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Defining urban space would appear to be a fairly straightforward task. In a certain sense, urban space might simply be understood as the material space that is commonly seen as constitutive of the ”city.” And yet ascribing a precise definition to urban space remains difficult. In part, this difficulty arises from the nature of the term itself. In order to define urban space it is necessary to ask what is meant by ”urban” and what is meant by ”space.” Certainly, the process of urbanization in which individuals migrate from the countryside to the city has been an important feature of industrial society and continues to rapidly transform parts of the world industrializing for the first time. From a structural perspective, understanding urban space requires that attention be paid to the economic arrangements and institutional relations that characterize processes of urbanization, rather than simply the space in which urbanization occurs.
While significant scholarship has focused on the increasing populations of cities and the emptying of the countryside, other scholars have taken a more conceptual approach to understanding the ”urban.” Indeed, critical geographers and sociologists such as David Harvey and Manuel Castells have theorized urban space with an emphasis on certain structural features of capitalism and the economic processes through which the capitalist mode of production reproduces itself. For Harvey, the ”urban” is characterized by capital’s need for a ”spatial fix” to the problems of over-accumulation. The creation and destruction of the built environment therefore provides opportunities for productive reinvestment of capital. From this perspective, urban space may not only be defined by the boundaries of the ”city” conceived of by authorities and urban planners but, rather, as a process rooted in the very nature of accumulation under capitalism. Here, the existence of suburbs and even exurbs might also be viewed as constitutive of the urban, for they too are representative of the economic arrangements through which these processes become materialized. Other conceptions of urban space are even less concerned with its material dimensions. Manuel Castells suggests that urban space is increasingly a ”space of flows”; centers for the tangible and intangible transmissions of information that serve to organize the global economy.
If the ”urban” can be defined by certain economic processes and institutional arrangements that create new patterns of work, commerce, and production, space is generally conceived of as the dimension in which social encounter takes place. Indeed, from the perspective of social relations, one may conceive of urban space as the collection of a large number of individuals with diverse lifestyles living in close proximity. The changing ecology of human settlement over time has led to a shift in social relations. Rather than the informal ties (Gemeinschaft) that may characterize smaller communities, social order among a large diverse population requires the creation of more formal roles and relations (Gesellschaft). From a historical-institutional perspective, in order for such a large number of persons to co-exist, a centralization of social life becomes necessary for providing services to the population.
As urban space developed during industrial society, diversity in lifestyles and work increasingly lent itself to the hierarchical organization of space. Social class has generally characterized the organization of urban space, even while the nature of this spatial hierarchy continues to change with shifting values and lifestyles. Though for much of the twentieth century the upper classes sought to escape the urban core, contemporary processes of gentrification have reconfigured space in many urban centers. The gradual ”upscaling” of formerly working class neighborhoods has led many to question who has the right to occupy urban space. In some cases, city redevelopment efforts have implicitly framed certain spaces as intended for white-collar users, rather than for the working class, poor or homeless. What all of these processes highlight is the definitively social aspect of urban space and its connection to changing relations as well as broader structural forces. For this reason, urban space is a continually contested dimension that provides unique opportunities to examine both human encounter and institutional structure.
- Castells, M. (1989) The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban Regional Process. Blackwell, Cambridge, MA.
- Harvey, D. (1989) The Urban Experience. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.
- Mitchell, K. (2000) The culture of urban space. Urban Geography 21: 443-9.