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Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers

Stephen Graham (2016), Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers, London: Verso,
416pp, ISBN 978-1-78168-793-2

Andrei Belibou, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick

Although concerned with geography, Stephen Graham’s Vertical is an eminently political book. In it, the Newcastle geographer aims at showing us how the contemporary struggles of urban life increasingly take place on a dimension we are used to ignoring: verticality. In fifteen diverse chapters, each discussing an aspect of modern vertical life (starting with satellites and ending with mines), Graham offers the readers inequality as a thread to be followed. Graham’s book is about capitalism – a capitalism that would seem dystopian were it not happening around us – as Vertical is explicitly concerned with ‘the violent exploitation of majorities by tiny cabals of the super-rich inhabiting vertical archipelagos of protected spaces’ (pp. 11–12). Although having occasional nods to gender (e.g. pp. viii–ix, 154, 335) and postcolonialism (pp. 365–68), this book is essentially about the rich. From helicopters (pp. 99–102), through elevated transport systems (pp. 230–31), to private islands (pp. 301–02), Graham exposes how the ones he calls the ‘überwealthy’ (p. 241) are creating a world of their own, to be inhabited only by themselves. Their ‘solipsism’, as Graham repeatedly calls it (e.g. pp. 239, 301, 313) is vertical, as the rich isolate themselves above or below the poor in structures that are physically inaccessible to the latter.

This focus on radical inequality comes with a cost, however. Graham’s book about verticality espouses a top-down perspective. The repeated emphasis on the orgiastic excess of the rich means the dispossessed get little to no agency in a book in which they are many times presented as passively displaced according to the logic of the capitalism which Graham critiques. The spontaneous spatial appropriations by lower classes that Graham presents, such as the vertical society of the once abandoned Torre de David in Caracas (pp. 120–22), or the complex identities of the people dwelling in tunnels below New York (pp. 352–55) end in militarised oppression, justifying Graham’s emphasis on ‘Foucault’s boomerang’ – the use of military technology in civilian urban settings (chapters 3 and 4). The only success story is one in which the state is the hero – the social housing of Singapore (pp. 190, 243). Of course, Graham cannot be asked to write about something that, unfortunately, does not exist; yet one could not help feeling disillusioned when ‘challenges’ such as how ‘to organise such so-called “upgrade” programmes’ in favelas without them becoming ‘exclusionary sites of gentrification’ (p. 120) are addressed only in terms of the bad that is happening, and not of the good that could happen.

As Vertical’s message is a radically political one, the book seems at times to be written, through its fifteen independent chapters, with the purpose of presenting aspects of inequality which happen to be vertical, rather than an analysis of verticality as such. The exception to this is the engaging introduction which makes three significant claims. Firstly, Graham identifies a horizontal bias embedded in the flat disciplines of geography and urbanism, a bias which he wants to overcome (pp. 1–3). Secondly, he briefly explores the destabilisation of horizontality in a contemporary world dominated by speed, mobility and digital communication (pp. 10–11). Thirdly, Graham claims that such de-territorialised urban space is re-territorialised vertically (p. 11). These three claims, and the following discussion of the inherent vertical bias of our comparative language (pp. 15–22) could have been the start of a very different book, one much denser and more difficult than Vertical as it is now, but that could have added valuable theoretical depth to the critical analysis that Graham provides. The chance to close the discussion in the same theoretical way in which he opened was waived by Graham, whose choice of a single-page afterword, following his fifteen case-studies, is surprisingly (maybe appropriately?) abrupt.

Stephen Graham has not written a theory-heavy book, but he has paved the way for one. While Vertical does not do as much as it could have done towards exploring verticality as such, it certainly makes us look up and down and think about what we do and feel. Graham’s purpose is to provide a ‘wild and startling ride’ (p. 22) in which he denaturalises the verticality of our political lives. This he does spectacularly, bombarding his readers with information, sources, and analyses (not impinging on the readability of the book) which are sure to make his target audience concerned with and angry at the inequalities of our cities. Vertical may not change the way geography is done just yet, but it sends an important message: the poor, as they are driven out, are not made invisible; and the rich, as they are walling themselves in skyscrapers or luxury bunkers, are not hidden from the keen eyes of a radically political observer.

Julian S. Yates, Department of Human Geography, Monash University

In Vertical, Stephen Graham aims to deliver a critical exploration of why and how verticality matters in the contemporary world. His agenda is to ‘inscribe a politics of our three-dimensional world into critical debates about urban life, cities, and geography’ (p. 14), and in attempting to deliver it he draws exclusively on secondary research to organise the book into two parts: the first on vertical dimensions above ground and the second below ground. The chapters within these parts are set up as thematic investigations into verticality, each ostensibly exploring ‘the contested political and social relations which surround one key structure, site, or cultural world (p. 14). Above ground we find ourselves peering from the vantage points of satellites, drones, and helicopters; whizzing up and down skyscrapers in elevators; travelling in cable cars; and wandering the unequal (and unjust) aspects of vertical housing and urban organisation. Below ground, we flow through sewers, dive into bunkers and descend into mines.

The outcome of this approach is an intriguing collection of essays that sits alongside (and indeed propels) growing recent interest in vertical urbanisms (for a review, see Harris, 2014) and other arguments for more voluminous approaches to understanding the social and material world (e.g. Elden, 2013; Steinberg and Peters, 2015). Graham spends little time spelling out how each chapter helps to drive forward an invigorated vertical agenda or how each contributes to ‘verticalized imaginaries’ (p. 13), despite one of his core aims being to overcome what he sees as the flattening effects of the majority of contemporary (urban) theory. Thus, the reader must extrapolate from each chapter the broader significance for understanding the (urban) world.

Despite the intrigue created by Graham, however, the book does not fully deliver in inscribing a vertical politics. First, Graham overstates the main concept of verticality: his argument that horizontal thinking has deeply impoverished our understanding of (urban) development is not fully explained or supported; his argument that verticality is essential to countering such horizontal thinking is rather polemic; and he makes only passing reference to progressive forms of horizontality. At times, Graham imposes a Western framing of horizontal/vertical, ignoring historical processes of three-dimensional organisation (see, for example, the notion of vertical archipelagos in the Andes).

Despite Graham’s desire to push forward his vertical agenda, he relies on what Harris (2014: 606) describes as ‘superlative vertical landscapes’. This stems from Graham’s focus on vertical metaphors, which he argues can reconstitute relations of social power. Frequently, however, these metaphors appear as tropes that reproduce rather than interrogate and disrupt over-simplistic verticalisms and ubiquitous horizontalisms. At times the argument is also contradictory: we are plagued by horizontal, surface imaginaries (p. 366), which come at the expense of vertical inquiries; yet simultaneously, vertical metaphors have been used for centuries to uphold structures of power (chapter 1). Do we really lack vertical lenses, or is it just that vertical lenses are implicated in the uneven hierarchies and power relations that Graham is keen to disrupt? Or is it that Graham has overlooked many of the verticalisms that have equally structured social relations in a historic sense?

Second, the politics of verticality is not entirely clear in Vertical. Few chapters contain a concerted political argument, and where a political contribution exists it is left until the final pages, appearing as Graham’s personal reflections. These reflections rarely sit alongside other powerful political accounts or deal in depth with political movements potentially capable of altering the future trajectories of urban form. ‘Skyscraper’, for example, passes by with surprisingly little political verve; the reader is forced to wait until the subsequent chapter on housing for substantive political debate. While it is hard to disagree with Graham’s position (he offers some thoughts on vertical restructuring for social housing, for example), this position is not substantiated alongside other political contributions. The final chapter, on mines, also disappoints on this front, as it appears as an inverse of skyscrapers and elevators. The book therefore trails off without a powerful political conclusion. Despite arguing that it is essential to understand ‘the political, social, and urban struggles of our rapidly urbanizing world’ (p. 22), these struggles are not entirely excavated.

I am therefore left wondering what might be done to re-shape Graham’s vertical dystopia. According to Graham, such a central political narrative was one that could not have fitted in Vertical (p. 388); yet, without it, the book remains a rather lengthy description of various vertical aspects to urban life. Readers interested in intriguing accounts of a few specific vertical aspects of (mostly) contemporary life will no doubt find Vertical to be an engaging read. It certainly reveals little-known aspects about the vertical aspects of social, political, and economic organisation. However, readers looking for a concerted conceptual interrogation of verticalism or a politically powerful critique of vertical inequities may be left disappointed. Nonetheless, as I write this review from the eighth floor of a 1950s monolithic office building, I am forced to consider how and to what extent the vertical structuring of society might have shaped my own academic interests and insights in hitherto under-acknowledged ways.


Elden, S. (2013), 'Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power', Political Geography, 34 (Supplement C), 35–51

Harris, A. (2014), 'Vertical urbanisms', Progress in Human Geography, 39 (5), 601–20

Steinberg, P. and K. Peters (2015), 'Wet ontologies, fluid spaces: Giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking', Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 33 (2), 247–64


To cite either of these reviews please use the following details: Belibou, A OR Yates, J.S. (2017), Stephen Graham (2016), 'Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 10, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite these reviews or use them in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.