Geography is the study of the physical and human/social environments of the Earth, while urban inquiry focuses on the people and processes of cities and towns — which now account, for the first time in human history, for a majority of the world’s population. Urban geography, then, is concerned with the relations among people, and between people and their environments, in cities and towns across the world.
Such a simple definition is indeed helpful, but it’s only a first step. Consider both terms in the phrase “urban geography.” The “urban” is often a debated category: for some, the term includes a wide range of comparatively dense settlements, from big cities all the way to small towns and even low-density suburbs out on the edges of cities; for others, the word is only useful if it refers to the most dense parts of the biggest cities with millions of people. There is also some disagreement, moreover, on what is distinctively and fundamentally urban about the important social, economic, and political changes of our era: yes, we see a lot of fascinating things happening in cities, but does the city change any of the processes underway in society? Despite these disagreements — and perhaps because of them — the “urban” is at the heart of the most urgent questions being asked in many fields today. One of the most prominent urban geographers sums up the history this way:
“The study of urban places is central to many social sciences, including geography, because of their importance not only in the distribution of population within countries but also in the organization of economic production, distribution and exchange, in the structuring of social reproduction and cultural life, and in the exercise of political power. Sub-fields of the different social science disciplines were established in the decades after the Second World War to study these separate components, such as urban anthropology, economics, geography, politics, and sociology; later attempts were made to integrate these under the umbrella title of urban studies.” (Johnston 2000, p. 870).
The second part — geography — brings us into interesting territory. Many people don’t really understand what geography is, other than the elementary-school memorization of countries, capitals, and commodities. Don’t we already know where everything is? But even once we get past those widespread popular misconceptions, it can still be rather difficult to categorize geographers. “Like other aspects of human geography,” Paul Knox and Linda McCarthy write, “urban geography is concerned with ‘local variability within a general context.’ This means that it is concerned with an understanding of both the distinctiveness of individual places (in this case, towns and cities) and the regularities within and between cities in terms of the spatial relationships between people and their environment.” (Knox and McCarthy 2005, p. 2, citing Johnston 1984, p. 444). Environment means both the physical-natural and human-social worlds, reflecting the shared heritage of human and physical geography. In turn, the human-physical duality in the field hints at the sense of ambiguity that you probably detect when you talk with geographers: they’re pretty hard to pigeonhole, not only because some of them study physical phenomena (climate, rivers, mountains, forests) while others focus on human processes (social, economic, political). But they also seem to go about their work in very different ways, using different tools, languages, and styles of communication. As a result, geographers might very well be best described as undisciplined members of an elusive discipline. If you’re a bit unsettled by all this ambiguity, you’re in good company. The eminent historian of geography David Livingstone describes efforts to summarize the field this way:
“Because the term ‘geography’ means, and has meant, different things to different people in different times and places, there is no agreed-upon consensus on what constitutes the project of writing the history of this enterprise. Moreover, while the story of geography as an independent scholarly discipline is inescapably bound up with the history of the professionalization of academic knowledge since around the middle of the nineteenth century, it is clear that the history of geography as a discourse not only operates without such constraints but also reaches beyond the historical and institutional confines of the modern-day discipline. Of course geography as discourse and discipline are interrelated in intimate ways — one might even say that the purpose of a discipline is precisely to ‘discipline’ discourse.” (Livingston 2000, p. 304).
In this paper, our main goal is “to make sense of the ways that towns and cities have changed and are changing, with particular reference to the differences both between urban places and within them.” (Knox and McCarthy 2005, p. 2). We tackle four distinct, and yet inter-related, sets of questions.
First, how do cities and other kinds of human settlements vary across time and space? How has the evolution of cities reflected prevailing historical conditions? What are the crucial differences between cities within particular regions or countries, and between different countries? How do certain cities reflect the distinctive circumstances of their geographical context?
Second, what regularities unite seemingly different cities? What are the similarities in patterns, processes, and relationships within different cities, and in networks between cities?
Third, how do social relations shape the form of the city? How are particular activities, land uses, and social groups distributed within and among cities?
Fourth, how does the form of the city shape social relations? How do spatial constraints and locational considerations, for example, influence the way that people decide where to live and where to work? How do the geographies of cities created in previous generations influence the decisions of today’s corporations, investors, and governments as they gradually create new urban geographies?
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