September 30, 2019

Where People Live: The Socio Spatial Perspective

Colby King author photoBy Colby King

It is important to study both how residents socially construct meaning in their settlement spaces, and how the built environment shapes social life. The socio spatial perspective (SSP), which is a framework for studying urban social life that integrates sociological and political economy dimensions into the analysis of urban space and social life. (For more discussion see The New Urban Sociology.)

This approach to urban sociology is deeply informed by Mark Gottdiener’s efforts to bring Henri Lefebvre’s writing to urban sociology. Drawing on Lefebvre, the SSP focuses on the social production of space, and as we explain in the book, examines how everyday life throughout metropolitan regions is affected by the interplay of cultural, political, economic, and social forces.

Among the key aspects of the SSP are that it:
  1. Takes on a regional perspective (through multi-centered metropolitan regions) that looks at the role of the built environment on social life across urban and suburban settlement space
  2. Investigates how the global system of capitalism shapes wellbeing of local areas
  3. Examines how government policy along with developers, financiers, and other actors in the real estate industry shape settlement space and social life
  4. Applies urban semiotics to illustrate how cultural symbols and material objects organize everyday life across metropolitan regions, and
  5. Understands both that spatial arrangements shape social interactions, and also individuals alter existing spatial arrangements.

Examining urban social life across regions (or MCMRs), rather than cities is a key insight here. We have all seen how suburban sprawl and the expansion of capital investment and development across regions has re-shaped the geography of urban social life. This perspective also aligns with Neil Brenner’s analysis of the rescaling of urbanization and showing how new forms of urban development are the result of globalization. The MCMR shifts the scale through which we study urban social life, decoupling the urban from the city, and reveal the role of connections both within and between MCMRs.

The SSP is at the root of Gottdiener’s thinking on urban theming, which we can see in the use of signs to sell goods and experiences of the built environment using cultural motifs, in places like Margaritavilles or Hard Rock Cafés. Gottdiener elaborated this concept in his 1997 book The Theming of America: Dreams, Visions, and Commercial Spaces. This concept of urban theming is related to the concepts of place character and place branding, which I’ve written about previously here at the Everyday Sociology Blog in describing Portlandia’s depictions of Portland, Oregon, and the ways Pittsburgh Dad presents a particular idea of the city of Pittsburgh.

This all also relates to the concept of place making, or the shared reinvention of urban space involving changes in both the physical space and the social meanings associated with it. Fellow Everyday Sociology Blog contributor Jonathan Wynn explores in his book Music/City, on the role of music festivals in Austin, Nashville, and Newport.

The socio-spatial perspective also draws on Lefebvre to help urban observers make sense of the way in which real estate operates as a second circuit of capital. Because the real estate market is an attractive and often very profitable area in which investors are able to make money from their capital, their investment decisions can drive particular patterns of growth and development which in turn reshape metropolitan regions in ways that are not always aligned with the interests of local residents. As explained in Chapter 3 of the book, development across metropolitan regions is “the outcome of negotiations and contending interests” (81). This perspective goes on to explain that:

Developers, for example, must negotiate with a network of government planners and politicians, citizen groups voice their concerns in public forums, and special interests such as utility companies or religious organizations interject their stakes and culturally defined symbolic visions in metropolitan growth. The end result of these negotiations is a built environment that is socially constructed, involving many interests and controlled by the quest for profit (81).

Understanding how this dual process of collaboration and competition drives real estate investment and urban development is a key insight from the SSP. It’s also a key idea behind the game mechanics that Matt Cazessus and I implemented in our educational board game AudaCity, which we developed to model urban development processes, as we explained in a 2018 issue of Currents in Teaching and Learning.

Ordinary citizens and activists are working to solve urban social problems in ways that highlight the spatial aspects of the social problems they are working to solve. For example, the housing justice movement in Seattle, Washington, where organizations including the Housing Justice Project, the Social Justice Fund, and Washington CAN, are working to ensure affordable housing for working poor and middle class residents. The efforts of these organizations spurred local policies including the Seattle Mandatory Affordability Program (MAP), which brought in substantial revenues that led to the construction of more than 800 affordable housing units. While this number remains well below the projected housing needs for the Seattle area, it illustrates how citizen organizing through social movements can lead to changes in how urban space is built and how social life operates in those spaces.

While the shape of our urban environments do shape the contours of social life, we all also create, change, and recreate the spaces we live in through the choices we make every day. How are you reshaping your space?

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