Book review: Lively Cities: Reconfiguring Urban Ecology

Book review: Lively Cities: Reconfiguring Urban Ecology


Reviewed by Ayushi Chauhan

First Published:

25 Jan 2024, 10:57 am


Book review: Lively Cities: Reconfiguring Urban Ecology

Maan Barua, Lively Cities: Reconfiguring Urban Ecology, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2023; 382 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-5179-1256-7, £25.99 (pbk); ISBN 978-1-5179-1255-0, £108.00 (hbk)


An urban theory that considers the vitality of cities and urbanicity usually focuses less on urban ontology. Extending the focus from human beings and contributing to the urban ontology works of Emily O’Gorman (2021), Caterina Scaramelli (2021) and Nayanika Mathur (2016) focus on more than just human life. Expanding significantly upon existing literature, Mann Barua’s Lively Cities offers a reconceptualisation of urban environments as living formations that involve other-than-human life.

Barua’s text extends current conversations in two ways. Firstly, Barua approaches the forces that co-compose urbanicity in all its dimensions to redefine urban. Secondly, the author seeks to rethink urban ontology by opening to interlocutors and sites beyond the usual suspects animating urban theory (p. 2). Barua discusses two urban formations in this book – Delhi and London – with shared colonial, historical and ongoing connections. The interconnected histories of the two cities enable the reversing of the analytical gaze from the Global North to the Global South. The book draws from extensive archival and ethnographic work conducted in Delhi and London. Following a more-than-ethnography methodology the author shifts the excessive focus from anthropogenic ethnography to observant participation in scholarship and accounts for multispecies ethnographies (p. 198)

Recasting ‘the urban’ as a meshwork, this book delves into the broader ontology of the urban framework rather than focusing solely on the interpersonal dynamics between people and animals. The work aims to develop minor urbanism to rethink what composes the built environment, in three broad registers. The first register pertains to how minor urbanism unfolds the urban into lively cities by generating conversations and tensions among commensal, feral and cultivated ecologies. The second register entails micropolitics which highlights the shape of urban space and the rising interactions between heterogeneous companies. The third register focuses on the molecular, which gives credence to the role of more than humans in shaping urban political economies.

The book is structured into three parts, with each part comprising two chapters. The first part, centred on commensality, addresses encounters between people and macaques in Delhi. The second part focuses on London and shifts from Delhi macaques to parakeets, a bird brought from London to India through networks of trade to trace the interconnected histories of Britain and India. The third part returns to Delhi’s cattle to look into the question of urban form and how the economy inheres in the contemporary city.

Redefining infrastructures as sites of contestation, Barua, in the first section complicates infrastructure in urban studies. Following the meshwork, affective economies, and infrapolitics, the author shows that infrastructure is more than human. He reveals how the infrastructures fashion other-than-human life, how Katiyabaaz claims infrastructures like electricity, how macaques operate in an infra-political vein and how relations between humans and non-humans can themselves become infrastructural.

To address the Macaques in Delhi, the author enters what he terms minor ecology of infrastructure. This terminology allows the expansion of social and material claims on infrastructures to see the cities as ensembles of human and other-than-human rhythms. Moving beyond the formal urban economy, the author brings to the fore an economy centred on commensality involving Hanuman devotees, makeshift banana vendors and macaques. These informal urban economies are contingent on commensality and micro-attunements which are not simply transactions but also about trans-actions (p. 58).

Commensality enlivens a raft of practices and processes through which the urban is experienced by an array of beings, entities and persons. Barua argues that commensality reproduces a heterogenous sociality of the city which gives rise to a metropolitan temporality that is an intermeshing of religious calendars, astral bodies, macaques and media ecologies. Looking at the hidden urban stories, the author turns to the politics of commensality to elucidate how the state aims to govern other-than-human life. Barua argues that the state and the vernacular are not oppositions. The state resorts to minor practices as seen in the examples of the deployment of languar-wallahs as a process of working together and entailing arrangements.

The second section moves away from macaques to parakeets. The parakeet, a bird of South Asian and West African origin, was brought into Britain as a commodity for the pet trade. The author knits together concerns over post-colonial nature, city of flows, lively capital and recombinant urbanism through the figure of the feral. These feral-domesticated-then allowed to return to the wild birds enable another reading of the material politics of city-making. The author understands how parakeets are constructed as feral through institutional codes and classificatory practices. Following the trade and the traffic of parakeets, Barua suggests that London’s ecological fabric is woven by the mobile and migrant life of the bird. It produces histories and ethnographies of urban life that allow the presence of other-than-human life far greater significance than had been ceded in past scholarship.

The author suggests that the lives of feral parakeets allow us to understand their bearings on urban landscape and design. These detours give rise to what the author terms as recombinant urbanism (p. 133). In this reading, recombinance is a vibrant transspecies process of exchange which brings into purview new rhythms and communities formed because of transnational biotic traffic.

In contrast to managing macaques in Delhi, where the state resorts to aesthetic politics, London manages the bird population through counts, census and modelling. This strategy lies at the heart of biopolitics and renders life into an object-target governance. The non-human migrant parakeets present an opportunity to explore topics beyond typical urban subjects, encouraging a closer examination of bird feeders. The bird feeder’s inhospitable and hostile design denies access to parakeets which recasts the bird as out of place, inferior and a threat. This prompts inquiries into the politics of urban nature and the dynamics of the post-colonial city, particularly in a metropolis like London.

The third section brings the focus to Delhi to ask questions of what qualifies as urban by engaging with cattle as an urban and agrarian question. It argues that other formations – in this case, the pastoral – reside within the urban. Contrary to the planetary urbanisation thesis, the author argues that urban continues to be pastoral in some of its aspects and bovine mobilities continually refashion urban spaces (p. 222). The concepts of bovine ecumenes and smooth pastoral space help to articulate patterns of uneven spatial development. Bovine mobilities and their place-making itineraries reveal the shape of urban contestations.

Lastly, the author traces the economy in urban economies. By showing how the economy, ecology and culture co-exist with each other, Barua argues that not all urban economies are entirely subsumed by capitalism. Surplus ecologies – ecologies emerging through relations between bovines constructed as superfluous, dairy owners operating in smooth space and the life courses of urban waste – reveal how not all economies are integrated into the capitalist market (p. 271). Molecular economies recuperate other-than-humans as a productive economic force in urban settings. Minor readings of the economy reflect that there is an outside to capital that resides within the urban.

The book offers an indispensable guide to the entangled human and non-human lives in the urban. By articulating global cities in a minor key this book provides an alternative model to understand the built environment as more than a human product. Barua’s ambitious and poetic account will undoubtedly become a touchstone text in several fields. It will be of particular interest to scholars and students of history, anthropology, geography and urban studies, as well as South Asian studies generally.



Mathur N (2016) Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy, and the Developmental State in Himalayan India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

O’Gorman E (2021) Wetlands in a Dry Land: More-Than-Human Histories of Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. Google Scholar

Scaramelli C (2021) How to Make a Wetland: Water and Moral Ecology in Turkey. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press. Crossref | Google Scholar


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