Compte rendu de Beyond the Networked City: Infrastructure Reconfigurations and Urban Change in the North and South, livré dirigé par Olivier Coutard et Jonathan Rutherford

Ma recension du livre Beyond the Networked City: Infrastructure Reconfigurations and Urban Change in the North and South dirigé par Olivier Coutard et Jonathan Rutherford vient d’être publiée. Référence complète:

Verdeil, Eric. 2017. ‘Oliver Coutard and Jonathan Rutherford (Eds.) 2016: Beyond the Networked City: Infrastructure Reconfigurations and Urban Change in the North and South. London: Routledge’. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 41 (6):1031–32.

This collection comprises eleven chapters exploring the post-network city hypothesis. Editors Olivier Coutard and Jonathan Rutherford––both from LATTS, a research unit at Paris-Est University––began developing this idea a decade or so ago. The book represents a collective, sometimes contradictory, effort to explore and discuss the scope of a set of interrelated transformations affecting infrastructure and cities. All the chapters seek to challenge the domination of the network as a material infrastructure, an ideology and the object of political economy. According to the editors, the currently observed changes helping to define the post-networked city comprise ‘a shift from … homogeneity’ to ‘diversity (and targeted selectivity) of infrastructural spaces; reconfigurations and rescalings in the “spaces of solidarity” … (large scale solidarities are recombining with forms of local “autonomy”); socio-spatial solidarity increasingly based on the division of resources …; a shift from collective to more individualised or diversified practices, norms and expectations’ (which leads to ‘customized infrastructure’); ‘the rise of new forms of individual and collective appropriation of infrastructure’; and ‘international and interurban circulation of models supporting these shifts’ (p. 7).

This research endeavor largely unfolds from debates initiated by the book Splintering Urbanism. Many authors who took part in those discussions, including Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, feature in this book. The book comes back in a way to the interpretation of the causal link between the neoliberalization of infrastructure and urban fragmentation. The literature on global South cities highlights the fact that the modern infrastructural ideal was barely implemented in such cities and points instead to the prevailing infrastructural diversity. Research on urban environmental change and urban political ecology has also emphasized that the production of infrastructure is a strongly politically contested process which may result in unexpected changes in the way infrastructures are conceived and implemented, and in their urban impact. Specifically, environmental concerns for the preservation of resources and a more circular economy have garnered support in many cities. This, in turn, is believed to favor the advent of a post-network city.

A strength of the book is the wide diversity of case studies it uses to discuss this hypothesis. Regarding infrastructure, we find case studies on water supply, sanitation, waste collection and treatment, electricity and heat supply, as well as roads and (more surprisingly) volumetric urbanism (i.e. domes or––to use a phrase of Simon Marvin’s––‘domic ecologies’). Geographically, the case studies located in the global South (Vietnam, India, Brazil and Columbia, plus a broader review of sub-Saharan African cases) balance out those located in Europe (Paris, Berlin, Manchester, Birmingham and Aberdeen) and the US.

The main development emergent from the chapters is a shift from the post-network city hypothesis to what is encapsulated by the book’s title: ‘beyond the networked city’. ‘Shifting forms of infrastructure never consist of big, paradigm-busting transitions from one large technical network to another’ (p. 6), observe the editors. Instead, the authors depict incremental changes, small-scale adjustments and repairs, experiments and sometimes failures. The hypothesis helps us to properly address the diversity and coexistence of infrastructural systems that the chapters identify, illustrating the waning of exclusive belief in the network as the sole way to legitimately access urban services. In this respect, the experience of infrastructural diversity in the global South is very illuminating, at a time when many local authorities are beginning to recognize the contribution of non-networked solutions to resource delivery imagined by urban dwellers themselves. But what Sylvy Jaglin describes as ‘a pragmatic turn’ (that she identifies in African cities) doesn’t mean that the network disappears from the aspirations of urban dwellers and city officials.

This trend towards diversity of infrastructural systems is also evident in cities of the global North, albeit less strikingly so than in the global South. There is, for instance, the recent promotion of heating districts in the UK, or the rediscovery of the value of the non-potable water network in Paris. In the UK, as well as in Berlin, the promotion of shorter circuits connects two arguments: one that envisions energy decentralization as a democratic development empowering local actors; and one that sees these new circuits as more environmentally sound. This argument is to be found in the European case studies alone. These examples also demonstrate how misleading the notion of post-network can be, since all these infrastructural systems still rely on networks: some at a meso-scale (heating districts), others still at city scale (Paris, Berlin). Barles et al. even propose the notion of ‘the hyper-networked city’ to acknowledge this fact. Other chapters also point to the fact that these networks in fact exceed the scale of the city, rendering the study of ‘infrastructural hinterlands’ essential.

On a final note, the editors stress that ‘the socio-political significations of ongoing urban infrastructural transitions [are] fundamentally ambivalent’ (p. 21). In some cases, they seem to reinforce neoliberal trends and social polarization, while in others they are seen as serving progressive agendas. Taking the case of Mumbai, Graham et al. analyze hydropolitics as the expression of a ‘revanchist urbanism’ by urban elites targeting illegal, as well as legal but provisory, connections in slum areas. De-networking the poor is the counterpoint of strategies of infrastructural secession among the middle and upper classes, thanks to rainwater harvesting and grey-water recycling. Jaglin interprets the African ‘infrastructural pragmatic turn’ in less dramatic terms. For her, legalizing ‘hybrid delivery configurations [is] a way for African state authorities to negotiate the urban transition: a partial regularisation of the informal sector facilitates the provision of essential services, in exchange for a civil order that also benefits the urban elites and dominant classes’ (pp.193–4), because they are among the customers of the new hybrid infrastructures. Several chapters also highlight (in contrast to the trend towards privatization) the increased role for public authorities in dealing with and planning for more diverse infrastructural systems.

Soundly grounded in theory, this book builds on rigorous and diverse case studies. It innovatively highlights the mutually constituting relations between changing infrastructure and urban environments. Its prudent conclusions open up avenues for future research focusing on the global inflexions of urban paradigms while also willing to grant due consideration to situated and contextualized trends.

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