Monday, 28 October 2013

Urban poverty ‘without an outside’?

by Dolf te Lintelo

In recent discussions with development studies colleagues on the relationship between urbanisation and urban poverty we were often drawn to acknowledge the importance of linkages between the city and ‘the beyond’, whether that be the rural, the peri-urban or something else. However, the theoretical, methodological or practical ways of operationalising this in day to day work is not always obvious. The Flexible City Symposium at Oxford University on 24/25 October offered a chance to learn from urban theory and critical urban geography scholars grappling with this issue. What take away points resound with enhancing our understanding of the dynamics of urban poverty?

1. Contemporary urban geography perspectives are very actively seeking for connections rather than posit dichotomies between the urban and the rural, the urban and the suburban, the urban and the post-urban, between the centre and the periphery, etc – you get the point.

2. So what could such connections look like? Some excellent keynote presentations from Neil Brenner (Harvard) and Matthew Gandy (UCL) offered a glimpse. Both started off taking a long term historical perspective, to argue for breaking down conceptual barriers between the social and the natural; and the social and the technological. Brenner thus argued that urbanisation and the insatiable urban demand for energy are not just connected but constituted by the processes of dramatic environmental degradation. Provocatively offering a picture of the maimed landscapes of Canadian tar sands as an image of the urban, Brenner posits that the latter’s invisibility to the urban inhabitant’s eye does not detract from their necessity in producing the latter’s experience of the urban condition.

3. Brenner thus suggests a radical replacement of common dichotomies with the idea of an ‘urban fabric’, driven by both concentrated and extended forms of urbanisation at the global level. Gandy’s and other participants’ talks further highlighted the role of materiality in transforming as well as locking in human behaviours, social organisation, and social mores. We are all familiar with the ludicrously inefficient potable water use of the common western toilet, which nevertheless continues to get installed in places all around the world. Thus, the material itself is ‘vital’, having an active role to play as driver of urban change.

4. Classic notions of the urban and urbanisation are deeply embedded in everyday language, in policy speak and in theory, and are not receptive or suited for dealing with a more integral and connected notion of the ‘urban’. Advancing the latter requires ontological change (i.e. change in deeply held knowledge of ‘what is’), as Brenner put it, asserting ‘Urban theory without an outside’. That is: not to posit the urban against the non-urban, against the rural, against the peri-urban, and not to continue privileging the urban as analytical starting point, or as the centre of such theorisations, from which the other and the peripheral is defined.

This is not easy, because it challenges established wisdom: in the shape of common knowledge, the vernacular speech, established traditions of urban theory, and not least, public policy and essential tools of governing such as statistics, and administrative boundaries and distributions of labour. Ontological shifting sands cause discomfort, not just for some participants in the seminar (one protested against the very idea), but also for policymakers. In the world of development, the uncertainty regarding its implications for how policy data is generated, by the World Bank, UN, but also at national level, leave alone for cities themselves, would create a big barrier to change. Major questions thus remain to be answered about what such change would look like, but in fairness, this is not what the speakers set themselves as a task. Moreover, the academic world itself still needs convincing: witness the very naming of ‘Urban Studies’, ‘Urban theory’ and the ‘Flexible City’.

5. Geographers love maps. No news here, however various presentations showed that maps remain very potent visual tools for communicating complex ideas.

6. These discussions speak well to emerging, relational notions of understanding poverty, urban or otherwise. Like more ‘connected’ urban theories, relational poverty perspectives shift challenge traditional poverty analyses, whose starting point is the individual, and his/her attributes and deficits; as lacking income/skills/assets/etc. In contrast, relational poverty considers foreground how the condition of impoverished people (as groups, as well as individuals) is intricately connected with their social, political, ecological and economic environments. This means that urban poverty is no longer understood ‘without the outside’.

Whether focusing on wellbeing or otherwise, such approaches allow for a better recognition of the poor‘s ability to act creatively, bring in their own experiences, and critically do not equate the study of poverty with the study of poor people (cf B. Harriss-White). Thus, various conference presentations noted the creative yet often constrained political agency of poor urban communities. Colin McFarlane (Durham) noted the earthy example of slum-dwellers in Mumbai, who in protest to the hiked fee for toilet services, started relieving themselves in the space used by the toilet attendants. Such political agency is however highly diverse, and context sensitive, and efforts to understand the role of such ‘everyday’ politics in the production of urban poverty thus requires micro-level analysis.

7. Finally, like ‘connected’ approaches to urban theory, relational poverty approaches posit an almost ontological challenge to how we understand poverty, and thus face significant obstacles in gaining traction. Yet both seem to be ideas whose time has come.