Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

The Vital City: Constructions and Meanings in the Contemporary Swedish Planning Discourse

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

The Vital City: Constructions and Meanings in the Contemporary Swedish Planning Discourse

Article excerpt

This paper discusses contemporary Swedish urban planning discourse, focusing on the terms and concepts that structure the discourse along particular lines. In turn, these terms and concepts construct the ideal of the 'vital city' in Sweden. The paper focuses specifically on two aspects of this discourse - first, the fact that (certain) historical concepts constructing a 'traditional' city have a dominant (and virtually uncontested) status in the discourse and, secondly, the fact that the central city is a norm to which most new development relates in some way - as a continuation, as an opposition and/or as a (re-)interpretation. Through the use and status of certain concepts, the tension between a dissolving city and an urban renaissance is clearly visible. The paper concludes that the dominant normative ideal of urban vitality excludes large parts of the contemporary urban landscape and that alternative understandings of the city and its role in societal development are needed, including better-developed conceptualisations of cultural and social diversity in the city.

Urban dissolution or renaissance?

Contemporary Western society is often designated as 'urban' in the sense that people and activities are increasingly concentrated in cities. Accordingly, the city is seen as both vital for development and full of vitality. In addition, contemporary phenomena - such as environmental problems, citizen participation and democracy, social life in society, economic development - can all be placed in an urban context and interpreted as, in some sense, part of 'the urban' (Amin and Thrift, 2002; Elander, 2001; Lidskog, 2006). What urban - or, in turn, urban vitality - actually means, however, is either under-explored or increasingly contested, as is the role of the city in contemporary society. Why then is the vital city on the agenda today? One hundred years ago, the Western city was the pre-eminent centre of industrial production and trade, but today the economic importance of the city is challenged by outsourcing, flexible systems and ICT. Notably, this does not mean that the contemporary city is considered as without purpose. Among other things it is considered to be an important node in the development of a knowledge society and as an important player in global competition and the hunt for inward investment (Boyle and Rogerson, 2001).

Yet, the significance of the city as a central place is today undermined by, for example, out-of-town shopping centres and virtual meeting places. As edge cities and urban sprawl remove the focus from the centre to the urban periphery, the city as a compact and delimited locality is further challenged and is 'dissolving' at its borders. This also implies that distinguishing the city as a specific location distinct from the countryside - 'the rural' - is neither simple nor necessarily meaningful (Amin and Thrift, 2002; Hajer and Reijndorp, 2001). Some scholars even claim that the traditional categories used to conceptualise space - urban, rural, suburban, etc. - no longer apply or suffice and that new spatial categories are needed in order to conceptualise the contemporary urban landscape (Borret, 2005; Hajer and Reijndorp, 2001; Sudjic, 1992). 'Private' and 'public' are also labels that have lost clarity or importance - places can be privately owned or administered by public-private partnerships, while still functioning as public places. Similarly, publicly owned and maintained places are privatised by different groups during certain times of day or night. Thus, what is private and public space is no longer evident merely from its spatial characteristics.

In urban planning, however, the dissolution of the city is rarely regarded as something that should be encouraged and promoted. Rather, urban growth should be contained and limited, spatially and conceptually. In the capital region of Stockholm in Sweden, for example, several municipalities have added 'city' to their names, as though to indicate their belonging to the urban region or their character as urban. …

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