Introducing and resituating a debate about ‘planetary urbanisation’

Editorial to the Virtual Special Issue of CITY

Available online now – articles free to download: http://bit.ly/cityvsi

Permaculture, Philippines; Adrian Atkinson.

‘Planetary urbanisation has assumed significance in recent urban studies debates, given its provocative questioning of the precise nature of the city and the urban, especially the neat demarcations separating urban, suburban and rural zones.’

That is the way the debate about ‘planetary urbanisation’ is introduced in the abstract for this session, entitled ‘Reclaim the City and the Planet’, at the 2014 RGS-IBG Annual International Conference. The sentence seems to provide a straightforward introduction to the topic but for the attentive, critical reader doubts may begin to creep in. Is it the actual material process of planetary urbanisation on the ground or is it a particular academic discourse, ‘planetary urbanisation’, that has ‘assumed significance’? And do discourses actually assume or do they acquire significance, a significance that is not only assumed but also empowered by actual individuals, particular academic groups engaged as much in a struggle for recognition, influence and power as in a struggle for truth?

Introducing a selection of relevant material from nearly two decades of publication in CITY, this brief survey seeks to resituate two approaches to planetary urbanisation within wider debates, intellectual, cultural, and activist/‘political’ as well as academic, one led by Neil Brenner at Harvard and Christian Schmid of the ETH Zurich, the other led by CITY. The latter adopts a transdisciplinary approach (including biology and the humanities) rather than the interdisciplinary one (largely dependent on the socio-spatial ‘sciences’) of the former. CITY’s approach seeks to bring this expanding field of ‘planetary urbanisation’ closer to the actual human and material changes and struggles on the ground (the bio-social planet itself).

The  tendency that ‘has assumed significance’ since Brenner’s inaugural lecture at Harvard in November 2011, entitled ‘The Urbanization Question, of the Field Formally Known as Urban Studies’, features in the very impressive and valuable compilation (34 chapters and over 570 pages) edited by Neil Brenner, ‘Implosions/Explosions: Towards a study of planetary urbanization (2014)’. Two founding figures in this tendency are Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey. The two key ‘historic’ texts in the first section, ‘Foundations – The Urbanization Question’, of the book, are by these two leading Marxist analysts/theorists, Lefebvre and Harvey. But Harvey’s piece, ‘Cities or Urbanization?’ (Item 1 here) is in fact reprinted from the first issue (1996) of CITY, whose early entry into the field of ‘planetary urbanisation’ was, or so it would seem, inconveniently premature.

CITY could, then, be conveniently located at the  margins as not having ‘assumed significance’, with no specific university base and many non-academic contributors (including in that first issue a cartoonist as an irreverent historian, an opera director as a social commentator, and, among others, a developer, architects, journalists, and a social/communal entrepreneur). The project, led since 1996 by Bob Catterall, has had four figures in its background, gradually foregrounded later: Levebvre himself; the much travelled grassroots consultant and occasional academic, Adrian Atkinson, an anarchist; the major anarchist theorist, Murray Bookchin; and a mainstream urbanist with both capitalist and anarchist sympathies, the late Peter Hall (all represented in this issue). This unorthodoxy led some academics to suppose that CITY was not quite ‘kosher.’  Despite its re-establishment in 2000 as an academic journal published by Routledge it is still unorthodox and not quite ‘kosher’, and in fact challenging – not only in its range of contributors, now including independent scholars and activists, but also with its choice of themes and their treatment.

Planetary urbanisation, the theme that has now ‘assumed significance’, first emerged in this journal not only in Harvey’s article but, not with that label, also in the wide-ranging editorial in that first issue of 1996, partly influenced by the, evident to some, ‘urbanistic’ conditions on the ground and also by Bookchin’s work. The still partly marginalised theme of the extreme physical vulnerability of the city/urbanisation was introduced by Atkinson with reference to oil (item 2), an analysis not outdated (see 12) by the fact that fracking has ‘assumed significance’.

The need for critical (‘CUT’), rather than mainstream, urban theory  (and action) was brought into the journal by Peter Marcuse (4), Neil Brenner and Margit Mayer in the context of the global North, applied to Palestine/Israel by Oren Yiftachel with an emphasis on the global phenomenon of urban ‘grey space’ (5), and has been presented with a continuing double challenge by Marcelo Lopes de Souza (9) in an assertion of the centrality of the global South to understanding the nature of cities and urbanisation and of the work of anarchists such as Bookchin  to understanding and resisting urbanisation. A cautiously empiricist approach to understanding the nature of cities and urbanization in the global South is presented by Pushpa Arabindoo (11).

The move towards what can and should be done was taken up by a CITY panel at the American Association of Geographers conference in 2007, as reported here by Bjorn Surborg (3). In ‘Reclaim the City!’ was one version of this move, in relation to the ‘Right to the City’, it is taken up by Peter Marcuse (4) and Mehmet Baris Kuymulu (10). It was also considered by an early contributor (and since Associate Editor of this journal),  Andy Merrifield (7), in a Lefebvrian re-conceptualization directed to what lies beyond … A pragmatic and imaginative approach to what can and should be done now is set out by Tom Bliss (6) in ‘The Urbal Fix’  (‘urbal’ as distinct from ‘rurban’).

The struggle towards the re-appropriation of the city, from a black and anti-racist perspective, is presented by Adam Elliott-Cooper (12). His conference blurb for this session , with its reference to ‘post-Duggan Britain’  – i.e., after the 2011 ‘disturbances’ arising from the police killing of a youth – echoes the work of Greek scholar-activists associated with CITY. Antonis Vradis and Dimitris Dalalakoglou, who refer to the subsequent period after the eruption following the police killing of a youth in 2008 as post-Grigoropoulos Greece. An important practice- related intervention, applying Guattarian insights, to our assemblage debate, was made by Bertie Russell, Andre Pusey and Paul Chatterton in their ‘Seven propositions for a more strategic and politicized assemblage thinking’ (8).

The moves towards reclaiming the land,’ transition’, are reported, analysed and enacted* by Adrian Atkinson and Julie Viloria (12), and are to be taken up in a future issue of the journal by Melissa Wilson (see her conference abstract, ‘Back to the Land’). The contrasting paradigms and/or epistemologies on urbanisation and its future are: in the approach to be presented by Brenner, a major associate of CITY, and Schmid, later this year (15); and by Catterall (14) who, returning an unsung late Marx (with Kropotkin and anarchism) to Russian communal struggles in the late nineteenth century, characterises the rural, the urban and the planet as biosocial phenomena, and argues for a transdisciplinary, rather than an interdisciplinary approach.

From the point of view of Wilson  and Catterall  the rural is not, as presented in the epigraph, a mere ‘zone’ but something fundamental  to life that is threatened by over-urbanisation and associated capitalist and neo-colonialist/imperialist developments. The debate over ‘the land’ and ‘the city’ now has a new and vital urgency. It is not by ‘re-thinking the city’ that we can reclaim the city and the planet. The particularities of their joint significance cannot be assumed, they will have to be claimed and reclaimed in the fields and urban and post urban spaces by work, struggle and praxis.

by Bob Catterall and Melissa Wilson

* What the photograph shows (on the inset cover above) is the work of Atkinson and associates in the Philippines. ‘The photograph’, he notes, “is looking from the edge of a regenerated forest area, across one of the rice fields to one of the buildings built to house various training exercises (almost a laboratory) which, as is evident, is built out of bamboo with thatch roof”. Disturbed by an approach to revolution that seems to devote almost total attention to street battles, Atkinson suggests that such (spreading) alternatives (including the notion of Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture as the bridge to a more balanced mix of urban and rural) may be ‘the real Revolution’. That issue and editorial were entitled ‘Reversing Urbanisation?’

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