Doing Comparative Urbanism Differently

Doing Comparative Urbanism Differently

Özgür SayınMichael Hoyler, and John Harrison


Ongoing splintering and siloification in urban studies require alternative approaches to bring the major theoretical and epistemological perspectives into constructive dialogue. Reflecting growing calls for engaged pluralism, we analyse the extent to which different perspectives can come together as complementary alternatives in understanding cities and present a framework for overcoming the key theoretical and methodological challenges caused by fragmentation. Using Istanbul as our illustrative case, we do this in three steps. Theoretically, we stress-test the potentials and limits of four dominant perspectives in urban theory making – global cities, state rescaling, developmental and postcolonial – revealing how each can only ever generate a partial, one-dimensional, explanation. Methodologically, we proceed to make the case for doing comparative urbanism differently by developing a conjunctural approach. Finally, and conceptually, we identify ‘conjunctural cities’ as a distinctive type of city and as a new approach to analysing cities. Our contention is that approaching all cities conjuncturally provides a significant step towards putting engaged pluralism into action, as well as indicating new terrain on which the future of urban theory/urban studies can be constructively debated.
comparative urbanismconjunctural citiesinterstitial citiesIstanbulurban theory

Moving beyond siloification in urban studies

The first two decades of this century have been characterised by the emergence of a global urban studies. Despite the development of a critical body of work that has contributed to the globalisation of urban thinking, this has been accompanied by a diversification in approaches to understanding cities and the urban condition. In this paper, we focus on four of the most influential and long-standing theoretical perspectives underpinning global urban studies, namely global cities, state-rescaling, developmental and postcolonial.1 Each of these approaches has originated from very different intellectual starting points and subsequently developed its own conceptual vocabulary, methodological tools and empirical preoccupations. Despite each approach representing a diverse set of ideas, sometimes overlapping with other approaches, the result has been a siloification around different schools of thought, often constructed and collapsed (by others) into a simplified core idea and perspective. There is a growing recognition that the constant attacking and defending of what constitutes a legitimate approach to current urban theory making has led to an intellectual environment in which it is difficult to engage in meaningful exchange (Brenner, 2018Hoyler and Harrison, 2017van Meeteren et al., 2016).

Ever since Robinson’s (2002) intervention arguing that adopting one approach, in this case global cities, brings certain cities to the fore and relegates others to the background in global urban research, there has been an ongoing debate as to the capacity of each perspective to understand certain, some or all cities. Reacting against any form of formal categorisation of cities, the response is a call for a comparative urbanism capable of, on the one hand, recognising the diverse urban experiences of all cities, while on the other hand simultaneously removing the barriers to researching ‘across different contexts’ (Robinson, 2011: 5). The problem, as noted by Peck (2015) and others, is that in (over)emphasising the particularity of each city, advocates of the comparative turn in urban studies distance themselves to such an extent it actually serves to prevent continuing conversations and meaningful comparisons between cities and perspectives. Alongside this, while the different perspectives on studying the global urban now mean that more cities are being included in contemporary global urban research (Kanai et al., 2018), there nevertheless remain certain cities that are problematic to align with one or more of these frames.

These cities that do not easily fit, and therefore fall between the gaps of international urban theory making, are increasingly the subject of researchers’ attention.2 A first grouping of cities, such as Doha, Panama, Manila and Beirut, have capitalised on their in-betweenness to develop niche economies (Kleibert, 2017Krijnen et al., 2017Sigler, 2013). What we might usefully identify as interstitial cities leads us to consider a second grouping, including Moscow, Budapest and Istanbul. These former imperial interstitial cities sit at the interface of what Müller (2020) has termed ‘Global East’–‘suspended somewhere in the shadows between the Global North and the Global South, not quite belonging to either’ (Müller, 2020: 734). This is true in particular for Istanbul, which ‘[l]ike its geographical location, […] resembles both West and East [and] has been characterised generally by the less-developed attributes of the Global South but also has certain modern, developed aspects of the Global North’ (Yetiskul and Demirel, 2018: 3338).

Using Istanbul as an illustrative case, this paper proposes an alternative approach to doing comparative urban research that brings different theoretical perspectives into conversation. Recent convention has it that there are two principal approaches to comparative urbanism: ‘The first is a multi-city comparison, while the second deals with multiple sites within a single city’ (Ren and Luger, 2015: 153). We argue that collapsing comparative urbanism into debates about site selection is counterproductive to the type of meaningful exchange required to understanding the multiple ways of seeing cities (section ‘Doing comparative urbanism differently’). Our approach is grounded in a belief that to engage in meaningful comparative urban research we must explore the extent to which different perspectives (can) come together as complementary alternatives in explaining processes of urban change. We do this in two ways. We begin by stress-testing the capacity and limits of global cities, state-rescaling, developmental and postcolonial perspectives in making sense of cities, and in our case, Istanbul (section ‘Explaining Istanbul: Stress-testing urban theories in an interstitial city’). Arguing that Istanbul can only be partially understood through adopting a single epistemological perspective, we proceed in section ‘Conjunctural cities as both city type and approach’ to examine whether interstitial cities require a new theoretical starting point, or are best served by bringing together existing perspectives as complementary alternatives? From this we argue that there is a strong case to extend a conjunctural approach to urban theory making by proposing ‘conjunctural cities’ as both a distinctive type of city and as an approach to analysing cities. Attaching particular importance to the latter proposition, we demonstrate how a conjunctural approach is capable of establishing the potentials and limits of individual perspectives, ascertaining which different perspectives may usefully come together to go beyond these limits, and thereby establishing an urgently required open analytical framework. We conclude that conjunctural cities as an approach to analysing cities is a necessary step in moving beyond siloification in urban studies and toward putting engaged pluralism into practice.

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