Postmodern Urbanism Research Paper

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1. Postmodernism In Urban Studies

In the field of urban studies, three principal references are discernable in postmodern thought:

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(a) a series of distinctive cultural and stylistic practices that are in and of themselves intrinsically interesting;

(b) the totality of such practices, viewed as a cultural ensemble characteristic of the contemporary epoch of capitalist society; and

(c) a philosophical and methodological discourse antagonistic to the precepts of Enlightenment thought, most particularly the hegemony of any single intellectual persuasion.

Implicit in all these approaches is the vision of a ‘radical break,’ i.e., a discontinuity between past and future trends (whether cultural, political-economic, or philosophical).

The pivotal point of departure in a postmodern urbanism is that just as the tenets of modernist thought have been undermined and a multiplicity of new ways of knowing put in their place, so, analogously, in postmodern cities the logics of previous urbanisms have evaporated; and in the absence of a single new imperative, multiple forms of (ir)rationality clamor to fill the vacuum. The localization, sometimes literally the concretization, of these multiple logics is creating the emerging time–space fabric of what may be called a postmodern society. The contradictions between a modernist and a postmodern urbanism are encountered most directly in the differences between the ‘Chicago School’ and the ‘Los Angeles School’ of urban structure.

1.1 The Chicago School

The most enduring of the Chicago School models was the zonal or concentric ring theory (Burgess 1925). Based on assumptions that included a uniform land surface, universal access to a single-centered city, free competition for space, and the notion that development would take place outward from a central core, Burgess concluded that the city would tend to form a series of concentric zones. At the core of Burgess’s schema was the Central Business District (CBD), which was surrounded by a transitional zone, where older private houses were being converted to offices and light industry, or subdivided to form smaller dwelling units. The transitional zone was succeeded by a zone of workingmen’s homes, which included some of the oldest residential buildings in the city, and stable social groups. Beyond this, newer and larger dwellings were to be found, occupied by the middle classes. Finally, the commuters’ zone extended beyond the continuous built-up area of the city (where a considerable portion of the zone’s population was employed).

Other urbanists noted the tendency for cities to grow in star-shaped rather than concentric form, along highways that radiate from a center with contrasting land uses in the interstices. This gave rise to a sector theory of urban structure, advanced in the late 1930s by Homer Hoyt (1939), who observed that once variations arose in land uses near the city center, they tended to persist as the city grew. Distinctive sectors thus expanded out from the CBD, often organized along major highways. The complexities of real-world urbanism were further taken up in the multiple nuclei theory of C. D. Harris and E. L. Ullman (1945). They proposed that cities have a cellular structure in which land uses develop around multiple growth-nuclei within the metropolis—a consequence of accessibility induced variations in the land-rent surface and agglomeration (dis)economies.

Much of the urban research agenda of the twentieth century was predicated on the percepts of the concentric zone, sector, and multiple nuclei theories of urban structure. However, the specific and persistent popularity of the Chicago concentric ring model is probably related to its beguiling simplicity and the enormous volume of publications produced by adherents of the Chicago School.

1.2 The Los Angeles School

During the 1980s, a group of loosely associated scholars began to examine the notion that what was happening in the Los Angeles (LA) region was somehow symptomatic of a broader socio-geographic transformation taking place within the US. Their project was based on certain shared theoretical assumptions, as well as the view that LA was emblematic of some more general urban dynamic. One concern common to all adherents of the LA School was a focus on restructuring, which included deindustrialization, the birth of the information economy, the decline of nation-states, and the rise of the Pacific Rim. Such proliferating logics often involved multiple theoretical frameworks that overlap and coexist in their explanations of the burgeoning global local order—a heterodoxy consistent with the project of postmodernism.

1.3 From Chicago To LA

Based on the differences between Chicago and LA, the distinction between a modernist and postmodern urbanism may be summarized as follows: whereas traditional concepts of urban form imagine a city based on a single central core that organized its hinterland (Chicago-style), in postmodern urbanism it is the hinterlands that organize what is left of the center (as in Los Angeles).

2. Postmodern Urbanism: Urban Form And Urban Process

Contemporary urban development in southern California provides a wealth of evidence that is symptomatic of a burgeoning postmodern urbanism.

2.1 Edge Cities

Joel Garreau (1991, p. 3) noted the central significance of Los Angeles in understanding contemporary metropolitan growth in the US. He asserts that: ‘Every single American city that is growing, is growing in the fashion of Los Angeles,’ and claims there are 26 edge cities within a five-county area in southern California. The classic location for contemporary edge cities is at the intersection of a suburban beltway and a hub-andspoke lateral road. The central conditions that have propelled such development are the dominance of the automobile and the associated need for parking, the communications revolution, and the entry of women in large numbers into the labor market. One essential characteristic of the edge city is that politics is not yet established there. Into the political vacuum moves a ‘shadow government’—a privatized proto-government that is essentially a plutocratic alternative to normal politics. Shadow governments can tax, legislate for, and police their communities; but they are rarely accountable, are responsive primarily to wealth (as opposed to numbers of voters), and are subject to few constitutional constraints (Garreau 1991, p. 187).

2.2 Privatopia

‘Privatopia,’ perhaps the quintessential edge-city residential form, is a private housing development based in common-interest developments (CIDs) and administered by homeowners’ associations (McKenzie 1994, p. 11). Sustained by an expanding catalogue of covenants, conditions, and restrictions (or CC&Rs), privatopia has been fueled by ideology of ‘hostile privatism’ that has provoked a culture of nonparticipation. McKenzie notes how this ‘secession of the successful’ has altered concepts of citizenship, in which ‘one’s duties consist of satisfying one’s obligations to private property’ (1994, p. 196).

2.3 Cultures Of Heteropolis

Provoked to comprehend the causes and implications of the 1992 civil disturbances in Los Angeles, Charles Jencks (1993, p. 32) zeroes in on the city’s diversity as the key to LA’s emergent urbanism. The consequent built environment is characterized by transience, energy, and unplanned vulgarity. Jencks views this improvisational quality as a hopeful sign, since it accepts the different voices that create a city, suppresses none of them, and makes from their interaction some kind of greater dialogue (1993, p. 75). This is especially important in a city where ‘minoritization’ is ‘the typical postmodern phenomenon where most of the population forms the ‘‘other’’ ’ (Jencks 1993, p. 84).

2.4 City As Theme Park

California in general and Los Angeles in particular, have often been promoted as places where the American (suburban) dream is most easily realized. Many writers have used the ‘theme park’ metaphor to describe the emergence of its associated cityscapes. For instance, Michael Sorkin (1992) describes theme parks as places of simulation without end, characterized by a-spatiality, plus technological and physical surveillance and control. What is missing in this new cybernetic suburbia is not a particular building or place, but the spaces between; that is, the connections that make sense of forms ( p. xii). What is missing, Sorkin maintains, is connectivity and community.

2.5 Fortified City

The downside of the southern Californian dream has been the subject of countless dystopian visions. In one powerful account, Mike Davis noted how southern Californians’ obsession with security has transformed the region into a fortress. This shift is manifested in the physical form of the city, which is divided into fortified cells of affluence and places of terror where police battle the criminalized poor. These urban phenomena, according to Davis, have placed Los Angeles ‘on the hard edge of postmodernity’ (Davis 1992a, p. 155).

2.6 Interdictory Spaces

Elaborating upon the notion of fortress urbanism, Steven Flusty observed how various types of fortification have extended a canopy of suppression and surveillance across the entire city. His taxonomy of interdictory spaces (1994, p. 16–17) stresses how spaces are designed to exclude by a combination of their function and cognitive sensibilities. Some spaces are passively aggressive. Other configurations are more assertively confrontational. Flusty notes how combinations of interdictory spaces are being introduced ‘into every facet of the urban environment, generating distinctly unfriendly mutant typologies’ (1994, pp. 21–33). Some are indicative of the pervasive infiltration of fear into the home; others betray a fear of the public realm.

2.7 Historical Geographies Of Restructuring

In his history of Los Angeles between 1965 and 1992, Ed Soja (1996) attempts to link the emergent patterns of urban form with underlying social processes. He identified six kinds of restructuring, which together define the region’s contemporary urban process. In addition to ‘Exopolis,’ the city without (a massive simulation of what a city should be), Soja lists: ‘Flexcities,’ associated with the transition to postFordism, especially deindustrialization and the rise of the information economy; and ‘Cosmopolis,’ referring to the globalization of Los Angeles, both in terms of its emergent world-city status and its internal multicultural diversification. Three specific geographies are consequent upon these dynamics:

(a) ‘Splintered Labyrinth,’ which describes the extreme forms of social, economic, and political polarization characteristic of the postmodern city;

(b) ‘Carceral’ city, referring to the ‘incendiary urban geography’ brought about by the amalgam of violence and police surveillance; and

(c) ‘Simcities,’ the term Soja uses to describe the new ways of seeing the city—an epistemological restructuring that foregrounds the postmodern perspective.

2.8 Fordist And Post-Fordist Regimes Of Accumulation And Regulation

Many observers agree that one of the most important underlying processes in the contemporary political economy is represented by the shift from a Fordist to a post-Fordist industrial organization. Allen Scott’s basic argument is that there have been two major phases of urbanization in the US. The first related to an era of Fordist mass production, during which the paradigmatic cities of industrial capitalism (Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, etc.) coalesced around industries that were themselves based upon ideas of mass production. The second phase is associated with the decline of the Fordist era and the rise of a post-Fordist ‘flexible production.’ This is a form of industrial activity based on small-size, small-batch units of (typically subcontracted) production that are nevertheless integrated into clusters of economic activity (Scott 1993). Post-Fordist regimes of accumulation are associated with analogous regimes of regulation, or social control. Perhaps the most prominent manifestation of changes in the regime of regulation has been the retreat from the welfare state, which has led many people to the brink of poverty just at the time when the social welfare ‘safety net’ is being withdrawn.

2.9 Globalization

The global local dialectic is another important (if somewhat imprecise) leitmotif of contemporary urban process. In his reference to the global context of LA’s localisms, Mike Davis (1992b) claims that if LA is in any sense paradigmatic, it is because the city condenses the intended and unintended spatial consequences of post-Fordism. He insists that there is no simple master logic of restructuring, focusing instead on two key localized macro-processes: the over-accumulation in southern California of bank and real estate capital, principally from the East Asian trade surplus; and the reflux of low-wage manufacturing and labor-intensive service industries, following upon immigration from Mexico and Central America. Through such connections, what happens today in Asia and Central America will tomorrow have an effect in Los Angeles.

2.10 Politics Of Nature

The natural environment of southern California has been under constant assault since the first colonial settlements. Human habitation on a metropolitan scale has only been possible through a widespread manipulation of nature, especially the control of water resources. On one hand, southern Californians tend to hold a grudging respect for nature, living as they do adjacent to one of the earth’s major geological hazards, and in a desert environment that is prone to flood, landslide, and fire. On the other hand, its inhabitants have been energetically, ceaselessly, and sometimes carelessly unrolling the carpet of urbanization over the natural landscape for more than a century. This uninhibited occupation has engendered its own range of environmental problems, most notoriously air pollution; but it also brings forth habitat loss and dangerous encounters between humans and other animals. In this sense, a postmodern urbanism is axiomatically an environmental issue (Wolch and Emel 1998).

In sum, these diverse dynamics suggest an urban process:

(a) that is driven by a global restructuring and permeated and balkanized by a series of interdictory networks;

(b) whose populations are socially and culturally heterogeneous, but politically and economically polarized;

(c) whose residents are educated and persuaded to the consumption of dreamscapes even as the poorest are consigned to ‘carceral’ cities;

(d ) whose built environment, reflective of these processes, consists of edge cities, ‘privatopias,’ and the like; and

(e) whose natural environment is being erased to the point of unlivability.

3. The Postmodern Urban Condition

In their model of postmodern urbanism, Dear and Flusty (1998) synthesize the diverse spatial manifestations of the postmodern urban process into a vision of ‘keno capitalism.’ According to their characterization, urbanization is occurring on a quasi-random field of opportunities. Capital touches down as if by chance on a parcel of land, ignoring the opportunities on intervening lots, thus sparking the development process. The relationship between development of one parcel and nondevelopment of another is a disjointed, seemingly unrelated affair. While not truly a random process, it is evident that the traditional, center-driven agglomeration economies that guided urban development in the past no longer apply. Conventional city form, Chicago-style, is sacrificed in favor of a noncontiguous collage of parceled, consumption-oriented landscapes devoid of conventional centers, yet wired into electronic propinquity and nominally unified by the mythologies of the (dis)information superhighway. The consequent urban aggregate is characterized by acute fragmentation and specialization—a partitioned gaming board subject to perverse laws and peculiarly discrete, disjointed urban outcomes.

The validity and full potential of the concept of postmodern urbanism can be judged only by a thorough comparative urban analysis that goes beyond Los Angeles (Dear 2000). Four contemporary emphases seem especially promising:

(a) world cities, or the emergence of a very few ‘megacities’ involved in key command and comfort functions in the globalizing political economy;

 (b) dual cities, or the burgeoning polarizations between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, computer literate and illiterate, etc.;

(c) hybrid cities, or the fragmentation of existing social alliances and the rise of unprecedented hybrid categories and places; and

(d ) ‘cybercities,’ or the radical undermining of conventional geographies by the telecommunications revolution.


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  2. Davis M L 1992a Fortress Los Angeles: The militarization of urban space. In: Sorkin M (ed.) Variations on a Theme Park. Noonday Press, New York, pp. 154–80
  3. Davis M L 1992b Chinatown revisited? The internationalization of downtown Los Angeles. In: Reid D (ed.) Sex, Death and God in L.A. Pantheon Books, New York, pp. 54–71
  4. Dear M 2000 The Postmodern Urban Condition. Blackwell, Oxford, UK
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  6. Flusty S 1994 Building Paranoia: The Proliferation of Interdictory Space and the Erosion of Spatial Justice. Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, West Hollywood, CA
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  11. McKenzie E 1994 Pri atopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  12. Scott A J 1993 Technopolis: High-technology Industry and Regional Development in Southern California. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  13. Soja E 1996 Los Angeles 1965–1992: The six geographies of urban restructuring. In: Scott A J, Soja E (eds.) The City: Los Angeles & Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, pp. 426–62
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