Retrofitting the City: Residential Flexibility, Resilience and the Built Environment. By Stefan Bouzarovski (London and New York: I.B.Tauris, 2016, 288 pp. £68 Hardback. ISBN 978 1 78453 150 8)
A decade of research and consultations with residents, policy-makers, intermediaries and academic experts across a wide range of cities and countries provide the empirical and theoretical fuel for Stefan Bouzarovski’s most recent monograph, Retrofitting the City. The purpose of his project is to synthesize previously disconnected debates in geography, urban sociology and architecture as a means to theorize the ‘flexibilization of home’. In this endeavour the author succeeds as the book retrofits the conceptual landscape underpinning processes of urban resilience, flexibility and residential adaptability. Bouzarovski opens our eyes to the shortcomings of the crude binary representation of housing transformations dominated by a ‘kinetic elite’ on one side of the ‘space of flows’ (Castells, 2002), and a socially disadvantaged on the other.
To overcome the shortcomings of this dualism, Bouzarovski undertakes a systematic, rigorous and critical look at the epistemological archaeology of adaptability, flexibility and resilience, and fuses this with the realities of the second demographic transition and the geographies of quotidien. His exploration of the reciprocal relations between the structural and agentic dwelling, or ‘fluid vessel of multiple socio-technical networks’, and the internal features of its household, opens up a new and useful narrative for understanding the complex socio-economic contingencies arising from human and non-human dynamics and processes of household resilience and flexibility. I am particularly swayed by Bouzarovski’s argument that resilience and flexibility are co-dependent processes, rather than uni-directional responses to change. And, that people respond differentially to the physical constraints offered by the built environment and alterations in local economic context, creating a constantly evolving and uneven socio-physical urban landscape.
Bouzarovski employs his findings from interviews with residents in four Eastern and Central European cities to reinforce his central thesis that far from being feckless and passive, those of the disadvantaged social strata possess strong coping or ‘bricolage’ skills when faced with new housing episodes. The latter chapters explore the interconnected socio-technical assemblages that give rise to housing transformations that take place outside the financialized housing market, and rely on a web of informal household skills and knowledge, and social networks built on kin and friendship.
The book makes a valuable contribution to the literature by compelling us to rethink our understanding of the relations between household flexibility, resilience and adaptability, and the complex and non-linear process of housing transformation. For those wishing to intervene helpfully in housing and urban policy and theorizing, this book should be considered an essential read. I am confident that after reading it you will not think about housing retrofits the same again; I know I don’t.