Martín Arboleda

This research project assesses the implications of the rise of an Asia-centered capitalist world system for recent processes of territorial and agrarian change taking place in Latin America, with a special emphasis on money and debt. This will involve an exploration of the modalities of rural indebtedness, speculative investment, and sovereign lending emerging after the turn of the century, and their repercussions in the dual process of the depopulation of the countryside and the proliferation of precarious urban settlements. An important objective of this project is to provide a counterpoint to the circulationist readings of financialization and global city formation whose default level of analysis tends to be the sphere of exchange. By insisting on the status of money as a commodity (i.e. both a product and embodiment of human labor), the project intends to shift the analytical lens towards the sphere of production, and grasp the foundations of the trans-Pacific financial system in the expanded reproduction of capital via the material transformation of the labor process. This entails an interrogation of how debt instruments have become deeply entangled with the systematic erosion of peasant lifeworlds, the growth of the relative surplus population, and the mechanization and toxification of the agro-food supply chain.  

Projected outcome: Journal articles.

Settlements of displaced peasantries in Antofagasta, Chile (Photo: Connectas)


Martín Arboleda

The ‘commodity super-cycle’, considered one of the most persistent and wide-ranging resource extraction booms in modern history, signals two distinct, yet overlapping epoch-making shifts: the end of the Western phase of capitalism, on the one hand, and the rise of intelligent machines, on the other. As East Asian economies underwent dynamic processes of industrial upgrading and urbanization after the 1990s, Latin American resource peripheries –for centuries the ‘backyard’ of Western empires- became gradually entangled in a complex infrastructural corridor of supply chains and ‘maritime silk roads’ that repositioned the gravitational center of the world economy towards the Pacific Ocean. Moreover, a recent leap forward in the computerization and robotization of the labor process has allowed the mining industry to boost efficiency by rolling out remote sensing technologies, autonomous trucks, drills, shovels, smelters, and control systems. As a result, mines have expanded in both scale and numbers, opening the door onto a new phase of primitive accumulation, labor degradation, and ecological plunder whose full extent we are only beginning to understand. This research project intends to shed light into the reorganization of the mining industry into transnational supply chains, especially as capital sheds its Western skin and escalates into a genuinely global socionatural system. It explores the ways in which the Atacama Desert –the driest in the world-, became ensnared in a global logistical apparatus that connected mining sites in the Andean plateaus of Chile with an expanding constellation of megacities, factories, and stock exchanges in Asia and other parts of the world.

Projected outcome: Book publication (under contract with Verso).

Autonomous shoveling and haulage machinery in a mine in Chile. Credit: Codelco

Extreme Territories of Urbanization

Neil Brenner, Kian Goh, Mariano Gomez-Luque, Daniel Ibañez, Nikos Katsikis and the Urban Theory Lab research team. 

This project subjects the theory of extended urbanization to “extreme stress” by applying it to several zones and conditions that are commonly thought to lie outside the urban condition:  the Arctic, the Amazon, the atmosphere, the Himalayas, the Gobi desert steppe, the Pacific ocean, the Sahara desert and Siberia.  Through a combination of historical analysis, critical geopolitical economy, geospatial data visualization and conceptual experimentation, our research aims to extend the analytical and political horizons of urban theory into these “extreme territories” of urbanization.

Projected outcome: book publication

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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.

Planned outcome: book publication, Oxford University Press, 2017


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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The Studio, the Cloud, and the Campus: The Operational Landscape of Global Media

Ali Fard

This research project 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.

Planned outcome:  doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD

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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THE NON-CITY PROJECT: Or, Architecture Without an Outside

Mariano Gomez Luque

If Planetary Urbanization —that is, the production of space at the scale of the world— implies a complete reformulation of the concept of the urban, consequently undermining the cartesian dualisms city/countryside, and society/nature, it follows, almost as a logical proposition, that architecture —that is, a discipline involved in the production of urban space— has to re-calibrate, if not extend what is simultaneously both its field and object of study. Indeed, in our current vocabulary, architecture means —exclusively— building, and more precisely, building the city, and nothing but the city as we used to know it. Such ontological and methodological fixation with the city as the sole embodiment of the urban renders architecture immune to the pressing complexity of the unevenly woven fabric of contemporary urbanization and its associated spatial logics, formulas, and configurations. Amalgamated within fluctuating landscapes of increasing spatial entropy, where all boundaries are exploded, imploded, and constantly reconfigured as to make any distinctive formal-organizational pattern undecipherable, the complex and ubiquitous territorial formations of capitalist uneven development remain largely 'unseen', and therefore, beyond the scope of political awareness, collective action, and design. As the bounded, recognizable, discrete form of agglomeration we still call the city gets inevitably entangled and disappears within the sea of planetary urbanization, a new conceptual domain of architecture theorization is turned apparent —namely, the Non-City realm.

This dissertation is structured as a multilayered research, a series of systematic (retroactive and projective) architecture excursions into the thick, textured surface of ‘the constitutive outside’, critically assessing abstract conceptshistorical precedents, and contemporary cases in order to identify and propose —respectively— operative theoretical formulationsdisciplinary genealogies, and generic models through which alternative futures for the (non) city can be imagined. Methodologically, the thesis is conceived as a dialectic construct through which different analytic frameworks are advanced in order to critically enquire about the possibility of delineating a Non-City Project. In other words, the investigation entails an interplay between what the city not any longer is, and that into which it could evolve. In that light, the research attempts to contribute to the formulation of an architecture theory of the urban by which the political, spatial, and socio-material dimensions of the entity formerly known as the city can be extended into the variegated, ubiquitous and pervasive landscapes of contemporary planetary urbanization.

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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Logistics as Logic

Ghazal Jafari

Through the lens of logistics, this project explores the emerging territories of power at the turn of the 21th century as the previous structures—whether political, ideological, or spatial—gradually give way to processes and organization. Through a series of field research, visual documentation, and deep historical reading, the project investigates the routine and invisible codes, protocols, and apparatuses that write the logistics hybrid infrastructure, and organize space as a logistical technique. Observing the growing transformations in the ways by which we sense time, environment, and life, through movement, communication, and exchange, this research creates a dialectic between the formation of environmental knowledge, that is essentially a cultural and philosophical question, to the political and geographic concerns of the future planetary urbanization.

Planned outcome:  doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD

The Making of Infrastructural Landscape: Expansion of Panama Canal. Credit: Panama Canal official website
Synchronizing the World of Commerce: UPS Worldport, Louisville, KY, 2015. Credit: Ghazal Jafari
Winter Geographies: Kraft’s subterranean “cheese” cave, Springfield, Missouri
Arranging for the Battle, Napoleonic cartography, 1809. Credit:
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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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