Precarious Geographies: Reflections on Landscape Surgery

At last week’s landscape surgery we (Ella and Mel) presented an early draft of a paper that forms part of a collaborative research project called “Precarious Geographies” (a podcast of the session can be found here).

The idea for this project emerged from discussions we had early on during the PhD about our research projects. Ella’s work is on temporality within pop-up culture and Mel’s work looks at the criminalisation of squatting and the impacts of coalition housing policy; so both of our work looks, in different ways, at precarious spaces in London, and in particular at the ways in which precarity is produced, experienced and resisted.
Within the project we are organising a workshop in London to be held on February 10th and three sessions at the AAG in Chicago in April next year. We are also writing a journal article which aims to provide a conceptual grounding for the expansion of the term ‘precarity’ into geographical studies.

The project starts from the premise that, while there is an established body of work on precariousness, such analysis is often focused on precariousness as a temporal phenomenon linked to uncertainty, and orientated towards studies of labour economies. There has been little substantial exploration in geography of the role of place in instigating, advancing and exploiting precarity, although the importance of considering place within precarity is evident; for example, in processes of gentrification, localism policy, and housing benefit caps. Such considerations are particularly pertinent at a time of austerity politics; which brings into focus questions around how far and in what ways everyday precarities are exacerbated and created via varying political and socio-economic mediums.

Following on from Judith Butler’s assertion that, while precariousness is common to all life, precarity is politically induced (2009) ‘Precarious Geographies’ seeks to understand the stratagems behind both the exploitation of precariousness, and the instigation of precarity.

In particular, we talked through the reciprocal ways in which subjects produce places and places produce subjects which/who are either precarious or are able to withstand or induce precarity. We then went on to discuss the ways in circulations of geographical representations can heighten or diminish visibility and in so doing can either reduce or increase precarity of place. Lastly we explored the ways in which precarity is inherently destructive and instrumental in the unmaking of places, but also holds the potential for remaking place – as precarity can also expose and illuminate structural injustices.

It was an early draft of our paper on precarious geographies which we presented at Landscape Surgery on November the 25th alongside a fascinating paper from Dr Mara Ferreri from the School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London. Mara’s work addresses temporary urbanism through an attention to the relationship between work and life precarity in the cultural and creative sectors and temporary occupations of vacant spaces in cities. In the paper, she drew on her doctoral research into community-oriented pop-up shops, as well as on more recent work into the phenomenon of ‘property guardianship’ (with the Property Guardian Research Collective) and into the grass-root interim uses strategies in and around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, to discuss the emergence of policy mechanisms and cultural formations around the phantasy of flexible urban living. Precarity of place can be seen as a coping strategy and a mode of acting for individuals and groups increasingly subjected to – and encouraged to embrace – dynamics of labour and life uncertainty.

We had wanted to present and circulate our paper in order to receive feedback on this early version as we are looking to eventually publish the article in a peer reviewed journal. We found the presentation very useful (albeit a little intense!) and have been left with plenty of food for thought as we work towards a redraft, particularly in defining the particular purchase of precarity as a term in contrast to other expressions of marginality, informality, vulnerability and victimhood. Thanks to everyone who gave us such constructive and critical feedback, the comments we received from you all were invaluable to improving our work and progressing our project.

We’ll shortly be circulating further information about our upcoming workshop. We have confirmed our keynote speakers; James Rhodes from the sociology department at Manchester University, who will be discussing urban decline in the US rust belt, and Louise Waite and Hannah Lewis from the Geography department at Leeds, who will be discussing their recent ESRC-funded project ‘Precarious Lives’. In the meantime, please do get in touch if you’re interested in presenting a short paper as part of the workshop. We look forward to seeing you all there!

By Ella Harris, Mel Nowicki and Mara Ferreri

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