Urban Space (Theory)

Today’s post is going to be heavy on theory and theoretical models of the built environment.  The goal here is to make these theories understandable and applicable to our everyday experience.

Henri Lefebvre famously said that urban space is socially constructed.  But what did that 1970s French Marxist urban theorist mean?  I interpret it to suggest that a society’s and community’s values, assumptions, and ideologies end up shaping the way the human made environment is constructed.  Thus if a society values the personal freedom of the car and believes that single family houses provide the healthiest environments for raising children, and if that society established social norms that look down on using public transit or living in  inner cities, then the result will be a suburban focused society of single family houses on large lots:  the late 20th century US suburb.

Later urban theorists have suggested that space is the result of conflict.  Much of this theory came out of the experience of gentrification where there were often economic and physical conflicts between newcomers and those being displaced.  Thus if affluent households move into previously poor neighborhoods, the dynamic can be described as a conflict between the two groups, one that the unequal power relationships result in neighborhood change.

I’d like to put these ideas together and suggest that urban space is the result of conflicts of ideas.  Some people envision a neighborhood of low income, white ethnic families centered around Catholic parishes.  Others see the community as a place where newly arriving  immigrants from the South can find affordable housing.  The result is the racial change and conflict of the 1950s – 1990s.  But notice that the conflict “on the ground” flows from this conflict of ideas.  One group sees the neighborhood to be one way, the other another.  The result is that each group competes for the space by trying to enforce its views of the ideal neighborhood form on the physical ground.  Today, we see this conflict between those who believe in car centric suburbs and those who want walkable communities.  But again, the vision for the community precedes the actual urban form as seen on the ground.

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