2 Acting locally in a world of connections
Places – the specific towns, cities, regions or neighbourhoods in which people find themselves living and working – are often presented as being increasingly at the mercy of ‘global’ forces, whether these are economic processes, social and cultural movements of people and ideas or natural processes of environmental change. Globalisation is presented as something to which places, localities or cities just have to respond and adjust. It is also often presented in disempowering terms, as if all places have to engage in a competitive race-to-the-bottom in search of foreign investment, slashing business taxes, relaxing planning regulations or lowering employment standards in the hope of attracting the attention of footloose capital. This kind of ‘globalisation’ narrative, in which places are at the mercy of the whims of fickle global investors, is just one example of how academic descriptions of cities or places are not simply neutral observations.
Fields such as geography, urban studies or planning theory are very active participants in the processes which shape decision making in cities and around urbanisation processes. In defining ‘the city’ as a distinct space, separate from ‘the rural’ or ‘the suburbs’, these academic fields help to make urban places knowable in particular ways. More specifically, they help to make them visible as objects of interventions of different kinds.
So, it matters how we imagine the spaces of urban life, because this helps to shape the sorts of agency that are ascribed to places. Places can be thought of:
- as causes of particular problems
- as potential spaces to convene public support for policy responses
- as political actors empowered to address public concerns.
The framework of critical spatial thinking developed in this course is designed to help you think through these issues of agency in context-sensitive ways.