Temporary cycle lane on the A5145, Greater Manchester (photograph by Kevin Ward)



ragments, bloody hell. 


As you leave Manchester on the A5145, and enter neighbouring Trafford, you encounter incremental and indeterminate infrastructure. This road moves from one to two lanes as it approaches the A56, the three lane carriageway that runs out of the centre of Manchester and heads south-eastward. As it moves to two lanes, there are cones in place to close one lane to car drivers. Sometimes. Other times, these cones are moved to the edge of the road, allowing car drivers to use both lanes. Or, they are dotted around one lane, seemingly nudged in different directions by car drivers. This urban fragment requires regular maintenance. Over the last two years the moving back and forth of these cones has become an intensely political intervention. Car drivers move them one way, campaigners and residents move them another. The cones apparently cost £ 8000 per month. The making of different urban worlds now, but also situated in terms of being about pre-figuring certain urban futures. Trafford council has held on-line consultations. The last one closed in December 2021. No announcement over what happens next has been forthcoming yet. These cones were part of a wider strategy deployed by Trafford Council under COVID 19. It introduced a number of “temporary” cycling, running and walking lanes across the borough.  

At one point, relatively early in the summer of 2020, a lane either way on the A56 was also coned off to car drivers. This involved the coning off of two lanes. Six lanes became four, two either way. This allowed a lane for those cycling, running and walking. It was a redistribution of road space towards more active modes of travel. I participated in interventions to fill the lane, organised through various local campaign groups which sought to mobilize marginal “fragments” of knowing and understanding of what a successful transport strategy might look like. Not through the formation of plans, or policies. Rather, in the form of occupying space. Filling the lane with bodies on cycles and tricycles of all sorts. These occupying strategies sought to counter arguments over under-usage. However, the coned off lanes only ran to the end of Trafford. In getting to Manchester there were no cones.  This city’s council did not introduce temporary cycling infrastructure. An invisible line was crossed and the cones disappeared.  


Colin McFarlane’s (2021) Fragments of the City: Making and Remaking Urban Worlds is a rich and textured read. It pulls together some of his already published work, alongside new material. Familiar conceptual subjects are present. Density, informality, infrastructure, for example, are present in many of the vignettes, much like reappearing characters in a novel. The majority but not the entirety of the empirical basis of the book is examples from the urban global South. And we are reminded that the terms of “North” and “South” are being “increasingly undone” (2021: 18). The approach/framework offered up through the book – “fragment urbanism” – is argued to be “increasingly important to urban lives in the global North (2021: 18). The case of the cones on the A5145 could be argued to be just such a case. Holding the book together, even though the notion of “whole” is largely eschewed, is an ontology of the fragment. It drives the book’s intellectual contribution. In that way, it sits within a particular strand of contemporary urban studies, one that Colin himself has played a large role in generating and shaping.  

The form of the fragment followed in the book is fourfold. Three centre on substantive elements of making urban worlds. First, it considers “how marginal bits and pieces come to act in different ways in the city (2021: 4); second, it considers how “forms of urban material provision” (2021: 6) start whole but then become fragment; and third, it considers how “knowledge fragments” (2021: 6), those ways of counting, knowing, representing and seeing are marginal, before going on to highlight and validate them. The emphasis across them all is of indeterminacy, informality, openness, and uncertainty, an orientation to the urban worlds and its knowing and representing.          


When is an introduction not an introduction? What is an introduction? When is a conclusion not a conclusion? What is a conclusion? Fragments of the City is a book. Obviously! It does not have named “chapters”, though. One of the four ways in which McFarlane deploys “fragment” is as a “form of written expression” (2021: 7). The book consists of seven sections. In each are both longer and shorter vignettes. And McFarlane notes, the “book does not have to be read in a linear way” (2021: xx). In the Reading fragments vignette, Colin provides a wonderful lucid and persuasive discussion of the limits to how many of us organise our words. As he notes, the “process of assembling text into a book is inevitably a practice of wholism” (2021: xviii). This sits with the book’s intellectual framing. It is written in fragments and on fragments, mirroring the work of some of those upon whom Fragments of the City draw, where “writing in fragments has been part of a method of bringing the text closer to an ontology of urban modernity and the urban condition” (2021: xix). It is an interesting thought exercise, for Colin is likely right when he claims, the “fragment form, after all, is just an intensification of what we all know about how we read any book: that it is dialogue, translation, and relational creation” (2021: xx).  

Readers dip in and out of some books, reading them in relation to other experiences, bits of their lives etc. Authored – rather than edited – books are often written to be read from start to finish, beginning to end. Or are they? Something upon which to reflect. And, some books are never “finished”, as measured by whether every page is read, although perhaps that is too narrow a definition. In 2014 a blog was published in the Wall Street Journal on an index drawn from e-books, revealing which best sellers are unread. It was tongue in cheek named the Hawkings Index, after English physicist, Stephen Hawking, whose book A Brief History of Time is sometimes named as the most unread books of all time. It is testament to Fragments of the City that its style, as well as its substance, might prove to be one of its lasting legacies.  


Kevin Ward is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Manchester.