20 June, 2016

Are “Cities” really “The Future”?

“Materially, practically and conceptually, the figure of a
neatly bounded city space has long proven illusory.”
Rickards et al. 2016, p. 1539

Publishing is the 'Do or Die' issue in academia and research, and we all know that the more one publishes in high ranking outlets of one's discipline, the better it will be for one's career path. In urban geography, these publishing venues are, for example,  Progress, Proceedings or Transactions, but actual best venues will also, of course, vary with discipline. The highest possible achievement is probably a publication in Nature and Science, something that only a few may ever achieve, and if it ever occurs, it will be good for an extra press release published by the author's university communications office. And, of course, it will also help to secure further funding, as Nature and Science  are among the most prestigious outlets of science and research: Google-scholar has ranked them first and third of all scientific journals; Science Watch lists them first to third in a variety of fields.

These journals focus primarily on the hard sciences, only rarely dealing with the social sciences or humanities. However, from time to time, both Nature and Science will dabble in these fields, and this includes urban studies. A few years ago, Nature addressed urban issues, commenting that recent trends in urbanisation were, literally (!), an outcome of an “urban equation” (Anonymus 2010). Both the tone and content of this phrase embody the law-bound view of how humans aggregate in certain places – a perspective that reminds us of both new and old ‘space-cadets’ (thank you, Rob) in geography and planning. It is an essentialist conception of place, space, and territory that is rather  out of date. 

Science followed earlier this spring, publishing a theme issue that pontificated popular claims about the “Urban Planet” or “Cities are the Future” (Wigginton et al. 2016), before coming to terms with issues such as demographics, attitudes and lifestyles, health and the environment and so on. As these headers suggested, the overarching idea or leitmotif  was the idea that the planet is becoming fully urbanized – a narrative that was not only conceptualized, and published, in urban studies already over 45 years ago (Lefebvre 1970), but has also received critical scrutiny since over the course of on-going debates and controversies around what is called planetary urbanization (see Angelo & Wachsmuth 2015; Brenner 2014; Brenner & Schmid 2014; Brenner & Schmid 2016; Catterall 2014; Rickards/Gleeson/Boyle/O’Callaghan 2016; Walker 2016). As mentioned in these and other sources, the causes and consequences of urbanization tend to get confused in these sort of triumphant city or urban discourses, where the city is no longer considered a product of society (cf. David Harvey), but in turn, society tends to evolve and change in an urban context as such.

None of these debates were taken into account or even mentioned (!) by any of the contributions in the themed issue of Science. OK, in fairness, folks in the natural sciences may never have heard of colleagues like Henri Lefebvre, or come across debates and developments in urban studies. And, they may prefer instead to stick to their own of field of studies, pondering what hard (real) sciences think about these issues. However, given that these journals rank third, second or first of all scientific journals, and given that their reach is so wide, wouldn’t it be fair to expect that these articles pay minimal justice to the enormous body of research that has already been published on the subject matter? Don’t we tell our students that whatever we do, nothing starts right at zero – but always and unavoidably builds upon the work that others have been doing before?

It is not necessarily the missing reference to particular classical pieces of literature (like Lefebvre’s “Urban Revolution”) that is the focus here, but more the fact that a lively debate in the urban studies community is entirely absent, if not outright ignored. And, this is only one among several blunders that might surprise its readership, given that we are writing, here, about a top-notch scientific journal. It is worth noting, too, that we are not the first to notice the discrepancies: In a recent posting at undark.org, Humphries (2016) criticized the equating of “cities” with “urban”, and that the special issue of Science did not take into account the current realities that characterize urbanity today. In what follows, we would like to identify some more shortcomings.

One problem was the glaring absence of basic research. The introduction to the theme issue was titled, “The Rise of the City,” and the main point of this two-pager was to inform the reader that the world is half urban. However, there were no sources provided (at all), which was a rather bold move given the controversial character of this statement. The authors provided neither an indication about where their numbers came from, nor did they name or reference their „forecasters“. Much of their data circulated somehow randomly around the dates of 1950, 1990, 2014, and 2015, with no explanation, claims that could easily be debunked by cursory research (which they apparently forgot to do). In fact, it wasn't clear if the the writers were even aware that the United Nations predicted a half-urban planet by the year 2000, and that the half-urban planet was already (supposedly) reached in 2006 – a claim that has been repeatedly critiqued in urban studies (see Satterthwaite 2005, 2016). A particular purchase of Satterthwaite’s research, btw, was that he also brought back the myth of the city-debate to its origins in the developmental context, and he did this so much earlier than the recent discussion of planetary urbanism.

Another problem with the themed issue, that an urban scholar would notice, was the absence of politics. According to Science, manifestations of human behaviour (the city) were void of sociopolitical or economic arrangements, a tenor that was clear when the special issue attempted to take the reader on a journey about where urbanity came from. Apparently, it can be explained by evolution – a natural phenomenon.  Indeed, one can trace back the origins of human (or anthropo-) geography, and find that there were indeed geo-determinist assumptions around for some time that were still hegemonic in the first half of the 20th century. The same applies to bio-determinist thinking that gained, and partly still has, prominence in other scientific disciplines. The odd thing here is that the Science theme-issue section on the “urban mind” and chose to interview an anthropologist who isn’t even recognized in his own field (page 909), and this scientist explains urbanity through the size of the neocortex (page 909).

The lack of socio-political explanation, or even relevance, is seen again in the issue when urban development in China and Vancouver are explored. Good cities are washed, well-dressed, and walkable. Apparently, these best and desirable practices can be implemented everywhere (should we extrapolate, too, that this could be anywhere where people have large neo-cortexes?). The rules, regulations, norms, structures, value-chains, social and political practices that mediate these developments are evidently not relevant. Equally irrelevant were sociopolitical externalities. Instead of perceiving how cities constitute each other or how they relate to one another, the message was simply that cities that are dirty, crowded, loud, chaotic and sprawling simply have to catch-up – a notion that, again, has been repeatedly deconstructed in postcolonial urban studies (McFarlane, 2006; Roy 2005, 2009; Robinson 2003a, 2003b, 2005). Of course, the notion that the key to the future is simply to build, densify, innovate, modernize, and prioritize technology and infrastructure has also been refuted. In the cases of green development in Vancouver and China, Hall and Stern (2014) and Chang/Leitner/Sheppard (2016), respectively, are good starting points.

A final point that should not go uncommented is the imagery and juxtapositions conveyed throughout the 'zine. Throughout the issue, the good, the white (and green), wealthy, healthy, classy, glassy modern city, is juxtaposed with the poor, barefoot, ill, deprived, slum, and rural. The city is potentially dark and dangerous, we learn, and our urban savior will be bright and right. Here is an experiment that you can try at home: Open up the journal to page 91, „A Plague of Rats“ and ask your children/roommates/friends to quickly name the first two objects they see on the page. I did this with two young teenagers. First, they identified and read the title, which is bold and rather easy to see. Then, a look of disgust was cast across their face because the second object that they identified was… well, let’s just keep the suspense and suffice it to say that it was not the object in the cage. Next, flip through the pages until you find the images of experts, and note the colour of skin. The associations that can be made in these pages, of course, have nothing to with the content. The association remains, however, clear as day, and it is either a result of sloppy layout design (at best), or malicious reporting and editing (at worst).

This is not simply a minor political issue as, sadly, many would deem it. There is no shortage of social science examining social/sociospatial stratification, inequality, and exclusion, for starters. But, the way we see/represent/portray the world also plays role in the scientific method in terms of problem definition, data interpretation, dissemination, and this ultimately becomes institutionalized through further promotion and funding. Porter (2004: 104) confessed such struggles in what she called “unlearning privilege,” recognizing that, “our perceptions are powerfully embedded in [our] research design.” Upon critical reflection of her own work, she realized that her well-intended “quaint lefty ideas about inclusion,” (p. 104), as an example, resulted in asking the wrong questions. There is thus a multi-dimensional scientific and ethical responsibility to examine and self-examine this. If the editors of Science are not convinced, perhaps they could engage with (among others) Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015: 10), who reminds us that social polarization and exclusion is also “a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”

It is difficult to know what to make of this special issue. While academia today functions along the tenants of  Publish or Perish, and unfolds with intense pressure to accrue third party funding, is it really acceptable that one of the most cited scientific journals provides little more than journalism, or mediocre science writing? How is it possible that authors of one of the most cited scientific journals don’t, in fact, have to apply the scientific method or be expert scholars in the field? Professional urban scholars might perceive a shining light as they could be happy that the topic was addressed at all. This could even have real positive consequences now that more funding agencies will understand urban studies as a legitimate field of science. However, in this optimism, we should not forget that in producing this Special Issue (that will reach and impact a vast audience), the editors of Science also set the tone concerning what matters in the field of urban studies -- and this, in turn, affects those actually doing the scholarly work, not to mention those inhabiting those spaces. According to the editors of Science, central in the tune of urban studies are certain sets of priorities: build, densify, innovate, modernize, and prioritize technology and infrastructure over socio-political matters (which are not relevant at all).  Urban geographers will immediately recognise this rather one-sided view, that is hardly state-of-the-art. Given this and the above mentioned problems, it does kind of make one wonder what their intentions were or why they bothered.

****Update!! from August 25th.  Our congratulations go to  Wachsmuth, Cohen and Angelo who successfully brought some of these debates in a later issue of Nature. The article is freely available here, the August 25th Issue, and addresses issues of urban sustainability. Read a background to the piece at David Wachsmuth's website, here.

Constance Carr, Markus Hesse

Angelo, H. & D. Wachsmuth (2015). Urbanizing urban political ecology: A critique of methodological cityism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39(1), 16-27.

Anonymus (2010). The Urban Equation. Nature 467, 899.

Brenner, N. (2014). Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization. Berlin: Jovis

Brenner N. & C. Schmid C. (2014). The ‘urban age’ in question. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38(3) 731-755

Brenner N. & C. Schmid (2016). Combat, Caricature & Critique in the Study of Planetary Urbanization. http://www.soziologie.arch.ethz.ch/_DATA/90/BrennerSchmid2.pdf

Catterall B. (2014). Towards the Great Transformation: Where/what is culture in ‘Planetary Urbanisation? Towards a new paradigm. City 18(3) 368-379.

Chang, I.C., Leitner, H. & E. Sheppard (2016). A Green Leap Forward? Eco-State Restructuring and the Tianjin-Binhai Eco-City Model. Regional Studies 50(6), 929-943.

Coates, T. (2015). Between the World and Me. Penguin-Random House, New York.

Hall, P.V. & P.R. Stern (2014). Implicating waterfronts in regional sustainability. Local Envrionment 19 (6) 591-604.

Humphries, C. (2016). “Cities are not as big a deal as you think” Undark – Truth, Beauty, Science. http://undark.org/article/cities-suburbs-urban-social-environmental/ retrieved June 20 2016

Lefebvre, H. (1970). La Révolution urbaine. Gallimard: Paris

McFarlane, C. (2006). Crossing borders : development, learning and the North-South divide. Third World Quarterly 27(8), 1413-1437.

Porter, L. (2004). Unlearning one's privilege: reflections on cross‐cultural research with indigenous peoples in South‐East Australia. Planning Theory and Practice 5(1) 104-109.

Rickards, L, Gleeson, B, Bozle, M, O’Callaghan, C, (2016) Urban studies after the age of the city. Urban Studies 53(8) 1523-1541.

Robinson, J. (2003a). Postcolonialising Geography: Tactics and Pitfalls. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 24(3) 273-289.

Robinson, J. (2003b). Political geography in postcolonial context. Political Geography 22, 647-651.

J Robinson, (2005). Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development, London: Routledge.

Roy, A., (2006). Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning. Journal of the American Planning Association 71(2), 147-158

Roy, A., (2009). The 21st-Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory. Regional Studies 43(6), 819-830.

Satterthwaite, D. (2005) The scale of urban change world-wide 1950-2000 and its underpinnngs. IIED, London

Satterthwaite, D. (2016). The 10 and 1/2 Myths that may distort the Urban Policies of Governments and International Agencies http://www.ucl.ac.uk/dpu-projects/21st_Century/mainframe.html

Walker, R. (2015). Building a better theory of the urban: A response to ‘Towards a new epistemology of the urban?’ City 19(2-3), 183-191.

Wigginton, N.S., Fahrenkamp-Uppenbrink, J., Wible, B. & D. Malakoff (2016). Cities are the Future. Rapid urbanization is overtaxing the planet, but it may not have to. Science 352 Issue 6288, 904-05.

14 June, 2016

Announcement of 12 PhD Positions at TU Darmstadt

 Dear colleagues,
Please find attached our posting of 12 PhD positions in the field of cities and critical infrastructures at TU Darmstadt funded by the German Research Council (below also potential research areas in my group). It is a new interdisciplinary program looking at the social construction, vulnerability/resilience and protection/securitization of critical infrastructures from the perspective of STS and urban studies.
May I ask you to forward it to potential candidates who might be interested?
Best wishes,
The newly formed interdisciplinary Research Training Group
Critical Infrastructures: Construction, Functional Failures, and Protection in Cities
at the Darmstadt University of Technology, Germany (close to Frankfurt), announces twelve PhD positions (3 years) scheduled to begin 1 October 2016. The Research Training Group is funded by the German Research Council, and analyzes critical infrastructures in cities—the networked systems which supply urban conglomerations with energy, water, communication facilities, and transportation services, and which treat and dispose of waste- and stormwater. Those infrastructures have become the nervous systems of modern cities, and their failure can trigger dramatic crises. In recent years, the growing vulnerability that seem to accompany the increased dependency on infrastructural networks has been a controversial topic. That controversy is due not only to multiple external threats such as natural disasters, terrorist and cyber attacks, but also to the growing complexity and increasing interdependencies of infrastructure systems.
The basic assumption of the Research Training Group is that critical infrastructures are highly context dependent both in temporal and spatial terms, and that they also manifest multiple spatial and temporal relations. The group’s aim is to understand and to explain these complex systems in their spatiality and temporality, and to explore urban practices of planning, of preventing interruptions and of preparing for them. Its research is inspired by urban studies and science and technology studies and takes place in three specific areas:
  1.  First, we intend to identify the critical aspects of constructing technical infrastructures in light of their historical and spatial contexts, and we attempt to uncover those infrastructures’ social and political aspects, in addition to their technical and functional needs.
  2. Second, we assume that complex spatial and temporal arrangements are particularly visible in cases of infrastructural dysfunction. We investigate failures and functional crises of urban infrastructures, including the spatially and temporally complex conditions of those infrastructures’ vulnerability and resilience.
  3. Third, we ask how prevention of and preparedness for urban infrastructure failures are, or can be, organized and which spatial and temporal aspects play a role in the protection of critical infrastructures.
The Research Training Group is truly interdisciplinary and is made up of representatives of the following subjects: Spatial and Infrastructure Planning, Modern History, History of Technology, Medieval History, Philosophy of Technology and Technoscience, Comparative Analysis of Political Systems, Ubiquitous Knowledge Processing, Design and Urban Development, Rail Systems, and Informatics in Construction Science. More information about the scientific program, the professors participating and about exemplary dissertation topics can be found at: www.kritis.tu-darmstadt.de. Before submitting your application, we recommend to contact one of the professors for advice on possible research topics/ designs or for any other questions you might have, and to request the summary of the research program.
Within this program we are currently inviting applications for two Ph.D. positions (full-time) in the field of Spatial and Infrastructure Planning (www.raumplanung.tu-darmstadt.de). Candidates applying in this field of are expected to examine the governance of urban vulnerability/resilience and critical infrastructures in an international perspective. Especially welcome are PhD proposals with a focus on the interconnectivity and coordination of various infrastructure sectors, spatial dimensions of cascading infrastructure failures and the challenges in the governance of urban crisis prevention and management. Sample thesis topics include:
  • Networked Vulnerabilities? Smart Infrastructures in Urban Crisis Prevention and Management
  • The Governance of Urban Resilience: Preparedness and Prevention Strategies through Utilities, Technical Agencies, and Local Civil Protection
  • The Making of Urban Security? Urban Infrastructure Governance and the War on Terrorism
  • Territoriality and Networked Space: New Geographies in the Protection of Critical Infrastructures
  • Planning for Daily Interruptions: The Making of Urban and Infrastructural Resilience in Africa
These are just sample themes—you are encouraged to develop your own. Please contact Professor Jochen Monstadt (monstadt@kritis.tu-darmstadt.de) for advice on possible research topics/designs.
Tasks: the Graduate Fellows must complete a dissertation within three years in their respective fields with a focus on one (or more) of the above-mentioned three research areas. The rationale of the Research Training Group is to support interdisciplinary cooperation among the Fellows, and all members are expected to participate in mandatory seminars, symposia, and workshops. Since course work and seminars are carried out in both German and English, it is expected that applicants are willing to participate in German courses offered by the university and to learn to read and understand spoken German. Fellows are also expected to work together in our common office downtown Darmstadt and thus need to take up their residence in the city or in the Frankfurt/Rhine-Main region.
Terms and conditions: The Research Training Group offers an excellent research infrastructure for PhD candidates who would like to complete their dissertations in an innovative, internationally networked program. The Fellows will work in common areas with dedicated office space, will have the support of participating professors, and can use all university facilities to support their work. The special opportunities of this structured training program include the possibility of working together with renowned colleagues for several months at one of our four collaborating European universities. We also are working with various partners in private companies and civil services offering internships to our Fellows.
Salaries depend on each Fellow’s qualifications and experience, and will be calculated according to the collective agreement of TU Darmstadt (TV-TU Darmstadt). The positions are limited to three years and include, depending on the Fellow’s home faculty, a salary at 65%–100% of full-time employment (monthly salaries range from ca. € 1,500 to € 2,100 after tax and include health insurance and social security). Half-time employment is also possible.
Your application: TU Darmstadt intends to increase the number of women scientists and encourages them to apply. Candidates who have a degree of disability of at least 50% are given preferred treatment if equally qualified. Please submit your application by 10 July 2016 in English or German to info@ kritis.tu-darmstadt.de (as one pdf file, max. 6 MB). You must enclose (1) a CV with information on academic qualifications, language skills and international experience, (2) scanned copies of academic credentials, and (3) a dissertation proposal of up to five pages.
We look forward to your application!

06 June, 2016

Call for Papers - Swiss Mobility Conference – 20th & 21st of October 2016 – University of Lausanne

Call for papers/ Appel à communications
The Swiss Mobility Conference (SMC) is the result of collaboration between the urban sociology chairs (EPFL) and geography of mobilities (UNIL). The objective of SMC is to provide a place for discussion and debate for researchers in humanities and social sciences working on various forms of mobility. Presentations will address the mobilities in their diversity, they can register in the following research areas:
  • theoretical debates (and in particular the contributions of social theories to the study of mobilities)
  • methodological innovations (using mobile methods)
  • public policy and decision making in mobility
  • regulation of mobility and its tools
  • the actors and their logics of action (residential choice, modal practices, multilocal living, etc.)
  • the norms and values underlying mobility and social inequality
  • temporality and spatiality of mobility
  • mobility prospective
Abstracts of 3000 signs, must be sent by August 15, 2016 at the following address:

  • Prof. Vincent Kaufmann, Laboratoire de sociologie urbaine, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne 
  • Prof. Patrick Rérat, Institut de géographie et durabilité, Université de Lausanne
Scientific committee:
  • Thomas Buhler, Université de Franche-Comté
  • Yves Delacrétaz, Haute Ecole d'Ingénierie et de Gestion du Canton de Vaud
  • Frédéric Dobruszkes, Université libre de Bruxelles
  • Cédric Duchene-Lacroix, Universität Basel
  • Maxime Huré, Université Lyon 2
  • Timo Ohnmacht, Hochschule Luzern
  • Mathis Stock, Université de Lausanne
  • Jean Varlet, Université de Savoie
  • Gebhard Wulfhorst, Technische Universität München 

La Swiss Mobility Conference (SMC) est le résultat des collaborations entre les chaires de sociologie urbaine (EPFL) et de géographie des mobilités (UNIL). L’objectif de la SMC est de proposer un lieu de discussion et de débat pour les chercheur·e·s en sciences humaines et sociales qui travaillent sur les différentes formes de mobilité.
Les présentations aborderont les mobilités dans leur diversité, elles peuvent s’inscrire dans les domaines de recherche suivants :
  • les débats théoriques (et notamment les apports des théories sociales à l’étude des mobilités)
  • les innovations méthodologiques (utilisation des mobiles methods)
  • l’action publique et les processus de décision en matière de mobilité
  • la régulation de la mobilité et ses outils
  • les acteurs et leurs logiques d’action (choix résidentiel, pratiques modales, multirésidentialité, etc.)
  • les normes et valeurs sous-tendant les mobilités et les inégalités sociales
  • les temporalités et spatialités des mobilités
  • la prospective de la mobilité
Les abstracts, de 3000 signes, doivent être envoyés pour le 15 août 2016 à l’adresse suivante: mobility.conference@unil.ch
Pour plus d’informations: http://www.unil.ch/igd/mobility-conference

  • Prof. Vincent Kaufmann, Laboratoire de sociologie urbaine, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne 
  • Prof. Patrick Rérat, Institut de géographie et durabilité, Université de Lausanne
Comité scientifique:
  • Thomas Buhler, Université de Franche-Comté
  • Yves Delacrétaz, Haute Ecole d'Ingénierie et de Gestion du Canton de Vaud
  • Frédéric Dobruszkes, Université libre de Bruxelles
  • Cédric Duchene-Lacroix, Universität Basel
  • Maxime Huré, Université Lyon 2
  • Timo Ohnmacht, Hochschule Luzern
  • Mathis Stock, Université de Lausanne
  • Jean Varlet, Université de Savoie
  • Gebhard Wulfhorst, Technische Universität München