Popular infrastructural politics: Connecting grassroots knowledge and practice on marketplace governance is an ESRC-funded project (ES/W005476/1) conducted within the framework of the ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme. The project consists of a series of dissemination, knowledge exchange, networking, and research activities that run from October 2021 to September 2022. It is led by Leon Felipe Tellez Contreras who has been based in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield for the duration of the fellowship.
Marketplaces play a vital role in the everyday life of many urban communities. They are part of supply systems that make food and other basic staples accessible to urban residents. In many cities around the world, they also represent significant public spaces where social connections and forms of belonging are built. Either covered, open, formal, or informal, marketplaces have increasingly become essential infrastructures for low-income and marginalised urban groups, who rely on their affordable prices for subsistence. This is a contribution that largely depends on the vibrant economic, social, cultural, and political life of market trader communities, whose efforts to keep these commercial infrastructures working are permanent.
Popular infrastructural politics builds and expands on my PhD research, which recognises the centrality of these efforts by studying Mexico City’s trader communities and public markets’ network. On the one hand, the history and contemporary experiences of marketplace governance in this network set the foundations of a broader discussion concerning the traders’ struggles against political neglect and infrastructure abandonment and deterioration. On the other hand, my four-year research highlights the long-standing political traditions that underlie the traders’ active engagement in urban politics, city-making and the fights for the right to subsistence, infrastructure and the city.
This ESRC project uses the notion of popular infrastructural politics as common ground to further the theoretical implications of Southern urbanism and develop a wider, international conversation with stakeholders about the significance of grassroots knowledge and practice in marketplace governance. In this light, the project has been conducted around the following activities.
Currently, three articles are under review in peer-reviewed academic journals. The articles focus on 1) the conceptual refinement provided by the notion of popular infrastructural politics in current discussions about the politics of infrastructure; 2) the re-conceptualisation of the politics of repair and maintenance as routine and contentious politics; and 3) the subaltern’s strategies to resuscitate legal and material infrastructures and infuse them with popular textures.
Dissemination, knowledge exchange and network building
The activities consisted of 1) the organisation in May 2022 of the International Online Workshop on Marketplace Governance; 2) the publication of the bilingual case studies collection titled “Popular marketplaces: Experiences and reflections for their preservation and improvement”; 3) the launch of a podcast series titled “Voices from the marketplace”; and 4) the organisation of sessions and presentation of papers at the SLAS, RC21 and RGS-IBG annual conferences.
Through online semi-structure interviews and the collection of social media data, this strand complements previous research on the repertoires of collective action developed by market traders in Mexico City. The objective of this research is to explore the digital face of popular infrastructural politics. A dataset for this research is available in UK Data Service repository.
By disseminating and consolidating research findings and creating new spaces for knowledge exchange and network building, the project aims to encourage and further the existing discussion about the important role marketplaces have in contemporary cities. Furthermore, it seeks to foreground the critical work performed by grassroots urban organisations and subaltern collectives—in this case market traders—to keep the basic infrastructure for provisioning alive in contexts of exclusion and displacement.