Why Think About Urban Space? 
Presented as part of Open House, an event commissioned by In Certain Places and held at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, 17 April 2018


Still from Entretien avec Henri Lefebvre, dir. Michel Régnier (1972).

I would like to end this event with a beginning, by posing the question: “Why think about urban space?”

My interest in this question stems from associated questions on the nature of “home” and the notion of “belonging,” any analysis of which will always lead us to butt heads with the economic reality of the contemporary housing situation      that house prices, and in many cases rent too, far exceed what income can meet the expense of. In the UK, house prices have increased four-fold since 1971, and there are 1.8 million families on the waiting list for social housing, whilst empty homes outnumber the homeless by ten-to-one.1

Luxury accommodation rises amidst poorer-quality housing and land is bought en masse by developers. This is carried out under the rubric of “urban renewal;” a proposed treatment for the ills of the current socioeconomic climate. In some cases these properties sit vacant,  investments which represent “dead labour” in the words of Henri Lefebvre, reiterating Marx; in possessing them developers are able to construct a false scarcity in the market, driving up cost through lower apparent availability.Lefebvre’s critique of space is informed by the project of envisaging and putting into place the framework of ‘a different kind of society,’ an action which necessitates the imagining of ‘a different mode of production.’ Through the methodology he proposes, we are able to detect and state the possibilities opened by and through urban space, and to recognise the importance of urban conditions in the development of revolutionary attitudes.3 In short, Lefebvre presents us with a practical and ultimately therapeutic approach to our thinking about the urban environment     setting out a diagnostic manual for treating the “pathologies of the city” which those who steer its development — architects, planners, politicians — in part produce.  The contemporary city is the product of an economic system which privileges certain social classes to the detriment of others.4

“Social spaces” are not simple metaphors or mind-dependent, ideational constructions. Social spaces encompass the institutions of the state, the relations between classes and hierarchies of groups, and the urban development of these classes. Any analysis of a given space potentially discloses a number of social relationships. Lefebvre’s approach reconfigures historical materialism to take into account not just those things in space, but space itself, and the social relationships and hierarchies which are embedded within it and which it arise alongside it. We construct — and are situated within — social space as active participants.5

The pronounced visual character of contemporary developments serves to conceal the repetitiveness of gentrified space, itself the outcome of the repetitive gestures of workers alienated from the product of their labour and those instruments which are invented to enable easy duplication of building materials. These spaces are as homogenous as the space and its attendant economic system necessitate it to be. The lack of useful regulation in the housing market means that fraud is now a tactic which is accepted by renters and buyers alike. “City-centre living” is possible on the outskirts of town for the right price, and we rarely take the owner of a property on their word, instead attending property-viewings with an attitude as suspicious as it is scrupulous. Apartments and houses are traded on the basis of floor space, on quantifiable volumes and distances assessable in capital terms. As each volume enters the marketplace, the diktat of profit-oriented commercial transaction means that production costs rarely guide market prices.6

Gentrification operates on the assertion of refashioning and reimaging city spaces in order to appeal to an assumed majority. At first, the city was re-imagined along the lines of the car; later came the model of “exclusivity,” and later still the conception of the “ethical development” of urban space. Developers market their properties not only as commodities which are tools for greater social distinction, but often on the basis of a wider social beneficence which rarely, if ever, materialises. In their place, we have seen the construction of new “gated” communities which are not only physically fenced-off, but which simultaneously enforce a passive acceptance and deployment of certain social prohibitions, which manifests as a kind of self-policing of the spaces apportioned to us. The result of this is what Tim Butler and Paul Watt term ‘tectonic social interactions,’7 which Bob Jeffery extends to note the friction generated as different social classes pass each other and interact in a hierarchically-determined fashion. This friction worsens class antagonisms at the same time as the urban social space of the working class is restructured around them, resulting in the real sense of exclusion from their immediate urban environment.

As investment pours into the “luxury” housing market, we see not only a visible homogenisation of urban space, but also witness a displacement of the working-class to the periphery of the city, and re-organisation and re-construction efforts which offer few benefits to affected communities. As they are pushed to the outskirts of the city, the citizen is reduced to inhabitant, and then to mere user. By being shifted to the peripheries of the urban environment, the newly-established space of the working-class in turn creates commodities constructed on the basis of moments of “non-labour”     the commute to and from places of employment, to amenities and entertainment venues. This commute necessitates the creation of a transport infrastructure which in turn leads to competition as privately-owned companies vie for market dominance, resulting in fare-hikes for less-travelled routes, infrequent and unreliable services and increased social isolation.

Society and the spaces in which it occurs have been reconstructed along the lines of the socioeconomic interests of a class which claims to represent the general interest. Apartment buildings, says Lefebvre, have become ‘machines for living in,’ and the housing estate the ‘machine for the upkeep of life outside of work.’ The luxury market offers the promise of a better life insofar as it refers to a particular conception of how life should be organised, an ‘elective belonging’ which is opened to an increasingly privileged class which is able to foot the cost of social mobility. The home-buyer and renter buys a way of living, and this way of living (for instance, proximity of property to city-centre) constitutes, in part, the value of a given space.9

In looking back to Lefebvre with the weary gaze of a generation which has witnessed the socially-atomising and precarity-inducing effects of gentrification, we see a remarkably prescient work of critical urban theory, one which highlights space as a political tool which can be utilised to tip social power-relations towards the economically-dominant class. What we also see is the positive thesis that the city, as a machine which is appropriated to the desires and use of specific social groups, contains within it the possibility of being steered by a radical impetus, inaugurating the project of the creation of a different, and, we can only hope, truly egalitarian space.10



1 Bob Jeffery, ‘‘I Probably Would Never Move, but Ideally Like I’d Love to Move This Week’: Class and Residential Experience, Beyond Elective Belonging”’ in Sociology: A Journal of the British Sociological Association 52 (2). April 2018. pp. 245-262 (p. 253). See also https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/ampp3d/housing-crisis-10-empty-homes-500815.
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blacwell, 1991), pp. 348-349.
3 Lefebvre, Production, p. 419.
4 David Harvey, ‘afterword to The Production of Space’, p. 430.  See also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-3WcrQy8K.
5 Lefebvre, Production, pp. 73-92, p. 294.
6 Lefebvre, Production, p. 75, pp. 317-337.
7 Tim Butler and Paul Watt, Understanding Social Inequality (London: SAGE Publishing, 2007), pp. 98.
8 Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life: The One-Volume Edition, trans. by John Moore and Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2014), p. 688, pp. 753-754. See also https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/may/05/oldham-greater-manchester-bus-riders-tire-high-fares-unreliable-service.
9 Lefebvre, Production, p. 339.
10 Lefebvre, Production, pp. 345-349, p. 415.