huge thank you to Ash Amin, Alize Arican, Nitin Bathla, Theresa Enright, Caroline Knowles, Tatiana Thieme, and Kevin Ward, for their generous, thoughtful and insightful commentaries on Fragments of the City. You never quite know what’s going to happen when you send a book from your laptop to the world out there. Having colleagues whose work you admire engage with the book, and in such a generative and dialogic way, is truly a highpoint of the process. 

As someone who has spent two decades writing in much the same sort of way, the book is an experiment in writing differently. After much back-and-forth about book structure, I decided to challenge myself to write not in chapters but in fragments of text. The book is a set of vignettes of varying length, bringing disparate encounters into relation, from research projects and art exhibitions to non-academic urban fragment writing and the experience of urban walking. Alize Arican says the book is an effort to work with “multiple ways to think with the urban” - this was a key motivation for writing in fragments. 

The book, as Tatiana Thieme writes, is a particular story of the movement between different cities and urban conditions, rather than one that sticks with place or context for any length of time. Doing so opens up possibilities as well as limitations. There is the possibility of juxtaposing seemingly unlikely cases into a larger narrative about how fragments of different kinds reveal and contest the urban condition. And there is the limitation, for example, of losing depth in any one place. And this skipping from case to case can mean, as Kevin Ward and Tatiana Thieme say, that the book is a challenging read. The result, as Theresa Enright puts it, is a book less preoccupied with interrogating or exposing cities than with generating dialogue through the juxtaposition of different cases and actors in the city – residents, activists, artists, and writers – and attempting to sketch a politics from there. 

I set out to stay with fragments, and to reflect on the urban condition through fragments of different kinds. Fragments of things, knowledge, and written expression. Fragments as both content and in the form of the book, hopefully reinforcing one another. Fragments not just as nouns but verbs, which often act in the world in ways that sometimes move the dial, for better or worse, on urban living and politics. As a result, I don’t spend much time on ‘wholes’, as Alize Arican and Ash Amin point out. 

At the same time, in one sense the book is as much about wholes as it is about fragments. In fragments, we find legacies of destruction, disinvestment, neglect, and marginalisation. Fragments of all kinds of things – infrastructure, buildings, ruins, discarded objects, handed-down stories, music, and more – often take their form because of the wholes that shaped them, even when they are being put to work as forms of resistance or alterity. And, as Nitin Bathla writes, lying latent in the fragments are all kinds of potential other wholes, those that maybe never got going but might yet one day.

In the book, for instance, I explore how sanitation activists in Mumbai attend both to fragments while conjuring the whole – in the shape of citywide sanitation for all – continually into being. I consider how refugee occupations in Berlin both support living with fragments while demanding universal rights to housing and work. I point to how wholes register in the thinking of Walter Benjamin, or amongst activists in Cape Town. I argue that there is much we can learn from how activists combine wholes and fragments, particularly in how they develop ‘connective devices’. These devices might include, to mention a few,  regimes of maintenance, budgetary and policy proposals, spectacular acts of protest, or artistic exhibitions that enable spaces of reflection.

Nonetheless, in the book, I point to the work and potential of wholes – what Ash Amin calls ‘the politics of the diagram’ – rather than show how they work in aspect. Holding fragments and wholes together is a useful task for urban thought, politics and practice. Of course, it helps too to be careful about wholes. How often, after all, have projections of the whole – from Haussmannisation and suburbanisation to grand plans for redevelopment and regeneration - manifested as spatial, economic and social fragmentation of the city? And how often have even well-meaning efforts to ‘integrate’ minority groups into the whole – refugees, ethnic groups, or alternative social formations and subcultures – ended up becoming a politics of imposition or even evisceration? Part of the politics here lies with how wholes and fragments are thought together – with the extent to which universals and generalised models, such as ‘sanitation for all’, reflect the material, social, and spatial heterogeneities at play in the city. 

Fragments are a relation not just to wholes, but of presence and absence. How, Alize Arican asks, might we make sense of absence’s relation to the fragment? In cities, fragmented things – a broken or otherwise inadequate toilet block, for example – can act as provocations of what is not there as much as what is. The pipes and facilities that are missing, and which may never have been present. A sense of a shadow of a whole, absence always creeping into the inadequacies of the present. The absences surrounding fragments might take the form of dreams of distant pasts, or deeply political memories of demolition or war, or the stuff of speculative industries connected to ruins and half-finished abandoned spaces. 

If fragments often summon contexts and conditions which aren’t there, they can also spark new conversations as they move into different contexts. In the book, I explore this in the work of activists, artists, and writers working with fragments. Theresa Enright remarks on the focus on the aesthetic in the book, specifically art that uses fragments to say something about urban inequalities. Perhaps what’s distinctive about art as a means for engaging and politicizing fragments is its capacity to create contexts for reflection and discussion, assembling different stories and possibilities in the process. Exhibitions for example can involve a kind of stepping back, which is quite different from other forms of politicizing fragments I consider in the book, such as the more urgent politics of the demonstration or occupation. 

One question I continually posed as I wrote the book was: how should I connect these different fragments of text? What kinds of relationships do they generate with one another? What themes are emerging? How should I organise the contents? To what extent should I, as Caroline Knowles puts it, leave things open, allow for the “oblique associations which are not necessarily resolved”? If I tidy it up and integrate too much, will I lose some of the possibilities that might come from juxtaposing unlikely stories? There is a long history of writing in fragments, but for me at least, this was new. It felt much more like assembling an archive than writing a narrative. 

Perhaps that is why Fragments of the City feels to me more like a step in an ongoing exploration, rather than an endpoint - a live set of questions rather than something complete. I thank all seven colleagues here for being such a generative part of that ongoing reflection and conversation, both here in this collection and in two podcasts in which we discussed some of the issues covered here, hosted by Alize Arican on the New Books Network and Nitin Bathla on Urban Political.


 Colin McFarlane is Professor of Geography at Durham University. His work focuses on urban life, politics, and transformation.