Epicenter: May 2014

Brenner, Neil, and Nikos Katsikis. 2014. “Is the Mediterranean Urban?” Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization, 428–459. Berlin: Jovis. Publisher's Version Abstract

Is the contemporary Mediterranean zone an urban space? This chapter from the volume Implosions/Explosions reflects on this question through an exploration of recent cartographic evidence compiled from state-of-the-art geospatial datasets created by leading research labs at Columbia University's Earth Institute, the Oak Ridge National Lab, and the European Commission, among others. We begin by considering various representations of concentrated urbanization, with specific reference to traditional indicators such as population (size and density) and the geographical extent of major urban regions. Such representations reveal a thick web of urban development stretching around the Mediterranean zone, albeit mainly in apparently bounded settlement configurations. In a second, more speculative step, we consider several possible representations of extended urbanization, the broad fabric of land uses, infrastructures and sociospatial connectivities that at once facilitate and result from the configuration of dense agglomeration zones. Such maps significantly broaden our understanding of the contemporary urban condition by demonstrating the ways in which the formation of the Mediterranean urban system hinges upon the reorganization of land uses and interspatial connections across the entire continent and beyond. In the early twenty-first century, understanding the “urban” character of the Mediterranean—or any other zone of the earth’s surface—requires not only fine-grained empirical data and cartographic sophistication, but systematic theoretical reflexivity regarding the categories being used to classify sociospatial organization.

Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization

In 1970, Henri Lefebvre put forward the radical hypothesis of the complete urbanization of society, a circumstance that in his view required a radical shift from the analysis of urban form to the investigation of urbanization processes. Drawing together classic and contemporary texts on the “urbanization question”, this book explores various theoretical, epistemological, methodological and political implications of Lefebvre’s hypothesis. It assembles a series of analytical and cartographic interventions that supersede inherited spatial ontologies (urban/rural, town/country, city/non-city, society/nature) in order to investigate the uneven implosions and explosions of capitalist urbanization across places, regions, territories, continents and oceans up to the planetary scale.

Brenner, Neil, and Christian Schmid. 2014. “The ‘Urban Age’ in Question.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38 (3): 731–755. Publisher's Version Abstract

Foreboding declarations about contemporary urban trends pervade early twenty-first century academic, political and journalistic discourse. Among the most widely recited is the claim that we now live in an ‘urban age’ because, for the first time in human history, more than half the world’s population today purportedly lives within cities. Across otherwise diverse discursive, ideological and locational contexts, the urban age thesis has become a form of doxic common sense around which questions regarding the contemporary global urban condition are framed. This article argues that, despite its long history and its increasingly widespread influence, the urban age thesis is a flawed basis on which to conceptualize world urbanization patterns: it is empirically untenable (a statistical artifact) and theoretically incoherent (a chaotic conception). This critique is framed against the background of postwar attempts to measure the world’s urban population, the main methodological and theoretical conundrums of which remain fundamentally unresolved in early twenty-first century urban age discourse. The article concludes by outlining a series of methodological perspectives for an alternative understanding of the contemporary global urban condition.

Brenner, Neil, and Christian Schmid. 2012. “Planetary Urbanization.” Urban Lexicons, 10–13. Jovis. Publisher's Version Abstract

This book project introduces a theory of planetary urbanization via a critique of dominant ideologies of the contemporary ‘urban age’ and associated discourses on global urbanism.  We argue for a new epistemology of urban studies based on the distinction between concentrated and extended urbanization, which is applied to periodize the capitalist mode of territorialization and to illuminate early twenty-first century sociospatial landscapes.

Image of Rahul Mehrotra

Rahul Mehrotra

Faculty Associate. John T. Dunlop Professor in Housing and Urbanization; Chair, Department of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Research interests: The taxonomy of patterns of temporary occupation of space across the globe; and sanitation infrastructure as an organizing instrument for settlements and urban landscapes in flux.

48 Quincy Street
Gund Hall 312
Cambridge, MA 02138
p: (617) 496-1292
Ann  Forsyth

Ann Forsyth

Faculty Associate. Ruth and Frank Stanton Professor of Urban Planning, Department of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Research interests: The social aspects of physical planning with a focus on suburbs and creating healthy places.... Read more about Ann Forsyth
48 Quincy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
p: (617) 496-3587
Brenner, Neil. 2013. “Theses on Urbanization.” Public Culture 25 (1). Public Culture: 85–114. Publisher's Version Abstract

The urban has become a keyword of early twenty-first-century economic, political, and cultural discourse. But as its resonance has intensified in social science and in the public sphere, the conceptual and cartographic specificity of the urban has been severely blunted. Is there any future for a distinct field of urban theory in a world in which urbanization has been generalized onto a planetary scale? This article reflects on this state of affairs and outlines a series of theses intended to reinvigorate the theoretical framework of urban studies in relation to emergent forms of urbanization. Several conceptual distinctions - between categories of practice and categories of analysis, nominal essences and constitutive essences, and concentrated and extended urbanization—are proposed to inform possible future mappings of the planetary urban condition.

Jason Ur

Jason Ur

Faculty Associate. Professor of Anthropology, Department of Anthropology; Director, Center for Geographic Analysis, Harvard University.
Research interests: The origins and early development of urbanism and landscape modification in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran.
11 Divinity Avenue
Peabody Museum
Cambridge, MA 02138
p: (617) 495-8920
José Antonio Gómez-Ibáñez

José Antonio Gómez-Ibáñez

Faculty Associate (emeritus). Derek C. Bok Research Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Research interests: Transportation and infrastructure; privatization and regulation; and economic development.
79 JFK Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
p: (617) 495-1341
Peter K. Bol

Peter K. Bol

Faculty Associate (on leave fall 2022). Charles H. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations; Vice Provost for Advances in Learning;
Founding Director, Center for Geographic Analysis, Harvard University; Harvard College Professor.

Research interests: Intellectual, social, and cultural change in China since the seventh century.

2 Divinity Avenue
Room 221
Cambridge, MA 02138
p: (617) 495-8361
Diane E. Davis

Diane E. Davis

Executive Committee; Steering Committee; Faculty Associate. Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism, Department of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Research interests: Conflict cities; the politics of insecurity; Latin America; cities of the Global South; and relationships between urban violence, informality, policing, and the rule of law.

48 Quincy Street
Gund Hall #319
Cambridge, MA 02138
p: (617) 495-0728