Changing cities
Changing cities

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Changing cities

5.2 Urban space and the public sphere

If sociologists and anthropologists have often used the city as a figure for a distinctive style of social life and personal identity, the same features that these accounts alight on are often presented by political philosophers as models for democratic politics and citizenship practice.

For example, the feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young has provided one of the most influential examples of this style of theorising, presenting city life as a ‘normative ideal’ of democratic participation which is preferable to models of community or liberal individuality that have trouble acknowledging the value of difference and diversity:

By ‘city life’ I mean a form of social relations which I define as the being together of strangers. In the city persons and groups interact within spaces and institutions they all experience themselves as belonging to, but without those interactions dissolving into unity or commonness. City life is composed of clusters of people with affinities – families, social group networks, voluntary associations, neighbourhood networks, a vast array of small ‘communities’. City dwellers frequently venture beyond such familiar enclaves, however, to the more open public of politics, commerce, and festival, where strangers meet and interact.

(Young, 1990, p. 237)

For Young, then, the diversity, complexity and vibrancy of the modern city is presented as a model of a certain form of sociality, characterised by contingency and difference. But her point is to translate this view, a feature of social science accounts of the city, into a model of democratic public life. In so doing, she spells out the links between the social and cultural characteristics of urban living and the expanded potential for identifying shared interests and chains of consequence:

City dwelling situates one’s own identity and activity in relation to a horizon of a vast variety of other activity, and the awareness that this unknown, unfamiliar activity affects the conditions of one’s own. City life is a vast, even infinite, economic network of production, distribution, transportation, exchange, communication, service provision, and amusement. City dwellers depend on the mediation of thousands of other people and vast organizational resources in order to accomplish their individual ends. City dwellers are thus together, bound to one another, in what should be and sometimes is a single polity.

(Young, 1990, pp. 237–8)

In this extract, Young spells out the conditions for the emergence of a shared sense of belonging as a citizen to a public. In so doing, she helps us to differentiate between two sorts of solidarity on which public life depends.

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