The Time of the “Maybe” in Massive Urbanization: Reflections from a collective of Southern urban scholars

Introduction by
The Massive Urbanisation Collective

The objective of this Forum is to complicate the usual depictions of Global South mega-urban regions. Neither the sure-fire means of realizing the aspirations of majority populations nor as a descent into chaos, the massiveness of Southern cities offers many different dimensions and implications.

This essay introduces a three part forum that will be published over the next two weeks. Part 1, consisting of three essays, will be published on March 26th; Part 2 on March 29th; and Part 3 and an afterword on March 31st.

The Massive Urbanisation Collective:

Steve Ouma Akoth - Tangaza University College

Nitin Bathla - Delhi Without Borders, ETH Zurich

Mariana Calvacanti - State University of Rio de Janeiro

Momen El-Husseiny - American University of Cairo

K. Murat Güney - Istanbul Planning Agency, Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality

Dian Tri Irawaty - Rujak Centre for Urban Studies, UCLA

Sobia Ahmad Kaker - Goldsmiths, University of London/Karachi Urban Lab

Caroline Wanjiku Kihato - Woodrow Wilson Institute for International Scholars

Taibat Lawanson - Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development, University of Lagos

Kristian Karlo Saguin - University of the Philippines Diliman

AbdouMaliq Simone - The Urban Institute, University of Sheffield


ntroducing the Collective Work

The upending of everyday life that has intensified during 2020 has posed multiple conceptual and political challenges to the predominant understandings of and engagements with urbanization in the Global South. It both intensifies well-known priorities, amplifies existing and emerging inequalities, and questions the applicability of normative development trajectories. Some of these issues have already been taken up in past publications of the Society and Space magazine. These have included reflections on: the politics of care and the ways in which the pandemic puts together new forms of urban control; the ways in which cities anticipate and plan for the regulation of relations between human and non-human life; how the pandemic may refigure the forms of public life and; how collective urban life is expressed through various forms of arrangement beyond conventional social categories and governance. 

At the same time, in many parts of the world a process of urbanization is feeding off of its own extensiveness, where the expansion of spatial production is driven by anticipations of eventual fortuitous use and profit, and has continued unabated. Investments in infrastructure and logistics, in the rearrangements of settlements and commerce, appear unperturbed by the crisis of livelihoods and circumscription of mobility. Populations continue to be moved around, households dispersed across multiple sites and formations, and the terms of social reproduction more tentative and dependent upon intricate arrangements of reciprocity and debt.

Nevertheless, recent reflections on urbanization have emphasized the ways in which extensive urbanization is an enabling condition of pandemics requiring a restructuring of urban conditions. Such restructuring requires renewed attention to inequalities, renewed commitment to popular participation in the redesign of urban spaces, the centering of green economy in urban development, the mobilization of frontline knowledge from the ground up, and the general slowing down of economic growth.  The objective of this Forum on Massive Urbanization is to complicate the usual depictions of Global South mega-urban regions. Neither the sure-fire means of realizing the aspirations of majority populations nor as a descent into chaos, the massiveness of Manila, Delhi, Jakarta, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Karachi, Nairobi, Lagos, Johannesburg and Cairo—the cities reflected upon here—offers many different dimensions and implications.

These are places difficult to inhabit; they require inordinate work, tolerance for large measures of uncertainty, are nearly impossible to govern through conventional planning and institutions, and largely disregard or are unable to effectively address the basic needs of larger segments of their populations. At the same time, they generate ambiguities of all kinds: vulnerability mixed with generative potential, highly effective arrangements of getting things done and decisions made, woefully inadequate infrastructures and remarkable work arounds, and mixtures of inordinate violence and generosity. Residents of many urban regions of the Global South remain dependent upon economic activities and social connections that stretch far beyond the local neighborhoods that register an official address. This sense of extensiveness is nothing short of massive—the intertwining of multiple scales, logics, and circulations. Additionally, the apparent disjunction between the continuous extension of the urban, the rush to build, and the accruing difficulties of residents to secure viable livelihoods signals the critical role played by eventuality. Eventually whatever takes place will work itself out, even if the very terms of what will work or not have yet to be established. What is viable or not depends on how it is read and mapped, but, for now, the proper form of literacy and mapping is yet to arrive.

So, there is something about the scales at work that make clear readings of what is taking place difficult, and thus require an analytical approach that emphasizes empathy, speculation, inventiveness, and commitments to justice all at the same time. This is why a collective of urban researchers working in ten major regions of the Global South came together in conversation over the past six months to think through the notion of the massive beyond its conventional connotations of mushrooming populations and a voluminous and explosive mass beyond apprehension or control[1]. The collective also sought to think of urban extensiveness as something involving the temporality of dreams, ambivalent desires, improvised maneuvers, and unruly inclinations in addition to the generalization of commodity forms and capital accumulation [2].

We took inspiration from the two countervailing meanings of “massive” in Jamaican patois. On the one hand it means an inordinate lack of sensitivity to the real conditions taking place, a sense of extreme self-inflation beyond reason. On the other, it means a collectivity coming into being without a set form, but reflective of a desire for collaboration and mutuality. Massive urbanization means then both the voluminous expansion of speculative accumulation, extraction of land value, replication of vast inequities and dysfunctions, and the continuous emergence of new forms of urban inhabitation, a constant remaking of the social field by what has been called the urban majority. In our writing we attempt to sustain this double view in depictions of each region.

Thus in part one of the Forum, urban fringes in Manila are portrayed as sites of both intensive marginalization and concrete generativity through new agricultural practices; intensifying segregation in Delhi is addressed through new form of popular political mobilization and; attempts to unsettle the poor in Jakarta are successfully countered through effective political strategies, which nevertheless also posit uncertain futures for the new living arrangements the poor have been able to design. In part two, dreams of a better life in Cairo remain an important incentive for action, but are often materialized in the repurposing of built environments in obvious decline; the solidification of long-term spatial injustices in Karachi, increasingly subjected to the commonality of worsening environmental conditions spur on experiments with cross-class solidarities affected through social media and; the conversion of self-constructed communities in Istanbul into mass housing schemes in order to consolidate support for the ruling party may instead serve as a basis for the emergence of a new political coalitions. Finally in part three, residents of Lagos are pushing back against repressive policing practices and extrajudicial intimidations that limit the productivity of the popular economic practices relied upon by the majority; community organizations in Rio de Janeiro attempt to combat the racialized fragmentations of the city through an innovative deployment of social mapping; popular markets in Nairobi discover unanticipated possibilities within infrastructure projects that otherwise make them vulnerable to erasure and; residents in the informal settlements of Johannesburg must carefully repurpose already limited household space during the time of the pandemic.

In all of these stories, massiveness may be the very thing that provides a kind of “safety net” to residents attempting to put together viable livelihoods. All kinds of discrepant environments become momentary bastions of largely improvised collectivity, where people try to make some functional use of each other without any pretense of long-term commitments. Momentary, sporadic, and makeshift become the defining metaphors of many collective formations.  Our collective seeks to work through what a progressive urban politics looks like in conditions of anticipated intensifications of displacement, enforced mobilities, temporary residence, heightened reliance on extended family networks, and the reworking of solidarities. We ask, when does the visualization of particular urban realities enable the visualization of strategic approaches for dealing with them?

For example, if the collaborations among widespread and seemingly disconnected capillary networks across an urban region are able to produce visualizations of urban realities that have remained elusive or subject to distorted narratives, to what extent do these visualizations also demonstrate a substrate of “popular power” potentially capable of transforming the realities they map? If the profound and enduring inequalities operative across urban regions are more comprehensively and precisely visualized, how do we assess the impact of that process on producing more effective and just urban politics? If this entails the “power of naming”, what is a politics of naming, and how effectively does a repertoire of familiar terms, such as secure tenure, community management, institutionalized social movements, name?

What has been evident in our collective discussions is the predominance of a time of the maybe. When we look at more extensive instances of dispossession, this leads us to ask, what, in the end does an urban majority actually possess? If larger numbers of residents are left without property or assets, left without much they can lay claim to, what is it that is left; what is it that can be used now, but which does not entail a debt that can never be paid off? What we think is that, perhaps in the end what residents continue to possess is a sense of the maybe; that things may go one way or another in a moment where everything that has taken place so far does not generate the odds of a particular probability. All of the traumas of the past, everything that has been tried so far, whether it works or not, all of the times where one has fallen down to pick oneself up again does not prepare you for what will take place now; all of that suffering that won’t be redeemed, but which has thickened your skin, turned the surface of the body into a confusing map of contradictory itineraries. No matter who a person is or what they have done could be relevant or have absolutely nothing to do with whether they pass through the roadblock, manage to mobilize a life’s savings into something tangible, manage to turn that corner just before the police or debt collectors arrive. This time of the maybe, more than simply a wager or speculation, is a continuous rebellion against what is on offer, against how one is regarded.

If the massive, then, in one of its dual senses is a collectivity being worked out, trying to find its feet in its own terms, then these efforts are infused with the multitude of stories of those small rebellions, those risks undertaken on the basis of both singular and common dreams for something else besides what is experienced in the present. In what follows are stories that attempt to convey some overarching features and patterns of urban developments, but nevertheless which embody the temporality of the maybe. This temporality accompanies collective efforts attempting to create a sense of spaciousness in landscapes fraught with both brutality and often indecipherable potential.

[1] The collective came together in the context of an initiative by the Urban Institute at the University of Sheffield. The school was entitled ‘Re-tooling Mobilization and Advocacy in Contexts of Massive Urbanization’ (September 2020) and co-convened with the University of Cairo.

[2] Some of the discussions that emerged generatively among the collective were published as a two-episode podcast with Urban Political in December 2020.

essays in this forum

PART 3 - THE POWER OF NAMING: Lagos, Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg

In Lagos, alternative channels exist to restructure and reconfigure economic, social and technological infrastructures of the city. In Nairobi, the nostalgic framing of a city that should be made ‘great again’, with its standard repertoire of homogenizing spatial products, confronts the ordinary orderliness that has mushroomed over the years. In Johannesburg, the act of surviving another day requires the incredible manoeuvring of space to overcome challenging circumstance, bringing into sharp relief the fact that space is life and death.


The Massive Urbanisation Collective


In the clamor of countervailing projects and logics at work in generating contemporary urban inhabitation and operation, what constitutes viable modes of political practice able to navigate the intricate physical and social landscapes of discrepant times and strange spatial juxtapositions?


The Massive Urbanisation Collective

PART 2 - URBANIZING DREAMS: Cairo, Karachi, Istanbul

In Cairo, urbanizing the desert edge is subject to the possibilities of dreaming, becoming, and occupying yet-to-become ‘spaces of maybe’. In Karachi, The massive city brings together a disparate group of people, all differentially positioned, who collectively endure urban uncertainty. In Istanbul, the politics of the maybe converts low-income home buyers and poor segments of the society into long-term debtors and subordinates them to the mechanisms of financial discipline.


The Massive Urbanisation Collective


In Manila, as sites of new juxtapositions and uneasy contiguities, the peripheries assemble as sites where novel and disparate eventualities coalesce. In Delhi, the massive mobilisations and cross-solidarities of 2020 have provided a major reckoning to the spectre of capitalism that manifests as the massive urbanisation of a “Delhi without Borders”. In Jakarta, enclosure of land in Indonesia takes place through efforts to reclaim new land from the sea.


The Massive Urbanisation Collective