Archives for the month of: August, 2014


I presented a paper last week as part of a panel on ‘Urban Uncertainty’ at the Royal Geographical Society / IBG International Conference 2014. Jonathan Silver (Durham/LSE) framed the session by referring to Octavia, Italo Calvino’s imagined ‘spider web’ city. The ‘foundation’ of Octavia is a net, suspended in the air, from which everything hangs downwards. The residents live in full awareness of both the fragility of their city and the depth of the void below. Paradoxically, however:

Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long. (Calvino, 1997: 75)

There would seem to be a well-developed contemporary sensibility of uncertainty – both about the future and in our everyday lives. This doesn’t mean that we have all become Octavians (yet); we shy away from its implications. But since, as Jonathan put it, we no longer live in an age of ‘grand plans’, what are we to do with all this uncertainty? What might it mean to ‘govern’ in the face of it?

One approach is to counter uncertainty with the promise of certainty. Linda Sandberg (Umeå University) talked about current attempts to move Kiruna, Sweden’s most northerly city, following mining-related land subsidence. This represents a ‘fresh start’ approach to uncertainty – an abandonment of the present and the past. And yet the process itself has created all sorts of problems and questions of its own. Stuart Hodkinson (Leeds) took us through some of his research into housing schemes under the UK’s ‘Private Finance Initiative’ (PFI), promoted first in the early 1990s. Elaborate PFI agreements, involving both the public sector and extended chains of private subcontractors, were first envisaged as a way of eliminating all the usual financial and political uncertainties associated with large infrastructural projects. In practice, they may have served to demonstrate the futility of attempting to “fix the future in the present”; actual implementation has given rise to all sorts of new uncertainties (often with citizens paying the cost). 

What of the alternative, then – that of somehow embracing uncertainty? My paper looked briefly at the EcoDistricts initiative in Portland, Oregon. This initiative, aimed at encouraging neighbourhood-level sustainability, sought to enable local people themselves to come up with answers and ideas, and to choose their own ways of governing their implementation. In this sense, it attempted to draw on the self-organising creativity of the world outside the imposed certainty of formal institutional plan-making. The results were mixed, however; it may even have reinforced existing power relations in the city – perhaps inevitably since the initiative was institutionalised. Idalina Baptista (Oxford) observed that the ‘modern infrastructural ideal’ seems to have failed us – and most strikingly in cities in the global south. She described the case of Maputo, where new prepayment schemes for electricity might be interpreted as a pragmatic acceptance of uncertainty. This acceptance, however, marks an abandonment of the old ideal of directed ‘development’; in doing so, it may have sidelined the aspiration of reducing inequality. More problematically, this approach seems to have engendered new unpredicted uncertainties of its own as different systems, materials, and social actors have been reconfigured in new ways.

We seem confused by the tension between our sense of ethical responsibility towards the future and a growing sense of the world’s uncertainty; we’re only beginning to experiment with new ways of managing this tension from within existing institutions. Perhaps, as Jonathan Silver put it, the point is that uncertainty cannot be eradicated – instead it always ends up being displaced or reproduced.  And while I think academics and others should be tracing the unevenness of uncertainty, and reflecting on the processes through which it is transformed and translated, I’m wondering if such endeavours can only ever further entrench our confusion, rather than yield new sources of hope.

I’m looking forward to reading the new article on ‘Uncertainty and Urban Life’ by Jonathan (co-authored with his colleagues from LSE Cities who convened the panel – Austin Zeiderman, Sobia Ahmad Kaker and Astrid Wood), due to be published in Public Culture in Spring 2015.

31 August 2014, London.


The picture is by Maor Lavi, stolen from here.  I couldn’t find the images that Jonathan Silver used in his paper.

For more info on LSE Cities’ Urban Uncertainty research project, see here.


Calvino, I. (1997) [1972]. Invisible Cities. London: Vintage Classics.

African slum

To round off the year before I go on holiday, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learnt about African cities from Africa’s Urban Revolution1 – a new edited volume that’s been doing the rounds.

To get things rolling, here’s an overview of how urban Africa has become (I didn’t realise the extent of this). It’s now the world’s most rapidly urbanising continent, with more city dwellers than Europe, Australasia, North America or South America – only Asia has more. 40% of Africans now live in urban areas, according to the UN definition, and the urban population is expected to double in the next two decades or so. Part of this growth will come from migration from the countryside, but most will be due to the natural growth of existing towns and cities. Most urban residents, it goes without saying, continue to live in slums.

Infrastructure and planned housing to accommodate this growth is only rarely being provided. But the reasons for this only partly relate to a lack of institutional and financial capacity at local level. More profoundly, there appears to be a denial among national policy makers that an ‘urban revolution’ is actually taking place.  Edgar Pieterse describes this as a “prevailing government attitude that urbanisation is something bad or undesirable that needs to be prevented and, failing that, reversed through effective rural development policies, leading to a refusal to provide for the ‘illegal’ urban dwellers”.  He goes on to explain that

“many national governments…hold a deep disdain for urban life and the ‘modern corruption’ and defilement of pure African identities found there, which are seen as essentially a product of the exploitative colonial experience. From this perspective, African urbanism is a material expression of Western dominance and vice, and therefore something that is only grudgingly acknowledged and engaged with”.

The (often rather neoliberal) arguments we hear about the inevitably beneficial potential of urban life may therefore meet with a rather unreceptive audience in Africa.  Such arguments are problematised by another set of arguments in the book (nicely summarised, along with some of their implications, on the Global Urbanist blog). These relate to the general understanding that urbanisation and economic growth go hand-in-hand. Urbanisation is seen as necessarily driven by economic growth – and rapid growth by industrialisation in particular. But this relationship doesn’t appear to hold true for Africa, which in many cases has experienced ‘urbanisation without growth’. Equally, the evidence is far from clear that African urbanisation has always led to economic growth. The fact of urbanisation, in short, doesn’t in itself give us hope for Africa’s future.

All this only feeds my growing suspicion that we have become dangerously entranced by the increasingly dominant discourse that cities are the key to global sustainability. What I argue in my own research – in a nutshell – is that the idea of the ‘city’ itself is poorly conceptualised in much related policy making around the world.

But now you’ve got me started. So I’ll stop there, with wishes for a happy August.


31 July 2014, London



1 Parnell, S. & Pieterse, E. eds. (2014). Africa’s Urban Revolution. London: Zed Books.

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