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The crisis in urban studies

Leverhulme Public Lecture: The crisis in urban studies:revolution, reform and reconstruction

Sue Parnell (African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Townand Leverhulme Visiting Professor, UCL)


Abstract: Working from the position that the crisis in urban studies is well understood and that the logjam is both a product of changing global urban demographics and the distorted nature of academic representations of urban problems, the paper sets a way forward in the construction of an alternative practice of urban theorization based on the interrelated practices of revolution, reform and reconstruction.  In seeking a more inclusive engagement with cities (in the way that authors such as Robinson, Roy and Watson have called for) it is not necessary to reject Northern theory outright. But, a quiet revolution that provincialises dominant theoretical narratives such as competitiveness, gentrification or neo-liberalism is imperative. When the empirical reference points for theory formation are shifted and the politics of local urban citizens are taken seriously there will be an inevitable reform of the urban studies cannon. The power of a revisionist process in reorienting the values and focus of urban studies is illustrated here through a discussion of the role modernity in urban Africa that challenges Northern, largely liberal interpretations that reinforce differential values of urban governance regimes for Northern and Southern cities. Finally, the paper suggests that advancing the reformulation of the urban cannon will also be advanced through the simple recognition of exiting largely Southern research that is currently locked in the ghettos of development studies and policy circuits. By illustration I revisit major advances in thinking about gender and the city from the 1980s and 1990s and position the emerging urban welfare debate as critical informants for the reconstruction of urban studies in our time.  


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