16 November 2014

the materiality of planetary urbanization

A Sunoco gas station in Worcester, Massachusetts. November 2014.
If a global urban age is indeed currently dawning, this circumstance cannot be understood adequately with reference to the formation of global cities or large-scale megacity regions but requires systematic consideration of the tendential, if uneven, operationalization of the entire planet--including terrestrial, subterranean, oceanic, and atmospheric space--to serve as an accelerating, intensifying process of urban industrial development. Insofar as the dominant model of capitalist urbanization continues to be based upon the generalized extraction, production, and consumption of fossil fuels, it is directly implicated in a form of global ecological plunder that has permanently altered the earth's soils, oceans, rivers, and atmosphere with unprecedented levels of pollution and toxic waste. (Brenner 2014, 47)

Planetary urbanization may be the manifestation of “the ongoing creative destruction of political-economic space under early twenty-first century capitalism” (Brenner 2013, 94). Urbanization as a capitalist economic phenomena, especially at the scale of the planet, is produced through many infrastructures layered and interconnected through and between cities and the greater landscape. These networks create the urban of planetary urbanization. Some infrastructures are more global than others: petroleum in particular illustrates the underlying systems literally and metaphorically fueling planetary urbanization. The extraction of crude oil, its distribution through transmission pipes and oil tankers, ports, routes of oceanic travel, refineries, then dispensation to gas stations is a continuous process crucial to planetary urbanization. At the station, the end user in a private automobile withdraws and pays for the fuel that facilitates automobility (the typically credit card-based payment for the fuel ties the individual into another planet-spanning infrastructure: the telecommunications systems for banking and finance that process the payment). 

Gas stations operate as components in a distributed terrain transcending any one city as it enfolds many distinct, material spaces within a repeated pattern, a logic of "spatial products" (Easterling 2005) that sit at the core of planetary urbanism. As Brenner's long quote argues, "planetary" condition is created through fossil fuels, which are consumed in any number of ways, the most visible via gas stations. Gas stations are the tangible point where fuel appears, transferring from underground storage tank to a vehicle's gas tank. The fuel never appears except in a spill, even though its existence is undeniable and necessary. These quotidian filling stations are inescapable, especially in a car-centric country like the United States. Even so, they occupy particular spaces along thoroughfares, near freeway on-ramps, and so on, in a design lexicon that both accommodates cars and is similar everywhere; you always know how to interact with a gas station.   

The logic of contemporary capitalism as a global construct is not inherent: it is created and maintained. Planetary urbanization may explain the outcomes of global capitalism today, enclosing all spaces and exceeding all municipal boundaries, yet conceptualizing the theory necessitates engaging with the flows of many infrastructures that have global reach, to the point of re-conceptualizing urban infrastructure itself around the importance of, and local-to-global impacts of, these systems that constitute capitalism and consequently planetary urbanization. By its very nature there is no singular artifact or space of planetary urbanism. Applying the theory to particular places and processes we engage with regularly and see daily is, perhaps, a means of locating theory everywhere, globally. 

An Xtra Fuels gas station in Beacon, New York. November 2014.

Note about this post: 

As a theoretical framing of the contemporary urban-global condition, planetary urbanization is gaining traction through the work of urbanists Neil Brenner, his writing partner Christian Schmid, and Brenner's Urban Theory Lab at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. While their work thus far has focused on mapping territories and flows of planetary urbanization, there is a need to contextualize emblematic or representative spaces of this theory as well, the "operational landscapes" of this theory where the planetary congeals into particular, material terrains. This post is merely a starting point of an ongoing discussion that Rob Holmes of Mammoth have begun, leading up to the 2015 Association of American Geographers' Annual Meeting in Chicago, where we have organized a session engaging the debate, Infrastructure as landscape: investigations into contemporary theories of global change (description of session here).

  • Brenner, N. 2013. “Theses on Urbanization.” Public Culture 25 (1 69) (February 18): 85–114. 
  • Brenner, N. 2014. Urban Theory Without an Outside. Harvard Design Magazine 37.
  • Easterling, K. 2005. Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.