The First Frontier: Urban Studies and the Exploration of Space

It's been a while since I updated my blog. But I've been absent for a good cause! For the past year or so, I've been busy building the Urban Studies programme at Yale-NUS College. For a taste of what I've been up to, I'm re-posting a blog entry I wrote for the Yale-NUS Admissions Office on urban studies and spatial analysis. You can find the original post here.


“What is urban studies?” I often get asked this question by students considering their choice of major. And it is not an easy one to answer. Unlike other disciplines, urban studies is not neatly defined by either method or subject matter. One of the first things you learn in Introduction to Urban Studies is that the very nature of the “urban” is up for debate. And the study of the urban is inherently interdisciplinary, combining aspects of anthropology, geography, sociology, history, economics, political science … . In some ways, urban studies is the epitome of the liberal arts—it simultaneously requires the breadth of interdisciplinarity and the depth of engaged inquiry. What is urban studies? There are probably as many answers to the question as there are urban scholars. This is what makes urban studies both endlessly fascinating and infuriatingly elusive. 

“Why can’t I just study urban topics in anthropology or PPE?” This is the next question, and it hits close to home. In my research on Chinese urbanization and planning, I wear the hats of both anthropologist and political economist. I need the methods, tools, and theories of these disciplines (among others) to study the urban. Yet urban studies is also something more. Urban studies does not just mean investigating things that happen in cities. Urban studies involves the investigation of the city itself. And when it comes to investigating the urban (and all the various processes that produce and transform it), there is something central that is missing from other disciplines—space.

When we study the urban, we are studying the processes by which people come together to co-inhabit space. These processes are simultaneously social, temporal, and spatial. Disciplines like anthropology and history can provide us with insight into the social and the temporal, but for the spatial we need to turn elsewhere. Other disciplines, like geography, planning, and design, offer a complementary set of methods and techniques for spatial analysis. By combining these tools across disciplines, we can develop a robust, multi-dimensional approach to urban studies. And this is an important part of what we do in the Urban Studies major at Yale-NUS: we cultivate the ability to think spatially and to integrate spatial analysis with the insights provided by other disciplinary perspectives. 

This past semester, in collaboration with our colleagues at the Future Cities Laboratory, the Yale-NUS Urban Studies programme offered the first installment of our spatial curriculum: Urban Spatial Reasoning. Students were introduced to a variety of spatial analysis methods, from figure ground and perspective to GIS and remote sensing. For their final projects, students selected a four-square-kilometer section of Singapore in which to apply their newly acquired analytical skills. In the fabrication lab, they then produced three-dimensional tiles synthesizing these various analyses into arguments about socio-spatial transformation.

The students’ finished projects were installed on a schematic grid of Singapore laid out in the foyer of the performance hall, where students defended their analyses in front of a panel of external critics. The full diversity of Singapore’s socio-spatiality was on display: the fragmentation of experience in Bukit Timah, the intersection of religion and sex work in Geylang, and the articulation of functional diversity (à la Jane Jacobs) in Joo Chiat. That afternoon in late April was an important moment in the evolution of the Yale-NUS Urban Studies programme. It was a turning point for our students: they were no longer just talking about urban studies, they were doing urban studies.

 A living transect of Hailong Village, showing the intersection of agricultural, industrial, and residential uses

A living transect of Hailong Village, showing the intersection of agricultural, industrial, and residential uses

Listening to the students unpack their projects inspired me to reflect on the role of spatial analysis in my own research. Starting in 2011, much of my work has focused on the transformation of Hailong Village, located on the peri-urban outskirts of Chongqing, one of the metropoles of China’s late-developing west. Over the past decade, Hailong has achieved spectacular economic growth. According to village records, between 2002 and 2010, annual per capita net income rose from 1,578 to 12,000 RMB. Meanwhile, the village’s resident population ballooned from 1,950 registered villagers to 16,266 people, including more than 13,000 migrant laborers.

This rapid transformation has made Hailong a site of great optimism, attracting the attention of China’s highest leaders, who hope the village can become a model for rural development. But it has simultaneously made Hailong a site of great contestation, as many different actors—including the municipal government, village leaders, and village residents—put forward competing visions for the kind of society Hailong (and China) should become. Hailong is now on the front lines of the battle for China’s urban future.

These competing visions are rooted in divergent rationalities and alternate definitions of social justice—abstract principles about the way that institutions should be designed and resources should be distributed. But they are ultimately realized in the everyday politics surrounding the material transformation of village space. Understanding the contestation of Hailong’s transformation required parallel investigations of its social, temporal, and spatial dimensions, and the interdisciplinarity of urban studies was thus central to the success of my research. Using interviews, participant observation, and archival research, I drew on the practices of anthropology and history to understand the social processes that were driving Hailong’s transformation. But these practices were never separate from the spatial analysis techniques that I adopted from geography and planning. As I documented Hailong’s spatial transformation through maps and architectural drawings, these activities simultaneously served to structure and guide my inquiry into the village’s social transformation.  

As a privileged medium for the expression and intersection of the rationalities and practices that produce urbanization, space was an integral part of understanding Hailong’s processes of transformation. Citing Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, John Archer argues that “built space becomes the reference system within which knowledge is produced and applied, the physical forms according to which people establish and discipline their lives” (2005: 431). And in her argument for space as a medium of multiplicity, Doreen Massey observes that “the spatial, crucially, is the realm of the configuration of potentially dissonant (or concordant) narratives” (2005: 9, 71). Space therefore accommodates the intersection of diverse rationalities. Everyone must work through this common medium—planners and non-planners alike. Though space enables some of these rationalities to be stabilized, its constant ongoing production ensures that alternative rationalities are never entirely excluded.

If space accommodates diverse rationalities, how are they to be accessed? A sensitivity to the politics of space requires special attention to representational conventions, which encode specific rationalities and politics. For instance, Robin Evans observes how architectural plans describe desired human relationships but obscure the real human bodies and relationships that use and occupy space (1997 [1978]: 56-57). Similarly, because orthographic drawing does not correspond to a situated perception of the world, it privileges the instrumental rationality that produces it (Evans 1995 [1989]: 21). By contrast, the sketch has the “capacity to absorb so many other interpretations, to be whatever one wants to see in it, and to multiply ambiguities and inconsistencies” (Evans 1995 [1989]: 33-34). And it is equally necessary to avoid reducing space to the merely visual, thereby excluding the alternative rationalities embedded in smell, sound, and taste (Fabian 2002: 108).

To balance these various demands, spatial analysis requires a diversity of conventions and representations, each with its own biases and privileged rationalities. In my research on Hailong, this included both my own representations and those produced with and by others. From planners and officials I collected plans and design renderings of proposed transformations (including both preliminary and final drafts), as well as maps of existing spaces. In the course of research conversations, I had village residents produce cognitive maps (Lynch 1960: 140-143), respond to existing maps, and give tours of village spaces. I also produced sketches and formal design studies of village spaces, representative buildings, and spatial practices.

 A figure-ground drawing showing changes in the built environment of Hailong Village in 2006 and 2007

A figure-ground drawing showing changes in the built environment of Hailong Village in 2006 and 2007

As a foundational reference, I produced a base map through a detailed ground survey of the village. I began with a topographic survey map provided by a village official and produced in CAD. I then conducted a detailed survey of every structure and pathway in the village, noting differences on the map and photographing all buildings and open spaces. For each structure, I also noted information such as material, height, age, cost, ownership, and use, as available. I also added more interpretive layers, including my experiences of smell and sound, my perceptions of privacy, and my understandings of spatial interconnections. Using satellite imagery, I then geo-referenced these layers in GIS. This map provided a basis for GIS-based analysis, including accessibility, morphological diversity, and density.

The process of producing this map also served as a structuring device for much of my research. It ensured that I systematically investigated every corner of a village that had a high degree of socio-spatial diversity. Participants’ reactions to and engagements with my map tiles served as the starting points for many productive conversations. And the map also provided one of several indexing devices for tracking my research materials—every research conversation, observation, photograph, and design study was located and tagged in the map. This integrated approach both destabilized the apparent facticity of visual representations and spatialized the often-disembodied evidence of ethnographic encounters. Through this approach, I sought an understanding of the social, spatial, and temporal dimensions of Hailong’s transformation.

As the rising seniors in the Urban Studies programme approach their Capstone projects, they will begin to grapple with similar questions of multi-dimensional method. I look forward to guiding this process in my role as the facilitator of the Urban Studio, a course that combines pedagogical tools from both the social sciences and design to support students as they tackle their Capstone projects. The analytical perspectives students have cultivated in Urban Spatial Reasoning will serve them well, and their insights promise to become even richer and more nuanced as the students immerse themselves in the glorious messiness of urban research. The same is true of the roles they will take on after graduation. Whether they pursue careers as planners, architects, real estate developers, community activists, marketers, investment bankers, entrepreneurs … but most importantly in their roles as citizens, the spatial perspectives they have developed in urban studies will enrich their lives and their work.

Works Cited:

Archer, John. 2005. “Social Theory of Space: Architecture and the Production of Self, Culture, and Society.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 64 (4): 430–33.

Evans, Robin. 1995. The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

———. 1997. Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays. London, UK: Architectural Association.

Fabian, Johannes. 2002. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Lynch, Kevin. 1960. The Image of the City. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Massey, Doreen. 2005. For Space. London, UK: SAGE.