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New Texts Out Now: Gulcin Erdi-Lelandais, Understanding the City: Henri Lefebvre and Urban Studies

[Cover of Gülçin Erdi-Lelandais, [Cover of Gülçin Erdi-Lelandais, "Understanding the City: Henri Lefebvre and Urban Studies"]

Gülçin Erdi-Lelandais, editor, Understanding the City: Henri Lefebvre and Urban Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Gulçin Lelandais (GL): The idea of this book was born during a panel session on Henri Lefebvre at the 2011 Congress of the European Sociological Association, during which researchers from Hungary, the UK, France, and Turkey presented their approaches on Lefebvrian concepts like the right to the city, rhythmanalysis, and the production of space in their empirical research. Since I was working on urban transformation in Turkey, I was very interested in the ideas of Henri Lefebvre, especially regarding the right to the city and the production of space. I thought to bring together researchers who mobilize Lefebvre’s thoughts in their research in order to analyze how his concepts are used and understood. The panel was very fruitful and I decided to deepen the discussion with this book, which goes beyond the panel’s purpose and proposes new reflections on the production of current city space.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

GL: The book strives especially to discuss the empirical use of Henri Lefebvre’s above-mentioned notions, which permit us to understand urban space. It does not intend to address a full theoretical discussion of his concepts, but rather their mobilization by researchers to analyze their empirical field. Within this framework, the book addresses issues like urban transformation, evictions, every-day practices of resistance, and urban movements, but also practices of city-making and everyday city life. The book draws in particular on the literature of human geography and urban sociology, including David Harvey, Mark Purcell, and Neil Brenner, who are the best-known researchers of American radical geography, and Eleonore Koffman and Elisabeth Lebas, who translated the key writings of Lefebvre into English.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

GL: Actually, for my PhD I worked on alter-global movements in Turkey and focused on their transnational and cosmopolitan character. However, during the second half of 2000s, I have also observed the beginning of mobilizations against development projects like hydroelectric dams and plants. During the European Social Forum held in Istanbul in 2010, many meetings and panels were organized by neighborhood movements. The question of the right to the city and the right to housing were among central topics of the Forum. I decided then to work on the recent urbanization practices of Turkish cities and their social, human, and cultural impacts.

I first worked on Sulukule neighborhood, where a Romani community was living and where resistance emerged to defend this neighborhood, a place for which many Romani felt a strong sense of belonging. During the study of such projects, what was interesting was to see how the construction sector became a strategic choice for the government to establish and to continue economic growth in Turkey. Therefore, the realization of urban transformation, housing units, roads, and dams were priorities for the government, and they did not want to lose time dealing with deliberative democratic processes in order to include the inhabitants of neighborhoods. I have studied several mobilizations and resistance practices in different neighborhoods against urban renewal, and have observed an intensive struggle between inhabitants and policy makers for the appropriation of urban space, which oriented me to Lefebvre’s work and motivated me to produce this book.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

GL: I hope that the book will have an international scope in the academic world. I will be really glad if activists from different urban movements could also read it. As I mention in the book, my first objective in this book is to bring Henri Lefebvre back in academic debates in urban studies, specifically in France. In the US, radical geographers like Mark Purcell, Peter Marcuse, and Neil Brenner have based their research on an intensive reading of Lefebvre’s theories; but since the 1990s, he is almost forgotten in France, and his theories have not been intensively mobilized to understand current urban space. At the same time, some new initiatives, especially at the University of Nanterre Paris10 around the journal Spatial Justice, have started to re-introduce his theory to urban studies. This is a welcome initiative, because when we look at the current neoliberal tendencies in city-making—decorated with concepts like brand city, smart city, and so on—we grasp how the Lefebvre’s theories on conceived and perceived space continues to be valid.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

GL: I am currently a member of a collective research project funded by the French National Agency of Research on city margins in Mediterranean countries. For this project, I am working particularly on a neighborhood in Ankara situated in the Dikmen Valley, where a huge urban transformation project is being imposed on inhabitants. I focus on their everyday resistance practices and their perception of marginality. I am also co-organizing two events on resistance practices in the city. The first is a workshop, “Practices of Urban Resistances in the Margins,” which will be held in Istanbul between 30 June and 2 July at the French Institute on Anatolian Studies in Istanbul (IFEA). I am also organizing a panel in RC21 during the congress of the International Sociology Assocation in Japan in July of this year on “Identity, Justice, and Resistance in the Neoliberal City.” I am expecting to publish another book based on this panel.

J: How do you see this book contributing to the field of Urban Studies, including studies of urban planning in the Arab world and beyond?

GL: Restructuring the urban space according to a neoliberal logic, and excluding participative processes, highlights Lefebvre’s theory on space and the conception of the right to the city. Primarily, this theory proposes to profoundly rework the social construction of urban space and therefore extend the borders of traditional citizenship to being an urban dweller. Furthermore, we are expecting to contribute to urban studies, taking Lefebvre’s theory as starting point, by highlighting different aspects of everyday life in the city today. The book shows, in sum, how urban space is socially and politically constructed and used.

Concerning the case of the Arab world (or it is maybe better to say the Mediterranean region), several chapters discuss the restructuration of urban space by the current AKP government in Turkey. If you read these chapters, you can better understand why, for example, Gezi Park gave rise to a huge protest and resistance movement in Turkey. Istanbul offers us a case study in the construction and implementation of a broadly “neo-liberal” approach to development, but with the distinctive local characteristic that this is being pursued under the authoritarian influence of the highly centralized Turkish state. This new order requires that cities be reorganized in order to make them more attractive to potential investors. Social classes with low incomes occupying old and unhealthy neighborhoods and inner-city informal settlements are now considered undesirable.

However, Istanbul is not an exceptional case; it is undergoing the same evolution as many other Mediterranean cities, which is the spatialization of the neoliberal order. Much research has emphasized the neoliberal character of the restructuring of cities in Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon and Egypt.[1] Mona Fawaz, for example, points out that public authorities in the post civil-war era proceeded to restructure Beirut by facilitating the establishment of gated communities and upmarket entertainment areas for the rich, along with the proliferation of new forms of private policing and security systems, all within a form of neoliberal urban governance. It could therefore be argued that urban policies in cities of this region are collectively shaped by a neoliberal order where the role of public planning has shifted towards entrepreneurialism and been mobilized to boost big cities like Istanbul, Cairo, and Beirut as competitive regional centers attracting global and regional finance and service industries. Our book shows the general tendency and the role of the neoliberal order in urban policies, even as the national and cultural contexts change.


[1] See A. Deboulet and I. Berry-Chikhaoui (2002) « Les compétences des citadins: enjeux et illustrations à propos du monde arabe. » L'Homme et la société 143-144.1, 65-85 and M. Fawaz (2009) “Neoliberal Urbanity and the Right to the City: A View from Beirut’s Periphery.” Development and Change 40(5): 827–852

Excerpts from Understanding the City: Henri Lefebvre and Urban Studies

From the Introduction

One may argue that Lefebvre’s objective, by elaborating the right to the city, was not to propose a tailor-made, ready-for-all instruction sheet to create a new city. He proposed a way and left to the citadins the possibility to make their own right to the city. Harvey notes that the openness and expansiveness of Lefebvre’s discussion leaves the actual spaces of any alternative frustratingly undefined, but he underlines also that Lefebvre proposes only the ways and not solutions over time, and space to realize concretely a just city:

The idea of the right to the city does not arise primarily out of various intellectual fascinations and fads. It primarily rises up from the streets, out from the neighborhoods, as a cry for help and sustenance by oppressed peoples in desperate times. How, then, do academics and intellectuals respond to that cry and that demand? It is here that a study of how Lefebvre responded is helpful-not because his responses provide blueprints (our situation is very different from that of the 1960s, and the streets of Mumbai, Los Angeles, São Paulo and Johannesburg are very different from those of Paris), but because his dialectical method of immanent critical inquiry can provide an inspirational model for how we might respond to that cry and demand (Harvey 2012, xiii).

While paying attention to all these aspects, which constitute one of the most important elements in understanding the current city, the objective of this book is to go beyond this debate and propose a global look at the Lefebvre’s sociology on urban space. This is in order to understand different conceptions and perceptions of everyday life, from resistance to work relations, from cultural city politics to urban renewal process, in different countries. It should be emphasized that this book does not assume that there is only one plausible Lefebvre or, for that matter, that Lefebvre represents a panacea for strategy, theory, and research. The fact that today there are multiple Lefebvres floating about is due partly to the circuitous character of Lefebvre’s work, and partly to “the current conditions of interpretations which are characterised by deep political uncertainties compounded by an enduring postmodern eclecticism” (Kipfer, Saberi and Wieditz 2012, 2).

Based on the findings on different cities, the contributions in this book ask the following questions: How is Lefebvre’s sociology relevant to understand evolutions and restructurings in current global city? How could the understanding of Lefebvre help to propose alternative ways of constructing the city? What could we say about the everyday practices of current global city? How do they shape social relations?


Our objective is to provide examples about the empirical use of Lefebvre’s sociology from the perspective of different cities and researchers, in order to understand especially the city and its evolutions within the context of neoliberal globalization. Our purpose is not to propose a theoretical overview of Lefebvre’s theory, but rather, reintroduce his key concepts so as to understand the contemporary city. Case studies in this book will show also that the reception of Lefebvrian concepts are not same and not perceived always in a similar way depending on social and political context of scientific field of each country. Social conditions are determinant for the “international circulation of ideas” (Bourdieu 2002).


From Chapter Three: Gülçin Erdi-Lelandais, “Right to the City as an Urban Utopia? Practices of Every Day Resistance in a Romani Neighborhood in Istanbul”

Neo-liberal urban regeneration policies have three major characteristics in order to legitimize this process and to reduce potential resistance channels. First, they are supported by a wide range of legal mechanisms, as indicated above, which the government adapts according to needs and conditions. Secondly, urban security discourses are used for these policies in the public opinion in order to legitimate human consequences such as forced displacements and house destructions. In 2009 the General Directorate of Security published a list of neighborhoods in which so-called “illegal terrorist groups and organizations” were operating (Aksiyon 2008). The Director of TOKI has stressed that:

Today, urban transformation ranks among the most important problems in Turkey. But Turkey cannot speak about urban development without solving the problem of the shanty towns. These are known to be the source of the health issues, illiteracy, drug abuse, terrorism and distrust towards the State. No matter what, Turkey must get rid of these illegal and non-earthquake-resistant buildings.

Finally, this neoliberal restructuring of cities has an authoritarian character since it ignores the demands and desires of the majority of citadins especially low-income, working classes, which are sometimes also minorities. Consequently, alternative life-styles, different political ideologies and various traditions of socio-political resistance flourish in the city in order to resist this evolution. In the case of Turkey, these struggles and resistances tend to emerge in neighborhoods and cities with a particularly strong group identity, often related to an ethnic and/or political status that is closely associated with the neighborhood itself. Resistance is therefore connected to the identification to a space, but also plays a crucial role in reinforcing this identification.


From Chapter Five: Hervé Marchal and Jean-Marc Stébé, “From the City to Crumbling Urbanism: Beyond Center/Periphery Dualism A Re-Examination of Henri Lefebvre’s Concept of Centrality”

Indeed, the progress of the urban front towards the countryside has led to the formation of vast peripheral areas, ever-more distant from the city-centers, areas, which, if they are examined carefully, are not lacking, in many cases, in the essential characteristics of centrality. The latter are made up of many spatially delineated, concrete centralities, increasing the sites of the historic centres at the same time, as Lefebvre understood when he spoke of “centrality” in a generic sense as represented by the historic city. Therefore, the opposition of center/periphery loses its heuristic relevance.


From Chapter Two: Nezihe Başak Ergin and Helga Rittersberger-Tılıç, “The Right to the City: Right(s) to ‘Possible-Impossible’ Versus a Mere Slogan in Practice?”

“Now what is discussed is the right to living areas, beyond the right to the city. It is the fact that living areas, habitats are destroyed by thermic, hydroelectric power plants and dams. While we are discussing the right to the city, this is involved in the discussions…Since when you set up hydroelectric power plants and wiped the water of a group of people, you are destroying their destiny. You take one’s self-determination right away…These are interpenetrated struggles. Another issue is that where the city ends and where the rural begins.” (Taken from an interview with Cihan Uzunçarşılı-Baysal, April 2012, Istanbul).

[Excerpted from Gülçin Erdi-Lelandais, editor, Understanding the City: Henri Lefebvre and Urban Studies, by permission of the editor. Copyright © 2014 by Gulçin Lelandais. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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