The urban paradox

As Cities in Conflict goes on hiatus, I take a look back at the past fourteen months of publishing articles, film, photo-essays, mappings and infographics on the series, and comment on where urbanism is today: stuck between logics of saviourism and withdrawal.

Tom Cowan
2 May 2014

Fourteen months ago, with the support of my colleagues at openSecurity and openDemocracy, we launched Cities in Conflict, a public editorial series which sought to investigate and publish critical analysis on urbanisation—the urbanisation of conflict and urbanisation as conflict.

It is perhaps no surprise that we began discussions on launching the series at the time we did—as any good  urbanist will have heard, time and time again, that in 2008 “for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population live[d] in cities”. More profoundly, with the backing of major international institutions, cities nowadays perhaps more than ever, are not simply inexorable, spontaneous products of history but living, breathing testing-grounds for a host of social, political and economic processes.

Moreover, when I began formulating Cities in Conflict in 2012 we were in the midst of political events, crises and uprisings of a particularly “urban” bent: from the 2007-08 sub-prime-mortgage crash in the US; to the influx of mega-city and infrastructure production in countries such as China, India, Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa (with much of the necessarily attached  creative destruction); to the Arab revolutions from 2010; to the urban social movements sweeping across crisis Europe from that year onwards—not to mention the increasing speed of urban withdrawal, privatisation, fragmentation and bordering on a global scale. The period 2007-14 has demonstrated quite patently the integral and fraught relationship of the urban—of land, housing, the public, the city—to the global political economy. 

Despite this, what we felt was remarkably absent in 2012 was an international, public platform where activists, residents, citizens, non-citizens and academics could discuss the changes affecting their cities. This is what spurred Cities in Conflict. Publishing in six sub-themes, the series sought to bring to the fore analysis and debate on the conflictual and contested nature of urbanisation at a global level.

There have been too many fantastic pieces of work to list them all (see the “Editor's pick” timeline for more) but a few can demonstrate the breadth of the series over the past 14 months. We have published: Stephen Graham on New Military Urbanism; AbdouMaliq Simone on the “tricks of urban endurance; Flavie Halais on security, surveillance and dispossession in the run up to Rio’s mega-events; Crisis-Scape’s series of short documentaries on Athens and the political crisis; on global city building in Dakar and Kigali; on building as resistance in Hebron; on the Gezi Park and Sao Paulo uprisings of 2013; Ayona Datta on the violence of urban renewal and resettlement in New Delhi and elsewhere; Mary Ann O’Donnell’s mini-series on Shenzhen’s urbanisation; on urban security and development  in Bogota; on resistances to dispossession and austerity in Barcelona, London, Durban and elsewhere; and on the troubling policy buzzwords of failed, resilient, fragile and smart  cities. 

As Cities in Conflict takes a pause, where are we now? Of course, the political events and trajectories I have mentioned are as important and dominant as ever; what is warming, however, is that more and more of the alternative and mainstream media are giving credence (and publishing space) to urban politics and processes. Beyond—as Rich Goulding (in Tom Slater) puts it—asking readers “about the most innovative synergistic initiative unleashing quality of life in your shanty town”, some are beginning to engage critically with the production of, and resistance to, contemporary urban processes.

The urban paradox

In the current conjuncture, cities are sites of two counterposed tendencies. First, the city is upheld as the physical metonym of modernity, the unsurpassable form of human progress, wherein any manner of economic, social and environmental ills may be treated—where non-people become people, where technology and smartness come to govern political and social contestations, where human resilience and innovation (no matter how destitute such humans may be) can mitigate the oppressive character of capital-led urban growth. Against and yet within this, largely neo-liberal, imagination exists the global trend of urban retraction, of bordering, segregation, fragmentation, state withdrawal, enclave-ing. The traditional model of urban entrepreneurialism which David Harvey discussed in the 1980s is today optimised from particular, mostly elite fragments of accumulation, (the mega-event, the gated community, the mall, etc.) marginalising entire populations, entire ways of thinking and being deemed obsolete. These are two contradictory arms of neoliberal urbanism. 

Cities, whether moving from established welfarist models or from longer heritages of fragmentation, are clenched in these two contradictory logics, of urban saviourism and of withdrawal. The space wherein the utopian conception of the city operates is getting smaller and smaller, higher and higher. There are examples all over the world—from India’s “Smart” Dholera and privately governed Gurgaon, to inner London’s property-led social cleansing of working-class, black and otherwise undesirable residents, to Durban’s brutal oppression and marginalisation of shack-dwellers and the privatised “charter” Cities of the US and Honduras. This is as true of older urban settings as the new developments (even if more acute in the latter) and is particularly pertinent given the mass capitalist urban productivism still predominating in China, India, South Africa and Nigeria.

Importantly this paradox breeds conflicts: the counter-logics of increasing fragmentation and mass influxes of urban population for example are necessarily complicit and intertwined, proliferating and confronting spaces of obstruction, contradiction and resistance. Conflicts over whom and what our urban environments are for, over the pervasive and destructive rhetorics of “renewal”, “regeneration”, “beautification”, “resilience” and “the modern”. Within these conflicts, and amid pervasive mass dispossessions, residents of the city are utilising their own produced spaces to obstruct, expel and resist the devastating effects of the urban paradox.

It is these residents whose struggles I have also attempted to highlight on the series: the young mothers in east London fighting for universal housing; the anti-eviction movements in Spain; the courageous occupiers of the world’s squares, metro stations and public parks; the shack-dwellers of Durban battling for universal housing;  the communities of Bogota resisting eviction and scarcity; the people and “non-people” of Athens  challenging a corporate-fascist takeover of Greece; the migrant workers of Barcelona; the brave communities of Palestine who continue to build resistance to colonisation; the workers on the peripheries of Dhaka opposing an oppressive global supply chain. And of course there are so many more we didn't cover—for example, the incredible Southall Black Sisters and their fight against state oppression in west London: the list is thankfully, endless.

The challenge is of course one of persistence in the face of failure, of challenging the paradoxical logics of “urbanism” at their root—of building solidarities among the various fragments of humanity struggling for better, more just, social environments.

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