Section 7: The Urban Experience

Georg Simmel “The Metropolis and Mental Life” [1903]

Walter Benjamin “Paris—Capital of the Nineteenth Century” [1939]

Michel de Certeau “Walking in the City” [1984]

Jane Jacobs “The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact” [1961]

AbdouMaliq Simone “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg” [2004]

Iris Marion Young “City Life and Difference” [1990]

Urban experiences are diverse and dynamic, changing often with advances in technology, shifts in capital investment, and migrations of people. They are shaped by power and wealth, as well as ingenuity and labor. Urbanity is layered with cultural and social histories, and the demands of day-to-day living. Getting from place to place puts a city dweller in contact with a stimulating variety of people and material conditions. At the same time, these experiences can be exhausting and tend to render the urbanite anonymous within the crowd. Curious about the changing social norms attributed to city living, sociologists of the Chicago School led by Louis Wirth, Ernest Burgess, Robert Parc, and Roderic McKenzie used ethnographic fieldwork in the 1920s and 1930s to demonstrate connections between social life and urban planning and policies, arguing that the urban environment shapes human behavior. While sometimes viewed as overly deterministic and too reliant on biological metaphors, the Chicago School deserves credit for grounding their theories in rigorous fieldwork and initiating debate on the effects of urban life. Other scholars, artists, and activists have taken diverse approaches to conveying or contesting experiences of the city, finding examples of both injustice and delight. It is unsurprising then that the urban environment, and the many social and material circumstances people encounter, continues to intrigue authors who seek to learn from the urban experience.

Sociologist Georg Simmel is one of the earliest scholars to look specifically at the social and psychological experiences of urban living. Writing in 1903 about rapidly growing cities in Germany, he describes a fascination with what he believed was a new phenomenon in the way people interacted in response to increased density. He identifies the blaisé attitude as one of the postures that city dwellers adopt to survive the intense stimuli of the urban environment. He also speculates on ways in which industrial production and the demands of time and money influence the human psyche, suggesting that individuals embrace the anonymity offered in cities at the same time that they strive to assert their individuality. Simmel introduced the urban environment as a new realm for research, and suggested that there are both positive and negative social and psychological aspects of city life.

Looking back at Paris of the nineteenth century from a more critical vantage point, literary critic Walter Benjamin traces what he refers to as the phantasmagoria of modernity. Writing in vignettes, he suggests that the spaces and commodities produced through industrial capitalism alter everyday urban life in fantastic ways. He cites four particular manifestations of phantasmagoria: the arcaded shopping areas; an urban character he calls the flâneur; private bourgeois residential interiors; and the wide boulevards created by Baron Haussmann intended to prevent social uprisings. Benjamin argued that these places and activities expressed new attitudes and possibilities for urban experience, but also carried the seeds for the collapse of the French Second Empire. Expansive interior environments enclosed by steel and glass, luxury goods and collectibles, and large capital investment in urban infrastructure characterize the dynamism of this period in Benjamin’s account, which ends in class struggle with the burning of Paris during the Commune of 1871. For Benjamin, modernity is a fantastic intersection of technological innovation and shifting cultural norms, fed by capitalist investment. Urban experiences are dizzying and electric, but they are also underlined by distinctions of class and status.

While urban life may be examined at a variety of scales and through many different lenses, the everyday experience of walking in the city has been especially fruitful for contemporary thinkers. French social theorist Michel de Certeau outlines connections between language and walking to argue that there are two modes of operating in the urban environment. The mode of strategy treats the city as a planned, readable, and stable totality that is visible from above and subject to intentional operations of power. A counter mode of tactics is embodied by the person on the ground, walking across the grid, transgressing and leaping across boundaries. Moving in the city, de Certeau argues, complicates the history and meaning of the urban fabric and the agency available in shifting one’s ways of operating, allowing room for places that are as yet only imagined. Guy Debord and the Situationists were similarly interested in complicating and reimagining the experience of moving in the city (see Section 2 and figure at the beginning of Section 7).

Jane Jacobs elucidates the notion of tactics in her fight against the power of Robert Moses. Renowned for her efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to oppose the New York City urban renewal projects, she argues that the insertion of large-scale modern buildings and infrastructure would destroy neighborhoods that supported the lives of local inhabitants. Her pivotal book, The Death and Life of American Cities, based on her own observations and experiences of living in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, was instrumental in convincing people of the benefits of neighborhood life and the problems with top-down urban planning. The selection included here focuses on the day-to-day interactions of the neighborhood that take place in the most unassuming and public of places: the sidewalk. She describes interactions among residents and shopkeepers as a sidewalk ballet, and suggests how urban neighborhoods allow for both personal interaction and a degree of privacy and anonymity.

While Western cities have developed relatively fixed patterns and rigid infrastructures, other places are more fluid and demand flexible interactions. Anthropologist AbdouMaliq Simone’s interest is in the encounters and networks that allow people to operate in the unpredictable and heterogeneous environments found in African cities. These spaces, like those of many cities in the global South, are often sprawling, chaotic, or leftover after the flight of the upper and middle classes. In studying post-apartheid Johannesburg, Simone finds areas in which immigrants from rural areas temporarily come together in ways that provide for and reproduce life in the city. He frames these assemblages of people and activities as the infrastructure that enables everything from drug dealing to automobile repair. At the same time Simone acknowledges that this infrastructure is unreliable and describes how people must be deft in reading situations and able to switch modes quickly in order to survive in this makeshift and impermanent world.

Underlying many experiences and studies of urban life are questions of justice and injustice. Who experiences what and how are different perspectives accounted for? Feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young asks these questions by dissecting our typical understanding of urban relations from a more macro perspective to unpack how cities support equality through difference. Young is concerned that in the critique of capitalist society the main alternative posited is community. Her fear is that community idealizes unity and common values, and does not adequately allow for differences in identity, activity, or belief. Young suggests that city life, which she insightfully characterizes as the “being together of strangers,” is a better sociospatial alternative because it allows people to cluster according to a variety of affinities as well as come in contact with people of differing approaches and attitudes. In this way Young offers us a means of thinking and imagining cities as environments of expression and diversity that depend upon the political engagement of people speaking and listening to one another.

As is apparent from these accounts, the urban experience is fragmented and uneven, stimulating and liberating; there are vast differences in the experiences people have depending on their status, race, gender, sexuality, and other aspects of identity and belief. Elijah Anderson (2011), John Jackson (2003), and Steven Gregory (1999) have done excellent work exploring questions of race in places like Philadelphia and New York City. Jen Jack Gieseking (2013) has looked at the ways in which lesbian and queer experience changes over time in the city, while Janice Perlman (2011) and Ida Susser (1982) have studied issues of class and poverty in different urban situations, from the favelas of Brazil to the neighborhoods of New York. Andrew Merrifield’s Metromarxism (2002) is a synthesis of the ways in which authors like Benjamin, Lefebvre, Harvey, and Marshall Berman understand and interpret urban spaces and experiences through a Marxist framework of capital investment and class struggle. Contemporary scholars like Mike Davis (2006), Don Mitchell (2003), Susan Fainstein (2011), and Setha Low (2005, 2014) focus on contemporary injustices and argue that there should be greater equality in city planning and urban experience. Davis digs into the formation of contemporary Los Angeles through the power exerted on its planning by different groups with varying agendas (Caltech scientists, the Catholic Church, etc.). As discussed in Section 6, Mitchell builds upon Lefebvre’s idea of the right to the city, Low is concerned with broader formulations of social justice, while Fainstein uses the work of Young to advocate for planning and policies that account for more diverse experiences.

Like the boundary between public and private spaces, urban experience is not fixed. The intensity of urban encounter may magnify our sense of these spaces, or cause us to miss them altogether. Cities are malleable, pliable, and constantly changing, and as such the experience we have of urban spaces is always a negotiation between various powers and influences.

– reproduced from Gieseking, J.J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, & S. Saegert (eds.). 2014. The People, Place, & Space Reader. New York: Routledge.


Anderson, Elijah. 2011. The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Berman, Marshall. 1988. All That is Sold Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Penguin.

Borden, Iain, Joe Kerr, and Jane Rendell (eds). 2000. The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Brenner, Neil, Peter Marcuse, and Margit Mayer (eds). 2011. Cities for People, Not for Profit: Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City. New York: Routledge.

Burgess, Ernest, Robert E. Parc, and Roderic Mckenzie. 1925. The City: Suggestions of Investigation of Human Behaviour in the Urban Environment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Caro, Robert A. 1975. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Vintage.

Davis, Mike. 2006. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London: Verso.

Edensor, Tim, and Mark Jayne. 2011. Urban Theory Beyond the West: A World of Cities. New York: Routledge.

Fainstein, Susan S. 2011. The Just City. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Gehl, Jan. 1989. “A Changing Street Life in a Changing Society.” Places 6(1): 8–17.

Gieseking, Jen Jack. 2013. “Queering the Meaning of ‘Neighbourhood’: Reinterpreting the Lesbian-Queer Experience of Park Slope, Brooklyn, 1983-2008.” In Queer Presences and Absences, edited by Yvette Taylor and Michelle Addison, pp.178–200. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gregory, Steven. 1999. Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Harvey, David. 2005. Paris, Capital of Modernity. New York: Routledge.

Jackson, John L. 2003. Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press.

LeGates, Richard T., and Frederic Stout (eds). 2011. The City Reader, 5th edn. London: Routledge.

Low, Setha, Dana Taplin, and Suzanne Scheld. 2005. Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space and Cultural Diversity. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Marcuse, Peter. 1997. “The Enclave, the Citadel, and the Ghetto: What Has Changed in the Post-Fordist U.S. City.” Urban Affairs Review 33 (2): 228–264.

Merrifield, Andrew. 2002. Metromarxism: A Marxist Tale of the City. New York: Routledge.

Milgram, Stanley. 1970. “The Experience of Living in Cities.” Science 167(3924): 1461–1468.

Mitchell, Don. 2003. The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: The Guilford Press.

Myers, Garth A. 2011. African Cities: Alternative Visions of Urban Theory and Practice. London: Zed Books.

Perlman, Janice. 2011. Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio De Janeiro. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pinder, David. 2006. Visions of the City: Utopianism, Power and Politics in Twentieth Century Urbanism. New York: Routledge.

Robinson, Jennifer. 2006. Ordinary Cities between Modernity and Development. New York: Routledge.

Rybczynski, Witold. 2010. Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas about Cities. New York: Scribner.

Smith, P.D. 2012. City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age.London: Bloomsbury Press.

Susser, Ida. 2012 [1982]. Norman Street: Poverty and Politics in an Urban Neighborhood. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wirth, Louis. 1938. “Urbanism as a Way of Life: The City and Contemporary Civilization,” American Journal of Sociology 44: 1–24.

Whyte, William H. 2001. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Project for Public Spaces Inc.

Zukin, Sharon. 1996. The Cultures of Cities. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

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