Readings To Challenge Your Urbanism

“Without theory we can scarcely claim to know our own identity.” – David Harvey

So you think you’re an urbanist, right? Cities are magnets of diversity. Cities are more sustainable then sprawl. Cities encourage better social capital, democratic participation, and inclusivity. Cities are centers of technological innovation, economic growth and job creation. In total, cities are our future, and your unwavering belief in the growing metropolis guides your urbanism.

The urbanist is a student of and specialist in planning our cities, advocating for necessary policies and infrastructure.

But maybe, just maybe, you’re not an urbanist!

Have you questioned what truly underlies your beliefs and understandings in how cities best function? Does your educated knowledge and rational understandings of the urban supplant that of others living within our urban spaces?

City of Seattle mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver responded with a clear distinction to The Urbanist questionnaire, asking whether candidates consider themselves an urbanist. “By definition,” she said, “I am not an ‘urbanist’ rather I am an ‘urban dweller’ and have been for my entire life.”

As a supporter of Oliver (and as a white, straight, cis male) I hesitate in my critique, but offer a reflective question to you: Why would a woman of color, deeply connected to our most marginalized communities, a creative activist, artist and student of the law distinguish herself from being defined as an urbanist? Is she not beholding knowledge of how cities function, how they can be organized, and particularly how they can be planned for more inclusive, equitable futures?

I suggest, as many authors have argued, that there are different ways of knowing the environment, economies, political organization and nature of cities, which are shaped by history, geography, culture, education, and experiences of societal privilege and oppression?

If you are not willing to explore the theories that underlie your belief systems and ground your understandings of cities, you have no claim as an urbanist.

Listed below are a few readings, many of which are not directly about cities and urbanism, which have helped me explore my identity, my privileges, understandings of colonization and institutional racism, and of course the theories that guide my urbanism. It is not an exhaustive list and is severely lacking in voices from communities of color, but it can offer a start in exploring, imagining and listening to the multitude of urbanist visions.


The Just City (Susan Fainstein)

This is not a book on revolutionary ideas for understanding urbanism. The author begins by recognizing its limitations, sharing “my analysis is limited to what appears feasible within the present context of capitalist urbanization in wealthy, formally democratic, Western countries.” Despite its constraints, The Just City does give rich descriptions of the basic theories shaping understandings of justice and contemporary urbanism.

The Right to the City (David Harvey)

As one of Susan Fainstein’s main critics, David Harvey’s essay “The Right to the City,” included in the Revised Edition of his seminal book Social Justice and the City, provides a good first step in challenging your urbanism. The writing explores Henri Lefebvre’s right to the city theory, which defines urbanism through its tentacle-like reach well beyond the city, and also investigates capitalism’s reach into the assumed objectivity of urbanism.

An in memoriam for the just city of Amsterdam (Justus Uitermark)

In Fainstein’s The Just City, the city of Amsterdam is offered as an inspirational example. Just cities are those that blend equity, democracy and diversity, but above all support equity, and to Fainstein Amsterdam’s housing policies, in comparison to other Western cities, make it a prime case study to fit her analysis. However, Justus Uitermark (of Amsterdam) describes what Fainstein misses. First, the progressive policies do not exist in a vacuum, but result from a history of aggressive community organizing, very much demonstrating the essence of Right to the City. Second, though policies in one city may be more progressive then others, Uitermark notes how quickly equitable gains can be lost without a challenge to oppressive power structures. Lastly, Uitermark questions the definition of equity when defined by those in power.


Rationality and Power (Bent Flyvbjerg)

Blending primarily Nietzsche and Foucault, Flyvbjerg’s excerpt from his book Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice on the urban renewal plans for the Danish city of Aalborg, describes the relationship of power to the assumptions of objective, rationalized thinking. Leading the reader through ten propositions, Flyvbjerg demonstrates the influence of this foul relationship on policy-making and democracy.

Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West (John Ralston Saul)

Adding a further exploration of rationality, John Ralston Saul presents historical context to Western society’s blind faith in reason and how it continues as a powerful tool of influence. This history includes the development of schools like public policy, planning and business to train professional elites in the “masculine virtues of making decisions rationally.” However, the author writes, “the training in all these schools is designed to develop not a talent for solving problems but a method for recognizing the solutions which will satisfy the system.”

Reason, Violence, and Property

Law, Property, and the Geography of Violence (Nicholas Blomley)

“Reason, which by itself rebuts violence, reaches for violence when threatened…. Reason and violence do not live in different worlds.” To recognize where we are, we must know where we came from. Understandings of property and the laws that protect its defined rights and ownership shape our assumptions and imaginations of the urban. The urban is not an asocial fact, but very much a social creation, one which has been influence by a history of violence. Without acknowledging and reconciling this violence, we become complicit in perpetuating it.

Caliban and the Witch Women: The Body and Primitive Accumulation (Silvia Federici)

Silvia Federici explores theories of capitalism and rationality through a feminist lens, sharing the violent history, particularly against women, that has shaped our modern social institutions. The social division of labor, as expressed by Marx, is a key operation of capitalism, but Federici investigates the sexual division of labor, which includes separating the feminine as a symbol of the irrational, a similar label of division placed on indigenous nations and African slaves. This social division enables a control and violence against women, as well as people of color, and reduces minoritized communities as being without agency and knowledge.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Michelle Alexander)

Michelle Alexander researches the racial control that persists today through the US justice system. “We have not ended racial caste in America,” she writes. “We have merely redesigned it.” This exposé of assumed colorblindness– “racially sanitized rhetoric”–demonstrates how entrenched racism continues within our institutions and social structures. Without a background understanding of critical race theory, along with the other critical theories that explore the foundations of our society, the policies, infrastructures and imaginations we thrust upon our urban spaces and lives are doomed to be influenced by ignorance and rationalized violence.

Democracy, Affection, Expression and the Theology of Place

The Down Deep Delight of Democracy (Mark Purcell)

What is democracy really? Democracy is supposedly at the foundation of Western nations, but have you truly explored what it means? Mark Purcell, another critic of Fainstien, has created an accessible introduction to theoretical writings on democracy from Plato to modern Western writers Gramsci, Lefebvre, Rancière, Deleuze and Guattari, and Hardt and Negri. Purcell argues that through desires for democratic, collective action society can challenge the influence of political rationality, capitalism and growing neoliberal policies.

A People’s Ecology: Explorations in Sustainable Living (Gregory Cajete)

Cajete’s chapter “Look to the Mountain: Reflections on Indigenous Ecology” expounds on the Theology of Place inherent in traditional indigenous American life. The held sacredness, connection and relationship with the land guides not only their ecological knowledge, but also their societal and democratic organization. “’Indigenous’ means being so completely identified with a place that you reflect its very entrails, its insides, its soul.”

It All Turns on Affection (Wendell E. Berry)

Boomers and Stickers. “The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power…. Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.” Wendell Berry, writing from rural Kentucky, studies the urges to explore and conquer versus building affectionate ties to place. Capital may be an aggressive shaper of a place, but it can also work to extinguish our natural, communal affections and connections to place, distorting our imaginations.

Superkilen: Participatory Park Extreme! (Brett Bloom)

Investigating an urban renewal project in Copenhagen’s diverse, working class neighborhood, Brett Bloom explores Foucault’s theory of governmentality as a mean to control populations. Furthermore, the article looks at gentrification through a Right to the City lens. Gentrification is more than a quantitative measurement of displacement, but a force of expression; gentrification is “the erasure of the stories a neighborhood tells itself.” A neighborhood he writes, “only has a memory if its people speak it and remind others of what was there before, of the struggles, victories, losses, improvements, and more.”

Research and Knowledge

Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (Linda Tuhiwai Smith)

Linda Tuhiwai Smith considers the violence of rational research on indigenous communities. “’Research’,” she writes, “Is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.” Western research assumes objectivity and normalizes one way of knowing, while indigenous communities “have a different epistemological tradition which frames the way we see the world, the way we organize ourselves in it, the questions we ask and the solutions we seek.” Colonization is not a finished product, but very much alive in our institutions and social structures. To decolonize we must actively embrace the long-term process of divesting from the colonial constraints within our culture, language, education, and more.

The Truly Disadvantaged: The inner city, the underclass, and public policy (William Julius Wilson)

William Julius Wilson. (Photo by John Wells)

Centered on ideas of cultural poverty, William Julius Wilson’s influential 1987 book would disavow the growing societal impression that welfare is harmful, a theory made prominent from renowned conservative authors. However, the book demonstrates the harm of well-intentioned research offering essential information and policy solutions. Without engaging with affected communities, Wilson dismisses beliefs that put structural racism at the forefront of African American problems, instead insisting on social isolation as the “characteristic feature of the social environment of the urban underclass.” This has help lead to the aggressive top-down promotion of mixed income communities through urban renewal policies, encouraging displacement while dismissing the self-agency and knowledge of oppressed communities.

Zapotec Science: Farming and Food in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca (Roberto J. González)

Roberto J. González further deconstructs the distinctions between so-called “primitive” and “modern” science, detailing the local knowledge system of the Zapotec people of Oaxaca. Entrenched in this system of local science are several fundamental concepts, including a relationship with the land that establishes a culture of reciprocity. This is distinguishable from Western society, with a relationship to the land that is based on oppressive extraction, division and a hierarchy of rights. How does a society’s relationship to land not only affect local knowledge systems but also fundamentally shape our social and political structures?

Michael Lanthier is a student of urban planning and public policy, with a curiosity influenced by experiences. Originally from between Houston, TX and Denver, CO, Michael has spent time in the commercial fishing industry, flooring and furniture trades, and as an organizer for federal forest lands protections as well as supporting local, sustainable economies. With a passion for equity, he has served as a neighborhood representative for both the Youth Jail and the Yesler Terrace redevelopment. Both have been informative guides of the influence of societal structures on the design of policy and planning. 

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