Pieterse, Edgar. City Futures: Confronting the Crisis of Urban Development.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Beauregard, Robert A.
Pub Date: 06/22/2009
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Summer, 2009 Source Volume: 18 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: City Futures: Confronting the Crisis of Urban Development (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Pieterse, Edgar
Accession Number: 229218936
Full Text: Pieterse, Edgar.

City Futures: Confronting the Crisis of Urban Development.

London and New York: Zed Books, 2008.

188 pp.

ISBN: 9781842775417.

To social theorists, we grant the privilege of casting the world in abstract terms. Large social forces--rationality, democracy, urbanization, and globalization among others--shape and drive its many transformations. By contrast, urban theorists carry the burden of making space into place, time into history, and actors into persons. In urban theory, the city must become real and that reality can only be conveyed by attending to the temporal particularities of people and place.

Pieterse has written social theory. His viewpoint is highly abstract, his examples are few and brief, his argument is formal and syntactic, and a sense of place--and time--is absent. Nonetheless, he offers a compelling, theoretical point-of-view. He is not, however, doing urban theory, despite the book's title.

The purpose of this book is to portray an alternative theory of sustainable urban development for the global South. Written for "progressive urban development practitioners" (vii), Pieterse argues that the mainstream approach to shelter and governance, as represented by UN-Habitat and the Cities Alliance, is insufficiently attentive to injustice, political exclusivity, and the way in which power shapes development. Too much reliance on the market and too stereotyped a view of the urban poor on the part of such institutions leave fundamental conditions unaddressed.

Pieterse calls for greater attention to everyday urbanism, a world of lived and ordinary realities as well as institutional projects. The city and its slums must be seen in all of their "contradictory and elusive complexity" (128) and political action must embrace rather than resist the "chaotic, malfunctioning city of informality" (108). The key phrase here is "constitutive heterogeneity."

Recognizing the potential for insurgent activism is the first step in crafting urban policy and launching social movements. Insurgent activists, however, cannot expect a swift, fundamental realignment of the political economy. Pieterse advises, instead, a radical incrementalism that proceeds from actually existing conditions and establishes the basis for more radical change. This requires recursive empowerment in which governance structures enable the marginalized to assert control while themselves becoming more progressive. A vibrant and radical democracy exists only when an inclusive political sphere and an active public space nurture a rights-based discourse. Insurgent activists should look for points of crisis, act transgressively to de-stabilize existing power relations, and operate simultaneously in multiple political domains (e.g., representative public forums, neighbourhood development). Pieterse believes that politics should celebrate dissension and "vigorous democratic contestation" (162), not consensus.

The argument turns practical when Pieterse labels urban planning as the "primary institutional entry point for advancing an alternative urban agenda" (151). He promotes a typology of planning schema and claims that planning is "thick with potential to be mobilized for democratic engagement on questions of urban transformation" (159).

Pieterse's rich theoretical perspective champions the poor, calls for more justice in the world, and urges a deeper democracy--values which most readers, I suspect, can embrace. The value of his perspective hinges on its internal consistency and its political feasibility. I find both problematic. As regards the former, it was never clear to me how Pieterse reconciles the chaos and dissension he admires with the need for slum-dwellers to find security and for government agencies and nonprofit organizations to mount programs and deliver services. He has a romantic view of contestation and indeterminacy, a position that works better theoretically than in practice. And it seems contradictory to his core argument to embrace urban planning, a state practice that is congenitally incapable of incorporating the fluid contingency of everyday particularities.

As for the connection between this theory and the reality of slums, Pieterse avoids "testing" his ideas against the particularities of place, people, and institutions. His theoretical argument unfolds with only the briefest of allusions to real places and times. And, despite the claim that his audience is urban development practitioners, he provides almost no practical advice.

As social theory, the book has value. One reads City Futures for the author's theoretical agility and compassion for the oppressed, but not for its correspondence with the political possibilities inherent in a favela in Rio or a refugee camp in Amman. Pieterse has left to his readers the task of turning social theory into urban theory.

Robert A. Beauregard

Professor of Urban Planning

Columbia University
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.