Petrified ruin: Chernobyl, Pripyat and the death of the city

Excerpt from Paul Dobraszczyk

On the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, the ongoing crisis of Fukushima’s reactor breakdown has raised questions worldwide about the desirability of nuclear power, those questions are already fading. At the same time it is apparent that the research into the impact of the social, biological and ecological dimensions of  ‘Chernobyl’ has not been searching enough and that we have not really grasped the full implications of what knowledge there is. When the supposed “process of modernisation” itself is what threatens to ruin our cities (and ecosystems) – what can dystopias (real or imagined) teach us about loss, rejuvenation and the possibilities for a better future?

View along a first-floor corridor in one of Pripyat's former schools. Source: Author.

View along a first-floor corridor in one of Pripyat's former schools. Source: Author.

The city has always been haunted by representations of its own ruin, whether brought about by external forces—earthquake, fire, war, disease—or by internal processes, such as moral corruption, overpopulation or social strife (Berman, 1996, 1). In the modern era—that of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation—such fears took on renewed force, when the modernising process itself threatened to turn the physical and social fabric of the city to ruins (2). Today, in the light of rampant growth, social segregation, environmental threats, and wars and terrorists that deliberately target urban areas, cities are increasingly viewed as sites of ruination, fear and decay, rather than progress and growth (Graham, 2004, 3). Coupled with a century or more of apocalyptic visions of ruined cities in literature and cinema and a recent emphasis on realistic visions of urban destruction in many post-apocalyptic films and computer games, the links between real and imagined ruination are becoming increasingly blurred (Davis, 2002, 4). On the one hand, the imagination of disaster offers an escape from confrontation with the ‘inconceivable terror’ of annihilation (Sontag, 1965, 5); on the other, it provides a means by which the incommensurable can be linked with the concrete—a way of coming to terms with overwhelming ruin, (6). If we are to imagine the death of our cities, how might their possible ruin be represented in a way that helps us adequately respond to that very possibility?

I explore this question through an experience of a particular place: the site of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, which I visited in October 2007 through a tourist agency in Kiev. The facts about Chernobyl are well known: early in the morning of 26 April 1986, a series of explosions destroyed the building and reactor number four of the Chernobyl nuclear station. The enormous quantities of radioactive material that were released contaminated vast geographical areas from Greece to Sweden.3 A 30-kilometre exclusion zone was set up around the site and the vast majority of inhabitants, including the 49,000 people that lived in the purpose-built town of Pripyat, were evacuated. Today, people are slowly returning to villages and farms in the zone, but Pripyat still stands empty.

My visit was a hybrid form of tourism: self-organised with a friend and employing, through a Kiev travel agency, a driver/guide who worked at the site. Consisting of both strict guidance—to the destroyed reactor—and free exploration—in the ruined town of Pripyat—the visit incorporated elements of both dark tourism and urban exploration. As one former visitor has argued, Chernobyl is not a right place for tourism because it is not yet a historical site, rather ‘a place of tragedy still’ (Wall, 2004, 7). My uncomfortable sense of being a voyeur onto an ongoing catastrophe led to a long period of reflection and research after the visit that would eventually result in this paper. Through descriptions of my own visit to the decaying buildings in Pripyat, I relate my experience to recent evaluations of the significance of industrial ruin and to the ‘voices’ of those who once lived there. Throughout, I use my own images—in this case, photographs—as a way of elucidating how I am representing the experience, and I relate these to wider representations of the site. Finally, I explore the place of Chernobyl and Pripyat in the context of wider representations of the ruined city, particularly those in film. Within the cinematic iconography of apocalypse, the ruined city is an enduring motif, whether pictured in an imagined future, distant past or apocalyptic present. I assess the nature of representations of urban apocalypse from the 19th century onwards, suggesting that they were, and still are, a means by which overwhelming ruin can be appropriated to a comprehensible human scale.

Reactor, model, sarcophagus

The model of the destroyed reactor being explained by Chernobyl's information officer. Source: Author.

"If architectural models normally present a building as constructed or imagined so, this model displays the very reverse: a constructive rendering of past destruction that is now, and will always be, hidden from view." The model of the destroyed reactor being explained by Chernobyl's information officer. Source: Author.

Detail of the model showing the destroyed reactor (b) and the improvised methods of salvage—wooden palettes holding up a ceiling (c). Source: Author.

Detail of the model showing the destroyed reactor (b) and the improvised methods of salvage—wooden palettes holding up a ceiling (c). Source: Author.

This model of ruin is also counterbalanced by the present status of the reactor as monument or sarcophagus, as it is commonly known. In order for the safe decay of the huge quantities of radioactive material inside the reactor, a protective structure will need to be in place for 10,000 years.

This sarcophagus currently consists of giant slabs of concrete mounted in haste by robots and helicopters in the months after the accident. Gaps have opened up in the walls and the roof is not fixed down, being simply laid on the top of the walls (Alexievich, 1999, 8). The danger of collapse has led to a new ‘final solution’ being put forward to house the sarcophagus, a 20,000-ton steel arch to be built over the existing structure (Riebeek, 2003, 9).

The reactor sarcophagus has become a primary symbol of the accident for those still living with its consequences. Given its name by the Soviet president Gorbachev and his government officials shortly after construction had began, the name resonated with the Soviet Union’s most famous precedent, the sarcophagus which houses the body of Lenin in the Moscow Kremlin. According to Adriana Petryna, this symbolic association was intended to incite, in the face of the Chernobyl disaster, ‘a sense of physical, moral, and spiritual rejuvenation within the Soviet population’ (1995, 10). However, the improvised and unsafe nature of the reactor sarcophagus undermined this lofty symbolism in that it failed to ‘fulfil its role as a foolproof container of that which is dead, ruined, and still dangerous’ (Phillips, 2004, 11). In fact, the literal meaning of the word sarcophagus in ancient Greek—a kind of stone that consumed the flesh of corpses laid in it—has come to be more directly associated with post-Chernobyl symbolism.

Heartbreaking accounts of dying workers involved in the construction of the sarcophagus and the suffering of the ‘children of Chernobyl’ were ways in which survivors articulated the incomprehensible effects of the accident (Phillips, 2004, pp. 167-169; Alexievich, 1999). For Chernobyl’s witnesses, the body sensed and directly experienced what the mind could not know; the sarcophagus was not a closed space as was supposed because it had already poisoned ‘everything within and without it’ (Alexievich, 1999, p. 20).


A broken strip light hangs from the ceiling in the first-floor level of a former supermarket in Pripyat. Source: Author.

A broken strip light hangs from the ceiling in the first-floor level of a former supermarket in Pripyat. Source: Author.

The strange mixing up of conventional notions of ruin and monument that emerge from experiencing the Chernobyl sarcophagus are further complicated by the ruined town of Pripyat, one kilometre north-west of the reactor. Founded in 1970 to house construction workers and staff of the Chernobyl power plant, it was known officially as ‘atomograd’, that is, the town of atomic scientists and workers. Pripyat was planned as an exemplary socialist town, based on the modernist blueprint of high-rise standardised blocks of apartments broken up by wide boulevards and vegetation, and uniformly angled streets to reduce traffic congestion (12). Pripyat represents the realisation of the utopian modernist city within a Soviet context: its population matched the communist ideal of 50,000 (Bater, 1989, 13) and it was equipped with model public facilities, including the luxury Polissya hotel, a palace of culture, theatre and cinema, 20 educational establishments, a state-of-the-art swimming pool and sports centre, two stadiums and an amusement park, due to open just days after the accident. Such was the model status of Pripyat that it became one of the most prosperous towns in the Ukraine and was frequently visited by Soviet town planners and government officials. Yet, as with the reactor nearby, Pripyat’s model status is now ironic: its crumbling buildings and empty streets are set against the now eternal reactor sarcophagus, seen from every rooftop of the town’s buildings (Figure).

Children's toys left on the chair of a rusting carousel in the amusement park in Pripyat, due to open just four days after the accident on 26 April 1986. Source: Author.

Children's toys left on the chair of a rusting carousel in the amusement park in Pripyat, due to open just four days after the accident on 26 April 1986. Source: Author.

The recognition of human loss in the remains of Pripyat serves to highlight the problematic nature of representing ruins. Ever since John Ruskin attacked Victorian picturesque images of ruin as indulging a delight that suspended any human implications, images of ruins have run the risk of obscuring the human loss that is always part of their story (Ruskin, 1904, 14). In particular, photographs of ruin have played a significant role in the ideology of war and its resultant destruction: from the political use of photographs from both sides in the American Civil War in the 1860s, to images of ruined buildings in Berlin after the Second World War, which served as ‘perpetual warnings against militarism’ to its peacetime citizens (Roth, 1997, 15). By fixing ruins in photographic images, we might think that we are merely documenting or capturing forms in space, but photographs always, in some sense, frame and represent ruin in order to create a distance between viewers and the events to which the photographs bear witness (Merewether, 1997, 16).

Gynaecological chair and gas mask in the grounds of the former hospital in Pripyat. Source: Author.

Gynaecological chair and gas mask in the grounds of the former hospital in Pripyat. Source: Author.

As if speaking through the children’s toys left on Pripyat’s rusting carousel (above), a former resident, Nikolai Fomich Kalugin, stated that ‘[w]e had lost more than a city, we had lost an entire life’. After being evacuated from Pripyat and being forced to leave all belongings behind, he returned to his apartment two years later to retrieve the front door, which was, for him a ‘talisman’, ‘[a] family relic. My father was laid out on that door … Our whole life is written on that door. How could I leave it?’ He would later lay his own daughter on the same door, a victim of radiation sickness caused by the accident (Alexievich, 1999, pp. 32-33). For another former resident, who was born and grew up in Pripyat, the loss was incomprehensible: ‘[h]ow can you believe what you can’t understand? No matter how hard you try, you can’t understand it. I remember so well: we left, and the sky was so blue’ (Alexievich, 1999, p. 86). This account stresses the powerlessness of existing ways of thinking to comprehend and represent the effects of the disaster.

For Pripyat’s former residents, in response to their incomprehension, everyday objects and memories were invested with an almost cosmic significance around which the loss of an entire world could be articulated. In this context, the ruins of Pripyat became a testament not only to the violence of systematic looting which robbed these witnesses of precious sources of memory, but also to the collapse of shared values and the social cohesion they engendered. Before the accident, Pripyat’s residents were a collective community provided with model Soviet facilities; afterwards, they were re-housed in European-style suburbs, where ‘there was a new, unusual feeling, an awareness that each of us had his own individual life’ that generated an all-encompassing sense of confusion and loss (Alexievich, 1999, p. 131).

Ruined cities, dystopian representations

Soviet socialist paintings stored in a room in the former palace of culture in Pripyat. Source: Author.

Soviet socialist paintings stored in a room in the former palace of culture in Pripyat. Source: Author.

Photographs of Pripyat’s ruins can be framed within the wider context of a long history of dystopian and post-apocalyptic representations of civilisation and its cities. Since the rise of the modern industrial city in the 19th century, visions of its ruin have functioned as a counter-current to the dominant discourse of progress and improvement (Williams, 2008, 17). Originating in Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (1826), the ruined city has become a standard trope within literary and particularly filmic post-apocalyptic visions. Cinematic imagery of future urban ruin was initially centred on critiques of social segregation, with Metropolis (1926) drawing heavily on 19th-century literary visions of violent class conflict overwhelming the industrial city. After the unprecedented urban destruction of the Second World War and the advent of the Cold War, this filmic apocalyptic imagery focused more on the threat of nuclear annihilation. As Mick Broderick has demonstrated, from the 1950s to the early 1990s, cinema has presented a rich variety of representations of urban ruin: semi-documentary films picturing preparation for nuclear war and its survival, such as The War Game (1965); actual experience of nuclear war in the city and its horrifying effects, such as Threads (1985); and post-apocalyptic visions of survival long after a nuclear war, such as Planet of the Apes (1968), The Road Warrior (1981) and Delicatessen (1990). Since Broderick’s survey, the Cold War has ended and the perceived nuclear threat receded; yet, contemporary warnings about catastrophic climate change and international terrorism have informed a raft of recent post-apocalyptic films that draw on sophisticated computer-generated special effects that blur the boundary between reality and fiction. The ‘real-time’ destruction by extraterrestrials and the earth’s natural forces seen in films like The War of the Worlds (2005) and 2012 (2009), respectively, mirrors that seen in everyday television images of ruins created by the technology of modern warfare and terrorism, with the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in 2001 offering a conflagration of spectacular imagery of ruin played to millions in ‘real time’ (Davis, 2002, pp. 4-6; Smith, 2006, 18).

Poster for the film (2005).

Poster for the film (2005).

Until recently, the ruins of Pripyat have remained off-limits for filmmakers due to their contamination, and remain so for films that require extensive time spent on site. Yet, only two days were required in 2004 for the shooting of Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (2005), a film universally derided on its release, that features a colony of zombies introduced into Chernobyl’s zone, battled by human visitors (Macnab, 2004, 19, 20). More celebrated uses of Pripyat’s spaces are seen in recent award-winning computer games: both S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl (2007) and its sequels Clear Sky (2008) and Call of Pripyat (2009) are set in Chernobyl’s zone in 2011, merging Tarkovsky’s science fiction with authentic photographs of Pripyat to create a landscape of ‘wonder and death’ in which the game player battles with mutant zombies and other monsters before a final confrontation with something more fatal and threatening at the centre of the zone (21).

Even more so than films, computer games demonstrate the blurring of the actual and the virtual (Graham, 2004, p. 190). In these games the spaces of Pripyat, although constructed from real photographs, function as a kind of stage set, subjugated to an atmosphere of eerie mystery and constant danger. With their origins in cyberpunk in 1980s America, these games attach zero value to the human consequences of Pripyat’s ruin; instead, post-apocalyptic ruin becomes a playground for dreams of escape (Sponsler, 1993, 22).

The reactor sarcophagus as seen from the roof terrace of the Polyssia hotel in Pripyat. Source: Author.

The reactor sarcophagus as seen from the roof terrace of the Polyssia hotel in Pripyat. Source: Author.

Pripyat has been dubbed by one commentator the ‘modern Pompeii’ (Todkill, 2001, 23) and the sense of it being frozen in time suggests an uncanny effect similar to that described by Freud and realised in post-apocalyptic cinema. As Dylan Trigg has argued, the uncanny sense of emptiness that results from contemplating modern industrial ruins like Pripyat is quite different from the feelings generated by ruins that are deliberately preserved for posterity: rather the very formlessness of industrial ruins overpowers the onlooker’s ability to make sense of them, creating instead a sensation of ‘vertiginousness’ (Trigg, 2006, 24). Experiencing at first hand the ruined spaces of Pripyat is at once both familiar and alienating: on the ground one is drawn into the familiar—the supermarket, the apartment, the hotel, the hospital, the school—but disorientated by the unfamiliar, oppressive emptiness. With its insistent visual reminders of human loss, the direct experience of Pripyat impedes the observer’s ability to obtain the distance necessary for aesthetic appreciation, therefore limiting the power of photography or other means of representation. Rather, the ruined city becomes part of the observer, continually frustrating and overwhelming any attempts to resolve or understand its spaces. Pripyat is uncanny because it is a familiar place in which one feels homeless—helpless in the face of forces beyond one’s understanding. It is this sense of helplessness that links the experience of Pripyat with our present-day concerns about the possible future ruin of our cities, whether forced upon us by climate change or other hostile forces. Experiencing a petrified city like Pripyat challenges any attempt to create a safe distance from the incomprehension that goes with this experience, the resultant sense of helplessness mirroring current anxieties about the uncertain future of our own cities. In this context, helplessness may then be conceived as a positive, life-enhancing response to the inevitable and even, according to Richard Sennett, a quality of being that stimulates an enhanced awareness of others (1994, 25). If the voices of Chernobyl and Pripyat are to speak to us clearly, they must do so through the ruin that bears witness to them, and through the pain that defines their own continuing helplessness and the solidarity created when that pain is acknowledged and shared—’our only capital’ according to one witness (Alexievich, 1999, p. 111). In this sense, ruins become the foundation on which to build the future.

See full article here.
Paul Dobraszczyk is a postdoctoral research fellow undertaking the AHRC-funded project ‘Designing Information for Everyday Life, 1815-1914’. He is in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading, 2 Earley Gate, Whiteknights, Reading RG6 6AU, UK.


  1. Berman, M. Crow, D. (ed) (1996) Falling towers: city life after urbicide. Geography and Identity: Exploring and Living Geopolitics of Identity pp. 172-192. Maisonneuve Press , Washington, DC
  2. The notion of urban modernisation as ruinous was given its most powerful expression in Walter Benjamin’s unfinished study The Arcades Project, assembled from 1927 to 1940 and translated into English in 1999 by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  3. Graham, S. (2004) Postmortem city: towards an urban geopolitics. City 8: (2) , pp. 165-196.
  4. Davis, M. (2002) Dead Cities and other Tales The New Press , New York
  5. Sontag, S. (1965) The imagination of disaster. Against Interpretation Vintage , London
  6. Adrian Atkinson has explored the possible ruin of metropolitan life in some detail in City in his trilogy of articles ‘Cities after Oil’ (11(2), 11(3) and 12(1)). Like Atkinson I ask how we might ‘face the truth’ of what to many is still an unacceptable prospect (Atkinson, 2007, p. 294)
  7. Wall, I. (2004) Postcard from hell. The Guardian
  8. Alexievich, S. Bouis, A. (ed) (1999) Voices from Chernobyl: Chronicle of the Future Aurum Press , London
  9. Riebeek, H. (2003) A new coffin for Chernobyl. Spectrum, IEEE 40: (3) , pp. 30-31.
  10. Petryna, A. (1995) Sarcophagus: Chernobyl in historical light. Cultural Anthropology 10: (2) , pp. 196-220.
  11. Phillips, S. (2004) Chernobyl’s sixth sense: the symbolism of an ever-present awareness. Anthropology and Humanism 29, pp. 159-185.
  12. See for a history and description of the town based on architectural studies of Pripyat, published in 1984-85, and unpublished materials from the files of Nikolai Leontiev, a city planning engineer and former resident of Pripyat
  13. Bater, J. (1989) The Soviet Scene: A Geographical Perspective Edward Arnold , London
  14. Ruskin, J. (1904) Modern Painters , Volume IV, George Allen, London
  15. Roth, M. Roth, M. , Lyons, C. and Merewether, C. (eds) (1997) Irresistible decay: ruins reclaimed. Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed pp. 1-23. Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities , Los Angeles
  16. Merewether, C. Roth, M. , Lyons, C. and Merewether, C. (eds) (1997) Traces of loss. Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed pp. 25-40. Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities , Los Angeles
  17. Williams, R. (2008) Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination MIT Press , Cambridge, MA
  18. Smith, T. (2006) The Architecture of Aftermath University of Chicago Press , Chicago
  19. Macnab, G. (2004) Hollywood zombies hit Chernobyl. The Guardian
  20. See for a full synopsis of the film.
  21. Freud, S. (1956) Delusion and Dream, and other Essays Beacon Press , Boston
  22. Sponsler, C. (1993) Beyond the ruins: the geopolitics of urban decay and cybernetic play. Science-Fiction Studies 20 , pp. 251-265.
  23. Todkill, A. (2001) Overexposure: the Chernobyl photographs of David McMillan. CMAJ 164: (11) , pp. 1604-1605.
  24. Trigg, D. (2006) The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason Peter Lang , New York
  25. Sennett, R. (1994) Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization Faber , London and Boston

UK: Students (and others) continue to mobilize against the cuts

by Celine Kuklowsky

The huge protest in London last month gave a glimpse of hope as people came out to protest.

On Saturday 26 March, hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of London against the government’s austerity measures. Students made up a large contingent of the demo with universities, colleges and schools in attendance from all over the UK.

London 26 March, protest against the cuts; Photo: Steve Punter on Flickr,

London 26 March, protest against the cuts; Photo: Steve Punter on Flickr,

Many credit the students for leading the way in the current fight back against the cuts, which now involves numerous unions and community anti-cuts groups around the country.

It all began last October with the unveiling of the Browne Review, the document that spelled out the coalition government’s education agenda. The severity of the cuts combined with the broken election promise of the LibDems to not raise tuition fees, were the spark that ignited the fire. Students hit the streets in droves to protest the trebling of tuition fees, the slashing of teaching budgets by 80%, the elimination of the EMA for low-income students, and the end of government funding for the arts and humanities.

Protests, walkouts, and teach-outs happened on a weekly basis around the country, while dozens of occupations opened in universities and even schools. On November 24, 2010, over 50,000 people marched in the streets of London to defend higher education.

London 26 March, protest against the cuts; Photo: georgecathcart on Flickr,

London 26 March, protest against the cuts; Photo: georgecathcart on Flickr,

Since then, the student movement has continued in different shapes and in varying numbers. Teachers and lecturers have been striking this month and have been crucial in supporting the struggle. Thanks to the police’s systematic kettling of students for hours on end, the shape of the movement has taken on new forms, with more direct action and improvised marches taking place.

Many of the demos have become less about following an assigned and pre-approved route, and more about taking over the streets of London, blocking traffic, sitting down in major intersections and occupying various shops along the way, such as Top Shop, Vodaphone or Barclays.

Kettled crowd; Photo: bobalicious, on Flickr,

Kettled crowd; Photo: bobalicious, on Flickr,

These actions disrupt “business-as-usual” in the city, stop the kettling and brutal policing techniques used against us over the past few months, and effectively transform the police into traffic controllers who try to maintain calm and order for disrupted vehicles.

London, 26 March protest against the cuts; Photo: bobaliciouslondon, on Flickr,

London, 26 March protest against the cuts; Photo: bobaliciouslondon, on Flickr,

At the same time, occupying stores of known tax evaders as well as bailed-out banks, invites passers-by to join in (and they do!) and raises awareness on the ideological nature of the cuts. Our struggle to defend higher education is inextricably linked with the government’s priorities to privatize entire swathes of the public sector and bail out the rich.

The focus of the movement has also broadened over time. While our priorities remain based on education cuts and job losses, we are concerned about all of the cuts and on the kind of world we’re entering. In many ways this is a struggle for another society. The various university occupations have been amazing embodiments of other kinds of societies in which decisions are made collectively, skills and knowledge are shared, and community and creativity are key.

There have been some victories along the way.

While the policy to raise tuition fees was voted, it only passed by 21 votes, with many MPs abstaining and rebelling against the vote. Additionally, the government has announced it will continue to pay EMA next year for those students currently receiving it.

Finally, thanks to UK Uncut – which granted does not only involve students – the government is now looking into tax evasions.

But there is a long way to go as universities all over the country announce they will be charging up to £9000 a year for undergraduates and as teaching and research budgets are being slashed.

Photo: ucloccupation, on Flickr,

Photo: ucloccupation, on Flickr,

The question now of course, is what next?

It remains to be seen if the Saturday 26 March demo was large enough and exciting enough to inspire more people to join the students and others in fighting back against the cuts. Only time will tell if, as the French saying goes, “what the parliament does, the streets can undo.”

CITY panel session @ AAG 2011: ‘1477 City! Progressive Urban Praxis Now’

Next week the CITY-led panel session on the first day of the 2011 meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Seattle, USA, will look deeper at the relationship between urban theory and praxis, in regard to interventions to secure social and ecological justice in Cities.

Panel Session:

1477 City! Progressive Urban Praxis Now
is scheduled on Tuesday, 4/12/2011, from 12:40 PM – 2:20 PM in Cedar Room – Sheraton Hotel, Second Floor

Urban Geography Specialty Group
Sharon Meagher – The University of Scranton
Sharon Meagher – The University of Scranton

Bjoern Surborg – University of British Columbia
Sharon Meagher – The University of Scranton
Warren Magnusson – Department of Political Science, University of Victoria
Bob Catterall – Editor in Chief, City:  analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action
Antonios Vradis – London School of Economics

Session Description: CITY is a journal that works to bring activists and academics into dialogue on the full range of issues that we face in the contemporary urban world. We record and analyse ‘the city’, cities and their futures, and urbanization from multiple perspectives including: the information and digital revolutions, war and imperialism, neoliberalism and gentrification, environment and sustainability, resistance and social movements, regeneration, resurgence and revanchism, race, class and gender, multi-culturalism and post-colonialism.

The premise of the journal is that these issues can only be addressed by employing the critical theory of multiple disciplines and by encouraging and soliciting active dialogue between a wide range of academics and practitioners.  As such, the editorial board is composed of planners, practitioners, activists, scholars, and scholar-activists whose work is informed by a not only geography but by other social sciences as well as philosophy, literature, and the arts.

In this panel discussion, we want to facilitate discussion and reflection on the complexity of the relationship between urban theory and practice.  Moreover, what kind of theoretical and practical work needs to be undertaken to understand and intervene in these crises to create more socially and ecologically just urban futures?  A multidisciplinary panel will discuss how they struggle with these questions in their own research and practice.  We also welcome discussion from the audience on how we might move forward with this work in the pages of CITY as well as in urban space and spaces of urbanization.

Panelists include Bob Catterall, CITY Editor-in-chief.

El Inmigrante, Joel BergnerSee also:
“Reclaim the City? Yes! But for whom, and for what purpose?”

– a follow up the CITY-led panel session at the 2007 AAG in San Francisco, by Björn Surborg
– featuring the street murel artwork of Joel Bergner, El Inmigrante (read more about his work here!)

Contemplating the post-fossil fuel world

by Adrian Atkinson

Adrian Atkinson writes from Tblisi about the end of oil, the post-fossil fuel future and our options for sustainable food production.

Market in Tblisi; Photo:

Market in Tblisi; Photo:

Here are some immediate reactions from where I happen to be these weeks, to seeing and ruminating on the piece out of my 2006 ‘Cities after Oil 1’ currently floating on the CITY web site, together with the the wonderful pictures of the Baku oil wasteland – just 500 Km from where I am writing this note – from where can I see the long trains of black poison passing through every few hours, making their way from Baku to the Black Sea for export to points west, as they have done since the railway line through Georgia was opened in the late 19th century.

My ruminations are constantly around two things: What to do to ameliorate problems in the next few years as

1. Energy supplies decline and the food crisis, etc., grows (the world just crossed the billion mark in terms of people who go to bed hungry) and at the other end,

2. That ‘modern civilisation’ = fossil fuel, and as this declines, where will we end up?

In Europe – and above all the US – there is no notion of a stable civilisation from whence modernity took off two hundred plus years ago, with the start of the exploitation of coal. As I have written again and again in the pages of CITY and elsewhere but seem never to have any response on: the notion of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ is a peculiar – even bizarre – notion of the human predicament, that we seem entirely unable to see it objectively for what it is: an idea, eventually, inevitably fatal, around which ‘we occidentals’ structure our lives, and have eventually, pied piper like, brought the rest of the world to see the same way. Temporarily.

Elsewhere in the world, until the rest of its people were bludgeoned and otherwise swept up into the maelstrom of occidental progress and development, life was always a matter of trying to live well with a particular (cultural) idea of what this meant, without any open-ended idea of change.

Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

And so a return to post-fossil fuel culture is just par for the course with regard to the twists and turns of civilisation over the past few thousand years.  I see this particularly clearly from where I sit now, in Georgia – where the Argonauts found the Golden Fleece and where there has been a good enough life when foreign marauding forces left the population in peace – which hasn’t unfortunately been too often.

We can see at least 2,000 years of a modest civilisation (pleasing architecture, fine handicrafts and other arts, good food and wine – which the Georgians invented: what more do you want?) to which ‘after oil’ they can (thankfully?) return!

So what am I doing in Georgia? In brief, I am assisting, with EC funding (‘development work’), in improving the functioning of the metropolitan area of Tbilisi.  This has various dimensions but the main theme just emerging, and which I am pushing hard, is food supply for the city.

There is as yet only a vague idea that soon the global food crisis will wash over them, tsunami like, as it is already doing elsewhere. At present most of the food eaten in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, rolls in in an endless stream of giant trucks from Turkey and Armenia – much of it actually produced by multi-nationals who use these countries as places to process and package food (the ingredients being sourced globally) for distribution throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia. This is actually absurd in that there is rich agricultural land in the immediate surroundings of Tbilisi that used to supply food to Leningrad (where nowadays large numbers of citizens grow their own in the gardens of their dachas…) but since the collapse of the Soviet Union – and reinforced by the embargo on Georgian imports by Russia since the ‘South Ossetia’ war – much of the land is simply left idle.

Market in Tblisi, Georgia; Photo: Linda Roodenburg,

Market in Tblisi, Georgia; Photo: Linda Roodenburg,

So off we go:  before the crisis really sets in, let’s get the Tbilisi sub-regional agriculture going again (“Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture – UPA”).

Whilst, as everywhere, the post-oil collapse of the global economy will be traumatic, nevertheless, the people of Tbilisi (unlike the citizens of the overcrowded United Kingdom) can, in terms of resources, weather the loss of fossil fuels. In fact they already had a trial run in the late 1990s when they were three years with oil and petroleum lines cut off and minimal electricity from hydro-electric plants in the surrounding mountains – not uncommonly walking up to 18 floors of Soviet-built apartment blocks twice a day with babies and shopping in the cold and the dark…

So they have experience of the future already. Getting organic UPA off the ground before the global food system truly collapses might therefore deemed to be a good idea…

As a final rumination let me expostulate that I find it extraordinary how little reaction there is to what I write on these issues or, much more seriously, the continuing stone-walling of the emerging situation about which, it seems, everyone is aware.  It is taken entirely as a gathering storm that we will have to weather as it strikes, with absolutely NO contemplation (most devastatingly amongst ‘thinking people’) of what to do as the situation unfolds in five, ten, twenty, fifty years from now. There is on the media almost daily talk of the incipiently rising oil price, with an unspoken but suggested expectation that it will imminently go through the roof implying that the world will then fall down upon our heads, and that’s it. Weird!

The Urbal Fix: creating truly sustainable cities

Excerpt from Tom Bliss

With the fast approaching collapse of modern civilization in the face of climate change and resource depletion, cities are both at the root of the problem and offer the seed of change: as sites of size and relative autonomy, where citizens can mobilize without politicians who remain gridlocked at national and global levels… The Urbal Fix is about how we can transform our cities now – when it is more urgent than ever.

Tom Bliss, 'The Urbal Fix' 2010

Tom Bliss, 'The Urbal Fix' 2010

“The environmental, economic and social challenges faced by cities in the 21st century have thrown up a plethora of potential ‘green’ solutions—Sustainable Urbanism, Green Infrastructure, Ecological Urbanism—the list goes on, while definitions dance on the head of a pin—and nothing much happens. So why ever would we need yet another concept?

“Well, those ideas, like most meretricious neo-liberal planning theories from the 20th century, are the private fiefdoms of ‘experts’, and thus impenetrable and irrelevant to those who actually make and run our cities; we citizens.  Yet today, as the dangling trident of resource depletion, economic collapse and climate crisis lurches ever lower, it’s becoming plain that major mitigatory and adaptive change is urgently necessary—and that this will demand proactive engagement by everyone, from the Lord Mayor to the Man Who Sweeps the Street.  So what’s needed is not yet more academic theory, but a simple, robust, effective and above all holistic strategy, which can be instantly understood, believed in and prioritised—by everyone.”

The Urbal Fix

The Urbal Fix, title screen; Tom Bliss, 2010

The Urbal Fix, title screen; Tom Bliss, 2010

“The Urbal Fix ( is a film that aims to provide a starting point for such a movement (Figure 2). It targets cities (with Leeds as case study) as being both the root of the problem and, potentially, the seed of the solution—because their size and relative autonomy allows movement at a time when governments are stalled by global deadlock and a confused electorate, while community initiatives struggle to make progress in isolation. The title expresses that strategy in the simplest possible way, by coining a new baggage-free name.

“It may be true that few citizens will be familiar with the technical portmanteau ‘Rurban’ (the bleeding of unsustainable urban consumerism into a formerly healthy rural resource)—but the very briefest of explanations soon fixes that. And Rurban’s polar opposite, Urbal, must surely describe the essence of the only sensible alternative: a reversal of the condition through the injection of countryside, and many of its traditional values and activities, into the heart of our cities.

“Ergo; The Urbal Fix. It is germane that the word Urbal first emerged at a Leeds University seminar by CITY‘s Editor-in-chief, Bob Catterall, on “Cities for People not for Profit”. It was Bob’s incisive exploration of rurbanism (about which he has written extensively; Catterall 2008, 1) in a context of ‘urbanisation’, climate change, cities after oil (see the Adrian Atkinson’s article on this topic) and other pressing imperatives which suggested the reversal, and I am also hugely grateful for his support throughout the development of the Urbal concept.”

Tom Bliss’ documentary film, which should be watched in its entirety to achieve its full effect, addresses its aim through the following sub-sections: Problems; Options; Theory; Solutions; and Action. Under Problems, he deals with Climate Change, Peak Resources (both peak oil, and exhaustion of rare earth and other minerals), Overshoot (how unfettered consumption is about to fatally damage the earth’s carrying capacity), Economic Growth and Work.

The problem with Economic Growth

Overshoot Theory

Overshoot Theory: how unfettered consumption will fatally damage the earth’s carrying capacity

“The root of the problems of climate change, resource depletion and unsustainability is, as Paul Chatterton explains, growth: ‘The problem with a growth-based economic system is that it’s based on the ceaseless demand for new goods which creates more and more production which creates more and more consumption. And that consumption is base[d] on our constant desire for novelty and newness. So we’ve had debt bubbles emerge, easy credit has led to more consumption. More consumption has led to more production, more production leads to more consumption. The banks lend more money because people are buying more. So we see this virtuous cycle of growth between debt, credit, production and consumption. All that leads to is more CO2 and more global warming…”

“…Essentially, the way a steady-state economy differs from a high-growth economy is that there is much less throughput of natural materials. So what we have is a zero-waste economy where all the waste produced from different parts of the economic system are put back into that economic system, which reduces the environmental impact on various ecosystems, but it also reduces basic things like landfill and pollution.

“One of the things we’re up against is the whole idea of work. We’re all obsessed with the world of work, we all produce more things, but one of the things we have to realise is if we’re going to create a genuinely humane economy, then we actually have to do less. One of the big things that people are trying to push at the moment is the idea of a 21 hour week. If we work 3 days a week, essentially 21 hours, we’d be all much happier, there would be less unemployment because we could share the work, and we’d have a more humane work/life balance… Less time doing paid work will mean more time for barter-based earning, food growing, sustainable travel, exercise and community activity. If we add to that a tax system which turns unsustainable products into sought-after luxuries (rather than trying to ban them altogether), plus a new focus on home working and local employment to reduce commuting, we could see major changes happening quite quickly.”

Sustainable Cities

What are the key ingredients of a truly sustainable city?  Contributors to The Urbal Fix suggest the following:

City farming

City farming

The localisation of food production (specially a reduction in lorry miles), resilience of food supply, education (specially re home-grown food), the regaining of soil health and the localisation of water supplies, de-restricting access to land, the maximisation of productivity (including in roofs, walls, etc.) through the accumulation of passive and renewable energy (ergo food, solar, wind, biosequestration, etc.), the prioritisation of health and well-being via active travel and green space promotion, the establishment of a comprehensive low-impact transport network, the retrofit of existing housing with insulation and other carbon-reduction features, and the establishment of new democratic processes based around social justice and equity. And all of this within a cyclical, steady-state, low-impact economic system.

It goes without saying that those priorities are not going to be easy to achieve in a city—but they might just be viable in a small market town. So perhaps one approach might be to view cities as if they were a group of market towns. It sounds fanciful, but there’s one theoretical model which does exactly that, and it can accommodate most of our priorities because it dates from a time before cars, when even large cities fed themselves from the local countryside.

Ebenezer Howard’s 19th century vision of social garden cities

Ebenezer Howard

Ebenezer Howard

The story then shifts to Letchworth, the first town to be built, partially at least, to principles invented by the Victorian visionary Ebenezer Howard (1989, 2).

Sir Peter Hall (President, Town and Country Planning Association) explains: “I think the time has come for a fundamental re-examination of Howard’s ideas and those of his contemporaries.” Howard’s plan was to internalise the Victorian externalities of slum, smoke and disease by attracting people to what he called the town-country—(an Urbal concept if ever there was one), so that the old cities would die and could then be reborn. His green field Utopia had three main elements (see Figure 1.).

Hall explains: “one was a physical concept; building a self-contained garden city which would contain homes and jobs together, surrounded by generous green open space. It was to be built at reasonably high densities, but interspersed with very large amounts of public open space, particularly around the town centre, and a broad midway park. He even included a circular shopping mall within easy walking distance for everyone.”

Ebenezer Howard's vision of a garden city, 1898

Ebenezer Howard's vision of a garden city, 1898

“Also; playing and recreation areas, especially for children. Everyone could get to work, shops, school and all kinds of recreation within a few minutes walk. And finally, the town was to own the green belt around it, which was to be managed not merely for agriculture, but for a wide variety of social purposes.’

But the Garden City was only one part of Howard’s invention. Hall continues, “he envisaged that if the Garden City was successful and there was a need for extension, then another garden city would be started and then another and another, and they’d be linked into what he called the Social City (see Figure 2).

“There was one very important social element to all this; each city was to be a self-governing commonwealth. Over time, the rents would pay back the investors, and thereafter would fund a local welfare state.

Ebenezer Howard's vision of social cities, 1898

Ebenezer Howard's vision of social cities, 1898

“In the famous diagram of the three magnets, there are a couple of words at the bottom, which people probably think is sort of decorative rhetoric; “Freedom, Co-operation”. But they weren’t decorative or rhetoric, they really meant something important: That the citizens would have total freedom to control their own city, not merely democratically, but economically—through a co-operative system. However, Howard essentially failed in his central mission. Although Letchworth and Welwyn are glorious monuments, they failed in their central purpose of creating this co-operative commonwealth. And the reason was; the industrialists who were bankrolling him struck a very hard bargain.”

In other words, the economic model was defeated by demand for capital growth. But that couldn’t happen in a steady-state economy, so the economic model may still be valid. But how relevant is the spatial model today?

Well, if we compare the Social City with, say, Leeds, we note that they’re about the same size. But Howard was catering for just 250,000, while Leeds has a population of nearly 780,000—so presumably there’s no way we can feed everybody from within the city limits, as Howard hoped to do. Not so, say architects Viljoen and Bohn (2008, 3).

Continuous productive urban landscapes

CPULs stands for Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes. It’s a green landscape that you can walk without interruption from one end of the city to the other, and it’s productive in terms of environmental, social and economic productivity.Katrin Bohn (Architect, Author CPULs)

Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes, Source: Bohn & Viljoen Architects.

Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes, Source: Bohn & Viljoen Architects.

The linking of green spaces is key. First, the CPULs change the city from one urban zone, punctured by pockets of green, into a number of separate urbal ecosystems, each with the best possible access, for both wildlife and humans, to green corridors. Thus each sector starts to function not unlike one of Howard’s Garden Cities. But just as importantly, CPULs connect right through to the countryside. This not only allows both wildlife and humans to migrate into, through and out of the city (essential for ecological services, biodiversity and public recreation), but it also provides an essential psychological fix: even in the most built-up area you’re only ever a step away from the countryside.

Professor Robert Tregay (Landscape Architect, LDA Design and University of Wales) explains: “historically the open space agenda in cities was to do with amenity and recreation, and to some extent, access. This is now broadening. Energy will be significant and water will be significant. I think we have to add to this, food. Open spaces in cities have to be owned by their communities. Not necessarily literally, but certainly mentally. To do that they have to be productive—and food’s going to be a key part of that.”

Edible towns

Leeds, with its spokes of multifunctional green space already running into the centre, is a soft candidate for road-testing this productive theory. The challenge will be to introduce low-impact food production without compromising other priorities. But there are more places to do that than you might think: windowsills, back yards, front yards, gardens, unused public open space, development sites, school grounds, the grounds of other buildings, community gardens, allotment sites, rooftops, walls, railway embankments, leftover spaces, traffic roundabouts, brownfield sites, parts of public parks—but of course this is not only about home-grown veg. There will be commercial market gardens and new types of horticulture and agriculture too. So bearing that in mind, how much of a city can we realistically hope to feed with CPULs?

Todmorden public garden, UK

Todmorden public garden, UK; Photo:

“We confirmed our calculations several times. If you use just the existing open space in a contemporary British city, then you can feed about 30% of the population their fruit and vegetable requirements” says Bohn.

Tregay adds “we all know how much food contributes to global warming, it’s substantial, so a city that produces its own food not only has the benefits in terms of its carbon profile, it benefits the way people contribute to the management of their own spaces. So instead of food-related jobs happening somewhere else, they’re on your doorstep. The internalising of city economies is very very important, and food’s definitely part of that.”

There is, of course, a precedent for all this. When the collapse of the Soviet Union cut the supply lines to Cuba’s huge oil-dependent farms, the country faced starvation. But within a few years, new small organic farms, and pocket-sized urban market gardens, were feeding the population—and providing healthy, local, co-operative employment (Alagiah, 2010, 4). So, it can be done.

Given that urbal production needs to be low impact, the documentary moves on to look at Permaculture (Mollinson, 1991, 5), biodiversity corridors, the concepts of walking zones/active travel, and transport (cycling, semi-powered and fully electric vehicles), point-of-use renewable power including local sustainable biofuels, vertical wind turbines and local river schemes such as Settle Hydro; and also sustainable Urban Drainage, which, says Bliss “being about localised water control and supply—is effectively the lifeblood of Urbalism.” In the sub-section Action – Bliss covers the steps and political processes that will need to be engaged in, in order to bring the Urbal Fix into reality. While trying to inspire change with his film, Bliss adds in his article on a realistic note, about Utopia that “this time, for the first time ever, it’s not about altruism or ideals. It’s about survival—in a very grim reality.”

See full article here.

Tom Bliss, MA, is a landscape architect, musician and filmmaker. He lives in Leeds. His film The Urbal Fix is available at


Pennine town of Todmorden aka “Incredible Edible Todmorden”, West Yorks, UK – where a pioneering team are successfully growing help-yourself vegetables in the high street—with no major security, pollution or vandalism problems. The organiser confirms that the project could work at city scale.

Meanwood Valley Urban Farm – where they teach urban veg production, and Harehills, where one lady feeds her family from a tiny front yard. We hear about the health benefits of gardening, and the importance of temporary allotment schemes for both productivity and connectivity reasons.


  1. Catterall, B. (2008) Is it all coming together? Thoughts on urban studies and the present crisis: ‘No Country for Old Men’ — or Women? 12: (2) , pp. 275-276
  2. Howard, E. (1898) Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform/Garden Cities of Tomorrow Faber and Faber , London
  3. Viljoen, A. and Bohn, K. (2008) CPULs Continuous Production Urban Landscapes Architectural Press/Elsevier , Oxford
  4. Alagiah, G. (2010) Future of Food — BBC2 Documentary
  5. Mollinson, B. (1991) Introduction to Permaculture Tagari , Tyalguml, Australia

London protest against the cuts: a momentous time for mobilization

by Andrea Gibbons

It’s a momentous time to live in the UK, is it not? We face an all-out war against the welfare state and the poor, but hundreds of thousands of people marched on Saturday to stop the government cuts. It was massive and brilliant and beautiful, and just the beginning of what is to come.

We also had the world’s best, most anatomically correct Trojan horse, labelled hilariously as the ‘TUC armed wing’; 26 March 2011 London protests against the cuts.

We also had the world’s best, most anatomically correct Trojan horse, labelled hilariously as the ‘TUC armed wing’; 26 March 2011 London protests against the cuts.

After moving to London to do my PhD, I hadn’t realized just how much I missed being anchored in community struggle the way I always was when I was an organizer and researcher at SAJE. It was like finding family when I found Lambeth Save Our Services: an umbrella organization of unions, community groups and residents working against the cuts. There are more theories, opinions and ideas in that meeting room than any classroom, and it always spills out in radical fervour afterwards; little else could hold me in a pub until 3 am quite so regularly. It is the fact that we are all working together that keeps these brilliant, though often fractious conversations and relationships going. The fact that we are all working together also makes possible the dialectic of theory and practice.

Working together isn’t always easy of course. We called for a South London feeder march together with Southwark SOS, and Lewisham Anticuts Alliance; it was supported by BARAC, Colacor, South London union branches, pensioners, teachers, No Cuts for Kids and more, who I apologise to for not listing because there were too many for me track. The TUC disowned the feeder marches of course, and there was some last minute wrangling over route. Some democratic process questions definitely need to be addressed in the next meeting or two, but none of that mattered in the end because the march itself was stunning. It shut down the street and took Westminster Bridge. The police estimated we had over 5,000 people so you know there were more.

Some brilliant and gifted people had changed the billboards en route; this is one that they transformed into a giant bust card:

Crossing the bridge we could see the hundreds of thousands of people already on route to Hyde Park:

I found myself with COLACOR (Latin American Colation Against the Cuts) for much of the way. At the other end of my banner was a compañero from the Latin American Workers’ Association, and originator of my favourite chant of the day: Esto no es marcha, esto es protesta, carajo! (roughly “this is not a march, it is a protest damn it”). My friend Paris took this shot from a low wall just as we merged into the main march after crossing the bridge:

And we happily merged alongside a full brass band:

There was in fact too much life and colour and brilliance to photograph really, especially given the press of people and the need to keep moving. I remember the fire brigade from the Isle of Wight with their big drum standing on a traffic island and waving, and a handful of massive guys wearing Robin Hood hats. I saw banner after banner from all over the UK, each more beautifully decorated than the last and I confess, we’ve got nothing to touch them in the States. This is one of my favourite shots of the day:

I know the official estimates on numbers but don’t really believe them; this is what Picadilly looked like around maybe 3:30 pm (the march started at 12):

After a short rest in Hyde Park (where we succeeded in not hearing a single Labour speech) we continued on to meet up with the Bakerloo branch of the RMT in the pub (what better way to end a march than pints with the RMT?). We passed the marchers continuing to pour in, among them, somewhere, my colleagues from LSE, UCL and UCU. The march was so big we never managed to meet up with the Education Bloc as I’d hoped. It must have been around 5pm when I took this picture, and people are still arriving:

I made it up to Oxford Street as well of course, getting there just too late for UK Uncut‘s action against Topshop sadly, though I enjoyed the aftermath:

I found all of Central London an amazing and very surreal place, almost empty but for a handful of confused shoppers, protesters, and riot police. Given tens of thousands of job cuts, with more being announced every day, it was good to see that it was not business as usual.

I left too early for the occupation of Fortnum and Masons. There’s been a lot of rubbish written about that already I’m afraid, but here is the footage that shows the police telling protesters they’d be peacefully allowed to leave before arresting them, and more from inside the protest. For (ironic) laughs and perspective here’s a great off-the-cuff pie chart from David Vannen showing the reality behind the press claims about the arrests of ‘violent offenders’:

An even better perspective is the quote from Boris Johnson’s autobiography on his Bullingdon Club days: “We got drunk, trashed the Ritz & then went down Piccadilly to loot a few items from Fortnums”. Or so says twitter.

I did see the Starbucks get completely smashed up on Picadilly, heard about the banks and the hotels. The reactions to ‘The Violence’ have been varied, and horribly played up and channeled into the absurd binary of ‘for or against’ by the media. I hesitate in mentioning it at all as I can’t quite decide whether it deserves much more attention (of the thoughtful kind), or no attention at all.

…the violence really at issue here is that of the government against the people.

I personally think the violence really at issue here is that of the government against the people. It’s in every job cut and every service lost, and the job cuts run into the tens of thousands. For those of us with personal experience of the immense pain that comes from lay offs and the destruction they can cause to people’s sense of self, their families, and their communities… there is no way to stand by and do nothing. And the loss of community and the quality of our everyday lives represented by the closing of libraries, day centres for the elderly, playgrounds, after-school clubs? Dismantling the welfare state is nothing if not intensely violent.

I don’t rate marches much in the big scheme of actual and concrete change, not until they get to the size we have been seeing in Tahrir Square. London didn’t quite pull that off, but the local anticuts groups in London and around the country had been doing amazing work, and definitely played a part in Saturday’s success.

In Lambeth, of course, we occupied our town hall in February, and it was brilliant. Ruth was elected to preside over the voting in the People’s Assembly that we convened after our Labour council had fled the chamber, and we voted down a budget that will destroy everything we have fought to build since World War II.

My report written the next day was one of my absolute favourite pieces and entirely joyful, especially since we ran into half of the council out getting drunk in the Brixton Bar and Grill much much later that same evening. It’s on the Lambeth Save Our Services website.

The Haringey Alliance for Public Services occupied their town hall within the next few days, and it was attempted in other places. In fact there has been a rash of occupations both in the Universities and in the community, though the crack down has begun (find out more about what you can do to support the UCL 13 currently in proceedings here). The London borough groups have started meeting en masse to plan larger actions, and Lambeth SOS? We will be there fighting every cut as it happens, every community struggle as it unfolds (the Justice for Smiley Culture campaign is an incredibly important one), and supporting each and every one of the industrial actions that will be coming thick and fast. This march was a show of strength and a source of inspiration, and we are ready to take it forward.

Will it be enough to win? I don’t know. I don’t really run on hope, and certainly believe in collectively creating as clear and as informed an assessment as possible of what we face and our options in overcoming it. That’s definitely not a hopeful picture in the current political and environmental climate. I find though, that in the midst of struggle you can’t help but set cynicism aside, as it gets you nowhere. In putting theory into action I don’t think you find hope exactly, rather you find the will to fight, and you find strength in fighting together.

I’m definitely looking forward to the next few months.

Urbanism as nothing: speculative redevelopment versus conservation

Excerpt from Maroš Krivý

Speculative redevelopment and conservation are problematically similar creating architecture both as a sign of itself, and a signifier of this process

Figure 1. 'Nothing' at the place of the former Gumon factory (photo: author).

Figure 1. 'Nothing' at the place of the former Gumon factory (photo: author).

Late in the afternoon of 29 August 2008—on the eve of a public holiday—a demolition squad set about tearing down the Bakelite pressing plant Gumon in Bratislava.

Gumon was built in 1911 as one of the first plants of its kind. It started to produce Bakelite in 1915, that is, only eight years after the material, which has been glorified by the infamous Trabant cars and GDR’s wave of nostalgia, had been invented by Leo Baekeland. However, since inhabitants of the surrounding area complained about the unbearable smell, the production of Bakelite ceased soon after. The factory later produced wiring system materials. After the holidays and on the first day of the school year, people that were stuck in a morning traffic jam on the busy intersection could see nothing (Figure 1). On the spot of the former pressing plant, there was nothing but a hole. As of now, the plans are to construct a multifunctional complex with two skyscrapers, which will undoubtedly inscribe itself onto the city’s skyline.

Figure 2. 'Nothing' at the place of the former Gumon factory (photo: author).

Figure 2. 'Nothing' at the place of the former Gumon factory (photo: author).

There is a surprising unanimity between activists and a concerned public with regard to their description of buildings as historical monuments as a strategy to prevent their demolition. In case such activity is successful, it can have a positive immediate effect of resisting the logic of land speculation. Yet, my question is: what does it mean when a hated or a simply ignored building suddenly becomes an object of cathexis and a receptacle for collective emotional investment?

Whereas the disliked Bakelite has risen to its own museum (1), the hot list of architectural objects treated with sentiments and fetish inclinations is now occupied primarily by disliked factories. These obsolete buildings are caught in a double bind of demolition threats and increasing monumentalization. Although this analysis was inspired by a contemporary urban transformation in Central and Eastern Europe, I aim to analyse the speculative redevelopment and conservation as ‘ideal types’, that is, as two ideo-typical processes that are opposed to each other and intertwined at once. Despite possible simplifications, my interest lies primarily in attempting to decipher the underlying structuring logics of the speculative redevelopment and conservation, as well as of the relationship between the two within the context of a capitalist city.

Speculative redevelopment

The notion of redevelopment describes partial or absolute demolition of the built environment on a specific land parcel that is followed by new construction. It consists of two stages—destruction and development. Redevelopment is the development of a site that had already been developed in the past and was subsequently devalued. When redeveloped, the relative amount of fixed capital on the site increases and the previously built urban land is transformed. Hence, as a rule, it is an obsolete built environment that is redeveloped.

From the point of view of a developer, obsolescence is a state of built environment that does not confirm to its potentially highest rent. A building becomes obsolete when it turns into a barrier of free capital circulation instead of being its vehicle. Hence, obsolescence is relative to changes in overall capital accumulation and to its spatial distribution.

In architecture, the concept of a building contains the idea of the building’s future preservation (2). According to Vitruvius, one of the fundamental properties of architecture is durability, which is based on the strength of the building’s materials and the firmness of its construction (2001, book I, chapter III, 3). Recently, the similar quality in a more urban-based context has been described and analysed as obduracy (Hommels, 2005, 4). Clearly, these qualities cannot be separated from the economic constraints. Decay and obsolescence are not only natural processes, but they are also actively produced by speculative yet systematic termination of preservation and use (5, 6) which then inflates the rent-gap (Harvey, 1982, 7; Smith, 1987, 8; Clark, 1995, 9). The durability rapidly diminishes as we take away the intrinsic activity of preservation implied in the concept of a building.

Ruins of Richmond & Petersburg Railroad depot; Richmond, VA

Ruins of a railroad depot; Richmond, VA

Obsolete buildings or districts do not outlive dynamics of land use and they are not immune to ‘the general development’. On the contrary, their obsolescence and the processes that make the buildings obsolete are a part of that same dynamics of land use and urban redevelopment (Weber, 2002). The nature of the mentioned process is grasped in the term speculation. In fact, something that appears to be a natural change or a result of passivity is an outcome of a complex bundle of ‘active’ investment in land. As described by Haila (1991, p. 348), in speculative development investors continuously seek to maximize the rent revenue. Their activity has a coordinative role; it influences construction and use of urban space.

Why is land valuable? Why does a certain part of the land have a higher value than another part? What is the theoretical justification for the existence of rent, payment for a piece of land, and especially of so-called ground rent, that is, that part of the rent that is made for ‘pure land’? These are the crucial questions that underlie the process of speculative redevelopment. Provided that interest-bearing capital produces value only indirectly by coordinating production, is it possible that the role of rent-bearing capital plays the same role? (Harvey, 1982, 10).

The material condition of land (i.e. the land’s use value) does not justify the existence of rent. Contrary to Ricardo’s claim that rent is a payment for some kind of objective quality inherent to land (‘a free gift of nature’), the particular quality of land should be seen only as a potential basis for rent extraction. The rationale for the existence of rent lies in the circulation of capital and the existing economic relations that transform material property of land into a social value (11). Space is relational from the standpoint of individual producers and consumers. For them, there are always more and less favourable locations. Hence, the value of a location is not absolute. Its value is defined in relation to proximity of (a specific) market and to the multiplicity of points having an equal distance from that market (Harvey, 1982, 12). These relations of proximity and distance are then dependent on the existing states of technology and infrastructure (13) Continuous production and reproduction of central nodes and peripheries is then a consequence of a direct trade-off between changing technology and location advantages in a competitive search for excess profit (14).

Due to massive amounts of capital needed for infrastructure, individual producers can rarely afford to venture there. Precisely, it is state and speculative developers that often provide the necessary capital for spatial coordination. What is traded, in the case of rent (as in the case of an interest), is a claim upon future revenues. It is in this sense that we can talk about the speculative nature of redevelopment. Landowners that treat land as a pure financial asset promote and coerce activities with the highest value production in the future. The higher the amount of capital that circulates through the land, the higher is the influence of landowners-developers on geographical configuration and production of space (Harvey, 1982, 15; 2001, 16; Arrighi, 2004, 17). On one side, it refers to immobile and territorially fixed (embedded) capital that assumes a form of built and social infrastructure. On the other side, it refers to a systematic need to fix the devaluation and crisis (i.e. to postpone its bad effects, to evade recession, to repair it, etc.), which arises from the split between the mobile and immobile parts of capital. Paradoxically, the relative stability of spatial configuration, born as a protection against the threat of devaluation and the attempt to overcome space, becomes itself the barrier to be overcome. When over-accumulated capital cannot be reinvested within the existing territory, it has to seek new possibilities of investment outside this territory (Harvey, 1982, 18). It concerns built environment in specific places or in places of a specific type (in relation to production). Devaluation has a concrete form of abandoned and obsolete buildings.


Battersea Power Station, London

The threat of destruction can create emotional attachment to the threatened object. Disliked buildings are repeatedly invested with affectionate sentiments as soon as their existence is in question. Today, this concerns industrial buildings in particular (Larkham, 1996, 19; Hospers, 2002, 20; Kärki et al., 2006, 21). Civic coalitions and community organizations often publicly voice their concern and protest (e.g. Zukin, 1995, 22) against redevelopment projects that threaten to destroy parts of cities and their architecture. Conservation is a process that opposes demolitions, upgradings and insertions that do not respect the ‘nature’ or ‘style’ of a locality and that negatively affect the supposed integrity of a building or a city district.

Speculative redevelopment and conservation seem to be opposed—while the former is driven by constant change, the latter situates itself against this change. Historically, demands to conserve the existing built environment appeared as a reaction to rapid urban development of early capitalism (Ashworth and Tunbridge, 1994, 23).

Without denying potentially positive functions of conservation, I feel it is important to point out how the resistance of conservationists and the institutionalization of conservation produce the same abstract space against which they are primarily aimed. There is a reactive relationship between the processes of speculative redevelopment and conservation. Every new speculative redevelopment generates a conservative reaction. We can say that conservation is negatively defined by speculative redevelopment. Labelling a building as a landmark or monument can be accepted as a momentary strategy against an immediate threat by speculative destruction. However, in spite of its critical rhetoric against redevelopment, which is apparent both in civic movements and in academic discourse (e.g. Earl, 1996, 24; Larkham, 1996, 25), this does not free us from questioning the very peculiarities and contradictions of the conservationist logic.

On what grounds does conservation justify itself? Peter J. Larkham, an authority on urban conservation, claims that the ‘capitalist imperative runs counter to the set of values based on aesthetic, environmental, non-quantitative criteria’ and therefore, ‘there is a clash of values: land and property exploitation for capital gain versus consideration of art, aesthetic and historical appreciation’ (Larkham, 1996, 26). Even if passing over the questionably simple contrast, there comes a surprise after a few lines. The same author now tells us that one of the major reasons for conservation is that it can be profitable.

In contrast to other social movements, conservationists are driven by the preservation of the status quo. Social movements in the 19th century tried to question the capitalist logic of constant self-revolutionizing. In other words, their criticism tried to question capitalism’s most fundamental principle. The critique of conservationists comes from the other side. It attempts to keep selected parts of the built environment ‘untouched’. Whereas one could still sustain Ruskin’s neo-Gothicism, which opposes cathedrals as places of religious devotion to modern buildings as sites of technological alienation, today’s conservation efforts to save factories and other industrial structures are caught up in a peculiar paradox. Such architectural objects are produced by the same logic that now makes them obsolete, tears them down and thus prepares the new construction of ‘factories’ of a different type.

The problem of the conservationist movements is their paradoxical lack of interest in the historicity of the built structures they struggle to conserve. They do not ask by what kind of social forces old buildings and cities were primarily brought into the world. Architecture is thus not understood as a socio-spatial relation, but as a set of isolated objects. For example, the conservationist logic does not see any contradiction in the incorporation of architectural and urbanistic products of the Haussmannian redevelopments into the list of conserved monuments (Ashworth and Tunbridge, 1994, 27).

‘The architects and builders who created most of the structures, whose antiquity is now valued, had themselves few qualms about obliterating the work of their predecessors. It is ironic that current conservation planning controls would have frustrated the creation of most of the historic buildings they now protect.’ (Ashworth and Tunbridge, 1994, 28)

Conservation is negatively defined by threats posed by redevelopment and thus lacks its own positive agenda. It can be said that conservation and redevelopment are two sides of a coin in their relation to architecture. The way the question of obsolete urban space is framed—that is, speculative redevelopment versus conservation—is already problematic.

See full article here.

Maroš Krivý is a PhD student in the Department of Social Research, Faculty of Social Sciences, at the University of Helsinki, Finland.


  1. In Williton, South-West England, one can visit the world’s only Bakelite Museum.
  2. Certain art works or religious ceremonies, such as the Buddhist Mandala ritual, draw their effect precisely from the negation of such a concept. The laborious construction of a composite mosaic from coloured grains of sand is brought to its own completion with a momentary sweeping gesture by which it is destroyed.
  3. Vitruvius (2001; 15 BC) Ten Books on Architecture Cambridge University Press , Cambridge
  4. Hommels, A. (2005) Studying obduracy in the city: toward a productive fusion between technology studies and urban studies. Science, Technology & Human Values 30: (3) , pp. 323-351.
  5. The most violent examples of this logic are red lining and blockbusting (cf. Smith, M. and LeFaivre, M. London, B. and Palen, J. (eds) (1984) A class analysis of gentrification. Gentrification, Displacement and Neighborhood Revitalization pp. 43-63. State University of New York Press , Albany)
  6. The accelerated obsolescence of objects is usually attributed to fashion and its differential logic (cf. Baudrillard, J. (1981; 1972) For a Critique of the Political Economy of Sign Telos Press, St Louis; p. 49). But in the present case, in particular, fashion is only part of the problem. Instead, we should focus on the question of spatial fix, as will be explained below.
  7. Harvey, D. (1982) The Limits to Capital Basil Blackwell , Oxford
  8. Smith, N. (1987) Gentrification and the rent-gap. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77: (3) , pp. 462-465.
  9. Clark, E. (1995) The rent gap re-examined. Urban Studies Clark, E. (1995) The rent gap re-examined. Urban Studies 32: (9) , pp. 1489-1503.
  10. Harvey, D. (1982) The Limits to Capital Basil Blackwell , Oxford, pp. 331-332
  11. Therefore, the capital and labour invested into land create conditions of production that are similar to those that already exist as a gift of nature somewhere else. But nature’s free gift can be rendered useless if the technological change renders the average price of production cheaper than achievable even with the help of this gift. This is why, for example, the importance of fertility of the soil for the value production decreases under the process of urbanization (cf. Harvey, 1982, pp. 336-337)
  12. Harvey, D. (1982) The Limits to Capital Basil Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 338-339
  13. In this context, it is important to note that the transport industry is productive—it sells ‘change of location’ as a product. Bringing the product to the market belongs to the production process (cf. Harvey, 1982 pp. 338-339).
  14. On emergence and restructuring of complex urban systems, cf. Sassen (2001) The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo Princeton University Press , Princeton, NJ
  15. Harvey, D. (1982) The Limits to Capital Basil Blackwell , Oxford, p. 368). At the same time, the more clear-cut the division between the ownership of fixed and mobile capital, the easier it is for individual producers to flee the increasingly unprofitable spatial configuration. Therefore, technological progress and transforming social conditions make existing infrastructure obsolete. Fixed capital is thus devalued.

    Harvey refers to this problem as the spatial fix (1982, [16. Harvey, D. (1982) The Limits to Capital Basil Blackwell , Oxford, pp. 426-428

  16. Harvey, D. (2001) Spaces of Capital. Towards a Critical Geography Edinburgh University Press , Edinburgh, pp. 284-311
  17. Arrighi, G. (2004) Spatial and other “fixes” of historical capitalism. Journal of World-Systems Research X: (2), pp. 527-539.
  18. Harvey, D. (1982) The Limits to Capital Basil Blackwell , Oxford, p. 430). Capital that cannot flee in the time of crisis suffers devaluation. This devaluation is always place-specific (Harvey, 1982, [20. Harvey, D. (1982) The Limits to Capital Basil Blackwell , Oxford, p. 379
  19. Larkham, P. J. (1996) Conservation and the City Routledge , London, p. 128
  20. Hospers, G. -J. (2002) Industrial heritage tourism and regional restructuring in the European Union. European Planning Studies 10: (3) , pp. 397-404.
  21. Kaumlrki, M. , Immonen, V. and Taavitsainen, J. -P. (2006) Welding theory with tourism: past and present of industrial archaeology in Finland. Industrial Archeology Review 28: (1) , pp. 47-58.
  22. Zukin, S. (1995) The Cultures of Cities Blackwell , Oxford
  23. Ashworth, G. J. and Tunbridge, J. E. (1994) The Tourist-Historic City John Wiley , Chichester
  24. Clark, E. (1995) The rent gap re-examined. Urban Studies 32:(9) , pp. 1489-1503., p. 57
  25. Larkham, P. J. (1996) Conservation and the City Routledge , London
  26. Larkham, P. J. (1996) Conservation and the City Routledge , London, p. 3
  27. Ashworth, G. J. and Tunbridge, J. E. (1994) The Tourist-Historic City John Wiley , Chichester, p. 54
  28. Ashworth, G. J. and Tunbridge, J. E. (1994) The Tourist-Historic City John Wiley , Chichester, p. 9

Re-Wire! Thoughts on urban studies and the present crisis

By Bob Catterall

Are the “places in our cities where most people fear to tread” also places where it is possible to find “ground to stand on”, “indomitable will” and nobility? Is it possible to re-wire and so redeem these abandoned and fractured communities? Would rewiring be enough in a world of austerity on a planet facing rapid fossil fuel depletion and climatic onslaught?

“At best, our metropolises are the ultimate aspiration of community, the repository for every myth and hope of people clinging to the side of the pyramid that is capitalism. At worst, our cities—or those places in our cities where most of us fear to tread—are vessels for the darkest contradictions and most brutal competitions that underlie the way we actually live together, or fail to live together”. (David Simon, 1)

“I was stunned… An affirmation of my presence in the world that would hold me up and give me ground to stand on… I saw behind the seeming despair and emptiness of their lives a force of life, and an indomitable will that linked to their historical precedents became noble in a place where nobility wasn’t supposed to exist”. (August Wilson, 2)

The Wire © Home Box Office, Inc.

The Wire © Home Box Office, Inc.

Hope and brutal competitions. Despair and an indomitable will. Two visions of the poles of contemporary urban and social life, one from the great chronicler of 21st century Baltimore, David Simon, the other from the great chronicler of 20th and 21st century Pittsburgh, August Wilson. Both with a particular take on the blues, one white and the other black. Simon was writing in 2009 after the completion of his chronicle that, to date, culminated in his TV series, The Wire. Wilson was talking of his discovery of the blues long ago in 1956. It is a vision that inspired his chronicle that culminated in 2005 in his play Radio Golf.

Their interpretations seem to overlap but how far do they connect? Are the “places in our cities where most people fear to tread” also places where it is possible to find “ground to stand on”, “indomitable will” and nobility. Is it possible to re-wire and so redeem these abandoned and fractured communities?

The Wire © Home Box Office, Inc.

The Wire © Home Box Office, Inc.

Bringing black people and women (back?) in

It is gospel-blues that supplies the basic musical thread that runs through The Wire (TW), the ‘theme tune’ and words of the song ‘Way Down in the Hole’ (watch here>>) that introduce each episode:

“When you walk through the garden

you gotta watch your back

well I beg your pardon

walk the straight and narrow track

if you walk with Jesus

he’s gonna save your soul

you gotta keep the devil

way down in the hole

he’s got the fire and the fury

at his command

well you don’t have to worry

if you hold on to Jesus hand” (3)

The quoted phrase, “the fire and the fury at [their] command”, takes us into the world of the blues, the discovery of which (in fact a Bessie Smith blues) by August Wilson in 1956 guided and inspired him throughout his cycle of ten plays that explored and re-presented the African-American experience and culture. This is an experience, it has to be emphasised, of having been enslaved, transhipped, unloaded, apparently liberated, partially assimilated and incorporated and/or incarcerated while at the same time building a culture of survival and resistance in which at least four key elements can be identified: a version of Christianity, elements of African religion/culture, an affirmation of the fundamental mutuality of ordinary, non-alienated human existence, and the blues. African-American culture seeks to transcend that experience. It is a culture that sometimes harmoniously, sometimes conflictually, has internal tensions that both enhance and impede its resistance to the dominant ‘American’ order.

On a train going nowhere?

There needs to be much more a sense of the actual lives of people in socio-spatial studies, the need particularly to “bring (back?) women and black people”. But in The Wire women, it would seem, are still not back in, or, least, rarely central, as indeed is the case in a still predominantly patriarchal world. There are points to be made on both sides. As Laura Lippman puts it in her essay, “The Women of The Wire (No, Seriously)”:

“… the full list of women of Wire women is, in fact, long and varied. And while the roster may appear yawningly familiar at first glance—the cop, the prosecutor, the wife, the ex-wife, the mother, the girlfriend, the stripper, the corpse—The Wire‘s writers have provided some welcome subtlety within these archetypes”. (55)

Take the most prominent female, the narcotics detective, Kima Greggs. As Lippman remarks: “Smart, tough, and hard-working, Greggs seemed almost too admirable in the early going – it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Super-Lesbian!” But, as two of several severe shifts in Gregg’s fortunes demonstrate, her life is portrayed as being far from simple.

After recovering from a near fatal shooting it turns out, as Lippman puts it, that “Gregg’s relationships while superficially not as severe as those of her male colleagues, were slowly catching up with her, exacerbated by tensions rooted in temperament, class, and ambition”. In fact, Lippman adds, in the colloquial language characteristic of the book, “Greggs might not have been pussy-whipped, but her partner, Cheryl, sure wanted a house cat” (55).

Kima and McNulty. © Home Box Office, Inc.

Kima and McNulty. © Home Box Office, Inc.

Greggs also reveals later in the series that in her relationship with her work partner, Jim McNulty, the most prominent male in the series, she is no pushover. Though she is generally loyal to him, once he embarks on a course of action that, whatever its intentions, undermines the whole basis of police work, she reports his conduct and tells him that she has done so.

On the criminal side (as politically and legally defined) of the struggle, there is no female with as much autonomy, public and private, as Kima seems to win through to. Here, the dominant elements are the gang and its ‘hood. Whatever camaraderie can be achieved is always potentially under threat. Two rival gangs – one led by Stringer Bell (while Avon Barksdale, the former leader, is in prison) and the other by the appropriately-named Proposition Joe – are able to recognise a basis for at least a minimum level of cooperative existence.

Stringer Bell (left) and Proposition Joe (right). © Home Box Office, Inc.

Stringer Bell (left) and Proposition Joe (right). © Home Box Office, Inc.

Marlo. © Home Box Office, Inc.

Marlo. © Home Box Office, Inc.

However, a new gang, with a young leader, Marlo, seeks total control through extreme violence. With Marlo, to cut short the narrative, no autonomy seems possible.

To return, then, to our questions about the “places in our cities where most people fear to tread”, is it possible to find “ground to stand on”, “indomitable will” and nobility. Around the edges of that world it is sometimes possible. The former drug addict Bubbles painfully, despite major reversals, finds his way through. The former criminal Cutty finds the basis for a new and useful way of life through his gym. The ‘police’ turned teacher would surely approve of Rowland Atkinson’s and David Beer’s Ivorine Tower. And, according to Anthony Bryant’s and Griselda Pollock’s paper (“Where to Bunnys come from? From Hamsterdam to hubris” >>), Bunny, former police Colonel Colvin seems able to find a way. It may be possible, then, to re-wire and so redeem these abandoned and fractured communities?

And yet the artistic impetus of the series suggests that fate will not be kind to David Simon’s people “clinging to the side of the pyramid that is capitalism”. The third season, for example, about the political process and the possibility of reform, ends with Solomon Burke’s cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Fast Train’ accompanying images of “families mending and broken, promises and wreckage” (Jeff Chang).(4) Van Morrison’s fast train is trying “to get way from the past”, going nowhere, “across the desert sand…”. In terms of the two titles Simon Parker has used for this series we have moved from “The City America Left Behind” to “The Urban Desert of the Real”.

“Walk the straight and narrow track”?

“I have a problem with the glorification of a drug dealer and America is fascinated by that world. We’re celebrating the very fucking problem that America has in its hood. But Stringer was no role model. He ruled the people through fear. So it was good that Stringer died’. (Idris Elba, in Busfield and Owen, p.156)”

“Remember, you heard it here—what Edward Gibbon was to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, or Charles Dickens to the smoky mean streets of Victorian London, David Simon is to America today”. (Bill Moyer)

Some of the actors have come out of The Wire with a sense of mission. Idris Elba, who played Stringer, utterly rejects the deep sorrow expressed by fans in reaction to Stringer’s death. Sonja Sohn, who played Kima, has formed, dropping her career for a year, Re-Wire for Change, and works with young unmarried mothers. The journalist Bill Moyer was poised for a moment, it seems, between a diagnosis of David Simon as a Dickensian or Gibbonian chronicler. August Wilson seemed in his last play to be facing the death of the blues and the triumph of the black – with, of course, the white—bourgeoisie with grim distaste. Tom Waits’ passion for “rabid bible-belt evangelists” was/is fed by most jazz which, for him, “conjured up nylon socks and swimming pools and little hurricane lanterns and, you know, clean rooms and new suits.” (5)

Re-Wiring could be a small but worthy step towards a new strategy. What is necessary, though, is to contain and re-build, rather, within a strategy that addresses a world of precipitous austerity for some, and of the self-righteous imposition (dutiful, of course) of austerity by others, and a planet, as we have argued at length in CITY, with even more precipitous prospects of rapid fossil fuel depletion and climatic onslaught.

Download article as pdf here.


  1. Simon, D., Prologue to Alvarez, R, The Wire: Truth be Told, Edinburgh: Canongate (paperback edition) 2010, p.4.
  2. Wilson as quoted by Joan Herrington I Ain’t Sorry for Nothin’ I Done: August Wilson’s Process of Playwriting, New York: Limelight Editions, 1998, p.3.
  3. Tom Waits, ‘Way Down in the Hole’, 5 min. Uploaded by connected365 (16 Feb 2007) (not to be confused with the 2 or 4 minute versions). Permission to quote verses from the lyrics of the song given by Jalma Music with Tom Waits’ approval.
  4. Jeff Chang, liner note in the DVD The Wire… and all the pieces matter. Five Years of Music from The Wire.
  5. Hoskyns, B., quoting from a 1987 interview, Lowside of the Road: A life of Tom Waits, London: Faber (paperback edition), p.337. From this characterisation of most jazz, Waits excepts maybe Monks and Mingus. Bud Powell Miles. (ibid. p. 337).

From The Wire to Hamlet; thoughts on urban studies and the present crisis

By Bob Catterall

As urban tragedies continue, as part of a long historical process, to play out across our world, is it possible that the arts could help us to see and feel what is at stake, and even the need for action? The US TV series (available on DVD) The Wire does, but does the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet? Does its apparent discovery of a hitherto unknown version by Agatha Christie and JM Barrie present us with a hero who is a goof and a tragedy that, far from illuminating our times, is a dead duck?

Ziggy and his duck, from 'The Wire'; © Home Box Office, Inc.

Ziggy and his duck, from 'The Wire'; © Home Box Office, Inc.

“…it has become more and more clear that our world, the world of hands-on blue-collar workers, is shrinking…in many places in America it is almost nonexistent, leaving a void…It is this loss of life and the life and ethic it engendered that has prompted me to write this book. If there is a tragedy here, and I think that there is, it lies in the fact that it did not have to happen…” (Reg Theriault, The Unmaking of the American Working Class) (1)

It is common to suppose that hands-on blue-collar work is coming to an inevitable end in a necessarily globalising world. Only a romantic who has never engaged in hard labour, it is said, could regret the passing of that world. If there is a price, it is the price of progress. And yet Reg Theriault, a ‘fruit-tramp’ (a highly mobile fruit-picker) who went to Berkeley, gave up on university, returned to fruit-tramping, and then became a longshoreman, “spending a third of a century on the San Francisco waterfront”, does not agree. He finds much for (not unqualified) celebration in that work, for “the life and ethic it engendered”. He sees a loss, a void, a tragedy that “did not have to happen.”

Theriault sees a tragedy. Can others, well-informed observers of such a world, come to the same conclusion? If so, what exactly did/does this mourned world consist of, amount to? What/who caused the tragedy? If it has been covered up, in what places and ways has it occurred and is still occurring? What action is and could be taken against such a state of affairs? Is there a case for the restoration of manual work?

The National Theatre's Hamlet (Rory Kinnear) 2011; photo credit: Ela Hawes.

Rory Kinnear in the National Theatre's production of Hamlet. Photo: Ela Hawes.

Some provisional answers are set out here, starting from Theriault’s memoir, making use of Season Two, based on a factive investigation of Baltimore’s port, of The Wire (following our two-part feature on the whole five-season TV series). The notion of goofing, goofiness is explored in relation to one character in the Season. In a brief coda it is traced, in a current production of Hamlet (The National Theatre >>) as an apparently reassuring sign of the times.

The potential liberator in a tragedy is often seen as a hero. In this exploration of work and action some light on the possible nature of such figures is sought through some play with the notion of a goof and of goofing (in their British and North American usage): a stupid or awkward person, a simpleton, a fool, a blunderer: someone who messes around, “wastes time, behaves idly, especially when one should be working“.(2) We find, then, a figure who refuses necessary or heroic action by refusing to work or to work at it. In our coda we turn to an author or director who undermines an apparently heroic figure by fooling around with him and/or her and their context.

The Prince of Goofs

‘[Series two is a] meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class …’ (David Simon, 3)

‘Season Two of The Wire was about the last days of being able to follow in your old man’s footsteps to make a living.’ (Rafael Alvarez, The Wire: Truth be Told, p. 123; 4)

The story seems clear enough. Work has died, killed by a betrayal. With that death goes the loss of male continuities.

Rafael Alvarez, the editor and primary author of The Wire: Truth be Told and a writer for the first three series, has lived that history. His grandfather, an immigrant from the Galician region of Spain, had been a shipyard worker. His father had been a tugboat man. The port, though, has changed:

‘Machines, including robots in some foreign ports, have replaced thick arms and strong backs on the waterfront, moving more cargo more cheaply, yet at great cost in jobs.’ (p. 126)

There is no doubt, returning to Theriault’s memoir, of the physical cost of that work, when it involves moving, for example, cotton bales or steel drums designed with no thought of ordinary human capacities but nor is he in doubt about the importance of work that involves skills, camaraderie, shared relaxation and play at the end of the working day with fellow workers and family. There are patterns here that reflect collective victories, through unionised struggles, that limit the extent of exploitation.

But, returning to The Wire, these patterns are undermined and increasingly reversed by a new economy that includes among its abundance of goods and cargoes an ‘underground’ dimension of drugs, prostitution and organised violence.

While continuing the narrative from Season One of the mainly African-American trade in drugs and its policing. Season Two turns to the Polish community, to the struggles of a union leader Frank Sobotka to sustain his union and community by taking on a role within the underground economy, to the involvement of his family, particularly his son, Ziggy, and his nephew, Nick, and to the attempt of a high and unscrupulously ambitious Polish police officer, Major Stan Valchek, to destroy Sobotka for personal reasons. Controlling the underground economy there is another (apparently?) ethnic group, the Greeks, who seem to represent both the totally unscrupulous and destructive power of global capital and the similarly arbitrary and devastating side of the gods of Greek mythology.

This dual narrative is analysed in a paper by Stephen Lucasi on “networks of affiliation” in Potter and Marshall’s The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television (5) in which he concludes that “Mirroring much of the dominant American discourse of globalization, Season Two seems to present the progress of globalization as an inevitable force against which localities and families have little or no hope of surviving …” (p. 146). Is there anything to contradict Lucasi’s conclusion?

Frank Sobotka, the union leader, meets one dimension of his fate when he is arrested by Valchek (below) and another when, as a threat to their empire, he is executed by the Greeks. He is a tragic figure, a fallen would-be hero destroyed by the nature of the means he has adopted to advance his cause.

Frank Sobotka from 'The Wire'; © Home Box Office, Inc.

Frank Sobotka from 'The Wire'; © Home Box Office, Inc.

Frank’s son, Ziggy, has played the fool throughout Season Two. In one notable incident he brings his newly acquired duck to the bar (top and below) and allows it to drink alcohol, to everyone’s amusement until the bird dies. A contributor to the Guardian Guide, The Wire: Re-Up ‘McNulty Wire’, sees Ziggy’s storyline as an exploration of

“family within the Polish blue collar culture in failing industry in a failing city … Ziggy (ADHD (6) and all) searching for some place in all this but never quite finds it. The best he can do is flash his dick in public, draw attention to himself with a duck and fail to get respect when he does pull off a decent scam (the car thefts).” (p.117)

Ziggy and his duck, from 'The Wire'; © Home Box Office, Inc.

Ziggy and his duck, from 'The Wire'; © Home Box Office, Inc.

We have, then a goof. Simon knew, or knew of, the actual person on whom the character was based. Alvarez, in a chapter ‘Ziggy Sobotka: Angry Prince of Goofs’, that includes discussion with the actor who plays the part, ‘P.J.’ Ransone, ‘local boy’, finds some local explanations: “how hard it is to live in Baltimore. It’s a town of extremely talented and eccentric people who wind up doing nothing” (p.154).

We have a goof, possible explanations, psychological and social, for his goofiness but we have not come across the act of betrayal to which David Simon refers. A brief discussion of a case that is in some ways similar, despite massive differences in time and space, gives further insight into goofiness and possible contexts. It serves here as a coda, an irreverent reading of our times, one that is to be expanded.

Hamlet as a Prince of Goofs? (7)

‘“Denmark is a prison”, Hamlet declares early on, and, if you consider this in terms of contemporary culture, the bars of the cage are defined by advertising, by all the hectic distinctions, brand names, announcements and ads that crowd our waking hours.’ (Michael Almereyda, p.xi; 8)

Hamlet, the uncertain hero of Shakespeare’s play, appears to some to be mad or at least to feign madness. But perhaps he was just a goof, or just goofing? This light-hearted notion emerges from Nicholas Hytner’s drab but well-received production National Theatre production of 2010.

Hamlet has little doubt that his usurping uncle is a villain, so he chalks ‘villain’ on the panels on the interior walls of the palace, has some ‘villain’ teashirts made, and then delivers soliloquies garbed in them (below). This is thought to be very worrying for villains.

Rory Kinnear as Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson.

Rory Kinnear as Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson.

Ruth Negga as Ophelia. Photo: Johan Persson.

Ruth Negga as Ophelia. Photo: Johan Persson.

Despite this, Hytner’s Hamlet is a psychogical thriller with clues that can now be revealed. Ophelia is really a combined lounge lizard and teeny-bopper (below left) but a dangerous one. Ophelia’s drowning was in fact murder. Queen Gertrude was in on the murder. Gertrude’s beautiful speech about her floating down the river was not poetry but a con.

In fact this play is wrongly attributed to Shakespeare rather than to Agatha Christie. The fact that the play within the play is called ‘The Mousetrap’, as is her long-running play, is a clue.

There is another clue that shows that she did not work alone. Hamlet retires to his study-playroom and goofs around in his bed and his trunk (below right). Beside him is what might be an appropriate window offering him the way back to Never-Never-Land. J.M. Barrie is Agatha Christie’s collaborator. Hamlet is, in fact, Peter Pan.

Somewhere in the background the betrayal to which David Simon referred has taken place. Hands-on labour is now permitted only by grave-diggers. But no need to worry. This could only have happened long ago in Eastern Europe, not in a contemporary Western city.(9) Let’s play Villains. Goofiness is all you need!

Rory Kinnear as Hamlet and David Calder as Polonius. Photo: Johan Persson.

Rory Kinnear as Hamlet and David Calder as Polonius. Photo: Johan Persson.

Download article as pdf here.


  1. Theriault, R., The Unmaking of the American Working Class. New York: The New Press 2003
  2. This discussion is based mainly on Chambers Dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers, 2003.
  3. Busfield, S. and Owen, P. (Eds) (2009) The Wire Re-Up. London: Guardianbooks, 2009.
  4. Simon, D. Prologue to Alvarez, R., The Wire: Truth be Told. Edinburgh: Canongate (paperback edition), 2010, p. 4.
  5. Potter, T. and Marshall, C. W. (eds) The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television, London/New York: Continuum, 2009.
  6. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
  7. A full version of this review will be posted in the City website ( in February to coincide with the tour of this production. All the press reviews of the production are in Theatre Record. Vol. xxx. Issue 20, pp. 1128-1134. They are largely unanimous in their praise of the production.
  8. Almereyda, M., Hamlet, New York: Faber and Faber.
  9. Michael Almereyda in his film of Hamlet (2000) shows how the play can be sensitively and dynamically presented in a contemporary city (in this case, New York).

Cities after oil: what future is this, fast approaching?

Excerpt from Adrian Atkinson

Peak oil is happening now – and yet there is still almost no debate over the future of our oil-dependent urban societies.

Edward Burtynsky; 'The end of oil' SOCAR fields, Azerbaijan

Edward Burtynsky. 'The end of oil' - SOCAR Oil Fields #4 Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006; see end for full credit.

On 1st September 2010 the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that a study by the German military expected peak oil to occur in 2010, predicting drastic consequences, including: a “partial or complete failure of markets”, potential “government rationing” to cope with food shortages, and major political and social unrest or even open conflict. On 8 February this year – The Guardian also reported that, according to cables released by Wikileaks from 2007-09, Saudi Arabia could no longer provide enough oil to keep a lid on soaring oil prices; that it had overstated it’s remaining reserves by 40 percent and “badly underestimated the time needed to bring new oil on tap.” This news came as oil prices have surged in recent weeks to more than $100 per barrel. Indeed, The Guardian’s Jeremy Legget could not be far wrong – see his 10 February 2011 article: “Peak oil: We are asleep at the wheel”.  Since at least 2007, CITY has run a series on this crucial topic by Adrian Atkinson, called Cities After Oil. Although Atkinson’s work has received little formal response by a community of academics, professionals and policy-makers somewhat reluctant to face the most defining issue of modern human history – the issue will no doubt force itself upon us… But will we be prepared?

Below is an excerpt from Atkinson’s introduction in CITY to his series Cities After Oil (2007).

Cities after oil

‘The point … is that the real source of unsustainability of our civilisation lies in its extreme and increasing reliance on fossil fuels which, in the coming decades will be declining in availability.’

SOCAR Oil Fields #2 Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006

E. Burtynsky: SOCAR Oil Fields #2 Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006

The idea that our way of life and beyond this the fixation on ‘economic growth’ with a particular structure is ‘unsustainable’ is repeated everywhere, as a kind of incantation. And yet, what this actually means and what it actually would take to overcome this in concrete terms has been lost altogether in a cloud of diminutive, vacuous hopes and actions. Genuinely meaningful action is clearly absent, as evidenced in the empirical indicators of deteriorating environmental conditions and profligate squandering of resources.(1) The evident disregard which our civilisation has for its own future in the face of the increasing certainty that it will collapse in the coming decades is, to the say the least, quite astonishing!

In most media and academic representations of urban changes, the problematic nature of these changes is in large measure obscured.

Over the past two decades CITY and its predecessor, Regenerating Cities, have looked critically at unfolding urbanisation processes and the changing feelings, social relations and in certain respects incoherences (splintering, fragmenting) which characterise these. In most media and academic representations of urban changes, the problematic nature of these changes is in large measure obscured.

In part this is via the bland academic and professional language of researchers and development institutions that depicts social division and poverty as technical rather than moral issues and fails abjectly to analyse the causes and who or what is to blame. A further dimension is the almost bellicose self-congratulation of capital with its competition to produce iconographic statements.

Total propaganda: Melissa Wilson, 2010

Total propaganda: Melissa Wilson, 2010

A certain reading of contributions to CITY—Bob Catterall’s ongoing debating piece in the journal, ‘Is it All Coming Together?’ providing a general thread to this—if read systematically, gives a sense of foreboding and distinct pieces of evidence concerning a dark future as yet incompletely defined, not yet recognised as a crisis but having all the ingredients of imminent collapse (1). A further dimension of this crisis, less distinctly represented in the pages of CITY, that can be seen as perhaps the final push of current urbanisation dynamics over the cliff-edge, is the issue of ‘environmental sustainability’: the ability of the global economy and resource base to continue to support the kind of urbanisation we are witnessing and to protect the cities from sudden environmental catastrophe (viz. New Orleans).

Recycling #2 Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2001

E. Burtynsky: Recycling #2 Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2001

My own contributions to the debates in City, (2) concluding that urbanisation all around the globe is ‘out of control’, have looked mainly at the ideological and economic/structural driving forces of the processes. This had an eye towards the probable non-sustainability of the processes in the sense of running up against eventually insuperable environmental and resources problems. These, I argued, continue to be incorrigibly screened out of the political decision-making process in any more than rhetoric and vague hopes that everything will work out OK.

Over the past 2 years I have been carrying out research into what ‘unsustainability’ might mean in detail and on what seem to me to be the limiting factors. It may have reached the attention of many readers that I am by no means alone in focusing stronger attention on the looming denouement ahead and reference is made to this rapidly growing literature elsewhere. (3)

Beyond critiques of so-called ‘sustainable development’ and discussion of energy futures (4), I have also looked deeper into the reasons for the blindness of our society to the importance and at the same time unsustainability of the use of vast inputs of energy needed to sustain our civilisation. A start has been made—notably in Jared Diamond’s recent book Collapse (5) – to analysing how and why civilisations in the past have collapsed, suggesting reasons for the blindness of our society to its own future. My own researches have surveyed this literature, leading on to studies of what Diamond refers to as ‘core values’ of our civilisation tending to lie beyond the boundaries of rational debate. These focus on the suburban lifestyle and closely related but even more problematic obsession with mobility of our civilisation, with the automobile at its epicentre. Discussion of the wisdom, in terms of the sustainability of this lifestyle, is being intellectually screened out or at best emaciated to a point of incoherence with any effective discussion of sustainability.

With this firmly in mind, it becomes possible to formulate scenarios of the stages in the collapse of our civilisation that we can expect as a consequence of energy-starvation.

The crucial issue will be: when might we expect our society to come to terms with the reality of declining energy and thus what kind of living arrangements and lifestyles are supportable under these circumstances? I conclude that there are philosophical/moral issues to be considered here even before it is possible to think of physical (planning) solutions. Furthermore, the legacies of environmental abuse of our civilisation—in particular global warming—are liable to exacerbate the problems faced by future generations in rebuilding civilisations that can be expected to function sustainably.

See full article here.

Photo credit: Edward Burtynsky. ‘The end of oil.’
All images by E. Burtynsky courtesy of Flowers, London & Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; see


  1. Recently most evident in Catterall (2006) Is it all coming together? Further thoughts on urban studies and the present crisis: (8) dark ages, prisons and escape routes. City 10: (2) , pp. 242-256.
  2. Atkinson 2004, Urbanisation in a neo-liberal world—exploring escape routes. City 8: (1) , pp. 90-108; and 2005, Urban development: reviving and activating utopian strategies. City 9: (3) , pp. 279-296.
  3. Atkinson, A. (2007) “Cities after oil-1. “‘Sustainable Development’ and energy futures” CITY 11 (2) : pages 201–213; “Cities after oil-2. Background to the collapse of ‘modern’ civilisation” CITY 11 (3) : pages 293-312; Atkinson, A. (2007) “Cities after oil-3. Collapse and the fate of cities” CITY 12 (1) : pages 79-106 and Atkinson, A (2009) “Cities after oil – one more time” CITY 13 (4) : pages 493-498
  4. In particular in Atkinson, A. (2007) “Cities after oil-1. “‘Sustainable Development’ and energy futures” CITY 11 (2) : pages 201–213
  5. Diamond, J. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Viking , New York