Remembering urban geographer Neil Smith

Neil Smith was a revolutionary geographer. His love for his native Midlothian landscape (and its avian denizens) drew him into a field of study that could be an intellectual backwater. An early class at St. Andrews University together with the searing images of the American urban crisis on his TV screen convinced Neil that the geographic study of cities nonetheless had great potential. And very quickly, he saw that that potential would not only change how we understand cities, but also upend geography and give it an intellectual — and political — importance it had rarely possessed before.

Neil, who died of liver failure in New York last September at 58, revolutionized the study of geography, and he became a bridge between activists and academics from New York to Toronto and Vancouver. His work helped turn scholars in other fields like anthropology and sociology to the serious study of space and place. But he was not content with that achievement. Neil wanted to know why the field he had come to love as dearly as the landscape itself had been intellectually fallow for so long, and why it was now so ripe for revolution. He railed in later essays at the disappearance of the idea of revolution from the canvas of what is politically possible, and he lamented a ”world hypnotized by the raptures of the neoliberal moment.”

Neil’s inquiries in this regard led to the publication of American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (2003), a biography-cumpolitical history of America’s rise to global power through geographical ignorance (rather than in spite of it). Geography, and especially American geography, was bankrupt he argued, in large part because that was functional for American-led, capitalist globalization, as he showed in his final book, The Endgame of Globalization (2005).

For Neil, the political was always personal, and so was the academic. Born to a school teacher father and homemaking mother on July 18, 1954, in Leith, Scotland, Neil grew up one of four siblings, in Dalkeith. His politics were forged in the fires of 1960s-1970s Scottish socialism, and his ferocious intellect, passion, commitment to socialism and own bright Scottish humor made him someone who might be disagreed with but not ignored. You wanted to argue with him. And he wanted to argue right back. ”The battle for ideas,” he was fond of saying, ”is just too important to leave to others.”

In his undergraduate work at St. Andrews, Neil overturned common assumptions about gentrification, showing how it was rooted in the capitalist restructuring of the city, not just in the lifestyle desires of ”urban pioneers.” His widely accepted ”rent-gap” thesis explained how and why gentrification — and the displacement of low-income residents that accompanied it — had so rapidly become a global force in the shaping of cities.

Neil’s work on gentrification culminated nearly two decades later in The New Urban Frontier (1996), a book that shows that not only was there a capitalist logic to gentrification, there was also a political one, rooted in ”revanchism” (class revenge) as the bourgeoisie sought to take back ”their” city, a movement he convincingly linked to the rise of zero-tolerance policing and other ”quality of life” initiatives.

His arguments about gentrification were part of a larger project examining the production of both nature and space within capitalism. Uneven Development (1984), a landmark book of Marxist theory, showed how nature is not just transformed by humans but actually made by them, an insight that formed the foundation for the whole field of political ecology.

That we produce nature in no way implies we control it, he argued. The capitalist production of nature is baneful, as the subsequent discovery of human-induced climate change makes clear. If we want to understand the workings of capitalism, he argued, we have to understand the very spaces that make its existence possible. And if we want to live in a saner environment — natural and built — then we’ve got to revolutionize the ways in which it is produced.

Neil taught at Columbia and Rutgers Universities (where I was his student) before being named distinguished professor of anthropology and geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2000. There he founded and directed the Center for Place, Culture and Politics, a rare place where political activists and academics felt equally at home.

His subsequent teaming up with his partner, the University of Toronto geographer Deborah Cowen, who was at Neil’s side when he died, created a powerful intellectual liaison and led him into a better understanding of the logistics of war and globalization. Their home in Toronto afforded Neil the opportunity to pursue another of his great passions: gardening, a production of nature he fully approved of.


Don Mitchell, Distinguished Professor, Geography, Maxwell School of Syracuse University.