Working the urban assemblage: a transnational study of transforming practices

Blog post by Catherine Durose, Mark van Ostaijen, Merlijn van Hulst, Oliver Escobar and Annika Agger

11 Aug 2021, 3:32 p.m.
Catherine Durose, Mark van Ostaijen, Merlijn van Hulst, Oliver Escobar and Annika Agger



This article emerged from a long-standing collaboration focused on how different people - those on the front-line of public services, or working in voluntary, community or social enterprise organisations – create change in urban neighbourhoods. It places those working for change at the centre of debates on how cities transform.

The idea that urban transformation relies on a central master-plan that can be “rolled out” remains influential, even as we acknowledge the complicated, rapidly changing and uncertain nature of cities. Rather than trying to iron out this messiness, we worked with it and wanted to understand what individuals embedded in neighbourhoods bring to channelling messiness in order to catalyse change.  

We drew on a 30 month study in neighbourhoods in Amsterdam, Birmingham, Copenhagen and Glasgow. With local partners, we identified individuals who had a reputation for making a difference. We interviewed and observed them, and created spaces for them to come together to reflect on what they do, how they do it and why it matters. In the article we look at four exemplars in detail: how a mobile bakery in Amsterdam brought people together to take action, how historic buildings were re-purposed in Glasgow to offer a different future for the neighbourhood, how healthy lifestyle opportunities in Birmingham helped women from under-served communities realise their potential, and how resources were re-used and shared in Copenhagen to build a sustainable neighbourhood food economy.  

These activities were substantially different but the people involved made use of and nurtured four common resources:

  • Vision: a set of ideas brings people together and offers a collective narrative for the future.
  • Relationships: ongoing engagement with a range of different people, often across cultural, economic or organisational boundaries.
  • Different ways of knowing: from professional knowledge to local.
  • Materials: from buildings to human bodies.


The exemplars, seen together, begin to demonstrate a different way of thinking and showing how cities may be transformed:

First, how transformation may come from giving meaning to action and a pathway to a more liveable neighbourhood.  

Second, nurturing rather than extracting resources.

Third, engaging with people as community members to foster a sense of belonging and solidarity.

Finally, recognising and valuing different kinds of knowledge and harnessing them to respond creatively to social problems.

These practices did not begin with, focus upon, or end with the formal institutions that govern a city. Indeed, they often reflected institutional limits. Instead, they were guided by a belief in fostering power in communities towards a shared vision of a different future.

The understanding of change expressed here, brings together a recognition of the role of human agency in catalysing urban transformation by assembling diverse elements in a way that is purposive, but also allows for a process of becoming that emerges over time. The work and resources we draw attention to here were often precarious, hidden, unvalued and yet hard to replace. Opportunities to experiment, to nurture, to fail, to reflect were all crucial, but we should acknowledge are also under severe pressure.

 The exemplar vignettes we shared brought together the history of neighbourhoods, and their potential, recognised the actual but also considered the possible. We hope these insights contribute to ongoing learning and critical imagination in how we can approach the future of cities differently.

Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



You need to be logged in to make a comment. Please Login or Register

There are no comments on this resource.

Return to Category