“The ‘Urban Question’ is Now at the Center of Intellectual Life”: A Conversation with Rosemary Wakeman

The Conversations section of our blog seeks to foster critical exchange about the theoretical and methodological implications of bringing together global and urban history. The blog’s editors will occasionally interview scholars to discuss questions of global urban history, spanning across different regional and thematic concerns.


Rosemary Wakeman

For this post, we had the honor of speaking with Rosemary Wakeman, Professor of History and Coordinator of University Urban Initiatives at Fordham University. Wakeman is the author of Practicing Utopia: An Intellectual History of the New Town Movement (University of Chicago Press, 2016), The Heroic City: Paris 1945-1958 (University of Chicago Press, 2009), and Modernizing the Provincial City: Toulouse 1945-1975 (Harvard University Press, 1998). Wakeman has published numerous articles on urban history and on cities including most recently “Rethinking Postwar Planning History” in Planning Perspectives 29 (2014) and “Was there an Ideal Socialist City? Socialist New Town as Modern Dreamscapes” in Transnationalism and the German City (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Her current book project is An Urban History of Modern Europe: 1815 to the Present to be published by Bloomsbury Press. She is on the Editorial Board of Fordham University Press and the journal Planning Perspectives, and was Guest Researcher at the Faculty of Architecture & the Built Environment at TU Delft in 2016.

Question: During the past ten years, the growth of global history has also inspired historians of cities, who increasingly investigate the role of cities in empires, long-distance trade, and maritime networks. Urban historians have also shown a growing interest in how global connections manifested themselves in the local spaces that they study. Conversely, scholars of global history draw on urban history as a way to situate their studies in concrete locations. Concentrating on cities as nodal points, for instance, has allowed historians to render more tangible the elusiveness of the far-flung connections they are so interested in. Such a concrete spatial focus may thus not only provide more manageable units of analysis, but also prove to be an effective antidote to some reservations regarding global history. Indeed, Frederick Cooper’s warning about the “lumpiness” of global connections can be illustrated most vividly through urban history.

Even so, explicit combinations of the labels “urban history” and “global history” seem to remain rare—a surprising finding if one considers the two fields to be as congenial as outlined above. This scarcity also contrasts with proliferation of the prefix “global” in other established subfields of the discipline, as in “global intellectual history.” But our first question to the participants of our discussion should really be whether you agree at all with the diagnosis that global history and urban history have not often been coupled explicitly so far? And if so, do you find this surprising and where do you see the reasons for this? If you disagree, where do you see the most important precedents for combining the two?

Rosemary Wakeman: We have excellent examples of the intersection between global history and urban history. Among the most influential (and my all-time favorite) is the great Fernand Braudel and his three-volume Civilization & Capitalism appearing from 1979. Historian Andrew Lees has just published The City: A World History that “emphasizes connectedness and interactions of all kinds” (pages ix-x) across a comprehensive historical geography. As Shane Ewen has argued in this conversation series, urban historians are increasingly embracing transnational, global perspectives in their work. This was evident at the 2016 European Association for Urban History Conference in Helsinki, where papers ranged far beyond Europe and pioneered a global comparative approach. Another example is the Center for Metropolitan Studies at TU Berlin and its graduate program on “The World in the City” that most recently took up the challenge of metropolitanism and globalization. The range of possibilities is exemplified by Myron Echenberg’s Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague, 1894-1901 and urban biographies such as Ellen Shoshkes’ Jaqueline Tyrwhitt: A Transnational Life in Urban Planning and Design. Architectural historian Florian Urban has given us Tower and Slab: Histories of Global Mass Housing, a crucial topic for the late twentieth century.


Panelák (“panel,” or prefabricated, housing) estate, Prague, ca. 1970

The more important question is how we interpret urbanizing processes once we engage with a global perspective. From the 1960s-1970s, historians tended to use Western or Eurocentric ideals of progress and modernization as a measure against which all cities were assessed. Urbanization in other places (including Eastern Europe) was deemed ‘late’or ‘retarded’ by comparison. Since then, we have shifted to a postmodern paradigm. Critiques of Western modernization from a wide arena of scholarship have helped us understand urban hybridity from a nuanced viewpoint that employs a fuller, more exacting range of evidence and interpretation. Historians now explore the varieties of urban experience from a global point of view and the ways in which the local intercedes and interacts with global forces. Global networks and connected urban systems are phenomena that deserve our attention. This was emphasized by Friedrich Lenger in his address at the EAUH in Helsinki. What may be even more valuable now is to interpret the broader meanings in the intersection between global and urban. We have the opportunity to take part in a robust debate on the nature of urbanization in all its facets.

The “urban question” is now at the center of intellectual life. The city is the locus for a wide range of philosophies and ideas, policy innovation, models, architectural and design concepts, and heritage narratives. All of it indicates the degree to which the vast, complex urban fabric in which we live has become THE arena of the imagination. This is all fantastic, but where does this abundance of interest leave urban history as an intellectual endeavor? How do we assess the uses of urban history within interdisciplinary narratives? Or the integrity of urban history as a distinct field of study when theorists such as Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid have proclaimed a new era of “planetary urbanism” that requires completely throwing out obsolete ideas and starting anew. The idea of the “city” is dead they say: we now have to think across a spatial scale of de-territorialized urban relations.

So historical literacy has become ever more important in what has become a cacophony of voices on the city and urban experience. The porosity between disciplines has helped us understand the convoluted and paradoxical processes of urban life. Interdisciplinarity challenges historians to rethink the epistemological frameworks for the construction of the past and to develop new research methods. But interdisciplinarity can also suffer from “faddism” for the latest trend in academic scholarship that invents all sorts of new terminology, new theories. Academic research is often accused of being removed from the reality of living in the city and peoples’ lives. Instead, it concocts a steady stream of “theories” that often go untested. Historians can help in significant ways to ground the current fascination about urban life in empirical research and evidence. In the process, we can shape theoretical agendas about the nature of urban transformation as it has transpired over the premodern and modern eras.

Yet it is sociologists, political scientists, and economists, rather than historians, who are most often called on to offer their urban expertise, especially in reference to cities and globalization. And though this is changing, there are not yet a great many examples of historical studies dealing with cities in more than one country or world region; there is a particular paucity of work on the urban history of what today is called the Global South. What might historians whose work, like yours, couples urban and global approaches, contribute to contemporary debates—both popular and academic—about the “urban question”?

practicing-utopiaA few quick examples illuminate the role urban history can play in current debates. They are taken from my own research, but there are many more possibilities for the direction global urban history might take in the future. First, working on new towns made clear to me the importance of looking beyond traditional notions of the city in order to understand urban development worldwide. Whatever their controversial outcomes, new town projects were initiated in the Middle East, India, in Africa in response to settlement patterns that ranged far outside the central spaces that are traditionally the focus of urban history. We should welcome a broader investigation that goes beyond Eurocentric ideas of “city” and “suburb,” or “sprawl.” The traditional approach to what constitutes urban territory, and particularly its privileging of center cities, may be one reason why there are so few studies of cities in the Global South. Although they focused on the most emblematic of European capitals, the recent conferences on “Inventer le Grand Paris” are an excellent step forward toward this more expansive focus. Scholars assessed the evolution of the wider Paris region from a comparative viewpoint. Global urban mega-regions are currently at the forefront of critical thinking about the urban condition in the twenty-first century. They challenge us to reimagine what we mean by “urban” when historically settlement patterns were spread out in complex ways, with manifold social and cultural impacts.

Second, and related to this jump in scale, is the current study of urban “informality.” Scholars such as Ananya Roy and Liza Weinstein are focusing their lens on the vast geographies of “mega-slums” that now makeup the greater part of urban development. They are treated as a new phenomenon and the causes are hotly debated. But informal settlement has historically been a vital element in the global urban realm. Urban history can help us to understand the development, for example, of places such as Dharavi in Mumbai or the informal neighborhoods of Karachi, their social and spatial makeup. Where do we find our evidence for these inquires? Historical examination can help fathom the origins and evolution of informality and rethink our understanding of, say, the Dickensonian East End of London. The global perspective can offer cutting-edge reinterpretation of the traditional terrains of urban history.


Dharavi, Mumbai, 2009

Informality also brings us to research on migration and the fluidity of population movements in, out, and through urban areas. Here again, the global perspective requires a shift in historical perception about urban identities and their composite chameleon-like qualities, their materiality and immateriality. The current exodus and movements of people across the globe is staggering, and certainly one of most pressing issues we face. Michel Agier is among the most important scholars working on this archipelago of precarity and its impact on cities. But waves of immigrants and refugees are not a new phenomenon. How they make the city is a critical question and historians can enrich our knowledge about this process in vital ways. Engaging with urban migration not only would facilitate research on urban places outside conceptual Eurocentrism, but would also bring historians more fully into debates about the nature of urban cosmopolitanism- a fiercely contested concept.

Lastly, does particularity of place still count under the onslaught of uneven modernization and globalization? Certainly it does. Urban processes are defined as much by the local as by the global. Rather than simply a disembodied object of study, cities and urban regions are deeply embedded within a history, a socio-cultural and natural environment. Historians explore the continuities of urban society as well as its metamorphosis, and the urban forms that linger and are absorbed into the complexities of social and cultural life. My sense is that shaping a broad theoretical framework based on these interactions is the current challenge in urban history. The case study approach has dominated urban history as a field of inquiry and it has grounded scholarship in concrete places. But there is an increasing disjuncture between the focus on local studies and the wide-ranging theorization now taking place across urban scholarship. That gap needs to be closed in order to fully take part in the conversation about the nature and evolution of cities worldwide, and to provide the essential historical focus currently lacking in this debate.

Dovetailing with the wider trends in history over the last thirty years or so, practitioners of global history have identified in “methodological nationalism” their hereditary enemy. Yet, when speaking to urban historians, they might well be preaching to the converted in that urban history has never viewed the nation-state as its natural category of analysis. Can historians of cities learn anything new from global history? Conversely, what exactly can global history learn from urban history—especially seeing that global history is a field reluctant to predefine its spatial unit of analysis, whereas urban history has in this pre-definition its very raison d’être?

In a real sense, historians should embrace the provocations inherent in global urban history. Historians of cities have much to learn from this engagement with the world. But it depends on a shift in observation and insight. I don’t think we can expect too much progress if we arrive at distant shores ready to investigate cities with the same Eurocentric concepts and tools (including in some cases postcolonial studies) and expect to apply them to a standard case study. What global history presents is a chance to reexamine the historian’s urban lexicon, urban geography, ideas about urban culture, practices, and identity- and perhaps as well a revision of traditional periodization. Most significantly, it is the opportunity for global urban historians to present new theoretical frameworks and enhance debates on the “urban question.”

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2 Responses to “The ‘Urban Question’ is Now at the Center of Intellectual Life”: A Conversation with Rosemary Wakeman

  1. Reblogged this on Bitácora de Leoncio López-Ocón and commented:
    Una interesante conversación con la historiadora Rosemary Wakeman en la bitácora Global Urban History. Su último libro es Practicng Utopía. An Intellectual History of the New Town Movement.


  2. Pingback: What We’re Reading: January 28th | JHIBlog

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