Me at the 2017 AAG

The 2017 annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers kicks off tomorrow in Boston, and, despite some serious concerns about the inclusivity of the event in Trump’s America, I’m looking forward to attending. This year, perhaps unwisely, I am giving four separate presentations. In chronological order….

On Thursday morning at 8:00, in Constitution A on the Sheraton second floor, I’ll be participating in the “Whither the Growth Machine I: Financialization and the Rescaling of the Growth Machine” session organized by John Stehlin and Alexander Tarr. My paper is titled “Post-City Politics”, and applies the logic of the local growth machine to some of the new, decidedly non-local configurations of growth-oriented urban governance. The abstract is as follows:

In 1968, Melvin Webber declared the impending arrival of the “post-city era”, in which the growing importance of knowledge production activities would dramatically reduce place-boundedness, and the city would disappear through the generalization of its social order. This prediction turned out to be wrong—city and regional agglomerations are more important to national and international social orders than ever before—but in this paper I argue that we are now witnessing the arrival of “post-city politics” in the United States.

Scholarship on growth machines and the new urban politics relies on a fundamental correspondence between the structure of local economies as common labor and property markets, and the institutional arenas of urban politics. My analysis shows that such a correspondence can no longer be assumed. The characteristic questions of growth machine analysis—urban development and elite growth coalitions—are less and less strongly tied to the city as a specific bounded, modular spatial configuration in the US. Suburbanization, economic globalization, state rescaling, and urban financialization have destabilized the structural basis for local growth coalition formation. Consequently, local elites are driven to look for new governance configurations to address the regulatory problems they encounter at the local scale. Localities are no longer stable containers for the politics of growth.

I substantiate this argument through a comparative analysis of new large-scale growth coalitions across the US. The era of strong and enduring local growth machines—of city-bound urban politics—is fading. This paper is an exploration of what is rising to take its place.

Immediately after this session finishes, I’ll be heading over to Room 111 in the Plaza Level of Hynes for the “Planetary Urbanization 2: Ecology, Politics and the Anthropocene” session organized by Christian Schmid. Although I’m listed as the session introducer, this is actually just an accounting fiction to get around AAG regulations, and I’ll be presenting a full paper. It is “Green and grey: New ideologies of nature in urban sustainability politics”, a paper I have co-written with Hillary Angelo. The abstract is as follows, although in the presentation we will focus more than the abstract suggests on the city-centrism of contemporary urban sustainability discourse:

In the past two decades, cities have come to be understood as environmental solutions instead of environmental problems. The rise of “urban sustainability” as a new policy common sense is the most notable product of this shift. This paper offers a framework for interpreting contemporary ideas of urban sustainability, based on a distinction between green urban nature and grey urban nature as two representations of city-environment relations. Green urban nature is the return of nature to the city in its most verdant form, signified by street trees, urban gardens, and the greening of post-industrial landscapes. Grey urban nature is the concept of social, technological urban space as already inherently sustainable, signified by dense urban cores, high-speed public transit, and energy-efficient buildings. First, we sketch out an intellectual history of the city-nature binary, and introduce the concept of “post-binary” urban nature to characterize contemporary discourse which sees that binary as having been superseded. Next, we develop Lefebvre’s ideas of the realistic and transparent illusions as the constitutive ideologies of the social production of space to argue that the post-binary imaginary is in fact still constituted by green and grey representational dimensions. Finally, we concretize the implications of this argument through a case study of the Masdar smart city project in Abu Dhabi, and then discuss urban sustainability as a distinctively post-binary concept.

Later on Thursday I’m honoured to be the discussant for the Territory, Politics, Governance annual lecture, organized by the Regional Studies Association. The lecture, taking place at 3:20 PM in Constitution A on the Sheraton second floor, is being given by Maarten Hajer, and is titled “Imagining the post-fossil city: Why is it so difficult to think of new possible worlds?”. The abstract of Dr. Hajer’s talk is as follows:

Why is it so difficult to think of new possible urban futures? Countless papers and reports start with the reiteration that the trend towards urbanization will continue. ‘In 2050 up to 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities.’ While recognizing this macro-trend it is clear that building cities according to the principles that emerged over the 20th Century, with a dominant role for auto-mobility, and widely dispersed ‘enclavism’, will lead to an environmental disaster. Yet the transition to ‘post-fossil urbanization’ is slow in coming. Prof. Hajer argues that this has to do with the fact that we lack new imaginaries, new appealing conceptions of future city life. In his talk he will reflect on the question why we have lost the capacity to imagine alternative urban futures. Learning from the literature on Science Fiction and practices like ‘research by design’ Hajer aims to recoup our capacity to think of alternative possible worlds.

I’m really looking forward to engaging with Dr. Hajer on the future of cities and the environment.

Finally, on Sunday afternoon at 2:00 PM in the Berkeley room on the third floor of the Marriott, I’m excited to be participating in an author-meets-critics session for Theresa Enright’s incredible book “The Making of Grand Paris: Metropolitan Urbanism in the Twenty-First Century”. It’s a terrific book and a terrific set of scholars discussing it, so it should be a lot of fun, despite the end-of-conference time slot!

Needless to say, I’m also looking forward to attending some sessions where I don’t have to give a presentation. I haven’t had a chance to look at the full program yet, but the “Contradictions of the Climate Friendly City” sessions look excellent, and that’s where I’m planning to spend my Friday afternoon.