Cities, transportation, and representations of space

Derek Buckner, Freeway 2.
Derek Buckner, Freeway 2.
I’ve posted my thoughts on urban life and the micropolitics of getting around on my parenting blog, but for various reasons, I didn’t explain how philosophies of space and technology (in particular, Lefevbre and Peter-Paul Verbeek) inform my ideas on the subject. since this blog is more dissertation-oriented, I thought I’d drop a brief overview of these philosophies here.

If you’ve read my rant on my other blog, and if you’ve encountered either of these thinkers at all (most parents and transit users I talk to haven’t), you might appreciate where I’m making points that echo their ideas.

Building on Lefevbre, I’m giving attention to processes of social homogenization (or ordering according to the logic of capitalism) that stem from top-down urban planning processes, or what he calls “representations of space” (institutional or bureaucratic space). Using this concept, I declare an “ethos of overconsumption and ecological violence” that seems to dominate contemporary urban planning processes in Vancouver.

More relevant to the work of Verbeek, I’m echoing the Latourian-influenced proposal that technological artefacts have ethical content, in that networks of human and nonhuman actors (in which we are also enrolled as actors) set us up with constrained choices. Sometimes these networks help us make ethical choices (speedbumps, door grooms, etc… his most recent book speaks of this in more depth), but sometimes (as I argue in the case of family transportation networks), they set us up to make choices that go against our ethical predispositions, coercively. The network of transportational artefacts, then – including ramps and kneeling buses, transit authority policies about what constitutes a “mobility aid”, the physical location of schools, the manner in which rules about cross-catchment student enrolment are enforced, cheap car loans – in many ways prefigures our set of options with which we can make choices about how to get around. Parents of young families end up driving cars around because the network of actants (and I’ve only included a partial list here) is tending in that direction, regardless of whether or not those with power to re-design that network have the ethical constitution and political will to do the work of re-designing it.

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