By: Astrid Wood
International Conference ‘Critical Geographies of Urban Infrastructure’
6 November 2014 – 7 November 2014
Urban Geography Research Group (UGRG) of the RGS-IBG
The Bartlett School of Planning, University College London (UCL), London, UK
The Urban Geography Research Group (UGRG)’s annual conference has become a fixture on the geography calendar. Every autumn, the UGRG invites academics from around the world and at any stage of their career to disseminate their findings. In November 2014, the conference was hosted at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London and focused on critical geographies of urban infrastructure.
Over the two days, we heard from speakers in sessions on critical infrastructure, liquid infrastructure, infrastructure of mass transportation, governance of infrastructure and new infrastructural assemblages. The paper sessions covered a diversity of investigations and theoretical contributions: from mega-infrastructure to ‘squat-tech’ experiments, on the architectonics of social life and cyborgs, from the Amazon rainforest to London’s parks, across elevated railways, airports, railways, and bus rapid transit as well as water infrastructure in Greece, Kenya, Mexico and Morocco.
There were three keynote speakers. Alan Latham from University College London opened the conference on the 6th of November exploring the critical geographies of urban cycling and thinking about how existing infrastructure is used and misused by cyclists in London. On the 7th of November, Erik Swyngedouw from University of Manchester spoke about his research on liquid power, based on his investigation of the construction of dams in Spain and his understanding of the coming together of heterogeneous agents to form new assemblages. Adriana Allen from University College London discussed everyday infrastructures in the urban South explaining how and why formal infrastructure and everyday planning interact, and with what consequences.
One particularly provocative question was raised following the talks by Professors Swyngedouw and Allen regarding the democratic nature of infrastructure. The participant asked if infrastructure could ever be truly democratic, and what would that look like? These questions were percolating in the minds of many of us as we heard about how almost half of Sub-Saharan households, both urban and rural, spend more than half an hour per day collecting water, or as we thought about the presence of infrastructure and its relation to service delivery and citizenship.
The conference repeated their pecha kucha method this year in which seven speakers spoke for six minutes on their research on automobility, airports, development projects and housing in Luxembourg, Milan, Turkey, India and a host of other fascinating findings. The pecha kucha is an interesting departure from the usual conference talk and provides an opportunity for researchers at all stages to share their work.
I presented my research in the final session, ‘New Infrastructural Assemblages’ on the 7th of November. My talk entitled, ‘Reinterpreting the materiality of bus rapid transit: transport system or political practice?’ examined the replication of bus rapid transit in South Africa. The research examines those features of BRT that attracted South African policymakers, and in so doing reflects theoretically on the materiality of urban infrastructure and its role in urban transformation. In the talk, I explained that the South African experience of BRT is more than just an imitation of the tubular stations in Curitiba or red busways in Bogotá, it is the story of comprehensive, locally-driven change. Concepts from policy mobilities and science and technology studies examining the role of human actors and nonhuman materials in the promotion of particular policies were used to critically unravel the application of BRT across South African cities.