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What Is Critical Urbanism?
Urban research as pedagogy.
Edited by Kenny Cupers , Sophie Oldfield , Manuel Herz , Laura Nkula-Wenz , Emilio Distretti , and Myriam Perret
204 pages | 116 color plates, 9 halftones | 6 1/2 x 9 1/2
Architecture: European Architecture
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The disciplinary and pedagogic manifesto presented below is a collection of excerpts from the recently published book What is Critical Urbanism? Urban Research as Pedagogy (Park Books, 2022) reflecting on the first five years of the Critical Urbanisms Master’s Programme at the University of Basel in collaboration with the African Centre for Cities . Co-edited by Sophie Oldfield, Manuel Herz, Emilio Distretti, Myriam Perret, as well as Kenny Cupers and Laura Nkula-Wenz, the book presents an exciting mix of creative vignettes, original research and critical reflections on urban theory, practice and pedagogy from faculty, students, and collaborators. What is Critical Urbanism? offers an innovative toolkit for engaging urban realities across disciplinary specialisations and geographic purviews.
Urbanists today are provoked by overwhelming amounts of specialized knowledge about the urban, produced in diverse academic disciplines, by varied types of urban institutions, and different groups of people in and beyond the city itself. As students of the urban, we are deeply immersed in the messy and often contradictory realities of urban life. This position begs the question: What knowledge do we produce and engage with, and to what end? What is the “doing” of urban research, and how does it shape our insights, practices, and projects? How, as urbanists, do we learn from the past, from our own modes of practice, from collaborations and confrontations, and from the unabated creativity of urban life?
As students of the urban, we are deeply immersed in the messy and often contradictory realities of urban life. This position begs the question: What knowledge do we produce and engage with, and to what end?
These questions have inspired What Is Critical Urbanism? and the forms of urban research, practice, and pedagogy we share in it. Rooted in a productive intersection of humanities and social science methods, our work offers an approach to urban studies that works in and across disciplines, debates, and cultures of expertise, and across cities north and south, east and west. In this book, we share how we have cultivated and embraced a notion of critique that is open and nimble, grounded and propositional; one that combines thinking and doing, writing and engaging, caring and challenging. It shapes a pedagogy in which we aim to turn our assumptions—the things we think we know—into questions.
Rooted in a productive intersection of humanities and social science methods, our work offers an approach to urban studies that works in and across disciplines, debates, and cultures of expertise, and across cities north and south, east and west.
In doing so, we embrace an intellectual agility that enables us to see things both up close and from afar, to pivot between perspectives and across city spaces. In these practices, we develop an ethos of thinking, doing, and teaching rooted in questions of justice, situated in the contingencies and contradictions that shape our urban worlds.
To articulate the shared ethos of Critical Urbanism, we propose that: Critical urbanism challenges cultures of expertise and decompartmentalizes urban knowledge. Extending from the university as a dominant site of knowledge production, we embrace the different, unexpected, everyday, minor, major, forgotten, banal, and neglected ways of knowing and experiencing the city. If urban life contradicts the separation, compartmentalization, and specialization of knowledge produced in and around the university, we aim to take these contradictions as a starting point to develop new ways of thinking. If the city prompts us to question dominant cultures of expertise, critical urbanism opens up disciplinary containers to rewire urban studies with reflexivity and precision. Critical urbanism is built on reciprocal and relational learning through an ethos of engagement. Placing oneself into the picture is not an act of solipsism; it is a way to move out of the center to make space for others. Critical urbanism means building horizontal relationships with urban actors and thinkers in a way that leaves space for incommensurability and disagreement. Beyond tired oppositions between objective fact and subjective understanding, between pure knowledge and mere technical application, we start from an engagement with partial perspectives to develop new insights and practices. Critical urbanism fosters new narratives and publics through creative experiments. Disentangling urbanism from the purview of planning and policy opens up a range of positions between the university, the urban professions, and the multiple publics that make up the city. Critical urbanism means experimenting with urban publics to build new political spaces of expression and transformation. It means communicating with the senses in space, marshalling the aesthetics to build collective transformation. Critical urbanism is creative as it moves in the tension between the urgency to intervene and the merit of reflection, between the impetus to resolve and the privilege to problematize. Critical urbanism reimagines the past to build an alternative future. Because the past is never settled, it can be reread to make a difference in how we experience the present. And since our experience of the present shapes how we orient ourselves to the future, any future is always shaped by the past. Starting from the openness of the past rather than master-planning the future, we mobilize history as a verb. Against forgetting and erasing, critical urbanism nurtures past struggles to imagine alternative futures. Excerpted from “Elements of Urban pedagogy” and “An Ethos of Critical Urbanism” in What is Critical Urbanism? (Park Books, 2022).
The below vignettes are taken from essays across the book and illustrate its main chapters – Elements of Urban Pedagogy, W ays of Knowing the City, The Urban beyond North and South, The Presence of the Past, and In and between Theory and Practice . While they display an array of approaches, stemming from archival research, fieldwork in everyday urban realities, pedagogic engagements, or artistic interventions, they all speak to a shared ethos of Critical Urbanism.
“Learning through "Highway Africa"” by Kenny Cupers and Manuel Herz From “Elements of Urban Pedagogy” With the end of colonization in Africa came unprecedented ambitions of modernization. Key to such modernization was the development of new infrastructure. For members of the elite, infrastructure development was first and foremost an economic measure to facilitate the production and movement of goods and materials across Africa. At the same time, political actors saw in some of the projected infrastructure networks opportunities for nation-building, and for forging a new era of Pan-African cooperation and transcontinental development. For a fledgling African middle class, infrastructure conjured imaginaries of upward social mobility, and for entire communities it opened up hopes of movement and prosperity unlike anything experienced before. But can such infrastructure make Africa rise from the development caused by European colonial rule? Can what once was a key tool of colonialism—the railways built by European powers to extract resources—also be used to undo its results and reshape Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world?
“The State at Home: Housing and Uncertainty in Eastridge, Cape Town” by James Clacherty From “Ways of Knowing the City ” Acts directed at bringing about the ideal home—slow incremental improvements such as building flowerbeds, hanging curtains, polishing kitchenware, or even just acts of imagining the ideal home—are, on the one hand, a way for the residents to assert ownership over their houses and make them their own, and, on the other hand, an assertion of political personhood. Acts of homemaking become an assertion of the dignity and respectability that is denied them by the state when it withholds tenure to their houses and relegates them to the delinquent category of “illegal occupant.” The state project becomes an intimate part of people’s lives. They encounter its various elements on a day-to-day basis and respond to it in strongly emotional and corporeal ways. If we are to understand these processes of state formation and reproduction and the process of citizen subjectification in a way that engages honestly with their complexity, we need to be sure not to lose sight of the spaces in which these processes become most real and where they are most keenly felt: in the everyday lives and homes of ordinary people trying to cope with extraordinary circumstances.
“Video Activism as Bottom-Up City Making” by Jacob Geuder From “Ways of Knowing the City ” “Peace without a voice is not peace, it is fear”; these were the words on a favela resident’s poster at a protest filmed in Maré, Rio de Janeiro, in February 2015, after a series of lethal police attacks that left eleven victims dead or injured. The police responded to this street demonstration with live ammunition, injuring at least one of the activists in the protest. Since the early 2010s, the exponential growth in the availability of smartphones and social media in Brazil and South Africa has increased the number of potential videographers dramatically. With the importance of filming as a “repertoire of contention” for urban movements and urban citizens, video activism has become a critical way to make visible the realities of city life for those who bear the brunt of systems of violence and marginalization. Videographers’ audio-visual testimonies make visible evidence of violence, showing the ways in which violence is inextricably entangled with city space.
“Madjermans” by Lea Nienhoff From “The Urban beyond North and South” When the Eastern Bloc disintegrated, it was not only hegemonic powers that collapsed, but also the close cooperation that the so-called brother countries had built up across the North-South divide. Those political alliances had shaped processes of decolonization and yet reinstated forms of exploitation. The agreement of temporary work migration from Mozambique to East Germany was settled in 1979. Though announced as an education program that would prepare a young workforce to realize Mozambican industrial development, only a small number of workers actually received the training they were expecting. The high-minded phrases of GDR state officials on international solidarity and their fight against neocolonialism was countered by the fact that Mozambicans’ work was exploited in the mines and factories of East Germany.
“Worlding Goma” By Maren Larsen From “The Urban beyond North and South” The force I am staying with and the collection of armies we symbolically greet on this early morning jog are a reflection of shifting geopolitical priorities since the end of the Cold War. Such historical shifts have resulted in a retreat of the West in UN peacekeeping missions and an overwhelming reliance on “Southern” soldiers to fill the ranks.Deploying troops from the Global South to participate in peacekeeping missions such as MONUSCO acts as a continuation of imperial and colonial patterns and logics of military deployment, argues Philip Cunliffe. For the UN, contingent troops from these countries offer the advantages of cost efficiency, lessened political costs of interventions (due to troop-contributing countries being less powerful states), and legitimation of large deployments that might otherwise look too analogous to neocolonial occupation. Beginning an analysis of Goma from a particular context like that of the peacekeeping camp immediately calls into question the boundaries between the provincial and the cosmopolitan in ways that escape the accusation that postcolonial urban theory from the South advocates for a provincialization of knowledge.
“On the Coloniality of Infrastructure” by Kenny Cupers From “The Presence of the Past” Imagine a giant, thirty-five-kilometer-wide dam crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. Now imagine a similar dam at the Dardanelles, the much narrower strait that divides the Aegean Sea from the Sea of Marmara and ultimately the Black Sea. These two feats of engineering would have allowed engineers to hydrologically close off the Mediterranean Sea and was a vision of a continental merger whichHerman Sörgel spent most of his life working toward. The project, which became known as “Eurafrica,” aimed to bring about a new world order by merging two continents on fundamentally unequal terms, entrenching colonial control in Africa in order to perpetuate Europe’s privilege. Eurafrica was a proposal for a more advanced, coordinated form of colonialism in this continent , the conquest of which European powers had already begun to coordinate since the Berlin conference of 1884–1885. Even though it is almost entirely written out of the official histories of the European Union, the project of Eurafrica was central to the history of European integration.
"Notes on Heritage (Re-)Making" by Emilio Distretti From “The Presence of the Past” The question around the role of colonial architectural heritage has always been a thorn in the side of state and identity formations and transformations, in both formerly colonized and colonizing societies and spaces. On the one hand, in the postcolony, the dilemma has been framed around different solutions: either the appropriation of colonial official buildings as sites for newly independent governments, for practices of memorialization, or as abandoned to collective forgetfulness. On the other hand, in the “ex-metropole,” the question around buildings, institutions, and monuments is transmitted and articulated through the paradoxical coexistence of amnesia of the colonial past with the hyper-visibility of urban designs of colonial origin. This dual direction, rather than creating a contrast, opened up the question of whether it makes sense to inquire into the “loss of meaning” of colonial architecture. What do these buildings really represent and mean today?
“Nation-Weaving” by Manuel Herz From “In and between Theory and Practice” What type of statehood does the Western Sahara represent? The Sahrawis declared independence of the Western Sahara (officially: the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic—SADR) on February 27, 1976. To date SADR has a constitution, a functioning government with a president, a prime minister, several ministers with distinct portfolios, and a parliament consisting of fifty-three seats whilst also being a full member of the African Union, and being recognised by forty-five member states of the United Nations. he architectural and urban production of the Sahrawis was presented at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2016, and was sited within a National Pavilion, w in front of the Central Pavilion, as a as a powerful statement for a nation without territory.
“Rooted in the City” by Sophie Oldfield From “In and between Theory and Practice” Working with community organizations, social movements, and ordinary residents, challenges researchers to pay attention to diverse practices that shape housing access and its city politics. This approachroots research in the expertise of ordinary residents,their movements and in their daily struggle to find and secure a home. Collaborative research work is an approach to theory and research practice that, as Edgar Pieterse suggests, “demands immersion into profoundly fraught and contested spaces of power and control.” Experimenting with varied types of partners and forms of collaboration has been central to thisresearch journey and thinking. In this short piece, three Cape Town–based collaborative research projects are shared as part of the City Research Studio, in which students from the Master’s in Critical Urbanisms at the University of Basel and the MPhil in Southern Urbanism at the University of Cape Town are taught.
About the Editors
Kenny Cupers is Professor of Architectural History and Urban Studies at the University of Basel. Sophie Oldfield held the Professorship of Urban Studies at the University of Cape Town and the University of Basel until 2021. Manuel Herz is an architect and was Assistant Professor of Architectural, Urban, and Territorial Design at the University of Basel. Laura Nkula-Wenz is a lecturer and coordinator for the MA in Critical Urbanisms, based at the African Centre for Cities and in Urban Studies at the University of Basel. Emilio Distretti is a researcher and an educator, working as a postdoctoral fellow in Architectural History and Urban Studies at the University of Basel. Myriam Perret is an architect and worked on the Critical Urbanisms MA program at the University of Basel until 2020.
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- Publisher : Park Books (August 25, 2022)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 204 pages
- ISBN-10 : 3038602825
- ISBN-13 : 978-3038602828
- Item Weight : 1.26 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.5 x 0.7 x 9.5 inches
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Urban studies university of basel.
Event 07.03.2023 Public Lecture Series: Climate Justice
Event 17.02.2023 CAREER PERSPECTIVE DAY 2023 - DAY 1
Library What is Critical Urbanism? Urban Research as Pedagogy
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In our rapidly changing and contested global environment, cities are becoming increasingly important: they house a majority of the world’s inhabitants and act as catalysts of social, political, economic, cultural, and ecological change. Urban Studies at the University of Basel offers a new platform for understanding these planetary transformations. Our aim is to extend the study of the urban by confronting today’s social struggles and urban conflicts with the refractions of empire and with alternative practices of world-making. Our work starts from the premise that the world’s urban and environmental challenges call not only for new ways of doing but for new ways of thinking. Imagining alternative futures means rethinking the present—its historical making, its political unfolding, and the ways in which it is made sensible.
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What is Critical Urbanism?
Urban research as pedagogy, edited by kenny cupers edited by sophie oldfield edited by manuel herz edited by laura nkula-wenz edited by emilio distretti edited by myriam perret.
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- A research-based reader on methodical and pedagogical innovations in urban research and architecture education
- Offers novel approaches to understanding urban fabrics in the 21st century
- Derives new forms for an urbanism of the future from a critical evaluation of the past
- Rooted in the Critical Urbanisms MA program at University of Basel in collaboration with the African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town
Understanding and managing urban change in our global era demands a high degree of specialised and interdisciplinary knowledge. At the same time, city planners, architects, researchers, policymakers, and activists are deeply immersed in the chaotic and often contradictory urban realities that they are asked to address. What is Critical Urbanism? offers an innovative toolkit for engaging these present realities across disciplinary specialisations and geographic purviews. Central to the book is the research and pedagogy of the Critical Urbanisms MA program at the University of Basel, established in collaboration with the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. The program’s renowned and emerging urbanists demonstrate the power of working with care and reciprocity across different contexts and institutions, driven by engagement with varied communities of practice. They show how alternative urban futures can be imagined by addressing the historical injustices and global entanglements that shape the urban present. The book is tailored to students, graduates and teachers of urban studies and related disciplines including architecture, urban design, human geography, architectural history, and urban anthropology.
Kenny Cupers is a Professor of Architecture History and Urbanism at the University of Basel. Emilio Distretti works as a postdoctoral fellow in architecture history and urbanism at the University of Basel. Sophie Oldfield is a Professor of Urbanism and Chair of the Department Architecture Art Planning at Cornell University. Manuel Herz is an architect and Assistant Professor of Architectural, Urban and Territorial Planning at the University of Basel. Laura Nkula Wenz is a lecturer on the Critical Urbanisms MA program at University of Basel and at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Myriam Perret is an architect who has been working on the Critical Urbanisms MA program at the University of Basel until 2020.
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cross-sectoral research on urban space
Laboratory of Critical Urbanism
The Laboratory of Critical Urbanism at the European Humanities University in Vilnius (founded in 2007) serves as a platform for scholars and practitioners working in the field of urban studies. The Laboratory conducts multidisciplinary cross-sectoral research on urban space and urban development, organizes conferences, exhibitions and cultural projects, and is running educational programs in integrative urbanism. LCU approach is synthetic both in terms of process and results: it entails simultaneously conceptual and applied critical perspectives. Laboratory’s members are European Humanities University actual and former faculty, students, as well as affiliated partners.
The Laboratory works under the principle that new interdisciplinary configurations of academic thought and applied intervention are necessary to more fully understand the complexity and entanglements of emergent socio-spatial forms. This is particularly so in the case of the regions, cities and rural areas of Central and Eastern Europe, where hybrid and often paradoxical spatial paradigms and social processes can be observed. In particular, the Laboratory works to explore the potential and obstacles caused by the persistence of the socialist built environment in its complex and uneven interaction with the international movement and regulation of people, artefacts, ideas, goods and money characteristic of contemporary capitalism.
Through developing a range of research and intervention projects, the Laboratory of Critical Urbanism works in collaboration and overlaps with the various University education projects. The goal of such collaboration is to organize long-term urbanist work as systematically triangulated: as legitimized simultaneously for a community of professional researchers, for students engaged in the process of learning and for social partners in the field. Such a triangulation amplifies an awareness of and sensitivity to the possibilities, hindrances, pains and hopes out of which urbanist research settings are composed. Thus, it allows a grounded development of proposals for alternative models of spatial organization, experience and governance.
Post-carbon futures, baltic stories book, “our stadium” – talk by marija nemčenko and anna tüdős, post-nuclear urbanism 2020, cityindustries workshop series, eu factor in belarus spatial planning (in russian language), “hacking urban furniture” book presentation, pandemic and urbanity (in russian language), “living by water” – interview with professor carmina sanchez-del-valle, emerging urban researchers on the participatory dimension of their work, book launch “re-tooling knowledge infrastructures in a nuclear town”, “critical urban pedagogy” – interview with miodrag kuč, “russia’s extractivist capitalism and the war in ukraine” – a note by siarhei liubimau, “russia’s war in ukraine and coal powered political geography” – a note by siarhei liubimau, call: spatialities of digital twinning, “the cyberhood: promoting racial justice and progressive leadership in the us cities” – interview with professor robert m. silverman, “experimenting with the architects’ agency” – interview with martynas germanavičius, the director of architektūros fondas, call: urban-industrial entanglements in crisis, symposium: urban-industrial entanglements in crisis, post-nuclear post-nuclear urbanism.
One could expect more and more cases where research grounded urbanist re-conceptualization and re-tooling after nuclear facility decommissioning is required
Both populism and technocracy acquire an interesting dimension and produce a fruitful tension when examined in the light of urban scale processes
The process of disconnection between the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant and the town of Visaginas leads to...
Jamming Jamming Underused Socialist Treasures
The J.U.S.T project proposes an experimental intervention for three underused sites of Soviet era leisure in Vilnius.
is Associate Professor (from 2014), as well as co-founder and lead of the Laboratory of Critical Urbanism (from 2007) at the European Humanities University in Vilnius. For his doctoral research he worked with the issue of trans-border urbanism and studied changes of EU internal and external border regimes as urban scale specific processes. Empirically, he worked on the towns on the German-Polish and Polish-Belarusian borders (Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, 2005-2010), as well as with the borders of Luxembourg (Bauhaus-Dessau Kolleg 'EU Urbanism', 2006-2007). Since 2015 he has been researching the mode of urbanization stemming from Soviet nuclear industry development (focusing on the town of Visaginas in Lithuania, a satellite of Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant), as well as post-nuclear urban futures.
is an interdisciplinary artist and urban theorist trained as an architect / urban planner in various cultural settings. His work explores the role of ephemeral structures in uncertain urban conditions and spatial appropriations of marginal social groups. As an independent urban researcher, he moves at the intersection of urban studies, performative-planning, artistic interventions, and micro politics. Currently, he runs the educational department of ZK/U (Centre for Art and Urbanistics) Berlin, exploring new ways of knowledge production through the lens of critical urban pedagogy. He is a member of the EHU Laboratory of Critical Urbanism from 2011.
(LCU member in 2013-2017) is a researcher at the German Historical Institute Warsaw. He was trained as a historian and urban anthropologist at the Europa-Universitaet Viadrina and at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In his work he focuses on migration, violence and applied cultural studies. From 2011 to 2016 he was DAAD Associate Professor of Applied Humanities at the European Humanities University in Vilnius. He was a member of the EHU Laboratory of Critical Urbanism from 2013 to 2017.
Has worked at the European Humanities University since 2002, teaching courses in Visual and Cultural Studies, Gender Studies and Critical Urbanism. He is a co-editor and author of books and articles developing an interdisciplinary approach to socio-spatial change in Eastern Europe. He is based in Warsaw, Poland, where he is part of the research teams at the Our Choice Foundation (an NGO supporting Ukrainian migrants to Poland) and the Anthropology Undisciplined Research Unit at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Polish Academy of Sciences. His research interests include critical cartography, gender and space, culture (events, institutional innovation, intersectoral cooperation, sound studies), migration and anthropology of the Anthropocene.
WORLD URBAN FORUM
Knowledge infrastructures book, summer school, cityindustries network, sounds and cities, critical mapping books, urbanist circle, winter school, german studies link, warsaw gentrification research, first course at the ehu, ps landscapes, attitudes / reflections reflections.
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PANEL | What is Critical Urbanism?
27 september, 2022 @ 4:00 pm - 5:30 pm sast.
ACC is delighted to host a panel discussion centred on the newly published What is Critical Urbanism? edited by Kenny Cupers , Sophie Oldfield , Manuel Herz , Laura Nkula-Wenz , Emilio Distretti , and Myriam Perret. Rather than a book launch this panel discussion, which takes place on Tuesday, 27 September from 16:00 to 17:30 will delve deeper into the book to unpack some of the debates and themes.
Understanding and managing urban change in our global era demands a high degree of specialised and interdisciplinary knowledge. At the same time, city planners, architects, researchers, policymakers, and activists are deeply immersed in the chaotic and often contradictory urban realities that they are asked to address. What is Critical Urbanism? offers an innovative toolkit for engaging these present realities across disciplinary specialisations and geographic purviews.
Central to the book is the research and pedagogy of the Critical Urbanisms programme at the University of Basel, established in collaboration with the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. The programme’s renowned and emerging urbanists demonstrate the power of working with care and reciprocity across different contexts and institutions, driven by engagement with varied communities of practice.
PANELISTS Prof Ola Uduku, Head of the School of Architecture and Roscoe Chair of Architecture, University of Liverpool
Dr Emilio Distretti, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Basel
Dr Maren Larsen, Lecturer, University of Basel
Isabella Baranyk, Contributor and Student in Critical Urbanisms, University of Basel
CHAIR Dr Laura Nkula-Wenz, Lecturer and Student affairs coordinator for the MA in Critical Urbanisms, University of Basel, based at the African Centre for Cities
WHEN | Tuesday, 27 September 20222
TIME | 16:00-17:30 SAST
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Understanding and managing urban change in our global era demands a high degree of specialized and interdisciplinary knowledge. At the same time, city planners
Critical urbanism means experimenting with urban publics to build new political spaces of expression and transformation. It means communicating
A methodological and pedagogical toolkit for urban research. Understanding and managing urban change in our global era demands a high degree of
An illustrated reader on Critical Urbanism, a research-based pedagogical method in architecture education that has emerged from a joint program of the
What is Critical Urbanism? Urban Research as Pedagogy » (Park Books, Zurich) is edited by Kenny Cupers, Sophie Oldfield, Manuel Herz, Laura Nkula-Wenz
Urban Studies at the University of Basel offers a new platform for understanding the curren planetary transformations, starting from the premise that the
The program's renowned and emerging urbanists demonstrate the power of working with care and reciprocity across different contexts and
The Laboratory of Critical Urbanism at the European Humanities University in Vilnius (founded in 2007) serves as a platform for scholars and practitioners
What is Critical Urbanism? offers an innovative toolkit for engaging these present realities across disciplinary specialisations and geographic
As critical urbanist Neil Brenner writes, critical urban theory “insists that another, more democratic, socially just and sustainable form of urbanization is