Book review: Rethinking Urbanism: Lessons from Postcolonialism and the Global South

reviewed by Sylvia Croese

28 Apr 2021, 2:13 p.m.
Sylvia Croese


Rethinking Urbanism book cover

Book review: Rethinking Urbanism: Lessons from Postcolonialism and the Global South

by Garth Myers and reviewed by Sylvia Croese

Bristol University Press: Bristol, 2020; 250 pp.: 978-1-5292-0445-2, £75 (hbk)


Important progress has been made over the past two decades in building Southern urban theory/ies that decentre(s) existing mainstream Northern urban studies. In this book, Garth Myers makes a thoughtful and important contribution to this body of work.

The book represents an important culmination of Myers’ own intellectual journey as an urban geographer and academic, building on his long-standing work in Zanzibar and a range of other cities, as well as a continuation of previous works such as the 2011 book African Cities: Alternative Visions of Urban Theory and Practice which represents a similar exercise in (re)thinking urbanism from and with the Global South, as well as the 2014 article ‘From expected to unexpected comparisons’ published by the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, on new forms of comparative urban work.

Central and unique to his current book is the influence of the late Martinican postcolonial novelist, poet and essayist Édouard Glissant, who has been described as ‘one of the most important theorists of the French colonial experience as well as one of the greatest writers of the Caribbean’ (Britton, 1999: 5). While long recognised as a leading thinker in the Francophone world since the publication of his first works in the 1950s, he started to gain attention from an English-speaking audience only from the mid-1990s onwards when his key works became translated to or reviewed and analysed in English (e.g. Glissant, 19972020).

Glissant-inspired thinkers include the Cameroonian political theorist Achille Mbembe, while Glissant himself was inspired by other Martinican thinkers such as Aimé Césaire and his work on négritude, but also French post-structuralist scholars Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. However, while the work of Deleuze and Guattari is well known and applied in urban studies, for instance through urban assemblage thinking, Glissant’s work has to date not featured in urban studies, even if there are many parallels with the work of postcolonial and Southern thinkers who have strongly shaped this literature over past years.

Myers shows how Glissantian concepts such as transversality, tout-monde or ‘whole-world’ or ‘all-world’ archipelagic thought and creolisation open a productive alternative language and understanding of planetary urbanisation to which both difference and connection is equally central. Here, he follows Glissant’s understanding of the ‘planetary’ and in doing so departs from the existing planetary urbanisation analytical lens proposed by scholars such as Brenner and Schmid (2012), ‘with his caution over the possibilities for “the universalising force”’ in Western thought ‘to reduce everything to “the same” ’ and instead ‘more fully reflect something closer to the “totality of the world” and the relation of one urbanism to another without the “narrow imposition” of Eurocentric ideas’ (p. 14).

Key to bringing out both comparison and distinctiveness, or planetarity as well as indigeneity, is the thick description of difference and the particular, to reveal the ‘infinite varieties for post-colonial Southern urbanism’ (p. 75). Myers does so in six empirical chapters which cover a wide range of urban areas, including Hartford (where he lives and works) and Zanzibar; but also Port of Spain; Trinidad; San Juan; Puerto Rico; Cape Coast, Ghana; Dakar, Senegal; and Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou in China’s Pearl River Delta. Together, these represent an archipelago of cities or ‘points of entanglement’ (p. xv). The analysis of these cities is in turn organised around ‘six P’s’: processes, patterns, postcolonialism, people, products and policies, which taken together are meant to cover ‘a web tying the urban planet together, through historical, geographical, ecological, socio-cultural, economic and political themes’ (p. xvii).

Important methodological and conceptual tools and markers throughout the book that tie Myers’ use of Glissant’s postcolonial thought to urban theory include the work of Southern urban scholars such as Jennifer Robinson and her thinking on global urban comparativism, notably in chapter 1 which ‘map[s] Hartford as a Southern urbanism’ (p. 26) as a way to decolonise it by rethinking the city ‘with its indigenous, Caribbean, postcolonial and global South relations’ (p. 27). Abdoumaliq Simone’s notion of ‘people as infrastructure’, in turn is used to reveal urban human agency or the ways in which people resist or (re)appropriate urban space and plans, as shown in chapter 3 on British (post)colonialism in Trinidad and Zanzibar and chapter 5 on products and infrastructures of dis/connection in the Pearl River Delta. Simone’s notion of ‘worlding from below’ also cuts through the chapters, most powerfully in chapter 6 on urban politics and policy to reflect on the drivers and degrees of agency that exist in city-to-city learning and the mobilisation of urban policies across the Global South.

Closely tracing history and everyday urban life through the use of sources ranging from art, poetry, films and photography is central to all chapters (notably chapter 4 on submarine urbanism in Puerto Rico and Cape Coast) and further follow Myers’ inspiration by Glissant who embraced ‘the poetic as a tool of relationality’ and a method of ‘spiral retelling’ to which empirical data are central (p. 19).

Interestingly, in spite of the many descriptions as well as photographs of different spaces and places, maps in the book are notably absent, except for one map in the preface which shows the cities discussed in the book put together as an archipelago (p. xvi), following Glissant’s assertion that ‘the entire world is creolising and becoming an archipelago’ (cited on p. 75). While wide-ranging and admittedly ambitious, Myers has put together a comprehensive map of ‘cities in a sea of cities’ and the different ways in which those who govern and inhabit them have and might weather its storms.



Brenner, N, Schmid, C (2012) Planetary urbanization. In: Gandy, M (ed.) Urban Constellations. Berlin: Jovis, pp. 10–13.
Google Scholar

Britton, CM (1999) Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory: Strategies of Language and Resistance. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.
Google Scholar

Glissant, E (1997) Poetics of Relation. Trans. Wing, B . Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Google Scholar | Crossref

Glissant, E (2020) Treatise on the Whole World. Trans. Britton, C . Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Google Scholar | Crossref

Myers, G (2011) African Cities: Alternative Visions of Urban Theory and Practice. London: Zed Books.
Google Scholar | Crossref

Myers, G (2014) From expected to unexpected comparisons: Changing the flows of ideas about cities in a postcolonial urban world. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 35(1): 104–118.
Google Scholar | Crossref | ISI


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