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Jennifer Robinson, Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development

by Riki Scanlan on August 21, 2019
Past & Present

Over the last year, the Past & Present Reading Group has taken a spatial turn, with a triad of three books of spatial theory from different disciplinary and theoretical frameworks: Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, Doreen Massey’s Spatial Divisions of Labour, and most recently Jennifer Robinson’s Ordinary Cities. With the completion of this triad of grand philosophical theory (Lefebvre), densely argued economic geography (Massey), and postcolonial urban theory (Robinson), the Past & Present Reading Group is now shifting to next read Class Structure in Australian History.

Robinson’s book posed a very different kind of argument to these first two books. Her concern is to show how contemporary urban theory is premised on Eurocentric paradigms of modernisation and developmentalism. Those paradigms are undesirable because they cause Southern cities to be overlooked for their achievements and even prevent them from reaching their potential.

In our first meeting, Frank Stilwell threw down the gauntlet: modernisation and development are useful concepts for understanding cities. Demolishing them is a tall order, and no small case to make. The second meeting was marked by the reversal of that position: Frank was persuaded of the central critique of the book by the end of the second chapter. He remained critical of what she tried to set up in place of those concepts; but his view was that conventional notions of modernity/development do embody characteristically colonialist assumptions. This sense of the book – a ‘yes’ for the first half and a critical view of the rest – sums up how the reading group as a whole proceeded through the book.

How is Robinson’s critique posed? She argues that urban theory owes much to the theoretical lineage of the Chicago School urban sociologists: Louis Wirth, Georg Simmel, and Robert Park. Their conception of the city depends on distinguishing the modern from the traditional. The urban is the spatial manifestation of modernity. The rural is the heartland of tradition. But mapping the urban onto the modern is accomplished by describing a particular version of cities and a particular version of modernity: the Western city. With that definition at play, cities in the Global South must fit into the taxonomies of traditional, backward, and primitive if they exhibit features discordant with the paradigmatic Western city. 

Robinson’s objective is to reclaim urban modernity from the grasp of the Western city. Modernity refers to autonomy, creativity, newness, and progress – none of which need be the exclusive province of the West. If we can refocalise modernity from a definite geographical frame towards all cities, then modernity can be omnipresent – it can be ordinary. Many of the most interesting case studies throughout the book focus on elaborating this position.

Moreover, there are methodological implications consequent on framing cities as ordinary. Theoretical and empirical insights need not flow from New York to Nairobi, but may well flow in the opposite direction. Robinson therefore advocates for a postcolonial comparative methodology, a position that she introduces in her book and has elaborated in more recent papers. Such a claim may not seem radical to readers unfamiliar with the history of urban studies, but Robinson’s argument rejects a trend within the discipline towards a geographical divide on the scale of the world.

Perhaps the approach that best exemplifies this trend is the global cities approach – a theory and methodology which has taken on a life of its own in the last two decades. A whole chapter in Ordinary Cities is devoted to undermining the theoretical and empirical construction of the global cities approach. The method of indexing cities on the basis of intrafirm connectivity produces an artificial hierarchy of cities that incentivises ‘backward’ cities to become like ‘advanced’ cities, even if that is inappropriate to their specific material and cultural conditions. Intrafirm connectivity, moreover, is a poor proxy for the concentration of economic power in certain cities, since the measurement (e.g. a matrix of partners per city in a global law firm) does not reflect the actual flows of power, knowledge, and capital between those cities. The selection of certain sectors as more significant than others incentivises urban policy to reward those interests as opposed to other sectors of the economy. Hence, Robinson advocates for a ‘whole-of-city’ approach to urban theory and urban policy.

There is much to approve of in these positions. Every step of the way, the reading group found itself nodding in agreement. However, as we proceeded through the text, we found ourselves clamouring for something more, something to do, a project to endorse and get behind. With a postcolonial critique of urban theory, we wanted a postcolonial urban politics. This is the subject of the final chapter of the book, which marks the central divergence of the reading group from Robinson’s argument. She sets out an approach to policy in Southern cities (in all cities, really) that engages with the specific conditions of those cities and, thereby, enables policymakers to reclaim modernity, creativity, and autonomy in generating policy and producing spaces.

Yet we were left wondering what this implies for grassroots political projects, whether based in trade unions, housing struggles, or sanitation campaigns. Ordinary Cities concludes with a hall pass for urban policymakers: they can run free from the classroom of the Western city. But it gives us no theory of the state and, indeed, implicitly depends on narrating the state as neutral. Robinson highlights a struggle over a city development strategy in Johannesburg: a story of trade union recalcitrance in the face of structural reforms, yet the class implications of this study are never drawn out into the analysis of how urban policy is produced, legitimated, and entrenched.

More tellingly, she highlights how the same strategy riffs on apartheid-period architectural imagery, querying whether this indicates a rerun of the bad old days – yet immediately shifting tone and arguing that this “speaks more of the potential for icons of modernity to be appropriated at will.” But this switch in tone is not at all persuasive, especially not if we reject a structural break in the history of the South African state during the transition out of apartheid. The crucial project here might more be along lines of tracing the continuities of apartheid politics in the post-apartheid era; the urban studies version is to understand how urban policy continues to be framed by and reproduce the urban geographies of apartheid.

As with any book that makes big promises, the complaints ring louder than books with small ambitions. Robinson promises a postcolonial critique of urban theory: let’s break the bulwark of Eurocentric theory and install a new urban theory and a new urban politics in its place. On the first point, we’re with her. On the second point – there’s more debate to be had.

The set image to this post reproduces the artwork of Tito Zungu ‘Untitled’ [1993], Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam


Riki Scanlan
Riki Scanlan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Economy. Their preferred pronouns are they/them/theirs. Their PhD research currently focuses on the intersection of debates around urbanisation, rent, and colonialism. They are fascinated by theoretical questions of space, time, and capital and buy more books than can be reasonably read.

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