Revisiting Urban Imperialism

The idea of urban imperialism or cosmopolitan imperialism is not new. In fact anthropologists and social geographers, not to mention historians, have long discussed the dynamics of urban displacement. I found a few definitions and thoughts that are helping me to refine what I mean when I say urban imperialism.  Carter Mackley,  who runs the blog Sound Politics, which focuses on issues in Washington State defines an urban imperialist as such,

By urban imperialist, I mean someone who treats rural areas as conquered provinces, as places to be managed and exploited — regardless of the desires of the inhabitants.  Many urban and suburban Democrats are urban imperialists, as are many journalists.

From Mackley’s perspective, urban imperialism and urban imperialist refer to individuals or practices that seek to “conquer” rural space. But I think Anders Lund Hansen, explains that the imperialism is modifying “urban.” In other words, the impulse to urbanize and develop rural areas, is in fact imperialistic, but calling it, and those who contribute to it, urban imperialist and urban imperialism respectively,  obscures the very real process of imperialism, displacement, and oppression within cities – which in the U.S. context has since thee 1970s been overwhelmingly of color. In his dissertation , Hansen explains that from his perspective urban imperialism is 

the concept of the global-local nexus of space wars, forging links between highly localized processes of urban transformation, competition between cities and global movements of capital and people. It shows how mental and material boundaries as well as ethnicity and class are central elements in space wars.

Mackley’s understanding fails to acknowledge that for much of U.S. history it was the land rich, but population poor rural areas that wielded a great deal of power. Throughout U.S. history land and space have been used to confer power – political and economic, and that has served to disenfranchise city residents, whose votes don’t necessarily carry the same weight as their space rich fellow citizens (see 2000 and 2004 election). What I appreciate about Hansen’s logic is that he notes that outlining who can use a physical space within a city, involves capital (economy), territorial/space conflict, and ideas about boundaries. That is a far more accurate definition than what Mackley offers, though Mackely is right to note that the imperialist urge around space is to treat the area as a “place to be managed and exploited – regardless of the desires of the inhabitants.” This is a key working principle of urban imperialism, regardless of the location to be managed, the voices and thoughts of the residents aren’t considered. 

Instead, the city or state endorses polices that push out “undesirables.” Henrik Gutzon Larsen, in his work, Gentrification – Gentle or Traumatic? Urban Renewal Policies and Socioeconomic Transformations in Copenhagen explains,  

due to ambiguous policies, the workings of the property market and the lack of sufficient deflecting mechanisms, middle-class inhabitants are now replacing the high concentration of socioeconomically vulnerable people that characterised Vesterbro before the urban renewal. This process may appear `gentle’, but it is nonetheless an example of how state and market interact to produce gentrification with `traumatic’ consequences for individuals and the city as a socially just space.

Larsen identifies the trauma of dislocation, rightly pointing out that “gentrification,” is often acted out upon “socioeconomically vulnerable people,” literally allowing middle-class residents to replace citizens deemed not worthy enough to occupy a given space – particularly if that space is deemed valuable. Gentrification, despite the quixotic mildness of the actual word, is in fact, a market interaction that exchanges capital, for the redefinition of space, and trauma of residents, excluding the opportunity to have a “socially just” space.

David Harvey, Professor of Anthropology, City University of New York, discusses the “New American Imperialism,”   as a Marxist, he goes into great detail explaining how geographical space, translates to capital and how that can, in turn, translates into a relationship of domination – where the market, not the community, gets to decide (and re-decide) who can live where and when. He says,

geographical processes whereby capital is creating landscapes, sometimes knocking down landscapes and building new landscapes. This leads in many instances to issues of domination. In the nineteenth century, it was Boston capital that dominated a lot of things, New York capital, and Chicago capital. So internally there’s often relations of domination. When it came to think about imperialism, in general, I wanted to locate the notion of imperialism against the background of those kinds of processes, of production of space by capital accumulation.

Harvey beautifully links capitalism and space.

The dynamic of our society, a capitalist society, is powered by the push always to accumulate capital, to make a profit. Profit means the system has to expand, because there has to be more at the end of the year than there was at the beginning. So we end up with the notion that, for example, growth is a significant indicator of the health of the system. A capitalist system must grow or bust, and it is that growth which I am talking about. Capital accumulation is the growth of capital.The dynamic of our society, a capitalist society, is powered by the push always to accumulate capital, to make a profit. Profit means the system has to expand, because there has to be more at the end of the year than there was at the beginning. So we end up with the notion that, for example, growth is a significant indicator of the health of the system. A capitalist system must grow or bust, and it is that growth which I am talking about. Capital accumulation is the growth of capital. The territorial logic is about trying to maintain the health and well-being of a particular space in the face of this capillary movement of capital moving left, right, and center, and everywhere.

He explains that the “dispossession” of space from those who live within the city, is done in order to maintain a system of accumulation and wealth; just not for all citizens.

Accumulation by dispossession is about dispossessing somebody of their assets or their rights. Traditionally there have been rights which have common property, and one of the ways in which you take these away is by privatizing them. We’ve seen moves in recent years to privatize water. Traditionally, everybody had access to water, and [when] it gets privatized, you have to pay for it. We’ve seen the privatization of a lot of education by the defunding of the public sector, and so more and more people have to turn to the private sector. We’ve seen the same thing in health care.

Carl Abbott provides the introduction to my evolving definition, outlining that urban imperialism is a 

historical-geographic framework for understanding the ways in which urban commercial networks organize and develop hinterlands through trade and investment. The concept has been applied successfully in other regions from Texas to California.

In the case of 21st century urban imperialism, it functions as a sociogeographical framework through which we can understand the global impetus to urbanize, whiten, and erase the presence of poor and working-class people, and their imprint on the places they have historically occupied, in order to redefine that space in the service of establishing markets that ultimately support a market economy that dispossesses, in a vicious cycle, those who have been dispossessed from their land.

Urban imperialism attempts to convey a unique cultural vibe, to celebrate the landscape and energy of a city, while simultaneously, minimizing the individuality of a given community. For instance, urban imperialism, supports the building of a large chain store, as opposed to a local store or neighborhood store. For example, in Columbia Heights, in Washington, DC, which sits in a constantly “gentrifying” neighborhood, amidst a largely Latino community, the city lobbied to have Chipotle, a McDonald’s owned chain, move to the neighborhood, despite the fact that there are several family-run and authentic restaurants in the area. The family-run businesses may be less appealing to the increasingly predominantly white residents.

Urban imperialism is not just about class, but it is also about race, gender, and sexual orientation; about who is deemed appropriate to occupy a space; about who can claim that space; and how space itself fuels the economy in ways that also must dispossess some citizens, while empowering others.

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