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A new politics of provision for an urbanized planet

This book examines how material systems such as transportation, energy and housing form the basis of human freedom. It begins by explaining this linkage by defining reliance systems, the basic way in which we become free to act not only as a result of our bodily capabilities or the absence of barriers but because of collectively produced systems. As virtually all of us rely on such systems – water, food, energy, healthcare, etc. – for freedom, the book argues that they must form the centre of a twenty-first-century politics. Rather than envisioning a healthier politics of reliance systems exclusively through rights or justice or deliberative democracy, we argue that they must become the centre of a new social contract. More specifically, we discuss the politics of reliance systems as a set of spatial contracts. Spatial contracts are the full set of politics governing any given system, and as such they are historically, geographically and system specific. In order to fully understand spatial contracts, we develop an analytical framework focused on three areas. Seeing like a system shows how systems thinking can enable us to avoid ideological approaches to understanding given spatial contracts, repurposing key ideas from mainstream and heterodox economics. Seeing like a settlement shows how systems come together in space to form human settlements, and exposes key political divides between urban and rural, and formal and informal. Adapting Iris Marion Young’s five faces of oppression enables an understanding of the specific ways in which reliance systems can be exploitative.

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Alex Schafran, Matthew Noah Smith, and Stephen Hall

reproduced. Only at the cost of losing almost all our agency can we escape our individual and collective roles in the production of reliance systems. Most reliance systems fit into a simpler term that has become more and more important in recent years: infrastructure. To some, this may mean that they do not belong at the centre of an interesting or important politics. We need the trains to run on time and the water to be clean, but ‘real politics’ is supposedly about rights and power, sovereignty and global justice, markets and solidarity. Questions

in The spatial contract
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Building a healthy spatial contract
Alex Schafran, Matthew Noah Smith, and Stephen Hall

Around the world, more and more people are realizing that we need to pay greater attention to the core systems we depend upon for survival. Not only are systems such as housing, transportation, food, energy, water, waste, education, healthcare and more central to our basic needs as humans, and to our basic freedoms, they are increasingly vulnerable to both exploitation by the powerful and disruption by the climate crisis. This book has worked to develop a three-part framework for thinking about the politics of these systems. It is an

in The spatial contract
Alex Schafran, Matthew Noah Smith, and Stephen Hall

Thus far, we have worked to establish two critical points. First, human freedom is realized in reliance systems, social and material systems that have to be constantly made and remade. These systems, no matter our individual capacities, are always collectively produced. Second, these reliance systems are governed by a set of formal and informal political agreements which we call spatial contracts. Spatial contracts are spatial and not exclusively social because they are rooted in the materiality of specific systems, and thus in both space, place

in The spatial contract
Alex Schafran, Matthew Noah Smith, and Stephen Hall

‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ interchangeably). Drawing on writings such as Thomas Hobbes’s famous seventeenth-century definition of liberty as ‘the absence of external impediment’, Berlin characterized negative freedom as the freedom one has in virtue of the absence of obstruction imposed by others. 1 For example, if you are locked in a jail cell, then the walls, bars, door and locks, among other things, obstruct your ability to exit the cell. You are not free to leave. Scholars and activists from across the political spectrum followed Berlin in focusing

in The spatial contract
Alex Schafran, Matthew Noah Smith, and Stephen Hall

any number of other reliance systems, and vice versa. Reliance systems also always exist somewhere, even if that place is virtual. An effective analytical framework for reliance systems must be able to understand how, in the words of the late geographer Edward Soja, ‘it all comes together’ in space and place, or more precisely, in human settlements. 1 In virtually every society on earth, there are ideologies that primarily adhere to reliance systems when they come together in space and place. These ideologies can be as deeply ingrained in political

in The spatial contract
Alex Schafran, Matthew Noah Smith, and Stephen Hall

Over the past two chapters we have worked to develop an analytical framework for analysing reliance systems and spatial contracts. Certain assumptions and ideologies about systems can get in the way of developing healthy agreements, which is why we call for a system-centred politics, as opposed to a politics-centred system. When we start to see systems through settlements and vice versa, we also see more clearly other barriers, divides between space and place, and those between the formal and the informal. This much, at least, is required to realize

in The spatial contract