In 1937, Lewis Mumford asked, what is a city? Mumford noted that cities have been handicapped because there is a poor understanding of the “social functions of the city”, functions that make a city what it is. “The city is a related collection of primary groups and purposive associations: the first, like family and neighborhood, are common to all communities, while the second are especially characteristic of city life”. For Mumford, the city is a group of neighborhoods formed for economic organization housed in permanent structures in a limited area through a corporate or public regulation: “… a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity”. Because the city, according to Mumford, is primarily about the facilitation of social life, he demanded that industries and its markets, its lines of communication and traffic, must be subservient to social needs. Mumford viewed the polluted overcrowded cities, dominated by the motorcar and the factory, of his era the result of not controlling and ensuring that machines served human interests. Thus he called for limitations on size, density and area of the city. In Mumford’s view human needs and demands make the city what it is and therefore these “social” needs must be considered first; technology and machines must be relegated to second-class citizens and serve the needs of humans. For Mumford it is man vs. machine and we must ensure that man is the winner.

Although not commenting on cities, Bruno Latour outlines a different view of the social in his guide to Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) and therefore of the city. Both Latour and Mumford agree that the city is a collection of groups and associations but what these groups and association are made up of differs. For Mumford, the social is family and neighbourhood organized for economic modes of organization. Latour, disrupts Mumford’s stable notion of the social through his ANT approach. Latour understands the social as a type of connection between things that are not themselves social. Latour notes, “The sense of belonging has entered a crisis. But to register the feeling of this crisis and to follow these new connections, another notion of social has to be devised. It has to be much wider than what is usually called by that name, yet strictly limited to the tracing of new associations and to designing of their assemblages. This is the reason why I am going to define the social not as a special domain, a specific realm, or a particular sort of thing, but only as a very peculiar movement of re-association and reassembling” (p.7).

ANT has three tests:

  1. Non-humans have to be actors and not simply the hapless bearers of symbolic projection;
  2. If the social remains stable and is used to explain a state of affairs, it is not ANT.
  3. Check whether a study aims at reassembling the social or still insist on dispersion and deconstruction.

For ANT what is a city? In every case you have to “follow the actors themselves”, so a city is its specific arrangement, is this a satisfactory answer? For ANT the city is not a collection of “men”, families or neighbourhoods but a collection of intricate relationships with a variety of non-humans and humans. For ANT, unlike Mumford, no stable category of what a city is can be produced, in each instance a city is the end result of the tracing what can be tied together. ANT does not provide a strong account for what a city is but prefers a question such as how does a city work.


  • Is ANT able to provide an answer to the question, what is a city?; if not do we need to change the question or ANT?
  • Could ANT result in us thinking about meaningless details of the city and stop us from making machines and technologies serve human needs?


Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory . Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. (Part 1)

Mumford, Lewis. 1937. “What is a City?”. Architectural Record.


Today is the first dUrban Arrangements.001ay of classes and the start of my course Urban Arrangements (Syllabus_Assemblage Urbanism_Fall 2014_Sharp_CCNY.2). The first text we will engage is by former City College student Lewis Mumford and his 1937 article: What is a City?. A simple question and yet over seventy years after Mumford posed it, possibly more difficult to answer than ever. And this question is one that underlies the central thrust of this course, that attempts to interrogate the city through its “arrangements” (social, technical, political, economic… ).

The second piece we are going to read is by Bruno Latour and his introduction to Actor Network Theory: “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory”. In this work Latour is not asking what is a city, but what is a society? The latter question being very much related to the former, especially with Latour’s insistence of the precise role given to non-humans that “have to be actors and not simply the hapless bearers of symbolic projection.” In interrogating what is the social, Latour gives us some strong tools through which we can get closer to an answer about what is a city.

The second course that I am teaching, in addition to Urban Arrangements, is A Global Perspective in the International Studies department at City College. The course is designed to engage the literature on globalization through the events and spaces of New York City. The aim of the course, in addition to being an introduction to the literature on globalization, is to get students (and myself) to think more carefully about what we consider to be global and local. Influenced by thinkers such as Latour and Sloterdijk, I want to move away from the idea as the global as a field and the local as a point and towards a global that is local at every point and a local that is composed of events that take place elsewhere and elsewhen. I am excited to teach this class and have already learnt a lot in preparing the material for it. Best of all has been the discovery that New York native Jay-Z sampled, for his song Big Pimpin’, the legendary Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez’s song Khosora (meaning loss in Arabic); a great example of the circulation of sounds and ideas through the world and the Jay-z’s video Big Pimpin’ is also a good example of the rather toxic implications of globalization.

The course will start with Sassen’s Global City (defined around the three cities New York, London and Tokyo) and then we will travel through New York beginning  in Manhattan and the events of 9/11. From the World Trade Center we will then travel to Wall Street and engage the literature on financialization and then we will go to Zuccotti Park and think about the Occupy Wall Street movement (I am still finalizing the literature for this, so any suggestions would be very welcome). From Wall Street we will move to Midtown and look at global governance through the creation of the United Nations engaging the amazing work of Mark Mazower. Then we move across to Brooklyn where we will explore issues such as historical globalization and race (through the art exhibit the Marvelous Sugar Baby), gentrification (excited to read The World in Brooklyn) and the garment industry. From Brooklyn it is up to Queens where we will engage issues surrounding immigration (still finalizing the literature for this). Then we move to the Bronx where we will engage with cultural globalization and the birth of Hip-Hop in Sedgwick Avenue. For our engagement with Hip-hop we will read Sujatha Fernandes’ book Close to the Edge and a couple of pieces on  hip-hop and the Arab world. Finally, we arrive in the “forgotten borough” of New York – Staten Island – where we look at the secessionist rumblings that have emerged in the city’s fifth part and link this to the broader debate around secessionism and globalization.

The course description:

A Global Perspective offers students an introduction to the complexities and controversies surrounding globalization through the particular spaces of New York City. This course is grounded in a perspective that disrupts distinctions between the global and the local and challenge students to think about how the local is always composed of the results of actions that take place elsewhere and elsewhen and a global that is local at every point. Students will think through the central debates in globalization through a focus on the cultural, political and economic productions and locations of New York City. Specifically, this course will engage the literature on globalization through the events and locations in Manhattan (9/11, Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street and the United Nations), Brooklyn (an art installation at the Brooklyn Domino Sugar Refining Plant and the garment industry), the Bronx (the invention of hip-hop at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx), Queens (immigration and race) and Staten Island (Secessionist movements).

The geographer Edward Soja declared at some point that “every square inch of the world is urbanized to some degree,” it is possible then to understand the world as one vast urban arrangement. On the other hand, however, the geographers Thrift and Amin argue cities have become extraordinarily intricate and difficult to generalize. Urban arrangements are simultaneously everywhere and distinct, and the various urban arrangements (and their various techno/socio/eco/political arrangements) on our planet further new/particular modes of living. What a city is, how cities work, what cities engender and what makes a good city are just some the debates that will form the focus of my research and will take up a large part of this blog.

I want to use this blog as a laboratory for ideas focused around my research and central disciplinary interests: geography; science, technology and society studies; urban studies and middle east studies. It will also be a place for me to post thoughts and reviews on books (expect small reviews/thoughts soon on The Security Archipelago and Leisurely Islam), exhibitions (I will soon post something on the new exhibition at the New Museum Here and Elsewhere) and for me to provide updates on other work I am pursuing, which at the moment also involves the creation of an issue of the Urban Research Journal that is currently in production.

The blog will also act as an extension of two courses that I am teaching at City College both of which I am still refining the syllabuses for and hope to share some of the ideas that I developing for both of these courses. The first course I am teaching is the blog’s namesake Urban Arrangements (officially listed as Urban Assemblages and the reason I changed the name will likely be the subject of a blog post). The second course that I am teaching is an undergraduate course called global perspectives also at City College but in the international studies program. I am excited about this course and designed it so students engage “global” issues through the absolute spaces of New York City.

I am eager to explore ways in which social media can accompany the courses to both engage students taking the course beyond the classroom and generate discussion with a broader audience. I have introduced Twitter into the classroom and had some positive results but I think there are more ways in which social media can be utilized to enhance engagement, conversation and interest in the subjects I am teaching and researching that I want to try out. So, I will continue to experiment – suggestions are very welcome, so please feel free to use the comment section!

I have not blogged properly for nearly four years and a return to the world of the blogosphere (do people still use that term?) is long overdue. When I actively wrote this blog I was a journalist and consultant in Lebanon – I stopped living (but not visiting) Lebanon when this blog also stops in October 2010 – but since then there have been many changes. The most significant development is that I do not live in Lebanon or work as a journalist any longer. At the end of 2011, I came to New York and in the Fall 2012 I was accepted as a doctoral candidate in the Earth and Environmental Science Department at the Graduate Center, CUNY specialized in geography. Other things, however, have not changed. My research continues to engage Lebanon and the Arab world and I am still focused on questions surrounding the built environment. Keeping with the theme of both continuity and change, I have decided to keep the blog I maintained in Lebanon but to change its name. Previously, this blog was called al-bayt baytak (my home is your home in Arabic) and is now called urban arrangements. I hope this is a start of a long and fruitful journey.