Analysing the City
Cities are seen as places of contrast, contradiction and crisis (Pile et al., 1999; Loney and Allen, 1979). Even the attempt at defining what is unique about cities is a difficult undertaking. Should one concentrate on the physical aspects of scale and the unique built environment or focus on more human aspects of social interaction mediated through population density and heterogeneity? Is the city a place defined by boundaries, or is it rather a state of mind, a way of life (Pile, 1999)?
The challenges of cities were apparent well before the dawn of the twentieth century, when for the first time the majority of the population of Britain was urban rather than rural. Weber (1958: 94) quotes the proverb, ‘City air makes man free’, while Engels (1844) had previously drawn attention to the less desirable features of industrial Manchester. Freedom from the social controls and stifling parochialism of the rural life was countered to some extent by the worst excesses of relatively unconstrained capitalist growth in the slums of the city.
Yet still people poured into the city from the country, looking for work, for opportunity, for freedom. For all its unplanned growth, the city seemed to display an organisation all of its own, as districts emerged with different activities, different social compositions. To the theorists of the Chicago school, this seemed to speak of a social ecology, and of a process of change and transition as new resources are swept into the urban mass and filter outwards in ever increasing circles.
Yet when this broad picture is questioned, the facts appear stubbornly resistant. Instead of a series of concentric zones, there is a more diverse and segregated pattern, and underneath the new order of the city can be seen smaller ‘villages’ which have outlasted the urban growth while being consumed and transformed by it. So the ‘ecological perspective’ (Pacione, 1997) has been largely replaced by political economy approaches in which processes outside the city are seen to impact on its development. For example, Pacione (1997: 7) views urban deprivation as part of the patterning imposed on spatial locations by global capitalism:
Uneven development is an inherent characteristic of capitalism which stems from the propensity of capital to flow to locations that offer the greatest potential return.