Changing cities
Changing cities

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Changing cities

5.1 Urbanism as a way of life

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Figure 11 Mapping cultural difference in Chicago: social scientists associated with the Chicago School pioneered innovative styles of research into ethnic, race and class division in the city at the turn of the twentieth century. This map shows the distribution of people of different national origins in one small area of Chicago

There is a long-standing tradition of thought, most famously associated with the Chicago School of urban sociology that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in which urban spaces are presented as the locations for the emergence of novel forms of social interaction and personal identity. Succinctly captured in Louis Wirth’s formulation of ‘urbanism as a way of life’, the Chicago School provided a theoretical framework for a much broader cultural narrative in which the modern industrial city was understood as a place where old deferential, traditional forms of organic community life were broken down and replaced by much more individualised, anonymous, mechanical and impersonal forms of collective interaction (Abbott, 1999; Smith, 1995).

As with other traditions of urban theory, this definition of the city is a particular problematisation, emerging from the specific contexts of Chicago at that time. It is an understanding that is closely related to the experimental styles of academic engagement that members of the Chicago School were themselves involved in at the time amongst poor and marginalised immigrant communities in the city.

There is a strong emphasis in the Chicago School’s account of urban culture on the ways in which spatial patterns of interaction, heterogeneity, intensity and mobility shape identities, experience and expression. This is a long-standing feature of spatial theory, in which the problem of thinking about the relationship between spatial pattern and spatial form on the one hand, and social and cultural relations on the other, is a perpetual, unavoidable issue. It is a strand reflected in the work of some of the most famous proponents of normative urban thought, including the pioneer of urban sociology, Charles Booth, father figures of urban planning such as Ebenezer Howard and Raymond Unwin, and critics of planning such as Jane Jacobs and Richard Sennett.

One shared feature of this canon of urban cultural theory is a sense that life in the modern city is always on the cusp of anomie, breakdown, isolation, bewilderment or alienation.

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