Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Policy and Practice Spatial Imaginaries: Tyrannies or Transformations?

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Policy and Practice Spatial Imaginaries: Tyrannies or Transformations?

Article excerpt

Imagination and spatial imaginaries: a conceptual framework

Simin Davoudi


We often think we know what a 'smart city', a 'global city', a 'resilient city', a 'world city' or a 'post-industrial city' looks like even if we have never lived in or visited one. Labels such as these perform a specific spatial imaginary and over time become the taken-for-granted representations of cities. Constructed and circulated through images, discourses and practices, they generate far-reaching claims on our social and political lives. In planning, spatial imaginaries such as these are often adopted and enacted as unproblematic representations of places of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Their role in power struggles over places and spaces is masked by the processes of de-politicisation in which dominant spatial imaginaries are essentialised and naturalised as true representations of the 'reality'. This opening essay aims to cast light on two related, yet distinct, concepts of imagination and imaginaries. Although they are frequently used, often interchangeably, in planning they have limited conceptual clarity. The essay traces their intellectual history and takes a brief excursion in their genealogical landscapes to summarise some of the key contributions to the debate. It draws on the foundational work on social imaginaries to offer a relational understanding of spatial imaginaries. Here, spatiality is understood as emergent from the relationship between the spatial, temporal, social, material and cognitive worlds.


For every plan there is a non-plan, for every net, there's a contra-net. The uncontrolled areas are essential places in life and need not to be known, but understood.

From Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker (1979)

One such uncontrolled area is imagination. Imagining things that are not yet present or may never be present is a human trait as old as the Oracle of Delphi; and imagining urban futures is as old as Plato's description of the ideal city state in The Republic. Thomas More's Utopia, inspired by Plato's ideal city, was written 500 years ago. But such a long history has not led to a common understanding of what imagination is. In one dominant tradition going back to Plato, imagination is condemned as inferior to, or a mere reflection of, the real. It is seen as a source of deception, a medium of distortion and displacement, an obstacle to reasoned belief, and a barrier to the discovery of truth. In their definition of ideology and their discussion of the fetishism of commodities, Marx and Engels (1932 [1846], 46-47) famously asserted that 'life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life'. Clearly, they knew that the Oracle of Delphi was, in the life of the Greeks, a power as real as any other, but considered such an imaginary creation as a deceptive sign of powerlessness. Similarly, Louis Althusser's (1971, 162) critique of Marx considers imagination as a pure illusion when he defines 'Ideology' as 'a "Representation" of the Imaginary Relationship of Individuals to Their Real Conditions of Existence'.

In another tradition the opposite view is advocated whereby imagination is considered as a necessary mediator that enables us to conceive of the real in the first place and act on it. It is seen as an enabling power and a motivating force for change. For example, drawing on his work on the power of intuition in scientific discoveries, Michael Polany (1966, 87) argues that 'to know what to look for does not lend us the power to find it. That power lies in the imagination'. Imagination also lies at the heart of Jean-Paul Sartre's theory of existentialism. In the opening of The Imaginary, he suggests that 'imagination is not an empirical power added to consciousness, but it is the whole of consciousness as it realizes freedom' (Sartre, 2012, i). For Sartre, therefore, freedom is intimately connected to and enabled by imagination. If we cannot imagine the world being different from what it actually is, we can never be free. …

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