Book review symposium - Key Thinkers on Cities

Edited by Regan Koch and Alan Latham and reviewed by Heather McLean, CS Ponder, Felipe Magalhães and Lauren Wagner

29 Aug 2018, 11:36 a.m.
Heather McLean, CS Ponder, Felipe Magalhães and Lauren Wagner

Key Thinkers on Cities book cover

Book review symposium: Key Thinkers on Cities

Edited by Regan Koch and Alan Latham and reviewed by Heather McLean, CS Ponder, Felipe Magalhães and Lauren Wagner

London: SAGE Publications, 2017; 262 pp.: ISBN: 978 1 4739 0775 1 (pbk)


Commentary I: Key Thinkers on Cities

Reviewed by: Heather McLean, University of Glasgow, UK

It’s an exciting and challenging time to engage in urban studies research and teaching. Urban researchers are currently uncovering the everyday implications of uneven urban development with intersectional approaches that combine critical analyses of race, class, gender, ability and citizenship status. Such lines of inquiry dovetail with the work of current feminist and queer urban scholars engaged in fine-grained empirical research to investigate the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that governance models naturalise hetero and homonormative values. Meanwhile, politicised community-engaged scholars co-researching social movements with activists are investigating and, importantly, resisting precarious work, gentrification and austerity policies.

As a feminist urban researcher and former urban planner who is committed to praxis-oriented scholarship, I find Regan Koch and Alan Latham’s edited collection Key Thinkers on Cities a timely contribution to these proliferating urban studies pathways. Bridging theory and practice, the book brings together a lively mix of urbanists from the global south and north, as well as post-structural, Marxist, feminist and post-colonial researchers. Moreover, the engaging and well-crafted chapters offer urban studies researchers with a unique compendium of critical scholars, artists, policy makers and planning practitioners. As I read through the chapters, I wished I had had access to a comprehensive text like this when I was a doctoral student.

The book’s introduction, ‘How to Think About Cities’, draws the reader into the lively realm of urban studies. Here, Koch and Latham lay out what they identify as the key challenges facing contemporary cities and urban regions: economic, institutional, infrastructural, ecological and complex, or the diversity of populations, values and everyday practices. The introduction also outlines the key questions guiding the overall book: Why are cities sites of such wealth and power? Why are cities divided by systemic segregation and inequality? What spaces of solidarity and care are emerging in vastly unequal cities? How can we think of cities as ecological spaces made up of rich assemblages of human and non-human actors? And how do urbanists make sense of the different national, regional and global dynamics shaping cities and regions?

The introduction is a particularly useful teaching tool because it breaks down key ways of theorising cities and urban environments into five cogent thematics. The first thematic, ‘Thinking as local explanation and description’, discusses the potential of immersive and fine-grained ethnographic research for understanding the everyday or micro ways residents, activists, community groups, planners and developers shape urban politics, and how such processes scale-up to influence policies. The second thematic, ‘Thinking as a set of tools and heuristics’, outlines the potential of theoretical concepts developed by urban researchers to think with ‘precision about the social, political, economic, and ecological dynamics being studied’ (p. 7). The third thematic, ‘Thinking as intervening’, then describes the potential of praxis-oriented research strategies that bridge abstract conceptual approaches with policies and community-based interventions. Here the editors refer to some particularly engaging examples of putting theory into practice, including artist Natalie Jeremijenko’s projects that encourage urbanites to interact with a diverse mix of non-human entities – birds, mice, tadpoles and plants – as we go about our lives in cities. The fourth thematic, ‘Thinking as critique’, overviews theories for investigating the hidden or unacknowledged biases and power asymmetries that structure contemporary cities, including the work of Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey and Neil Brenner, scholars the editors identify as exemplars of this approach. Finally, thematic five, ‘Thinking as modelling’, outlines the ways some urban researchers construct formal models that offer simplified descriptions of relationships to guide planners and policy makers.

The introduction is also particularly strong because it encourages students and researchers to creatively and curiously engage with the urbanists brought together in the following chapters. Koch and Latham write: ‘You may start by just flipping through, looking to see how many names or key writings you are familiar with … or you might want to learn about someone completely unfamiliar to you’ (p. 11). Not only does their advice mirror the ‘pluralistic urban imagination’ that makes up contemporary cities, but it reflects the lively possibilities of urban studies research.

The 40 short chapters guiding the reader through the rest of the book reflect the editors’ commitment to conversation, encounter and plurality. In each concise chapter, an urban researcher overviews one particular theorist or practitioner. The chapters all include detailed information on the urbanists’ personal and professional backgrounds, theoretical and methodological approaches and contributions to the field. Excitingly, the overall structure of the book exemplifies how urban thinkers are continuously producing new modes of understanding and intervening in cities, and how this plural and constantly shifting discipline is made up of diverse, politicised and overlapping debates that decentre normative and colonial histories of urban studies. For instance, in Rajyashree Reddy’s chapter about Jennifer Robinson’s post-colonial research approach, Reddy highlights how Robinson’s analysis of ordinary cities also connects with feminist urbanist Cindi Katz’s ‘minor theory’ analysis. Reddy also makes connections between Robinson’s research trajectory and Ananya Roy’s call for ‘new geographies’ of urban theory that uncover how Southern urbanism shapes Northern and Euro-American policies and conceptual approaches. As Reddy weaves together connections between feminist and post-colonial urban studies, she sparks an excitement for politicised research projects in cities globally.

The lively chapters also demonstrate a commitment to diversity of thought and debate, as the authors do not shy away from critically responding to the influential urban scholars that they write about. For example, in her chapter on feminist landscape historian Dolores Hayden, Leslie Kern discusses Hayden’s explicitly feminist contributions to our understanding of the built environment, including her feminist critique of suburban development. Here Kern outlines how Hayden’s work has brought important dialogue about ways to envision ‘socially inclusive and collective landscape histories’ (p. 126) in our research endeavours. However, Kern also critiques Hayden’s tendency to forefront gender at the expense of race, sexuality and class, and encourages the important feminist urbanist to engage with intersectional feminist, queer and anti-racist approaches when envisioning future urban policies and plans.

Such intersectional criticality points to Key Thinkers on Cities’ commitment to highlighting the rich diversity of contemporary urban research. Overall, the book points to politicised and generative research pathways in a discipline with a history of reproducing masculinist, hetero-patriarchal and colonial tendencies. However, in the introduction, Koch and Latham fall into the same old patriarchal ways of thinking that have defined the discipline over the decades as they refer to Henri Lefevbre, David Harvey and Neil Brenner as ‘examplars’ of ‘thinking as critique’. Surely the editors could think of more ‘exemplars’. This is a minor criticism because the book engages with such a diverse mix of urbanists. But as Cindi Katz writes, the minor can be immensely political. In a future iteration of this edited collection, more exemplars of thinking as critique in the introduction can include Linda Peake’s feminist approaches to understanding colonial domination in cities and sites of re-working, resistance and solidarity-making. Ananya Roy’s exemplary interrogation of histories of racialised domination in colonial planning practice is also a powerful example of thinking as critique.

To conclude, Kate Derickson writes that ‘the act of theorizing the urban and, by association, theorizing political possibilities, is fundamentally shaped and limited by the intellectual and philosophical traditions upon which they are based, and the empirical examples upon which they draw’ (Derickson, 2014: 651). Key Thinkers on Cities points to the possibilities of the diverse methodological, theoretical and praxis-oriented approaches that currently make up the discipline of urban studies. An excellent resource for researchers and instructors, the book is a testament to a flourishing discipline that encourages us to imagine and enact alternative urban futures.


Commentary II: On the production of pluralism and the performance of canon

Reviewed by: CS Ponder, University of Minnesota, USA

Regan Koch and Alan Latham’s Key Thinkers on Cities is a deceptively slim reference piece that incorporates the bits of undergraduate lectures I used to love the most – learning about the life and times of the people behind the theories – into a condensed review of the oeuvre of 40 leading contributors to urban studies today. The book has been precisely designed to fill a gap particularly for undergraduates of urban studies, by peopling the field that several other introductory texts have already surveyed so well (e.g. Bridge and Watson, 2010Paddison and McCann, 2014; and more broadly, Gieseking et al., 2014). The introductory chapter sets out how the editors of the volume conceive of the ways that cities are thought about and theorised (making an explicit distinction between the two acts), and the different ways in which the interdisciplinary field of urban studies tends to problematise cities conceptually. The remaining pages of the book are dedicated to chapters approximately five to six pages in length that provide a powerful mix of biography and synthetic review of a Key Thinker’s life work. The chapters have been usefully standardised to outline an initial list of key urban writings, while subsequent sections detail the selected Thinker’s ‘academic biography and research focus’, ‘key ideas’ and ‘contributions to urban studies’. The level of familiarity required by this collection on a Thinker’s life, geopolitical context and underlying motivations animating their corpus of work is no small feat, and both contributors and editors are to be lauded for their successful efforts.

The act of producing a ‘Key Thinkers’ list for any field is a politically charged effort, however, and one which inevitably highlights and reflects the uneven power dynamics and landscapes of privilege at play within a discipline. In some ways, the introductory chapter to this volume can be read as an attempt by Koch and Latham to avoid the pitfalls of another, earlier collection, Key Thinkers on Space and Place (Hubbard and Kitchin, 2011), this one housed in the discipline of geography and published by Sage in 2004 and again in 2011. That volume, of which one of its editors, Phil Hubbard, is a contributor to Key Thinkers on Cities, warranted enough attention to produce a second edition, indicating the practical nature of such a project. Students find it useful to have a roadmap, something pointing out the relative impact and influence of particular researchers and schools of thought on their chosen discipline. Yet, in a 2005 roundtable review on the book (Boyle et al., 2005), the editors of Space and Place were rather strongly taken to task for their lack of transparency in determining how their list of Thinkers was produced, and with what effect on the trajectory of their discipline of geography. In contrast, Koch and Latham (p. 10), both geographers themselves, are at pains to explain the selection process for their chosen Thinkers, as well as to disassociate their book from attempts to establish any sort of ‘“who’s who list”, or ranking exercise … [or] a certain canon’. Moreover, whereas the first edition of Space and Place was critiqued for placing primacy on theoreticians rather than practitioners, Koch and Latham (p. 6) explicitly invoke multiple ways in which the city can be known, and seek to represent each of those approaches within their collection. Similarly, the editors also take care in explaining that the process used to select the various Key Thinkers is directly linked to their discussion on the different ways urban studies scholars tend to problematise cities, as well as their corresponding desire to represent the diverse array of methodologies at play within the field (pp. 10–11).

Despite the care Koch and Latham have taken to explain themselves and their motivations regarding the construction of a diverse list of Key Thinkers, there is nevertheless a fundamental contradiction at work that belies certain authorial claims, one that conveys the titular ambition of the book rather than its contribution as purported by the editors. While Koch and Latham suggest that the purpose of Cities is to provide ‘a sense of the broad ranging themes, concepts and theoretical approaches that underpin a great deal of contemporary urban scholarship’ (p. 10), these aims have come packaged as a series of well-researched profiles of ‘some of the most influential and inspiring’ (p. 10) contemporary urban scholars. The overall impression is thus not of themes or concepts, but of the people who are presented as most influential in the field. As a compilation of preeminent, contemporary urban studies scholars this book unquestionably performs canonicity, whether or not the authors desire or intend for this to be the case – particularly so with regard to its targeted audience of those ‘uninitiated’ (p. 2) in urban studies.

In what remains of this review I shall briefly touch on two aspects related to the canonical work this piece performs. Both are concerned with evaluating the success with which Koch and Latham deploy the notion of pluralism as an inherent feature of urban studies writ large.

Plurality between whom?

‘One advantage of starting with key thinkers as a way of approaching the field of urban studies is that it helps to emphasize plurality in terms of how urban problems might be addressed’, is the way Koch and Latham (p. 6) begin their foundational discussion on the multiple ways of knowing the city. It is also the boldest justification to be found from them regarding the decision to create a book that is analytically focused on Key Thinkers rather than key ideas or thematics. Yet there is for the most part a missed opportunity to flesh out the context and production of this plurality through the academic biographies of Thinkers, the section most explicitly tied to understanding the influence of lived experience on the production of ideas. While the entries on Edward Glaeser, Manuel Castells, Mike Davis and Neil Smith are noteworthy for the stellar attention paid to the construction of a world view through life experience and institutional training, on the whole these biographical sections tend to read more as profiles on academic pedigree. The cumulative message presented to readers through this portion of the chapters is that to be a Key Thinker, one must necessarily attend a Key Institution. Not an inaccurate message per se, but also not one that speaks to the production or presence of plurality within the discipline in any meaningful sense of the term.

Whose canon or who’s canon?

The work this collection performs in terms of producing canon may not be immediately recognisable as such to those readers already familiar with and operating within the realm of urban studies, as Koch and Latham have worked diligently to ensure the inclusion and representation of most of the social science related disciplines and sub-areas that comprise the field. Indeed, the impression some partisans may have is that of an epistemologically cacophonous volume. Yet it is precisely here where the performance of canonicity has the greatest potential to produce an interesting moment of reflection within the broader arc of urban studies’ trajectory. When the work of canon-making is acknowledged as such, it becomes a moment to reflect on who urban studies (still) is, not just in terms of content, but of embodiment.

Key Thinkers on Cities is an incredibly useful book, of that there is no doubt. The brief chapters are jam-packed with essential information and distillations of careers and research trajectories that would otherwise be inaccessible to those not intimately familiar with a Thinker and their entire body of work. Yet issues surrounding the impact of canonical work performed by creating a list of Key Thinkers remain, not least of which are questions regarding to what degree this list merely reflects (and therefore deepens) historically uneven power configurations within the academe. There are, for example, 13 women Key Thinkers in a list of 40, and only nine women contributors to the project, out of 40 total contributors. The stats for both Key Thinkers and contributors of colour appear to be even lower. Not only, then, is this book a showcase of epistemological and ontological plurality within urban studies, it is also – potentially – an opportunity to reflect on how and to what effect the discipline of urban studies makes and remakes itself over time.


Commentary III: Key Thinkers on Cities

Reviewed by: Felipe Magalhães, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil

Key Thinkers on Cities is a compilation of short essays on the trajectory of pivotal researchers and practitioners whose work focuses on cities and urbanisation. It is, without a doubt, an important contribution to the field, which may work in several ways: as an introductory collection for students, as a panorama of some major figures in the contemporary perspective of the Anglophone circles or as a shorter format encyclopedia on the urban, focused on individual contributors. The volume portrays the vibrant plurality (hence the strength) of urban studies today in a format that provides a rare moment of reading outside the cutting-edge margins and going a little deeper into past debates in the field. It also works very well in clarifying and contextualising the chosen authors’ works, providing robust and accessible introductions to them, helping students get into complex discussions and relate individual works to the wider oeuvre of each author and/or the constellations that they constitute collectively. Readers are given a substantial perspective on the diverse forms of practising urban research today, in terms of the objects of study in cities and/or urbanisation and the theoretical-methodological forms of approaching them, while also seeing the momentum, movements and dynamics of such work, as well as the material that makes things moving within it. As such, it is great inspiration for newcomers and students who are discovering the field, also serving as a sort of who’s who for those outside the circuits that the book chooses to map. Before problematising the risks inherently involved in the act of mapping, I would like to propose a perspective on the epistemology of intellectual trajectories which reading this book has prompted. Much of what follows refers to wider considerations on the production of knowledge concerning cities and urbanisation (that the book will certainly have the indirect effect of raising in many readers), partially overlapping with my account of the book itself.

Some readers may see in the collection an unintentional history of thought as seen from a certain point in time and space – if published a decade ago and/or in another continent, the selection would be another (with authors like Ed Soja certainly making the list). This involves a great contribution of bringing the foci of discussions to trajectories of knowledge production that are more prolonged in time away from a certain obsession with the contemporary and the margins. Dialogues that are excessively informed by the ‘brand new’ tend to create path dependencies that generate blind spots in relation to the past of knowledge production that frequently remain unknown for many who are entering the conversations, while of course these blind spots many times hide important answers to the current issues themselves. An important and welcome culture of ‘engaged methodological pluralism’ (Barnes and Sheppard, 2010) would be strengthened in the company of greater dedication to past debates and scholarship, to forgotten discussions, to that which is out of fashion, etc. The book is an important contribution for this epistemological stance, even if it somewhat lacks (not the project’s main intention) a perspective of the sequence in such lineages, which are always dialogical: from where/whom/what does each author take things, to where/whom/what do they take them and how/why? Who are their main influences and followers? These are very important questions, especially for those starting out in, and trying to navigate, the field.

In such a spirit, the text would be greatly enriched by more frequent references to (mainly theoretical) work from outside the field (from Marx, Engels or the utopian socialists to Foucault, Bourdieu, Deleuze or Latour), which provides urban studies with some of its most important ingredients – forging discussions on how this capture of transdisciplinary inputs works in various forms. A lot has already been said about the lack of a canon in geography and urban studies, but enough water has passed under the bridge that more explicit discussions on the history of the field are perhaps taken as read, with a presentation not only of its key characters but of the main debates and their trajectories, from Castells’ critique of Lefebvre and the latter’s implicit responses in his subsequent work to the current disagreements on the theoretical implications of planetary urbanisation, to the feminist critique of Harvey and Soja (among many other threads). On a related point, the editors’ justifications for not including older historical figures (Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Robert Park, Louis Wirth, Lewis Mumford), which could speak to the importance of these longer intellectual genealogies, do not reflect a particularly robust epistemological concern, although some very welcome historical perspectives are inevitably showcased in the book.

In relation to the many different ways of thinking cities, this collection has the merit of not privileging a certain type of approach and of showing well how disciplinary boundaries (still rigid and strong in some places and fields) are not exactly helpful for deepening our understanding of and improving our practical engagement with cities and the urban. However, the choice of names such as Gehl, Koolhaas or Peñalosa seems to go in a direction some may see as the terrain of starchitects and their equivalents in urban design (and a certain approach to planning), to the detriment of planning itself as a field, which paradoxically tends to go deeper into the social sciences (John Friedmann, Susan Fainstein, Patsy Healey), hence into the kind of urban studies that appears to be the main focus of the collection. For those who are looking from far away, a weak intellectual dialogue with planning seems to appear in the background, and if it is really the case, this may have the counterproductive effect of hiding and underestimating fertile epistemological and political grounds that still lie behind the conventionalities and hegemonies of planning in academia and practice in many places.

Some may also see in Key Thinkers a map of some sort, as previously noted. Mapping involves choices, languages and absences – and languages that are poorly (or completely un)known will remain in the many outsides, which in this case are not even empty spaces/unlabelled places within borders that refer to an Other’s own order. Globalisation in its more recent historical waves has produced many different cosmopolitanisms but also a tendency towards a flattening of linguistic differences through a certain hegemony of the English language, turning the Anglophone conversations into the main stage, which creates a dominant form of restricted cosmopolitanism that is embedded in a specific language and not very keen on learning others (except eventually for fieldwork purposes). The effects here are visible on how important work that comes from within the confines of the northern world but is not translated into English seems to remain on the fringes (Horacio Capel, Françoise Choay, Leonardo Benevolo, among many others).

The reasons for the global south being under-represented are many, from completely different cultures of work (in which the written, published intervention very often has to wait in line behind university extension in communities or practical work in activism or public service, or even much heavier loads of teaching without assistants) to the worse access to resources for research. One particular point worth emphasising concerns the role of collective work, within which individual authorship is typically diluted, which is much more prominent in locations distant from the practices of Northern/Western Enlightenment. Brazilian urban social movements over the past half century may provide a good example here, demonstrating how the non-authorship of a potent body of thought and practice on a particular experience of urbanisation and planning has taken the form of a beehive. It has been one made up of several people working over many years, coming and going from activism to academia to planning departments, conversationally constructing insights and knowledge on the nature of relations between society and space. Although these collectivities did relate directly to some key thinkers on cities (Ermínia Maricato, Raquel Rolnik), much of the knowledge in this assemblage is diffuse, findable only in a wide variety of documents, amongst which academic work is only one kind (from legislation drafts to participative planning session minutes or archives of social movements). Future compilations on thinking cities would benefit greatly from recognising such hidden forms of collective knowledge-making that many times stand behind or relate directly to diverse vernacular, also collective, practices of city building.

The book definitely raises many questions of this sort on the current state of the widespread and heterogeneous body of intellectual work on the urban, certainly reflecting its vibrancy, diversity and potentialities, showing how much there is to be done departing from the current conjuncture (as a positive aspect, and not a lack). Much has already changed in relation to a certain ethnocentrism and anthropocentrism in the field, but one will still find affirmations on how the city is the greatest human invention, or on how it is what allows the best of the species to flourish, etc., without much sensitivity for those who actively and autonomously choose to resist and remain outside (even if connected to a certain ‘differential space’ related to extended urbanisation), such as Indian rural populations or Brazilian Amerindians.


I would like to thank Cristina Temenos and Jamie Peck for comments on a draft of this review, along with the editors for generously inviting me to participate in this forum. Mistakes and remaining problems are of my own responsibility.


Commentary IV: Key Thinkers on Cities

Reviewed by: Lauren Wagner, Maastricht University, The Netherlands

Let’s not pretend: I am not an urbanist. Writing this review, I cannot speak for ‘urban studies’, though I have published here and there in urban studies journals. Personally, I study face-to-face interactions between people in specific settings; many of the settings where people interact face-to-face are urban. So, though a reviewer of a book on thinking about cities would likely be an expert city-thinker herself, I cannot make that claim. (I believe the other reviewers in this symposium are more qualified in that respect.)

Yet given the premise of Key Thinkers on Cities, I am perhaps a more qualified reviewer than an urbanist. This book is designed as a map, of sorts, for non-experts to become more knowledgeable about cities, and about ways to think about them. It does not take canonical ‘urban studies’ as a starting point, though the spectre of it is evident throughout. Rather, it approaches cities from the many possible directions that someone like me might have as a starting place, and enables me to trace a unique, choose-my-adventure path towards a broader comprehension of what ‘urban studies’ talks about. I see some names I recognise (both in thinkers and writers – more on that later) and many I do not. As a novice reader of this book, I am taking the opportunity to (re-)educate myself and also to be curious. Following the editorial instructions, I have not read everything cover to cover. In the process of writing this review, I read the introduction and first few thinkers, then started picking and choosing, following connections between them, learning some new things and confirming some previously existing impressions. So, having read about Jan Gehl and Jane Jacobs (both of whom I know and like), I am now discovering Enrique Peñalosa and Jane M Jacobs. My urban studies expertise is already exponentially improved.

In the process of poking around through many well-written summaries about thinkers on cities, I have further learned that underlying urban studies are some questions and doubts I share. Namely, what is distinctive about ‘the urban’ (p. 6)? What makes cities more than just a lot of people living together? Having struggled with these questions occasionally myself, it is fascinating and reassuring to find them foregrounded by Koch and Latham in their introduction. While they frame the contributions of the selected thinkers by the ‘kinds of problems cities are’ – economic, social, institutional, infrastructural, ecological and complex – this framing maintains the possibility that cities are all of these at once, though different thinkers may approach through their own definition of the problem. Combining and connecting thinkers across these problems illustrates how cities are simultaneously healthy, liveable, legacies of colonisation, entrepreneurial, natural and sometimes just complex. ‘The urban’ is all of it, or just one at a time.

Posing such questions, moreover, shows me that I may be a thinker on cities too … The diverse selection of key thinkers – many of whom would also not be identified immediately as ‘urbanists’ – illustrates that insightful thinking on cities is not necessarily only from those trained for city-thinking. Many are trying to solve a problem that leads them towards cities. Even those who are urbanists first seem to struggle with the same questions I have about what makes the urban distinctive. I suspect that part of the objective in the selection and structure of this collection is to prevent a reader from falling into a canon of urban studies. Koch and Latham do not seem to want a definitive answer to what makes ‘the urban’; they want cities to be continually questioned, and want us to investigate how they are made of human interaction and more in their problems, composition and perpetuation. They open a door to outsiders like me, who find themselves thinking about cities while thinking about other kinds of problems.

In many ways, therefore, I come to this book aligned with the intended novice audience of students and curious academics who want to learn how to think about cities. More than that, I can align with the sea of semi-knowledgeable academics who know enough about a key thinker to get themselves in trouble, but not enough to have a testable sense of what s/he thinks. This latter problem is another commendable feature of Key Thinkers: that, while apparently being about urban studies, it is also, stealthily, about thinking.

In addition to framing problems that characterise approaches to cities, Koch and Latham’s editorial introduction frames modes of thinking – as local explanation, as heuristics, as intervening, as critique and as modelling – engaged in by each of the 40 selected figures. They bring notice to the name ‘key thinkers’ as a purposeful, not incidental, title. This is not ‘key theorists’ nor ‘key perspectives’. While this framing is of course not a discrete or prescriptive taxonomy, it orients the reader to consider how modes of thinking materially and substantively contribute to what each thinker produces. Their biographies become not simply an account of a career trajectory, but a formulation of what modes of thinking can connect and inform what sorts of problems, within or beyond cities. Reading with this framing in mind I found became a meta-heuristic itself: a tool for thinking about thinking.

Thus, while thinking about how key thinkers think (and naturally also how I think and where I would fit in the thinking spectrum), reading these chapters I was also noticing what these figures do with their scholarship. Though ‘thinking as intervention’ is only one of the modes suggested, for the most part the thinking on cities in evidence here is active in (re)making understandings and approaches to cities. Perhaps part of the underlying argument here is that ‘the urban’ as an object is active through its thinkers. While they are thinking ‘on’ cities, they are also thinking about, in, for, with and occasionally beyond cities on problems that are human and consequential. I begin to imagine how cities intensify and magnify such problems, sometimes becoming the problem itself. By separating ‘cities’ from ‘thinking’, the ‘city’ and its problems develop more clearly as an object of study into which I can find my way. For a reader external to urban studies, this way in is greatly appreciated.

In addition to my caveat as a non-expert reviewer, I can also make no claim to journalistic lack of bias. I know both Koch and Latham personally, as well as several of the contributors. I have even had occasion to meet a few of the thinkers. Without pretence to objectivity, I still express admiration for the daunting project of selecting 40 thinkers, and selecting 40 writers (give or take – some did not complete their piece) to describe them. Other reviewers in this symposium have rightly critiqued the problem of diversity of representation in gender and origins – and, beyond these, how collectivities or laboratories can contribute to important ‘thinking’ without being represented by a single figure (Magalhães). Though certainly there may be notable absences from the list (and Koch and Latham do acknowledge their parameters for selection), I am not the one to comment on what might be missing. Nor would I critique the individual content of the chapters, which I found consistently oriented to the framing made by the editors: on problems of cities and thinking about them. Producing an edited volume with that consistency in itself is commendable.

Above all, what is recognisable in this book is the enthusiasm, fascination and awe for cities, evident from the first page of the introduction and through each chapter. Alongside Koch and Latham’s reverence for the magical things that can come from thinking about cities, this book develops a coherent, challenging and inspiring path for new thinkers to start thinking about cities. In short: cool cool cool.


Thinking about cities: A reply to our critics

Regan Koch, Queen Mary University of London, UK and Alan Latham, University College London, UK

How to think about cities? How do social scientists and urban practitioners approach this task? And what does it mean to think, exactly? Writing more than a half a century ago, Jane Jacobs challenged a broad public audience to consider these questions, writing:

‘Thinking’ has its strategies and tactics … Merely to think about cities and get somewhere, one of the main things to know is what kind of problem cities pose, for all problems cannot be thought about in the same way. (Jacobs, 1961: 558)

This idea remains a useful starting point to reflect on what we as urban scholars do when we think about cities – not least because most of us can agree on the astuteness of Jacobs as an urban thinker. There is in Jacobs’ words a suggestion of the plurality of cities and urban worlds: that they are not just one problem, but rather present a universe of them. Cities are problems of social order and differentiation, sites of economic innovation and agglomeration, sometimes generating extraordinary growth and in other cases stagnation and decline. They create distinctive ecologies of the human and non-human, and because of their concentration of populations, put extraordinary demands on the infrastructure needed to serve them. They present distinctive political and institutional challenges. And, as Jacobs stressed, all of these components interact simultaneously to make urban environments sites of tremendous complexity. This diversity of problems suggests the need for plurality in terms of approaches that might be taken when thinking about cities and urban processes.

The field of urban studies does not lack for scholars putting forward some kind of grand synthesis. Brenner and Schmid (2015) have argued for a unified urban epistemology that registers how urbanisation is unfolding on a planetary scale. Roy (2009) and others call for a postcolonial urban theory. The forms of urbanisation defining the Global South and elsewhere now demand the development of radically different ways of theorising ‘the urban’ than heretofore. Working with rather different intellectual resources, Amin and Thrift (2017)want to overhaul the conceptual tools with which cities are understood. Here, rather than ‘the urban’ the concern is for ‘citiness’ and the way concentrations and mixings of the sociotechnical define the modern city. Despite the differences among these three examples, these scholars share a concern with debating and developing some kind of integrative urban theory. The implicit assumption is that to engage with cities and urban environments, one first has to get the theory right. Theorising is the privileged mode of engaging with urban problems.

But thinking is not the same as theorising. In putting together Key Thinkers on Cities, we wanted to emphasise that urban life has been thought about, engaged with, acted upon and intervened into in a wide variety of ways. Planners think about cities in ways that contrast with how anthropologists approach them. Architects engage with urban environments in quite distinct ways from economists or spatial scientists. Sociologists study cities in ways that are subtly different from political scientists or human geographers. Even more than disciplinary distinctions, there are also fundamental differences in styles of thinking. Urban theory that aims to develop tools and heuristics for engaging with urban problems is one style. Relatedly, there is thinking as critique that places theorising at its centre, focusing on uncovering hidden and unacknowledged biases and power asymmetries that structure contemporary cities. Other scholars orient their work towards developing local explanations and descriptions. Making models is another kind of thinking. Yet the more immediate kinds of interventions into urban environments made by artists, planners and designers are undoubtedly modes of thinking in their own right.

Key Thinkers on Cities is intended to be a primer into the world of urban studies for students and those broadly interested in cities. But we also imagine it as an invitation to more established urban scholars to extend their intellectual engagements. Biographic stories are a good vehicle for understanding how academic trajectories and research agendas develop. They convey an embodied sense of the various ways that thinking can be done in relation to the pursuit of building theory, working with empirical evidence, and in practical efforts to transform spaces and cities. We began the project aware that focusing on individual thinkers might well be construed as an attempt to ascribe a canon, or as a way of suggesting that those collected within the book were the only thinkers (and styles of thinking) that needed to be engaged with. For us, ‘key thinkers’ was a rhetorical device that helped make pluralist ways of thinking about cities and urban environments more concrete. And yet, each of the four commentators raises interesting questions and valid concerns about the challenge of assembling any kind of overview of this broad, long running, trans-disciplinary field. We are grateful for their engagement with our project and would like to consider some of their more thought provoking comments in turn.

The fundamental contradiction of making lists, as outlined by CS Ponder, is that they perform ‘canonicity’, inevitably highlighting power dynamics and landscapes of privilege within disciplines while at the same time reinscribing them. Lists can certainly do this. But lists can also be useful devices to think with. They help one get started thinking about what matters. And they are not finite: they are revisable, can be debated and added to. Whether we like it or not, the field of urban studies already has something of a canon. Indeed we chose to leave out iconic thinkers such as Simmel, Geddes, Mumford, Park and Benjamin precisely because so much attention has already been paid to them. While many might wish to operate within a canon-less intellectual landscape, disciplines are constantly judging and rejudging what counts as the most important writing. In this regard, we agree with Ponder that the book provides an opportunity to reflect on how and to what effect the field of urban studies is defined. At present – in the intellectual communities we inhabit – an extraordinary amount of urban scholarship is refracted through various forms of critical theory and neo-Marxism, and to entrained habits and styles of thinking that come with them. In selecting the scholars for this book we were interested in opening things up. Rather than attempting to narrow the scope, we hope it will add to the recommended reading lists of students and scholars. Even so, Key Thinkers on Cities is perhaps more of a map than a list. It is designed to invite exploration and chance encounter. It shows different parts of a fragmented, pluralistic universe that other people might want to discover. As Heather McLean puts it in her review, urban studies is full of ‘lively possibilities’. We may have inadvertently inscribed a kind of canon – we wish! – but instead of simply refusing a canon, we think it is more productive and interesting to consider the ways that influential people, ideas and concerns shift and change over time. And yet, Felipe Magalhães reminds us that there are risks inherently involved in the act of mapping too. This brings us to questions of representation and challenges of diversity.

A book such as this inherently prompts discussion about who else could or should have been included. Constrained to 40 entries in this volume, we already look forward (with fingers crossed) to considering who we might include in an expanded second edition. Collectively, the reviewers raise helpful suggestions of who this might entail and how we might use such a project to work against inequalities in representation across the field. We spent a lot of time thinking about the composition and diversity of those we approached and included. Certainly, there are gaps and absences in our final selection. But it is also useful to ask: what diversity are we trying to represent? We focused on diversity in terms of research fields and approaches to urban thinking, which we would argue is equally important to inventorying contributors in terms of their gender or ethnicity. A more fundamental challenge is how urban scholars working in English can engage with ideas that have not crossed over into the English-language world. Magalhães raises an important question in asking how we might better surface such work. This is a difficult task. Finding such thinkers and those willing to translate their work is challenging. Both Néstor García Canclini and Enrique Peñalosa are better known in their native Spanish, but we thought they were important to include and they have a body of work translated that we could readily point our readers towards. Highlighting additional key thinkers with little English-language presence will require closer collaboration with scholarly communities working in other languages. Similarly, the question of how we might better surface collective forms of knowledge and non-authorial ways of thinking is a challenging provocation. Perhaps this is the biggest blind spot of Key Thinkers on Cities. It is certainly one of the limits of a biographical approach to urban studies.

Another question that shadowed us through the process of the book is: what exactly counts as urban studies? Lauren Wagner raises this question in her commentary. Despite her research on everyday interactions that take place in urban settings and publishing such work in urban studies journals, Wagner disqualifies herself as ‘an expert city-thinker’ and suggests that she approaches the book as something of a novice. For us, Wagner is quite clearly an urbanist, one who chooses to focus on face-to-face interactions. It is worth reflecting on her hesitancy to throw her lot in with urban studies. Discussing Richard Sennett’s most recent book, Building and Dwelling (2018), architectural critic Rowan Moore highlights how writing about cities tends towards the expansive: ‘If the urbanistic publishing-academic complex substituted the words “the world” for “the city”, the grandiosity of their projects would immediately be exposed as preposterous’ (Moore, 2018). For all the talk about everyday life and working from the bottom up within much urban studies, there is a compulsion to scale these discussions to something bigger and more encompassing. This is often twinned with a desire to produce social critique. Wagner’s hesitancy seems to us a form of resistance to such thinking.

We would like to see an urban studies inclusive of more minor registers and problem-oriented modes of inquiry. To do this requires a reckoning with how we understand theory. Heather McLean, in her review, quotes Kate Derickson on theory within urban studies: ‘the act of theorizing the urban and, by association, theorizing political possibilities, is fundamentally shaped and limited by the intellectual and philosophical traditions upon which they are based, and the empirical examples upon which they draw’. We agree with much of this. But maybe we could also just stop thinking about ‘urban theory’ so much. As we have argued, there are many different ways of thinking about the kinds of problems we find in cities and urban environments, just as there are many kinds of theories and ways of theorising to make sense of them. Most are not exclusively about or addressed to ‘the urban’. To fixate on their urban-ness or otherwise is to cut ourselves off from a world of potential sources of conceptual inspiration. It is also to needlessly alienate ourselves from scholars like Wagner.

In putting together Key Thinkers on Cities we were hoping to invoke a pluralistic transdisciplinary field of urban scholarship. This commentary has outlined what we see as a tendency to put theorisation at the top of an implicit hierarchy of thought. It is also commonplace to conflate critical urban studies with urban studies more generally, and in doing so to privilege critique as a mode of thought. Key Thinkers shows scholars producing powerful critiques of the existing urban landscape. But equally there are vibrant strands of work that might be thought of as more-than-critical urban studies. These modes of engagement are not a-critical, but rather seek to engage with problems through all sorts of activities, experiments and interventions into the urban fabric. We would sincerely like to thank Heather McLean, Felipe Magalhães, CS Ponder and Lauren Wagner for their generous and thoughtful commentaries. They have helped us clarify our thinking and challenged us to consider work yet to be done. Their perspectives reflect the remarkable diversity, vitality and spirited debate across the field of contemporary urban studies.


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Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.


Editors’ work published in Urban Studies:

On the Hard Work of Domesticating a Public Space by Regan Koch and Alan Latham

Reviewers’ work published in Urban Studies:

Regulating and resisting queer creativity: Community-engaged arts practice in the neoliberal city by Heather McLean

Rabat retrospective: Colonial heritage in a Moroccan urban laboratory by Lauren Wagner and Claudio Minca



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