Some 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.
“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.”
The 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
Just noticed a new blog by Mark Purcell, Path to the Possible, on issues of urbanism, politics, democracy. Mark is author of Recapturing Democracy, one of the few books I can think of in geography/urban studies that engages in detail with democratic theory. I was on the ‘author-meets-critics’ panel for this book at the Annual Meeting of the AAG in Boston in 2008, the only time I have done one of these. I remember thinking how weird it must be to have to sit through other people picking holes in one’s work in such detail. I now have to sit through one of these on a book of my own in a month or so, so what goes around comes around I guess.