Deborah Stevenson, the City

By Walby, Kevin | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Deborah Stevenson, the City


Walby, Kevin, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Deborah Stevenson, The City. Maiden: Polity Press, 2013, 203 pp. $24.95 paper (978-0-7456-4890-3)

The City provides a review of core concepts in urban studies and urban sociology. Assessing a wide range of literatures and disciplines, Stevenson offers a critical exegesis of major works and schools of thought that comprise urban studies. Her position is that theories of the city are more than abstract ideas. As Stevenson puts it, "just as concepts, theories and methods shape academic and professional perspectives on the city, they also influence the character and experience of urbanism" (p. 1). The author defines urban studies as a multidisciplinary research area that borrows theoretical and methodological tools from across the social sciences and the humanities. As Stevenson notes, the city is made up of abstract, material, and experiential dimensions that overlap but that are not reducible to one another.

Stevenson organizes the book into a thematic analysis of the theoretical city, the material city, the everyday city, the dark city, the emotional city, the global city, and the imagined city. In the first chapter, she examines conceptualizations of the city ranging from those of the original Chicago School to the analyses of American and French Marxists. Stevenson critiques the biological and concentric zone models deployed by the Chicago School, then assesses the lack of focus on state agencies in early urban studies. She explains the differences between Manuel Castells' theorization of consumption and the urban, and David Harvey's subsequent analyses of cities as sites of crisis and capital accumulation. Harvey's advance is in viewing real estate investment as a primary circuit of capital, whereby urbanization becomes one of the key elements of capital accumulation. Stevenson then explores Henri Lefebvre's rhythm analysis, which offers a unique temporal and spatial approach for understanding urban experience. Stevenson suggests that all theoretical positions offer key tools for examining the multiple layers of the city, and that theoretical and methodological integration is constantly required in urban studies.

Stevenson then moves on to examine class, inequality, and production in cities. She argues that capitalist production was a major force initiating and intensifying urbanization, but the same transformation also produced new sites of inequality (such as the deprived areas of 19th century Manchester that Frederick Engels noted in his comments on the English working class). Stevenson examines how shifts in social and economic policy post-WWII enabled conditions for the emergence of neoliberalism and the marketization of government agencies. The ramifications of neoliberalism for cities were considerable. No longer could local governments focus simply on basic service provision. They had to become entrepreneurial and attract capital investment. Entrepreneurial boosterism by local governments has had huge material impacts on the make-up of cities, insofar as whole neighbourhoods have been leveled in favour of business districts that displace urban dwellers into peripheral spaces. Entrepreneurial strategies are "explicitly designed to move disadvantaged residents out of areas marked for redevelopment and gentrification" (p. 46). The results are polarizing class divisions and urban segregation.

The City then transitions into a discussion of public spaces and suburbs. Though downtown public spaces are often portrayed as diverse while suburbs are depicted as dismal, Stevenson argues that both are complex and varied. …

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