Decima Segunda Edición Septiembre 2012
Actualizado: Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - 09:21

Dr. Antonio Salgado Gómez [1]

Traducción: Tomás Barcena Tiburcio

Urbanism undoubtedly characterizes contemporary civilization. Cities, across multiple facets and expressions, have a preponderant role in territorial organization of almost every country of present day’s world.

Based on the prior information, urban Geography, one of current day’s most influent branches of Human Geography, has the intention of introducing us to the knowledge and comprehension of urban communities, privileging geographical focus, so it is possible to locate and define the elements that integrate and deliver sense to urban structure, both of physical and human nature.
Urban geography relates with the spatial aspects of urban development; thus, it analyzes cities, their location, theirs features, their growth, their relations with other cities and their rural environment, etc. Furthermore, it is interested in any given phenomena happening from within each city: soil use patterns, cultural aspects, social dynamics, circulation patterns, natural and social growth patterns, so as the interrelation of cities with their own environment (Beaujeu-Garnier, 2000:13).

Urban geography is a relatively recent sub-discipline. The first urban geography treaty appeared in 1963’s France, a product to the creating idea of the geographer Pierre George. It was precisely since the sixties that the ‘city concept’ has been turned into the object of multi-disciplinary studies, given its inexhaustible source of information and innovation character, so as its powerful economic, social and cultural development engine.

Since Industrial Revolution, cities have become the focus of privileged attention of governments and society’s scholars’ worries, honoring in many cases the focus of urban geography. Since said industrialization, the explosive growth and the enormous power of attraction that cities meant for the broad rural population’s contingents, avid for employment and better life conditions, drove urban zones to become chaotic housing developments without infrastructure, equipment nor basic services for the more and more important number of inhabitants.

Up to this point, it’s important to precise that urban expansion, product of unbridled industrializing dynamic, wasn’t materialized in the same fashion or the same rhythm in the entire world. Effectively, in most developed countries in the planet, the massive urban settlement had its takeoff toward the end of the nineteenth century, from 1875 to 1900, while in developing countries (now said to have “emergent economies”) this happened as the first half of the twentieth century was over and practically until 1975. However, in countries with incipient economic development and slower industrial dynamic, as is the case of nations in sub-Saharan Africa y some of the Asian sub-continent, industrialization is just taking off.

But the most remarkable thing about this explosive urban growth can be synthesized in the fact that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, only 10% of the world’s population lived in cities, and then it grew to 30% in the middle of that century. At the start of the second decade of the third millennium and with seven thousand million people inhabiting the earth, around 52% of them inhabit cities, which equal 3,640 million people that adjust, one way or another, to urban environments. During the twentieth century and the first decade of the twentieth first century, urban population has grown faster than world population.
But urban growth’s dynamic hasn’t been homogeneous nor standardized; it has focused in more and more important cities, or at least it was so during the final decades of the twentieth century. Around 1800, there were about 45 cities with more than a hundred thousand inhabitants in the planet. At the end of the twentieth century such amount of cities grew to two thousand.

Towards the same year of eighteen hundred, there were only three cities in the world with a million inhabitants (London, Tokyo and Beijing). Around the start of the twentieth century, about 16 cities with more than a million people existed. In the year 2000, there were 442 of cities with this amount of population (ONU). The countries that gather the highest number of cities that surpass the million inhabitants mark are: China, with 89 cities; India, with 46 cities; United States of America, with 42 cities; Brazil, with 21 cities, and Mexico, with 12 cities.

However, in the mid-twentieth century, there were only 10 agglomerations of five million or more inhabitants; in the year 2000 there were already 33 cities with a population higher than five million, of which 15 surpass the eight million and 6 surpass de 15 million inhabitants (Beaujeu-Garnier, 2000:21).

As urban expansion has almost reached its pinnacle in developed countries , in some countries of current development, as is the case with certain countries of sub-Saharan Africa, urban growth maintains itself at explosive levels; toward 1980, there was only one city with a million inhabitants in said part of Africa, while near the year 2000 there was at least 9 cities.

In spite the fact that 52% of the world’s population occupies cities already, which equals, as stated previously, 3,640 million human beings, all of them could easily accommodate in the territory comprehended by the nine Mexican states of the center-occident region of the country (Aguascalientes, Colima, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, Querétaro, San Luis Potosí y Zacatecas), worth 356,783 km²,which equals only 18.16% of the nearly two million square kilometers of the United States Of Mexico.

Effectively, if, hypothetically, we were to accommodate the total world’s urban population in the national space comprehended by the center-occident region of Mexico, 98 m² would correspond to each citizen. But, if it is considered that each dwelling was to be inhabited by two occupants and the average land per house was to be 120 m², then there would still be 138,320 km² left for vial infrastructure construction and equipment needed for urban life.

The city is a complex phenomenon, and as such, it’s difficult to define. But before anything else, the city is a place of exchange, of relations between people or social groups. There have been, across urban world’s history, attempts that go from poetic visions to technologic postures, going through perspectives of all kinds. Of course, most of these visions regarding cities depend in great measure on the idea of the world that existed in the age in which they were conceived, so as on their surrounding context in general.

As to contribute some of the most interesting definitions that have been elaborated about the ‘city’ concept, we do a re-count in the next sentences [2].

According to Aristotle, the Greek (384 – 322 B.C.), city is a certain number of citizens, so we have to consider who is to be called citizen and who is the citizen… We call, then, citizen of a city to the one with the faculty to intervene in its deliberative and judicial functions, and city in general, to the total number of this called citizens, a number enough to life’s sufficiency (politic concept of the city).

Alfonso X, the Wise (1221 –1284) who would be King of Castile, Leon and first-born child of Ferdinand III, whom he succeeded in 1252, defined ‘city’ as each and every place closed by walls with the suburbs and buildings within them (medieval concept of the city).

Leon Battista Alberti (1404– 1472), Italian humanist, architect, mathematician and poet, affirmed that the grandeur of architecture is united to that of the city, and the solidity of institutions is usually measured by the solidity of the walls that shelter it (architectural concept of the city).

Richard Cantillon (1680 –1734), considered the father of politic economy, imagined the birth of a city in the eighteenth century in the following manner: If a prince or a sir settles his residence in a pleasurable place, and if other sirs were to turn up and establish so they can see and treat each other in pleasant society, that place was to become a city (baroque concept of the city).

To José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955), Spanish philosopher and essayist, the city by excellence is the classic and Mediterranean city, in which the fundamental element is the central square: The city is, primarily, these: small square, agora, a place for conversation, dispute, eloquence and politics (classic concept of the city, close to the Greek polis or the Latincivitas).

According to German philosopher Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936), what distinguishes the city from the village is not the extension, nor the size, but the presence of civic soul…There are considerable human gatherings that do not constitute a city (philosophic concept of the city).

American sociologist and urbanist Lewis Mumford (1885 – 1990) affirmed that the city is the shape and symbol of an integrated social relationship (sociologic concept of the city).

The resulting city of Industrial Revolution is, says Lewis Mumford, a soulless city; it can over-expand a hundred times its own size without acquiring the mildest of the institutions that characterize a city in the sociologic sense (post-industrial concept of the city).
Fernando Chueca Goitia (1911– 2004), Spanish architect and art historian, used to say that modern city is a conglomerate inside which old historic structures and ancient life-styles, along with the newer capitalist and technic ones, subsist. What characterizes this type of city is its own disintegration. It is a fragmented, chaotic, disperse city that lacks a figure of its own (chaotic vision of the city).

José Miguel Fernández Güell (1954), architect, urban planner and holding professor at the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM), says that ‘city’ can be understood as a complex ecosystem of elements and connected parts, where human activities are linked by communications that interact as the system evolves dynamically (systemic approach of the city).
Richard Rogers (1933), British architect who has maintained a commitment to architecture, environment, culture and society during his whole professional career, says that the city has ended up being understood as a temple for consumerism. Politic and commercial convenience has inverted urban development’s emphasis to assimilate it to determined needs of specific groups or individuals, instead of channeling it to fulfill social needs. The consequence to this restricted objective has deprived the city of its vitality (sustainable approach of the city).

But in spite of the multiple approaches and visions more or less optimistic and frankly pessimist regarding the ‘city’ concept, this has been, is and will be, in first term, a spatial organization created by man. Human being has modeled and transformed certain elements of natural environment in accordance to his ideology and mores. But as a response to it, man can also be transformed and, above all, conditioned in a way more or less unconscious by the space created by himself and in which he develops. The result is urban space just as we currently know it: it’s no longer the natural environment, neither is it solely a spatial frame, but a space that depends more on man’s action than it does on primitive conditions. It is, lastly, a space socially produced and each society produces its own space: the city is the result of space’s social production.

The analysis of urban functions is indispensable to urban geography, since these are considered the essential causes of the birth and development of cities, which allow reconstituting urban history since the successive appearance of diverse functions.
An urban function is an activity that citizens exercise for the benefit of themselves and everything that surround them, mainly their region. In present day, given their complexity and interrelations in urban environment, urban functions can be classified in three extensive categories:
• Of enrichment: industry, trade, tourism, finance, residence;
• Of responsability: administration, education and health;
• Of creation and transmission: transportation and communications (Beaujeu-Garnier, 2000:32).

The first category, that of enrichment, is the one that provides dynamism and imprints a particular vocation to a city. So, we have mainly industrial and commercial cities, cities with touristic vocation, whether they have sun and beach or culture and patrimony. Equally, it’s possible to identify cities or zones of them where financial or other kind of activities where residential motion is dominant in the urban landscape prevail.

The second category, that of responsibility, relates particularly with the equipment than enhances and provides variety to the experience of a city’s inhabitants. Thus, we find urban sectors where public amusement parks, zoos, sports units and recreative centers, for example, prevail; but also, administrative sets of public function, clinics and hospitals, libraries and schools of all educative levels, including university campuses, are located.

The third and last category refers specifically to the vial infrastructure of a city, which includes streets, boulevards, avenues and service highways, among others, that enable free transit and movement of people, goods and services. Likewise, this category incorporates the installation of means that allow the development of information technologies and telecommunications, where virtual communications take an ever so essential importance in the life and activities of a city.

Besides knowing what ‘the city’ is and has been in the different stages of the history of the human race, as well as analyzing the important tasks developed in urban environments, urban geography is predominantly interested in the present and future of the countless and populated urban zones.

Effectively, each and every time and more often appear new elements in the current urban world. Nevertheless, the progress of communications is the one that expansively modifies traditional life conditions; these connote a broad field in which material transportation and the diffusion of ideas and information are meant to be included. The arrival of faster, more efficient and more effective means of transportation changes definitively the daily life conditions of millions of settlers of the planet, mostly in urban centers.

The miracle of telecommunications is far, far away from over: today, we can communicate visually and verbally without meeting physically, face to face. Today it is possible, per say, to administrate and direct an institution or company from afar, from a distance, or practically develop any job without the need to meet physically in the working station, thanks to the great number of devices and, specially, remote means of communication.

In harmony with the present rhythm of worldwide urbanization, each day more and more cities see their own size grow rapidly, which is why the advantages and disadvantages of urban life will also be amplified. This fact should intensify in the future, if there is nothing to stop the worldwide tendency of explosive expansion of population in general, especially that of urban population.
In the light of what is produced in urban areas and as a result of monolithic postures and approaches regarding the strategies to apply against the multiplicity of issues than influence urban growth and the development of human communication in the urban environment, two sides dispute “the truth” in regard of the sustainable future of cities. In one side, there are the environmentalists, who affirm that a natural environment “friendly” city model has to be adopted and that urban life should be an extension of rural life, with both environments coexisting harmoniously for the benefit of a healthier and more natural human life. This fact in itself would cause the each time more important extension of urban areas, which would helplessly devour agricultural lands necessary for the subsistence of men on the earth. This tendency is clearly observable through the Americans’ phenomenon known as Urban Sprawl [3].

However, the opposing posture is presented, and it aims to increase extensively each city’s density, leaving the ‘one family’ housing system aside and encouraging edification in height rather than in width, which is the current tendency for city expansion. According to some theorists that defend this posture, edification in height would assist social coexistence, it would improve people’s quality of life, it would cheapen the supply of basic services, as well as resulting friendlier with the environment (Glaeser, 2011:29-32). Nonetheless, it is adverted that growth in height should not be indiscriminate, since when certain altitude of the buildings is reached, the prices of edification and, above all, the price of structures’ maintenance would increase considerably, resulting in the suggestion to keep a medium scale in the number of stories of said structures.
With this dense type of city, it is said, population could more easily and quickly access its satisfiers, and it would equally and beneficially incise in its domestic economies.

The situation is very far from being clear concerning what strategy is to be adopted. A fact, however, is undeniable: in present day, due to its expansion, the city is faced by complications that are hard to solve; the big cities smother themselves, victims of their own extension and complexity. In front of said difficulties, urban geography attempts to contribute, from a critic perspective, a rigorous analytic vision to the study of the city.

BEAUJEU-GARNIER, Jacqueline (2000), Géographie urbaine, Paris, Armand Colin
BORJA, Jordi (2003), La ciudad conquistada, Madrid, Alianza Editorial
BOURDIN, Alain (2007), La metrópoli de los individuos, Puebla, UIA Puebla-ITESO-BUAP-Embajada de Francia
DONZELOT, Jacques et. al. (2002), Aimons la ville! Paris, Éditions de l’Aube
GARCÍA, Aurora y María Luisa García (coords.) (2007), Un mundo de ciudades, Barcelona, Edición Ketelani 2000
GLAESER, Edward (2011), El triunfo de las ciudades, Madrid, Editorial Taurus
HALL, Tim (1998), Urban Geography, London, Routledge
HALL, Peter (1998), Cities in Civilization, New York, Pantheon Books
HIERNAUX, Daniel y Alicia Lindón (dirs.) (2006), Tratado de Geografía Humana, Barcelona-México, Anthropos Editorial-UAM
LACOUR, Claude et Sylvette Puissant (1999), La Métopolisation. Croissance, diversité, fractures, Paris, Éd, Anthropos
MITCHELL, William J, (2001), e-topía, Barcelona, Editorial Gustavo Gili
NEGRETE, María Eugenia, Silvana Levi y John Page (coords.) (2003), Entre fenómenos físicos y humanos, México, El Colegio de México
PAULET, Jean-Pierre (2000), Géographie urbaine, Paris, Armand Colin
WACKERMANN, Gabriel (2000), Géographie urbaine, Paris, Ellipses Édition
PEISER, Richard (2001), Decomposing Urban Sprawl, in The Town Planning Review, Vol. 72, No. 3, Jul., 2001, Published by Liverpool University Press, [en línea] http://www.jstor.org/stable/i40003736
REYMOND, Henri, Colette Cauvin et Richard Kleinschmager (1998), L’espace géographique des villes, Paris, Éd. Économica.

[1] Architect and doctor in Urban Geography. Full-time "A" professor attached to the Department of Architecture, belonging to the Architecture, Art and Design Division (DAAD), Guanajuato University (UG). E-mail: asalgado@ugto.mx.
[2] The information from the quoted authors was taken from the Free Universal Encyclopedia in Spanish:http://enciclopedia.us.es/index.php/Enciclopedia_Libre_Universal_en_Español.
[3] The term Urban Srawl, according to the definition by Richard Peiser (2001), is used in many ways to refer to unbridled consumption of soil, monotone, uninterrupted development, discontinued development based on jumps and inefficient use of soil. This phenomenon can be translated to Spanish as “expansion urbana”.