Isolation to Eviction for Nile Island Dwellers

by Abdelbaseer Mohamed

Greater Cairo, which includes the city of Giza, is spatially fragmented and heavily oriented toward private transit. Low-income residents are disproportionately isolated from essential infrastructure, services and job opportunities. Segregation is especially acute on Gezirat Al Warraq and Gezirat Al Dahab, large islands several kilometers from central Cairo. Efforts to solve this problem have encountered resistance from proponents of sustainable development.


Dahab Island. Image source: Fouad GM


Warraq Island. Image source: Ester Meerman

The islands’ fertile land and rare bird species coexist with informal settlements, where thousands of people have lived since the construction of Aswan Low Dam in 1902. Links to the mainland are starkly insufficient. To access Cairo and Giza on old ferries, many residents leave home before dawn and return late at night. Lack of transit infrastructure has effectively barred them from economic opportunities as well as quality healthcare, education and law enforcement.


Spatial accessibility map showing the extent to which large river islands Warraq (top) and Dahab (bottom) are isolated from the rest of Cairo and Giza. Red indicates higher transit connectivity; blue indicates lower connectivity. Image source: Abdelbaseer Mohamed

In a recent Al Kahera Walnas news feature, island dwellers expressed frustration with the lack of infrastructure and services. Sanitation and crime were especially urgent concerns. “I have to use the river’s contaminated water to wash my dishes,” said a Warraq resident. “Liver disease and kidney failure are normal.” Another woman reported, “drug trafficking and thugs are overwhelming.”

So why not build bridges linking Dahab and Warraq to the mainland? Based on a 1996 decree, these islands are “natural protectorates” that must be cleared of informal settlements. Municipal officials argue that bridges threaten biodiversity by encouraging more unplanned development. According to one local official, since the islands are natural protectorates, higher authorization is needed for the city to provide more than basic administrative services. Island residents, many of whom live in communities established by their ancestors, remain despite government neglect and exclusion from decision-making processes.

Ironically, the Cairo 2050 and Giza 2030 master plans envision high-end residential and recreational development for the islands. Planners hope to resolve chronic traffic problems by adding 15 metro lines and 1,000 streets by 2050, but these projects wouldn’t meet the needs of people now living on Warraq and Dahab. The plans focus on attracting tourists and wealthy citizens, along with eliminating informal settlements.




Plans for new development on the Nile islands. Image source: Giza 2030 Master Plan (pp. 145)

In a 2009 survey for Cairo 2050, over 60 percent of island residents voiced discontent with the development plan. One man reported to Al Kahera Walnas that “the governor of Giza doesn’t care about us.” Instead of helping to solve the problems of isolated communities, policymakers are making these problems more difficult.

Master plans without resident input are problematic, to say the least. Island dwellers should be able to reach the mainland safely and efficiently. Their present segregation contradicts visions of social justice that inspired the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

Responsible management of island ecosystems is needed to avert the harmful consequences of new development. To this end, it’s important to reject exclusivity. A more equitable approach would assure that islanders have the right to contribute meaningfully to new plans while sharing land ownership with the municipal government. Deep concern for the places where they live makes them natural partners in sustainable development.

Abdelbaseer Mohamed is a visiting scholar at American University in Washington, D.C. He recently completed a doctorate in urban design at Ain Shams University and Cologne University of Applied Sciences.

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A Space that Is Not the Battlefield

by Patrick Sykes


Source: DNA

The dust is settling on Shura City, yet not a single brick has been laid. Since this proposal for a drone-proof city emerged, its creator, Asher Kohn, has attracted the unexpected attention of architects, allies and antagonists alike. I spoke with Asher and Hiba Ali — the visual artist who created a virtual model of the city — as they developed plans for Shura's interior spaces.

The original proposal is a semi-ironic architectural response to drone warfare. It details materials and design features meant to obscure the information that a drone operator uses to identify targets — colored glass to alter skin tones, paneled roofing to cast shadows, and windows coated in QR codes to "act as guard dogs, letting the machines outside know that they are not welcome." The plan draws upon traditional architectural elements found across the Middle East and the Maghreb; badgirs (windcatchers) minimize human heat signatures, and mashrabiyas (projecting windows fronted with intricate latticework) hide Shura's several hundred residents from view.

Fortified cities, of course, are nothing new. The pentagonal walls of Palmanova and the octagonals of Neuf-Brisach are among the most prominent of many historic designs for residential war machines. Yet drone warfare necessitates a different approach. When the asymmetry between parties is so great, the targeted community is unable to simply increase defense in proportion to escalating danger. Shura City is based on the notion that creative use of space may succeed where other forms of intervention fail. Its purpose is to spur debate.

One might argue that any fortified settlement normalizes fear of the world outside. Stephen Graham and Anna Minton, for example, have written about gated communities and their propensity to instill a sense of vulnerability as much as security. Asher contends that fear of drone attacks is already present, and can only be reduced by preventing civilian casualties.

It is essential that security measures do not reduce the quality of life for city residents. "An architectural solution to perpetual defense must bring people out of a siege mentality," Hiba explains. "If the city's exterior is experienced as protective, it should not be a cage, and its interiors should be comfortable, adaptable. This also subconsciously influences how one navigates through private and communal space."

Asher emphasizes the city's open plan, which allows people to "create spaces that work for them." This would include rearranging interior walls and opening roofs. "Giving people the opportunity to make the most of the city, giving them a safe place to create their own city, that was the goal more than creating a utopian city," he says. An open plan may also bypass the authoritarian streak that infuses top-down urban design, setting this project apart from those of "planners who create places that no one actually lives in or enjoys living in." Empowering residents to organize — both politically and architecturally — is one of Shura City's most widely praised features. The word shura means "consultation" in Arabic, representing a form of direct democracy envisioned for the city.

Unlike other fortified cities, Shura isn't equipped for residents to fight back. I asked Asher how he reconciles that with the promise of empowerment. "It puts the aggressor (the human operating the drone) in a position where, knowing that there will be no retaliation, they have to still make the conscious decision to attack," he explains. The city's defensive system involves a similar principle, targeting the drone's ability to process information so that operators must pause and reconsider the potential for unintended consequences.

Given the complex imbalance of drone warfare, a fortified pacifism may be the only hope of effective resistance. From an operator's perspective, Asher concludes, "if someone is a drone target, they must present themselves as a target — 'being with your family' is putting innocence in the crosshairs of a drone, instead of just 'being with your family.' You're never allowed to not be on the battlefield. More than anything else, we're trying to make a space that is not the battlefield."

Patrick Sykes is a writer, editor and radio producer based in Istanbul.

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Podcast: A Walk Through London’s East End

by Cristiana Strava

London's East End needs little introduction. Though nestled between the largest financial hubs in Europe (Central London to the west and Canary Wharf to the south), it has traditionally been one of the city's least affluent areas.


Central London viewed from Clichy Estate in the East End. Image source: Will Faichney


Canary Wharf financial center from Stepney. Image source: Will Faichney

The East End is home to places like the recently refurbished Ocean Estate in Stepney, known for many years as one of Europe's largest and most deprived housing developments. It is also home to vibrant Brick Lane and Whitechapel Road, the East London Mosque and Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.


Markets along Whitechapel Road. Image Source: Alex Webb


Mixed-tenure apartment buildings, part of the Ocean Estate redevelopment project. Image source: New London Development

There have been many waves of migration to the East End since the 17th century — including French Huguenots, Ashkenazi Jews, Irish Catholics and Bangladeshi Muslims. The northwestern zone is now gentrifying into a habitat of hipsters, yuppies and "yummy-mummies."


A cafe at Spitalfields Market. Image source: Elly Godfroy

Imran Jamal, an ethnographer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, has worked in the East End's Bangladeshi community for many years. He gave an unorthodox tour of the area in November 2012, which I attended and Thalia Gigerenzer recorded for CoLab Radio. The audio track is embedded below.



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Community Engagement in Mexico City

by Wangũi Kamonji

An innovative urban development program is activating positive change in low-income neighborhoods across Mexico City. Despite winning the World Habitat Award in 2011, the city government's Programa Comunitario de Mejoramiento Barrial (Community Program for Neighborhood Improvement, or PCMB) is surprisingly little-known outside Mexico.

Socioeconomic inequality is deeply engrained in Mexico City's spatial structure, and neighborhood wealth generally corresponds with the quality of public services. The PCMB addresses this problem by funding revitalization projects in economically depressed areas. While living in one such area, El Pedregal de Santo Domingo, I noticed the program's impact on freshly painted buildings that were formerly concrete gray.


Recently painted homes along a street in Mexico City's El Pedregal de Santo Domingo neighborhood. Image source: Wangũi Kamonji

Inspired to learn more about the PCMB, I met with economist Manuel Luis Labra Illanes, a member of the Malacate Civic Association who has been actively involved in developing the program. Our conversation is transcribed below.

Can you tell us about how the PCMB came about?

The PCMB came out of the Programa de Mejoramiento de Vivienda (Home Improvement Program, or PMV), which the Mexico City government started in 2000. The PMV helped improve people's houses through loans repayable over eight years, but it didn't address public spaces and other shared resources. So we began planning the PCMB, which launched officially in 2007.

So the main difference between the two programs is that the PMV is for homes and the PCMB is for broader neighborhood projects?

Yes, and the PMV is a credit system while the PCMB is a public benefit program.

What are the core elements of the PCMB? How does it actually work?

The guiding principle is that neighborhood residents decide what to do, how to do it and who will do the work. They administer the government funding. That's what makes the program unique.

Another essential component is that it's a competition — community groups compete for available funds. In 2015, for example, there were 677 entries and roughly 200 projects funded.


Inauguration of new planters and recreation equipment installed through a PCMB project. Image source: Mexico City Government

Does the amount of funding vary each year?

The city government's Social Development Secretariat (SDS), which is responsible for the program, allocates funds that vary slightly from year to year and average around 100 million pesos. We carried out a study and found that, for a program of this kind in a city like ours, the base budget should be about 300 million pesos.

How many times can a neighborhood group secure funding?

Up to five. Applicants can receive a maximum of 500,000 pesos in the first year and a million pesos after that.

How do you evaluate applications, distribute funds and prevent irregularities?

There's a program committee made up of five civil servants and five civil society members who decide which applications to fund. The most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods take precedence.

The program committee releases funds to a neighborhood representative, and that person has to be on a project committee. Local assemblies elect the members of these committees. If there are no project committees in a given neighborhood, residents have to establish them in order to receive funding. Each project has an administrative committee that monitors project spending and other implementation requirements to prevent irregularities.

What specific issues do funded projects address?

There are three main focal points: public space, infrastructure and neighborhood image. Projects can, for example, establish open squares, community gardens and needed infrastructure. They can also attend to neglected parts of the urban fabric through maintenance and beautification.


El Centro de Artes y Oficios "Escuelita Emiliano Zapata" — a community center in El Pedregal de Santo Domingo — received crucial repairs to its building. A later project resulted in 20 solar panels that allow the center to generate its own electricity. Image source: Yolanda Gómez

Can you share your thoughts on the program's results so far?

About 1,000 projects have been funded, covering each of the neighborhoods most in need and improving government services after decades of neglect. We're especially proud of reaching communities like Tepito, which are known for severe blight and violence.

The Legislative Assembly of Mexico City recently approved a law through which the program budget is set each year and protected against rising inflation. This law also protects against threats to the PCMB's existence under new administrations. You see, there are politicians who don't like the program because grassroots administration makes it hard to control from above.

What's in store for the PCMB in coming years?

A few things. One is a problem with the current model: we have to figure out what happens when neighborhoods reach their funding limit. This is a discussion we're currently having.

We're also discussing ways to fund larger projects — libraries, cultural centers, schools — with broader impact on neighborhood identity. This has real potential for reversing cycles of marginality. Opportunities are often closed to people from high-poverty areas, but social stigma declines with visible signs of progress. So neighborhood improvement signifies many things. We'd like to fund 30 medium-to-large projects a year through the PCMB or create a parallel program for this purpose.

Another thing I'd like to see is a process for building relationships between neighborhoods with similar issues in different cities. There are nation-to-nation links and city-to-city links but I don't know if there are neighborhood-to-neighborhood links.

Do you have any advice for people who are interested in starting a similar program?

It's important to design the program with local communities instead of trying to impose a prefabricated model. The process has to be participatory, emerging through strong relationships with neighborhood residents.

The original vision may be different from the way it develops in practice, and adaptability is key. When we began, we didn't imagine that we'd be attending to basic sanitation infrastructure, because that's the work of the central government. We were very theoretical in our conception of public space, viewing it as a kind of panacea for all the city's problems. When I visited Colonia La Cruz, part of the Gustavo A. Madero borough, I was surprised to see how residents adapted the program to their infrastructural needs.


The hilly Colonia La Cruz area in northern Mexico City lacked proper drainage and safe pathways. The PCMB empowered residents to install a new drainage system, build staircases and give homes a new coat of paint. Image source: Wangũi Kamonji

It's really important to begin where you know people are interested — where there are community leaders and responsible participants. If you start out in a place where residents are apathetic, or where there are extreme social conflicts, the chances of failing increase exponentially. Start with a promising location, ensure the effectiveness of the program, and then you can move to more challenging situations. If not, funders will lose confidence in the project. Social programs come under a lot of fire, so it's critical to build a reputation for successful work.

Wangũi Kamonji is a recent graduate of Wellesley College who researches urban socio-environmental issues in countries worldwide, including Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Vietnam. She blogs about her experience at Sustainability from the Roots.

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Replenishing a Sense of Wonder in Cities

by Min Li Chan

In a radio interview with Eleanor Wachtel of Writers & Company, Gail Jones reflects upon urban experience and its centrality to her novel Five Bells. The conversation is insightful and eminently quotable, with many passages that threw new light on my old urbanist ways. Jones urges us to be aware not only of a city's physicality, but also of its intangible atmospheres:
I'm very interested in psychogeography, and the idea that we must walk around our own place with an active intelligence and a degree of radical attention to what is there. ... We ought not be the flaneur who is idly and languidly consuming the sights of the city, we must look at its shapes, at its motions, attend to its sounds, corridors between spaces, the unexpected things looming up or falling away as we turn a corner.


A painted alley in Sydney, Australia. Source: Zijun Roger Qian


Psychogeography is a balm for the jaded local, a way of revitalizing everyday urban experience. In Five Bells, Jones returns to Sydney's Circular Quay in an attempt to "defamiliarize a place that seems exhausted," one that is "eroded by tourism, evacuated of its wonder."


"Lighting of the Sails" at the Sydney Opera House near Circular Quay. Source: Dahlia Bock

As I grow accustomed to living in San Francisco, I fear getting desensitized to the city's quintessential sights and experiences. The heady discombobulation of travel and the novelty of distant places can evoke a sense of wonder that is easily overlooked in the cities we call home. Yet it's also possible to experience familiar places in new ways. In San Francisco there are events — from talks and walks to bicycle tours and treasure hunts — that delve into public art, food politics, vernacular history and other fascinating aspects of the city. This groundswell of hyperlocal resources from fellow urban dwellers helps to defamiliarize and rediscover everyday settings.


The Social Justice Mural Tour in San Francisco. Source: Thinkwalks

Jones also discusses Sydney's Demolition Books, an archival collection of "ghostly buildings that are no longer there, which you can look at and place with absolute precision where they were, where they sort of spoke from." She engages memorably with the roles of urban history in understanding and experiencing places:
There is both the vertical and the horizontal history, as it were, that we might attach ourselves to when we start to meditate on a city. ... There's the history that seems to be unfolding and moving forward, and there's the plunging down into the interiority of the place, into its lost histories.


A picture by Adam Forrest Grant of his son David at Circular Quay in the early 1900s. Source: City of Sydney Archive

Jones inspired me to contemplate how visual technologies might heighten the experience of historical artifacts like Sydney's Demolition Books. Imagine putting on a pair of augmented reality glasses to compare present cityscapes with detailed recreations in the same field of view. This brought to mind a recent brush with urban psychogeography in virtual reality. Outfitted with a Vive headset and handheld controllers, I suddenly found myself transported to my former neighborhood in Manhattan. Taking a few steps forward, I gazed up at skyscrapers rendered by Google Earth. Pixelated walls betrayed their virtuality, but the experience was nonetheless breathtaking. I zoomed out and looked down at the tops of buildings — feeling a bit like King Kong, perhaps — until they faded into a swath of planetary blue and green. In our near future, could virtual reality accentuate the wonders to be found in actual city streets?

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An Instant Capital Expands in Myanmar

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

In 2007, Siddharth Varadarajan described the city of Naypyidaw (Abode of Kings) as "the ultimate insurance against regime change, a masterpiece of urban planning designed to defeat any putative 'colour revolution' — not by tanks and water cannons, but by geometry and cartography." Less than two years prior, this brand-new outpost became the capital of Myanmar through a process shrouded in mystery.

Based on astrological counsel, as the story goes, a convoy of 1,100 military vehicles carrying 11 battalions and 11 ministries left Yangon for Naypyidaw on November 11, 2005, at 11 a.m. General Than Shwe, leader of the junta in power at the time, justified this move as a solution to expanding government facilities without exacerbating congestion in Yangon. Information Minister Kyaw Hsan added that the government sought to place the capital in a strategically central location. Military planners rapidly developed Naypyidaw with little if any input from civil society.

Following the release of pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi from twenty years of house arrest, in 2010, a series of political reforms took effect in Myanmar. A civilian government succeeded the military regime in 2011, and Suu Kyi's party — the National League for Democracy — won 43 of 45 seats in the Lower House of Parliament a year later. It is unclear whether the former leaders, who have retained substantial influence, built the new capital in preparation for these changes.

Unlike the famous modernist plans for Brasilia and Chandigarh, Naypyidaw lacks a clearly articulated form. Its structures are idiosyncratically arranged in low-density clusters linked by giant roadways. Architectural monotony is evident from above in the shapes and colors of residential development.










Housing in Naypyidaw.

The capital's public buildings include a central parliamentary complex, an international airport and a massive pagoda. Their designs tend to feature grandiose symmetry around a central axis. Most are located far from residential areas, in keeping with the general scarcity of mixed-use development in Naypyidaw.


Uppatasanti Pagoda (Peace Pagoda), at left, is Naypyidaw's largest monument.


Rare mixed-use development around the Gems Museum.

The town of Pyinmana, about two miles from Naypyidaw, exemplifies the organic density of most settlements in Myanmar. By contrast, the new capital is a luxurious sprawling garrison. Its costly architecture and amenities underscore longstanding deprivation that still plagues the country in spite of government reforms.


The town of Pyinmana, located a few miles from Naypyidaw.


Naypyidaw Railway Station (above left) and other new development (below center) in comparison with nearby settlements.



Naypyidaw does not reflect an explicit social model or policy aimed at improving the lives of Myanmar residents as a whole. Still, it is growing haphazardly with the arrival of migrants in search of employment. Such opportunities are extremely limited in other areas due to inadequate public and private investment. As a result, informal settlements will likely expand around Naypyidaw as persistently as they have around Brasilia and Chandigarh.

Myanmar's capital is oriented, above all, toward the interests of a small group of military leaders. Government reforms may eventually improve conditions for the broader populace, but a vital question remains: will current leaders allow people outside their ranks to play a meaningful role in urban planning?

Credits: Satellite images captured from Google Earth.

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Happy Fifty Years, Gentrification!

... Does Gentrification Gentrify without Gentrifiers?

by Javier Arbona

Gentrification doesn't need to be something that one group inflicts on another; often it's the result of aspirations everybody shares. All over the city, a small army of the earnest toils away, patiently trying to sluice some of the elitist taint off neighborhoods as they grow richer. When you're trying to make a poor neighborhood into a nicer place to live, the prospect of turning it into a racially and economically mixed area with ­thriving stores is not a threat but a fantasy. As the cost of basic city life keeps rising, it's more important than ever to reclaim a form of urban improvement from its malignant offshoots. A nice neighborhood should be not a luxury but an urban right. – Justin Davidson, 2014
An aura of fascination suffuses all of these accounts. The adulatory tone was engendered by a group of writers who continue to build their careers on regular updates of East Village art developments. These "East Village critics" — who are, in fact, not critics but apologists — celebrate the scene with an inflated and aggressive rhetoric of "liberation," "renewal," "ecstasy." – Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, 1987

According to recent literature, the word "gentrification" appeared fifty years ago in 1964. It describes a historical shift after World War II — the unmaking and remaking of cities along new class lines, although it has previous historical precedents, of course. Scholars attribute its coinage to British sociologist Ruth Glass. Its everyday use could predate her writing and Glass herself may have used it in an unpublished draft before the 1960s.

Working on research about London, Glass wrote: "One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class — upper and lower." She then adds, "Once this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed."

At the initial moment of introducing this concept into the research on cities, Glass shows its inherent critical charge. Note the kind of language she uses (emphasis added): "working class quarters have been invaded," "working class occupiers are displaced," "whole social character of the district is changed." Invaded. Displaced. Changed.


Entire blocks of the San Mateo inner-city neighborhood in Santurce, Puerto Rico, were expropriated and demolished around 2005 for a new high-end development. The resident in the house above continues to wage a court battle against displacement. Photographed by Javier Arbona, January 2014.

Some years after the concept appeared, the first attempts to divorce it of its critical tone came along. In the early 1970s, architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt introduced the term in the pages of the Washington Post for the first time, according to an analysis by Rob Godspeed. Von Eckardt described gentrification as "the best thing that has happened to American cities since ditches were turned into sewers." Addressing these very sorts of revisions of the word, Neil Smith once remarked, “Precisely because the language of gentrification tells the truth about the class shift involved in the 'regeneration' of the city, it has become a dirty word to developers, politicians and financiers." But because the word seems resistant to being swept up with other taboos, then, gentrification periodically has advocates like Von Eckardt who attempt to retake it and absolve the very same unjust processes originally labeled with it.

Can gentrification refer to something opposite to its coinage (while cognizant of the numerous academic variations on the theme)? In other words, can it be divorced from its initial charges of spatial colonization and class segregation? To hear some recent voices in the media, it can.



A National Public Radio (NPR) journalist tweets that "yuppies can stop feeling guilty" because —based on a cursory glance — gentrification also benefits longtime residents. NPR ran her story with a URL extension that gives away the slant: "long-a-dirty-word-gentrification-may-be-losing-its-stigma." Another reporter — looking at the same neighborhood as NPR — asks rhetorically, "is bemoaning the gentrification of Washington, DC, a genre past its prime?" (File this one under: Writing by the Victims of Moaning About Gentrification.)

And in the latest salvo from the world of architecture criticism ("Is Gentrification All Bad?") Justin Davidson ventures: "gentrification can be either a toxin or a balm." It's vital to recall, for context's sake, that Davidson recently invested time and energy defending Michael Bloomberg's mayorship as a virtuous period for public spaces — with no mention of the mayor's dismal record on homelessness, free speech and civil rights. Davidson comments in a radio interview, "We need to define gentrification as separate from the process of displacement." Nevertheless, Bloomberg's tenure itself might indicate that the two (the word and the displacement) can't be as separate as Davidson would like. All in all, these reports, and more appearing almost every day, start to resemble the writing of The San Francisco Chronicle's sports-turned-law-and-order-disciplinarian columnist, C.W. Nevius, which is cause for great concern — for writing and for cities both.

One government study cited by NPR said, "while [gentrification] does not have a precise definition, it is commonly associated with an increase in income, rising home prices or rents and sometimes with changes in the occupational mix and educational level of neighborhood residents." But gentrification does have a precise definition that goes back to its roots. (Invaded, Displaced, Changed). Whether or not the word applies to a specific case could be quibbled over, but its linguistic precision shouldn't be obfuscated. More importantly, "In any area where residents feel under attack they will be using a word like gentrification, it is not the job of a researcher or anyone else for that matter, to impose a formal definition of what gentrification means on a neighborhood," as Sam Barton cogently argues. He adds, "If we are not to dispose of the word in its entirety, we should adopt its colloquial usage." I agree.

Federal Reserve economist Daniel Hartley (author of the study cited in the paragraph above) concludes that, when gentrification occurs, all residents benefit from — unsurprisingly — a higher credit score associated with their zipcode. This is a mixed blessing, to say the least, when issues like steady employment, health care, food or stable housing probably take a higher priority, but I digress. Another article mentioned in the NPR piece — missing exact dates to situate the economic effects — "found that low-income residents were no more likely to move out of their homes when a neighborhood gentrifies than when it doesn't."

Is gentrification happening without gentrifiers and without the gentrified? Apparently, yes. No one loses. Everyone wins. Gentrification. Just. Happens.

But gentrification, as a word, is incapable of projecting the benign "balm" that some in the media and academia make it out to be. Does anyone identify as gentry? Hardly anybody (though some people do, certainly). But do any of the gentrification-friendly journalists self-identify as gentry? The gentry are generally understood to be an over-advantaged lot. In the history of literature and art, the gentry hoard property and privilege as much as they can, yet they obsess over their manners and style in order to disguise their rapacity. These are the basic reasons why gentrification carries with it the power of biting satire. Glass (a Marxist) was well aware of this. It's precisely because no one likes to reveal themselves as such shameless climbers that periodic efforts emerge to revise the definition of the word and deaden its force. In reality, using the word without its satirical edge is a surefire recipe for sounding like a member of the gentry oneself.

Indeed, urban dwellers (or their scribes) are free to identify as the entitled members of a rigid caste system if they like, but that doesn't mean they can salvage the term gentrification for the better. One can't have it both ways. Either there is gentrification or there isn't. Period. And recalling Barton, I'd venture to say that the locals experiencing it have a better sense of what's going on. To give it any positive spin implies denial of the stratifying wave the process begets. In short, gentrification doesn't just happen.


Remnant wall of the San Mateo neighborhood in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Photographed by Javier Arbona, January 2014.

One must be equally alert to replacement words spoken to camouflage gentrification — and sometimes to advance its course in the very same breath. Neighborhoods don't "evolve," passively "change," or get "discovered." "Transition" and "transformation" can also be added to the pile of evasive vocabularies. David Madden points out how these kinds of words, in effect, stigmatize and denigrate past neighborhood history as a primitive state before the gentrifiers. In a demagogic offshoot of the same revisionist-colonialist vocabulary, Jerry Brown once asserted, as mayor of Oakland, that staving off gentrification was to invite "slumification."

Or take, for example, the following: “What will this transformation mean for Oakland? [Gentrification] should produce a bigger tax base that can help improve city services and maybe even create a more effective police force." These are the words of Jonathan Mahler in The New York Times Magazine — while conceding that gentrification produces few jobs (except for police, apparently) in the very same article. He concludes: "The utopian vision for a post-capitalist Oakland clung to by (rapper and activist) Boots Riley and the rest of the city’s revolutionaries will soon be dead." ... Dead? Due to what cause of death? A vision killed by some divine plague — the wafting, mysterious airs of gentrification? All of these twists reveal the bizarre contortions of turning a charged word into a bland euphemism.

Here is another way to look at it: for these studies and articles to be on the mark, their authors must unfortunately be using gentrification wrong. If everyone's lot is improving, then we're not speaking of gentrification, or are we? Perhaps this is the case and the word has been poorly chosen. But NPR's Laura Sullivan and the scholars she cites do stress gentrification time and time again. They seem to celebrate what they see changing. She writes, "every other shop is a new restaurant, high-end salon or bar. The neighborhood is gentrifying." Whether this cohort realizes it or not, it takes gentrification to usher in the gentry, and vice versa. And even if some legacy residents stick it out, that is not evidence of gentrification's benevolent gifts trickling down to these folks.

To be fair, a short piece on the radio or in a magazine hardly has the room to tease out the effects of gentrification — although the NPR reporter should have sought out at least one countervailing study. Likewise, one of the two NPR citations forms the bedrock of Davidson's New York Magazine piece. (Is the evidence so slim that they all call the same scholar? Did they realize his study has also been retorted? And that, in addition, "The unfortunate paradox is that studies showing low mobility rates among the poor are being used to vindicate gentrification and to dismantle precisely those policies that help to cushion its worst impacts.")

My aim here isn't to directly agree or disagree with these writers, even though I nevertheless suspect that these pieces are inaccurate and take a very short view of urban history. (It's easy to deny displacement as part of gentrification when it happened in "the past.") For an example of much deeper journalism, see a recent story by Rania Khalek examining the longer historical pattern of neighborhood neglect, displacement and elimination of public housing in Washington, DC. But more to the point at hand, the re-branders of gentrification are blinded by their operating theory of "gentrification without gentrifiers" — and blinding others along with them. And that's a larger issue with the discourse: a colonization of language itself.

Gentrification, at its root, refers to something different from the commonplace assumptions I have mentioned here. If one is writing articles, one can do better than to leave the word itself unexamined in plain sight. (Besides, how many of these writers can claim to know gentrification from the perspective of those who have experienced urban disenfranchisement?) Countless vernacular opinions mirror the same assumption in the media of "gentrification without gentrifiers." But the suffix "-ation" implies that someone is doing something, that is: gentrifying.

The core problem with these stories reflects a turning away from what gentrification precisely means, perhaps out of fear that one is, or could be, complicit in the process. And yet, at the same time, the classist anxieties over gentrification's Other — Brown's "slumification" comment, for example — show how phobias of the poor and "other" rank higher than a concern over one's own role in the process. This hardly makes for good research or journalism.

I, for one, would be thrilled to read that gentrification is not happening — that we all misidentified one of the most significant urban restructuring processes of the past half-century. But if gentrification is taking place — and it certainly is (and has) — someone must be practicing it. Moreover, even among studies that acknowledge the detrimental effects of gentrification, there is a pattern of focusing on the seemingly independent decisions made by individual homebuyers (and, sometimes, renters). These housing consumers are in a putative "market" devoid of actual power brokers. Realtor groups, homeowners associations, business improvement districts, employers, public and private police forces, government policymakers, planning consultants, politicians, marketing agencies, banking and insurance firms, and the news media all cooperate, in different ways, to gentrify.

So the constant focus on the homebuyer/renter as the sole gentrifier can have a detrimental effect on anti-gentrification efforts. The consumer doesn't act alone. The usual hero or villain central to gentrification narratives — the consumer (if such an abstraction has any meaning) — is more likely to be the last ingredient in the mix. Therefore, the concerted pressure of gentrification suggests that communities should not cede possession of the term itself.

Javier Arbona, geographer and founding member of the Demilit collective, gathers gentrification links here. He can also be found on Twitter: @AlJavieera.

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Territory and Transgression: An Interview with Stuart Elden

by Peter Sigrist

Stuart Elden, professor of political theory and geography at Warwick and one of the editors of the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, has published volumes of groundbreaking research on geopolitics and spatial theory over the past decade. His research addresses topics of critical importance to cities today, including globalization, territory, terrorism, power relations and place. It engages with the thinking of Martin Heidegger, Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucault, along with many of their lines of influence.


Demolition and redevelopment in Istanbul's Tarlabaşı neighborhood, a virtual theme issue of Society and Space dedicated to last year's protests in Gezi Park. Source: Tarlabaşı Istanbul (via Progressive Geographies)

Stuart is currently writing about urban geopolitics, the last decade of Foucault's life, the role of territory in Shakespeare's plays, and the notions of "earth" and "world" in relation to globalization. Examples of his work and other interests can be found at Progressive Geographies, the actively updated blog he started in response to the occupation of Middlesex Philosophy in 2010.

Over the past three months I've been sending one question at a time to Stuart by email, to which he responded with remarkable speed and detail. He'd been using this approach to conduct interviews at the Society and Space open site, but it was completely new for me. Each answer became something to look forward to, a rare opportunity to speak directly with someone whose work has been of great value to me in studying cities. I sent questions related to its many insights into topics found on Polis — from urban placemaking to open access, globalization to the arts, philosophy to geography, education to politics.

We appreciate that you make so much of your research available for free on Progressive Geographies. Based on your experience as an author and editor, how might the cost of academic publications become less restrictive while still allowing publishers of all kinds to be fairly compensated for their work?

I post as much as I'm able to post on Progressive Geographies, not always following journal protocols. I've never been asked to take anything down. Most academics can now post work in an agreed way to institutional repositories. We aren't paid for journal articles, so the compensation comes from our main academic salary. Many authors have rightly wondered why they don't retain control of their own work when they give it to journals for free — a license to publish is fine to sign, but a wholesale transfer of copyright is probably outdated.

There are a growing number of open-access journals, many of which have excellent editorial standards, and it's a shame that some fraudulent operations — ones that publish just about anything if the author pays — have tainted the overall move. It's a terrible problem that the open-access model has become associated with "author pays" monetization by publishers. There is no such thing as entirely free publishing — someone, somewhere invests labor in the process — but this doesn't justify exorbitant article-processing charges or putting the onus on authors to find funds from their institutions or elsewhere to publish.

Things are a bit different with books. The royalties on academic books are very low — I suspect a lot of people would be surprised at how little most academics make even on reasonably well-selling titles — but we do still appreciate getting them. Given the costs incurred in writing a book, I'm not sure about giving everything away for free. There are some excellent publishers who are breaking with the traditional model: Punctum Books and Open Humanities Press, to name just two. But I'm not sure the big university presses and commercial academic presses are too worried about losing their best titles just yet. For that to happen we would need more than just a change in publishing culture — the whole academic appointment, promotion and tenure system would need recalibration.


Brian Brush's cartographic explorations of territory and memory. Source: Seismopolite

Thinking back on your first book, Mapping the Present: Heidegger, Foucault and the Project of a Spatial History, what would you say are the most important contributions in Martin Heidegger's work for urbanists today?

I'm not sure there are clear and direct linkages to be made between Heidegger and urban questions. He is a really important philosopher for thinking about space and place; people like Didier Franck, Edward Casey, Jeff Malpas, Theodore Schatzki and others have written extensively on this. I've made some contributions to those debates, especially in Mapping the Present and, to a lesser extent, in Speaking Against Number. But Heidegger, while an exceptional philosopher on these questions, is much less useful in political and historical registers. I made the argument in Mapping the Present that Foucault takes forward Heidegger's analyses in thinking the role of spatial, geographical questions in his historical studies. There is a lot in Foucault that speaks to debates in urban studies — questions of surveillance, social control, regulation, circulation. I think that work is most useful if we think about the Heideggerian influence on his ideas.

Similarly, in Understanding Henri Lefebvre I make the claim that a lot of Lefebvre's work can be situated in relation to Heidegger as well as the three thinkers he claims most affinity with: Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche. I think Lefebvre's work on space — in The Production of Space and elsewhere — is also indebted to Heidegger, even though he distances himself from many aspects. It's also there in other places, like his appropriation of Heidegger's notion of dwelling (wohnen), which Lefebvre reads as habiter but crucially situates in urban locations rather than just the rural. For Lefebvre, these are inherently political questions linked to the contested spaces of urban sites, the relation of the state to space, urban transformation and the right to the city, the role of the production of space in the survival of capitalism.

What all three thinkers share is a recognition of the power of the scientific revolution in how we perceive the material world. This rendering of the world as amenable to scientific measurement and control — what Heidegger calls the "world as picture" — is worked through in political detail most fully, for me, in Foucault's and Lefebvre's analyses. Lots of elements come up here: the role of power in organizing space, the role of space in supporting power, rhythmanalysis and the production of space as complementary analyses, the role of calculation as a political spatial question. I've tried to articulate this in the works already mentioned, in which I read Foucault and Lefebvre in relation to what they do with Heidegger.

My own work has largely applied these theoretical arguments to the question of territory. But some of this work has been considered alongside that of the more urban-focused work of Neil Brenner. Neil and I collaborated on the State, Space, World collection of Lefebvre's writings, for example, and wrote a piece on Lefebvre's thinking of state, space and territory (open access).

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Does it make sense any longer to think of specifically urban areas within a territory? Is territory becoming completely urbanized? What are the boundaries of the urban?

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At the moment, I'm beginning to think about territory and the urban intersect: Does it make sense any longer to think of specifically urban areas within a territory? Is territory becoming completely urbanized? What are the boundaries of the urban? Does it make sense to think of the territorialization of the urban — that is to say, are state spatial strategies that were previously directed toward the territory, and especially the borders of a territory, now focused increasingly on urban agglomerations? Some of this work will be done with the Center for Urban Science and Progress at NYU, which I will be visiting for a term each year as part of my Warwick post. Brenner, Heidegger, Foucault and Lefebvre will be continual real or virtual interlocutors.

In light of your article "Rethinking the Polis: Implications of Heidegger's Questioning the Political," do you find value in the thinking of Bruno Latour and others who point to the importance of nonhuman actors in assembling a polis, or site of being? Is there a practical way to apply this perspective toward more democratic and discerning approaches to placemaking?

I've read some of Latour's work, and heard him speak once, but I've never been that influenced by it. I think this is due to being exposed to some of its application by others more than the work itself, at least initially, and finding some of it rather formulaic. That said, when I read Graham Harman's Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics I realized that there was much more going on than I'd given it credit for, and have been more open to it as a consequence. I'm looking forward to reading Latour's recent book An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. There are some interesting developments of some of these ideas in geography, notably by Sarah Whatmore, Steve Hinchliffe and Andrew Barry. Barry's work is the most obviously political — in Political Machines and his new book Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline, which I read recently.

I've also been reading some other works that open up political questions beyond the human: Jussi Parikka's Insect Media, Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology and so on. I'm not sure what I'll do with these in terms of my own work, though I have been thinking about them. This has mainly been in relation to the concept of "earth" and how we might use this to rethink what we mean by "geopolitics." Rather than thinking of this as a synonym for global politics, what would happen if we took the earth and earth processes seriously? There are audio recordings of a few of my talks on this topic at Progressive Geographies, but I've not yet worked these into publishable form.


Eurasian cities, roads, railways, transmission lines and submarine cables. Source: "Cartography of the Anthropocene" by Globaia (via Progressive Geographies)

Another element in thinking about nonhuman actors is nonhuman animals. I wrote a paper titled "Heidegger's Animals" some time back, in which I thought through what Heidegger said about animals throughout his career rather than just the famous discussion in his 1929-1930 lecture course. That was an important paper for me, as I came across Charles Patterson's powerful Eternal Treblinka, which persuaded me to become a vegetarian (though I've since gone back to eating fish). I've not written anything else on animals — neither politically, philosophically nor geographically — but I do keep reading books on the topic. David Farrell Krell's Derrida and Our Animal Others reawakened my interest in this and I wrote a brief review of it. These seem like vital questions as we grapple with the implications of the anthropocene.

In your interview at New APPS, you mentioned early jobs at a county court, a town council and a research unit on local economic policy. Can you tell us more about this experience and how it may have influenced your thinking on territory and geopolitics?

These were all part of a sandwich degree at Brunel University: in the first three years we studied for two terms, and worked for six months. The advantage was that you graduated with eighteen months of work experience, got paid a bit and didn't have to look for vacation work. At the court and the research unit I did fairly mundane clerical work, nothing especially demanding. The county court was interesting, as this was in 1991, just after Margaret Thatcher had been replaced by John Major as prime minister, and seeing the financial problems people were facing — repossessed houses, defaulting on loans and so on — cemented a lasting concern for social issues.

The most rewarding of the placements, by far, was at Kensington Town Hall. I worked for the research unit of the social services division. Most of the time was spent researching and then writing directories of services for children under eight and for those with special needs. In a sense these were my first publications, though uncredited. I also did an assessment of the division's recordkeeping on child protection, which led to some changes in procedures.

I continued working for the town hall part-time in the first year of my PhD, alongside a job in central government, and learned a lot from this experience. Although the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is largely known for its affluence, there are pockets of severe deprivation — parts of Earls Court, for example, or Golborne in North Kensington.


Golborne Road in London, with Trellick Tower in the distance. Source: Pitty 107

The thoughts that came from this work were not, therefore, especially geopolitical or territorial questions but more general political ones, predominantly local. That wasn't really surprising — I was studying politics and modern history at the time, and hadn't really been exposed to more political-geographical questions. I guess these exposures to politics in action — both in local and central government, and in legal administration — were important in terms of shaping how I thought about politics generally. All that said, probably the central thing I took away from all this was that I wanted to be an academic — to write, to teach, to speak and, most importantly, to do these on questions I thought were important rather than being told what to research.

Based on the editing and translation you did for Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, how has Lefebvre's exploration of the everyday influenced your perspective on relationships between place and power in cities? Does this extend in any meaningful way to your recent work on place and power at global scales in The Birth of Territory and Terror and Territory?

This is an interesting question, because the work on everyday life in Lefebvre has probably been the least influential on my work. I think it was revolutionary for the time — he began working on these topics in the 1930s (the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life was published in 1947), reorienting Marxism towards cultural questions. These questions are there in Marx, especially in the early Marx, but they had perhaps been obscured by Marxism. By the time I came to write on Lefebvre, this work had been explored in more detail than his other key contributions. The chapter on everyday life in Understanding Henri Lefebvre was the shortest partly because I could situate this work in relation to existing concerns and then move on. It's similar with the treatment of The Production of Space in that book, which despite its importance to me, I also say less about than might be expected. This was partly to free up words to discuss less-examined parts of his work, such as the work on the state, or on philosophy and so on.

With Rhythmanalysis, the English title is not Lefebvre's — he wrote a book that would translate as "Elements of Rhythmanalysis," which is included in Rhythmanalysis along with a couple of related essays. The subtitle is a marketing choice, though it is hardly false advertising. Lefebvre saw this book as the informal fourth volume of Critique of Everyday Life, and the essays all treat the relation between space and time in interesting ways. That book is most important to me in that it shows Lefebvre was not just a thinker who introduced a spatial, geographical dimension into historical materialism, but a thinker who also wrote extensively on time and history. Rhythmanalysis gives a taste of that work, but other important texts — such as La somme et le reste and La fin de l'histoire — remain untranslated, with the exception of little bits in Key Writings.


Pictures of Henri Lefebvre from the cover of Łukasz Stanek's Henri Lefebvre on Space: Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory. Source: Graham Foundation

How all this influences my thinking in the books on territory is a good question. I was gently chastised for having written a theorist's book on the "war on terror," concentrating on elite actors and documentation rather than other perspectives in Terror and Territory. That's fair enough, though one book, and one person, can only do so much and I wasn't aiming to be definitive. Similarly, I can imagine critiques of The Birth of Territory for privileging the textual, the theorists of political power, and the actions of kings, emperors and popes. That's not the whole story I tell, but it is the focus for large parts of the book. How would the history of the concept and practice of territory look if we told the story "from below"? It would be a fascinating account, but I suspect it would need to be told within a much narrower time-frame and probably on single territories rather than the broader scope I set out. That has been done for some states and territories in the past (I reference many of these studies), but that would be a very different book.

Lefebvre was influential for my territory work because of his theorization of politics and space, and of the state. I really think that his contributions to political theory have been neglected, and the State, Space, World collection was partly intended to begin that conversation. Lefebvre leaves a lot unsaid, and he wasn't a very careful scholar with regard to missing references, citation dead ends and misrepresentations, so his work is generative rather than definitive on these questions. But it is enormously suggestive of work to undertake and things to follow up on. The range of things he wrote about is extraordinary: from Rabelais to Diderot to Hegel, culture in pre-war France to nascent globalization, rural and urban transformations, May 1968. In writing Understanding Henri Lefebvre, I grappled with them all and tried to find a way to organize them into a semi-coherent narrative. I suspect his work will give me renewed inspiration in future projects.

It's interesting that you've remained — at least to my knowledge — relatively silent on the right to the city as invoked by Occupy proponents against the injustices of a "neoliberal order." Even your essay "V for Visibility," an insightful reflection on the Guy Fawkes mask, touches on Occupy without going much into the aspects of global capitalism that give rise to it. But that essay does highlight, as you put it, "the use of the tools of capitalism against capitalism" — people's appropriation of smart phones, laptops, online social networks, the media and highly visible urban spaces to undermine political and economic processes they see as unjust. Based on your study of how the concept of territory came into being, do you see any conditions today that could make way for a restructuring of national borders, resource allocation or governance worldwide? In visibly transcending boundaries — both physically and by way of media — could assertion of a right to the city open possibilities for a collective right to the earth?

I'm not sure I have much to contribute to these kinds of debates — there are others much better suited to making those kinds of connections. David Harvey and Don Mitchell have been doing some work in that register, for example. I do find Lefebvre's idea of the right to the city interesting, but I haven't written about it other than in Understanding Henri Lefebvre.

What I think is important and not fully developed is how Lefebvre understood the right to the city in his later work. It doesn't disappear from his thinking entirely. I think it gets worked through in a broader set of questions around the notion of territorial autogestion, which is sometimes translated as "self-management." In the introduction to State, Space, World, Neil Brenner and I make the claim that we should not translate autogestion — it has multiple resonances, including what we would understand as grassroots democracy.

Lefebvre makes the argument that autogestion should be understood in at least two ways: as the workers cooperatives springing up in France and elsewhere (in the famous LIP watch factory, for example), and as the potential for collective movements to run the city or other spaces (which he calls "territorial autogestion"). Mark Purcell's recent book The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy is probably the most creative use of Lefebvre's ideas in this register, linking them to his later work on the "new contract of citizenship" that encompasses rights to difference, to the city, to information and to autogestion. The question is to what extent these are to be provided by the state, and to what extent they are to be claimed and enabled by people themselves.

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The uprisings in Egypt, or more recent protests in Turkey, were not just demands for democracy, but democracy itself. Democracy is not an end-point to be reached, but a process, and wrestling back popular control of all elements of politics is crucial.

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What Purcell's book does well is to highlight the impoverished sense of democracy that we exist with and leave largely unquestioned. The uprisings in Egypt, or more recent protests in Turkey, were not just demands for democracy but democracy itself. Democracy is not an end-point to be reached, but a process, and wrestling back popular control of all elements of politics is crucial. In the UK there has been some recent debate about this, though it's a shame that it took Russell Brand, a millionaire comedian who doesn't even live in the UK, to get this onto the front pages. But he raised some interesting points about voting, the spurious legitimacy that the elective process gives and the lack of viable choice between the main parties. I would never advocate not voting, but spoiling your ballot by writing "none of the above" or posting a blank ballot seems at least an attempt to show a rejection of the choices. I know you get lumped in with people who didn't read the instructions properly and so on, but that's better than being seen as someone who didn't care enough to go to the voting station.

The right to the city should not be taken as a narrow, urban question, but as one about politics more generally. I think this is how it is in Lefebvre, and how those taking up his ideas can perhaps best use them. Whether this can be taken further, scaled-up, to a right to the earth, is an interesting question. I think there is some work being done on indigenous land rights that might be a contribution to these kinds of debates. Teo Ballvé is doing some important work on this, and I have a new PhD student, Mara Duer, who is working on related questions. My work on territory could be of some use in thinking through these issues, not just the more explicitly political aspects but also the historical.


Replacing the name "Musgrave Park" with "Aboriginal Land" in Queensland, Australia. Photo by Bob Weatherall. Source: State Library of Queensland

One of the reasons for writing the history of the concept of territory was to show that it has not always been thought of, and practiced, in the same way. It's very easy to think that we've always had territory (as a concept) and territories (as a practice), but just had boundaries in different places, different ways of dividing. On the contrary, I think it is a relatively recent concept with different ways of organising the relations between place and power at different times in the past, and with a lot of conceptual and political struggles to get to where we are now. Seeing alternatives in the past might open up new ways of thinking in the future.

I've been working on the concept of "earth" to explore how we might think about geopolitics as a politics of the earth. I think an element within that should be a more popular politics of the earth, which might take into account these kinds of questions, but I've not really begun to think about it in that register as yet.

Showing how territory isn't an eternal given is also a reminder that capitalism is a relatively recent concept realized through political struggle, and that political struggle can lead to alternatives. The essay on Peter Sloterdijk that you wrote with Eduardo Mendieta comes to mind — especially the parts about "being-alongside-others ... as a making of worlds" and about today's "globalisation of saturation, brought about by the rapacity of capitalism but also the collapse of space-time leading to simultaneity and proximity of everything and everyone in an almost unblinking present." How has Sloterdijk influenced your thinking on place and power? Does the notion of "being-alongside-others" offer any useful insights into political struggle?

Sloterdijk is an interesting but problematic thinker. I find much of his work inspiring, but he is equally infuriating, and many of his recent political suggestions have been unpalatable. What I like most in his work is the extension and critique of Heidegger, especially in terms of space. His Spheres trilogy, for example, is immensely suggestive. The monumental ambition (and conceit) of writing what he calls "the great unwritten book of Western philosophy," Being and Space, is admirable. To do that he has to break with what Heidegger expressly denies in Being and Time, which is that the "in" word in being-in-the-world can be understood spatially. Sloterdijk works through in detail the implications of that "in" as a spatial question, but he also develops what Heidegger called Mitsein (being-with) and Miteinandersein (being-with-another or being-alongside-another). Especially when Sloterdijk thinks about the idea of "foam" as interlocking spheres, he is spatializing Mitsein in an interesting way.

It took me a while to realize that Speaking Against Number is really a book about Mitsein — about the politics of connection, both with those things that share our mode of being and with those that don't. (At the time, I was unaware of what Sloterdijk was doing with these questions — I only knew his Critique of Cynical Reason and his book on Nietzsche Thinker on Stage.) Heidegger's political involvement can be traced through the way he thinks about political community, which is there in 1920s lecture courses on Aristotle, when he talks about being-in-the-polis. And his work on technology can be understood as a means of trying to make sense of modes of connection in the world. Sloterdijk is interesting to me in those registers, though he's approaching these ideas from a different angle and doing very different things with them than what I've tried to do.


Measuring the bubble coalescence in sea foam. Source: Australian National University

I began working on Sloterdijk, in part, through the prompting of Nigel Thrift, who was co-editor of Society and Space at the time. There wasn't much of Sloterdijk's recent writing available in English — this was 2007 or so — and so Eduardo Mendieta and I thought we should do an issue of the journal on his work. This led to a few translations — a couple of excerpts from Spheres, plus the "Rules for the Human Zoo" piece — and a number of commentaries and reviews. It was an attempt at a somewhat different way of engaging with a thinker than waiting for other disciplines to do the intellectual labor of translation and interpretation. It led to the idea of an edited book on Sloterdijk's work, with some of the same people involved but wholly new essays. The people at Polity press were keen to do this, and the resulting book was Sloterdijk Now, which I think serves as a good introduction to his range of work. Now almost all of his books are either already available in English or in the process of being translated — quite a remarkable turnaround from the way things were in 2007 or 2008. In that sense, I think Nigel, Eduardo and I were somewhat ahead of the curve — something Nigel is regularly very good at being.

I admire the Spheres trilogy and find Sloterdijk's book on globalization, In the World Interior of Capital, inspiring for my work on the concept of "world." His pluralization of this idea is intriguing for me. But I'm not sure he's the place to go for an understanding of political struggle. For that I'd be more inclined to turn back to Lefebvre — or to Foucault, whose political activism is still underappreciated. (Marcelo Hoffman has recently addressed this in Foucault and Power.) There are also things in Jean-Paul Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason, and perhaps in Louis Althusser, that are useful here. I'm thinking through these on somewhat different questions at present — less so with Sartre. One planned project is to do an edited collection on Althusser, especially given the translation of On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Maybe I'll then have a better answer to this question.

In philosophy, as in many fields, writers sometimes look to art for insight into workings of the world. You've written about literature and film — Beowulf, Coriolanus, King Lear, for example — and I imagine you've read many compelling studies of art by others. Do any people from the past or present stand out in your mind for their writing on works of art?

I'm certainly very interested in literature in relation to political spaces. I wrote about Beowulf and King Lear in The Birth of Territory, as well as Antigone and some other smaller examples. There are also some other works of art that I discuss in that book — paintings, the Boscoreale Cups, and some of the maps are as much artistic as technical. My Shakespeare interest is certainly continuing. The Coriolanus reading was developed into a book chapter and, along with a much more detailed reading of King Lear, will be part of the book I'm planning on Shakespeare and territory.

Over the past few years I've been reading a lot more novels, and some have been revealing on how we might think about political spaces. The obvious examples are the remarkable Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on the Biafran war, or Every Day is for the Thief and Open City by Teju Cole. I was reading these and other African novelists while visiting Nigeria in 2011-2013. I'm not sure I will ever write about these books, but they are certainly related in important ways to politics and space.



Film has tended to be one of my escapes from academic work, and with the exception of a review of Ralph Fiennes's version of Coriolanus, I've not written about cinema. I do sometimes use clips of movies when teaching, not because they necessarily represent an accurate historical view of an event but because they can be useful for provoking discussion. In a course on territory and geopolitics I used a variety of films, from Gladiator to Even the Rain. I used Gladiator partly to understand the nature of Rome as a parasitical city, and I can imagine using films like Cyclo to think about the urban in Vietnam, or Crash — the Paul Haggis movie, not the David Cronenberg one! — to think about Los Angeles.

Warwick has regular film screenings introduced by faculty and students in the Politics and International Studies Department, and I hope to get involved with this. I've also been reading quite a bit about staging for the Shakespeare project, and one of the things I like about being in the Midlands is the proximity to Stratford-upon-Avon. I've seen some very powerful productions there in the past few months.

There are plenty of good examples of people using literature, film or other arts to think about political and geographical questions — Michael Shapiro, Jenny Edkins, Louise Amoore and Maja Zehfuss have all done interesting work in this sphere. Louise's very recent book, The Politics of Possibility: Risk and Security Beyond Probability (the introduction is available here), does some really creative things with novels — from Giles Foden and Jennifer Egan to John Updike and Thomas Pynchon. I'm certainly very interested in what the arts can tell us about territory, geopolitics and so many other aspects of life on earth.

Returning to Foucault, who also wrote memorably about literature and other arts, you mentioned that his activism remains underappreciated. Which contemporary academics do you find inspiring or otherwise notable for their activism, and — broadly speaking — are the professional responsibilities of academics today any more or less compatible with this form of engagement than they were in the past?

I think Foucault's work on literature is underappreciated — he wrote some very interesting pieces in the 1960s, which are perhaps somewhat neglected today. There is quite a bit in Dits et écrits that isn't translated, but also a new collection of previously unpublished work titled La grande étrangère: À propos de literature. His work on other arts is also relatively neglected in geography and political science. But on his activism there is the Hoffman book [Foucault and Power], which will hopefully reinvigorate interest in that aspect of his work. And there have been a couple of French collections on his work with the Groupe d’information sur les prisons, which would be good to get translated. Generally, Foucault’s collaborative work — both academic and activist — has been rather neglected in English-language debates.

I think there are some good examples of academics who find the time to combine their publishing and teaching careers with activism. Any list I give will inevitably be partial, but I'm thinking of some of the Israeli scholars I know who are involved in really important work on challenging the occupation or other state policies. Oren Yiftachel, for example, does some very important work with Bedouin people in the Negev, and Haim Yacobi and Tovi Fenster set up the NGO Bimkom, which works on planning-rights cases in the occupied territories. In my visits to Israel/Palestine I've been able to see things through their work and contacts that would have otherwise been difficult to access — informal settlements in the Negev, E1 in the West Bank, various other sites around the wall. Eyal Weizman's work in this area is also very impressive.


A Bedouin settlement near the Israeli Ma’ale Adumim development in the E1 zone northeast of Jerusalem, photographed by 'Ammar 'Awad for Reuters. Source: B'Tselem

Neil Smith's death last year was a loss not just for the academy, but for the many activist groups and artists he worked with in New York and elsewhere. When we were putting together tributes to Neil’s work for Society and Space (open access) we included a number of these people alongside academics and his students. Neil was one of the key voices in geography responding to the "war on terror," alongside David Harvey, Derek Gregory and others.

At my first Association of American Geographers (AAG) meeting there was a session organized by Derek and Allan Pred. A semi-official AAG publication — with many key officers and past presidents contributing — titled "The Geographical Dimensions of Terrorism" was drawing a lot of criticism for its attitude toward the Bush administration, namely: How could the skills and tools of geography help in the struggle? I especially remember Allan's thunderous denunciation of the book for its uncritical engagements and complicity. Those sessions were an early version of what became an important collection of essays, Violent Geographies, aimed at setting a different agenda. Neil, Derek and David Harvey all wrote influential books about the "war on terror," and Terror and Territory was intended as a contribution to these debates.

Writing can be a form of activism, rejecting the false distinction between the two – Marx's eleventh thesis has a lot to answer for in this regard. You could also point to the work of people writing about gentrification — Neil Smith is crucial here too, of course — and how much of that work comes out of engagement with specific sites and as part of particular struggles. Participatory Geography is oriented toward bridging this gap in many ways. There are good examples out there, and these could be multiplied many times over. With the exception of the "war on terror" work, I've not done much in this register and I greatly regret that my work with Al Quds Bard Honors College in Abu Dis couldn't continue beyond what I did earlier this year.

The time you've spent in Israel and Palestine seems to have been transformative in many ways. Can you tell us about the work you were doing at Al Quds Bard?

Yes, it's been extremely important to me. The link to Al Quds Bard came about as part of the Open Society Institute's Academic Fellowship Program, which provides support for scholars who were trained in North America or Western Europe to return to their home countries as part of plans to support universities and, more broadly, civil society. It was set up initially in post-Soviet states, but has broadened to include Myanmar, Sierra Leone and Palestine. As part of the scheme, returning academics have a more senior academic working with them to provide support, guidance and career development. I was delighted to be asked by Maha Samman and Nadim Khoury to serve in that capacity.

The Honors College is based at the Abu Dis campus of Al Quds University, which has other campuses in Jerusalem/Al Quds and Ramallah but these are logistically difficult for students to get to. Abu Dis is a town cut in half by the West Bank wall, and while I'd visited both sides of the wall several times before, it was only on this trip that I really experienced its impact on the everyday life of people.

Getting from East Jerusalem to the campus is a much longer and more circuitous route than before the wall, passing several Israeli settlements on the road towards Ma'ale Adumin, past E1 on the hilltop, then doubling back to end up close to where we started. Palestinians who have Jerusalem ID papers can use the roads and faster checkpoints, but if they have a West Bank ID with a Jerusalem residence permit they need to use a checkpoint on foot. I travelled with two Palestinian academics every day, and the trip was very complicated because of their different residence statuses. We had to drop off one at a different checkpoint and then drive around to collect him at the other side. This can also be a very difficult journey for students coming from different parts of the West Bank, so there isn't a culture of asking why people are late for class.

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The campus was interesting in itself, as the wall cuts through it, and there is a fascinating museum named after Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir) that focuses on Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The design of the building replicates the West Bank wall and checkpoints — made all the more striking by the real wall only meters away.

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The campus was interesting in itself, as the wall cuts through it, and there is a fascinating museum named after Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir) that focuses on Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The design of the building replicates the West Bank wall and checkpoints — made all the more striking by the real wall only meters away. The exhibits are very powerful, and on the top floor there is an archive with letters, photographs and other material.

While at Al Quds Bard I attended classes led by Nadim and Maha on political theory and urban studies, ran a small workshop on publishing and gave a lecture about my work on territory. I also participated in meetings on teaching, planning the degrees and so on. The position was renewed for a second year, but logistically it was just not possible for me. My new role at Warwick takes me to Australia in term two and to New York in term three, and my wife works in international development, currently in Ghana. A life on four continents is complicated enough, but to try to work out times for regular trips to Palestine as well was just too difficult, especially given the complications and hassles of Israeli border bureaucracy.

Earlier visits had been through Ben-Gurion University, where geographers and political scientists are among the most critical voices in Israeli academia and receive a lot of criticism for precisely that. They recently managed to block attempts to close the Ben-Gurion Department of Politics and Government for largely political reasons. Returning to your previous question about activism, one thing that is perhaps surprising is how ineffective university academics have been at challenging things going on in their own universities and within the higher education sector as a whole. So many people are critical, but collective organization has been very poor — at least in the UK. You could point to increased workload, to a breakdown in collectivity, to changing political and economic conditions (the economic mobilized to justify a lack of political alternatives). It is striking that there has been so little debate about, and pressure against, what universities have become.

You made a good point earlier that writing can be a form of activism, yet so much of an academic's time must be directed towards educating relatively privileged students, applying for grants, publishing in journals with high prices for public access, presenting at conferences attended by people who already have free access to these publications. I'm interested in "what universities have become" — the emergence and influence of tenure, rankings, endowments or other characteristics that you may have in mind. The points you've made here encourage the perception that academia hasn't always been the way it generally is today, and that alternatives are conceivable. The Internet has made new forms of education possible but has also contributed to misunderstandings that provoke criticism along the lines of Ray Brassier's "online orgy of stupidity" comment. Reflecting upon your active engagement with broader publics online as well as your experience in academia, how might the Internet be used to more effectively generate, finetune, transfer and archive knowledge?

I think it's important not to think everything that has happened has been for the worse. That clearly isn't the case. I don't know enough about the history of tenure and so on to be able to say how systems have changed in detail, but I think it's fair to say that expectations have increased for academics overall. In 1999, when I finished my PhD, expectations were tough and opportunities were very competitive, but it is harder now. Even with teaching, which might appear to be a constant, things have radically transformed. I don't necessarily mean content or quality in an absolute sense, but meeting expectations like multimedia presentations, for example, takes more time to get right. Research assessment, while not as quantity-dependent in the UK as widely assumed, still weights articles as equal to books and makes some people overly focused on publishing in specific journals. There are also expectations related to grant income and the so-called "impact" agenda. The way different research requires different funding and some lends itself much better to a more-than-academic audience is only slowly being worked through. Then there is the increase in administrative work — much of it triggered by external pressures.

But you asked about the Internet. It's interesting to think about the purpose of a blog. I use Progressive Geographies for at least three purposes: as a public notebook that alerts people to new books, articles, interviews or videos that I find interesting; as publicity for my own work, public talks, etc.; and as an informal way of talking about what I do. The way I see it, I blog about my work, I don't blog my work. For example, I posted various updates on the writing of The Birth of Territory and am currently doing the same for a book I'm writing now, Foucault’s Last Decade. I think blogs can be very useful in complementing, promoting and enhancing other publication formats. Although I put finished articles on the site, I haven't tended to share early drafts of papers. I do put up audio and video recordings of lectures, which are works in progress, and share some of my working tools: the annotated bibliography on Boko Haram, for example, or brief translations of Foucault. People seem to appreciate these kinds of things — I certainly do on other sites.


Aftermath of a raid by Boko Haram militants in Benisheik, Nigeria. Source: Ideastream

Brassier's point is interesting, but I suspect it has more to do with philosophical disagreements and personal relationships fracturing. I don't think it is an indictment of the whole medium. It's helpful when publishers make sample material available online, and for older books there is some excellent material available in repositories. There is also much newer material available, often illegally uploaded, which I'm less keen on for reasons discussed earlier.

Audio recordings by the Backdoor Broadcasting Company are very useful, and the availability of academic talks on YouTube is excellent. There has been a discussion recently of the Internet becoming a replacement for lectures, as the same content can be delivered to a much larger audience through the so-called Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). I guess it depends on the purpose of the lecture, but even if there is some opportunity for dialogue, a recording is never going to replace being there in person. I was really fortunate to have the opportunity to hear Derrida speak a couple of times before he died, and I wouldn't trade the chance to see contemporary thinkers in person for a recording.

Archiving is an interesting question, particularly for blogs. It's an issue we've been trying to address with the Society and Space open site. They say that you can never entirely delete something on the Internet, but I'm not sure that is quite the case. I do know that the British Library is looking at projects related to online archiving, and there was the recent furor about the British Conservative Party deleting some of its pre-2010 election pledges. There's such a vast proliferation of material out there, it can be difficult to navigate. Archiving may help in this sense as well.

The Boko Haram material you shared is a great asset, and I've enjoyed following Foucault's Last Decade as it unfolds. In A Thing of This World, Lee Braver mentions evidence that Foucault was "on the verge of a very important new conception of agency before he died." What do you make of this?

I'm certainly very interested in what Foucault does in his last writings, and I'm hoping that as I progress with the book I'll be able to make some connections. What I'm trying to do is write an intellectual history of Foucault's The History of Sexuality. As is well known, he published three volumes of this, but the second and third came out eight years after the first, very shortly before he died. A fourth volume on the early church, The Confession of the Flesh, remains unpublished even though a manuscript exists.

When Foucault published the first volume (The Will to Knowledge) in 1976, he envisioned a plan for five more: on the body and confession, on children, on women, on perverts, and on population and race. Crucially, the confession volume was going to address a quite different time period than that of the later fourth volume. We know from various sources that Foucault completed drafts of some of these originally planned volumes but moved to a different plan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There are numerous plans, not just two, as well as different configurations of material and other volumes he says he planned to write: on psychiatric expertise in penal affairs, on hermaphrodites, on torture and truth, on techniques of the self. It's not always clear whether or not he intended these to be part of the sexuality series. I'm trying to use all available material to trace the project from inception to near completion.

The title Foucault's Last Decade came about because we know he was working on The History of Sexuality from 1974 — he apparently started the first volume on the very day he completed Discipline and Punish — until his death in 1984. The lecture courses in 1973-1974 and 1974-1975 give some good indications of work he was doing on hysteria, confession, masturbation and perversion. In many later courses we see him exploring related material, and can thus track some of the transitions in his thinking. There are also traces of the project much further back, of course, and I'm including these in a couple of introductory chapters.

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Reading what Foucault says about power and resistance from the early- to mid-1970s complicates a lot of the straightforward ways his work is presented and criticized. As he says, the way around the problem of the subject was to write a genealogy of it. This is why so much of the sexuality work is only about sexuality in a very broad sense, and why he is so interested in ideas about freedom, the self, techniques, governance.

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While I've worked on Foucault quite a bit, I'm finding it very revealing to return to the texts in chronological order, encountering links and relations that I hadn't seen before. The updates on the blog have been opportunities to talk about the process rather than the content of what I've been doing. It might appear that I've gotten a little sidetracked by some things that seem to be minor issues — when Foucault was in various places, when he lectured on specific topics, when exactly he wrote a text, and so on — but they are parts of the puzzle I'm trying to reconstruct.

At the moment I'm at around 1976, not an especially good position to answer the question about his very last works. I suspect that rereading all that material after the fascinating courses of the late 1970s and early 1980s — some of which are only just out in French or still to come — will be illuminating. Reading what Foucault says about power and resistance from the early- to mid-1970s complicates a lot of the straightforward ways his work is presented and criticized. As he says, the way around the problem of the subject was to write a genealogy of it. This is why so much of the sexuality work is only about sexuality in a very broad sense, and why he is so interested in ideas about freedom, the self, techniques, governance and, I suppose, agency. Still, I'm a little reluctant to use that word to describe Foucault's thinking — he would probably be more inclined to talk of freedom, care of the self, techniques of the self, and resistance. That seems to be what Lee Braver is getting at.

We can see that Foucault was trying out ideas in lecture courses two or three years before they appeared in Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. With the later volumes, Foucault wrote the books in a different order to how they were published, or at least wrote versions of the books in a different order. But the lecture courses show him trying out ideas, discussing different source material — in the mid-1970s often cases of individuals, in the 1980s more commonly texts from the tradition — that would sometimes make their way into the writings he chose to publish in his own lifetime. One thing I'm trying to be very careful about is respecting the distinction between different types of writing. There is a longstanding debate about the use of Nietzsche's notebooks alongside his published books, and this is discussed a bit in relation to Heidegger with lecture courses and manuscripts. The debate hasn't happened to the same degree with Foucault, but I do think it's important. I sometimes hear people referring to his "book" Society Must Be Defended, for example, and imagine what it must be like for someone whose first introduction to reading Foucault is a lecture course. There are significant differences in wording, mode of argument, presentation of material, authorial voice. Nonetheless, the resources we now have are so interesting alongside the books that I think we can do valuable work with them.

What do you foresee as the enduring value in the work you've done and the work you plan to do?

In a sense this isn't for me to say, and it's hard to predict the way ideas by anyone are taken up and used. The positive reaction to Terror and Territory surprised me, for example, as I didn't think it was my best work. That undoubtedly has to do with topicality, though I hope it also has something to do with the book's accessibility and arguments. State, Space, World — published in the same year — seemed to me a more valuable contribution. I also thought Speaking Against Number had the potential to make a bigger splash than it did, given the ongoing interest in Heidegger and politics. With the Lefebvre translations, Key Writings made relatively little impact despite providing an overview of Lefebvre's work and being the only source in English for a sampling of his philosophical writings; Rhythmanalysis received much more attention. So, it's hard to predict the likely interest and contribution of things in advance. All that said, I certainly hope that The Birth of Territory will be seen as the best book I've done so far.

The other thing that I think is an important contribution is the editorial and translation work. Some is in Society and Space, then there are the three Lefebvre collections and the translations in books I've edited or co-edited on Foucault, Kant and Sloterdijk. Most of this is commissioned rather than done by me, but still enabled by the project. It's not terribly well recognised in some of the bureaucratic assessments we discussed earlier, but it's important in opening new possibilities for application by others.

Looking forward, it's even harder to say. I'm certainly excited by the Foucault and Shakespeare books I'm currently writing, and hope they will come to be seen as good contributions. The earth/world work is still in its early stages, as with the urban, but I think there is something to say there. I certainly hope my best work is some ways ahead of me, not yet planned or even anticipated.

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