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.”

Swindon Studies: Social Science in Simpleton

carfaxOne of the recurring features of academic life is the way in which particular intellectual traditions of thought are associated with particular places, as in multiple Chicago Schools, for example, but also in the way in which particular places come to stand as vectors for general theoretical claims – Paris and modernism, obviously, but more prosaically, certain places, like Baltimore or Vancouver or Columbus, Ohio, come to serve as the empirical reference points for the working through of theoretical ideas about capitalist urbanization, neoliberalism, governance and scale, and the like (this is not quite the same, but not unrelated either, to the ways in which towns and cities are presented as sites for experimentation).

When I was an undergraduate and postgraduate, the so-called ‘locality debates‘ were the focus of much of the most interesting discussion of the relations between social theory and spatiality. The very question of how to think about the relation between places, on the one hand, and knowledge of general trends, on the other, was at the centre of these debates. A whole set of issues – the relations between the abstract and the concrete, the empirical and the theoretical, the nature of case analysis, the relations between different axes of social differentiation, questions of ‘scale’ – were worked through in these debates. In the early 1990s, they ended up being supplanted by debates about ‘postmodernism’, which had all the appearance of intellectual pluralism and philosophical weight, but were often rather simplistic by comparison.

Swindon has a small part to play in this lineage of spatial theory in the social sciences. Of course, since 1988 a lot of social science has been commissioned, managed, and audited in Swindon, under the auspices of the ESRC most obviously, and more recently the AHRC and EPSRC too – including a succession of urban-oriented research programmes (Ian Gordon has analysed four decades of urban research programmes in the UK from the 1960s onwards, and it would be interesting to update this in light of more recent initiatives around Urban Transformations, Connected Communities, Urban Living Partnerships, the GCRF and the like). But as an object of urban and/or place-based social science research, Swindon also has a minor claim to significance. I mentioned in my last post Mike Savage’s account of the way in which post-1945 British social science evolved through a distinctive form of effacement of place, typified by the affluent worker studies which were not-necessarily-famously undertaken in Luton but were emphatically not studies of Luton. Swindon doesn’t merit a mention in Savage’s reconstruction of a ‘landscaped’ conception of social inquiry. But Swindon’s status as an object of social science illustrates some of the different ways in which specific places come to play a synecdochical role of one form or other in shaping images of the social.

mouldingsMichael Harloe’s Town in Transition, published in 1975, is the most important contribution of ‘Swindon Studies’ to urban theory more generally, I think it’s fair to say. Harloe had worked for the Borough during the town’s expansion in the late 1960s, and the book was one product of the Centre for Environmental Studies, the think tank that served an important medium for spatial thinking in the 1960s and 1970s whose alumni included Doreen Massey (somebody should really be writing a geneaology of the institutional worlds that generated spatial thought in this period). Harloe’s book is a fantastic account of the politics of post-war planning, where politics is understood as a matter of compromising, lobbying, building alliances, strategising across scales. Intellectually, the book stands at the cusp of the theoretical transformation of urban studies in the 1970s (not least through the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, of which Harloe was a founding editor in 1977) – there is not much trace of the sorts of Marxist political economy or state theory in it, but that’s OK, it has weathered well precisely because of its resolutely organisational and strategic sense of the political.

screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-13-00-09By the 1980s, Swindon had become one of the places used to make sense of the reconfiguration of cities and regions, centres and peripheries, that was a central focus of intellectual debate in the so-called ‘spatialization’ of social science that was inaugurated by the theoretical transformations that are not yet evident in Town in Transition (it is of course slap-bang in the middle of the then much-talked about high-tech, ‘sunbelt’ ‘M4 Corridor’). Swindon was the site for one of the locality studies funded under the ESRC’s Changing Urban and Regional System initiative (which was originally conceived and proposed by Doreen Massey). In this guise, it was made into the test-case for assessing whether theories of “growth coalitions“, originally developed in the context of North American urban politics and policy, could be usefully applied in the UK (the answer was ‘sort of’, in so far as Swindon might once have had something like a stable, consensual civic coalition promoting expansion and diversification through to the 1980s, but then it didn’t). Then, in 1997, Swindon was presented as the very epitome of ‘the city for twenty-first century‘, in a book that gathers together and synthesises the findings of a succession of ESRC projects on the town and the region of which it is part (the 20ish year gap between the Harloe book and the Boddy et al book in 1997 suggests that the next book-length academic study of Swindon is due to be written just about now….). More interestingly, perhaps, Phil Pinch used Swindon as one model of ‘ordinary places‘ (the other one was Reading), places that presented challenges to the tendency of radical political theory to take rather special places as the models for general claims about political possibilities. More recently, Sophie Bowlby chose Swindon as the site for her research on the changing nature of women’s friendship networks across the lifecourse because of its typicality (she told me that when I bumped into on a train from Paddington, as you do). And in the research of Linda McDowell and her colleagues on the intersections of class, ethnicity, masculinity and labour market dynamics in the UK, Swindon again functions as an interestingly ordinary place (compared to Luton, these days), one which they use, amongst other things, to complicate narratives of politics and anti-politics.

It should also be said that all of these examples of social science research on Swindon are pursued by academics based in other places – in places like Reading, Oxford, or Bristol, University towns all of them, of different sorts. Swindon still struggles to build any significant higher education presence of its own (it’s surpassed by Luton in that respect). But perhaps this has something to do with why Swindon gets to be the place where you can learn about the value of ordinary things.

In fact, when you take the trouble to look at the social science about Swindon, you begin to see that it might have a small claim to be the exemplary ordinary place, if such a thing makes sense. But you can also see Swindon as an example of the different ways in which places are figured in social science (of the different forms of ‘geographical reasoning’ to which life-in-places is subjected) – sometimes the town is seen as representative of wider trends and patterns (in this sense, Swindon gets to be what Luton was for social science in the 1960s), even “a starkly exaggerated example” of national trends; sometimes it is framed in comparison with, or even counterpoint to other places (this is how Harloe presents the lessons of the ‘local’ and ‘national’ politics of Swindon’s growth); sometimes as the focus of forms of conjunctural analysis (as in the locality studies research). These don’t quite exhaust the ways in place and/or the local get framed in social analysis, but they do cover three important versions – if you had the time and inclination, you could even imagine writing a piece in which “Swindon Studies’ gets to enact the different conceptual operations through which geographical specificity is translated into theoretical generality. Mind you, I’m not saying ‘It all comes together in Swindon’. It doesn’t (in fact, in more ways than one, a lot of ‘it’ just passes by).

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 Refugees: New book in Routledge Research in Place, Space and Politics Series

urI’m delighted that the first book in the Routledge Research in Place, Space and Politics Series has just been published – Urban Refugees: Challenges in Protection, Services and Policy, edited by Koichi Koizumi and Gerhard Hoffstaedter. Congratulations to the editors and all the contributors.

As Series Editor, I’ll also take this opportunity to remind anyone out there with a book idea, a half-finished book manuscript, or an edited collection in mind, to consider the series as a possible outlet – further details here. Do let me know if you have any questions about the series. Forthcoming titles in the Series include books that address a range of issues including ‘the commons’, migration and radical autonomy, and popular geopolitics; and beyond that, books addressing the politics of theatre, psychological governance, political street art, and the politics of architecture.

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.

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.   

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!