Emergent Urbanizations: New Territories of Urban/Agrarian Transformation in the Global South

Sai Balakrishnan, Neil Brenner, and UTL students

New patterns and pathways of urbanization are emerging around the world, and these transformations require a radical rethinking of inherited approaches to urban theory and research. A major site of investigation for the course is the urbanization of the hinterland / countryside, and the concomitant remaking of inherited agrarian environments across much of the global South, during the last three decades. In these zones, as elsewhere, post-1980s processes of sociospatial restructuring have involved the transformation of agrarian sociospatial relations, land use systems and political ecologies through newforms of enclosure/land-grabbing, infrastructure investment, industrial development and financial speculation, often in close proximity to or in direct relation to processes of city building. Their investigation thus requires scholars to rethink inherited disciplinary divisions of labor (e.g. urban studies vs. agrarian studies) and sociospatial binarisms (e.g. urban/rural; city/countryside; industrial/agrarian; society/nature).

In this collaborative project, organized as a GSD research seminar in Spring 2019, we (a) explore the limits of inherited theoretical frameworks for the study of urbanization processes and their putative “outsides”; and (b) attempt to develop and apply alternative conceptualizations to decipher emergent conditions and transformations, especially in agrarian environments undergoing major industrial, infrastructural and ecological transformations. Our work is, in this sense, oriented simultaneously towards the analysis of emergent patterns and pathways of urban restructuring and the elaboration of appropriate theories, concepts and cartographies through which to decipher the latter. Following a high-intensity overview of inherited 20th-century approaches to the urban and agrarian questions, and major axes of debate within early 21st-century urban, agrarian and development studies, we explore emergent urban-agrarian transformations across diverse sites and regions, and the state spatial strategies and forms of spatial politics through which the latter have been animated, mediated and contested. Our major research foci will be strategic zones of the global South—especially in the so-called “BRICS (the rapidly industrializing territories of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)—and a range of emergent agrarian-urban transformations that have crystallized within and across the transnational production networks associated with those zones.


From Farm to Favela: Examining the Role of Sugarcane in Brazil’s Urbanization, by Stefano Trevisan and Sarah Zou

Rice Optics: Land, Water and Markets in Emergent Rural-Urban Topographies of Vietnam and Nigeria, by Malika Leiper and Ryan Thomas

Desakota: A Politically Calculated Spatial Configuration of Urbanization, by Ziwei Zhang and Kuangyu Xiong

Trading on Terroir: Fostering Artisanal Cheese and Alcohol Production through Specialized Agrarian Industrial Districts, by Mariel Collard and Stefan Norgaard

Data Fix: Informational Imperialism and Knowledge Commons, by Benjamin Notkin and Timothy Ravis

Nitrogen fertilizer treadmill: escalating instability and dependence in global capitalism, by Saul Levin and Henna Mahmood

Cattle, Culture, and Capital: Patterns of urbanization and dispossession in India and Brazil, by Evan Hazelett and Ayesha Mehrotra

Smallholder development and extractive logics: Understanding the rise of plantation alternatives in the neoliberal era, by Rui Su and Géraud Bablon

Corridor Urbanization: Political Discourses, Illegal Realities: The agro-urban reconfigurations along the Brazil-Peru Interoceanic Highway, by José Carlos Fernández and Samantha Saona

The global agrarian-urban process under the international logistics system: A case study of China and Brazil soybean trade, by Renyi Zhang and Zijing Wang

Kilocalorie delivery ratio describes the proportion of agricultural output directly consumed by people, by Timothy Ravis and Benjamin Notkin
China’s Loss of Farmland Over Time, by Kuangyu Xiong and Ziwei Zhang
By Evan Hazelett and Ayesha Mehrotra
Corporate scheme smallholder oil palm plantations
By José Carlos Fernández and Samantha Saona
Global soybean trade from Brazil to China, by Renyi Zhang and Zijing Wang
1 / 6
« prev   next »


Martín Arboleda

Recent decades have witnessed the emergence of a globalizing peasant movement that aims at the radical transformation of the food system under the banners of a post-capitalist science of food production (i.e. agroecology), and of popular self-determination via the notion of food sovereignty. Although the program and ambitions of this new agrarian internationalism are of world-historical significance, the territorial expansion or ‘scaling out’ of agroecological farming systems has remained limited due to substandard mechanisms of distribution, to encroaching concentration in land ownership, as well as to material and ideological disconnection between agricultural producers and urban consumers –indicative of a wider gap between peasant movements and the urban laboring classes. By means of a multi-sited ethnographic study of the supply chains that connect the city of Santiago de Chile with its agro-food hinterlands or operational landscapes, this project seeks to assess the limits and possibilities that the so-called ‘logistics turn’ entails for a viable agroecological transition in food systems. In broad terms, it is expected that this project can shed light into the role that the field of urban studies might eventually play in global land reform debates, especially in the onset of burgeoning crises of climate change, systemic soil depletion, rural depopulation, and hunger and malnutrition.

Projected outcome: Journal articles and book publication.

La Vega Central, one of Santiago de Chile’s main popular markets and distribution centers (source: Dotmax).


Martín Arboleda

The project rethinks geographies of extraction beyond the mere spatiality of shafts and pits and the political territory of their national economy. Its underlying assumption is that the mine is not a self-contained sociotechnical object, but a dense network of spatial technologies and territorial infrastructures vastly dispersed across space. Seeking to transcend the state-centrism of traditional approaches, the project intends to grasp the complex metabolism of extraction as mining companies become reorganized in the form of global supply chains. Underpinned by empirically-grounded research in Chile, the project analyzes the ways in which the Atacama Desert –the driest in the world-, has become ensnared in a global logistical apparatus that connected mining sites in the Andes with an expanding constellation of megacities, factories, ports, and stock exchanges in East Asia and other parts of the world. The research asks what are the modalities of state power, transnational labor organization, debt instruments, metabolic urbanization, and sociopolitical contestation that emerge as the mining industry embraces the imperatives of speed, connectivity and homeostasis as central organizational principles.

Projected outcome: Book publication (forthcoming with Verso) and journal articles.

Image Credit: Claudia Pool. Dry bulk carrier ship being loaded in the port of Tocopilla, Chile.

Energetics of Urbanization

Neil Brenner, Kiel Moe, and UTL students

How should we understand the energetics of urbanization under capitalism? In what ways do capitalist forms of urbanization intensify the dissipation of entropy, and with what consequences? How do the infrastructures of urbanization mediate and exacerbate capital’s metabolic rifts, and with what consequences? In what ways might exploration of such questions reframe contemporary debates on postcarbon energy “transitions”? In this collaborative project, derived from a UTL Research Practicum conducted in Spring 2018, we confront these questions through frameworks that transcend fuel-centric understandings of energy and city-centric understandings of the urban, leading to new horizons for theory, historical analysis, spatial representation and contemporary design practice. 


The unstable stability of soybean production under capitalism, by Angeliki Giannisi and Anne Hudson

How Bottled Water Intensifies the Metabolic Shift, by Aurora Jensen and Pamela Cabrera.

Dissipatory Circuits of Power, by Bohan Zhang, Iain Gordon and Zlatan Sehovic.

Green Infrastructure as the Respatialization of Planetary Carbonscapes, by Peter Osborne and Ryan Beitz.

Image from dailyoverview.com, deforestation in Bolivia, 2010.
Panel included in the final presentation of 'Green Infrastructure as the Respatialization of Planetary Carbonscapes.'
Image from The Wall Street Journal. Paradise Lost: Aerial Images of Deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest.
Panel included in the final presentation of 'Green Infrastructure as the Respatialization of Planetary Carbonscapes.'
Image from The Wall Street Journal. Deforestation in Mato Grosso, 2014.
Photograph by Wayne Sentman © 2001. One state of a water bottle plastic cap, as the cause of death of a Laysan Albatross in Midway Atoll Island.
Panel included in the final presentation of 'Dissipatory Circuits of Power.'
Lithium Alternates Diagramme.
1 / 8
« prev   next »


Neil Brenner, Kian Goh, Mariano Gomez-Luque, Daniel Ibañez, Nikos Katsikis and UTL students. 

In what sense do we today live in an ‘urban age’?  This idea is frequently invoked by scholars, policy-makers, planners, designers and architects, usually with reference to the proposition that more than 50% of the world's population now lives within cities.  But, can the nature of our urban world be understood and mapped exclusively with reference to the growth of cities and their populations?

In this series of four interlinked research studios (2013-2016), the Urban Theory Lab turns this proposition upside-down and inside-out by speculating on a radically alternative mapping of contemporary planetary urbanization.  Rather than focusing our attention on large population centers, we investigate urbanization from the point of view of its putative ‘outsides’, the zones that are commonly represented as rural, remote, wild and/or untouched by human impact, and which appear as “empty” on the iconic nighttime lights of the world image.  What happens to our cognitive map of the global urban condition if we focus not on the global cities or megacities of the world, but on the wide-ranging sociospatial and environmental transformations that are currently unfolding in supposedly ‘remote’ or ‘wilderness’ regions such as the Amazon, the Arctic, the Gobi desert steppe, the Himalayas, the Pacific ocean, the Sahara desert and Siberia, and even the earth's atmosphere?  To what degree are such zones now being integrated within a worldwide fabric of urbanization?  How are they being restructured and enclosed to support the energy, water, material, food and logistics needs of major cities?

Through speculative cartographies of these emergent ‘operational landscapes’, we aim to illuminate the radical transformations of land-use, infrastructure and ecology far beyond the city limits that have made the contemporary formation of planetary urbanization possible.

This page assembles the preliminary results of UTL student research on this collaborative project:  it represents an interim report on work in progress rather than a final presentation of our research.


Critique of spatial taxonomies

  • Fall 2014 - Shirin Barol, Grga Basic: Essay






Pacific Ocean

Sahara Desert


1 / 8
« prev   next »

Is the World Urban? Towards a Critique of Geospatial Ideology

Neil BrennerNikos Katsikis 

This project develops a critical evaluation of newly available forms of geospatial data (on population, land use and infrastructure, connectivity, and environmental transformation) in relation to the problematique of planetary urbanization. Such data are not neutral representations of territories and landscapes but presuppose specific metageographical assumptions regarding the contours and boundaries of urban spaces that require critical interrogation. We excavate such data and associated visualizations for insights into the variegated geographies of extended urbanization on a world scale and within several major large-scale urban regions in North America, Europe, Latin America, East Asia, North Africa and South Asia. More generally, we argue for a theory-driven approach to the interpretation and representation of geospatial data on worldwide urbanization processes.

Planned outcome:  book publication, Actar Publishers, supported through the Graham Foundation


1 / 4
« prev   next »


Somayeh Chitchian

The colonial and racial project of capitalism, since its emergence in the 16th century up until the present moment, has relied on a deadly logistical landscape for its expansion, accumulation, and management of circulation. Thus, the field of logistics is not only concerned with the circulation of commodities and the accumulation of capital, it is simultaneously entangled with the strategic—often violent—channeling of human bodies as well. Since the 1960s, however, supply chain capitalism has taken on a different scale and has resulted in the so-called “logistical reorientation of the economy” based on the military logic of efficiency of movement and the maximization of profit.

This doctoral project centralizes the question of logistics / migration and focuses on the extended corridors and infrastructures of circulation of Fortress “Europe” as complex (post)colonial and racialized (a) (new) bordered spaces of controlled and preselected circulation of bodies and commodities, on the one level, while simultaneously opening up grounds for (b) fugitive, migratory spatialities from below. By using logistics as both a material and theoretical lens, this doctoral project aims at respatializing migration studies’ inherent methodological nationalism and to challenge the object, scale, and spatialities that have been more conventional in migration research.

Planned outcome: doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD

A tent sits among containers at the Greek port of Piraeus. © Angelos Tzortzinis/Magnum Foundation/Time Magazine.
Greek-Macedonia border near Gevgelija. © ekathimerini.com.
"Danger of Death" sign displayed at the Calais end of the EuroTunnel. © EPA.
1 / 3
« prev   next »


Tamer Elshayal

My dissertation project explores the role of the United Nations’ specialized agencies, and their transnational epistemic networks, in the formation of an expert discourse on global urbanization. The research traces how this policy discourse shifted in focus from housing in ‘Third World’ cities to urban governance on a global scale. By focusing on the multilateral dynamics of the UN system, I trace the transnational circulations of planning ideas, instruments and policy models across geopolitical divides. The project aims to situate these intellectual and institutional reorientations within broader historical transformations in North-South relations, from the conditions of the Cold War and decolonization to the ascendency of global capitalism. With the broadening intersections of urban governance with other global normative frameworks (addressing climate change, environmental injustices, global inequality, social exclusion and human rights violations) it is necessary to understand the contested processes by which planning norms get transnationally constituted, contested and translated into ‘technical’ policy targets.

Planned Outcome: Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University

Poster of the 1st United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, Habitat I, Vancouver, 1976.
Excerpt from Habitat Guide, No.3, 1976.
Excerpt from the Habitat Exhibit catalogue, 1976.
1 / 3
« prev   next »

The Studio, the Cloud, and the Campus: The Operational Landscape of Global Media

Ali Fard

This dissertation project (completed Winter 2017) aims to recontextualize the agency of design within the operational landscape of media through an investigation of its productive, infrastructural, and administrative spaces. By mapping the simultaneous global and local footprints of the media industry, this project contextualizes the relationship between the grounded materiality and geographic specificity of media on one hand, and its standardized practices and generalized flows on the other hand. Hence, the project is interested in the dynamic relationship between processes of planetary urbanization and the operational landscape of media—as the material basis of the moments of extended urbanization—articulated through interactions with local geographic, political, and social formations.

Outcome:  DDes Thesis, Harvard GSD, 2017

The Studio: Paramount Studios, California
The Cloud: Google’s Data Center, Georgia
The Campus: Apple’s Campus 2 (currently under construction), California
1 / 3
« prev   next »


Mariano Gomez Luque

This dissertation outlines a portrait of the skyscraper within the context of the contemporary urban world, undertaking an analysis that spans the period contained between 1973 and the present. Through a critique of key theoretical texts from the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the project traces the building’s manifold relations with logics of financial abstraction and urbanization, as well as its complex symbolic and spatial roles amid a period characterized by global crises and the deployment of capital at a planetary scale. Assembled as a multilayered narrative in which architectural theory intersects with a constellation of critical discourses and a mosaic of visual materials, The Late Capitalist Skyscraper reads the ongoing metamorphoses of the type as intrinsically connected to emerging modalities of capital accumulation and its associated socio-spatial implications across a wide range of vertical urban landscapes and territorial formations.

Outcome: DDes Thesis, Harvard GSD, 2019

1 / 6
« prev   next »

Metabolic Urbanism: Projects of Extraction, Circulation and Accumulation

Daniel Ibañez

This research critically seeks to frame the design disciplines in relation to broader social-ecological interdependencies through cross disciplinary research on the field of urban metabolism. The metabolic approach to urbanization renders the built environment as unevenly produced, and constantly reshaped, by a continuous circulation of material and energy driven by socio-political and biophysical forces. Exploring the ways in which contemporary forms of urbanism hinge upon, and in turn intensify,  the variegated array of transformations across multi-scale operational landscapes—including landscapes of extraction, circulation and accumulation—this research provides designers an encompassing framework to critically position their design agendas. In the wake of advanced neoliberal capitalism, it suggests a framework for the creation of socially just and ecologically meaningful models of urbanism, transcending dominant institutional arrangements, positivist design practices and techno-scientific ideologies around ‘mainstream’ urbanism paradigms.

Planned outcome:  doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD

Planetary Urbanization. Diagram by Daniel Ibañez and Nikos Katsikis, 2014.
Socio-ecological interdependencies. Diagram by Daniel Ibañez, 2012.
Ecological, material, thermodynamic and socio-political metabolisms for design. Diagram by Daniel Ibañez, 2014.
Current metabolic boundaries in design. Diagram by Carlos Cerezo Ávila, 2013.
Expanded spatio-temporal metabolic boundaries in design. Diagram by Carlos Cerezo Ávila, 2013.
The cycle of Virtue and Substance, Fritz Kahn, 1926.
1 / 6
« prev   next »

From hinterland to Hinterglobe: Urbanization as Geographical Organization

Nikos Katsikis

This dissertation, completed and defended in Spring 2016, investigates urbanization as a mode of generalized geographical organization in which agglomerations, although covering no more than 5% of the land surface, are connected to the reconfiguration of most of the 70% of the planetary terrain currently used.

The project critically revisits and deconstructs the concept of the hinterland aiming to transcend its associated dichotomies and limitations. It introduces the meta-categories of agglomeration landscapes and operational landscapes as landscapes of possible externalities associated with particular operations: Agglomeration landscapes are characterized by the presence of ‘urban’ and ‘clustering’ externalities, while operational landscapes are mostly connected with ‘locational’ externalities. The project investigates how these externalities emerge out of, or are prohibited by, particular compositions of asymmetrically distributed, but largely continuous, elements of geographical organization (elements of the natural environment, elements of infrastructural equipment, demographic factors, institutional and regulatory frameworks). According to this framework, agglomeration landscapes are presented as the main locations for operations of the secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy, while operational landscapes for operations of the primary sector of the economy. In this way, it is argued that while ‘urban’ economies have been only associated with the former, the economies of urbanization should be also stretched to include the latter.

In addition to introducing these novel categories, the project also explores how they could be cartographically defined through the combinatory charting of the various geographical elements that constitute them. As a result, it blends a theoretical apparatus, building upon theories of the social and ecological production of space under capitalism; with a cartographic and geostatistical apparatus, building upon a critical engagement with selected global geospatial datasets. Finally, as a means of exploring the capacities of these novel concepts, the project attempts a historical overview of the development of urbanization as geographical organization over the past two centuries: As urbanization generalizes a condition of biogeographical interdependency, operational landscapes expand and specialize constructing a globalized shared assembly. Instrumentalized through global commodity chains, this planetary operational totality signals the shift from the universe of fragmented hinterlands, to the totality of the Hinterglobe: an alternative interpretation of the complete urbanization of the world.

Outcome, Spring 2016:  doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD


1 / 4
« prev   next »

Humanitarian Urbanism and the New Geographies of Refuge

Marianne Potvin

Today, war, climate change, and environmental disasters are uprooting populations on a scale that has exceeded the movement of people in the wake of World War II. While the rise in displacement is sharp and the causes for flight intricate, one of the most striking aspects of this phenomenon is the profound shift in the destinations and spaces of refuge. Distressed people now seek safe haven outside, rather than inside, conventional refugee camps. This contemporary reality underscores the urgency with which urban planning and design must engage with humanitarian institutions. It also forces us to rethink urban theory for 21st century conditions, by asking the following questions: Are the scales and temporalities of crisis response compatible with those of design and planning? Which practices, technologies, and types of expertise can best mediate between humanitarian intervention and the built environment? Ultimately, how can aid agencies cope with refugee influxes all the while maintaining a view towards the creation of just cities?

My project aims to offer a systematic account of the multifaceted interaction between refugee movements, humanitarian response, and the built environment in the 21st century, and to posit our current moment as a rupture in the history of what might best be described as the geographies of refuge. I draw from, and hope to bridge, three fields that are not yet in conversation: urbanism and urban theory; science, technology, and society studies (STS); and branches of international studies addressing migration, conflict, and humanitarian action. I also rely on what I call “humanitarian urbanism,” a concept that helps explain the impacts that emergency assistance programs have on long-term regional and urban planning, as well as the type of space(s) that aid interventions produce.

Outcome, Summer 2019: doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD

1 / 3
« prev   next »


Julia Smachylo

This research project investigates the socio-ecological interconnectedness of larger territories that are operationalized, transformed, regulated, and designed in relation to state-incentivized forest conservation practices. The project involves an in-depth investigation into the changing institutional structure and power of the state, and the evolving boundaries and frontiers of specific areas in relation to conservation and urban growth pressures. At the local level, the project investigates questions of the spatial nature of natural resource conservation and land-based identities (for example, the cultural attachments to territory and/or particular values associated with land use).

As a member of the Critical Media Practice doctoral specialism at Harvard, my media-related work contributes to an expanded understanding of urban design and landscape studies, to uncover certain place-based spatial dynamics tied to different ways of valuing the environment, revealing the logics and principles behind different aggregations, agglomerations and patterns at various scales.

Planned outcome: doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD

1 / 2
« prev   next »