New Book Out! TheoriSE, debating the southeastern turn in urban theories by Oren Yiftachel and Nisa Mammon
This essay is divided in two sections. The first takes stock of the book’s contributions to planning theory, specifically to what is now recognized as a Southern or Eastern form of theorization. The second part sketches four relevant pathways for the project, proposed on the basis of our work at the Beirut Urban Lab.
The book is dedicated to the memory of the late scholar, planning practitioner, and educator, Vanessa Watson, who carried the project of decolonizing planning and defending its relevance until her untimely death in 2021. It brings together 18 scholars located across the five continents and based in different types of academic institutions. Despite the diversity of contexts and positions, all authors articulate a similar mode of intellectual engagement, one that addresses directly unfolding global challenges, as they experience them in the context where each works and lives (e.g., colonization, war, violence, disasters, economic crises).
The book helps take stock of where we are in this southern/southeastern turn in urban studies and planning.
First, it outlines a reassuring consensus on the loose contours of the project and its nature:
- It is a scholarly project that speaks of knowledge-production, epistemologies, and methods. Authors are unanimous about the need to invent a different type of scholarship, one that is deeply anchored in today’s realities or, in Vanessa Watson’s words, invested in “a production of knowledge that is inseparable from the mess of everyday life”.
- The project is carried by a specific profile of scholars, scholars who are keen on ethical considerations and involved in some level of praxis. A recurrent term across chapters is the position of an engaged theorist, the posture of a researcher who challenges domination in the production of both knowledge and space. In this context, there is a discomfort with the institution of the University among some authors, the ways in which the university institutionalizes knowledge, the roles that institutions of knowledge play in reproducing inequalities and erasures, or impose, in Libby Porter’s words, a “rush to know” that reproduces inequitable power relations in and outside academia.
- There is a shared vision that the Southern and Eastern turn(s) denote relational geographies and help locate the discussion of planning histories and futures within patterns of (contemporary and historical) economic domination, cultural and ideological tensions, unequal relations of authority, and uneven patterns of exclusion and inclusion.
- The project recognizes the city as an object of investigation, one that should not be “taken for granted” (Jennifer Robinson), one that “needs constant elucidation” (AbdouMaliq Simone), and needs to be viewed, interpreted, envisioned, and theorized (Amanda Hammar).
- The project recognizes the urgency to act and intervene, and it therefore searches for modes of engagements, ways of practicing the profession that can enact positive possibilities. Such modalities can take on the form of building networks, convening researchers, speaking truth to power, or more directly engaging with projects.
Second, almost all chapters speak of constructing a vocabulary to support the project of South/Eastern planning. To contribute to the task, we identified several repertoires or registers that help draw the contours of the conversation, its starting points, threads, and methodological signposts. We list below ten of these repertoires.
- Contention: To disrupt, disorient, conflicting rationalities, insurgent, conflictual, countering, refuse, be insubordinate.
- Positionality: Roots, engagement, embeddedness, situated, contingent, from below and alternative. Thus, “One cannot theorize from nowhere” and one has to “unpack contextual assumptions” to develop a “place-based practice of theorizing” (Libby Porter), “a particular somewhere from which someone situated speaks” and recognizes “position as epistemological” (Amanda Hammar), to adopt a “position that shapes how we know, our ways of being, and the ethical values we adopt to justify planning actions” (Tanja Winkler). Positionality also entails engaging with scholars and vocabularies that can help understand the locally relevant and contested definitions of state, community, and planning (Catalina Ortiz).
- Relational and comparative: “Speak from somewhere, in relation to elsewhere” (Jennifer Robinson).
- Attributes of knowledge: Inclusive, interdisciplinary, intersectional, diverse, de-colonial, counter-hegemonic, abolitionist, recognizes deep differences, comparative, contingent explanations, specific, differentiated, empirical, conscious of power inequalities, radical, humane, etc.
- Spatial: Relational geography, periphery, gray spaces.
- Action-oriented: Relies on verbs, speaks of theorizing rather than theory, and (i) About space: Squat, repair, consolidate, encroachment, intervene, encroach, (ii) About knowledge: Reposition, re-orient, make-visible, etc.
- Recognize messy realities: deep differences, unfixed, informal, hybrid, gray, contaminated.
- Collective: Collaboration, co-produce, solidarity, communities of practice, comparative.
- Experimental: Revisable, disrupt, tactical.
- Dynamic: Unfixed, emphasizes process, unfolds, mobile, anticipates change.
Third, the book gives an identity to the project of building a southern turn for urban studies and planning. We note, for instance, that the project is:
- In the making, and therefore, at times promising and challenging, and at others incoherent and incomplete. This condition is perceived differently by contributors. Some express frustration and the urge to clarify and institutionalize (e.g., let’s institutionalize, let’s create a vocabulary). Others perceive incompletion as potentially inherent to the project’s nature, and suggest open-ended modalities and dynamics of knowledge production (e.g., encounters, convocations).
- Pragmatic, the book calls for engagement with formal and informal institutions, for building and supporting sites of action.
- Hopeful, it is engaged, sees planning as potentially an instrument of change (Vanessa Watson) and anticipates its unfolding.
- Courageous, it is ready to question the most fundamental principles, including the definition of social justice for example.
- Motivated, reflecting a sense of urgency among several writers, particularly those away from centers of power, the project speaks to the “moral imperative to act”.
- Attentive, it seeks to make visible processes and people, and brings new forms of praxis to view.
We propose briefly some ideas in the project of “southeastern/southern theorizing,” which we suggest provide important directions to take further:
1. Can the southern turn in planning advance different imaginaries of reading and intervening on the city, and go beyond the critique of merely proposing modes of assembling?
To give one example, scholars have shown that planning’s import of the ownership model on southern landscapes has caused the erasure of commons, intensified inequities, and ruined ecologies. Still, critical scholarship has not influenced the profession, and most cities continue to practice planning with the assumption that landscapes are properties and their organization goes through zoning and building regulations that rely specifically on the ownership model of property. What alternatives to the ownership model and property can we use to regulate and organize spaces collectively? How can these alternatives be practiced?
2. Can the southern turn in planning produce data and knowledge that empowers disadvantaged groups and transforms social relations?
In the past five years, the Beirut Urban Lab has invested in building datasets that serve as a way of counting, naming, making visible and countering ways in which the city has been unmapped and consequently unknown. Seen from our context, maps that subversively indicate the location of security checkpoints, that indicate the locations of public properties and count them, or that show who is building what and where provide a critical ingredient to build a shared knowledge of the city’s transformation. Moreover, online platforms and datasets that help tenants know what to pay what and where, show the state of post-disaster repairs, and the actors involved in the process, including building developers, are innovative ways of building knowledge and using data as a way to bring publics together and articulate a shared conversation. Despite the promise, important questions remain about how to democratize data, to improve its use as a way of building networks of actors, or, again, how to recognize validity of data when it is not supported by an official census, for example.
3. What are the consequences of this approach to planning its pedagogy?
One of us, Mona Fawaz, recognized the difficulty of building a “planning” curriculum in Beirut when she returned from the United States in ways that are meaningful and effective in Lebanon’s context where many of the assumptions held by the “planning theory” she had studied do not stand the test of reality. She described the southern turn as a gradual intellectual discovery she had to undertake, feeling first alone two decades ago, and then discovering the unfolding discussions about planning relevance, questions of authority over processes, and how to build a bottom-up approach to teaching. These questions echo many of those raised earlier by Vanessa Watson, and – in the book, as well as elsewhere – by Gautam Bhan and Neema Kudva, for instance.
4. Several authors in the book highlight how southern planning or urbanism is a practice whereby the state is not an actor seeking to advance public interest:
- Some (Faranak Miraftab, Gautam Bhan) discuss how planning advances private interests and rent capture, and how people respond by resorting to insurgent and informal forms of spatial interventions.
- Others (Irit Katz) examine how global aid agencies and expertise advance frameworks and tools for southern contexts conceived in relation to fragility, violence and crises – very much shaping the planning field – and how southeast geographies are the exclusive recipients of such aid.
- In our chapter, we show how, in Lebanon’s context of polycrisis where public agencies are dysfunctional or absent, planning is foremost imagined and performed through an ecosystem of non-state actors, grouping universities, professionals, syndicates, (I)NGOs, (I)FBOs, private firms, and loose collectives – an ecosystem largely dependent on funding by international organizations and grant agencies, through which different urban policy ideas, protocols and tools circulate and are negotiated.
- A meso-scale analysis of these ecosystems of actors and of the modalities they deploy for imagining, pre-figuring and experimenting with modes of city-making, against multiple odds, and what this implies for planning theory and practice, is a key research agenda we want to advocate for in the project of southern theorizing.
5. A southern theorization of the urban politics reveals how more-or-less radical experiments are increasingly emplaced within the interstitial and peripheral:
- As observed through the lens of the MENA region we’re mostly familiar with, individuals or small groups of actors contribute to city-making through fragmented, small, micro-infrastructural, or transient urban interventions--rather than more traditional forms of oppositional party politics and collective action.
- Such interventions materialize the urban political and its ability to linger, albeit fleetingly, despite hegemonic, repressive and authoritarian powers, and the ruling elite’s endless appetite for rent capture. This is also a valuable area for further exploration for TheoriSE.
The book can be downloaded from the website of the University of Capetown’s African Center for Cities on this link.