29 March, 2020

Reflecting upon the geographical fundamentals of the Corona-issue, and the particular challenges for relational urbanisation – PART II

In this follow-up to Part I of the Blog entry that appeared here last week, we will discuss the possible risks and ramifications for cities that are confronted with the current – and maybe longer lasting – lock-down of social systems and economies. The point here is that those cities will be particularly affected that are based on openness and circulation. Luxembourg, a small but global, economically powerful and thus ‘relational’ place par excellence, has a lot to lose in this respect.

“That is all moot.” These were the words with which a prominent geographer responded to the cancellation of this year’s annual conference of the International Network of Urban Research and Action (INURA) (www.inura.org), that was planned for this June in Luxembourg. We’ve now decided to shift the meeting to next year, including the birthday party and conference part on the occasion of the then 31st anniversary of the Network. We look forward to welcoming an international community of urban researchers & activists who will also inspire and ignite debates around here (inuraluxembourg.blogspot.com).
“Moot” could also suit for interpreting current social and economic life under the siege of the Virus more generally. In Part I of this Blog entry (see below), I presented a quick reading of the Corona outbreak from a geographical perspective, with an emphasis on some essentials such as spatial diffusion and differentiation, temporal evolution, mobilities of all kinds, and the increasing degree of interconnectedness and interrelationships that seem to characterise localities in most general terms. It’s nothing sensational, but sometimes it is useful to stress the trivial-but-not-banal essentials of a subject matter (like geography), particularly when teaching disciplinary foundations for graduate students in light of current events that have been speedily gaining momentum.
A second reason to delve deeper into the geographical ramifications of the Virus and the associated quarantine lockdown is its inherent exposure of risk. The latent standstill of social and economic systems, caused by the constraints to the assembly of people and, even more important, to their spatial mobility, brings some severe challenges to places that are actually grounded on the principle of flow. This applies particularly to cities that we approach as being ‘relational’: (relatively) small but (highly) global places such as Geneva (Switzerland), Singapore or Luxembourg – localities that we studied throughout the course of the FNR-funded research project GLOBAL (Hesse & Wong, 2020). Corona gives a bitter lesson to these places, as it questions their historically specific, highly successful trajectories. These trajectories were already associated with a certain social and environmental cost. Now it looks as if they are in fundamental danger as such.

Liquidity and vulnerability of relational urbanisation
GLOBAL aimed at analyzing the past, present and future global trajectories of these three places, for the reason of providing a nuanced view of small but global urbanisation. The basis of the research was a large corpus of secondary data, which was assessed by content analysis. In a second step, we analysed about 50 research interviews that were conducted between 2017 and 2019. The main research interest was, firstly, to reconstruct the means and measures through which these – relatively small – places were able to gain a top-level position in global urban regards. Secondly, we wanted to identify the related consequences for urban development and policy, given that the high degree of internationality creates multiple tensions at local levels.
Geneva, Luxembourg and Singapore qualified for this research as all three locales experienced strong and rapid growth within a short period of time, more related to network embeddedness – being situated in between – rather than centrality within a given territory. They operate on bounded territories, template cases of borrowed size. Their growth rates are driven by financial and other services and integration in the global economy as well as global migration. The three places are ranked on GaWC as Beta, Alpha- and Alpha+ world cities, respectively (as of 2016). They also share particular governance patterns practiced locally and beyond, successfully set in place as a consequence of niche-making based on (relative) smallness: one is a capital city of a small state, the other the seat of a canton, the third represents a city-state. All three blend scales (Affolderbach & Carr, 2016) through local and state power.
The building blocks of relationality are the management of flows, supported by positionality and governance features, further underpinned by particular historical trajectories. The ability of the three cities to make the “most out of smallness” (Grydehøj, 2011) by “extracting profit from extraterritorial terrain” (Olds & Yeung, 2004) is striking, which is not least bound to specific historical trajectories. All three were able to build on earlier expertise and infrastructures to further establish themselves in particular niche activities. But they also actively seek diversification as a central policy agenda, and are extremely open to change, new activities and new pathways to growth. Each also began shifting towards a services and knowledge-oriented economy at different times, pushed by different external and historical conditions, supported by similar governance arrangements.
Most importantly, our sample areas focus heavily on managing the flows of capital and commodities, material and immaterial flows (conveying money, information, ideas), or political flows, in order to maintain their economic niches. Luxembourg is renown as a financial market place, managing investment funds, wealth, insurance and the like. It also hosts one of the world’s more important airfreight hubs. As an important seat of European politics, Luxembourg generates huge flows of political ideas, legislation and lobbying. Besides its role as a money hub and as a centre of diplomacy, Geneva is specialised in the virtual trade of commodities, of which a huge share is also administered there (see Haller’s 2019 fascinating account of merchanting in Switzerland). Meanwhile, Singapore manages a wide portfolio of capital flows in capital markets, private wealth and insurance, and both the virtual and actual trade of commodities. All three places, even the two landlocked ones, engage in maritime services. All three host ‘Freeports’ – fortified warehouses for collectibles of highest value, a most recent strategy to capitalise on flows. All three lack domestic markets and have a limited pool of local talent – hence they rely on interregional and international pools of highly skilled labour, mobilised due to their cross-border location. Accessibility and infrastructure policy are crucial here.
A unique position–or better, positionality–as key mediators and brokers between regional and international systems helped all three places to better capitalise on particular flows: Luxembourg from within the EU, Geneva from outside the EU, and Singapore within the Southeast Asian and Chinese markets. They are situated at borders: Luxembourg in the Greater Region (including parts of Belgium, France, and Germany), Geneva with Grand Genève stretching into France, and Singapore with Southeast Asia and China. These characteristics compensate for their small size both in regional and global terms. Consequently, all three cities have a multilingual society, which they offer as a unique asset to international businesses that increasingly require linguistic and also cultural translation in their cross-border settings. Openness towards what is situated ‘out there’ (Kevin Cox) is thus required to play out relationality and to capitalise on this. However, openness alone would not suffice, as all three cases demonstrated with their ability to blend scales, that is, to merge state power and local thickness to something that unfolds as a rather strong political power.

Risks to Luxembourg’s niche-economic path/business model
Making the most of smallness by attracting flows of all kinds is only made possible by particular governance conditions, and the somehow extraverted urbanism that has made city and country prosperous is associated with some sort of introverted governance. All three cases that we studied exhibit legislative autonomy to change regulation, create new laws, and administer regulation in a way that it creates a favourable businesses climate. Niche sovereignty enabled them to create a competitive advantage compared to other (larger) cities in federal states. Close links between state and local decision-makers, or even convergence between the two in their much praised ‘ecosystems’ or clusters, have been a defining feature in all three cases and used to their maximum advantage.
However, the Corona shut down demonstrates rather brutally what can happen to open systems and niche-economies like Luxembourg, when they lack their most important asset: flows and the seamless mobilities of people, goods, money and other commodities that make up their fortune. Starting again with the trivial-but-not-banal: If the country’s borders are shut down or are rendered less permeable, it will miss a huge number of workers such as nurses and doctors. The health system of the small country seems just as vulnerable as other branches (restaurants, taxis, retail, programming …) as it relies on the constant input from, and growth of, a foreign workforce. However, unlike taxis, hospitals and doctors’ cabinets can be classified as essential to the system (“systemrelevant”) and the society as a whole.
Indispensable to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is the now 200,000-strong workforce (almost half of the national labour market!) that crosses the national borders every workday in order to keep the whole business model going. (The same applies btw to Geneva situated at the French-Swiss border, and to Singapore with its reliance on Malay and Indonesian workforce). This flow of workers makes relationality possible; that is, these cities remain global but keep things small and under local control. In addition, the Luxembourg-specific division of labour between qualified (foreign) job holders that occupy a variety of relevant positions in basic sectors and the private market economy on the one hand, and nationals who have the privilege of (unusually highly paid) employment in state and municipal sectors on the other hand may not work anymore, if the commuter inflow would be blocked for longer.
Even more critical is the state of the services sector in general and the financial marketplace (“la place”) in particular. Corona probably brings the biggest threat to Luxembourg’s competitive position, which is being built on the concentration of financial resources that were successfully acquired over the last three to four decades. What started with offering half obscure, half legal tax advantages (and thus allowed for the milking of neighbor countries’ public budgets) became a full-fledged global financial centre including investment funds, insurance, legal advice and more recently also fintech services. This machine contributes massively to the country’s budget line. Keeping it going requires a global economy that operates by separating real economy from the financial system, a circuit of earnings and added values that are bundled in tax havens and other specialized domains. Such a business model is highly vulnerable to disruption, and the related ecosystems require face-to-face communication, which is no longer possible now (see the national flagship airline’s announcement on the grounding of its fleet). The serious midterm question is whether and how specialized financial enclaves can develop a sense of resilience at all (see Brunnhuber et al., 2005; Dörry & Schulz, 2018).

In a small country, there is also some concern about the disruption of material supply chains (for example in the food sector), as procurement in such countries heavily depends on imports from elsewhere. These imports can be questioned, as was demonstrated by the BSE food scandal. Yet at the same time, it is unrealistic to expect economic self-sufficiency from a nation state whose area is the same size as the neighbor state of Saarland in Germany, and whose population is only 60 per cent of that. Small units simply lack sufficient demand for creating a reasonable supply on that level of scale. Even more so, the high standard of living that Luxembourg’s consumers are used to enjoying would not be satisfied by any sort of local or regional sourcing.
More importantly, the challenges that Corona brings to interconnected places and economies coincide with the observation of “Slowbalisation”, as coined by the Economist to describe the global economy moving at snail pace on 26th January 2019. As a result of Brexit and Trumpism, a certain temptation of nationalism, or post-national regionalism, has entered the stage of global politics. World trade numbers have plummeted recently, and this was before national governments began blocking cross-border flows in order to keep the Virus out. All this will challenge the niche-economies of flows quite heavily: As one logistics executive from Luxembourg mentioned to us in a research interview: “When globalization comes to a halt, we’re done”. Trade blocks and diseases have the potential not only to disrupt, but also to actually dismantle the system of world trade and global exchange as we know it. Re-regulation in the regional or national interest – something that was difficult to imagine for decades – could now offer a possible pathway for the near future. Globalization marching onwards in the same direction as before is only one possible direction, but no longer the unquestioned truth forever. There could also be a multipolar world emerging with different patterns of trade, and the same applies to a possible renationalization of economic policies (Credit Suisse Research Institute, 2016).

However accidental the Virus came to us as societies (keeping in mind the various meanings that the term ‘accidental’ has to offer), the crisis brings indeed some good reason to reflect upon its systemwide impacts. It looks as if the Virus and the subsequent lockdown could erase some of the seemingly undisputed beliefs that research and practice communities have been dealing with for a while now, most notably the imperative of global economic competition, the exaggerations of consumerist techno-capitalism, and its hunger for more. While “pushing the limits for the sake of pushing the limits” seemed sacrosanct until recently, one could now take the freedom to rethink the issue further: Is there choice after the Virus, in order to escape from the iron cage of growth?
Are there alternative geographies of, or for, Luxembourg that could be distilled from rethinking capital city and country in the light of the current lockdown? In Part III of this Blog entry, I will soon discuss some elements of these alternative pathways. While this rethinking came up entirely involuntarily (accidentally, if you want), it could provide some essential inspiration for the time after the crisis, whenever that will be.

(Special thanks to my post-doc project collaborator Dr Catherine Wong in GLOBAL, and as always to my co-editor of this Blog).

Selected bibliography
Affolderbach, Julia & Carr, Constance (2016). Blending scales of governance: Land‐use policies and practices in the small state of Luxembourg. Regional Studies, 50(6), 944-955.
Brunnhuber, Stefan, Fink, Alexander & Kuhle, Jens- Peter (2005). The financial system matters: future perspectives and scenarios for a sustainable future. Futures, 37(4), 317-332.
Credit Suisse Research Institute (2016). Getting over Globalization. Zurich: Credit Suisse AG.
Dörry, Sabine & Schulz, Christian (2018). Green financing, interrupted. Potential directions for sustainable finance in Luxembourg. Local Environment, 23(7), 717-733.
Grydehøj, Adam (2011). Making the most of smallness: economic policy in microstates and sub-national island jurisdictions. Space and Polity, 15(3), 183-196.
Haller, Lea (2019). Transithandel. Geld- und Warenströme im globalen Kapitalismus. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Hesse, Markus & Wong, Catherine (2020). Cities seen through a relational lens. Niche economic strategies and related urban development trajectories in Geneva (Switzerland), Luxembourg (Luxembourg) and Singapore. Geographische Zeitschrift, DOI 10.25162/gz-2019-0020.
Olds, Kris & Yeung, Henry (2004). Pathways to global city formation: a view from the developmental city-state of Singapore. Review of International Political Economy, 11(3), 489-521.

Markus Hesse

20 March, 2020

Reflecting upon the geographical fundamentals of the Corona-issue, and the particular challenges for relational urbanisation – PART I

This note comments on the Corona issue from a geographical perspective. It evolved out of a discussion with my 1st year Master students who attended “Foundations and Trends in Geography”, a module that is dedicated to familiarising students with fundamentals of the discipline, and how (and why) these have changed over time. Clearly, the Corona outbreak is essentially linked to geography, which is indicated for example by plenty of maps and diagrams spreading across the media, with spatio-temporal matters on display. This Part I of the entry will be followed soon by a discussion on what Corona means for ‘relational cities’ – small but highly globalised places that have emerged thanks to intermediacy and niche-economic strategies. Their prospect is increasingly challenged.

Every crisis has its momentum. It is now becoming clear to many of us that the Corona outbreak is not simply a matter of a short-term lock-down that can be reversed in a few weeks. It will most likely call for mid- or long-term strategies of adaptation, whose social, economic and environmental costs are extremely difficult to estimate at this point. However, it is undisputed that the Virus has created huge problems. As Mike Meadows, Assistant to the Secretary General of the IGU, informed the geography community:

“On March 18, 2020, cases of COVID-19 have now been recorded in about 160 countries, territories, areas, spread across six continents, and the number of confirmed cases outside of China has exceeded 110,000, clearly higher than the confirmed cases in China (81,116). Meanwhile, the number of newly confirmed cases in China has dropped to double digits. On March 12, China’s National Health Commission announced that the peak of the epidemic in China had passed. On March 18, there were 34 newly confirmed cases in China, and all the cases were attributed to travelers returning from abroad. No newly confirmed cases in Wuhan, China on March 19!” (E-mail communication, 19th March 2020).

In addition to that, it feels as if the Virus is posing some fundamental questions about a social and economic model that is characterized by interconnectedness, condensation and acceleration, a model that is actually deemed unsustainable. However, the questions is not only whether this model is sustainable or not, or whether current events signify that some of the things that we have become accustomed to are coming to end, sooner than later. Rather, in the first instance, it is fundamental to us, as geographers, to look at the spatialities of the spread of the Virus, and how governments and political actors respond to that.

In terms of geography and planning, which are the domains that we engage in, there are a couple of observations and interpretations that might be worth sharing. First and foremost, it is interesting to see that the geographical character of Corona outbreak is at the centre of public awareness. Maps and diagrams displaying the pandemic, such as the global dashboard provided by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland (USA), or the diagrams on the sequential move of the number of infections in relation to recovery rates and lethality of the virus as published by the Washington Post, are constant accompaniers throughout the media. Topics such as spatial distribution and temporal evolution have reached public awareness. This is essentially geography. To us, this might be good reason to re-read the work of geographers such as Torsten Hägerstrand or Peter Haggett – as issues such as time geography and also the spread of diseases is becoming are a hot topic again.

With regards to its geographical nature, it is interesting to see how the spread of the Virus also alters our perspective on urbanisation and, most importantly, on cities. Until recently, many accounts of the apparently law-based, planetary process of urbanisation (measured by the mushrooming of mega-cities, the rising share of global urban population, or the discovery of cities as global political actors) have emphasised the societal benefits of agglomeration. Corona sheds a different light on this, as did its predecessor SARS (see Connolly, Keil & Ali 2020). It is of course, and by far, not only density that makes us rethink the vulnerability of urban places against viruses and other epidemic shocks. However, risk exposure and the associated damages can be more intense in urban places, and failures of critical infrastructures can leave a disproportionate part of the population affected. And indeed, in addition to core city areas, suburbs and city regions are likewise coming into focus as places that are equally prone to the spread of the virus as they are affected by it. If there is an urbanisation related consequence of this debate, then it is probably that the specificities of the city region or the urban-rural distinction are becoming viewed in much more nuanced ways than before.

The second observation in the course of the Corona crisis points at its very particular mobilities and immobilities dimension. This is imminent not only in the current crisis and lock-down, but is also, and obviously, a key ingredient of modern society overall. The amount of flows of all kinds that maintain the functioning of cities and societies -- being these flows of people, commodities, commuters, money or political ideas and ideologies -- is simply striking. This matter of fact is far too often taken for granted, and awareness of it only surfaces when the systems are out of order, like now. Some geographers may recall the shut down of global air travel in 2010 as a consequence of the Icelandic volcano fallout, where so many of us couldn’t leave Washington DC after the AAG-Conference but had to wait for things to get back to normal. (I was part of a group who’d chosen a remote place in Delaware, in order to make best use of this non-voluntary, non-quarantine stay abroad). With the Virus deepening the constraints to mobility, this will stress corporations and individuals in their adaptation to the crisis, and the longer it takes to return to normal, the more extensive the damage will be.

Last but not least, both interrelation and complexity come to mind when reflecting further on the mess created by the Virus. Again, this only looks trivial, but it is in fact fundamental in the very consequences: Hardly any place can exist nowadays without being deeply connected to other places. Trade relations, city-regional labour markets, or food supply networks have constituted an array of webs and connectivities that keep our cities and economies going, one place embedded in manifold relations with others. The sheer extent of these relations is stunning. Some of the externalities of these global networks have been subject to criticism in the context of regionalist or post-growth discourses (carbon and energy demand, exploitation of labour), that are supported by good arguments. However, while it is difficult to imagine a world that needs to return to much more fine-grain patterns of supply of goods and services, it is not certain that a system, or pattern, would automatically be more sustainable than the global one. Spatial division of labour has certainly a range of benefits and advantages, “ecologies of scale” come to mind here, and these need to be balanced against the extractive nature of the large-scale system of global trade and international relations.

Markus Hesse

17 March, 2020

Fare-free public transit in Luxembourg - An afterword

While the world is in turmoil because of a virus, let’s recall what happened just two weeks ago, when the world was (perhaps) a world away: the introduction of fare-free public transit (FFPT) across an entire country, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, on 1st March 2020. We were swamped by it.

Back in December, we noticed that we were receiving, pretty much on a weekly basis, calls or E-mails from the media, colleagues abroad, or student groups doing research on the issue. The inquiries were a result of two articles that we had published – one in ‘The Conversation’ (2019) and another in the Journal Transport Geography (2020), which is available upon request here. Some readers might also have been reacting to our first initial reflection that we posted here, shortly following the government’s announcement and ensuing media storm in 2019. As the much celebrated 1st of March approached, however, these weekly contacts increased in frequency, to a point where we were doing several interviews inside of just (and only) a few days. On one hand, this attention was a surprising story about impact: We interrogated discourses, attempted to decipher the politics and the political behind the policy measure, and embed it into the context. Who would have thought that our pen could be so mighty as to generate such attention and sway the debate?

Media Exposure

To sum up the media events that have unfolded since January of this year: We were contacted by Radio 100,7, the Swedish Dagens Nyheter, the Belgian BTRF, the Swiss SRF, the Berliner Tagesspiegel, The Independent in the UK, the BBC World Service, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, Italy's La Repubblica, and probably the most influential of them all with his 2 million followers (at least with younger generations) Youtuber TomScottGo. We were not able to respond to all the calls. In some cases, it was sufficient to simply send articles that we had already written. (So, it is a good idea to have a publication to buttress a position, and it can never be assumed that journalists have done their homework). The University of Luxembourg’s communication office was also involved, helping direct media attention to the appropriate contact point within the University, and providing spontaneous assistance and advice about how to handle the media (Thank you Laura!).

In addition to the above, RTL, science.lu, Le Quotidien, the Tageblatt, all reported on, or took inspiration from, our article in the Journal of Transport Geography, and there are uncountable replicators of all of the above, such as The Global Herald, WikiNews, Bangal Viral, Go Tech Daily, and who knows what else. In tech terms: Our voices, and our faces, were summoned into the light, to orbit online platforms…

For sure, it was a lesson in journalism: We got first-hand insight into the different objectives and methods of journalists, the depth of journalism (and, to be honest, the equally often  lack of it), the working world of quick and dirty journalism that co-opts and transfigures a message. One notable example was how the RTL jumped the word “populist” above all else – a term that we used only once in our article. 

Critical debate brings things forward

Yet, on the whole, the media was very supportive. Most journalists appreciated an opportunity to get the fuller picture, from insiders with some critical distance to the authorities. They were, after all, tasked with making sense of FFPT in imagery as opposed to FFPT in reality, and this is where we came in. Providing a reflection upon policies based on intimate knowledge of the cases at stake, without having a stake in it, can be considered one of the key aims of critical scholarship. 

And if our point was about discourse, framing and branding, maybe the most striking issue that we noticed was the difference between Luxembourg's self-perception and description on the one hand, and observations and judgement from a distance on the other. It is interesting to see that the government’s claim about what its actual intention was (from steering mobility behaviour to providing a social benefit) was completely overrun by the foreign media's perception that there would be an ecological turn in transport and mobility unfolding in Luxembourg. This perception certainly found applause in the government, and was never denied by the authorities who were grateful of the global media spread. If one learned about Luxembourg's FFPT via the media only, one would come to the conclusion that Luxembourg was spearheading the coming transport revolution. This would be awesome, of course, if only it were the case …

The overall positive aspect resulting from this attention was observing how the public and scholarly debate moved forward. In this respect, it is an example of how a scientific, double-blind peer-reviewed, journal article managed to change understandings of a certain phenomenon. In terms of public debate, the ideas that we list in our papers partly became mainstream thought.

Indeed, there were strange discussions cycling about. Some assumed that critiques of FFPT are automatically pro car. We also received a personal message, from someone of a far-right bent who dug up our one comment about populism, and used it as an opportunity to doublespeak and point the finger at democratic parties (this is when the 'delete' button comes in handy). Some ventured that critiques from science are a sign that state funding is a waste (insinuating that comments from the scientific corner ought always be palatable). It is surprising that what these perceptions missed was the fact that a critique of FFPT can be, in fact, not only pro public transit, but also pro public service.

The accomplishment, one might venture nonetheless, was that there a greater understanding was achieved: (a) the public transport system is in dire need of investment; (b) housing prices are a real social problem here; (c) transport is also labour issue. Yet, at the same time, we were also tied up in a weird figure-eight between scholarship, media, and politics — all missing the political. (One might note, too, that the media attention also served as a diversion, occluding more important global issues).

Most importantly, one could ask what will happen now that the March 1st fanfare is over and the media has packed up and gone home. Won't it most likely be a return to business as usual – long commutes, cancelled trains/busses, etc?

FFPT in a nutshell
The following is a list of key questions that a foreign media representative addressed. We use them here to summarise our position.

1) Why do you think free public transit is not a good idea?
Surely the role of politics isn’t be simply about providing gifts to the public, but about taking care of present and future issues and, most notably, addressing problems. Transit fares have never been a problem in this country. No one ever complained that they couldn't use the public transport because they couldn't afford it (which is probably different from many other places). FFPT in Luxembourg was a solution that lacked an underlying problem, a policy nobody had actually asked for. For that, the government is ready to spend EUR 41m/year.

2) Is there something specific about Luxembourg that makes the idea wrong?
Yes. The whole socio-demographic and economic trajectory is hugely specific. Luxembourg is de facto a small city-state formation run by central government, while the building and planning authorities sit with 102 municipalities. It seems extremely difficult to find a common sense between the two levels of governance (see Carr's paper here). Growth rates are extremely high by European comparison, effectively the capital city and its suburbs are like a sponge, attracting not only capital for investment and admin, but also 200,000 commuters from neighbouring countries per workday. For decades, the country was used to building roads and paving the way for cars – such as the Plateau Kirchberg, an economic zone in the centre of the country that that had a motorway built directly to it, connecting to the border regions. This habit has only been changing recently. So, the government is right in what it's doing in transport infrastructure terms, but: a), the investment numbers that are provided for comparison are an expression of backlog of need, not head start on infrastructure planning; and, b) its economic development policy – paradoxical as this effect turns out – will contribute to making the sponge even bigger. It thus deepens the real problem. FFPT has nothing to do with these issues, and it can make things even worse if cyclists and pedestrians should switch to transit, causing low-carbon mobility to lose traction.

3) Luxembourg seems the perfect place – small country, small population – to be a laboratory for mobility. Is it not true? What is necessary?
This case is far from being well suited for this; hence, we would not recommend that other countries take inspiration from here. The reasons for this is because Luxembourg is: a) so specific in its socio-economic and political-economic setting, and b) rather traditional in its obsession with the car, roads and motorways. Territorial size or population counts do not mean that public transit automatically works. When asked what is needed, we find following three elements. First, get rid of existing subsidies for corporate cars, petrol and diesel that promote toxic travel modes. Second, calm car traffic towards the benefit of pedestrians and bikers, children etc. and for safe environments and public spaces. Third, designate bus lanes to improve transit flow, and pursue the effective changes that can be implemented in the fastest possible ways for immediate impact. Fourth, address tact, increase frequency and improve reliability. A cancelled train that would arrive only once every 30 minutes anyway is hardly indicative of a reliable system. And, most connections do not make sense, meaning that many changeovers take 30-45 minutes meaning ridiculous time investment for riders. All these discussions, however, are far from political mainstream.

4) What else could one try to make significant improvements to public transit and mobility?
Inevitably, government and society will have to tackle the dominance of the car. There is no real alternative to this. Then, all other transport modes would benefit from that. In the long run, the social spatial imbalance between Luxembourg and its neighbour countries needs to be re-adjusted, as does the internal mismatch between the capital city and the rest of Luxembourg. Admittedly, there is no easy fix for the underlying dilemma to be expected from whatever measure in short term. The setting of economic and socio-demographic growth, local governance (and governmentality) and the resulting spatial imbalance is extraordinarily complex and can only be addressed by mid- and long-term political strategies. However, such strategies do not offer the immediate revenue that the governing parties would like to see materialising.

5) What do you think about the experience of free transportation in other countries/cities (Tallinn, Dunkirk in France…)?
These may also be pretty specific. While having never been to the places mentioned, it is difficult to make a proper statement about this. FFPT seems to be an issue that may suit for smaller not bigger spatial units. Large countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands or metropolitan regions such as Berlin haven't considered such a measure, for good reason: a) They need the fares as an important budgetary component; and b) they focus on quality, for which continuous and expensive investment is required. In many countries, rail and transit infrastructures need to be renovated or upgraded – either to catch up with economic and demographic growth or to implement transit-oriented development, or both.

Constance Carr and Markus Hesse

05 March, 2020

INURA 2020 in Luxembourg, June 18-24 - Early Bird Registration is open

Small State, Big Transitions - The 30th Annual Conference of INURA, the International Network of Urban Research and Action

June 18-24

The Urban Group at the Department of Geography and Spatial Planning at the University of Luxembourg is pleased to announce the 30th annual conference of INURA, taking place in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Full of surprises and paradoxes, participants of INURA 2020 can look forward to an exciting set of tours (June 19, 20) that aim to show the range of challenges and contradictions that constitute this urban space — a small state, city-state, multilingual sovereign nation, European capital, financial capital, international business hub, and cross-border (sub)urban region. 2020 is also a special anniversary year of INURA, celebrating 30 years of research and action. Organised in co-operation with INURA and the ETH Department of Architecture, anniversary celebrations (June 21, 22) will feature confirmed keynotes,

Laura Colini (Tesserae Urban Social Research), Jorge Peña Diaz (Urban Research and Action Group, Technological University of Habana), Michael Edwards (The Bartlett School of Planning, University College of London), Maria Kaika (Urban Planning, University of Amsterdam), Roger Keil (CITY Institute, York University), Ute Lehrer (Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University), Marvi Maggio (Confederation of Grassroots Committees, Region of Tuscany), Libby Porter (Centre for Urban Research, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology), Jennifer Robinson (Department of Geography, University College of London), Marit Rosol (Department of Geography, University of Calgary), Christian Schmid (Department of Architecture, ETH), Erik Swyngedouw (Manchester Urban Institute, University of Manchester), and video screenings from Spectacle Productions.

We are excited to announce that Early Bird Registration is now open (until March 15, 2020). Please visit the conference website, https://inuraluxembourg.blogspot.com, learn about the fee structure at "Registration/Fees/Accommodation", and click on the link provided that will direct you to a secure online registration and payment system.

Please note that each individual must register separately (including spouses and children). Please, also note INURA 2020 does have limited capacity.  So, please take advantage of this early bird option, not only to take advantage of lower prices, but also to ensure a place for you.  Questions? Feel free to contact: luxembourg2020@inura.org

18 February, 2020

Professor of Urban Regeneration wanted!

The University of Luxembourg seeks to hire an associate professor (permanent position) in urban regeneration, for joining the Department of Geography & Spatial Planning within the Faculty of Humanities, Education & Social Sciences.

The new colleague is expected to provide excellent scientific impetus for fundamental research on urban development in the 21st century and will contribute to the study of urban planning challenges at regional, national and cross-border levels. Considering contemporary urban planning discourses and the ongoing territorial transition, the professorship will focus on urban regeneration processes. The candidate must demonstrate excellent theoretical and practical references in the socio-ecological transition of urbanised territories, both built and unbuilt.

The deadline for handing in your application (Ref: F3-130021) to the Dean of the Faculty is 18 March 2020. More information about the post, the required profile and how to apply is available here.

For any queries, please contact:
Prof. Dr. Christian Schulz
Telephone: (+352) 46 66 44 6327

A strongly committed team that works across the boundaries of planning, geography, architecture and other social sciences is waiting for you!

(c) Tom Becker, 2019

30 January, 2020

Call for Applications ARL International Summer School 2020 - "Smart cities and beyond", 7-9 Sept. 2020

Call for Applications
ARL International Summer School 2020 
“Smart cities and beyond” 

7 – 9 September 2020, Luxembourg 

The event is jointly organized by: 
German Academy for Spatial Research and Planning (ARL) 
University of Luxembourg / Department of Geography and Spatial Planning 

The German Academy for Spatial Research and Planning (Akademie für Raumforschung und Landesplanung, ARL) in cooperation with the University of Luxembourg is inviting applications for the ARL International Summer School 2020 on “Smart cities and beyond”, which will take place from 7 to 9 September 2020 in Luxembourg (arrival scheduled for 6 September 2020). Advanced doctoral students from all disciplines are invited to apply. The summer school will be held in English. The deadline for applications is 2 March 2020. 

In recent years, “smart cities” has become a hegemonic concept in urban discourses, referring either to the broad set of technologies introduced towards steering infrastructure and the intelligent use of resources, or to improving the built environment by clever planning approaches. Firms, transfer agencies and municipalities seem to be working hard on the implementation of smart metres, energy efficiency, intelligent mobility, and the like. 

However, the scholarly literature on digital cities clearly demonstrates that there are externalities, uncertainties and risks associated with the hype and the rash introduction of ‘smartness’. Also, open discourses should not be confined to a narrow understanding of smart technologies. As it is yet rather unclear what these may mean in urban and regional contexts, the ARL International Summer School 2020 is particularly dedicated to discussing these questions. Our aim is to uncover the whole range of issues, potentials and risks that are associated with Smart Cities, to reconstruct related policy narratives and to link research and practice insofar as it concerns the design of robust strategies of urban and regional development. 

The German Academy for Spatial Research and Planning (Akademie für Raumforschung und Lande-splanung, ARL) realizes its International Summer School 2020 in cooperation with the Department of Geography and Spatial Planning at the University of Luxembourg. Participants will have the opportunity to discuss conceptual, methodological, and empirical contributions that explore Smart Cities with a critical perspective, focusing on the relations between two major subjects of study: ‘smartness’, high-tech, Internet of Things, big data developments, infrastructure, and intellectual property on the one hand; and cities, urban regions and related governance processes and discourses on the other hand. The presentations and discussions should deliver insight into selected facets of smartness, relate these to the role they may play in/for urban and regional development, and address their consequences for spatial planning and development strategies. Specifically, we invite contributions from early career researchers whose approaches and early-stage analyses demonstrate a particular interest in:
  • Applying the Smart City so far (municipal experiences),
  • Planning the Smart City in spatial regards, 
  • Governance and policy dimensions, Smart City policy discourses,
  • The role of big corporations (such as Google, Amazon, Facebook etc.),
  • Smart City and the rise of platform economies,
  • Historical avenues of practicing ‘new technologies’ in urban and regional development, 
  • Conceptual and methodological approaches to studying digital urbanism,
  • Smart technologies as drivers for community based economies/collaborative endeavours,
  • Urban governance and the social construction of cities.


Prof. Guy Baeten, PhD – Professor of Urban Studies at Malmö University and Director of the Institute for Urban Research, Malmö, Sweden

Assoc. Prof. Andrew Karvonen, PhD – Associate Professor and Director of Doctoral Studies in the Di-vision of Urban and Regional Studies at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden

Priv.-Doz. Dr. Bastian Lange – Lecturer at Leipzig University and founder of Multiplicities – Office for Spatial Development and Urban Planning, Berlin, Germany

Asst. Prof. Dr. Agnieszka Leszczynski – Assistant Professor in Geography at Western University, London, Ontario, Canada

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Stijn Oosterlynck – Associate Professor in Urban Sociology at the University of Ant-werp and Chair of the Centre for Research on Environmental and Social Change (CRESC) and the Ant-werp Urban Studies Institute, Antwerp, Belgium

Prof. Dr. Liesbet Van Zoonen – Professor of Sociology and Dean of the Erasmus Graduate School of Social Sciences and the Humanities at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, Netherlands

The German Academy for Spatial Research and Planning (Akademie für Raumforschung und Landesplanung, ARL) is an independent non-university institution and one of the prime addresses in Europe for research and advice on sustainable spatial development. It consists of a network of non-paid academics and practitioners who participate in tempo-rary working groups on the regional, national, and international levels. The ARL is a think tank for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary cooperation between research and practice on all important spatial issues. It is particularly committed to the exchange and dissemination of knowledge. Support for young researchers and practitioners is well-established at the ARL. The ARL is a member of the German Leibniz Association.

Research and teaching in the domains of geography and planning at the University of Luxembourg take place in the Department of Geography and Spatial Planning, part of the Faculty of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences. Established in April 2006, the Department comprises a 45-person strong team, including professors, guest professors, junior and senior researchers, and doctoral students. Its research focusses on areas such as environmental economic geography, political geography, urban studies and planning, architecture, and geographical information systems (GIS).

The Department has also strong links to practice. It hosts the National Contact points for ESPON and the European Migration Net-work (EMN). It is the seat of the GR Atlas and partici-pates in the Faculty‘s Key Area of “Migration and In-clusive Society” and is ac-tive member of the Centre for Border Studies of the UniGR (the University of the Greater Region). In terms of teaching, it runs a Master in Geography & Spatial Planning, a Master in Border Studies, and a Master in Architecture. The Department also offers the certificate program “Formation Continue en Aménagement du Territoire”, that certifies future planners in Luxembourg. 

The Summer School will take place on the University of Luxembourg’s Campus Belval in Esch-sur-Alzette. Situated on a former ironworks site in the south of the Grand Duchy, the campus is part of a dynamically developing urban district hosting various public research organisations, commercial office buildings, residencies as well as shops, bars and restaurants. The train station Belval-Université connects the campus with the capital city (30 minutes journey, every 15 minutes).

Our aim is to stimulate discussion, gain insight, and develop new research questions on the topics presented at the summer school. Participants will have the opportunity to present their research and receive individual feedback from international professors and experts. In addition, keynote speeches and plenary sessions offer the opportunity to intensify the debate and develop further research ideas. Field trips and shared social activities will help bring the topic of Smart Cities to life.

The summer school takes a critical and interdisciplinary approach to the study of Smart Cities. We invite applications from advanced doctoral students with a background in geography, urban and European studies, political sciences, sociology, spatial planning, public administration, social design, and related fields. We admit up to seven participants in a competitive application process. The ARL sponsors the accommodation and travel costs of all participants. A participation fee will not be charged. As academic institutions, the organizers encourage scientific publications and aim to compile an edited volume on the theme of the summer school. Participants should be willing and prepared to discuss their paper drafts during the summer school and to develop their papers afterwards.

Your application should include a motivation letter (max. 1 page), a short CV, and a short description of the project that you are going to present (max. 1 page). Please submit your application by 2 March 2020. Email applications are particularly welcome (compiled in one PDF file) to thimm@arl-net.de

Postal address: Akademie für Raumforschung und Landesplanung (ARL) Insa Thimm Vahrenwalder Straße 247 30179 Hannover, Germany 

You will receive a notification of acceptance by the beginning of April 2020. 

For further questions, please contact Insa Thimm, thimm@arl-net.de, Phone +49 511 34842-31.

15 January, 2020

New publication in the Journal of Transport Geography addressing fare-free public transport in Luxembourg

As of March, 2020, public transit will be fare-free in Luxembourg. As the date approaches, more and more people are asking us questions, calling us for comment, whether they be students, colleagues from abroad, or the media. Indeed, there is a lot to watch here. 

For now, we are pleased to be able to offer you this article published online this week in the Journal of Transport Geography where we argue that there are good reasons to reconsider whether fare-free public transit is a good idea:

Mobility policy through the lens of policy mobility: The post-political case of introducing free transit in Luxembourg

by Constance Carr & Markus Hesse

This viewpoint paper addresses the issue of fare-free public transport (FFPT) in the context of policy mobility, the strand of urban studies literature that examines how policy formulations developed in one place tend to ‘travel’ and inform and inspire plans elsewhere as good or best practices. We argue that the promotion of policies may not reflect a serious attempt to solve a sustainability or socio-economic issue. Rather, the institutions in charge have different targets in mind. FFPT in Luxembourg is thus more a reflection of a post-political process where politics are severed from the political. 

Free copies available at Elsevier here until March 04, 2020.
Or, you may request a copy here.

25 November, 2019

Urban development, urban governance, and Big Tech: A home-made mix

Bissen town meeting with Google, November 2019 (photo by Carr)

For the past year, we have been following Sidewalk Labs (sister company to Google) in Toronto, where it wants to build a digital city along Toronto's waterfront. With the support of CITY Institute at York University, Carr spent several months in 2019 researching this process from the point of view of urban governance. First of its kind, there are many dimensions worth observing and all manner of open questions still outstanding. However, what can certainly be ascertained as of yet is that Sidewalk Labs (Big Tech) has effectively become a new player in the field of urban planning and urban development in the City.

Part of the research on 'Google City' in Toronto is also research on Google itself. Thus, when Google comes to Luxembourg to build a data centre, it naturally grabs our attention. And, volià: Luxembourg has its own story about Google and urban development.

Not much is known about the project. In 2017, Google signalled its interest in building a billion-dollar data centre in Europe a couple of years ago, pitting European countries against each other (among them, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria). In the scramble to put together a proposal, a piece of land in Bissen (a municipality north of the City of Luxembourg with a population of 3000) was found that could be put up for such use. Somehow, circa 50 million Euros changed hands to make this happen. Then, it was announced that Google would short list Luxembourg. And then, with a bit of research, one could discover that on December 12, 2017, LB Technology S.à r.l. was registered in the Luxembourg Business Registry (Registre de Commerce et des Sociétes) with an associated fixed capital of 50 million Euro, with two registered Board members, one in Mountain View California, the other in Luxembourg. Still, the go ahead depended on local approval in Bissen, as well as the results of a few feasibility studies.

By 2019, the land was re-zoned, and Google received the green light. By summer 2019, however, the Bissener council of aldermen had been dismantled, the mayor (CSV) had stepped down (after his own party members voted against him), and a new municipal government had formed. Resistance in Bissen and throughout the Grand Duchy had exposed that there were still so many unanswered questions.

Protest posters in Bissen, November 2019 (photo by Carr)
Last week, for the first time, Google came to the municipality of Bissen to present its plans for the data centre that it intends to build. The town hall was filled, the media was present, and a police presence was accounted for as well. Eager to know how Google presents itself in Bissen, Carr attended too.

Actually, the Google reps gave a rather predictable presentation with all of the standard program points that we have seen in other venues: First, admonish the audience that Google could go elsewhere; Luxembourg invited Google to build their data centre in Bissen, and not the other way around. The message here is that Luxembourg needs to sort itself out because Google takes no role in, or responsibility for, local (petty?) conflicts. Second, demonstrate how cool Google is: It is the biggest consumer of green energy; It will build "eco points": It supports diversity and the labour market (although evidence suggests otherwise). Third, show pretty pictures, and pastel coloured architectural renderings. Fourth, send Google employees to do the presentation, who will also be ill-equipped to answer difficult questions, referring to local procedures as the main inhibiting force.

This standard format certainly deserves some deconstruction. However, it needs moreover to be understood and recognised as a form of governance: This is how Google governs. And the consequences of it, and the sacrifices that will be made in order to accommodate it, should concern all levels of government in Luxembourg (including the EU), and anyone respecting civic responsibility and action.

Of course, yes, there are possible perks. And, yes, this is a consideration that ought to be carefully considered. Equally real, however, are the many questions and challenges, and associated knock-on consequences, that require answers now and will need answering later. Who did the deal? Who profited? Why? What will happen to transportation? What about water and electricity? What infrastructure will be needed and how, where, when, will it be built? Who will pay for it? What will the labour market be affected? Should Luxembourgers look forward to working in the digital industry? Or, should Luxembourgers look forward to 350 additional families from elsewhere (think Seattle)? How will gender equality be tackled (think Silicon Valley)? What about radiation of the workers and residents in the area? And what about sound? How will these affect the financial planning of local residents in Bissen or Roost or Mersch?

There are, of course, golden opportunities; But there are also potential tragedies, and this list is long. And, all of the open questions from today as well as those of tomorrow will need to be managed, and funded by someone. First and foremost, this needs to be articulated and acknowledged (to be a problem).

There are two further familiar patterns here. First, as is apparently the case in Toronto, it is up to local politics to push the issue of how to manage the cascade of challenges, while the central government makes obscure geopolitical decisions concerning ‘Digital Luxembourg”, AI and big data (all featured by Google on November 21). And, some ramifications for local government have already been seen; Municipal fragmentation is also a challenge. Second, is the clash between the Luxembourg central government and Luxembourg local politics. This is hardly the first time that the central government has asserted a certain vision over the Grand Duchy.
Carr, C., Hesse, M. 2019. Digital Urbanism and the Challenge of Urban Governance (DIG_URBGOV) – Short Research Summary
Carr, C. Hesse, M. New Publication on Smart Cities in Forum für Politik Gesellschaft und Kultur
Carr, C. 2019 Digital and city development and urban governance in Toronto
Carr, C., Hesse, M, 2019. Some notes on smart cities and the corporatization of urban governance
Carr invited to York University's CITY Institute as a Visiting Scholar, 2019
Carr 2018. Wagering the Waterfront? Angling the abc & xyz of Quayside Toronto
Carr, Lutz, Schutz, 2018 There is no one human scale - Reflections on urban development practice in Luxembourg
Carr/Hesse 2017. The Corporate City Looming? Part I
Hesse/Carr 2017. The Corporate City Looming Part II: The “smart” City competes
Carr 2017. Digital Cities - Toronto trying to get ahead
Carr 2017. Hipsterland in Toronto's East Downtown