Why I Study Cities

Splatter Compass

A version/part of this post was presented during the Second Annual Conference on Social Work in the Global Environment at Kutztown University on March 26, 2014. The presentation was entitled “The Global City as Level of Analysis: Connecting the Local and the Global.” As a globally oriented sociologist with concerns for social justice, I do not see social processes and movements as being just local or tied to specific nation-states. Rather, for me the local is always global, and the global is always local. This was the underlying premise of my presentation and this blog post on why I study cities.

Why am I interested in cities? As a product of SUNY Binghamton’s sociology program, I was trained in world-systems. World-systems is a multidisciplinary large-scale long-term approach that emerged in the 1970s and was a preceded the popularization of globalization studies. However, I was never particularly comfortable with the macro-level global approach of world-systems. Without going too much into my intellectual autobiography, my draw to cities is that it is a level of analysis that intersects the local and the global. Specifically, I wanted a more nuanced level of analysis than the nation-state.  Why is the nation-state a problem? Perhaps the best example is the problem of poor regions of “core” counties in comparison to urban centers in semi-peripheral and peripheral counties. While there are no doubt high levels of poverty in cities in the Global South, such cities have amenities that are indistinguishable from that of major cities in the developed world – amenities that poor regions of the core lack. Central business districts, university campuses, golf courses, gated communities, and other elite amenities. This makes urban areas, and in particular alpha or primate cities (the largest city in a region or country), different economically, politically and culturally (as well as environmentally) from the rest of the country. Cities and their relationship to the rest of the country, and in comparison to other nation-states become a useful tool in understanding the larger (global) problem of uneven development. After all, more than half the world’s population live in urban areas – which are very much the product of transnational economic activity and migration.

Of course, urban poverty in the developed and less developed world are not the same thing. However, I believe that urban comparisons are more comparable when using economic indicators like GDP and social indicators to discuss inequality between different places (than at the national level). Moreover, an examination of cities, allows us to discuss the way in which inequality reproduces itself through local as well as global processes. Cities, and more specifically global cities, are a manifestation of the world-economy (which includes the modern world-system) (Knox & Taylor, 1995). London, Tokyo and New York look the way that they do thanks to the way they are connected to other cities – through migration, trade and other forms of social, economic, and political exchange (Friedmann, 1986; Sassen, 2001). More significantly, we see that it’s not just cities in core countries that fit this description of “Global.” Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, Mumbai, Johannesburg, and Rio de Janiero are all cities very much linked to international finance, multinational corporations, the transnational business class and immigrant communities.When we look at something like immigration, we see similar “pull” factors between cities, because these are nodal points of the world-economy.

At the same time, we can look at such cities with much more nuance than just products of globalization. We can look at individuals, local groups (such as immigrant communities), and “micro”-level social actors that are more than just products of macro level phenomenon (or a top down approach). Rather they are active agents in the shaping of their social worlds within the cities they live and operate in. This is key. In global cities, we can talk about their agency in trade, global social movements, and cultural production. Cities and their citizens are active within transnational networks, which means that they are active participants in the processes of globalization. The best example of this is remittances. It is estimated that over $500 billion are sent to home countries by immigrants. This money not only goes into consumer goods, but family businesses and construction projects that fundamentally shape urban landscapes around the world (Lopez, 2010). Immigrants and diasporic communities in shape cities as much as the cities shape and structure their lives. Cities, after all, are homes. Cities are work places. People have emotional connections to place, whether they love or hate where they live. I would argue that environment, social context, and location come together in very important ways that explain the reproduction of social structure (a very sociological concern). It is, after all, social structure that creates and reproduces inequality.

Many urban communities are global and the spaces they occupy are global. In global cities elite spaces – gated communities – are constructed alongside sites of oppression and poverty – the favelas, banlieu, township, ghetto. Both spaces are the product of migration, draconian public policy, the push of aggressive real estate developers, as well as environmental degradation. Not only are they sites of destruction and inequality, but they are sites in which social justice is fought for. The existence of both spaces, reveal the urban nature of local and global social justice struggles. French sociologist and theorist Henri Lefebvre (1996) used the term “right to the city” to refer to the human right and dignity people should have within the world’s most common “lived” space – the city.  David Harvey (2008, 2010. 2012) in his classic work Social Justice and the City and later works have argued that cities are sites of struggle. As such, there is no doubt in my mind that cities embody and contain many of the local and global struggles that people face.

Work Cited:

Globalization, Logistics and the Treadmill of Production in Metropolitan Waste Management

Splatter Trash Can

trashThis paper examines the growth of Logistics Service Providers (LSP) managing metropolitan solid waste (MSW), as well as, neoliberalism’s effect on the processes that allow for urban growth. The combination of global urban growth, the expansion of monopoly capitalism and domination of neoliberal policies throughout the world has resulted in MSW management to be increasingly outsourced to third party providers. However, these providers do not merely handle MSW. Rather, these private firms treat MSW as part of an integrated supply chain in which “waste” is a commodity handled by one of its many sectorial divisions. As such, MSW is not just a component of urban growth machines, but is part of an ever accelerating treadmill of production (Schnaiberg, 1980). The concept of the ‘treadmill of production,’ is a valuable tool for understanding the growing importance of logistics in this political and economic context. While, this paper will look at this process globally, I will pay special attention to the growth of LSPs in Turkey and their expansion into Pakistan. First, I will discuss the development of MSW in Turkey since the 1990s and its relationship to LSPs, and then I will discuss the role of Turkish firms in Pakistan.

Presented on March 21, 2014 at the Urban Affairs Association Annual Meeting in San Antonio, TX

Theorizing Natural Disaster, Capitalism and the Built Environment

This paper offers a theoretical approach to the relationship between of natural disaster and cities for a future project. As I have argued in past work, the local political-ecology of wildfire shapes the commodification process of land. Or more specifically, wildfire in the urban periphery or wildland-urban interface has a profound impact on the rent seeking behavior by local developers (Balaban & Fu 2014). Wildfire and other natural disasters, in other words play both a spatial and metabolic role in the commodification of space. In this presentation, I want to go further and argue that natural disaster functions as an urban “crisis” that allows for new forms of commodification within cities in the absence of a broader systemic crisis. As such, I look at a trialectical approach to natural disaster, capitalism and the built environment.

Presented on February 22 at the Eastern Sociological Society Annual Meeting in Baltimore, MD

A Long-Historical Approach to Deindustrialization in Reading Pennsylvania: First-mover cities, environment, and Urban Restructuring


In September of 2011, The New York Times reported that Reading, Pennsylvania had edged out Flint, Michigan as having the largest poverty rate amongst cities with over 65,000 residents. The article presents a fairly straightforward picture of a city that had fallen upon hard times, as job loss and lack of education allowed it to slip from the 32nd poorest city in 2000 to the poorest city in 2010 according to the U.S. Census (Tavernise 2011). This article is not surprising. In fact, stories depicting the struggles of America’s Rust Belt have been common since the 1980s. Downsizing, outsourcing and factory closures were (and still are) concepts that have framed popular political and economic discourse, as well as research on deindustrialization (Bluestone and Harrison 1982; Negrey and Zickel 1994). The article, however, like much of the literature on Rust Belt cities neglect a more long-term environmental component of urban decline. By environment, I am referring the built/physical aspect, as well as the natural/ecological dimension. Specifically, explanations for deindustrialization that emphasize aggressive corporate policies to maximize profit, or the outcome of globalization are missing 1) the role of natural resources and 2) the role of infrastructure in the built environment. This environmental dimension not only explains the shape of local decline, but helps us to understand the obstacles that affect renewal.

A version was presented at the Urban Affairs Association on Apr 6, 2013 in San Francisco, CA and the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting on August 13,2013 in New York, NY.

Spanish-Colonial Revival & Shelter-In-Place: History, Media and Contemporary Fear of Wildfires

In recent years large wildfires have plagued Southern California’s landscape. The most notable set of fires was in October of 2003, in which multiple fires scorched an area the size of small eastern states. In San Diego County alone, over 280,000 acres were burned before it was contained. Like hurricanes along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast, such fires have become a ‘seasonal’ disaster with heavy media coverage. At the same time, the media has included stories covering the successful use of shelter-in-place (SIP) practices, which are pre-emptive measures that protect homes from fire. This combination of increased fire and stories of successful uses of SIP, has made such measures more and more popular amongst different parties, including developers, government agencies, and homeowners (Cova and Johnson 2002; Dicus and Scott 2006).

This paper seeks to situate SIP within a social and historical context rather than focus on its successes and failures. Rather, it is my intent to open up a discussion of the historical and contemporary ways in which ‘safety’ are used to legitimize a particular type of urbanism – one that development driven and whose marketing if fear based. This analysis has two major threads running through it. The first is the issue of legitimization. Architecture and homes (as with all cultural products) are socially produced, as such their production (like all social activities) need to be legitimized (Becker 1984; Wolff 1993). The second issue, which runs through this paper, is the way in which this legitimization is tied to the production of space, which includes the natural and built environments (Heynen, Kaika, and Swyngedouw 2006; Lefebvre 1991). Therefore, this legitimization is not merely about defense. Rather the idea of ‘defense’ is a means towards the end of selling products. While such an instrumental logic by developers works as a business model, I want to criticize the premises and implications behind SIP’s usage.

Roundtable Presentation @ American Sociological Association in San Francisco, CA

Fortification and Visual Culture in Southern California

  • Presentation for Crossing the Boundaries XIV @ SUNY Binghamton (April 22, 2006)
My paper specifically focuses on the relationship between literature, film, and architecture since the 1970s as being constitutive of the experience of Southern California. Specifically, it is about the ways in which visual representation and the built environment have been centered around the notions of fortification and boundary. Southern California has long been thought of as a frontier, and arguably it did not close at the close of the 19th century. As a result the built environment and visual culture as continuously organized space similar to frontier outposts – from the U.S. Mexico Border to LAX.

Politics, Pictures, and Place in Southern California

  • Presentation for the Graduate Student Conference in Historical Social Science at SUNY Binghamton (April 29, 2005)
In 2003, the FOX network began airing a television program called The O.C., and it became a cultural phenomenon. Now in its second season and averaging more than 8 million viewers a week, it has become a powerful marketing tool for the real Orange County as well as other media ventures. In fact, it made such an impact, that for a while there was even consideration by some county officials to rename Santa Ana’s John Wayne Airport to The O.C. Airport. However, the popularity of this television program as well as its deliberate use of Southern California’s very real spatial class divide has also upset people. This paper seeks to examine the syngergistic relationship between politics, pictures and place in Southern California via The O.C.. In particular it looks at the unequal development in regards to access to culture and the built environment.

Rethinking Cinematic Boundaries in Hong Kong Cinema

  • Presentation for the New York Conference on Asian Studies at Bard College (October 30, 2004)
This paper will focus on the historical ephemerality of boundaries in regards to Hong Kong’s cinema in order to understand the multi-leveled negotiations that make up its cinematic vernacular. The role of place and location is both integral to the understanding of cities, as well as cinematic narratives. Although this paper mentions readings of specific films, this is not my emphasis. Rather the focus of this paper is an examination of how the pre- and post- 1997 movie industry reflects not simply the city’s engagements with the issues surrounding postcoloniality. Furthermore, I shall situated the local in long term historical processes.