From grassroots to grassroutes urbanisms

From grassroots to grassroutes urbanisms

by Tim Bunnell

It is 30 years since the publication of the book which established ‘grassroots’ as a key term in urban studies. In The City and the Grassroots, Manuel Castells used the term to refer to a long history of western cities as fertile ground for political agency. Grassroots captures how urban activisms are nurtured from the ground up, drawing strength from place-based political memories and solidarities.

There is no doubting the enduring importance of this botanical metaphor for studies of local urban politics. However, a closer look at processes through which grasses actually reproduce may also be useful for conceptualizing rather different geographies of urban activism. Grass plants reproduce in two distinct ways. Asexual reproduction occurs through stems that grow sideways, either just below the surface of the ground (rhizomes) or just above it (stolons). In keeping with conventional understandings of grassroots in urban studies, parent plants nurture new ones in situ until they are strong enough to survive on their own.

Sexual reproduction in grass, in contrast, involves the propagation of new plants in sites that are not necessarily spatially contiguous with parent plants. Fertilization occurs when male anthers and pollen heads are spread by wind or by animals and deposited onto the stamens of female flowers to produce seeds. In addition, mature seeds can themselves be transferred by animals or wind before finding the right soil conditions for growth. The new plant is then nurtured in place, but has its origins in historical events that may have taken place elsewhere.

Geographical patterns associated with the sexual reproduction of grass lend themselves to conceptualization of urban activism beyond local grassroots. Following the insights of Doreen Massey, in particular, there is now more than two decades of scholarship which examines the urban in relational rather than locally- or territorially-bounded ways. Urban activism and social movements can certainly be grounded in particular places but they can also often be understood relationally – think, for example, about the potential significance of movements of people and ideas from elsewhere. Building in part on the work of Massey, the geographer David Featherstone documented a long history of how political movements in one location have emerged in conversation with agitations elsewhere. In this way, resistance to contemporary neoliberal globalization, for example, may be understood in terms of translocal ‘maps of grievance’ and even ‘counter-global networks’ rather than as merely local (or localized).

Such mappings of what might be termed grassroutes, rather than grassroots, urbanisms inform the research project on ‘Aspirations, urban governance and the remaking of Asian cities’.[i] Our focus on urban aspirations emerges not from Featherstone, Massey or even Castells but, rather, from the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. In a relatively overlooked essay published in 2004, Appadurai cast aspiration as a cultural capacity which privileged groups typically have more opportunity to exercise and practice than do subaltern groups. Importantly for our project, however, Appadurai also shows how aspirational capacities may be enlarged through material and imaginative engagement with elsewhere (in particular, the poor women with whom he worked were able to imagine new ways of being and becoming as a result of their participation interlocal urban exchanges organized by the Mumbai-centred Slum/Shackdwellers International network).

This aspect of Appadurai’s work signals the need to attend to the more-than-local routes of urban imaginations and political action. In part, this means bringing into view the constitutive historical ‘outside’ of ostensibly local urban activism. Perhaps more significantly, there is the suggestion of possibilities for progressive projects to travel. Grassroots remains an important term for the local territorial framing of urban activism. But extending the botanical metaphor, ‘grassroutes’ speak to relational geographies through which the seeds of new urbanisms may be propagated elsewhere.

Update: An expanded and revised (open access) version of this post has now been published in vol 32 issue 3 of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.


[i] This involves five members of the Asian Urbanisms research cluster, as well as six other collaborators in the departments of Geography and Sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at NUS.

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