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MUDD 21 - City Visions II

Method and Spatial Political Economy Alexander R. Cuthbert

When I was invited to write 750 words on this subject, it presented me with a real headache. What could I possibly add to the 400,000 words and 2000 references already contained in the trilogy Designing Cities, The Form of Cities, and Understanding Cities? After all, the entire project focused on Spatial Political Economy. Nonetheless a few clarifications might be in order. In essence, method simply means a systematic way of doing something. So it is not unreasonable for urban designers to look for methods they can apply to received problems. The Journal of Urban Design has been publishing articles on the subject for over 20 years. So why are we not content? I tried to answer this question in ‘Urban Design: requiem for an era’ (Cuthbert 2007). I argued that mainstream urban design was wholly derivative of other disciplines, particularly architecture and planning. It constituted a pastiche of practices based on a grab bag of trivial ‘theories’ that bore no relationship to each other (picturesque studies, image studies, figure ground theory, environment-behaviour, place studies etc). They were also incapable of refutation which is the mark of substantial theory. A method without a theory to support it is no method at all. It is mere technology. But for those looking for security, look no further. To be fair, this position was quite tenable. After all, it was all we had. Urban design was fine as it was, with physical determinism being the order of the day and a happily received colonisation by architecture and planning. But in 1974 a book was published called The Production of Space (Henri Lefebvre), closely followed in 1977 by The Urban Question, a text by his student Manuel Castells. Together they shattered the world of happy certainties we had been used to. The message was ‘The space of a (social) order is hidden in the order of space’ (Lefebvre). Ipso Facto, Urban Design – the order of space – became inexorably tied to social structure and spatial political economy came into existence. Lefebvre suggested three fundamental categories - spatial practice (the spaces of everyday life); the representation of space (space cognitively developed); and spaces of representation (symbolic and ideational space). Is this not the essence of what urban designers do? These books were revolutionary for social science, since for the first time the production of social space was taken seriously. They provided the missing link between the aspatial political economy of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and Maynard Keynes, and the spatial political economy of Lefebvre, Castells, Gottdiener and Harvey. This new paradigm married social relations to spatial structures thus forming a unified field where space was recognised as a key ideological, economic and political construct of western capitalism. For me these texts were also revolutionary since it was clear that urban design could be informed by significant theory rather than the content free analysis of the previous half century. It was a revelation to see that the discipline to which I had

Emeritus Professor Alexander R. Cuthbert

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Mudd folio final 02 mar 2016  
Mudd folio final 02 mar 2016  

City Visions: Method & Design Chicago | Berlin | Sydney International Studio workshops from the Masters of Urban Development & Design degree...