Deciphering City Futures

A guide of conceptual coordinates essential to comprehending contemporary and informal cities, especially those of the global south[1]

Edgar Pieterse

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Artistic Bill Board in Langa, Cape Town. Photo Edgar Pieterse.

“With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire, or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made up of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else”[2].

Nothing about cities in the 21 century is insignificant; the stakes are always high in pinning down what cities are, in thinking about what to do with cities and, in acting on/in/through the city, especially if one wants to bring to life more liberating and just futures. Thus, it is extremely difficult to find a conceptual path that cuts through the vicissitudes of the city without losing one’s way down blind alleys and dead-ends.

This essay explores conceptual coordinates that can guide one through the maze of competing perspectives and experiences of the contemporary city, especially at a time when cities in the global South are predominantly informal in economic and settlement terms. For example, UN-Habitat research reveals that informal employment, as a percentage of non-agricultural employment is dramatically high across the global South: 72% in Africa; 65% in Asia; and 51% in Latin America[3]. Furthermore, 79% of the urban population in Africa live in slums and this proportion is unlikely to change, as Africa becomes the fastest urbanizing region alongside Asia over the next two decades.[4]

The existential core of urbanism is the desire for radical change to bring all the good implied in the original utopian association of ‘the city’

In very broad terms the literature on the contemporary city in the global South[5] can be divided between those who take a dystopian view versus those who display an irrepressible optimism about the possibility of solving the myriad problems that beset such cities. For instance, Planet of Slums by the prolific urbanist, Mike Davis, provides a relentless catalogue of the utterly devastating conditions that characterise the daily lives of the majority of world’s urban dwellers. At the end of this book one is left emotionally devastated but also virtually incapacitated because on every conceivable front of potential change, one encounters the superior cunning of an oppressive system that will simply reinvent the conditions of exploitation. The Davis book foresees an interminable state of exploitation as it awaits the ‘future of human solidarity [which] depends upon the militant refusal of the new urban poor to accept their terminal marginality within global capitalism.’ [6] At this end of the spectrum, scholars and policy activists insist that without addressing the framing conditions of the global economy it is not possible to solve urban poverty.

The register of urban implosion find it difficult not to merely see victims – victims of corrupt governments (politicians and bureaucrats); victims of unscrupulous private firms who cherry pick profitable services whilst leaving the poor to fend for themselves; victims of patronising NGOs who neutralise militant resistance through their ameliorative ‘good’ works; victims of deeply entrenched cultural affiliations that get mobilised to exploit and abuse those considered inferior in terms of race, ethnicity and caste whilst allowing the real profiteers to get away with the loot; victims of (extreme) weather conditions due to bad locations in the city, which in turn link back to being powerless. In the fulcrum of compounded victimhood, it is almost impossible to imagine possibilities of resistance, liberation and empowerment.

In contradistinction, scholars like Michael Jack treat the urban poor like a ‘blank figure’ with little awareness or reference to the conditions that must be endured while mainstream institutions get their act together and pursue a rational policy agenda that will, incrementally, fix the conditions of urban poverty bit by bit.[7] This is maybe an crudified depiction of conventional apolitical policy studies, but it seems to me that unreflexive policy prescription in the wake of the impasse in development planning studies is deeply problematic for it reinforces a confidence amongst the powerful that has profound disempowering effects.[8]

scholars and policy activists insist that without addressing the framing conditions of the global economy it is not possible to solve urban poverty

There is a third seam of analysis that attempts to work through the experiences and ‘everyday practices’ of the urban majority who draw the short-end of the stick in contemporary cities. These commentators draw attention to the pervasive system of informalisation – i.e. partially outside of formal economies, conventional governance systems and enumerated areas – that flow from the unjust structures of opportunity in cities. However, instead of reading only marginalisation and exclusion from the urban, these writers also point to the ways in which marginalisation can be read differently as a zone of possibility and autonomy in various interstices of the city, even if in circumscribed ways[9]. Without venturing into the merits of this approach, I simply want to draw attention to the fact that unless the complex, dynamic, highly improvising and generative actions of the urban poor are acknowledged and explored, it is foolish to come to conclusions about what is going on in a city, or what may or may not work either from an insurrectionary perspective or from a ‘policy-fix’ approach.

The importance of the informal register in reading the city is that it compels one to take a more provisional approach before one pronounces on, either what is going on, or what must be done to improve the quality of life and freedom in the city. For as Abdoumaliq Simone reminds us:”Cities are densities of stories, passions, hurts, revenge, aspiration, avoidance, deflection, and complicity. As such, residents must be able to conceive of a space sufficiently bounded so as to consolidate disparate energies and make things of scale happen. But at the same time, they must conceive of a fractured space sufficiently large enough through which dangerous feelings can dissipate or be steered away. Urban residents are thus concerned about what kinds of games, instruments, languages, sight lines, constructions, and objects can be put in play in order to anticipate new alignments of social initiatives and resources, and thus capacity”[10].

Thus, today (if ever) it is simply inconceivable to approach the city, or move through it, and its futures with irrevocable certainty about what is going on, or what is needed to make the place better. Conceptual analysis, policy prescription and design ambitions of architects must move with great care and reflexivity[11]. This implies a deep appreciation of the constitutive nature of power and complexity in the informalizing, ever mutating city.

unless the complex, dynamic, highly improvising and generative actions of the urban poor are acknowledged and explored, it is foolish to come to conclusions about what is going on in a city, or what may or may not work either from an insurrectionary perspective or from a ‘policy-fix’ approach

Power and Complexity
Any analysis of urban conditions and future prospects must come to terms with the dimensions of complexity and the ways in which it is sutured by various dynamics of power. This opens the door, conceptually, to two key ideas: radical incrementalism and recursive political empowerment.

In more recent times complexity theory as a philosophical stream has been deployed to capture the interactions of various physical, social, economic, political, ecological and cultural systems in urban spaces, producing an infinite number of unpredictable dynamics. Thus, for urbanist, David Byrne the city must be approached and explored as a fundamentally emergent and therefore open-ended reality:”Cities are plainly dissipative complex systems with emergent properties and evolutionary history. The identification of cities as dissipative systems matters a great deal because it describes the relationship between urban places, the ‘unnatural’ location of contemporary life within a ‘built’ environment and the natural systems of this planet. Cities are indeed complex systems but complex systems embedded within both the complex system of global economic and cultural relations, and the complex systems which compose the natural world”[12].

What this definition suggests is that there are always so many variables at play in how cities function, unfold and incessantly become something different, it is important to assume a constitutive complexity, heightened by the rapidity of change in a globalized world, as central to the rebus character of cities.

On the other hand it is also fair to say that even if we are to appreciate the significance of complexity, uncertainty, surprise and therefore open-ended futures, or at least malleable futures, we cannot deny that power is at the heart of city development because governance boils down to questions of control over decision-making about how resources are used in a sea of competing and different interests. However, power is distributed over many sites and fields, and dominating groups and interests are never successful in fully realising their intentions. There are always unexpected and unforeseen resistances to dominant power and all discourses of power hold the seeds to be inverted and contested through the imaginative redefinition, usually through appropriation, by insurgent interests in the city[13].

On every conceivable front of potential change, one encounters the superior cunning of an oppressive system that will simply reinvent the conditions of exploitation

These two lenses – complexity and power – are useful because it allows one to respond to the existing mainstream literature and more critical conceptual approaches to cities and begin to build a bridge between them. The complexity lens allows one to address the technical, design-oriented, technocratic and managerialist discourses and imperatives characteristic of the various literatures in the domain of urban management and design. At the same time, in the face of the dramatic scale of urban informalization, it is also clear that technical solutions are often oblivious to power dynamics. A danger that is ever present as progressive sounding mainstream urban policies continue to produce or perpetuate unjust and inequitable urban outcomes.

Radical incrementalism
The existential core of urbanism is the desire for radical change to bring all the good implied in the original utopian association of ‘the city’.[14] This radicalism impulse stands in contrast to the necessary prudence and constraints of incremental change, which is the only way of intervening in conditions of profound complexity and entrenched power dynamics embedded in capitalist modernities. We know that the current scale of human suffering and violence that flows from the profoundly unequal distribution of resources and opportunity is fundamentally inhumane and intolerable. Yet, we also know that we cannot wish into existence an overnight revolution that will make everything all right in the world. At the same time it seems futile to simply work away at creating the right conditions for insurrectionary revolutions that will eventually bring to life a large scale “militant refusal” by the worlds urban multitudes, as intimated by Mike Davis. This leaves one with bringing change into the world through more discrete avenues; surreptitious, sometimes overt, and multiple small revolutions that at unanticipated and unexpected moments galvanise into deeper ruptures that accelerate tectonic shifts of the underlying logics of domination and what is considered possible. Radical incrementalism is a disposition and sensibility that believes in deliberate actions of social transformation but through a multiplicity of processes and imaginations, none of which assumes or asserts a primary significance over other struggles. This position may not resolve the existential struggle of urbanism, but it provides a means to confront the struggle and perpetually work one’s way through it, stumbling across what works and does not.

Recursive political empowerment[15]. Thus, a viable notion of empowerment of the poor requires an appreciation that empowerment is fundamentally an individual processes that deepens with time if individual efforts are consciously embedded in more collective forms of solidarity and mutual empowerment. The practices of Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) illustrates this effectively. SDI explicitly seeks to build autonomy from the state and informal power brokers, whilst socialising their members into an alternative normative framework, which in turn becomes the basis of mobilisation and legitimacy in their work[16].

There is no single answer to the global challenge of urban justice, so sorely lacking in every fold of the world’s cities. There is no magic bullet that can solve the multiple and interwoven dimensions of brutalisation and exclusion that work so contemptuously in most informalized cities across the global South. Our core challenge is to acknowledge and appreciate the rebus character of city, whilst also forging innovative ways of reimagining the city on the basis of immersion into the practices that constitute informalization.
(1) This essay is a modified extract from: Pieterse, E. (2008) City Futures: Confronting the Crisis of Urban Development. London: Zed Books.
(2) Calvino, Italo (1997[1974]). Invisible Cities. London: Vintage, pp. 44.
(3) Ya, Y. and Weliwita, A. (2007) ‘The urban informal economy – new policy approaches’, Habitat Debate, June 2007: 4-5.
(4) Tannerfeldt, G. and Ljung, P. (2006) More Urban Less Poor: An introduction to urban development and management. London: Earthscan, p.54.
(5) The term global South refers to countries that do not have fully industrialised economies, largely non-OECD countries with the exception potentially of Mexico, Korea and Turkey. In postcolonial theoretical terms it denotes countries that have experienced some form of colonial domination (directly or indirectly) in their modern history, which have left indelible scars on their economic, cultural and political landscapes.
(6) Davis, M. (2005). Planet of Slums. London: Verso, p.202.
(7) A quintessential expression of this mode of policy confidence can be found in: Jack, M. (2006). “Urbanisation, Sustainable Growth and Poverty Reduction in Asia”, IDS Bulletin, 37(3): 101-114. Also see: Tannerfeldt & Ljung (2006), op cit.
(8) Cornwall, A. and Brock, K. (2005) ‘What do Buzzwords do for Development Policy? A critical look at “participation”, “empowerment” and “poverty reduction” ’, Third World Quarterly, 26(7): 1043-1060.
(9) For example, see: Bayat, A. (1997) Street Politics. Poor People’s Movements in Iran, New York: Columbia University Press; Benjamin, S. (2004) ‘Urban land transformation for pro-poor economies’, Geoforum, 35(2): 177-187; de Boeck and Plissart (2004) Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City, Brussels: Ludion; Roy, A. and Alsayyad, N. (eds) (2004) Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America and South Asia, Lanham: Lexington Books.
(10) Simone, A. (2004) For the City Yet to Come: Changing African Life in Four Cities, Durham & London: Duke University Press, p.11).
(11) An important body of work that picks up on a research approach fitting for such readings can be found in: Flyvbjerg, B. (2001) Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How it can Count Again, London: Sage.
(12) Byrne, D. (2001) Understanding the Urban, New York: Palgrave, p.11.
(13) The dynamics and processes I have in mind here are powerfully set out in: Bayat (1997), op cit.
(14) For a useful account of what the ‘good city’ may mean in the contemporary era, see: Amin, A. (2006) ‘The Good City’, Urban Studies, 43(5/6): 1009–1023.
(15) These ideas are persuasively developed in the various writings of Arjun Appadurai whose work seeks to capture the indeterminate dynamics of processes of identity formation and agency in some of the harshest urban contexts in the world. See: Appadurai, A. (2004) ‘The capacity to aspire: culture and the terms of recognition’ in Rao, V. and Walton, M. (Eds) Culture and Public Action, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
(16) Url: