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A propósito del trabajo de J.Robinson
    Belgeo Revue belge de géographie   1 | 2009 Recent developments in economic geography –Miscellaneous  J. Robinson, Ordinary cities : Between Modernity and Development. London, Routledge, 2006, xiv + 204 p. Nick Schuermans Electronic version URL: 2294-9135 Publisher: National Committee of Geography of Belgium, Société Royale Belge deGéographie Printed version Date of publication: 31 March 2009ISSN: 1377-2368  Electronic reference Nick Schuermans, « J. Robinson, Ordinary cities : Between Modernity and Development.  », Belgeo  [Online],1 | 2009, Online since 19 May 2013, connection on 21 February 2017. URL : This text was automatically generated on 21 February 2017. Belgeo  est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution 4.0International.   J. Robinson, Ordinary cities : BetweenModernity and Development. London, Routledge, 2006, xiv + 204 p. Nick Schuermans REFERENCES  J. Robinson, Ordinary cities : Between Modernity and Development  , London, Routledge, 2006,xiv + 204 p. 1  Jennifer Robinson’s “Ordinary Cities” delivers a powerful critique of the spatial divisionof academic theorization. Her central thesis is that urban theory development has beenhampered for too long by the assumed dichotomy between innovative “global cities” inrich countries and imitative “third world” cities in poor countries. It is Robinson’scontention that theoretical insights cannot be based on the experiences of a few wealthycities only, and that a post-colonial field of urban studies should assume the potential forlearning in a broad range of different settings. For this reason, she envisages an urbantheory that does not rest on pre-given categories of cities but on a cosmopolitancomparativism that places all cities within the same analytical field. Within this field, thedifferences across and within cities must be thought of as diversity rather than exemplarsof a hierarchical division. In order to learn from different contexts, Robinson argues, it isnot global cities or third world cities that should be central to academic analysis andpolicy recommendations, but what she calls “ordinary” cities, in all their complexity,diversity and peculiarity. 2 To substantiate this claim, Robinson begins with a critical rethinking of the concepts of modernity and development in urban studies. In the first chapter, she challenges Park’sand Wirth’s parochial and ethnocentric understandings of the Western city as the cradleof civilization and modernity as opposed to the primitivity and traditionality of thecountryside and cities in other countries. Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s work, she shows J. Robinson, Ordinary cities : Between Modernity and Development.Belgeo, 1 | 20091  that modernity and tradition are mutually interdependent and that what has beenperceived as primitivity is an essential part of urban life all over the world. The secondchapter deepens this critique by juxtaposing the accounts of the Chicago School withmid-twentieth-century studies on comparative urbanism in the Zambian Copper Belt.While Park and Wirth described the big cities of America as sites of alienation,individualism and indifference, members of the Manchester School considered theindustrialised and multicultural cities of the Copper Belt to be places full ofinteractionassociated with urban modernity through cultural practices that had previously beenconsidered outside the realms of urban life. In the third chapter, Robinson further seeksto shatter the conventional illusions of modernity by arguing that so-called Westernmodernities are almost always hybridisations and that urban innovation is generally aresult of cosmopolitan interdependence. She illustrates this tension between discourseand reality with the fact that critics look to New York as the trendsetting city in the fieldof urban architecture, while many so-called modern innovations actually srcinated inRenaissance Italy, Aztec Mexico or Rio de Janeiro. 3 In the remainder of her book, Robinson examines the implications of her criticalrethinking of the idea of modernity for academic theorization and policy development.First, Robinson criticises the world cities literature for putting the emphasis on a relativesmall sector of the global economy and for dropping most cities in the world from itsvision. Because of the focus on advanced business and producer services, cities likeLusaka or Kuala Lumpur largely fall off the world cities map, despite the fact that they aretied to the rest of the world through a wide range of economic activities such as the tradein second hand clothing or Islamic forms of global activity. As the worldcities literaturereproduces hierarchical relations amongst cities where some urban places are defined asmodern and others as in need of development, it is not only a problematic framework fortheorization on cities, however, but also for policy development. Robinson elaborates thisargument in the fifth chapter through a detailed analysis of the Johannesburg 2030 visionfor the city. In order to secure economic growth and improved service delivery in Johannesburg, Robinson claims that a “city development strategy” has to start from acity-wide view of urban features that takes the diversity of needs and activities in poorand wealthy parts of the city seriously. For this reason, Robinson calls, in the last chapter,for theoretical repertoires that are appreciative of the diversity of cities. These have tofocus on the close intertwining of social welfare and economic activities in both poor andrich cities by acknowledging that all cities are assembling and inventing diverse ways of being modern. 4 In the post-colonial urbanism Robinson sets out in Ordinary Cities, a cosmopolitan andcomparative theoretical endeavour will enrich the divided form of urban studies. Thismeans that policy makers and academics in Western cities have to question theirunderstandings of cultural and economic aspects of city life by revisiting them throughthe lens of poor cities, and vice versa. This idea does not imply, however, that well-resourced scholars should start globe-trotting to study cities around the world. Robinsonpleads, on the contrary, for the kind of armchair comparativism that forces scholars tothink comparatively. In her own words (p. 168), she suggests “that any research on citiesneeds tobe undertaken in a spirit of attentiveness to the possibility that cities elsewheremight perhaps be different and shed stronger light on the processes being studied. Thepotential to learn from other contexts, other cities, would need to always be kept openand hopefully acted upon”. J. Robinson, Ordinary cities : Between Modernity and Development.Belgeo, 1 | 20092  5 While Robinson’s provocative thesis definitely breaks down the binary thinking that hasshaped the way in which cities have been classified and studied, it is surprising that allher attention goes to the deconstruction of the dichotomy between the West and the rest.By focusing her effort on the hierarchical categorisation of all cities as developed orundeveloped, Robinson implicitly reproduces the marginal position that non-English andnon-American Western geographers take up in the international production of urbantheory. Belgian geographers, for example, clearly belong to the side of the West inRobinson’s analysis. Nevertheless, it is one of their frustrations that theorizations aboutBelgian cities will never be taken seriously by the urbanstudies academics in the UnitedStates or Britain. Very rarely, a scholar from the Anglo-Saxon heartland would beexpected to cite a Belgian case study for the sake of the srcinality of the theory, and not just to embellish his list of references witha publication from an exotic country imitatingand confirming the theories produced in London, Los Angeles or New York. In addition, itmust be noted that the examples Robinson elaborates, srcinate largely in big cities. Thesilencing of smaller cities, towns, villages and other settlement forms is problematicbecause it seems to reinforce the modernist notion criticised in the first chapter of thebook that innovations take place in cities and that other areas are, by definition,traditional, primitive and undynamic. By breaking down the binary between urban andrural geographies, and by bridging the divide between Anglo-Saxon and Continentalurban theories, I believe it is possible to fully envisage the scope of Jennifer Robinson’spowerful and inspiring arguments. J. Robinson, Ordinary cities : Between Modernity and Development.Belgeo, 1 | 20093
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