Is Deleuzian urban planning possible?

By Catherine Midwood

The ‘Theorizing Society and Space’ course we take as part of the MSc in Society & Space centres on reading and discussing prominent theorists who have written on the relationships between society and space. One of these theorists is Gilles Deleuze, an important philosopher for contemporary cultural geography. His work on politics, space and subjectivity, sometimes co-authored with Felix Guattari, is a key part of the course, which has gone on to inform my PhD research. In my research I use a Deleuzian lens to engage with city spaces, temporary urbanism, and subjectivity. This blog essay outlines the potentials and problematics of Deleuze and Guattari’s work as applied to the discipline of urban planning.

In her book on Gilles Deleuze, Claire Colebrook states that ‘Deleuze’s great problem and contribution was his insistence, in opposition to structuralism, on difference and becoming’ (2001: 2). Through the course of his work, Deleuze developed an ontology in opposition to many of the structures and ideas that had been long-held by the continental philosophical tradition. As many different areas engage with his ideas, questions have been asked of how to use his philosophy practically in order to open up new ways of thinking and acting in the world.


A climate change ready park: Tåsinge Plads in Copenhagen, photo credit David Buchmann.

One realm where such questions have been raised is urban planning. For example, Professor Jean Hillier from the School of Global, Urban & Social Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, works with Deleuzian ideas and concepts to demonstrate what Deleuzian urban planning could be like and how it could benefit the discipline. Mainly, she emphasises that Deleuzian planning should move away from strictly defined, prearranged uses of urban spaces and towards the idea of ‘planning and planners as experiments or speculations entangled in a series of contingent, networked relationships’ (2008: 26). Her argument is that urban planning needs to move away from an ontology of being and towards an ontology of becoming. The Deleuzian idea of becoming is not one of movement between two fixed points: becoming does not have a defined end point. Instead, as Cliff Stagoll defines it, it can ‘be conceived of as the eternal, productive return of difference’ (in Parr, 2005: 22). Hillier’s work emphasises that planners must be open to the ways in which various bodies, both human and non-human, relate to the urban environment and interact with it in potentially unexpected ways. This is Deleuzian in that it attempts to liberate planning from defining and structuring urban space by remaining open to what could happen; open to the productive return of difference.

However, for me Hillier’s work does not go far enough to engage with Deleuze’s ideas. Where Hillier points out that ‘Deleuze’s philosophy appears to fit neatly with interpretations of the world as complex systems’ (2010: 873), she rather simplifies his thinking, forcing it into the hierarchy and structure that he was arguing against. Although she emphasises the importance of becoming, non-human actors, and so on, it could be said that in her attempt to use Deleuze practically, she is dulling his radical side. Following this particular criticism of Hillier along with other urban planners, Mark Purcell (2013) calls for urban planning to engage first-hand with the primary texts of Deleuze, and of Deleuze and Guattari, rather than diluting the revolutionary aspects of the work in order to ‘make them more palatable to existing norms and structures’ (Purcell, 2013: 22). I tend to agree with Purcell that interpreting Deleuze and Guattari in the way that Hillier does results in an appearance of picking and choosing what is most palatable from their work, thus misusing them entirely. However, I also acknowledge that their anti-planning stance makes them a puzzling choice for invigorating urban planning. The two just don’t seem to fit together. How can urban planning, which by its existence requires some sort of hierarchical structure in order to get anything done, engage with Deleuzoguattarian ideas? Could this ever work in practice?


Stormwater drains: Tåsinge Plads in Copenhagen, photo credit Orbicon.

Therefore, perhaps Jean Hillier’s interpretation and application of Deleuze in urban planning is a practical step forward. Certainly, following an ontology of becoming by accepting the world as ever-changing and processual seems like a positive step when thinking about the future of our built environment. In a Copenhagen neighbourhood there is a park, Tåsinge Plads, which is ‘prepared’, in a sense, for climate change: ‘the flowerbeds fill with water and wait to drain until the storm runoff subsides. The upside-down umbrellas collect water to be used later to nourish the plantings. And clever landscaping directs stormwater down into large underground water storage tanks’ (Cathcart-Keays for Citiscope, 2016). This demonstrates an openness to becoming and difference in the world as it has been built with the material capacity to relate to heavy rainfall in more beneficial ways than other urban spaces that do. I would argue that the design of the park can be interpreted as urban planning from an ontology of becoming because it also anticipates the unknown future we will face as a result of climate change. It is open to the potential that could happen.

However, I do think there are ways for urban development to follow Deleuze and Guattari more closely and fully. Their anarchic spirit does not shine through in Hillier’s work or examples such as Tåsinge Plads. My PhD research explores temporary urbanism as a potential way that Deleuzoguattarian ideas can be experimented with in urban spaces. These temporary interventions – whether that be in the form of guerrilla gardening, yarn bombing, picnic benches appearing in unexpected places, writing or drawing on buildings and pavements –show us that ‘such practices so contest the power of authorities to dictate the uses of urban space’ (Iveson, 2013: 954). Poet Hakim Bey termed these spaces ‘temporary autonomous zones’ (1991). They force a rupture in the state-planned city and demonstrate that nothing can ever be fully controlled or planned out by urban planning. Bey emphasised that the ephemerality of these zones as key to their radical potential because they’re not intended to go anywhere in particular or do anything in particular. Instead, they provide ‘moments of intensity [that] give shape and meaning to the entirety of a life… a difference is made’ (Bey, 1991: 100).


A temporary intervention in urban space: Union Street Urban Orchard in London, photo credit Peter Bishop.

Temporary urbanism may show glimmers of Deleuze and Guattari’s anarchic spirit, which could be built upon by urban planners. Purcell argues for a new kind of planning that is based on an ontology of becoming, as Hillier’s is, but goes further in engaging with this radical spirit. So this does not mean an urban planning that attempts to control acts of temporary urbanism or support them through state-led hierarchies, as ‘Deleuze and Guattari stand against state-led planning of all kinds’ (Purcell, 2013: 330). But it means not crushing these uses with punishments or further urban control either. I return again to Mark Purcell’s conclusion as he imagines a Deleuzoguattarian planning:

‘Planning would need to operate in a way that might seem strange… Planning would need to be an activity that works tirelessly to ward off new forms of organizations, institution, and hierarchy. It would have to be planning that does not stand outside the activity of people and try to coordinate it… Planning would have to be conceived of as a power that is immanent to society’. (2013: 35)

Deleuze may seem like an impractical philosopher to engage with when considering urban planning, but as we consider the future of our built environment it might become necessary to turn to more radical ideas such as his that could reinvigorate planning as a powerfully democratic force.


Bey, H. 1991. T. A. Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Autonomedia.
Cathcart-Keays, A. for, January 21st 2016. ‘Why Copenhagen is building parks that can turn into ponds’. Available at: Accessed 25th January 2016.
Clairebrook, C. 2001. Gilles Deleuze: Essential Guides for Literary Studies. Routledge.
Hillier, J. 2008. ‘Plan(e) Speaking: A Multiplanar Theory of Spatial Planning’ in Planning Theory 7 (1).
Hillier, J. and Scott-Cato, M. 2010. ‘How could we study climate-related social innovation? Applying Deleuzean philosophy to Transition Towns’ in Environmental Politics 19 (6)
Iveson, K. 2013. ‘Cities within the City: Do-It-Yourself Urbanism and the Right to the City’ in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37 (3)
Parr, A. 2005. The Deleuze Dictionary. Edinburgh University Press.
Purcell, M. 2013. ‘A New Land: Deleuze and Guattari and Planning’ in Planning Theory & Practice 14 (1).

Events – February 2016

Here’s our selection of a few events coming up in February that relate to some of the themes explored on the blog as well as link to conversations that are happening contemporary human geography.



John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea. Arnolfini. Open all of February.

A powerful video installation currently running at the Arnolfini gallery. Covering themes of violence, our relationship to the sea, slavery, ecological concerns, as well as the pressing contemporary debates around migration. Arguably, it also demonstrates the power of film to move us and affect us in a way that words cannot. Read more about the exhibition in this Guardian piece by Adrian Searle.

Find out more here.



Imagined Landscapes. Opens Saturday 6th February. Admission prices may apply (students go free!).

Sharing the RWA gallery space with two other exhibitions exploring ideas of place, Inquistive Eyes and Simon Quadrat’s solo exhbition, Imagined Landscapes showcases work about our relationship to landscapes and new imaginings of what place means. Many of the pieces featured experiment with various materials too, exploring the materiality of our world (earth, stones, feathers) alongside our ideas of what landscape is. Imagined Landscapes also features the some:when project by Society and Space alumni and artist Jethro Brice.

Find out more here.



‘The Cube Project: Pro-environmental behaviour change by design’ – Cabot Institute talk. Biomedical Building, E29. Wednesday 10th February, 3pm.

This talk by Dr Mike Page from the University of Hertfordshire covers ‘the Cube Project’ – an initiative that builds low carbon micro-homes. It will also discuss issues around our relation to the environment and our living habits, possibly raising some interesting questions about what we consider to be ‘home’ space. (Note: nothing to do with the Cube Microplex. That’s a different Cube Project).

Find out more here.



BBC 6 Music Festival 2016 & Fringe. Various venues around Bristol. Friday 12th February – Sunday 14th February.

Whether you managed to get tickets in those few minutes or not, there is still plenty going on all over Bristol as part of the Fringe. Lots of music and varied events to choose from – lots of free ones too!

Find out more about the Fringe here.



James Wheale: Musical Tastes. Watershed. Saturday 13th February, 2pm. Tickets are £4.

As part of the BBC 6 Music Fringe, the Watershed is hosting an afternoon combining food and music which asks how what you listen to could alter the way you taste certain foods. This event raises some really interesting questions about sensations, embodiment, and affect which are all hot topics in contemporary human geography. Also, you get to eat, listen to music, and you can go to the cinema afterwards. What a great Saturday. Booking is required! Act fast!

Find out more here.



Starling Murmurations. Various sites around Somerset. Various days in February.

A little further afield all around sites in Somerset, these spectacular displays of huge flocks of starlings moving as one are occurring this month. If you manage to catch a sight of them, maybe consider how this demonstrates an ideal politics, destabilizes the idea of the unified whole, and displays Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘rhizome’ in all its wonderful more-than-human glory. Or just watch them. The best places to find them are the Avalon Marshes and surrounding nature reserves such as Shapwick Heath. Call the Avalon Marshes Starling Hotline on 07866 554142 and listen to the answer message to find out where you might find them.

Find out more here.


Enjoy February!

Research impact: participating in and understanding religious change

By Stephanie Denning

What does it mean to change the world?  As humans we are constantly changing the world – we build houses and create towns and cities out of countryside, we drive cars that pollute the atmosphere, and bend nature to our will – or at least try to.  To varying degrees geographers are concerned with each of these things.  On occasion I tell people that human geography, which is my discipline, is concerned with people and place.  Whilst this could be accused of being anthropocentric, this does make human geography undeniably relevant to society.  I focus here on a small avenue of human geography – the geography of religion – and how research in this area can have impact in the world through action and gaining understanding.


Many are afraid of or reluctant to accept change.  People have assumptions that change is negative, difficult, and destroying.  Others push for change, for a better future, for possibility, for difference.  Change is inherent to the geography of religion.  Religion is already both changing, and changing the world – negatively and positively.  There is an ongoing concern of religious extremism and terrorism across the world, when at the same time here in the UK is it faith-based organisations who are increasingly responding to food poverty through foodbanks and other charitable initiatives to alleviate poverty.  For example, the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK notes in its 2014 report that many of the volunteers at charities responding to food poverty in the UK by providing food (for example food banks) are Christians.  Yet statistically church attendance has been falling since the last century.  The geography of religion can give impact to the world by bringing greater understanding of these issues, and providing a means for approaching religion and faith in society, and for greater understanding of people and place.


Currently in the second year of my PhD in Human Geography, my research looks to actively participate in changing religion as a means to understand religious faith.  As a Christian myself I am helping to establish and run a church-based project to combat hunger of school children in the school holidays through the national network, MakeLunch.  Methodologically I combine ideas of action, participation and observation to be both a researcher and participant.  Whilst the project forms an integral part of my PhD it could, and indeed does elsewhere, exist independently of any research.  This is changing the world at a very small scale already for the people involved in the project, both volunteers and children attending the lunch club in their school holidays.  As volunteers we cannot help but be changed by our experiences, both with each other, and in endeavouring to help people in need.  In turn, the children attending the lunch club, I hope, have fun during the play session with art and sports activities, and have full stomachs after the lunch itself.  This research therefore has immediate impact and change beyond academia for the people involved in the project, but as I continue my PhD and write about human action and willing in a faith context I am contributing to academic and community understanding of the role of faith based social action in responding to food poverty, hopefully improving people’s well-being and showing community care.  


This is just one piece of research falling under the discipline of the geography of religion in the relatively short period of a three year PhD, focussing upon Christian faith and responding to food poverty.  There is therefore huge potential for research in this way to impact upon the world by combining theory, academia and practical action.  In this way the geography of religion can participate within and gain understanding of the wide range of social action undertaken by people of all religious faiths, and indeed acknowledge many people of no faith also contribute to their local communities.  At a time when in the media the headlines are full of acts of terrorism and religious extremism, it is vitally important that the positive aspects of religious faith are also acknowledged and understood to avoid inaccurate and unnecessary stereotypes.  This is a time of change for world religions.  In turn, research can impact upon the world by participating in and gaining understanding of the action of that religious change.