A Guide to Urban Representation and What to Do About It: Alternative Traditions of Urban Theory

  • Rob Shields


Debates over the ontological status of the city — is it ‘real’ or ‘imagined’? — have kept academics busy for decades. Of course, most people usually don’t bother with speculating about the real nature of the city. It is more useful to think of whose city it is. Where are the pleasant areas? Where is there danger? Such value-laden questions hint at the importance of representations for our understanding of environments which we characterize as ‘urban’. To ourselves and to each other, we represent a complex environment which rarely has clear edges or boundaries as ‘a city’ or ‘a town’ or perhaps ‘a neighbourhood’. While we may happily speak of the ‘reality’ of the city as a thing or form, they are the result of a cultural act of classification. We classify an environment as a city, and then ‘reify’ (see below) that city as a ‘thing’. The notion of ‘the city’, the city itself, is a representation. It is a gloss on an environment which designates by fiat, resting only on an assertion of the self-evidence that a given environment is ‘a city’. As an object of research, the city is always aporetic, a ‘crisis-object’ which destabilizes our certainty about ‘the real’. Some have argued that the logical conclusions are that ‘the urban’ does not really exist or is an epiphenomenal distraction from ‘real’ issues, or that we should concentrate on studying individual buildings rather than urban environments, and people rather than neighbourhoods.1,2


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© Rob Shields 1996

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  • Rob Shields

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