Martín Arboleda

Recent decades have witnessed the emergence of a globalizing peasant movement that aims at the radical transformation of the food system under the banners of a post-capitalist science of food production (i.e. agroecology), and of popular self-determination via the notion of food sovereignty. Although the program and ambitions of this new agrarian internationalism are of world-historical significance, the territorial expansion or ‘scaling out’ of agroecological farming systems has remained limited due to substandard mechanisms of distribution, to encroaching concentration in land ownership, as well as to material and ideological disconnection between agricultural producers and urban consumers –indicative of a wider gap between peasant movements and the urban laboring classes. By means of a multi-sited ethnographic study of the supply chains that connect the city of Santiago de Chile with its agro-food hinterlands or operational landscapes, this project seeks to assess the limits and possibilities that the so-called ‘logistics turn’ entails for a viable agroecological transition in food systems. In broad terms, it is expected that this project can shed light into the role that the field of urban studies might eventually play in global land reform debates, especially in the onset of burgeoning crises of climate change, systemic soil depletion, rural depopulation, and hunger and malnutrition.

Projected outcome: Journal articles and book publication.

La Vega Central, one of Santiago de Chile’s main popular markets and distribution centers (source: Dotmax).


Martín Arboleda

The project rethinks geographies of extraction beyond the mere spatiality of shafts and pits and the political territory of their national economy. Its underlying assumption is that the mine is not a self-contained sociotechnical object, but a dense network of spatial technologies and territorial infrastructures vastly dispersed across space. Seeking to transcend the state-centrism of traditional approaches, the project intends to grasp the complex metabolism of extraction as mining companies become reorganized in the form of global supply chains. Underpinned by empirically-grounded research in Chile, the project analyzes the ways in which the Atacama Desert –the driest in the world-, has become ensnared in a global logistical apparatus that connected mining sites in the Andes with an expanding constellation of megacities, factories, ports, and stock exchanges in East Asia and other parts of the world. The research asks what are the modalities of state power, transnational labor organization, debt instruments, metabolic urbanization, and sociopolitical contestation that emerge as the mining industry embraces the imperatives of speed, connectivity and homeostasis as central organizational principles.

Projected outcome: Book publication (forthcoming with Verso) and journal articles.

Image Credit: Claudia Pool. Dry bulk carrier ship being loaded in the port of Tocopilla, Chile.


Sai Balakrishnan

Economic corridors, an ambitious infrastructural development project that newly liberalizing countries in Asia and Africa are embarking on, are dramatically redefining the shape of urbanization. Spanning across multiple cities and villages, these economic corridors reconnect metropolises already connected by road and rail networks via high-speed superhighways in an effort to make certain strategic regions attractive destinations for private investment. Largely financed by new sources of impatient private capital, the economic corridors in India are infringing on the agricultural lands of organized agrarian propertied classes. As policy makers search for new decentralized and market-oriented means for the transfer of land from agrarian constituencies to infrastructural promoters and urban developers, the re-allocation of property control is erupting into volatile land-based social conflicts. This book argues that some of India’s most decisive conflicts over its urban futures will unfold in the regions along the new economic corridors where electorally strong agrarian propertied classes are coming into direct encounters with financially powerful incoming urban firms. It draws its empirical insights from qualitative fieldwork along the country’s first economic corridor, the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, and the building of three new cities along this corridor. The title ‘shareholder cities’ derives from a new mode of resolving agrarian-urban conflicts where agrarian landowners are being transformed into shareholders in the new corridor cities and the distributional implications of these new forms of urbanization.

By moving the spotlight of India’s contemporary urbanization out of megacities to these in-between corridor regions, this book adds to the growing recent scholarship on urbanization in the global south. The new economic corridors open up new empirical and methodological frameworks for a new urban politics that is capable of incorporating the agrarian political economy. Several connected themes - including the production of new uneven urban development that both settles on and unsettles older histories of agrarian capitalism, the emergence of agrarian propertied classes as protagonists in the making of urban real estate markets, and the possibilities for a new politics of inclusion as formerly ‘waste’ land in an agrarian economy relegated to disadvantaged caste groups are revalorized into desirable market assets in an urbanizing context - are explored to articulate a new narrative of agrarian-urban land commodification and uneven development.

Projected outcome: Book publication, forthcoming with University of Pennsylvania Press.

DOWNLOAD: Introduction

Image caption: Real estate developments amid agricultural fields. Top: Apartment advertising proximity to new international airport. Bottom: Apartment surrounded by fields and informal settlements of construction laborers

Energetics of Urbanization

Neil Brenner, Kiel Moe, and UTL students

How should we understand the energetics of urbanization under capitalism? In what ways do capitalist forms of urbanization intensify the dissipation of entropy, and with what consequences? How do the infrastructures of urbanization mediate and exacerbate capital’s metabolic rifts, and with what consequences? In what ways might exploration of such questions reframe contemporary debates on postcarbon energy “transitions”? In this collaborative project, derived from a UTL Research Practicum conducted in Spring 2018, we confront these questions through frameworks that transcend fuel-centric understandings of energy and city-centric understandings of the urban, leading to new horizons for theory, historical analysis, spatial representation and contemporary design practice. 


The unstable stability of soybean production under capitalism, by Angeliki Giannisi and Anne Hudson

How Bottled Water Intensifies the Metabolic Shift, by Aurora Jensen and Pamela Cabrera.

Dissipatory Circuits of Power, by Bohan Zhang, Iain Gordon and Zlatan Sehovic.

Green Infrastructure as the Respatialization of Planetary Carbonscapes, by Peter Osborne and Ryan Beitz.

Image from, deforestation in Bolivia, 2010.
Panel included in the final presentation of 'Green Infrastructure as the Respatialization of Planetary Carbonscapes.'
Image from The Wall Street Journal. Paradise Lost: Aerial Images of Deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest.
Panel included in the final presentation of 'Green Infrastructure as the Respatialization of Planetary Carbonscapes.'
Image from The Wall Street Journal. Deforestation in Mato Grosso, 2014.
Photograph by Wayne Sentman © 2001. One state of a water bottle plastic cap, as the cause of death of a Laysan Albatross in Midway Atoll Island.
Panel included in the final presentation of 'Dissipatory Circuits of Power.'
Lithium Alternates Diagramme.
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Neil Brenner, Kian Goh, Mariano Gomez-Luque, Daniel Ibañez, Nikos Katsikis and UTL students. 

In what sense do we today live in an ‘urban age’?  This idea is frequently invoked by scholars, policy-makers, planners, designers and architects, usually with reference to the proposition that more than 50% of the world's population now lives within cities.  But, can the nature of our urban world be understood and mapped exclusively with reference to the growth of cities and their populations?

In this series of four interlinked research studios (2013-2016), the Urban Theory Lab turns this proposition upside-down and inside-out by speculating on a radically alternative mapping of contemporary planetary urbanization.  Rather than focusing our attention on large population centers, we investigate urbanization from the point of view of its putative ‘outsides’, the zones that are commonly represented as rural, remote, wild and/or untouched by human impact, and which appear as “empty” on the iconic nighttime lights of the world image.  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’, we aim 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.

This page assembles the preliminary results of UTL student research on this collaborative project:  it represents an interim report on work in progress rather than a final presentation of our research.


Critique of spatial taxonomies

  • Fall 2014 - Shirin Barol, Grga Basic: Essay






Pacific Ocean

Sahara Desert


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Neil Brenner

The urban condition is today being radically transformed.  Urban restructuring is accelerating, new urban spaces are being consolidated, and new forms of urbanization are crystallizing across the planet.  How can we decipher these emergent geographies of urbanization? 

This project confronts this challenge by exploring the theoretical foundations, concrete applications and methodological limits of a scalar approach to conceptualizing the urban.  Rather than conceiving the urban as a bounded territorial type or unit, and contrasting it to putatively non-urban spaces (suburbs, hinterlands, rural zones, wilderness), such approaches involve embedding the urban within unevenly developed, relationally constituted, politically contested and historically mutable interscalar configurations that extend from the body, the city and the region to the national territory and the planet.  To what degree can such conceptualizations help illuminate the new urban spaces that have been consolidated in recent decades?  In what sense can contemporary patterns and pathways of urban restructuring be understood as a scalar reweaving of the worldwide urban fabric:  a rescaling of urban life? 

Building upon the author’s previous writings on scale and urban theory, the studies assembled in New Urban Spaces explore such questions at length, in relation to key terrains of investigation and debate in contemporary urban studies—including postfordism, global city formation, neoliberalization, the new regionalism, growth machine theory, uneven spatial development, and planetary urbanization.

Outcome: book publication, Oxford University Press, 2019


Image credit:  László Moholy-Nagy Construction AL6 (Konstruktion AL6), 1933–34. IVAM, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Generalitat © 2016 Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Is the World Urban? Towards a Critique of Geospatial Ideology

Neil BrennerNikos Katsikis 

This project develops a critical evaluation of newly available forms of geospatial data (on population, land use and infrastructure, connectivity, and environmental transformation) in relation to the problematique of planetary urbanization. Such data are not neutral representations of territories and landscapes but presuppose specific metageographical assumptions regarding the contours and boundaries of urban spaces that require critical interrogation. We excavate such data and associated visualizations for insights into the variegated geographies of extended urbanization on a world scale and within several major large-scale urban regions in North America, Europe, Latin America, East Asia, North Africa and South Asia. More generally, we argue for a theory-driven approach to the interpretation and representation of geospatial data on worldwide urbanization processes.

Planned outcome:  book publication, Actar Publishers, supported through the Graham Foundation


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Somayeh Chitchian

The colonial and racial project of capitalism, since its emergence in the 16th century up until the present moment, has relied on a deadly logistical landscape for its expansion, accumulation, and management of circulation. Thus, the field of logistics is not only concerned with the circulation of commodities and the accumulation of capital, it is simultaneously entangled with the strategic—often violent—channeling of human bodies as well. Since the 1960s, however, supply chain capitalism has taken on a different scale and has resulted in the so-called “logistical reorientation of the economy” based on the military logic of efficiency of movement and the maximization of profit.

This doctoral project centralizes the question of logistics / migration and focuses on the extended corridors and infrastructures of circulation of Fortress “Europe” as complex (post)colonial and racialized (a) (new) bordered spaces of controlled and preselected circulation of bodies and commodities, on the one level, while simultaneously opening up grounds for (b) fugitive, migratory spatialities from below. By using logistics as both a material and theoretical lens, this doctoral project aims at respatializing migration studies’ inherent methodological nationalism and to challenge the object, scale, and spatialities that have been more conventional in migration research.

Planned outcome: doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD

A tent sits among containers at the Greek port of Piraeus. © Angelos Tzortzinis/Magnum Foundation/Time Magazine.
Greek-Macedonia border near Gevgelija. ©
"Danger of Death" sign displayed at the Calais end of the EuroTunnel. © EPA.
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The Studio, the Cloud, and the Campus: The Operational Landscape of Global Media

Ali Fard

This dissertation project (completed Winter 2017) aims to recontextualize the agency of design within the operational landscape of media through an investigation of its productive, infrastructural, and administrative spaces. By mapping the simultaneous global and local footprints of the media industry, this project contextualizes the relationship between the grounded materiality and geographic specificity of media on one hand, and its standardized practices and generalized flows on the other hand. Hence, the project is interested in the dynamic relationship between processes of planetary urbanization and the operational landscape of media—as the material basis of the moments of extended urbanization—articulated through interactions with local geographic, political, and social formations.

Outcome:  DDes Thesis, Harvard GSD, 2017

The Studio: Paramount Studios, California
The Cloud: Google’s Data Center, Georgia
The Campus: Apple’s Campus 2 (currently under construction), California
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Mariano Gomez Luque

Reading the skyscraper as a historically specific architectural formation, born within capitalism and evolving together with it, this project examines the rapidly changing concept and role, as well as the potential futures of the ‘very tall building’ vis-à-vis the political-economic context and the latent socioecological imaginaries of the contemporary urban world. The research proceeds through a critique of key late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries theoretical texts on the skyscraper, bringing together architectural theory, political economy, and science fiction in order to inquire into this architectural type’s recent and manifold spatial metamorphoses, illuminate its broader relations and entanglements with complex sociospatial processes, and excavate possibilities for radically other forms of vertical architecture to emerge against and beyond the historical horizon of capital.

Planned outcome:  doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD

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Metabolic Urbanism: Projects of Extraction, Circulation and Accumulation

Daniel Ibañez

This research critically seeks to frame the design disciplines in relation to broader social-ecological interdependencies through cross disciplinary research on the field of urban metabolism. The metabolic approach to urbanization renders the built environment as unevenly produced, and constantly reshaped, by a continuous circulation of material and energy driven by socio-political and biophysical forces. Exploring the ways in which contemporary forms of urbanism hinge upon, and in turn intensify,  the variegated array of transformations across multi-scale operational landscapes—including landscapes of extraction, circulation and accumulation—this research provides designers an encompassing framework to critically position their design agendas. In the wake of advanced neoliberal capitalism, it suggests a framework for the creation of socially just and ecologically meaningful models of urbanism, transcending dominant institutional arrangements, positivist design practices and techno-scientific ideologies around ‘mainstream’ urbanism paradigms.

Planned outcome:  doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD

Planetary Urbanization. Diagram by Daniel Ibañez and Nikos Katsikis, 2014.
Socio-ecological interdependencies. Diagram by Daniel Ibañez, 2012.
Ecological, material, thermodynamic and socio-political metabolisms for design. Diagram by Daniel Ibañez, 2014.
Current metabolic boundaries in design. Diagram by Carlos Cerezo Ávila, 2013.
Expanded spatio-temporal metabolic boundaries in design. Diagram by Carlos Cerezo Ávila, 2013.
The cycle of Virtue and Substance, Fritz Kahn, 1926.
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Wood Urbanism: From the Molecular to the Territorial

Daniel Ibañez, Jane Hutton and Kiel Moe

From under-considered thermal properties, emerging manu­facturing possibilities, new forestry regimes to larger ecosystem and carbon cycle dynamics, wood is uniquely positioned for socially just and ecologically sane models of urbanization in the twenty-first century yet remains inadequately characterized in architecture, landscape architec­ture and urbanism. As the unique material properties of wood operate at multiple, simultaneous spatial and temporal scales—so should the discussions surrounding wood’s role as a critical material for design today. This research brings into dialogue scholars, experts and practitioners who focus on wood from a range of perspectives—from the working forest to the mid-rise building to the material cell itself. The aim is to examine the implications and potentials of wood urbanism, drawing particular focus to the complex socio-ecological relationships between land-use, wood production and wood construction. While relying on the inherent intelligence and depth of multiple disciplines, a more totalizing metabolic perspective on the role of wood in contemporary buildings, urbanization and territories is needed: from the unperceptively small to the unperceptively large.

Planned outcome:  book publication

Mapping tree biomass density at a global scale. Nature, 2015.
Deforestation intensity in the Amazon. The Carnegie Landsat Analysis System – Lite (CLASlite).
Landgrabbing in Indonesia, © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace.
Clear-cut logging on Vancouver Island. Garth Lenz / Foundation for Deep Ecology.
Wood circulation and storage, British Columbia. Google Earth, 2014.
Man standing in front of a pile of cedar timber in a manufacturing company in Seattle, 1939. Alfred Eisenstaedt, LIFE magazine.
Herzog & De Meuron's Hannover Competition, 2000.
Petrosino Park proposal by West 8, 1996.
Conceptual diagram on wood transformation in architecture by Daniel Ibañez, 2013.
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From hinterland to Hinterglobe: Urbanization as Geographical Organization

Nikos Katsikis

This dissertation, completed and defended in Spring 2016, investigates urbanization as a mode of generalized geographical organization in which agglomerations, although covering no more than 5% of the land surface, are connected to the reconfiguration of most of the 70% of the planetary terrain currently used.

The project critically revisits and deconstructs the concept of the hinterland aiming to transcend its associated dichotomies and limitations. It introduces the meta-categories of agglomeration landscapes and operational landscapes as landscapes of possible externalities associated with particular operations: Agglomeration landscapes are characterized by the presence of ‘urban’ and ‘clustering’ externalities, while operational landscapes are mostly connected with ‘locational’ externalities. The project investigates how these externalities emerge out of, or are prohibited by, particular compositions of asymmetrically distributed, but largely continuous, elements of geographical organization (elements of the natural environment, elements of infrastructural equipment, demographic factors, institutional and regulatory frameworks). According to this framework, agglomeration landscapes are presented as the main locations for operations of the secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy, while operational landscapes for operations of the primary sector of the economy. In this way, it is argued that while ‘urban’ economies have been only associated with the former, the economies of urbanization should be also stretched to include the latter.

In addition to introducing these novel categories, the project also explores how they could be cartographically defined through the combinatory charting of the various geographical elements that constitute them. As a result, it blends a theoretical apparatus, building upon theories of the social and ecological production of space under capitalism; with a cartographic and geostatistical apparatus, building upon a critical engagement with selected global geospatial datasets. Finally, as a means of exploring the capacities of these novel concepts, the project attempts a historical overview of the development of urbanization as geographical organization over the past two centuries: As urbanization generalizes a condition of biogeographical interdependency, operational landscapes expand and specialize constructing a globalized shared assembly. Instrumentalized through global commodity chains, this planetary operational totality signals the shift from the universe of fragmented hinterlands, to the totality of the Hinterglobe: an alternative interpretation of the complete urbanization of the world.

Outcome, Spring 2016:  doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD


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Humanitarian Urbanism and the New Geographies of Refuge

Marianne Potvin

Today, war, climate change, and environmental disasters are uprooting populations on a scale that has exceeded the movement of people in the wake of World War II. While the rise in displacement is sharp and the causes for flight intricate, one of the most striking aspects of this phenomenon is the profound shift in the destinations and spaces of refuge. Distressed people now seek safe haven outside, rather than inside, conventional refugee camps. This contemporary reality underscores the urgency with which urban planning and design must engage with humanitarian institutions. It also forces us to rethink urban theory for 21st century conditions, by asking the following questions: Are the scales and temporalities of crisis response compatible with those of design and planning? Which practices, technologies, and types of expertise can best mediate between humanitarian intervention and the built environment? Ultimately, how can aid agencies cope with refugee influxes all the while maintaining a view towards the creation of just cities?

My project aims to offer a systematic account of the multifaceted interaction between refugee movements, humanitarian response, and the built environment in the 21st century, and to posit our current moment as a rupture in the history of what might best be described as the geographies of refuge. I draw from, and hope to bridge, three fields that are not yet in conversation: urbanism and urban theory; science, technology, and society studies (STS); and branches of international studies addressing migration, conflict, and humanitarian action. I also rely on what I call “humanitarian urbanism,” a concept that helps explain the impacts that emergency assistance programs have on long-term regional and urban planning, as well as the type of space(s) that aid interventions produce.

Planned outcome:  doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD

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Forest Management Strategies and the New Nature State

Julia Smachylo

This research project investigates the socio-ecological interconnectedness of larger territories that are operationalized, transformed, regulated, and designed in relation to state-incentivized forest conservation practices. The project involves an in-depth investigation into the changing institutional structure and power of the state, and the evolving boundaries and frontiers of specific areas in relation to conservation and urban growth pressures. At the local level, the project investigates questions of the spatial nature of natural resource conservation and land-based identities (for example, the cultural attachments to territory and/or particular values associated with land use).

As a member of the Critical Media Practice doctoral specialism at Harvard, my media-related work contributes to an expanded understanding of urban design and landscape studies, to uncover certain place-based spatial dynamics tied to different ways of valuing the environment, revealing the logics and principles behind different aggregations, agglomerations and patterns at various scales.

LINK to short video.

Planned outcome:  doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD

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