Re-thinking the spatial politics of global urbanization processes: The contested relationalities of port cities past and present

Blog 19th August 2023

In this guest post Dr Lazaros Karaliotas, Dr Andy Davies, Dr Martina Kapsali and Professor David Featherstone discuss their 2022-2023 seminar series, which was supported with a USF Knowledge Mobilisation Awards grant.

This seminar series sought to contribute to debates around global urbanization, decolonialisation and the urban political by using the contested relationalities of port-cities in both the past and present as distinctive entry points into the exclusions and spatial politics of global urbanisation processes. Having historically served as key nodes in world-making processes driven by the forces of capital and empire, port-cities are today re-ordered again as part of the mega-infrastructure projects and the intricate logistics networks that shape and maintain contemporary global urbanisation. Simultaneously, their articulation with maritime networks and the flows of people and ideas they facilitate has diachronically posited port-cities as key sites for negotiating racialised relations, enabling multi-ethnic encounters and trans-local connections, as well as the forging of different forms of solidarity, political agency and antagonism.

The seminar series had three key objectives:

  • To explore the politics of infrastructure that shape(d) global urbanisation processes and the assembling of political infrastructures and solidarities across differences
  • To explore the role of port-cities in the articulation of maritime labour struggles and processes of decolonisation
  • To develop new insights and resources on the spatial politics of port-cities past and present that will contribute to attempts to decolonise geography and urban studies curricula.

These objectives were addressed through three workshops organised in Thessaloniki, Liverpool and Glasgow in 2022 and 2023. These workshops brought together an inter-disciplinary and international group of scholars, practitioners and activists and provided distinctive cuts into the past and present of port-cities and how these enable us to better understand global urbanisation processes. Each workshop addressed a key thematic corresponding to one of the series’ objectives.

Photograph of the 'Port cities: past & present' poster on a glass window
‘Port cities’ workshop at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece (source: author’s own)

The first workshop, ‘The politics of infrastructure and emancipatory political infrastructures’, was held in Thessaloniki on the 26th and 27th May 2022.

This event foregrounded the spatial politics of infrastructure as a key terrain through which global urbanisation processes are being shaped and contested by multiple actors at multiple scales. The event situated port-cities as key nodes in infrastructure politics that enable global flows and animate the forces of capital and Empire and explored how the exclusionary ordering of the urban is contested through multi-ethnic encounters, solidarities and political infrastructures. The workshop consisted of 6 sessions addressing key thematics around urban infrastructure politics and two field visits; a guided tour unearthing Thessaloniki’s contested pasts and a visit to the occupied and self-managed factory of Vio.Me.

A group of people, two dogs and one cat stand in front of the Vio.Me factory on a group tour
Vio.Me tour in Thessaloniki, Greece (source: author’s own)

The second workshop, ‘The spatial politics of port-cities, maritime labour struggles, and decolonisation’, was held on the 24th and 25th Novemeber 2022 in Liverpool.

This event situated port-cities as key sites which have been central to processes of ‘Empire’ but also decolonization in both the past and present. The event explored maritime labour as a particular site of antagonism over the racialized and classed processes of decolonization, providing a lens on forms of subaltern urban politics shaped by the multi-ethnic spaces brought together in different areas of port-cities. The event consisted of 5 sessions addressing key themes around port-cities, (de-)colonization and maritime labour as well as a guided tour on the 1919 ‘Race Riots’ and Liverpool’s port.

A group of people stand in front of large buildings on a guided tour of Liverpool
A guided tour of Liverpool, UK (source: author’s own)

The third workshop, ‘Port-cities and decolonising geography and Urban Studies curricula’, was held on the 11th of May 2023 in Glasgow.

This final event drew on the insights of the first two workshops on the spatial politics of port-cities to foreground narratives around port-cities as useful resources to help decolonize curricula in geography and urban studies at both school and university level. This was done in collaboration with activists, community groups and civil society organisations involved in dialogues around memory in port-cities such as Glasgow, Liverpool and Thessaloniki. The workshop also offered the opportunity to reflect on public engagement and dissemination beyond academia. The event consisted of four presentations around community engagement and dissemination, a roundtable discussion featuring PhD students as well as discussions on future plans and dissemination.

Overall, the seminar series staged dialogues across the multi-disciplinary field that constitutes contemporary urban studies: from geography and planning to history and politics to sociology and anthropology. By focusing on the multiple pasts and presents of port-cities it enabled productive dialogues across spaces, times and disciplines. Seeking to understand how the contested historical trajectories of port-cities animate and intersect with contemporary urbanization, the series brought together a number of leading and emerging scholars in the fields of historical geography, history, cultural studies, international relations and economic history. The series also provided distinctive insights on the spatial politics of contemporary urbanisation through a multi-disciplinary group of early-career and established scholars from the fields of urban geography, anthropology, politics, religious studies and planning. In assembling plural voices, perspectives and standpoints the seminar series addressed the multiple audiences that make up the constellation of urban studies.

A group of people sit on chairs discussing in roundtable formation in the Vio.Me factory
Roundtable discussion at Vio.Me in Thessaloniki, Greece (source: author’s own)

As a whole, the various contributions to the series historicised, situated and politicised debates around global urbanisation by tracing different aspects of the contested trajectories and interconnections of port-cities. The major contribution of the series, thus, was to work toward developing new insights and vocabularies to better grasp and theorize the spatial politics and global dynamics of urbanization processes as well as decolonise geography and urban studies curricula. The main academic output of the series this is a Special Issue to be published in Urban Geography and currently under preparation. The SI brings together the work and insights of the different workshops organised around three distinctive but interrelated themes: (a) the politics of maritime infrastructure and related urban transformations; (b) the spatial politics of Capital and Empire; and (c) maritime labour struggles, decolonisation, and the making of solidarities. Notably, the new vocabularies and insights condensed in the SI but developed throughout the series are not only an important contribution in the fields of geography and urban studies but are also of interest to the plural and expanding group of those who study cities across the social sciences and humanities.

We are also working toward building on the insights and links developed through the Glasgow workshop to develop resources that contribute toward efforts to decolonise Geography and Urban Studies curricula. To this end, we will build on the links developed with community groups (Bangladesh Association Glasgow, Writing on the Wall in Liverpool, and Psifides grassroots publishing collective in Thessaloniki) to develop applications to support the production of these resources. These will include a zine – accompanied by educational resources and a guide on doing research on port-cities – that will be developed in collaboration with the aforementioned groups and disseminated online.

To conclude we also want to highlight a less tangible but equally important result of the series: the development of research links, networks and collaborations as well as rich and productive dialogues that the series enabled. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the opportunity to get the time and space to reflect on research and engage with communities on the ground was immensely valued by all involved.