What is urban geography?
Urban geography is the study of cities from a spatial perspective; how people, infrastructure, and ideas vary over space both within and between cities.
Urban geographers study a wide variety of phenomena — economics, social networks, cultural practices and norms, crime and poverty, transportation, and flows of people, goods, money, and information within and between cities, just to name a few — yet, as geographers, the common thread is that they study these phenomena as they vary and relate to one another over space.
Major approaches to urban geography
Although one of the most active sub-disciplines within geography today, urban geography is not a particularly old field of study. That is to say, it hasn’t been recognized as a formal, separate field of inquiry for very long, only perhaps since the early 20th century, though scholars have been studying cities for centuries.
Like the discipline of geography in general, urban geography was initially a very descriptive science; the primary goal was often to describe cities in different parts of the world and attempt to explain observed differences. There was also an imperative to explain why cities were located where they were, and why some cities grew faster and larger than others. You might ask, for example, why Pittsburgh was founded where it was and why it became the dominant city in western Pennsylvania. The reasons, of course, are intimately tied to the area’s geography; Pittsburgh was founded at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers, facilitating trade and transport, and in close proximity to coal, timber, and petroleum deposits that supported rapid growth in industry and population in the 19th and 20th centuries.
By the 1920’s urban geographers were developing detailed models of urban growth. At the University of Chicago, a group of researchers set about mapping the various socio-economic and ethnic/racial groups within the city in an attempt to uncover the underlying processes giving rise to those patterns. The group formulated the idea of urban ecology, which suggests that there exists a struggle among different groups in the city for space and resources. Classic urban models such as Ernest Burgess’ concentric ring model and Homer Hoyt’s sector model were developed through these and similar investigations. Together, the view of the city as a dynamic patchwork of competing social and economic groups is today known as the Chicago School of urban geography.
Around the same time, Walter Christaller in Germany was developing a model to predict the size and arrangement of cities in the landscape, known as the central place theory. The idea, in brief, is that all settlements serve a particular market territory (in which people trade goods and services) and small villages and towns have more limited territories than large cities. Generally, then, one would expect only a few large cities, meeting specialized needs across a large territory/population, and many small cities or towns, meeting only basic needs within smaller territories, in any given landscape.
By the 1950s, there was strong movement within urban geography, and geography more generally, to utilize statistics and other quantitative methods. There was a desire to bring geography more in line with the other sciences such as physics, chemistry, and biology. This movement, known as the “quantitative revolution” occurred in other social sciences as well. For geography, this marked the beginning of maths-based spatial analyses and modeling, still commonly employed today.
The latter half of the 20th century witnessed a rise in cultural geography. In part this was a response to what some viewed as a failure of statistics and quantitative methods to effectively address real urban problems such as crime, poverty, inequality, and segregation. In a phrase, “statistics don’t bleed.” There was therefore an increase during the 60s and 70s in the amount of qualitative research involving surveys and interviews of human subjects in an attempt to learn about and address the underlying causes of social ills.
A new paradigm in urban inquiry arose in the 1980s and 90s know as the “Los Angeles School”. As an alternative to the Chicago School, the LA School views Los Angeles as the modern urban archetype. This new school sought to tackle urban forms and phenomena that arose in the late 20th century such as the polycentric city (a city with multiple downtowns or nodes of dense development), gated communities and so-called “defensive architecture” such as walls, gates, and security systems, the privatization of parks and other public spaces, the rise of public-private partnerships and a more “entrepreneurial” style of urban governance in which cities compete for private investment, and the various impacts of globalization.
Urban geography today
Today, a nearly limitless range of issues and topics are addressed by urban geographers who utilize a range of methodologies from highly qualitative and descriptive to heavily quantitative and statistical. Trending topics include environmental justice and social equity, gentrification (the displacement of low income groups by middle income groups, generally within central urban neighborhoods), the role of cities in globalization and the effects of globalization on cities, social networks, migrations within and between cities, suburbanization and urban sprawl, urban politics and power, cultural regeneration, deindustrialization (the loss of manufacturing jobs) and other economic changes.
Often these spatial relationships reflect or reveal power relations, economically and socially, among groups within and between cities. Such relationships are crucial to understanding the modern form and function of urban systems. The study of so-called world or global cities, for example, has been a very active area of research over the last 15 years. These cities sit at the very top of the world’s urban hierarchy, and serve as economic nodes within the global urban network. They may be described as “command and control centers”, where economic, cultural, and social products and decisions can affect millions of people worldwide.
Urban geography in the 21st century has also tackled issues related to “sense of place” — the social or cultural meaning people ascribe to places. There is a view shared among many that places have become less unique over time and more generic or placeless. This trend has often coincided with an increase in suburbanization and commodification (the act of treating something as a mere commodity) of urban space. A loss of sense of place and community is seen by some to be a major challenge in today’s society, particularly among the world’s developed nations.
Finally, urban geography has begun to focus more on historically under-represented and less researched people and places, especially the world’s developing countries. An intriguing vein of research is the impact of globalization on nearly all peoples of the world and how integration into the world economy is affecting local communities. It’s an extremely exciting time to study cities, with unprecedented levels of urbanization and rapid political/social/technological change. Urban geographers are well-positioned to investigate and address the many challenges that arise with such rapid change.