Contested Knowledges for Just Urban Futures

Contested Knowledges for Just Urban Futures is a free one-day seminar which will take place on Tuesday 10th December at Channing Hall in Sheffield.

**Places are limited. To book a place, please RSVP to with name, university and a couple of lines on your urban research and engagement activity.**

Aims and Objectives


Urban futures are sets of potentials for how we might live together in cities. It is the constitution and capacity of the ‘we’ that is at stake in forging these, along with the knowledge that is mobilised in the process. Whilst there is no simple relation between knowledge and freedom, the knowledgeability of citizens acts to curtail the power of elites and enhances their capacity for self-government (Stehr 2008). Although the weight of expectations of knowledge for the economy according to current logics is considerable, there are pockets of alternatives that provide the potential for more just urban futures (May and Perry 2018). Seeing and being part of these possibilities does not mean embracing a naïve optimism, or a poor grasp of structural constraints, but a belief in progressive alternatives forged in imaginative political spaces.

For urban scholars to be committed to more just urban futures is not new; yet the conditions and contexts from and in which academics engage are constantly changing. From means concerning ourselves with the context of the university itself, the distancing and / or proximity afforded by the university, the dynamics of the spaces from which we engage and the implications for our understanding of and relationships between knowledge and action. In means recognising that a commitment and/or engagement to realising just urban futures is often practiced in the interstices, boundaries or margins of intersecting domains, in liminal spaces between the university and the urban context.

Working from and in these different spaces requires reflexive engagement (May and Perry 2017) and adaptiveness and creativity in academic practice, as knowledge claims are challenged and contested in intentional and unanticipated ways. A range of issues are brought into focus: how we think about time, space, positionality and power; how competing or contesting knowledge claims affect our sense of belonging and our commitment; if (and how) these are mediated through inter-referential reflexivity. We need to pay attention to the peculiarities of these spaces and how these are navigated, negotiated and with what effects.

How does our commitment to just urban futures specifically manifest in practice, in the context of the wider co-productive turn and interest in different ideas about what it means to be an ‘engaged’ academic?

This seminar will provide space for academic urban researchers working in universities, with a commitment to socially just and sustainable futures, to share and learn from practice. It will take place over one day with propositions, presentations and discussions and include an evening dinner.

Aims and Objectives

Overall, this seminar asks what would it take to focus on the knowledge needed for more sustainable urban futures in terms of the prioritisation of different ways of knowing and support for and practice of urban research? Do we need more mediating spaces and practices in the messy, complex interstices of urban space that refuse to capitulate to a knowledge-based instrumentalism? If so, what is the role of the university in this? The spirit of the seminar is one of transformation and a consideration of how research can contribute to more progressive urban futures (Conti 2005).

Through interrogation of a series of case studies and accounts of practice, the seminar asks:

  • How and in whay ways is research on just urban futures constrained or enabled by academic settings?
  • To what extent and how are commitment and engagement valued within different institutions?
  • What practices are undertaken because or despite the university that shape the development of spaces for engaged practice?
  • How is the relationship between knowledge and action understood and by whom?
  • What kinds of competing knowledge claims arise in the process of seeking to translate a commitment to just cities, into the practice of realising it?
  • How, by whom and with what consequences is academic knowledge production challenged or contested?
  • How are contestations, struggles or issues navigated and negotiated, and with what implications for our positionality and sense of belonging?
  • What kinds of practices enable or constrain transformational outcomes?
  • How are the justification for research and the application of research negotiated in order to prevent co-optation by agendas that are already known to produce unjust outcomes?
  • What does it mean for practice to have a commitment to different futures?
  • Overall, what are the implications of your experiences for academic practices and universities as sites of distinctive and valuable knowledge production in 21st century cities?


The seminar will begin at 1000 with coffee and informal networking. The day is divided into three thematic provocations followed by a series of reflections from academics at different stages of career, with time for small table discussion. The seminar will be restricted to 25-30 attendees. The below programme may be subject to change.

1030 - 1045 Welcome and intellectual framing. Professor Tim May.

1045 - 1100 Introductions

1100 - 1230 Theme 1: Breaking down binaries.

Provocation by Professor Beth Perry, Urban Institute, University of Sheffield.

In this provocation I will draw on 15 years of engaged urban research through the Realising Just Cities programme to challenge binary thinking that often plagues urban engaged research. I will reflect on critical incidents in the life of the programme around three key binaries: the constraint/enablement provided by academic institutional settings; the rejection/embrace of academic knowledge production in relation to questions of legitimacy and relevance; and the navigation of critique/co-optation through different forms of academic practice. In rejecting an either/or approach, my provocation is that academics can be the architects of their own struggles, doing themselves and their institutions a disservice by failing to recognise and embrace how we are tethered to universities and peer communities. I conclude by setting out key lessons for how these tetherings can be mobilised in the service of just urban futures, and when we should just say ‘no’.

1230-1315 Lunch

1315-1445 Theme 2: Beyond reflexive spaces.

Provocation by Professor Zarina Patel, University of Cape Town.

The significance of reflexive spaces in knowledge co-production is an established practice for its success. Whilst these spaces are seen as generative, they are also described as liminal spaces of transition, and even as ‘homeless’ spaces. Drawing on close examination of city-university partnerships in Cape Town, I show the significance of these spaces for boundary crossing across institutional cultures. I suggest however, that the disproportionate emphasis on generating and nurturing reflexive spaces, displaces our attention from the agency of individuals to foster institutional change in their home spaces. In order to achieve social change, I argue that our theory and practice need to extend beyond the third space in order to maintain coherence between the how and the what of urban change.

1445 - 1500 Break

1500 - 1630 Theme 3: Collective struggles and the undercommons.

Provocation by Dr Michele Lancione, Urban Institute, University of Sheffield.

In this short intervention I reflect on the research/activism conundrum, starting from a long-term engagement with a community of evicted Roma people in Bucharest, Romania. The paper builds upon and expand geographical literature around activism, urban politics and knowledge production, to re-centre academic labour as a specific ‘minor’ endeavour that is never deprived of politics and urges, therefore, to construct situated forms of accompliceship and to exploit the privileges of academia for collective action.

1630 - 1700 Discussion and key themes

1730 Evening meal


Professor Rowland Atkinson, University of Sheffield: “The social park: Thinking through the use of campus space as a means of engaging and moving toward just urban futures”

In this short intervention I want to relay a personal experience and to connect this to ideas about the relationship between physical, campus space and its position in the wider city. I want to suggest that the university estate has the potential both to act as a barrier or occlusion that works both ways between universities and the cities they are part of, but that elite, academic space can be worked and re-worked as the terrain on which small yet transformative changes might be enacted. The case involves the attempt to use the estate assets of a standalone building, an office block, that was dedicated to a cross faculty centre for the social sciences but which was physically located in a kind of no-mans land of corporate leased space on a science park owned by Pockham University. I want to describe the ambition for this space as its director to re-work the idea of the business park as a territory claimed for social use and shared insight, a social park – through invitations to non-university members, open lectures, the installation of external social space such as picnic benches and related ventures. I will connect these modest efforts to a broader discussion about the potentially exciting and vital role of physical space and real estate by universities that is perhaps under-estimated or under-utilised in relation to discussions about the role of the sector in becoming an agent of change that goes beyond knowledge into thinking about questions of design, access and implementation.

Dr Lee Crookes, Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield. “‘The University will be for the people?’ Reclaiming the civic university as a hometown academic.”

Drawing on my own experience of developing and leading engaged learning initiatives in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield, this paper reflects on the experience of being a Sheffield-born ‘hometown academic’ who is committed to working with the city’s marginalised communities to effect positive change. My rootedness, I argue, makes for an invigorated understanding of the university’s civic role and a more parochial orientation towards the notion of ‘impact’. Whilst the work I am engaged in has the potential to create a different kind of impact, I further argue that it also demands a different kind of academic practice. If community-university partnerships are to succeed, the paper contends, universities must make space for a new kind of academic in the form of a ‘boundary spanner’ who is able to broker relationships across geographical, social and institutional boundaries. Shifting quickly between the roles of teacher, researcher, activist, outreach worker, facilitator and/or community development worker, the boundary-spanning academic is someone who is comfortable in the spaces within and beyond the university and adept at traversing the boundaries between them. Being local sometimes makes the navigation of these boundaries a little easier but, as I will discuss, this is not always the case.

Dr Hayley Bennett, University of Edinburgh and Dr Richard Brunner, University of Glasgow. "Nurturing the buffer zone: conducting collaborative action research with public service practitioners in Scotland"

Public service reform involves public, private and third sector organisations collaborating within a complex, multi-actor system addressing longstanding social issues or responding to new demands. It additionally involves public service practitioners experiencing swift changes to working practices and structures. Collaborative Action Research (CAR), which seeks to combine social research with social change, has offered us an agile means through which to research this demanding and fast-changing context. At the same time, adopting a CAR approach appears to meet demands within academia to increase the involvement of research users in knowledge generation and in creating impact. We contend that adopting collaborative research approaches creates challenges for social science researchers, which require greater consideration. Using empirical data from a two-year CAR programme with multiple public services addressing various social policy issues as part of the What Works Scotland collaboration, this paper describes the activities used to foster what we conceptualise as a 'buffer zone': a dynamic, contextual space and set of practices necessary to enace CAR within complex and changeable settings. We find that researchers need to engage in distinctive, significant and ongoing relational and political work in the 'buffer zone' when setting up, conducting and withdrawing from CAR with multi-agency partnerships. We discuss the implications of CAR in terms of research design, ethics, and impact, with a particular focus on social policy-focused research.

Professor Felicity Callard, Professor of Social Research and Director of Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR). "Where is the university in critical thought?"

My talk addresses how much critical thought (whether addressing the urban or other objects of enquiry) works through a fantasy in which the critical thinker is positioned against the ‘neoliberal’ university, or subject to its powers – or punished by it. The critical thinker, in this fantasy, does not make, or uphold, or benefit from, today’s university. As the scholar Nick Mitchell has argued: the mobilization of the political (within academic writing) frequently marks critical academics’ desire to be ‘outside’ the university at the very moment at which we are most within and of it. My talk calls for ‘the university’ to be more visible within contemporary critical theory. I am interested, in other words, in examining much more closely the relationship between the theories and forms of reasoning generated within the critical social sciences, the complex kinds of work they have done both in and beyond the academy, and the multiple ways of being an ‘engaged academic’. My talk will use ‘critical geography’ as its exemplar.

Professor Sally Lloyd-Evans, University of Reading. "Labouring for social justice in community and university spaces: critical reflections from a participatory action research collective"

Drawing on five years' experience of working with a participatory action research (PAR) collective called the 'Whitley Researchers' that focuses on creating powerful knowledge with communities for a more socially just society, this paper explores the everyday emotional and ethical challenges of doing co-production and reflects on why this knowledge creation, and the additional labour associated with its production, remains largely invisible and undervalued in both traditional academic and community praxis. My discussion focuses on three interlinked issues that have arisen from co-producing research with local communities and policy-makers. Firstly, the undervalued labour required for 'doing' co-production, community engagement and activism and how this affects the wellbeing and career prospects of overstretched academics. Secondly, the gendered and ethical challenges of embodying the multiple identities that 'being more than an academic' requires and thirdly, the everyday tensions in negotiating resources, space and time for this research. I conclude by reflecting on the opportunities for carving out new critical spaces for creating more powerful and socially just practices in universities.

Professor Doina Petrescu, University of Sheffield. "Challenges in practice-based research and application of a model of co-resilience in suburban neighbourhoods"

In the last decade I have led research on resilience in suburban neighbourhoods proposing a new co-produced regeneration strategy based on the creation of networks of civic hubs to support the emergence of collective resilience practices within communities. Although this research has a strong transformative dimension, following the full cycle from the conception of a model to its application, evaluation and dissemination and implying forms of co-production across different phases, it also multiplies the challenges to face. In this paper I will address a few aspects of these challenges arisen in the process: 1) The tensions between academia/ practice/ activism/ community and policy worlds in terms of knowledge production 2) The idea that evidence of (social) impact can be sometimes contested, depending on whom is providing this evidence and for what 3) The undervalued aspects of practice-based, activist and design-driven research co-production in academia.

This seminar is part of the Whose Knowledge Matters and Working Across Boundaries projects under the Realising Just Cities programme.