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esearch on migrants has surged, but it neglects the built environment that conditions and shapes their experiences. The focus on how borders exclude migrants can divert attention from what happens within borders. Yet these insider experiences can help to better understand actually-existing migration experience, which often diverges from prototypical depictions. Doing such an analysis within migration studies is important, situating the study outside migration research is essential.
Mobility is a major point of departure. Much wider in its scope, mobility research must go beyond studies of assimilation. The City in Transgression boldly confronts these challenges and prospects. Like a university, the book’s opening statement goes, the process and the experience of migration can be quite depressing. But many of the students, many of the migrants, will also go on to something greater that will make the analysist, the teacher, proud. This analogy brings into sharp focus the tensions and contradictions that characterise migration and mobility, the optimism and pessimism in the process of movement.
The book does not only transgress these matters, it also transcends resistance, which is typically seen as organised mobilisations against capital in the form of uprisings. Behind the cameras and the curtain of publicity, along with the glitz of media razzmatazz, many migrants are involved in covert resistance, a silent revolution. This art of resistance is inscribed on the canvas of the built environment. What the built environment means for Dr. Anderson is important because that conception must shape his analysis. Accordingly, the book’s only reference to the nature of the built environment must be stated in full. ‘A_constructed stage for the collective ideal’, writes Anderson, ‘the built environment is a coordinated system of connections and disconnections, ruptures and repetitions in variations of movement. Routes between home and work are parceled in states of consciousness and partial numbness.’ (p. 38)
Underlying this idea of the built environment seems to be a Lefebvre-type conception of the built environment as The Production of Space (1974/1991), a social system in which production, exchange, and consumption are represented in built form. Yet, Anderson is a bit more concrete and far more contrarian. If Lefebvre was looking for the logic of production and projection of form over substance, Anderson is investigating disorder and substance of form in the activities of migrants. For Anderson, therefore, the built environment is, just as importantly, characterised by making homes out of public spaces, creating slums, loitering, embossing messages in graffiti, and trading in open spaces, in short, drilling spaces in built form, a transgression that often eludes planners. What makes this emphasis on the built environment new is not only that the spaces have been created but also that they have, over time, been transformed into spaces of reticence, residence and resistance (p. 4). Such space become platforms of transcendence, too. That is evidently the case where a built form used as a symbol of control is sprayed with graffiti to symbolise steps toward liberation.
Civil society groups seeking to help migrants to assimilate miss this emphasis on the built environment, too. Yet, we need to pay attention to these socio-spatial forms of resistance, as the Australian geographer, Kurt Iveson, suggests in his book, Publics and the City (2007) and, more recently argues in his co-authored book Everyday Equalities: Making Multicultures in Settler Colonial Cities (2019). Studying the built environment, its many characterisations, and (mis)appropriations provide rare insights into the sociology of migration and the political economy of mobility. Both migration policy and mobility planning stand to gain from these lessons.
The scope of the book is broad. Cities in both the Global North and the Global South are engaged. Complexity is dissolved in engaging personalised and picturesque analyses. Visual ethnography brings the subject matter closer, still. Case by case, transgression after transgression, a kaleidoscope of human mobility and resistance in the 21st Century leaps from the pages of the book. Anderson wants these transgressions to be applauded; not apprehended. His argument is that these are acts of human ingenuity. Unlike John Turner who in Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments (1976) saw such acts as the first point of call, however, Anderson’s call for recognition, rather than criminalisation, seems conditional. It must come only when public and social policy have failed to provide public and social housing. The subtext, then, appears to be that migrants, both individually and collectively, have shown that they can address market and policy failures.
Economists will find in this book a reincarnation of Richard Musgrave’s concept of merit goods. Planners can learn new lessons in participatory planning. Activists that subscribe to Julius Sello Malema’s economic freedom principles can see them articulated in a new space, within a new body of conversation. But whether they recognise and affirm them or they continue to overlook them, the silent revolution cannot be stopped. As Anderson notes, ‘[w]hile their innovations have not been applauded and instead have become the site of projected fears and targeted bodies, their persistence will nevertheless create new spaces from which the civil in civic society can emerge’ (p. 21). In short, these insights ooze into, and significantly strengthen, what has been called Reconstructing Urban Economics: Towards a Political Economy of the Built Environment (Obeng-Odoom, 2016).
These arguments are made in seven chapters, aside the introduction. Movement. Urban Mobility. Indeterminant Occupation. Ousted Vagrancy. Collective Anarchy. City in Transgression. Unbounded Mobility. These captions are obtuse, but their contents are acute. Introduction sets the scene. Movement contextualises the scale and complexity of the problem. Urban Mobility shows the many ways in which migrants experience the built environment produced and maintained by a strict code of spatial control. Indeterminant Occupation charts the troubles and tribulations that migrants go through, reflecting systemic failings of planning and migration policy. Ousted Vagrancy documents individual acts of migrant agency and ingenuity (such as roaming, loitering, and homelessness) to resist their manipulation. Collective Anarchy is an analysis of organised migrant resistance (e.g. rogue sites and slums that adapt urban space for migrant use) to orthodoxy. City in Transgression shows how cities transform, or need to transform, in the face of long-term crisis and failure to embrace the centrality of mobility to humanity. Unbounded Mobility closes the book by defending its treatise with even more oomph. Open walls can bring freedom to all. Behind closed walls, migrants show how to attain this freedom through resistance.
The book can be located in a long tradition of radical scholarship. It is particularly suffused in the spirit of the development geographer, David Drakakis-Smith, who makes similar arguments in The Third World City (2000). In more recent times, such arguments can be found in the work of the Iranian scholar, Asef Bayat. Life as Politics How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (2009), is, perhaps, the closest to The City in Transgression. Yet, the latter is novel in three important respects. First, it analyses experiences of migrants. Second, it focuses on both the global North and the Global South. Third is its methodology, an intriguing use of case studies. Several pertinent books serve as the bricks that make up this grand structure. Nowhere are books so diverse engaged in such pluralist and historical ways.
Yet there are key issues to be raised with the book, too. In general, it is not clear how comparable are the books that are so carefully knit together to tell the stories of resistance. Written at different times and for diverse audiences, methodological formalists might well be right to question the basis for their enthusiastic mixing. If the point is not about comparison but rather to present mobility as a historical project, this concern could be described as merely academic, of course. Still, the comparability of events could be questioned. Is the ‘2010 Arab Spring’ the same as the ‘2019 Hong Kong protests’ (chapter 5)? More fundamentally, were the protestors all or even mostly migrants? It may also be argued that theories of migration per se are not central to the book, but engaging some of such theories could have helped to extend them and enrich the book under review, too. Perhaps, a more compelling concern is the non-engagement of the reviews of the books that are utilised as case studies. How did peers receive the books at the time they were written?
It is not apparent that the absence of such verification or questions of comparability undermine the book’s central arguments. The author’s record of nearly three decades of excellent, meticulous scholarship, including two previous major books, should inspire confidence in both his data and their analyses.
Although Dr. Anderson sets out to write ‘a succinct account of human mobility and resistance in the 21st century’ (p.1), he has ended up doing much more. Not only has he unveiled a new way of studying cities and mobility, he has also offered much-needed answers on how cities might be reconfigured to better support migrants, their families, and friends. The City in Transgression is a breakthrough in how to study the city and make urban policy for people; not for profit. Here is a welcome transgression against orthodoxy.
Bayat A, 2009, Life as Politics How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Stanford University Press, Stanford.
Drakakis-Smith, David. 2000. The Third World City (Second Ed), Routledge, London.
Fincher, R., Iveson, K., Leitner, H., Preston, V. (2019). Everyday Equalities: Making Multicultures in Settler Colonial Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Iveson K, 2007, Publics and the City, Blackwell Publishers, Malden,Oxford, Carlton: Blackwell Publishers
Lefebvre H, 1974/1991, The Production of Space, Blackwell, Oxford.
Obeng-Odoom F, 2016b, Reconstructing Urban Economics: Towards a Political Economy of the Built Environment, Zed, London.
Turner J.F.C., 1976/1977, Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments, Pantheon Books, New York.
Franklin Obeng-Odoom, Ph.D. Development Studies and Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science, University of Helsinki, Finland (Email: Franklin.Obeng-Odoom@helsinki.fi).