Oakland and Saint-Denis Cooperation Project: UC Berkeley Opening Class

Updated: Sep 11, 2019

On February 5, 2019, the Oakland and Saint-Denis cooperation project was officially launched at UC Berkeley’s Global Urban Humanities Department. This project was initiated as part of the After Tomorrow Season and embraced by Teresa Caldeira – Chair and Professor of City & Regional Planning – and Shannon Jackson, Associate Vice Chancellor for the Arts & Design and Chair and Professor in the Humanities – and their PhD students. The two academics are the co-founders of The Global Urban Humanities Department of UC Berkeley which gathers scholars, professionals in architecture, landscape, and urbanism together with numerous subjects in human sciences –comparative literature, art history, theatre, dance and performances – to question transformations and urban development in our globalized societies. The cooperation project is part of a global debate about the metropolization of our territories and the role of cultural and artistic actors in urban development. The goal is to take part in the debate, to give voices to both Oakland and Saint-Denis, and to share models that are being created.

UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design

By adopting a comparative lens, the students and teachers working on this project will aim at evaluating how those two cities’ artistic liveliness contributes to the building of more innovative and inclusive metropolises. As cultural attachée Juliette Donadieu explained in her introductory statement, "Those two cities face the same challenges but bring different answers to the table." Therefore, the starting point of the discussion was the shared belief that artists have their say in urban changes, next to elected officials, promoters and city planners.

The watchword of this opening class was the combining of methodologies, theories, and approaches, a guideline shared by the French eponymous urban planning studio Approche.s ! which focuses on innovative practises in urban planning and plays a big part in this project. This studio has a long history of involving users in urban projects and cultural actions and considers temporary urbanism – the temporary emergence of a dynamic social life through the occupation of sites waiting for urban projects – as the cornerstone of their philosophy.

This is why inviting Dominique Alba – Head of the Parisian city planning studio APUR – as the first lecturer on this cooperation project was particularly fruitful. She presented the Grand Paris project and the new ways and tools to do city planning, offering a fertile comparison for the Bay Area. Indeed, with her city planning studio APUR (which she loosely compared to SPUR) she closely worked with the City of Paris and the Metropolis of the Greater Paris – a new administrative entity which came into existence on January 1, 2016 – in order to analyze the urban and social evolutions their innovations entailed.

Among other things she spoke about more inclusive transportation with the new lines of the Grand Paris Express which further extends the metro network into the suburbs, and about ways to do more ecological city planning by offering, for instance, new services instead of new equipments, or by starting to plan not only for the people but with the people. In a room composed of experts, specialists, and PhD students, Dominique Alba called for a more inclusive way to do city planning where the real specialists are the people inhabiting a city.

This idea strongly echoes the bridge that the cooperation project between Oakland and Saint-Denis is trying to build between artistic liveliness and more inclusive and innovative metropolises. Indeed, participatory practises such as the 6b – an artistic-converted-building in Saint-Denis with infinite uses – or Les Grands Voisins, a cooperative village in a converted hospital at the heart of Paris – are emblematic of how artistic energy can breathe new life into the social and urban fabric of a neighborhood. In Oakland too, The Crucible fosters cooperation between arts, industry and the community by giving classes and promoting innovative design – or Lost & Foundry studios took a decommissioned metal foundry to create a space of creative freedom where exhibitions try to provide a bridge between artists and the communities.

By centering the official lens on a peripherical territory too often marginalized or forgotten in official public discourses, the project resonated with the PhD students whose various research interests ranged from City Regional Planing to Perfomance Studies or Architecture. This fertile lot of students was challenged by Shanon Jackson whose research focuses on the role of the arts in social institutions and in social change - and Teresa Caldeira, a leading expert on the predicaments of urbanization in the cities of the Global South and in peripheries. This dual and interdisciplinary approach coincides with the spirit of cooperation injected by this protean project. The collaboration will take on more than the form of an academic case study, as this undertaking also includes two artisic residencies in Oakland and in Saint-Denis, and hopes to spark a public debate in California and in France with conferences and workshops.

When engaging in this cross-cultural and interdisciplinary project Berkeley PhD students raised the issue of the comparative method: what it entailed, what biases they should take into account, and how we construct our notions of likeliness and dissimilarity. Epistemological questions, which, they said, gave them a new perspective on their own research. We hope this project will keep inspiring people to question unchartered territories, be they geographical or theoretical.

What’s next?

Shannon Jackson's and Teresea Caldeira's students will now write about what the act of comparing means to them, and how it applies to their own research. They will reflect on possible strategies of comparison between Oakland and Saint-Denis. To do so, they will observe public spaces in Oakland from the interconnected perspectives of the built environment and social interactions. They will also interview people relevant to their project and create new maps representing how inhabitants truly experience their city. At the end of this class, the students will have to share their work at a symposium in a scholarly intervention isolating a research question raised during the course.

Required readings for the opening class:

- Balibar, E. (2007). Uprisings in the banlieus. Constellations, 14 (1), 47-71.

- Krause, M. (2016). Comparative research: beyond linear-causal explanation. In J.Deville, M.Guggenheil & Z.Hrdlickova (Eds.), Practising comparison - Logics, relations, collaborations (pp.45-67). Manchester: Mattering Press.

- Robinbson, J. (2010). Cities in a world of cities: the comparative gesture. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35 (1): 1-23.

- Gad, C. and Jensen, C.B. (2016). Lateral comparisons. In Practising comparison - Logics, relations, collaborations (pp.189-220). Manchester: Mattering Press.

A presentation of the Oakland/Saint-Denis cooperation project can be found here.

If you are interested in joining the project, do not hesitate to contact us at

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