International Doctoral Cluster - Cities and infrastructure in a global age


A bridge in Calgary

Infrastructure is a concept over which many disciplines claim some intellectual ownership. While for some disciplines the interest in infrastructure is long-standing, for others it is a more recent development, where there appears to have been something akin to an “infrastructural turn” (Dodson, 2015: 87).

One area in which recent years have seen insights from a number of these disciplines converge and overlap is that on infrastructure and urbanization. As cities are increasingly understood as sites through which planetary futures are being made and remade, so there appears some utility in using “infrastructure” as a means of understanding contemporary urbanization.

The Singapore skyline at nighttime

This thinking through the different ways in which infrastructure comes to be present in cities, the nature of its relationship with urbanization and how this might involve, perhaps even necessitate, a rethinking of the concept itself, is the focus for this International Doctoral Cluster (IDC) between the universities of Manchester and Toronto.

The PhD research projects

A modern building in Louisville

The Manchester Urban Institute is home to four PhD students, two based in Manchester and two based in Toronto.

  • Elyse Comeau (2021 - ) How disabled people across different age groups experience the built environments of public transit stations (based in Toronto)
  • Gilead John Teri (2021 - ) What's new about the ‘new’ Cold War?: Infrastructure and the Sino-US rivalry in Africa (based in Manchester)
  • Paromita Nakshi 2021 - ) Transportation equity and mobilizing justice (based in Toronto)
  • Thomas Van Laake (2021 - ) Building back greener: the planning and politics of cycling infrastructure under pandemic urbanism (based in Manchester)

Fashioning future cities: new urban infrastructures and the politics of urban expertise in Southeast Asia

Recent research on East and Southeast Asian urbanization has highlighted the role of developmentalist politics in shaping urban imaginaries and their attendant infrastructures, particularly during the Cold War era. A key insight from this literature is that the end of the Cold War has not simply led to the decline of developmentalist imaginaries but rather their reformulation alongside processes of state rescaling and democratization and alignment with more market-oriented visions of an urban future such as smart cities, eco-cities, high-tech special economic zones, and innovation corridors.

In Southeast Asia, these imaginaries often combine the knowledge of experts and consultants from global regions such as North America and Western Europe, but also, increasingly, those from Northeast Asian countries (which contribute a large share of investment into the region) and the Middle East. Moreover, materializing the specific urban imaginaries of future cities promoted by these actors into the built environment often involves considerable state capacity, and the sites targeted for investment often involve unresolved, postcolonial conflicts relating to infrastructure legacies, land, livelihood, and socio-ecological natures.

Within this new, regional conjuncture of urban development, it has become essential to explore not only how urban expertise taps into both regional (e.g. Northeast Asian) and global circuits of knowledge and capital – travelling urban experts, speculative infrastructure funds, inter-city knowledge networks – but also how such experts are situated in relation to the political ambitions of national elites and their attempts to territorialize state power through new infrastructural investments.

This project seeks to examine the politics of urban expertise in Southeast Asia by interrogating the role that experts have played in shaping large-scale infrastructure projects. Suggestions on topics for the PhD student could be (but are not exclusive to) the manner in which national political conjunctures shape and are shaped by:

  1. the construction of new-build cities such as capital cities, knowledge cities and ‘new town’ developments;
  2. the upgrading of special economic zone policy in pursuit of sustainable development through technological upgrading (e.g. blockchain; and
  3. regional policy mobilities between Northeast and Southeast Asia and their interaction with globally circulating urban experts

Main supervisor at Manchester – Jamie Doucette

Main supervisor at Toronto – Mike Ekers

For more details, email:

Influence of accessibility-oriented urban transport planning to improve socio-spatial justice

Influence of accessibility-oriented urban transport planning to improve socio-spatial justice: a comparative analysis of Manchester, Toronto, and Mumbai

This research aims to understand how and in what ways to work towards accessibility oriented transport planning through the development and assessment of new planning methods, which can be used when establishing planning and investment priorities, whilst simultaneously identifying population groups for which access is particularly poor. 

The research will combine quantitative GIS-based analysis of open-source data with qualitative participative governance workshops to deliver ‘research into practice’ in the three case study cities of Manchester, Toronto and Mumbai. It addresses the IDC themes to improve infrastructures of mobility and accessibility considering both developed and developing cities.  It pays particular attention to the need to promote more environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive transport and land-use systems through the intervention of transit-orient development. 

It will also help to develop the decision tools in the form of an accessibility toolkit to interrogate transport and land-use planning options at the city scale.  This toolkit will address the need to improve and integrate governance infrastructures by bringing together the key influencers of urban planning within the currently fragmented sectors of land-use public transit systems policy, planning and systems operations.

The study will explore similarities and differences in scientific research and thoughts of spatial planners on how to improve urban socio-spatial justice through mobility and accessibility interventions. The research will develop and test a GIS-based accessibility toolkit to analyse the accessibility of key destinations within the 3 cities and test these against the visions of local urban planners and policymakers in deliberative workshops with the key influencers of land-use and transport city planning. It will analyze the differences in accessibility between developed and developing cities in order to better articulate the transformational requirements of the toolkit for transit-orient development in different developed and developing urban contexts.  The study will be supervised by Professor Karen Lucas.

Main supervisor at Manchester – Karen Lucas

Main supervisor at Toronto – Steven Farber

For more details, email:

What’s new about the ‘new’ Cold War? Infrastructure and the Sino-US rivalry in Africa

Xi Jinping outlined a vision to integrate Eurasia and Africa in a Sino-centric orientation through the construction of large-scale transnational infrastructure in 2013. Known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), this plan is unprecedented in scope. It has met with alarm in Washington, including the BUILD Act and the America LEADS Act, which is pending legislative approval, would allocate “such sums as may be necessary” to “co-finance infrastructure projects that could otherwise be included in the Belt and Road Initiative.”

To many analysts, the growing Sino-US rivalry heralds a ‘new’ Cold War. This doctoral project will examine the Sino-American competition to finance and build large-scale infrastructure in African cities and their impact on territorial transformation, state restructuring and urbanization. In particular, it will explore the territorial logic of the ‘new’ Cold War, which is geared towards strategic integration as the US and China compete to orient economic activity into value chains anchored by their lead firms. Furthermore, this project will study the significance of infrastructure in territorializing their competing visions, and how countries hedge between great powers to pursue spatial objectives that would otherwise have been possible.

This project will draw on insights from Cold War history. Recently, historians have moved beyond bipolarity and understood the Cold War as an overarching framework that structured, and was in turn influenced by, regional conflicts. Furthermore, they studied the intertwinement between the Cold War and decolonization, and examined the ways in which the Cold War shaped knowledge production about urbanization.

These insights will inform a multi-sited and multi-scalar enquiry aimed at answering the three following questions:

  1. Can the similarities and differences in aims and means of the parties in the “new” Cold War be found in terms of US and Chinese models of urban, regional, and transregional planning, finance schemes, organizational patterns of the design institutes and contractors involved, and modes of collaboration with local partners?
  2. How do national or municipal governments articulate state spatial projects in the context of the Sino-US rivalry; to what extent are they able to hedge between great powers and pursue spatial objectives?
  3. How do American and Chinese projects differ in terms of their social and environmental impacts in their immediate environs; attempts to mitigate negative consequences? What is the impact of working with Chinese and US partners on the broader environment in construction, planning, and architecture, notably in areas of regulation and education? 

As part of the application process, the doctoral candidate will need to select specific infrastructure projects in Africa to research. This research could take many forms, including a comparison between US and Chinese infrastructural projects, specific instances of competition or cooperation between US, China, and local partners around regional and urban investments, or a comparison between one or more Chinese infrastructural or construction projects in Africa during the last 60 years. In addition to analyzing project-specific financial and planning documents, the candidate will seek to interview officials in China, the US, and country-based officials and professionals involved in the specific projects.

Main supervisor at Manchester – Seth Schindler

Main supervisor at Toronto – Mary Lou Lobsinger

For more details, email:

Building back greener: cycling infrastructure under pandemic urbanism

Prior to COVID-19, the greatest question of our time appeared to be: how to respond to the Climate Emergency?  Rapid response was seen to be impeded by existing infrastructures and urban form.  The socially uneven impacts of the pandemic further exemplified the inadequacy of existing urban infrastructures. But pandemic governance also demonstrated the capacity to rapidly shift funding and set about changing infrastructure where there was a political will to do so, sparking widespread recognition throughout society that “getting back to normal” is not necessarily desirable or inevitable. 

Civil society, government agencies, and private firms are currently deploying a multi-faceted and multi-scalar rhetoric of building back “better”, which in light of the Climate Emergency, begs the question, how to build back greener?  These debates are often expressed in binary terms, ‘progressives’ vs. ‘conservatives’; degrowth advocates vs. green growth advocates; cyclists’ vs. motorists; and public transit advocates vs. defenders of automobility.  Political fault lines reflect and reinforce city-specific legacies of infrastructure, and the institutionalization of political coalitions and systems of governing.  All of which points to the need to interrogate the political economy and urban socio-ecological metabolism of “building back better” within specific urban systems.

This studentship will examine the politics and practices of ‘building back greener’ as it evolves within the specific urban socio-ecological systems of Greater Manchester and the Greater Toronto Area.  At a time when city leaders are rethinking past assumptions, cycling is being foregrounded as an integral part of urban transport systems — not just as an accessory - and thus in places is being integrated with transportation infrastructure.  Cycling is seen by some to fit the needs of cities for more resilient, more equitable mobility.  How this manifests in different cities will be configured by distinct modes of governance, organizational cultures, and the configuration of established demands on existing infrastructure unique to different cities.  The studentship will provide an opportunity to demonstrate how the ability to realize the potential of cycling infrastructure to address future transport needs and ameliorate crisis is predicated on institutional and infrastructural conditions unique to individual cities

Main supervisor at Manchester – Kevin Ward

Main supervisor at Toronto – Scott Prudham

For more details, email: