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Notes for a Critical Urban Studies By Abdoumaliq Simone (for Rujak Center for Urban Studies, December 2010

) Urban studies have conventionally been characterized by a limited number of “fixations.” One is the need to fix complex urbanizing processes to a limited number of investigative methods, theoretical considerations, and interpretive frameworks. The second is the compulsion to “fix” things, to see the city as something in need of specific kinds of interventions and regulations as opposed to a multifaceted resource. The inability to fully use the city as a resource for understanding life and its potentials has much to do with the tendency to fix urban studies to a narrow range of questions and problems. But without an appreciation of the complex social dynamics underpinning such problems, the technical and policy discourses that are mobilized in order to address them inevitably have limited value. As the production of urban knowledge has largely been evaluated according to its applicability to fix different problems, urban studies have paid insufficient attention to ways in which cities are the sites of specific collaborations between the economic and political powers. These collaborations largely define what it is possible to do in cities given their domination of available resources and institutional capacities. Given their capture of government and media, these collaborations define the urban problems that require fixing, and they then fix the attention of research institutions, agencies, and government on these problems as the primary features of cities. What then goes unnoticed are the efforts on the part of urban majorities—their own particular collaborations, livelihood practices, and imaginations to make visible other dimensions of urban life and how they intersect with those facets that have been designated as problems. It may be clear that environmental conditions, infrastructure deficits, and unjust and inefficient governance have a detrimental impact on urban life for everyone. But the capacities of cities to deal with them are impeded by the very fact that these problems tend to dominate our considerations of urban life. By not paying attention to the vast range of practices, local economies, cultural styles, experiments, and sheer efforts that residents make on a day to day basis to engage and use the city, it is unlikely that these problems will really be addressed. Given that much of the effort made on the part of the majority of urban residents has been left out of urban studies, cities must be seen in new ways. They must now be seen as the hybridized products of intersections among increasingly diverse modalities for the production of material and abstract goods, specific logics and structures for organizing cross-territorial flows of commodities, information, and control, and specific institutional ensembles for the development and regulation of space and populations. If city life is to increasingly includes exceptions to conventional notions of urbanization based on labor market specialization, individual self-management, and a public sector that links infrastructure, service provision, finance, and governance, how cities are managed becomes an open-ended challenge. Specific histories and trajectories of urbanization structure the nature of cities. What it is possible to do in
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and with cities, and what it is possible for cities to generate, is subject to complex constraints and potentials. But cities can also become places for unique ways of doing things; they can change course and pursue developments that nothing in their history may suggest that they were prepared for. They can be open to new connections across regions and nations, depending how they make use of the resources, persons, places, and objects that make up the city. But to actualize such possibilities requires a new mind-set, one that places the city’s apparent problems and its status on a range of urban indicators on the “back burner.” For cities of the Global South, particularly, it is important to better understand how they are “works in progress.” For some, their impoverishment and deindustrialization, coupled with the enormous demands made upon urban space, makes them rely on the sheer density of inhabitants, actions, and associational possibilities to produce an urban life falling largely outside of any available conceptual language to understand it or governance frameworks to regulate it. While these areas are in reality no less connected to the larger world, they convey the sense of being off the map—marginalized from the “real” world. Yet, they are increasingly becoming contexts for their own versions of “new economy”, where the focus of the “second-hand”, on piracy, repair, and the improvised rearrangement of whatever is on hand creates new mentalities and feelings. Additionally, these cities participate in specific networks specializing in their own forms of translocal flows and exchanges—for example, the vast trade in illicit goods or the extensive spread of religious economies. There are cities where no one can dictate what makes sense and what doesn’t; where no single ideology, policy, religion, or peoples can resolve any issue alone. This is then far from the “fix it” model of urban studies. Edgar Pieterse and AbdouMaliq Simone have suggested a renewed focus on everyday urbanism as an important facet of a new critical urban studies. Such a focus would have the following dimensions:

One. What are the senses of belonging that ordinary citizens feel, display, mobilize, or invest in? How does this change over time or according to different social contexts? Is a sense of belonging regulated by fluid or fixed rules? Are these rules open to negotiation? lf so, when? How does the work of belonging and social association impact on the spatiality of the city? What roles do the new places of congregation, association, and leisure, play as gravitational points in subtle and highly malleable geographies of affiliation and distinction? Two. How do residents attach themselves to the city, and how to these attachments influence the kinds of decisions residents make in terms of their time, labor, and resources? What value do these attachments have in terms of the effort invested in them, the economies that can be built around them, and their importance for shaping the city as a whole? Are attachments to consumables more or less important than social ones? How do conflicts over land, work, household life, and ways of doing things, particularly, consumer and gendered attachments shape inter-generational and inter-class conflicts in the social reality and/or spatial geography of a city? How are attachments embodied, especially amongst the youth who invest greatly to demonstrate

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their mastery of particular styles and fashions in order to advance their range of opportunities for inclusion, mobility, access and of course, belonging?

Three, how can we define, uncover and understand the multiple zones of contact across a variety of social and identity boundaries? Even in the most divided and conflicted contexts, groups who are supposed to be adversaries and engage in conflict can still be counted on to find zones of interaction and cooperation in the endless search for opportunity and intelligence. Four, the day to day life of a city cannot proceed without deal making. There is now a considerable body of scholarly work that provides insight into the elaborate and intricate processes inbuilt within agreements and underpinning all types of co-operation, necessary to achieve even modest access to cash, information, favors, goods, and the possibility of a reciprocal return in the future. This body of work also reveals the inherent fragility and brittleness of these processes because they often depend upon the fortuitous coming together of events, personalities, and random chances with the ability to capsize the deal both before and after its’ completion. Five, what are the lines of movement that ordinary people use to read, navigate, divide and represent their city? How does one draw maps of connection, as well as the reality of its interconnectedness, across the city from the perspective of those who make these journeys all the time?

Additionally, critical urban studies would have to take on the array of technical systems that have acquired increasing importance in the shaping of the city. In most large urban systems today there are few linkages between eco-system services, infrastructure investment, spatial planning and economic growth, resulting in conventional approaches that will become economically counter-productive as oil costs, water costs, cost of waste management and cost of food supplies start rising faster than inflation. The possibilities of coordination among these sectors are impeded by limited data sets and methodologies for interrelating available data. Even within given sectors, such as the urban land market, there are few institutionalized processes for interrelating land valuation, land use status, concession fees, registration mechanisms, and mortgage structures. Infrastructure management is constrained by the lack of life-cycle costing, particularly in terms of optimizing capital and operating costs, ensuring adequate cash flows over the longterm, and assessing the life expectancies and rates of deterioration for a particular asset. Providers and regulators often have a limited sense of the economy of resource flows within service regions. There needs to be a better ability to track resource flows from household to city levels, and provide an important picture of where water, for example, comes from, how it is used, in what amounts, how it circulates, and where it ends up. A key role for critical urban studies then would be to identify existing institutional locations for particular data sets and analytical capacities. It would facilitate opportunities to increase the exchange of data and bring to bear interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral teams to develop methodologies for intersecting data and mapping it in ways that can be employed by different institutional actors. These
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efforts can help to more precisely identify infrastructural deficits. They would deal with how to interrelate project costs with potential synergies among employment generation, livelihood, ecological footprints, economic growth and productivity, and institutional efficiencies. A critical urban studies would thus bring back into view the efforts of the majority of city inhabitants and better connect the knowledge produced by sectors and institutions so that the majority might have better access to it, and thus a better urban life.

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