Cities as systems of communication

Cities as systems of encounter
December 19, 2016

art by Sydney Pink

. . . action is constituted in social systems by means of communication.

Luhmann (1995:137)


Societies are systems of encounter – and more… so the presence of space in social practice must be similarly more complex. How can the presence of space be discerned in the fragile materiality of communication?


Although communication has been undervalued in recent ontologies in human geography and elsewhere, it is central to our daily lives – a fact certainly reinforced by the constant presence of mobile and digital communication devices. We are more communicative than ever. It is this deepening of our capacity for communication that I explore in the book. As interaction systems, societies emerged through the mediation of languages and the transmission of meanings. If communication really is central to societies, and if there is a relationship between social processes and space, then space could have a role in the communications that constitute the social world.


In fact, one of the shortcomings I try to avoid in the book is the frequent assumption of a social condition of action as collective, shared acts as something given, unproblematic, obscuring precisely what needs to be clarified: namely, how this social character is constructed. If we imagine what we need to do to make our acts ‘social’ – through constant efforts of interaction and mutual understanding, frequently involving different places and times – we can realise that this process is far from unproblematic. But how can space clarify the way in which action is socialised?


As elusive relationships, these processes are not easily open to empirical verification. They are in many ways beyond observation and their existence seems only to be grasped fully by our actual actions. And here we find another interesting fact. Actions are marked by dualities. Both material and meaningful, they come into existence through bodily performances, and become social through symbolic exchanges. They constitute our subjective, personal experiences and yet relate us to other actors and places, even beyond our horizons in time and space. Curiously, we find a similar duality in space – namely, that of interpretatively situating social acts and events, and objectively connecting them. I argue in the book that the role of space lies precisely in mediating the passage between such ‘moments’: from situating the hermeneutic context of action, and relating it to broader social landscapes.


Space as context

Architecture and the Ballet of the Street, short film

To begin with ‘context’, how can space mediate our associations – the connections between us and between our acts – beyond a mere physical background? How can space mediate communication? We need to understand whether space has a role in communication, beginning with its deep condition: the mutual interpretations between participants of a social situation. We need to know whether space has any role in supporting our interpretations in shared situations. We know that space is defined by a tangible and durable materiality, however. So how can space relate to the meaningful contents of interpretation and communication? And, conversely, how can immaterial meanings be part of space? These intriguing questions remind those posed by a well-known philosopher:


. . . what we want is to understand how such non-physical things as purposes, deliberations, plans, decisions, theories, intentions, and values, can play a part in bringing about physical changes in the physical world. . . . the influence of the universe of abstract meanings upon human behaviour (and thereby upon the physical universe).

Popper (1972:229-230)


The book proposes that the relationship of action and space expresses itself very much like these mutual influences between meaning and the physical world addressed by Popper. Firstly, it argues that space finds the contextual role of establishing the conditions of communication. When we enter a school or an office room, we immediately understand that there are behavioural expectations associated with that place and situation, which are different from those of the preceding corridor or the street. By crossing the borders of architectural spaces or an urban place, we recognise a new context also as an interpretive background, supporting our understanding of what we will exchange in communication. In other words, sharing a background renders our communication easier. Meanings associated with such places become active semantic resources in our interactions.

This ‘contextual space’ becomes an active part of the unfolding of individual acts into communicative associations, or how we connect our acts to those of other people present in the same place – even if only by brief moments. This is a semanticised space: space enacted as social information – information about the social situations and behaviours that places express and support.


Space as connection

Then the book turns to the second role, ‘space as connection’. A place in the associations beyond the borders of the context could only exist if space constituted the transitions between actions in different places (and times). The actions I perform in a situation and place may have outputs that can be related to those of people performing in other places, situations, and times. Say, the results of the work carried in a particular institution are expected in another, in another city; research groups in different countries exchange ideas; or laboratories exchange plans or pieces in the production of an artefact. These exchanges are mediated by places; they are performed, accessed and organised by these recognisable locales. But to perceive this presence of space in interaction across distance, a role usually reserved for language or communication technologies, we need to understand how space can connect acts also in an informational way.

To solve that problem, I draw from the philosophies of Edmund Husserl, Graham Harman and Niklas Luhmann. Through them, I propose a relational view of meaning. One interesting thing about meaning is that the meaning of something is defined in relation to the meaning of other things. The meaning of the object ‘building’, for example, is defined in relation to the act of ‘dwelling’ or ‘inhabiting’. Acts of ‘inhabiting’ are defined in other series of acts and meanings, such as protection, shelter, conviviality and so on.

This simple realisation transforms the concept into one able to express inherent relations, blurring the boundaries between things. Meaning becomes as a means to ‘link the material and the immaterial’. I use this property of meaning as ‘referentiality’ in order to reveal space as a mediation of the web of social action – a step towards the connections between our acts.


References between act and space


The city is at the nexus of the socio-economic, technological and cultural networks that are transforming contemporary social life. . . . our understanding of this complex process is likely to remain limited so long as the false opposition of materiality and meaning goes inadequately challenged in social theories of the city.

Sam Griffiths


Meaning is a connection. This allows us to think that space might have a role in the connectivity of acts – a presence certainly different from other media, such as language or technologies. But how could that be the case? One of the main findings of the book is that space comprises information on possibilities for actions – say, where we should look for a particular activity or professional support. Urban space helps us to act socially when we know that a certain activity probably occurs in a certain area or place in a city. We do so guided by its meaning, understanding it as a context of particular acts. For us, places and buildings are positions of reference that contain properties of the events that they support.

We enact space as an indexical system, a frame of reference encoding different contents in different contexts for practice. Knowing the city and its formations, we can anticipate possibilities for interaction. This is a profound form of knowledge of the material conditions for social life: recognition that urban spaces and places relate closely to our actions and are part of the transition from individual to social action. When actions are shared, their effects are felt by other actors, and may then relate to their own acts.

Architecture and the Ballet of the Street, short film.

In a way, places are ‘doors’ for our actions: we enter places and there may perform with others. They are also connection. When we perform an action in a particular place, its outputs (say, words, messages, tangible parts of an artefact) will relate to the actions of others within that place, and in other places that happen to situate people who receive such outputs. Urban space mediates and anchors such events, and frequently offers practical and informational organisation to such massive systems of exchange.

This role of space is far from trivial: in fact, it is only distinguishable theoretically – simply because the presence of space in our interactions, beyond a physical background, finds expression in the form of invisible relations of meaning. Space is like a semantic network lying silently beneath the ongoing flow of association – actively mediating its connectivity while ‘vanishing in favour of the visible reality that it brings about’, to borrow Graham’s words about tools.As social action is unlikely to occur free of space, its extensity, configuration and meaning, these relations take the form of referential threads between action and space in the meaning they share. The book attempts to explain how such networks emerge through urban space: the communicative associations that make up the threads that weave together our acts, and the ways in which language and space are woven together. Cities have a presence as important as language in the connectivity of action.


By addressing these traces, I could set out the aims of an approach centred on communication:
(i) to propose space as semantic grounds for the communicability of action;
(ii) to elucidate its presence by showing a referential space to be a medium for association; and
(iii) to explore how space becomes the unconscious but referential frame providing organisation and complexity to communication networks, suggesting how profoundly and pervasively they rely on space.


Urbanity as a communicative achievement



The book then expands this referential approach and its emphasis on communication to the particular experience of urbanity. How do cities mediate our experience of others and of the world around us? The second part also addresses a diffuse concept putting together two areas that are still foreign to each other: urban studies and philosophy.

Discussing urbanity as an assertion of social diversity and difference, an aspect of identity and group affiliation, I propose that the experience of urbanity would involve at least three instances:

  • a phenomenological dimension of urbanity at the moment of ‘recognizing the other’ in shared experience;
  • a communicative dimension, when differences between social groups become permeable through dialogical experiences;
  • an ontological dimension, involving a sense of a social world where differences are recognisable and accessible in spaces able to converge the socially different.


Instances of urbanity. Source: The Social Fabric of Cities





Urbanity may be seen as a way to solve what the political scientist Iris Marion Young calls ‘dilemma of difference’, a means of avoiding essentialist difference and exclusion, realising the ethical potential of cities in ‘overlapping otherness’.

I propose to explore urbanity as an ethical recognition of the other and its right to occupy space, expressed in a social openness capable of transcending the fear of alterity whereas affirming difference as part of identity. This means a momentary transcendence of things that our social lives seem historically built upon: social roles, inequalities and positions of power, along with a sense of (spatial) priority of oneself over the other.

At this stage, the book discusses ways in which a city expresses the diversity of social identities. It also discusses forms of social life based on an ethos of hospitality as part of a sense of responsibility, an orientation towards the other, along with its political condition, uncoerced communication, where the expression of opinion is freely manifested in public and private spaces. From a normative point of view, urbanity is an ethos that has to be worked for: ethical constructions can only be achieved dialogically, in social and political engagement. Precisely for that, urbanity is a dialogical construction: it can only fully emerge with the other.


The political city

The true meaning of the city as polis has to do with the manifestations of this diverse public sphere and the exercise of politics beyond occasional demonstrations. But the projection of the public sphere and political action will have urban conditions. Cases in point are the growing debate around public spaces, and a perceived ‘waning of the public sphere’ in Brazil and elsewhere.

Recently, increasing boundaries between public and private space, between open space and architectural form seem associated with a dilution in the appropriation of the public space – an urban space that no longer expresses social diversity, without the full meaning of ‘public’ – which will contradict the sense of urbanity. The book searches to reassert the need for a review of this process – reclaiming the city and an urban spirit that depends not just on manifestations of a ‘return to the public space’ but also on recognition of space as a constant manifestation of our daily, inherently political actions.


Read the book’s Contents and Introduction

The book on Routledge and Amazon

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