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Durham University

Urban Worlds

Thinking Urban Worlds Workshop Archive

5th December 2012, 1:00pm - 3.30pm

With the majority of humans on the planet now residing in towns and cities, it is de rigueur for commentators to describe the world as ‘urban’; to herald an ‘urban revolution’ and proclaim cities as the triumphal spaces that ‘make us human’ (cf. Brugmann, 2009; Glaeser, 2011). Even in places that are not visibly urban, it would seem that urbanism - as a set of political, economic, cultural and symbolic forces - is often identified to be fundamental in the organisation of geography and everyday life. These are big claims begging searching questions for researchers of Geography and Urban Studies. And in this regard, it is to be welcomed that the relations between ‘urban’ and ‘world’ (or ‘planet’ or ‘globe’) have become a primary focus for critical urban research in recent years. For example, and to invoke the extraordinarily prophetic thinking of Lefebvre (2003), how far do the uneven networks through which urbanism increasing spreads across the globe signal a new kind of fragmented ‘urban society’? If the world is indeed increasingly urban - its form stretching, sprawling, colonising - can we still talk about ‘a city’ as a distinctive territorial entity (Amin and Thrift, 2002)? What now, in such a context, does it mean to be ‘urban’? And what do we signify by ‘world’ - the world ‘out there’, a space for accumulating wealth, the world as a set of political or symbolic ideas, or something else?

An ‘urban world’ also raises crucial questions about the nature and practice of politics. For quite some time now, the image of an urbanised world has become integral to many projects of neoliberal globalisation (e.g. Sassen, 1991, 2002). From an alternative angle, Doreen Massey (2007) identifies ‘world cities’ like London to form significant ‘home-bases’ in the organisation of globalisation. Important here is not just how cities configure globalisation, but how globally oriented aspirations come to configure the city. In their recent edited book, Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, Ananya Roy and Aiwha Ong (2011) critically examine the astonishing preoccupation on the part of politico-corporate elites to materially and symbolically create the next ‘world class city’. ‘Worlding’, in Roy and Ong’s account, operates as a multiple form of enclosure; a seizing by capital and elites of land, resources, and bodies; of possible urban futures, and of what urbanity might come to mean and look like throughout the twenty-first century. Not that the debate on the fostering of an urban world focuses exclusively on wealth and capital accumulation among elites. Indeed there has been an increasing focus on the production of what has become termed ‘urban informality’ or informal urbanism; revealing how one in three urban inhabitants now live in some form of informal neighbourhood. And, crucially, patterns of rural-urban migration mean that the urbanisation of informality is occurring at a far greater rate than of cities more generally (e.g. Burdett and Sudjic, 2011, Neuwirth, 2006; Davis, 2006). Mike Davis’s (2006) highly influential book, Planet of Slums, interprets such spaces to be warehousing a super-exploited proletariat lacking basic infrastructure and services and as victims of state abandonment or ‘treason’. Without wishing to romanticise the brutality and grinding poverty of such spaces, others identify potential sources of recuperative economic cooperation, recursive political empowerment and insurgent politics (Pieterse, 2008; Brugmann, 2009).

But against these backdrops, contemporary urbanism is also often seen as a space of potential for a different kind of urbanism. Some doubt whether it is even anymore possible to imagine revolution that would not first and foremost be an urban revolution, and point to the Arab Spring, Occupy and Indignados as cases in point. ‘Urban’, in Andy Merrifield’s (2012) description, is both a place and an immanence that promises to become something else. Recalling Lefebvre, Merrifield (2012a: 279) argues that the stakes for the new protests (such as Occupy) are not the city, but a "contemporary planetary urban society" that both enables these forms of protest through online and offline connections, and that orientates itself to the world by foregrounding “citizens in front of the whole wide world” (and see Merrifield, 2012b). What alternative forms of urban world-forming, or mondialisation (a term used in different ways by Lefebvre, Nancy Axelos, and Derrida, amongst others - see Elden, 2008; Madden, 2012), might be developed and from what sources?

Alongside these debates, there is also a vibrant debate about the potential worlding of urban theory and knowledge itself. Jenny Robinson and Sue Parnell (2012: 494) have recently argued that “in a world of globalising cities, we need a greater range of theoretical initiatives to interpret processes of urbanisation - and we certainly need to diversify the starting points for developing our understandings of contemporary cities”. They caution against conceptual approaches that are mobilised from highly visible contexts in the global North to places in the global South, where the work of local scholars is often marginalised. For example, Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall (2004: 348) have argued that African cities often register in scholarship as somehow apart from the world, or as failed and incomplete examples of something else. What they allude to is a broader project of building what Roy and Ong (2011) have recently termed a ‘global metropolitan studies’ that creates a more horizontal dialogue between urban debates and traditions of research in different parts of the world (see Robinson, 2006, and, for a related discussion, see Spivak’s (2003) invocation of ‘planet’ over ‘world’ and ‘globe’ as a basis for imagining a new kind of scholarship).

In this afternoon workshop, the speakers will, in quite different ways, critically reflect on the relationship between 'world' (or 'planet' or ‘globe’) and 'urban'. The aim of the workshop is to think expansively about the different ways in which we might think, write, research and contest the relations between urban and world. Speakers will have 20 minutes each, and the presentations will be followed by discussion.