Urban Theory Lab researchers at the MIT conference "Property from Below: Rethinking Property Rights over Land in a Global Context"
Feb 28, 2014
Several Urban Theory Lab researchers recently participated in a conference at MIT on "Property from Below: Rethinking Property Rights over Land in a Global Context." The event was co-organized by Professor Balakrishnan Rajagopol of MIT-DUSP, Professor Olivier DeSchutter of the University of Louvain as well as doctoral candidate Alpen Sheth of MIT-DUSP, who is also a long-standing contributor to the Urban Theory Lab.
The conference explored the philosophical foundations of property rights in legal discourse as well various ways in which inherited formations of land ownership are being extended--and also contested--under contemporary capitalism. Of particular interest to our work in the Urban Theory Lab, the conference problematique productively exploded inherited urban/rural and North/South binarisms to reveal the parallel forms of enclosure--and resistance--that are occurring in property systems around the world, from large city centers to relatively remote agricultural and resource extraction regions.
In his remarks during the closing panel, Neil Brenner of the Urban Theory Lab underscored the need to develop new conceptions of space, territory and land in order to decipher ongoing transformations of property relations in an age of intense land grabbing in strategic zones around the world. Perhaps, he suggested, contemporary land grabs in the global South represent processes analogous to those which radical urban geographer Neil Smith long ago analyzed at the urban scale under the rubric of the "rent gap": speculative attempts by rentiers, aided and abetted by state institutions, to capitalize upon the potential ground rent of zones whose current uses do not attain their supposed "highest and best use" for profit-making activities.
Surely, alternatives to this form of "neo-Haussmannization" (Andy Merrifield) on a world scale are not only possible but necessary. Several contributors to the conference, including Balakrishnan Rajagopol and Alpen Sheth, showed that such alternatives do indeed exist, and that they continue to be forged through the relentless struggles of social movements around the world against the destructive social and environmental impacts of market fundamentalism.
The conference is connected to the ongoing work of the Displacement Research and Action Network.
Map by UTL researcher, Oscar Malaspina.
Mar 28, 2014
Neil Brenner, director of the Urban Theory Lab, recently reported on our current research agendas to a forum of urban journalists who met for a 2-day symposium at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy just across town from us here in Cambridge. The event, which focused on the question of urban infrastructure, was convened by our colleagues at the Lincoln Institute in collaboration with the Harvard GSD and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Special thanks go to our friend and colleague, Prof. Jerold Kayden of the Harvard GSD, for coordinating the event and offering the Urban Theory Lab an opportunity to present our work in this forum.
In his lecture, Brenner outlined the critique of city-centric urban theory that is under development within the Urban Theory Lab and its implications for how we might conceptualize the "boundaries" of urban infrastructure under historical and contemporary capitalism. Rather than understanding urban infrastructure exclusively with reference to the socio-technical equipment of cities, Brenner argued for a territorial conceptualization that includes the large-scale operational landscapes of extended urbanization which support city development and inter-urban networks. But such an approach also requires a radical reinvention of inherited notions of the hinterland, which are too often tied to the very city-centric and ahistorical assumptions that currently constrain our understanding of urbanization processes.
A lively discussion ensued in which some of the methodological, cartographic, historical and political implications of these conceptual reorientations were debated. It was wonderful to have this opportunity to dialogue with such an astute and dedicated group of urbanists about our work in progress.
Image from the European Space Agency
April 2014 / ongoing: Preparations for MoMa exhibition on "Uneven growth: tactical urbanisms for expanding megacities"
Apr 20, 2014
Under the directorship of curator Pedro Gadanho, the MoMa's Department of Architecture and Design is currently preparing an exhibition on Uneven Growth, dealing with the design and infrastructural challenges faced by mega-cities around the world, to be launched in Fall 2014. The exhibition will feature research and design proposals by six interdisciplinary architectural teams on several major metropolitan regions, including Hong Kong, Istanbul, Lagos, Mumbai, New York and Rio de Janeiro.
A preparatory workshop was held at the MoMa's PS1 this past October, in which the design teams presented their initial ideas for the exhibition. Critical commentaries and reactions were solicited by a panel of interdisciplinary urbanists, architects and designers, including Neil Brenner of the Urban Theory Lab-GSD. A video of the event has just been posted, which contains the team's presentations and the full panel of reactions (Neil Brenner's comments begin at: 2:38:18).
It is extremely exciting to see the MoMa engaging with questions of contemporary urbanism and design from a critical and global perspective. We eagerly look forward to the exhibition this Fall, to the accompanying book publication, and to the many discussions they will provoke about the contemporary urban conditon.
Mar 17, 2015
The Urban Theory Lab recently opened their exhibition "Operational Landscapes" at the Melbourne School of Design (MSD). The exhibition asks: In what sense do we today live in an "urban age"? Frequently invoked by scholars, policy-makers, planners, designers, and architects, usually with reference to the proposition that more than 50 percent of the world's population now lives within cities, such a question provokes further questioning: Can the nature of our urban world be understood and mapped exclusively with reference to the growth of cities and their populations?
The exhibition turns this proposition upside-down and inside-out by speculating on a radically alternative mapping of contemporary planetary urbanization. What happens to our cognitive map of the global urban condition if we focus not on the global cities or megacities of the world, but on the wide-ranging sociospatial and environmental transformations that are currently unfolding in supposedly "remote" or "wilderness" regions such as the Amazon, the Arctic, the Gobi desert steppe, the Himalayas, the Pacific Ocean, the Sahara desert, and Siberia, and even the earth's atmosphere? To what degree are such zones now being integrated within a worldwide fabric of urbanization? How are they being restructured and enclosed to support the energy, water, material, food and logistics needs of major cities?
Through speculative cartographies of these emergent "operational landscapes," the exhibition aims to illuminate the radical transformations of land-use, infrastructure, and ecology far beyond the city limits that have made the contemporary formation of planetary urbanization possible.
With support from: Office of the Dean, Melbourne School of Design; Office of the Dean, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University; Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University; Milton Fund, Harvard University Medical School
Mar 17, 2015
Before a full auditorium of over 400 attendees, Neil Brenner gave one of the Spring 2015 Dean's Lectures at the Melbourne School of Design on the topic "Towards a new epistemology of the urban." Kindly invited by Dean Tom Kvan of the Melbourne School of Design and graciously hosted by Professor Brendan Gleeson, Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, Brenner discussed his ongoing work on planetary urbanization and its implications for contemporary urban theory, research, planning and design. The lecture accompanied the launch of the Urban Theory Lab's exhibition on "Operational Landscapes", which was on display at the Melbourne School of Design in March/April of 2015.
May 20, 2015
An earlier volume co-edited by Neil Brenner, Margit Mayer and Peter Marcuse, Cities for People, not for Profit (Routledge 2011) has been newly published in a Turkish edition by Sel Publishing in Istanbul. We are grateful to the publisher, Bilge Sanci, for supporting this project.
May 16, 2016
The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts has awarded a grant to Neil Brenner and Nikos Katsikis for their book project "Is the world urban? Towards a critique of geospatial ideology." This book builds upon theories of planetary urbanization to evaluate the limits and potentials of remotely sensed data and other forms of geospatial information as a basis for mapping urbanization processes. Against the prevalent trend towards cartographic positivism, in which such data are presented as neutral, photographic "captures" of ground conditions, our analysis reveals the hidden, pre-empirical interpretive assumptions that mediate the construction of geospatial maps. The book offers, first, an accessible overview of the main sources of geospatial data on urbanization, the technical procedures through which they are constructed, and the underlying metageographical assumptions upon which they are based. Second, on this basis, a theory-driven approach is proposed to interpret the effects of geospatial data on urbanization. Building upon this ongoing work on planetary urbanization, the project presents new metageographical frameworks for visualizing the worldwide urban fabric, including through the theoretically reflexive application of geospatial data.