Urban Space

It is not an easy task to provide a definition of urban space because such a definition must consider the social parameters of its constituent parts: urban and space. The difficulty of defining urban space is enhanced if one considers that urban space is an artifact of urbanization – a social process that describes the manner in which cities grow and societies become more complex. For example, a synergistic perspective of space situates the location of ‘‘urban’’ as an outcome of social and institutional forces associated with urbanization. In contrast, a structural perspective of space identifies ‘‘urban’’ as the product of social structures and relationships that typify urbanization. Combining the synergistic and structural perspectives results in the identification of social features associated with urban space: (1) diversity of social roles and relationships, and (2) institutional arrangements and social networks necessary for efficient social order. No matter which perspective one adopts, one thing is clear: urban space is a dynamic aspect of urbanization. Urban space involves synergistic and structural aspects.

From a synergistic perspective, urbanization is fueled by population growth and institutional expansion. In a simplistic scenario, in order for urbanization to occur, people must come together in large enough numbers that they are situated in a space that makes them noticeably different from less populated human groupings. In addition, the social diversity of the people situated in the same space promotes a form of social interaction characterized by formal role relationships rather than intimate or informal (e.g., familial) role relationships. That is, as a population increases its numbers within the same space it becomes necessary for the maintenance of social order that diversity within the population be characterized by formal role relationships (Gesellschaft) rather than informal role relations (Gemeinschaft). One might say that a distinction emerges between highly populated space (urban) and less populated space (rural).

The aggregation of people within the same space serves as a social force that brings together persons with diverse lifestyles and work ethics. In most cases people migrated to the same space because of shared interests or shared expectations regarding lifestyles and work ethics. Interestingly, social contact between persons in the population sharing the same space enhances the social diversity of the population by increasing familiarity with different lifestyles and work ethics. In turn, the diversity of lifestyles and work ethics necessitates the development of institutional structures for their expression; for example, churches for religious expression and a labor market for demonstrating a work ethic.

At the institutional level, situating a large number of persons with a diversity of lifestyles and work ethics within the same space required the centralization of social life. The dynamic aspect of increased social contact between persons required the development of formal relationships between persons and institutions. For persons situated within the same space to be able to express their lifestyle and work ethic in an efficient manner required the formation of institutional structures for the performance of diverse lifestyles and work ethics. In particular, centralization was necessary for the efficient operation of institutional structures focused on coordinating the delivery of services vital to the expression of lifestyles and work ethics.

For example, in order to promote the efficient expression of social life, economic organizations such as banks and labor markets developed in order to provide a network of services that utilized labor, raw materials, and capital. The network of services, in turn, centralized the production of services that meet the needs of a growing population. As such, a large and growing population, coupled with an institutional structure designed to promote centralization and social efficiency, created a context for defining urban space: the situating of a large number of persons with diverse lifestyles and work ethics in space nested within an institutional structure that promotes centralization and social efficiency. From a commonsense point of view, urban space is often regarded as a rudimentary definition for the city.

Given the preceding definition of urban space one must not assume that it is a twentieth century or twenty first century phenomenon. Large urban centers or urban spaces can be identified in the history of societies in the world system. According to some estimates, the city of Babylon had almost a million residents at the height of its social development. Similarly, Rome had almost half a million residents at its peak, while London had about a million residents by the early 1800s. All three cities or urban spaces were characterized by a large population of residents and the operation of institutional structures for promoting social efficiency in a diverse population (e.g., collection of taxes, distribution of raw materials, and the production of work).

The institutional structures that centralized social life in an efficient manner resulted in an outcome that one finds today. As the number of persons sharing the same space intensified, so did the diversification of lifestyles and work ethics. In particular, the centralization of social life resulted in the hierarchical arrangement of persons based on lifestyle and work ethic. That is, class differences became visible and served to partition urban space. The partition of urban space made it possible to observe how persons sharing the same space associated with each other along class lines.

For example, in early nineteenth century Parisian society the aristocracy and growing bourgeoisie moved to the margins of the city to escape the increasing numbers of the ‘‘popular classes’’ in Paris. The access to capital and valued resources enjoyed by the upper and middle classes allowed them to situate themselves on the margin of urban space. In a sense, access to capital or valued resources served as a social force to extend the boundaries of urban space into rural space. As a result, what is often referred to as a suburb – space adjacent to or on the periphery of urban space – took rudimentary expression as the ability of persons with capital to differentiate themselves by class from persons subject to the homogenizing effects of the ‘‘popular class’’ on persons sharing the same urban space.

One finds in American society a similar phenomenon in the twenty first century. The increasing perception that urban space is pregnant with social problems such as crime, homelessness, and poverty has resulted in persons and families fleeing to space located on the periphery or within traveling distance of urban space. During the 1970s and early 1980s in the US, moving from urban space to the suburb was often characterized as ‘‘white flight’’ because it was a movement that was mostly driven by white persons and families. These were white persons and families that had accumulated equity in their homes located in urban space that permitted them to sell their homes and buy new larger homes in the suburbs. (Unfortunately, most of those left behind in urban space were racial and ethnic minorities who did not own their homes, thus resulting in the racialization of the suburbs.) Ironically, in some cases the number of persons and families moving from urban space to the suburbs was so drastic that suburbs became mirror images of the urban space persons and families were fleeing. The suburbs have become so much like urban space that persons and families are moving into rural areas, resulting in ‘‘suburbs of the suburbs,’’ or what population experts refer to as exurbs.

Interestingly, as persons and families moved from urban to suburban space, the uses of public space have come into question. Who is entitled to occupy public space? In urban centers, the poor and homeless have been identified as targets for city redevelopment projects. For example, redevelopment policies have been used by cities to implement ‘‘eminent domain’’ practices to remove older homes, often occupied by the elderly on fixed incomes, to make room for upscale townhouses or condominiums that appeal to young people and families, especially those with white collar or professional occupations. Redevelopment policies have been designed by cities that establish vagrancy zones in downtown areas that make loitering on public walkways a misdemeanor – a strategic tool for criminalizing the homeless in downtown areas. As a result, city redevelopment practices seek to remove the poor and homeless from public space not so much to ‘‘clean up’’ the city, but so as to create an attractive locale for bringing back the capital that left the city when persons and families moved to the suburbs.

In the suburbs the fight is over how to allocate public space to parks and recreation areas versus businesses and commercial interests. For example, many of the suburbs’ residents commute to work in urban centers. In order to develop a system of services that meet the needs of growing suburbs, city councils in the suburbs have courted businesses, especially manufacturers, to relocate to the suburbs in order to generate sales tax revenue and jobs, thus keeping residents in the suburbs and improving their quality of life by providing jobs that do not require commuting. The push for attracting businesses, however, comes at a cost to residents. Public space that has been designated for recreational use is used as a carrot by city councils to attract businesses. As a result, public space in the suburb is a contest between resource used by people versus economic benefits for businesses.

In summary, if one considers the social construction of population centers, one might say that urban space is typified by what is called a ‘‘city.’’ A city is a collection of people and institutional structures that promote the efficient interaction between persons and place. Urban space has often increased in population to the point that it serves as a synergistic force for the social construction of the suburb. Ironically, suburbs have decided that the only means for their survival is to mirror urban areas – formal social relationships and complex institutional arrangements. In turn, the suburb has served as a synergistic force to create its own alter ego, the exurb. As a result, the rapid growth of suburban populations makes it difficult to exclude the suburb from consideration as urban space because it is a product and catalyst for the social construction of urban space. It is possible to consider the rise of the suburb as an extension of urban space that seeks to accommodate the expression of increasing diversity in lifestyles and work ethics. It is not clear, however, how increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the US population will shape the synergistic link between urban and suburban space. Ironically, what urban and suburban spaces have in common is the transformation of public space into contested terrain.


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