The study of cities and city life from a geographical perspective (see city). Although urban geography is one of the most popular and productive parts of human geography, a precise delineation of the field is understandably difficult. Attempts to find the essential characteristics of urban places or urban life, for example, by contrast with the rural and rural life, have proved inconclusive (see rurality; urbanism). In much of the world, the distinction between urban and non-urban is blurred or meaningless, as those characteristics once associated with cities such as waged labour, electricity, or the preponderance of secondary relations (i.e. with strangers) become more widespread. In one sense, therefore, the vast majority of human geographical work may be described as urban by default. Considering urban settlements in historical perspective also complicates the search for essential urban qualities. Furthermore, the geographical study of urban life is informed by and contributes to studies in allied disciplines; one of the main journals in the field is simply called Urban Studies. A final complication is that the city as a spatial form can be regarded as both the cause and the consequence of social relations. From one perspective, exemplified by the Chicago School of urban ecology, cities shaped social effects among their inhabitants. By contrast, many Marxist-inspired geographers in the 1970s thought of cities as the projection of less visible economic processes; inquiry should focus on the processes rather than the outcome. In this regard, David Harvey’s contributions have been critical in pointing a way forward.
Despite some ambivalence about the term ‘urban geography’, over the past sixty years urban geographers have developed some distinct and ongoing themes (Hall and Barrett 2012). Perhaps the most important has been the study of the internal social and spatial structure of cities, in part inspired by ideas from the Chicago School. Urban morphology considers the spatial layout and appearance of cities in different historical and national contexts. It can be extended by typologies of different kinds of urban area, for example, edge city, exurb, or suburb. Most focus has been on the social differentiation of urban areas by class, age, race, gender, and sexuality, as well as its causes and consequences (see community; gentrification; segregation; social area analysis; social geography). A second long-standing theme considers cities as systems or networks, linked by flows of people, goods, money, and information (see Central Place Theory; urban system; World City Network). The third area of inquiry has considered the diversity of cities in historical and international contexts, again frequently through typologies (see industrial city; pre-industrial city; post-industrial city). Here, an important development in the past two decades has been the recognition that normative models or ideas derived from a narrow set of mainly Western cities are not universal (see desakota region).
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