Understanding the Transnational City

15721Today we have a guest post from Nancy Kwak, Associate Professor of History at the University of California-San Diego and co-editor with A. K. Sandoval-Strausz of the exciting new volume Making Cities Global: The Transnational Turn in Urban HistoryMaking Cities Global argues that combining urban history with a transnational approach leads to a richer understanding of our increasingly interconnected world. Here, Kwak elaborates on the inspiration for and lessons of this shift in perspective.

Cities do not exist solely within nations. Migrants populate neighborhoods; goods and services, culture and ideas flow through ports. Yet so many works of urban history, including some of the best in the field, have remained national in outlook: Chicago is most often studied as an American city, Delhi as an Indian center, Seoul as a Korean metropole, and so on. Andrew Sandoval-Strausz and I initiated the project that became Making Cities Global because we had a simple question: If scholars chose to focus instead on the global and transnational aspects of cities, would the resulting narratives reveal something new about the urban?

The answer to the question, it turned out, was an unequivocal yes. 

As we conferred with the urbanists whom we invited to explore these issues at a conference at the University of New Mexico, we found there was no single method or agreed-upon unit of analysis for transnational urban history. Should the transnational urban past be understood through the lens of a single street like Devon Avenue in Chicago? By following the development of retail condominium malls in places like Markham, Ontario? Or by way of high-tech suburbs in places as disparate as Silicon Valley, Bangalore, and Singapore? Might it be perceived from a bird’s-eye view of transnational planning ideas and global capital? Through a mapping of connections between urban change and geopolitics?

To each of these questions, the answer was yes, yes, and yes again. But even though we chose to limit the time period of our inquiry to the long twentieth century, and to focus on the Americas and Asia over Europe and Africa, still no single approach to transnationalism or globalization prevailed. 

Indeed, one of the greatest benefits of thinking about cities at the global level is that there can be no pretense of comprehensiveness. Any account must acknowledge the incompleteness of its representation, its inclusion of some viewpoints and not others, and the limits it imposes on time and space. (This incompleteness is inherent in all studies of urban life, but it is often hidden in national accounts.) 

Notwithstanding our authors’ wide-ranging approaches, however, we did share a central concern with power and representation. As it turned out, there was substantial historical evidence to support the argument that no single class or category of people made the city global.

In the case of Colombia’s Ciudad Kennedy, for instance, Amy Offner considers not only the forms of modern housing envisioned by foreign investors and development specialists but also emphasizes the national and local politics through which people shaped housing construction and use in Bogotá.

No single group prevails in Leandro Benmergui’s discussion of the Brazilian Guanabara Housing Program, either. Instead, people compete within “contact zones” to negotiate competing interests at the local and global levels.

Matt Garcia likewise rejects the tendency to push resident actors to the margins, instead highlighting the centrality of Mexican community members in the suburb of Arbol Verde, California, and narrating their understanding of place in the face of encroachments by entrepreneurs, gentrifiers, and colleges seeking to internationalize their student bodies.

In addition to groundbreaking articles on the substance and lived realities of transnational spaces, other contributors interrogate the conceptual work involved in transnational urban history. Richard Harris and Nikhil Rao, for example, inquire into the meaning of the term “suburb” in different cities and on different continents. How, they ask, can scholars make sense of a global exchange of ideas about suburbanization if the word assumes different meanings depending on location and culture?

We also scrutinize other key terms. The word “transnational” demands particularly close analysis, since it is the central organizing theme for our essays. What, for example, does it mean to talk about transnational urbanism in places or times when the nation was not the most important framework for belonging? Last, but certainly not least, Carl Nightingale asks what connections and convergences might exist between the “digital turn” and the “transnational turn” in urban history.

In posing these questions and offering possible answers, the contributors to Making Cities Global highlight the urgency of widening our collective understanding of cities and of urbanization—especially when it comes to power and inequality on a global scale. We understand how each city can be understood as singular and special; but we hope to persuade readers to also think about metropolitan areas as interlinked sites within networks, as places of conflict and negotiation among actors who operate across borders and sometimes beyond nations.

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