The Urban Ecologies of Divided Cities

The Urban Ecologies of Divided Cities


Reviewed by Teresa García Alcaraz

First Published:

26 Sep 2023, 9:26 am


The Urban Ecologies of Divided Cities

The Urban Ecologies of Divided Cities, Cham: Springer, 2023; 228 pp.: ISBN: 978-3-031-27307-0, £159.99 (hbk); ISBN: 978-3-031-27310-0, £39.99 (pbk)


The Urban Ecologies of Divided Cities, edited by Amira Osman, John Nagle and Sabyasachi Tripathi, arose as an attempt to explore further the systems and factors that (re)produce and shape divisive socio-spatial qualities of complex cities and territories (p. 6). This book is part of the international collaboration ‘The City is [not] a Tree: The Urban Ecologies of Divided cities’, a project funded under the auspices of the South African Chair in Spatial Transformation (p. 3). This volume is the culmination of selected research papers from the international conference of the same name held in 2022 in Pretoria, South Africa, a collaboration between International Experts for Research Enrichment and Knowledge Exchange (IEREK) and Tshwane University of Technology.

The book contains five thematic sections, which correspond to the sub-themes of the conference, ranging from more historiographical essays on morphology, theoretical conceptions of postcolonial and decolonial studies to the exploration of causes linked to conflict, war, power or legislative political systems. Most of the 40 contributions compiled in this book present empirical case studies that reflect the physical features, architecture and urban planning of divided cities mostly in the Global South. The unifying thread of this volume involves a play on words inspired by Christopher Alexander’s essay ‘A City is Not a Tree’ (Alexander, 1965) wherein the author discussed the structural nature of a city in terms of a mathematical tree or a semi-lattice. Alexander challenges traditional hierarchical approaches to urban planning and suggests that cities should be seen as dynamic, interconnected networks rather than rigid, tree-like structures. However, in this volume, the city is understood as a socio-spatial ecosystem.

The first theme, ‘Historical and Contemporary Processes’, includes an introduction by the editors, where they provide context in a concise overview of relevant bibliographical and historical aspects of divided cities as well as the conceptualisation and structure of this book. This visual and crafted thematic section explores causal issues related to historical and contemporary formations and conditions through nine beautifully curated short papers mainly focused on contextual perpetuations of segregation in the urban fabric of post-conflict cities, as in the case of Belfast and Cape Town, or post-colonisation, as in the case of Morocco and Tshwane. As expected, their viewpoint aligns with a focus on Africa, presenting it as a significant scenario in their endeavour to provide a comprehensive and all-encompassing understanding of the diverse interpretations of division.

Moving on to the next theme, ‘New Grounds’, we are presented with possibilities of new commons and social and physical formations, finding effective ways to create positive environments. Backed by extensive ethnographic work, this thematic section exposes issues related to the collective construction of fairer and sustainable food schemes, and it is questioned whether remote and rural towns benefit from the mobilised climate finance. It also highlights the power of the youth in cities not only in politics but also to overcome division and issues of misrepresentation, mistrust and connections, and it explores the importance of green space engagement and planning. This part is interesting for those seeking to understand that the nature of division pertains to the development of more efficacious principles and strategies for the amelioration and transformation of urban fragmentations. It aims to foster the evolution of cities into cohesive, endearing locales that nurture integrated communities, thereby contributing to the advancement of a more equitable and unified societal framework. This thematic section has only one downside, which is the absence of more depth and concluding results. However, it seems necessary to highlight its value to other spatial disciplines as well as to the social and political science.

The third theme, ‘Territories and Taxonomies’, consists of nine contributions and comes as a refreshing move into other regions, such as Oceania, Asia, Europe and South America. It provocatively tackles the materialisation and construction of spatialities at multiple scales, challenging traditional ideas of boundaries and dichotomies. Throughout this thematic section, division is exemplified not only as physical but also as emotional, via sounds, smells and perceptions, which overall combines science, social studies and the arts. It also exposes the impacts of digitalisation and the financial inclusion of women’s entrepreneurship to address gender constraints, and elaborates on residents’ self-identities with regard to the formation stories of slums in small towns. By examining these topics through case studies, the concept of ecologies of division is deconstructed, highlighting the intricate web of relationships and mutual influences that exist between seemingly separate entities and regions. This approach sheds light on the complexity and fluidity of spatial interactions, emphasising the need for more holistic and inclusive perspectives in understanding our world’s intricate systems.

The book continues with another refreshing theme, ‘(Re)definitions’, where it explores, through seven short pieces, intriguing ideas surrounding place and space. Notably, it introduces the thought-provoking concept of worlding through the term Zing Forest (informal communities) cleverly using the notion that the city is not a tree but a forest (p. 175), challenging the traditional idea of separateness. The topic of inclusivity and interconnectedness is further explored through reimagining the idea of community and the role architecture plays in providing common goods to local communities, such as temples serving both for ecclesiastic events and for profane uses, to address cultural, social and economic needs. This thematic section delves into the notion of unity in diversity in a multi-racial society, where faith plays a significant role in shaping individual and collective identities (p. 187). Another captivating idea is the concept of minimum logic (p. 195), which captures the logic of valuing minimal expenditure in the design of low-cost houses in South Africa, addressing the challenges of affordable housing. The notion of ‘The Strip’ offers an insightful perspective on how physical design and architecture can shape the character of a place and its community. Despite this thematic section seeming to emphasise the positive aspects of the concepts presented, it may not thoroughly address the potential challenges, criticisms or drawbacks associated with implementing some of these ideas in practice. However, all these interconnected concepts and cases contribute to the overarching theme of the book, which challenges conventional notions and offers fresh insights into the complex relationship between people, place and space.

The closing theme, ‘Questions of Agency’, regrettably, emerges as the weakest part of the book. This thematic section comprises four contributions, each exploring different aspects related to architecture in South Africa. While these pieces touch on crucial subjects such as architectural education’s need for repositioning to remain relevant in the contemporary context or the role of art in shaping public spaces through Biennales, it lacks the coherence necessary for a concluding section, which could have provided the most direct and valuable theoretical contribution to the field.

In summary, the book compiles a wide range of materials that explore the creation and dismantling of divisions as spatial and social practices. The use of visuals is compelling, benefiting from an interdisciplinary approach with a strong architectural emphasis. This volume also explores the broader political and historical context that underpins the notion of division in global institutions and nation-states. While most topics concentrate on socio-spatial segregation and inequality, some delve into other forms of separations. Hence, this diversity in divisions is an essential reminder that the city can either perpetuate its existing structure or continuously reinvent itself. Furthermore, the book illustrates the value of interdisciplinary research by bringing together scholars, activists and urban practitioners engaged in reimagining, designing and creating togetherness amid human displacement, fragmentation and separation. These intellectual dialogues encompass perspectives from urban planning, architecture, anthropology, politics, geography, gender studies and urban history, offering valuable insights in the field of urban studies.

Overall, this book serves as an excellent resource for those seeking diverse perspectives on divisions within the urban sphere. The majority of its contributions are rooted in the South African context, a focus that has been critically examined by contemporary thinkers who challenge the decolonisation of knowledge production. It is worth reflecting on the fact that this book, originating from a conference, aspires to be a referential source of case studies; this aspiration prompts us all to contemplate its significance.



The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This work was supported by the European Union – NextGenerationEU, Ministry of Universities and Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan, through a call from Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (Grant Ref. 2022UPC-MSC-94102).



Alexander C (1965) A city is not a tree. Architectural Forum 122(1): 58–62. Google Scholar


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