Review of Key Thinkers on Cities. Regan Koch & Alan Latham (eds).London, Sage, 2017

Heather McLean*, C. S. Ponder, Felipe Magalhaes, Lauren Wagner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalBook/Film/Article reviewAcademic


Commentary i: key thinkers on citiesreviewed by: heather mclean, university of glasgow, ukit’s an exciting and challenging time to engage in urban studies research and teaching. Urban researchers are currently uncovering the everyday implications of uneven urban development with intersectional approaches that combine critical analyses of race, class, gender, ability and citizenship status. Such lines of inquiry dovetail with the work of current feminist and queer urban scholars engaged in fine-grained empirical research to investigate the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that governance models naturalise hetero and homonormative values. Meanwhile, politicised community-engaged scholars co-researching social movements with activists are investigating and, importantly, resisting precarious work, gentrification and austerity a feminist urban researcher and former urban planner who is committed to praxis-oriented scholarship, i find regan koch and alan latham’s edited collection key thinkers on cities a timely contribution to these proliferating urban studies pathways. Bridging theory and practice, the book brings together a lively mix of urbanists from the global south and north, as well as post-structural, marxist, feminist and post-colonial researchers. Moreover, the engaging and well-crafted chapters offer urban studies researchers with a unique compendium of critical scholars, artists, policy makers and planning practitioners. As i read through the chapters, i wished i had had access to a comprehensive text like this when i was a doctoral student.the book’s introduction, ‘how to think about cities’, draws the reader into the lively realm of urban studies. Here, koch and latham lay out what they identify as the key challenges facing contemporary cities and urban regions: economic, institutional, infrastructural, ecological and complex, or the diversity of populations, values and everyday practices. The introduction also outlines the key questions guiding the overall book: why are cities sites of such wealth and power? why are cities divided by systemic segregation and inequality? what spaces of solidarity and care are emerging in vastly unequal cities? how can we think of cities as ecological spaces made up of rich assemblages of human and non-human actors? and how do urbanists make sense of the different national, regional and global dynamics shaping cities and regions?the introduction is a particularly useful teaching tool because it breaks down key ways of theorising cities and urban environments into five cogent thematics. The first thematic, ‘thinking as local explanation and description’, discusses the potential of immersive and fine-grained ethnographic research for understanding the everyday or micro ways residents, activists, community groups, planners and developers shape urban politics, and how such processes scale-up to influence policies. The second thematic, ‘thinking as a set of tools and heuristics’, outlines the potential of theoretical concepts developed by urban researchers to think with ‘precision about the social, political, economic, and ecological dynamics being studied’ (p. 7). The third thematic, ‘thinking as intervening’, then describes the potential of praxis-oriented research strategies that bridge abstract conceptual approaches with policies and community-based interventions. Here the editors refer to some particularly engaging examples of putting theory into practice, including artist natalie jeremijenko’s projects that encourage urbanites to interact with a diverse mix of non-human entities – birds, mice, tadpoles and plants – as we go about our lives in cities. The fourth thematic, ‘thinking as critique’, overviews theories for investigating the hidden or unacknowledged biases and power asymmetries that structure contemporary cities, including the work of henri lefebvre, david harvey and neil brenner, scholars the editors identify as exemplars of this approach. Finally, thematic five, ‘thinking as modelling’, outlines the ways some urban researchers construct formal models that offer simplified descriptions of relationships to guide planners and policy makers.the introduction is also particularly strong because it encourages students and researchers to creatively and curiously engage with the urbanists brought together in the following chapters. Koch and latham write: ‘you may start by just flipping through, looking to see how many names or key writings you are familiar with … or you might want to learn about someone completely unfamiliar to you’ (p. 11). Not only does their advice mirror the ‘pluralistic urban imagination’ that makes up contemporary cities, but it reflects the lively possibilities of urban studies research.the 40 short chapters guiding the reader through the rest of the book reflect the editors’ commitment to conversation, encounter and plurality. In each concise chapter, an urban researcher overviews one particular theorist or practitioner. The chapters all include detailed information on the urbanists’ personal and professional backgrounds, theoretical and methodological approaches and contributions to the field. Excitingly, the overall structure of the book exemplifies how urban thinkers are continuously producing new modes of understanding and intervening in cities, and how this plural and constantly shifting discipline is made up of diverse, politicised and overlapping debates that decentre normative and colonial histories of urban studies. For instance, in rajyashree reddy’s chapter about jennifer robinson’s post-colonial research approach, reddy highlights how robinson’s analysis of ordinary cities also connects with feminist urbanist cindi katz’s ‘minor theory’ analysis. Reddy also makes connections between robinson’s research trajectory and ananya roy’s call for ‘new geographies’ of urban theory that uncover how southern urbanism shapes northern and euro-american policies and conceptual approaches. As reddy weaves together connections between feminist and post-colonial urban studies, she sparks an excitement for politicised research projects in cities globally.the lively chapters also demonstrate a commitment to diversity of thought and debate, as the authors do not shy away from critically responding to the influential urban scholars that they write about. For example, in her chapter on feminist landscape historian dolores hayden, leslie kern discusses hayden’s explicitly feminist contributions to our understanding of the built environment, including her feminist critique of suburban development. Here kern outlines how hayden’s work has brought important dialogue about ways to envision ‘socially inclusive and collective landscape histories’ (p. 126) in our research endeavours. However, kern also critiques hayden’s tendency to forefront gender at the expense of race, sexuality and class, and encourages the important feminist urbanist to engage with intersectional feminist, queer and anti-racist approaches when envisioning future urban policies and plans.such intersectional criticality points to key thinkers on cities’ commitment to highlighting the rich diversity of contemporary urban research. Overall, the book points to politicised and generative research pathways in a discipline with a history of reproducing masculinist, hetero-patriarchal and colonial tendencies. However, in the introduction, koch and latham fall into the same old patriarchal ways of thinking that have defined the discipline over the decades as they refer to henri lefevbre, david harvey and neil brenner as ‘examplars’ of ‘thinking as critique’. Surely the editors could think of more ‘exemplars’. This is a minor criticism because the book engages with such a diverse mix of urbanists. But as cindi katz writes, the minor can be immensely political. In a future iteration of this edited collection, more exemplars of thinking as critique in the introduction can include linda peake’s feminist approaches to understanding colonial domination in cities and sites of re-working, resistance and solidarity-making. Ananya roy’s exemplary interrogation of histories of racialised domination in colonial planning practice is also a powerful example of thinking as conclude, kate derickson writes that ‘the act of theorizing the urban and, by association, theorizing political possibilities, is fundamentally shaped and limited by the intellectual and philosophical traditions upon which they are based, and the empirical examples upon which they draw’ (derickson, 2014: 651). Key thinkers on cities points to the possibilities of the diverse methodological, theoretical and praxis-oriented approaches that currently make up the discipline of urban studies. An excellent resource for researchers and instructors, the book is a testament to a flourishing discipline that encourages us to imagine and enact alternative urban futures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3034-3047
Number of pages14
JournalUrban Studies
Issue number13
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018

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