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Urban Studies

Urban Studies




Urban studies is the umbrella for several disciplines engaged in studies of the city, including sociology, geography, economics, political science, anthropology, urban planning, architecture, and urban design. Practitioners of these linked disciplines study urbanization and issues surrounding metropolitan dynamics, the process that links cities with the wider economy, their governance, and their spatial structure and change expressed in physical, economic, social, and cultural dimensions. These disciplines use distinctive epistemologies in understanding the city, but the issues they address typically cut across disciplines.


The major traditions or approaches in urban studies are locational analysis, spatial network analysis in the management of cities, and sociocultural, institutional, political economy, and postmodern methods (Paddison 2001). Locational analysis, identified primarily with the work of urban economists and urban geographers, is concerned with intraurban spatial patterns of urban land use and the accessibility of central business districts. William Alonso (1964) developed the seminal bid-rent theory for urban land markets. Network studies examine the spatial distribution of systems of cities and their specialization and development. Walter Christallers ([1933] 1966) central place theory and subsequent works by August Lösch ([1944] 1954) and Walter Isard (1956) are the key early works in this urban studies thread. More recent studies of spatial networks focus on the formulation of linkages in the world economy, urban economic restructuring, and globalization (Friedmann and Wolff 1982; Sassen 1991).

Sociocultural and institutional approaches have been developed by urban sociologists, urban anthropologists, and political scientists. Key elements of these approaches are understanding the meaning of urban social life, grasping human ecology, analyzing social areas, using techniques of factorial ecology, and conducting empirical studies on ways of life. Early social scientists contributing to these trends included Ferdinand Tönnies ([1883] 1995), who defined community and society ideal-types; Max Weber (1905), who identified ideal city-types as loci of civilization and historical change; and Lewis Mumford (1938), who pioneered the study of urban culture.

The Chicago School, the first school of urban analysis, was established in the 1920s in the Sociology Department of the University of Chicago. It was uniquely concerned with urban life and developed the human ecology approach to describe the structure and processes of urban ethnic neighborhood change. Robert Park (1916, 1952) derived principles of competition, succession, and invasion by which groups use or dominate city spaces. Members of the Chicago School studied Chicago as an urban laboratory. Along with Ernest W. Burgess and Roderick D. McKenzie, Park (1925) explored social patterning and the concentric patterning of urban growth. Louis Wirth (1938) formulated principles of size, density, and heterogeneity and defined urbanism as a way of life. Eshref Shevky and Wendell Bell (1955) contributed to the development of social analysis by linking urban industrialism to sociospatial differentiation. Duncan Timms (1971) applied factorial ecology techniques to identify sociospatial patterning.

Ethnographic studies include research on the distinctive ways of life of different urban marginal groups (including hobos, gangs, and immigrants), the techniques of self-reporting life histories (Thomas and Znaniecki 19181920), and the utilization of official data, including census reports and housing/welfare records, to create maps of the location and range of such urban problems as crime, poverty, and juvenile delinquency. W. E. B. Du Bois (1899) pioneered the use of direct surveys, while E. Franklin Frazier (1932) charted new ground in understanding the dynamics of urban social classes. Later ethnographic studies on gangs and immigrant groups in Boston and Chicago are well-known examples of the application of the participant-observer methodology developed by the Chicago School (Anderson 1978, 1990; Whyte 1943). These techniques have now become standard in various urban studies fields, the former in economics and geography and the latter in sociology and anthropology. Jane Addamss (1910) fieldwork on immigrants and on the living conditions of African Americans in segregated cities added considerable voice to the movement for direct policies for urban reform.

The institutional approach explores community life, community power, and urban power. Research on the development of communities includes the detailed empirical studies of community life and community power by Robert Lynd and Helen Lynd (1929, 1937). Focused community studies by Michael Young and Peter Willmott (1957) and the early community/urban power studies of the 1960s, Floyd Hunters (1952) study of local elites, and Robert Dahls (1961) formulation of dispersed/pluralist sources of power established the core of metropolitan governance studies. John Rex and Robert Moore (1967) researched the role of institutions and agency in influencing social outcomes. R. E. Pahl (1970) formulated urban managerialism/gatekeeping as control mechanisms for access to key resources. Clarence Stones (1989) regime analysis argued that the operation of metropolitan politics in the Atlanta area was based on political networks among the fragmented metropolitan governments and that managing these networks had become the essence of governance. Addressing class stratification in urban areas with this approach is indirect; if cities succeed in the global marketplace through well-developed urban management, the theory argues, prosperity will trickle down to the urban poor.

The political economy tradition links urban challenges to underlying inequalities in power and property in the process of urban development. Marxist analysis of urban issues and development (Engels [1844] 1973; Harvey 1973; Gordon 1978), the analysis of urban government as a local state (Cockburn 1977), evaluations of urban ideology and collective consumption conflicts (Castells 1977), and applications of dependency theory to urban problems are examples of this vital trend in urban studies. This approach generally argues that the rigid stratification in cities is a reflection of the broader class structures in society and that revolutionizing national and international class relations is a requirement for significant urban transformation.

Researchers from urban planning, urban design, and architecture focus their concerns on the management and structure of cities. Modernist visions of the city were applied in the New York Regional Plan (1922) and Greater London Plan (1944). William Whyte (1955) studied public use of urban parks and plazas to identify the types of architecture and spatial design that promote a certain pattern of behavior. New Urbanism considered American small towns as imagined urban models, where busy and lively sidewalks help cities thrive as safe and healthy places. According to Jane Jacobss (1961) vibrant city concept, lively street life supports a creative and diverse economic base, but rigid planning smothers urban social life and entrepreneurialism. Where planners have called for detailed planning processes, usually engaging the affected communities, economists have argued for a greater role for market forces in determining the location and density of activities. Both generally accept existing patterns of class stratification.

Postmodern approaches confront the assumptions of positivism and the theory of modernist planning and study different aspects of city life. Postmodernists have analyzed cities as centers of consumption (Mort 1996), centers of recreation (Hannigan 1998), and centers of image (Gottdiener 1995). Jane M. Jacobs (1996) developed the concept of representational cities, where messages encoded in the environment can be read as texts. Postmodernists, however, offer few concrete suggestions on ameliorating the conditions of the poor; increasing diversity and participation in social life, they believe, would be an important component of enhancing the quality of life for all city dwellers.


Urban scholars today are tackling the issue of globalizations impact on urban spaces and populations from many perspectives, building on the fields past insights into such urban processes as the differentiation of urban populations due to social and economic inequalities, the displacement of the less affluent, and the exclusion of the poor from public amenities. Many urban scholars now feel that the ever-growing world-wide mobility of capital and laborglobalizationis causing populations to sort themselves into rigidly segregated global class hierarchies.

Cities have been in the process of constant economic restructuring since the beginning of industrialization. John Kains (1968) mismatch hypothesis and William J. Wilsons works (1987, 1996) on the underclass provided frameworks within which to understand suburbanization (in both economic and sociologic dimensions) as a process that increases differentiation and exclusion. The emergence of employment centers or edge cities (Garreau 1991) in the suburbs showed that the loss of low-skill jobs in the central cities is not easily reversible. Globalization, driven by international flows of capital and information, has created a new system of city networks (Castells 1989; Sassen 1991).

Thomas Sugrue (1996) documented how economic restructuring in Detroit has been extremely painful and dislocating for African Americans who lost their middle-class jobs in the automotive industry. Lack of economic opportunities increased the size of the underclass in Detroit. Saskia Sassen (1991), H. V. Savitch and Ronald Vogel (1996), and John Mollenkoph and Manuel Castells (1991) showed that New York City has become a dual city, where skilled workers work in the specialized industries and immigrant workers take lower-paying service jobs and live in distinctly separate urban environments. Globalization coupled with urban renewal programs resulted in gentrification or displacement of some poor inner-city urban residents by higher income groups. Mike Davis (1990) argued that globalization has also opened urban land markets to global capital. Los Angeles, for example, restructured its industrial base and maintained its prosperity through participation in the Pacific Rim postindustrial order (Scott and Soja 1996), but the associated flood of capital from Asian countries increased land prices and made housing unaffordable for virtually all middle-class residents in Los Angeles. Globalization and privatization of public space in Los Angeles have excluded the lower and middle classes from most of the urban space.

Urban studies today continues to grapple with such challenges. Economists urge a reliance on market forces for improvements, while planners call for detailed smart growth plans. Political scientists focus on enhancing and democratizing governance as the pathway to progress, while institutionalists urge the federal government, not just the locality, to address the underlying social ills confronting the poor in cities. Similarly and more radically, political economists argue that urban challenges cannot be successfully addressed as long as the national class structure maintains an unequal, exploitative regime. Taken as a whole, then, urban studies is a terrain of contention among schools of thought, with many alternative policy recommendations to address the challenges of the city.

SEE ALSO Sociology, Urban; Stratification; Urbanization


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Rodney D. Green
Haydar Kurban

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