Segregation: A global history of divided cities

Nightingale, C. H. (2012). Segregation: A global history of divided cities. University of Chicago Press, 536p.

I came across this book repeatedly while writing the introduction for a book on the relationship between cities and inequality (edited with D. Pumain, 2021). I was reviewing the literature, looking for morphological and social details of cities divided on racial grounds during colonial empires and sanitarian waves. This book appeared to provide a chapter on exactly this subject regarding Delhi, with ample context and  illustration material. I later looked for other examples of institutional separation of cities and the book seemed to offer such a chapter on Johannesburg. In fact, it kept coming to my bibliographical attention even in unrelated articles dealing with contemporary linkages between economic segregation to economic inequality. Those were good enough signs to suggest a thorough read.

“Segregation, A global history of divided cities” is an impressing book published in 2012 by Carl H. Nightingale, a specialist of world and urban history as well as critical race theory, currently professor at the department of transnational studies at the University of Buffalo. The book sits precisely at the intersection of these three topics: it tells the story of how cities came to be divided by race, from the moment when race as a concept became central in world politics onwards. It also reveals how city-splitting techniques spread and interacted between cities all over the world, in particular within three key institutions: governments, intellectual networks, and real estate markets. C. H. Nightingale not only exposes the overall picture and its main logics, but also dives into a dozen of specific case studies to show the singular entanglement of individual motivations, interpersonal connexions, particular interests and local resistance at play in the city under study. This leads both to a global picture of synchronous segregation trends between 1700 and 1960, but also to nuanced portraits of urban histories from Asia, Africa, America, Europe and Oceania. It shows how the world urban history is full of connexions (intellectual, personal, political), borrowings (of idea, of methods, of legislation), imitations and exchanges. In doing so, C. H. Nightingale is able to compare cities from very different geohistorical contexts, and to conclude for example that colonial cities were never strictly segregated (because of the self interests of merchants and users of domestic servants for instance), or that Chicago could be considered even more segregated than Johannesburg in the 1940s, but that early experiences in city-splitting developed the segregationists’ toolbox by proof-testing the instruments which would make systemic division possible and effective in later contexts. The book has received the 2012 Jerry Bentley Prize in World History from the World History Association and the American Historical Association. 



It consists of twelve chapters distributed over five parts, a general introduction and an epilogue.

The book opens on a Baltimore preacher’s words in 1910, soon after the city passes its first segregation ordinance, i.e. a piece of legislation identifying areas for the residence of black people and areas of the residence of white people. This is a defining moment in the history of American segregation, but the premise of the introduction is that it is by no means a beginning in the history of urban segregation by race:

experiments with legalized urban color lines arose in the mid-1800s in cities in China and around the Pacific Rim; they were designed to keep Chinese people from living in the white sections of cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong and San Francisco. The word ‘segregation’ itself was first used for techniques of racial isolation in Hong Kong and Bombay (today’s Mumbai) in the 1890s. […] From there it inspired a nearly worldwide spread to what I call ‘segregation mania’ across Asia, Africa, and the Atlantic world. The mania even resonated in Latin American cities like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, where distinctions between black and white were typically murkier than elsewhere. Monumental segregated colonial capitals went up in places like Rabat, in French Morocco, and New Delhi, in British India, signalling new arrogant ambitions for urban planning based on separate racial zones. The most radical of all forms of urban segregation arose during these same years in two rapidly industrializing white settlers societies[: South Africa and the United States].” (p. 2-3).

Even earlier than the 19th century (or even the 18th when “black”, “white” and “race” entered the urban conversion in colonial parts of India), the author traces the history of city-splitting back to its non-racial origins in ancient civilizations. The first part is therefore dedicated to such earlier examples of merchants, foreigners, Christian rulers and jewish communities living in separate quarters according to local clan, class, craft, ethnic or religious principles of urban segregation. The introduction ends on a description of the three institutions within which racial segregation subsequently flourished: the government (as it gets to decide who gets rights and privileges and who is able to cross boundaries, in the  state as well as in the cities), intellectual  and scientific networks (responsible for the “invention” of race as well as its diffusion through dense networks of exchange) and the real estate market (complete with agencies, surveyors, registrars and financial institutions in their role to assess and protect property values). This book attempts to bring all these political dramas of urban racial segregation […] into a single, wide-ranging, always changing, and always paradoxical narrative. In a kind of geographical counterpoint, it asks us to watch the theater of segregationist politics on many stages at once, by continually switching from wide-angled lenses, to various kinds of telescopes and binoculars, to highly focused microscopes. Meanwhile the narrative also moves chronologically across time, retelling the sweeping story of human history with the politics of urban segregation at its center” (p. 14).

The first part of the book covers “seventy centuries of city-splitting“, starting in Eridu (Mesopotamia) with the separation of gods’ monumental quarters from humble human residence in 5000BC. According to C. H. Nightingale, this is one of the earliest instances of introduction of an inequality (in this case between humans in the service of the gods and the other mortals) which then translated into spatial forms, at a time where equality was pretty much the norm in urban societies. From Mesopotamia, the monumental division of cities spread and developed to ancient Egypt, Persia, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. Another source of early segregation is identified in the “citadella” of Christian crusaders, initially defensive hilltop fortresses to protect new conquest in the Holy Land, later exported across the world to house and protect christian colonial settlers. A third type of ancient segregation is that of (foreign) merchants districts, present “throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean” but also in West African cities and later colonial ports. Fourth, ancient segregation manifested itself in terms of religion, and the account of Jerusalem’s history (p.30) illustrates the complexity of some cities’ such splitting. Finally, the author identifies class and wealth segregation as a fifth driver of ancient segregation: “The story of class segregation – defined broadly as the impulse to separate those with power over a society’s economic resources from those with little power over those resources – is the most complex and widespread of these dramas and is connected to all the others. Sacropolitical districts, city walls, merchants’ quarters, and scapegoat ghettos all contain elements of class segregation” (p. 39). Once again, this dynamic of segregation is presented as a consequence of the large increase of wealth inequality in modern cities. To conclude this part, “for about seventy centuries – arguably since the invention of cities themselves – we have repeatedly committed acts of inequitable and forcible city-splitting. Along the way, we have justified our actions in the name of just about every other concept of human difference imaginable, marking off separate residential territories for different classes, clans, castes, crafts, nations, religions, civilizations and even sexes” (p. 19).

The second part of book tells the story of how colour and race entered the scene in world politics in general, and in city-splitting in particular. As such, the turning point is 1700 and it is linked to two main influences: the legacy of American slavery on the one hand and the productions of Enlightenment philosophers and ethnologists on the other hand. Indeed, prior to the 18th century, segregation was mainly based on religious or “national” grounds, as in Manila or Batavia (today’s Jakarta) for example, where Portuguese and Dutch colonial settlers separated Chinese, Japanese or Javanese dwellers in separate quarters or villages, distinct from European or “christian” towns and sometimes separated by a wall. In America at that time, segregation was scaled down to individual properties: “As New World cities became increasingly enmeshed in the Atlantic slave trade and the plantation economy, local officials had to institutionalize their suppression of what they saw as slaves’ nearly constant insubordination. […] To control a ‘slave city’ internally, authorities preferred a technique that went back to ancient times: the forced slaves to live in the households or on the properties of their masters” (p. 52-3). The use of colour categories to refer to separate neighbourhoods appears in the city of Madras  (today’s Chennai) in 1711. “Black town” in this context, according to C. H. Nightingdale, refers to a derogatory representation of Indians by British colonial officials, rather than to the association between blackness and slavery which starts to appear in America. However, “white town” seems to derive from American circumstances, where the christianisation of slaves introduced a confusion in the former association between christianity and freedom, requiring a new term to refer specifically to  free european christians. “Race” itself came acquire its modern meaning in the 1680s in European erudite circles, providing “a system to categorize different strains of humankind based on their skin color” that would “soon arrive in Asia and Africa, whether through London, Paris and Amsterdam, or along the increasingly direct trans hemispheric connections between all colonial cities. In that way, divided colonial cities transformed from places where color lines largely arose from needs for defence and control to cities consumed by the grander ‘natural’ obligation to separate the races” (p. 73-4). Once of the most important routes through which ideas, practices, money and people used to flow is the “London-Calcutta connection” (chapter 2). The innovations that arose within the London-Calcutta connection were due as much to the differences in the two cities’ politics as to their connection. Put much too baldly, the politics of urban space in London began with differences between classes. The city was the site for the world’s first use of government-protective legal instruments – restrictive covenants – to divide neighborhoods for the rich and ‘respectable’ (the West End) from the poor, the ‘paupers’, and the ‘unrespectable’ (the East End). In Calcutta, by contrast, color was the driving edge of the political theater, and after 1770, race” (p. 78). One of such “innovations” in the area of racial city-splitting is the introduction of institutions and ideologies of racial zoning, in the form of exclusive imported architectural style from London in the “white town” or the sanitarian ideologies aimed at tackling public health of the poor through urbanism. Their effect was limited in Calcutta itself but would later permit “the replication – and the increasingly coercive politics – of white and block town systems across the world” (p. 83). Finally, “London land speculators invented the driving intellectual principle of class segregation, the idea that having poor people as close neighbors brought down the property values of the rich. The same speculators also invented a tool to prevent the invasion of wealthy neighborhoods by unrespectable elements, namely the restrictive covenant in title deeds” (p. 96). This instrument would later allow racial segregation to reach heights in South Africa and the United States.

The third part of the book narrates the “surges of segregation in the colonies“, using the stations Raj in chapter 4 and the Pacific settlers cities in chapter 5 as archetypical examples, then extending the analysis of this “segregation mania” to the rest of European colonies in Asia and Africa in chapter 6 and 7. The stations Raj in India, and Simla in particular, represented the first instances of new cities designed with racial separation in mind: “Colonial authorities in India designed these strange quasi-cities – some one hundred seventy-five of them, from Afghanistan to the Malay peninsula – with spatial, social and even mental distance in mind. Part military base, part Victorian suburb, part resort, part provincial capital, part Indian market town, part open sewer […]. An important subcategory of stations, the hill stations, functioned as the Raj’s hot-season resort capitals and were meant to be even further removed from Indian life. Most of them were built in remote places in the mountains, precisely to distance themselves from their cousins in the Indian mufossil, as the dusty, hot, flatland districts and their teeming Indian cities were called” (p. 113). They provided precedents to colonial officials on which to pitch their next attempts at fuller urban segregation, developing for instance narratives around European children’s health and women’s purity to justify the separation of people from different races in space. These narratives were later reused and refined in Hong Kong, South Africa and America. In the case of the Pacific wave of segregation following the forced opening of the Chinese empire by the British empire, C. H. Nightingale explains that:

As the tide of white imperial expansion crashed into the tide of Chinese migration in Asia and the Pacific, urban racial segregationist politics expanded to new shores and spawned two new variations. One of these variations played out in new colonial cities like Singapore, Shanghai, and Hong-Kong. […] In some ways, segregationist practice in these cities resembled that of Calcutta and the stations of the Raj. But imperial and sanitary justifications for segregation grew more elaborate in East Asia, and they were supplemented by some of the earliest theories linking race and property values. […] The second new strand of city-splitting politics arose in cities in Australasia and along the west coast of North America. There, urban populations were the reverse of those in Asia: white settlers were in the majority and their intention was to remain permanently in their new towns, to raise families and future generations. […] The goal of the first race-based immigration-restriction laws was to prevent Chinese people from moving across the Pacific to the coasts of North America and Australasia.” (p. 135-7)

In all these cases, the color lines eventually became blurred under opposing interests (for example: benefitting from the economic contribution of Chinese migrants vs. keeping settlements all-white). In chapter 6, the author associates the “segregation mania” with the spread of the plague from 1894 in Hong Kong. The epidemic and how it was handled by colonial authorities meant that suddenly segregation became justified under the pretence of public health. “Race mattered: the main goals was to protect Europeans, and local Asian people got the roughest treatment. Tens of thousands of natives fled town, in part from fear of the plague, but more from fear of segregation itself” (p. 159). Once again, governments and intellectual networks (of doctors and epidemiologists this time) worked hand in hand to propagate techniques of isolation and segregation throughout the colonial world. In the years between 1914 and 1923, segregation mania peaked across tropical Africa, signalling a slow end to the strategy of segregation based on plague and malaria worldwide” (p. 185). Meanwhile, a third institution came to the rescue of segregationists: the real estate market. In chapter 7 (“the outer limits of colonial urbanism”), the author traces the influence of Paris and London’s urbanists on the planning of two new colonial capitals: Rabat and Delhi, two cities telling “similar stories about the inequality of the races and the civilizations” (p.193). In Rabat for instance, the use by Lyautey of Haussmann’s principles of monumentality and beauty coupled with expropriation schemes and planning restrictions led to the building of a mostly dual city without even having to resort to explicitly racial restrictions. Yet, “unless Moroccans were willing and financially able to buy Torrens-title land and build European-style houses, they would not be permitted to live in the ville nouvelle” (p. 216). 

The fourth part of the book is dedicated to “the archsegregationists“, i.e. the usual suspects of racial segregation urban studies: South Africa and the United States, with extensive historical focuses on Johannesburg and Chicago. Interestingly, the author shows that most urban segregation tools which were used by archsegregationists from the 1930s onwards had already been developed (racial restrictive covenants, migration control, planning restrictions, narratives around the preservation of white women and children’s innocence and health, etc.). What archsegregationists introduced in South Africa during apartheid is a complete racist system, aimed at keeping black, indian and coloured workers in the city (to provide cheap labour in the mines and domestic services) while pushing their residence ever more at bay to limit encounters, but also fiscal separation, distinct welfare systems and mobility restrictions to enforce the coincidence between economic inequality and racial inequality (which was not that strong prior to the apartheid regimes, as Boer farmers tended to be much poorer than English settlers, whereas Black artists and entrepreneurs were able to buy property until they were forbidden to do so). In Chicago and the United States, the camouflaged introduction of racist considerations into the official machinery of property valuation and mortgage lending (through redlining and the selective dissemination of HOLC maps) had the same enduring consequence of creating wealth inequality from racial prejudice. Once again, C. H. Nightingale insists on the crossed influence of segregationists in the two countries. Both systems also used grass-root as well as state violence on top of the enabling institutions of segregation (government, intellectual networks and the real estate markets). In both countries, the peak in segregation coincided with the rise of the individual automobile, resulting in an additional way by which cities split into even more distinct parts: wealthy white suburbs relying on cars and publicly funded expressways on the one hand and black impoverished centres reliant on run-down public infrastructure and transportation on the other hand.

Part 5 of the book (“fragmented legacies“) first tells the story of the global revolution of de-colonisation and de-segregation, highlighting the role of high profile activists as well as ordinary residents. However, “we can map out three routes by which urban segregation outflanked the global racial revolution. First, though opponents of urban segregation achieved their greatest successes by attacking government-imposed residential color lines, they were unable to stop the worldwide diffusion of economic incentives for race and class segregation that were first built into capitalist land markets in the seventeenth century. Second, though the Cold War provided political room for the world’s racial liberation movements to fight against racial segregation in cities, it also severely limited the scope of the egalitarian revolution. […] Third, and most important, beginning in the last 1960s and culminating in the years after 1980, a nearly all-white ‘New Right’ counterrevolution swept into power, most notably in the United States and Britain” (p. 386). The resort to discourse around the preservation of local prestige, school quality and property values provided new “color-blind” avenues for urban segregation under conservative governments in western Europe and the US, and so did the much less color-blind anti-crime and anti-immigration policies of recent years. The chapter closes with an overview of on-going segregation processes in Jerusalem and Belfast, noting the contemporaneity of the problem still.

The epilogue is dedicated to a review of policies and initiatives which reduce racial and class segregation (such as reducing inequalities, focusing on  affordable and sustainable housing, stopping slum removals), and to the activists which work relentlessly to push them to the front of national and international agendas.


The richness of ideas, details and stories of the book is reflected somewhat by the length of this summary. I have found it a most enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking read. One of its main strengths in my opinion lay in its study of the exercise and the contesting of power by urban actors with differing interests. One of the main ideas I take away from it are:

  1. the argument that segregation derives from inequality: “Even in the absence of major spatial changes, the fight for more just workplaces and for government policies that redistribute wealth more fairly across racial and class lines can create more equality between all urban neighborhoods.” (p. 423)
  2. that it is first a class-based phenomenon:Remember that the biggest problem with urban racial segregation is not that it separates different types of people into different neighborhoods. It is that it does so unequally – creating a maldistribution of resources that disproportionately disfavors those racial groups that the color line also helps to subordinate politically. Racial segregation, therefore, was not only dependent historically on techniques of class segregation. It is a kind of class segregation – and it nefariousness arises principally from that fact.” (p. 225)
  3. that it is maintained and amplified most effectively nowadays by the real estate institutions: “Land-markets are the one capitalist institution in which race-infused economic interests became consistently and increasingly important to the division of cities, even arguably becoming the single most important segregationist force in cities today” (p. 7).

A weakness from the book is, to me, its focus on and generalisation from only large and capital cities. There is obviously no human way to conduct a world history of urban division in all cities, but a few examples or trends from smaller and less connected cities could have provided an insight into the different spatiality and temporality of such places (too small to be divided? too late to enter the segregation mania?). Other reviews of this book have criticised this statement: “We should always hesitate before we equate the spatial tactics of antiracists movements with ‘voluntary’ segregation – let alone assert the ‘goodness’ of any form of ‘self-segregation’ – even if it creates successful cultural havens” (p. 11-12), referring to C. Peach (1996) for instance. I find however that C. H. Nightingale does a convincing job throughout the book to demonstrate the validity of this introductory remark. His analysis of San Francisco’s Chinatown for instance shows how the neighbourhood was created by white settlers’ intolerance and maintained by white mobs violence and then accused of separatism by the local press. The  allegedly ‘voluntary’ character of some subsequent segregation thus proceeds from an initially defensive strategy, a sequence also described by Yuan (1963) for New York’s Chinatown.

Finally, in relation to my project of modelling urban economic inequality, I was challenged with C. H. Nightingale’s argument that “real people, not mechanical processes, make segregation, and the ideas, interests, and practices people mobilize for or against segregation are complex. The political dramas that result never stop to rest in one spot; they are always dynamic, shape-shifting, unpredictable, and internally contradictory” (p. 10). While this is undeniably true, I think it can argue for an improvement of dynamic models of inequality and segregation, rather than their dismissal, in order to better encapsulate the qualitative processes highlighted in books such as this one, but also to pay attention to local variations and appreciate the status of singularities which will always remain out of the modelling scope.


  • Peach C., (1996) Good segregation, bad segregation, Planning Perspectives, 11(4), 379-398.
  • Yuan, D. Y. (1963). Voluntary segregation: A study of new Chinatown. Phylon, 24(3), 255-265.



Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Other reviews of this book have been published in Environment and Planning A, the Journal of Planning research and education, Urban History and the American Historical Review, as well as on an LSE blog.


Ordinary cities between modernity and development

Robinson J., 2006, Ordinary cities between modernity and development, London, Routledge, 204p.

“Ordinary Cities” is now thirteen years old and it features in the reading list of many urban geography university courses, from UCL (where J. Robinson is professor of Geography) to SOAS, LSE and McGill. Its concepts and messages have diffused largely in academia (cf. for instance the 1899 citations of the book in scholarly publications at the time when this post was written), yet the predominance of western cities and western scholars in mainstream urban studies is still patent and renewed with each wave of urban ‘modernity’ (if we think of smart cities, connected cities, etc). This late review of the book content thus provides a yardstick of what it has achieved (or not achieved) since its publication in 2006.

I have first encountered the idea of Ordinary Cities while reading my friend Solène Baffi’s thesis on rail transportation in South African cities. The proposition was of course well indicated in the context of Robinson’s home country of South Africa, but it resonated also with my own thesis on post Soviet cities, supposedly singular and specific, where general urban models would not apply and where mordern urban theory was not made. The whole argument of J. Robinson in this book was thus extremely attractive. It can be summarised as follow: cities are diverse, and therefore so should be urban studies. More than a scientific requirement to better understand cities and urban processes around the world, this objective of diversity is deeply militant, as argued by the author in the preface to the book: “Theories of modernity, just like South African cities, have often reserved experiences of dynamism and innovation for a privileged few, and especially for those wealthy cities and their citizens who have laid claim to originating modernity. Theories of urban modernity, then, have drawn a stark line between ‘modern’ cities and other kinds of cities, variously described as Third World, perhaps African, perhaps developing / underdeveloped, perhaps colonial. At best these ‘other’ cities have been thought to borrow their modernity from wealthier contexts, presenting pure imitations rather than offering sites for inventiveness and innovation. This book is a contribution to the task of ensuring that as scholars of cities we end our complicity in such dispossessions.” (p.x). Further along in the book, she illustrates this claims quite eloquantly: “Once New York’s urbanism has been understood as just another cosmopolitan and provincial form of modernity, any anxiety on the part of other cities about lagging behind or mimicking a modernity that is always ‘elsewhere’ (Johnson 1999) becomes less plausible.” (p.73).




The book consists in six chapters, which take the reader from the deconstruction of the concept of modernity (chapter 1) to the exposition of cosmopolitan ways of being urban and modern through comparative urbanism (chapter 2 and 3). A whole chapter (#4) is dedicated to the critique of city ranking, hierarchizing and labelling, arguing that world cities and global cities are more than centres of control for finance and management. The fifth chapter argues that urban studies need to put the (ordinary) city back to the centre instead of classifying them into modern or developing. Finally, chapter 6 looks at the possible and diverse futures of cities through policy and planning.

In introduction, the author clearly sets the two ambitions of the book. Firstly, she states: “it is an argument of this book that all cities are best understood as ‘ordinary’. […] Instead of seeing only some cities as the originators of urbanism, in a world of ordinary cities, ways of being urban and ways of making new kinds of urban futures are diverse and are the product of the inventiveness of people in cities everywhere.” (p.1). The change in perception is supposed to provoke a change in perspective at the world scale, by considering cities in their simultaneous diversity rather than in a sequence of modernity adoption. Secondly, J. Robinson suggests that “we need a form of theorising that can be as cosmopolitan as the cities we try to describe. This would be a form of urban theory that can follow the creative paths of urban dwellers – across the city or across the world – as they remake cities (Simone, 1998) and that can draw on the transformative potential of shared lives in diverse, contested – ordinary – cities to imagine new urban futures.” (p.3). Therefore the dual objective of scientific understanding on the one hand and militant repossession of urban studies on the other hand appears to structure the book from its start. The way Robinson chooses to tackle this dual objective in the introduction is by exposing the parochial nature of modernity claims made by Western cities and Western scholars. The appropriation of modernity by “the West” is important because it creates a universal standard of city life and innovations with which other cities are supposed to catch-up. Debunking this claim allows the identification of urban modernity outside western cities in a contemporary and cosmopolitan manner. Robinson argues that it also provides urban planners and decision makers with a wider panel of policy options, inspired from a diversity of experiences around the world that can also be more adapted to their cities, instead of applying the same past “western” recipes. This theoretical articulation of ideas is the core contribution of the book. The following chapters then consist in illustrations of the workings of the appropriation and in research strategies to avoid the dispossession.

The first chapter, “dislocating modernity”, highlights the paradox of modernity: i.e. a concept initially related to temporality which has been diverted and perverted into a spatialised assessment of who is “in” and who is “out of time”. The way in which this diversion was achieved, according to J. Robinson, is through a constant editing/re-writing of the Western urban story to remove all contributions from other cultures: “A reconceptualization of urban modernity might begin by interrogating Western forms of modernity. For these are as much a product of dynamics from beyond the West as its own ingenuity, including primitivist-inspired borrowings, actual resource extraction and political innovations learned in colonial governance (see, for example, Stoler, 1995; Comaroff and Comaroff 1997). But western modernity’s projection of itself as the generative source of creativity relies on forgetting these circulations and borrowings.” (p.19). Cities are central to this process, since they connect people, combine ideas and inspirations at a larger scale and at a faster pace than anywhere else. The rest of the chapter explores how urban studies themselves have embedded the western conception of urban modernity. She cites the Chicago School of sociology as a powerful vector in that process, in particular by noting how Park and al’s conception of the city in opposition with “primitive” and “folk” qualities of community and emotions has imposed a very specific way of urban living as the standard for city identification. This then made it hard for cities with strong community ties and non-anonymous relationships to claim their cityness, as examplified by J. Clyde Mitchell’s struggle to have (now) Zambian cities recognized as such by urban scholards, not discounting but accounting for tribal elements of culture and social relations. Robinson’s argumentation also makes use W. Benjamin’s work on Parisian arcades as urban signals of alternative and possible futures of the western city itself: “a future where the public and the private might be intermingled and where the utopian fantasies through which technological innovations were often represented harkened back to a pre-class and pre-commodity society of plenty” (p.29).

The second chapter in the book is intitled “Re-imagining the city through comparative urbanism. On (not) being blasé”. It starts from the classic contribution of L. Wirth, “Urbanism as a way of life”, which Robinson shows as a claim/attempt at explaining cities everywhere based on a North-American XXth century experience (of Chicago). For instance, she notes that the high demographic growth fueled by a diverse immigration at a time of booming industrial economy on which the theory relies is a very situated moment in the world geographical history rather than a universal path for urbanisation around the world. The scientific antidote to this appropriation lies, for Robinson, in relaying the accounts of urban research from other contexts. She especially relies on the work made by the Manchester School of anthropologists in the zambian Copperbelt. “Like the Copperbelt anthropologists and many other comparative urbanists, Oscar Lewis observed that the blasé attitude of Western urban dwellers, which Simmel, Park and Wirth had seen as a cornerstone of urban sociability, was not representative of urbanism elsewhere. […] He did not stop, though, at simply noting differences from the US analysis and with J. Clyde Mitchell, Epstein, Gluckman and South African anthropologist Philip Mayer, he went on to suggest that ‘there are many ways of life which may coexist in the same city’ (1973: 130). He insisted that his observations from Mexico should make a difference to how cities in other places are understood.” (p.57). The chapter concludes with J. Robinson advocating for a post-colonial urban theory which “establish[es] conversations because of, and across, strong empirical and theoretical differences” (p.63) and, more importantly, lets ideas flow both ways between locations “from Chicago to the Copperbelt, but also back again” (p.63) .

Ordinary cities make their appearance in the third chapter as the primary material from which a postcolonial comparative and cosmopolitan urban studies might come about: “Ordinary cities, then, exist in a world of cities linked through a wide range of circulations – of people, ideas, resources – in which cities everywhere operate both to assemble diverse activities and to create new kinds of practices. This chapter therefore introduces a new tactic for a post-colonial urban studies: a form of theorising in which the resources for thinking about cities are as cosmopolitan as the cities that are being theorised.” (p.65). Therefore J. Robinson embarks into an analysis of modernity from the perspective of a diverse pool of cities (yet mostly large state capital cities). She looks at the Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur, which signal the city’s modernity to the rest of the world while excluding poor malaysian residents from it. She looks at the early Saint Petersburg where the Nevsky perspective provided the street decorum for individual performance and recognition in a context of poor infrastructure and peasant economy. She also draws from Zambian cities and how the second-hand clothing trade allowed citizens to express their modernity through styling at a time of post-structural adjustment. All these examples participate in showing that “the experiences of poor people, or cities in poor contexts, do not stand for the ‘past’ of Western urbanism – either as sites of tradition or economic backwardness – but are contemporaneous social formations that have produced diverse and distinctive ways of being urban. With inventive traditions and appropriated copies, urbanisms in poor places stand alongside other ways of being modern and can illustrate experiences of city life in other contexts. But, as we will consider briefly in the conclusion, if poor cities are not the ‘past’ or simply ‘copies’ of Western urbanism, neither, I suggest, are they its future.” (p.90).

In chapter 4, “World cities, or a world of ordinary cities?”, the author introduces the concepts of world-cities and global-cities and how their success moved the attention from the dynamic processes they were supposed to describe (the globalised economic relations between cities and concentration of command over some of these relations in a limited number of nodes) to a fixed hierarchy of cities from which poor cities are excluded, deemed irrelevant and relegated from urban studies to development studies. She offers an interesting alternative to this view, first by considering the “key sectors involved in managing the global economy” as just another form of industrial district (p.97), and second by considering the other sectors of the world network of cities, i.e. “commanding” cities as well as cities involved in other trades and flows. Considering all cities as ordinary enables such integration. “First, ordinary cities can be understood as unique assemblages of wider processes – they are all distinctive, in a category of one. […] Second, and learning much from global- and world-cities approaches, ordinary cities exist within a world of interactions and flows. However, in place of the global- and world-cities approaches that focus on a small range of economic and political activities within the restrictive frame of the global, ordinary cities bring together a vast array of networks and circulations of varying spatial reach and assemble many different kinds of social, economic and political processes. Ordinary cities are diverse, complex and internally differentiated.” (p.108-9). The added-value of this change of perspective is argued to be found beyond urban studies and theory building, in the practice of urban planning, as it would provide decision makers with a wider diversity of inspirations for policy rather than the restricted example of so-called world cities to catch up to.

“Bringing the city back in” in the fifth chapter means considering cities in their diversity and internal inequalities. “Rather than theories of world cities, which encourage competitive behaviour amongst cities and focus on a very small segment of the urban economy or developmentalist accounts, which zoom in on the poorest and least well-provisioned areas of the city, urban studies will need to explore the dynamics of socially and economically diverse cities. Both globalising economic sectors and the needs of the poorest citizens will have to be considered, bringing the ordinary city, in all its complexity and diversity, firmly into view.” (p.117). In short, the analysis Robinson recommends at this point of the book thus comprises various sectors of city life and the economy, within cities and city-regions as well as between them, in rich as well as in poor cities. This vast program is illustrated with a very specific analysis of Johannesburg metropolitan governance within the iGoli project, although not necessarity laid out in terms of generic research tools and methodology.

Chapter 6 (“Cities futures”) implements the ordinary cities perspective into urban planning. It looks at economic prescriptions maybe by western urban economists in western contexts regarding the desirability of industrial diversity (or specialisation in the case of clusters). For example, in a section devoted to discussing J. Jacobs’ theory of diverse cities, J. Robinson notes that “Jacobs’s overall argument is that it is the everyday, tolerant coexistence of social difference and economic diversity that enables cities to bring together different people and different talents, to generate new activities and to enable innovation. Cities that encourage segregation – physical or social – from the ‘ordinary’ city, with its jumbled mixtures of uses and people, she suggests, will lack vitality and perhaps die. […] Clearly, diverse neighbourhoods, the physical coexistence of a range of business environments and the spatial concentration of diverse activities can have the generative social and economic effects she described. But cities do not always get to be like that, and yet they remain sites for economic growth and innovation.” (p.159). However, she finds room to accomodate Jacobs’ theory within the ordinary cities framework by switching the scale of analysis from the neighbourhood to the city. “This chapter [shows] how keeping in mind the ordinary city – diverse, contested, connected – brings into view a range of potential strategies for enhancing economic growth that could encourage redistributive investments in infrastructure, as well as expand access to employment and support different kinds of livelihoods. Reinforcing the broadest agglomeration economies of cities, it has been suggested, along with encouraging diverse urban economies, might be more useful strategies than pouring scarce public resources into already successful clusters of globalising firms.” (p.164-5).

The conclusion summarises the content of the book and reinforces the double message that the author has been communicating throughout: the fact that all cities are distinctive and diverse, and that urban studies need to reflect this diversity. She adds a warning about the scientific status quo: “Facing a world of ever-expanding cities, more likely than ever before to be home to poor people, urban studies cannot continue to base its theoretical insights on the experiences of a few wealthy cities: this would doom it to irrelevance.” (p.167).


Towards the end of the book, I must admit I was a little disappointed by the gap between the ambitious program set in introduction and the resulting implementation in the last chapters. The book is more of a manifest in my opinion, and I completely adhere to the core ideas of ordinary cities as the diverse material of a diverse urban studies. However, I found that the applications seemed too restricted in their scope to adequately prove the author’s point rather than just claim it. The message I take home is that we need to keep in mind, while we are studying cities, that they and their residents are diverse, connected and contested. This does not make a recipe on how to actually study cities, let alone design inclusive policies, but it is a significant step forward. A second point of critique I have towards the author’s method is that, although she acknowledges and celebrates diversity in cities and within cities, her resources remain very biased towards the dominant model when it comes to academic and theoretical references on the one hand, and to the type of city considered here on the other hand (. Regarding references, it is a pity that the only theories which are discussed (and criticised) are the dominant paradigms originating from prestigious US and UK scholars (the Chicago school, the GaWC, Louis Wirth, Jane Jacobs, Scott & Storper). Non-english writers are left entirely out of the schope, and so are less well-known scholars who have advocated for diverse urban studies before 2006. It leaves a false impression that ordinary cities are a theoretical greenfield emanated exclusively from an opposition to dominant english-speaking western references, which is probably not true. Regarding cities themselves, I wondered if it was a choice to restrict the analysis to large metropolises and national capitals (New York, Rio de Janeiro, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Johannesburg, Chicago, Singapore, Saint Petersburg, Mexico city, etc.), or just an ambiguity related to the fact that nowhere are cities defined. It seems however that smaller cities have a very important role to play in the promotion of the ordinary in urban studies. To paraphrase Robinson: “urban studies cannot continue to base its theoretical insights on the experiences of a few [large] cities: this would doom it to irrelevance”.

With respect to my project about the scales of urban inequality, I have found interesting ideas about the relationship between industrial clusters and social segregation in chapters 4 and 6, which is mediated by J. Robinson through scale: “The benefits of proximity for networks of learning, cooperation and competition in dynamic clusters and specialised concentrations in some cities would be very relevant examples of innovation through single-use neighbourhoods, a kind of ‘segregation’. But, in many cases, strong concentrations of certain kinds of activities in cities do not translate into close spatial clustering, or into close interactions amongst similar firms, or even into stable ongoing interactions with actors […]. So, in economic terms, Jane Jacobs’s ‘ordinary city’ is perhaps best thought about at a city-wide scale where the diversity of activities that she identified as crucial to economic expansion and innovation coexist and have opportunities for the interactions she saw as crucial for generating new activities.” (p.160). I also keep her overall message about diverse, connected and contested cities in mind to draw inspiration, examples and illustrations from the most diverse pool of cities possible, large and small, from across the world when approaching urban studies.



Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Other reviews of this book have been published in Belgeo, the Journal of Planning Education and Research, Justice Spatial / Spatial Justice (in French), the Journal of world-systems research, Research in African Literatures and Cultural Geographies.

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