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 The Urban as Scale

Mona Fawaz


My field is urban studies. Following the steps of giants in the field such as Doreen Massey, Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, or Abdoumaliq Simone, I understand the urban as process rather than form. I consequently approach its study as a situated practice, both historically and geographically. (This is at least one version of what scholars now call the Southern Turn in Urban Theory.) I build every research project –e.g., the formation of urban peripheries, the modalities of housing production, the introduction or ongoing practice of spatial planning, housing financialization, urbanization of forced displacement– through the set of relational systems, the flows of people, ideas, capital, models, materials, the institutions that sustain them, and the negotiations they engender over both the urban fabric and its production. In this tradition, to use Neil Brenner’s word, there is no “outside” to the urban, there is no city and hinterland. Rather, a landscape is being reorganized and continuously made through what Lefebvre (1974) has defined as a multi-scalar process through which the built environment is produced, one that link the structures of capital and the institutions of the state with everyday social practices. This process is not confined to the space of a “city”. Rather, it has expanded and become more generalized. As such, Angelo and Wachsmuth (in Brenner 2014, Chapter 24, p. 380) argue that “urbanization processes would have to be traced far beyond the physical boundaries of cities and increasingly analyzed as global or planetary phenomena, while cities themselves would need to be analyzed as phenomenological or ideological phenomena”. In this same tradition, Brenner (2014, p. 21) writes that: “A new understanding of urbanization is needed that explicitly theorizes the evolving, mutually recursive relations between agglomeration processes and their operational landscapes, including the forms of land-use intensification, logistical coordination, core-periphery polarization and sociopolitical struggle that accompany the latter at all spatial scales.”

It is noteworthy that some of the systems that organize the production of the urban (e.g., property registry, administrative boundaries, capital flows, building laws) are deeply connected to the modern nation state and its colonial roots. However, the study of population movements across the Syrian-Lebanese borders, the negotiation of property ownership along Lebanon’s coast, the detailed investigation of many of Beirut’s neighborhoods, and numerous other explorations attest to the incomplete and highly negotiated –sometimes deliberately unmapped– nature of the national sovereign, well in line with Lebanon’s national identity. These systems also work through the State as a scale without necessarily coinciding with its borders, and operate to show that just like the city, the state is a site of continuous remaking and contestations (Heyman and Smart 1999, Abrams 1977). Moreover, the large population flows (e.g., rural to urban migrant, refugees) witnessed across decades in the region require us to pay attention to the decoupling of the bio-political management of populations and their territorial management of the territories on which they dwell (Hyndman 2004, Elden 2010, Agnew 1994).

Two of the projects I have been working on tackle methodologically this question. One is an ambitious task of (re-)writing the history of Beirut by relying on the process-based conception of the city, exploring hence from peripheral localities the organization and making of urban territoriality. The other is a recent in-depth exploration of the remaking of Halba’s urban fabric in the aftermath of the Syrian refugee influx in Lebanon, a project that allows me to underpin the intersection of modes of population and territorial management in the remaking of this secondary city.



Abrams, P. (1977). “Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State”, Printed in 1988 in the Journal of Historical Sociology 1(1): 58-89.


Agnew, J. (1994). “The territorial trap: the geographical assumptions of international relations theory”, Review of International Political Economy (1): 53-80.


Brenner, N. (2014). Implosions/Explosions, Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization.


Elden, S. 2010. “Land, Terrain, Territory”, Progress in Human Geography, 34(6) 799–817


Heyman, J., & Smart, A. (1999). States and illegal practices.


Hyndman J., 2004. Managing displacement: Refugees and the politics of humanitarianism

University of Minnesota Press.


Mona Fawaz is Professor in Urban Studies and Planning at the American University of Beirut where she has co-founded the Beirut Urban Lab, a regional research center invested in working towards more inclusive, just, and viable cities. Mona’s research spans across urban history and historiography, social and spatial justice, informality and the law, land, housing, property and space. In addition, she has been tightly involved in Beirut’s ongoing transformations by publishing in the local press and speaking in numerous local venues where she has advocated for upgrading informal settlements, protecting the urban commons, improving livability, adopting inclusive planning standards, and more generally, defending the right to the city for the urban majorities.