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What is the role of THEORY in Urbanism?


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This is a presentation prepared for the course Methodology for Urbanism (Ar2U090) of the the TU Delft, Faculty of Architecture. In this presentation we discuss what is theory and why we need theories in Urbanism.

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What is the role of THEORY in Urbanism?

  1. 1. What is the role of THEORY in Urbanism and Architectural studies? Prepared by Roberto Rocco Faculty of Architecture, Spatial Planning and Strategy, TU Delft URBANISM Challenge(the(future SpatialPlanning &Strategy
  2. 2. Many people think that theories are: ‘a guess, a hunch, not a fact, not proven’
  3. 3. ‘I don’t believe in the theory of evolution. It is just a theory’. Ron Paul, former American presidential candidate asserted he didn’t believe in evolution in 2007. For a video of Ron Paul denying evolution go to Photo Source: http://
  4. 4. What is theory? A common definition*: - A system of ideas intended to explain something, esp. one based on general principles independent of the thing to be...: "Darwin's theory of evolution" *Merriam Webster
  5. 5. What is theory? ✦ - A set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based: "a theory of education"; "music theory". *Merriam Webster
  6. 6. For Peter Marcuse (Columbia University) ✦ ✦ Theory is the attempt to understand to understand, explain and to illuminate the meaning and possibilities of the world in which practice takes place. It is the conscious and articulated aspect of practice and of action. (Marcuse, 2009) Image Source:
  7. 7. Theory Practice
  8. 8. ‘There is nothing more practical than a good theory’. *Phrase attributed to Kurt Lewin, German-American psychologist, known as one of the modern pioneers of social, organizational, and applied psychology.
  9. 9. Practice? ✦ ✦ ✦ More than practice, we need ACTION, but action that is informed, enlightened, rooted, based, supported, grounded, evidence-based. Practice is needed for theory formation and Any good theory should lead to practice, if it is taken seriously.
  10. 10. But it is not so simple (according to Marcuse, 2009) ✦ ✦ There are many many examples of practice that has emerged without any theory underpinning it. There are many theoretical authors who write as if writing a message in a bottle, hoping their message will be understood later on.
  11. 11. Critical urban theory is... “...analysis that flows from the experience of practice in developing the potentials of existing urban society and urban space, and critical theory is intended to illuminate and inform the future course of such practice”. (Marcuse, 2009: 186)
  12. 12. Modern Scientific Method Experiment is one key to the modern scientific method, pioneered five centuries ago by Galileo (observation + mathematics). The other is Theory. (So, what is the role of Design in a modern scientific method?)
  13. 13. Some good theoreticians Isaac Newton (universal gravitation) Charles Darwin Albert Einstein (evolution) (relativity)
  14. 14. I don’t believe in gravity! Also visit the newsgroup “I don’t believe in gravity” for a lesson in logic!
  15. 15. In Urbanism and Architecture... We use theories all the time in order to guide our actions in research and in practice. But...they are not tied to one single logic of enquiry
  16. 16. Sir Peter Hall said:
  17. 17. We must combine different logics of enquiry Design Physical Sciences Human Sciences
  18. 18. Mind mapping Urbanism
  19. 19. Theory in architecture and planning Alexander (2010) argues that theory affects (architectural and planning) practice, but not in the way that many designers understand or expect.
  20. 20. Urbanism as ‘social technology’ ✦ Many people still view architecture and planning as a kind of ‘social engineering’ where, by applying spatial formulas (many times derived from theoretical spatial models), one can achieve expected results.
  21. 21. Models derived from the physical sciences ✦ The application of theory in this model supposes a theory-practice interaction that resembles the link between the physical/natural sciences and their respective technologies and applications.
  22. 22. Physical and applied sciences model Basic theory and research in quantum physics Applied research in (e.g.) molecular reactions Nano technologies CAT scanners Source: ALEXANDER, E. R. 2010. Introduction: Does planning theory affect practice, and if so, how? Planning Theory, 9, 99-107.
  23. 23. This is called the TRANSLATION model Source: ALEXANDER, E. R. 2010. Introduction: Does planning theory affect practice, and if so, how? Planning Theory, 9, 99-107.
  24. 24. The problem is the translation model of knowledge formation and application has very limited value outside of the physical sciences Source: ALEXANDER, E. R. 2010. Introduction: Does planning theory affect practice, and if so, how? Planning Theory, 9, 99-107.
  25. 25. According to Alexander (2010), in urban studies, another model of knowledge formation and application is used:
  27. 27. The enlightenment-model ✦ ✦ ✦ Lacks the systemic process of diffusion of the ‘translation model’ Works in a much more random way Works through a process of multilevel and multiple arena discourse Source: ALEXANDER, E. R. 2010. Introduction: Does planning theory affect practice, and if so, how? Planning Theory, 9, 99-107.
  28. 28. The enlightenment-model ✦ This process ‘informs’ good practice by ‘enlightening’ practitioners to IMPROVE THEIR JUDGEMENT, rather then equipping them with better technologies. Source: ALEXANDER, E. R. 2010. Introduction: Does planning theory affect practice, and if so, how? Planning Theory, 9, 99-107.
  29. 29. The Human Sciences (theories of urbanization) Lefebvre Jacobs Harvey Castells
  30. 30. Design theory Herbert Simons Rolf Faste Nigel Cross (the rational model) (human centered design) (design thinking) empathy+creativity+rationality Kees Dorst (design knowing + design and academia)
  31. 31. Old fashioned paradigm? ✦ ✦ Using theories to explain and act on reality is considered by some oldfashioned modernist positivist-empiricism ALEXANDER, E. R. 2010. Introduction: Does planning theory affect practice, and if so, how? Planning Theory, 9, 99-107. After all, postmodernism tells us there aren’t meta-narratives, as reality can be deconstructed in relation to each signifier. From ‘Defining Post-Modernism’ available at
  32. 32. The Humpty-Dumpty dilemma When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean— neither more nor less. Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1872) Image source:
  33. 33. Hello and Good-bye to Post-postmodernism • But scholars in post-postmodernism have come to recognise that, although meta-narratives can be used as instruments of power and domination (*Foucault), we still need theories and narratives to guide critical thinking and judgment in order to avoid pure relativism. Postmodernism and Its Critics Daniel Salberg and Robert Stewart and Karla Wesley and Shannon Weiss From http:// • Most importantly, we need narratives and ideas that we can share and discuss, so that we can achieve what Habermas calls ‘communicative reasoning’.
  34. 34. The many alternative narratives ✦ ✦ Postmodernism opened the door for MANY VOICES and MULTIPLE MULTIFACETED NARRATIVES. This has put some old fashioned theories in check.
  35. 35. ✦ Theories are doing very well, thank you very much! These theories have survived the test of experiment, observation and communicative reasoning.
  36. 36. We have some directions (Spatial)Justice+(Environmental)Sustainability+ (Intervention/Design) Governance
  37. 37. Other knowledges ✦ ✦ Instead of the ivory-tower type of knowledge, we now have knowledge being constructed and communicated by many actors, this means that knowledge is not univocal, but diverse, multi-faceted and ever changing. Theories are contingent!
  38. 38. On the contingency of theories ✦ ✦ ✦ This means that theories explain possible or liable events or probabilities, but not certainties. Theories are possible and even likely explanations of reality, but they are bound to have gaps or they can seem good today and be replaced by a new more complete theory tomorrow. A well-fundamented theory, like the theory of mechanics and of gravity will hold for many years (for ever?) but theories about society and space are much more ambiguous.
  39. 39. ch r A ec it re tu The ‘function’ of theory in nd Urbanismais... ✦ ✦ ✦ guide judgment and subsequent action. But even the best theory does not eliminate the need for critical thinking. In fact, a good theory will make you be able to assess a situation critically.
  40. 40. Examples of theories in Urbanism The following slides contain only examples of theories on urbanisation that have influenced our discipline. They don’t explain theories in their full complexity, nor do they give an exhaustive account of theories in the field. They are here merely to illustrate. These are some of the theories explored by Orum (2004).
  41. 41. The German school (What is society?) One of the first theorists to acknowledge the deep and important impact of urbanisation on social life was the German scholar, Georg Simmel. Simmel developed a sociology that focused on the special ways that forms, such as the numbers of people in groups, influenced social life. From: ORUM, A. 2004. Urbanization, London, Sage
  42. 42. Christaller, and the central place theory This is a geographical theory that seeks to explain the number, size and location of human settlements in a territory. He inaugurated what we call today economic geography. In economic geography, we try to understand how the economic life of societies is bound to space and how space influences production, exchange and development. Read more at
  43. 43. The Chicago School (Human Ecology). Besides the theory of urbanism and the concentric pattern of metropolitan growth (Burgess), the Chicago School also gave rise to a general theoretical perspective on the nature of the metropolis, rooted in a view of the city in terms of its population and broad social environment, which results in type of ‘ecology’ of social relationships largely defined by the built environment. From: ORUM, A. 2004. Urbanization, London, Sage Part of the built environment – suburban tract housing in Colorado Springs, Colorado Source: Wkipedia Commons The Cantagalo favela is located on a hill in Rio's Copacabana neighborhood. Source: Wkipedia Common
  44. 44. Burgess: the Concentric Model In The City, Burgess conceptualized the city into the concentric zones (Concentric zone model), including the central business district, transitional (industrial, deteriorating housing), working-class residential (tenements), residential, and commuter/suburban zones. They also viewed cities as something that experiences evolution and change, in the Darwinian sense.
  45. 45. The City as Neighbourhood and Community (Claude Fischer): One of the first and most important critiques of the Chicago School view of the city came from the sociologist Claude Fischer. Fischer argued that the city was not characterised by impersonality and anonymity but, rather, by a variety of social ties and subcultures that connected people to one another. From: ORUM, A. 2004. Urbanization, London, Sage
  46. 46. The Political Economy Perspective: The dominant critique and most substantial alternative to the view of the Chicago School came in the writings of Marxist scholars who began to build their alternative theory in the early 1970s. There are several variants of this perspective. The leading Marxist theorist on the city is Henri Lefebvre, followed today by David Harvey and others. From: ORUM, A. 2004. Urbanization, London, Sage
  47. 47. Henri Lefebvre Henri Lefebvre was a French Marxist philosopher and sociologist, best known for pioneering the critique of everyday life, for introducing the concepts of the right to the city and the production of social space, and for his criticism of structuralism. His 1974 book ‘The production of space’ is a classic in Urbanism.
  48. 48. Manuel Castells Lefebvre inspired several important theorists. Among them are the sociologist Manuel Castells. He leveled the most major charges at the Chicago School view of the city. He argued specifically that it was not simply population growth that created the various forms of social disorganization, such as higher crime rates in the city, but instead it was the forces of Capitalism. From: ORUM, A. 2004. Urbanization, London, Sage
  49. 49. Collective consumption ✦ ✦ Moreover, Castells suggested, the Marxist view of the world, when applied carefully to the city and to the process of urbanization, emphasized the forces of collective consumption, not those of production, as Marx himself originally argued. Thus, Castells argued, it is the conditions of public housing and of other forms in which urban laborers are exploited as consumers, to which sociologists studying urbanization must turn their attention and seek to correct. From: ORUM, A. 2004. Urbanization, London, Sage
  50. 50. David Harvey: the right to the city Harvey has had the widest influence over modern writings about the city. He maintains that from a Marxist perspective the major economic activity in urbanization is that which deals with the use and value of land. Thus, those social actors, such as real estate developers and bankers, actually exploit the value of urban space through their investment and selling strategies. Only these strategies have become truly GLOBAL and the ‘urban process’ is almost universally unfair. Whereas capitalist employers secure profit by, for example, paying workers low wages, real estate developers and bankers secure their profits by setting high prices on the land in cities through a series of mechanisms of speculation, scarcity, exclusiveness, luxury, image, etc. From: ORUM, A. 2004. Urbanization, London, Sage
  51. 51. Jane Jacobs: why cities exist and what are they for? ✦ ✦ In the “Economy of Cities”, Jacobs explored the origin of cities and why cities are important for growth and innovation. In “Life and Death of the Great American Cities”, Jacobs argues against values from modernism, towards the role of communities and the influence of the built environment on human behaviour.
  52. 52. Saskia Sassen: the Global City ✦ The GLOBAL CITY (Sassen, Hall and others), Aerotropolis (Kasarda), the Edge City (Garreau), the City as a machine (Mumford), the City as a living organism (Sert), the Knowledge City (Carrillo), the Creative City (Florida), the city is physical expression of of the political (Arendt), the city as instrument of citizenship (Holston) etc etc etc This is by no means an exhaustive list of urban theories. This would have been utterly impossible and useless.
  53. 53. But now that we know what a theory is, what is a theoretical framework?
  54. 54. In the human sciences In the human sciences, we must rely on logical, reasonable, disinterested INTERPRETATION of facts, figures, ideas and observations of reality. This interpretation must be done within a THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK, something that will help us structure the interpretation. It does so by providing us with a structured set of ideas and hypotheses about the problem that will guide our own judgement and interpretation.
  55. 55. In the social sciences A THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK usually presupposes a certain logic of enquiry and consequently a certain METHODOLOGY (a set of actions that will allow for the question to be answered properly in a verifiable way).
  56. 56. Interpretation Any interpretive exercise relies on one’s own mental abilities, values, biases, place in the world, etc. Therefore, in order to eliminate biases as much as possible, it is important that we develop interpretation within a theoretical framework and in communication with a community of people, with whom we can reason together.
  57. 57. Building on the shoulders of giants A theoretical framework presupposes accumulated knowledge on something. You are not set to reinvent the wheel. Others have dedicated time and research to similar issues. They are part of the community you are reasoning with.
  58. 58. We must combine different ‘logics of enquiry’ Design Physical Sciences Human Sciences
  59. 59. OTB Chair: Urban an Regional Development Sect ion :S Prof. Wil Zonneveld pa tia l OTB Chair: Neighbourhood Change and Housing Prof. Maarten van Ham Chair: Cultural History & Design Remember the different logics of enquiry! nn Pl Prof. Eric Luiten Chair: Spatial Planning & Strategy Chair: Design & Politics Prof. Wouter Vanstiphout esi gn D Section: Urban Chair: Urban Design Prof. Han Meyer Prof. Dirk Sijmons Section: Urba n Chair: Environmental Technology Prof. Henco Bekkering Prof. Arjan van Timmeren Chair: The Why Factory Prof. Winy Maas URBANISM @ TU DELFT an ds cape L Chair: Theory & Methods Chair: Landscape Architecture Stra te gy Prof. Vincent Nadin & rganisational Tree of the Department of Urbanism, TU Delft, jan 2013 by Roberto Rocco a ing
  60. 60. In summary A theoretical framework consists of concepts, together with their definitions, and existing theory/theories that are used for your particular study. The theoretical framework must demonstrate an understanding of theories and concepts that are relevant to the topic of your research project and that will relate it to the broader fields of knowledge. Source: University of Southern California: pid=83009&sid=618409
  61. 61. Because each research paradigm implies different questions being asked, different methods to answer them and different kinds of answers. questions answers methods Audience (logic of enquiry)
  62. 62. The Practical Question The Theoretical Question design oriented theory oriented HOW TO? WHAT IS? How to design a What is a child- child-friendly city? friendly city?
  63. 63. The Research Question MUST INTEGRATE DESIGN AND THEORY What are local spatial strategies based on generalisable criteria of child friendliness?
  64. 64. Theoretical Framework ✦ ✦ The theoretical framework is not something that is found readily available in the literature. You must review course readings and pertinent research literature for theories and analytic models that are relevant to the research problem you are investigating. The selection of a theory should depend on its appropriateness, ease of application, and explanatory power. Source: University of Southern California:
  65. 65. The theoretical framework strengthens the study in the following ways: The theoretical framework connects the researcher to existing knowledge and a community of knowledge. Guided by a relevant theory, you are given a basis for your hypotheses and choice of research methods. Articulating the theoretical assumptions of a research study forces you to address questions of what and why (rather than only how). It allows you to move from simply describing a phenomenon observed to generalizing about various aspects of that phenomenon. Source: University of Southern California:
  66. 66. The theoretical framework strengthens the study in the following ways: •Having a theory helps you to identify the limits to those generalizations. •A theoretical framework specifies which key variables influence a phenomenon of interest. It alerts you to examine how those key variables might differ and under what circumstances. Source: University of Southern California:
  67. 67. But... does theory affect practice? And if so, how?
  68. 68. Yes, it does! Please read: ALEXANDER, E. R. 2010. Introduction: Does planning theory affect practice, and if so, how? Planning Theory, 9, 99-107.
  69. 69. Theories have an enormous impact on policy making and on design of the built environment ✦ Theories like concentric growth, central place theory, the MODEN city, the global city, the knowledge city and the creative city have an enormous impact in policy making, for good and for worse.
  70. 70. But what about new technologies? ✦ Modern spatial analysis tools have been moderately successful in providing TOOLS that can help judgement (but do not replace the enlightenment model). Inspired by Rhiel's map, one of almost ten million buildings in the Netherlands, Source: http:// buildings/
  71. 71. Knowledge in urbanism ✦ Works through a very dynamic network of academic research, professional institutions, literature in books (many times not books specifically written for urbanists), scholarly and professional journals, planning and designing education through programs and courses, etc. Source: ALEXANDER, E. R. 2010. Introduction: Does planning theory affect practice, and if so, how? Planning Theory, 9, 99-107.
  72. 72. In short... There is nothing more practical than a good theory...when you are dealing with dynamic social and spatial realities
  73. 73. References ALEXANDER, E. R. 2010. Introduction: Does planning theory affect practice, and if so, how? Planning Theory, 9, 99-107. KAVLI INSTITUTE. 2013. What is the role of theory in science? [Online]. Santa Barbara CA: University of California. Available: [Accessed 10.01 2013]. KEEP, C., MCLAUGHLIN, T. & PARMAR, R. 2000. Defining Postmodernism [Online]. Available: [Accessed 01.10.2013 The Electronic Labyrinth]. MARCUSE, P. 2009. from critical urban theory to the right to the city. City, 13, 185-197. OKASHA, S. 2002. Philosophy of science: a very short introduction, Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press. ORUM, A. 2004. Urbanization, London, Sage SALBERG, D., STEWART, R., WESLEY, K. & WEISS, S. 2012. Postmodernism and its critics [Online]. University of Alabama. Available: culture=Postmodernism%20and%20Its%20Critics [Accessed 01.10 2012]. USC LIBRARIES. 2012. Definition of theoretical framework [Online]. San Diego: University of Southern California. Available: [Accessed 01.10 2013]. WARBURTON, N. 2000. Thinking from A to Z. 2nd ed. London ; New York: Routledge.
  74. 74. SpatialPlanning &Strategy Thanks for watching & listening! Should you have any doubts, please contact And visit our blog Challenge(the(future