The Unjust City: Mapping Exclusion through Aesthetics

by | 1 May 2020

Imre Azem’s documentary ‘Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits’ and the research of Manis K. Jha and Pushpendra Kumar help us to explore on the project of neoliberalism, offering a scathing critique of the exclusion and inaccessibility that accompanies its political logic. While the documentary is a comprehensive work that traces the rapid urbanisation of Istanbul and its problems; the article meticulously chronicles the plight of the urban poor, namely the homeless migrant workers, in Mumbai through ethnographic accounts.

Common to the urban spaces of Istanbul and Mumbai is a vision of their transformation into ‘global cities’ by developing as cultural and financial nodes within the broader fabric of the economic world order. This vision centres on the idea of an aestheticized city life. The visualised landscape organises space into markers of development and problematises pockets which mar that landscape, explicitly the settlements of the marginalised poor. Their incongruity with the imaginary of a beautified city at par with the global cities around the world, makes such settlements vulnerable to a cosmetic revamp. Thus, subjecting their poor populations to eviction, displacement and invisibilization by relegating them to the city peripheries. So, I want to address aesthetics as a variable in informing dispossession and marginalisation within the neoliberal framework.

Given the understanding of neoliberal urbanism as a process driven by the diktats of capital, the shaping of city aesthetic is deeply tied to bourgeois sensibilities. These concerns are articulated in urban planning which idolises a gentrified space, concealed in the language of hygiene, order and desirability. With the primary aims of encouraging consumption and attracting investments, the success of cities on the global sphere is dependent on the image they pursue. This image, in turn, is manufactured through reimagining the city space, and its public, along the lines of the megalopolises of the developed world. Such a visual of urban existence, within the neoliberal order, is also promoted by the market-oriented government. The interventionist role of the state alters the relation between spaces and citizens and creates classification within the citizenry based on their relative economic status.

Middle and upper class interest rationalizes urban spaces for leisure, security and aesthetics, while otherizing ‘the poor’ as dirty and dangerous. Increasingly “the ‘bourgeois gaze’ identifies the poor as ‘disfiguring the landscape’’ creating a paradigm of the ‘encroacher’ (Baviskar, 2003, p. 95-96).”  Therefore, the agenda of tidying the city becomes coterminous with the removal of such ‘encroachers’ by delegitimising their claims to space within the city or the ‘right to the city.’ In the case of Istanbul, the original residents of slums in the prime areas of the city are periodically exposed to demolition initiatives and relocated to the fringes. This impacts their socio-economic lifestyles and limits their means to affordable housing. Similarly, Mumbai attracts migrants searching for better livelihoods, from all over India. These migrants usually find makeshift settlements on footpaths, grounds and slums. Clearance and resettlement projects peripheralize these workers by excluding them from the city’s interior to its edges. A practice which renders them inconspicuous in the vision of the city despite their contribution to it.

The condition of homelessness and insecurity translates into the structural marginalisation of a major segment of the population. Fairly common in both global and globalising cities across the world, the phenomenon gives rise to a new spatial arrangement: of a city within a city. Organised into the geography of centre and margin, the beautified bourgeois city at the centre becomes an embodiment of prosperity. This ideal city shapes its ideal public, exclusive of those at the bottom rung of the economy, and grants access to its spaces to this public. As argued by Mitchell (2001), Mumbai earned the global city status by consolidating this disparity in policies and design through the elimination of neither “homelessness or joblessness but of homeless and jobless people.” This trajectory is closely mirrored by Istanbul and other aspiring global cities. As seen in the documentary, the polarisation of city space is further enabled by fortifications and gated communities, and reflects the spatial contrast between global ambitions and local realities.

This duality also manifests itself politically within the question of urban citizenship. Harriss (2009) has drawn attention to the ‘valorisation of consumption’ in moulding populations into the roles of proper citizens and poor denizens. On one hand, the image of a model citizen is inseparable from that of a consumer. A desirable aspect that denotes their active participation in the neoliberal machinery relative to their wealth. On the other hand, denizens are defined as occupants who ‘maybe done unto.’ Due to the lacking materiality of their urban existence, such inhabitants are devalued and disenfranchised as second-class citizens.

Aesthetics as an abstract category allows the judgement of a few to set the definitive standards of adequacy for the rest. Already, taste and beauty are subjective categories that bear class connotations. Their adoption into the urban space permits a new dimension of discrimination to be built into the city environment. In order to be assimilated into the public body, the denizens have to satisfy the impossible criteria, set by the ‘citizen-consumers,’ and engendered by the state. This, coupled with preconceived notions of the economically weak as polluting, lazy and bereft of civic sense; normalises their neglect within the city. In view of outlined class dynamics, it becomes apparent that the neoliberal governmentality facilitates a conflation of bourgeois concerns with citywide priorities. Access to the city, then, becomes an exercise in denial, which targets the marginalised through their careful abandonment.


— Baviskar, Amita. (2004). “Between Violence and Desire: Space, Power and Identity in the Making of Metropolitan Delhi,” International Social Science Journal. 55. 89 – 98. 10.1111/1468-2451.5501009.
— Fainstein, Susan S. (2010). The Just City. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
— Harriss, J. (2007). “Antimonies of Empowerment: Observations on Civil Society, Politics and Urban Governance in India,” Economic and Political Weekly 42, 2716–2724.
— Kumar, Pushpendra & Jha, Manish. (2016). “Homeless Migrants in Mumbai: Life and Labour in Urban Space,”Economic and Political Weekly. Vol.51. 69-77.
Mitchell, D. (2003). The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: Guilford Press.

1 Comment

  1. Shatakshi, this is a wonderful analysis of the neoliberal approach to ‘cleaning up’ the city. I would be interested in knowing if you have written or researched further on this subject? Thanks.


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