Urban Uncertainty

 Governing cities in turbulent times

Projections of uncertain futures pervade public and political debates around the world. Spectres of natural disaster, disease outbreak, economic crisis, infrastructural breakdown and violent conflict persistently threaten to disrupt city life. Social, economic and political stability have become central concerns for urban governance, development and planning. With future projections, calculations and imaginings increasingly shaping space, politics and everyday life throughout the contemporary urban world, there is a political imperative to plan for and manage uncertainty. But with what effects, and for whom?

These issues motivated our research. From 2012 to 2015, researchers at LSE Cities developed the Urban Uncertainty project to study how uncertain futures shape the ways in which contemporary cities across the globe are lived, planned, built and governed. Led by Dr Austin Zeiderman, the research team included Dr Sobia Ahmad Kaker, Dr Jonathan Silver and Dr Astrid Wood. We took an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating anthropology, geography, politics and planning to focus on the environment, security, infrastructure and transportation in Latin America, Africa and Asia. We aimed to conceptualise uncertainty and better understand how, and with what effects, uncertainty interacts with and shapes urban life.

This report details our research and engagement with uncertainty. Alongside the core team’s research, we ran the Urban Uncertainty Workshop Series: 13 interdisciplinary discussions that brought together 64 scholars and practitioners from 41 institutions across the world. These discussions strengthened and complemented our empirical investigations.

To reflect the project’s dual nature, the report is divided into two parts. The first part offers selected analyses directly from, and related to, the project’s research; the second part presents summaries of the Workshop Series. The essays and event summaries capture the ways in which formal state institutions, as well as everyday urban life, relate to unpredictable, unknowable or unmanageable events. When read as a whole, the report offers a comprehensive overview of key debates on urban uncertainty across continents. Empirically focused, this interdisciplinary engagement with uncertainty around climate change, infrastructural disruption, insecurity, speculation, pandemics and land politics highlights the many ways it manifests across local and global scales. The study also reveals the varied strategies and tactics that individuals and groups – within and beyond official domains of urban governance – use to govern and find stability in uncertain times.

Overall, this report should be a valuable resource for both scholars and practitioners. The in-depth case studies provide key information for academics interested in grappling with what is a methodologically and theoretically challenging concept. Similarly, the rich contextual analysis detailing how governments manage uncertainty – and the socio-political outcomes – offers policymakers a chance to review existing processes of governing, and governing through, an uncertain future. Even better if the project can continue to provoke further discussion and engagement.

Publication date
June 2017
Sobia Ahmad Kaker, Kavita Ramakrishnan, Jonathan Silver, Astrid Wood, Austin Zeiderman