The social fabric of the networked city


6716600-the-center-of-europe-on-map.jpgThe Social Fabric of the Networked City aims to reconsider sociological perspectives on urban phenomena by proposing a dynamic exploration of the links between infrastructural and technological aspects of the urban order, power relations and everyday life experiences. This perspective circumvents the immaterial aura of post-modern urban analysis and the material determinism that characterizes the structural approach to the city.

Without going further into the artificial distinctions between technology and society, nature and culture, or science and politics, we propose to re-evaluate the role that objects play in the transformation of the city. What impact do forms and tools have on our perception of changes in the city? Which objects change space and cities? What is the impact of the formal dimensions of the urban space on guiding and/or shaping social and spatial experience?

Indeed, the urban phenomenon has been changing profoundly over the past decades, and numerous publications describe the deep changes affecting architecture, urbanism, geography, sociology, the economy and political science.

Among the many elements that make up a—or the—city, three are of overriding interest for us. Why? Because relations between them have changed, and these changes are the source of the current transformation of the city. They are: functional centrality—a city radiating upon a hinterland of which it is the functional center; the morphology of the built environment—a city is characterized by the density of the built environment and its form; and finally, the lifestyles—the inhabitants are vectors of specific cultures.

Although it has always been important to deny the existence of unilateral and mechanical links between material reality and a body of social functions, it is also essential to recognize that these links constitute the sine qua non condition for the existence of the urban phenomenon as such. Not more than a few decades ago, centralities, morphologies and lifestyles fit into each other like Russian nesting dolls. Lifestyles were ordered by morphologies, the city concentrated central functions in hierarchical manner, the borders of municipalities corresponded to functional borders. In other words, daily life was embedded within territories with multiple but clear-cut and stable borders, and cities radiated upon a hinterland according to modalities that were abundantly modelled by geographers.
Independently of the spread of the urban lifestyle, the morphology of cities is changing due to urban sprawl. This aspect has been analyzed by numerous studies, reaching from analyses of urban sprawl or localization strategies, passing through forms and processes of segregation (Gated Communities, conditions of networks access, etc.). Basically, these studies illustrate a change of scale in the production of the city. From the metrics of the pedestrian and then the tram, the city now constructs itself around automobile metrics. Potentials of speed offered by the latter have been put to massive use by households wanting to live further away from the city; these households are attracted both by the dream of suburbia and by very affordable real estate. This situation, linked to a considerable development of major urban road infrastructures (bypasses, urban thruways) gradually modified metrics systems. In parallel to the growing numbers of automobiles, companies modified their siting strategies by moving to the peripheries of cities, amplifying the sprawl phenomenon.

From a spatial perspective, urban forms, infrastructure networks and the localization of urban equipment lie at the heart of a constantly changing historical process. In order to understand these phenomena, we shall study the process of urban development by addressing two sources of major transformations with strong material, social, and political ramifications: infrastructure and communication networks; architecture and the built environment. This should encourage us to take an in-depth look at both urban and mobility capacities:

• The built environment and the infrastructures are not only a context. Residential aspirations are inseparable from the city’s material attributes in terms of aesthetics, atmospheres, possibilities of ownership enabled by the built environment, the mobility potential generated by the transport system.

• It is indeed the players’ capacity for mobility or motility that changes the city. With the multiplication of the possibilities to move, the city could have disappeared; in fact this scenario was projected by an extensive scientific literature in the 1970s and 1980s. This phenomenon did not occur because city stakeholders ascribe essential qualities to the city which they find nowhere else. We are not witnessing the end of cities because the superposition of the three dimensions presented above has come to an end. Cities remain places in which these three dimensions subsist (living space, morphology and centrality), but combined differently. The city is a dense space that leaves room for alterity (otherness) and many persons seek it out for this very reason. It is the place that enables us to travel without moving, that opens up career opportunities, that lets us change our lives thanks to its anonymity.

Studies on the recomposition of urban centralities evoke the phenomenon of metropolization, which in many ways is an urban consequence of globalization. Certain cities progressively acquire world centrality, extending beyond the reputation of the countries they are located in. Such metropolitan centers concentrate job and added value generation, creativity in the arts and innovation in general. This is not an essentially material process, although it does have morphological implications (such as the development of the financial districts). Metropolization as a phenomenon may be viewed as the final stage of the process of concentration of power in central locations that has gone on for centuries, a process of which the rural exodus used to be an important manifestation (Le Galès, 2003).
Computations of global network connectivity involving the number of corporate headquarters, stock exchange funding, or direct international flights, make it possible to establish a ranking of these metropolitan cities. Some of them play a minor role in the global economy, but a major one in regional flows; Cairo, for example, which in 1992 came before Los Angeles, Bangkok or Singapore in terms of flight connections (Keeling 2005). Over and above such rankings, which are more or less instrumentalized politically, the major impact of metropolization on urban forms is a strong normalization of space, via the reproduction of internationally valorized architectural archetypes, the recovery of city centers, or the increasing awareness of historic built environment as heritage (patrimonialization). This does not imply less complexity however—in fact, in view of an increasingly insecure job market and socio-political reconfiguration processes, quite the opposite is true.
Indeed, the urban era does not mean that spatial and social differences have (or will) disappear: these tend to grow more global, but recompose and become more marked. In the competition between metropolitan centers, quality of life and urban atmospheres become an essential ingredient, projecting a differentiated form of attractiveness; the growth or social inequalities and the resulting poverty contribute to the increased fragmentation of urban spaces, both South and North.

Urban renovation projects have an impact not only on the internationalized forms in city centers, but also on informal urbanization. Players with low economic clout find themselves shut off from urban production processes. In Beyrouth, for example, informal land occupiers who migrated from rural regions produced numerous buildings and housing over the years, before the new legal and financial provisions that are now enforced for housing production, even in poor neighborhoods, caught up with them. These phenomena are not being compensated by more globalized inhabitants’ opinion forums; in India, for example, squatters’ associations have reached a national scale and are in touch with inhabitants’ representative movements in Korea, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. In spite of this they generate but feeble protest against population displacement operations that take place when major projects are under way.

Thus, beyond the observation of a segregated, fragmented, créolised urban phenomenon, these developments invite urban sociology to reconsider its objects, its analytic categories and its methods in order to comprehend the underlying principles of the new “urban revolution”. We will thus recall, via a reflection on forms, four analytical axes :
(1) the articulation between the local and the global, between places and flows, the willingness to interface between the city and different scales all the way up to the international manifesting itself in the construction of major infrastructures,
(2) the evolution of lifestyles in connection with the networked society, and the challenges it poses in terms of spatial, residential and social mobility,
(3) the reshuffling of social processes and the internationalization of urban policies, the effects of which can be seen in the deterioration of “close” or local solidarity,
(4) and finally, the querying of planning and decision-making modalities, and of the role of participation and concertation.

The originality of this book is that it involves the first-ever examination of the architectural and urbanistic ramifications of the emergence of the networked city and mobility. By focusing on issues of accessibility, mobility and planning, the present publication places the problem of communication and mobility—which besides networks and physical infrastructures represent the intrinsic properties of the networked city and its social fabric—at the center of urban studies.

Recovering urban form as an analytic dimension

When Maurice Hallwachs in 1920 presented his analysis of past plans to enlarge and develop Paris, he stressed—with a certain irony—that even before the 19th century attempts to plan Paris worked only if they validated already existing developments a posteriori, developments that had been implemented piecemeal in the capital’s suburbs (faubourgs). In short, the plan and the norm are never as effective as when they attempt to control nothing, when they norm, planify, and formalize nothing, thereby also demonstrating our incapacity to foresee the city a priori. Since the 17th century, Hallwachs tells us, “…the tracing of thoroughfares, and the changes in the superficial structure of Paris are due not to concerted designs of one or several individuals moved by a particular act of will, but to trends and collective needs that builders, architects, prefects, municipal councillors, and heads of state obeyed without any clear awareness of these social forces, and sometimes even under the illusion that they were inspired by their own concepts”. Thus, since their very invention, plans and norms apparently never really functioned, never reached their objectives, in that they simply confirmed pre-existing construction and planning and development practices, spawned by urban population and growth dynamics. Thus, the plans to develop Paris were vast undertakings to regulate the peripheral districts, the faubourgs, including them in and enclosing them by the city, as slums and shantytowns are now regulated and restructured via their access to urban services or the expansion of the perimeter of the official plan. This is described as urbanisme de rattrapage, recovery urbanism. This view of the city at first leads us to believe that regardless of norms, laws and regulations, the city creates itself without them.

It is true that utopians attempted to highlight the importance of form for their urban ideal. Thus at the end of the 19th century, Ebenezer Howard wished to combat the rural exodus and urban overpopulation by proposing the establishment of new cities, “…a group of slumless, smokeless cities”, built in the form of circular garden-cities, maintaining strict separation between city and country. Viewing as magnetic the reasons which cause populations to opt for cities (quality of social ties, jobs, anonymity) or the country (clean air, solidarity), he proposes a third magnet combining the supposed assets of both forms: “Town and country must be married and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization”. To sum things up, his approach is based on the belief in “re-ordering the city as a means of re-ordering society”. Yet this utopia to a large extent remained at the planning stage, and failed to impose new forms.
So, where do the forms of cities come from? Between the large avenues of SaintPetersburg and the Bouygues house in a Paris suburb, between the New York skyline and new cities, between fortified village houses (bastides) and the New Urbanism, cities—or fragments of cities—have been designed by institutions, engineers or head architects, codes, procedures, standards and schools. And even though norms may not be perfectly implemented, their influence is never null and void. Thus, let us recall one of Hallwachs’s conclusions on the plans to extend Paris: “Building is taking place in spite of regulations. But would building not have been more extensive and rapid if there had been no regulations at all?” Thus, in a second movement, after the city that constructs itself, we have a city that presents itself as the result of thousands of ingredients, norms, laws, architects and politicians.

Yet it is precisely the genesis of this form that we wish to understand, between “city without norms” and city “resulting from”, in this complex adjustment between codes from above, and practices and needs from below. But how do these adjustments take place? What factors determine that one is nearer from one of the two extremes: the formatted city and the self-generated city?

Urban dynamics reveal themselves in the aptitude of players to be mobile

Compact urbanization, a historic heritage, dense, delimited, and marked by the congruence of spatial contiguity and social proximity, is gradually transformed, particularly when inhabitants and other concerned players become mobile. This process is accompanied by the development of new relations to space and time, based on the reticular (networkrelated) mode of opening to opportunities. Thus, the capacity to be mobile is a constituting principle of the urban phenomenon. This is by no means a new observation: did urban growth not at all times develop on the basis of migratory flows? Did not the network of trams and subways not remodel the city just over one hundred years ago? Has the city not always been the place where ideas circulate and confront each other? In the 1930s, the scientists of the Chicago School evoked “man gifted with locomotion” as the subject of urban sociology. If the mobility of the players is at the heart of the dynamics of the urban phenomenon, and constitutes a powerful analyzer of its substance, this is fundamentally because co-presence remains the keystone of sociability and social insertion, in spite of the considerable impetus of long distance communication technologies…

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  • merci pour ces informations , je lie vos articles tous le temps , merci beaucoup !

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