Current Issue

Volume 45, 03

Introduction and coordination by Nitin Bathla


Building upon Julie Ren’s (2023) “radical openness” to use Urban Geography’s relaunched book review forum as an exploratory space, this review of the book Lively Cities (Barua, 2023) has been organized multimodally. Simultaneous to the publication of this review forum, the commentaries will also be featured as part of the Urban Political Podcast. Moreover, this review forum also generously benefited from the Lively Cities doctoral workshop organized jointly between the Institute for Landscape and Urban Studies, ETH Zurich, the University of Lichtenstein, and the City Collaboratory Network. The doctoral workshop was attended by over 25 doctoral students from across the world and was instrumental in unpacking the lively milieu codified within the book.

At a time when book publishing is increasingly under threat and decimation, such multimodality allows for the review forum to stretch outwards beyond the confines of its usual readership and to bring new publics inwards into the realms of urban geography and urban studies. This review forum brings together a multidisciplinary group of scholars hailing from environmental sciences, media studies, architecture, and urban studies into a generative dialogue to comment on a book that experiments “with frameworks and concepts not yet found recurrent in Urban Geography, or maybe also urban geography” (Ren, 2023, p. 568). In the words of Ravi Sundaram, one of the reviewers in this forum, “this book is written for an audience that is yet to come. (Sundaram, 2024, this issue)”

Lively Cities offers an expansive account of the political ecology of the urban in the “minor key.” Through the book, Barua demonstrates, how just like minor renditions give tonal music a decentered, runaway, fugitive character, urban theory in the minor key can allow for an attunement to the unintended recalibrations and reorientations of the urban (see also Ramesh, 2022). Using minor theory for “engaging comparative urbanism” (Ren, 2020) between Delhi and London, Barua operationalizes three non-human interlocutors to narrate stories of infrastructure, commensality, capital, escape, and surplus. In a narrative style that is reminiscent of the cinematic works of film director Jim Jarmusch, Barua takes us up close into the infrastructural meshwork of macaques in Delhi. He speculates on the mythologies generated amidst the cyborg becomings of the macaque as it wanders through Delhi electropolis. He soon zooms out to show us how Delhi’s residents deploy such mythologies to make infrastructural claims such as demanding a restoration in the electric supply. Such minor key immersions ­into the electropolis through the macaque is important, Barua argues, in order to rescue the infrapolitical from below the thresholds of visibility.

Yet, Barua’s call for embracing minor practice in the book is not to abandon the major, but rather to rework it from within. The minor does not stand apart from the major, but rather always trails it like a shadow (Barua, 2023, p. 32). The minor alters the terrain of the major without ever leaving it. It introduces variation by summoning often strange interlocutors. This is beautifully illustrated in Barua’s excellent reworking of Karl Marx’s circuits of capital through the experience of lively commodities such as the parakeet. Barua describes how on the hand the commodification of the parakeet, a bird from the Indian subcontinent, as a popular urban pet is deeply entangled in the uneven development between the UK and India. However, on the other hand, its release and escape as a lively commodity produces another form of urbanity where commensality and invasive biology is at loggerheads in urban space. Yet, as Ghazala Shahabuddin rightly points out in her review, the book is not written with a naivety toward other scientific disciplines. Barua eloquently highlights this in how the ferality of parakeets in London generates a dyadic relationship between it and the peregrine falcon (Shahabuddin, 2024, this issue). The peregrine repurposes “architectural form, rendering buildings into cliffs” (Barua, 2023, p. 141). This is what distinguishes multispecies ethnography from more-than-human ethnography as Barua has highlighted elsewhere; “the emphasis is not on species worlds, but rather on spaces of enmeshment, motion, and relation forged by a retinue of beings” (Barua, 2022, p. 3).

I first came across Barua’s writings in 2015 while preparing the coursework for a class on reading urban landscapes. Barua’s work on the bio-geo-graphy of the human-elephant conflict illuminated the production plantationocene landscapes and the consequent urbanization of nature for me and my students. Barua’s writing back then like his writing style in this book was resonant in the minor key. It was full of humorous anecdotes from the enmeshed lifeworlds of plantations as it was with a critical analysis of territory. This is an effective way of writing that has energized not only me, but also my colleagues alongside whom I have read Barua’s work: Johanna Just, Metaxia Markaki, Luke Harris, Maryann George, and Stefan Laxness.

In practicing writing in the minor key in her review, Lindsay Howe reflects upon her personal experiences of attunement with urban macaques (Howe, 2024, this issue). Drawing inspiration from Lindsay, I would like to expand upon commensality: the practice of eating together, “being messmates at an urban table” as Barua (2023, p. 21) defines it, a key concept from the book through sharing a particular story from a multitude of stories that vibrate within the urban. This particular story is an autobiographical experience from a childhood family holiday to the Himalayan hill town of Shimla during the early 1990s. During the trip, my parents insisted on visiting Jakhoo Temple famous for its macaques. The temple forms one of the prime tourist attractions of Shimla located atop its highest hill to which tourists are ferried back and forth on a ropeway. As Barua highlights in his book, the macaques here, like most city-dwelling macaques across India, are surplus from their trade as test animals for medical laboratories in the West. The macaque population of Shimla is sustained through commensality practiced through feeding them at key nodal points in the city such as the Jakhoo Temple. A practice in which my father encourages me to participate (Figure 1). I look visibly terrified of the macaques; they are non-human, yet bigger and powerful than me at the time, I stand no chance if they were to harm me, I thought to myself. Yet, my father calms me down by teaching me how to feed the macaques thus cultivating a more-than-human sociality. Commensality thus forms an important essence of the everyday urban experience but rarely ever finds any presence in major theory. An important correction to major theory’s oversights could be to give credence to the ways in which bodies and materials escape the organization and ordering of the urban.

Figure 1. Learning commensality: a picture of my father introducing me to the monkeys of Jakhoo Temple in Shimla at the beginning of the 1990s. Credits – My mother, Naresh Bala.

As Johanna Just wonderfully highlights (see Just, 2024, this issue), Lively Cities offers an exploration of how the urban is constantly “made, remade, and unmade” by more-than-human relations. In this regard, the book speaks not merely to academics, but also the practitioners of future-oriented disciplines of architecture, urban design, and planning. The book illustrates how practitioners can realize an urban otherwise in a terrain where the urban and the agrarian are materially and symbolically co-produced (see also Markaki, 2022). Barua calls attention to minor geometries of the urban; the smooth space that the pastoral ecumene crafts against the striated space-time of borders and enclosures that the state and capital imposes. Thus, prompting practitioners to pay attention to the worldmaking practices of the other-than-human denizens that are observant participants of human worlds. Such a lively milieu of the urban can substantiate an urban which is convivial, and allows for contact zones across species, which is crafted through a more-than-human subversion of petrocapitalist urbanization.

However, there are also a few limits that the book encounters, foremost of which as Thomas Crowley very presciently highlights is the little explored implication of caste within Barua’s non-Western cosmological understanding of Delhi (Crowley, 2024, this issue). Crowley proposes extending the methodological focus on commensality in Barua’s text to understand inter- and intra-human hierarchies. Secondly, as Barua attempts to rework the theory of Planetary Urbanization in the minor key from within, he does so from the safe bounds of the city. How can the reworkings of planetary urbanization in the minor key break beyond the bounds of the city? This is a question that I have tried to grapple with in my own work (Bathla, 2021, 2023), but the reworkings of the vocabularies of an urbanizing planet (Schmid et al., 2018) are yet to attune to the other-than-human ecumene.


Barua, M. (2022). Plantationocene: A vegetal geography. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 1–17.

Barua, M. (2023). Lively cities: Reconfiguring urban ecology. University of Minnesota Press.

Bathla, N. (2021). Delhi without borders: A critique of everyday life under extended urbanisation. ETH Zurich.

Bathla, N. (2023). Nature and the extended city: Wasteland governmentality, the sacred, and anti-wasteland politics in the Aravalli region. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 1–20.

Crowley, T. (2024). Animating ideologies of caste in the lively city. Urban Geography.

Howe, L. (2024). From lively spatial combinations to lively theorizations. Urban Geography.

Just, J. (2024). Lively cities – An intricate understanding of urban life. Urban Geography.

Markaki, M. (2022). Kentos: Socio-ecologies of care. Frontiers of Architectural Research, 11(6), 1047–106.

Ramesh, N. (2022). An experiment with the minor geographies of major cities: Infrastructural relations among the fragments. Urban Studies, 59(8), 1556–1574.

Ren, J. (2020). Engaging comparative urbanism: Art spaces in Beijing and Berlin. Bristol University Press.

Ren, J. (2023). Book review forums: Reviving a platform. Urban Geography, 44(4), 567–569.

Schmid, C., Karaman, O., Hanakata, N. C., Kallenberger, P., Kockelkorn, A., Sawyer, L., Streule, M., & Wong, K. P. (2018). Towards a new vocabulary of urbanisation processes: A comparative approach. Urban Studies, 55(1), 19–52.

Shahabuddin, G. (2024). Human-animal relations in lively cities: A novel look. Urban Geography.

Sundaram, R. (2024). Lively cities: An urban theory for the 21st century. Urban Geography.

Book Review Forum: Lively cities: reconfiguring urban ecology, by Maan Barua, Minneapolis, USA, University of Minnesota Press, 2023, 382 pp., $30.00 (pbk), ISBN 978-1-5179-1256-7