Changing cities
Changing cities

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Changing cities

3 Three ways of thinking about urban agency

There are a number of different intellectual traditions that have defined the city or ‘the urban’, and which have tried to specify the distinctive types of agency that these places might have (see Bridge and Watson, 2011; Davies and Imbroscio, 2009; Fainstein and Campbell, 2002). Taken together, these strands of thought add up to a body of what in this course we call ‘critical spatial thinking’.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways in which the agency of urban places has been thought about in these traditions:

  1. The city is often imagined to have agency by virtue of the causal processes that characterise the very nature of urbanisation or urbanism.

    So, for example, understanding urbanisation as a process of spatial agglomeration of functions, activities and practices leads to the sense that all sorts of contradictions and conflicts are clustered together in urban places. From this perspective, urbanisation is understood as a dynamic force in generating issues and contestation.

  2. The city is often presented as embodying a distinctive sort of community or culture: a community of strangers thrown together by circumstance and contingency, shaped by the rhythms and routines of urban life.

    Here, the urban is often associated with the generation of distinctive styles of experience, consciousness and subjectivity that enable people to forge new identifications, new solidarities and new forms of belonging.

  3. The city is often talked about as a type of collective subject in its own right, with interests of its own and bestowed with capacities to act in the furtherance of those interests.

    The idea of ‘the city’ as subject might be understood with reference to local government agencies, urban growth coalitions or the ‘community’.

Each of these three ways of thinking is most strongly developed in particular fields of academic work or in particular theoretical traditions. So, for example, thinking of the city as a cluster of contradictory processes is strongly indebted to Marxist urban and spatial theory; sociology has contributed to the idea of cities as distinctive cultural entities generating new forms of community; and political science and planning disciplines often think about the city as a locus of governance in its own right.


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