Sam’s AAG 2017 and “Doing Urban Studies Differently” Workshop Roundup

I just got back from attending the American Association of Geographers’ 2017 annual meeting in Boston, MA. The day before I also participated in the  “Doing Urban Studies Differently” Workshop at the University of British Columbia. Both events went pretty well and I thought I’d try recapping some of the major points like I did last year, as I found it a helpful exercise for processing what I saw. Note that like last year, I’m summarizing here from memory and incomplete notes, so if I misrepresent anyone’s research feel free to get in touch at s… and tell me!

Doing Critical Geography I and II

Our research team FEAST organized a paper session and a panel on ‘doing critical geography’ that was designed to invite everyone to reflect on challenges they faced translating critical geographic theory into method. This was a common challenge we graduate students faced and ended up talking about a lot at our weekly team meetings. The paper session saw a nice variety of challenges and approaches, with Jillian providing some great examples of how she tried to incorporate three methodological principles into her work: 1) mutual benefit, 2) restructuring power relations through research and 3) challenging the idea of neutrality.

I spoke about two major methodological challenges I faced (participants having different recollections of past events and my own adopting of the ‘program speak’ of planners and nonprofit staff I was speaking to) and how I tried to view these as a form of data and indicative of my positionality rather than the ‘shortcoming’ they might be viewed as by a positivist paradigm.

Paul-Antoine Cardin gave us an interesting look at his role in the Tshishipiminu Partnership of the Mashteuiatsh reserve (of the Montagnais du Lac St-Jean Innu band) and Laval University, which is working on collaborative Community Impact Assessment of hydroelectric and natural resource projects in the area. He argued that their process of “engaged acclimatization” was a form of slow and embedded scholarship that saw mutual benefit for both sides of the partnership and worked towards decolonizing knowledges.

Désirée Rochat and Leslie Touré Kapo presented some collaborative work based on a debate they are having regarding the role of activist-scholars in researching popular education, racialization, and youth in the global city. They argued that the majority of research on racialized urban youth ignore complexity in favor of fitting research findings into established stereotypes. Instead they argue that activist-research needs to incorporate a greater focus on 1) orality, finding ways to communicate beyond written text, 2) avoiding exploitative partnerships that shift the burden of research onto participants, and 3) a focus on conflict and youths’ own theorizing about their everyday experiences over time to avoid unhelpful generalizations.

In the panel session we had some very grounded discussions of scholar-activism and positionality on researching nonprofits, social justice, and food. Participating were FEAST’s own Madelaine Cahuas and Lauren Kepkiewicz in addition to Naya Armendarez Jones, Kristin Reynolds, and Sarah Nelson. While each panelist (and audience member!) had different approaches, one takeaway for me was the need to breakdown expert/non-expert or academic/activist binaries through different forms of knowledge production and dissemination, characterized by e.g. Madelaine’s use of testimonio, Lauren’s member-checking, or Naya’s use of the university system to benefit activists through e.g. distributing money from grants.

Overall I thought the sessions went well; we’ll be meeting shortly to discuss potential venues for publishing some of this work.

“The Whiteness of Theory” – Ananya Roy

For the rest of the post I’ll just be summarizing and commenting on a few of the talks I found most interesting this year. First up is Ananya Roy’s “The Whiteness of Theory” from the session 2444 Who’s Afraid of Racial Geographies? Variations on Anti-racist Critique. Fraser started her talk by referring to Dawson’s (2016) critique of Nancy Fraser’s (2014) “expanded conception of capitalism.” Fraser argues that capitalism requires patriarchy for its reproduction, but as Dawson points out, she fails to incorporate an analysis of racism in the reproduction of capitalism.  Roy uses this as a prominent example of the failure of “capital T” Theory (i.e. formal architectonic academic theory) to account for race. She proposes connecting the black radical tradition and postcolonial theory to form a global theory of racial capitalism. While she agrees in principle with Fraser that any critical theory requires a theory of capitalism and its reproduction, she argues that starting from theories of capitalism that center the experience of people of color (she points to Du Bois, Robinson, and Fanon, among others) will work against the color blindness of much critical theory within geography.

I found the talk interesting for two main reasons. First, I find it interesting that Roy is pretty explicitly waging this critique within geography. She mentioned Laura Pulido’s (2002) essay “Reflections on a white discipline” that details her (and others’) need to engage less with geography and more with ethnic studies due to the multiple forms of intellectual and personal ignorance of race and racism she encountered in the discipline. While Pulido has maintained a relationship with geography, it seems to me she works more selectively in geography today due to the tiring work of having to continually explain or bring up race in the discipline. The (what seems to me) increasing discussion around race and postcolonial theory in geography and the path forward suggested here by Roy gives me hope that a generational shift might be occurring. However, as many have pointed out, the institutional structures maintaining the “unbearable whiteness” of geography persist and it will take continued sustained and coordinated action – especially through antiracist work on the part of white people – to make change (Derickson, 2016).

Second, her talk fit in well with the sessions I was attending this year. It seems lots of geographers are (re)turning to Du Bois’ (1935) Black Reconstruction in the Trump Era. This work was engaged with in at least five of the talks I saw this year as geographers continue to ask the perennial question of how to work towards liberation under racial capitalism and democracy. Of course, there are no easy answers, but this passage from Black Reconstruction chosen by Lisa Lowe in her discussion of how the British Empire imported Chinese bonded labor to the Caribbean to break/avoid slave revolts presents an inspiring vision of global solidarity:

“It was thus the black worker, as founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth century and for the modern world, who brought civil war in America. He was its underlying cause, in spite of every effort to base the strife upon union and national power.

That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States—that great majority of mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry—shares a common destiny. [. . .]

Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts. [. . .] The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.” (1935, p. 15–16)


Planetary urbanization and comparative urbanism

For this last section of the post I want to reflect a bit on the comparative urbanism, postcolonial theory, and planetary urbanization debates in urban studies/geography. While this is of course a long-standing and on-going debate, I engaged with it a bit more than usual this year with a conference before the AAG and at several sessions at the conference.

The discussion occurring at the “Doing Urban Studies Differently” workshop at UBC was part of a continuing conversation happening in urban studies around comparative urbanism, postcolonial theory, and planetary urbanization, arguably the central debate in the field today. Attending the workshop were Jennifer Robinson from UCL, Eric Sheppard and Helga Leitner from UCLA, Jamie Peck from UBC, and an assortment of graduate students. There was a panel with faculty, a panel with graduate students discussing their research, and break-out sessions where we discussed some empirically-focused papers. Thanks to UBC Geography graduate students for organizing the event.

I thought the workshop went well, at least leading to some productive discussion about modes of comparison and more detailed discussion of the empirical case studies. In reading and discussing I found Robinson (2016a, b) the most useful statement of her positions. The tables in both pieces summarizing comparative tactics or schemas are useful for thinking through the possibilities of comparing cities or processes of urbanization. I wish I had seen them when considering my comparative method for my Master’s!

However, the central point I found lacking in the discussion at the workshop (and at the conference as I detail below) was the question: what is theory for? While Leitner and Sheppard made reference to ethico-political commitments in motivating their theorizing, to me praxis is central here. To get a bit cheesy I’d return (surprise, surprise) to Marx’s Thesis 11: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Theory should be evaluated based on how it helps you understand the world in order to change it. The follow-up here is that in order to evaluate theories you have to have some way of comparing or evaluating them, i.e. you have to think about explanation. I don’t mean that you have to revert to a positivist scientific idea of an empirical truth, but you do have to have some standards for assessing the relative merit of theories for understanding the world. This was a point of agreement at the AAG session I’ll talk about later: if your theory can explain the phenomena you are interested in, that’s great. It is conceivable that urban studies will have different competing theories, many of which offer compelling explanations.

The conversation continued in a different venue at the AAG. Christian Schmid (one of the primary theorists of planetary urbanization along with Neil Brenner) organized six sessions on the topic. I only attended the final one (3213 Planetary Urbanization 6: Critical Appropriations), where they invited a few of their interlocutors to come and present. Jennifer Robinson was there, along with architecture professor Milica Topalovic and urbanist AbdouMaliq Simone. Robinson urged the planetary urbanization team to again consider a more revisable and modest mode of theorizing, suggesting that the empirical issues they were wrestling over in the previous sessions should be taken as proof that the particular and the universal will always be held in tension. Topalovic said she found the ideas of planetary urbanization compelling, but has been unable to articulate them with architectural practice. I wish she’d said something more concrete about her struggles to do so.

I found Simone’s talk perhaps the most interesting of all the planetary urbanization stream talks at the AAG. He was the discussant, so no paper title, but it was something like, “Extended/Extensive, Intensive/Compression.” I’d never seen him speak before; he has a very distinctive spoken word style of delivery. He distinguished himself from the other talks by engaging directly with some of Lefebvre’s ideas from planetary urbanization theory, in his case the ideas of extended and concentrated urbanization (see Brenner, 2013). These ideas were originally presented in a materialist political economy mode of the expansion of logistical and infrastructural networks (extension) and the concentration and accumulation of capital (concentration). Simone, however, playfully adopted the same ideas to think about multiple coexisting and overlapping temporalities, modes of inhabitation, global connections, etc. He thinks from Jakarta to ask Brenner, Schmid, and collaborators, under contemporary processes of urbanization, “what is concentrated? What is extended?” He finds that it is not only material political economic relations, but a multitude of forces. He questioned their “romance with integration” and the need to find explanation in the accrual of details. I’m not sure their projects are ultimately fully at odds, but I certainly found his presentation (and its style) thought-provoking.

Starting directly after that session (likely not a coincidence) were four sessions titled “Critical urban theory in the ‘urban age’: Voices from another planet” (3449, 3459, 3649, 4249) organized by Natalie Oswin from McGill University and Geraldine Pratt from UBC. I went to the first three sessions and overall I thought there were many great papers. I was a bit disappointed that many of the papers didn’t directly engage with the ideas of planetary urbanization (like Simone did above), but also recognize that this was explicitly theorizing “from another planet” (a feminist, postcolonial, and queer one) and that there is a certain politics to simply presenting another way of doing things rather than directly engaging. There has also already been a lot of that direct engagement at past AAGs and in journal articles.

I’ll just talk briefly about one of the papers from this track, “Splanetary Urbanization” by Cindi Katz, mainly because it offered the most direct critique of planetary urbanization – and it has a great title. Katz is playing on the idea of “man-splaining” here and that summarizes the central critique she’s making here: that planetary urbanization is very much a “theory boys” project. She supports efforts to move away from technocratic empiricism in urban studies, but finds their mode of theorizing masculinist. She offers two critiques:

  1. Brenner and Schmid’s theory evacuates social difference and agency. They pay very little attention to social reproduction, difference, and subjectivity. A key critique for me is that she points out that while they have done much to translate and understand Lefebvre’s work on the production of space, they do not include his work on everyday life. Katz therefore concludes they focus too much on one side of the dialectic of Lefebvre’s work.
  2. In their theory there is no outside to the urban, which again has the effect of removing agency and leading to accounts of social activity devoid of people or a sense of political possibility. A key point for me that she made here is that social practices are analytically separable from urbanization processes. She instead continues to advocate for a minor theory approach, making more revisable, relational, fluid, modest, and populated theory claims.

Katz illustrated thes points through two examples. First, she discussed her ongoing collaboration with Gwendolyn Warren, who was the young community researcher involved in Bill Bunge’s Fitzgerald project in Detroit in the 1960s. By working with Warren, she is uncovering the hidden history of the project, in which Warren was largely absent (erased?). She views this as a way of minor theorizing from another planet by drawing connections across time and space, gesturing towards structural theory, but always peopling the account and dwelling in subjectivities and interpersonal relations.

Her second example was the map Riot! from Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Shapiro’s (2016) Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. This map also draws speculative connections across space and time, for example by showing that the Fugitive Slave Riot of 1826 occurred just blocks away from 2011’s Occupy Wall Street.

Overall I thought Katz did a great job identifying the masculinist presentation of planetary urbanization theory. However, I’m personally not ready to give up fully on the idea of “capital T” theory. I still see value in being able to make generalizable, large-scale conjectures about how the world is and how it is changing. I think one needs to have some idea of that in mind to inform one’s research and politics. How else can one theorize social structures and systems like capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc.? I suppose I need to do more work to think about how to both offer compelling explanatory theories that are politically helpful while avoiding masculinist cultures of theorizing. I will turn to Katz’s (1995, 1996) earlier work on “minor theory” and the other oft-discussed approach at the workshop and conference: conjunctural or relational comparison approaches (Hart, 2016; Peck, 2016, 2017).


Brenner, N. (2013). Theses on Urbanization. Public Culture, 25(1), 85–

Dawson, M. C. (2016). Hidden in Plain Sight: A Note on Legitimation Crises and the Racial Order. Critical Historical Studies, 3(1), 143–

Derickson, K. D. (2016). Urban geography II: Urban geography in the Age of Ferguson. Progress in Human

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black Reconstruction in America: an essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and

Fraser, N. (2014). Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism. New Left Review, 86, 55–

Hart, G. (2016). Relational comparison revisited: Marxist postcolonial geographies in practice. Progress in Human

Katz, C. (1995). Major/Minor: Theory, Nature, and Politics. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 85(1), 164–

Katz, C. (1996). Towards Minor Theory. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 14(4), 487–

Peck, J. (2016). Transatlantic city, part 1: Conjunctural urbanism. Urban

Peck, Jamie. (2017). Transatlantic city, part 2: Late entrepreneurialism. Urban Studies, 54(2), 327–

Pulido, L. (2002). Reflections on a White Discipline. The Professional Geographer, 54(1), 42–49.

Robinson, J. (2016a). Comparative Urbanism: New Geographies and Cultures of Theorizing the Urban. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40(1), 187–199.

Robinson, J. (2016b). Thinking cities through elsewhere: Comparative tactics for a more global urban studies. Progress in Human Geography, 40(1), 3–29.

Solnit, R., & Jelly-Schapiro, J. (2016). Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

TED Talks and Research Dissemination

My friend just shared this video and I felt it was worth passing on. In this insightful talk, Benjamin Bratton of UCSD managed to put into words a sentiment I’ve had for a while: that TED talks tend to gloss over complicated and difficult political issues with techno-utopian and naive ‘solutions.’  As he also points out, it is very important that the noble goal of academics trying to communicate their ideas in an engaging and straightforward way not slide into infotainment. This is a useful commitment to keep in mind as our research team thinks about ways to disseminate our research.

I wonder what Bratton would think about the 3MT project in comparison to TED? A Ph.D. student from UBC Geography – Craig Jonesrecently got 1st at the regional level and I was impressed with his ability to summarize his research in a pointed way. In my initial glances 3MT doesn’t seem to get as much attention from the social sciences and humanities as it should. Most people I know develop ‘elevator speech’ versions of their research, but this more structured and competitive format is an interesting one. Perhaps when my writing is further along I’ll give it a go!

Sam’s tips for graduate students at the AAG

At this year’s AAG in San Francisco I started to feel like I understood a bit better how to approach this giant conference as a graduate student. Here I’ll just provide a few tips that might be helpful for students attending their first AAG. I’m certainly no expert, but I am slowly learning how this thing works and thought I’d share a little bit.

  1. One major thing I’m learning is to not go overboard. Though if you look at my last post of the highlights you’ll see I’m still not great at that! Each year I go to fewer sessions though. I have a pretty wide range of interests and am a total nerd, so the desire to go to everything is there, but I’ve learned that there are only so many arguments you can absorb in one day. Try to pick your battles so that you don’t spend all day in a conference room.
  2. Related to the above point, try to escape the conference at least a few times during the week. I know many people probably don’t need someone to tell them to go do some exploring, but I have noticed that academic “fear of missing out” made it hard for me to do that. I got over it partially by planning out my week in advance so I could see when I had some dead zones in the schedule. This year I spent one half day just walking around the city and saw some great stuff: City Lights bookstore, the WPA murals at Coit Tower, etc.
  3. In terms of forming your schedule, I’d suggest being strategic and prioritizing a few different things:
    1. Try to see most of the sessions very closely related to your empirical area of study; it’s likely there will be a few. This is especially useful if you pick sessions with some scholars you have read, but haven’t met yet.
    2. Try to see some sessions in a related area you are interested in, but don’t know much about.
    3. Be very careful when picking sessions to attend just because there are some “big name” scholars presenting. I’ve seen that these can vary widely in quality and are usually packed and uncomfortable. The named lectures (IJURR, Antipode, Progress in Human Geography, Urban Geography, etc.) don’t always have a lot of public information out there, so try to get a sense of what you’re getting into before going.
  4. In case you weren’t aware, there are also lots of organized social events, many with free food and sometimes drinks – good for grad students. Most of the named lectures have a short reception afterwards. There are usually parties hosted by different departments occurring each night and if you have friends there they will often welcome guests.

I’ll keep this post short after the last one, but those are some initial thoughts on how to approach the AAG. I might come back and edit this later to put in some advice on choosing accommodation, but for now I think this is a good start.

Sam’s AAG 2016 Roundup

I, like many North American geographers, just got back from the 2016 American Association of Geographers meeting in San Francisco, California. While it is often an overwhelming experience, I do always enjoy the AAG, with this being my third conference. I feel like I am finally starting to figure out how to make good use of my time at these things. In this post I am going to write about the highlights of my conference. In a second post I will provide some tips for graduate students attending the AAG based on what I’ve learned over the years.

I saw a lot of great talks this year and managed to connect with some people I was hoping to meet. Here I’ll provide some summaries and thoughts on what I liked the best, roughly in chronological order. The names under session titles are the organizers. Many sessions had a bunch of great talks, but I’m just picking highlights – it’s still a ton!

Sam’s 2016 AAG Highlights

#1277 Race and the Agrarian Question II
Emma Gaalaas Mullaney – Bucknell University
Levi Van Sant – University of Georgia

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux from Hamline University (University of Minnesota coauthors Alex Liebman, Matt Gunther, and Monica Saralampi) presented a great paper titled “Re-valuing yield: negotiating race, values, and the agrarian question in urban agriculture.” She chronicled their efforts to establish a community land trust (CLT) with a focus on urban agriculture (UA) and combating gentrification in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Their project sounds interesting and Valentine did a great job connecting the issues the project faces to historical and on-going processes of racialized dispossession and uneven development. I wish she had more time to talk about her process of developing ‘popular metrics’ to measure their agricultural and social yield, an interesting kind of critical quantification project aimed at arguing for the relevance and impact of UA.

#1431, #1531 Land, Justice and Agrifood Movements: Trajectories and Tensions I-II
Katheryn Michelle Glowa – UC Santa Cruz
Antonio Roman-Alcalá – independent farmer/educator/activist
Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern – Syracuse University

Somehow I missed the CFP for this session of great papers! I would have loved to participate in this conversation, but was glad to see the presentations.

Garrett Broad from Fordham University discussed the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the tension between socialist and small capitalist/entrepreneurial elements of their project. He tried to complicate some of the debate (e.g. here) that has occurred both over time and recently with the release of the film Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which some have claimed did not properly recognize the BPP’s socialism. I think Garrett’s project to explore some of the contradictions and material rationale for the combination of self-determination, socialist ideals, and often entrepreneurial practice. This history continues to infuse much inner city black social organizing, as he illustrated with the example of Community Services Unlimited in South LA. Ultimately he makes the point that food justice work needs to figure out methods of self-sustaining funding if it is to be successful. I would have liked to see more attention paid to the larger national context of neoliberalism and (though it was addressed further in the questions) the ways that state repression (e.g. COINTELPRO) pushes under-resourced organizations towards entrepreneurship. Hopefully I can find some time to see his full argument in his (2016) book More than Just Food, which might be interesting to read alongside Lester K. Spence’s (2015) Knocking the hustle: against the neoliberal turn in black politics.

Josh Sbicca from Colorado State University gave a great talk on the issue of private property in the food justice movement, mirroring lots of the questions I have been asking myself during my field research in Cleveland. His paper asked some great broad questions that cut to the heart of some of the tensions in the movement. Ultimately he fell onto a position inspired by J. K. Gibson-Graham (2006) that stressed the need of the movement to both challenge the idea that our world and human behavior are entirely capitalist and to try to find ways to redistribute surplus in innovative ways that carve off a section of the economy from capitalism. He used the example of Planting Justice in Oakland, which employs formerly incarcerated people to do paid work installing gardens for some of the Bay Area’s wealthy and to use that revenue stream (among others) to subsidize their work building community gardens in low-income areas. He envisions a food justice movement that produces “despite- or non-capitalist value” that can take over unused space and link to form a network of distributed food production. I am inspired by his vision, but as with most work in the vein of Gibson-Graham I always come back to a concern about the need to think the social totality. This is a tension in my own thought I have yet to resolve and plan to work through as I start to analyze my current project. Josh’s work will no doubt be helpful as I do so.

Diana Denham and Amy Coplen from Portland State University presented a paper on a larger project looking at UA and gentrification in Montreal and Portland, which they are working on with their colleagues Dillon Mahmoudi, Adam Brunelle, and Nate McClintock. As the environmental gentrification that can accompany UA is a concern I share, I found their project fascinating and important. They discussed how UA requires land, labor, and capital subsidies to survive and it acquires those subsidies through relying on a food justice ideology that facilitates the acquisition of free land and subsidized/self-exploitative labor, a pattern that mirrors patterns found elsewhere in the food movement (e.g. Ekers et al., 2015; Galt, 2013; Weissman, 2014). They argue for an approach to UA that connects growing to a wider network of social activism around affordable housing, jobs, anti-racism, etc. Ultimately the effect of gardens on gentrification might be measurable, but it probably pales in comparison to the differences in housing policy between Portland and Montreal, including rent control and social housing.

Katheryn Glowa was the last present on her work looking at a particular garden under threat by an expanding tourist pier in Santa Cruz. Antonio Roman-Alcalá was the discussant and provided a good praxis-focused discussion of the papers. Hannah Wittman‘s (UBC Land and Food) presentation on the results of her work with new farmers on the Farm Folk City Folk community farms program was also very interesting. Particularly relevant given the discussion of alternatives to strict private property in other sessions (CLTs, coops, etc.) was her finding that the vast majority of new farmers prefer single proprietorship private property to other forms of ownership. Caitlin Hachmyer‘s presentation compared the municipal uptake of food movement ideas in Boston and Philadelphia. It will be interesting to think about the tension she identifies between discourse and practice – especially around land and zoning – in the Cleveland context. I look forward to checking out her MA.

#1679 Author Meets Readers. James Ferguson, “Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution”
Jenny Cameron – University of Newcastle
Katherine Gibson – University of Western Sydney

James Ferguson‘s (2010; 2013) work on neoliberalism stands out to me as a rather creative approach to thinking about the role of market fundamentalism and the changing structures of states. As one of the major buzzwords in contemporary academia, neoliberalism is a slippery concept and I appreciate his attention to detail and his perspective on the study of universal basic income. This session examined his (2015) recent book, which plays on the old adage of “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” One of the starting points for the book is the basic fact that especially in the cities of the Global South (but also in many cities in the North), many of today’s citizens do not have much or any opportunity to pursue formal waged labor. Or, as Ferguson says, “Teach a man to fish and you create an unemployed fisherman.” Speaking in general terms, this means a turn away from a “politics of production” (create more jobs in a Keynesian sense or seize the means of production in a Marxist one) to a “politics of distribution” (redistribute the social surplus, presumably without overly affecting production). Ferguson develops this idea through the observation that many urban dwellers engaged in the informal sector spend a lot of their time in complicated relations of “distributional labor,” spending time making claims on the social surplus through kinship ties, lobbying the state, etc.

The session had an interesting panel: Katherine Gibson (University of Western Sydney), Colin Marx (UCL), Sophie Oldfield (University of Cape Town), and Katharine Mckinnon (La Trobe University). They touched on numerous aspects of the book, but what I appreciated was the interesting overlap discovered between Gibson-Graham and Ferguson here. Both seek to shift the analytical and political focus from Marxism’s concern with production to distribution. J. K. Gibson-Graham are usually associated with local, small-scale solutions, but Katherine defended their approach as a global one that has just seen empirical application in local settings. Ferguson’s book is much more concerned with the state and the claim or right to a fair share, which he sees as central in contestation over distribution and the new politics of distribution he tracks through South African cash transfers. They said they shared a sensibility if not a theoretical approach. Ferguson’s work seems like an interesting new contribution to scholarly efforts to think past or through neoliberalism.

#2283 The historical geographies of radical geography
Linda Peake – York University

This session provided another series of papers in what is now a five year process of examining some of the histories of the development of North American radical geography. While this kind of session can feel a bit navel-gazing, I do think that learning the history of geography is important, both  for being able to position and understand my own work in its historical context and to learn from past mistakes to improve the discipline. This year Linda Peake (York University) provided a nice introduction, providing some background to the project. While some of the work done by Linda and Eric Sheppard (2014) and Trevor Barnes (e.g. 2004) has begun to chart the history of radical geography, Peake stressed that much work remained to be done. She pointed out specifically that Trevor and other’s work on the history of the quantitative revolution and Bill Bunge (see e.g. Heynen & Barnes, 2011) has meant other important chapters in the history of radical geography are still out of sight, including the formation of CONGA, SURGE, the Union of Socialist Geographers, etc. The research is also difficult because many groups like GPOW and CWAG have not left much of an archive, so much of the work being done now is collecting scattered written documents and conducting interviews with participants who are still alive.

Nick Blomley and Eugene McCann (Simon Fraser University) presented on the radical history of SFU during the 1970s. They discussed the connections between Toronto and Vancouver, including the formation of the Toronto and Vancouver Geographical Expeditions inspired by Bunge. They also showed the institutional and geographical factors leading to the radical community at SFU, including its more modernist alternative to the traditionally conservative UBC, the arrival of political exiles from Ireland and South Africa, and visits by the emerging leaders of radical geography in North America. Also important was the support of the department chair, Michael Elliot Hurst, who radicalized at this period as well and used department resources to support leftist projects.

Eric Sheppard (UCLA) and Trevor Barnes (UBC) spoke about the influence of Baltimore on David Harvey’s work and radicalization, arguing that the city was a “truth spot” (Gieryn, 2002) for Harvey, whose experiences trying to understand the city led him to Marx.

Chris Knudson (Clark University) presented research co-authored with Matthew Huber (Syracuse University) and Renee Tapp (Clark University) on the early years of Antipode at Clark University, seeking to understand how the institutional environment shaped the rise of the journal. They argued that Clark’s long history of environmental determinism and eugenics within geography – that is, its backwardness – was influential in creating a strong shift in culture once another supportive department chair (Saul Cohen) used an NSF grant to hire new radical professors, many of whom attracted radical graduate students who were important in shifting the department left.

Jamie Peck and Trevor Barnes (UBC) chronicled the rise of “industrial geography” at Berkeley in the late 70s/early 80s. This period saw the department’s legacy of cultural ecology in the vein of Carl Sauer change to a more overtly politicized economic geography through transatlantic interaction with European theories of the international division of labor and regulation theory.  These theories landed down in one of the centers of the neoliberal and high tech revolution, with Silicon Valley and Ronald Reagan standing in as figure for this new era of flexible specialization. I also really liked Trevor’s description of the hire of Alan Pred as a “radical geography Trojan Horse.” Pred led a lefty seminar that attracted students from geography and planning, leading to a historic connection that continues to this day. There were also some other interesting details about how faculty strategically misrepresented themselves to get hired, e.g. Dick Walker giving his job talk on wetlands, despite his dissertation being a Marxist analysis of suburbanization!

Finally, Audrey Kobayashi (Queens) discussed the historical relationship (mostly of separation) of white academic radical geographers from the political movements of people of color. She posed an extremely interesting research question of why radical geography has pretty consistently failed to address issues of race, but did not have time to develop it and also said she has more research to do on the topic. I’m curious to hear and see more about this project, as the evidence of a neglect of race historically is pretty clear (as shown in her own work), but a grounded analysis of how this dynamic is institutionally and disciplinarily reproduced would be very valuable.

#2625 GeoHumanities Event III: Special Session featuring Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro: “Mapping the Infinite City”
Douglas Richardson – American Association of Geographers

I have always loved Rebecca Solnit‘s writing so I was happy to see her speak again. Her atlases are amazing and I liked her way of describing the relevance of maps. I had never encountered Joshua Jelly-Schapiro before and was impressed by his work. Highlight of the session was probably a sneak peak at one of the maps from the newest atlas of New York (Solnit & Jelly-Schapiro, 2016) that depicted Staten Island as “Shaolin,” a mythical region of kung fu as imagined by the Wu-Tang Clan and based on Joshua’s interview with the RZA.

#3138, #3238 Social Geographies of Urban Abandonment
Sara Safransky – UNC-Chapel Hill
Erin Collins – American University

This session was one I originally was interested in, but they already attracted a lot of attention, especially to research on Rust Belt cities, so I didn’t get in. It was very thought-provoking to attend, however. The session came about through some work that Sara Safransky and Erin Collins are doing to think about the spatial dimensions of “social abandonment” (Biehl, 2005) and “economies of abandonment” (Povinelli, 2011) in the context of their respective research in Detroit and Phnom Penh.

Their CFP actually prompted me to explore this literature and it has been interesting to think about the concept of social abandonment in the context of Cleveland. I hope to engage with Sara’s work (2014; 2016) on the topic in her research site of Detroit. My initial feeling is that the ideas of loss, mourning, ruination, etc. are present in Cleveland but more noticeable in their mundane and everyday nature compared to the more dramatic and visible example of Detroit. The production of social abandonment through institutions and systems of oppression is also present, but I keep coming back to a feeling of it being less visible and contested in Cleveland, an issue I am working through myself currently.

Sara started the two sessions off with a nice introductory and conceptual paper co-authored with Erin laying out their vision of what the geographies of urban abandonment mean and how they are constructed. They suggest three moves that this emerging research area should make (from my notes, might not be exact):

  1. Recognize multi-generational histories of dispossession and abandonment;
  2. Trace the spatial and racial constitution of “valueless” populations;
  3. Interrupt and resist the narratives of abandonment used to devalue such places and people.

Summarizing the sessions’ papers they also summarized the process of abandonment occurring through two primary paths: displacement (about the creation of severability and the process of leaving or replacing) and disconnection (how populations can stay in place while also being disconnected).

Finally, they suggested five areas for topical focus:

  1. Technopolitics
  2. Race and space
  3. The obduracy of urban abandonment (through a focus on materiality and infrastructure)
  4. Resistance
  5. Politics of responsibility

I found this paper a stimulating way to reconsider some of the literature on gentrification, shrinking cities, and concentrated poverty. Like Sara’s previous work, I think it can pose a politically helpful response to what sometimes feels like rather apolitical questions (e.g. our city is losing people, what can we do to stem the tide?) by connecting the processes of abandonment to larger structures of uneven development and displacement. Their conceptual framework also nicely allows for a wide understanding of abandonment that pays attention to both material and discursive processes and their co-constitution.

Jacob Dougherty (Stanford) gave a polished talk on his research on public cleaning campaigns in Kampala. He argued that such cleaning campaigns constitute a project of governmentality seeking to call middle-class moral subjects to action to clean up the “slums,” drawing on colonial binaries of white/black, civilization/barbarism, order/disorder, cleanliness/filth, etc. I saw some interesting connections to the moral discourses employed in Kampala and those evident in the US: 19th and 20th century urban progressivism, contemporary food waste campaigns, and even some of the responsibilizing discourse employed in both the urban renewal era of “neighborhood conservation” and today’s revitalization efforts in cities like Cleveland.

Joe Darden (Michigan State University) presented a very nicely thought out presentation on the structural forces behind Detroit’s bankruptcy, which I believe is forming the background for his book-in-progress on Detroit after bankruptcy. He highlighted four major factors: place, race, class, and politics. He traces the history of policy decisions, economic restructuring, white suburbanization, redlining, job suburbanization, disinvestment, and the concentration of poverty and poor housing. He ultimately makes the point that the bankruptcy was political, motivated by a right-wing state legislature and governor and a lack of mass political power for African Americans.

Gerry Pratt (UBC) provided a different perspective on abandonment from the Bagong Barrio in Manila, which she argues is a site of abandonment despite being densely populated and busy. She focuses on the rise of the Philippines’ foreign labor export strategy and the creation of a remittance economy as a form of abandonment, with much of the population of Bagong working abroad (she estimates 60-70%). She illustrates the painful experiences of separation and dispossession that have accompanied the rise of this economy and the insecure land tenure that also affects the area.

Kate Derickson (University of Minnesota) was the discussant and provided a very thoughtful response to the papers. She echoed something I was already thinking, which is questioning what is specific about abandonment as a concept compared to dispossession, displacement, invisibilization, etc. She sees the unveiling of the mechanisms, processes, and techniques through which people and places become abandoned as key. I also really liked her point that ultimately this approach is politically useful in that it unveils abandonment as a “bait and switch,” showing that “we’re not at all apart, we’re not at all separate.” This emphasis on unveiling the mechanisms through which interdependence is severed – or appears to be severed while actually reworking power relations – was a key insight, I thought.

She also mentioned the power and irony of creating “absent presences,” drawing on her own work with the Gullah/Geechee nation, who are regularly told that their culture is dying despite evidence of its survival. She links this process to on-going silencing and abandonment under settler colonialism and white supremacy. She also drew on Clyde Woods’ critique of research as “autopsy,” where the role of the researcher is restricted to cataloguing and describing violence instead of finding and strengthening refusal and resistance. She used this idea to put a nice twist on a question posed by Jacob in his talk, when he questioned to whom does “cleaning up the slums” feel good? She asked the presenters and audience, “To whom does research on urban abandonment feel good?” This question is a key one for researchers working in post-industrial cities like Detroit and Cleveland to ask themselves: why are you here? Is it simply to catalog the decline of a city, or is it to make visible the processes through which a place and people are systematically abandoned and to find spots of resistance and to strengthen them?

In the second session it was great to see my old undergraduate advisor, Jessica Graybill (Colgate University), present on her community-based research project on the impacts of refugee resettlement in Utica, New York. Tia-Simone Gardner (University of Minnesota) gave a theoretical and semi-autobiographical presentation on her research into “white flight and black inhabitation,” examining the history of the neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama, where she grew up. The most fascinating part of her talk was definitely the survey photograph of her house she found in the archive with her mother. The almost ghostly photo shows their house shortly after it was built in an exclusive neighborhood that attracted the city’s wealthy white industrialists. From this photo – in a genre of usually drab and “objective” depiction of the housing site – stares back a young white boy in a diaper looking into the camera and a black domestic worker is at the front door. This “haunting image of black servitude” (her words as I have them in my notes) provided a good example of a jarring moment in the research process, especially given its personal nature. I had a bit of a hard time placing her exact research project, due most likely to my limited knowledge of some of the theory she is working with, but I would definitely be interested to see where the research goes.

Zachary Levenson (Cal Berkeley) gave a talk on South Africa’s Temporary Relocation Areas, levying a critique of Polanyian interpretations of the post-Apartheid welfare state. This vein of thinking sees the focus on universal provision of housing as an example of the counter-movement pushing back against the social dislocation of the market. His ethnographic research suggests instead that the normalization of temporary housing and squatting and the peripheralization of poor populations has seen dispossession and inequality created through the actions of the state, not (only) the market.

Cian O’ Callaghan (Maynooth University) gave us a glimpse into his larger research project on post-crash property vacancy in Ireland. I had not come across his work before and was very glad to find it, as I think many of the patterns he observes are also taking place in the US. He made several (perhaps too many for 15 minutes!) arguments, but two that stood out to me were that 1.) the symbol of the vacant house often absorbs the critical energy of the media and many experts, rather than focusing on the causes of the housing crisis; 2.) temporary projects that reframe vacancy as an entrepreneurial opportunity don’t represent an adequate solution to these root causes and can in fact be used strategically to represent certain areas of the city as vacant and primed for redevelopment. I think this pattern certain mirrors some of what I’ve observed in Cleveland (Rosenman and Walker, 2016).

Erin Collins (American University) provided a nice bookend to the sessions with her concluding remarks. In addition to summarizing the presenters and posing some good questions, she also made two final points I thought were noteworthy. One was again raising the question of where abandonment fits in relation to other concepts (dispossession, vacancy, etc.) and the other was adding a third way that abandonment is produced: investment. I think it is a good point to make that some of the social abandonment seen in the papers was not only from disinvestment, but I wonder what it would mean to connect that to a political economic approach that accounts for the accumulation and circulation of capital? The three processes they suggest (disconnection, displacement, and investment) are all pretty intimately linked, so I suppose the challenge becomes specifying how each operates to produce abandonment.

#3455 Political Ecologies of Environmental Control, Conflict and Crisis III
Maano Ramutsindela – University of Cape Town
Bram Büscher – Sociology of Development and Change, Wageningen University
Elizabeth Lunstrum – Department of Geography

This session was the one I presented in. My more urban geography/urban political ecology-influenced work was a bit out of place in a more development studies/political ecology session, but I still was glad to have found a home at the AAG and thought the session went well.

Tobias Schmitt (University of Hamburg) gave a talk based on his fieldwork on drought in Northeast Brazil. He presented a theoretical framework starting with Foucault’s concept of the dispositif and incorporating ideas from post-structuralist and structuralist political ecology, Actor Network Theory, and even some Althusser. He then used this framework to present results of a discourse analysis of drought, placing its depiction as a natural disaster within the context of uneven power relations.

Melody Lynch (McGill University) presented her research looking at conflict over natural resource use in a national park in Indonesia. She presented evidence of covert forms of everyday resistance that indigenous fisherpeople use to support their livelihoods, despite significant repression by local authorities who imposed the park boundaries on their traditional territory.

I was up next, presenting a paper titled “Re-imagining Cleveland: exploring the tensions between decommodification and market intervention in vacant land reuse.” The paper was received pretty well I thought. This was my first attempt at writing up some results from fieldwork, so I had the interesting experience of reading it and realizing my thinking has already changed as it is so fresh, but it was a good first try. Here’s the abstract:

North American Rust Belt inner cities are currently facing the combined effects of housing and land abandonment stemming from long-term population loss and the more recent acute effects of the home mortgage crisis. A growing number of vacant land reuse strategies are emerging at both grassroots and institutional levels in response to this situation. Cleveland, Ohio, is home to a significant example of such projects called Re-imagining Cleveland, which is a competitive vacant land-reuse grant program that began in 2007. In this paper, I investigate the tensions within such land-reuse projects, which can be interpreted on one hand as decommodifying urban land and creating alternative community economies, or on the other as interventions into the housing market that seek to increase property values and prepare disinvested neighborhoods for eventual turnaround. My investigation is grounded within a normative project of uncovering how community-based movements to decommodify or otherwise gain access to land might proceed in cities with high rates of land vacancy. I draw on interviews with nonprofit staff, city officials, and community members to unpack the strategies and tactics that Cleveland residents are using to gain access to vacant land. As the local state in cities like Cleveland turn towards sustainability as a ‘fix’ for local economic development issues, it is important to understand how to advance the struggle for equitable and socially just futures.

Finally, Maano Ramutsindela (University of Cape Town) gave a pretty fascinating talk reflecting on a recent experience he had working with one of the other organizers, Bram Büscher (Wageningen University). They published a paper (2015) together that was critical of the Peace Parks program in southern Africa and actually received some significant blowback from the powerful nonprofits associated with the program. They then got very meta and analyzed their experience, trying to understand how and why a powerful conservation industry would act to silence them. I thought it was a very interesting presentation and a pretty shocking example of threats to academic freedom.

#3665 IJURR 2016 Lecture: Sabotage, Ostentation, and Attitude: Transformations in Modes of Collective Life in São Paulo’s Peripheries
Ananya Roy – UCLA
Teresa Caldeira – UC Berkeley

The 2016 IJUUR lecture was given by Teresa Caldeira (UC Berkeley), who presented a very ethnographically rich take on changing “modes of collective life” in a peripheral neighborhood of São Paulo (Jardim das Camélias) where she has conducted fieldwork since the 1970s. Her overall goal was to illustrate changes in the “genres of representation” used in working class families and to relate these to changes in the “mode of collective life” of inhabitants of these peripheral neighborhoods. She provided detailed exposition of these changes in five areas: space, housing, the social role of women, consumption, and music. For each site she traced changes, which generally corresponded to a (unevenly and precariously) rising standard of living, class distinction through decoration and debt-financed consumption, and changing gender roles as the labor movement waned and women entered the workforce. Two central examples of changes were from stoic formal portraiture to selfies at parties and from race- and class-conscious (but often misogynistic) rap to consumption-focused funk ostentação.

The first thing worth mentioning about the talk is the impressive the depth of her research. The over 30 years of research was definitely apparent, as she painted a picture of change at the neighborhood level and within a specific family that served as key informants and a case. She had photographic records of changes in the family and the built environment and clips from rap videos that really helped illustrate her points. Overall the depth of her knowledge of the community was evident and presented very well.

I did have a few reservations and questions, however. One was about the conceptual/theoretical language she was using. She seemed to be referring to a specific concept with this term “mode of collective life,” which sounds sort of Durkheimian, but does anyone know what literature/scholar she is referencing exactly? It was therefore not clear to me if this was a concept that was bounded or divided by race, class, gender, and other forms of social difference, or if it was supposed to be more about a kind of hegemonic mode of representation.

The second major issue was related to the question of explanation. Her talk was heavily descriptive and I wondered where she actually located levers of social change. She did make a few more causal arguments, such as that the increased entrance of women in the workforce has led to a backlash by men who feel threatened by losing their status as breadwinners, a form of fragile masculinity she sees manifested in musical representation. One of the audience members asked a question that also got at this issue and related it to the present day, asking how she related these changes to the rise of the new right in Brazil, a particularly pertinent question considering she did not mention at all any of the current events going on in the country. Perhaps I missed the point, but there did not seem to be a strong political stance taken on the decline of the labor movement and the rise of household debt, which I would certainly expect. Thinking more about relating these changes in modes of representation to changes in Brazil’s political economy seems key here, and she certainly did that a bit throughout, but the exact relationship there felt underspecified to me.

#4129, #4229 Planning revitalization in racialized neighborhoods in White colonial settler societies
Melissa Fong – University of Toronto

These two sessions were very interesting to me, both in the context of my research and as I recently moved back to Vancouver, the place much of the work presented was examining. Melissa Fong (University of Toronto) organized the session because she felt that much of the work on gentrification she encountered did not pay sufficient attention to processes of racialization and on-going relations of colonialism. She put together a great group of papers, with her own examining the politics of respectability among Chinese residents of Vancouver’s Chinatown, an area that is experiencing increasingly significant gentrification. Jon Peyton (University of Manitoba) presented work co-authored with Jeff Masuda (Queen’s University), Trevor Wideman (Simon Fraser University), and Matt Dyce (University of Winnipeg) looking at how Vancouver restaurants and bars are reproducing narratives and processes of settler colonialism as they expand into low-income neighborhoods. Many of the examples presented – such as a bar literally named Colony – come from Mount Pleasant, my new home, and explicated some of the trends I have been seeing in the city for years.

My supervisor Sarah Wakefield (University of Toronto) presented the results of some community-based research she has been conducting in Hamilton, Ontario with several collaborators on a resident-led revitalization project titled “Code Red.” She revealed how discussions about race and class inequality rarely happened at community meetings unless they were properly facilitated to address these issues. A central issue was that newcomers – often white gentrifiers coming to Hamilton as part of the sprawling Greater Toronto Area – avoided these topics or using coded language to voice a desire to remake their neighborhoods free from working class residents or people of color. These newcomers were also usually educated and versed in the skills required to participate, leading to them fitting into the process and being heard, while other groups less able to do so were not heard.

I was happy to see Sarah Launius (University of Arizona), who gave a great talk on the politics of recognition at play in a revitalization plan in Tucson. She drew on Glen Coulthard’s (2014) Red Skin, White Masks to show how recognition of indigenous and Mexican-American culture in these plans was used symbolically to brand Tucson for the creative class, but is not following through on commitments to take this heritage seriously in a way that benefits and is led by these groups. However, she shows that this process goes beyond simply commercializing heritage and represents an ongoing process of settler colonialism.

Ann Markusen (University of Minnesota) presented a much more meta-level analysis of the relationship between place-making and gentrification, based on a recent debate she had with Roberto Bedoya in Tucson. I thought the points she made in her talk – how it is crucial to relate place-making efforts to the US’s history of colonialism and racialized dispossession – were a good contribution to the session, and the paper sounds like a very good paper to lay out this history in a way useful to students of urban studies. I felt a bit bad as the nominated timekeeper that she had to rush through her talk, but I look forward to seeing the paper in the future. Jeff Masuda (Queen’s University) gave a nice summary as discussant as well.

The second session was jam-packed and had a great group of papers. Margaret Pettygrove (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) argued that the City of Milwaukee’s support of urban agriculture has emphasized the goal of inner city revitalization without paying attention to how this is assuming a deficit in black communities and is spurring gentrification. Lisi Feng (University of British Columbia) gave an overview of the Vancouver housing crisis and constructions of “Chineseness.” Megan LaFrombois (University of Illinois – Chicago) gave a great, tight critique of “tactical urbanism” and how it is often employed in a way totally blind to race and class inequality. Her paper will pose a great critical response to this trendy planning concept. Anna Livia Brand (University of New Orleans) gave us a glimpse into her on-going detailed research on historically black neighborhoods in Chicago and New Orleans. Trevor Wideman (Simon Fraser University) presented research on Vancouver’s “Japantown” being co-authored with Jeffrey Masuda (Queen’s University), that uses the concept of “critical toponymy” to explore the struggle over what to call the area of the city now being re-branded as Japantown.

Finally,  Wendy Shaw, (University Of New South Wales) provided a truly insightful conclusion as discussant. She was very glad to see an emerging area of critical scholarship on gentrification that centers race and white supremacy, an area she has been working on for years. She stressed the need to continue to link neoliberalism to imperial and colonial projects and urged the presenters to be specific and careful in their study of racialization, using examples from her own work (2007) to remind us that “white” is not a coherent or settled category.

#4516 Progress in Human Geography Lecture: Gillian Hart – Relational Comparison Revisited: Thinking through Interconnections
Pauline McGuirk, – University of Newcastle, NSW
Susan Roberts – University Of Kentucky

This lecture by Gill Hart (UC Berkeley) was a thought-provoking effort to make some interventions in the debates around comparison occurring in both urban studies and subaltern studies (especially around assemblage (see e.g. Derickson, 2014; 2016) and between Chakrabarty (2000) and Chibber (2013)). Gill had already put forward her own concept of “relational comparison” in her first book on South Africa (2002), in which she was using geography’s locality debates to understand the politics of the World Bank advocating for post-apartheid South Africa to pursue a development path similar to East Asia. In the lecture helpfully offered several different conceptualizations of relationality before offering a new take on the concept.

Her original formulation of “relational comparison” was contrasted to positivist comparison, which sees specific all cases as variants of a general process. Relational comparison instead seeks to understand how processes are co-constitutive through in-depth historical and critical ethnography. In her book she called into question “impact models of globalization” that understand local sites simply being affected by global processes; instead, she argued that the local scale is a key site of contradiction and negotiation, drawing heavily on Massey’s (e.g. 1993) arguments.

In the lecture she detailed how this older formulation was no longer adequate in her thinking, pointing to the changes she tracked in her second book on South Africa (2014) and a current research project comparing South Africa and India. She drew some links between her thinking and Philip McMichael’s (1990) concept of “incorporating comparison,” which she saw as sharing her use of Marx to establish a “progressive-regressive” non-teleological dialectical method that always moves from concrete to abstract to concrete, seeing concrete concepts as a product of abstract and generalizable relations. However, she argued that McMichael’s concept needed some help from Lefebvre to theorize space and time.

Therefore she posited a new “conjunctural comparison” that was roughly formed by adding the approach of incorporating comparison and relational comparison. She then spent some time specifying her use of dialectics, drawing on OIman (2003) and Harvey (1996). She also agrees with some of the critiques of Harvey (e.g. Massey, 1993; Wright, 2006) that Harvey’s grand theory tends to not allow much room for the concrete to push back against the abstract, or for non-class forms of social difference to play integral roles in these abstract systems. While she did not get to everything she hoped to discuss, she hopes to flesh out more of what her vision of relational comparison means in the paper, but I certainly think it sounds like a productive contribution to what feels like a bit of an impasse in the literature. I found her talk very captivating and helpful despite it being largely conceptual and theoretical.


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Looking for food, but finding much more

Looking for food, but finding much more

When I began my PhD I wanted to continue my study of the urban agriculture (UA) movement in North America. Not only did I have a personal interest in the opportunities for pursuing food justice and food sovereignty offered by this movement, but I also thought that the UA movement provides a particularly interesting research site for academic purposes. In this blog post, I will reflect on the path that my research has taken thus far. I hope to sketch out my thought process in pursuing my current research and the factors that have influenced my decisions. This kind of reflective writing is very useful for me and I hope it could also be helpful for others studying UA or the food movement.

Food and urban agriculture as ‘dense’ research sites

UA is appealing as a research site because one can examine it from many angles. It provides a tangible example of humans actively interacting with the nonhuman world,1 often succeeding in changing their natural environment, but also coming up against the real material obstacles faced in food production: contaminated or compacted soils, inclement weather, pests, drought, etc. Along similar lines, it can be theorized in terms of historical processes such as urbanization and the rise of industrial agriculture. It is also a site of production, with different forms of property ownership and social organization (public or private land, communal production or individual plots, for profit or not, etc.). Likewise, it is connected to changing patterns of food and leisure consumption in cities as the demand for local organic food increases. Like any social movement, it also has to contend with forms of social difference that affect participation, such as race, class, and gender.

These multiple angles are to some degree indicative of the wider relevance of studying food; many authors have made the argument that food provides a lens through which many social issues can be studied (e.g. Nestle & McIntosh, 2010). However, as I’ll detail below, I maintain it is important not to become too focused on food in isolation. This requires going ‘beyond food’ to connect food consumption and production to larger social structures of race, class, and gender (Passidomo, 2013).

Beyond food? Why food activists need to pay attention to land, labor, and governance

With this background knowledge in mind, I selected Cleveland, Ohio, the site of my dissertation research. As a native of Pittsburgh I have always been interested in the particular political economic situation faced by cities in the Rust Belt. I also see the availability of vacant land in these cities as an opportunity for the UA movement to capitalize on. Building on my research in Detroit (Walker, 2013, 2015), over time I have found that the particular context of Cleveland as a city with a declining inner-city population and an expanding (though nearly built-out) suburban metropolitan fringe has influenced the local food movement in particular ways.

Most notably, the more I investigated vacant land reuse, the more I came to see UA as a set of particular outcomes in a wider suite of responses to vacant land. For example, refer to Figure 1 below, taken from the Re-Imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland vacant land reuse study. This realization may seem obvious – and it is especially to people who live in Rust Belt cities – but I think it also has important implications for the food movement that have not been fully thought out.

Land Bank Flow Chart 2008

Figure 1. Land bank decision-making flow chart (produced by the Cleveland City Planning Commission and printed in Neighborhood Progress, Inc., Cleveland City Planning Commission, & Cleveland Land Lab at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, Kent State University, 2008, p. 9).

Essentially, the current stance of the food movement towards acquiring land for UA is a pragmatic one –UA practitioners will try to get access to land however they can, preferably at no cost. Unsurprisingly, the cost of leasing or buying land is one of the key factors limiting the expansion of UA and its profitability (for an example from Vancouver, see Schutzbank, 2012). Across North America, UA practitioners and supportive planners and community members have been successful in passing zoning changes, acquiring funding, and forming partnerships with institutions and city governments to access land. These initiatives have been successful in fostering the growth of UA, but like the rest of the alternative food movement, a central challenge is ‘scaling up’ to increase production and to compete with industrial agriculture. While the kind of policies being generated now are helpful in this regard, I follow Nathan McClintock (2010, 2014) in identifying larger obstacles of land, labor, and capital as central in the challenge to change the food system through UA.

Through my dissertation work, I am seeking to understand the interaction between historical forces of investment and disinvestment in the built environment, racial segregation, and the politics of urban development that pose a challenge to the UA movement. I see this challenge occurring at two interrelated scales: one, at the neighborhood and parcel scale UA faces challenges in accessing land permanently due to the imperative to pursue economic development of a “highest and best use” (McClintock, 2014); two, at the city and regional scale Cleveland is attempting to rebrand itself as a sustainable city, but as with all municipal efforts for sustainability it faces the tension of pursuing a greenwashing of its image in the name of urban entrepreneurialism that supports elites or undertaking a more radical transformation that simultaneously pursues social and environmental justice (see e.g. Wolch, Byrne, & Newell, 2014).

Part of the challenge I am currently facing in the field is how to incorporate this critical perspective on UA and urban sustainability while recognizing the challenges that institutions and activists face on the ground. Cleveland has a long tradition of civic-mindedness and active nonprofits organizations, but as Randy Cunningham (2007) and Michael McQuarrie (2013) have shown, this active third sector is also a sign of the professionalization and incorporation of an oppositional and activist community organizing tradition into a corporate-led regime. As my colleague Emily Rosenman and I (2016) found when looking at Cleveland housing demolition policy, Cleveland actors have actively tried to hold banks accountable for the aftermath of the housing crisis in creative ways, but their non-local efforts were largely unsuccessful. Instead, nonprofits and community groups bear the burden of addressing the problems following vacancy and abandonment, a common situation in the era of neoliberal urbanism (Hackworth, 2007).2 It is my hope that a critical analysis of urban governance and the balance of political forces in Cleveland will help recover some of the critical energy that existed in the city before the 1970s, using UA as an entry point into building a larger oppositional political voice in the city.

  1. I use the phrase “nonhuman world” where many people would probably just say “nature.” By doing so I am trying to avoid reproducing a binary that considers humans outside of the natural world. The French academics Bruno Latour, John Law, and John Callon have been very influential in this shift (see e.g. Latour, 1993), which can generally be referred to as posthumanism (though this term has a much broader meaning, see Wolfe, 2010).
  2. I tried to avoid jargon but couldn’t help it in this case! For those unfamiliar, neoliberalism can generally be considered to be an ideology based on organizing social life around free markets, with the idea that market signals are the most accurate and efficient way of organizing social activity. Historically, this trend renews some of the central tenets of classical liberalism, but is perhaps most clearly distinguished from it by favoring an even smaller role for the state. While the concept has a complicated and often-debated history (Harvey, 2005; Peck, 2010), it is often identified with the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US. In the context of urbanism (the material and cultural aspects of urban life), the neoliberal turn has had profound effects, including: the dismantling of public housing and the social safety net, including the shift from welfare to workfare; fiscal austerity for local governments and the rise of the municipal bond market and other forms of financialization; increasingly aggressive interurban competition for capital and concomitant corporate welfare, etc. For a nice overview see Hackworth (2007).

Cunningham, R. (2007). Democratizing Cleveland: the rise and fall of community organizing in Cleveland, Ohio, 1975-1985. Cleveland, OH: Arambala Press.

Hackworth, J. (2007). The neoliberal city: Governance, ideology, and development in American urbanism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McClintock, N. (2010). Why farm the city? Theorizing urban agriculture through a lens of metabolic rift. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 3(2), 191–207.

McClintock, N. (2014). Radical, reformist, and garden-variety neoliberal: coming to terms with urban agriculture’s contradictions. Local Environment, 19(2), 147–171.

McQuarrie, M. (2013). No Contest: Participatory Technologies and the Transformation of Urban Authority. Public Culture, 25(1), 143–175.

Neighborhood Progress, Inc., Cleveland City Planning Commission, & Cleveland Land Lab at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, Kent State University. (2008). Re-Imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland: Citywide Strategies for Reuse of Vacant Land. Cleveland, OH: Neighborhood Progress, Inc. and Cleveland City Planning Commission. Retrieved from

Nestle, M., & McIntosh, W. A. (2010). Writing the Food Studies Movement. Food, Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, 13(2), 159–179.

Passidomo, C. (2013). Going “Beyond Food”: Confronting Structures of Injustice in Food Systems Research and Praxis. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 3(4), 1–5.

Peck, J. (2010). Constructions of neoliberal reason. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Rosenman, E., & Walker, S. (2016). Tearing down the city to save it? ’Back-door regionalism and the demolition coalition in Cleveland, Ohio. Environment and Planning A, 48(2), 273–291.

Schutzbank, M. H. (2012). Growing vegetables in Metro Vancouver: An urban farming census (MSc thesis). University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Retrieved from

Walker, S. (2013). Growing ideology: urban agriculture in Vancouver and Detroit (MA Thesis). University of British Columbia. Retrieved from

Walker, S. (2015). Urban agriculture and the sustainability fix in Vancouver and Detroit. Urban Geography, 1–20.

Wolch, J. R., Byrne, J., & Newell, J. P. (2014). Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities “just green enough.” Landscape and Urban Planning, 125, 234–244.

Wolfe, C. (2010). What is posthumanism? Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.