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Provincializing Urban Appropriation

In a new article, SUPE members Joseph Pierce, Mary Lawhon, and Anesu Makina reflect on theorizations of urban appropriation in South African urban contexts. Engaging with Lefebvrian theorizations of the ‘Right to the City‘ as well as Bayat’s idea of ‘quiet encroachment,’ the authors argue that actors in South Africa operate using a different model of appropriation. They note that urban actors in South Africa often act in ways that could be characterized as appropriative, yet do not work to consolidate a right to occupy or appropriate land founded on durable permission. These acts are, they argue, not adequately explained as apolitical or individualistic even as the logic used to justify them is often based neither on rights nor needs.

Drawing from these dynamics, the authors propose a ‘third’ mode of urban appropriation, alongside Lefebvre’s and Bayat’s, that they argue is present in South African cities. They label such appropriation ‘agonistically transgressive,’ and argue that it can be tentatively defined by three conceptual characteristics:

  1. Agonistic transgression is not oriented toward securing use of the city in an ongoing way, but entails always-ongoing efforts to appropriate. Agonistically transgressive appropriation thus deflects rhetorical efforts by both state and private actors to invoke authoritative adjudication or closure, because closure (whether ultimately advantageous or disadvantageous) is not how appropriation proceeds.
  2. Relatedly, agonistic transgression is not understood by actors as playing by any one specific set of agreed-upon rules—even rules outside of the law—but is instead seen as essentially transgressive of efforts to enumerate rules and order. In this way agonistic transgression troubles official claims of law and order, instead cultivating an ethic of the presently-possible based on the limits of state and private regulation. Such actions are not, however, the kind of spontaneous actions described by Bayat but instead are underpinned by broader rationalities
  3. Agonistic transgression is a mode of appropriation which both employs contemporary loci of political conflict while also identifying and cultivating new conflicts. The ongoing/unfolding process of appropriation involves an endless probing of physical and political landscapes for vulnerable disagreements between empowered actors about what the rules of the urban game really are: these disagreements constitute locations where opportunities exist for current or future acts of appropriation.

For the authors, engaging with these particular models of urban appropriation is critical to avoiding the overuse of scholarly concepts, whether derived from the global North or South. They note that:

Collectively, these moments of interstitial transgression substantively (re)make the logics of urban circulation and use. The formal spatial logics of capital and the state have often capitulated to the logics of incremental agonistic transgression—at least for a time, and at least in some places. While the abilities of both the state and capital to regulate space are always partial and contested, contestation is particularly evident in the dynamic urban conditions of post-apartheid South Africa. We argue that agonistic transgression is, therefore, particularly salient in South Africa, but may occur anywhere that contestations over space occur (i.e. anywhere). Analytically, our core concern is that researchers inquire into different modes of urban appropriation rather than beginning with a priori frameworks.

Using examples of urban land appropriation for housing in South Africa, the authors illustrate how thinking pluralistically about urban appropriation might help better understand its actually existing forms in—and beyond—the global South. As they note, “Our aim is to push back against overbroad claims and make room for more specific theories of urban participation and reproduction rooted in justificatory logics that are place-specific, and increase our insight into the production and contestation of spatial orders.”


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New Publication: Unlearning [un]located ideas in the provincialization of urban theory

A new publication from our Situated UPE Collective was just published in Regional Studies by Mary Lawhon, Jonathan Silver, Henrik Ernstson and Joseph Pierce. It continues our contribution to Urban Political Ecology and Urban Studies.

Photo by Alicia Nijda, Wikimedia Commons
Figure: Photo by Alicia Nijda, Wikimedia Commons.

Postcolonial scholars have argued for the provincialization of urban knowledge, but doing so remains an opaque process. This paper argues that explicit attention to ‘learning to unlearn’ unstated theoretical assumptions and normativities can aid in provincialization, and demonstrate ways in which theorizing entails a socio-spatial situation. The authors’ efforts to grapple with operationalizing learning to unlearn in three different urban cases are described, followed by an articulation of strategies for theorizing which more explicitly acknowledge theory-building’s situatedness as well as points of reflection for developing postcolonial urban theory. The authors argue that this usefully shifts the focus of unlearning from ‘who’ is theorizing ‘where’ towards theory’s unstated norms and assumptions.

Intervention in UPE and Urban Studies

The new paper on “Unlearning (Un)located Ideas” (2016) follows our two previous co-authored papers, in Antipode on “Provincializing Urban Political Ecology” (2014) and in Regional Studies “Conceptual Vectors of African Urbanism” in (2014). Together they constitute a theoretical intervention and exploration of Urban Political Ecology and Urban Studies that aims to develop a situated approach to cultural and material politics of urban life that draws a lot of its energies from postcolonial and global South urbanism literature.

Three Situated UPE paper 2014-2016 small3
Three Situated UPE paper 2014-2016 small3

The arc we are traversing, follows one of seeing how UPE has operated as a crucial discourse to politicise urban environments and urbanisation as a process that transforms ’nature’ into social forms of power. UPE’s contributions have been to understand how the material of the city is configured to maintain and enforce social forms of power, and how urbanisation is part of wider economic, geographical and profit-driven processes.

We have then explored how the ‘image of the city’ has changed through the work of global South urbanists. Theoretically this literature centres around the postcolonial insight that ‘location’, or from where one theorises, is important to take into account when making sense of (new) empirical situations.

When the bulk of urban theory comes from a quite different spatiotemporal situation, an industrialising Europe and North America, global South urbanists helps to be cautious of how far such ‘Northern theory’ is in its reach and how well it can explain practical and empirical situations. This means to re-insert the ‘localness’ of European thought to allow for experiences of urbanization and scholarship from different regions to take hold and influence theory-making. For instance, global South urbanists have foregrounded the important role that ‘informality’ and everyday practices plays in the politics of urban environments and urbanisation. And to depart from the everyday and ‘informality’ is one line of thought we are pursuing, see for instance our new research project in Uganda, HICCUP. This way of working does not mean to set aside ‘wider’ economic and geographical processes, but it means to call for a re-alignment from where one can theorise cities and urbanisation, and extend the ways by which specific geographical and historical experiences can feed into thinking cities, political ecologies etc. This reading of global South urbanists have helped us to “provincialize” UPE, i.e. to re-tune and extend its basic critical project, and it has influenced our work to try to build an extended analytics (with adjoining new methods) through which we can re-think how urban environments are politicised.

In this our latest publication on “Unlearning (Un)located Ideas” we reflect explicitly on what this work of “provincialisation” means in practice for us as scholars, i.e. how do we, in our own empirical projects, de-centre our habits of thought, our training as critical scholars so as to let actual cities and forms of urbanisation that we study—its people, technologies, places and their particular histories etc.—speak into theory.

You can read our three publications here:

“Provincializing Urban Political Ecology”, 2014 in Antipode

“Conceptual Vectors of African Urbanism”2014, in Regional Studies

“Unlearning (Un)located Ideas” 2016, in Regional Studies

Also check out our newly funded project: Heterogeneous Infrastructure Configurations in Cities in Uganda Project (HICCUP).

Learning News NEWS: Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies Presentations Publications

Marnie Graham defended her thesis on Postcolonial Nature Conservation

Marnie Graham successfully defended her PhD thesis at Stockholm University on “Postcolonial Nature Conservation and Collaboration” on the 27th of February 2015. Her study is part of our “Ways Of Knowing Urban Ecologies” project in Cape Town where she has studied nature conservation and collaborative arrangements at the Macassar Dunes.

By framing the site and nature conservation practices as embedded in colonial and apartheid legacies Dr. Marnie Graham uncovers how such legacies both continue into the present, but also when they are negotiated and transformed when people from different backgrounds meet. Her study includes analysis of how nature conservators are elaborating new identities and methods in becoming nature conservators in a post-apartheid and post-colonial urban setting like Cape Town. Based on empirical work in Cape Town, her thesis develops a more general approach on how to handle and understand the intersection between conservation and urbanization, in particular in cities of the Global South.

The Swedish research council Formas is acknowledged for providing funding for this thesis research through the research grant “Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies” (Dnr: 250-2010-1372; WOK-UE) lead by Dr. Henrik Ernstson. Her supervisors have been political ecologist Dr. Henrik Ernstson at KTH and human geographer Sandie Suchet-Pearson at Macquarie University in Sydney.


Summary of the thesis:

Post-colonial Nature Conservation and Collaboration in Urban Protected Areas 

By Marnie Graham, Stockholm University and Macquarie University

Nature conservation has a lengthy, contested history throughout much of the colonial/settler world. In South Africa during the colonial and (defacto colonial) apartheid eras, conservation was marked by exclusion and dispossession of colonised peoples, and state and elite control of land, resources and knowledge. These inequitable processes were underlined by normalised and racialised ideas and relations to nature, conservation, knowledge and protected areas. In the post-colonial, post-apartheid era, theories and practices of inclusive, devolved, and people-centred approaches have emerged around protected area management, referred to collectively as co-management.

Seeking in theory to redress historical relations between conservation authorities and colonised lands and peoples (Dressler et al. 2010), co- management arises as an endeavour of post-colonial nature conservation. The post-colonial refers to the era after the (highly contested) end of colonial rule, but also to the prospect of embracing de-colonising approaches to nature conservation (Adams and Mulligan 2003). Post-colonial nature conservation thus attends to both “the contestation of colonial domination and the legacies of colonialism” (Loomba 2005: 16). In South Africa and other colonial/settler nations, colonial conservation practices and ideas continue to find expression in post-colonial nature conservation, including in co-management.

This study brings novel insights on post-colonial nature conservation through attention to co-management processes in urban protected areas. In particular I consider co-management processes in cities of the Global South, which face rapid urbanisation and informality, intense spatial and social inequalities, and

increasing socio-cultural diversity. My literature review demonstrates how this intersection of nature protection, increased urbanization and collaboration is vastly understudied in the Global South within human geography and natural resource management disciplines. Particularly lacking are in-depth empirical analyses of actually existing collaborative nature conservation arrangements, which situate such attempts within colonial, apartheid and post-colonial relations.

The empirical focus is on Macassar Dunes/Wolfgat nature reserves in Cape Town, South Africa, where municipal conservation authorities collaborate on conservation initiatives with community representatives who come from expansive adjacent informal settlements and racially-segregated apartheid-era townships. Through semi-structured interviews and participant observation, I draw on the perspectives from diverse participants in these collaborations to interrogate the (post)colonial condition of collaborative urban nature conservation at Macassar Dunes/Wolfgat, while striving to expand my analysis more generally to be speak into the growing literature on Southern cities (Robinson 2011; Parnell and Pieterse 2014).

Through this analysis emerges complex, ambiguous and contested relations to urban nature, urban space, conservation, knowledges, participation, stakeholder identities, and collaboration. On one hand, neo-colonial practices of exclusion and control are embedded in policy and management regimes, in spite efforts of collaboration and participation. This manifests in conservation science, knowledge production, environmental education, tourism initiatives, and in ‘stakeholder’ identity constructions. On the other hand, my research also demonstrates how those involved in collaborations, from civic representatives to conservation managers, challenge colonial conservation notions and practices, and that these spaces of collaboration can re-work and contest neo- colonial notions and practices.

In my analysis of how nature conservation is re-worked and challenged at Macassar Dunes, I pay attention to the institutional and contextual constraints of the collaborations. The focus is however also on interpersonal relations amongst people and between people and nature that occur in-place at the conservation area, and in the adjoining spaces of the townships and informal settlements. Attention is paid to the often ad hoc, informal and deeply inter-personal relations that develop through the collaborations, and which are challenging conservation practice in profound ways. The relations formed in and through collaboration are informing from the ‘bottom-up’ what post-colonial nature conservation practice could be, but also how colonial legacies and tendencies ‘slip’ into these interpersonal relations.

By necessity, this analysis requires engaging difficult questions of race, identity, informality, poverty, insecurity and diverse ways of knowing urban nature through the collaborations. It is these themes that permeate the analysis and bring novel insights into the practice of urban protected area co-management as an endeavour of post-colonial nature conservation. The thesis is composed of an Introduction, Literature Review, Methodologies and Conclusion chapters, together with four manuscripts prepared for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Supervisors: Henrik Ernstson, KTH-Royal Institute of Technology, and Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Macquarie University.

Co-supervisors: Thomas Elmqvist, Stockholm University, and Richard Howitt, Macquarie University.

The Swedish research council Formas is acknowledged for providing funding for this thesis research through the research grant “Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies” (Dnr: 250-2010-1372; WOK-UE).