‘Where is the center?’ must be the most commonly asked question when tourists enter a city. The center is where the action is supposed to be, where life is vibrant and interesting, where there’s lots to see, where you simply want to go. It is a matter of gravity and (functional) density that attracts visitors to ‘the center’. This tourist gaze is defining for our understanding of the city, any city. The European ‘old core with later extensions’ model, mostly concentric in shape, is what the archetypal house form is for living: people’s mental model when thinking where one is. But it is history nowadays. The symbol for ‘city center’ – three concentric circles – needs updating. In new urban areas (Shenzhen for instance), the notion of centrality, of core, and of growth, is missing. And in metropolises with an old core, the former spatial hierarchy is drowned by later development. There is a collage of unrelated chunks of urbanity, denser and less dense areas, commercial zones, industrial zones, residential zones, leisure zones, and various combinations of these as well.
Our psychology hasn’t kept pace with the physical development of ‘city’ as spatial phenomenon. Or maybe it has. Sociological research among Dutch suburbanites in the Randstad showed that these happy homeowners didn’t feel themselves buried in the periphery, removed from the center. On the contrary, they experienced their residential location as central: easy access to various infrastructures and close to several (city) centers for their theater outing or drink. This is another way to say that the notion of center has become subjective: it is different for each person. And to complicate things, an individual will define center differently depending on his or her social role and need at that moment in time.
In the professional realm of urban planners and related professions this also has been recognized. New notions like urban field and urban network have been introduced to more adequately describe the actual city as an urban phenomenon.
From within the field of architecture, ‘tapestry metropolis’, as introduced by Willem Jan Neutelings in 1989, was a new idea about how design could relate to the urban condition. The ambition (and belief) that urban planning and design would be in control of the future, would reign over the city, that the city could be designed, had to be abandoned. Instead, piecemeal operations could be performed. The idea was received as nihilistic and dangerous, but proved to predict present day realities. In the tapestry metropolis the relation between sectors is not predetermined. Any part can be a center of sorts and any place can be peripheral. It is not so much about place as about functioning and relations. Historic development is but one dimension among many not necessarily overlapping centralities.
And then we learned that even this new, non-hierarchical notion of space is not enough to guide action and intervention. The material of the urban and spatial planner is no longer ‘just’ space and the plan but people, not primarily infrastructure but ‘actors’. That must be the true meaning of ‘the network society’ then.
We are drifting slightly away from the spatial and functional notion of center here, discussing the centrality of a profession in creating and operating on centers, on the city at large. But that detour cannot be avoided in a magazine that wants to face realities and relate them to ways to operate. To do so, we need words, notions, concepts, and center may be one of them.
There is a theory of the brain that sees older and newer evolutionary parts. The newer parts may be more advanced in their performance, but the older parts are also active and keep influencing the system as a whole. We cannot do away with our ‘reptile brain’ for instance. The same holds for our conception of space. Once the notion of mathematical perspective was introduced, it was no longer possible to think without that literally structuring idea. Although we may have invented axonometry, fluid space and what not, these will not replace but only add to our older perspective conception. It could be the same with this notion of center.
Despite our experience that all sorts of nodal networks are surrounding us – each with its own inner logic and often spatially unrelated – this longing for structuring the world in simple concepts will not disappear, we expect.
This issue of Volume started by asking what the present day relation between center and periphery might be. Our understanding of history is that centers produce peripheries, like capitalism produces poverty. So the question really was: has anything changed? Can we think periphery independently from center? Can we think periphery on its own? That proved a hard one, too hard for the preparation time of this issue. The center kept pulling, even in its multiplied state.
So what you’re holding in your hand is half the story at best. We’ll return to this subject to (hopefully) deal with the other half, after we’ve dived into our exploration of invisible borders in Mexico City, at the end of this year (see the announcement in this issue). This ‘being in or out’, more specifically the mechanisms of spatial inclusion or exclusion, may shed new light on this ‘center-periphery’ theme.
This article is part of Volume #32, ‘Centres Adrift’.