revisiting the concepts of critical urban studies
Revisiting commons as emancipatory practice to claim the right to the city
For this workshop, I revisit the concepts of the commons and the right to the city and discuss their usefulness in critical urban studies more generally and their role for the study of emancipation of agency in particular.
Beginning with the commons, recent theoretical development of the concept has directed attention away from the commons as essentialist object/form to the practice of commoning (Caffentzis & Federici, 2014). Whilst before, the commons were awarded causal power through its inherent properties of its institutional form, now the focus on the practice of commoning attends to the agency and structures that are transformed through commoning (Noterman, 2016). I contend that this shift in conception and ontology has opened new theoretical avenues for explaining urbanisation through the practice of commoning, and the indeed variegated effects and at times contradictory outcomes of the urban commons in different structural contexts and upon different urban subjects.
In my research, I suggest the use of dialectical social theory as one theoretical way forward to inquire processes of urbanisation; I understand the urban here as the constantly renegotiated result of a collective practice. Drawing upon the morphogenetic approach by sociologist Archer (1995), practice is the means through which agential power is mediated and which conditions structural reproduction and transformation. From here, changes in subjectivities and agential power can be explained as outcomes of the process of urbanisation more generally and the practice of commoning in particular. Also Lefebvre (1996) describes the processes of constituting and reconstituting the spatio-temporality of the urban collective œuvre (ibid:207) as based on practice. More specifically, he points to collective practice of subjects and their “gathering together instead of a fragmentation” (ibid:195) for attaining the right to the city. As also the practice of commoning establishes and is built on collective social relations I identifying collectivity as mechanism through which to achieve the right to the city, arguing for commoning as practice as means through which to claim agential power and insert right to the city claims.
However, commoning practices can also work exclusionary (Lachmund, 2019; Roy, 2018), feed into neoliberal and capitalist urbanisation (McClintock, 2014; Tornaghi, 2014) and thus bring about spatial- and social-structural transformations or reproduction of neoliberal and capitalist structures and subjectivities, ultimately strengthening some subjectivities’ right to the city while weakening others. In my research, I find that the commoning practice of urban gardening in Stockholm forms particularly female middle-class subjectivities, strengthening their agency to insert right claims on public space. In that sense, this gendered form of urbanisation by the commoning of new urban gardens in public spaces functions as platform in which female subjectivities and collective social relations are formed. Based on this, I argue that embedding the concepts of the commons and the right to the city in a dialectical social theory such as the morphogenetic approach (Archer, 1995) helps to explain how contemporary urbanisation processes contribute to the emancipation of some while they work to the detriment of others.
Archer, M. (1995). Realist social theory: the morphogenetic approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Caffentzis, G., & Federici, S. (2014). Commons against and beyond capitalism. Community Development Journal, 49(SUPPL.1), 92–105.
Lachmund, J. (2019). Regimes of Urban Nature: Organic Urbanism, Biotope Protection, and Civic Gardening in Berlin. In H. Ernstson & S. Sörlin (Eds.), Grounding urban natures : histories and futures of urban ecologies (pp. 247–274). Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Lefebvre, H. (1996). Writings on Cities. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
McClintock, N. (2014). Radical, reformist, and garden-variety neoliberal: coming to terms with urban agriculture’s contradictions. Local Environment, 19(2), 147–171.
Noterman, E. (2016). Beyond Tragedy: Differential Commoning in a Manufactured Housing Cooperative. Antipode, 48(2), 433–452.
Roy, P. (2018). “Welcome in my backyard”…but on my terms: making sense of homeless exclusion from renewed urban spaces in Copenhagen. GeoJournal, 83(2), 289–304.
Tornaghi, C. (2014). Critical geography of urban agriculture. Progress in Human Geography, 38(4), 551–567.
The urban commons and the neglected land question
The article considers the contested concept of urban commons in light of land rent theory. Commons are generally said to consist of three aspects: a physical or abstract resource, a community using the resource and rules that guide the management of the resource for the good of the community (Huron 2018). Commons examples range from shared natural resources to civic institutions and cultural establishments to open-access digital databases (Standing 2019).
The idea of a resource managed in common for the common good has opened up particularly exhilarating avenues of research in the context of the city, an inherently collective and arguably common configuration (Hardt and Negri 2009). There is a growing field of literature on what are called urban commons. Examples of urban commons in research are many and include things such as community gardens (Eizenberg 2012; Rogge and Theesfeld 2018), creative, artisanal and semi-autonomous spaces (Bresnihan and Byrne 2015; Williams 2018), housing co-operatives (Huron 2018) and public goods (Susser and Tonnelat 2013).
But what makes these particularly urban? As Kip (2015) has accurately observed, much of the work on urban commons appears quite content with simply studying things people do in common in the city. The definition of the urban commons appears to hang on the twin themes of being located in cities and managed or worked in common, an activity called commoning. The urban is often left sans sufficient definition, and the first aspect of a commons, the resource (in this case urban land) unconsidered.
The paper hopes to contribute to developing the concept of urban commons by discussing its potential as a critical alternative to the unequal material relations of the urban process under capitalism. It draws first on Harvey’s (1978) interpretation of the urban as a process, based on accumulation and class struggle. This requires us to address the city not simply as a site of commoning here, accumulation there, but the development of the urban built environment now an integral part of the process of accumulation. Here Haila’s (2015) urban land rent theory is introduced to shed light on the contemporary rentier mode of capitalism where accumulation increasingly happens via rent extraction.
Not only private actors, but city governments act to maximize land rent (Haila 2015). This extracting of the unearned increment – value produced in commoning – in the form of land rent has detrimental consequences for citizens. The paper argues that an urban commons is to be defined as an arrangement of the urban land resource outside the capitalist state and market, if it is to retain emancipatory, radical weight as a concept. The process of commoning and the agency of commoners remain forever precarious if they exist under land regimes that allow for private and state land rent extraction.
Bresnihan, P., & Byrne, M. 2015. Escape into the city: Everyday practices of commoning and the production of urban space in Dublin. Antipode, 47(1), pp.36-54.
Dellenbaugh, M., Kip, M., Bieniok, M., Müller, A. and Schwegmann, M. 2015. Urban commons: moving beyond state and market. (Vol. 154). Birkhäuser.
Eizenberg, E., 2012. Actually existing commons: Three moments of space of community gardens in New York City. Antipode, 44(3), pp.764-782.
Haila, A., 2015. Urban land rent: Singapore as a property state. John Wiley & Sons.
Hardt, M. & Negri, A. 2009. Commonwealth. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Harvey, D., 1978. The urban process under capitalism: a framework for analysis. International journal of urban and regional research, 2(1-3), pp.101-131.
Huron, A. 2015. Working with strangers in saturated space: Reclaiming and maintaining the urban commons. Antipode, 47(4), pp.963-979.
Rogge, N. and Theesfeld, I., 2018. Categorizing urban commons: Community gardens in the Rhine-Ruhr agglomeration, Germany. International Journal of the Commons, 12(2), pp.251-274.
Standing, G., 2019. Plunder of the commons: A Manifesto for sharing Public wealth. Penguin UK.
Susser, I. and Tonnelat, S., 2013. Transformative cities: The three urban commons. Focaal, 2013(66), pp.105-121.
Williams, M.J., 2018. Urban commons are more‐than‐property. Geographical Research, 56(1), pp.16-25.
Rethinking Enclosure: Space and Power in Cities in Conflict
The purpose of this paper is to explore the analytical valence of the conceptual framework based on notions like enclosure and urban commons in studying ‘cities in conflict’ particularly in authoritarian settings. Drawing on my research on Diyarbakır, the heartland of Turkey’s Kurdish-populated south-eastern region, I suggest to consider both extinctive and generative dimensions of enclosure concomitantly to develop a more nuanced understanding of how the articulation of urbanism and authoritarian governmentality unfolds.
Bou Akar (2018) demonstrates how geographies of war and peace have coalesced in the case of Beirut, and calls for a primarily spatial analysis to widen the scope of the debate on cities in conflict. Taking a cue from her approach, I suggest reading the production of spaces of enclosure in Diyarbakır to contribute to broader debates on the conceptual vigour of neoliberal urbanism.
There is now a rich body of urban scholarship on enclosures. However, the usual way to conceptualize enclosure in critical urban studies is to understand it as an act of extinction. In doing so, enclosure, which originally refers in Marxist terminology to the fencing off the common lands and the extinction of customary rights of rural labourers on land and resources, is seen as a strategy revived and extended under the circumstances of neoliberalism, so that commodification of urban space could be deepened.
Notwithstanding the extinctive dimension of enclosure, I believe that expanding this conventional designation and focusing on its generative dimension is crucial to examine the logic contained in the interventions deployed by market and state forces. Such reconceptualization requires taking into account immaterial attributes like experience, knowledge and skills, and interrogating the ways in which enclosure assumes a role in moulding political subjectivities.
In dialogue with recent studies that offer such a reconceptualization of enclosure (e.g. Blomley 2008; Chatterton 2010; Hodkinson 2012; Jeffrey et al 2012; Sevilla-Buitrago 2015; Stavrides 2016; Vasudevan et al 2008), my research on the production of space in Diyarbakır in the last two decades shows that the longstanding contestations between the Turkish state and the Kurdish movement have assumed inherently spatial character. In other words, understanding strategies and conceptions developed by various political actors in their fierce struggle over the urban space is particularly crucial to comprehend how Kurdish issue has been governed recently. On that score, it might be stated that the authoritarian governmentality sought by the AKP (Justice and Development Party) administrators, local cadres and state bureaucracy is based on the politics of enclosure that ultimately seeks to thwart collective political capacity of the Kurdish urban poor. Enclosure in its extinctive nature deprives the urban residents of their collective skills and knowledge, as the state actors seek to attain public order through the rehabilitation of urban space. Concurrently, the idea of rehabilitation reflects a revisionist political imaginary whereby the state is refashioned in its benevolent image through a market-oriented developmentalism.
Reading the relationship between these two moments would allow us to reflect on the spatial rationalities that inform governmentalities in contested cities such as Diyarbakır, at a time when the city has become an immanent site of political contestation (Dikeç and Swyngedouw 2017), and military conflicts are increasingly urbanized (Graham 2010).
Blomley N (2008) Enclosure, common right, and the property of the poor. Social and Legal Studies 17(3): 311-331.
Bou Akar H (2018) For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Chatterton P (2010) Autonomy: The struggle for survival, self-management, and the common. Antipode 42(4): 897-908.
Dikeç M and Swyngedouw E (2017) Theorizing the politicizing city. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 41(1): 1-18.
Graham S (2010) Cities under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. London: Verso.
Hodkinson S (2012) The new urban enclosures. City 16(5): 500-518.
Jeffrey A, McFarlane C and Vasudevan A (2012) Rethinking enclosure: Space, subjectivity and the commons. Antipode 44(4): 1247-1267.
Sevilla-Buitrago A (2015) Capitalist formations of enclosure: Space and the extinction of the commons. Antipode 47(4): 999-1020.
Stavrides S (2016) Common Space: The City as Commons. London: Zed Books.
Vasudevan A, McFarlane C and Jeffrey A (2008) Spaces of enclosure. Geoforum 39: 1641–1646.
Ebba Brink & Emma Li Johansson
Ecosystem-based adaptation in the Merchandise City: analysing the interplay between climate gentrification and climate vulnerability in Rio de Janeiro
Climate hazards such as flooding, landslides, heat and water scarcity disproportionately affect low-income communities in cities in the Global South (Revi et al., 2014). The way climate adaptation is framed and operationalised at global and local-urban levels often fails to redress such vulnerabilities (Chu et al., 2017; Eriksen et al., 2015; Sovacool et al., 2015; Watson, 2011). Even approaches centred on vulnerable populations tend to direct attention away from the powerful institutions that 1) create vulnerability through their decisions, and 2) increasingly appropriate adaptation to promote “innovative” market-based solutions (Barnett, 2020). This includes an emerging Nature-Based planning paradigm that, while promising for urban adaptation, often resembles an apolitical panacea that automatically benefits lower-income groups (Woroniecki et al., 2020). Conversely, in informal settlements, vulnerability reduction is often linked to residents’ struggles for basic infrastructure (water and sanitation) and against evictions (often motivated by risk reduction and nature conservation) (Broto et al., 2015; Moser and Satterthwaite, 2008).
We depart from the idea of climate gentrification to study how vulnerability is shaped by neoliberal climate and conservation planning. More specifically, we ask how the current planning model in Rio de Janeiro (cidade-mercadoria or ‘merchandise city’) affects ecosystem-based adaptation for the urban poor though mediating the distribution of climate risk, greenspace, informal areas, and urban redevelopments. We see climate gentrification as comprising displacement from areas targeted for ecological restauration (‘green gentrification’), from at-risk or post-disaster areas (‘disaster gentrification’), and from lower-risk areas attracting investments because of climate change (‘climate gentrification’) (Anguelovski et al., 2019; Aune et al., 2020).
After global attention to gentrification from mega-events in the city has waned, Rio de Janeiro now faces a new era of political, economic and climate crisis – especially felt by the fifth of its population residing in favelas (“slums”). The 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics were only one rationale behind the large-scale evictions that began in 2009, following a new ‘intervention logics’ (Magalhães, 2019). Another, fueled by a major rain disaster in 2011 (Brazil’s largest), is to avoid so-called risk areas. Meanwhile, climate adaptation using nature-based approaches is quickly gaining traction to help Brazilian cities cope with heat, floods and landslides (Di Giulio et al., 2018; Herzog, 2016; Scarano and Ceotto, 2015), entailing eviction of informal settlers from flood plains (Henrique and Tschakert, 2019a, 2019b). The debate often fails to acknowledge that both nature and the urban poor have low priority under the dominant elite-oriented planning model (sometimes called cidade mercadoria), which aims to “sell” the city as a merchandise on an international market (Vainer, 2000). Locally, the terms risk and vulnerability have become synonymous with favelas and landslide risk, motivating relocation-as-risk-reduction and obscuring other hazards (e.g., heatwaves and water scarcity) and adaptation options for favela dwellers. The question remains how to oppose appropriation of these concepts and promote an understanding of (climate) risk and vulnerability that is “relational, intersectional, and sometimes teleconnected” (Barnett, 2020, p. 1176).
Our objective is to develop an innovative methodology using GIS, satellite images, and local census data to map and connect spatial and socioeconomic data. We have experience of studying urban climate adaptation and risk (Brink) and mapping (global financial investments driving) rural land acquisitions (Johansson). Deepened knowledge in critical urban theory will help us position our paper. We could also add a case from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.