Editorial: ‘Planetary’ urbanisation: insecure foundations, the commodification of knowledge, and paradigm shift

‘We’ve received an update this morning to say that Chennai is still being seriously affected by flooding due to further torrential rain. This has resulted in widespread disruption, there is no power, mobile communication is very badly affected with systems down and people unable to charge their phones and, internet connectivity is also very badly affected. Staff have not been able to come to the office, and given the conditions we have asked them not to try, when we have been able to contact them at all.’ (1) (Internal memorandum, 3.12.15)

That was the situation as reported that morning in Chennai, India, in, December 2015 as the just completed issue of CITY, 19.6, awaited publication. In one sense there had been a breakdown in communications under adverse weather conditions – that was all. But in another sense, looking at what was to be and eventually was transmitted, the breakdown can also be regarded as more than that, as, on the one hand, an example of the fragility of our technological condition, an intricate array of communication systems and work patterns, at a time of increasing globalisation and acute climatic change, but also, on the other, of the fragility of our knowledge and understanding of our condition, and underlying this, despite easy talk (how easy will be shown later) about contestation, of reform versus revolution (now safely evaded through resilience?), the creation/destruction opposition (now safely amalgamated?), of ‘urban’ versus the rural and ‘the city’, of commodities and commodification, paradigms, and epistemologies … These are insecure foundations. There was and is a failure, almost a will not to, to engage with the fundamentals (including communication processes) of our disciplines and, indeed of the planet itself (that is when mainstream urbanists can admit to the possibility of its existence, of such a fluid association of living entities, a para-structure rather than an infrastructure).

The title of that issue (19.6, see Figure 1) of the journal -momentarily lodged in Chennai through the apparent agency of a cyclone, rain, water, floods, deaths (nearing twice as many as those rightly mourned in Paris – the actual title extracted from one of the papers, ‘Where is the world at and where is it headed?’) signalled a further episode in the long-term commitment, over two decades, of this journal to grappling with such problems. The cover photo shows ‘a living ad’, a man struggling against the wind and rain, trying to stay on his feet and to hold on to his billboard. The film scene is a re-enactment of what the director, Tsai Ming-liang, had first seen ten years previously in Taipei, and then seen it ‘mushroom into an industry’ of homeless men advertising real estate. ‘It was’, he said, ‘as if their time had become worthless.’ It is the development of many such scenes coupled with the rising wealth and corruption of the estate industry and its clients that led former architect turned planning consultant and activist, Adrian Atkinson, after a generation of work in Vietnam and elsewhere to raise the question ‘Where is the world at and where is it heading?’

Where is the world heading? What is happening? Insofar as the theoretical and empirical basis of understanding such happenings is concerned there are signs of an absolutely crucial revival and development in red-green theory, a necessary part of a fundamental paradigm shift beyond (but not excluding) critical urban theory’s deliberate concentration on the social as distinct from the ‘natural’ environment. The bridging work here was particularly the still largely aborted discovery of late Marx (‘Russian Marx’ but not only that) by Teodor Shanin in the 1980s, and again by John Bellamy Foster at the turn of the century still, in a sense, struggling against the ‘critical’ zeitgeist. There are also signs of the potential in taking up the late work of Herbert Marcuse (to be considered in CITY later this year) as part of an equally crucial deepening understanding of culture/nature in Doreen Massey’s work and in some of the work associated with the Badiou-Zizek new communist/commonist movement (see section 4 below) and in Kate Shaw’s recent CITY roll/role-call (and also recent work by Hyun Bang Shin, Marcelo Lopes de Souza, Elvin Wyly, Mark Davidson and Sharon Meagher).

The analytical moves here, drawing in part on readings of East Asian experience and on critical urban and ‘green’ theory, towards answering the posed questions, had been preceded only a week and a half earlier by ‘the Paris attacks’, and (traced in earlier issues) only weeks earlier by the journeys of Syrian and other refugees across Europe, ‘To “the city of refuge”’ (19.5, see Figure 2), and earlier, in the summer, by the stilling and reversal of the great Greek revolt, with its focus (perhaps an excessive focus) on Syriza, ‘We are here’ (19.4, see Figure 3), by ‘the troika’.

Figure 1 ‘Where is the world at and where is it headed?’ Lee Kang-sheng as a living ad in Taipei, Stray Dogs, dir. Tsai Ming-liang (Photo: William Laxton).

Figure 1 ‘Where is the world at and where is it headed?’ Lee Kang-sheng as a living ad in Taipei, Stray Dogs, dir. Tsai Ming-liang (Photo: William Laxton).

1 ‘You’re surrounded … ’

These quasi-narratives of recent times were preceded by a double issue (19.2-3, see Figure 4), (‘You’re surrounded … ’, part of the title of an included paper by AbdouMaliq Simone) in which Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid’s ‘Towards a new epistemology of the urban?’ followed by Richard Walker’s ‘Building a better theory of the urban: A response to “Towards a new epistemology of the urban?”’ was published.

The two papers were indeed surrounded, followed by a wealth of other papers, and preceded by a long editorial (as is a distinctive practice in this journal, defined of late as a transdisciplinary, rather than a multidisciplinary, reading of its contents), both to an interpretive editorial reading of its various papers and related to what was seen as an image central to the issues’ major overlapping themes, a photograph, taken and deployed in his paper on African urban environments by David Simon, of Greenmarket Square, Cape Town.

Some implications of Simon’s photograph and text are discussed (in that issue, p. 148), also quoting from correspondence with him. The discussion concludes, linking that reference to an aspect of Walker’s paper, that a key absence from Brenner and Schmid’s paper, current rural/urban developments that Walker and Simon address, ‘predetermines the difficulties Brenner and Schmid encounter with “the rural”’ (not even addressing the deeper problem of ‘nature’).

The two contrasting papers were indeed surrounded. But the practice of selective downloading (so modern, so convenient, so taken-for-granted but so destructive of meanings and meaning) from an electronic version of what was and, though marginalised to some extent, still is, the fully edited hard copy of the journal, is no respecter of such contexts. This tendency coupled with the occasional preference of some authors to publish their work without adjacent critical commentary (which would, of course, not be added in the case of a relatively inexperienced and ‘unknown’ author) led on this occasion in some quarters to a furore of moral (academic) panic, scapegoating and a general sense that the fire had come this time.

Others saw little or nothing in the way of incendiary practices, just an impassioned but well-informed debate primed by an editor’s right to decide what/when/where to publish an item that had just arrived (encouraged in principle by our much-valued colleague, Brenner, himself) for the journal, and to do so with some celerity as real fires, floods and other disasters seem to be accumulating and devastating at an accelerating rate.

Responses need to be recorded, analysed and discussed with some sense of urgency so that appropriate actions can be taken in good time. For those who prefer to proceed in a more seemly, stately or ‘scientific’ (but see below) pace, there are other journals – though there is, of course, the danger that by the time that such leisurely alarm has been spread and action authorised, loss will have been maximised rather than minimised.

If this imbroglio was just a matter of hurt pride on both sides there would be no point in returning to it. But there is a point. There lies much behind the sound, fury (and tears) that is significant both for the disciplines associated with the currently elusive ‘urban’ and beyond it. As editor of another urban journal, in hiding, playfully perhaps, under a pseudonym as the missives and missiles flew and the tears had not yet dried, put it:

‘I am in love with Brenner and Schmid’s intentions “to ignite and advance further debate on the epistemological foundations for critical urban theory and practice,” and also with Walker’s goal of engaging Brenner and Schmid “in a spirit of friendly combat.” The key issue is that urbanization concentrates everything — economic productivity and innovation, technological change, rates of change of political alliances, the evolutionary dynamics of human cultures, traditions, and institutions — and also present-day conflict and disagreement.’ (2)

The writer concluded:

‘But “productivity” can, in certain circumstances, be measured in terms of the magnitude of the audience willing to reconsider the epistemological foundations of urbanism as a way of life—or of those engaging with friendly combat over which assumptions we should in this abandon and which intergenerational achievements should be preserved or extended. What is most crucial is that we all acknowledge and engage our disagreements in the urban agora, in City … ’

CITY has gone on to further conceptualise and demonstrate the value of considering its work across the academe/agora divide.

2. Commodified knowledge?

Returning, then, to one of the distinctive features of the journal, the central image on the cover of each issue and adjacent to the editorial, and usually selected from that issue, the image – in this case (20.1) taken from 19.6 but with updated comment here – is of floods in Vietnam suggesting perhaps relations (the function of such images in CITY is exploratory rather than literally illustrative) to foundational/fundamental tendencies presented here through six, to some extent discrete, areas of knowledge, some of them deployed with reference to mounting catastrophe. They are (in order of appearance): ‘justice and urban public space’, ‘the sanitary city’, ‘migration and diversity’, ‘resilience’, ‘the slum’ and ‘relational urbanism’.

Setha Low and Kurt Iveson’s propositions do offer experienced guidance for those for whom praxis refer to actual liberatory actions and practices. Sophie Schramm’s deployment of urban political ecology does illuminate the problems and the fragility of planning for the ‘modern’ sanitary city in riverrun Hanoi. The contributors to the special feature do provide—drawing on research on Athens, Milan’s Chinatown, on immigrants from Turkey and former Yugoslavia in Vienna, on transitory migration in Singapore, and Afro-Colombian integration in Bogota—some insights and their implications for understanding diversity in urban spaces. The contributors to the debate on resilience do cast light on the redemption of the concept and on the potential of practices guided by it. Sukriti Issor reviewing Liza Weinstein’s book on Dharavi in Mumbai, The Durable Slum, does set out its paradoxes without the acute dissatisfaction with the term displayed in an earlier special feature in this journal. And Colin McFarlane’s review of Ola Soderstrumm’s edited collection on urban development in Hanoi and Ouagadougou does in his references to ‘global’ rather than ‘planetary’, urbanisation, indicate that a field more limited than that implied by the uncritical use of ‘planetary’ is being studied.

These papers convey valuable information, but they are also as vulnerable as the technology that carries them, not only in relation to the occasionally threatened existence of the entities and knowledge to which they refer but also in relation to their overall potentially holistic and even cumulative value and meaning.

Probing deeper, the fragility or even the mystificatory potential of much mainstream academic work can be seen to arise from some aspects of this situation, one of the production of knowledge itself within ‘planetary urbanisation’, the global economy/society, late capitalism or the Anthropocene era – to take some of the currently available labels on offer by the specialist fields of legitimised commodified knowledge, the socio-spatial ‘sciences’ of the early twenty-first century.

On this occasion we have returned, principally, to the ‘surroundings’ and supposed core of 19.2-3 in order to further clarify the procedures we adopt, and their import. We question – on this occasion there is enough space only to question – two particularly prevalent and omnivorous (of space, time and attention) projects, labelled as ‘planetary urbanisation’ and powered by some apparently well-mannered notion of ‘science’, and conclude with further reference to one of our accelerating dangers.

3. Paradigm shift: ‘normal’ to ‘revolutionary’ science?

‘The new view of reality was by no means easy to accept … The exploration of … [that] reality brought them in contact with a strange and unexpected reality. In their struggle to grasp this new reality, [they] became painfully aware that their basic concepts, their language, and their whole way of thinking were inadequate … Their problems were not merely intellectual but amounted to an intense emotional and, one could say, even existential crisis.’

This description of what may at some level have been going on recently underneath the posturing about shocking improprieties, these references to painful awareness (though rarely declared) of the inadequacy of basic concepts, a shared language, a ‘whole way of thinking’, to something that was not just intellectual (or merely academic), to ‘an intense emotional and, one could say, even existential crisis’. This may have the ring of truth for those with some experience of people and ideas excluded from seminars, platforms, publication (the background talk behind such decisions sometimes slips out) when earthed paradigms and epistemologies—i.e., acknowledging the planet’s biocultural nature otherwise regarded as its inert, lifeless quality—are introduced.

This description refers in fact to the new physics of the early twentieth century.(3) A few references to physicists and subatomic reality have been edited out here to encourage a questioning of what is going on in the social and sociospatial ‘sciences’ now where strangely enough the old physics still, to a large extent, lives or staggers on in a recourse to somewhat limiting forms of empiricism as a partially legitimate reaction to excessive doses of Theory. This is not the place to argue this out but to suggest to readers that they will find it argued out in CITY since its inception twenty years ago in 1996 (a review of physicist Fritjof Capra’s popular but not populist work by Oxford University theoretical physicist, C.V. Sukumar, (4) was important), the second episode by Melissa Wilson, a biologist, of a chronicle of CITY’s project (5) begins to follow out the path of what Thomas Kuhn’s account of paradigm shifts refers to as ‘revolutionary’ science. Insofar as such shifts involve barricades some ‘planetary’ urbanisation specialists seem, sadly, to have positioned themselves on the wrong side of this one.(6)

4. The water this time?

‘[F]looding … further torrential rain … widespread disruption … no power, mobile communication very badly affected with systems down … people unable to charge their phones … internet connectivity is very badly affected. Staff not able to come to the office … we have asked them not to try, when we have been able to contact them at all.’

The scene in Chennai with which we started. Perhaps a modest beginning to the age of drowning settlements and cities were it not for the fact that the West/North seemed not to notice that nearly twice as many people died in Chennai, to repeat the ugly fact, as died in Paris and that the New Orleans disaster ‘happened’ over ten years ago (2005). As to what’s happening, the necessary communicative (rather than merely academic/professional) part of paradigm shift), Susan Buck-Morss, in her ‘commonist ethics’, offers that question for the starting point of a grounded ‘crude thinking’ re-think of action strategy:

‘What’s happening?’(The pragmatic alternative to ‘historical ontology’)’ (7)

She argues (differing from Lacan and Badiou), ‘it is not “truth” that punches a hole in knowledge’, it is a truth of engaged action, a ‘pragmatics of the suddenly possible… not a bad definition of what a commonist ethics would imply.’

The photo of a flooded street in Ho Chi Minh City with which this editorial opens is modest. It is a frequent sight in the rainy season but Adrian Atkinson, whose earlier report from there we published in our previous issue, writes now (19 January, 2016):

‘Laur (our town) that was spared only by a dyke that is now badly eroded – first a raging torrent forming a lake and then the agricultural land eroded and now a sea of gravel. Next time the town is liable to be swept away unless substantial engineering works are implemented. I had lunch today in Cabanatuan (the largest city in the province with about 300,000 population) with friends who said in the December event the water in their house was up to their knees. Earlier Julie’s niece, who also lives in the city, said in the October event ‘only’ knee high but in the December event the water was almost up to her arm pits.’

‘The fact is that we, here, are getting the first of the severe climate change. It is expected, however, that Pacific typhoons will be swinging further south in future and that is when Ho Chi Minh City can expect increasing problems.’

Putting Chennai, Ho Chi Minh City and Paris together do we get an old African-American (8) prophetic sequence?

‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign,

No more water, the fire next time.’

African Americans have, to some extent, though at massive cost, survived the water ‘attacks’ but as James Baldwin asserted in 1993 it is The Fire Next Time.

‘Spared only by a dyke that is now badly eroded…’

An approach to urbanisation that marginalises the earthy riverrun planet, the commodification of knowledge that supports such marginalisation, such are the insecure foundations that sanitised new epistemologies hide and that a genuine paradigm shift needs to secure.


Particular acknowledgement goes on this occasion to those who have put their minds to finding the positive potential that lies behind current discussions of, and silences about ‘planetary urbanisation’ aired of late in and around CITY. It has always been the policy of the journal to act as a forum, sometimes bordering on an arena or as an academe often bordering on the agora. The commitment to a struggle for truth about the full range of these phenomena and descriptions is in our view essential, as is a willingness to consider at times to what extent that struggle has turned into one for power rather than truth.

At one point these struggles surfaced between the editor of CITY and one of its finest contributors, Neil Brenner, who has made massive contributions to the work of the journal. We have throughout these debates made clear our continuing commitment to exploring the work of Neil Brenner, Christian Schmid and his associates (some of whom are also our associates).

Many thanks to colleagues who have spared time to make comments on various drafts of this editorial with a positive outcome in mind. It is to be hoped that the struggles have reached that point of mutual exploration and all are ready to begin to surpass its most difficult moments. If so, that may take the form—and there are signs that it is already taking that form—of the acknowledgement of significant differences mediated by what we have come to define as a policy of ‘critical pluralism’.

The stakes are high. The CITY project is committed not just to scholarship, policy and action but to forms of praxis that we have at times expressed through the deliberately provocative slogan of ‘Reclaim the City and the Planet!’

Bob Catterall, Chief Editor of CITY


Editorial to CITY, Vol. 20 Issue 1; see contents list below.

Contents list for Issue 20.1

Editorial: ‘Planetary’ urbanisation: insecure foundations, the commodification of knowledge, and paradigm shift Bob Catterall, pages 1-9

Propositions for more just urban public spaces Setha Low & Kurt Iveson, pages 10-31

Flooding the sanitary city: Planning discourse and the materiality of urban sanitation in Hanoi Sophie Schramm, pages 32-51

Special Feature: Migration and the City: Diversity, Migrant Economies and Urban Space

Migration and the city Diversity, migrant economies and urban space: Introduction Panos Hatziprokopiou, Yannis Frangopoulos & Nicola Montagna, pages 52-60

Migrant economies and everyday spaces in Athens in times of crisis Panos Hatziprokopiou & Yannis Frangopoulos, pages 61-74

Migrants’ settlement in two central neighborhoods of Athens: An analytical framework for urban transformations and interethnic coexistence Dimitris Balampanidis & Iris Polyzos, pages 75-90

The contestation of space in Milan’s Chinatown Nicola Montagna, pages 91-100

Business activities of immigrants from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia in Vienna: Group-specific branch concentrations versus locally determined variations Josef Kohlbacher & Ursula Reeger, pages 101-115

Transitory community hubs: How temporary migration transforms a neighbourhood in Singapore Edda Ostertag, pages 116-129

Afro-Colombian integration in mestizo cities: The case of Bogotá Jorge Ivan Bula Escobar, pages 130-141


Can resilience be redeemed? Introduction Zac Taylor & Alex Schafran, page 142

Can resilience be redeemed? Resilience as a metaphor for change, not against change Geoff DeVerteuil & Oleg Golubchikov, pages 143-151

Rethinking resilience as capacity to endure: Automobility and the city Tim Schwanen, pages 152-160

Resilience is not enough Kate Driscoll Derickson, pages 161-166


The paradoxical slum Sukriti Issar, pages 167-170

Comparing relational urbanism Colin McFarlane, pages 171-173


  1. Internal memo (3.12.15 update on the position of our publisher’s typesetters in Chennai as CITY awaited publication).
  2. “Academe or Agora? Re-situating the Urban Epistemology Debate,” by CITYzen.
  3. Capra, F., The Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter. Harper Collins, 1996; London: Flamingo, 1997, p. 5.
  4. See C.V. Sukumar (1996) “A New Paradigm for Science and Architecture.” City 1 (1–2): 181–183; (1997) “Towards a New Paradigm for Sustainability – A Holistic Approach to Biology.” City 2 (8): 154–160. My thanks to Professor Sukumar for a recent (January, 2016) discussion of these matters.
  5. See Wilson, M. (2015) “CITY’s Holistic and Cumulative Project (1996–2016): (2) Towards Millennium?” City 19 (4): 585–612.
  6. Not so perhaps in Brenner’s edited volume Implosions/Explosions … (2014)? We shall see.
  7. Buck-Morss, S. (2013) “A Commonist Ethics.” In The Idea of Communism 2, edited by S. Zizek, 57–75. London: Verso.
  8. The deep and universal significance of African- American culture has been a persistent preoccupation in City, most recently in the reference to ‘cities of refuge’ in the editorial on the current European refugee crisis (19.5). The lack of interest in that culture and in those lives displayed in so much socio-spatial ‘science’, except as a specialist preserve, suggests that current mainstream talk of a new paradigm or a new epistemology is perhaps a little premature?

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