Understanding Deurbanisation and the Urban Space

Saskia Sassen, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair, Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University

MUMBAI, January 7, 2013- “In being both complex and incomplete, lies the capacity of cities to outlive republics, emperors, multi-national corporations, financial firms.” Exploring the ability of cities to ‘deurbanise’ and the concept of the ‘Global Street’, Asia Society India Centre presented a discussion on Global Street, Comparative Urbanism and the Politics of Form with Saskia Sassen, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair, Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University, Arjun Appardurai, Paulette Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University, and Anupama Rao, Associate Professor of History, Barnard College, Columbia University.

Sassen argued that in “this notion of incompleteness in the longevity of the city, many histories are made.” On the notion of powerlessness, she emphasized that “we need to recover a zone, an intermediate zone between powerlessness and empowerment.” She questioned- “what if you can be powerless but your powerlessness is complex and you are making, but because you are not empowered, your making is not visible.” Sassen also commented that “Bombay (Mumbai) is an extraordinary city but no car can dominate the streets in this city, not because the bourgeoisie are walking on it, but the powerless,” referring to the many pavement dwellers on streets here.

On the concept of territory, Sassen explained that the definition “has been flattened into one meaning- national sovereign territory.” She added “complex cities I think today are particular assemblages of bits and pieces of national territory, national authority.” On Mumbai, she argued that “the poor people of this city, they are makers. We the middle classes, we are consumers of our democracy of our comforts, of our citizenship.”

She noted that “the space of the city is part of a much broader network that includes a lot that is not urban.” She further added that “we have to be able to incorporate the non-urban in our understanding of the urban,” with reference to how foreign investment has facilitated to the transformation of rural land in Sub Saharan Africa, leading to the migration of people to medium sized cities, not only to the megacities.

Sassen explained that “cities are unstable spaces today, because we have extraordinary deurbanising forces. A lot that looks like a city is merely built up terrain, high rises, endless sequences of office buildings, housing.” Sassen listed high income gentrification as one of the main forces of deurbanisation.

Sassen described the global street “as space that does not have an objective, doesn’t have a name, in that sense is a space for anybody.”She emphasized that “the city has the capacity to unsettle the original design.” On urbanising technology, Sassen added that “the heart of the notion is the capacity of urban space to hack, to make it responsive etc., or it fails and if it fails, you have deurbanised space.” Sassen added, “Mumbai is a kind of city of the future, this city is very difficult to deurbanise.”

Appadurai explained that there is a disconnect between the literature on the agrarian crisis and the urban literature in India. He emphasized that there is no conversation between the rural economy and the study of the urbanising processes and argued that “one has to have a new conversation about things rural and things urban as they are emerging” and “one has to connect it to the global financial crisis and the era of financialization.”

Appadurai concluded by explaining that Mumbai’s ethnography has a very complex set of links, starting with people at the top who are mediators of the global economy and national economic policy, to those that actually execute the financial economy.

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