Urban Political Geographies: A Global Perspective


Ugo Rossi & Alberto Vanolo

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  • Part One: Politics as Representation

    Part Two: Politics as Government

    Part Three: Politics as Contestation

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    About the Authors

    Ugo Rossi gained his PhD in Human Geography at the University of Naples ‘L'Orientale’ (Italy) and obtained a Master's Degree from the University of Durham (UK). He held post-doctoral appointments at the University of Amsterdam, the Johns Hopkins University and over the last four years at the University of Cagliari in Italy, where he is currently also a temporary lecturer. He has published in academic journals both in Italian and in English. He co-edits the book review forum section of Dialogues in Human Geography. His research interests variously relate to the politics of urban and regional development.

    Alberto Vanolo gained his PhD in Geography and Spatial Planning at the University of Turin. In the last five years he has held a permanent research and lecturer position in the Faculty of Economics of the same university. He has also held post-doctoral and visiting fellowships at the universities of Helsinki and Paris I. His work has been published in national and international journals of geography and urban studies; he is also author of key textbooks of economic geography and globalization studies, which are widely used in Italian universities. His research interests have touched on a variety of issues falling within the fields of urban studies and economic geography, including the deconstruction of the geographies of globalization and the contested image of the creative city.

    Foreword: The Athenian Symptom

    OlaSöderström, Institute de Géographie, Université de Neuchâtel (Switzerland)

    On 20 June 2009, the museum hosting the archaeological treasures of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, designed by Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, was inaugurated in Athens. The Greek government estimated that the museum, in which some 80 million euros were invested, would attract two million visitors a year, contributing to renewing the image of the city capital as well as to increasing the inflow of tourists in Athens. The project and its implementation sparked lively debates in Greece. The fact that a non-Greek architect was commissioned for a project touching the heart of the nation aroused strong criticism among the wider public, considering also that demolitions of Art Deco and neoclassical buildings were necessary in order to make way for the 25,000 square metre building.

    The establishment of the new Acropolis Museum is evocative of at least three dimensions of contemporary city life: the urban-marketing campaigns, the growth-led strategies of urban development and their contestation. Urban Political Geographies is centred on the analysis of these interrelated but also conflicting dimensions. The book is conceived as an advanced textbook for students and urban practitioners (policymakers, planners, urban activists), but it is also aimed at a specialist audience, by offering a theoretically situated account of the politics of urban development in times of globalization and neoliberalism.

    In recent years, Athens and Greece have been hit by an unprecedented financial and political turmoil. As a consequence of the sovereign debt crisis, but also of related financial speculations, Greece finds itself, as a member of the European Union, in an uncomfortable position similar to that experienced in previous decades by developing countries that had to deal with the structural adjustment programmes demanded by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as the conditionality for granting loans at reasonably low interest rates. In response to this situation, Greece has had to self-impose severe restrictions on government expenditure in order to receive the financial support it needs to achieve macro-economic stability and restore market confidence. Over the medium run, economic prospects for Greece and the city of Athens look dire. After having enjoyed a period of spectacular growth, driven by the huge investments linked to the 2004 Olympic Games – a veritable ‘holy grail’ of urban entrepreneurialism – Athens has to reconsider and limit its ambitions.

    The Greek crisis is to be viewed against the backdrop of the broader crisis of the world economy, which was triggered from 2008 onward by the collapse of the hyper-speculative subprime mortgage market and the subsequent financial crash, eventually leading to the global economic recession that has not yet come to an end three years later. The expansionary fiscal policy which encouraged property ownership (but led to a shrinkage in state budgets), the deregulation of the financial sector and the rise of cities and regions as relatively autonomous politico-economic agents are distinctive features of the neoliberal era analysed in the book. Athens' story, therefore, raises important questions about whether we are witnessing the coming of a post-neoliberal era of urban development; an era in which urban policies could be less centred on the imperative of representation through the mobilization of culture and creativity, while being more oriented towards – let's be optimistic! – the redistribution of wealth and public revenue.

    The future is by definition unpredictable, but the crumbling of the certainties on which cities relied until a very recent past is evident. The recent and still ongoing economic crisis has had the effect of making the hegemonic economic-political pattern even more decipherable, once its underlying mechanisms have shown their weaknesses. Ugo Rossi and Alberto Vanolo take us on a journey around the ascent and crisis of urban liberalism, providing a clear and highly readable analysis of key issues and debates in the field of urban political geography at a time in which the neoliberal era seems to be unravelling.


    The book fundamentally builds on a political economy approach to the study of urban development issues. According to the authors, the rise of urban neoliberalism, with its relentless transformations, contradictions and dynamics of diffusion across the globe, is key to the understanding of the contemporary geographies of urban politics. The authors, therefore, draw on what has become a sort of new ‘grand narrative’ within English-language urban scholarship over the last two or three decades. However, their account of urban neoliberalism is not conventional, but it is problematized by using theoretical and conceptual sources that depart from the conventional political economy literature. In doing so, the book identifies the pillars of what is called the ‘triad of urban politics’: representation, government and contestation, each being understood by making reference to one key thinker.

    In the first instance, the geographies of urban politics are presented by looking at the performative power of representations, referring to the images associated with strategies of urban branding, as well as to those arising from the realm of everyday life, both acting as frameworks (in the sense of Goffman's ‘framing’) for the rationalization of urban issues.1 Edward Said's Orientalism, which shows that the social and the political are constructed through cognitive processes, is an essential reference on the ‘politics of representation’. The second pillar supporting the triad is about ‘politics as government’, which is analysed in the book as a study of the practices of government, drawing on the Foucauldian notion of governmentality, rather than as a study of the models of governance.2 This approach allows an understanding of the long-term process of ‘governmentalization’ of urban life, which has evolved – as the authors point out using the work of Nikolas Rose – by making citizens and local communities increasingly responsible entities as regards the improvement of societal well-being. Last but not least, the third dimension of urban politics relates to acts of resistance and citizenship and is conceptually based on Jacques Rancière's distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘police’. The former takes the form of the techniques of ‘partition of the sensible’ by which the preservation of the extant political-economic order is pursued, while the latter is associated with the contentious processes and acts challenging the established order and its reproduction. By scrutinizing the potential of a wide range of contestation movements, Rossi and Vanolo succeed in highlighting different modes of insurgent action coexisting in contemporary urban environments.

    Along with the clarity of its structure and the fluidity in the writing, the strength of the book lies therefore in the theoretical grounding of each chapter. Non-specialist readers of the book, such as students and urban practitioners, will have at their disposal a useful learning tool, dealing with issues that are central to contemporary urban scholarship, such as the entrepreneurialization of governance, the militarization of urban life, the cultural turn in urban planning and policy processes. In many parts of the book, the authors approach these important themes from unconventional perspectives. The globalization of gated communities, for instance, is dealt with against the backdrop of Zygmunt Bauman's reflections on the various forms of insecurity in postmodern societies (Chapter 4). This allows the authors to identify the selectivity of the public discourse on ‘security’, which is understood merely as the preservation of physical integrity, rather than as the pursuit of social wellness. The chapter focusing on urban struggles begins with a detailed and nuanced reconstruction of the philosophical debate on social justice. This discussion, which critically reviews John Rawls's foundational theory of distributive justice, Harvey's neo-materialist critique as well as Iris MarionYoung's neo-feminist insights, helps the reader conceptualize different types of social movements, such as those committed to identity-based claims and those transcending specific positionalities.

    The representation/government/contestation triad is not intended to be inclusive of all dimensions of the contemporary geographies of urban politics. For instance, the book admittedly does not take account of the ‘more than human’ geographies exploring the implicitly political significance of the complex relations between humans, technologies, objects and non-human organisms. Equally, in the introduction to the book the authors admit that they have not drawn on the ‘more-than-representational’ geographies looking at the political implications of the feelings, emotions and body gestures inherent in the urban experience, while admiring this lively strand of research. Therefore, rather than a conventional textbook providing a comprehensive overview of the main strands of thinking and investigation currently available in the academic market, Urban Political Geographies offers an intentionally partial point of view on urban affairs. Paradoxically, thanks to this intentional incompleteness the authors find themselves in a convenient position to provide a clear view of the current state of urban affairs, being able to zoom in on specific regions of the urban political universe in unconventional ways. Time will tell us whether its publication coincides, as one might expect in view of recent upheavals and economic turbulences across the globe, with a turning-point in geographical research and urban studies.


    1. For example, consider the different ways in which poverty can be ‘framed’ either as a social justice issue or as a security issue.

    2. According to Foucault, governmentality concerns ‘the conduct of conduct’, which includes a variety of practices ranging from techniques of ‘government at a distance’ to the self-regulation of individual behaviour. The study of governance, on the other hand, more conventionally consists of analysing different modes of coordination or conflict between private, public and civil-society actors.

    Foreword: The Nine Lives of Neoliberalism

    JamiePeck, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia (Canada)

    In February 2011, a report from the Independent Evaluation Office of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was issued in Washington, DC, barely causing a ripple. The brief of this arm's-length watchdog agency had been to review the performance of its parent organization, the IMF, in the run-up to the financial crisis of 2008 and the global recession that followed. Couched in characteristically restrained tones, the report's findings were nevertheless damning. It revealed how the IMF had maintained a dangerously sanguine outlook in the months preceding the crash, failing to warn of systemic risks in the global financial system, or to voice concerns about the reckless regulatory posture of the US and UK authorities, where the crisis was being fomented. (Unlike the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, this one could not so easily be blamed on ‘crony capitalism’.) For years, risks of contagion had been radically underestimated by the IMF, along with the possibility that those ‘advanced’ economies that were not only following but writing the neoliberal playbook might be vulnerable to self-inflicted financial failure. Instead, the IMF's ‘banner message was one of continued optimism’, right up to the moment that Wall Street tipped the world economy into a spiralling economic collapse, for which solutions would have to be improvised in a fog of political uncertainty, bordering on outright panic. The lemming economists at the IMF had jumped off the proverbial cliff, along with the financial elites of New York and London:

    The IMF's ability to correctly identify the mounting risks was hindered by a high degree of groupthink, intellectual capture, a general mindset that a major financial crisis in large advanced economies was unlikely, and inadequate analytical approaches. Weak internal governance, lack of incentives to work across units [or] raise contrarian views … also played an important role, while political constraints may have also had some impact … Looking forward, the IMF needs to … create an environment that encourages candor and considers dissenting views; [to strengthen] incentives to “speak truth to power;” to overcome [its] silo mentality and insular culture; [while delivering] a clear, consistent message on the global outlook and risks.1

    Just a few days later, tens of thousands started taking to the streets in Madison, Wisconsin in an escalating series of protests against newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker's draconian ‘budget’ plan. Having rushed through an emergency package of corporate tax cuts, Walker had proposed a budget that not only rolled back social benefits for most of the state's public-sector workers (with the notable exception of those police-service unions that had supported his campaign), but which sought unilaterally to remove collective-bargaining rights. Once a pioneer of public-sector unionization, back in the 1950s, Wisconsin had now become a test-case for what was already threatening to become a rolling, state-by-state programme of legislative deunionization. Walker evasively argued that his uncompromising budget package was a fiscal necessity. Yet even after unions accepted the need for wage and benefit clawbacks – as long as their bargaining rights were maintained-the Governor flatly refused to negotiate. His union-busting charter was eventually passed, using a procedural ruse, having been detached from those budget measures that had supposedly been its rationale. It was, apparently, a matter of principle.

    These two episodes – the dramatic events in Wisconsin and the non-event in Washington, DC – call attention to some sobering political realities of these nominally post-crisis times in the United States, and indeed beyond. Certainly, the brief period of post-neoliberal optimism, during the early stages of the crisis, now seems little more than a distant memory, if not a dream. At the time, prominent figures from across the broad left – from Naomi Klein to Eric Hobsbawm and Joseph Stiglitz – had been quick to declare the death of neoliberalism, quite rightly pointing to the damning indictment of ‘the system’ manifest in the devastating convergence of predatory financialization, negligent regulation, and craven mismanagement. There were even a few mea culpas from the architects of the crisis, and plenty of earnest political promises that lessons had been learned and mistakes would never be repeated. This was promptly followed by a disorienting period in which both the world, and neoliberal principle, seemed to be turned upside down: the United States, the home of ‘free-market’ capitalism, would witness massive bank bailouts, corporate rescues on an industrial scale and an historic surge in pseudo-Keynesian ‘stimulus’ spending.

    But almost in reflex, the summer of 2009 saw the birth of a kind of grassroots neoliberal uprising in local communities across the country, in the form of the stridently neoliberal tea-party movement. On the surface, this was fuelled by inchoate, and spontaneous, populist rage against the Obama administration's ‘socialist’ excesses, but less visibly, it was enabled by the same corporate bankrollers that for decades had been constructing an extra-governmental apparatus of conservative think tanks, lobby groups, and political-action committees. Among the more prominent financiers of this free-market counter-revolution are the billionaire Koch brothers, who had pumped significant sums into conservative and libertarian causes like the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute, before establishing the front organization, Americans for Prosperity, in 2011 to channel funding to an ideologically approved slate of Republican candidates – including Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.2The Koch brothers would later open a lobbying office in Madison, as the protest movement reached its peak, while running anti-union ads on Wisconsin TV.

    As crisis conditions have been normalized across the United States, effectively (re) defining Obama's domestic programme, they provide an object lesson in the unforgiving politics of market rule. Despite its practical inadequacy, as a source of workable policy measures, new pages are continually being added to the neoliberal playbook. Analytically, this reveals some recurring truths about the nature of neo-liberalization, as it is practised at scales from the global to the local.

    First, the extra-local ‘rules of the game’ continue to be structured according to selectively competitive principles, with most of the multilateral agencies still working actively to extend free-trade agreements, to restrain public expenditure, to further liberalize private investment flows and to deregulate the operating environments for corporations and banks. Save for that brief moment of bastard-Keynesianism, when the crisis was in its free-fall phase, there has been no sign of meaningful change in the pattern of free-market ‘groupthink’ in the finance ministries and international agencies. (It remains to be seen if and how those absent ‘dissenting views’ might be sought or accommodated in the halls of the IMF.) Deep in the neoliberal silos, the entrenched ideological preference for rolling deregulation has evidently become such that default setting politics involve riding successive waves of speculative expansion, never to seek to manage them. As Keynes once said of Hayek, the neoliberal prophet's fundamental problem was that he never knew ‘where to draw the line’ in terms of the containment of market forces and the regulatory roles of the state.3 Little seems to have changed. Today, the bonus culture is brazenly resurgent on Wall Street and in the City of London; regulatory reform has been timid at best; and political elites on both sides of the Atlantic have argued that the public should pay to refloat the system, by way of long-run fiscal austerity and social-state retrenchment. As if this were not bad enough, it is probably only a matter of time before the free-market lemmings are leaping blindly off the cliffs again.

    Second, it follows that the neoliberal predisposition to crisis is not accidental, but immanent. Crisis conditions, however, tend to further animate and energize the neoliberalization process. Indeed, the pattern so far is that they have tended to spur reinventions of neoliberal governance, not its reversal. One of the many tragic ironies of the Wall Street crash of 2008, widely acknowledged to have been brought on by negligent regulatory surveillance and craven profiteering, is that its downstream political consequences have included a Republican revival on a scale sufficient to take back not only Congress, but to secure the control of 21 of the 50 states. Having chronically short-changed the states in the initial round of stimulus spending, the Obama administration must now bear witness to an orgy of righteous budget-slashing, entitlement rollbacks and union-busting across Republican-controlled statehouses (and, in muted form, in more than a few Democratic ones, too). Wisconsin, all sides acknowledge, represents a sign of things to come.

    Malign devolution is, by now, a tried-and-tested neoliberal tactic. Yet again, the costs of financial overreach and corporate failure are being downloaded onto cities and states, and onto the most socially vulnerable, in the form of new and apparently long-term programmes of public austerity. These dynamics are playing out all over the place, not only across the United States, but in Britain too, where David Cameron's coalition government has initiated cavalier public-spending cuts on a scale sufficient to threaten a rapid return to negative growth, while offering local governments the sparse consolation of budgetary flexibility in the administration of this unprecedented fiscal retrenchment. The equivalent of presenting local authorities with the knife, while inviting them to decide which fingers to amputate (‘in accordance with local priorities’), this is being sold in the euphemistic language of Cameron's ‘Big Society’ (conveniently enabled by yet-smaller government, of course).

    It is through such means – of downloaded responsibilities and unfunded mandates; of deregulatory hand-offs to private enterprises, to community and third-sector organizations, and ultimately to households and individuals – that the bait-and-switch scale politics of neoliberalization are being prosecuted. And it is in this context that what we have come to understand as ‘neoliberal urbanism’ has been shaped, as a distinctive geohistorical form.4 Evolving through time, and variable over space, neoliberal urbanism nevertheless exhibits a series of recurrent features and enduring contradictions. Neoliberalized cities have come to fulfil fundamentally paradoxical roles. On the one hand, they are among the preeminent sites of experimentation in (and relay stations for) neoliberal reforms. On the other hand, cities have been the epicentres of struggles against these self-same incursions. The results of this dialectical process have been anything but uniform and singular, as Rossi and Vanolo powerfully demonstrate in the pages that follow, but they have nonetheless been far-reaching.

    This geographically variegated face of neoliberalism represents, at the same time, a deeply consolidated and a crisis-driven form of market rule. Maybe it is still being guided, in some way or another, by Hayek's rusty old compass, trained on the unattainable (and stark) utopia of a free-market society, but the vanguard momentum of the ‘revolution from above’, such as the Reagan/Thatcher moment of unapologetic confrontation and ‘conviction politics’, has long since given way to alternating currents of opportunist attacks on the social state and social collectivities; to decentralized, trial-and-error experimentation and regulatory races to the bottom; and to increasingly networked forms of local resistance politics. The geographies of this process may be complex but they are far from chaotic. They involve a metastasizing fiscal crisis of the local state, not only in the US and the UK – the dubious ‘dividend’, presumably, of three decades of relentless neoliberalization – but much more broadly. They are triggering new forms of local resistance, the downstream consequences of which cannot be predicted.

    It was clearly too soon, however, to read the last rites for neoliberalism as the global crisis took hold. Perhaps the tawdry ideology of neoliberal ‘market rule’ has lost another of its nine lives, but in adapted form it remains very much with us. Crises themselves need not be fatal for this mutable, mongrel model of governance, for neoliberalism has always been a creature of crisis. As such, it has become increasingly mired in the unending challenge of managing its own contradictions, together with the socioeconomic fallout from previous deregulations and malinterventions – for all its reproductive tenacity. In these late-neoliberal times, however, one thing that has become clear is that the spatial and scalar transmission belts for crises are becoming ever more deeply interwoven and integrated. Globalizing rules of the interurban game are repeatedly redrawing the ideological and fiscal parameters of ‘local’ politics, while the reverberations of urban-scale experiments and social struggles continue to spiral unpredictably, both upward and outward. It is in the city trenches that the crises, contradictions, and counterpolitics of neoliberalization are finding some of their most vivid and consequential expressions, where new worlds are being imagined, made, and unmade. These real-time dynamics can be difficult to map. But in Urban Political Geographies, we have a timely and astute field guide to this unfolding process.


    1. Independent Evaluation Office of the International Monetary Fund (2011) IMF Performance in the Run-Up to the Financial and Economic Crisis. Washington, DC: Independent Evaluation Office of the International Monetary Fund.

    2. E. Lipton (2011) Billionaire brothers' money plays role in Wisconsin dispute. New York Times, 22 February: A16.

    3. See J. Peck (2010) Constructions of Neoliberal Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Chapter 2.

    4. N. Theodore, J. Peck and N. Brenner (2011) Neoliberal urbanism: cities and the rule of markets. In G. Bridge and S. Watson (eds) The New Blackwell Companion to the City. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 15–25.

    Foreword: Politics between the Lines

    AbdouMaliqSimone, Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths College, University of London (UK)

    This is an incisive and lucid account of contemporary urban politics, and envisions the terms through which it is possible to nurture a politics beyond neoliberal melancholia. As such, it is important to reaffirm the ways in which the solidarities, reciprocities and collaborations that are generated from the quotidian density of relationships and potentialities across city districts continue to exceed the frameworks through which residents are either accounted for or included in prevailing narratives of citizenship and economic efficacy. Take a young man logging transactional data for American Express credit cardholders in a Mumbai BPO (business process outsourcing) firm every night. He lives in a time zone 12 hours behind that of Mumbai but simultaneously engages in an intricate, everyday urban politics of redevelopment and neighbourhood upgrading to bring better services to his settlement. The efforts of ordinary citizens are closely tied to opportunities that are simultaneously enabled and foreclosed by the aggrandizement of urban space. While it is possible to discern clear trajectories of ‘development’ – as settlements like where the young man lives are replaced by ‘spatial products’ like the technopark where he works, there are also continuous oscillations of ascendancy and decline. Populations pushed to the periphery stretch urban ‘cores’ and develop new logics of dwelling and economy, while standardized development zones sometimes rapidly acquire new functions and designs, or even eventually fade from existence. The topologies of urban transformations are simultaneously clearly charted and opaque – a constant reworking of colonization and decolonization, innovation and exhaustion, recuperation and ruin.

    Conventional strategies of urban development simultaneously promote an uneasy bundling together of heterogeneous spatial forms, forms of economic action and settlement histories with particular political nominations such as the ‘urban poor’. This results in puzzling patterns of political struggle, which engage collective economies and energies but require adjustments that always escape the rationalities of planned urban growth and the resulting calculations of the costs of displacement and resettlement. What, then, can serve as a basis for the conditions in which any consideration of rights to the city can be imagined and concretized outside of this mirroring framework in which rights are framed in reaction to a landscape of mega-projects and compensatory developments? In cities across the ‘majority world’, residues of colonial planning, post-colonial practices of ‘regularization’ and landed investments into maintaining economic heterogeneity are rapidly being erased and replaced by such landscapes of mega-development – a process this book thoroughly documents.

    This continuous aggrandizement of urban space by large-scale property developments crowds out existing central city districts that intersect diverse income groups, settlement histories, built environments and local economies. Yet, caught within an analytic logic of poverty and residency rights, these districts simultaneously become invisible as incubators of potentialities that cannot be pinned down within normative logics of efficacy. As bounded spaces, these districts occupy a distinctive position vis-à-vis contemporary mega-development. In particular they proffer location advantages and bring with them the colonial residues of proximity to off-the-grid and exploited populations. In the efforts to dominate the narrative of urban change, as well as what can be seen and talked about across the urban landscape, such megadevelopments ironically run interference for a plurality of other urban domains that pose neither a clearly discernible threat – environmental or political – but yet continue to provide dwelling and livelihood for large numbers of urban residents.

    Urban Political Geographies stretches questions of how to address cities beyond the conventional formulations concerning agency, civil society, governance, polarization, dispossession and accumulation, which have largely dictated the terms of how cities in the urban South are talked about. It raises the possibility that there are interstices – analytical, empirical – in which residents work out ways of putting together modalities of collective life that, even if compelled by accommodations to the agendas of powerful elites, still harbour materialized propositions of how urban space can be transformed. As such the book is not interested in appropriating particular kinds of urban residents – rich, poor, middle class – to exemplify theoretical imaginations about the city.

    Of course politics – and its concomitant instruments of policy, mobilization and re-imagination – must address unequal access to resources, growing uncertainty in how everyday livelihood is attained, and the growing access to a larger world of information and experiences folded in to the most desperate of urban conditions. But there is also a need to recognize more provisional ensembles and associations that come together momentarily at the cusp of transformations and in the interstices of shifting spatial alignments, using specific instantiations of the strategic possibilities of urban life that change shape, durability and viability all of the time. Such collectivities are not consolidated into political vanguards. Nevertheless, they register an effect and gradually articulate different facets of the city, and different ways of life. In the past several decades, urban governance has emphasized decentralization, individual entrepreneurialism and enforced mobility, as if they are self-contained tools of change. But these interventions have also called attention to the extent to which unplanned intersections of highly discrepant walks of life actually manage to bring out new capacities amongst the proliferating fragments that make up a city and enable them to have something concrete to do with each other.

    In part, issues concerning the social composition of cities and their impact on urban life in general have become challenges in relation to the political strategies and technical instruments that have predominated in the efforts to organize the urban poor since 1976 after the first international gathering to consider urban settlement issues (Habitat I, Vancouver). As such, policies geared towards accommodating swelling populations of the cities gravitated toward sites and services schemes where basic demarcations of plots and skeletal services were to be provided that would be ‘filled in’ over time through the initiatives and resources of the poor themselves.

    The idea was to establish a basic, identifiable platform on which residents could establish a secure foothold in the city. This infrastructure also provided a basic political address for the urban poor, calling them into being as it were. By applying their own logics of spatial development, it was expected that the poor would also ‘domesticate’ the city in ways that would enable them to ‘recognize themselves’ within it. While such policies have been markedly contested all along, their implicit traction has been to defer difficult challenges about rights, inclusion and responsibilities to a future time. Everyone could then argue that development was under way, that a trajectory of progressive inclusion in urban life had been charted. Furthermore, these projects were framed as a response to the supposed failure of low-income populations to bring their practices of habitation into synch with the expectations materialized in state sponsored public housing projects. These lacks were to be addressed with various capacity building programmes centred on teaching the poor how to save and govern themselves.

    Demands for citizenship rights were therefore coupled with discourses that valorized the capacities of the poor to manage their own lives and settlements. In order not to internalize the violence directed toward them – as manifested through forced removals and the harassment around livelihood activities – urban social movements emphasized the unyielding capacities of low-income residents to make the city their own regardless of efforts to exclude them. Thus when residents were to look upon dense, underserviced and insalubrious urban environments, they would also recognize specific abilities to be part of urban life, to have concretized their rights to the city. These efforts by local associations, made visible to a larger international audience through the efforts of organizations such as Habitat International, Shack/Slumdwellers International, the Asian Coalition on Housing Rights – to name a few, helped generate a broader interest by researchers, architects, and artists in various city-making practices ‘from below’.

    As such, urban literature in recent years has been replete with examples of the efficacies of slums or the productivity of urban frisson. This proliferation in turn raises the question about representation and the politics of a subaltern urbanism. Here, a wide range of claims, from more modest ethnographic examinations of the toiling of the poor just managing to keep their heads above water to claims that the subaltern shows us what all cities ‘really are’ – a field of constant improvisation – turn the city into essentially destabilized, fluid assemblages of bodies, materials and affect.

    Whereas cities embody a critical inability to hold together stable relationships amongst such elements, it is another thing to insist that this notion of the city is ‘proved’ by its most vulnerable inhabitants – thus equating vulnerability and the exigencies of constant compensation and adjustment with some ‘essence’ of urbanity. The actions of the poor can certainly point to how the city is not all that it is ‘cracked up’ to be. Still, these fissures in the normative – i.e. the constituent gaps that enable urban governance and urban norms to consolidate themselves – do not become visible and useable by unveiling a prior and more ‘real’ version of the city. Rather, as Urban Political Geographies emphasizes, they become instrumental through the active disruption of municipal power and capitalist relations. It is in the fight of the poor to overcome the very conditions that supposedly embody the fractal character of urban life that concretizes its potentialities – not just in the game of ‘show and tell’.

    The challenges posed by the exclusion or encampment of the urban poor are in part discursive problems that end up obscuring the question of the fundamental political and empirical challenges of describing an ‘urban majority’ and attributing to a population the status of a majority. In the practice of urban democracy, what then is to be made of a so-called ‘urban majority'? For in many cities, reference to a majority would entail talking about different ways of doing things, calculating chances and opportunities and using resources on the part of those who statistically might be grouped as similar in terms of length of urban residence, household income, educational background and so forth. If a critical advantage is to be accrued through engaging a majority as heterogeneously composed, what is to be gained by sustaining the notion of a ‘majority’? Is it simply to exclude them from the ‘pool’ of residents from which conclusions about urban dynamics are commonly made, and in this way maintain the majority as some kind of constituent exception? If so, is there a way to bring such a majority back in to analysis? And for what purpose would we do so?

    Given these questions and challenges, Urban Political Geographies attempts to make sense of the heterogeneity of contemporary cities – their heterogeneity of housing situations, livelihoods, resource dispositions, settlement histories and social identities. As such it attempts to explore scales of city-making that go beyond the conventional identities, such as the poor, the slum, the gated community, or the mega-development. The question becomes how growing urban populations are employed, housed and fed in cities that ‘hitch’ themselves to imaginaries of urban vitality and economic growth which would seem to make irrelevant the backgrounds and capacities of the majority of the city's population. In such circumstances, discourses on efficient, democratic urban governance, sustainability and security seem to displace the political and economic practices that make urban life at least minimally viable for that majority. In light of the substantial growth of urban middle classes across the majority world or the so-called South – for which the discourses of civil society, accountability, transparency and good governance seem consonant – there is a need to reconsider the economic heterogeneity of cities as the very conditions in which any consideration of rights to the city can be imagined, let alone concretized.

    The seemingly wide divergences between contemporary economic spaces – between traditional wet markets and hypermarkets, shopping malls and streets full of small shops and stalls – pose many challenges to how lines of articulation and mutual implication can be drawn. Big projects cast long and ominous shadows over vast numbers of small enterprises and labour markets even as they promise to accelerate new job creation. Different temporalities are involved, and so the cost savings and efficiencies anticipated by expanded scale also tend to flatten the intricate gradations once available to residents in terms of how they balanced their management of shelter, education, mobility, proximity to work and social support, opportunistic chances and household consumption. They change how residents ‘paced’ themselves over time and calculated what kind of time that had to work with.

    These gradations did not so much stand alone as class positions or characteristics of neighbourhoods, but were more provisional markers that provided clues for how households, associations and networks might collaborate, and how they would use available resources of all kinds. So the challenge is how to redraw the lines of connection. Here the day-to-day struggles of municipal politics and the attempts to remake ‘messy environments’ remain critical.

    Such observations do not obviate the fact that conventional mobilizations and organizational politics are necessary. The fact remains that in many districts, claims to space, resources and life are made by those who have no right, or where claims to rights are simply based on a game that only involves seizing or being seized. In many districts today, eligibility, preparation, status and waiting – all elements that have conventionally been associated with the ability to attain certain positions or opportunities – are frequently pushed aside. This is being demonstrated by the often highly speculative acts of residents to collaborate with each other in ways that cut across formal attributions of identity and discernible organizations and movements.

    Even when acts of speculation are undertaken as individual initiatives, they become a way to configure possibilities for residents of a district to be in a larger world together – in ways that do not assume a past solidity of affiliations, a specific destination nor an ultimate collective formation to come. It is a way of being together without recourse to being able to see, coordinate or command each other. If in each individual initiative, back and forth, here and there, is a proposition for how spaces across a city could be articulated, the question is how are these propositions amassed? Or, more importantly, how do they have traction with and imply each other? What kinds of openings – spatial and temporal – and what kinds of stories and practices of engagement are important for such ‘gatherings’ to take place, to find and seep through the interstices of urban promises and their ruins, of seamless and probabilistic control and the rampant uncertainties they also unfold?

  • Conclusion: Beyond Post-Neoliberal Melancholia

    This book has explored the different, interrelated and conflicting at the same time, dimensions of urban politics in an era of globalization, postmodernity and neoliberalism. In doing so, it has tried to convey a multifaceted view of the ways in which cities have become places that are central to the understanding of the contemporary globalized, and still globalizing, world. Historically, cities have offered to politico-economic elites a wide range of opportunities for economic growth, but the last three decades have witnessed the rise of cities as relatively autonomous agents of economic development and competitiveness in a context of deeply restructured socio-spatial relations involving a variety of politico-geographical scales and related actors. The politics of urban growth, the capital accumulation strategies being devised at the urban level, the cultural-economic processes leading to the generation of geographical imaginaries and public discourses are crucial to the present age of globalization, one in which economic development endeavours have to combine with the ability to generate iconic consciousness through strategies of representation.

    These processes have taken place in a world which is growingly interconnected, as the globalization rhetoric has put it for many years, but it appears also to be increasingly variegated in terms of hybridization of governance cultures and development pathways. The powerful ‘ideas from America’ dictating the politics of becoming in contemporary cities – from the global city to the creative city and to the resilient city – have travelled around the world, but in doing so they have also fused with local cultures of governance, entrepreneurship and the existing socio-spatial relationships of power, as contemporary politico-economic elites become reluctant to passively adopt policy recipes imported from elsewhere. Even though the success of neoliberalism lies in the fact of being a highly mobile and flexible governmental technology, its normative effects on the strategies of economic development are recurrent: the financialization of the housing sector, urban boosterism and the organization of hallmark events and mega-projects as a way of attracting public and private investments, the discursive emphasis on green and knowledge-based economies and on ‘creative’ industries as promised lands for economic growth and urban renaissance.

    Today, while the world economy is dealing with a global economic recession originally triggered by the subprime mortgage crisis, China – the new frontier of urban entrepreneurialism in the year of the ambitious Shanghai Expo 2010 – is experiencing an unprecedented housing boom, which is leading real estate to become the engine of the national economy along with export-led manufacturing sectors. However, in April 2010 the national government had to introduce a series of measures aimed at reducing speculative demand for housing, by imposing restrictions on the supply of mortgages (Naughton, 2010); then, in October 2010, in the context of what international mass media have depicted as ‘currency wars’ between the world's economic superpowers (China and the United States above all), China's central bank announced an increase in the official rate of interest, a decision taken for the first time in the last three years, in order to avoid a property bubble like the one that hit capitalist economies in 2008–09, leading to the first worldwide recession of the globalization era. While China tries to moderate the potentially pernicious exuberance of the housing market, ‘ghost towns’, abandoned construction sites, unsold houses and shop closures have already proliferated in cities across the advanced capitalist world in times of global recession, after years of prosperity and apparently unlimited growth.

    Cities are, therefore, at one and the same time active agents and victims of current economic turbulences. They are active agents, because the financial and fiscal crisis was originally caused by the residential mortgage default in the United States (see Chapter 3). On the other hand, they are major victims of the recession, not just because of the already mentioned spatial effects but also because of the generation of new urban outcasts: residents facing home foreclosure, migrants losing their jobs, public-sector employees being made redundant, casualized workers losing social-security benefits. In responding to this situation, national governments are looking for innovative politico-economic visions and strategies, capable of boosting a persistently anaemic growth. The two countries that had been in the forefront in the ‘neoliberal (counter)revolution’ in previous decades, the United States and Great Britain, are those where an exit strategy appears to be particularly urgent and impelling. The former is tempted by a return to Keynesianism, through an expansionary fiscal policy led by government spending, even though the Federal Administration led by President Obama has to face a neo-conservative backlash all across the country demanding lower property taxes and reduced market regulation. The latter, having witnessed in 2010 the Conservatives returning to power after 13 years of New Labour governments, is inclined to reproduce Thatcherite policies of fiscal austerity and public-sector downsizing, despite the reference to the pursuit of an alleged ‘Big Society’, which in principle advocates active citizenship and community involvement as a way to alleviate the effects of socio-economic restructuring, but in practice is likely to lead to the rise of a neo-charitable welfare system and a neo-paternalistic state.

    In a context in which national politico-economic elites are finding it hard to find effective ways of getting out of the economic recession, advanced capitalist societies are being sunk into a deep melancholia, comparable to the sense of post-imperial melancholia analysed by Paul Gilroy (2004) in his reflections on the rise of assimilationist impulses towards the ethnic minorities in Britain. While nation-states respond to uncertainty and fear by resorting to economic nationalism combined with austerity plans on a domestic level, it is in the interstices of societies that one can still see a light of hope: namely, in what this book has identified, drawing on the insights of French philosopher Jacques Rancière, as the third dimension of urban politics, the politics as contestation led by poor residents struggling for their right to stay put, by marginalized ethnic and sexual minorities demanding recognition, and by a variety of campaigners for citizenship and social justice. This ‘politics of the common’ (Hardt and Negri, 2009) adds to the previously described scenario a dynamic of contestation which is to be understood not just as the capacity to resist the consequences of socio-economic and state restructuring processes, but is to be viewed as a source of institutional formation and also of economic experimentation. In their struggles and campaigns touching on life-related issues such as housing and food, social services and a living income, substantive citizenship and sexuality, grassroots social movements and civil-society groups bring to light a ‘living politics of the city’ (Patel, 2010), which complements and at the same time stands in contrast to the hegemonic bio-politics, merely concerned with disciplinary issues of safety and protection from the infecting and the deviant ‘Other’.

    If cities and the wider capitalist societies want to get rid of the sense of post-neoliberal melancholia into which they are currently sunk, the living politics highlighted by contemporary urban social movements may show the way forward. ‘You must change your life’, as philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (2009) has put it in his recent book, is an ‘absolute imperative’ that can be applied not only to individuals but also to the larger society. That means, building on Sloterdijk's notion of ‘anthropotechnique’, that societies should be concerned with the search for discipline and method understood as a democratic practice and training. Urban neoliberalism prospered in an era characterized by unconditional belief in self-regulating markets, including housing markets. The illusion of ownership society, which symbolically traces its origins back to the adoption of Proposition 13 in California in 1978 and which was brought again to the fore of public debate by President George W. Bush in the mid-2000s, with the emphasis he placed on the neoliberal ideal of homeownership (see Chapter 3), drew on a sense of optimism and euphoria, which has been replaced by dictates of realism and rigour as soon as the recession has taken shape. Looking back at the last decade, the 2000s, one cannot fail to notice the way in which unbridled optimism and grey realism have followed one another in a neurotic fashion within the space of few months. Changing city life means, therefore, training the citizen and the larger urban community to cope with the limits of urban economic development and to contribute to the search for an alternative model of wealth generation and redistribution by restoring a sense of connection to the helpless Other and the struggling minorities.


    accumulation The process of value creation resulting in the formation of economic, social, cultural or political capital.

    actors The subjective entities performing actions, discourses, representations and acts of resistance on the basis of their identities, interests and needs within the urban public realm.

    belonging The socio-political process leading to the development of a sense of attachment to a place or a social group (a prerequisite for the rise of a space of citizenship).

    biopolitics The hegemonic politics of life itself within advanced liberal societies.

    capabilities The capacity to act and achieve a recognized presence on the public sphere.

    citizenship The codification of contested and fluid identities.

    city branding/marketing The commodification of the image of the city.

    commodification The primacy of exchange-value over use-value in the management of social relations.

    community The visible outcome of a politics of belonging at the level of neighbourhood, ethnicity and other relatively bounded socio-spatial units.

    competitiveness The conventional justification for actions and projects carried out in the name of the well-being of an urban community.

    cosmopolitanism The post-national politics of belonging in which cities act as crucial arenas.

    creativity The distinctive feature of thriving urban economies in a context of post-Fordism and immaterial capitalism.

    crisis The disruption of the established socio-spatial and economic order.

    democracy The ultimate goal of progressive politics either in formal or absolute/substantive terms.

    development The pursuit of an allegedly more prosperous society.

    difference A long-standing attribute of urban societies currently associated with the variety of socio-cultural positionalities coexisting in postmodern times.

    elites Groups and classes that have attained a hegemonic position within urban societies.

    gated communities A residential space of exception regulated in the last instance by violence.

    globalization The politico-economic era characterized by the heightened circulation of commodities, bodies and discourses at a world scale.

    governance A pluralistic practice of governing based on the negotiation and the coordination of the decision-making process.

    governmentality The wide array of techniques, procedures and regulations giving rise to a governmental rationality.

    homeownership The social goal of making the commodification and individualization of housing more acceptable in capitalist neoliberal societies.

    institutions The variegated set of formal and informal rules, conventions, organizations and shared behaviours regulating socio-spatial relations.

    justice The acknowledgement of the right and wrong in urban politics.

    minorities Subaltern groups in urban societies identified along ethnic, religious, gender/sexual lines.

    multiculturalism The ambivalent politics of presence, recognition and assimilation/integration taking shape around minority claims of diversity.

    narratives The discursive strategy linked to a politics of representation.

    negotiation The institutionalized way in which decisions are made in a context of urban governance.

    neoliberalism The renewed belief in self-regulating markets.

    police The preservation of a pre-fixed socio-spatial order by means of coercion, allowed by the state monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

    positionality The contingent role performed by individuals and social groups in relation to others.

    presence The very fact of being there and the associated claim to be granted recognition by the mainstream society.

    recognition The government's response to a grassroots politics of presence.

    redistribution The allocation of rights, duties and responsibilities between individuals, social groups and territories.

    regeneration/renewal The expected outcome of a strategy aimed at tackling urban decline.

    regime The capacity to govern through the mobilization of a broad range of actors, coalitions, rationalities and governance structures.

    regulation The set of legal and informal norms shaping the agency of individuals, groups and collectivities.

    resilience The routinized capacity to recover from disasters and other unpleasant events in today's crisis-laden world.

    responsibility The feature that makes socio-spatial subjects (actors and spaces) accountable in liberal societies, thus allowing competition.

    strategies The social construction of rationalities and actions aimed at achieving purposes that are conducive to the well-being of a community or a private entity.


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    The book is a revised and expanded version of the Italian-language Geogrofia Politica Urbana, which was published in October 2010. We'd like to thank Jamie Peck, AbdouMaliq Simone and Ola Söderström, who accepted our invitation to write a foreword to this book. We also wish to express our gratitude to Robert Rojek and Katherine Haw at SAGE. Robert enthusiastically supported our project from the very beginning; Katherine had the patience to read and edit the manuscript of two authors whose native language is not English. It goes without saying, the authors alone are responsible for any remaining errors or obscurities.

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