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IMPLOSIONS / EXPLOSIONS
NEIL BRENNER
“I’LL BEGIN WITH THE FOLLOWING HYPOTHESIS:
SOCIETY HAS BEEN COMPLETELY URBANIZED.”
IMPLOSIONS / EXPLOSIONS
NEIL BRENNER IS PROFESSOR OF URBAN THEORY AND DIRECTOR OF THE URBAN
THEORY LAB AT THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF DESIGN ( GSD ) HARVARD UNIVERSITY.
EDITED BY NEIL BRENNER
—HENRI LEFEBVRE, LA RÉVOLUTION URBAINE ( 1970 )
TOWARDS A STUDY OF PLANETARY URBANIZATION
CONTENTS
1 Introduction:
Urban Theory Without an Outside
Neil Brenner
TWO
COMPLETE URBANIZATION—
EXPERIENCE, SITE, PROCESS
THREE
PLANETARY URBANIZATION—
OPENINGS
FOUR
HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHIES OF
URBANIZATION
5 Where Does the City End?
10 The Urbanization of the World
16 Urbs in Rure: Historical Enclosure and the
Matthew Gandy
Edward W. Soja and J. Miguel Kanai
Extended Urbanization of the Countryside
86
142
Álvaro Sevilla-Buitrago
14
ONE
FOUNDATIONS—
THE URBANIZATION QUESTION
236
6 Travelling Warrior and
11 Planetary Urbanization
2 From the City to Urban Society
Complete Urbanization in Switzerland
Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid
17 What is the Urban
Henri Lefebvre
Christian Schmid
160
in the Contemporary World?
36
90
Roberto Luís Monte-Mór
12 The Urban Question Under Planetary
260
3 Cities or Urbanization?
7 Is the Matterhorn City?
Urbanization
David Harvey
Marcel Meili
Andy Merrifield
18 The Urbanization of Switzerland
52
103
164
Christian Schmid
268
4 Networks, Borders, Differences:
8 Extended Urbanization and Settlement Patterns:
13 Theses on urbanization
Towards a Theory of the Urban
an Environmental Approach
Neil Brenner
19 Regional Urbanization
Christian Schmid
Roberto Luís Monte-Mór
181
and the End of the Metropolis Era
67
109
Edward W. Soja
14 Patterns and Pathways of Global Urbanization:
276
9 The Emergence of Desakota Regions in Asia:
Towards Comparative Analysis
Expanding a Hypothesis
Christian Schmid
20 The Fractures of Worldwide Urbanization:
Terry G. McGee
203
Insights From the Literary World
Stefan Kipfer
121
15 The Country and The City
in the Urban Revolution
Kanishka Goonewardena
218
288
FIVE
URBAN STUDIES
AND URBAN IDEOLOGIES
SIX
VISUALIZATIONS—
IDEOLOGIES AND EXPERIMENTS
SEVEN
POLITICAL STRATEGIES,
STRUGGLES AND HORIZONS
CODA
21 The ‘Urban Age’ in Question
26 A Typology of Urban Switzerland
29 Two Approaches to ‘World Management’:
34 Dissolving City, Planetary Metamorphosis
Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid
Christian Schmid
R. B. Fuller and C. A. Doxiadis
Henri Lefebvre
310
398
Nikos Katsikis
566
480
22 What Role For Social Science
27 Is the Mediterranean Urban?
in the ‘Urban Age’?
Neil Brenner and Nikos Katsikis
30 City Becoming World: Nancy, Lefebvre
Brendan Gleeson
428
and the Global-Urban Imagination
338
28 Envisioning an Urbanized Planet—
Contributors
David J. Madden
Sources
505
575
23 City as Ideology
Materials
David Wachsmuth
Urban Theory Lab­-GSD
31 The Right to the City and Beyond:
353
460
Notes on a Lefebvrian Reconceptualization
Andy Merrifield
24 Urbanizing Urban Political Ecology:
523
A Critique of Methodological Cityism
Hillary Angelo and David Wachsmuth
32 The Hypertrophic City Versus
372
the Planet of Fields
Max Ajl
25 Whither Urban Studies?
533
Andy Merrifield
386
572
33 Becoming Urban: on Whose Terms?
John Friedmann
551
1
INTRODUCTION:
URBAN THEORY
WITHOUT AN OUTSIDE
Neil Brenner
The urban question has long been a flashpoint for intense debate among researchers
concerned with the nature of cities and urbanization processes.1 Despite profound
differences of methodology, analytical focus and political orientation, the major twentieth
century approaches to this question have taken an entity commonly labeled as the city (or
some lexical variation thereof) as their primary unit of analysis and site of investigation.
This foundational epistemological focus was canonized in the 1925 mission-statement
of urban sociology by Chicago School founders Ernest Burgess and Robert Park,
laconically but confidently titled The City.2 It subsequently evolved into a basically selfevident presupposition—so obvious that it did not require explanation or justification—
across diverse traditions and terrains of urban research. Indeed, despite their significant
epistemological, methodological and political differences from Chicago School urban
sociology, the major strands of mid- to late twentieth century urban studies have likewise
focused their analytical gaze primarily, if not exclusively, on “city-like” (nodal, relatively
large, densely populated and self-enclosed) sociospatial units. This generalization applies
to mainstream quantitative research on city-size distributions, central place systems and
urban hierarchies; to the periodizations of capitalist urban development by radical political
economists in the 1970s and 1980s; to the influential analyses of postfordist cities, global
city formation and megacity expansion in the 1990s; and to more recent research forays
on neoliberal cities, ordinary cities and postcolonial cities in the late 1990s and into the
15
early 2000s. Whatever their specific methodological orientations, explananda and politicotheoretical agendas, each of these influential approaches to the urban question has either (a)
documented the replication of city-like settlement types across larger territories; or (b) used
a modifying term—mercantile, industrial, Fordist-Keynesian, post-Keynesian, postfordist,
global, mega, neoliberal, ordinary, postcolonial and so forth—to demarcate its research
terrain as a subset of a putatively more general sociospatial form, “the” city.3
Of course, there have been many terms on offer for labeling the city-like unit in question—
metropolis, conurbation, city-region, metropolitan area, megalopolis, megapolitan zone,
and so forth—and these appropriately reflect the changing boundaries, morphologies
and scales of human settlement patterns.4 Concomitantly, across and within each of the
aforementioned research traditions, intense debates have long raged regarding the origins,
internal dynamics and consequences of city-building, and more generally, regarding the
functions of cities in relation to broader political-economic, sociocultural and demographic
transformations.5 But underneath the tumult of disagreement and the relentless series of
paradigm shifts that have animated urban theory and research during the last century, a
basic consensus has persisted: the urban problematique is thought to be embodied, at core,
in cities—conceived as settlement types characterized by certain indicative features (such
as largeness, density and social diversity) that make them qualitatively distinct from a noncity social world (suburban, rural and/or “natural”) located “beyond” or “outside” them.6
In effect, as Hillary Angelo and David Wachsmuth explain in their contribution to this
volume, the epistemology of urban studies has been characterized by a deeply entrenched
methodological cityism which entails “an analytical privileging, isolation and […] naturalization
of the city in studies of urban processes where the non-city may also be significant.”7
This book assembles a series of contributions to the urban question that push strongly
against the grain of that epistemology. Through diverse modes of engagement (conceptual,
methodological, historical, political-economic, representational) and analytical windows
(social scientific, cartographic, literary and cinematic), its chapters articulate the elements
of a radically different way of understanding the problematique of urban theory and research,
and more generally, of conceptualizing the imprint and operationality of urban processes
on the planetary landscape. In so doing, we aim to advance a hitherto largely subterranean
stream of urban research that has, since the mid-twentieth century, cast doubt upon
established understandings of the urban as a bounded, nodal and relatively self-enclosed
sociospatial condition in favor of more territorially differentiated, morphologically variable,
multiscalar and processual conceptualizations.8 Building upon various concepts, methods
and mappings derived from that work, especially Henri Lefebvre’s approach, this book
aspires to supersede the urban/non-urban divide that has long anchored the epistemology
of urban research, and on this basis, to develop a new vision of urban theory without an
outside.
In so doing, the book’s contributors preserve the analytical centrality of agglomeration to
the problematique of urban theory, but interpret it as only one dimension and morphological
expression of the capitalist form of urbanization. In this understanding, the development,
intensification and worldwide expansion of capitalism produces a vast, variegated terrain
of urban(ized) conditions that include yet progressively extend beyond the zones of
agglomeration that have long monopolized the attention of urban researchers. As this
erstwhile non-urban realm is increasingly subsumed within and operationalized by a worldencompassing—and, indeed, world-making—process of capitalist urbanization, the meaning
of the urban must itself be fundamentally re-imagined both in theory and in practice.9
• • •
Why should the urban/non-urban distinction be transcended, and why now? Clearly,
settlement space has long been differentiated by place names, and it seems intuitive to
demarcate the terrain of the urban, both historically and today, with reference to the names
of the world’s great cities—London, New York, Shenzhen, Mumbai, Lagos and so forth.
Even amidst the intense volatility associated with accelerated geoeconomic restructuring,
such places clearly do still exist, and in fact, their size and strategic economic importance
appear to be growing, not diminishing. But what, exactly, are these places, aside from names
on a map that have been institutionalized by governments and branded as investment
locations by growth coalitions? What distinguishes them qualitatively from other places
within and beyond, say, the South East of England and Western Europe; the US Northeast
and North America; the Pearl River Delta and East Asia; Maharashtra and South Asia;
or southern Nigeria and West Africa? Do they contain some special quality that makes
them unique—their size, perhaps, or their population density? Their infrastructural outlays?
Their strategic centrality in global flows of capital and labor? Or, on the other hand, have
the sociospatial relations of urbanism that were once apparently contained within these
units now exploded haphazardly beyond them, via the ever thickening commodity chains,
infrastructural circuits, migration streams and circulatory-logistical networks that today
crisscross the planet? But, if this is the case, can any erstwhile city, whatever its size, still be
said to have coherent boundaries? Have the everyday social relations, inter-firm networks,
labor markets, built environments, infrastructural corridors and socio-environmental
footprints associated with such densified clusters now been extended, thickened,
superimposed and interwoven to forge what Jean Gottmann once vividly described as an
“irregularly colloidal mixture of rural and suburban landscapes” on national, international,
continental and even global scales?10 And, to the degree that all this is indeed occurring,
in a world in which “the city is everywhere and in everything,” shouldn’t the inherited
understanding of the urban as a distinctive settlement type be abandoned, or at least be
radically reconceptualized?11
This was, of course, precisely the position advanced by Lefebvre over four decades ago,
when he opened La révolution urbaine with the provocative hypothesis that “society has been
17
completely urbanized.”12 Although he viewed complete urbanization as a virtual object—an
emergent condition rather than an actualized reality—Lefebvre suggested that the broad
outlines of a complete formation of urbanization were already coming into relief during
the 1960s in Western Europe. They were evidenced, he argued, in the fragmentation and
destruction of traditional European cities; in the formation of a large-scale territorial
megalopolis stretching from England, Paris and the Ruhr region to Scandinavia; in the
extension of logistical, commercial and tourist infrastructures deep into previously remote
areas; in the construction of major industrial estates and large-scale housing ensembles
in formerly peripheral locations in France, Spain and Italy; in the destruction of quasiautonomous agrarian communities in formerly rural zones; and in wide-ranging processes
of environmental degradation across the continent.13 When actualized on a planetary scale,
Lefebvre suggested, such tendencies would entail a relentless, if fragmentary, interweaving
of an urban fabric—a “net of uneven mesh”—across the entire world, including terrestrial
surfaces, the oceans, the atmosphere and the subterranean, all of which would be ever more
directly instrumentalized and operationalized to serve the voracious pursuit of capitalist
industrial growth.14
In several striking formulations, Lefebvre characterizes the generalization of capitalist
urbanization as a process of “implosion-explosion,” a phrase he introduced to illuminate
the mutually recursive links between capitalist forms of agglomeration and broader
transformations of territory, landscape and environment. In some of his initial formulations,
Lefebvre uses the metaphor of implosion-explosion in an almost Mumfordesque manner, to
characterize the destruction of European mercantile cities (the moment of implosion) and
the subsequent growth of megalopolitan territorial formations to support industrialization
(the moment of explosion).15 But Lefebvre subsequently expands his use of the implosionexplosion metaphor to describe some of the wide-ranging territorial transformations that
have ensued at various spatial scales during the longue durée history of capitalist urbanization.
As cities are extended outwards into their surrounding territories and are woven together
via thickening long-distance logistics networks, these erstwhile non-city zones are more
tightly integrated into large-scale spatial divisions of labor. With the intensification,
acceleration and territorial expansion of capitalist forms of growth, precapitalist and
mercantile cities and towns are either peripheralized or remade into strategic locations
within heavily industrialized landscapes. Subsequently, a further round of sociospatial
explosion occurs as urban practices, institutions, infrastructures and built environments
are projected aggressively into and across the erstwhile non-urban realm, annihilating any
transparent differentiation between city and countryside, and linking local and regional
economies more directly to transnational flows of raw material, commodities, labor and
capital. In this way, processes of concentration and dispersion, as well as new patterns of
core-periphery polarization, are superimposed upon one another across places, territories
and scales, creating an almost kaleidoscopic churning of sociospatial arrangements during
successive cycles of capitalist development. The notion of implosion-explosion thus comes
to describe the production and continual transformation of an industrialized urban fabric
in which centers of agglomeration and their operational landscapes are woven together in
mutually transformative ways while being co-articulated into a worldwide capitalist system.16
In a provocative, widely discussed diagram presented in the opening chapter of La
révolution urbaine, Lefebvre uses the notion of implosion-explosion to describe the broad
constellation of historical-geographical transformations that would, he believed, herald
the onset of complete urbanization on a world scale—specifically, “urban concentration,
rural exodus, extension of the urban fabric, complete subordination of the agrarian to
the urban” (see page 43). When this “critical point” is reached, Lefebvre suggests, the
condition of complete urbanization will no longer be hypothetical—a mere “virtual
object” whose tendencies are selectively manifested in particular territories, whether in
Europe or elsewhere.17 It will, rather, have become a basic parameter for planetary social
and environmental relations, imposing new constraints upon the use and transformation of
the worldwide built environment, unleashing potentially catastrophic inequalities, conflicts
and dangers, but also harboring new opportunities for the democratic appropriation and
self-management of space at all scales. In the late 1980s, in one of his final texts, Lefebvre
suggested that the critical point of complete urbanization had actually been crossed, and
thus that a “planetarization of the urban” was now being realized in practice.18
The contributions to this book build upon and extend Lefebvre’s hypothesis and
subsequent analysis. They suggest various ways in which Lefebvre’s virtual object of
complete urbanization is today being actualized, albeit unevenly, on a worldwide scale,
as well as in specific territories, regions and places; and they explore some of the wideranging intellectual, social, political and environmental implications of this state of affairs.
As many chapters included here suggest, this newly consolidated, planetary formation
of urbanization has blurred, even exploded, long-entrenched sociospatial borders—not
only between city and countryside, urban and rural, core and periphery, metropole and
colony, society and nature, but also between the urban, regional, national and global scales
themselves—thereby creating new formations of a thickly urbanized landscape whose
contours are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to theorize, much less to map, on
the basis of inherited approaches to urban studies. The present volume assembles some
conceptual, methodological, analytical and cartographic tools through which that challenge
might be productively confronted. The notion of implosion-explosion is useful in this
endeavor not because it offers a finished theory or a fully differentiated cartography of
our emergent global-urban moment, but simply because it begins to demarcate the vast,
unwieldy problematique that opens before us as the legacies of methodological cityism are
questioned and tendentially superseded.
• • •
In exploring this emergent agenda, our claim in this book is decidedly not, as some urbanists
have occasionally proposed, that cities (or, more precisely, zones of agglomeration) are
19
dissolving into a placeless society of global flows, borderless connectivity or haphazard
spatial dispersal.19 Nor do we suggest that population density, inter-firm clustering,
agglomeration effects or infrastructural concentration—to name just a few of the
conditions that are commonly associated with the phenomenon of cityness under modern
capitalism—are no longer operationally significant features in contemporary economy and
society. On the contrary, the contributors to this volume remain fundamentally concerned
with agglomeration processes, their changing role in regimes of capital accumulation, and
their variegated expressions in diverse morphological forms and spatial configurations—
from large-scale urban regions, polycentric metropolitan territories and linear urban
corridors to inter-urban networks and worldwide urban hierarchies. They simply insist, as
Matthew Gandy succinctly proposes, that “cities are just a form of urbanization,” and thus
that they must be understood as dynamically evolving sites, arenas and outcomes of broader
processes of sociospatial and socio-ecological transformation.20 David Harvey offers an
equally concise formulation of this proposition with his suggestion that “the ‘thing’ we call
a ‘city’ is the …
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