In 1892, P. Geddes paid £ 1,385 the Short Observatory in Edinburgh in a public auction. This building, a scientific laboratory and an attraction for tourists, became its workshop, and he transformed them in a device for learning and teaching the art of observing the city. From its terrace, it was possible to embrace the entire urban space, providing a synoptic view of all the complexity of the system (from above). In his camera obscure, observers appreciated the details, discovering the existing relationships between the fragments and the overall system. After this first contact with the whole city, visitors had to move within its five floors, exploring images, texts, and pieces of different dimensions and nature. These materials presented the space of the city in its relationship with Scotland, the English-speaking countries, Europe, and the whole world. This exhibition, a true multi-media, and inter-scalar journey pushed the visitors to understand the context and the location of the city, and its position as a hub of flows, relationships, and exchanges. Furthermore, to learn how to observe the space, Geddes also encouraged the idea of walking through the area of interest, experiencing its dimension, and perceiving its conditions. To complete this process of learning how to look at the city, an observer should work on the area, testing if its “expert knowledge” was useful and effective.
His interest in understanding the planner’s field of work became an extraordinary effort to read the constraints and interactions that the city —as the maximum expression of human activity— had on its context (“the valley”). The dimension of the valley is variable, marked by the system of relationships, pressures, and impacts that affect the region, intended as its functional area. According to Geddes, planners should adopt a trans-scalar and multidisciplinary approach, able to highlight the expression of the region in the city —its activities, its ways of producing and transforming goods, of moving, of encountering—. The analysis of this combination of environment, organisms, and functions (the trilogy “folk/work/place”) is the key to comprehending —in the double sense of this word, “understanding” and “taking together”— all the pieces that compose the city (Small, 2004). More than a century later, it seems that we have not gone much further in this process.
Nowadays, in the urban studies field, we experimented with a lack of effectiveness in the explanations based on consolidating paradigms for several dynamics ongoing on European territories. Consequently, as pointed out by B. Secchi (2000), only a 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 invited colleagues from different research fields to reflect on current descriptions of contemporary space and its transformations. The collected contributions involve original approaches, as an alternative to consolidated readings applied in planning studies up to now. Within surveys and essays proposed, the production of spatial knowledge (Paris, 2017; Paris & 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, produces useful suggestions for governance and research, reconnecting the dimension of the city de jure with the city de facto (Calafati, 2013). Anyway, we would engage researchers, practitioners, policy-makers, and academics in the definition of collaborative production of 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 an analysis tool for planners and researchers in the contemporary city. Among them, we focus on those intermediate or “meso” dimensions —sub-regional, inter-municipal, metropolitan and district/neighborhood—. In our opinion, this approach enhances the opportunity of planners to define the ‘giusta distanza’ (adequate dimensions) from their object of study. This new dimension will be useful 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 the analysis based on conventional scales.
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 influences 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, Domingues & Cabral, 2011), the planetary urbanization phenomena exceed these limits, and its configuration depends on the adaptation to the local conditions.
Articles proposed for this special issue provided different approaches that illustrate the current state of the art in the debate about urban phenomena, their variable dimensions, and scales. Following the example of Geddes, authors look at the space of cities and territorial systems from multiple points of view (from above, walking through, working on it) or integrating more than one of these viewpoints, and applying different methodologies.
Two articles discuss the effectiveness of current planning tools and their scales. Stefano Di Vita proposes a precise analysis of the transformation of a middle Italian city (Brescia) and the process —still unfinished— of transition from this “fractal city” towards a post-Fordist economy. His study highlights how the planning tools implemented to manage this transition, rooted in scales and traditional approaches, were not useful in answering to the needs of an urban system and proposing a new, engaging vision for the urban system. The city is one of the urban nodes of the Northern Italy city-region and shows post-metropolitan features. This variable and multi-scalar dimension is both a challenge and an opportunity to test and refine a new strategic agenda for a complex metropolitan area and not recognized at the institutional level. Fulvio Adobati and Emanuele Garda, in their article, pointed out the need for tools marked by a new sensitivity for local conditions and constraints in the field of urban planning. The authors compare two Piani Territoriali Regionali d’Area (PTRA Alpine Valleys and PTRA Franciacorta) developed in spaces where metropolitan and peripheral dynamics co-exist. This analysis shows how a new generation of flexible, selective, and voluntary plans can support integrated and effective forms of territorial planning, especially for homogeneous areas distributed in different municipalities —urban and rural areas, the mountains, quality agricultural spaces, etc.—. At the same time, the conclusions also highlight the limits and the open issues of this issue.
Three other contributions discuss the current regional dimensions to detect problems and opportunities in territories marked by different densities and dynamicity. Catherine Dezio, in her article, shows how the relationships between underused resources, anthropic dynamics and original landscapes also have an unclear and recognized scale, despite the pervasive and transversal presence of abandoned spaces and buildings in rural areas. For this reason, she introduces the concept of the bioregion in two different senses. As a scale to detect spaces in which the regeneration process could take place. As a methodology, to discover potentials and opportunities in “fragile” territories starting from the example of VENTO. Rafael Córdoba Hernández and Daniel Morcillo Álvarez highlight the scarce correspondence between urban dynamics and control tools in a context of deregulation and intense real estate pressures in the Madrid region. This disconnection leads to a poor territorial model, where the dispersion of urban materials on a regional scale could affect in negative terms the living conditions of its inhabitants and could increase the social contradictions already existing today. Eloy Solís Trapero and Inmaculada Mohíno Sanz deal with the issue of the cooperation between Comunidades Autonomas (Regional authorities) in Spain and the extra-regional dimension as a field of action where administrative limits still represent a challenge. Therefore, planning and managing these territories also need soft spaces, with variable and multidimensional geometries.
In the following two contributions, authors reflect on the limits, contradictions, and opportunities of the relationship between local planning and sectoral tools based on river areas. In her article, Marta Donadei discusses the environmental conflict generated by a large infrastructure project in the Guadalquivir estuary. The study includes an interesting analysis of the actors involved and the lack of integrating perspectives in the decision-making processes and management of the territory. Ksenija Krsmanovic focused on the case of Belgrade. Comparing different phases of the regeneration process of the banks of the Sava River, she reflected on the management of several operations, and she shows how the engagement of citizenship in participation processes affects the identity of places and of the city as a whole.
Along with the previous one, three articles, the one by Nausicaa Pezzoni, the one by María del Socorro Pérez-Rincón Fernández and the one by Janice Argaillot, work on the theme of urban identity from observation points related to specific populations. The first one proposes an original methodology —based on maps developed by immigrants, seen as temporary inhabitants of urban areas—. In her study, she applied the methodology to the cases of three Italian cities (Milan, Rovereto, and Bologna), and she provided alternative and unmediated images of urban systems, updating and integrating the approach of K. Lynch. Through this approach, the author discusses the meaning and transitory ways of life in contemporary territories. The second article highlights the capacity of women to build parallel urban projects and to point out urban transformation processes through a case study in El Pedregal de Santo Domingo. The third tells about the role of the Havana’s inhabitants in the process of “co-reconstruction” of an everyday space, and in a Revolution that the Special Period had weakened.
Finally, the article by Fernanda De Lima Lourencetti returns to the theme of urban identity at the intra-urban scale of the neighborhood, with a critical review of the process of the rescue of a memory of the urban fabric of the eastern side of the city of Vigo through the analysis of bibliographic, cartographic and documentary information.
Despite differences in their approaches and scales, these articles introduce several viewpoints to the city, the territory, and its phenomena. This variety, which P. Geddes would have liked, is the first step to understand the object of study better and to deal with the constant and demanding work of its maintenance, its management, and its improvement. We live in exceptional times, where the future is uncertain, and our routines radically and suddenly changed. We may not be able to change the world from the tower that we have built with this special issue of Ciudades, but it seems that we need more and more observatories like this to look at our transformed world that will change more in the future.
Bereiter, Carl & Scardamalia, Marlene (2003), “Learning to work successfully with knowledge”, in Decorte, Erik et al. -coords.- Unraveling basic components and dimensions of powerful learning environments, Oxford, Pergamon/Elsevier Science, pp. 55-68.
Bouveresse, Jacques (1999), Prodiges et vertiges de l’analogie. De l’abus des belles-lettres dans la pensée, Montreal, Editions Liber.
Calafati, Antonio (2013), “Città e aree metropolitane in Italia”, in GSSI Urban Studies Working Paper, num. 1. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2369323.
Cattedra, Raffaele & Governa, Francesca (2011), “Definizioni di città: concetti e teorie nella geografia urbana”, in Governa, Francesca & Memoli, Maurizio -ed.-. Geografie dell’urbano: spazi, politiche, pratiche della città, Roma, Carocci, pp. 43-81.
Paris, Mario (2017), “Which kind of spatial knowledge supporting smart governance? Two experiences in Castilla y León and Veneto”, in Territorio, num. 83, pp. 62-67. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3280/TR2017-083008.
Paris, Mario & De las Rivas, Juan Luis (2018), “Spatial knowledge and regional governance: toward an alternative map of Castilla y Leon (Spain)”, in Dotti, Nicola Francesco -ed.- Knowledge, Policymaking and Learning for European Cities and Regions, Bruselas, Edward Elgar Ed., pp. 71-82. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4337/9781786433640.00016.
Scardamalia, Marlene (2002), “Collective cognitive responsibility for the advancement of knowledge”, in Smith, Barry & Bereiter, Carl -eds.- Liberal education in a knowledge society, Chicago, Open Court, pp. 67-98.
Secchi, Bernardo (2000), Prima lezione di urbanistica, Roma, Editori Laterza.
Small, Mike (2004), “Review of Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes – The correspondence, Novak, Frank G (ed)”, in Journal of Generalism and Civics.
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