(In)flexible Cities Seminar #2: Contested Spaces and Urban Citizenship in India

Romola Sanyal’s talk will address multiple narratives of Dharavi, Mumbai and how these competing and complimentary narratives produce particular claims to citizenship. Much of the work is based around her recent and brief fieldwork in Dharavi, but also draws on postcolonial theory. The fieldwork entailed going on several ‘slum tours' and the talk will pick up on how the slum is narrated through these and other media.

Romola Sanyal is Lecturer in Global Urbanism at Newcastle University. Her work focuses on the intersection between Refugee Studies and Urban Studies in trying to understand how refugee spaces urbanize. Studying refugee 'colonies' in Calcutta and camps in Beirut, the work endeavours to show how the production of space is central to the production of refugee identity and rights. The aim is not only to debunk widely held beliefs that refugee camps form spaces of exception, by pointing to the complexity of relations that construct refugee identities and spaces, but to show how these sites are becoming increasingly informalized and urbanized as a result of particular geopolitics. Her work studying the refuge through the lens of the city raises critical questions of identity, citizenship and belonging can be raised particularly in relation to space and place.

Romola Sanyal has published in journals such as Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Social Identities (2009), Urban Studies (2011), Geography Compass (forthcoming), and has chapters in forthcoming books such as Urbanizing Citizenship: Contested Spaces in Indian Cities (Renu Desai and Romola Sanyal, eds) and The Postconflict Environment (Daniel B. Monk, ed). Her book Urbanizing Citizenship: Contested Spaces in Indian Cities (Sage, India) is forthcoming in November, 2011. Her Ph.D. dissertation Architectures of Displacement: On Identity and Refugee Space in Beirut and Calcutta won the 2010 Social Science Research Council-IDRF Book Fellowship award.

Before coming to Newcastle, Romola worked at University College London and at the Open University and was the inaugural postdoctoral fellow at the Chao Center for Asian Studies, Rice University. She has a Ph.D in Architecture from University of California, Berkeley and an M.Sc in Cities, Space and Society (Geography) from the London School of Economics. She currently serves on the executive board of the International Association of the Study of Traditional Environments.


(In)flexible Cities Seminar #1: Cities of Power

For the opening talk of the (In)flexible Cities series Professor Göran Therborn gave an overview of his ‘Cities of Power’ project, which focuses on cities as representations of power and as sites of power. We had a fantastic turnout, so thanks to everyone who came. Technology defeated us so we don’t have a podcast for the first talk, but here are some of the key ideas Professor Therborn covered.

The talk made a broad portrait of cities of power, questioning whether cities really do wield power and analyzing how power is represented in the city. Therborn's project has a strong emphasis on iconography and representation, including urban layout, architecture, monuments and toponymy. Therborn opened his talk by warning against economistic reductionism and misperceptions of state power. Therborn then distinguished between cities of power and the power of cities, because of what he terms the problematic ‘agency of places’ (do cities really wield power?). The city as ‘command point’ (Sassen) is a site, but not an agent of power: the persons who actually wield power can be better understood as agents of corporations (public, private) and not of cities. The city does not hold the power, even though power is located in the city. Corporate networks and armed forces are forms of power manifested in cities: cities as sites of power.

Therborn suggested that cities wield power as nodes in networks of other cities. They also wield power as resource-holders, service providers and governors of sociability. More importantly, though, they exert influence as representations of power: commanding respect, asserting legitimacy and expressing direction or worldview. Cities represent through spatial layout, the patterning of private and public buildings, through architecture itself, and in their monuments and museums (Therborn calls this the ‘monumentality’ of cities). In illustrating the theme, Therborn highlighted the multivalence of form in sites such as the Christ the Saviour cathedral in Moscow, a symbolic project which is open to numerous interpretations, due to its detonation, the proposed use of the site for the Palace of the Soviets , and its existence as the Moskva swimming pool until its reconstruction in 1995.

So how does the idea of ‘cities of power’ relate to (In)flexible Cities? Sites of power, said Therborn, also become sites of resistance to power. The multivalency of urban representations offers one possible site of internal resistance. Another is created by contextual constraints, which can defeat even strong political will (one example would be the various attempts to block improvements on London's Kingsway at the turn of the 20th century). A surprising aspect of resistance to cities of power, Therborn suggested, is that the contestation of power often comes from elsewhere, from another city. Therborn gave examples including the importance of Leipzig to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, of Benghazi to the fall of Tripoli, and the uprisings in Homs to the resistance movement against the Damascus regime.