Book review forum: Infrastructure

reviewed by Regan Koch, Austin Kocher and Sarah Klosterkamp

23 Aug 2023, 9:54 a.m.

Infrastructure book cover

Mariana Valverde, Infrastructure: New Trajectories in Law, Abingdon: Routledge, 2022; 130 pp.: ISBN: 9781032185262, £44.99 (hbk); ISBN: 9781003254973, £16.99 (eBook)



Philip Hubbard, King’s College London, UK

Infrastructure is something that is everywhere in contemporary urban studies. Traditionally defined as the physical networks that circulate people, goods, energy, water and waste resources into, through and out of the city, today the conceptualisation of infrastructure has been stretched as scholars in the Global North learn from the ‘heterogeneous infrastructure configurations’ that are taken to characterise cities in the Global South (Lawhon et al., 2018). Such perspectives, which regard cities as a sometimes fragile and contingent assemblage, have transformed conventional understandings of what urban infrastructure consists of. For example, community centres, public spaces, churches, shops and schools have been refigured as the ‘social infrastructure’ that provides resilience in the face of risks and hazards, while neighbourhood art spaces, studios and theatres have become re-imagined as the ‘cultural infrastructure’ necessary for post-COVID creative recovery. At the same time, the incorporation of diverse urban sensors, cameras and metres into the Internet of Things, and the rise of algorithmic governance, points to the importance of infrastructures that are often invisible, but whose effects are profound. Here, the distinction between sociality and materiality becomes fluid, and questions are posed about the virtual connections that increasingly bind our cities, such as the wireless networks that monitor flows of traffic and people, which are integral to imaginations of the smart city.

This conceptualisation of infrastructure as more than bricks and mortar raises important questions about the political ecology of cities, but also their governance. Valverde’s book is an important intervention in this respect given it is interested not in infrastructure’s form per se, but its transition from being conceived as a public good, borne out of civic traditions of ‘public-works’ and state legalities, to one that is increasingly associated with the private sector and a profit-motive. Providing a legal perspective on this is, Valverde argues, especially important in an era when the rise of public–private partnerships as providers of infrastructure appears to be eroding the democratic nature of cities (see also Adisson and Artioli, 2020; Brill, 2022; Garrett et al., 2020; Raco, 2013). But as Valverde notes, oftentimes critiques of privatisation lack sophistication, with those bemoaning the sale of public assets often failing to note exactly what is being privatised, and how, and often conflating the outsourcing of labour with the privatisation of state infrastructures.

In this book, Valverde aims to dispense with sloppy thinking about private provision of infrastructure by focussing on the financial, legal, cultural, political mechanisms found throughout what she terms the ‘the infrastructure-enabling field’ (p.9). Here, Valverde draws on socio-legal theory to explore the lexicon of terms that often obscure rather than reveal their underpinning logics. The concept of this book is an alphabetically sequenced deconstruction of some of the key governing mechanisms that characterise the contemporary provisioning of urban infrastructure: audit, bonds, credit rating, deals, and so on. The 10 chapters of this book hence show how the law penetrates the realms of urban life, not as superstructure but as an always-present legal infrastructure or technicality that links the economy, society and polity at the same time that it shapes our understanding of these very terms.

Mariana Valverde has long blazed a trail in socio-legal studies, with a focus on municipal law threaded through much of her work, but it is only relatively recently that she has been acknowledged as a leading urban scholar (see Koch, 2017). An important interlocuter of Foucault’s ideas of governmentality, Valverde has also drawn on Latour’s ideas of a ‘parliament of things’ to conceive of regulation as a complex combination of entities and practices, applying this to an understanding of the regulation of problematic and nuisance spaces in cities. This book follows Everyday Law on The Street (2012) in focussing mainly on cities in Ontario – though the British High Speed Two inter-city rail line also features in the chapter on signature projects – and does not claim to be in any way representative, offering instead deep insights into the regulatory architectures that shape the relations between city and citizen.

Valverde begins by establishing the persistence of what she calls the ‘modern infrastructure ideal’ in much of the Global North, an aspiration to providing ‘total’ and encompassing infrastructure networks that bind all parts of the city. This, she argues, ‘continues to emphasise building new things, to the detriment of exploring ways to revitalise or repurpose existing material networks – the latter being possibly more environmentally friendly, as well as a cheaper way to meet needs’ (p.61). This, she argues, also fails to ‘utilise the experiences and the knowledge of local conditions possessed by ordinary citizens, especially those in poorer areas, in order to plan for and build sustainable infrastructures that may look modest but that may improve people’s lives more than showy new bridges or hydroelectric dams’ (p.61). This emphasis, she contends, encourages the state to partner with the corporations that can deliver such totalising infrastructure, and leads to the multiplication of public–private partnerships in the cities of the Global North.

Focussing on the deals brokered between the public and private sector which underpin the construction of new infrastructure, Valverde proceeds to shed light on the peculiar temporality of the contracts sometimes entered into by the state as it panders to ‘the need of financiers who want guaranteed returns over a set period that often has nothing to do with the durability of particular urban assets’ (p.89). As she notes, ‘citizens interested in holding infrastructure actors accountable, therefore, need to familiarise themselves with the details of proposals and try to obtain the information that the actors in question are least likely to make readily available: financing details’ (p.89). This type of insight connects well to literatures on urban financialisation, with Valverde’s emphasis on the role of law showing that the transformation of urban infrastructure into a financial instrument involves legal innovation as much as an ideological shift in the nature of urban governance.

Her insights into ‘smart cities’ are equally timely. Here she notes the key difference between traditional infrastructures and the ‘urban operating systems’ associated with smart urbanism:

In many jurisdictions, most contracts signed by city departments (such as for road paving) are made public or are available to citizens through access to information processes. But the ‘trade secret’ category of intellectual property is unlikely to be invoked in ordinary contracts such as for road paving, whereas it is very likely to be invoked by tech companies competing with one another for patents, markets, and staff (p.99).

This chimes with wider critiques of smart city technologies as embedding the power of corporations into the spaces of everyday life, yet the processes underpinning this often remain opaque and mystified with reference to operational safety, technological innovation and the seeming acceptance that the proliferation of code makes cities more resilient and sustainable.

In the reviews and response that follow, the value of Valverde’s work is appraised. Despite the book speaking at times to a mainly legal audience, all reviewers stress that it should be enthusiastically read by urban scholars, and not only those with a putative interest in infrastructures per se. As all reviewers stress, this book presents an insistent and persuasive case for taking the law seriously in contemporary studies. Yet, at the same time, the reviews question the way Valverde invokes certain ideas – for example, scale, locality, neighbourhood, participation – whose meaning is not always self-evident for urban scholars. As they note, whilst Valverde suggests we need to acquire a better understanding of how the state and private sector ally through sometimes baroque contractual arrangements, there remains the key question of what we do with this knowledge, and how we seek infrastructural justice that extends beyond questions of the human costs of development to encompass multi-species justice (see Enns and Sneyd, 2021; Hubbard and Brooks, 2021).



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Commentary I

Regan Koch, Queen Mary University of London, UK

It is fortunate for the field of urban studies that Mariana Valverde has compiled another excellent volume detailing how law shapes cities and urbanisation. Valverde is a central figure in the field of socio-legal studies: over four decades she has written an array of influential papers and books examining how different aspects of social life become problematised as matters of governance and governmental regulation. Her work is distinctive for narrowing in on specific legal technologies and bureaucratic tools, and it adeptly demonstrates how theory and empirical research can help to reveal the unexpected amidst the taken-for-granted. Curiously however, much of Valverde’s writing has flown off-radar for scholars in urban studies, where there remains a tendency to consider specific governmental techniques too mundane to warrant serious attention (leaving that to the planners and policy researchers) and because the workings of law are often viewed as subsidiary to larger political and socio-economic forces.

This monograph follows Valverde’s 2012 book Everyday Law on the Street, which heralded a more direct engagement with urban studies and its cannon. Drawing on four years of ethnographic study of municipal government in her home city of Toronto, that project detailed various ways that ‘law in action’ can have effects that diverge widely from the intentions and rationales of ‘law in the books’. All cities have complex agglomerations of legal tools such as ordinances, rules, bylaws, planning policies, licences, permits, fines and so on that affect urban life to a substantial degree, yet rarely are they wholly understood by anyone. Configuring such tools democratically and finding egalitarian solutions to urban problems is a challenge compounded where central governments have devolved many responsibilities to local municipalities and communities, without increasing their capacities or fiscal resources. Valverde argues that the problem is more than just political or financial: cities ‘are in great need of what in industry would be called “R&D” – that is, the people and the mechanisms needed to learn from collective experience, creatively devise innovative solutions, and ensure that legal powers are flexible enough to allow cities to tackle new problems’ (Valverde, 2012: 2).

In Infrastructure: New Trajectories in Law, Valverde extends and scales-up her focus, moving from bureaucratic encounters in a single city to a much wider, global overview of infrastructure’s underpinnings in urban areas around the world. It is a book that could only be written by someone with significant depth of knowledge and experience in how municipal governance operates. Her prognosis remains much the same: there is a great deal of R&D that needs to be done to aid citizens, communities, and local governments in their struggles for more equitable and effective infrastructure systems. The approach is consistent with her earlier writing in that she narrows in on specific components that comprise the ‘infrastructure-enabling field’ – a conceptual framing reflective of her long-running engagement with Foucauldian notions of power/knowledge and, more recently, the ideas of actor–network-theory. Unlike most work on infrastructure in urban studies, it is not a book comprised of discrete case studies. As Valverde suggests, such a format tends to obscure the legal and financial tools, political mechanisms, and story-telling techniques that are commonly used across different national and urban contexts and across types of infrastructure projects. Instead, this book considers eight different socio-legal assemblages – sketching out to varying degrees their origins and histories, applications and implications – to provide a general assessment of what makes them powerful forces in the making of infrastructure. This includes chapters on specific tools including audits, bonds, credit ratings, and ‘value for money’ assessments; practices of community consultation, public–private partnerships, and formulations of ‘the deal’ as a means of getting infrastructure projects done; and a look at both smart cities and high-speed rail networks as emblematic of the symbolic and political–economic dimensions of infrastructure. In doing so, the book offers a much-needed socio-legal supplement to the ‘infrastructural turn’ in urban studies and provides a refreshing approach to critical urban scholarship more broadly.

Notable at the onset is Valverde’s insightful conceptualisation of ‘infrastructure’ as not only material, social, and political, but also semantic: the very term now occupies a space allocated in pre-neoliberal times to ‘public works’. This shift in vocabulary is crucial to contemporary framings of infrastructure as an unalloyed public good, one that is used to entice public support and justify public spending while eliding the notion that central states or municipalities will be the ones carrying out such work. Changes in the cultural lexicon, Valverde further argues, have helped to facilitate the wholesale acceptance of the deeply ideological and vague notion of ‘public–private partnerships’ as the only way that substantial projects get to be realised in the current political–economic climate in the cities and nations of both the Global North and South. What has become unsettled are older, often implicit, theories about the respective roles and power of ‘the public’ versus ‘the private’ when it comes to the planning, funding, contracting, building, and managing of a whole range of infrastructure systems that operate within and far beyond the borders and jurisdiction of urban municipalities. The various chapters help in explaining how these changes have ushered in substantial creativity on the part of consultants, accountants, and corporate lawyers who now often have as much power as the politicians, engineers, and bankers who have become adept at adapting, reinventing, and obscuring many of the legal and financial tools behind infrastructure planning and delivery.

Readers should not dive into this book expecting straightforward critiques of privatisation or neoliberalism. Valverde is a thoroughly pragmatist thinker and this is reflected in many aspects of this book. This includes her use of theory as a flexible tool for reframing problems and raising questions rather than providing answers, and her aim of helping readers to avoid instantly taking sides in abstract debates (e.g. is privatisation good or bad?). Adamant in her reluctance to give political speeches, Valverde’s insights are nonetheless instructive. The book might function as a kind of primer to the political economy of large infrastructure projects for some readers. It will help scholars of all kinds better understand general features of law and finance underpinning infrastructure planning and delivery; in particular, why new projects are consistently more costly, more disruptive, take longer, and are less effective than initially promised. Her perspective is rooted in her experience as an engaged citizen-researcher in Toronto, but the insights are international in outlook and sensitive to the way seemingly neutral technologies travel and become ubiquitous, particularly through powerful nodes in legal–financial networks of ‘global’ corporations, supranational institutions, and standards and systems of auditing, consulting, and contracting. The book will certainly be of interest to urbanists keen to follow ‘policy mobilities’ or excited by the possibilities of comparative research, albeit via an approach more concerned with practical problems and solutions than on the utility of theories or concepts.

Valverde has always insisted that there is no general answer to the question of how or why law matters; insights come from the analysis of concrete places and times. Her pragmatism also thus means that the book does not end with any kind of prescription for future action or activism around infrastructure development. Some may find this unsatisfying. Urban studies scholars would undoubtedly have welcomed a few agenda points for future interdisciplinary research. Some reflection on her own attempts to obtain and work through the often-obscure details of plans and contracts would have been helpful. Knowing a bit more about her research process might embolden others to dive into such details too. A few final reflections on her engagements as a citizen-activist would also have been insightful. What kinds of practical action have followed from raising critical questions? What conclusions have been drawn, however modest or tentative, from any success or failures in her efforts to nudge the direction of local projects? Instead, in the concluding chapter, Valverde directs her attention to scholars in socio-legal studies, reiterating the value and potential of an approach to the study of law itself that is infra-structural rather than super-structural (i.e. understanding that law constitutes the realms of society it then seeks to regulate). Nonetheless, the ubiquity and generalisability of legal and financial governance techniques that reproduce democratic deficiencies and inequalities as outlined within this book should challenge urban studies scholars of all kinds to better understand how different components of infrastructural assemblages work.



Valverde M (2012) Everyday Law on the Street: City Governance in an Age of Diversity. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. Crossref | Google Scholar



Commentary II

Austin Kocher, Syracuse University, USA

Mariana Valverde’s Infrastructure, her latest in a long line of influential scholarship that brings together law, society, and philosophy, investigates a wide range of what we might call ‘apparati’ that constitute ‘the infrastructure-enabling field’ (p.2), including audits, ‘the deal’, and public private partnerships (among many others). In doing so, Valverde encourages us to think about infrastructure not simply (or even crudely) as ‘physical assets and networks’ (p.90), but as the legal entanglements behind the political yet often depoliticised projects that produce (and yet are also currently destroying) our world.

One key line of argumentation of the book attempts to dispel the often-assumed distinction between law as a (in Marxist terms) super-structural phenomenon and infrastructure as the basic physical resources that lubricate societies and economies. Rather, Valverde claims, ‘law is infrastructural’ (p.114, emphasis added); ‘law is …an integral part of the …the cement …that has brought particular civil societies into being’ (p.114). The argument relies on what scholars familiar with Valverde’s work will recognise as a part of a broader attempt in socio-legal studies to replace the idea that law is a purely restrictive, punitive, or regulatory force that hovers above society, with the idea that law is actively involved in producing the society that law then purports to regulate (p.113).

If one accepts this premise, Valverde’s approach to examining the legal dimensions of infrastructure (i.e. ‘infralegalities’, as Sullivan (2022) terms them) used throughout the book will be relatively straightforward. Each chapter engages a term that has entered our vernacular, then unpacks the ways in which these terms, and the infrastructures to which they refer, smuggle in uninterrogated assumptions, practices, and contradictions that illuminate the concealed infrastructural work that law is doing. Audits and auditing have become widespread depoliticised forms of governing infrastructure projects, public private partnerships (PPPs) are promoted as an assumed good, and so-called ‘smart cities’ now accumulate vast repositories of data for police and private companies alike.

It is not always transparent what these case studies have to do with law specifically, since the analysis skews more heavily towards infrastructure, but if one generously interprets the concept of law here to mean broadly ‘systems of governance’, the absence of more nuanced legal discussion will not present an issue. The first chapter, Audits, for example, is a lucidly concise look at the use of audits in infrastructural projects, but it leaves for the reader the work of speculating how the book views audits as legal tools. The chapter on ‘The Deal’ (an unveiled reference to Donald Trump’s book Art of the Deal) initially felt like it was preparing to examine on- or off-the-books contracts or bids, but then turns somewhat jarringly towards a discussion of the false binary between formal and informal development in the Global South. Every section of the book is useful, readable, and interesting, but the sections sometimes lack interdependence at the chapter level and they only loosely reinforce the initial idea – which I took to be a core theme of the book – that ‘law is infrastructural’.

Valverde takes a generally moderate stance on these case studies, concerned but not alarmist about the dangers of PPPs (PPPs can also be progressive, she notes) or the consequences of data collection by governments or the purported benefits of nationalisation, choosing instead to focus on examining rather than assessing these various aspects of domains of infrastructure. This approach comes into some tension, however, with her aims to advance ‘effective democracy, especially at the local level’ (p.13) and ‘promote civic activism and civic participation’ (p.118), since the book is not altogether forthcoming about what this looks like other than to urge citizens to ‘familiarise themselves with the details’ (p.89) of their particular issues.

One of the most vivid chapters of the book is the chapter on Public–Private Partnerships (PPPs). Here we get a much more robust examination of the relationship between law and infrastructure through grounded research in Toronto, with the chapter painting an even clearer picture of ‘the deal’ than the chapter The Deal. Valverde alerts us to the ways in which institutions are incentivised to ‘stick the label of ‘PPP’ on an old-fashioned contract’ (p.79) in order to effectively depoliticise what is, one might argue, a rather traditional economic relationship. But Valverde emphasises a deeper and more troubling phenomenon. Many of the alleged partnerships that are fundamental to infrastructure projects are legally non-existent: there is no contract, no limited liability corporation, no legal entity at the heart of them.

I interpret Valverde’s observation here to be that ‘deals’ should be understood as something like performative political acts that are saturated in contractual legal metaphors even though there is often nothing (or very little) to substantively back them up. If that is true, then perhaps a broader theme of the book – though I do not believe it is stated this way – is that the relationship between infrastructure and law is not nearly as direct as it may seem. Perhaps audits, deals, PPPs, credit ratings, and so on, are all forms of neoliberal governance that have overtaken law in their regulatory power, and therefore a close examination of law or laws is secondary. Yet if that is true, it is not easily squared with the claim that the book focuses on the mutually constitutive relationship between law and society. Valverde does say that she focuses ‘a little more …on processes, governing tools, and norms that are not strictly part of formal law but that in practice are intertwined with law’, but it is the ‘intertwined with law’ part that does not come through (p.116).

I want to be clear: I agree with Valverde that the line between law and not-law is much fuzzier than some assume it to be, and I am not suggesting that the absence of more specific and consistent legal analysis (i.e. litigation, contracts, legislation, etc.) is inherently disqualifying for this type of book. It is just that the book sets itself up for those expectations, both due its placement in a series called New Trajectories in Law and due to its claims in the Introduction and Conclusion, but ultimately takes a different approach. Other readers may feel differently, particularly readers who are more at home in infrastructure studies and for whom thinking through legal questions will be more boundary-pushing.

Putting legal questions to one side, there are two other questions that the book raises for me. The first question concerns the value of neoliberalism as an analytical framework. The Introduction states that the book will largely avoid using the ‘overused’ term neoliberalism ‘in the interest of clarity and concreteness’ (p.2). Although I empathise with this sentiment, it would seem relatively uncomplicated to either provide a workable definition or follow-through on not using the term. The book takes a third approach: not defining the term, but then using it, by my estimation, roughly three dozen times throughout the short book to advance the analysis at key moments, most heavily in the chapters on audits and deals. As a result of this approach, the reader does not come away with clarity about how the author wants us to think about the relationship between governance schemes and infrastructure projects, even though this crucial question saturates the book. Has the term neoliberalism outlived its usefulness? If so, how should we conceptualise the current assemblages of state, economy, and law? If not, how should we characterise neoliberalism in a way that remains analytically productive?

The second question emerges around the concept of scale and its valorisation. The book states the following: ‘a clear political agenda is promoted here: that of effective democracy, especially at the local level’ (p.13). When analysing PPPs, for instance, the book argues that decisions about partnerships is ‘likely best done at the local level rather than through …nationalisation or privatisation’ (pp.88–89). In the chapter on deals, the book speculates that if the infrastructure book following World War II had gone to localities rather than big government projects, then ‘infrastructure needs today would be far less acute and that communities would likely suffer fewer social inequities and environmental problems’ (p.59). Yet just a few pages after the previous argument about the value of locally-coordinated infrastructure projects, the book then appears to claim the opposite:

Some projects meet local needs and are best planned locally, but small is not always beautiful: electricity grids and intercity trains, among other needs, require planning at a different scale than that of micro-neighbourhood improvements. And today, it is becoming increasingly clear that cities do not have the fiscal or the legal resources to truly halt climate change (p.66).

It is unclear, then, how the book wants us to think about scale, and particularly the local scale (if there even is such a thing). One way forward could be to consider what geographers think of as the construction of scale as a contingent, rather than static, phenomenon: as Smith (1992: 73) argued: ‘There is nothing ontologically given about the traditional division between home and locality, urban and regional, national and global scales…the differentiation of geographical scales established and is established through the geographical structure of social interactions’. Such nuanced consideration of scale-making seems apropos since many of the phenomena that the book wrestles with have significantly undermined traditional notions of ‘local’ government. Moreover, the valorisation of the local is a double-edged sword. Indeed, there is quite a resurgence of reactionary political movements that aim to leverage ‘local control’ to advance exclusionary projects. The question that arises, then, is: how should we conceptualise scale, particularly in the context of complex infrastructural projects, and what, if any, potential remains in creating or maintaining viable ‘local’ strategies that advance democratic governance?

Backed by Valverde’s unquestioned expertise and experience in the field, Infrastructures is an ambitious book that covers a tremendous amount of territory and is packed with case studies that illustrate the shifting, site-specific governance schemes behind infrastructure projects. Despite what this reviewer found to be some concerns about conceptual clarity and consistency, Infrastructures raises a wide range of crucial questions about how to think about infrastructure as an expansive set of practices that are about power, performativity, and control rather than simply as the built landscape.



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Commentary III

Sarah Klosterkamp, University of Bonn, Germany

Mariana Valverde’s book, the latest in the very rich and engaging legacy of her scholarly work within socio-legal studies, is dedicated to an assessment of the histories and trajectories of the shape and materialities of today’s infrastructures. Grounded in and departing from assemblage thinking, she here utilises her rich knowledge and experiences of the macro-factors ‘that often go under the label “neo-liberalism”’ (p.2), by refusing, or at least, supposedly trying to avoid the use of the term. Her notion, that ‘the public sector’ is inherently overly bureaucratic and inefficient and is well advised to enter into ‘partnerships’ with the private sector if major projects are going to be carried out ‘on time and on budget’ is foundational for what she then introduces as ‘the infrastructure-enabling field’. By de-emphasising connections among people and by putting more stress on institutional habits and relations, as well as on the materiality of particular infrastructures, she unfolds there and then what constitutes ‘the field’ she is talking about – infrastructure and its rootedness in the rise of the ‘welfare state’ in the Global North in the 1930s – unpacking its trajectories through the late-20th century, when, from her view, it began to ‘literally replace the term “public work”’ (p.3). Going from there, and throughout the book, she highlights many other interesting themes and instruments (such as Bonds; Community Consultations; Credit ratings; and Smart cities), especially the uprising and fusion of infrastructure and public–private partnerships (PPP), while at the same time, rightfully criticising its taken-for-grantedness in many contexts.

While I learnt a lot from unpacking these trajectories, I often wondered through my reading how and where ‘the law’ actually comes into play. This is not because an understanding of the law is needed to understand her very engaging examples, but it sits in a series called New Trajectories to the Law, shaping my own expectations on how and where it might become relevant. As such, I was left wondering how the law and legal proceedings render, circumvent or hinder urban infrastructures, as planning regulations, court decisions or municipal limitations on how infrastructure may be built, governed and accessed have been left out or less prominently taken into account. I feel, in the end, it is precisely these legal dimensions, which could have been drawn upon more distinctly and woven into each of the infrastructure investigations Valverde has to offer here, especially since these insights draw from her rich expertise and insightfulness as a social–legal scholar (as evidenced in her 2012 investigation Everyday Law on the Street: City Governance in an Age of Diversity).

Secondly, and on a more general level, I was also curious to learn more about the neoliberal power-imbalances, closely aligned to what she calls the ‘modern infrastructure ideal’. This, she argues, ‘continues to emphasise building new things, to the detriment of exploring ways to revitalise or repurpose existing material networks – the latter being possibly more environmentally friendly, as well as a cheaper way to meet needs’ (p. 61). Rather in describing infrastructure as always there, always enabling, further work could be done in diving deeper into what gets left out – the exclusionary tensions that are carried through and enabled by different modes and from of access to urban infrastructures, such as homelessness (Lawhon et al., 2018). As such, I would have loved to have seen more answers to the troubling inequalities which urban studies has continued to highlight throughout the last decades by foregrounding questions about the different modes of access and power-imbalances at stake. If talking about infrastructure, who decides which project is funded? Who can use it, as soon it is planned, constructed and open for use? Who gets excluded from using it? Why and for which reasons? And what does all this tell us about the (neoliberal) modern societies, both in the globalised northern and southern hemispheres, which have inherited, planned for and adopted heterogeneous visions of urban life (see, e.g. Lawhon et al., 2018; Wiesel and Liu, 2021)?

Thirdly, and closely aligned to the aforementioned, I was also looking for some discussion, which might be expected within times of multi-crisis, in regard to the climate crisis and the push for green(ing) urban infrastructures able to adopt and pay attention to these tensions. While Valverde does highlight that the modern infrastructural ideal fails to ‘utilise the experiences and the knowledge of local conditions possessed by ordinary citizens, especially those in poorer areas, in order to plan for and build sustainable infrastructures that may look modest but that may improve people’s lives more than showy new bridges or hydroelectric dams’ (p. 61), I was still left wondering if there is not more to tell and talk about here. I agree with her that new, state-led and municipal-rendered regimes of eco-friendly, low-energy and thus sustainable infrastructures are already on the go, but, (un)surprisingly they often overlook the dynamics and side-effects for those struggling with sustaining their lives on a daily basis in urban areas, where other infrastructural investments would be more valuable to sustain social justice. Thus, I would suggest, fusing the two instead of playing them against each other may be more productive in arguing for the need for more just urban futures, uplifting infrastructural potential, rather than its limitations.

Lastly, I would like to draw attention to the notion of scale. While I very much like the way Valverde draws on the bigger picture – a world economy driven by neoliberalism – when thinking of infrastructure as a rich assemblage, I was left wondering how these tendencies might come into play on the local level too. The closest it gets is perhaps in the empirically-rich and well-illustrated chapter 7, which is grounded on her research in Toronto. But this depth would also be a nice add-on to the other chapters, where the insights of such an approach could highlight the effects and impacts certain types of infrastructures are having, depending on where we are looking and where such a journey departs from. Feminist and legal geographers, working in and on the urban, have illustrated through recent years what can be gained by applying such perspectives to socio-legal themes, concepts and objectives, which are much often taken for granted and unquestioned, such as the notion of ‘citizen’ and/or ‘citizenship’ (see, e.g. Lemanski, 2022). By unpacking what these concepts and legal categories really mean, to whom and in which cases, we might develop a clearer picture of how and when the law does come into play. Are infrastructures only meant for national ID-card carrier and thus registered people within a certain district? And how can law and legal concepts perhaps even be used to uplift, circumvent or change different modes of infrastructure, its accessibility and usage for everyone, as suggested by Chowdhury (2021)?

I would like to end by highlighting, that despite these comments and further suggestions, Mariana Valverde has offered an instructive and well-written book, providing an interesting and rich overview for everyone new to the field interested in developing a fresh and much-needed interdisciplinary take on infrastructures. This book has much to offer in meeting such ambitions and I hope she continues working on this, sharing her thoughts and ideas and by doing so, offering inspiration to all of us in the near future.



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Author response

Mariana Valverde, University of Toronto, Canada

Phil Hubbard has long been one of the few scholars with a deep interest in, and knowledge of, the legal tools that the common-law world uses to regulate both public and private spaces and objects at the local level. Like me, he does not come from a legal background, but his research on aspects of municipal governance has, in my opinion, underscored the need for the academy, both legal and non-legal, to appreciate the qualitative differences between the legal tools wielded by states and the peculiar tools that cities and other municipalities continue to wield and use, tools that in many cases are of pre-modern origin (see Valverde, 2003, 2011). With this symposium he has brought my 2022 book, published in a critical legal studies series but geared to urban studies audiences more than to legal scholars, to the attention of many. For this collegial act I am profoundly grateful. I am also very grateful to the three contributors. Scholars tend now to be rewarded for publishing articles and books, not for writing book reviews or organising and editing them. Hence, I thank all four scholars for their labour of love.

I will not here address each review in turn, since the three reviews offer comments that, for the most part, will be widely-shared amongst critical urbanists.

One concern regards the absence of ‘law’ proper from the little book, despite its subtitle. Indeed, contract law and litigation are indeed largely left out. And yet formal law is more than adequately covered by legal scholars, and readers who hanker for more ‘law’ can easily locate law review articles on relevant hybrid topics, such as public–private partnerships. That scholarship is important and in many cases has informed my analysis: I do not mean to discourage potential readers off legal works but simply show, by doing rather than saying, that analyses generated from outside of the law school environment can provide a more complex view of issues plaguing infrastructure planning and delivery.

What matters in infrastructure, in my view, is not the general legal form of the contract (if such an abstraction is ever useful), but rather the particulars of specific contracts including the governance habits common in the institution or the jurisdiction. I leave law proper to actual lawyers, not out of deference but in order to study governance mechanisms that are similar to Raymond Williams’ famous ‘Keywords’: terms that sound legal but are rich in value judgements, psychological connotations and social assumptions. ‘Public–private partnership’ is one such term. In fact, there is a legal definition of ‘partnership’, meaning a group of people who share business risks and rewards, such as partners in a law firm. But this model is rarely found in current infrastructure contracts, where assigning risks to the various parties is a continuing zero-sum game.

Similarly, naming as ‘infrastructure’ something that would have been labelled ‘public works’ in the past is also a semantic power game, in which the inherent fuzziness of the term allows for competing interests to be promoted as the term is waved. In this and other work, I am following my sources in classic nominalist pragmatist manner: anything that goes by the name of ‘infrastructure’ is infrastructure for my purposes.

What one might call the infrastructural limitations of the book are mainly due to Routledge’s mandate for the series New Trajectories in Law: 50,000 words or less for a distillation of work in the field. Respect for those who study and write up the case studies that form the vast majority of the ‘field’ demands that when drawing on their work I acknowledge that infrastructure is not a ‘mega-object’ but rather an umbrella term for all sorts of projects that always take place in particular contexts, in the Global North as well as in the South. In this respect I draw inspiration from Jennifer Robinson’s well-known critique of the Global South versus North binary that still pervades urban studies (Robinson, 2006).

All of this leads well into the final point: addressing the concern that while I disavow ‘neoliberalism’ in the introduction, the term is used frequently. I have not counted how many times ‘neoliberalism’ is mentioned, but I consistently favour leaving terms such as neoliberalism in adjective or adverb form, not used as nouns. The same goes for feminist equivalents, such as ‘patriarchy’: there are patriarchal practices all right, but there is no such entity as ‘the’ patriarchy. Terms such as globalisation or neoliberalism are often portrayed in critical scholarship as causing or explaining real-life processes, but as Nietzsche pointed out a long time ago, they are mere reifications generated by the human tendency to look for ‘causes’ of historical change, instead of accepting conflict and change as the norm. Perhaps because I overdosed on Marx and Hegel in my youth, I have developed an allergy to planet-scaled terms. I simply do not think it is possible to speak globally about ‘the economy’ or even ‘capital’. Even when I was a Marxist, in the early 1970s, I rejected what a like-minded friend called ‘the choo-choo train of history’ approach.

Readers might feel the need for an explicit normative discussion featuring ‘resistance’. But, echoing Foucault, I strongly believe that directions for militant action need to come from those in the front lines, not from intellectuals. And scholars have to keep in mind that in the case of citizenship/agency issues in infrastructure, the citizen front lines change from place to place and even from year to year, given the nature of volunteering – whereas transnational actors who are paid to write plans, organise financing, and produce nice visualisations of the future tend to stay put for a long time.

The observation that I avoid taking sides on the issue of scale is certainly correct. Clearly, I am no fan of the Robert Moses school of scaling infrastructure. But I argue that some needs are best met at state/nation level whereas others are best met locally, and hence reject Jane Jacobs’ influential regard for anything local and spontaneous. I am certainly a scale pragmatist, in my activism as much as in my scholarship.

But pragmatism in regard to the scale of infrastructure planning and provision does not mean being apolitical. Political speech acts are found in many different places. One can inspire the ‘wretched of the earth’ to rebel with a good speech, but that speech act is qualitatively distinct from other genres that may enact political choices differently. The genre of scholarly journal articles, for example, demands that political claims be disguised as factual findings.

This brings us to the question of the social–political effects of infrastructure planning and delivery. One could certainly focus on the power games and exclusions brought into being by infrastructure projects. But such a book already exists: Citizenship and Infrastructure, edited by Lemanski (2019), with other works also documenting infrastructural failures and exclusions (inter alia, Graham, 2009; Luque and Marvin, 2020).

It is, however, unfortunate that most detailed studies of exclusions aggravated or caused by infrastructure projects concern Latin America, Asia or Africa (e.g. Valverde et al., 2021a, 2021b). What needs to be underlined (see Graham, 2009) is that serious exclusions and expulsions also mark infrastructure planning and delivery in the Global North, though injustices may not as clearly and immediately visible as in some Global South countries.

Describing, in some but not too much detail (easier said than done!) a governance field that is indeed world-wide and that has clear parallels in other fields was the main purpose of the book. In addition, using an alphabetical list of currently fashionable topics as the table of contents was meant to quietly make fun of ‘Theory’ as usually practiced in critical social science and critical legal writing.

Now, it could be said that infrastructure is hardly a good field from which to denounce grand Theory, since it largely consists of accounts of who played what part in a particular ‘deal’ and who won or lost. Such concrete studies are very valuable. But the descriptions that have an impact for generations are those that are more than a chronicle of what happened in place X at time Y. Foucault’s famous passage on the panopticon in Discipline and Punish speaks to today’s students not because they care about 19th-century inmates but because in those pages they see the non-photographic origin of the ubiquitous CCTV camera and the ‘smart’ street sensor (Luque and Marvin, 2020).

Overall, my recent work is more consistently pragmatist than Foucault’s. Thus, I do not make claims about ‘diagrams of modern power’, instead documenting the effects of popular governance habits such as privileging ‘the deal’ while disrespecting rules (Valverde et al., 2021a, 2021b). The MO that I call ‘the deal’ is popular all around: Boris Johnson’s political career is one of many relevant examples.

But others will have to decide if ‘the deal’ and other governance habits and styles described in the rest of the book are useful for their field of study, and, if so, how.



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Drawing on the case of the City of Chicago, Ashton et al argue that infrastructure leases require a mobilisation and reconfiguration of state powers – mobilisation rewarded, in part, by the enhanced fiscal and political capacity that accompanies them, however temporarily or contingently.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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