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Public Culture

An interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies

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Theses on Urbanization

Neil Brenner

In the early 1970s, a young Marxist sociologist named Manuel Castells, then living in exile in Paris, began his soon-to-be-classic intervention, The Urban Question, by declaring his “astonishment” that debates on “urban problems” were becoming “an essential element in the policies of governments, in the concerns of the mass media and, consequently, in the everyday life of a large section of the population” (1977 [1972]: 1). For Castells, this astonishment was born of his orthodox Marxist assumption that the concern with urban questions was ideological. The real motor of social change, he believed, lay elsewhere, in working- class action and anti- imperialist mobilization. On this basis, Castells proceeded to deconstruct what he viewed as the prevalent “urban ideology” under postwar managerial capitalism: his theory took seriously the social construction of the urban phenomenon in academic and political discourse, but ultimately derived such representations from purportedly more foundational processes associated with capitalism and the state’s role in the reproduction of labor power.

Four decades after Castells’s classic intervention, it is easy to confront early twenty- first- century discourse on urban questions with a similar sense of astonishment—not because it masks the operations of capitalism but because it has become one of the dominant metanarratives through which our current planetary situation is interpreted, both in academic circles and in the public sphere. Today advanced interdisciplinary education in urban social science, planning, and design is flourishing in major universities, and urban questions are being confronted energetically by historians, literary critics, and other humanities- based scholars. Physical and computational scientists and ecologists are likewise contributing to urban studies through their explorations of new satellite- based data sources, georeferencing analytics, and geographic information systems (GIS) technologies, which are offering more differentiated perspectives on the geographies of urbanization than have ever before been possible (Potere and Schneider 2007; Gamba and Herold 2009; Angel 2011) . Classic texts such as Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1965) and Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1991) continue to animate discussions of contemporary urbanism, and more recent, popular books on cities, such as Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City (2011), Jeb Brugmann’s Welcome to the Urban Revolution (2010), and Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City? (2008), along with documentary films such as Urbanized (dir. Gary Hustwit; 2011) and Megacities (dir. Michael Glawogger; 1998), are widely discussed in the public sphere.1 The 2010 Shanghai World Expo’s theme was “A Better City, a Better Life,” and major museums, expos, and biennales from New York City and Venice to Christchurch and Hong Kong are devoting extensive attention to questions of urban culture, design, and development (Seijdel 2009; Kroeber 2012; Madden, forthcoming) . The United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN- Habitat 1996) has famously declared the advent of an “Urban Age” due to the world’s rapidly increasing urban population.2 This city- centric vision of the current geohistorical moment has been further popularized through a series of urban age conferences in some of the world’s major cities, organized and funded through a joint initiative of the London School of Economics and the Deutsche Bank(Burdett and Sudjic 2006). Even debates on climate change and the future of the biosphere are being directly connected to questions about urbanization. The planetary built environment—in effect, the sociomaterial infrastructure of urbanization—is now recognized as contributing directly to far- reaching transformations of the atmosphere, biotic habitats, land- use surfaces, and oceanic conditions that have long- term implications for the metabolism of both human and nonhuman life- forms (Luke 1997; Sayre 2010).

These intellectual and cultural reorientations are synchronous with a number of large- scale spatial transformations, institutional reorientations, and social mobilizations that have intensified the significance and scale of urban conditions. First, the geographies of urbanization, which have long been understood with reference to the densely concentrated populations and built environments of cities, are assuming new, increasingly large- scale morphologies that perforate, crosscut, and ultimately explode the erstwhile urban/rural divide (see fig. 1). As Edward Soja and Miguel Kanai (2006: 58) explain: Urbanism as a way of life, once confined to the historical central city, has been spreading outwards, creating urban densities and new “outer” and “edge” cities in what were formerly suburban fringes and green field or rural sites. In some areas, urbanization has expanded on even larger regional scales, creating giant urban galaxies with population sizes and degrees of polycentricity far beyond anything imagined only a few decades ago. . . . [I]n some cases city regions are coalescing into even larger agglomerations in a process that can be called “extended regional urbanization.” Second, across each of the major world economic regions, spatially selective policy initiatives have been mobilized by national, state, and provincial governments to create new matrices of transnational capital investment and urban development across vast zones of their territories (Ong 2000; Brenner 2004; Correa 2011; Park, Child Hill, and Saito 2011). While these state strategies sometimes target traditional metropolitan cores, they are also articulating vast grids of accumulation and spatial regulation that cascade along intercontinental transportation corridors; large- scale infrastructural, telecommunications, and energy networks; free trade zones; transnational growth triangles; and international border regions. This extended landscape of urbanization is now a force field of crisscrossing state regulatory strategies designed to territorialize long- term, large- scale investments in the built environment and to channel flows of raw materials, energy, commodities, labor, and capital across transnational space (see figs. 2 and 3).

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This essay builds on many years of discussion and ongoing collaborative work with Christian Schmid of the ETH Zurich. I am grateful to Travis Bost and Nikos Katsikis of the Harvard Graduate School of Design for assistance with ideas and images. Research support was generously provided by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Hillary Angelo, Eric Klinenberg, Peter Marcuse, Margit Mayer, Jen Petersen, Xuefei Ren, and David Wachsmuth provided invaluable feedback on earlier versions of the text. They are of course absolved of responsibility for its remaining limitations and blind spots.

  1. For a strong critique of Florida 2008, Brugmann 2010, and Glaeser 2011, among others, see Gleeson 2012.
  2. For a historical contextualization and detailed critique of this UN proposition, see Brenner and Schmid 2012a.



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