– Bruce Long

In the last article in our series, we discussed the character of the city. We asked what the character of a city could be considered to be, and we answered this in terms of primarily continental philosophy, but with interdisciplinary references to, and hybridisation with, analytic and Anglo-American discipline, and with more scientistic approaches to philosophical appraisals of living spaces and lived experience. We focused particularly on existentialism (over postmodernism) and we introduced the concept of reader response and reader reception theory in literary theoretic and information theoretic terms: the idea that lived experience and reception of everything from aesthetics to function is influenced and shaped by the experiences and information that the subject already possesses.

Related image

Paul Chadeisson’s Dystopian Future City Visions

The focus on continental philosophy in our last article was due to the above, but also due to the phenomenological (being about conscious or phenomenal experience) and subjectivist leanings of much continental tradition (although there are certainly some exceptions in Marxist dogma).  The psychologistic element is what we want to pursue here – in a much shorter blog post-sized appraisal – through the rubric of agency.Image result for Dystopia

Much continental philosophy is largely concerned with (among other things) agency: the personal agency of the human individual in their life and social setting, and especially in the face of different kinds of authority and authoritarian oppression. The nature and validity of authority is a major adjoining theme. Concerns about agency are central to Jean Paul Sartre’s definition of bad faith, to Albert Camus’ rejection of suicide as a solution to the absurdity of life, to Jean Baudrillard’s  concerns about the life of the individual in his desert of the real, and to Francois Lyotard’s response to grand, overarching control narratives in culture and society.

According to Sartre, bad faith is that disposition that a person has when they deny their own free will and nature, and especially when they effort to present themselves and behave according to the demands, strictures, and requirements of others and of society, but with no regard for their own self-determination. Bad faith is not about believing something wrong, according to Sartre. It is essentially about selling out to peer and authoritarian pressure and denying one’s own nature, character, and dreams. To then, out of bitterness at one’s own bad faith cowardice, denigrate the efforts of others to be who they are: this is even worse bad faith. Allowing one’s environment and especially one’s peers and society to drive one to imposed habits is a kind of unforgivable and destructive surrendering of agency, according to Sartre.

Camus was always labelled as an existentialist, which label he rejected. However debated Sartre on the topic frequently, was opposed to nihilism just as were Sartre and Nietzsche before them, and believed that philosophy was very much about being in the setting of absurdity and the absurd. According to Camus, the appropriate response to absurdity was not belief in gods, nor positivism, nor progressivism. The appropriate response was to deploy reason in an attempt to understand what one could. The result for Camus was not futility, but an exercise of one’s agency in accordance with one’s dreams, in the face of the absurd.

Image result for Jean Paul Sartre


Jean Baudrillard was concerned that the map of the territory came to supplant that which it represented, removing our ability to connect with reality in such a way that our agency and ability to be self-determining was hopelessly eroded (Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra). He was particularly concerned about the way in which cultural grand-narrative control texts (in philosophy and literary theory a text is not like a physical book, but is more like a doctrine) would mean that societies and individuals would dissimulate: pretend that that which was real was not. This led him to the idea of life in human society as life in the desert of the real (made famous recently by the protagonist Morpheus in the Wachowski Brothers 1999 cult cinema classic The Matrix) wherein advertising, science, religion, and other large stories that society tells itself would hide the facts and truth about the human condition and the social environment. Baudrillard was riffing off Jean-François Lyotard’s conception of the collapse of the grand narrative, but Baudrillard felt that such narratives contributed to the establishment of a hyperreality that was hard to dislodge.

All of the above philosophers are pursuing a common theme fairly directly: the theme of will and agency. What is it in the philosophy of urban and city planning that demonstrates the outworking of these themes? It has mostly got to do with the way that living spaces are arranged, and how this affects the agency of city and urban denizens and their ability to achieve:

  1. Self determination
  2. Prosperity and upward mobility
  3. Influence and social agency


Image result for detroit before and after

Urban decay in Detroit

There are many ways in which, historically, the shape and structure of cities and urban spaces has affected these things.

We have previously discussed how the people in a city, and their cultural capital and philosophical inclinations, affect the shape of their living space through plannng and design, and how that space and its systems in return facilitate and affect how inhabitants develop and thrive. One good example of a problem that has faced city dwellers since the large medieval to pre-industrial cities of Europe to the modern information age megalopolis is physical mobility and accessibility. This is not the mobility referred to above, which is the kind associated with moving up in socio-economic class. However, it has an effect on that kind of mobility (1, 6, 10, 13).

Say an urban inhabitant spends several hours of their day commuting in a sedentary setting – sitting in a motor vehicle – restricted in movement and unable to function or work, then returns home late a long distance from the workplace and sits – sedentary again – in front of the television. This means that not only has an enormous proportion of their day been absorbed by commuting in an unproductive and stressful setting, but they are rarely able to achieve healthy activity levels. Loss of productive time and ill health are – statistically – common consequences.

Image result for Baudrillard

Baudrillard: The originator of the concepts of the hyperreal and The Desert of the Real.

Now imagine a wealthy banker or executive that lives in a penthouse suite near or even in the building in which they work, and that they are so senior that they are able to set their own hours of work, and have time to get further education and develop a passive income. The differences between the lifestyles of these two citizens is marked, and is markedly affected by the arrangement of their situ in relation to the structures of the city.

Easy and fluid access to resources, and the ability to save time and energy for personal development, are both things that are seriously affected by the arrangement and structure of urban and metropolitan spaces. Baudrillard and Lyotard were both directly concerned with the tendency for modern systems and narratives (marketing, science for profit, political spin, and religious devotion) to blind us to these concrete facts of existence as human subjects of a social contract living in social spaces. Sartre was concerned with the tendency to cower before authoritarian impositions and social forces, becoming inauthentic in the process. These existentialist and postmodern philosophers were concerned about how our civilisation affects us negatively and tends to imprison us, and so have a marked intellectual heritage in the thinking of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Image result for lyotard


There is one other dynamic that should be accounted for in thinking about the character of the city and the limitations in the development thereof. Cities like Detroit became massive ghost towns for the same reason as the myriad of other ghost towns in the history of the American frontiersmen. Gold towns, silver mining towns, and oil settlements, along with their trading posts, and more recently in history logging towns and cities that rely upon vertical industry to be sustained: all of these lack more than one kind of capital. To see this clearly, says Viv Straw of The University of Canberra in Australia, notice that cities with very limited cultural, intellectual, and social capital are more likely to see this kind of demise. The character of such cities is limited through their limited nature in terms of a variety of human capital. It is likely that without the IT industry, Los Angeles and California would not thrive as it does now. But there is an older industry that would likely keep the community thriving: the movie industry. The movie industry is driven by a different kind of cultural and intellectual capital and associated economics than was the automotive industry of Detroit.

Some cities in Europe persist and thrive on the basis of an arts culture and strong cultural identity alone (although a tourist dollar is often a given), and this in and of itself is a significant achievement. It is tempting to speculate that this kind of social and cultural capital has a significant impact on the aesthetics and structure of the urban and metropolitan environment in such a way that these kinds of cities – cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Venice, Rome, London – have a very different kind of character than does somewhere like Detroit (Rock City though it was) on many levels. Cities like Macau and Dubai have vastly different character again.



References and Bibliography


  1. Adey, P., Bissell, D., Hannam, K., Merriman, P., & Sheller, M. (2014). The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities. London: Taylor and Francis.
  2. Banerjee, P., & Chen, X. (2013). Living In In-Between Spaces: A Structure-Agency Analysis Of The India-China And India-Bangladesh Borderlands. Cities, 34, 18–29.
  3. Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  4. Coiacetto, E. J. (2000). Places Shape Place Shapers? Real Estate Developers’ Outlooks Concerning Community, Planning and Development Differ between Places. Planning Practice & Research, 15(4), 353–374.
  5. Edensor, D., Tim. (2012). Geographies of Rhythm: Nature, Place, Mobilities and Bodies. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
  6. Kling, J. (1AD). Structure, Agency, and Marxist Understanding of the City – KatznelsonIra: Marxism and the City. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1992. Pp. xii, 320). The Review of Politics, 57(1), 143–147. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0034670500019999
  8. Laurian, L., Walker, M., & Crawford, J. (2016). Implementing Environmental Sustainability in Local Government: The Impacts of Framing, Agency Culture, and Structure in US Cities and Counties. International Journal of Public Administration, 1–15.
  9. Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge (Vol. 10). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  10. McDowell, L. (1985). Unfairly Structured Cities. Urban Studies, 22(5), 453–454.
  11. Nietzsche, F. W., Kaufmann, W. A., & Hollingdale, R. J. (1967). The will to power. New York: Random House.
  12. Petty, S. William. (1683). Another essay in political arithmetick, concerning the growth of the city of London: with the measures, periods, causes, and consequences thereof : 1682. London: Printed by H.H. for Mark Pardoe.
  13. Taylor, Y. (2012). Fitting into place?: class and gender geographies and temporalities. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.