Mare Magnum: Urbanization of the sea

Aquapolis, Kiyonori Kikutake, 1975
Aquapolis, Kiyonori Kikutake, 1975

First presented as part of a panel, Territory beyond Terra, with Phil Steinberg, Elaine Stratford and Kimberly Peters at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) 2015, Chicago

To speak of urbanizing the sea may conjure up images of the empty mansions dotting palm-shaped islands in Dubai, or the ongoing expansion of Monaco’s territory into the Ligurian Sea, or it may remind us of the pretensions of Nigeria’s new ‘Eko Atlantic’ project. It may also recall cartographies of resource extraction and circulation across the seabed: the ‘extended urbanization’ (Brenner/Lefebvre) using the ocean to wrap the planet with infrastructural continuity. It may also recall utopian projects of the 60’s in which floating cities were imagined as great interconnected web-like arks colonizing the ocean’s placid grey surface. While these imaginations are relevant, I would like to move beyond the immediacy such images impose, considering instead what it could mean to speak of the ‘urbanization of the sea’ both as a problem of the present and one that has accompanied the very ontological and epistemological formation of the urban itself. What could it mean to speak of the ontologies produced in the early modern experiences of ocean space as being capable of projecting themselves onto the firmness of the land, slowly eroding the age-old distinction between land and sea? In other words, if today we know the spaces the territorialization of the ocean has produced, what kinds of spaces may have resulted from a ‘maritimization of the land’? How does this help us to grasp the spectacle of our present as we extend urban spaces and technologies of circulation outward into the ocean? I would like to explore the question of ‘maritimization of land’ to show a history in which, some 200 years ago, territory, understood as a political technology, was fundamentally reformed through its augmentation by a spatiality that developed over the course of three centuries of maritime activities. The resulting adaptation of territory gave it the ability to mediate, shape and control spaces and processes across multiple scales simultaneously. The outcome of this territorial reform was the construction of a wholly new spatial process that we’re only recently beginning to grasp: urbanization.

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