The Social Fabric of Cities puts together an approach to cities and how they are part of social life – in fact, a tripartite approach to cities as a part of social processes. First, it brings a view into cities as systems of daily encounters in time and space. That means how we find ourselves co-present with those like us or those different from us in public and private places.
Second, the book brings a view into cities as systems of communication – or how cities help easing our actual interactions, say, when we move from circumstances of encounter to whatever comes up when we engage in communicative exchanges. It deals with how places become contexts that support our linguistic exchanges and relate the actions that we do in different places and times – and how we build massive systems of interaction from seemingly trivial acts we do with other people in city places. It shows that a large part of these acts are informational exchanges, and that urban space mediates actively such exchanges, because it is also informational. We build our interactions in reference to space – meaningful references that pervade our actions and allow them to connect in complexes – even if such complexes are largely invisible, vanishing in time and space.
Third, the book brings a view into cities as systems of material interaction – or what is the role of cities in how we physically perform and interact. It says that our exchanges are now only communicative or informational, and that we we need to overcome distances and move our bodies in an extensive space. It argues that we shape and fold space into urban space in order to be able to interact in complex levels.
Read the complete INTRODUCTION and CONTENTS here
Part One has two chapters.
Chapter 1 “Restricting contact” relates encounters as the raw materials of the social to a classic problem: segregation. But it does so in a novel way. Bringing Linton Freeman’s view of segregation as ‘restriction on contact’
instead of seeing segregation of socially different spaces as an explanation for social distance, it understands that people are mobile: they don’t stay in particular areas, but move around in the city – for work, meeting, having fun and so on.
Classic theories explain the experience of segregation as engendered by space –
space is the causal force. Segregation is seen as a form of geographically manifest social differentiation.
Yet, in my observations, I still felt that the ‘socially different’ was still largely invisible.
The chapter proposes a way to go beyond territorial segregation, and see the everyday world of social life, and how socially different moving around with their means and facing their own – different – capacities to move – their different mobilities and the segregative potential that comes into being when encounters between the different cannot happen.
The chapter locates the trajectories of bodies in space as central to segregation.
Chapter 2 “Segregated networks in the city” develops methods to seeing how segregation is present in the actions and impossibilities of encounter between the socially different – observing quite closely how they move in space in daily life. By inverting the usual Social Network Analysis representation of dots or edges representing persons, and lines their relationships, and shifting it to persons represented by lines and their encounters by dots:
Social networks in time and space
We can therefore represent encounters as events in the formation of social networks, while inserting space and time as material conditions – dimensions left outside usual notation. Representing urban trajectories in space-time…
…according to different income levels
…interviewing people and collecting their daily routines
…mapping their trajectories:
Mapping dynamic segregation
…detecting differences in their mobility patterns:
Main variables in encounter-producing mobilities
We also used social media locational data to infer probable trajectories of sociall different individuals – of 2,5 thousands of Twitter users in Rio de Janeiro, in order to achieve a large scale picture of dynamic segregation… and places of potential social diversity:
…as key things in the emergence of social networks in a city.This way, we are able to understand how social difference penetrates everyday life, to become social distance and turn the other into an unknown other.
Part Two | Cities and the Fabric of Communication
There could not be two things apparently more different and independent from each other than language and space. Different theories, from Marxist geographies to Durkheimian solidarities or De Certeau’s spatial practices assert that social processes involve space. Other theories in sociology, like Habermas’ and Luhmann’s, say that society depends on language and linguistic exchanges – societies are… communicative achievements.
If these different theories are right – then we must be able to relate them. If they are right, and space matters for social practices and processes, space must have a place in our communications as well. There would be no sense in the role of space stop short of our communicative exchanges and how they put us together – how communication connects our individual acts into complexes and systems of actions.
The second part of the book explores how our practices and relationships are mediated by communication, and how communication is mediated by space – and how our collective and political experiences are defined by their spatiality.
Chapter 3 “Communication and Space” starts by asking how can things as different as our communicative acts and space be related? What could be their connection?
The chapter proposes that the only connection between things of different materialities is meaning – not an idea of meaning as a stable ‘identity’ or ‘essence’ but as meaning as a connection. The meaning of something is produced in relationships to other things – the meaning of a house refers to familiar acts of inhabitation, say. Meaning is both a trace of an identity or event and a reference to other things and meanings, as a way of defining itself.
Chapter 4 “Urbanity as a dialogical achievement” extends this view into communication in order to discuss one of the most used and less precisely defined concepts in urban theory: urbanity.
The chapter starts assessing how urbanity is possible in a social world cut across by tensions of difference. Then it moves into many different layers of urbanity as a dialogical achievement: in our perception of the other; in our communication able to make borders between social groups permeable; and in the very urban integration of social worlds.
The chapter explores ideas of philosophers like Levinas and Habermas to see acts of urbanity beyond tolerance – into as unconditional hospitality.
In turn, Chapter 5 ‘(Re)claiming the city: polis and the public sphere’ investigates the political implications of the idea of urbanity as coexistence of different socialities – a dilution in the appropriation of the public space – an urban space that no longer expresses the social diversity of the public sphere, without the full meaning of ‘public’.
Part Three | Cities and the Fabric of Material Interaction
Chapter 6 “Notes on the genesis of form” explores the relationship between space and social processes as a relationship between urban form and interaction – expressed as ‘mutual effects’ – proposing that, if we are to fully understand the effects of urban form on interactions, we should first attempt to understand urban form as an effect of interactions.
It examines elementary processes of city-making arising out of the material requirements of interactivity, such as the aggregation of buildings as a way of generalising the proximity of actors and intensifying co-presence, bodily mobility and interaction. This approach examines a series of hypotheses about how spatialities emerge and why they acquire recognisable morphogenetic structures that, from many possible paths, follow archetypal directions.
In an examination of prototypical formations and a hypothesis that urban formations are ways of intensifying mobility and interactivity, the invention of the urban block is investigated as a remarkable achievement in the material reproduction of emerging urban societies.
Chapter 7 “The social effects of architecture”. Some of the most emphasised – and least closely examined – notions in urban design and theory is the role of architectural form in the social life of public spaces and in the vitality of neighbourhoods. Can architecture really affect its urban surroundings? Could different architectural forms have different effects on what occurs in public spaces?
The chapter investigates the relationship between architecture and local practices as a material relationship between built forms experienced by the body itself, in an effort to act and interact. It introduces an approach that attempts to grasp traces of the elusive effects of built form and distinguish them from other urban forces at play, as a way of verifying their existence and extent – and attempts to recognise entities of an elusive nature, immersed in contingent and noncontingent relationships – not all causally unrelated.
The chapter also explores the possibility of identifying causal relationships, and develops the foundations of a probabilistic theory of the social effects of architecture, in an effort to find a more precise answer to a leading question in the ‘urban imagination’: how important is architecture for urban and social life?
‘The city as result: unintended consequences of architectural choices’, the eighth and final chapter, proposes that some of the greatest challenges faced by cities involve consequences that emerge silently from local actions and interventions.
Using Thomas Schelling’s insights into individual choices and large-scale unintended consequences, the eighth chapter examines processes of city-making focusing on a radical example: the chain of silent implications stemming from on a particular building typology, leading to the patterning of fragmented urban landscapes and urban pathologies.
These are the subjects and their interconnections. Underlying them, however, is a deeper subject that binds them together. I think that this book really deals with the beauty of an improbable relation – a relation between things whose natures are completely different. Our acts and experiences are capable, in their apparent fragility, of moulding the rigid materiality of space, extended into forms that we call ‘architecture’ and ‘city’ – forms that become part of the unpredictable occurrence of practice. The real theme of this book is the improbable connection between the elusiveness of dizzyingly successive acts and encounters in the time of the city, which constitute what we call ‘society’, and the perennial tangibility of their spatialities, or so they seem to our senses. My aim is to grasp traces of this connection in different ways, traces interpreted and recreated through signs and through theory.
Read the book’s Contents and Introduction
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