Unstable Geographies – Dislocated Publics

Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) Thematic Group ‘Public Spaces and Urban Cultures’ (TG PS-UC)

The new topic UNSTABLE GEOGRAPHIES – DISLOCATED PUBLICS builds on the group’s approaches and activities aimed to critically reflect upon, analyse, and discuss current trends and tendencies in public spaces and urban cultures in the fields of urban research, design, and planning.


The theme
Public spaces, as a manifestation of cities’ different cultures, are recognized as valuable social and cultural capital of urban societies. They have increasingly been celebrated as crossroads of different interests, backgrounds, and values, allowing – if not inviting – diverse urban populations to enjoy the fruits of (past) emancipatory struggle(s). A thriving scene of actors and performative practices mainly rooted in the fields of urban design and planning for the city centres and adjacent districts, engages in creating places of everyday life for multiple city publics. This renaissance of diverse public spaces, however, takes place against the bleak backdrop painted by fear and uncertainty now also spilling onto the privileged part of the world, which has found itself overwhelmed by the scale of the recent crisis of capitalism and the waves of migrants. A response carved out by policymakers and institutions, which has not shied away from morally ambiguous means to put capitalism back on track and curb the influx of (uninvited) people, has shown that the institutions and the order of the West, while building on the achievements of past emancipatory struggles, often sustain hostile practices of exclusion and othering.

A number of initiatives and activists’ movements stand in opposition to such neo-colonial practices, calling on urban publics and emerging cultures to challenge and rethink the prevailing political and institutional ethics. In the meantime, a strong call for strengthening dialogue and mutual learning between cities and regions of the Global South and of the Global North is gaining momentum in urban research and practice. The UNSTABLE GEOGRAPHIES – DISLOCATED PUBLICS series combines inclusive urban theory, methods, and practice to promote (post)migrational perspectives between different world regions and their cities. It simultaneously reflects on the changing structural constraints in times of multiple crises in which public space is emphasized in various, partly contradictory ways: social, cultural, ecological, political, and economic. Our standpoint takes public spaces as a key catalyst in the process of accommodating diverse cultural values and meeting basic human needs. Among many salient and urgent issues that need to inform current planning, design, and research communities both in theory and practice, we suggest focusing on four main subtopics.

1. City, refugees, and migration

We consider the city as a constant migration process where ‘citizenship’ (relating to the ‘city’ as base for human rights) is not a matter of national status, administrative reference, or ethnic privilege, but an emerging category of arriving, settling, and making a living in a city while both interacting with and forming ever-changing urban cultures. This historical process is nothing new, yet the mechanics and speed with which cities accommodate different needs seems to increase, accompanied by the seemingly ubiquitous presence of social media. The current migration and refugee situation in and beyond Europe, and in and beyond cities, puts planners, designers, and researchers into a position of uncertainty. This is because the numbers used to describe migratory influxes are often speculative, forecasts of global emigration are frequently wrong, and the whole conception of planning as a rational, long-term discursive process of levelling rational arguments fails on many fronts. However, professionals dealing with public space and urban cultures have for a long time been working with/in such situations, recognizing trust, affect, spontaneity, and intuition as key emergent features of urban development. The first focus of UNSTABLE GEOGRAPHIES – DISLOCATED PUBLICS revolves around/raises the question: What can traditional planning practices learn by approaching public space and urban cultures in a relational way of thinking through planning and society, regions and cities?

2. Fragmented social fabric – individualised patterns of consumption
Urban lives have increasingly been characterized by fragmentation along different identity lines: biographies of urban dwellers are increasingly shaped by fragmented family biographies, fragmented labour histories, fragmented religious and political beliefs, and fragmented dwelling experiences due to the demands of spatial flexibility that many urban dwellers have to accept in order to make a living. On the one hand, urban mobility is not equally relevant for all social groups in the city and good mobility prospects might be very important for the inclusion of already marginalized groups. On the other hand, individual fragmented biographies and new urban mobility patterns are very much intertwined with the reinforcement of the institutional promotion of capitalist lifestyles of choice and consumption. This reinforcement is flanked by the rise of “quasi public space,” which offers an exclusive sphere for collective consumption, rather than an inclusive realm of collective memory, action, and discourse. In times of increasing fragmentation of collective social patterns, public space serves as a place of nostalgia for the missed and missing collective habits and beliefs, but also a place for promoting alternative means of socialisation against and beyond capitalist means of individualized consumption in the context of the increasing privatisation and commodification of public space. The second focus of UNSTABLE GEOGRAPHIES – DISLOCATED PUBLICS concerns a critique of (changing) patterns of everyday life, particularly of everyday life fragmentations, mobilities, and individualizations. In this section we are particularly interested in forms of sociability and socialisation that follow a critical and post-growth agenda, and put the urban collective back on track, or work with notions of emerging and porous collectives which articulate new forms of cooperation beyond efficiency and competition modes.

3. The decline of national politics – Resurgence of the urban political
UNSTABLE GEOGRAPHIES – DISLOCATED PUBLICS concerns aspects of urban democracy against the backdrop of rising urban inequalities in cities in Europe. During the last two decades, cities in the Global North and the Global South have witnessed an increase in urban inequalities due to structural changes in light of the global transition towards neoliberal politics (particularly at the nation-state level, partly as well at the urban level). During this period, issues of social justice, the politics of care, and a critique of unfair urban development patterns have come under the spotlight of academic discussions and entrenched in debates over changing power relations in times of risk, uncertainty, and crisis. At the same time, urban dwellers, especially the non-affluent who are either excluded from the labour markets or included under precarious labour conditions, face the downgrading of their spatial and social standards. National states and meta-institutions like the European Union are slow to offer concrete paths out of the multiple urban crises, leaving it to city inhabitants (and city mayors) to utilize their capacity to deliver hope, solidarity, and help to those in need in the times and spaces of instability. At the same time, however, neo-conservative, extreme right-wing and xenophobic parts of the national population oppose such involved practices and use urban public spaces for acts of discrimination and exclusion. Public space and urban cultures are at the heart of these tensions that reflect a plethora of desires, visions, and power relations with regard to gaining and protecting access to the benefits of the urban production circuits. Nonetheless, public space can be understood as a display of power relations not just in the sense of domination (power over), but also regarding the ability to resist implying that the most vulnerable possess agency to negotiate the ways that existentially help to make their living (power to). The third focus of INSTABLE GEOGRAPHIES – DISLOCATED PUBLICS is on the multiple roles of planners, designers, and researchers in urban social conflict, with a particular focus on how to facilitate encounters with the unknown in a peaceful and de-escalating manner.

4. Change of perspective – worlding urban studies
Unstable space and time confront urban theory and practice with new challenges and critiques. Contributions from the Global South call for a rethinking of hegemonic perspectives based in Western social theory towards development of a different way of thinking about global processes of urbanization. We employ a relational approach to move the epistemological and methodological frame of urban studies forward as a transcultural approach in order to depict the interconnections between cities, and between cities and other places. The fourth focus of UNSTABLE GEOGRAPHIES – DISLOCATED PUBLICS includes post-colonial approaches with the aim of ‘worlding’ traditional ways of urban thinking with new perspectives from hitherto neglected ways of thinking. Approaches that cross the boundaries of typical academic discourse in urban research and practice, bring in alternative locally-embedded perspectives, and integrate new and unusual interventions into debates on urbanization are warmly invited and encouraged.