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Book Review Changing places. Urbanity, Citizenship & Ideology in New European Neighbourhoods. Edited by M.Cremaschi and F.Eckardt
There is a critical category that characterises studies in human geography, in architecture and spatial planning and, more in general, in all those social science researches that are dealing with the urban environment as field work: the neighbourhood. It is a polyvalent concept that has got normative, analytical and ideological roles in time and in space, without always a clear distinction. Whether the conceptualization of this term refers to ‘stuff that dreams are made of’ (p.16), an analytical dimension arbitrarily invented to address the urban environment, or an evidence-based spatial context that is characterised by a proper identity and social characterization is a question and a challenge that the editors of the book intend to share with the reader.
Several questions are at stake here: is it a still–actual concept that provides a proper category for researches and actions in the city? Does it (still) exist, with a proper meaningful coherence, beyond the mere administrative and/or census role? Are neighbourhood boundaries possible to be drawn? And is the neighbourhood in the post-modern city (if we acknowledge such a paradigmatic shift and whatever it may mean) still a category that addresses a place-bound identity, a characterized social configuration of a web of social networks, which are tightly related to the built environment and the cityscape? And thus, do the physical configuration, the symbolic role and the collective representation of its spaces constitute a role that can be the object of studies, analyses and even policy recommendations?
The book does not give an ultimate answer to all these questions, but provide some references and interesting thoughts from a European perspective. It recognizes the ambiguity and the ambivalence of the interpretative narratives of the ‘city of flows’ versus the ‘city of stocks’ that affects the interpretation of the post-modern urban environment, in which however there are evidences that the traditional social classes are no longer spatially well defined, neither the conflicts among them. Nevertheless, the book does not fall in the easy (and to a certain extent post-modern) trap of abandoning this crucial interpretative category of the modern city, albeit accepting the complete change of references. It is explicitly stated by the two editors: “it is the hypothesis of this book that the global change of the relationship between state, market and society, driven by an altered logic of development, has been producing an incremental change in the existing urban institution of the neighbourhood” (p.20, emphasis in the original text).
Despite looking more like a wise acknowledgement of the contemporary challenges of the concept than a real hypothesis that needs to be verified, it shows the editors’ commitment in tackling the contemporary urban complexity. The entire book is built on the awareness of the importance of this category as an intermediate (institutional) structure (p.21), which has a spatial connotation and that has the capacity to influence the relationship between individuals and the wider society. In this perspective, the book has the merit of using the neighbourhood as a conceptual reference for addressing that peculiar synthesis of place-bound and unbound activities that characterise the contemporary urban society, and exploring its complexity.
The normative point of view of the editors is clarified in the first chapter, while the rest of the book provides empirical-oriented research findings, the coherence of which is the real challenge of this editorial project. In the following lines the editors present the normative approach to the conceptual category of neighbourhood:
“Our point of departure is that the city can only be understood if it is seen in relationship to society, and that the neighbourhood must first be re-examined on the micro-level of social behaviour and social practices. As the closest, most concrete and sensible area of human relationships, the neighbourhood is seen here as crucial for understanding the social bonds of a city. (...)
Neighbourhoods are the outcome of the reflexive projections of the inhabitants beyond community ties and spatial boundaries. The narrative of the spatial positioning of the neighbourhood in the city, and the narrative of both the process of change and the identity of place, influence social behaviour in a complementary way to social relations and urban structure” (p.20).
Following this perspective, the book is built on two crucial choices. First, the empirical evidence concerns rather traditional contemporary neighbourhoods, neither flagship renewal projects nor entirely critical deprived parts of a metropolis. In simpler terms, the selection of the cases has targeted an in-between range of neighbourhoods, dropping the richer and the poorer paradigmatic areas. The attempt is surely interesting. Despite having the drawback of being an analytical category with less coherence than a more specified target of urban areas, it provides a plethora of indications with a richer variety of cases, providing evidence from several national contexts.
Second, it has the ambition of combining different disciplinary approaches in order to address the complexity of the neighbourhood: the planning dimension, the social characterizations, the design aspects of the built environment and the quality of the public spaces. In the case studies, it also addresses the role of discourses in the cultural hegemonic constructions. These specific processes are not only interesting for their use by the actors involved in the transformation processes as rhetorical supports, but also for their participation in the construction of the place identity and the symbolic capital of the neighbourhood, either in cumulative positive processes, even marketing based, or through conflicting dynamics.
This ambitious aim of the book is expressed in the keywords of the subheading: Urbanity, Citizenship and Ideology. Here the case studies are crucial. More than providing answers, they tackle these three main issues: first they bring evidences on the different political ideas that are incorporated in spaces and in the built environment, providing insights about the visions and the layouts of the urban projects. Second, they raise questions in relation to the contemporary condition of citizenship. Third, they discuss about the ideology in the actors involved in the decision-making processes and about the ideology embedded in the spaces and the build environment.
All these aspects are elements that can be explored by the use of the neighbourhood as a normative and analytical category. The collection of case studies represents an important step in the urban studies and it will be a reference for further analyses on the same or similar neighbourhoods. The choice of gathering the case studies without a strong theoretical assumption to be validated but rather focusing on the variety of the findings is at the same time the strength and the weakness of the book, in line with the ambiguity, richness and complexity of the topic. All in all, it is worth reading this overview on changing places.
Loris Servillo, PhD, works at the Department of Architecture, Urban Design and Regional Planning of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. E-mail: Loris.Servillo@asro.kuleuven.be
This is a review for:
by Marco Cremaschi and Frank Eckardt (Edited by)
The Journal of Urbanism