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This essay was prepared as a presentation for the 'Planning Futures? On Decolonial, Postcolonial, and Abolitionist Planning' conference held at Columbia University in March of 2021 as the COVID-19 global pandemic was unfolding.
cholars and practitioners of urban planning need to rethink the field’s futures at this important historical juncture: some might call it a moment of truth when there is little left to hide. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many cracks, contradictions, and inequalities that have always existed but are now more visible. This also includes the global vaccine apartheid that is ongoing as I write these words. Moreover, this is a time when the violence through which U.S. imperialism has exercised power worldwide is increasingly exposed. Protests in the summer of 2020, which spread all over the United States like fire through a long-dried haystack, showed Americans and the whole world that racialized violence and police brutality are real. They also revealed that such brutality is spatially facilitated in American apartheid—a condition that planning has been far from innocent in creating and maintaining. I think this reckoning is particularly important in the United States, the belly of the beast, where there might have been more of an illusion about planning innocence.
At this historical moment, I assume/hope that many within the upcoming generation’s planning professionals and educators are convinced of the need for a different kind of planning—one that is more open to recognizing the range of important city-making practices that take place outside the invited spaces of professional planning, in interstitial spaces of everyday life as well as in the more visible street protests and contestations. In this essay, I aim to build on this conviction to ask what we set as our guide, and what values and objectives must drive the much-needed rethinking of planning and its future. I make a case for using the opportunity of this historic juncture, at which the foundations of planning are being widely questioned, to construct a humane urbanism through practices of solidarity and radical care that is inspired by the alternative future-building efforts of various grassroots and urban movements. With this preamble, let me turn to radical care and how I wish to distinguish it from current practices of care and social reproduction.
Social Reproduction, Life-making and Crisis of Care
The concept of social reproduction was originally introduced by Marx and Engels in a limited sense as biological reproduction of the laboring class for the capitalist system. Social reproduction is what it takes for laborers to be reproduced and to show up at work: hence the role of family. The relation between social reproduction and production was extended from biological to ideological reproduction of the laborer class through the educational system and more. Feminist scholars, and later anti-racist feminist geographers, enriched social reproduction theory by showing how processes of gendering and racialization work together to sustain a racial-capitalist economy and how this works through spatial restructuring of social reproduction. Feminist scholars such as bell hooks (2000), Patricia Hill Collins (2000), Katherine McKittrick (2015), Isabel Bakker (2003), Beverley Mullings (2009), and myself (Miraftab, 2016, 2021) have drawn attention to the de-valorization of the care work performed by women and feminized persons in subordinate communities in order to reproduce the necessary conditions for life. This leads to theorizing care work as unpaid labor for life-making. Life-making, as a term and the demand to place it at the center of politics, was popularized by organizers of Women’s Strike in 2017 and the authors of Feminism for the 99% (Arruzza, Bhattacharya, & Fraser, 2019). They articulate the complexities of social reproduction and the range of practices, institutions, and values that make life (hence life-making) for the majority (subordinate people) possible under hetero-patriarchal racial capitalism.
But social reproduction and life-making can form sites of fierce contestation. Some, like Nancy Fraser, note that we are currently living in a crisis of care, whereby care work treats capitalism as it treats nature; that is, “as an ‘infinite reservoir from which we can take as much as we want’ and which can be ‘stretched to the breaking point’” (Hall & Silver, 2020: 1; quoting Fraser). Capitalism needs social reproduction work but also needs to make it invisible or de-valorized so that capitalist enterprise can enjoy it for as low a cost as possible. To accomplish that, spatial and temporal restructuring of care work has been critical, a process in which the profession of planning has been implicated. Let me briefly explain the relation between care work and capitalist production of urban space before I move on to articulate its alternative: the notion of radical care.
Bully Urbanism and Invisible Care Work
From the era of European colonialism to the present, different spatial and temporal modalities enroll social reproduction into capitalist city-making processes. Yet in each iteration, social reproduction is made invisible, objectified, de-valorized, commodified, and co-opted through co-constitutive racialized/gendered logics and spatio-temporal strategies. Efadul Huq and I (in progress) discuss this process through various modalities of urbanism, explaining how care work becomes central, yet invisible, to the project of urbanism under capitalism. We specifically discuss the modalities bantustanization, suburbanization, gentrification, and informalization. In classic South African bantustans as well as in contemporary global bantustans, for example, we see care work made invisible by being performed elsewhere. In the classic bantustans, care work and life-making are confined to homelands, and in contemporary global bantustans, as I show in Global Heartland, care work is performed across the world by workers’ families and communities of their origin. This spatial separation of social reproduction and production is what aids capitalism to render life-making invisible and further devalued.
In other modalities, this relationship might work differently. For example, in informal urbanism, poor women in marginalized communities serve as “free urbanizers” (Miraftab, 1998) who invest their unpaid labor in development and improvement of infrastructure and basic urban services in their neighborhoods. These are tasks required for collective social reproduction—that is, not only social reproduction of individuals and their families but also the existence of their neighborhoods, municipalities, and cities. Elsewhere, borrowing from Eileen McGurty (1998), I refer to this as “municipal housekeeping” to compensate for the neoliberal state’s withdrawal from basic service provision to urban dwellers who cannot afford market prices. This important work, which marks the urban experience for the majority in subordinate communities and features prominently in cities of former colonies, is performed unpaid because it is seen as an extension of the gendered responsibilities of women and, as such, made effectively invisible through normalization (Miraftab, 2021). This is the implication of gendered (and hence, in a patriarchal society, women’s unpaid and unrecognized) care labor that is contributing to the project of urbanization under capitalism. The invisible practices of care and life-making that make survival and social reproduction of the majority possible are central to capitalism’s development of unequal cities.
But social reproduction and care work may also be sites of fierce contestation; because they are key to capitalist accumulation, they are also key to destabilizing the capitalist order. In the global South and for subordinate groups everywhere, organizing in the realm of social reproduction (i.e., in residential areas) and around everyday practices of care for individuals and families has become an established strategy for anti-capitalist organizing—these are the anti-capitalist practices of care and solidarity that I refer to as radical care.
Humane Urbanism and Radical Care
My formulation of radical care is inspired by practices of alternative movements, committed to practices of care and solidarity but insisting on dis-enrolling/decoupling care work from the accumulationist agenda of patriarchal-racial-capitalism (Miraftab, 2019).
I see radical care practices as those that sustain life, but not merely to patch the wounds that capitalism leaves behind (ibid.). They seek to sustain life and build alternatives to capitalism through everyday practices of life-making and solidarity to construct humane urbanism. From urban commons, communal land trusts, social and solidarity economies, de-growth movements, new municipalist experiments, to autonomous Indigenous and food sovereignty movements—all are organizing to promote a logic of care that is based on need and use, not on the exploitative logic of market value and exchange. They do so by what I conceptualize as a double movement: on one hand practices of care that makes their life-making possible, and on the other practices of dissent that are counter-hegemonic and destabilize the normalized alliance of capitalism and patriarchy through invisibilized care work. Elsewhere, I refer to this double movement as insurgent practices of planning by the masses (Miraftab, 2022).
For example, The Housing Assembly, an organization in Cape Town, South Africa with which Ken Salo and I have been collaborating on alternative knowledge production projects over years, has (under the pandemic) had to intensify the everyday practices of care they have always performed (see Miraftab et al., 2019, and Constructing Solidarities Project). They grow food and run soup kitchens, but they do not stop at these caring practices. They also organize against evictions and take cases to court, occupy land, hold political school and teach-ins against gender-based violence, and work in solidarity with African immigrants and refugees in their local areas. In short, they don’t just do municipal housekeeping for their poor neighborhoods; they make sure their work also targets patriarchal-racial capitalism. I read this as radical because it recognizes and values the essentiality and power of care work, and it has the potential to create transformative solidarity against patriarchal-racial capitalism.
Conceptualized this way, radical care practices—by placing life-making at the center of decisions and as a non-negotiable—have significant implications for policy and planning, particularly for an alternative future planning that facilitates humane urbanism.
I am not so naïve as to assume that this process is simple or easy. To make this happen for the field of inquiry and practice we call planning, we need new epistemologies that emerge from shifting its canons and its core values. We need new planning practices that emerge from ruins of colonial planning by shifting its non-negotiables, its values, vocabulary, epistemology, and tools.
Essential Shifts for Radical Care
What might “caring” mean in the domain of the urban? What forms of urbanism emerge when the agenda of spatial development is centered on caring and life-making, as opposed to profit making? As Hall, Massey, and Rustin (2013) show, the neoliberal conjuncture is one in which the language we use to articulate our relationships to the world and ourselves locks us into uncaring relations and hinders us from imagining other ways of relating—and planners are no exception. Care work enrolled in capitalist processes of dispossession, displacement, or segregation produces contemporary bully urbanism, where winner takes all. Radical care practices, however, aspire to decouple from capital’s logic of profit. Uniquely embedded in their social contexts, these are practices that create caring idioms of humane urbanism . Efadul Huq and I articulate three interlinked facets of such radical care practices included below (see Miraftab & Huq, 2021).
Radical care practices rely on a non-exploitative logic of need, use, and mutual reciprocity. The COVID-19 pandemic has been instructive in two ways. As the acute precarity of the moment has compelled more people to rely on chains of mutual reciprocities in everyday life beyond market logics, the pandemic made visible the less appreciated and less recognized care work essential to society and life. Recognizing and making care work visible does not, however, automatically lead to redistributions of wealth toward creating a caring economy. In fact, care work, even in its visible form, can continue to function as capitalism’s band-aid. Appreciation of the non-exploitative logic of care is situated within this complexity of the present moment.
Understanding that the current system, which created the problems and exacerbated them, is not going to meet their needs, people all over the world have formed mutual aid groups and practices that carve out COVID-inspired alternatives. Personal observations and correspondence noticed by my collaborators and I alone indicate many such instances. In the United States, many residents have turned their garages into food pantries where anyone in need can pick up and use items they do not have. Teachers have distributed free meals for students, including students’ hungry family members, based on need, not legal status or school registration. During school closures, women in poor quarters of Algeria, without internet equipment, taught their neighborhood children using readily available mobile phones. In Tehran, volunteer youth brigades made sanitizing packages and traveled after midnight through traffic-free streets to sanitize ATMs and other public facilities. While the City of Cape Town continued to treat water as a commodity, cutting off people’s water for non-payment in impoverished townships, better-off neighbors treated water as a public good, filling large water containers for families in houses without water connections. People created hundreds of solidarity gardens to grow and share garden produce with those in need. Artists offered free performances online. These experiments emerge from empathy and caring for one another and the self. Poor people around the world, who have long relied on such practices, continue to give primacy of life over profit and use over exchange value, sharing and cooperation over individualism and competition. In the present moment, these practices are no longer only practices of the poor.
The pandemic also gives us an example of how need- and use-based mutual aid practices, even when made visible during a crisis, can continue to subsidize profit-making agendas and be subjected to violence. For example, teachers and meatpackers in the United States, declared as essential workers, have been forced into their workplaces without adequate protection. In certain cities such as Cape Town, evictions of informal settlements have intensified during the pandemic. All along, the gross profit of companies like Amazon has soared. To stop the theft of care work into privileged enclaves, we need to create and implement caring policies and infrastructure, which have often been sidelined under the rationale of impracticality. But even in the U.S. policy world of “There Is No Alternative,” we witnessed, momentarily, that healthcare can be made free and universal; that evictions based on non-payment of rent and mortgage can be banned; that water and public transportation can be made free for all; that hotel rooms can be turned into accommodation for the homeless; that basic income might be given to every adult. The pressing question is, how can we expand the scope and deepen the commitment driving such policies toward creating a humane urbanism? Given that such care policies have now been universally abandoned, and neoliberal policies restored and even expanded throughout the world, it is clearly not enough to make care practices visible and recognized. Care practices must not simply rely on non-exploitative logics of need, use, and mutual reciprocity, but must also be situated within a just relational framework and build power.
Just Relational Framework
While patriarchal-racial-capitalism transfers the cost of care onto faraway Others in the present or to the next generation, radical care practices understand “care” in a way that assumes responsibility spatially and temporally. For example, in the case of Rustbelt revitalization, the care work for families of immigrant/displaced workers is performed by their families across the world in the global bantustans (Miraftab & Huq, in progress). Or in the case of gentrification, migrant families are criminalized, deported, and made invisible even while carrying the burden of care work in neighborhoods from which they were displaced (Huq & Harwood, 2019). In such instances, capitalist spatial histories are inherently trans-local and interlinked across sectors and localities. Radical care practices recognize that the struggles of migrant families are local yet located within a relational global horizon, so such practices must accept the responsibility to organize within that relational frame of reference cross-sectorally and cross-nationally.
The ongoing and upcoming devastation of climate change is resulting from patriarchal-racial capitalism’s transferring the costs of energy consumption to racialized global South geographies and to future generations. Global environmental movements led by Indigenous communities such as the Ponca tribe in Oklahoma are advancing frameworks of reciprocal, intergenerational responsibilities among humans and non-humans (Movement Rights, 2018). The commoning practices of the Zapatista movement (Esteva 2014) constitute another case where caring practices for self, community, and the planet and its future inhabitants are seen as inseparable.
Need- and use-based reciprocal practices in everyday life, grounded in trans-local and intergenerational responsibilities, can be undermined by patriarchal-racial capitalism. How, then, can communities of radical care build collective power and sustainable governance infrastructure beyond their isolated communities?
For wealth redistribution and collective empowerment beyond isolated communities, radical care needs the regulatory power of a caring state. This is not to be confused with a welfare state offering conditional care, which stigmatizes, or selective care, which transfers the cost transnationally or trans-locally. Radical care, while decoupling from patriarchal-racial capitalism, re-links with the state in a newly defined relationship, where the state recognizes and valorizes the indispensability of life-making practices everywhere and for everyone. Building collective power can take the form of organizing horizontally across sectors (environment and housing, housing and labor, etc.) and across scales of governance (local, regional, and global).
For example, Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi works across arenas of work and housing by forming cooperatives and community land trusts that take control of work and land. The Transition Town Movement implements principles of degrowth through community-led and cross-sectoral projects in cities across Brazil, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries (Transition Network, 2020). Networks such as Transformative Cities (2020) in its Atlas of Utopias elevate hundreds of cases where people are shifting to localized economies of need and sustainable everyday use. De-privatization movements, grounded in neighborhood and union organizing, are returning such basic services as water, energy, healthcare, and education to public control in over 1,400 cases around the world (Transnational Institute, 2020). Networks such as the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy (RIPESS, 2020) globally connect over 90 organizations involved in social and solidarity economies.
These global and cross-sectoral solidarity networks are making visible and re-claiming the value of globally connected local caring practices. In many instances, such caring practices are laying claim on the state. In the case of municipalismo movements in Spain, communities organizing around their social reproduction needs such as housing are not subsidizing the state or letting the state off the hook, but recapturing the state from capital (Forman, Gran, & Outryve, 2020). The municipalismo movements also transcend local and national borders by organizing as a global municipalist movement. The Fearless Cities Summit, starting with that held in Barcelona in 2017, has annually brought together and continued exchanges among locally rooted municipalist formations such as Cooperation Jackson to create organizing and policy toolkits for their decentralized, autonomous global movement (see Barcelona en Comú, 2019). The feminized politics of such radical care practices move beyond gender parity to counter patriarchal institutional structures, implement horizontal decision making, and embrace diversity (Russell, 2019).
Planning Futures and Humane Urbanism
In conclusion, a planning future that promises humane urbanism needs radical care practices of everyday use, need, and mutual reciprocity, grounded in relational responsibilities across time and space. It needs to build power through organizing horizontally, connecting in solidarity globally, and creating caring infrastructure and policies. Conceptualized this way, radical care practices pointing to humane urbanism have significant policy implications as they put forward specific values, principles, and processes to guide city-making.
This essay is an invitation to imagine an urbanism where radically caring is the everyday stuff of city-making. Humane urbanism is the alternative future I envision. We are surrounded by a dominant form of urbanism that I call bully urbanism—where profit is at the top of the value system and winner takes all. Bully urbanism displaces and dispossesses all to make and maximize profit. Humane urbanism, on the other hand, centers on life; it centers on practices of care.
While professional planners would rarely declare profit as central to their decisions, negation of profit or market interest is seldom dared. Deemed as “unrealistic” or “impractical,” profit and market interest are regarded as non-negotiable in dominant professional planning practices, while care and life-making are negotiated, sometimes to the point where they disappear altogether. To shift to a humane urbanism, we need to consider care and life-making non-negotiable in our plans and policies.
 But we have to engage “caring” cautiously, because it exists in the messy reality where life-making and care practices are co-opted for perpetuating capitalism’s economic, social, and cultural structures—for example, how care has been individualized as consumerist “self-care” under neoliberalism (Mehreen & Gray-Donald, 2018)
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Faranak Miraftab is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her transnational feminist urban scholarship focuses on insurgent practices of people marginalized based on class, race, and gender and their trans-local emergent movements that experiment with and offer alternatives to neoliberal urban policies.