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Track B: Post-colonial cities


An increasing amount of scholarship (Robinson 2006, Roy 2011) has emerged as a critique of the ways in which cities in the global South have been studied. This session aims to discuss cities in ways that respond to this post-colonial questioning of urban theory. How can concepts that emerged in the South, such as informality, be used in cities of the global North? How can empirical studies of cities beyond the West inform urban theory in general? How do concepts such as neo-liberalism or gentrification, change when examined in a non-Western context? The session is interested in theoretical approaches as well as methods of thinking 'comparatively' through both multi- and single case studies.

Key Words: Post-colonial theory, comparative urbanism, sub-altern theory

Chairs: Hanna Hilbrandt, Susana Neves Alves, Tauri Tuvikene


Tauri Tuvikene, UCL Department of Geography (Year 3)

Abstract title:  Thinking about ‘post-socialist cities’: beyond regionally bounded understandings

This paper will investigate the complexities of understanding formerly socialist cities in the perspective of comparative urbanism and post-colonial theory. Whereas it is already popular in urban studies to think cities comparatively drawing together multiple urban experiences, much more attention in literature is given to ‘the global South’ than to another ‘beyond the West’ context—post-socialist world. Despite this lack of consideration there exists significant amount of literature on ‘post-socialist cities’ discussing their historical and contemporary processes. However, this literature has had an unfortunate tendency to perceive its subject matter by relegating post-socialist cities to a spatial and temporal category of post-1991 East and Central Europe. Therefore, drawing from the experience of comparative urban studies the paper proposes alternative ways in which post-socialist cities can be understood by, first, suggesting that the concept ‘post-socialism’ be extended to include other geographical areas; and, second, arguing to discontinue the use of ‘post-socialism’ and apply other terms for discussing those cities, like neo-liberalism or post-colonialism. Finally, and the point which the paper wants to stress the most, it will be recommended that new theoretical and empirical ways of understanding post-socialism be developed. Drawing from my research on urban mobility debates in the city of Tallinn, Estonia, the suggestion here is that post-socialism could be thought in line with actor-network thinking where various entities bring together different locations and times. These entities might exhibit characteristics of “persisting socialism” or might be something completely different, either more universal or historical. The challenge for empirical research, then, is to think how something could be thought as “post-socialist” and what would it analytically give for the understanding of particular urban constellations.

Oren Shlomo, Department of Politics and Government, Ben Gurion University of the Negev (Year 3)

Sovereign practices, urban informal authorities: Towards urban sovereignty arrangements? A Study of population and space management in East Jerusalem 

Jerusalem is mainly known as an ethno-national Divided City. But the lines which separates Jewish from Palestinian neighborhoods also distinguishes between "modern" and "non-modern", formal and informal, and "northern" and "southern" urbanity. Jerusalem can therefore be a fertile ground for researching the encounter of modern state mechanisms with a colonial urban space characterized by alternative urban authority systems and practices.

The study deals with the effective aspects of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhoods, focusing on population and space management forms and practices which enable the containment of population and space into the state's administrative and symbolic operation. 

The paper will focus on the state's and municipal practices used to regulate about 2000 informal public transportation vehicles in Eastern Jerusalem. Furthermore, the paper will examine the practices used by the state and local actors regarding the competition over the management of the local education system. Those practices and rationales of action contribute to the understanding of urban sovereignty arrangements. This refers to various ways in which the state and the municipality act in an urban environment which is partially included in the national and municipal order. I suggest that in such informal and adversarial urban environment, the production of space and the management of populations occur in a dual manner. On the one hand, the state acknowledges its limitations in use of power against local alternatives, and on the other hand, a pragmatic, wary collaboration between various local actors and the state.


Rosalina Babourkova, UCL Development Planning Unit (Year 3)

Abstract title: Ethnicity, Informality and Illegality in the (post-colonial) Eastern European city

Post-socialism is increasingly seen as “transformation” rather than “transition”, with the former constituting complex and contested change that is uneven and spatially differentiated (Smith and Swain, 1998; Pavlínek, 2003). Specific urban manifestations of such spatially differentiated transformation have been not only the growth of informal settlements on public and private land, but also their increased ethnicisation. The growth of existing and the rise of new mahalas inhabited by people of Romani origin, Europe’s largest ethnic minority, point to a distinct ethnic dimension of urban informality in Eastern Europe. Although post-colonial theory is increasingly being applied to, on the one hand, the post socialist city (Lisiak, 2010), and on the other hand, to the Roma people as post-colonial subjects (Ashton-Smith, 2010; Trehan and Kóczé, 2009), the rise of informal settlements in the region (Tsenkova, 2010) and their ethnicisation have not been discussed in such terms.

By looking at the city of Sofia and the historical development of its largest Romani settlement, Fakulteta, this thesis chapter seeks to understand the intersection of ethnicity and urban informality in the Eastern European city through the lens of post-colonial studies. The research to date has found that discourses on informal Roma settlements in Sofia emphasise above all their illegal nature, normalising conditions of illegality for Romani residents and preventing creative approaches to the physical upgrading of settlements and improved access to basic services. 

Hanna Hilbrandt, Department of Geography, Open University (Year 1)

Abstract title: “The gutters are filled with gold”: On Berlin's Geographies of Informality


Recent scholarship on cities in the Global South (Roy 2009, Robinson 2011, Watson 2009) has criticized prevalent “distinctions between the West and the rest” (Pile 2006). This perspective, it is argued, has produced theories with limited validities; categorized knowledge according to Western visions of modernity and ignored strategies of resistance that have emerged in large parts of the world. Recurrent calls to challenge these ‘developmentalist’ readings of the South demand to post-colonize theory and overcome ‘binary entrapments’.

Following this theoretical turn, this paper re-examines Berlin through ‘Southern Theory’. Can concepts deriving from this literature help explain cities beyond the South? My testing ground will be the governance of informality. Increasingly Berlin is marked by fiscal crises, entrepreneurial urbanism and social inequality. As welfare reforms have slimmed down benefits, those, who live precarious lives at the periphery of society, have adopted diverse responses to the insecurities they are faced with. Often they bypass formal regulations. This project explores such informalities from a twofold perspective: as a practice of resistance and appropriation and as a potential resource for structural transformation and political change. To inform an understanding of the effects of growing inequalities as well as notions of political agency in Berlin, I review and discuss concepts of informality (Roy 2009) as well as the tactics of resistance (Bayat 2000, Benjamin 2008) that authors have traced in the Global South.

To illustrate this discussion, I present research on the informal practices of poor Berliners who collect refundable bottles in public spaces to raise their pensions or state-benefits and make ends meet. This study identifies the particularities of informality in comparatively privileged settings and illustrates a context of increasing social divide in which people negotiate their relationships with the state through informal appropriations and insurgent claims.

Bianca Maria Nardella, UCL Development Planning Unit (Year 3)

Interrogating communities of expertise on urban conservation and development for the old city of Tunis: an interpretive methodology 

My research interrogates how knowledge practices adopted by communities of expertise in urban conservation (based both in Western and Arab-Islamic milieus) articulate meanings for spatial transformations of ‘public and open spaces’ in historic cities of the Southern Mediterranean, cities currently placed on the ‘development’ side of the urban scholarship divide (Robinson 2006).

The urban conservation and development agenda for the old city of Tunis is explored by questioning how experts both in Tunisian institutions and key programs of international agencies (Aga Khan Trust for Culture, European Union, UNESCO, World Bank) frame categories of intervention for safeguarding ‘public and open spaces’. The thesis traces (dis)continuities in how expert communities seek to dis-embed their knowledge practices from Modern, Eurocentric epistemologies of cultural heritage and urban planning that, from the time of French colonisation, have displaced a rich Arab-Islamic tradition of urban living.

I would like to present my methodology: a constructivist, qualitative, framework adopting multi-sited ethnography (Marcus 1995,1999) and interpretive policy analysis (Yanow 1999; Yanow and Schwartz-Shea 2006) approaches to disentangle overlapping constructions of meaning, and trace how they circulate / translate in ‘interpretive communities’ linked to multiple loci of knowledge production. What can we learn by analysing i) how do policies designed in the West (to address problems of historic cities in the South) mean in the context of Tunis; and ii) how do Tunisian experts make sense of international funding opportunities, by appropriation and/or criticism of proposed practices?

The aim being to trace where fractures become explicit in the apparent order of a dominant ‘cultural heritage conservation and urban development’ paradigm, and how they materialise.


Astrid Wood, UCL Department of Geography (Year 3)

Methods and motivations for exploring policy circulation in South Africa 

This study of policy circulation focuses empirically on South African adoption of bus rapid transit (BRT) policies implemented between 2006 and 2012. The BRT model, publicized by Bogota’s successful implementation of TransMilenio, was a critical influence on South Africa but the process through which BRT circulated through South African policy actors and adopted locally demands further study. Policy flows are not “traceable connections” or “physical flows that can be traced on a map” (Robinson 2011b, p.26) but part of an uneven process of circulation which involves power and personalities. Circulations are therefore difficult to study especially when they do not move directly between localities. The South African city provides a useful context through which to investigate policy circulation because it has been shaped by a variety of economic, political and social flows facilitated by colonial and post-colonial relationships. This research tries to overcome the tendency to focus solely on any particular instance of mobility to transcend academic understandings of urbanism as located in place, person or policy. What influences city decisions regarding circulated policy, and how does the study of city differences along a comparative vein enhance our understanding of policy circulation? This presentation will address the ontological reasons for my methodology interrogating the value of interviews and the way in which my focus across six South African cities contributes towards wider arguments of urban policy mobility, comparative urbanism and city development strategy.

Marieke Krijnen, Department of Conflict and Development Studies, Ghent University (Year 2)

North/south, global/local: the implications of studying gentrification and neoliberal urbanism in Beirut, Lebanon 

My PhD-project focuses on urban transformation in Beirut, Lebanon, in relation to neoliberalism and gentrification. Lebanon has always been an open economy where market forces enjoyed a free reign, albeit hampered by corruption and political instability. Current market-led urban transformation in Western Europe might therefore represent a break from the Fordist/Keynesian past, but for Lebanon, this is not as obvious.

I will present the first two sections of my (draft) theoretical framework-chapter. First, it focuses on the western bias in (urban) theory and its critiques, general (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2011; Connell, 2007) and specifically urban (Robinson, 2006; Roy, 2011). What do they teach me about ways of viewing my case study? What can my findings contribute to this debate? Second, I discuss the relationship between ‘global’ trends (neoliberalism, gentrification) and ‘local’ specificities and histories, generally (Ferguson, 2006; Tsing, 2005) and specifically urban (Smith, 2001). How ‘local’ was the city before the ‘lenses’ (Bunnell and Coe, 2005) of globalization and neoliberalism became conventional ways of looking at urban transformation? Beirut was practically a ‘global’ city by the end of the 19th century; my findings show that the government has always facilitated real estate development. Solving this issue with ‘hybridity’ (Fregonese, 2012) does not work, because neoliberalism is always hybrid (Robinson and Parnell, 2011) and in many urban mega-projects in Europe the overlap of public/private interests, bordering on corruption, have been well documented (Swyngedouw et al., 2002). I ultimately hope to use my findings from Beirut as a mirror for ‘the West’.

Marten Boekelo, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam (Year 4)

Gentrification – by all means? Redevelopment and urban politics in Beirut 

My paper will interrogate the concept of gentrification as it has been developed in Marxist urban geography through an examination of an apparent case of gentrification in a centrally located, working-class neighbourhood in Beirut. Specifically, I will examine the conceptualization of capital, the role it plays in conditioning the evolution of the urban ecology, and the implications for our understanding of urban politics.

The neighbourhood in question, Al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq, sustained substantial damages during the Lebanese (‘civil’) wars (1975-1990) but was not included in the large-scale redevelopment program that has benefited the adjacent ‘downtown Beirut’. The relative disinvestment in Khandaq has produced a striking contrast that recalls what Neil Smith has dubbed ‘Hoyt’s Valley’, including a recent surge of renewed investment under conditions of a generalized real-estate boom. The resultant hikes in housing prices threaten the residential security of many of the area’s current inhabitants.

However, the mechanisms by which this process of gentrification occurs – warfare, political clashes over post-war ‘normality’, the haphazard bricolage by local property owners and petty entrepreneurs – do not line up neatly to the analytics of capital accumulation provided by Marxist geographers. Particularly significant, urban politics isn’t made of the face-off between capital and labour (Harvey) or exchange and use value (Logan & Molotch); rather, the politics of Khandaq residents is one of informal and often illicit evasion and recourse to clientelist support relations. The paper will argue that older interests in such informal political networks remain crucial for any post-colonial understanding of the city today.