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Commodity Flows and Urban Spaces. An Introduction.

Elke Beyer, Anke Hagemann and Philipp Misselwitz

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This special feature was edited as a result of the research project Transnational Production Spaces at Habitat Unit, Technische Universität Berlin, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) under research agreement No MI 1893/2-1.

1Contemporary production of urban space is increasingly shaped by the circulation of people, information, money and goods across the planet. Urbanization cannot be adequately understood without considering the relatedness of places on multiple scales. The extent to which global connectedness, and its lack or failure, defines everyday life and economic activity in almost any corner of the world, has been put in very sharp focus by the repercussions of the lockdown measures to contain the covid19 pandemic at the time of writing. While the mobility of people and the networks channeling flows of information and financial capital have received much attention in urban studies in the past decades, surprisingly a blind spot of relational urban research persists regarding the interaction of urban spaces with global systems of manufacturing and distributing goods (Krätke et al. 2012, Robinson 2011, Brown et al. 2010). By addressing this theoretical and empirical knowledge gap, we aim to initiate a critical conceptual debate on urban research from the vantage point of commodity flows and transnational production networks. The contributions to this debate presented by the Special Feature include new research from scholars in architecture and urban studies, anthropology, visual sociology and geography exploring interdependencies between the manufacturing and circulation of commodities and transformations of urban space.

Commodity Production Transforms Urban Spaces – But How?

2As industrial production for global markets is dispersed to an ever greater extent across various geographies, the physical movements of materials and goods are expanding in volume and distances. Spatial divisions of labour, fragmented production relations and selective connectivity have triggered complex spatial transformation processes and, thus, need to be understood as crucial driving forces of planetary urbanization dynamics. They are manifest in most diverse architectural and infrastructural arrangements and the arrival of new spatial typologies – from small sweatshops and trading hubs in informally built-up areas to sprawling industrial districts in peri-urban regions, to the gated enclaves of export processing zones or logistics hubs which are traded globally as “spatial products” (Easterling 2014). How the actual sites, routes and transnational spatialities of global commodity production and distribution are constituted, poses many challenging questions for urban research. What kind of places do commodities traverse in their making? How can urban research engage with the multiplicity and geographical fragmentation of interrelated production sites? How are local urbanization dynamics and urban forms shaped by the manufacturing and circulation of goods – and how do specific places in turn affect these processes? Which actors initiate and stabilize the positioning of specific localities in global production networks? What kind of new local-global arrangements, practices and forms of agency are being formed and how do they influence architectural design, urban planning, and governance processes? How do they affect local contestations around issues of equity and social cohesion? Ultimately, how can the wider urban impacts of global commodity production and circulation be captured conceptually and empirically? The Special Feature is guided by such complex questions, while engaging with theoretical and methodological frameworks across different disciplines to provide empirically founded answers.

Approaching Commodity Chains, Networks, Circuits – and Urban Space

3Geographers, economists, sociologists, and anthropologists have proposed various approaches to explore the fragmented and geographically dispersed nature of commodity production and circulation. Fundamental considerations as to how production relations and the spatial division of labour contribute to the production of (urban) space were put forward during the 1980s by neo-Marxist geographers such as Neil Smith (1984), David Harvey (1990) and Doreen Massey (1995 [1984]), but also Alan J. Scott (1988), and architecture scholar Anthony D. King (1990). They argue that an understanding of dispersed capitalist production systems in their historically specific forms is an essential prerequisite to analyzing spatial structures and disparities at different scales.

4Following a different line of inquiry, based on Global Commodity Chains (GCC), Global Value Chains (GVC) and Global Production Networks (GPN) frameworks, an extensive literature has emerged in the 1990s studying value creation and power relationships in complex firm networks. These commodity chain perspectives, much diversified from the initial commodity chain concept of World Systems Theory, provide valuable conceptual and empirical entry points to investigate the geography and actor constellations of globalized production at different scales. The analytical potential of a commodity chain perspective has been described pointedly by economic sociologist Jennifer Bair:

5“Tracing the path of a commodity – be it a pair of blue jeans sewn in China from Indian-made denim, a cocoa bean grown in Ghana and processed into a chocolate bar in the Netherlands, or the assembly of a laptop computer in Mexico from components produced in East Asia – provides a grounded way to study and operationalize the global-local nexus. The GCC method permits one to analyze globalization in situ, directing our attention to the specific locations where particular production processes occur, while simultaneously illuminating how these discrete locations and activities are connected to each other as constituent links that collectively comprise the commodity chain.” (Bair 2005:158-159)

6The GPN approach rooted in economic geography offers particularly useful reference points for urban research, as it provides the most advanced conceptualization of the spatiality of production networks and their “territorial embeddedness” and includes a wider set of “non-firm” actors into analysis (Henderson et al. 2002, Coe et al. 2008, Coe and Yeung 2015). Empirical studies by geographers such as Philip Kelly (2013) and Jana Kleibert (2015) have highlighted the urban and physical effects of a region’s integration into global production networks. Reconnecting commodity chain research to the wider neo-Marxist framework of uneven spatial development, Jennifer Bair and Marion Werner have demanded attention to the eventual negative effects of network (dis)integration. They propose a “disarticulations perspective” (Bair and Werner 2011, Werner 2016b) highlighting the relevance of local and individual struggles and adaptation strategies, the “politics of place”, in relation to global firms’ activities and international politics. This perspective provides valuable conceptual tools for empirical urban research, as the case studies by Claudia Fonseca Alfaro, Anke Hagemann and Elke Beyer in this issue demonstrate.

7Departing from the principle to “follow the things” (Appadurai 1986: 5) and their meaning across diverse cultural contexts and urban locations, different conceptual approaches to study commodity circuits have been developed in cultural geography, anthropology and Material Culture studies. The notion of circuits within and across overlapping spheres of production and consumption is applied in conscious distanciation from chain concepts and the linearity they imply. The trajectories of things have been approached by anthropologists, sociologists and geographers through multi-sited ethnography (Marcus 1995). Authors like Ian Cook (2004), Claire Dwyer and Peter Jackson (2003), Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward (2010), Olivier Pliez (2012, Belguidoum and Pliez 2015), Caroline Knowles (2014), Nicky Gregson et al. (2010), and Andrew Brooks (2015) followed consumer goods like papaya, flip-flop sandals, or jeans to engage more deeply with multiple sites where the commodities are made and traded, consumed, re-used and disposed of. Their accounts shed light on economies beyond the production networks of transnational corporations, and offer alternative narratives of globalization “from below” (Pliez 2012), entering into its “backroads” (Knowles 2014) and revealing its ephemereality and brittleness. These biographies and trajectories of objects lead to unexpected and “inconspicuous” places (Choplin and Pliez 2015, Articulo 12|2015), offering instructive “lenses through which cities can be apprehended and analysed” (Knowles 2015). Anthropologist Anna Tsing also follows the pathways of commodities in her “ethnography of global connection” (Tsing 2005). She focuses primarily on harvested goods like mushrooms or wood and the specific ecologies, the often remote locations and the actors involved in producing and processing these goods (Tsing 2015). Studying such niches in depth and in relation to elsewhere, Tsing accentuates the friction resulting from the encounter of cultural differences when commodities are circulated globally. Tsing has coined the term “supply chain capitalism” (Tsing 2009) to denominate the economic exploitation of cultural diversity made possible by many layers of outsourcing and subcontracting, while responsibility for working conditions and environmental risks is consciously relegated. The contributions to this issue by Lizzie Richardson and Katharina Grüneisl build on Anna Tsing’s conceptualization of niches and the cultural anthropology approach to “follow the things” for insightful analysis of how specific urban spaces and practices or activities contribute to commodity production and value generation.

8Across the disciplines, a number of attempts have been made to link the study of commodity flows and urban research. Scholars have identified potential common ground between the literatures of Global Commodity Chains and World City Networks (Parnreiter 2003, Brown et al. 2010), between Global Commodity Chains and transnational urban research (Krätke et al. 2012, Parnreiter 2012), between “follow the thing” approaches and small-scale urban ethnography (Knowles 2014, Belguidoum and Pliez 2015), or between transnational commodity production and spatial urban analyses (Hagemann 2015, Beyer and Hagemann 2018 and Beyer et al. forthcoming). Architectural scholars have developed inspiring approaches to the analysis and visual representation of the logistical infrastructure systems facilitating commodity movements (Ghosn and Jazairy 2018, Hein 2018a, LeCavalier 2016, Lyster 2016, Ruby and Ruby 2017, Waldheim and Berger 2008). Recently, interdisciplinary debates on infrastructures and commodity circulation in cities have also gained considerable momentum (See theme issues of journals such as Harvard Design Magazine (2016), Footprint (2018), Lo Squaderno (2019), Society and Space (2018, 2019), and limn (2018)). However, the potential of a systematic integration of the study on global commodity chains, circuits or networks with urban research and spatial analysis has not been fully exploited by far (Krätke et al. 2012), and economic geographers too have been calling for more attention to the territorial dimension of globalized production (Kleibert and Horner 2018, Phelps 2017, Kelly 2013).

New Perspectives on Commodity Flows and Urban Spaces

9Opening up new perspectives in the study of urban spaces through the lens of global commodity flows and production networks, the Special Feature presents a cross-disciplinary spectrum of recent research by emerging scholars from different fields of geography, urban studies, architecture and planning. The authors engage with very diverse production settings and logistics spaces within cities and in multiple locations across the planet, tracing the interaction of the built environment with the processing and movement of commodities from manufacturing to distribution and reuse or recycling. In order to conceptualize and study interdependencies between dynamic commodity flows, transnational production processes, and transformations of urban space, they enlist a range of theoretical and methodological approaches. The authors build on GCC and GPN approaches including the disarticulations critique (Henderson et al. 2002, Coe and Yeung 2015, Bair and Werner 2011, Werner 2016a), and perspectives on commodity flows from the field of cultural geography and anthropology (Appadurai 1986, Gregson et al. 2010, Tsing 2015, Knowles 2014). These approaches are put in fruitful dialog with architecture and planning positions, urban studies literature on infrastructure (Simone 2004, Easterling 2014, Graham and McFarlane 2015) and transnational urbanism (Krätke et al. 2012, Parnreiter 2012, Hein 2018b), institutional sociology (Sorensen 2017, 2015) and (neo-)Marxist thinking on the production of space (Massey 1995 [1984], Lefebvre 1991). Thus, the Special Feature provides much needed groundwork for research beyond disciplinary limitations, elaborating and bringing together innovative conceptual frameworks for bridging the gap between the literatures on commodity flows and urban studies.

10Each of the six contributions in this issue presents a specific, original conceptual and empirical approach to inquire how urban spaces interact with the processing and movement of commodities from manufacturing to distribution, recycling and reuse. Most authors look at multiple sites and analyze them with specific attention to the production networks and circuits setting them in relation – whether across different continents, or across different neighbourhoods of a city. Some bring forward more place-centered considerations on the repercussions of global commodity production on particular locations – whether in terms of uneven development and social differentiation, or with regards to the materiality of urban forms and infrastructures.

Global Production Networks, Urban Form and Uneven Spatial Development

11The first three articles present case studies on the impacts of global production relations on urban spaces, each taking a different angle: Architecture scholar Victor Muñoz Sanz discusses the spatial project of a transnational shoe manufacturing company to plan and build factory towns on different continents from the perspective of institutionalist planning historiography. Urban researcher Claudia Fonseca Alfaro analyzes medium-term development impacts of export processing zones in Yucatán (Mexico) through the lens of social differentiation, accumulation by dispossession, and uneven development. Her case study of the Maquiladora industry’s boom and bust history highlights how the volatility of globalized production unsettles everyday lives and eventually makes large investments in infrastructures and factories redundant. Elke Beyer and Anke Hagemann also explore this volatility in a multi-local case study including clothing industry locations in Turkey, Bulgaria and Ethiopia, designed to conceptually integrate research on global production networks and urban space. They map transformations of the built environment on an architectural, urban and regional scale, investigate the underlying planning constellations and analyze their interplay with transnational production relations and gradual relocation processes.

Urban Infrastructure and Commodity Circulation

12The last three articles focus on the production of commodities in inner-urban circulation processes. Geographers Lizzie Richardson and Katharina Grüneisl investigate circulation processes at city scale involving the last-mile delivery of prepared food, and situated processes transforming the value of second-hand shoes. Richardson shows how urban space performs a crucial part of the production of a new mobile commodity in interplay with coordination technologies integrated in global corporate online platforms and mobile non-traditional labour in Newcastle (UK). Grüneisl illustrates how different types of urban districts and urban practices are instrumental for the differentiated valuation processes of second-hand sneakers in Tunis, which are integrated in complex transnational trade patterns. In the final visual essay, urban designer Laura Henneke explores how Yiwu, a minor Chinese city has developed and spatially transformed into a major wholesale center, a global shipping hub and a starting point for the ‘New Silk Road’, reflecting on national policies as well as everyday urban practices and experiences revolving around physical infrastructures of commodity circulation from the empirical viewpoint of visual sociology.

Five Points on Urban Space and Commodity Flows

13The authors of the issue elaborate different ways to investigate architectures, urban spaces and urban practices through the lens of commodity flows, but there are common insights to be gained from the contributions. To conclude this introduction, we summarize what can be gained by further integration of commodity chain approaches and relational urban research in five points, in order to flag out an agenda for future studies in this emerging field.

1. Considering urban space and physical (infra-)structure as factors of commodity production

14The contributions share a common focus on the relationship between global commodity circulation and the built environment. Paying close attention to the materiality and spatiality of urban production sites significantly expands and enriches previous research debates. Authors show how the analytical tools and vocabulary of architecture and urbanism can be productively integrated with conceptual and methodological approaches developed in the social sciences to this end. Thus, the Special Feature offers building blocks of a framework to conceptualize the agency of urban space and physical (infra)structures as crucial factors of commodity production and value generation.

2. Revealing inconspicuous drivers of globalization

15This perspective contributes in novel ways to building a critical understanding of overlooked places and urban impacts of globalization (Choplin and Pliez 2015). A more intense engagement with the interstitial urban spaces, hinterlands and backroads, often perceived as banal or generic and “not especially exciting or hospitable places for academic study” (Phelps 2017: 4), holds the potential to rewrite common globalization narratives by revealing inconspicuous actors, driving forces and friction.

3. Going beyond privileged sites of urban research

16Thus, the contributions illustrate how multi-local research along evolving production networks responds in a ground-breaking way to the challenge of a conceptually new comparative urban research “across divergent urban experiences” (Robinson 2011) and the outworn North-South divide (Ward 2010, Robinson 2011), as well as across conventional distinctions of urban centers and non-urban hinterlands (Brenner and Schmid 2015).

4. Deconstructing narratives of “upgrading” and “development

17Spatial disparities, borders and exclusions, dispossession and conflicts over land represent some of the “dark sides” (Phelps et al. 2018, Werner 2016b) of transnational production arrangements. By tracing the specific local outcomes and effects of such arrangements, the articles contribute to the critical deconstruction of at times overly simplistic narratives of economic and urban “upgrading” and “development” by way of coupling with global production networks (McGrath 2017, Schindler and Kanai 2019).

5. Mapping transnational and translocal interdependencies and power geometries

18The contributions thus substantiate a multi-local and multi-scalar perception of places usually considered separately, and they deepen our understanding of the transnational constitution of urban spaces. New actor constellations in the production of space may include powerful transnational alliances, but also novel forms of spatial agency, negotiation and appropriation practices by a diversity of local and translocal actors within global “supply chain capitalism” (Tsing 2009). By mapping the urban spaces and multiple actors of transnational economies the authors contribute to a better understanding of how these economies may reconfigure and reproduce processes of uneven development at different scales (Werner 2016a). Revealing such unexpected “power geometries” (Massey 1994) and interdependencies is not only of academic interest, but should be taken into account in everyone’s everyday politics of commodity consumption.

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Electronic reference

Elke Beyer, Anke Hagemann and Philipp Misselwitz, Commodity Flows and Urban Spaces. An Introduction.Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 21 | 2020, Online since 15 December 2020, connection on 29 November 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Elke Beyer

Elke Beyer, Dr. sc. ETH, is a historian and urban researcher based at the Institute for Architecture, Technische Universität Berlin. She has been teaching history and theory of architecture at ETH Zurich and at Technische Universität Berlin. Her research interests include post-war modernism and the global mobility of architecture and planning knowledge.

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Anke Hagemann

Anke Hagemann, Dipl.-Ing. Arch., is currently interim professor for urban planning at Brandenburgische Technische Universität Cottbus-Senftenberg. She conducted research at the Institute for Architecture, Technische Universität Berlin and taught at ETH Zurich, Stuttgart Technical University, HafenCity University Hamburg, and Technische Universität Berlin. Her doctoral thesis investigates the spatial division of labour in Istanbul’s clothing industry.

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Philipp Misselwitz

Philipp Misselwitz, Ph.D., is an architect and urban planner based in Berlin. He was educated at Cambridge University and the Architectural Association London and received his PhD from Stuttgart University for research on socio-spatial development within urbanised refugee camps. His research focuses on user-driven urban development processes and co-production in housing in Europe and the Global South, rural urbanisation processes, translocal spatial production as well as transdisciplinary teaching methodologies in the urban design field.

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