Defining the urban: boundaries and jurisdictions

Notes on a conference on boundaries and edges, due not least to my living within a stone’s throw of Wonderful Copenhagen.

Boundaries and jurisdictions: defining the urban (#UHG2017) was the 2017 conference of the University of Leicester’s Centre for Urban History (@CUHLeicester), taking place on 30-31 March.

Boundaries define towns and cities; jurisdictions legitimate those authorised to manage areas within them. While cities frequently annexed adjacent areas as a means of extending their authority, peripheral townships, regional jurisdictions and individual landowners have often resisted that process of absorption and the consequential loss of identity and autonomy. Do cities transmit ideas and ideologies to areas beyond their boundaries, urging compliance with administrative procedures and participating in infrastructural projects governing health, education, and transport? Were economies of scale in service provision a force for urban amalgamation? How have inhabitants navigated and perceived these boundaries, and what effects have they had on movement or identities? The conference will explore this theme of the urban ‘edge’.

Understanding where and what the edge is, though, is complex. Municipal authority is, of course, not bounded just by the city limits, but also by innumerable internal boundaries; boundaries that are not neutral in their management or their construction. We all live in multiple authorities – parishes, districts (school, medical, electoral), neighbourhoods, conservation areas, economic and regeneration zones. Myriad internal boundaries exist whose spatial extents rarely overlap and authority over them is vested in a mixture of legal bodies and informal authority. Informal authority reigns where the boundaries of mental maps are shaped by custom and practice – ‘safe’ areas, ‘red light’ districts, pedestrian precincts, ethnic and religious concentrations. The mosaic of overlapping boundaries and jurisdictions questions the use of the term city, since urban environments constitute so many different cities.

Sessions on the permeability of borders included Anna Feintuck (Embra) on Leith, amalgamated into Edinburgh in 1920 against the will of a plebiscite. The session on boundaries, space and traversing the city included the boundaries of social space and improvement, ie public parks.

Crossing and defining the urban and rural included Tracey Logan (IHR) on Chiswick, sounding a little like Hvidovre’s experience:

Chiswick’s mid-19th century experience of life near the urban edge, eight miles west of St Paul’s, reveals how new and shifting metropolitan boundaries dramatically shaped its development and identity. Those boundaries were topographical and sanitary, ideological and political and shunned by Chiswick for their cost, not ideology. Its response was ancient and modern, the defensive beating of parish bounds and litigation.

Chiswick, mainly agricultural in 1849 but by 1867 on the cusp of industrialization and urbanization, had much in common with other contemporary parishes near big cities. Their priorities and even basic amenities were subsumed by costly, metropolitan utilitarianism and its voracious land-and-rates-grabbing. Chiswick’s case illustrates what it meant to be first granted, then denied a metropolitan identity by Acts of Parliament in quick succession. One consequence was its disappearance from newspaper columns, whose focus became the big city, to the detriment of historiography.

Places like Chiswick became part of an ill-defined ‘suburban’ entity, assumed dominated by housebuilding, railways and Villa Toryism, seen in relation to the big city but banal by comparison with its cut and thrust of power politics and commerce. When Disraeli’s Reform Act sought to extend London’s boundary westwards again, Chiswick pushed back on financial, not ideological, grounds, but with ideological consequences for its working classes, thus denied the vote. Owen showed no uniformity in the parochial response to metropolitan inclusion. Now a new study, including new tools, shows no uniform response to metropolitan exclusion. In this presentation, about a case study of Chiswick, the forging of an extra-metropolitan urban identity will be discussed and illustrated in ways conventional sources cannot.

The Space Syntax Lab Session (@SpaceSyntaxNet) looked at the role of spatial infrastructure in definitions of urban community:

Urban community is a place-bound idea typically represented by physical boundaries such as walls, courtyards and gates but the spatial configuration of urban street networks also serves to bring people together and keep them apart. Research in urban history using space syntax methods can help reveal how socially significant boundaries have emerged where particular topographical conditions, infrastructural interventions and patterns of urban development have distinguished regions of the street network as threshold or transitional areas in configurational terms. The spatial-morphological description of these liminal spaces is important in accessing, as it were, the ‘deep structure’ of urban neighbourhoods and jurisdictions. It also suggests why the power to disregard, as much as to assert, the authority of customary boundaries is a reliable analogue for the exercise of social power.

Investigating these themes involves undertaking historical research of sufficient temporal scope for the interplay of socio-spatial, socio-economic and cultural processes to become evident in the configuration of urban space. This extended time-scale begs the question of the urban streetscape as a source of communal memory that can serve both to perpetuate and undermine the legitimacy of historical boundaries. This panel presents three papers that address these themes over a time-scale from c.1800 to the present day. They draw on the theories and methods of space syntax to explore the configurational dimension of urban boundaries as these have represented, contested, fragmented, consolidated and enlarged the definition of urban and suburban communities over time.

Papers:

  • Chipping Barnet: urban edge or suburban centre? (Laura Vaughan; @urban_formation & Ashley Dhanani, UCL) – The traditional narrative of London’s suburban history claims that the coming of the railways transformed previously “knowable communities” (Williams, 1969) into something like ‘edge cities’ dominated by anonymous commuters, ultimately ‘engulfing’ these with less affluent populations, disconnected from their locale. The problem with such narratives is that they present urbanization as proceeding in linear stages: from local village, to connected suburb, to urban sprawl. Yet the peripheries of growing cities are messy and dynamic environments, comprising diverse spatial morphologies, topographies and socio-economic structures; hybrid socio-spatial forms that are not easily classified typologically. This paper will take the example of Chipping Barnet, the site of a twelfth-century market situated on the old North Road out of London as an example of an edge-city settlement characterized by a hybrid spatial morphology and the persistence of multiple social affiliations maintained across space…Barnet’s history as a place, therefore, has been forged historically both spatially, in relation to its immediate community, and across space, in relation to the surrounding counties and London.
  • London railway terminals: segregation and the inner ‘edge’ city (Tom Bolton, UCL)
  • Place-situated historic photographs in European cities: negotiating the temporal boundaries of urban community (Sam Griffiths & Garyfalia Palaiologou, UCL) – this paper interrogates the recent phenomenon of European municipal authorities situating physical and digital historic photographs of public spaces in their equivalent contemporary locations. It develops the concept of the ‘virtual community’ from space syntax theory to discuss the important questions place-situated photographs raise for the historical understanding of urban communities in relation to changes and continuities in the built environment of cities.

See also:

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