues of shared concern.”

Where is Urban Politics? Symposium in IJURR

DSCF4708Newly available on the Early View site at the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, papers from a Symposium on the theme of ‘Where is Urban Politics?’ edited by Scott Rodgers, Allan Cochrane and me. This is one of those collections that has had a very long lead-time, going back to the AAG conference in Las Vegas in 2009. The Symposium has papers by Warren Magnusson, Lisa Hoffman, Doug Young and Roger Kiel, John Allen and Allan Cochrane, and me. The idea behind the collection is to give some expression to both the range of disciplinary approaches to thinking about urban politics (including political theory, anthropology, planning studies, as well as geography) and the range of sites and places in which urban politics can be found, not necessarily all of classically ‘urban’ ones either. Scott, Allan and I try to articulate this rationale in the introductory essay. Here is our pitch:

“Whether defined through its sites and spaces, through the particular sensibilities of the urban as a way of life, through the political problematization of phenomena as urban, or indeed through the activities of local authorities and democratic assemblies, what this collection of articles draws out is the enduring and maybe even expanding relevance of urban processes in learning to challenge, think about and develop new and better ways of living together.”

Alternative Urbanisms

SWSome colleagues and I (Gary Bridge, Graham Brown, and Paul Milbourne) have been awarded some seed-fund money, from the GW4 research consortium for a little project on the theme of Alternative Urbanisms. GW4 is an initiative across the ‘regional’ cluster of Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter (everything around these parts gets branded ‘GW’, from research alliances to pubs). The Alternative Urbanisms project is one of a bunch awarded under the Building Communities initiative – basically, funding to enable people across the four institutions to make friends with each other and develop shared research programmes and ambitions. Our project starts from the established fields of expertise across these institutions in fields such as geography, urban and regional studies, and development studies, and is going to provide some space to think about the myriad ways in which, as the title suggests, alternative models of urban life are currently proliferating: from obvious ‘technical’ examples such as smart cities initiatives, to more ‘moralistic’ versions such as innumerable climate change experiments, and in particular, some more ‘political’ and/or contentious attempts to enact just, equitable and democratic forms of practice through urban spaces (whatever those might be – pipes and wires, municipal bureaucracies, suburbs, squatter settlements, etc, etc). In the spirit of the overall initiative, we will of course be making lots of train journeys.

Africa’s Urban Revolution: new edited book

africa urbanI was in Cape Town a couple of weeks ago, visiting and talking to people in Geography at UCT and UWC and the African Centre for Cities at UCT – about urban things, related to the impending start of my Leverhulme fellowship on urban problematizations (as I’ve decided to start thinking about it). Inevitably, part of the trip involved bookshop ethnography – Cape Town has some great bookshops, in the sort of way that bookshops in other people’s country’s always seem exciting to academic visitors because, well, they tend to be full of local books difficult to find back home (or things you probably could if only you had noticed they had been published, like Gill Hart’s newish book Rethinking the South African Crisis). I was actually quite strong and did not buy too many – it was election week, so there were loads of new books on South African politics, including some excellent little books in the Jacana Pocket Series.

One book I didn’t buy, but was given (Thankyou!), was a new collection edited  by Sue Parnell and Edgar Pieterse, Africa’s Urban Revolution. It includes essays on a range of issues, from transport to violent conflict, religion to food security. There is lots of debate and discussion at the moment, in certain circles at least, about ‘southern theory’, southern epistemologies, ‘theorising from the global South’ (not least from this cluster of people – Sue is also co-editor, with Sophie Oldfield, of the new Routledge Handbook on Cities on the Global South). The collection is one element of a ‘knowledge experiment’, as Edgar has described it, based at the ACC to think through the distinctive, emergent politics of ‘southern urbanisms‘. This particular collection is notable because it is oriented to both academics and practitioners, an overlapping field of ‘thought’ that might be one the distinctive things about urban theorising from ‘the South’. It is not an example of ‘applied’ academic work, mind you – rather, it the essays demonstrate that key theoretical questions (just what is ‘urban’, or how does one conceptualise urbanization?), normative issues (are ‘slums’ things to be eradicated, upgraded, integrated?), and methodological dilemmas (what sorts of data are available about African urban processes, how reliable are they, what is their scope), are all central to contested practices of policy making, planning, design and management in African cities. I was struck in particular by the recurrent theme of data sources across the chapters – there is an interesting, if only implicit line running through the book that the politics of African urban life might be shaped in fundamental respects by what one might call a ‘governmentality deficit’, and in turn the sense that effective and accountable modes of surveillance (i.e. censuses, surveys, forecasts) might be central to the achievement of aims such as poverty alleviation, social justice, or substantive democratization.

The editors note that this collection is a kind of companion a collection from last year, Rogue Urbanismthat’s a more arty, cultural-focussed collection, it has colour pictures; the two aspects of the work curated, shall we say, at ACC come together nicely in the magazine Cityscapes.

Anyway, there is a launch event for the new collection next week, in Cape Town. I’m not going, I’m back in Swindon. But if you are interested in things urban, and in particular in ‘thinking problematically’, as somebody once said, about urban issues, then the portfolio of work coming out of the ACC node, or is it a nexus, is exemplary stuff.

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!

Andy Merrifield on the urban question, old and new

jpsJust bumped into this at the IJURR site – the transcript of an author-meets-critics session with Andy Merrifield, from earlier this year, discussing The Urban Question under Planetary Urbanization and ‘the politics of encounter’.