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Towards a new epistemology of the


urban?
Neil Brenner & Christian Schmid
Published online: 01 Apr 2015.

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To cite this article: Neil Brenner & Christian Schmid (2015) Towards a new epistemology of the
urban?, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, 19:2-3, 151-182, DOI:
10.1080/13604813.2015.1014712

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CITY, 2015
VOL. 19, NOS. 23, 151 182, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13604813.2015.1014712

Towards a new epistemology of


the urban?
Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid

New forms of urbanization are unfolding around the world that challenge inherited
conceptions of the urban as a fixed, bounded and universally generalizable settlement
type. Meanwhile, debates on the urban question continue to proliferate and intensify
within the social sciences, the planning and design disciplines, and in everyday political
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struggles. Against this background, this paper revisits the question of the epistemology of
the urban: through what categories, methods and cartographies should urban life be
understood? After surveying some of the major contemporary mainstream and critical
responses to this question, we argue for a radical rethinking of inherited epistemological
assumptions regarding the urban and urbanization. Building upon reflexive approaches
to critical social theory and our own ongoing research on planetary urbanization, we
present a new epistemology of the urban in a series of seven theses. This epistemological
framework is intended to clarify the intellectual and political stakes of contemporary
debates on the urban question and to offer an analytical basis for deciphering the rapidly
changing geographies of urbanization and urban struggle under early 21st-century
capitalism. Our arguments are intended to ignite and advance further debate on the
epistemological foundations for critical urban theory and practice today.

Key words: urbanization, urban age, postcolonial urbanism, planetary urbanization, extended
urbanization, reflexivity, critical urban theory, rural

Introduction: a crisis of urban global financial and economic crises of the


epistemologies late 2000s and early 2010s. However, even
as contextually specific patterns of urbaniz-

A
dramatic wave of urban restructur- ation endure and proliferate, at least three
ing has been unfolding across the macro-trends appear to be consolidating,
planet since the long 1980s. Follow- each of which challenges long-entrenched
ing the crisis of national-developmentalist assumptions regarding the nature of the
models of territorial development, the col- urban:
lapse of state socialism and the subsequent
intensification of global economic inte- (1) New geographies of uneven spatial
gration, a variety of contradictory urban development have been emerging
transformations has been under way. The through a contradictory interplay
causes, contours, contexts, interconnec- between rapid, explosive processes of
tions and implications of such transform- urbanization and various forms of stag-
ations are widely debated, and remain nation, shrinkage and marginalization,
extremely confusing in the wake of the often in close proximity to one another.

# 2015 Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid


152 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3

In contrast to the geographies of terri- variegated that the traditional vision


torial inequality associated with previous of the city as a bounded, universally
cycles of industrialization, this new replicable settlement type now appears
mosaic of spatial unevenness cannot be as no more than a quaint remnant of
captured adequately through areal a widely superseded formation of capi-
models, with their typological differen- talist spatial development (Brenner
tiation of space between urban/rural, and Schmid 2014).
metropole/colony, First/Second/Third As we have argued elsewhere
World, North/South, East/West and so (Brenner and Schmid 2011), the for-
forth (see also Merrifield 2013; Robinson mation of large-scale megacities and
2014). Today, divergent conditions of polynucleated metropolitan regions is
wealth and poverty, growth and only one important expression of this
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decline, inclusion and exclusion, central- ongoing reconstitution of urbanizing


ity and marginality, mutually produce landscapes (see also Soja and Kanai
one another at all spatial scales, from [2006] 2014). Its other key expressions
the neighborhood to the planetary. include, among others: (a) the unprece-
Under these conditions, new approaches dented densification of inter-metropo-
to understanding and influencing pro- litan networks, requiring colossally
cesses of uneven spatial development scaled infrastructural investments
under capitalism are urgently needed (from highways, canals, railways, con-
(Peck 2015a). tainer ports, airports and hydroelectric
(2) The basic nature of urban realities dams to undersea cables, tunnels, pipe-
long understood under the singular, lines and satellite fleets) stretching
encompassing rubric of citynesshas across territories and continents as
become more differentiated, poly- well as oceanic and atmospheric
morphic, variegated and multiscalar environments; (b) the restructuring
than in previous cycles of capitalist and repositioning of traditional hin-
urbanization. Even though the terlands through the installation of
phrase, the city, persists as an ideo- new export processing zones, global
logical framing in mainstream policy sweatshop regions, back office
discourse and everyday life (Wachs- locations, data processing facilities and
muth 2014), the contemporary urban intermodal logistics terminals; (c) the
phenomenon cannot be understood as remaking and spatial extension of
a singular condition derived from the large-scale land-use systems devoted
serial replication of a specific sociospa- to resource extraction, the production
tial condition (e.g. agglomeration) or and circulation of energy (including
settlement type (e.g. places with large, fossil fuels), and water and waste man-
dense and/or heterogeneous popu- agement; (d) the profound social and
lations) across the territory. Indeed, environmental transformation of vast,
rather than witnessing the worldwide erstwhile rural areas through the
proliferation of a singular urban form, expansion of large-scale industrial agri-
the city, we are instead confronted culture, the extension of global agro-
with new processes of urbanization business networks, and the imposition
that are bringing forth diverse socio- of associated forms of land grabbing
economic conditions, territorial for- and territorial enclosure; and (e) the
mations and socio-metabolic operationalization of erstwhile wilder-
transformations across the planet. ness spaces, including the rainforests,
Their morphologies, geographies and deserts, alpine regions, polar zones,
institutional frames have become so the oceans and even the atmosphere
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 153

itself, to serve the relentless growth the consolidation of neoliberalized,


imperatives of an accelerating, increas- market-oriented transnational rule-
ingly planetary formation of capitalist regimes; (b) the proliferation of
urbanization. national state projects of deregulation,
(3) Closely intertwined with the afore- liberalization, privatization and auster-
mentioned trends, the regulatory geo- ity; (c) the worldwide diffusion of place-
graphies of capitalist urbanization marketing campaigns and locational
have likewise been undergoing pro- policies intended to attract inward
found, rapid mutations. Since the accel- capital investment into subnational
erated expansion of industrialization in zones; (d) the establishment of a new
the 19th century, the urban process has metropolitan mainstream in which
been largely subsumed within and local and regional governments
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regulated through the hierarchical increasingly prioritize economic


institutional frameworks of consolidat- growth, property-led investment in
ing national states and nationally coor- flagship mega-projects, urban renewal
dinated imperial systems. Since that and gentrification over job creation,
period, including within major social redistribution, equity and par-
empires and colonial regimes, national ticipation (Schmid 2012); (e) the con-
states instrumentalized major urban struction of new forms of inter-local
regions in relation to the broader networking and policy transfer to dis-
project of establishing territorially seminate putative best practices in
integrated markets and creating rela- response to persistent social, economic
tively uniform, standardized frame- and environmental crises within
works of national territorial urban regions (Peck and Theodore
organization within which industrial 2015); and (f) the ongoing explosion of
development could unfold. However, political struggles over access to the
the tumultuous transformations of basic resources of social reproduction
recent decades decisively shattered this such as housing, water, food, edu-
entrenched national-developmentalist cation, health care and security.
model of urban and territorial regu- Under these conditions, diverse regu-
lation, leading to a significant reconsti- latory agencies, coalitions, movements
tution of inherited geographies of and actors struggle not only to influ-
urban governance (Brenner 2004; ence the production of places, but to
Schmid 2003). reshape the broader institutional and
Although some of its elements have territorial frameworks through which
longer historical lineages, including urbanization processes are being
within mercantile capitalism and the managed at every spatial scale.
colonial empires of high industrial
capitalism, the contemporary period The terrain of the urban has thus been sub-
has seen the proliferation of new geo- jected to a high-intensity, high-impact earth-
graphies of urban governance that are quake through the worldwide social,
no longer neatly subsumed within a economic, regulatory and environmental
singular, encompassing territorial fra- transformations of the post-1980s period.
mework of state power at any spatial Not surprisingly, in conjunction with
scale, national or otherwise. Instead, ongoing efforts to decipher these wide-
an intensely variegated, polarized, mul- ranging transformations, the field of urban
tiscalar and relatively uncoordinated studies has also been experiencing consider-
landscape of territorial and networked able turbulence and fragmentation. In an
governance has emerged through (a) apparent parallel to the field-transforming
154 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3

epistemological crises of the late 1960s and interpretive framework through which to
early 1970s, which fundamentally challenged investigate its production, evolution and con-
the entrenched orthodoxies of mainstream testation, they persisted in viewing the unit in
urban sociology, positivist urban policy questionthe urban region or agglomera-
research and quantitative urban geography, tionas the basic focal point of debates on
the intellectual foundations of urban studies the urban question (Castells [1972] 1977;
are today being profoundly destabilized. see also Katznelson 1992). Across otherwise
Since its origins in the early 20th century, deep methodological and political divides
the field of urban studies has been regularly and successive epistemological realignments,
animated by foundational debates regarding this largely uninterrogated presupposition
the nature of the urban question, often in has underpinned the major intellectual
quite generative ways. The intensification of traditions in 20th-century urban studies.
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such debates in recent times could thus be Indeed, it has long been considered so
plausibly interpreted as a sign of creative self-evident that it did not require acknowl-
renaissance rather than of intellectual crisis. edgment, much less justification.
Today, however, the intense fragmentation, Today, this entrenched set of assump-
disorientation and downright confusion that tionsalong with a broad constellation of
permeate the field of urban studies are not closely associated epistemological frameworks
merely the result of methodological disagree- for confronting and mapping the urban ques-
ments (which of course persist) or due to the tionis being severely destabilized in the
obsolescence of a particular research para- wake of a new round of worldwide sociospa-
digm (Marxism, regulation theory, global tial restructuring. Of course, the power of
city theory or otherwise). Instead, as the agglomeration remains as fundamental as
national-developmentalist configuration of ever to the dynamics of industrialization; the
postwar world capitalism recedes rapidly spatial concentration of the means of pro-
into historical memory, and as the politico- duction, population and infrastructure is a
institutional, spatial and environmental potent generative force that continues to
impacts of various neoliberalized and author- ignite waves of capital accumulation and to
itarian forms of urban restructuring radiate reshape places, territories and landscapes at
and ricochet across the planet, a more intel- all spatial scales (Soja 2000; Kratke 2014;
lectually far-reaching structural crisis of Scott and Storper 2014). Despite this,
urban studies appears to be under way. however, the erstwhile boundaries of the
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the epis- cityalong with those of larger, metropolitan
temic crises of urban studies involved foun- units of agglomerationare being exploded
dational debates regarding the appropriate and reconstituted as new forms of urbaniz-
categories and methods through which to ation reshape inherited patterns of territorial
understand a sociospatial terrain whose organization, and increasingly crosscut the
basic contours and parameters were a matter urban/non-urban divide itself (Schmid 2006,
of broad consensus. Simply put, that consen- [2012] 2014; Brenner 2013, 2014a, 2014b;
sus involved the equation of the urban with a Brenner and Schmid 2014).
specific spatial unit or settlement typethe The contemporary crisis of urban studies is
city, or an upscaled territorial variant thus not only an expression of epistemic per-
thereof, such as the metropolis, the conurba- plexity (though the latter is still abundantly
tion, the metropolitan region, the megalopo- evident). From our point of view, rather, it
lis, the megacity, the megacity-region and so stems from an increasing awareness of funda-
forth. Even though radical critics such as mental uncertainties regarding the very sites,
Manuel Castells fiercely criticized established objects and focal points of urban theory and
ways of understanding this unit, and offered research under contemporary capitalism. In
an alternative, substantially reinvigorated a world of neatly circumscribed, relatively
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 155

bounded cities or urban units, whose core essential epistemological and political pre-
properties were a matter of generalized scho- condition for understanding the nature of
larly agreement, urban researchers could society itself. This proposition appears more
burrow into the myriad tasks associated apt than ever today. Whether in academic dis-
with understanding their underlying social, course or in the public sphere, the urban has
economic and cultural dynamics, historical become a privileged lens through which to
trajectories, inter-contextual variations and interpret, to map and, indeed, to attempt to
the various forms of regulation, conflict and influence contemporary social, economic,
struggle that emerged within them (Saunders political and environmental trends.
1986). However, under contemporary Paradoxically, however, rather than
circumstances, these basic conditions of directly confronting the radically trans-
possibility for urban research appear to have formed conditions for urban theory and
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been relativized, if not superseded. research, the mainstream of contemporary


For this reason, we argue, the question of discourses on global urbanism has embraced
the epistemology of the urbanspecifically: a strong, even triumphalist, reassertion of a
through what categories, methods and carto- traditional, universal, totalizing and largely
graphies should urban life be understood? empiricist concept of the city. Within this
must once again become a central focal mainstream framework, the nature of con-
point for urban theory, research and action. temporary urban restructuring is narrated
If the urban is no longer coherently contained simply as an increasing importance of cities
within or anchored to the cityor, for that to worldwide social, economic, political and
matter, to any other bounded settlement ecological processes. The question of what
typethen how can a scholarly field cities and the urban are, and how their
devoted to its investigation continue to constitutive properties and geographies may
exist? Or, to pose the same question as a chal- be changing in qualitative terms, is thereby
lenge of intellectual reconstruction: is there effectively black-boxed.
could there bea new epistemology of the The most influential contemporary meta-
urban that might illuminate the emergent narrative of the global urban condition is
conditions, processes and transformations surely the notion of an urban age, which
associated with a world of generalized was first introduced several decades ago by
urbanization? United Nations (UN) demographers, and
which has more recently been popularized
in public and scholarly discourses on the
Urban ideologies, old and new growth of urban settlements and associated
social, regulatory and environmental
Some four decades ago, Lefebvre ([1970] hazards (Burdett and Sudjic 2006; Davis
2003, 191, n. 3) argued not only that a new 2006; UN-Habitat 2007). According to this
understanding of the urban was required, city-centric perspective, for the first time in
but that the urban was itself becoming the human history, more than half the worlds
episteme of our time, the condition of possi- population now lives within cities. With the
bility for understanding major aspects of putative crossing of this threshold or mile-
contemporary global economic, social stone in 2007, the city is said to have been
and political life: We can say that the urban generalized into the universal form of
[ . . . ] rises above the horizon, slowly human settlement; it is now thought to rep-
occupies an epistemological field, and resent the most elemental spatial unit for
becomes the episteme of an epoch (for humanitys future. Across otherwise diverse
further discussion, see also Prigge 2008). In discursive, ideological and institutional con-
this sense, Lefebvre suggested, the reconcep- texts, the urban age thesis has become a
tualization of the urban was becoming an form of doxic common sense framing
156 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3

contemporary discussions of the global urban drastically homogenizes the variegated pat-
condition. It is repeated incessantly, mantra- terns and pathways of urbanization that
like, in scholarly papers, research reports have been emerging in recent decades across
and grant proposals, as well as in the public the world economy (Schmid [2012] 2014).
sphere of urban, environmental and architec- Just as problematically, by equating the
tural journalism. In effect, the assertion that urban exclusively with large and/or dense
we have crossed the fifty per cent urban population centers, urban age discourse
threshold has become the most quoted, but renders invisible the intimate, wide-ranging
therefore also among the most banal, formu- and dynamically evolving connections
lations in contemporary urban studies (for between contemporary shifts in city-building
historical contextualization and detailed cri- processes and the equally far-reaching trans-
tique, see Brenner and Schmid 2014). formations of putatively non-urban land-
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As has been noted by many researchers, the scapes and spatial divisions of labor alluded
demographic data on which the urban age to above.
hypothesis hinges are deeply inadequate; Several parallel or derivative metanarra-
they are derived from nationally specific tives of the contemporary global urban con-
census agencies which define the city and dition have been popularized in close
the urban using a myriad of inconsistent, connection to the overarching ideology of
unreliable and incompatible indicators (Sat- the urban age (for a critical overview, see
terthwaite 2010). Moreover, within the Gleeson 2014). These variations on urban
major strands of urban age discourse, the age discourse involve a variety of normative,
city is defined with reference to an arbitrarily methodological, strategic and substantive
fixed population size, density threshold or concerns; they include, among others, the fol-
administrative classification, which is in turn lowing main streams:
taken as the main indicator demarcating the
presumed boundary between urban and . Urban triumphalism. Several recent,
non-urban areas. Even when these indicators popular books have presented cities as the
are further elaborated, for instance, with engines of innovation, civilization, prosper-
reference to commuting patterns, catchment ity and democracy, across historical and
areas and economic activities, the notion of regional contexts (see, e.g. Brugmann 2010;
cityness used within this discourse is still fun- Glaeser 2011). According to these triumph-
damentally empiricist. It presupposes that the alist perspectives, contemporary cities
city can be defined through (some combi- represent the latest expressions of a time-
nation of) statistically measurable variables tested sociospatial formula that has enabled
describing conditions (coded as either the progressive historical development of
urban or non-urban) within a bounded human society, technology and governance.
administrative zone. With a few exceptions This set of arguments represents an impor-
(i.e. Angel 2011), the coherent bounding of tant extension of urban age discourse
the zone in question is simply presupposed because it connects the UNs basic demo-
based upon extant administrative jurisdic- graphic propositions to broader, qualitat-
tions; the diverse economic, political and ively elaborated arguments concerning the
environmental processes that are reworking role of cities in unleashing humanitys econ-
the structured coherence (Harvey 1989) of omic, social and cultural potentials.
inherited urban formations are not acknowl- . Technoscientific urbanism. There has also
edged or analyzed (Brenner and Katsikis recently been an outpouring of influential
2014). Additionally, through its contention new approaches that mobilize the tools of
that the city has become the universally natural science, mathematics and big
dominant, endlessly replicable form of data analysis to analyze, and often to
global human settlement, urban age discourse predict, inter- and intra-urban spatial
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 157

arrangements (Bettencourt and West 2010; environmental crises are most dramatically
Batty 2013). Such neo-positivist, neo-nat- experienced, and as techno-social arenas in
uralist approaches represent a revival of which potential responses are being
important strands of postwar systems pioneered (for critical review, see Sat-
thinking in geography, planning and terthwaite 2004). Discussions of urban sus-
design discourse, which had been closely tainability are often linked to the two
aligned with national state projects of aforementioned strands of contemporary
urban social engineering and territorial urban discourse insofar as they celebrate
control. Contemporary discussions of cities as the most ecologically viable
smart cities represent an important paral- arrangements for human settlement (Girar-
lel strand of technoscientific urbanism, in det 2004; Meyer 2013) and/or propose new
which information technology corpor- technoscientific solutions for re-engineer-
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ations are aggressively marketing new ing urban metabolic processes, often
modes of spatial monitoring, information through architectural and design interven-
processing and data visualization to tions under the rubric of an ecological
embattled municipal and metropolitan urbanism (Mostafavi and Doherty 2011).
governments around the world as a techni- In many cases, the proposed visions of a
cal fix for intractable governance pro- future urban ecological order entail the
blems (Greenfield 2013; Townsend 2013). construction of premium ecological
In the current context, technoscientific enclaves (Hodson and Marvin 2010) that
aspirations to reveal law-like regularities are substantially delinked from extant
within and among the worlds major cities infrastructural systems, and thus intensify
often serve to naturalize the forms of socio- inherited patterns of territorial exclusion.
spatial disorder, enclosure and displace- Emergent strategies to enhance urban resi-
ment that have been induced through the lience in the face of climate change and
last several decades of neoliberal regulatory associated socio-natural disasters contain
restructuring and recurrent geoeconomic similar hazards insofar as they normalize
crisis (Gleeson 2014). Despite their more contemporary forms of market-oriented
elaborate methodological apparatus and governance and associated processes of ter-
their capacity to process huge data assem- ritorial stigmatization (Fainstein 2014;
blages, these technoscientific urbanisms Slater 2014). Research on urban sustain-
replicate, and indeed reinforce, the basic ability remains heterogeneous in methodo-
urban age understanding of cities as univer- logical, thematic and political terms, and
sally replicable, coherently bounded settle- several scholars have recently made impor-
ment units. The law-bound understanding tant critical interventions that link this pro-
of urbanization it embraces is used not blematique to uneven spatial development,
only for epistemological purposes, to neoliberalization and struggles for environ-
justify a universalizing, naturalistic mental justice (Rees and Wackernagel
research agenda, but as part of a broader 1996; Atkinson 2007, 2009; Elmqvist
technoscientific ideology that aims to 2014). However, the main thrust of recent
depoliticize urban life and thus to assist debates on urban sustainability has been
the cause of sound management (Gleeson to promote a vision of cities as bounded,
2014, 348). technologically controlled islands of eco-
. Debates on urban sustainability. An rationality that are largely delinked from
additional metanarrative of the contempor- the broader territorial formations in
ary global urban condition focuses on the which they are currently embedded. In
key role of cities in the deepening planetary this way, urban age discourse is translated
ecological crisis. Here, cities are viewed at into a city-centric techno-environmental-
once as the front lines where ism that often justifies and even celebrates
158 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3

the enclavization of settlement space as the restructuring. Precisely under conditions


optimal means to ensure human survival in which the very foundations of urban
under conditions of deepening planetary life are being radically reconstituted, such
ecological crisis. mainstream discourses on global urbanism
. Debates on megacities. One additional sub- strongly reassert a universalizing, totalizing
stream of urban age discourse has involved and often naturalistic epistemological
discussions of megacities, generally under- outlook that subsumes all dimensions of the
stood as a specific settlement type that has urban process under the encompassing lens
been consolidated across the Third World of cityness, understood as a transcendental
or the global South under conditions of settlement form that has now been general-
rapid urbanization, hypercongestion and ized worldwide. Across the diverse politico-
resource scarcity (UN-Habitat 2007). The institutional and geographical contexts in
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megacities discussion partially tempers which these discourses are mobilized, their
the universalizing thrust of urban age dis- common wrapping is a bright universalism
course by emphasizing the specificity of (Gleeson 2014, 351) that masks the proliferat-
urban settlements in poorer countries, ing crisis-tendencies and contradictions of
whether due to colonial legacies, earlier contemporary capitalism.
strategies of import-substitution industri- In a striking parallel to the long-discredited
alization, the impacts of contemporary modernization theories of the postwar
forms of structural adjustment policy or, period, the various strands of this metanarra-
most prominently, the proliferation of tive are now being used as discursive frames
informal settlement patterns within to legitimate a wide range of neoliberalizing
dense city cores and around metropolitan proposals to transform inherited urban built
fringes. However, in many ways, urban environments. The simple message that the
age approaches articulate directly to, and city has assumed unprecedented planetary
reinforce, discussions of mega-cities: the importance has thus come to serve as an all-
latter, with their pervasive crises of purpose, largely depoliticized ideological
employment, housing, public health and rubric around which, in diverse contexts,
environment, are commonly represented aggressively market-oriented and/or authori-
as the unplanned, and possibly unplan- tarian contemporary projects and prescrip-
nable, spatial units in which the contem- tions of urban transformation are being
porary urban transition is unfolding; narrated, justified and naturalized. At once
they are thus the most elementary units of in the public sphere, in planning and design
the contemporary planet of slums (Davis discourse, and in scholarly arenas, such uni-
2006; for a strong counterpoint, see Roy versalizing, totalizing and city-centric ideol-
2005). Therefore, even if discussions of ogies serve to reassert the viability of all-
megacities emphasize the distinctiveness too-familiar urban epistemologies even as
of such spaces relative to Euro- their historical and sociospatial conditions
American or Northern urbanisms and the of possibility are being superseded in practice
worldwide system of global cities, they (for further reflection on this apparent
preserve the basic emphasis on the city as paradox, see Wachsmuth 2014).
a bounded settlement type that underpins
each of the major strands of urban age
discourse. Reflexive epistemological openings

These various versions of urban age discourse In contrast to the unapologetically self-
must be understood as a powerful series assured universalism of urban age ideologies,
of ideological interventions into rapidly the core agendas of critical urban social
churning, fragmenting fields of urban science have become rather disjointed in
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 159

recent years. Writing at the turn of the mil- see also Brenner 2009). This entails an insis-
lennium, Soja (2000, xii) observed: tence on the situatedness of all forms of
knowledge, and a relentless drive to reinvent
[T]he field of urban studies has never been so key categories of analysis in relation to
robust, so expansive in the number of subject ongoing processes of historical change.
areas and scholarly disciplines involved with Rather than presupposing a rigid separation
the study of cities, so permeated by new ideas between subject (knower) and object (the
and approaches, so attuned to the major site or context under investigation), reflexive
political and economic events of our times,
approaches emphasize their mutual consti-
and so theoretically and methodologically
unsettled. It may be the best of times and the
tution and ongoing transformation through
worst of times to be studying cities, for while social practices and political struggles,
there is so much that is new and challenging to including in the realm of interpretation and
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respond to, there is much less agreement than ideology. In Archers (2007, 72) more
ever before as to how best to make sense, general formulation, a reflexive approach to
practically and theoretically, of the new urban social theory involves a subject considering
worlds being created. an object in relation to itself, bending that
object back upon itself in a process which
Nearly 15 years later, this statement remains includes the self being able to consider itself
an apt characterization of the intellectual as its own object.
landscape of critical urban studies: it is still In the context of critical urban studies, this
filled with creative, energetic and eclectic philosophical requirement involves not only
responses to dynamically changing con- the constant interrogation of changing
ditions, but it is also still quite fragmented urban realities, but the equally vigilant analy-
among diverse epistemological frameworks sis and revision of the very conceptual and
and a wide range of ontological assumptions. methodological frameworks being used to
Although this situation of intellectual frag- investigate the urban process. For any reflex-
mentation results from some productive ive approach to urban theory, therefore, the
forms of epistemological, conceptual and categories and methods of urban analysis
methodological experimentation, it is also are important focal points of inquiry: under-
problematic insofar as it limits the fields col- standing their conditions of emergence and
lective capacity to offer convincing, accessi- intelligibility, as well as the possibility of
ble alternatives to the dominant urban their destabilization or obsolescence, rep-
ideologies of our time. Particularly in light resent essential, ongoing and potentially
of the broad appeal of simplistic urban age transformative research tasks. Simply put,
reasoning to scholars, designers and policy- reflexive approaches to urban theory must
makers, and its continued instrumentaliza- constantly subject their own categories and
tion in the service of neoliberalizing and/or methods to critical interrogation, even as
authoritarian forms of urban governance the latter are being mobilized in ongoing
and environmental engineering, the develop- research endeavors.
ment of such critical counterpositions is a During the last decade, amidst the deepen-
matter of increasing urgency for all those ing intellectual fragmentation of urban
committed to developing more adequate studies outlined above, a notably reflexive
ways of interpretingand, ultimately, of strand of critical urban scholarship has been
influencingthe patterns and pathways of consolidated under the rubric of postcolonial
contemporary urbanization. urban studies. In a wide-ranging series of
One of the hallmarks of any form of critical interventions, the main protagonists of this
social theory, including critical urban theory, tradition of urban research have revealed the
is epistemological reflexivity (Horkheimer ways in which inherited urban epistem-
[1968] 1972; Bourdieu 1990; Postone 1993; ologies have been implicitly derived from
160 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3

the Euro-American experience of capitalist (whether relating to spatial organization,


urbanization. This, they argue, has been design, planning or policy) circulate beyond
used unreflexively as a normalizing template their contexts of emergence and are thereby
for (mis)interpreting processes of urban transformed into prototypes that are at
development across the global South. The once implemented and reconstituted else-
very recognition of such normalizing Euro- where (see, e.g. Robinson 2006; Roy 2009;
American or metrocentric assumptions Parnell and Robinson 2012; Roy and Ong
requires their provincialization (Bunnell 2012; Mabin 2014; Parnell and Oldfield
and Maringanti 2010; Parnell and Robinson 2014).
2012; Sheppard, Leitner, and Maringanti Since the publication of Jennifer Robin-
2013) and underscores the urgency of elabor- sons (2006) forceful intervention in her
ating alternative categories for understanding now-classic book Ordinary Cities, the core
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the contextually specific patterns and path- intellectual frameworks of postcolonial


ways of urbanization that have emerged, for urbanism have been undergoing a period of
example, in East and Southeast Asia, Latin maturation and consolidation. It would
America, Africa or the Middle East. probably be premature, however, to suggest
In general, postcolonial urban theorists that this approach has now established a
present their work as a critique of the natur- fully fledged urban epistemology or a new
alized Euro-American epistemologies associ- research paradigm because, as with most
ated with the major traditions of academic other emergent frameworks within critical
urban social science extending from the urban studies, it contains many distinct
early 20th-century Chicago School of urban strands of theory-building, methodological
sociology to the Los Angeles School of experimentation and substantive research,
urban geography and the global city theories as well as several competing epistemological
of the late 20th century. However, insofar as orientations (see, e.g. Simone 2009; Kipfer
they call into question any model of urban and Goonewardena 2013). Nonetheless,
theory that claims universal validity, the especially in light of the pervasively frag-
reconceptualizations proposed in this tra- mented character of contemporary critical
dition also offer a theoretically reflexive urban theory, the time is ripe for the theor-
counterpoint to the ideological totalizations etically reflexive interventions and theory-
of urban age discourse. Rather than adopting driven research forays that have recently
a singular ontological position regarding the been elaborated by postcolonial urbanists.
underlying essence of cityness or the urban, Particularly in the last few years, in a series
postcolonial urbanisms have embraced a of provocative manifestos and agenda-
broadly nominalist approach to producing setting theoretical articles, several postcolo-
new geographies of theorizing (Roy 2009; nial urban thinkers have pursued the goal
Robinson 2014) under early 21st-century of systematically reinventing the epistemo-
conditions. Its main orientations and com- logical basis for grappling with urban ques-
mitments include: (a) skepticism regarding tions (see, especially, Roy 2011, 2014;
authoritative, universalizing knowledge Robinson 2011, 2014; Sheppard, Leitner,
claims about any aspect of the urban experi- and Maringanti 2013). In this way, they
ence; (b) attention to contextual particulari- respond directly to the question posed
ties and local experiences within places; above: under contemporary conditions, can
(c) an analysis of the inter-place relations or there be a new epistemology of the urban?
worlding processes that constitute sociospa- Our own developing investigations of pla-
tial configurations, whether within cities or netary urbanization partially overlap with the
at larger spatial scales; and (d) an exploration substantive research foci of postcolonial
of the diverse lines of influence through urbanism. Our work is likewise animated
which local, apparently parochial urbanisms by an overarching concern to develop new
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 161

ways of understanding emergent urban con- city (see, e.g. Seekings 2013; for critical dis-
ditions and ongoing urban transformations. cussion, see Peck 2015b). Many of those
Similarly, and in stark contrast to some con- accounts present thick descriptionsfor
temporary approaches that pursue ontologi- instance, of everyday life and subaltern
cal or quasi-metaphysical speculations struggleas theoretically self-evident coun-
regarding the nature of the urban, we terpoints to the apparent totalizations of
endorse a nominalist approach that permits Euro-American frameworks (for a critical
an open-ended interplay between critique discussion, see Mabin 2014; see also
(of inherited traditions of urban theory and Brenner, Madden, and Wachsmuth 2011).
contemporary urban ideologies), epistemo- Clearly, such strategic essentialisms (Roy
logical experimentation (leading to the elab- 2009) have been generative in both methodo-
oration of new concepts and methods) and logical and empirical terms, especially as a
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concrete research (on specific contexts, reflexive counterpoint to mainstream global


struggles and transformations). It is thus in urban ideologies. However, they also contain
a spirit of comradely dialogue that we offer certain intellectual hazards, not the least of
below our own set of critical reflections on which is the risk of prematurely retreating
the possible foundations for a new epistem- from essential conceptual tools, such as those
ology of the urban under 21st-century con- of geopolitical economy, state theory and
ditions. However, despite our shared regulation theory, as outdated vestiges of
commitment to epistemological reflexivity northern epistemologies (see also Mabin
and conceptual reinvention, several of the 2014). The idea of specificity is logically intel-
theses presented here stand in some measure ligible only in relation to an encompassing
of tension with certain methodological ten- notion of generality against which it is
dencies within postcolonial urban studies. defined; it is thus best understood as a rela-
First, because of its concern to provincia- tional, dialectical concept, one that presup-
lize the universalizing, (over)generalizing poses a broader totality, rather than as a
thrust of northern theory, much of postco- demarcation of ontological singularity
lonial urban studies has emphasized the (Schmid 2015a). In a capitalist world system
specificity, distinctiveness or even uniqueness that continues to be shaped profoundly by
of cities beyond the West. Although several the drive towards endless capital accumu-
scholars (e.g. Roy 2009, 2014; Robinson lation, by neoliberalizing and/or authoritarian
2011, 2014) have recently introduced produc- forms of global and national regulatory
tively relational concepts designed to illumi- restructuring, by neo-imperial military strat-
nate inter-place transformations, the trope egies, and by various interconnected forms of
of contextual specificity pervades much of exploitation, dispossession and socio-environ-
contemporary postcolonial urban research, mental destruction, contextual specificity is
in part due to the influence of parallel argu- enmeshed within, and mediated through,
ments in the fields of subaltern historical broader configurations of capitalist uneven
studies and postcolonial cultural theory spatial development and geopolitical power.
(Chibber 2013). The appropriately decon- This context of context (Brenner, Peck, and
structive concern to speak back against, Theodore 2010; Peck 2015b) is not merely a
thereby contesting, mainstream global urban- background condition for urban development,
ism (Sheppard, Leitner, and Maringanti but represents a constitutive formationa
2013, 896) thus often translates into a meth- self-forming, internally contradictory and
odological injunction to reveal the distinc- constantly evolving wholein and through
tiveness of particular places within the which the geo-positionality of local places
global South, often in rhetorical contrast to is inscribed and mediated (Sheppard 2009).
a putatively overgeneralized northern Theorizing the production of such multi-
model, such as that of the global or neoliberal layered spatial configurationsnot only
162 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3

contexts, but the context(s) of those con- In effect, even though a southern lens is
textsin processual, multiscalar terms thus being mobilized within this literature to
remains an urgent task for contemporary criti- reconceptualize the geographies of the
cal urban theorists. urban, its concrete sites of investigation
For these reasons, rather than equating the have remained relatively familiar local or
project of postcolonial urbanism simply with metropolitan unitsthe great population
a commitment to concrete, regionally situ- centers of Latin America, sub-Saharan
ated or place-based studies derived from a Africa, South and Southeast Asia, East Asia
southern positionality, it may be most pro- and the Middle East. In a form of stubbornly
ductive, as Robinson (2014, 61) has recently persistent methodological cityism (Angelo
proposed, to understand such methodologi- and Wachsmuth 2014), major strands of post-
cal positions as interim moves anticipating colonial urban studies still demarcate their
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more sustained formulations for building research terrain with the same conditions
global urban analyses (see also Roy 2014). large, dense and heterogeneous settle-
The theses presented below are intended to mentsupon which the inherited field of
contribute to that collective project, which Euro-American urban studies has long
would connect the deconstructive epistemo- focused its analytical gaze. The broader land-
logical critiques and conceptual innovations scapes of urbanization, which extend far
of postcolonial urban theory to the equally beyond the megacities, metropolitan regions
urgent task of deciphering the evolving, and and peri-urban zones of the postcolonial
increasingly planetary, context of context world, are not completely ignored within
in which contemporary forms of neoliberal this literature (as illustrated, for example, in
capitalist urbanization are unfolding across its concern with the geographies of
the North/South divide. migration). But nor, however, are they
This point connects to a second methodo- brought into explicit or reflexive focus
logical tendency in postcolonial urban when postcolonial urbanists frame their
theory from which our own epistemological research agendas and conceptual cartogra-
orientations significantly divergenamely, phies (for further elaborations, see Robinson
its tendency to treat the city as the privi- 2014). We argue below that such landscapes
leged terrain for urban research. To be sure, of extended urbanizationunderstood as
in contrast to the totalizing, empiricist settle- fundamental conditions of possibility for
ment fetishism of urban age ideology and the production of historically and geographi-
other mainstream discourses of global urban- cally specific forms of citynessmust be
ism, postcolonial urban studies embraces a analyzed and theorized centrally within any
reflexively relational approach to the con- updated epistemology of the urban for the
struction of cityness. Rather than reifying 21st century. Today, such zones can no
the city as a generic, universal settlement longer be understood as elements of a rural
type, this approach is productively attuned outside that impacts the city and is in turn
to the multiple sociospatial configurations effected by it; rather, they are now increas-
in which agglomerations are crystallizing ingly internalized within world-encompass-
under contemporary capitalism, as well as ing, if deeply variegated, processes of
to the transnational, inter-scalar and often planetary urbanization.
extra-territorial webs through which their The epistemological orientations presented
developmental pathways are mediated or below are intended to contribute to the col-
worlded (see, e.g. Roy 2009, 2014). And lective project of illuminating the great
yet, despite its sophisticated methodological variety of urbanization processes that are pre-
foundations, the bulk of postcolonial urban sently reshaping the planet. These theses are
research and theory-building has, in practice, closely connected to our developing theori-
focused on cities, tout court. zation of planetary urbanization, but they
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 163

are not intended to elaborate that analysis in action can only occur through a process of
any detail. Instead, our proposals are meant theoretical abstraction.
to demarcate some relatively broad epistemo- Even the most descriptively nuanced,
logical parameters within which a multi- quantitatively sophisticated or geospatially
plicity of reflexive approaches to critical enhanced strands of urban research necess-
urban theory might be pursued. We aim not arily presuppose any number of pre-empiri-
to advance a specific, substantive theory of cal assumptions regarding the nature of the
the urban, but to present a general epistemo- putatively urban condition, zone or trans-
logical framework through which this formation that is under analysis (Brenner
elusive, yet seemingly omnipresent condition and Katsikis 2014). Such assumptions are
of the contemporary world might be analyti- not mere background conditions or inciden-
cally deciphered, even as it continues to tal framing devices, but constitute the very
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evolve and mutate before our eyes, thereby interpretive lens through which urban
changing yet again the epistemic foundations research becomes intelligible as such. For
for its future interpretation. This discussion is this reason, the urban question famously
thus intended as a meta-theoretical exercise: posed by Castells ([1972] 1977) cannot be
instead of attempting to nail down a fixed understood as a theoretical detour, or as a
definition of the essential properties of the mere intellectual diversion for those inter-
urban phenomenon once and for all, it ested in concept formation or in the fields
involves developing a reflexive epistemologi- historical evolution. Rather, engagement
cal framework that may help bring into with the urban question is a constitutive
focus and render intelligible the ongoing moment of theoretical abstraction within all
reconstitution of that phenomenon in approaches to urban research and practice,
relation to the simultaneous evolution of the whether or not they reflexively conceptualize
very concepts and methods being used to it as such.
study it. Any rigorously reflexive account of Since the early 20th century, the evolution
the urban requires this meta-theoretical of urban studies as a research field has been
moment. animated by intense debates regarding the
appropriate conceptualization of the
urbanits geographical parameters, its his-
Thesis 1: the urban and urbanization are torical pathways and its key social, economic,
theoretical categories, not empirical objects cultural or institutional dimensions (Saunders
1986; Hartmann et al. 1986; Katznelson
In most mainstream traditions, the urban is 1992). These debates have underpinned and
treated as an empirically self-evident, univer- animated the succession of research para-
sal category corresponding to a particular digms on urban questions across the social
type of bounded settlement space, the city. and historical sciences, and they have also
While such empiricist, universalistic under- been closely articulated to broader develop-
standings continue to underpin important ments, controversies and paradigm shifts
strands of urban research and policy, includ- within the major traditions of social theory,
ing contemporary mainstream discourses on planning and design. In each framing,
global urbanism, we argue that the urban, depending on the underlying epistemological
and the closely associated concept of urbaniz- perspective, conceptual grammar, carto-
ation, must be understood as theoretical graphic apparatus and normative-political
abstractions; they can only be defined orientation, the urban has been equated
through the labor of conceptualization. The with quite divergent properties, practices,
urban is thus a theoretical category, not an conditions, experiences, institutions and geo-
empirical object: its demarcation as a zone graphies, which have in turn defined the basic
of thought, representation, imagination or horizons for research, representation and
164 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3

practice. Such demarcations have entailed not conditions within local and regional contexts
only diverse, often incompatible, ways of under modern capitalism have long been
understanding cities and agglomeration, but tightly interdependent with one another,
also a range of interpretive methods, analyti- and have been profoundly shaped by
cal strategies and cartographic techniques broader patterns of capitalist industrializ-
through which those conditions are distin- ation, regulation and uneven sociospatial
guished from a non-urban outsidethe development. The recognition of context
suburban, the rural, the natural or otherwise. dependencythe need to provincialize
In this sense, rather than developing through urban theorythus stands in tension with
a simple accretion of concrete investigations an equally persistent need to understand the
on a pre-given social condition or spatial historically evolving totality of inter-contex-
arrangement, the field of urban studies has tual patterns, developmental pathways and
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evolved through ongoing theoretical debates systemic transformations in which such con-
regarding the appropriate demarcation, texts are embedded, whether at national,
interpretation and mapping of the urban supranational or worldwide scales.
itself. In all cases, therefore, theoretical defi-
The urban is, then, an essentially contested nitions of the urban and the historical-
concept and has been subject to frequent rein- geographical contexts of their emergence
vention in relation to the challenges engen- are tightly intertwined. This proposition
dered by research, practice and struggle. applies whether the urban is delineated as
While some approaches to the urban have a local formation or as a global condition;
asserted, or aspired to, universal validity, and the contexts of theory production must
thus claimed context-independent applica- likewise be understood in both situated
bility, every attempt to frame the urban in and inter-contextual terms. Any reflexive
analytical, geographical and normative-politi- approach to the urban question must make
cal terms has in fact been strongly mediated explicit the venue of its own research prac-
through the specific historical-geographical tice (be it a specific place, an urbanizing ter-
formation(s) in which it emergedfor ritory or a broader socioeconomic network)
example, Manchester, Paris and classically and consider the implications of the latter
industrial models of urbanization in the mid- for its own epistemological and represen-
19th century; Chicago, Berlin, London and tational framework.
rapidly metropolitanizing landscapes of Such definitional debates and theoretical
imperialcapitalist urbanization in the early controversies are not only derived from
20th century; and Los Angeles, Shanghai, specific contexts of urbanization; they also
Dubai, Singapore and neoliberalizing models powerfully impact those contexts insofar as
of globally networked urbanization in the they help clarify, construct, legitimate, disse-
last three decades. As Gieryn (2006, 6) minate and naturalize particular visions of
explains, the city is both the subject and the sociospatial organization that privilege
venue of studyscholars in urban studies con- certain elements of the urban process while
stitute the city both as the empirical referent of neglecting or excluding others. These often-
analysis and the physical site where investi- contradictory framing visions, interpret-
gation takes place. ations and cartographies of the urban (as
This circumstance means that all engage- site, territory, ecology and experience)
ments with urban theory, whether Euro- mediate urban design, planning, policy and
American, postcolonial or otherwise, are in practice, with powerful consequences for
some sense provincial, or context-depen- ongoing strategies and struggles, in and
dent, because they are mediated through con- outside of major institutions, to shape and
crete experiences of time and space within reshape urbanized landscapes. It is essential,
particular places. Just as crucially, though, therefore, to connect debates on the urban
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 165

question to assessments of their practical and sociospatial arrangements at all scales; and
political implications, institutional yet it also continually creatively destroys
expressions and everyday consequences in the latter to produce new patterns of socio-
specific contexts of urban restructuring. spatial organization (Harvey 1985). There is
Such a task may only be accomplished, thus no singular morphology of the urban;
however, if the underlying assumptions there are, rather, many processes of urban
associated with framing conceptualizations transformation that crystallize across the
of the urban are made explicit, subjected to world at various spatial scales, with wide-
critical scrutiny and revised continually in ranging, often unpredictable consequences
relation to evolving research questions, nor- for inherited sociospatial arrangements.
mative-political orientations and practical Second, the urban can no longer be under-
concerns. stood as a settlement type. The field of urban
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studies has long been preoccupied with the


task of classifying particular sociospatial con-
Thesis 2: the urban is a process, not a ditions within putatively distinct types of
universal form, settlement type or bounded settlement space (city, town, suburb, metro-
unit polis and various sub-classifications
thereof). Today, however, such typologies
Across significant strands of the social of urban settlement have outlived their use-
sciences and the design disciplines, the fulness; processes of sociospatial transform-
urban is treated as a fixed, unchanging ation, which crisscross and constantly
entity as a universal form, settlement type rework diverse places, territories and scales,
or bounded spatial unit (the city) that is must instead be moved to the foreground of
being replicated across the globe. By contrast, our epistemological framework. In such a
following Lefebvres ([1970] 2003) methodo- conceptualization, urban configurations
logical injunction, we interpret the urban as a must be conceived not as discrete settlement
multiscalar process of sociospatial transform- types, but as dynamic, relationally evolving
ation. The study of specific urban forms, force fields of sociospatial restructuring
types or units must thus be superseded by (Allen, Cochrane, and Massey 1998; Massey
investigations of the relentless churning of 2005). As such, urban configurations rep-
urban configurations at all spatial scales. resent, simultaneously, the territorial inheri-
This apparently simple proposal entails a tance of earlier rounds of restructuring and
series of far-reaching consequences for the sociospatial frameworks in and through
many of the core epistemological operations which future urban pathways and potentials
of urban theory and research. are produced. The typological classification
First, the urban can no longer be under- of static urban units is thus considerably
stood as a universal form. Apparently stabil- less productive, in both analytical and politi-
ized urban sites are in fact merely cal terms, than explorations of the various
temporary materializations of ongoing socio- processes through which urban configur-
spatial transformations. Such processes of ations are produced, contested and
creative destruction (see Thesis 3 below) do transformed.
not simply unfold within fixed or stable Third, the urban can no longer be under-
urban containers, but actively produce, stood as a bounded spatial unit. Since the
unsettle and rework them, and thus con- origins of modern approaches to urban
stantly engender new urban configurations. theory in the late 19th century, the urban
Simply put, the urban is not a (fixed) form has been conceptualized with reference to
but a process; as such, it is dynamic, histori- the growth of cities, conceived as relatively
cally evolving and variegated. It is materia- circumscribed, if constantly expanding,
lized within built environments and sociospatial units. Such assumptions have
166 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3

long pervaded mainstream urban research, of urbanization must likewise be completely


and they are today powerfully embodied in reinvented, for they are largely derived from
the discourses on global urbanism promoted or intertwined with precisely this triad of
by the UN, the World Bank and other naturalized epistemological assumptions. The
major international organizations. In light notion of urbanization may initially appear
of the above considerations, however, our to resonate productively with the processual
analyses of urban configurations must be sys- epistemological orientation emphasized in
tematically disentangled from inherited Thesis 2. In practice, however, all major
understandings of cityness, which obfuscate theories of urbanization are seriously limited
the processes of implosion-explosion that by their exclusive focus on what Burgess
underpin the production and continual ([1925] 1967) classically described as the
restructuring of sociospatial organization growth of the city. This is not merely a
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under modern capitalism. It is misleading to matter of empirical emphasis, but flows


equate the urban with any singular, from a fundamental epistemological commit-
bounded spatial unit (city, agglomeration, mentnamely, the conceptualization of
metropolitan region or otherwise); nor can urbanization with exclusive reference to the
its territorial contours be coherently deli- condition of agglomeration, the spatial
neated relative to some postulated non- concentration of population, means of
urban outside (suburban, rural, natural, production, infrastructure and investment
wilderness or otherwise). Conceptualizations within a more or less clearly delineated
of the urban as a bounded spatial unit must spatial zone.
thus be superseded by approaches that inves- Without denying the importance of spatial
tigate how urban configurations are churned clusters to urbanization processes, we argue
and remade across the uneven landscapes of that a more multifaceted conceptualization
worldwide capitalist development. is today required which illuminates the inter-
In sum, the process-based approach to the play between three mutually constitutive
urban proposed here requires a fundamental moments(i) concentrated urbanization, (ii)
reorientation of urban research. No longer extended urbanization and (iii) differential
conceived as a form, type or bounded unit, urbanization. These three moments are dia-
the urban must now be retheorized as a lectically interconnected and mutually con-
process that, even while continually rein- stitutive; they are analytically distinguished
scribing patterns of agglomeration across here simply to offer an epistemological basis
the earths terrestrial landscape, simul- for a reinvented conceptualization that trans-
taneously transgresses, explodes and cends the limitations and blind spots of main-
reworks inherited geographies (of social stream models.
interaction, settlement, land use, circulation Since Friedrich Engels famously analyzed
and socio-metabolic organization), both the explosive growth of industrial Manche-
within and beyond large-scale metropolitan ster in the mid-19th century, the power of
centers. agglomeration has been a key focal point for
urban research. Although its appropriate
interpretation remains a topic of intense
Thesis 3: urbanization involves three debate, the moment of concentrated urbaniz-
mutually constitutive moments ation is thus quite familiar from inherited
concentrated urbanization, extended approaches to urban economic geography,
urbanization and differential urbanization which aim to illuminate the agglomeration
processes through which firms, workers and
If the urban is no longer to be conceived as a infrastructure cluster together in space
universal form, as a specific settlement type during successive cycles of capitalist indus-
or as a bounded unit, inherited understandings trial development (Veltz 1996; Storper 1996;
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 167

Scott 1988; Kratke 2014). Obviously, large ultimately, around much of the entire planet
agglomerations remain central arenas and (see Thesis 5 below). Third, the process of
engines of massive urban transformations, extended urbanization frequently involves
and thus clearly merit sustained investigation, the enclosure of land from established social
not least under early 21st-century capitalism. uses in favor of privatized, exclusionary and
However, we reject the widespread assump- profit-oriented modes of appropriation,
tion within both mainstream and critical tra- whether for resource extraction, agro-
ditions of urban studies that agglomerations business, logistics functions or otherwise. In
represent the privileged or even exclusive this sense, extended urbanization is inti-
terrain of urban development (Scott and mately intertwined with the violence of
Storper 2014). In contrast, we propose that accumulation by dispossession (often ani-
the historical and contemporary geographies mated and enforced by state institutions)
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of urban transformation encompass much through which non-commodified modes of


broader, if massively uneven, territories and social life are destabilized and articulated to
landscapes, including many that may global spatial divisions of labor and systems
contain relatively small, dispersed or of exchange (Ajl 2014; Sevilla-Buitrago 2014).
minimal populations, but where major socio- The moment of extended urbanization has
economic, infrastructural and socio-meta- been partially illuminated in classic accounts
bolic metamorphoses have occurred of city-hinterland relations, which have
precisely in support of, or as a consequence explored not only the making of operational
of, the everyday operations and growth landscapes to support population centers,
imperatives of often-distant agglomerations. but the ways in which the very process of
For this reason, the moment of concentrated metropolitan development has hinged upon
urbanization is inextricably connected to massive, highly regularized inputs (of labor,
that of extended urbanization. materials, food, water, energy, commodities,
Extended urbanization involves, first, the information and so forth) procured from
operationalization of places, territories and agglomerations as well as various types of
landscapes, often located far beyond the non-city spaces, both proximate and
dense population centers, to support the remote (Harris and Ullman 1945; Jacobs
everyday activities and socioeconomic 1970; Cronon 1991; for discussion, see Katsi-
dynamics of urban life. The production of kis 2015). More recently, accounts of
such operational landscapes results from the extended urbanization have emphasized the
most basic socio-metabolic imperatives progressive enclosure, operationalization
associated with urban growththe procure- and industrialization of such landscapes
ment and circulation of food, water, around the worldincluding rainforests,
energy and construction materials; the pro- tundra, alpine zones, oceans, deserts and
cessing and management of waste and pol- even the atmosphere itselfto fuel the rapid
lution; and the mobilization of labor-power intensification of metropolitan growth in
in support of these various processes of recent decades (Schmid 2006; Brenner
extraction, production, circulation and man- 2014a, 2014b; Soja and Kanai [2006] 2014;
agement. Second, the process of extended Monte-Mor 2014a, 2014b).
urbanization entails the ongoing construction Throughout the longue duree history of
and reorganization of relatively fixed and capitalist industrialization, the geographies
immobile infrastructures (in particular, for of extended urbanization have been essential
transportation and communication) in to the consolidation, growth and restructur-
support of these operations, and conse- ing of urban centers. Rather than being rele-
quently, the uneven thickening and stretching gated to a non-urban outside, therefore,
of an urban fabric (Lefebvre [1970] 2003) the moment of extended urbanization must
across progressively larger zones, and be viewed as an integral terrain of the
168 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3

urbanization process as a whole. Thus, that are unleashed, but often suppressed,
without abandoning the long-standing through capitalist industrial development
concern of urbanists to understand agglom- (see Lefebvre [1974] 1991 on differential
eration processes, we propose to connect space; and Lefebvre 2009 on the politics of
that familiar problematique to a wide- space).
ranging set of sociospatial transformations The creative destruction of sociospatial
that have not typically been viewed as being arrangements within large urban centers has
connected to urbanization. long been recognized in radical approaches
Concentrated and extended urbanization to the periodization of urban development
are inextricably intertwined with the (Gordon 1978; Harvey 1989). In such
process of differential urbanization, in approaches, successive configurations of the
which inherited sociospatial configurations urban built environment are thought tempor-
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are continually creatively destroyed in arily to internalize the underlying contradic-


relation to the broader developmental tions of capitalism associated, for instance,
dynamics and crisis-tendencies of modern with class struggle, property relations, over-
capitalism. Lefebvre ([1970] 2003) captured accumulation and the political control of
this distinctive tendency within capitalist surplus value. To the degree that inherited
forms of urbanization through the vivid built environments can no longer effectively
metaphor of implosion-explosion, a formu- manage the struggles and conflicts engen-
lation that has been appropriated in diverse dered through such contradictions, it is
ways in recent years by critical urban thin- argued, they are radically remade, or crea-
kers (Brenner 2014a, 2014b; Schmid, Stanek, tively destroyed, until a new formation of
and Moravanszky 2015). For our purposes the urban is produced. In this sense, despite
here, rather than equate implosion exclu- major disagreements regarding the under-
sively with concentrated urbanization and lying causes of crisis-induced urban restruc-
explosion with extended urbanization, the turing, radical theories of the capitalist city
metaphor offers a useful basis for demarcat- have already developed a relatively elaborate
ing a third, differential moment of urbaniz- account of the interplay between concen-
ation based upon the perpetual drive to trated and differential urbanization since
restructure sociospatial organization under around 1850 (Soja 2000).
modern capitalism, not only within metropo- By contrast, we currently have only a
litan agglomerations but across broader land- limited grasp of howvia what mechanisms,
scapes of extended urbanization. struggles, patterns and pathwaysthe land-
Consistent with the process-based concep- scapes of extended urbanization have been
tualization of the urban presented in Thesis 2, creatively destroyed during the history of
the differential moment of urbanization puts capitalist development, whether in relation
into relief the intense, perpetual dynamism to waves of concentrated urbanization or,
of capitalist forms of urbanization, in which more generally, in relation to broader
sociospatial configurations are tendentially regimes of capital accumulation and modes
established, only to be rendered obsolete of territorial regulation. The cycles of urban
and eventually superseded through the development explored by radical scholars
relentless forward motion of the accumu- under the rubric, for instance, of the mercan-
lation process and industrial development tile, industrial, Fordist-Keynesian and neo-
(Harvey 1985; Storper and Walker 1989). liberal city (Harvey 1989) have only rarely
Just as crucially, as we suggest below been connected, either empirically or analyti-
(Thesis 7), differential urbanization is also cally, to the sociospatial dynamics and crisis-
the result of various forms of urban struggle tendencies within the broader landscapes of
and expresses the powerful potentials for extended urbanization (for some suggestive
radical social and political transformation openings, however, see Jones 1997; Bayat
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 169

and Denis 2000; Thompson, Bunnell, and reflexively connects the three moments of
Parthasarathy 2013; McGee [1991] 2014). urbanization demarcated here may thus
However, it can be argued that the geogra- offer some productive new interpretive per-
phies of extended urbanization have likewise spectives not only on the historical and con-
been undergoing intensive processes of crea- temporary geographies of capitalist
tive destruction throughout the history of industrial development, but also on some of
capitalist industrial development, generally the socio-ecological conditions that are
in relation to major waves of crisis-induced today commonly thought to be associated
restructuring and political struggle within with the age of the anthropocene (Crutzen
urban centers and the broader territorial 2002; for a critical discussion, see Chakra-
economies in which the latter are embedded barty 2009; Malm and Hornborg 2014).
(Moore 2008, 2011). Such transformations
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have been intensifying, deepening and broad-


ening around the world since the long 1980s, Thesis 4: the fabric of urbanization is
with far-reaching social, environmental and multidimensional
political consequences for the future of capit-
alism, and indeed, humanity as a whole (Luke The epistemology of urbanization proposed
2003). above explodes inherited assumptions
Figure 1 offers a stylized summary of the regarding the geographies of this process:
three core moments of urbanization under they are no longer expressed simply through
capitalism. We reiterate that these the city, the metropolitan region or inter-
moments refer not to distinct morphologi- urban networks, and nor are they bounded
cal conditions, geographical sites or temporal neatly and distinguished from a putatively
stages, but to mutually constitutive, dialecti- non-urban outside. But this systematic
cally intertwined elements of a historically analytical delinking of urbanization from
specific process of sociospatial transform- trends related exclusively to city growth
ation. Just as distant flows of material, entails a further epistemological conse-
energy and labor underpin the everyday quencethe abandonment of several major
dynamics of large metropolitan agglomera- sociological, demographic, economic or cul-
tions, so too do the growth imperatives and tural definitions of urbanization that are
consumption demands of the latter directly directly derived from that assumption.
mediate the construction of large-scale infra- Thus, with the deconstruction of monodi-
structural projects, land-use reorganization mensional, city-centric epistemologies,
and sociocultural transformations in appar- urbanization can no longer be considered
ently remote operational landscapes. As synonymous with such commonly invoked
the fabric of urbanization is progressively, if developments as: rural-to-urban migration;
unevenly, stretched, thickened, rewoven and expanding population levels in big cities; the
creatively destroyed, new centers of agglom- concentration of investments and economic
eration (from mining and farming towns and capacities within dense population centers;
tourist enclaves to logistics hubs and growth the diffusion of urbanism as a sociocultural
poles) may emerge within zones that pre- form into small- and medium-sized towns
viously served mainly as operational hinter- and villages; or the spreading of similar,
lands (Storper and Walker 1989). The urban city-like services, amenities, technologies,
fabric of modern capitalism is thus best con- infrastructures or built environments across
ceived as a dynamically evolving force field the territory. Any among the latter trends
in which the three moments of urbanization may, under specific conditions, be connected
continually interact to produce historically to distinctive patterns and pathways of
specific forms of sociospatial organization urbanization. However, in the epistemologi-
and uneven development. A framework that cal framework proposed here, their analytical
170 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3
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Figure 1 The three moments of urbanization.

demarcation as such no longer hinges upon First, urbanization involves distinctive


the definitionally fixed assumption either (a) spatial practices through which land use is
that they necessarily originate within specific intensified, connectivity infrastructures are
settlement units (generally, big cities) or (b) thickened and socio-metabolic transform-
that they necessarily result from the replica- ations are accelerated to facilitate processes
tion of formally identical urban settlement of capitalist industrialization. Such spatial
types, infrastructural arrangements or cul- practices underpin the production of built
tural forms across the entire territory. environments within major cities as well as
What is required, instead, is a multidimen- a wide range of sociospatial transformations
sional understanding of urbanization that can in near and distant zones in relation to the
illuminate the historically specific patterns latter.
and pathways through which the variegated, Second, urbanization is always mediated
uneven geographies of this process, in each through specific forms of territorial regu-
of its three constitutive moments, are articu- lation that (a) impose collectively binding
lated during successive cycles of worldwide rules regarding the appropriation of labor,
capitalist development. To facilitate such an land, food, water, energy and material
analysis, building upon Lefebvres three- resources within and among places and terri-
dimensional conceptualization of space tories; (b) mobilize formal and informal plan-
(Lefebvre [1974] 1991; Schmid 2005, 2008, ning procedures to govern investment
2015b), we distinguish three further dimen- patterns and financial flows into the built
sions of urbanizationspatial practices, terri- environment and infrastructural networks at
torial regulation and everyday life. These various spatial scales; and (c) manage patterns
dimensions of urbanization co-constitute of territorial development with regard to pro-
the three moments demarcated in the pre- cesses of production and social reproduction,
vious thesis, and together produce the major aspects of logistics infrastructure and
unevenly woven, restlessly mutating urban commodity circulation, as well as emergent
fabric of the contemporary world (Figure 2). crisis-tendencies embedded within inherited
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 171
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Figure 2 Moments and dimensions of urbanization

spatial arrangements (Brenner 2004; Schmid it through their daily routines and practices,
2003). which frequently involve struggles regarding
Finally, urbanization mediates and trans- the very form and content of the urban
forms everyday life. Whether within dense itself, at once as a site and stake of social
population centers or in more dispersed experience. The qualities of urban space,
locations embedded within the broader across diverse locations, are thus also
urban fabric, urban space is defined by the embedded within and reproduced through
people who use, appropriate and transform everyday experiences, which in turn
172 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3

crystallize longer term processes of socializa- process of metropolitan expansion has long
tion that are materialized within built been premised upon the intensive activation
environments and territorial arrangements. and transformation of progressively broader
Clearly, this is a broad conceptualization landscapes of extended urbanization which
of urbanization: it involves a wide-ranging supply agglomerations with their most basic
constellation of material, social, institutional, socioeconomic and socio-metabolic require-
environmental and everyday transformations ments. The patterns and pathways of socio-
associated with capitalist industrialization, spatial restructuring that crystallized around
the circulation of capital and the management the world during the long, violent and inten-
of territorial development at various spatial sely contested transition from industrial and
scales. We would insist, however, on dis- metropolitan to territorial formations of
tinguishing urbanization from the more urbanization, roughly from the 1830s to the
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general processes of capitalist industrializ- 1970s, require further investigation and


ation and world market expansion that have interpretation. In contrast to inherited peri-
been investigated by economic historians odizations, which focus almost exclusively
and historical sociologists of capitalist devel- on cities and urban form, the framework pro-
opment (e.g. Wallerstein 1974; Braudel 1984; posed here would permit the dynamics of city
Arrighi 1994). As understood here, urbaniz- growth during each period to be analyzed in
ation is indeed linked to these processes, but direct relation to the production and recon-
its specificity lies precisely in materializing stitution of historically and geographically
the latter within places, territories and land- specific operational landscapes (mediated
scapes, and in embedding them within con- through Empire, colonialism, neo-colonial-
crete, temporarily stabilized configurations ism and various forms of enclosure and
of socioeconomic life, socio-environmental accumulation by dispossession) that sup-
organization and regulatory management. ported the latter.
Capitalist industrial development does not For present purposes, we focus on the con-
engender urban growth and restructuring on temporary formation of urbanization. In our
an untouched terrestrial surface; rather, it view, a genuinely planetary formation of
constantly collides with, and reorganizes, urbanization began to emerge following the
inherited sociospatial configurations, includ- long 1980s, the transitional period of crisis-
ing those produced directly through the induced global restructuring that began with
social relations and political forms of capital- the deconstruction of Fordist-Keynesian
ism. Urbanization is precisely the medium and national-developmentalist regimes of
and expression of this collision/transform- accumulation in the early 1970s and contin-
ation, and every configuration of urban life ued until the withering away of state social-
is powerfully shaped by the diverse social, ism and the collapse of the Soviet Union in
political and institutional forces that the late 1980s and early 1990s. These develop-
mediate it. ments established some of the basic con-
ditions for the subsequent planetary
extension of the urban fabric during the last
Thesis 5: urbanization has become two decadesthe deregulation of the global
planetary financial system and of various national regu-
latory systems; the neoliberalization of
Since the first wave of capitalist industrializ- global, national and local economic govern-
ation in the 19th century, the functional ance; the worldwide digital revolution; the
borders, catchment areas and immediate hin- flexibilization of production processes and
terlands of urban regions have been extended the generalization of global production net-
outwards to create ever larger regional units. works; and the creation of new forms of
Just as importantly, however, this dramatic market-oriented territorial regulation at
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 173

supranational, national and subnational Instead, they must be reconceptualized as


scales. These realignments have created a dense force fields of nearly continuous inter-
new regulatory framework encouraging action among the various processes associated
speculative urban investment, not only with concentrated, extended and differential
within the property markets and built urbanization (Topalovic, Knusel, and Jaggi
environments of the worlds major cities, 2013).
but also through the construction of vastly Equally important, in this context, are
expanded urban networks and infrastructures several additional waves of socioeconomic
of resource extraction, agro-industrial culti- and socio-metabolic transformation of the
vation and logistical circulation, all of which post-1980s period that have significantly
have massively contributed to the accelerated rewoven the inherited fabric of urbanization
enclosure of landscapes around the world to while extending it into new realms that
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permit intensified, accelerated capital circula- were previously relatively insulated from its
tion (Harvey 2010; Merrifield 2014). wide-ranging imprints. These include (a) a
In the early 1970s, Lefebvre ([1970] 2003) major expansion in agro-industrial export
anticipated this situation, advancing the zones, with associated large-scale infrastruc-
radical hypothesis of the complete urbaniz- tural investments and land-use transform-
ation of society. For Lefebvre, this was an ations to produce and circulate food and
emergent tendency that might be realized in biofuels for world markets (McMichael
the future, but he did not speculate as to 2013); (b) a massive expansion in investments
when or how it might actually occur, and related to mineral and oil extraction, in large
with what consequences. Today, it is increas- part due to the post-2003 commodity boom
ingly evident that the urban has indeed manifested in dramatic increases in global
become a worldwide condition in which all prices for raw materials, especially metals
aspects of social, economic, political and and fuels (Arboleda 2015); and (c) the acceler-
environmental relations are enmeshed, ated consolidation and extension of long-
across places, territories and scales, crosscut- distance transportation and communications
ting any number of long-entrenched geo- infrastructures (including networks such as
graphical divisions (urban/rural, city/ roads, canals, railways, waterways and
countryside, society/nature, North/South, pipelines; and nodal points such as seaports,
East/West). The dawn of planetary urbaniz- airports and intermodal logistics hubs)
ation is being expressed through several designed to reduce the transaction costs
intertwined tendencies that have only just associated with the production and circula-
begun to come into analytical focus during tion of capital (Notteboom and Rodrigue
the early 21st century, but which 2005; Hein 2011; Hesse 2013). Under these
urgently require the scrutiny of critical conditions, erstwhile rural zones around
urban thinkers. the world are being profoundly transformed:
Perhaps most prominent among these is various forms of agro-industrial consolida-
the remarkable territorial expansion of tion and land enclosure are undermining
urban agglomerations, vividly captured small- and medium-sized forms of food pro-
through Sudjics (1993) notion of 100-mile duction; new forms of export-oriented indus-
cities, which has blurred and even begun to trial extraction are destabilizing established
dissolve the boundaries between many models of land-use and social reproduction,
major cities and their surrounding territories as well as environmental security; and
or erstwhile hinterlands (Soja and Kanai newly consolidated inter-regional migration
[2006] 2014). Today, urban agglomerations networks and communications infrastruc-
can no longer be understood simply as tures are dramatically rearticulating the inter-
nodal concentrations organized around and dependencies between villages, small towns
oriented towards a single urban core. and larger, often-distant urban centers,
174 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3

contributing in turn to the production of new within a thickening, if deeply polarized,


forms of everyday experience that transcend fabric of worldwide urbanization. The
the confines of specific places. urban is thus no longer defined in opposition
Amidst these far-reaching sociospatial to an ontological Other located beyond or
transformations, the fabric of extended outside it, but has instead become the very
urbanization is meanwhile also being woven tissue of human life itself, at once the frame-
ever more densely, if still quite unevenly, work and the basis for the many forms of
across many relatively depopulated and erst- sociospatial differentiation that continue to
while wilderness landscapes, from the proliferate under contemporary capitalist
Arctic, the European Alps and the Amazon conditions. Nor can the rural be understood
to Patagonia, the Himalayas, the Sahara, any longer as a perpetually present else-
Siberia and the Gobi desert, as well as where or constitutive outside that permits
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through major zones of the worlds seas and the urban to be demarcated as a stable, coher-
oceans (Diener et al. 2006; Gugger, Couling, ent and discrete terrain. Instead, this suppo-
and Blanchard 2012; Urban Theory Lab sedly non-urban realm has now been
2015). While the ecology and topography of thoroughly engulfed within the variegated
these landscapes may still appear relatively patterns and pathways of a planetary for-
pristine or untouched by the footprint of mation of urbanization. In effect, it has been
industrial capitalism, such impressions are internalized into the very core of the urbaniz-
deeply misleading. In fact, for several ation process.
decades now, strategic places, grids, corridors This proposition may prove controversial,
and concession zones within such territories especially if it is misunderstood as a totalizing
have been aggressively enclosed and opera- generalization that ignores the continued
tionalized, usually by transnational corpor- differences, whether in social, institutional,
ations under the legal protection of infrastructural or environmental terms,
neoliberal and/or authoritarian national between large metropolitan centers and
states and various kinds of intergovernmental zones characterized, for instance, by low or
organizations, to facilitate new forms of dispersed population, minimal or degraded
resource extraction, energy and agro-indus- built environments and/or relatively poor
trial production, an unprecedented expansion communications and transportation connec-
of logistics infrastructures, as well as various tivity (for discussion and debate of this
additional forms of land-use intensification issue, see Catterall 2014; Catterall and
and environmental plunder intended to Wilson 2014; Scott and Storper 2014). Our
support the relentless growth and consump- claim here, however, is not that rural or
tion imperatives of the worlds major cities. non-urban zones have totally disappeared;
Under contemporary conditions, then, tra- on the contrary, such spaces still exist and
ditional models of metropolis and hinterland, may even play decisive roles in the social, pol-
center and periphery, city and countryside, itical and economic life of certain regions, for
have been exploded. The urban/rural opposi- instance, in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia or
tion, which has long served as an epistemo- Latin America (see, e.g. Scott 2009).
logical anchor for the most basic research However, the conditions within so-called
operations of urban studies, has today rural zones should not be taken for
become an increasingly obfuscatory basis granted; they require careful, contextually
for deciphering emergent patterns and path- specific and theoretically reflexive investi-
ways of sociospatial restructuring around gations that may be seriously impeded
the world. On the one hand, the geographies through the unreflexive use of generic labels
of uneven spatial development are today that predetermine their patterns and path-
being articulated as an interweaving of new ways of development and their form and
developmental patterns and potentials degree of connection to other places,
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 175

regions and territories. Indeed, much con- On the contrary, as conceived here, urbaniz-
temporary research on putatively rural ation under capitalism is always a historically
regions has shown that many such areas are and geographically variegated process: it is
being transformed through and embedded mediated through historically and geographi-
within urbanization processes, precisely cally specific institutions, representations,
through the kinds of accumulation strategies, strategies and struggles that are, in turn, con-
infrastructural projects and socio-metabolic flictually articulated to the cyclical rhythms
linkages we propose to theorize under the of worldwide capital accumulation and their
rubric of extended urbanization (see, e.g. associated social, political and environmental
Cloke 2006; Diener et al. 2006; Woods contradictions. Rather than being analyzed
2009; Alton 2014; Wilson 2014; Monte-Mor through monodimensional or formalistic
2014a, 2014b). Such studies strongly reinforce interpretive frames, capitalist urbanization
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our contention that the inherited urban/rural must be understood as a polymorphic, multi-
distinction has come to obscure much more scalar and emergent dynamic of sociospatial
than it reveals regarding the entities, pro- transformation: it hinges upon and continu-
cesses and transformations being classified ously produces differentiated, unevenly
on either side of the divide it aspires to developed sociospatial configurations at all
demarcate. scales. The task for any contemporary urban
Precisely against this background, the epistemology is therefore to develop an
concept of planetary urbanization may analytical and cartographic orientation
offer a useful epistemological reorientation. through which to decipher its uneven, rest-
Obviously, it cannot substitute for concrete lessly mutating crystallizations.
research on specific zones of sociospatial Capitalist urbanization might best be con-
transformation anywhere in the world. But ceived as a process of constant, if contested,
it does open up an epistemological path innovation in the production of sociospatial
through which the latter may be pursued arrangementsalbeit one that always simul-
in relation to broader questions regarding taneously collides with, and thereby trans-
the increasingly worldwide, if deeply forms, inherited formations of spatial
polarized and uneven, geographies in practice, regulatory coordination and every-
which even the most apparently remote day life (Schmid 2013). Under capitalism,
places, regions and territories are now inex- urbanization is always articulated in contex-
tricably interwoven. tually embedded sociospatial formations,
since it is precisely in relation to, and
through collisions with, inherited structures
Thesis 6: urbanization unfolds through of uneven spatial development that its
variegated patterns and pathways of specific patterns and pathways are forged
uneven spatial development and fought out. In this way, the abstract, uni-
versalizing processes of capitalist industrial-
The emergence of a planetary formation of ization are materialized in historically and
urbanization does not entail a homogeniz- geographically specific urban configurations,
ation of sociospatial landscapes; it is not which are in turn relentlessly transformed
expressed through the globalization of a through the interplay of accumulation strat-
uniform condition of cityness (or urban egies, regulatory projects and sociopolitical
sprawl) across the entire planet; and it does struggles at various spatial scales.
not involve the transformation of the earth The consolidation of a planetary configur-
as a whole into a single world-city, akin to ation of urban development since the 1980s is
the Death Star in George Lucas Star Wars thus only the most recent expression of this
films or the planet Trantor in Isaac intense variegation, differentiation and con-
Asimovs science fiction series, Foundation. tinual reorganization of landscapes. On the
176 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3

one hand, planetary urbanization is the search for such new urban forms is an intel-
cumulative product of the earlier longue lectual trap: it yields only relatively super-
duree cycles of urbanization that have ficial insights into the modalities and
forged, differentiated and continually consequences of the wide-ranging transform-
reshaped the worldwide geographies of capit- ations that are unleashed through the urban-
alism since the mid-19th century. At the same ization process. Creative destruction is the
time, this latest formation of urbanization has modus operandi of capitalist forms of urban
emerged in the wake of the post-1980s wave development; new urban geographies are
of global neoliberalization, financial specu- thus constantly being produced through the
lation and accumulation by dispossession dynamics of differential urbanization,
that has at once accelerated and intensified whether within large urban centers or across
the process of commodification and, by con- extended operational landscapes. The essen-
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sequence, the uneven extension of industrial tial task, therefore, is less to distinguish
infrastructures around much of the planet new urban forms that are putatively super-
(Thesis 5). However, despite abundant evi- seding earlier spatial morphologies, than to
dence of accelerating urbanization and investigate the historically and geographically
unprecedented worldwide interconnectivity, specific dynamics of creative destruction that
the production of planetary urban landscapes underpin the patterns and pathways of
during the last three decades has not entailed urbanization, both historically and in the
a simple homogenization of sociospatial con- contemporary epoch.
ditions. Rather, the dawn of planetary urban- Much work remains to be done to con-
ization appears to have markedly accentuated front this challenge. A new vocabulary of
and rewoven the differentiations and polariz- urbanization is urgently required that
ations that have long been both precondition would help us, both analytically and carto-
and product of the urbanization process graphically, to decipher the differentiated
under capitalism, albeit in qualitatively new and rapidly mutating landscapes of urbaniz-
configurations whose contours remain extre- ation that are today being produced across
mely difficult to decipher. the planet. While the shifting geographies of
In an attempt to analyze these develop- agglomeration must obviously remain a
ments, contemporary urban thinkers have primary focus in such an endeavor, patterns
introduced dozens of new concepts intended of extended urbanization must now likewise
to designate various putatively new urban be positioned centrally in any sustained
phenomena (Taylor and Lang 2004; effort to elaborate new concepts and
Wolfrum, Nerdinger, and Schaubeck 2008). methods for deciphering this emergent, vola-
While these endeavors productively under- tile and still largely unfamiliar worldwide
score the changing geographies of the urban urban fabric.
in contemporary global society, most have
been focused too rigidly upon emergent
urban forms that appear to have ruptured Thesis 7: the urban is a collective project in
inherited sociospatial arrangements. These which the potentials generated through
include, for instance, purportedly new kinds urbanization are appropriated and
of cities (global cities, megacities, edge contested
cities, in-between cities, airport cities, infor-
mal cities and the like), regions (global city- The preceding theses have attempted to
regions, megacity-regions, polycentric clarify in analytical terms some of the foun-
metropolitan regions and so forth) as well as dations for a new epistemology of the urban
inter-urban networks, corridors and the that could more productively illuminate
like. However, within the epistemological both historical and contemporary geogra-
framework proposed here, the constant phies of capitalist urbanization than inherited
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 177

frameworks. We conclude with a final thesis [1974] 1991, [1970] 2003). The definition of
that underscores the essentially political char- the urban is thus not an exclusively theoreti-
acter of such epistemological considerations. cal question; it is ultimately a practical one: it
Here we build upon our previous discussion is necessarily articulated through debates,
of differential urbanization (Thesis 3), controversies, struggles, uprisings and
which emphasized the relentless drive revolts, and it is ultimately realized in the
towards creative destruction under capitalism pleasures, routines and dramas of everyday
and the powerful potentials for radical socio- life.
spatial transformation associated with it. In recent years, many radical urban theor-
Such potentials are, we argue, an essential ists have wrestled with this constellation of
product and stake of urbanization: they are issues through explorations of Lefebvres
generated through the productive force of ([1968] 1996) classic concept of the right to
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agglomeration and associated operational the city (Marcuse 2012). Originally elabo-
landscapes; they are often instrumentalized rated in the context of the political uprisings
through capital and state institutions to facili- of the late 1960s in Paris, this slogan sub-
tate historically specific forms of industrializ- sequently became an important rallying cry
ation and political regulation; but they are for political mobilizations, which have
also reappropriated, redistributed and conti- sought to connect diverse struggles that
nually remade through the everyday use and were related in some way to the urban ques-
contestation of urban space. tion (i.e. regarding rights to housing, trans-
The urban can be productively understood portation, education, public health,
as a transformative potential that is con- recreational infrastructures or environmental
stantly generated through processes of urban- safety). Since the long 1980s, the demand for
ization. As both Georg Simmel and Henri the right to the city has become even more
Lefebvre paradigmatically recognized in widespread around the world, and its politi-
different moments of 20th-century capitalist cal content has meanwhile been differentiated
development, this transformative potential to encompass a variety of normative and
inheres in the social, economic and cultural ideological positions, policy proposals,
differentiations that are produced through movement demands and popular constituen-
urbanization, which connect diverse popu- cies in diverse local and national contexts
lations, institutions, activities, interactions across the world (Mayer 2012; Schmid 2012).
and experiments in specific sociospatial con- Given our arguments and proposals above,
figurations (Schmid 2015a). The harnessing however, struggles over the right to the city
of such potentials is of central importance in must be fundamentally reframedfor, as
the process of capital accumulation and in Harvey (2012, xv) notes, to claim the right
technologies of political regulation. At the to the city is, in effect, to claim a right to
same time, social movements struggle to something that no longer exists (for an ana-
appropriate such potentials for everyday logous discussion, see Merrifield 2013).
uses, social reproduction and cultural exper- Clearly, struggles over access to urban
imentation. In precisely this sense, the resources in large citiesand over the collec-
urban cannot be completely subsumed tive power to produce and transform them
under the abstract logics of capitalist industri- remain as fundamental as ever, and will con-
alization or state domination: it is always co- tinue to shape ongoing processes of urbaniz-
produced and transformed through its users, ation around the world. However, under
who may strive to appropriate its actualized contemporary conditions of planetary urban-
or unrealized potentials towards collective ization, the classical city (and its metropolitan
social uses, to create new forms of experience, and regional variants) can no longer serve as
connection and experimentationin short, to the primary reference point for urban
produce a different form of life (Lefebvre struggles or for visions of possible urban
178 CITY VOL. 19, NOS. 2 3

worlds (Harvey 1996). Instead, a wide range only of urban spaces, but of urban struggles
of new urban practices and discourses are themselves, no matter where they are situ-
being produced in diverse places, territories ated. Just as crucially, rather than being
and landscapes, often in zones that are geo- based upon inherited concepts and represen-
graphically removed from large cities, but tations of the urban, such an inquiry would
where new forms of collective insurgency need to illuminate the manifold ways in
are emerging in response to the patterns of which the users of urbanizing spaces
industrial restructuring, territorial enclosure produce and transform their own urban
and landscape reorganization sketched worlds through everyday practices, dis-
above. From Nigeria, South Africa, India courses and struggles, leading to the for-
and China to Brazil, Mexico and northern mation not only of new urban spatial
Canada, new political strategies are being configurations, but of new visions of the
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constructed by peasants, workers, indigenous potentials being produced and claimed


peoples and other displaced populations to through their activities (INURA 1998).
oppose the infrastructuralization and enclo- The urban is a collective projectit is pro-
sure of their everyday social spaces and the duced through collective action, negotiation,
destruction of their established forms of live- imagination, experimentation and struggle.
lihood (see, e.g. Alton 2014; Wilson 2014; The urban society is thus never an achieved
Arboleda 2015; and the documentary film, condition, but offers an open horizon in
Millions Can Walk, Schaub and Musale relation to which concrete struggles over the
2014). The politics of anti-gentrification urban are waged. It is through such struggles,
movements and resistance to corporate ultimately, that any viable new urban epis-
mega-projects in dense city cores can temology will be forged.
thereby be connected, both analytically and
politically, to mobilizations against land
enclosure, large-scale infrastructures (dams, Acknowledgements
highways, pipelines, industrial corridors,
mines) and displacement in seemingly This paper has benefited substantially from
remote regions (on which, see Merrifields the generosity of several friends and col-
[2014] analysis of neo- leagues, who offered us exhaustive, provoca-
Haussmannization). Rather than rejecting tive and challenging comments on a draft.
urban life, such mobilizations are often Particular thanks are due to Hillary Angelo,
demanding a more socially equitable, demo- Bob Catterall, Ozan Karaman, Nikos Katsi-
cratically managed and environmentally kis, David Madden, Margit Mayer, Jamie
sane form of urbanization than that Peck, Jennifer Robinson, Monika Streule,
being imposed by the forces of neoliberal Nik Theodore and David Wachsmuth. We
capitalism. have done our best to address their wide-
The concept of planetary urbanization pro- ranging concerns, objections and counterar-
posed here offers no more than an epistemo- guments, but many issues raised in this
logical orientation through which to begin to paper necessarily require further clarification
decipher such struggles, their interconnec- and elaboration elsewhere. We assume full
tions across places, territories and landscapes, responsibility for the arguments presented
and the urban potentials they are claiming, here.
articulating and constantly transforming.
Such an investigation remains to be under-
taken, but the epistemological perspective Disclosure statement
proposed here requires that it be framed in
a manner that attempts to overcome the com- No potential conflict of interest was reported by the
partmentalization and fragmentation not authors.
BRENNER AND SCHMID: TOWARDS A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE URBAN? 179

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