Davis is the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism at Harvard's Graduate School of Design (GSD). Her research tackles cities in the global south, with a special interest in Latin American cities, and issues of governance and sovereignty in an urban context.
'I have moved from a pure social science background to being a social scientist in a school of action. What characterizes my work, is an interest not only in what is happening and why, but also how to change conditions for the better. My focus is on cities and their governance: how they are run, whether there is conflict and controversy, the level of inequality and where it comes from, the relationship between social and historical conditions, and the spatial dynamics of all the above. That is the terrain I have worked in for the last 30 years.'
Sovereignty is about who has the 'absolute’ power to do what, and in which physical spaces
Towards a Concept of Urban Sovereignty
The title of Diane’s lecture is Sovereignty in the Anthropocene. Diane reminds us that the concept of sovereignty is intended to shed light on the authority to govern. 'Sovereignty is about who has the 'absolute’ power to do what, and in which physical spaces. The concept of sovereignty is often used to talk about national governance, with the nation-state assumed to be the main holder of sovereignty in the modern world. I am questioning that assumption, particularly in a world of climate change. My current research and practice priorities, involve a focus on sovereignty – or governance authority – at different territorial scales than the nation state.'
Diane's prior research on cities in conflict, led her to question the extent of nation-states' control over their entire territory. She noticed that urban violence is often caused by local ‘non-state armed actors’ who wield significant authority over various spaces, which can extend beyond the city and even cross national borders. 'That’s when I became interested in what it would mean to question national sovereignty and to focus on other scales of political determination, such as the city.'
Evolving Concerns of Climate Change
In her upcoming AISSR Lecture on October 19, Diane examines the idea of sovereignty through the lens of climate change. 'We are now aware that human-made decisions are impacting natural processes, but what about the opposite? Can ecological conditions impact how governance decisions are made and by whom?'
'My aim is to ask questions about how sovereignty could or should change in the face of ecological challenges, leaving a territorial footprint that is not coincident with the scale of existent governance institutions. Whether rivers overflow, or coastal cities disappear, is not only going to impact how people live and how capitalism or markets function in those places. It may also constrain or undermine traditional territorial scales of governance, which may not be up to the task of adapting to - or mitigating - climate change. My point is that there will be ecological and territorial changes produced by the non-human world, that will have an impact on human willingness and capacity to assert sovereignty at certain scales.'
'I am eager to reflect more on the differences in the nature of governance in the Netherlands, Amsterdam and Europe at large
From the US to Europe
Diane’s visiting professorship at the AISSR, allows her to take her focus from Latin America to the US to Europe. Identifying as a card-carrying sociologist, she observes how the geographic trajectory of most of her research interests has flowed in the opposite direction of many of her disciplinary colleagues. 'Sociology originated in Europe, with its key theories and research spreading to the US and, often with negative outcomes, to the Global South. During my stay at the AISSR, I hope to reverse that intellectual journey. Given what I know about Latin America and the US, are there ideas or insights generated through my prior work that can be applied to Europe? And more specifically, how might my interests in violence, shifting or competing sovereignty, and urban governance contribute to knowledge, or generate new debate, in a place like the Netherlands, Amsterdam or Europe at large?'
'I am eager to reflect more on the differences in the nature of governance in each of these three settings. Social democracy and welfare state regimes are much more common in Europe than in the US. Which has been a market-oriented political system with hegemonic neoliberal ideas for decades, if not centuries. What are the implications of this for its comparison to Europe?
In the US, many citizens feel that the role of the state is to let the market do its thing. Yet, this not only poses a great dilemma for planners in the US, because it is associated with the view that the state is bad and the market is good. It also means that citizenship - and even sovereignty - may work differently as well.'
Meeting the Mayor of Amsterdam
On November 15, Diane will meet with the mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, for the third AISSR Lecture, in the form of a converstation between the both of them. This dialogue connects two crucial actors in urban development: the planner-sociologist, anchored in a world of ideas with knowledge from abroad, and the mayor as the embodiment of governing power with deep knowledge of Amsterdam.
'Many professional planners tend to focus on technocratic things: financing, zoning, community development, and so on. I have always been interested in social conditions and the relations between the governed and the governing. And thus I think that mayors are absolutely central to effective planning institutions and outcomes. In that conversation, I am excited to learn more about the relationship between planners and the mayor, as well as how mayors work. Whether in local, national, or even global political conditions. What combination of these factors will build cities that are more just, equitable, and inclusive?'
AISSR Lecture by Diane E. Davis
19 October 2023 | 15:30 -17:00
CREA Music Hall, Roeterseilandcampus - building I (CREA)