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  • Author or Editor: Cian O’Callaghan x
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Vacancy, Urban Politics and International Experiments in the Post-crisis City

This book provides an innovative perspective to consider contemporary urban challenges through the lens of urban vacancy.

Centering urban vacancy as a core feature of urbanization, the contributors coalesce new empirical insights on the impacts of recent contestations over the re-use of vacant spaces in post-crisis cities across the globe.

Using international case studies from the Global North and Global South, it sheds important new light on the complexity of forces and processes shaping urban vacancy and its re-use, exploring these areas as both lived spaces and sites of political antagonism. It explores what has and hasn’t worked in re-purposing vacant sites and provides sustainable blueprints for future development.

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The city is still empty, few days since the eviction of Communia…. Many people involved in the project have come back to the city from their holidays, from their family homes, several meetings are being organised. People from the neighbourhood, other squats and groups are all giving their support towards a new occupation … the new location has been identified thanks to the deep knowledge of residents, the plan … to have a demonstration ending with the occupation of the building in the upcoming days…. I spoke to [name of person] about what is going on, we were both amazed by the response of so many people at such time. ‘We can do it, we are determined and organised’ [name of person] told me smiling at the end of our chat. (Cesare’s research diary, August 2013)

These diary notes concern the response of militants and neighbourhood residents to the eviction of Communia, a squatting initiative that emerged in the San Lorenzo neighbourhood in Rome in April 2013, by the police in mid-August, a time when most Italian cities get very quiet, people go away for summer holidays and political activism is usually on pause. Summer is often the preferred time for police to carry out evictions in order to avoid clashes. However, in recent years, several Italian squatting initiatives evicted during summer months have seen a strong response from activists and residents. The most dramatic occurred in central Rome in August 2017, when hundreds of squatters – mostly refugees – were violently evicted without a clear or coherent plan for their rehousing (Annunziata, 2020).

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In the conclusion, we reflect on what we can learn from the chapters in this book about working critically and productively with ruins and urban vacancy as a lens to interrogate wider urban challenges. The genesis for this collection started with a workshop held at Trinity College Dublin in March 2017. While seeking to draw together a wide range of voices and approaches on the topic, our starting point was the ways in which the 2008 global financial crisis had made vacancy more visible and politicised across a range of different contexts. That crisis constituted a juncture that was expressed in the ‘new ruins’ that represented the collapse of a particular manifestation of financialised capitalism. ‘New ruins’ provided a concept to grapple with the political, economic and cultural fallout of the crisis, and to expand our theoretical lexicon. In the post-crisis period, vacant spaces presented a set of possibilities for dealing with the legacies of the previous era of growth and decline, becoming a vehicle to narrate the crisis (O’Callaghan et al, 2014), while also proposing alternative urban futures based on the commons (Bresnihan and Byrne, 2015). Since that time, a number of changes have occurred: the reassertion of neoliberal policy responses; the rolling out of new forms of financialisation; the increased pressure on urban real estate markets due to tourism and platform capitalism; the foreclosure and aggressive eviction of alternative projects/spaces; and the emergence of a regime to govern vacancy. While the possibilities presented by vacancy in the post-crisis juncture have been eroded, as a conceptual category and a site of policy, market and grass-roots intervention, urban vacant spaces remain significant.

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During the early months of 2020, cities appeared to stop working. The global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a wave of nationwide lockdowns as governments mandated restrictions on the movement of populations and the shuttering of all but essential services. Sublime images of familiar cities emptied and at a standstill reached socially distanced audiences via social media. Excepting the ghostly vigil of essential workers – bus drivers, food retail workers and Deliveroo cyclists, as well as medical staff – the pandemic had put our cities on pause.

The empty city became a key representation trope of the pandemic. This is unsurprising given the increasing centrality of urbanisation to contemporary social and economic life. Moreover, as Connolly et al (2020) argue, ‘extended urbanisation’ is itself a key factor in the spread and mitigation of infectious diseases, with interconnected supply chains and deeply unequal urban cores acting as conduits for the spread of COVID-19. However, the pandemic city was one of interconnection, and mobility collapsed. In this way, it bore some relation to the city in ruins: the sense of linear time suspended; the denuded folly of progress visible in streets aggregating windswept litter; and the return of flora and fauna to landscapes usually dominated by humans. If the images were sublime, the experience on the ground was one of the uncanny (Freud, 2003), with familiar urban environments abruptly rendered strange.

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This concluding chapter summarizes key themes. This book has shown that migration and citizenship rights are again coming under sustained attack. States have long used their control over migration and citizenship to demonstrate their power, while, at the same time, espousing liberal-democratic values that run contrary to these acts of control. The responses to the perceived threat posed by migration take three key forms: the reinforcement of borders, efforts to regulate mobility, and limiting the ability of people to develop a sense of formal belonging in their place of residence. These disruptions have opened a space for heightened forms of nationalism and exclusionary policies, and enabled the creation of new forms of political activism and subjectivity that seek to expand and recast what it means to move and to belong.

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Questions of migration and citizenship are at the heart of global political debate with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump having ripple effects around the world.

Providing new insights into the politics of migration and citizenship in the UK and the US, this book challenges the increasingly prevalent view of migration and migrants as threats and of formal citizenship as a necessary marker of belonging. Instead the authors offer an analysis of migration and citizenship in practice, as a counterpoint to simplistic discourses.

The book uses cutting-edge academic work on migration and citizenship to address three themes central to current debates – borders and walls, mobility and travel, and belonging. Through this analysis a clearer picture of the roots of these politics emerges as well as of the consequences for mobility, political participation and belonging in the 21st century.

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This chapter considers how the dominant performance of borders and bordering is being reworked through Brexit and the Trump presidency. The impact of Brexit has brought renewed attention and anxiety to the 310-mile land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, while also unsettling the norms around the EU’s external borders. In the United States, President Trump campaigned on the promise to ‘build a wall’ between Mexico and the United States and, not incidentally, to ‘make Mexico pay for it’. Since his election, the US–Mexico border has been intensely politicised and racialised. In contrast, there is a relative lack of anxiety regarding the US–Canada border. The chapter considers the ways in which borders are discursively invoked and materially reconfigured such that particular types of migrants are constructed as a threat and specific borders in need of securitisation.

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