Wednesday, December 03, 2008

REVIEW: Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development

Jennifer Robinson gets right to the point in the first sentence of Ordinary Cities: “It is the argument of this book that all cities are best understood as ‘ordinary’” (1). By that, she is calling for a post-colonial shift in urban studies and “a form of theorizing that can be as cosmopolitan as the cities we try to describe” (3).

Robinson points out that US and European cities are typically used as the standard for comparison for all cities. This, she argues, limits imaginations of what a city is or can become in academia as well as urban planning. She divides her book into two main ways in which the old dynamics of urban studies are found: “celebrations of urban ‘modernity’ and the promotion of urban development” (2).

Robinson argues that modernity can be understood as the West’s self-definition, which is problematic because 1) it is exclusionary (focuses only on Western cities) and 2) it is illusionary (doesn’t even reflect the dynamic and complex realities of Western cities). This understanding of the city comes from the Chicago School, which focused on the end of kinship ties in and the rationality of the city. Simplified, this literature constructed two sets of modern/traditional dichotomies: urban vs. rural and Western urban vs. non-Western urban. Robinson complicates these attributes of the city by looking at the Manchester School’s research on the Copperbelt cities of Zambia. This research found that tradition was a crucial component of the city: “revising ethnic identity, making connections and forming associations was central” (49). Their research demonstrated that African cities were dynamic (urban studies had traditionally situated non-Western cities as static) and noted that tribalism exists in Western cities as well as non-Western cities.

Robinson then rejects the global cities approach, which focuses on the economically “successful” cities or regions of cities, and the development approach, which focuses on poor cities or economically disadvantaged parts of cities. She wants to take a middle-ground approach and conduct city-wide analyses that account for multiple dynamics within a single city. She cites a City Development Strategy in Johannesburg as an example of inclusive urban development that prioritized policy formations across the city. From a policy perspective, she argues that all cities need to be seen as creative and dynamic and even wealthy cities can learn from poor cities. Viewing all cities as containing unique attributes and networks of relationships allows us to view all cities as ordinary.

Ordinary Cities is an interesting read and makes some useful arguments about modernity and the colonial underpinnings of urban studies, but I do have a few initial criticisms. First, on the policy end, she argues for taking a city-wide approach to urban development, but then indicates that cities are already doing so. If this is the case, why is her call-for-change necessary? Also, I wonder how you include city-wide analyses in comparison without essentializing cities as a whole. Is there still some way that we can organize, if not categorize, cities or parts of cities that have similar or different attributes without creating a typology that gets us away from the “ordinary.” If we accept that all cities are ordinary, then what next?


Nate said...

Brian, you should definitely check out Mike Davis' Planet of Slums if you're interested in this stuff. Its a little apocalyptic, but generally worth a read.

Brian E said...

Thanks for the tip, Nate, I actually just went through it last week! It was pretty interesting, but I also got ahold of some critiques of it which I need to work through. I have a huge stack of books I'm trying to get to, but if you're interested, a couple similar to Planet of Slums are Shadow Cities by Robert Neuwirth and Dispossessed by Mark Kramer (a UW J-School grad!).

Nate said...

Excellent. Maybe I'll check out Dispossessed sometime.

Also, definitely worth reading is anything by Abdoumaliq Simone. He writes about African Urbanism and has a pretty decent anthology called Urban Africa. I read his book For The City Yet To Come this semester and really enjoyed it.

Brian E said...

sweet, I'll check him out. Thanks!