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.


Barnes, T. J. (2004). Placing ideas: genius loci, heterotopia and geography’s quantitative revolution. Progress in Human Geography, 28(5), 565–595.
Biehl, J. G. (2005). Vita: life in a zone of social abandonment. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Broad, G. M. (2016). More than just food: food justice and community change. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Büscher, B., & Ramutsindela, M. (2015). Green Violence: Rhino Poaching and the War to Save Southern Africa’s Peace Parks. African Affairs (early online version).
Chakrabarty, D. (2000). Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Chibber, V. (2013). Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. London, UK: Verso.
Coulthard, G. S. (2014). Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Derickson, K. D. (2014). Urban geography I: Locating urban theory in the “urban age.” Progress in Human Geography, 39(5), 647–657.
Derickson, K. D. (2016). Urban geography II: Urban geography in the Age of Ferguson. Progress in Human Geography.
Ekers, M., Levkoe, C. Z., Walker, S., & Dale, B. (2015). Will work for food: agricultural interns, apprentices, volunteers, and the agrarian question. Agriculture and Human Values, 1–16.
Ferguson, J. (2010). The Uses of Neoliberalism. Antipode, 41(S1), 166–184.
Ferguson, J. (2013). Declarations of dependence: labour, personhood, and welfare in southern Africa. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 19(2), 223–242.
Ferguson, J. (2015). Give a man a fish: reflections on the new politics of distribution. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
Galt, R. E. (2013). The Moral Economy Is a Double-edged Sword: Explaining Farmers’ Earnings and Self-exploitation in Community-Supported Agriculture. Economic Geography, 89(4), 341–365.
Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2006). A postcapitalist politics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Gieryn, T. F. (2002). Three truth-spots. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 38(2), 113–132.
Hart, G. P. (2002). Disabling globalization: places of power in post-apartheid South Africa. Pietermaritzburg, SA: University of Natal Press.
Hart, G. P. (2014). Rethinking the South African crisis: nationalism, populism, hegemony. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Harvey, D. (1996). The Dialectics of Social and Environmental Change. In Justice, nature and the geography of difference. Cambridge: Blackwell.
Heynen, N. C., & Barnes, T. J. (2011). Forward to the 2011 edition. In Bunge, W., Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution (pp. vii–xvi). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Massey, D. (1993). Power-geometry and a progressive sense of place. In J. Bird, B. Curtis, T. Putnam, G. Robertson, & L. Tickner (Eds.), Mapping the futures: Local cultures, global change (pp. 59–69). London and New York: Routledge.
McMichael, P. (1990). Incorporating Comparison within a World-Historical Perspective: An Alternative Comparative Method. American Sociological Review, 55(3), 385–397.
Ollman, B. (2003). Dance of the dialectic: steps in Marx’s method. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Peake, L., & Sheppard, E. (2014). The Emergence of Radical/Critical Geography within North America. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 13(2). Retrieved from
Povinelli, E. A. (2011). Economies of abandonment: social belonging and endurance in late liberalism. Durham, NC: Duke 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.
Safransky, S. (2014). Greening the urban frontier: Race, property, and resettlement in Detroit. Geoforum, 56, 237–248.
Safransky, S. (2016). Rethinking Land Struggle in the Postindustrial City. Antipode (early online version).
Shaw, W. S. (2007). Cities of Whiteness. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Solnit, R., & Jelly-Schapiro, J. (2016). Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Spence, L. K. (2015). Knocking the hustle: against the neoliberal turn in black politics. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books.
Weissman, E. (2014). Brooklyn’s agrarian questions. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 30(01), 92–102.
Wright, M. (2006). Differences that Matter. In N. Castree & D. Gregory (Eds.), David Harvey: a critical reader (pp. 80–101). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

The Sweet Chill of Winter: Reflections on Land-Based Research


2015 sugar production

Winter has finally come to Mississauga territory. Over the last few days we have felt the temperature drop and stoked our fires a little more consistently. The long term forecast is calling for lower temperatures from now until spring. And unlike most of Southern Ontario, I’m glad.

You see, the freakishly warm temperatures in December and January had my family asking: will we sugar this year? The unusually balmy air means that the ice has been vacant of ice huts and much of the ice fishing that usually takes place. The lack of snow means that the ground hasn’t had a chance to rest, the trees haven’t had a chance to sleep, to prepare for the rush of spring. My body has been as stymied as my Missisauga landscape has been, as it has been unsure of what season it’s in, and what season it should be preparing for. Last year at this time my family was deep in preparations to tap trees; we were in conversation with fellow community members about when we would be tapping. This year, the balmy weather has dictated for us, and the trees: sugar is off the table.

While Ontarians have been thanking the gods of climate change for the warm weather, this Mississauga girl is wondering where her food is going to come from. Because, what the grocery-store centric food system lets us forget is that in these parts, winter has been integral to our Indigenous food systems. The seasons seem to flow together so that the land is able to provide us with all the things we need to make this place our home. With imported colonial ideologies and laws, modes of governance, and yes, imported food, it is easy to gloss over the place-based Indigenous culture that has grown out of this territory. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good avocado as much as the next Indigenista, so I’m not harping on the fact that foods from other places are brought here. I’m concerned with the fact that the temperature rising is disrupting our Indigenous food system. Plus, let’s not lie to ourselves and say we didn’t have Indigenous trade networks before the present manifestation of the dominant food system. We did. I don’t need your capitalism to get my avocados.

What I’m worried about is that this year my family won’t be reinvigorating our land-based relations with the maple trees, and each other. We won’t be re-learning the lessons taught through the maple sugaring that Leanne Simpson (2014) has described. While last year I was doing “field work” in my family’s sugarbush; this year, I am talking about how we won’t be tapping trees. My Indigenous research method of engaging in Nishinaabeg practices on the land (see for example the calls to action and research practices of Indigenous scholars: Alfred and Corntassel, 2006; Simpson, 2011, 2014) faces the major obstacle of changing temperatures and unpredictable seasons. Perhaps the trees are not as confused as I am, because, as botanist and Potawatomi scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer has pointed out, “Maples have a far more sophisticated system for detecting spring than we do” (2013, 65). It is possible that the trees know exactly what is going on and don’t buy in to my worrying. Though, given scientific data on how the maple trees are doing, I doubt they aren’t worried. Longitudinal studies show that the sugaring season is shorter, the maple syrup production less, and that maple trees are likely to be extirpated in our region within the next 100 years (Murphy, Chretien and Brown, 2009). I cannot imagine a world without maple syrup, but what I am truly concerned about here are the Nishinaabeg principles that won’t be practiced through this generations old endeavor.

If Indigenous governance arises out of the land on which the nations are made, what happens to that nation’s governance when the practices are not possible? What happens when the practices are made impossible, through the extension of colonial domination that is the long-term shift of the natural environment? Where do we locate justice, when the violence is not a spectacular event, or a personified wrong-doing, but the slow and steady rising of the thermostat (see Rob Nixon, 2011 on slow violence)? People might miss their maple syrup if the maple trees lose their seasons, but Nishnaabeg will be missing an entire pedagogical practice.

So I’m glad to see the temperature drop. I’m glad to think that, if it gets as cold for as long as is being predicted, I’ll be out walking on the lake in my snowshoes in a week. And I’m relieved that there is at least a little snow and a little freezing to give our territory a much-needed rest.


Works Cited

Alfred, T. and Corntassel, J. 2005. Being Indigenous: Resurgences Against Contemporary Colonialism. Government & Opposition 40(4), pp. 597–614.

Murphy, B. Chrétien, A. and Brown, L. 2009. How Do We Come to Know? Exploring Maple Syrup Production and Climate Change in Near North Ontario. Geography.   Paper 2.

Nixon, R. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Simpson, L. 2014. Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3(3), pp. 1-25.

Simpson, L. 2011. Dancing on our Turtle’s Back. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishers.

Wall Kimmerer, R. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.


Growing Culturally Acceptable Local Food Systems

Photo by nunavut is licensed under CC2.0

Photo by nunavut is licensed under CC2.0

In most cases when I try to explain in a brief sentence the focus of my research to family or friends unfamiliar with food studies and the recent debates of the field, they walk away with the two words: immigrants and local food. Their follow up question often hinges on the question of how immigrants, particularly new arrivals from countries with distinctly different climates, geographies and cuisines can maintain their traditional diets in a new country. Does supporting locally cultivated and produced food in a new country require giving up traditional diets? The question is a valid one, how can local food movements in the basic sense of food provisioning accommodate for non-local diets? Asked differently, how can products that are not native to Ontario’s local foodshed be produced locally? In some cases it can be effectively impossible. Despite a variety of technological and scientific improvements and changes, Canada, even in its more temperate locations, does not have the appropriate climate to grow certain plants. (Coconuts, plantains, coffee, and mangoes are just a few that come to mind).  However, there are several edible plants that have grown in Canada for generations, but have never been farmed or sold widely for general consumption. Similarly many plants that have not traditionally grown in Canada can thrive in our climate and soil. What has been lacking is often information and political will. This has slowly begun to change and a variety of organizations and actors in Toronto have in recent years been working to research the viability of increasing local production of this produce, which is referred to as world foods, ethnic crops, cultural foods, among other names.

Research has been varied, but largely focused on identifying the barriers to increasing production of ethnic crops, necessary steps to increase support for farmers interested in growing these crops and consumer surveys to evaluate demand (Adekunle et al., 2012.; Feeding Diversity) The Worlds Crop Initiative, a joint partnership of the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, The Stop Community Centre, and Vineland Research and Innovation Centre has researched the optimal growing and storage conditions of several of these crops and produced guides that are freely available for those interested in growing them. The McVean Farm Incubator Program run by FarmStart has offered new farmers interested in growing these crops the space and facilities required to get their projects off the ground. Increasing production of Locally Grown Global Crops is even one of the six broad projects supported by the Toronto Food Strategy team. Other initiatives have worked to increase the profile of locally grown crops of this variety, such as the Toronto Environmental Alliance Locally Grown Culturally-Specific Food Guides aimed at Chinese, South Asian, Middle Eastern and African/Caribbean populations. These initiatives show that providing locally grown global crops is definitely on the agenda in agricultural and political conversations about food in Ontario, but the conversation should not end here.

While it is extremely important that the local food system is able to provide a wider variety of produce to cater to the diverse population that lives and eats in Ontario today, to reduce the question of immigrant participation in local food to vegetables is to miss the larger picture. As stated by Hammelman and Hayes-Conroy, “When cultural acceptability becomes little more than access to ‘‘multicultural ingredients,’’ we risk losing sight of the original target—culturally sensitive food practice and policy” (2015, 40).  The local food system needs to move past the simple model of inclusion of immigrants through inclusion of new food items and actually restructure itself in a way that fundamentally represents the variety of people living in Ontario. New immigrants disproportionally experience food insecurity, with 19.7% of respondents compared to the national average of 12.5% (Tarasuk et al., 2013). Improving their rates of food security will require more than simply providing locally grown vegetables that are familiar. The initiatives listed above do not cease to be important, but need to be part of a larger strategy to reform the food system to represent marginalized populations, especially considering the continuing extremely high rates of food insecurity reported by Latin American, Aboriginal and black households. Fostering cultural acceptability in the food system must be seen as a process that is continually negotiated, not a list of produce. To better understand the ways in which the food system is currently failing certain groups, research needs to be conducted directly with these communities to record their stories and viewpoints. This research needs to move past analysing these groups solely as consumers and a potential market, but as actors with complex identities, experiences and viewpoints. Culturally acceptability depends on moving past diverse food provisioning to increasing representation of new immigrants, racialized communities and indigenous communities in the process of food system policy formation.

Read more:

Adekunle, B., G. Filson and S. Sethuratnam. (2012) Culturally appropriate vegetables and economic development: A contextual analysis. Appetite 59 (2012) 148-154

Feeding Diversity. Community Access and Commercialization of World Crops. (2013) Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, Toronto Public Health and the Toronto Food Policy Council.

Hammelman, C. and Hayes-Conroy, A. (2015) Understanding Cultural Acceptability for Urban Food Policy Journal of Planning Literature 30(1) 37-48

Kelleher, S, C. Lam, M. Skowronski and V Vaidyanathan. (2009) World Foods, Local Production Report. Ed. Ellise Goarley, Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation

Tarasuk, V, Mitchell, A, Dachner, N. (2015). Household food insecurity in Canada, 2013. Toronto: Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity (PROOF).

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.

More Celebration, Less Self-Congratulation.


301122_1771208095024_1163782_nOne of the reasons I love researching food and food movements is because of the celebration involved in producing and eating food – harvest celebrations, family dinners, and communal cooking parties (in my case, these last two tend to involve perogies). At the same time, food movements in North America have been critiqued as self-congratulatory, celebrating dominant norms and assumptions around what ‘good’ food is, leading to the reproduction of structures of oppression relating to race, class, and other forms of privilege.

I’ve been reminded both of the necessity of celebration and the dangers of celebration/self-congratulation as a result of the recent flutter of news articles, facebook posts, and other popular media articulating pride and joy at the arrival of Syrian refugees in Canada these past weeks. Celebrating refugees and all peoples who continue to be resilient despite violence is imperative. However, it seems to me that much of the popular media is celebrating something rather different.

What comes across to me in many of these articles is the celebration of the benevolence of the Canadian state for ‘accepting’ a fraction of a much larger refugee population, when, in reality, it could open its borders to all refugees, it polices borders in a way that criminalizes certain bodies but not others, and it continues as the engine of the settler colonial project. Who is celebrating, who is celebrated, the intention and the outcome of the celebration all matter. Celebration can sometimes do more harm than good – particularly when the line between celebration and self-congratulation becomes blurred and discourses act to “exalt certain ways of being and disparage others” (Guthman 2011, p. 6) in ways that reproduce racism, sexism, colonialism, and so on.

Guthman makes this point in relation to food movements in North America – where ‘good food’ is often celebrated without unpacking assumptions behind what good food is or paying attention to who’s doing the defining. Using the movie Food Inc. as an example Flowers and Swan explain how the North America food movement often positions (and through this positioning, celebrates) certain people (i.e. white males), who possess the right kind of knowledge, as “the good knower.” (2011, p. 245). At the same time, ‘others’ (i.e. people of colour, consumers, food workers, single mothers) are presented as needing this knowledge and needing help to access this knowledge.

Celebrating and increasing consumption of certain foods as ‘superfoods’ by a largely white middle class portion of foodie circles has also been critiqued as ‘food gentrification.’ Mikki Kendall coined this term, arguing that “one of the perils’ of “elevating” foods away from their source cultures is that many things are not easily replaceable, or even accessible in all communities.” She asks: “as coconut, quinoa, mangoes, and other subtropical goods come into vogue in the West, how are the communities where those foods are staples faring?… As each gentrified food moves out of the financial range of those at the lowest income level, the question of what will be left for the poor to eat becomes more pressing.” (Read more from Mikki Kendall’s post and check out another solid piece on food gentrification by Soleil Ho here).

So, how can young (white) academics like me do research that is celebratory but not self-congratulatory? And how can those of us involved in food activism engage a movement that celebrates in a way that resists structures of oppression instead of reproducing them? A starting point might be asking questions like: who are we celebrating? What is our intention in celebrating certain people/peoples/groups? What is the outcome of celebration? Does it reproduce dominant structures of oppression? Patriarchy? White supremacy? Colonialism? A starting point might be asking these sorts of questions and celebrating accordingly – especially if this means changing how we celebrate, who we celebrate, and what kinds of celebrations we support.


Flowers, Rick and Elaine Swan. (2011). ‘Eating at Us’: Representations of Knowledge in the Activist Documentary Film Food, Inc. Studies in the Education of Adults. 43(2),234-248.

Guthman, Julie. (2011). Weighing in: obesity, food justice and the limits of capitalism. University of California Press.

Ho, Soleil. (2014). #Foodgentrification and culinary rebranding of traditional foods. bitch media. Retrieved from:

Kendall, Mikki. (2014). #Breaking Black: 1 in 5 children face food insecurity. The Grio. Retrieved from:

Local Food Production in Canada’s First National Urban Park

We all know that there is a lot of pressure on graduate researchers to produce work that is authentic and unique. While this pressure can be stressful and overwhelming, it is a great opportunity to grow as a researcher and a writer – something we often fail to embrace in the moment. With this pressure in mind, when I started looking into my research project, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to articulate my contribution in an informative and productive manner. I have spent my entire life in Scarborough, Ontario so when I heard about the Rouge National Urban Park initiative it piqued my interest. An important focus of this initiative is to provide a sustainable and healthy community through locally based food production (RNUP Management Plan, 2014). According to the Rouge National Urban Park management plan, the national urban park status will allow park visitors to reconnect with farms and farmers while providing farmers with the opportunities to showcase new ways of farming that are effective and rewarding for the community (2014). This initiative is a first for Canada and the park is expected to be among the biggest national urban parks in Canada and the United States.

While this is a great opportunity for Canada – especially for cities like Toronto, Markham and Pickering – there are several external factors associated with an initiative of such magnitude. A lot of my research looks at community participation, environmental governance and power dynamics in the creation of Canada’s first national urban park. The purpose here has been to investigate if and how the diversity of local communities is being included in the development of the park, how “relevant communities” are defined and incorporated into park planning processes; and to explore the impacts of the park on these communities, particularly in relation to the stated goals of the park (e.g. local food production and the distribution of food to low income neighbourhoods).

As I analyzed the management plan to see how the proposed land expansion will benefit the community, it became evident that the language in which the objectives are outlined is vague and unclear. While it discusses the potential for a sustainable and healthy community through locally based food production, it does not provide the contextual information that is needed to understand the proposed objectives. As of now it fails to mention if there are current farming practices that are ecologically sustainable, what kind of diversity currently exists, leasing concerns for tenant farmers, information on current stewardship and how this park is expected to improve farm infrastructure and productivity for surrounding communities. Several environmental organizations have also argued that the type of language used throughout this management plan, along with the vague descriptions of how community members have been included throughout the process, make it difficult to appreciate and/or support such a plan.

It has been an extraordinary experience to do interviews and attend events geared towards this initiative. While the writing process can be overwhelming at times, it has been remarkable and motivating to hear how others feel about this project. The Rouge National Urban Park presents both challenges and opportunities for the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) as issues of inclusion, exclusion and sustainable development remain at the forefront. Keep a look out for important research findings and more on productive conversations I’ve had with local farmers and community members in the GTA!



Fish, R., Seymour, S., & Watkins, C. (2006). Sustainable Farmland Management as Political and Cultural Discourse. The Geographic Journal, 172(3), 183-189.

Macaraig, M. (2011). Nature’s Keepers: Civil society actors and the neoliberalisation of conservation in the Rouge Park. Local Environment, 16(4), 357-374.

Parks Canada. (2014) Rouge National Urban Park Management Plan. Retrieved from…/rouge/~/…/rouge/…/Rouge_Plan_Draft_EN.ashx

Pond, D. (2009). Ontario’s Greenbelt: Growth Management, Farmland Protection, and Regime Change in Southern Ontario. Canadian Public Policy, 35(4), 413-432.

Beyond Street Meat?

Hot Dog Cart

The official motto of Toronto (2015) is “diversity our strength”; yet, when it comes to the local street food scene, the city has been critiqued for failing to live up to this banner (Siabanis, 2012). This is arguably not a result of a lack of initiative. In 2009, the City of Toronto started the “A La Cart” program, a government-supported initiative that aimed to widen street food offerings by introducing branded carts with expanded, “healthier” menus (Siabanis, 2012). This project, however, was terminated in 2011 by City Council (Cook, 2014); it was ultimately not profitable for vendors, and featured several barriers to participation, such as a ban on making modifications to existing carts (Siabanis, 2012).

Following A La Cart’s demise, a Street Food Working Group was established to explore the possibility of expanding menus at Toronto’s hot dog carts. In June 2012, City Council approved the Working Group’s recommendations, amending municipal by-laws to remove legal restrictions on the types of food that street food vendors may sell from their carts or trucks. Vendors became permitted to serve what they wished, so long as their premises met Toronto Public Health’s standards regarding preparation capacity and food storage (Cook, 2014).

This change theoretically opened the door for street food vendors in Toronto to feature a wider array of product offerings at their stands. However, as of late 2014, the menus at many carts remained limited, with few selling more than an assortment of hot dogs and sausages. Why was this the case? Could things actually change? Would it be feasible to have a greater assortment of food sold at Toronto’s hot dog carts?

Working in partnership with the Toronto Food Strategy, two undergraduate colleagues and I set out to provide preliminary answers to these questions.

Over the fall and winter of 2014-2015, we held informal conversations with a sample of the city’s hot dog vendors from the downtown core. My collaborators and I asked vendors about the challenges they faced in running their businesses, their current menus, and whether they had any “dream dish” ideas of their own. While the full version of our report can be found here, the central findings of our research are worth briefly highlighting.

Downtown Map

Through our conversations with vendors, we learned that cart owners and operators were indeed interested in expanding their menus. Nearly everyone we spoke with had at least one dream dish that they wanted to add to their lineups and sell from their carts. Multiple vendors stated that they wished to supply fries, burgers, steak, and souvlaki from their stands. Others furnished more unique responses: shawarma, biryani, Japanese noodles, and Bulgarian-style ground spiced meat; chicken, ribs, lettuce wraps, and bean chili; sandwiches, salads, and warm breakfast muffins; coffee, hot chocolate, and organic honey beer were all mentioned by vendors as potential additions to their existing menus.

Dream Dish 2

Many of these dream dishes reflected a desire by vendors to express their own cultural backgrounds in their carts; however, business considerations also guided these suggestions. The product ideas that vendors discussed were seen as ways to make additional profits during slow winter months, to offset competition from fast food restaurants and food courts, and to keep up with rival cart and food truck operators. In asking about their dream dishes, then, my collaborators and I learned that vendors did wish to expand their menus to include a wider selection of items.

Yet, despite these desires, vendors were reluctant to make any tangible changes to their current product lineups. The reasons for this were four-fold.


Space: In order to be able to add more items to their menus, vendors needed additional space to prepare, refrigerate, and store this food. Some also said the design or layout of their cart would have to change to accommodate the equipment that selling new products would require. Vendors argued that existing regulations were preventing them from making these changes. City bylaws specify that vendors are not allowed to take up more than 2.32 square metres of sidewalk space. Cart owners and operators felt these sidewalk footprint rules were too restrictive. They wanted the City to give them more room to operate. One vendor specifically requested “an extra 4 feet” of space on the sidewalk, a change he felt would allow him to introduce shawarma to his cart. Another vendor feared that modifying his grill setup – an adjustment he thought was necessary to expand his menu – would draw the attention of the City and cause him to be shut down. He complained: “We’re limited – they like to micromanage.” There was a general consensus among vendors that the City must allow them to take up more space on the sidewalk, and adopt a more hands-off approach when it came to cart layout, in order for them to effectively expand their menus.

Permits: Permits were seen as another barrier. Vendors thought that excessive paperwork would be involved in expanding their menus. Many were also unclear about how the permit process worked or what City permits allowed for. Some vendors thought their dream dish ideas would not be approved by the City, and that they would be shut down if they tried to introduce new items. Others believed, incorrectly, that they had to seek out a special permit to sell new products. Talk of needing to get a “fries permit” at an additional fee was common. One vendor knew that he would have to request a change to his existing permit if he was to introduce new items, but he viewed this process as too much of a hassle. There was thus a lot of uncertainty and animosity among vendors about the permitting process, and this was partly to blame for a lack of action on the part of vendors to expand their menus.

Demand: A perceived lack of public demand and fears of high competition were a third barrier. Some vendors felt it would be too risky to sell new items in their carts. There was no guarantee that people would buy them, especially if food trucks or restaurants were nearby that already sold similar products. In addition, a few vendors were concerned that people would never go to a hot dog cart to buy something other than a hot dog or sausage. To quote one vendor: “If you’re gonna eat healthy, you’re not gonna come here.” A fear that any new items simply would not sell was another factor responsible for keeping cart menus limited.

Employment Status: A final barrier to menu expansion raised by vendors was their employment status. Some who had compelling ideas for new products were simply waged or salaried employees, and were not the actual cart owners. These workers felt that their thoughts could not result in action because they did not have the power to challenge their bosses about the current cart menus. This sense of precarity also functioned to maintain the menu status-quo.

The revelation of these four barriers prompted my collaborators and I to present the following recommendations to the Toronto Food Strategy:

1) The City should work with vendors, local business improvement areas, and other actors to reformulate its by-laws about the use of sidewalk space. Spatial constraints were, by far, the most-cited barrier to menu expansion. Providing vendors with more room to prepare, store, and refrigerate their food could allow them to add to their menus. At the same time, issuing more space may help alleviate prospective public fears of spoilage or poor sanitation, if potential customers can see that vendors are able to make adjustments to keep pace with enhanced offerings.

2) The City should strengthen its communication with hot dog vendors, particularly in terms of conveying its rules. There seemed to be a lot of confusion surrounding permits, what vendors were legally allowed to sell, and how they were to go about getting permission to do so. Better outreach could help address this uncertainty, increase trust with the City, and reduce fears of spontaneous shut-downs that many cart operators worried may occur if they decided to modify their menus. Information that is shared with cart owners should also be communicated to their employees, wherever this is applicable.

3) Finally, vendors must be shown that an actual demand does indeed exist for expanded menu offerings. Cart owners will not make changes to their menus unless they can be assured that the public will respond favourably. Surveys, product taste-tests, and marketing assistance, perhaps with help from the City or the private sector, are some of the potential ways that this demand can be demonstrated to those with the greatest capacity to effect change.

As this preliminary research demonstrates, food carts in Toronto need not just sell hot dogs – the potential is there, in our city, to move beyond street meat.



City of Toronto. (2015). Coat of arms and city motto. Retrieved from

Cook, T. (2014). New opportunities for Toronto’s street food vendors. Retrieved from

Province of Ontario. (2010). Appendix: Nutrition standards for Ontario schools. Retrieved from

Siabanis, N. (2012, Jan. 6). Grey Toronto: The food vending situation. Spacing. Retrieved from

When the Field is Home: Building a Latina Feminist Research Praxis

Check out Madelaine’s new blog post reflecting on the challenges and possibilities of doing research!

madelaine c. cahuas, PhD

I’m almost a month into starting my interviews with Latin American women across the Greater Toronto Area who have been, or are currently involved in social and environmental justice activism; and I’m overwhelmed in the best way possible. After much internal turmoil of how I was going to present my research project to community members and my compañerxs, my work has received more interest than I ever anticipated. My worry stemmed from the ways researchers have historically, and continue to extract knowledge from racialized and working-class communities to further agendas that do little to nothing to work in solidarity with their struggles for liberation. I knew that the people I wanted to speak to, Latin American activists, would already be keenly aware of this and would most likely challenge me to consider the contradictions of my position as a Latina conducting research with her “ethnic community” in the academy.


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Welcome to the FEAST website and blog!

At long last, the Food, Equity, and Activism Study Team (FEAST) website is ready to go.

FEAST is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council -funded team of researchers who explore the various ways different communities organize around social justice issues, particularly – although not exclusively – in relation to food. We are especially interested in how equity-seeking groups (particularly communities of colour and Indigenous communities) in North America engage with social justice and /or food system issues, as well as how “mainstream” environmental and food activist groups reach out to (and /or work in solidarity with) equity-seeking communities.

In pursuing this research agenda, we want to contribute to conversations about tough issues: for example, ongoing racism, sexism and colonial practices in society, including within groups that are actively seeking social change.

We also want to spend time developing and sharing information about practices – in doing research, teaching, and living our lives – that help contribute to social justice.  We will be writing about all these experiences on our shared blog… so watch this space for future posts!


FEAST project description

Hello and welcome to the website for the Food, Equity, and Activism Study Team (FEAST) based at the University of Toronto in the Department of Geography and Planning. Our Research Team is composed of Professor Sarah Wakefield and her graduate students: Madelaine Cahuas, Michael Chrobok, Jina Gill, Lauren Kepkiewicz, Jillian Linton, Sam Walker, Madeline Whetung and Nil Alt.

Research Project

FEAST is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded project that explores the various ways different communities organize around social justice issues, particularly – although not exclusively – in relation to food. We are especially interested in how equity-seeking groups (particularly communities of colour and Indigenous communities) in North America engage with social justice and /or food system issues, as well as how “mainstream” environmental and food activist groups reach out to (and /or work in solidarity with) equity-seeking communities.

The overall project consists of a series of separate but complementary case studies. These case studies each highlight a particular issue, focusing on how differences in class, race, and indigeneity affect inclusion (and exclusion) in spaces and organizations, and how these processes operate at different local, regional, and national scales.

A multi-sited, team ethnographic approach is used; multiple venues are accessed for shorter periods than in traditional ethnographic research in order to gather data across multiple sites and scales. The researcher in charge of each case study will embed her/himself in our partner communities and organizations, conducting participant observation as well as in-depth interviews and document analysis. Analysis will focus on identifying how individuals, communities, and organizations work within (and across) different perspectives on what constitutes sustainable and equitable food systems, and how their work is structured by the overlapping systems of oppression that shape our society. Through this analysis, we hope to identify positive strategies for working across difference, and also to highlight additional opportunities for collaboration and inclusion. Research findings will be shared with project partners in a variety of ways throughout the process, to ensure that the study meets the needs of our partners and the wider community.