Nowadays, in urban studies field we experimented a lack of effectiveness in the explanations based on consolidate paradigms for several dynamics ongoing on European territories. Consequently, as pointed out by B. Secchi (2000), only few contributions about contemporary cities propose an approach that is “technically pertinent”. Amongst other causes, this weakness depends on the persistency of consolidated concepts (as the ideas of “border”, the “hierarchy” and the “order”) and antitheses (as “urban/rural”, “centre/periphery”, “continuous/fragmented”) as interpretative tools for a reality that is more and more multifaced, interconnected and plural.
Therefore, we invite colleagues from different research fields to reflect about current descriptions of contemporary space and its transformations. We expect contributions that involve original approaches, as an alternative to consolidated readings that have been used in planning studies up to now. Within studies and essays proposed, the production of spatial knowledge (Paris, 2017 and Paris and De las Rivas, 2018) replaces the “symptomatic readings” (Amin & Thrift, 2001) and the “descriptive taxonomies” (Cattedra & Governa, 2011). This specific task supports the comprehension of the current reality, where the double meaning of this action –“to understand” and “to take together”–, produces useful suggestions for governance and research. Anyway, we would engage researchers, practitioners, policy-makers and academics in the definition of a collaborative production of a knowledge (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2003; Scardamalia, 2002) exceeding the exploration of new or “alternative paradigms” or “exhaustive narratives” about contemporary cities. We look for different ideas, protocols, and practices that are useful and usable tools for spatial readings and the definition of new policies and actions. Within planning fields, this task depends on a triple effort: updating and adapting consolidate ideas to current conditions of urban spaces, producing new ideas that integrate –and exceed– current approaches and improving tools and studies that connect ideas and spaces, territories and research.
In this issue of Ciudades, we propose a reflection about scales as analysis tool for planners and reserarchers in contemporary city. Among them, we focus on those intermediate or “meso” dimensions (sub-regional, inter-municipal, metropolitan and district/neighborhood). In our opinion, this enhance the opportunity of planners to define the “giusta distanza” (adequate dimensions) to detect (i.) trends in the transformation of the post-metropolitan territories (ii.) weaknesses in their development patterns and (iii.) new interpretative figures for phenomena that would be not visible in analysis based on conventional scales.
How we descirbe the contemporary European city?
According to B. Secchi (2000: 77), the description of current processes of urbanization is not an easy task, especially if researchers use only codified forms of modern urbanism in their attempts. Therefore, the crisis of current readings of European spaces depends on the scarcity of consistent interpretations of scales and complexity of urban phenomena, more that a lack of attempts or of interest. Among recent contributions, the most interesting focus take in account the regional dimension (Burger & al., 2014, Brenner, 2009, Foreman, 2008) of urban phenomena, the complexity of the landscape that these phenomena created (Hall, 2009, Berger, 2006; Heynen & al., 2006) and their relationship with the physical, social and economic features of space (Vegara & De las Rivas, 2016; Andersen & al., 2011; Glaeser, 2011).
In European cities, we deal with an increasing complexity, where consolidate urban settlement co-exist with a series of fragmented spaces and functions, juxtaposed through a combination of processes that create original figures and peculiar settlement patterns (Pavia & Ricci, 1996). Despite this variety of new phenomena, in urban studies field researchers often propose conventional interpretations, geographies (Roy, 2009) and metaphors (Guida, 2011) that do not explain the multi-scalar dimension of regional urbanization processes (Brenner and Schmid, 2015; Soja, 2011). In these new and rescaled urban systems low density –and often fragile– territories co-exists with the activation of new opportunities related to the defense and valorization of natural environments. The re-signification of fragments of the consolidated city co-exist with the dissemination of new centralities along the infrastructures, where processes of abandonment or degradation of the built environment correspond to regeneration of enclaves developed by the inhabitants or private companies, etc.
In urban studies field, few images provide a comprehensive explanation of the transformations related with the causes and the impacts of those phenomena related to the “contemporary city”. Indeed, the multiplication of voices and territorial studies –belonging to a large number of fields of knowledge– have produced a considerable number of descriptions of what happened in the territory and, in a detailed way, an analytic taxonomy of their elements. S. Boeri (2011) defined these results as “eclectic atlases” because, on the one hand, they search for new logical correspondences between things and space, between words and images of things (atlas). On the other hand, they are based on pluridimensional, spurious and experimental (eclectic) criteria. Despite the large number of these descriptions, we lack of substantial interpretations. This lack shows how difficult is understanding current spatial dynamics and their impacts on settlement strategies for inhabitants and firms, on on everyday living practices of who inhabit current urban regions. The result is a set of catalogs, based on the “aesthetics of the observation” (Gregotti, 2011) composed by alternative representations of territory, where analysts scompose the space in its layers, focusing only on specific elements. This risky practice is effective in creating attractive descriptions of of space, but often leads to a over-simplification of local realities, where elements appear as detached fragments, loosing their relationships. These are suggestive descriptions, but often static. They are not useful to interpreting the urban space, because they do not reflect the dynamics and processes that lead to the current configuration of the territory. and only count the results as static images.
Within this framework, some studies related to the social, economic and technological influence of contemporary transformations have advanced. At the same time, the reading of the territorial impacts of these influence is still a challenge. One of the reasons is that in several cases, the interpretations depend on scales based on institutional borders (State, Region, Province and Municipality), as well as the statistics that support them. However, as many authors pointed out from their different perspectives (among them, Portas & al., 2011), the planetary urbanization phenomena exceed these limits and its configuration depends on the adaptation to the local conditions Therefore, the call of the issue 23 (2020) of Ciudades seeks practices, analysis and reflections developed on this topic that propose readings, case studies, research essays or work experiences based on alternative and intermediate scales, and that can serve as privileged scope for the study of contemporary urban phenomena.
Mario Paris (firstname.lastname@example.org)