Splintering Urbanism

‘Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition’ by Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin; Routledge, 2001. 512pp

Review by Austin Williams | 20 December 2001 

This important book develops the authors’ 1996 analysis of contested flows in ‘Telecommunications and the City: Electronic spaces, Urban Places’. In that book, the authors’ views were left to the last chapter. Here, their opinions are much more to the fore  in a politically charged discourse of the network society.

This is a ‘socio-technical’ assessment of the way infrastructures are becoming more privatised and the impact of changes in provision on the organisation, layout and concept of ‘the urban’- a mammoth task with examples from different historical periods and countries. As a result of its breadth, generalities creep in, but this small criticism is tempered by admiration for the ambition. What is odd is that the historical analysis is not supported by primary source material and relies on modern (Post-Modern) interpretations of history.

The book starts and ends with universal provision -a goal of 19th-century European and American elites. In those days, the authors point out, universalism was not a result of fellow feeling, but represented an elitist national vision of progress.

Specifically, ‘the overarching rationale was to focus on what could be profitably exploited’. In general, ‘ensuring nationally integrated infrastructure thus allowed the state to impose its own rationality on to the territorial scales, and social processes, within it’.

What the authors miss is that, however incidentally, the selfish national vision tended to raise the standards of everyone one in society.

Focussing on the particulars of inequality, in an era devoid of alternative philosophies, the authors insist that we ‘resist the totalising concepts of order, progress and rationality’ and advocate ‘a new urban spatial imaginary’- a self-conscious Utopianism relying on a benign state for implementation.

The authors throw the baby out with the bathwater, arguing that ‘it might be more profitable for some local civil societies actively to resist incorporation into glocally (sic) configured premium networked spaces’. What a tragedy – for global interconnectedness to be sacrificed in favour of local self-determination.

This is a book of bits – fragmented into fractional chapters – and the symbolism is apt. In their final analysis, universalism is disregarded as a failed Modernist project. Diversity is in. All that is left is to pick up the pieces of a splintered world.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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