10-14/07/18 Geopolitics of Place and Social Justice in Urban Design Studio at AESOP Annual Congress in Gothenburg, Sweden MAKING SPACE FOR HOPE


Cultural representations of place can be used to construct power relations in societies and spaces and can be employed by political agents as part of larger projects “accruing, managing, and aggrandizing power” (Murphy 2004:620). These representations, in the form of narratives, geographical imaginings and discursive mappings, are about ‘the self’ and ‘the other’. They draw bold lines of (cultural) difference, but easily ignore and devalue the intrinsic imaginings, values and meanings of place (Reuber 2004:631-632), and consequently constitute conflicts, segregations, homogenisations and marginalisations (Yiftachel 2002). Representations, narratives and discursive mappings work to paint some places as glorified, with exalted histories, values, identities and cultures belonged to idealized notions of nationhood, society or community, while other places are depicted as ‘the other’, ‘unknown’, ‘evil’, ‘dangerous/unsafe’, ‘low’, ‘disqualified’ and ‘incapable’ (Wacquant 2007; Yiftachel 2006). In this way, hegemonies can justify their actions and interventions in places at different proximities and scales “as a morally correct crusade beyond their own interest” (Reuber 2004:633). This line of reasoning has been actively used in urban gentrification and mainstream urban planning and design practices (Rokem and Boano 2018; Kallin and Slater 2014; Baeten 2001), and also in military conflict (Reid-Henry 2012).

These representations are not monolithically transmitted, but rather ‘become’, through “cultural complex of practices” (Bassin 2004:621). According to Reuber (2004:643), they are continuous wars by different means. They surround everyday life with macro- and micro-level transmissions of ‘knowledge’ that may vary from national history teaching, media news, political statements and policies, advertisements, products of popular cultures and meta-narratives to micro-gestures, narratives, cultures and everyday dialogues. They educate societies in what is good and what is bad, in order to consolidate power relations. Representations of places, socio-spatial imaginings of good and bad life, individuals, groups and who have influence in culture politics and socio-spatial decision making also ‘become’ through these continuous transmissions. The urban planning and design realm, and education within this realm, has embedded in such a sophisticatedly intertwined semiotic content. It has interacted with this semiotic content within the identities, experiences, knowledge constructions and professional subjectivities that it inhabits. A growing body of literature documents the depolitisation of urban planning and design practice, which is becoming an instrument in projects on the hegemonic geopolitics of places and a construction of a post-political planner identity/subjectivity narrated with discourses formulated with words such as such ‘powerlessness’, ‘realism’, ‘technical expertise’ and ‘necessity of loyalty’ (see Metzger et al 2015). Thus, it does not question the cultural representations, mappings and imaginings of the hegemony related to different motives, including national-level politics, popular discourses, mainstream practices of neoliberal urban development, nationhood building, cultural homogenisation, polarisation and so on, but rather serves these with incremental expertise. In some educational institutions there is a rooted apathy to social, cultural and political issues being constructed through masking the truths, inequalities and rifts in society by generic mentions of social, spatial and environmental justice, multi-culturalism, democracy and sustainability. These educational institutions resist bypassing the specific social, cultural, political and environmental problems in and surrounding places and sites, although pursuing ethnographic studies of place as part of the analytical process. The focus is the final product: an ideal imaginary cultural environment in a time of peace, wealth and happiness is reflected in many students’ projects.

Some contributions to the recent literature address the possibility of agency of planning in relation to finding ethical subjectivities and agencies, even in overwhelming geopolitical contexts (see e.g. Rokem and Allegra 2016). Through being aligned with critical geopolitics and linked with critical urban and cultural studies and practices of place ethnographies, critical tendencies in urban design studio (see e.g. Boano 2014) are now addressing the necessity for critical geopolitical positionings in urban planning and design education. Deriving from critical geopolitics based on a post-structuralist approach (see Mamadouh 1999:125), these positionings in studio education have reclaimed geopolitics in order to deconstruct geopolitical representations, narratives, discourses and mappings. Instead, they seek to understand the socio-spatial structuring of power and how it acts to govern space, polarise societies and marginalise groups and places. Thus they strategically construct ‘critical engagement’ (Routledge 1996) within the nexus of power knowledge relations, in order to create counter-representations (of past, present and future) taking ‘unheard’, ‘silenced’, ‘prohibited’ or ‘disqualified’ local knowledges and histories into consideration. They also attempt to create social justice in planning creatively engaging with specific problems. However, while these ‘critical engagements’ have empowered urban design education, they have also brought many challenges.

This roundtable will host a debate to delineate and define these challenges in urban design studio by examining the following questions in case studies from different geographies: Cyprus, Egypt, Germany, Sweden and the United States:

What kind of places engage in urban design studio?

What are the political meanings, notions and aims behind those site and place engagements?

How do their aims interact with larger semiotic webs of geopolitics of place?

How are hegemonic geopolitics of place in urban design studio deconstructed? What are the theoretical backdrops, methods and materials used? What are the challenges in content and process building?

How do we navigate in deconstruction of hegemonic geopolitics of place? What kind of meanings and messages can we used to define professional ethics, values, identities and subjectivities for students as planners and designers in the process of becoming?

What kind of studio dynamics emerge during deconstruction processes related to social backdrops of educators and students? How and why do we agree, disagree or negotiate on certain meanings? Where are the tensions? What kind of results emerge from those tensions?

What are the pedagogic challenges in critical engagement with hegemonic geopolitics of places?

How can we produce a generation of urban designers who fully understand and passionately engage with justice issues in planning and design processes and creatively navigate in different power relationships?




B. Yigit Turan
Bernd Kniess, HafenCity University Hamburg, Urban Design Programme
Evren Uzer, Parsons The New School For Design
Mohamed Saleh, University of Groningen, Faculty of Spatial Sciences
Socrates Stratis, University of Cyprus, Department of Architecture

More information here


Prof. Dipl. Ing. Bernd Kniess


Professor, Urban Design