Haussmann’s ambivalence

In a notable effort of concretion, Merrifield has condensed in 138 pages of his The New Urban Question (TNUQ) a tremendous amount of theory on urban studies. It is essential to highlight that this is a text of theory, of political theory, because Merrifield’s book, in general terms, gives the sensation of being connected but disconnected at the same time of that urban reality he expects to discuss. At least in terms of linking his ideas with specific cases, the lack of empirical work blurs his arguments or, at best, makes them ethereal enough to turn them into ideological recipes to be applied in any (urban) context. That last particularity, far from being an advantage, results to be a problematic epistemological feature.

The issue with dedicating so much effort to elaborate a theoretical construction about the urban is the lack of usability that such abstract activity represents. However, here usability should be understood far from a utilitarian perspective heir to Mill (1861) and more in a Heideggerian (2001[1962]) account as the potential of something for being (Seinkönnen) [temporally] in the world. In other words, the act of theorizing should be tied to an empirical temporal-spatial —not necessarily in a Cartesian way— situation to be capable of signifying and producing a difference. Someone could say that due to the urban is a planetary condition, all theorization on that concept should be applied anywhere without any inconvenience. Nevertheless, neither the urban behave identically in any location, nor is it possible to copy and paste theory from one case to another, like mechanical reproduction activity, and expect it to fit.

Moreover, Merrifield’s ability of concretion plays a double role. On the one hand, it allows him to encompass a wide range of ideas, concepts, authors, names, and moments. On the other side, it limits his possibilities and efforts to discuss and unpack all those elements he is presenting. Notwithstanding, to avoid falling into the same situation of privileging theory over empirical work, this post intends to take care of TNUQ’s introductory chapter (Neo-Haussmannization and its discontents) as a unity, as a product itself[1], but as a compendium of concepts that —at least the main ones— will also be discussed here. Haussmann’s ambivalence is the first of three entries on Merrifield’s The New Urban Question. Each one focuses on different aspects of his production.

To take care, as Puig de la Bellacasa (2017, p.16) proposes, should be understood as a “mediation” and “an ethico-political practice” that is going beyond humans. In other words, to take care of TNUQ’s introductory chapter means to be responsible for its multiple ontologies. In this case, that responsibility will be assumed hereby highlighting and expanding (some of) its elements’ ontological beings. As a review, the scope of this post will be centered on two main points. It will offer a general overview of the chapter, and it will essay a textual experiment on urban development, history, artifacts, and politics. Regarding the second point, it will be dedicated to discussing perhaps the main argument Merrifield proposes in his book’s first section: We are living in a neo-Haussmaniann era that “produces its Other, powers a dialectic of dispossession and insurrection, an accumulation strategy as well as a rebellion waiting and plotting in the wings.” (Merrifield, 2014,p.xiii).


“Theory and politics are […] central planks of The New Urban Question.” (ibid., ix)

Intending to resignify the debates around the urban that took place in the 1070s, Andy Merrifield proposes a new urban question. However, more than just moving and adapting those discussions from a temporal frame to another, he provides a set of contemporary theoretical constructions in between political activism and the self-called radical urban theory. The starting point of TNUQ is —and it could not be in a different way— Manuel Castell’s classic book The Urban Question (1999[1974]). Notwithstanding how we will see it later,  and it is perhaps the main novelty here, Merrifield’s new question suggests a brand-new way to approach the ontological state of urban areas, conceiving those locations more than just reproductions of political and economic forces. In order to develop his ideas,

In order to develop his ideas, Merrifield draws a general panorama of urban studies differentiating three main significant traditions[2] inside the field [that he conceives as a sub-discipline]. There are the specialists and the positivists, and then there is his side. The “specialists,” as he described in a conversation organized by Pluto Press in 2014, called Marxism and the Urban Question, are those kinds of professional urbanists around the UN-Habitat and the World Urban Forum that talk about global urban problems and how to solve them. “They are the equivalent of doctors who wear white coats, and they say things, and we believe them.”

The “positivists,” on the other hand, have a professionalized discourse, but this one is shaped by certain triumphalism about the city. Merrifield situated there people like Edward Glaeser and his Triumph of the City (2011) and, in general terms, all those inspired by Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), and ambiguously Jacobs too. In the positivist imaginary, Merrifield says, cities attract the most talented, the most entrepreneurial, the most dynamic people who can produce economic growth. Whereby cities, competing dynamically against each other, turn into growth machines vital for the national economy.

Merrifield’s side could be named as either theoretical, political, even mixing both notions, or activist since he intends “to develop concepts that can periodize this system [our hyper-exploitative undemocratic system —he says—  of global governance] theoretically, while challenging this system politically, helping consolidate and advance ongoing activism and militancy, offering theory that dialogues with politics, as well as a politics that dialogues with theory. Here concepts and activism mutually reinforce one another—or at least try to.” [According to him,] empiricism, [the specialists, and] positivism cripple our ability to understand more fully the major component of this ‘new’ urban question: neo-Haussmannization.” (Merrifield, 2014: p. ix).

We will discuss, on the next subtitle, the idea of neo-Haussmannization. Meanwhile, to continue reviewing still a few fundamental elements proposed in TNUQ, let us stabilize a temporal definition of the term: “neo-Haussmannization signifies a new riff in an old tale of urban redevelopment, of divide and rule through urban change, of altering and upscaling the urban physical environment to alter the social and political environment.” (ibid., p. x). The idea of the urban physical environment is a strategy designed for talking about those settlements we know as cities. Merrifield dispenses with the city as a concept and adopts the notion of urban fabric since “that this fabric stretches to envelop everywhere, [also] the ‘urban’ is a more abstract and more concrete way to figure out the urbanization of the world, because it helps us to think about a process that manifests itself in undergrowth as well as overgrowth, in abandonment as well as overcrowding, in underdeveloping as well as overdevelopment.” (ibid.).

Expanding the urban fabric, urbanization turns into a planetary process. The dichotomies “Global North and Global Sout, […] inner city and suburb, […] city and countryside [disappear] because inside the urban fabric today we see centers and peripheries all over the place, cities and suburbs within cities and suburbs, centers that are geographically peripheral, peripheries that suddenly become new centers.” (Merrifield, 2014: p. x). The metaphor of urban fabric flattens all traditional urban topographies turning the political-theoretical landscape of irregular bounded spaces, like a patchwork quilt, into a merged, stable, and homogenized spatialized amalgam of elements and dialectic situations.

The difference between the traditional and the new urban questions could be appreciated in how both scholars, Castells and Merrifield, understand the ontological condition of the city/urban fabric. TNUQ points that Castells’ perspective considers the urban condition a passive movement of social reproduction. “The urban for Castells was a ‘spatial unit’ […] of the reproduction of labor-power […] rather than a space which capital productively plunders.” (ibid., xi-xii). In the new urban question, urban space is perceived “as a commodity, as a pure financial asset [exploited by capitalism.] This is precisely where neo-Haussmannization raises its ugly political-economic head.” (ibid. xii).

Unraveling the urban fabric

The panorama of Urban Studies that Merrifield proposed, identifying three sub-fields, was not really completed. For any reason, he skipped a set of traditions from the Studies of Science and Technology (STS) working in the city/urban spaces over the past 30 years. According to Blok and Farías (2016), STS has approached the city in three different moments or scenarios. The first one gathers a sum of works that focuses on either (i) paying attention to the effects of socio-technical artifacts in cities (Winner, 1980; Joerges, 1999; Woolgar & Cooper, 1999), (ii) considering the city as a socio-technical artifact that could be studied like any other technology (Aibar & Bijker, 1997), or (iii)  studying the spatially extended socio-technical networks as urban infrastructures (Mayntz & Hughes, 1988).

The second moment is “shaped by the relationships between STS —having the located laboratory as a departure point—  and architecture and design [in terms of paying attention to] the circulation of different logics of design, agency, and usability” (Orrego, forthcoming) in urban scenarios. We have here, for instance, Callon’s work (1996, 1997); Leigh Star & Griesemer (1998); Rheinberger (1997); Ewewstein & Whyte (2009); and Yaneva (2005). Also, we can find here contributions around the mediation of urban build environments, Jones (2006); Lynch (1960); and Göebel (2015). The last scenario is divided into two sections. One reflects on the visibility and invisibility of planning and infrastructures, Latour & Hermant (1998); Söderström (1996); and Gabrys (2014). The second section is on urban assemblages, Amin & Thrift (2002); Blok and Farías (2016); Farías (2011); Latham and McCormack (2009); Latour (2007); and Marres (2007).

From an urban-STS perspective, mainly inspired by networks and assemblages, flattening the urban seems like an attractive proposition to overcome dialectical totalitarian views. Nevertheless, at the same time, to use the metaphor of urban as a fabric results problematic since that cloth material —at least from Merrifield’s proposal— gives the impression of being a solid compact product homogenizing all the urban formations existing outside. The reason behind that affirmation is tied to Merrifield’s perspective of a global urban space behaving like a commodity produced and exploited by capitalism and his proposal of fabricating theory to challenge that situation.

We can perceive in the TNUQ narrative an implicit dialectic flow behind the idea of urban fabric that works on a planetary scale. On the one hand, we have capitalism as a system constantly transforming the urban landscape. On the other hand, there is an explosion of social (urban) movements, tied to particular locations but reproduced globally, fighting against those capitalist transformations. Although this post does not pretend to deny either the existence of capitalist movements in urban spaces or the social movements against capitalism’s actions, it criticizes how Merrifield has handled that. The problem here is the usage of theory as an epistemological resource for approaching, dialectically as well, that scenario. Instead of reflecting and discussing the particularities produced by the action of capitalism and its discontents, a theoretical work hides the whole situation, diverting and turning the discussion into a sort of ethereal abstraction of conjectures.

To work only on a theoretical level, pretending to apply that theory later into the urban reality already described dilutes any possibility of generating a critical analysis of what is really happening outside. In the end, the lack of empirical work propitiates a scenario of ideology reproduction on a massive scale, like a dogmatic recipe cookbook. There are two moments where all this can be appreciated in the introductory chapter of The New Urban Question. The first one was already presented here, and it is about the usage of the notion of urban fabric as a resource for homogenizing the discussion on urban topologies. Is capitalism shaping all the urban locations around the globe in the same way? Are those social movements responding to capitalist transformations identically?

The second moment is about, precisely, the theoretical construction on neo-Haussmannizatation. Merrifield uses a complex process of urban transformation that happened for more than two decades in 18th century Paris, without any effort of translation, to explain the current capitalist transformation(s) of the urban fabric(s) extended globally. For him, the series of developments in Paris during the Second Empire, led by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, from 1853 to 1870 and commissioned by Napoleon III, could help us understand our current (urban) planetary situation. Notwithstanding, it is possible to identify two main inconveniences regarding the selection and usage of this parallel: his excess of reductionism and his lack of reflexivity on the concepts and situations Merrifield uses for creating theory.

Here, we face a similar and parallel scenario to a debate held in urban-STS some decades ago on socio-technical artifacts and politics regarding Robert Moses’ bridges in long Island, New York. It was Langdon Winner (1980, 433) who started the discussion by saying, as Woolgar and Cooper present, that “the bridges built by Moses in Long Island are an example of a technology which has political qualities; by this means that the bridges were designed (consciously or unconsciously) to have a particular social effect.” Campanella (2017, July 9) summarizes the situation: “Robert Moses ordered engineers to build the Southern State Parkway’s bridges extra-low, to prevent poor people in buses from using the highway. The truth? It’s a little more complex.”

Similarly, Merrifield, following Harvey (2005), accuses Haussmann —without even going deeper on his allegations— of leading, or at least being part of, “a ruling-class strategy plundering and reorganizing [Paris.][…] What happened to mid-nineteenth century Paris is now happening globally, not only in big capital cities […] but in all cities.” (Merrifield, 2014, pp. xiii, x). In his book Paris, Capital of Modernity, David Harvey (2004) presents the spatial transformation of Paris as a long-scale process of modernization following a bourgeois logic of rationalization and planning. Harvey points that Haussmannization causes conditions of speculation (p. 118), spatial segregation (p. 270), and privatization (p. 269) that ended in the Paris Commune.

However, De Moncan (2009) and Kirkland (2014) offer another perspective of the Haussmann transformation of Paris. For instance, Kirkland presents how “the rebuilding of Paris was part of a broader economic strategy, based on heavy investment in infrastructure, including ports, both to build the basis of a modern economy and to act as an economic stimulus […] these investments were part of Napoleon III’s primary political objective of maintaining order and preserving power, which he genuinely saw as being the greater interest, not only for himself but also of France. Unemployment, indigence, and idleness went hand in hand with the threat of insurrection.” (p. 63). De Moncan highlights the better conditions for all class Parisians that Haussmann’s renovation produced since the city before him was an unsanitary and crowded medieval city.

In an interview for the Guardian (Willsher, 2016, March 31), de Moncan highlighted the importance of Haussmann’s renovation plan: “The Second Empire and Napoléon III were despised by republicans, and Haussmann was the victim of this political backlash. Victor Hugo hated him, and because everyone in France regarded what Hugo wrote as the word of God, they hated Haussmann too. Hugo, the man who wrote Les Miserables about how desperate conditions were in Paris, accused Haussmann of destroying the city’s medieval charm! De Moncan observes this was the same ‘charm’ that had brought epidemics to Paris; the charm that ‘had 20 people living in one room with no light and no toilets, just a common courtyard into which they did their business. People like Hugo forgot how truly miserable Paris had been for ordinary Parisians.’”

Coming back to Moses’ bridges, the main argument on Winner’s work about those infrastructures was dismissed by Bernward Joerges (1999), who pointed some inconsistencies on what Winner, mainly based on Robert Caro’s Moses Biography (1974), wrote about Moses’ reasons for designing the bridges —more than 200 and not only to Long Island— in the way he did. “US civil engineers with whom I have corresponded regularly produced two simple explanations for the rationality of the low-hanging bridges: that commercial traffic was excluded from the parkway anyway; and that the generally good transport situation on Long Island forbade the very considerable cost of raising the bridges.” (Joerges, 1999 p. 418). So, how is that Winner and Caro’s versions on Moses Bridges is still so popular? According to Joerges, it is “such a splendid piece of ready-made discourse […] it is a particularly well constructed artifact, capable of serving a great number of rhetorical purposes.” (ibid, p. 420).

Am I suggesting that Merrifield and Harvey’s version of Haussmann’s redevelopment of Paris is just a well-written piece of false information? Not at all. Instead of choosing a side, instead of going against one version or another, my interest here is to highlight the ontological ambivalence of those versions, mainly when they are based on theoretical realms. Bridges, discourses, urban plans, and redevelopments are complex socio-technical artifacts that, at the same time, are “good and bad; [they are] enabling and […] oppressive; [they] work and [they do] not; and, as just part of all this, [they do] and [they do] not have politics. (Woolgar & Cooper, 1999).

As I tried to highlight during this review, perhaps the main inconvenience in TNUQ is how Merrifield moved concepts from a theoretical frame to another without any effort in translating them and without taking care of their empirical implications and their ontological multiplicities and ambivalences. With all this in mind, the critics and concerns presented by Merrifield in his book are valid and should be urgently addressed. Nevertheless, I believe it should be done from an empiric-epistemological perspective rather than a theoretical one.

[1] The fact that this is a chapter of a book is something that does not pretend to be denied. Nevertheless, the methodology proposed for these book reviews tends to focus on particular aspects of books and not on their whole.

[2] There is, however, a fourth tradition in Urban Studies that was not mentioned by Merrifield and that is highly influenced by the Studies of Science and Technology. It will be introduced at the beginning of the next subtitle.


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Featured image: “Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris 10 May 2017.” Author: Guillaume Speurt. product under Creative Commons license. (The image was modified for this post).