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Durham University

Urban Worlds

Colin McFarlane Review

The papers from Andy Merrifield, Stuart Elden and Simon Marvin developed a wide-ranging set of ideas and prompted a rich set of discussions, and as discussant Gordon MacLeod did an excellent job of prompting important questions. Here, I want to post just a few immediate reactions to a stimulating afternoon. The audio recordings posted here don’t include the discussions, so I’ll try to flag up a couple of issues emerging from those. I’ll quickly mention two issues in particular: the discussion around the right to the city (this was brief, but it’s clearly important here), and the discussion around the style of theorising.

Right to the city?

Some of the discussion we had briefly touched on what the analytic shift from city to urban - if we believe that it is meaningful to talk about such a shift - means for the political slogan of ‘right to the city’. If we are talking about a shift from the city as a historical formation to the urban as the dominant analytic category of urban research, then is this also a shift - as David Harvey has asked in Rebel Cities - from the slogan of the ‘right to the city’ to the question of the right to urban life, or to the more general question of the right to the production of space? For example, Andy Merrifield (2012a: 279) argues that the stakes for the new protests (such as Occupy) are not the city per se, 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”.

In contrast, it is interesting that in the closing discussions of Rebel Cities, Harvey turns to examples of revolutionary urbanism that are city-based in character (El Alto in Bolivia in the early 2000s, for instance). Harvey shows how particular cities - in this case El Alto - can become key sites in protests against neoliberal states. What made El Alto important in the struggle was not just the alliances between well-organised neighbourhood organisations, sector-based movements (e.g. informal street traders), and more conventional unions (of which the schoolteachers union was particularly important), but also the city’s popular culture articulated through a shared sense of identity, solidarity, and political radicalism (expressed in festivals for instance). Harvey’s question here is not ‘how to organise urban society?’, but ‘how to organise a city?’. He takes El Alto, amongst other examples, as sites that might inspire movements elsewhere, and that might also enter into global networks of revolutionary cities - “imagine”, writes Harvey (2012: 153), “a league of socialist cities much as the Hanseatic League of old became the network that nourished the powers of merchant capitalism”. It is in this context that Harvey sees the ‘right to the city’ as a “way-station” on the way to “a broader revolutionary movement” (2012: xviii).

Behind this debate is, of course, an enduring question for critical research and radical politics: how to conceive and structure the connections between explicitly localised urban struggles that are aimed at particular municipalities and/or national states, with struggles that have more explicitly global objectives? It’s clearly important here not to impose a conceptual and political dichotomy between the ‘right to the (local?) city’ on the one hand and the ‘right to (global?) urban society’ on the other, or for that matter between ‘city’ and ‘urban’. As Andy Merrifield made clear, a more important question is how to put slogans like ‘right to the city’ or the ‘right to urban life’ to work intellectually and politically. Merrifield’s focus on the ‘politics of the encounter’ offers a useful route forward here in that it addresses how urban radical politics emerges as a simultaneous product of both local contention (e.g. occupying urban space) and global outreach and connection.

A key challenge here is around the kinds of conceptual and political grammar we use for thinking through different forms of political connection. Here, as Stuart Elden argued in his talk, we need to think carefully about the conception of ‘territory’, and in particular to keep in mind how the relations between urban, world and territory operate as ongoing processes rather than fixed categories or outputs that can be made to link-up in straightforward ways. So, for example, we might consider how different radical movements themselves territorialise urban space - and urban worlds - as a key part of their political struggles, including tactics of occupation to acts of blockade, and perhaps even more distanciated connections through online and offline exchanges. The alliances to be made are not just between predominantly local movements and predominantly global movements, but between different ways of producing the territories in urban political struggle.

A worldly urban theory?

A different point that came up in discussion after the presentations was around the style of theorising at work in the papers. One question of several that emerged here was: if a worldly urbanism needs a worldy theory, then how do we produce theory remotely adequate to the global diversity of urban life? There was a brief conversation about the place of the postcolonial imperative here. How might we think the relations between urban and world in a context where critical urbanists have been struggling in various ways to (a) think across divides of global North and South, (b) take account of the diversity as well as the connections across cities in the world, and (c) draw more explicitly on efforts to theorise urban life that emerge from different parts of the world and from different theory cultures? This is particularly challenging when we consider that 1 in 3 urbanites live in some form of informal settlement, or the fact that African and Asian cities have too often registered in scholarship as somehow apart from the world, or as failed and incomplete examples of something else (Mbembe and Nuttall, 2004).

There are clearly different ways into theorising the relations between urban and world - not necessarily better or worse, but different. For example, a (broadly cast) postcolonial approach to theorising urban worlds might seek to use urban diversity as a way of critiquing and rethinking some of the categories we might use to theorise urban worlds - categories like urban policy, planning, gentrification, or informality. For example, 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” (and see Robinson, 2006). This might entail, for instance, comparing an urban process in different parts of the global North and South, working through how this processes operates on the ground in different places, and then considering the process again from this globally comparative standpoint. In a fascinating departure to all this, Simon Marvin’s paper pushes this point still further and asks us to consider how urban theory might respond not just to a worldy urbanism, but to an increasingly important off-world urbanism that is supported by very real efforts to inaugurate a post-global urban political economy and ecology.

Colin McFarlane


Harvey, D. (2012) Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso.

Mbembe, A. and Nuttall, S. (2004) ‘Writing the World from an African Metropolis’. Public Culture, 16.3, pp. 347-372.

Merrifield, A. (2012a) ‘The politics of the encounter and the urbanization of the world’. City, 16:3, 269-283.

Merrifield, A. (2012b) ‘The urban question under planetary urbanization’. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, forthcoming.

Parnell, S. and Robinson, J. (2012) ‘(Re)theorising cities from the global South: looking beyond neoliberalism’. Urban Geography, 33:4, 593-617.

Robinson, J. (2006) Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development, London: Routledge, 2006.