In the name of urban growth Mexico City officials have approved “self-devouring” infrastructure projects, displacing and endangering residents and threatening the city’s very survival. For the “Layered Metropolis” series, Dean Chahim examines how the El Ángulo dam exposes the dangerous dynamic of a weakened state confronting (or not confronting) the forces of mobile global capitalism. While Chahim’s research is grounded in the specific history and realities of Mexico City’s complex drainage system, his analysis reveals much more general contours of the potentially lethal relationship between the pressures of global capital interests and development in dense urban spaces.
With the United Nations projecting that 68 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, there is almost no aspect of life untouched by the relationship of humans to the built environment. “Layered Metropolis” intends to convey the multifaceted dynamics of the city and the life of city dwellers through a glimpse into the research of a number of SSRC fellows from across our programs. These essays represent a wide range of disciplines, research approaches, historical moments, and geographies that explore spatial politics, technology, policing, and diverse urban communities.
From Brooklyn to Bogotá, social knowledge about access to space and services, who benefits from gentrification, who is erased in the urban landscape, the racial and class implications of proposed changes to a city, or the maintenance of the status quo can reveal the interconnected injustices cemented in the city. Powerful actors, such as the state, can organize and manipulate space to their priorities and needs, whether it’s the promotion of greening practices of Soviet communism or expanding homeownership in Asia. Yet, despite these actors’ designs, built spaces are imbued with multiple meanings and capture the simultaneity of experiences in the city. From architecture to anthropology, the different disciplinary perspectives present in this series investigate the hidden and hierarchical layers of urban landscapes. Deeper understandings of these complexities, many of contributors argue, is essential to addressing them.
The geographies to be explored here show the deep connection of the city to broader political and social concerns, including inequality and insecurity, racialized citizenship, and climate change. “Layered Metropolis” provides an overview of the state and dynamism of urban studies and sheds light on the role of the city in the past, present, and imagined futures.
In the slum settlements of India, individual slum leaders, acting as party workers, play dynamic roles that connect local residents to national political parties. This local leadership aids residents in making demands for public services, and also mobilizes votes, but it also means there are great disparities in the level of local services and development. In this essay for our “Layered Metropolis” series, based on his book Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Good Provision in India’s Urban Slums, Adam Auerbach examines the work of local leaders and party networks in two north Indian cities to understand this phenomenon.
Maria Taylor’s examination of greenspace in Soviet urban planning is especially timely in its discussion of unequal access to parks and open space, and awareness of the political resonance of that inequality. Expressive of Soviet ideals of socialist modernity, the “garden-factories” were intended to signal support for industrial productivity, worker dignity, as well as the aesthetic, social, and hygienic mediation between industrial hazards (environmental and otherwise) and workers’ health. Conceived and designed to convey “care for workers,” factory green sites had an important political role to play in the Soviet Union—“greenwashing” rapid industrialization, but also offering up a distinctly Soviet urban theory and practice that nurtured a certain relationship between nature, the built environment, politicization, and mass protest.
Sheetal Chhabria’s contribution to “Layered Metropolis” illuminates the purposeful work that has been part of city-making in India—from colonial Bombay to present-day Mumbai. For over a century, distinctions of dwelling types, categories of laborers, and delineations of economic activity have been used to codify and recodify the political standing of space, in particular what is considered “urban.” Chhabria’s example of Bombay/Mumbai illustrates how language and official (and unofficial) categorizations have served the interests of certain institutions and groups within India’s spatial governance and that supposed “crises of urbanism” are part of a much larger context of racial capitalism across the cities of the world.
What is the relationship between the built environment, social interaction, crime, policing, and resident experience? Patience Adzande seeks to answer these connected questions through an examination of Makurdi, Nigeria, by showing the limits of urban planning and insufficient infrastructure—including lapses in formal policing. These shortcomings have left many residents to create their own “territorial markers”—including constructing walls and fences—which have had significant impact on social interaction with and experience of the urban space, often not achieving the deterrence in crime residents sought. Adzande’s contribution to the “Layered Metropolis” series offers sobering analysis of the limits of formal urban intervention at the same time that it offers some prescription for policy for an improved future in the lives of city residents.
In November 1970, the SSRC’s Joint Committee on African Studies convened its second conference on the study of urbanization in African countries. This conference focused primarily on the relationship between marketplaces and other economic centers with urban settlements, both large and small. Here, committee member Walter W. Deshler reports on the papers presented, which looked at a range of approaches to understanding urbanization in multiple settings, including Sierra Leone, Kenya, and southern Africa. After assessing the extant research on this topic, Deshler explains the committee saw a need for more attention to urban questions in eastern and western Africa, as well as research that focused on the social processes and social structures that produce urbanization.
In the late 1950s the SSRC convened the Committee on Urbanization to assess the state of urban studies, gathering social scientists from a wide range of disciplines. In reviewing literature of that time, the committee focused on four broad topics that required further scholarly attention: the relationship between metropolis and region; urban morphology and functions; the process of urbanization; and the consequences of urbanism. Among the committee’s conclusions were encouraging more comparative historical work on urbanization and the expansion of urbanization studies in the Global South.
The spatial history of São Paulo’s Brasilândia neighborhood reveals broader truths about the city. From its origins in the early twentieth century through the 1985 Black Women’s Collective celebration of the renaming of a public plaza to the city’s plan for its newest metro stop, Andrew Britt’s work shows how African descendants in São Paulo were persistently displaced and persistently present. The racialized space of Brasilandia tells a layered story of Black enslavement, forced migration, urban redevelopment, and Black self-determination, with echoes far beyond São Paulo.
The creation of, and responses to, Bogotá’s Center of Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation is one example that makes clear the fraught relationship of Colombia’s violent past to its urban future. Federico Pérez shows how city governments, developers, and ordinary people continue to assert their interests—symbolic, historical, and financial—over space in the Colombian capital, whether its demolishing a cemetery or fighting to preserve a working-class neighborhood. These conflicts put in sharp relief the connection between unresolved legacies of civil war and violence and urban space and renewal.
As cities are gentrified by developers and new residents, their work is often cast as saving the city and repopulating an empty city in crisis, despite the fact that those spaces are occupied by longtime residents and workers. This is not a race-neutral discourse. Jessi Quizar’s research on Detroit shows the connection between the discourse around “urban pioneers” to Detroit and settler colonialism. And while Quizar’s work makes this connection eminently clear about white gentrifiers in a majority–African American Detroit, her work forces us to consider the language around gentrification more broadly: who is made visible and who is erased in policies about and discussions of urban development?