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This text begins from a central question: what is a critical spatial practice in a contemporary moment marked by planetary breakdown, by the increasingly visible presence of climate change across a number of different scales, by the sense of a future and present gone violently awry? This is a question about creating friction with a landscape that is in breakdown, where the certainties of a stability – if a deeply flawed and exclusionary one – are themselves no longer certain.
In this short piece, I draw from the provocation posed by this issue’s organizers to argue for a set of critical interventions grounded in the language and practices of repair. Repair, a concept that is designed to highlight the diverse forms of maintenance work that mark the contemporary landscape, offers us forms of engagement that are relational and located in everyday practices. Repair takes uncertainty and breakdown as starting points, and develops forms of action that are predicated on that which exists. In doing so, it gestures at forms of critical presence, critical forms of occupying space, and orientations towards a politics of what we might call restoration. Practices of repair are ongoing, even if invisible; they suggest the critical ways in which planetary breakdown is being responded to and possible pathways for an ethics and a politics going forward.
Landscapes of Climate Breakdown
It is important to not overstate climate change as an existential crisis that exceeds the previous violences associated with colonialism and the expansion of racial capitalism, themselves the foundational processes that have led to contemporary climate change (See Heglar, 2019; Moore, 2015; White, 2016). Nevertheless, the current uncertainties of climate change demand our attention. As Paprocki et al (2019) point out in a recent reflection, climate change is remaking the variegated and uneven certainties that mark lives as well as scholarly practices. Climate change requires new frameworks and new points of entry, new analyses that ask us to remake existing scholarly certainties. It is subsequently critical that we wrestle with the uncertainties borne from climate change and new modes of social science, which suggest new political potentialities associated with changes that are both regional and planetary, differentiated and universal.
The changes associated with planetary climate change are profound, drawing together the firescapes of California with the sinking built environment of Jakarta. At the same time, the responses to climate change at the level of policy and financing are reconfiguring existing arrangements of the social and the natural, drawing rural landscapes into new energy configurations that are remaking broader relationships between the centre and the periphery at a number of different scales. Assessing who is bearing the costs of climate change as both a material process as well as a set of policy goals is critical to assessing the shape of contemporary politics and what is possible going forward.
Climate change asks us different questions of the contemporary landscape, and as such requires new vocabularies of spatial practice and intervention. The word landscape is a complex one for geographers. The tradition of landscape research has long marked work in the discipline, with the concept attuned to the power dynamics of the built environment and the forms through which the built environment reflects or obscures the processes that led to its creation (See Mitchell, 1996). In Don Mitchell’s iconic phrase: “the landscape lies.” In these frameworks, critical spatial politics would be those that open up these landscapes and reveal their fissures, creating frictions between existing spatialities in the service of more liberatory ends. To reveal the contingency of that which surrounds us seems critical to a politics of denaturalizing the worlds we inhabit and stripping the everyday of its seemingly normative arrangements.
But what are the critical spatial practices in a moment of planetary breakdown, as cities sink and coasts dissolve into ocean? While concerns about the seemingly apocalyptic nature of contemporary climate change writing need to be taken seriously (Gergan, Smith, & Vasudevan, 2018; Swyngedouw, 2010), so too do the real concerns of a shifting climatic regime and its implications for existing communities and existing places that many – and especially the most vulnerable– call home. Elliott (2019) asks us to understand climate change through loss. While the term loss can refer to the broader processes through which presence is turned into absence in a number of different forms, it is also distinctly material. As Elliott notes, “The materiality of loss…refers to disappearances wrought by shifting coastlines, denuded forests, storm wrecked cities––in brief, the fundamentally altered ecologies of a place.” (2019: 307).
Repair, Maintenance, and Breakdown
Repair and maintenance have long been subjects within geography, but they’ve taken on new resonance in recent years. Inspired by the work of Shannon Mattern, Gautam Bhan, Sarah Knuth, and others, work in the fields of repair has highlighted the processes of tinkering and fixing and holding together the landscapes that surround us – and by extension, our social worlds. While much of the work in repair and maintenance build on early papers by Nigel Thrift and Stephen Graham (See Graham & Thrift, 2007; Thrift, 2005) the work has expanded into new forms in recent years.
For Bhan (2019: 8), writing as part of the project of articulating a southern urban critique (see Lawhon & Truelove, 2019), repair “suggests a particular assemblage of practices”
- “First, repair emphasizes the need to restore immediate function over the need for substantive material improvement.
- Second, it is located in an immediate material life-world where what can be quickly accessed and easily used is more likely to be chosen as the “right” material for the job.
- Third, it does not presuppose any actors.
- Fourth, repair can hence be seen as a mode of practice that draws upon forms of public and proximate knowledge.
- Fifth, repair suggests not just actions but a sensibility, one that sees materials in a constant cycle of use and reuse by the same actors and in the same setting over a long time period. The distinction between “repaired” and “new” then itself is diffused, allowing repair to hold a sense of endurance but also one of aspiration and renewal.”
In an urban vein, Bhan’s engagement with repair has resonance with one of the canoncial concepts of Latin American urban processes: autoconstruction, the process of self-building and eventual consolidation of neighborhoods that has marked cities in Latin America for generations (See Caldeira, 2017). A form of critical spatial practice, autoconstruction marks many Latin American cities and highlights the processual, incremental forms through which cities are made in contexts of violent structural inequality (while also revealing the need for deep structural change in how housing is provisioned).
For Shannon Mattern (2018), in a brilliant piece on repair, maintenance, care work, and social reproduction, “To study maintenance is itself an act of maintenance. To fill in the gaps in this literature, to draw connections among different disciplines, is an act of repair or, simply, of taking care — connecting threads, mending holes, amplifying quiet voices.” For Mattern, echoing the early articulations of why repair matters, we are surrounded at all times by the sounds and reminders of maintenance processes: the steady fixing of a world in breakdown, the filling in the gaps of crisis. This gives us some solace as we are facing increasingly dire and increasingly apocalyptic framings of what is to come in a climate change future. But Mattern’s work makes clear that maintenance too is labour, and those who do the work of keeping our world together need better protection, more care. Others interested in the critical climate work of care work have called attention to the necessary role of nurses, teachers, and care workers in creating the social worlds that allow us to survive (as well as live in ways that exceed mere survival; See Battistoni, 2017). As Battistoni (2017) argues, in reference to what a low-carbon society might look like:
In general, it will mean less work all around. But the kind of work that we’ll need more of in a climate-stable future is work that’s oriented toward sustaining and improving human life as well as the lives of other species who share our world. That means teaching, gardening, cooking, and nursing: work that makes people’s lives better without consuming vast amounts of resources, generating significant carbon emissions, or producing huge amounts of stuff.
In a world in breakdown, this is the work of repairing.
There are limits to the figure of repair, of course. Repair can serve regressive ends or suggest that tinkering with the existing can forestall the need for deep structural changes in the foundations of contemporary life. Throughout the globe, for instance, waste economies are seen as a mechanism for solving and adapting a waste crisis through better efficiencies at processing recyclables and waste products. Understood as mechanisms for forestalling a planetary waste crisis – with increasingly visible materializations in the oceans and the atmosphere – articulations of a circular economy are exciting propositions that nevertheless fall short in practice. In collaborative engagements with the South African waste economy conducted in 2017 and 2018, for instance, I found that that these economies are predicated on a structural inequality that exposes vulnerable populations to harm. Repair in this case reproduces existing inequalities and inequities, even as it is framed as a mechanism for pushing against socio-environmental conflicts and uncertainties.
Ongoing work into the planetary repair economy calls attention to how processes of repair can serve economies that are themselves reflective of regimes of accumulation whose end goals need to be better understood (See Fairhead et al, 2012). For Knuth (2019), in particular, economies of repair (in the retrofitting industry, in her case) need to grapple with the structural dynamics of contemporary capitalism. In order to keep buildings from shedding carbon through their eventual demolition and remaking, contemporary retrofitting economies require maintenance long into the future. This contradicts the basic premise of capitalist urbanism, which “encodes material obsolescence into built environments and assemblages” (Knuth, 2019: 499). This has implications for the temporalities of repair, more broadly, highlighting the degree to which maintenance and repair are permanent interventions and permanent conditions.
An attention to the economies of degradation, and the practices of repair that are associated with them, can shed light on the forms through which the finances of climate change adaptation and mitigation are ultimately ripe for speculation. In ongoing comparative research with Patrick Bigger, for instance, we have looked at systemic infrastructural breakdown in two cities marked by recent experience of climate change-induced crisis: New York City and Cape Town, South Africa. There, systemic breakdown can take the shape of the NYC subway, a system that is currently in the midst of a prolonged ‘death spiral’ in some analyses. Or it can take the form of the everyday infrastructures of supplying water to Cape Town, a city marked by intense racialized inequality that plays out in the ways that residents receive differentiated access to municipal services (See Rodina, 2017).
In both cases, the responses to climate crisis – and the financial tools used to weather them -- have threatened to deepen rather than re-imagine existing economic geographies through more borrowing of debt, heightened fiscal austerity, and the increasing usage of residents as a revenue steam through heightened tariffs and fees. This has resonance globally, whether in the prison economies of rural Kentucky or in any number of infrastructurally-deprived regions where taxes are reduced and where austerity remains the primary response. Climate change, as both a material reality and an anticipatory projection on the future (See Paprocki, 2019), is creating a situation in which existing budgets and appropriations are being stretched and where existing inequalities are subsequently being deepened. Repair, in this context, can serve to deepen existing inequalities rather than create opportunities for new collective political ecologies.
Repair as a landscape practice can pose complex questions as well, as efforts to remake ruined and degraded landscapes can create complex tradeoffs between tenure security and dignity, as with forms of green or ecological gentrification (See Checker, 2011; Doshi, 2019; Immergluck & Balan, 2018; Millington, 2018; Wolch et al, 2014). While it is a testament to the deeply compromised nature of contemporary life, the choice between a degraded landscape and a restored one that can be a choice between security and insecurity. Whether in the global north or south, degradation can perversely serve to protect communities from displacement. Repair, in these instances, can subsequently serve regressive ends.
Critical Spatial Practices of Repair
Repair can also be a care practice, especially if we understand the infrastructures that surround us to be interlinked in complex, intimate ways with broader dynamics of social reproduction. The built environment and the physical landscapes of the planet feel increasingly tenuous and increasingly precarious (while keeping in mind that infrastructural stability has long been only guaranteed for the few). The variegated and uneven certainties of fixed infrastructures – the stuff that makes contemporary life possible – are being rendered further precarious, partial, and prone to breakdown, with urban residents increasingly bypassing existing infrastructures. The shape of contemporary global infrastructure matches a contemporary conjuncture marked by the proliferation of large-scale infrastructures at the same time as the necessary infrastructures of survival are in breakdown. The increasing cutoffs of water users in the global north, coupled with reocurring water crises alongside the persistent challenges of adequately accessing clean water in much of the world, suggests that even the flawed certainties of exclusionary cities are being rendered increasingly fragile as climate change deepens uncertainty and municipal budgets are stretched in new ways. In Cape Town, for instance, a narrow defeat of “Day Zero” was accomplished through the intensive reductions in water consumption on behalf of urban residents, a process that was deeply unsustainable in the long run if the city is to continue to function in its current form.
Cape Town too is a landscape of violent inequality, where climate change adaptation requires us to take seriously the need for many residents to consume more. This suggests the complexities of intervening in landscapes marked by the inequities of racial capitalism. If we understand the landscape itself to be a site of violence or erasure or oppression, how can we create friction with existing landscapes while also opening up space for practices of repair of both social life as well as of the built environment in the context of a necessary push towards climate resilience and decarbonization?
Partial Design and Urban Appropriation: The Minhocão
For geographers like Vasudevan (2017), squatting and occupying are forms of not just appropriation but deeper claims making on the urban landscape that entail and demand a radical reconfiguration of contemporary spatiality. To occupy is, in a sense, one of the primary forms through which the normative landscapes of contemporary capitalism can be challenged, in complex, embodied, performative, multifaceted ways – but in ways that also consolidate, that forge, that cohere. Gautam Bhan is here once again illustrative, especially when articulating a grammar of southern urbanism that is oriented around three specific concepts: repair, squatting, and consolidating. While framed as analytical concepts, these could also function as forms of political practice, spatial practices of intervention that take seriously the current conjuncture and its spatial forms.
I focus here briefly on one of my favorite sites in the world: the Minhocão in São Paulo, Brazil. The Minhocão is an elevated highway that, at nights and on weekends, is closed to automobile traffic (See Millington, 2017). Once closed, the site becomes a site of spontaneous leisure, a formal public space in a city known for its lack of exactly that. Residents of neighborhoods jog, socialize, hang out with dogs, and spend time in a site normally reserved for cars. The site is disorienting in a profound, charming way: it shifts the perspective of being a pedestrian, reorienting the experience of the city in compelling ways. It is un-landscaped and at heart is still a road for cars, with infrastructures designed for car safety providing strange backdrops to the experience of public space. Until recently when it was declared a park, the site has long been a kind of interstitial space, formally a road but in practice a piece of temporally-bound public space infrastructure.
The site is the result of practices of what might be seen as forms of collective repair, efforts to create leisure in a space underserved and develop avenues for collective presence. These were done collectively but without intent. People just began to treat the space like a park, and eventually the city started to close the road to prevent traffic accidents. To be clear, the Minhocão is not a radical place: it is a form of spontaneous appropriation attuned to leisure. It is not a practice that can remake the ongoing violences of climate change and predatory speculation. Yet it is suggestive of the everyday politics of repair and maintenance that can render landscapes livable. The elevated highway was built during the military dicatorship that governed the country for two decades, and it is a distinct scar in the landscape. Like other elevated highways, it bifurcated neighborhoods and led to intense devaluation. To render it something different – a landscape for a specific form of commoning, in a sense – opens up possibilities for forms of popular appropriation that push against the hostility of a built environment built to the dictates of the real estate industry.
Of course, decarbonzation and just transitions require much more than spontaneous appropriations of automobile infrastructure. A just decarbonization requires political infrastructures, ultimately, which can develop pathways for forms of politics that exceed what Knuth (2019: 500) calls “capitalist ruination-as-usual.” Yet the Minhocão may offer insight into forms of practice that designers and others interested in contemporary spatial practices may take inspiration from. It is a site that is formed not through overt architectural intent, but rather the incremental, slow processes of appropriation and collective presence, attuned to a kind of livability in the shadow of that which exists. Undoubtedly, we need grand visions of the future to create a society that moves away from fossil fuels while attempting to work against inequality: we need a global green new deal that takes seriously colonial histories and enduring planetary inequalities. Spaces like the Minhocão make clear that there are politics of repair around us, however, forms of engagement with the urban built environment that are oriented towards the everyday while opening up space for more radical potentialities going forward. A critical spatial politics of repair would build on these foundations in the service of something more expansive.
Maintenance and repair are correctives to visions of the future and a present that neglects the inevitability of breakdown. Maintenance is work and labour, but it is also about forms of collective presence that fill in the cracks of a world in breakdown. In this short text, I draw from ongoing work in these traditions to ask: what does repair offer to the scholarly and political challenge of engaging with the uncertainties of climate change, and where might we locate ongoing efforts to mend the world? The Minhocão is one example, drawn from my own research practice, but there are myriad others. Locating and valuing the ongoing efforts to keep the world going – while ensuring that our visions are radical enough for the task at hand – opens up space for politics that both reflect the existing while demanding more.