Urban is not a universal form

Towards a new epistemology of the urban

Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid

A Reflection on the consequences that the concepts proposed by the authors may have in the sphere of urban and regional planning.

Mariette Llewellyn Vanessa Robin

Thesis 2: The urban is a process, not a universal form, settlement type or bounded unit


For years now, the urban form has been treated as something that is unchangeable. We have been fixated on imitating forms that we consider appropriate without really questioning the purpose behind it. If this continues, it may eventually lead to meaningless forms in contexts it is not meant to in. New problems may emerge because the form was intended to address problems of a different context all together. So to address these issues and prevent alienation of urban forms, we need to reflect on why these forms worked the way they worked and learn from it rather than blindly replicate it. That is what this thesis is about.

The urban can no longer be understood as a universal form.

Urban cannot be a fixed form. It has to be a constantly changing, energetic process. A process which used to change for the better before. But not necessarily anymore. It has to be created based on its environment and ability to interact with society in a way that it adapts and changes along with them. So there can’t be a fixed form than can adapt this way but only processes.

The urban can no longer be understood as a settlement type.

Urban studies has always tried to classify urban forms based on the kind of society within that settlement. For example, the socio-spatial condition within a city, may be different from that of the suburbs. But can the urban form be affected by this in the current scenario? So instead of stereotyping settlements we must consider it to be dynamic. No two settlements of a city can have the same socio-spatial conditions anyway.

The urban can no longer be understood as a bounded spatial unit.

Ever since modern approaches to urban theory came into practice, Urban is imagined to evolve according to the city’s growth rate. So it cannot be a pre imagined and bounded entity anymore. Today this concept is discussed widely by major international organizations. Our understanding of the city must be separate and unique from what was understood of the city before. Because change is constant and what worked then, may not work now. So this explains, I quote– “It is misleading to equate the urban with any singular, bounded spatial unit (city, agglomeration, metropolitan region or otherwise) nor can its territorial contours be coherently delineated relative to some postulated non-urban ‘outside’ (suburban, rural, natural, wilderness or otherwise).” So instead of imagining urban form as this standard and accepting it, we must approach it in a way that we try to understand why it was this standard and why did it work all this time. This interrogative nature will allow us to use our modern approaches more effectively.


The changes that Urban form has undergone is so vast that they have affected the relation between society, space, city, culture etc. Urban is not anymore a pre-defined form or bounded unit. So we ought to theorize it as the process it is today in no matter what the settlement type it is. It can be emphasized here that notion of urbanization may initially appear to resonate productively with the epistemological orientation. I Quote—“The differential moment of urbanization puts into relief the intense, perpetual dynamism of capitalist forms of urbanization, in which socio-spatial configurations are established, only to be rendered obsolete and eventually superseded through the relentless forward motion of the accumulation process and industrial development.” Hence Urban is a dynamic process and we ought to modify our approaches to address this sensitively.

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