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Why shall we look at overlooked cities?

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

As urbanization is increasing, there is a growing body of literature on cities. But which cities are situated outside of these circulations of urban knowledge? What is happening in the streets, neighbourhoods, districts and cities that are rarely represented in these conversations? The tendency to overlook certain cities is not just a concern for scholars.

Political, economic and cultural logics within individual nations and across regions will inevitably look to certain cities over others. It is inevitable that growth strategies, development agendas, fiscal transfer arrangements, and restructuring and reform processes are designed with certain places and cities in mind, implemented unevenly across vast territories and with unresolved questions of equity and justice at their core.

Looking at cities – whether to explain, understand, or merely to observe – inevitably involves a degree of ‘overlooking’. Some cities and urban processes always seem to be kept out of view, and remain removed from familiar ways of seeing, thinking, questioning and engaging. And yet, these cities are still subjected to the various assumptions made and the categories and labels devised by scholars, policy-makers, and practitioners alike. Critical urbanists have long emphasised the partiality of urban theory, demonstrating how patterns of urban knowledge production reflect particular historical, institutional, political, economic, cultural, and (post-)colonial formations.

To overlook is not merely to ignore. Overlooking is not defined by a silence or an absence, but is itself a process filled with presuppositions, prejudices, prioritisations, and expectations. Overlooking may be intentional or unintentional, but it is a form of neglect all the same. It may involve a conscious choice to look elsewhere, or it may constitute an act of simultaneously knowing but not caring.

Either way, overlooking produces its own hierarchies, impacts urban political economies, and even plays a constitutive role in what urbanism means in cities out of the spotlight, nor under the microscope. Overlooking, then, embodies heterogenous temporalities, relationalities and forms of socio-spatial configuration in cities throughout the urban South. And the processes of overlooking have direct material consequences for the present condition and possible futures of these cities.

The book Overlooked Cities fills a lacuna in the changing urban landscapes due to the overlooked relevance of certain cities in the urban South. The aims of the Overlooked Cities book are to (1) unpack diverse meaning and significance of the overlooked city concept in the Global South; (2) identify emerging trends and processes that characterize such cities, and (3) draw wider implications for comparative urban theory.

This exploratory and experimental book showcases the critical importance of research in overlooked cities. “Overlooking” is a multi-faceted process, reflecting different power relations, political economies, knowledge networks and resource allocations unique to each individual city. In other words, processes of overlooking strike at the very heart of what we understand to be “the urban” throughout many parts of the world.

It is organised into two themes: firstly, politics and power and secondly, production and negotiation of knowledge. The authors share a commitment to challenging the unevenness of urban knowledge production by approaching these cities on their own terms. Only then can we harness the insights emanating from these overlooked cities, and contribute to a deeper and richer understanding of the urban itself.

This collection of essays, focusing on 13 cities in nine countries and across three continents (Luzhou, China; Bharatpur, Nepal; Bloemfontein/ Mangaung and Pretoria/ Tshwane, South Africa; Zarqa, Jordan; Santa Fe, Argentina; Manizales, Colombia; Arequipa and Trujillo, Peru; Dili, Timor-Leste; Bandar Lampung, Semarang and Bontang, Indonesia), makes a timely contribution to urban scholarship. In the Foreword of the book, David Satterthwaite wrote:

The city studies in this volume enrich us by adding to the number of case studies but also by the needed depth and detail. Not so much comparative studies but more on how in each unique local context, common issues are addressed. Also showing the reality on the ground - real-life examples. The city case studies also point to or give examples of the importance of city governments both through what they did and what they failed to do. Perhaps the future holds out more prospects for overlooked cities, if the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating consequences can be brought under control. A renewed recognition of the needed role of all city governments in good public health (obviously including overlooked cities) and in both climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Overlooked Cities is an invitation for more attention from scholars, academics, and practitioners to analyse and examine regional, middle, secondary, and overlooked cities beyond questions of economic development or urbanisation analysis, but more critically to evaluate the conditions of people living in these cities. We suggest that future research projects need to engage with several topics, such as grassroots level organisations, the environment, livelihoods, and deep ethnographies to uncover the social processes and dynamics in overlooked cities.

We would like to invite future research to engage in various creative and engaging projects to analyse overlooked cities that include mixed quantitative-qualitative methods, comparative analysis, and visual methods. We think these different analytical inquiries would develop an understanding and analysis that would not only uncover similarities and differences in dynamics and processes from which overlooked cities emerge, but also commonalities between case studies and causalities of different processes.

The volume will be of interest to scholars from the disciplines of urban studies, geography, development and anthropology, as well as postgraduate students researching the global South and third year undergraduate students studying cities and urban studies, development and critical thinking.

Table of contents


David Satterthwaite


Hanna A. Ruszczyk, Erwin Nugraha, Isolde de Villiers, Martin Price

Part 1: Politics and Power in Overlooked Cities

1. Sanxian: Re-/un-thinking Chinese urban hierarchy with a medium-sized city

Yi Jin, Yimin Zhao

2. The changing logic of urban planning in Nepal: From informal to incremental

Hanna A. Ruszczyk

3. The marginalised centre: overlooked cities in South Africa’s interior

Isolde de Villiers

4. Debt and developmental impasse in the secondary city: Geographies of municipal finance in Zarqa, Jordan

Martin Price

Part 2: Production and Negotiation of Knowledge in Overlooked Cities

5. Intermediate cities as urban innovators: An analysis of disaster risk management in Santa Fe, Argentina, and Manizales, Colombia

Julia Wesely, María Evangelina Filippi, Cassidy Johnson

6. Comparing secondary cities: Holistic evaluation of urban development in Arequipa and Trujillo, Peru

Christian Rosen

7. Post-conflict Dili: An overlooked urbanscape reaching out for development

Joana de Mesquita Lima, João Pedro Costa

8. Middle cities: The politics of intermediary of Bandar Lampung, Semarang, and Bontang city in Indonesia under climate crisis

Erwin Nugraha


Erwin Nugraha, Isolde de Villiers, Hanna A Ruszczyk, João Pedro Costa, Joana de Mesquita Lima, María Evangelina Filippi, Yi Jin, Cassidy Johnson, Martin Price, Christian Rosen, Julia Wesely and Yimin Zhao

Suggested citation

Ruszczyk, H.A. Nugraha, E. and de Villiers, I. eds. (2021) Overlooked Cities: Power, Politics and Knowledge Beyond the Urban South, London and New York: Routledge (Routledge Studies in Urbanism and the City series).

Further readings

Bell, D. & Jayne, M. (2006) Small cities: Urban experience beyond the Metropolis.

Brenner, N. (ed.) (2017) Implosions/explosions: Towards a study of planetary urbanization.

Bunnell, T. & Goh, D. P. S. (eds.) (2018) Urban Asias: Essays on futurity past and present.

Chen, X. & Kanna, A. (eds.) (2012) Rethinking global urbanism: Comparative insights from secondary cities. New

Denis, E. & Zerah, M. H. (eds.) (2017) Subaltern urbanisation in India: An introduction to the dynamics of ordinary

Hardoy, J. E. & Satterthwaite, D. (1986) Small and intermediate urban centers: Their role in national and regional development in the third world .

Hardoy, J. E. & Satterthwaite, D. (1989) Squatter citizen: Life in the urban third world.

Miraftab, F. & Kudva, N. (eds.) (2015) Cities of the global South reader.

Oldfield, S. & Parnell, S. (2014) From the South. In: Parnell, S. & Oldfield, S. (eds.) The Routledge handbook on cities of the global South.

Robinson, J. (2006) Ordinary cities: Between modernity and development.

Roy, A. & Ong, A. (eds.) (2011) Worlding cities: Asian experiments and the art of being global.

Van Klinken, G. & Berenschot, W. (eds.) (2014) In search of middle Indonesia: Middle classes in provincial towns.

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Book note published in Environment & Urbanization

"Early-career researchers authored the chapters in Overlooked Cities, which builds on decades of research on urban centres that have variously been labelled ‘small’, ‘intermediate’, ‘secondary’, ‘peri


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