Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

City as Ideology: Reconciling the Explosion of the City Form with the Tenacity of the City Concept

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

City as Ideology: Reconciling the Explosion of the City Form with the Tenacity of the City Concept

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper is a theoretical reexamination of the traditional concept of the city in the context of urbanization processes that exceed it. Recent decades have seen a proliferation of new variations on the city concept, as well as calls to discard it altogether. I argue that both options are inadequate. The city has generally been understood as a category of analysis--a moment in urbanization processes--but might now be better understood as a category of practice: an ideological representation of urbanization processes. I substantiate this claim through an examination of three tropes of the traditional city which in material terms have been superseded in recent decades in the Global North but retain their force as ideological representations of contemporary urban spatial practice: the opposition between city and country, the city as a self-contained system, and the city as an ideal type.

Keywords: city, everyday life, idealogy, representation, urbanization

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Introduction

Could the concept of the city now be ideological? Henri Lefebvre suggested as much in The Urban Revolution:

"The concept of the city no longer corresponds to a social object. Sociologically it is a pseudoconcept. However, the city has a historical existence that is impossible to ignore. ... An image or representation of the city can perpetuate itself, survive its conditions.... In other words, the 'real' sociological 'object' is an image and [above all] an ideology!" (Lefebvre, 2003, page 57).

A common assessment of The Urban Revolution is that its claims of an emerging urban society were at best premature. And this may be so. But there is a broader methodological point lurking in the particular usage Lefebvre makes of the word "city" (usually ville but occasionally cite). He uses the term to refer only to a historical phenomenon (eg, the mercantile city and the industrial city) or to a present-day representation (the image or concept of the city), and implies that these are one and the same object. Yesterday's sociological truths may become today's ideologies.

It is in this spirit rather than one of self-contradiction that we can interpret the fact that Lefebvre's discussion of the city as a sociological "pseudoconcept" came only two years after his idea of the "right to the city" (Lefebvre, 1996): the analysis of urban society requires new conceptual tools even as the experience of urban society remains tethered to some extent to the traditional, historical idea of the city. This observation offers a strategy for resolving a central dilemma of contemporary urban and spatial theory: how to reconcile the explosion of the city form with the tenacity of the city concept?

In this paper I answer this question by way of a theoretical reexamination of the traditional concept of the city--and its legacy in the context of urbanization processes that exceed it. By the 'traditional city', I refer to the analytical tradition handed down through Western social science via the Chicago School of urban sociology in particular that could be summarized in three tropes: the city-countryside opposition, the city as a self-contained system, and the city as an ideal type. They are the common epistemological core of Park's, Burgess's, McKenzie's, Wirth's, and Redfield's approaches to the city, despite the different substantive features of the city emphasized by these different scholars, such as Park's (1936) ecological succession or Wirth's (1938) size/density/diversity triad. Together, these three tropes define the city as an analytical form, and they have historically comprised something like the collective unconscious of Anglo-American urban studies.

The argument proceeds as follows: (1) I argue that, in the North Atlantic at least, we should neither dismiss the concept of the city as outdated nor try to resuscitate it as a category of analysis, but rather treat it as a category of practice: a representation of urbanization processes that exceed it. …

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