A debate from down-under: Spatial political economy and urban design

  • Cuthbert A
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Architecture, Urban design, and Urban Planning, have a coterminous existence as praxis, yet they remain both theoretically and professionally isolated from each other. Urban design is arguably the worst off since it has no professional identity of its own. This position allows several events to take place. First, anybody can lay claim to being an urban designer, thus opening the gate to charlatans of all descriptions. Second, the two professions that colonize urban design can continue to be self-referential when it comes to defining the discipline, whereby urban design becomes politicized rather than theorized. Third, on this basis, urban design education can continue to be anything anybody decides it is. Hence the training of urban designers adopts the format of what teachers know, or what professions require. In other words, it becomes structured on the basis of personal and professional ideologies. At the root of the problem lies the question of theory, the only unambiguous manner to determine the integrity of the discipline, thereby eliminating problems of charlatanism, professional haggling and appropriate educational curricula. I argue that Urban Design ‘theory’ is wholly eclectic, lacking in substance and indecisive as to its core values and meanings. In addition, what passes for theory is largely divorced from any substantial foundation in the social or natural sciences. The question is ‘how do we move forward?’ In order to do this, the paper first takes a look at the big picture, with a brief assessment of the three major theoretical movements of the 20th century, namely Post-Modernism, Post-Colonialism and Globalization, the latter offering some key insights into questions of urban form in the information age. I then proceed to review key approaches in urban design theory, and conclude that urban design must realign itself with the substantial theoretical base being constructed within urban social theory, human geography and cultural studies, a grouping that roughly equates to what is termed Spatial Political Economy. This project has relevance not only for urban design education, theory and practice, by association, it also has implications for Architecture and Urban Planning. In rebuilding one professional territory, it is clear that the others cannot remain unaffected.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Globalization
  • Phenomenology
  • Post-modernism
  • Semiotics
  • Spatial political economy

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  • Alexander R. Cuthbert

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