European Commission logo
English English
CORDIS - EU research results

The Urban Revolution and the Political

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - urban-rev politics (The Urban Revolution and the Political)

Reporting period: 2019-11-01 to 2021-12-31

There has been a proliferation of debates and concern about the social and ecological implications of contemporary urbanization. The continuous increase in the portion of the global population living in urban centers is routinely repeated in commentaries, policy documents and academic publications alike. Notions such as ‘urban futures,’ ‘urban age’ are evoked to highlight the urban nature of ecological and societal challenges that we face.

What is largely missing in these timely debates, however, is a systematic and in-depth engagement with the political significance of the ongoing “urban revolution” - a term coined by French urban sociologist Henri Lefebvre in 1970. Building on his work, a few scholars, such as Neil Brenner, and Christian Schmid have elaborated on the territorial, and socio-spatial aspects of planetary urbanization, namely the increasingly uneven, complex and polycentric nature of the urban and the interplay between concentration and extension tendencies at the scale of the whole planet. But the question of politics is still tangentially treated. Is there a particular kind of urban politics corresponding to our urban age? If so what does it look like? Do we need to rethink the way in which we govern our cities, the common resources that cities offer? Is international investment in real estate helping our cities? How should increases in land rent be shared?

These are important questions. To answer them we first need to develop an understanding of the increasingly dominant urban-based accumulation practices. There are indications that speculations on land, and real estate are increasingly global. This is facilitated by transnational real estate companies and investors that operate at the global scale.

URBAN-REV POLITICS approaches global urbanisation and its contestations from the perspective of the production and consumption of the built environment. Using a political economy approach it seeks to understand accumulation strategies based on the production and consumption of urban space and specific urban transformations that they underpin, as well as how these are negotiated and challenged at the local and global scales.

The project is organised around three interrelated themes corresponding to three sub-projects (work packages):

The first is the uneven globalisation of real estate markets. Here we trace the interactions between various influential public and private actors (investors, asset managers, brokers, real estate developers, politicians, decision-makers etc.) to understand how their decisions and actions have impacts in specific sites. As a part of this we carry out observations and interviews in major international real estate trade fairs.

The second is the exploitation of urban space through rent extraction. Here in relation to the first subproject we examine how a profit-driven approach informed by various risk-return calculations, and negotiated with local authorities affect urban spaces, and quality of urban experience. We look at what kind of conflicts and dilemmas this creates.

The third is the ways in which these highly speculative interventions in urban spaces are negotiated and contested at different scales. We study the extent to which citizens are able participate in formal channels of decision-making under the ‘urban revolution.’ We also examine mobilisations, squats, occupations, and revolts that contest specific speculative urban processes.

Using a multi-sited ethnography approach the work is based on case studies in Hong Kong, Istanbul, London, and São Paulo. These cities feature comparable processes of property-led (re)developments, and a variety of activist and advocacy networks that challenge these. Additionally all four cities have experienced largely spontaneous mobilisations and/or popular occupations in the recent past.

URBAN-REV POLITICS will significantly contribute to debates in the fields of urban planning, urban political economy, and economic geography. The speed and complexity of urbanisation have posed significant challenges for research design and theorisation. There is widespread consensus that our conceptual tools need extensive updating. Many of the themes that I will be engaging with, such as urban redevelopment, infrastructure, gentrification, ‘right to the city,’ are foci of significant scholarship today; other discussed themes, such as speculative urbanism, urban land rent, finance-real estate connection, and the urban commons have recently begun to attract (in some cases renewed) attention. However these discussions tend to occur in a rather compartmentalised fashion. For instance, property-led urban redevelopment, and gentrification are rarely discussed in relation to the transnational sites and networks of negotiation between state, finance and real estate actors. Similarly the work on real estate studies doesn’t sufficiently engage with issues related to contestations, and right to the city. A significant added value of my project will be to offer a transnational and comparative account that not only ties these threads together in a coherent manner, but also offers an empirically substantiated theory of the political implications of global urbanisation.
Work performed:

- Observations during international trade fairs as well as onsite and offsite interviews with a wide range of actors including event organizers, representatives from city delegations, real estate companies, investors, data providers, and activist groups that mobilize against these events.

- Collection of documents including press reports, research reports, promotional pamphlets, institutional publications related to specific development projects, a locality, or a company, as well as grey literature on the real estate industry.

- Collection of archival material on international real estate fairs.

- Collection and preliminary analysis of annual reports from 2002 to 2017 for major international property consultants, collection of various market reports at the global and regional level

- Exploratory investigation on contestations emerging within and around United Nation (UN) institutions: literature and press review, collection and preliminary analysis of reports issued by the UN special rapporteur for the right to adequate housing, exploratory interviews with organizations involved in the UN landscape.

- Fieldwork in London and São Paulo, interviews with representatives from the public and private sector, and from social movements.

- Identification of specific case studies for London and São Paulo for comparative research

- Desk research and preparation for fieldwork on Istanbul.

Preliminary tentative findings:

International real estate fairs fulfill multiple important functions in the overall organization of the global market. There is a wide diversity in terms of participant profiles and reasons to participate.

In each of our case study sites speculative forms of urbanism follow distinct trajectories based on specific political configurations, the particular legal landscape, the depth of the market, and the articulation with global investment flows.
We have already made significant progress on sub-project 1, and the case studies on London and São Paulo. We will further develop our work on transnational real estate service firms, and make advances on the cases of Istanbul and Hong Kong. We will further advance subproject 3. We will undertake a comparative and transnational analysis of accumulation strategies based on the production and consumption of urban space and their contestations at different scales.