“Once we were in our own country and we were seldom hungry, for then the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives … but the [Americans] came, and they have made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller ….”Black Elk (Neihardt, 9)

The urban is everywhere. It is no longer confined to glimmering skyscrapers, subway trains and hip hop culture. It is an abstract concept that has become so vast, so sprawling it has lost its meaning. Urbanist Neil Brenner writes that “the urban appears to have become a quintessential floating signifier: devoid of any clear definitional parameters, morphological coherence, or cartographic fixity, it is used to reference a seemingly boundless range of contemporary socio-spatial conditions, processes, transformations, trajectories, and potentials.” (Brenner, 90). While cities grow and expand all over the world and the villages and towns in between one city and the next experience densification and sprawl as a result, has the field of urban studies actually become the field of everything studies?

As global capital moves across borders freely and institutions from one country invest in massive development projects in another, the notion that the city is a bounded space has become antiquated. At a moment when urban studies is being celebrated as one of the most relevant fields of study during what the United Nations Human Settlement Program (UN-Habitat 1996) has called “The Urban Age,” it is ironic that defining the urban and the city has become so difficult. (86)

Difficulties of definition notwithstanding, this essay will attempt to reveal various ways in which the urban has functioned as a colonizing force in the United States. This makes the urban a particularly unsettling phenomenon in the “Age of the City.” The following essay will reveal some of the ways in which settler colonialism is deeply embedded in the language and project of “the urban.”

Although urbanization has touched nearly every corner of the globe, this essay will focus on examples from the United States. In revealing the persistence of settler colonialism within urbanization and the development of cities and urban regions, I hope to contribute to the work of deconstruction that I believe is a necessary first step towards decolonizing the field of urban studies and the practice of urban planners and practitioners.

I am going to begin by clarifying and drawing relationships between key terms. At a recent Standing Rock Teach-In at The New School, indigenous scholar Dean Saranillio defined settler colonialism as “the body of work that replaces one landscape for another; one people for another; on mode of production for another.” Settler colonialism, Saranillio told the packed auditorium, “necessitates a discursive regime underpinned by juridical and military force that is productive of normalizing occupation.

It is productive in making sense of the genocide that this kind of replacement requires.” (Saranillio, In a similar vein, David Harvey discusses urbanization and capitalism’s inseparable relationship in a key introductory paragraph from A Right to the City:

From their very inception, cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentrations of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody (usually an oppressed peasantry) while the control over the disbursement of the surplus typically lies in a few hands. This general situation persists under capitalism, of course, but in this case there is an intimate connection with the perpetual search for surplus value (profit) that drives the capitalist dynamic. To produce surplus value, capitalists have to produce a surplus product. Since urbanization depends on the mobilization of a surplus product an inner connection emerges between the development of capitalism and urbanization. (Harvey, 2)



An urban region’s inherent need to conquer land and produce capital is the driving force behind the mentality of “the settler.” The urban is a concept used to define socio-spatial issues, and to maintain the borders between them, in a capitalist society. Therefore, it is also a concept used to excuse the dispossession of land, the destruction to the environment and the erasure of indigeneity. According to Patrick Wolfe, this settler colonial logic of elimination is motivated by access to territory. He writes, “Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element. […] Settler colonialism destroys to replace.” (Wolfe, 388).

A common mistake in trying to understand what defines the city today, is to define what is not the city. And what the city is generally understood to be is: not nature. But this dichotomy between city and nature is another fictitious concept, void of any real boundaries and specificities. A common misunderstanding when it comes to the city, especially for those who live within them, is the idea that the city is central and what is outside of that space is something else; something separate.

The idea that nature is everything but the city is an ideological construct rooted in colonial history and thought. The idea of nature as separate wilderness from the city was a concept fundamental to industrial modernity and the destruction it required in order to build the metropolis.

Most, if not all, American cities were built on land that indigenous peoples had been living on for millennia before contact with European settlers. New York City, celebrated as the financial capital of the world and the icon for urban living, is in fact indigenous territory. Prior to European contact, the island of Manhattan was called Manahatta and was a remarkably biodiverse ecosystem, inhabited by the Lenape people  The Lenape lived peacefully on the land for thousands of years, prior to European contact.(Dhillon,


In the year 1624, the Lenape “sold” Manahatta to fur trader Peter Minuit for twenty-four dollars. The Lenape understood this transaction to signify an agreement to co-exist and share their land with the Dutch Settlers. However, the settlers had a different opinion. They took full ownership and control over the land at the expense of the indigenous people living there. The Europeans used the hunting skills they had learnt from the Lenape people to hunt beavers in order to ship the pelts back to Europe. (

This led to the over hunting of the species, forcing the Lenape to hunt further and further away from their homes. In the mid 1600s, a wall was consecrated by the Dutch to keep the Lenape people off of their own land. ( Wall Street was named after this wall. The memorialization of the dispossession of indigenous land in the naming of the Verrazano Bridge and Columbus Circle (to give two clear examples) emphasize the permanence of settler colonialism within the city. Many of the people who call New York home are unaware of its indigenous history. To occupy the land, with no knowledge or awareness of the history of theft, oppression and genocide that was used to obtain it, is settler privilege.

Crucially, recognition of this privilege is hardly enough. In order to challenge the implicit colonialism in the idea of the urban, it is essential to first dissolve what I suggest to be the false dichotomy between “the urban” and what is falsely seen as its antithesis: “the wilderness.” In what follows, I suggest that this is not merely a theoretically bankrupt and outmoded dichotomy, but one that has proven — time and again — to have played a dangerous role in the practice of urbanization in the United States.

From the smoke stacks, the soot and the brick and mortar of industrial life came the desire to escape what William Cronin calls in his essay “The Trouble With Wilderness” the “too muchness” of the city.(Cronin,78) The wilderness provided city dwellers with an escape from the structure and constraints of civilization. The non-city became the new frontier for the rugged, individualistic, masculine explorer. Those that benefited most from capitalism were the ones able to escape it. Cronin writes, “To gain such remarkable influence, the concept of wilderness had to become loaded with some of the deepest core values of the culture that created it.” (79)

After the American civil war, escaping the city became a common recreation. Tourism in the countryside grew in popularity. Country estates were built, railroads sliced through forests taking city folk on hunting trips or to lake resorts. The wilderness was not a place to live, but a place to visit, and thus to consume. If the city was a kind of spectacle, so was its antithesis.

The notion that wilderness was a blank slate, uninhabited by man, can only be described as gross ignorance. Indigenous peoples had been living on the land for thousands of years before the arrival of tourists. National parks were said to be created to honour and preserve their pristine landscapes, but in more practical terms, they were created to keep man off the land, allowing only visitors. While the creation of national parks is celebrated as an important landmark for environmental conservation, the fact that the creation of these parks in turn created the first native reserve, is often overlooked.

The denial of indigenous life on this land is apparent in the writing of conservation laws. The National Park Service Organic Act was created in 1916. Its mission was “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” (Kantor, 43). The denial of indigenous life persists in many conservation acts throughout the century. The Wilderness Act of 1964 states “A wilderness is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” (44)


In order to create Yellowstone National Park (1872), the state removed Crow, Shoshone, Bannock and the Sheep Eater tribes from their territory. They did so by force and through law. Two thousand soldiers were sent to the indigenous settlements; these encampments were raided. The indigenous people who had been living there for millennia were escorted off their land by gunpoint. In addition to this, hunting was outlawed, essentially depriving Natives of their food source and anyone caught hunting within the confines of the park were imprisoned. There was intense military presence within the national park for the first decade of its life, to prevent indigenous people from returning to their land and disrupting the experience for tourists. (45).

The creation of Montana’s Glacier National Park (1910) was just as cruel towards the Blackfeet reservation, home to the Piegan, Blood and Northern Blackfeet tribes. Their reservation was continually reduced in size due to the government’s constant refutation of their rights. In 1895, three commissioners were sent by the state to purchase the mountainous region of the reserve from the tribes living there. Although the tribes did not want to sell their land, they were facing the threat of starvation as their reserve had continually decreased in size, as did the population of buffalo due to overhunting in their confined region. In the end, they were forced to sell a large part of their reserve, including the mountains, to the settlers for 1.5 million dollars.

Chief White Calf, who signed off on the sale of the land stated, “Chief Mountain is my head. Now my head is cut off. The mountains have been my last refuge.” (52) Glacier National Park was created in 1910. Although the negotiations for this sale allowed the tribes to continue hunting in the region, this clause was ignored by the park rangers. Park Rangers arrested any indigenous people found hunting in the park. One of the park rangers wrote, “they [the natives] will no longer be permitted in Glacier National Park, and if found within the [park] they will be summarily ejected.” (52) The origins of many of America’s National Parks have similar stories.

But these stories cannot be found on websites of these famous national parks. Instead, their websites celebrate the founders as American “heroes” and “visionaries”. Glacier Parks’ website reads, “The National Parks are uniquely American. Celebrate the visionaries who came before us with groundbreaking ideas — not only about preserving our nation’s “crown jewels”, but also extending the Nation Park Service’s mission to some of the nation’s other uniquely American treasures. Because of them, the agency today manages a range of cultural sites including monuments, parkways, battlefields, cemeteries and recreation areas. This rich variety has created a portfolio of over 390 parks, all with their own special contribution to the American story.” (

Yellowstone’s website reduces it’s indigenous history to one sentence, omitting many important details. “Although Sheep Eaters are the most well-known group of Native Americans to use the park, many other tribes and bands lived in and traveled through what is now Yellowstone National Park prior to and after European American arrival.” ( “These initial interactions around space production,” writes Magdelana Urgarte, “also defined Indigenous peoples as the ‘‘Other,’’ initiating a politics of difference based on western superiority that was later reproduced in other spheres.” (Urgarte, 3) The view that land is a resource to be consumed at the expense of others, is the mentality of the settler.

There is still a perception that indigenous people live outside the city, when in fact the population of indigenous people living within the city is growing. More than 7 out of 10 Natives and Alaska Natives live in a metropolitan area, according to Census Bureau data released in 2013. (Williams, Seventy-five percent of Australian Aboriginals live in cities and fifty-six percent of the First Nations people are living in urban centers (Indigenous & Northern Affairs Canada, Over twenty-five percent of indigenous people living in New York City live in poverty. (Williams,

This is migration of indigenous people to the city is partly due to dire living conditions on the reserves due to governmental neglect, or because their traditional territory is now included in what constitutes “the urban.” Indigenous populations are largely left out of social, economic and political agendas when it comes to traditional urban planning. As Libby Porter writes in her essay “Co-existence in cities,” “Indigenous people whose traditional territory is now urban continue to exert a connection to their country in rich and diverse ways that represent the challenging cultural expressions of that connection. Yet we rarely grapple with what it means to recognize co-existence in cities, and the kinds of challenges to which such recognition gives rise.” (Porter, 284) Settler colonialism persists in the state’s blatant disregard of the growing number of indigenous people moving to the city.

The project of settler colonialism no longer distinguishes between tribe and race. Though indigenous peoples are still effected most negatively by the growth of cities and capitalism, settler colonialism also displaces working class, poor people of every colour in order to make way for luxury condominiums, stadiums and pipelines. Settler colonialism reveals itself in every advertisement celebrating the luxuries of urban living; every family run business replaced by a big box store and every rezoning of low income neighborhoods to make way for more luxury condominiums under the guise of “revitalization”, “beautification” and “renewal.”


In 1853, eminent was used to demolish more over 800 acres of land that would become Central Park, the park that is now celebrated as New York City’s crown jewel. However, the fact that in order to build the park the affluent African American neighbourhood Seneca Village would have to be destroyed is often unnoticed. Over one thousand and six hundred people, two hundred and fifty of whom were residents of Seneca Valley were evicted from their homes to make way for Central Park, “The heart of the city at the center of the world.” (Martin, Similarly, in the year many people were displaced from their homes, when the city used eminent domain to allow the infamous Brooklyn developer Forest City Ratner Co. to build The Barclay’s Center, a new 18,200 seat stadium to house the Brooklyn Nets.

In addition to the stadium, the development proposal promised new jobs for the community and affordable housing, however due the financial crisis, the only promise kept was the development of the stadium. As many as as 2,929 people were displaced from their homes as a result. (Battle for Brooklyn,

Furthermore, according to Neil Brenner, the rapid spread of the urban signifies a new planetary crisis. He writes in his essay “Theses on Urbanization” that governments and major economic regions have created new conditions that allow these entities to invest capital and develop real estate throughout the globe. According to Brenner, these political and economic bodies are “articulating vast grids of accumulation and spatial regulation that cascade along intercontinental transportation corridors; large-scale infrastructural, telecommunications, and energy networks; free trade zones; transnational growth triangles; and international border regions.

This extended landscape of urbanization is now a force field of crisscrossing state regulatory strategies designed to territorialize long-term, large-scale investments in the built environment and to channel flows of raw materials, energy, commodities, labor, and capital across transnational space.” (Brenner, 88). The settler is no longer one race or nationality against another. Today, the settler is a conglomeration of international banks and corporations that moves across borders and continents.

The recent attempt by over a dozen banks and energy corporations to construct the Dakota Access Pipeline is a glaring example of the contemporary project of settler colonialism, disguised as urbanization and “progress.” The construction of the 3.8 billion dollar Dakota Access set to carry 500,000 barrels of crude oil from the Canadian border, through the territory of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on the planes of North Dakota to the the gulf of Texas exemplifies this new “extended landscape of urbanization.” According to the DAPL website, “Pipelines play a vital role in our daily lives and provide a critical link between the sources of energy in production fields and end-users or consumers.

Without pipelines, the majority of the United States would not have access to American oil and natural gas and would have to rely upon foreign sources of less reliable, less available, and much more expensive sources of energy to create products, power our homes and businesses, travel by air, land and sea, and drive industrial and manufacturing industries.” (

In a ferocious, and — it seems — ultimately unsuccessful effort to continue the construction of the pipeline, the companies funding the project ignored indigenous legal documents in order to bulldoze through sacred burial grounds and dig under the Missouri river, a source of clean drinking water to millions of both indigenous and non-indigenous people. As a unprecedented indigenous resistance movement grew around the pipeline, so did the intensity at with which the police force fought back.

The number of armoured officers carrying water grenades and weapons increased with the growing number of peaceful water protectors at Standing Rock. Security guards attacked the natives with dogs, while surveillance helicopters and drones kept a close eye on the camp at Standing Rock. The state of North Dakota even withdrew water supplies, medical supplies and cell phone services to the Standing Rock camps, blockading the roads to prevent easy access to the site (Democracy Now, Here we see the settler’s attempt at elimination.

The resistance at Standing Rock was the largest unification of indigenous tribes in decades. As the destruction to the environment in the name of progress has become so extreme, it threatens the very existence of our species. To combat the destruction of our environment, a resurgence of indigenous resistance is growing across the globe. Chair of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Dave Archambault spoke to Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman about this historic unification of over one hundred indigenous tribes. “It’s powerful.

It’s one of the most beautiful things that I’m fortunate enough to witness. I think that when Tribes come together in unity and prayer there’s a lot of healing that takes place. And when the tribes coming together, everyone one of them will share a story about how the government or the corporate world has infringed in on their indigenous rights on their indigenous territory and has contaminated their land or their water in one way or another. This coming together says to them it’s time to stop.” (Democracy Now, 

The indigenous resistance movement that mobilized around Standing Rock challenged colonialism’s formula of Indigenous dispossession, so much so that the pipeline was not granted access to drill through indigenous land. As videos of American veterans asking for forgiveness from indigenous leaders go viral, and as viewers witness their army vets kneeling in front of indigenous tribal leaders seeking forgiveness for the oppression and displacement they have imposed on indigenous people for centuries, is it possible that we are witnessing the seeds of what decolonization might look like? Indigenous scholar Magdelena Ugarte’s writes that decolonization “involves resistance to, and liberation from, structural colonial forces and a restructuring of Indigenous/non–Indigenous relations to establish new orders without imposed power imbalances.” (Ugarte, 3)


However, as long as the urban agenda is so tangled in the mess of capitalism, how can urban practitioners work to free the ever expanding and increasingly complicated field of urban studies from its colonial shackles? Is it even possible to think about the urban without colonialism?

Perhaps the first step towards this, is actually thinking more about the close relationship between the urban and colonialism. The field of urban studies must be forced to reckon with its settler colonial roots, and regularly contemplate how the cities we work to transform and plan are produced by settler colonialism. I do not mean to suggest that all urbanists are unaware of the colonial history of urbanism. Not at all. The authors quoted in this paper understand this history very well. Nor, do I believe that all planners are doing nothing to improve our cities.

What I mean to say is that the field of urban studies has much work to do in self-reflexivity. At a moment when the urban is thought to what urbanist Edward Soja calls “the most important driving force shaping human history,” how is it that the field of urban studies pays so little attention to indigenous history of our cities? As a graduate student at one of the most progressive urban studies programs in the world, I am acutely aware of how vacant the issue of indigeneity is from my education.

How many urban studies classes begin by recognizing the indigenous land the classroom is built upon? This simple recognition would remind theorists, practitioners, students and educators to, at the very least, acknowledge the long history of oppression and displacement that is in the DNA of every city, and therefore inherently part of their planning.

Which urban studies programs require their students to take a course in indigenous planning, or even offer one for that matter? None that I know of. Urban practitioners must realize that although cartography, mapping and surveys are helpful tools, these Western tools and modes of analysis that have been used for centuries to propel colonial empires. A greater effort to deconstruct the field of urban studies would result in a greater awareness among its students and practitioners of the colonial approaches to planning.

The idea of urban and indigeneity have long a nebulous relationship to one another. Just as the assumption that the city is a bounded space is antiquated so too is the notion that which is aboriginal is not urban. In order to decolonize the field of urban studies, it is essential to dissolve this false dichotomy. In doing so, new issues will become central to the urban practitioner that will require a new kind of planner and a new kind of sensitivity to urban issues. Ugarte writes in her essay on indigenous planning, “The planner must question deeply embedded assumptions and approach research carefully, attempting not to reproduce colonial power imbalances and exclusions.

Practitioners must adopt a deconstructive and critical stance regarding their work, paying special attention to how it perpetuates or helps break with colonial legacies. Planning educators need to stimulate that unsettling, critical stance among new professionals, while also shaping the discourse about the historical, present, and future role of planning in settler contexts.” (Ugarte,7) Decolonization must start with the individual and move upwards towards institutionalization. Although many people claim to be living in a “post-colonial” time, the legal, educational, governmental, institutional and urban spaces we are governed by are still direct legacies of colonial processes and the settler mentality.

As Soja correctly writes, “Never before has a critical spatial perspective been so widespread, so focused on cities and urban life, and so generative of new ideas about economics, politics, culture, and social change more generally. Today, no scholar of stripe can afford not to be, to some degree, an urban geographer.” (Soja, 451) I disagree. Until the ever expanding field of urban studies promotes a deeper understanding of the historical legacy of colonization as well as the necessity for increased focus on de-colonization, a progressive agenda grounded on the critical issues that I have raised in this paper seems highly unlikely.


Daley, Paul. “Which is the world’s most indigenous city?” The Guardian. 29 June 2016.

Blakinger, Keri. “A look at Seneca Village, the early black settlement obliterated by the creation of Central Park.” NY Daily News. 17 May 2016.

Brenner, Neil. “Theses on Urbanization.” Public Culture. Vo 25, nor 1 69, 2008: 85–114,

Cronin, William. “The Trouble With Wilderness.” Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1995.

“Dakota Access Pipeline.” Democracy Now.

Goodman, Amy. “Standing Rock Sioux Chair Hails Army Corps of Engineers Decision to Reroute Dakota Access Pipeline.” Democracy Now. 15 December 2016.

Jojola, Ted. “Indigenous Planning — An Emerging Context.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research. Vo 17, Issue 1, 2008 37–47.

Memmi, Albert, and Robert Bononno. Decolonization and the Decolonized. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Neihardt, John G.”” Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux.” University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Soja, Edward. “Beyond Postmetropolis.” Urban Geography. Routledge, 2014.

“Manahatta to Manhattan: Native Americans in Lower Manhattan. Smithsonian Institution. Natural Museum of American Indian, 2010.

Thaman, Konai Helu. “Decolonizing Pacific Studies: Indigenous Perspectives, Knowledge, and Wisdom in Higher Education.” The Contemporary Pacific. Vo 15, no, 2003, pp 1–17.

“The New School Hosts #NODAPL Teach-in for Standing Rock.” The New School. 7 December 2016.

Ugarte, Magdalena. “Ethics, Discourse, or Rights? A Discussion about a Decolonizing Project in Planning.” SAGE Journals: Your Gateway to World-class Journal Research. Journal of Planning Literature, vol 29, no 4, 2014, pp 403–414.

Wildcat, Matthew. Irlbacher-Fox, Stephanie. McDonald, Mandee. Coulthard,

Glen “Learning from the land: Indigenous land based pedagogy and decolonization.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. Vol. 3, №3, 2014, pp. I-XV

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native (2006).” Journal of Genocide Research 2.1 (2012) 387–409. Web.

“Yellowstone National Park” National Park Services.


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