What Is the Urban?

Registers of a World Interior

Nikos Katsikis

Nikos Katsikis is an architect and urbanist, Doctor of Design candidate and Instructor in Urban Planning and Design at Harvard GSD. At the GSD he is also research associate in the New Geographies Lab, and in the Urban Theory Lab since their foundation, and has organized conferences on Urban Metabolism (2014), Regionalism and the Mediterranean (2013) and the Limits of the Urban (2012). Since 2012 he is on the editorial board of New Geographies journal and co-editor of New Geographies 06: Grounding Metabolism (Harvard University Press, 2014). Previously he has worked as a Teaching Fellow and Research Associate at the GSD and the National Technical University Athens. He holds a professional degree in Architecture with highest distinction (2006) and a Master in Architecture and Spatial Design (2009) from the National Technical University of Athens. His recent work includes contributions in MONU (2014), Implosions / Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization (N. Brenner ed., Berlin: Jovis, 2013) and the forthcoming book with N. Brenner, Is the world urban? Towards a critique of geospatial ideology (Actar, 2016). 

Terra Urbis: Composite geo-taxonomies for an urbanization without an outside

Urbanization is a process of generalized geographical organization in which variegated forms of agglomerations (from the city to the metropolis and the various forms of regional urbanization patterns) although occupying no more than 5% of the planetary terrain, are responsible for the (re)organization of most of the 75% of the earth’s surface currently used. Building upon the emerging agenda of ‘Planetary Urbanization’, the main hypothesis of this research is that almost the totality of the human occupation of the planet at the beginning of the 21st century is shaped by globalized, capitalist urbanization processes. But if urbanization is a ubiquitous condition that renders inherited spatial taxonomies (like the town, the city, the suburb), or dichotomies (like the town – country, or the urban – rural) obsolete, what are the new spatial categories that can be utilized in order to investigate this condition? Although it is argued that urbanization is a universal condition, this does not imply the existence of a homogeneous, symmetrical landscape. It rather incorporates very different and very asymmetrical geographies and patterns of, both socially, and ecologically uneven development. In order to start grasping these complex configurations, this paper introduces a series of composite geo-spatial taxonomies, which aim to offer a matrix for classifying the terrain of ‘Planetary Urbanization’: On the one hand ‘agglomeration landscapes’ are the geographies where agglomeration economies, and in general agglomeration externalities and dynamics can unfold. On the other hand, ‘operational landscapes’ are the geographies that are connected to land extensive and, or, geographically bound operations that are impossible to cluster. A series of hybrid landscapes emerge as these two ‘extreme’ categories blend together in different ways around different areas of the world. The potential of this classification is to offer an initial platform for investigating how almost all urbanization processes are associated with the equipment and activation of very diverse landscapes that are operationally aligned as part of the same process. In this way, urban development that at first sight seems to unfold within the rather insignificant (in terms of area) agglomeration areas of the world, is revealed as a phenomenon of wide geographic coverage, deeply depended upon geographic, environmental and material specificities, that contemporary production and circulation regimes have managed to blackbox, and contemporary societies have learned to ignore. 

Iowa State University

Department of Architecture

April 4-5, 2016