Chapter 12 About being in the middle: conceptions, models and theories of centrality in urban studies
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A commonly encountered perspective in textbooks explains the existence of cities as function of being in the middle of something. Cities are centres of political, cultural, economic and/or religious life, explaining the large religious buildings, stock exchanges or pantheons in the city. According to many (for instance, Bird 1977, p. 1; Friedmann 1968, p. 236; Lefebvre 1974 [1991], pp. 331–34), the associated notion of centrality amounts to a key building block of what the city is about. This chapter surveys the urban theories that try to understand the benefits, the side effects and the desires associated with being in the middle. Urban centrality’s core idea is that being in the middle exerts spatial effects. The middle can induce a desire to be there, a centripetal tendency. Authors (for example, Bobek 1927) emphasize the magnetic attraction of urban places, invoking images of being pulled to bright lights in the big city. Alternatively, being in the middle can be something we are pulled away from, a centrifugal tendency, for instance when the middle is too expensive, too crowded or too dirty. These centripetal and centrifugal tendencies were first theorized as urban phenomena by Schlüter (1899, cited in Müller-Wille 1978, p. 50) in Germany and by H.G. Wells (1902, cited in Bird 1977, p. 104) in the anglophone world, and were further elaborated in the subsequent century. Colby (1933) provides an overview of what these tendencies entail in early twentieth-century cities. The balance between countervailing centripetal and centrifugal tendencies generates distinctive divisions of labour and zonal patterns of urban fabric within a particular technological conjuncture. Colby (1933) notes how new technological possibilities, transportation modalities and changing economic fortunes continuously upset these equilibriums and change centralities (Van Meeteren et al. 2016a).

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