Category Archives: Comparative

The urbanization of transition: ideology and the urban experience

Pages 607-623 | Received 09 Oct 2016, Accepted 11 Oct 2016, Published online: 02 Nov 2016


This paper debates the relationships between transition and urbanization by problematizing the operation of transition on three inter-related levels. Firstly, at the level of ideology, it is important to rehearse the understanding of transition from that of merely area-based reforms and rather understand it as a totalizing project of planetary reach, which completes the subjugation of the whole world to capitalism and crowns neoliberalism as the only global order. Secondly, at the level of practice, it is important to properly account for the spatializing effects of that ideology – which is not simply “domesticated” by local practices, but itself mediates the subsumption of pre-existing practices by capital, thus alienating them from their history. Thirdly, at the level of the urban: while urban change is usually portrayed merely as a projection of societal relations, the urban is actually the central stage where ideology mixes with the everyday, through which the societal change is mediated; new meanings, social relations, and class divisions are construed; and through which ideological transition achieves its practical completeness. What combines these three levels is the notion of urbanization of transition, which articulates the centrality of the urban in the spectacular post-socialist experience.


Although scholars of post-socialist urbanism at times indulge themselves in reflexive melancholy over their moderate impact on the wider urban scholarship, there is actually a fast-growing and already rather sophisticated body of internationally excellent literature that addresses significant challenges and provides diverse accounts on many aspects of post-socialist urbanization, both empirically and theoretically (for some reviews, see Borén and Gentile 2007Borén, Thomas, and Michael Gentile2007. “Metropolitan Processes in Post-communist States: An Introduction.” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 89: 95110.10.1111/geob.2007.89.issue-2[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Sykora and Bouzarovski 2012Sykora, Ludek, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Kubeš 2013Kubeš, Jan2013. “European Post-socialist Cities and Their near Hinterland in Intra-urban Geography Literature.” Bulletin of Geography. Socio-Economic Series 19: 1943.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). However, I will argue in this paper that the relationships between the two key staples feeding this literature – transition and urbanization – are still under-conceptualized, taken at face value, or fail to attract their due problematization. In this article, I discuss that point and outline possible avenues as to how to problematize those relationships through the lens of a spatial political economy.

To begin with, while urban change in post-socialist scholarship is usually portrayed as a projection of larger societal changes onto local practices, the urban is actually an important scale through which new ideologies, meanings, and social relationships are legitimized – there is a dialectical co-production between the urban and the social (Lefebvre [1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar][1974] 1991Lefebvre, Henri[1974] 1991The Production of SpaceOxfordBlackwell Publishing. [Google Scholar]). The urban is also where the wider project of neoliberal transition is “domesticated” into concrete “transformations” (e.g. Stenning et al. 2010Stenning, AlisonAdrian SmithAlenaRochovska, and Dariusz Swiatek2010Domesticating Neo-liberalism: Spaces of Economic Practice and Social Reproduction in Post-socialist CitiesOxfordWiley-Blackwell.10.1002/9781444325409[Crossref][Google Scholar]); however, the latter observation should not blind us from seeing the totality of transition in the first place. The discourse in post-socialist scholarship that disavows the vocabulary of “transition” in favor of more particularized “transformations” (Pickles and Smith 1998Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith, eds. 1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Herrschel 2007Herrschel, Tassilo2007. “Between Difference and Adjustment – The Re-/presentation and Implementation of Post-socialist (Communist) Transformation.” Geoforum 38: 439444.10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.11.007[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), while rightly challenging the reductionist assumptions of the teleological projections of the Washington Consensus, has become too seductive itself. It has moved research from the understanding of the ideology of transition at large to studying smaller and particular processes, which per se become somehow sufficient to explain post-socialist experiences, while the wider meta-change is at best read perfunctorily under the now all-explanatory narrative of “neoliberalism.”

In this paper, I rehearse transition as an ideological, totalizing – indeed, totalitarian – project and discuss the role of the urban in making it such and rendering transition its social constitution. The dialectics of the total and the particular leads me to outline the contours of what I call “the urbanization of transition,” the appropriation of urban space by capitalism, simultaneously leading to the materialization, crystallization, and consequent reproduction of the new hegemony. I support my argument with some classical writings in political economy; the work of Henri Lefebvre in particular offers a useful grammar to knit the urban thread through the ideology and practice of transition.

I organize my argument as follows. I start with discussing why transition should not be easily equated with contextual transformations, arguing that to do otherwise is a debilitating position that obscures the global significance of post-socialism. I continue with discussing the totalizing nature of transition, which functions to close the civilizational dialog over alternative human futures. I then turn to outlining the spatialization of transition – as a contingent but ordered process of the subsumption of post-socialist legacy under the exigencies of capital. Against these fundamentals, I then discuss post-socialist urbanization and how it is central to these epochal and spectacular politico-economic restructurings.

Transformations or transition?

The collapse of the state-socialist project, climaxed in the well-documented geopolitical events of 1989/1991, brought about a surge of radical societal change. Unlike regime change and retrofits in other places and times, the post-socialist momentum has rebuilt the very existential foundations of the affected societies – whose professed goal was no longer building “the bright future” of communism, with its aspirations for a classless society, good life and equity for all, but rather embracing the individualistic, entrepreneurial, and competition ethos of capitalism, framed politically as a “market economy.” The change has been underpinned by so-called “transition,” as a metaphorical and practical framework for the existence of post-socialist societies. Ex-communist societies were then all seen as societies in transition, at the core of which was a technocratic package of reforms for the economic and political domains.

Since the very start, the teleological notion of transition has been challenged. While transition has been both a prescriptive and descriptive idea, many have critiqued it for being reductionist and thus failing to account for the complexity and multiplicity of pathways engaged by actually existing transition, which is shaped by local preconditions, culture, and contingencies. It has been suggested that “transformation(s)” is a more nuanced vocabulary to analyze the processes of post-socialism (e.g. Pickles and Smith 1998Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith, eds. 1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]).

While this is an accurate critique, the downside has been that – coupled with descriptive, often empiricist and positivist tendencies in much of the emerging post-socialist academic geography – this new tradition has resulted in the topic being dominated by the narrative of the idiosyncrasies of post-socialism, including the diversity of contextually specific trajectories emerging from the juxtaposition of politics, culture, history, and other legacies and exigencies. The “transformation” thesis has just gone too well with the empiricist tradition of “area studies,” while the very teleology of transition has not been scrutinized on its own terms – as an ideology – it was rather reduced to the presumed Washington Consensus’s technocracies. The most interesting accounts here had to consequently come from outside the discipline of post-socialism itself, such as Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (2007Klein, Naomi2007The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster CapitalismLondonAllen Lane. [Google Scholar]).



Zombie socialism and the rise of neoliberalism in post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe


Many scholars have asked themselves if and for how long they should use the concept of “post-socialism.” We review some ways in which post-socialism is no longer used productively and suggest that one way to analyze the enduring effects of socialism (a useful role for the concept of post-socialism) is by paying attention to how economic and political elites in Central and Eastern Europe continue to use the ghost of state-socialism as the ultimate boogeyman, disciplinary device, and “ideological antioxidant.” We call this blend of post-1989 anti-communism and neoliberal hegemony “zombie socialism,” and we argue that it is a key component of contemporary capitalism in Central and Eastern Europe. We illustrate briefly some cases of zombie socialism, using data such as EU 28 statistics on labor, wages, work–life (im)balance, income tax, housing, and housing policies to show the effects of this hegemonic discourse. The presence of zombie socialism for almost three decades in Central and Eastern Europe made some of these countries “more” capitalist than countries with longer capitalist traditions in Europe. We join others who have suggested that there is nothing to transition any longer, as the “transition” is long over.

For a quarter of a century we have condemned communism increasingly stronger. Five years from now we will probably fight it as Ceausescu [in the 1980s] was fighting the Fascism [of the 1930s] … At a more profound level, condemning real-existing communism has been perverted in condemning any social claim: Do you want a salary raise? You are communist. Do you want public services? Do you want to tax the rich and ease the burden on small producers and wage earners? You are a communist and you killed my grandparents. Do you want public transportation instead of highways? You are mega-communist and a retarded hipster. (Rogozanu 2014Rogozanu, Costi2014. “Condamnarea ritualică a comunismului și de unde începe reformarea stângii[The Ritualic Condemnation of Communism and from Where Does the Reformation of the Left Begin].” Accessed July 15, 2016. [Google Scholar])

Introduction: socialism from post- to ghost

The quote above expresses in a nutshell a political and cultural process spreading in many Central and Eastern European (CEE) societies. A hybridization of ritualistic anti-communist incantations and a neoliberal doxa has shaped economic, political, and cultural dynamics of ex-socialist countries. In such instances, state-socialism resurfaces not as institutional, spatial, or mental “legacies” and “leftovers” of socialism, but as a “ghost,” kept alive by the winners of the (now extinct) post-socialist period. In this article we ask: Who benefits from invoking state-socialism, in what contexts do such inflections occur, and with what effects? On a more general level, what role does the ghost of socialism play in the political economies and class dynamics of CEE countries? To understand the switch from “legacy” to ideological ingredient of neoliberalism in CEE, we introduce (and elaborate on below) the metaphor of “zombie socialism” to capture how keeping the socialist past alive in public discourse – almost three decades after its end – buttresses neoliberal politics and new configurations of inequalities.

During the last two decades, one key question that has underlined scholarship on ex-socialist countries across several disciplines has been to what extent post-socialism is still a relevant analytical category. After ascending as a denominator of all things post-1989 in Central and Eastern Europe, several scholars in geography, anthropology, and sociology have pointed out that the concept of post-socialism has become less relevant (Boyer and Yurchak 2008Boyer, Dominic, and Alexei Yurchak2008. “Postsocialist Studies, Cultures of Parody and American Stiob.” Anthropology News 49: 910.10.1111/anne.2008.49.issue-8[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Cervinkova 2012Cervinkova, Hana2012. “Postcolonialism, Postsocialism and the Anthropology of East-Central Europe.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 48: 155163.10.1080/17449855.2012.658246[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Chari and Verdery 2009Chari, Sharad, and Katherine Verdery2009. “Thinking between the Posts: Postcolonialism, Postsocialism, and Ethnography after the Cold War.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51: 634.10.1017/S0010417509000024[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Dunn and Verdery 2015Dunn, Elizabeth C., and KatherineVerdery2015. “Postsocialism.” In Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource, edited by Robert A.Scott and Stephen M.Kosslyn19New YorkWiley.10.1002/9781118900772.etrds0261[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2016Ferenčuhová, Slavomíra2016. “Accounts from Behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40 (1): 113131.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Hirt 2013Hirt, Sonia2013. “Whatever Happened to the (Post) Socialist City?” Cities 32: S29S38.10.1016/j.cities.2013.04.010[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Horvat and Štiks 2012Horvat, Srećko, and Igor Štiks2012. “Welcome to the Desert of Transition! Post-socialism, the European Union and a New Left in the Balkans.” Monthly Review 63: 3848.10.14452/MR-063-10-2012-03[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Humphrey 2001Humphrey, Caroline2001. “Does the Category ‘Postsocialist’ Still Make Sense.” In Postsocialism: Ideals, Ideologies Practices in Eurasia, edited by Chris Hann1214LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Pickles 2010Pickles, John2010. “The Spirit of Post-socialism: Common Spaces and the Production of Diversity.” European Urban and Regional Studies 17: 127140.10.1177/0969776409356492[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Rogers 2010Rogers, Doug2010. “Postsocialisms Unbound.” Slavic Review 69: 115.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Tuvikene 2016Tuvikene, Tauri2016. “Strategies for Comparative Urbanism: Post-socialism as a De-territorialized Concept.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40 (1): 132146.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Wiest 2012Wiest, Karin2012. “Comparative Debates in Post-socialist Urban Studies.” Urban Geography 33: 829849.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.829[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Against this backdrop, we indicate one location where one may find continued relevance of socialism (and its “post”). Socialism – as a zombie and ghost – is important in the production of neoliberal monoglossia and guilt by association for those who challenge the dominant wisdom of trickle-down economics, thus supporting the worldview and, ultimately, the interests of the winners of post-1990 transition.

To evidence the works of zombie socialism, we start with a section where we review the main critiques of the concept of post-socialism. In the same section, we present case studies of zombie socialist political discourses from Hungary and Romania, as an entry into elaborating on this metaphor. We then discuss the effects of zombie socialism in several social policy domains and the actual conditions of life of post-socialist societies. We use national-level macroeconomic indicators; wages to GDP ratio, the share of minimum wages to all jobs, work–life imbalance, social spending and taxation, and housing statistics. We develop our discussion of housing markets and policies in greater detail to drive the point that zombie socialism can inspire policies that effectively jettison an entire area of social policy, ignoring growing problems experienced by different social groups such as the poor, the young, and the elderly, and contributing to social dumping. The data do not systematically focus on city/metropolitan regions, but rather provide a broad overview of socioeconomic and ideological factors that underpin local developments.

Three caveats are necessary. First, we are aware that in constructing a master narrative for the entire region we erase important national and especially sub-national dynamics, but there are enough arguments to support the idea that the processes that we outline in this article are present at different scales for much of the post-1990 historical cycle. Second, our argument is most likely limited to Central and Eastern Europe, rather than being applicable to the former Soviet Union (FSU). Socialism still carries – increasingly – positive connotations in parts of the FSU, where the zombie may come alive in some new form, as is the case, for example, in the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” As countries in the region follow different paths, both in terms of policy orientations and economic developments, the role that socialism plays in the collective imaginaries of these post-socialist societies may diverge as well. Third, we cannot substantiate the conscious character of the decision of politicians to invoke state-socialism when promoting neoliberal measures, and increased social dumping. We can indicate, however, instances where the two go together, a situation indicative of how “zombie socialism” is a form of symbolic domination of the hegemonic groups in CEE societies (Burawoy 2012Burawoy, Michael2012. “The Roots of Domination: Beyond Bourdieu and Gramsci.” Sociology46: 187206.10.1177/0038038511422725[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Zombie socialism may be employed in different ways for different aims. It may work as a means of gaining support for certain policies and budgetary allocations, as a justification for pragmatic decisions, but also as a way of framing policy priorities and ignoring certain claims in favor of others.

Zombie socialism: ghostly state-socialism after the end of “transition”

In order to spell out what zombie socialism is and how it works, we begin this section by situating our arguments in the sizeable literature on post-socialism and focusing our attention on some renewed analytic strategies for approaching socialism and post-socialism. We then offer several examples of zombie socialism, most notably focusing on two particularly relevant vignettes, one from the early 2000s (Hungary) and another one from 2014 (Romania).


Post-Socialist Cities and Urban Theory

 Keywords: Urban theorypost-socialist citypost-socialism


The main stimulus for this theme issue came from the perception shared by several scholars that “post-socialist” (or “post-communist cities”)11. “Post-socialist,” “post-communist,” and sometimes even “post-Soviet” are concepts that are used almost interchangeably in the literature, despite their slight differences in meaning. In this publication, as theme issue editors, we opt for “post-socialist,” not least because past debates concerned the “socialist” rather than the “communist” city. Even so, this does not amount to an endorsement of the “post-socialist city” concept per se. Because the post-socialist city is a widely used and understood concept, we will continue using it in the rest of this introduction, dropping the initial quotation marks which are intended to emphasize the somewhat contentious nature of the concept and of the associations that it carries. Our main focus is on post-socialist cities in Central and Eastern Europe, but many of the insights contained in this volume are relevant elsewhere, too.View all notes cities are poorly visible in the urban studies literature, and that when they are, they fail to have an enduring influence on broader debates. Yet the post-socialist city, like any other place on earth, offers a unique source of, and potential for, new ideas, deserving more attention and more active engagement not only by scholars with a stated interested in the region, but also by the academic community at large.

Framing this problem as a matter of conceptual and theoretical imports and exports, Sjöberg (2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases on to Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; see also Grubbauer 2012Grubbauer, Monika2012. “Toward a More Comprehensive Notion of Urban Change: Linking Post-socialist Urbanism and Urban Theory.” In Chasing Warsaw – Socio-Material Dynamics of Urban Change since 1990, edited by M.Grubbauer and J.Kusiak3560FrankfurtCampus Verlag. [Google Scholar]) recently concluded that imports of mainly Western-developed ideas into Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have occurred extensively, while little, if anything, has been produced or refined for export from the region to the global market of ideas. Sjöberg’s (2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases on to Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) concerns add on to the increasingly frequent calls for more globally inclusive urban studies, calls that are particularly voiced by scholars working in the postcolonial tradition (e.g. Robinson 2005, 2011a, 2011b, 2013Robinson, Jennifer2005. “Urban Geography: World Cities, or a World of Cities.” Progress in Human Geography 29: 757765.10.1191/0309132505ph582pr
Robinson, Jennifer2011a. “Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35: 123.10.1111/ijur.2011.35.issue-1
Robinson, Jennifer2011b. “Comparisons: Colonial or Cosmopolitan?” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography32: 125140.10.1111/sjtg.2011.32.issue-2
Robinson, Jennifer2013. “The Urban Now: Theorising Cities beyond the New.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 16: 659677.10.1177/1367549413497696 
; Roy 2009Roy, Ananya2009. “The 21st Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory.” Regional Studies 43: 819830.10.1080/00343400701809665[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Jacobs 2012Jacobs, Jane2012. “Commentary – Comparing Comparative Urbanisms.” Urban Geography 33: 904914.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.904[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; McFarlane and Robinson 2012McFarlane, Colin, and Jennifer Robinson2012. “Introduction – Experiments in Comparative Urbanism.” Urban Geography 33: 765773.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.765[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), but that have in fact gained resonance within wider circles. What these scholars have in common is that they question the global reach of urban theory, and particularly of the unidirectional and parochial nature of the flow of urban knowledge from the West toward the “rest.” While they do acknowledge the value of, for example, the significant body of literature on the articulations of neoliberalism in cities across the world, these writers nevertheless criticize such work on the basis of it being rooted in the experience of a mere handful of cities that key urban thinkers have as their backyards – often islands of exceptionality scattered across (the northwestern quadrant of) a world of ordinary cities. Earlier versions of this critique had emerged already in the 1990s, when the dominance of Chicago and Los Angeles – the city “where it all comes together” (Soja 1989Soja, Edward1989Postmodern GeographiesLondonVerso. [Google Scholar]) – in urban theory supposedly silenced the voices of the sub-iconic and ordinary elsewhere (see Amin and Graham 1997Amin, Ash, and Stephen Graham1997. “The Ordinary City.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 22: 411429.10.1111/tran.1997.22.issue-4[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

The causes are certainly multiple, but four main explanations can be singled out. First, a resilient assumption permeating much research on post-socialist cities is that these cities are anomalous, subject to gradual correction with the return of “normal” economic relations rooted in a capitalist system, and as such, that they are ill-placed to inform broader urban theory. Such an assumption implies that there is, or should be, a final product (a post-correction city) liberated from all meaningful socialist legacies, its landscape “cleansed” (Czepczyński 2008Czepczyński, Mariusz2008Cultural Landscapes of Post-socialist CitiesAldershotAshgate. [Google Scholar]) of any socialist-era urban impurities. This way, the value of globally circulating urban knowledge may be expected to increase in parallel with the evaporation of the socialist past’s anomalous vestiges. Meanwhile, the concomitant transition process needs to be theorized, but it is a theorization that is conscribed in space and time to countries undergoing this process, and is thus hard to re-export. A prominent and useful example of such theorization is Sýkora and Bouzarovski’s (2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) multiple transformations conceptualization of urban transition, which allows for manifold and tortuous routes along a single broad trajectory from central planning and totalitarianism toward democracy and the market, providing the fresh canvas upon which (presumably slower) sociocultural and urban spatial transitions are subsequently drawn. In this perspective, having completed this three-stage transition, cities enter (or return to) the realm of ordinary theory. However, while the approach echoes the literature on double transition processes in Latin America during the 1980s, it overlooks, or at least downplays, the important “third” (Offe [1991Offe, Claus1991[2004]. “Capitalism by Democratic Design? Democratic Theory Facing the Triple Transition in East Central Europe.” Social Research 71: 501529. [Google Scholar]] 2004) and “fourth” (Kuzio 2001Kuzio, Taras2001. “Transition in Post-communist States: Triple or Quadruple?” Politics 21: 168177.10.1111/1467-9256.00148[Crossref][Google Scholar]) transitions – toward state and nation-building.

Similarly, second, such conceptualizations sustain discourses that frame post-socialist cities as lagging behind (cf. Robinson 2004Robinson, Jennifer2004. “In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism: Difference, Urban Modernity and the Primitive.” Urban Geography 25: 709723.10.2747/0272-3638.25.8.709[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). They are in other words not just anomalous, but also non-modern, which effectively doubles their relative “difference” when seen through the lens of the principal First-World distilleries of urban thought. Accordingly, the need to “catch up” – against a backdrop of existing theory on First-World forerunner cities (Hirt 2012Hirt, Sonia. 2012Iron CurtainsMaldenJohn Wiley and Sons.10.1002/9781118295922[Crossref][Google Scholar]) – was a relatively unproblematic assumption during the 1990s – an assumption that became increasingly criticized later on (Hörschelmann and Stenning 2008Hörschelmann, Kathrin, and AlisonStenning2008. “Ethnographies of Postsocialist Change.” Progress in Human Geography 32: 339361.10.1177/0309132508089094[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2012Ferenčuhová, Slavomíra2012. “Urban Theory beyond the ‘East/West Divide’? Cities and Urban Research in Postsocialist Europe.” In Urban Theory beyond the West: A World of Cities, edited by T. Edensor and M.Jayne6574LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Hirt 2012Hirt, Sonia. 2012Iron CurtainsMaldenJohn Wiley and Sons.10.1002/9781118295922[Crossref][Google Scholar]).

Third, as both Robinson (2004Robinson, Jennifer2004. “In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism: Difference, Urban Modernity and the Primitive.” Urban Geography 25: 709723.10.2747/0272-3638.25.8.709[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) and Roy (2009Roy, Ananya2009. “The 21st Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory.” Regional Studies 43: 819830.10.1080/00343400701809665[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) note, theory generated outside of this exclusive club, in general, tends to be viewed as a particularistic contribution to the description and understanding of what is past and elsewhere (see Peck [2015Peck, Jamie2015. “Cities beyond Compare?” Regional Studies 49: 160182.10.1080/00343404.2014.980801[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]] and Scott and Storper [2015Scott, Allen J., and Michael Storper2015. “The Nature of Cities: The Scope and Limits of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39: 115.10.1111/ijur.v39.1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]] for examples of similar critique toward the “new comparative urbanism” literature), and thus of little importance to other contexts. Post-socialist cities have a defining relation to the (socialist) past (see Hirt 2016Hirt, Sonia2016. “Once the Socialist City.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, SoniaHirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri TuvikeneEurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar]), representing a project of catching up, of reducing the imagined distance in both time and space with the West. Thus, they are a particularly interesting example of cities that are “elsewhere,” yet not so far, and that are “past,” but not quite,22. Reading Homi Bhabha’s Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse(1984Bhabha, Homi1984. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis 28: 125133. [Google Scholar]) is particularly inspiring in rethinking the ambivalent meaning of post-socialist identity.View all notes and as such, they are hardly considered as sources of general theoretical input. Yet, “ordinary theory” (Peck 2015Peck, Jamie2015. “Cities beyond Compare?” Regional Studies 49: 160182.10.1080/00343404.2014.980801[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) is fraught with much the same problem, and Robinson (2011aRobinson, Jennifer2011a. “Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35: 123.10.1111/ijur.2011.35.issue-1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 10) suggests that “most urban research is fairly parochial, with often quite locally derived conclusions circulating as universal knowledge.” Leitner and Sheppard (2016Leitner, Helga, and Eric Sheppard2016. “Provincializing Critical Urban Theory: Extending the Ecosystem of Possibilities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 228235.10.1111/1468-2427.12277[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 230) add on to this critique (based on the example of the Burgess concentric ring model) by noting that “certain local epistemologies may gain hegemonic status for reasons that have little to do with their universal validity” (230).

Finally, fourth, still relatively few scholars working in post-socialist countries have managed to reach out with their results, for various reasons, including language barriers, resource constraints, lack of library access to the international literature, and thus detachment of their work from current theoretical debates. Certainly, the overall situation has improved during recent years, but the improvements have not taken place in a geographically uniform way, leading to increased differences between and within particularly country contexts (see Timár 2004Timár, Judit2004. “More than ‘Anglo-American’, It is ‘Western’: Hegemony in Geography from a Hungarian Perspective.” Geoforum 35: 533538.10.1016/j.geoforum.2004.01.010[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2016aFerenčuhová, Slavomíra2016a. “Accounts from behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 131146.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).


Planetary Gentrification

Loretta Lees: My aim in this talk is to unpack the Anglo-American hegemony in gentrification studies, and in so doing to question the notion of a global gentrification. 

Book Review: Planetary Gentrification by Loretta Lees, Hyun Bang Shin and Ernesto López-Morales

The first book in Polity’s ‘Urban Futures’ series, in Planetary Gentrification authors Loretta Lees, Hyun Bang Shin and Ernesto López-Morales bring together recent urban theory, postcolonial critique and a political economy perspective to offer a globalised take on gentrification. This book is a crucial synthesis of established approaches to gentrification and more recent theoretical developments and is also an excellent example of co-authored scholarship, finds Geoffrey DeVerteuil . 

Planetary Gentrification. Loretta Lees, Hyun Bang Shin and Ernesto López-Morales. Polity. 2016.

planetary-gentrification-coverWith the same three authors, Planetary Gentrification may be seen as a companion to the 2015 volume, Global Gentrifications: Uneven Development and Displacement, giving a more unified discussion of how to join gentrification debates to current urban theory, of moving beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and ‘heartlands’ of gentrification theory production to embrace a truly cosmopolitan, globalised gentrification, both theoretically and empirically.

Spaces of Conceptual Invisibility

Systemic Edges as Spaces of Conceptual Invisibility
By Saskia Sassen
“The language of more – more inequality, more poverty, more imprisonment, more dead land and dead water, and so on—is insufficient to mark the proliferation of extreme versions of familiar conditions.’ In the talk Sassen will argue that we are seeing a proliferation of systemic edges which, once crossed, render these extreme conditions invisible. She will focus on this interplay between extreme moment and the shift from visible to invisible – the capacity of a complex system to generate invisibilities no matter how material the condition.’ The talk is based on her latest publication: Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity (Harvard University Press 2014).”

Saskia Sassen
Abstract The point of inquiry in this book is the systemic edge. The key dynamic at this edge is expulsion from the diverse systems in play—economic, social, biospheric. The systemic edge is the point where a condition takes on a format so extreme that it cannot be easily captured by the standard measures of governments and experts and becomes invisible, ungraspable. In this regard, that edge also becomes invisible to standard ways of seeing and making meaning. Each major domain has its own distinctive systemic edge—thus this edge is constituted differently for the economy than it is for the biosphere or the social realm. This edge is foundationally different from the geographic border in the interstate system. The core hypothesis is that we are seeing a proliferation of systemic edges originating partly in the decaying western-style political economy of the 20th century, the escalation of environmental destruction, and the rise of complex forms of knowledge that far too often produce elementary brutalities. It is in the spaces of the expelled where we find the sharper version of what might be happening inside the system in far milder modes and hence easily overlooked as signaling systemic decay. In this regard, I conceive of the systemic edge as signaling the existence of conceptually subterranean trends—trends we cannot easily make visible through our current categories of meaning. From there, the importance of positioning my inquiry at the systemic edge, where a condition takes on its extreme form and in that process also escapes our conventional measures and representations.
At The Systemic Edge


The Systemic Edge : An Interview with Saskia Sassen

Saskia Sassen was interviewed for New Politics by editors Riad Azar and Saulo Colón about her new book, Expulsions: When Complexity Produces Elementary Brutalities (Harvard University Press, 2014).

New Politics: In your new book Expulsions, you talk about a “new logic of expulsions.” You claim “expulsion” is a new logic, yet state that the relationship between this advanced form of capitalism and traditional capitalism is similar to the one between capitalism and feudalism. Does “expulsion” operate the same way that “enclosures” did in the development of capitalism? Or in the way “extractivism” works currently in Latin America? What is the significance behind the spatial connotation of the term “to expel”? 

Saskia Sassen: The point of inquiry in this book is the systemic edge. The key dynamic at this edge is expulsion from the diverse systems in play—economic, social, biospheric. This edge is foundationally different from the geographic border in the interstate system. The focus on the edge comes from one of the core hypotheses organizing this book: that the move from Keynesianism to the global era of privatizations, deregulation, and open borders for some, entailed a switch from dynamics that brought people in to dynamics that push people out. Whether such a switch from incorporation to expulsion might also be emerging in China and India requires expertise I lack; China, especially, has seen a massive incorporation of people into monetized economies, but now many of these are among the growing masses of “monetized” poor! China is also experiencing sharpening inequality and new forms of economic concentration at the top, not to mention corporate bullying.

Each major domain has its own distinctive systemic edge—this edge is constituted differently for the economy than it is for the biosphere. One of the organizing assumptions in this book is that the systemic edge is the site where general conditions take extreme forms precisely because it is the site for expulsion. Further, the extreme character of conditions at the edge helps us detect more encompassing trends that are less extreme and hence more difficult to capture. I conceive of these larger trends as conceptually subterranean because we cannot easily make them visible through our current categories of meaning—thus, from there also the importance of positioning my inquiry at the systemic edge.

Today, I see new systemic logics arising from the decaying political economy of the twentieth century … and these include expulsion logics to a far larger and more extreme extent than the preceding Keynesian period, which also had some of this but not as widespread. This decay began in the 1980s. By then the strong welfare states and workers’ syndicates established in much of the West, including in several Latin American countries, had either been devastated or were under severe pressure. To some extent state projects with people-oriented welfare programs had also been strong features in other parts of the world, including, in their own ways, communist countries and those with varieties of socialist nationalism, as illustrated by Nasser’s welfare-state policies in Egypt, systems developed in several post-independence African countries, and in India’s brand of state socialism. In these countries too, decay began in the 1980s and 1990s.




Neil Brenner, “Debating planetary urbanization: for an engaged pluralism,” Working Paper, Urban Theory Lab, Harvard GSD, Summer 2017.

This essay reflects on recent debates around planetary urbanization, many of which have been articulated through strikingly dismissive caricatures of the core epistemological orientations, conceptual proposals, methodological tactics and substantive arguments that underpin this emergent approach to the urban question.  Following brief consideration of some of the most prevalent misrepresentations of this work, I build upon Trevor Barnes and Eric Sheppard’s (2010) concept of “engaged pluralism” to suggest more productive possibilities for dialogue among critical urban researchers whose agendas are too often viewed as incommensurable or antagonistic rather than as interconnected and, potentially, allied.  The essay concludes by outlining nine research questions whose more sustained exploration could more productively connect studies of planetary urbanization to several fruitful lines of inquiry associated with postcolonial, feminist and queer-theoretical strands of urban studies.  While questions of positionality necessarily lie at the heart of any critical approach to urban theory and research, so too does the search for intellectual and political common ground that might help orient, animate and advance the shared, if constitutively heterodox, project(s) of critical urban studies.


Nothing includes everything’: towards engaged pluralism in Anglophone economic geography
Trevor J. Barnes1  and Eric Sheppard

City Noise

“City Noise”: Sound (Art) and Disaster

By Frans Ari Prasetyo

Published in the  Journal of Sonic Studies


My sonic work “City Noise” proposes both an artistic and a theoretical approach to the city-sound relationship. The default assumption about this relationship is that sounds reflect a one-to-one relationship between soundscape and landscape, both drawing upon and revealing the physical and social landscapes from which they originate. However, the question can be posed regarding whether there actually is a direct relationship between sound and place in our increasingly globalized world. Due to this globalization, the relation between the local and the global has become more fluid, and the relation between sounds and scapes has begun to blur.


Three short remarks about sound need to be made here:

  • Sound is an inherently spatial phenomenon. No matter what its point of origin, sound must navigate space before reaching our ears. Simultaneously, recent innovations in communication and digital technologies have created virtual networks, thus redefining the conception of space and presenting new possibilities for sound studies and sound art.
  • Sound is also a constitutive element in the formation of public life: in virtual spaces, the sharing of sound files are a structuring factor of public life, framed by and revealing shared tastes and ideologies. In “real” spaces, sound contributes to the policing of relative inclusion and exclusion, or constituting citizenship along axes of race, class, gender, and nationality.
  • One of the traditional assumptions about sonic art derived from field recordings is that it should be developed from an “authentic” or local sense of place, identity, community, or way of life. Contradictorily, sometimes the assumption is that the relationship between sound and city is fundamentally arbitrary. This makes clear that recorded sounds enter into a complex relational dynamic with the environment from which they are taken: they may be subjected to a multitude of transformations, e.g. amplification, distortion, reverberation, dissipation, etc.

“City Noise” affirms the need for aesthetic reflection that takes into consideration the profound transformations of city sounds occurring in the wake of a natural disaster; it thus attempts to present sound marks and sound signs that make a city more identifiable and historically grounded. The rationale is that sounds help us to understand specific public situations as lived, imagined, and sensed – “public” understood here as expansive, encompassing feelings, rituals, spaces and spheres, the networked, the transient, and the mediated. As such, “City Noise” joins the already rich discourse on sound and public life while amplifying issues of affect, sense, and materiality.


A further objective of “City Noise” is to underscore the significance of sound on memory recall in the city, how evocations of city spaces are achieved through sound, where memory and sound coalesce in the (recomposed) experience of the city; it emphasizes the capacity and role of sounds in creating, enhancing, complicating, or disintegrating the public sphere.


“City Noise” presents city spaces, in both a physical and social sense, as layers of natural and human-made sounds that together create a sonic network. The structure of the city resonates in the distant reverberations of passing trains, transmitted through the ground, woven with other sources of environmental and ambient sounds and including voices in a chaotic and disrupted urban environment. It presents not only the natural sounds of disasters in general (earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and volcanic eruptions) but also the sounds of those affected (especially humans), responding directly and indirectly to and immersed within the atmosphere of a disaster.


Public Space and Informal Mechanisms in Beirut

Life in a Street: How Informal Mechanisms Govern Scarce Public Spaces in Nabaa, Beirut

By Petra Samaha

Published in Jadaliyya

[Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by Petra Samaha]
[Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by Petra Samaha]

The informal mechanisms of organization in everyday public life have been at the core of concerns of many researchers and practitioners (e.g., Rukmana and Hegel in Indonesia, Mehrotra in India, and Nagati in Egypt). While examining these processes in different contexts, the focus was typically on their interplay with “formal” regulations or in relation to the private built environment. Few highlighted the significance of these informal arrangements per se and their importance in governing public shared spaces (Simone 2004 & 2009, Bayat 1998 & 2010). These mechanisms lend some sort of spatial flexibility to the street transforming it into much more than a space for circulation, but rather a holder of mixed uses, leading therefore to an altered definition of public life.

Perhaps the best known of all books addressing the topic of public life is Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities where the author described streets and their sidewalks as the main public places of a city–its most vital organs. Density, walkability, mixed uses, and human scale are described as main criteria for livable cities. Even though these concepts are usually used to define well-planned cities, they seem to also describe very well the lively streets in areas typically tagged as informal. Such vibrant streets are often the result of unplanned and complex processes that offer us many more interesting lessons when disentangled and understood.

Taking the case of Nabaa (Bourj Hammoud) I look into the ways in which the dwellers share the scarce public spaces of the neighborhood and highlight the importance of their efficient organization/management as mixed-use spaces[1]. There is a lot to learn from the informal mechanisms and practices that govern the space of the street and the sidewalk. Vibrancy in such spaces often stems from widespread economic activities and social life. However, over-crowdedness inevitably leads to conflicts whereby the better connected and the more powerful in the neighborhood’s social structure are able to make stronger claims over space and the more vulnerable (i.e., elderly, children, women, and migrants) learn to navigate their way and adapt through other self-devised alternatives.  These multiple claims might seem chaotic or unorganized. However, a detailed investigation revealed they are ruled by a set of codes that aim at anticipating, mitigating, and resolving conflicts. What and how can we learn from these complex informal mechanisms of conflict resolution and space reallocation that street users in dense informal areas deploy in their everyday life?

Nabaa is a dense low-income neighborhood located immediately at the eastern edge of Beirut’s administrative boundary and houses a large percentage of vulnerable population groups including foreign migrant workers and refugees. The area offers a unique blend of religious, national, and ethnic mixity that is vividly reflected on the neighborhood streets through banners, street signs, graffiti and stencils but also storefronts and dress codes. The streets of Nabaa are rife with commercial and economic activities either happening on the ground floors of buildings or using the space of the street/sidewalk itself. Through direct observations, mapping and interviews, I looked into the ways in which the dwellers use the spaces of the neighborhood and manage the multiple claims over the scarce shared spaces.

Given the high population density and scarce open spaces, dwellers come up with ad-hoc solutions to fulfill their daily needs and, at the same time, improve the spaces of their neighborhood (i.e., greening, open space appropriation, and waste management). The space of the sidewalk/street acquires different meanings through time since dwellers assign functions to it through their own practices. The space is hence defined by social and economic processes rather than planned top-down schemes. It becomes hard to distinguish pre-set boundaries between public and private, sidewalk and street, inside and outside… Hence, conflicts are solved through deploying complex informal mechanisms that rely on the flexibility of both time and space.  While I narrate the stories from the streets of Nabaa, I propose that the efficient, perhaps creative, management of the shared spaces of the city by the street users themselves can mitigate or even evade conflicts. The informal arrangements render the space of the street to be much more than a passage, but rather a holder of mixed uses increasing its effectiveness in responding to conflicting needs and pressing demands.

Dimensions of Space and Time

In order to understand how the multiple use and users coexist in Nabaa through space and time, I mapped the main commercial and social practices on a busy artery in Nabaa (Sis Street) while highlighting the dimensions of time and space. Hence, the patterns of use and meaning of space are in a constant shift over the course of a single day, sometimes hours.



Do-it-yourself urbanism: vertical building extensions in the urban landscapes of Skopje and Tbilisi

The architectural and social landscapes of many post-socialist cities have been 
transformed by an emergent urban phenomenon: the construction of vertical building extensions (VBEs) on the balconies and façades of multi-storey residential buildings.
While such structures are often of a makeshift, improvised character, many of them possess reinforced concrete frame constructions that often parallel the ‘host’ building in terms of size and function.
This paper examines the social and spatial underpinnings of such extensions, with the aid of a field study based in Skopje and Tbilisi – the capitals of, respectively, Macedonia and Georgia. We highlight the embeddedness of this phenomenon in a set of policy decisions and economic practices specific to the post-socialist period, as well as their complex implications for the
present and future use of urban space. One of our key arguments is that VBEs ‘spatialize’ coping strategies in post socialism, embodying a kind of ‘DIY urbanism’ that has deeply transformed the conduct of everyday life in the city.

Quasi-quantitative mapping with scarce resources

From LSE Field Research Methods Labs

Quasi-quantitative Mapping with Scarce Resources

The methodological design I used to map fearscapes is fourfold. First, selection of the spatial entities to be included in the maps. I identified six categories, broad enough to keep flexibility to accommodate the variety of actual spatial entities: