Changing cities
Changing cities

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Changing cities

6.4 Making use of the critical spatial thinking framework

Activity 6

Now listen to the audio for this course. In this audio, the geographer Clive Barnett, one of the authors of this course, talks to Margo Huxley about the relevance of the critical spatial thinking framework outlined in this course to her own work. Margo is an expert in urban planning and human geography, and also has extensive practical experience of working around issues of planning and urban change.

In their conversation, Clive and Margo reflect on the ways in which critical spatial thinking can throw light on examples close to their own concerns – Margo talks in particular about a place she is familiar with, personally and professionally, the city of Sheffield in the north of England. As you listen to the discussion, you might want to keep in mind that, like Margo, you are likely to be familiar with places or issues not covered in this course, and notice how she talks about how the critical spatial thinking framework might apply to her particular example.

Clive and Margo talk about three related topics. First, Margo reflects on the way in which issues arise in particular places, and she notes the idea of ‘ordinary cities’. Then, they move on to consider how the three dimensions of critical spatial thinking might be useful in understanding the specific example of urban change in Sheffield that Margo is involved in. Finally, they consider the practical relevance of this way of thinking, and touch on the notion of ‘spatial rationalities’ that underwrite practical interventions in spatial processes.

The discussion is intended to help by providing a guide to thinking about how you might apply the framework of critical spatial thinking to examples with which you might be familiar.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: The framework of critical spatial thinking
Skip transcript: The framework of critical spatial thinking

Transcript: The framework of critical spatial thinking

Clive Barnett
Hello, I’m Clive Barnett.
Margo Huxley
And I’m Margo Huxley.
Clive Barnett
Margo and I are going to talk about the relevance of the critical spatial thinking framework.  The first topic we are going to talk about is the issue of place making.  You’ve already learned that particular places generate their own distinctive issues, but also that those issues are in part shaped by the connections that places have with each other.
So Margo – I wonder if you could perhaps talk about some examples you’re aware of, of places which are associated with very distinctive issues which reveal some interesting spatial connections.
Margo Huxley
Well I think I’ll - that was an example of, as you can hear I’m Australian - when I first came to Sheffield, because that threw up lots of interesting examples of how it was different and yet similar to where I’d come from in Melbourne.  Sheffield, of course had been a centre of steel making and had suffered great decline, but just walking around Sheffield and talking to people one of the issues that I noticed, was that everyone seemed to hate the shopping centre Meadow Hall which was out on the fringes of the town, and saw it as a cause of the decline of the shopping area in the centre of town.  But to an Australian, Meadow Hall is amazing because it’s connected by train, by bus, by tram and by road to all the places around, and instead of having a sort of free standing shopping mall in the middle of nowhere accessible only by car, as you get in Australia, so we have there shopping malls, that are, sort of seem to be almost universal across, well at least advanced western society, but it takes on a particular cast in Sheffield and becomes a local issue.  I think the city centre was probably declining anyway and it had a very difficult physical form, a long, spread out physical form that made it hard to, for the planners to deal with when shops were closing. But to me that showed the links between, sort of, large scale economic change, something that looks quite similar across different – different places, but raise a lot of local issues in a particular way.
Clive Barnett
Sheffield I guess, is a place which probably hasn’t been the source of a great deal of theorising about urban development or planning issues.  From your experience, which as you’ve indicated comes from various contexts, I wonder if you have a sense of why certain places might become exemplary, might generate classic models of how to do things, or how things are done.
Margo Huxley
That’s an interesting question and I think Jenny Robinson’s idea of “Ordinary City” points us to the idea that, that in fact a lot of the things that theory might point out as being very important in making a place unique, such as the City of London being a centre of finance or New York being sort of everyone’s idea of the city of cities.  Actually, when you get down into the nitty gritty and not so very different from ordinary cities that are also having investment and dis-investment and creative destruction.  But one of the things that happens is that because these major cities play a role in major economies in the global economy, they become models to people who are planners, or politicians want to emulate and so they are seen to be, I think, more unique than they may actually be.
Clive Barnett
The second topic we want to talk about, is thinking a little bit more about the framework of critical spatial thinking.  You will recall that that framework suggests that there’s three types of questions, or three types of problems that different traditions of urban thinking and spatial thinking direct you to.  So the framework is really meant as a – as an orientation device for you rather than as a template to apply.  Those three types of questions are first of all, causal ones:  you can ask a series of questions about how and why particular events or particular issues have come to take place in particular contexts.  Secondly this set of questions about the cultural, if you like, dynamics through which issues become recognised as important and as relevant to particular places and the people who live in them.  And thirdly there is a series of issues about who and what scale action should be taken to address issues.  So those three broad questions are the framework that you’ve been introduced to.  What we want to do is to try and give you a sense of how you might make use of those different questions in the context in which you’re familiar with.
So I am going to ask Margo - first of all Margo, if you can talk a little bit about the ways in which those three aspects of the framework might apply to the place you’ve been talking about already - Sheffield.
Margo Huxley
Yes, we can apply this to everywhere in certain ways, and I’m picking Sheffield because I have been living there long enough to have noticed these things - could have done Melbourne.  So, looking at the causal level of what’s going on in Sheffield and of course, immediately we have the loss of the steel industry and before that, the creative destruction of the Second World War which allowed a lot of redevelopment to take place.  So there’s a history in the built environment there that you can see, and that can be read as part of Sheffield’s networking into a globalised economy and the changing nature of that economy.  There’s also then, because of that and because of Sheffield being the place that it is, there’s a whole set of networks, both physical in terms of the type of place it is with hills and valleys and the kind of buildings that are able to be built there, networks of politics between the unions, the Labour Party, the Council and the various other bodies, which make Sheffield what it is.  So we have those networks of, how decisions might be taken because of who is talking to who and who has power and who doesn’t and the changing nature of that.  And thirdly then we have the kind of actions that we could take, and I would like to relate that to the idea that some of the policies that get put in place see action as having to be on a large scale; that we have to revive and regenerate Sheffield by lots of building, lots of funky new shops, lots of places for people to go and try to encourage large scale industrial investment to come back.  And that tends to overlook small scale actions, and I’m associated with a group of people who are trying to buy collectively a small, late Nineteenth Century building called Portland Works, which was one of the few buildings still left that has traditional Sheffield cutlery and small metal fabrication in it.  And so our actions are trying to, in effect, propose different futures to, say some of the more large-scale ideas that some of the planners have, so that they’re different levels of action there as well.
Clive Barnett
So it sounds like in that example, that rather than there being three distinct analytical strands of the causal, the cultural and communicative and agency, that all three are kind of wrapped up and, to really understand what’s going on around that particular campaign, in that particular place, we’d have to combine the three in different ways.
Margo Huxley
Yes, and certainly, and indeed the whole idea of the assemblage of a network of things and people, because of the actual nature of the building in Portland Works, is very much why it’s been able to have people carrying out the work that they do in it, and it is also part of the historical fabric of Sheffield, and so that becomes part of the things that are assembled in the attempt to preserve, not just the building but the kinds of things that go on in there. Whereas there tends to be a view among many planners that in order to regenerate you have to pull everything down and start with a blank slate, and so you start with a whole set of different networks and different ideas and different politics and different economics.
Clive Barnett
I’ll ask a further question about your example.  I wonder whether or not the campaign you’ve been describing has drawn on experiences of other places, or indeed whether or not other places are now more and more interested in your campaign as something they can make use of.
Margo Huxley
That’s interesting.  We did quite a bit of research on other collective and communal co-operative ways of buying buildings.  There weren’t many that were about an industrial building.  There were quite a few farms and housing associations and so on, so we set up something called an “Industrial Provident Society” which sounds beautifully Victorian.  But there are examples.  There are examples in Sydney.  We looked at an example of a works that had existing industries in it.  The thing about Portland Works is that it does have artists in it.  Many of these old buildings get set up as artists’ studios.  David Harvey and Neil Smith have said that then starts off gentrification but, we’re trying to keep - keep it with the traditional mixture of traditional and new things and there aren’t many initiatives like that, that we’ve come across.  So we’re hoping - because we have a website and we do lots of publicity - we’re hoping perhaps, if we’re successful in our campaign, it might become something that other people could gather ideas for alternative ways of doing things from.
Clive Barnett
That kind of draws us on I think to the third topic we want to touch upon, which is the use the theoretical imagination can have in practice for professional decision makers or for campaigners and other people. I wonder if, you’ve been involved for some time in debates about the importance of normative thinking, as it were, in planning theory and in spatial thinking. And I wonder if from your experience you could say a little bit about what the practical relevance of a conceptual imagination is, and what we can learn theoretically from people’s practical experiences as well.
Margo Huxley
Yes, that’s a question that always used to come up when I was teaching in planning courses in Australia.  Yes, but what’s it got to do with planning?  And I think you could say almost everything has got something to do with planning.  The theoretical framework that I looked at most in terms of planning theory is that of participatory planning, communicative and collaborative planning, which at the level of the academic work is very inspiring.  It’s wanting to make sure that planners don’t go riding roughshod over people’s desires about how to make their own places, and that they do involve everybody and talk to them as much as possible and take on board their ideas.  But I have found in practice, that in fact, it’s very difficult to do that if you’re working for a local government or even a private consultant.  You have to meet the next deadline.  You have to deal with what the politicians want or what your client wants.  You can’t always carry out the kinds of processes that the theoretical framework suggests would be ideal.  And so, on the ground you really have to think on your feet about how can we make this work without alienating people and particularly, I think, not allowing people to get the idea that, I think the idea is that, it is consultation and not participation, because planners by and large are bureaucrats working for the state.  If it’s participation, they’re kind of bypassing the political as it were.  So I think there are a lot of issues there where actually, working in practice should feed back more into making the theory slightly more in touch with reality.
Clive Barnett
Listening to you, it seems to me that what you’ve done is precisely that.  You’ve actually made some interesting conceptual distinctions.  For example, making it clear that planners or professionals or decision makers might be more appropriately thought of as consulting, rather than participating and that sort of distinction is what we think of as an important theoretical point, to make sure that we recognise what it is that’s going on under certain descriptions.
Margo Huxley
Yes and not call it by names that might set up false assumptions about what can or can’t be achieved through, through these kinds of processes.  That’s not to deny that action through community activism and protest groups can’t change things.  Of course they can but, and the planners can and should take on board people’s ideas, but I think planners also have to realise that they are not partisan members of those community groups, but neither should they be sort of party political.  I mean this sounds very old fashioned, a lot of the communicative planning theory tries to get away from this, but I think there is something to be said as theoretically Weber did, that there is something to be said about, being a bit standing back a bit from the fray and trying to see where your position is in relation to the issue.
Clive Barnett
It’s interesting - this is perhaps a hard question to ask you but I’ll ask it anyway, because the example you’ve talked about in Sheffield, but also your general point about planning theory and consultation versus participation, those are all examples in which decision making about spatial practices are clearly about conflict and different interests.  Yet on the other hand, planning theory and spatial theory in general has generated lots of interesting, kind of normative models of the just city and of spatial justice and of the right to the city.  And it strikes me that there is an interesting tension between those discourses which seem to be telling professional thinkers of different ways of their normative roles, versus the sort of the sense of the slightly more conflictual and the difficult nature of doing things in practice.  I wonder if you have a thought of why it is that those fields of professional practice and academic work, have been so concerned with thinking through their normative responsibilities.
Margo Huxley
I think there are two things there.  One is that we can talk about processes of urbanisation and the powers that create the kinds of spaces, and the divisions and the inequalities in urban space and access to source – resources and services. So at one level a lot of those theories are thinking quite broadly about how space comes to be made, and so there are normative, broadly philosophical, normative issues raised there.  Then there is the professional ethics that get taught to people who are going to be planners or architects, and there is a tension there between your ethical obligations to your boss or your organisation, against the theories about the state that may say that the state is the object of protest.  So, inevitably I think professionals are walking a tightrope, particularly if they’re working for the state, about what are the ethics of what they can do.  Should they leak secret deals and risk being sacked?  I mean how do you deal with those kinds of ethical problems, which are at a much finer grain level than looking at the right to the city, in terms of social movements or homelessness in the philosophical sense.
Clive Barnett
Perhaps leading on from that, one final point first to think about, is  on the one hand there is those very grand debates about justice and the just city and the right to the city, but it’s also clear that various fields of spatial practice, planning and environmental management and others, in the last decade or so have become focused on very particular sets of topics like sustainability and resilience, adaptation, transition – topics like that, which sort of seem to also have kind of a normative inflection to them but also interestingly, more modest.  Just kind of being resilient or just adapting is a much less ambitious hope than substantiating social – social justice.  I wonder if you have any thoughts about why those sorts of topics have become so important as grand discourses in particular fields.
Margo Huxley
I think that’s very interesting.  I think there’s – I mean, again there’s several strands to that.   As we are saying they’re all mixed together.  On the one hand there’s an attempt to provide alternatives to what has been, for the last thirty or forty years, major thinking in terms of urban policy about regeneration, about – as I was saying before – bringing in mega investment in housing or offices or whatever, which has become, obviously, now, is beginning to be criticised and seen to be not necessarily the way to go.  So it’s a posing of alternatives to some of the mainstream policy I see as being some of the advantages of this, and it’s also seeing that a lot of what we need to deal with in terms of the environment and future resilience, relies on people’s actions in their own places rather than necessarily major changes overall. Although of course we might like to see some change in, for instance investment banking, but - so there’s several reasons why that might be.  And the thing that really interests me is that I think the people who are charged with policy and decision making, be it environmental or urban, need to take notice of those small changes; need to be aware of TransitionTowns and resilience and also, even, make it easier to recycle rubbish. Because those are the things that often slip underneath the radar, like Portland Works, that they’re doing things that can offer an alternative way of looking at the present and the future, and often need to be supported and often aren’t.
Clive Barnett
Actually I have one final question I’m going to ask you, Margo and it’s about a concept of yours.  This was the idea that particular spatial practices, planning, permanent regional planning are often characterised by distinctive spatial rationales, causal rationales.  They have particular understandings of how the design or form of space causes certain sorts of outcomes.  So I wonder if, you think that that idea of a concept you developed in relation to the history of planning practice, is also something one might apply if one wanted to understand the emergence of debates and discourses about sustainability, or resilience and so on.
Margo Huxley
Yes, I think there are two aspects to that.  There certainly have been in planning, thinking and in urban attempts at urban reform, this idea that if you make nice places you will get nice people.  But of course as we say, you can’t - just because you design an environment to produce an outcome it doesn’t mean that it will.  You can make a beautiful environment and people will not necessarily do as they are expected to in it, as we always had fights about antisocial behaviour.  But nevertheless, it’s not the case as once perhaps more Marxist thinking in the Seventies implied, that space didn’t make any difference at all and it was just a blank sheet that capitalism formed and its only – spaces do make a difference and the smaller scale changes, such as sustainability and resilience, are very important but they are quite – they’re not necessarily quite so moralistic as saying we can make a good society by building good buildings.  But it is saying that, that we can make a better form of city by smaller changes, which should be supported.  I mean even down to the expensive problem of solar panels, they aren’t getting the support they might otherwise and of course there are debates about whether wind turbines are good or not.  But the small scale I think is important, in terms of enabling people, enabling people to walk to the shops. You can’t guarantee they will but they certainly can’t if they’re not there. So yes, I think there is a midway between total environmental determinism and saying space doesn’t matter at all.
Clive Barnett
Thank you Margo,  that’s a great point to end on.  I think you’ve given us a sense of the opportunities and the limitations of acting locally, and how far that depends on the places you might be connected to.
Margo Huxley
Thank you.
End transcript: The framework of critical spatial thinking
The framework of critical spatial thinking
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
D837_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371