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Oxford City Debates - Urban governance and its discontents

11 Jan 2016

February 18-19, 2016, St. Anne's College, Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6HS

poster for conference

The yearly conference on  “Urban Governance and its Discontents” will be held on 18-19 February 2016 at the University of Oxford. A cornerstone initiative of the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities, the conference will build on the long tradition of public debates here, and will bring together urban thinkers and practitioners to discuss the unprecedented challenges of urbanization to life on this planet in the 21st century.

The Future of Cities group are proposing a new format for presenting and elaborating thinking on what cities are and what they should be. The 'University of Oxford City Debates' will place scholars who are on the cutting edge of global urban research face-to-face with established and innovative practitioners—architects, activists, policy makers, and artists. Through a series of rigorous yet accessible public dialogues, practitioners and scholars will grapple with the intellectual and material implications of their interventions and theories on contemporary cities. We hope to encourage production of simultaneously visionary and grounded strategies for the future of city life. And we plan for a media push that will reach broad audiences worldwide. The conference will be organized around four central debates:

  • Making the city: Spontaneous vs Planned? Challenges for the 21st century.
  • Governing the city: Where do infrastructure, democracy, and social justice meet?
  • Mobilizing the city: Amidst global urban protests, the ‘right to the city’ is the right to what?
  • Representing the city: How do writing and painting reflect and shape migration to cities?

Each debate will be preceded by a small panel of academics and practitioners presenting papers that speak to the same key issues as the respective debates. Building on the long-standing Oxford tradition of public debate, it aims to encourage productive engagement between intellectuals and practitioners, in the believe that such engagement is too often missing from discussions of the city and it is crucial not just for the future of cities, but of human knowledge more generally. 

The planned themes of the panels are:

Panel 1 – Making the city: spontaneous VS Planned? Challenges of the 21st century

 In the last two decades, a focus on the importance of informality for urban governance, on cities of the Global South, and on the organic growth of metropolis has opened space for the recognition of the role of spontaneous urbanism. In particular, the effectiveness of contextual solutions and everyday practices to urban resilience and liveliness has been extensively documented and put in opposition with previous modernist dreams of complete control and management. At the same time, the growth of Chinese cities and the diffusion of the Singapore model, defined by public transportation infrastructure, regulations, and centralized planning, raise questions over the future of these two approaches, the conflicting aspirations of cities and its inhabitants, and the challenges of planetary urbanization. Are the two types of urbanism really opposed to one another? How and where do they co-exist? What future do they prefigure and what past do they reorganize?  Who is excluded and included in each of them? Is it possible to plan “spontaneity”? Are these strategies effective in specific contexts and in-effective in others? With these unresolved questions in mind, we invite the submission of papers which analyse, either theoretically, ethnographically, or comparatively these themes. We are particularly interested in opinionated pieces with the potential of spurring further conversations, as the resulting panel will work as a springboard for following urban debate.

Panel 2 – Governing the city: where do infrastructure, democracy, and social justice meet?

Infrastructure, Graham and McFarlane have argued, is “not just a ‘thing’, a ‘system’, or an ‘output’, but is a complex social and technological process that enables—or disables—particular kinds of action in the city.” In this panel we aim at investigating how specific infrastructures, financing systems, and their imagined temporalities enable or disable popular participation, democratic activities, as well as social justice. In particular, we are looking for stimulating pieces which engage with the role of infrastructure in creating corridors as well as raising walls, allowing and filtering flows, and creating specific forms of mobility and mobilization. Moreover, we are interested in papers that reflect on the futures, possibilities, and burdens created by specific financial tools as well as by massive infrastructural investment which may allow forms of participation today while also leaving economic, social, and ecological debts for the next generations. We therefore invite the submission of papers which analyse these themes, either theoretically, ethnographically, or comparatively. We are particularly interested in opinionated pieces that have the potential of spurring further conversations, as the resulting panel will work as a springboard for subsequent urban debate.

Panel 3 – Mobilizing the city: amidst global urban protest, the ‘right to the city’ is the right to what?

The discourse of “right to the city” emerged, in the 1960s, out of a conversation between activist networks, workers, students, and academics. Since then it has gained momentum across the world, providing a basis and a tool of struggle for slum dwellers, homeless people, squatters, people with disabilities, among many others. At the same time, a larger critique of the discourse of rights—whether civil, human, or to the city—has emerged, especially from critical legal scholars. They challenged the effectiveness and usefulness of the language of rights to push forward radical collective politics arguing that it frames struggles as individual, support the neoliberal project, or just provide a palliative distraction from radical challenges to social injustice. Aware of both these traditions and political arguments we ask: What do different actors mean by “rights to the city”? How are notions of ‘right to the city,’ and the concept of rights more generally, understood, discussed, and practiced by those for whom they are meant to protect. Do these rights speak to individual or collective efforts? How can they be enforced and what are the limits of this approach? Is the idea of rights to the city useful to contemporary urban struggles? If so how? With these questions in mind, we invite the submission of papers which deal, whether theoretically, ethnographically, or comparatively, with the uses, limitations, and practical conceptualisations of “rights to the city” as a tool of political mobilization and struggle, the assessment of its strength, weakness, and limitations in specific contexts, or explore alternative tools. We are particularly interested in opinionated pieces that have the potential of spurring further conversations, as the resulting panel will work as a springboard for following urban debate.

Panel 4 – Representing the City: Can art project, refigure, and challenge urban futures?

 Art has the ability not only to represent reality but also to shape and give form to it. From novels to painting and direct creative interventions, imaginative renderings of the city enact and render glimpses of urban futures in the present. This panel proposes to explore the relation between urban art and urban futures. We ask: Can creative practice work to prefigure of urban life? How can practitioners working towards constructing urban futures benefit from the representational and imaginative powers of creative engagements with the city. What are the points of interface where creative practitioners can assist in shifting material realities? More largely, is the dichotomy between ‘creative’ and ‘practitioner,’ ‘policy’ and ‘art’ as vast as it is often held to be? With these questions in mind, we invite the submission of papers which deal, whether theoretically, ethnographically, or comparatively, with the role of technology, new media, and creative digital practices in opening avenues for future-oriented scholarly research. Similarly we are interested in interventions which explore effective collaborations toward fostering physical change and participation but also question whether creative and arts-based urban interventions inherently promote gentrification and “revanchist” urbanism or they can also subvert these dynamics. We are particularly interested in opinionated pieces that have the potential of spurring further conversations, as the resulting panel will work as a springboard for following urban debate.

You can find out more here.

The information in this article is taken from website of the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities.




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