Edward Soja’s Theories of Urban Space


Edward William Soja was one of the well-known geographers and urban planners of recent decades. He was a distinguished professor in the London School of Economics and recently passed away in 2015. He is one of the most honoured planners of the contemporary world. He is famous for his concept of Third Space which is an extension of Henri Lefebvre’s concept of spatial tirade. Soja served as the doctoral academic advisor to many leading scholars in the field of urban theory and geography and also won the distinguished Vautrin Lud Prize which is considered to be the Nobel prize in Geography. As an academic, he was strongly an activist of the public realm including feminist urban planning concepts. He focussed on the link between space and society regarding the thin difference and the connections between human life and the particular spaces they live in from private space to public spaces. He formed many theories for which his creativity was well known and recognized.

Edward Soja

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Background to the Concept of Space

The concept of space is not new and Soja relied on many previous philosophers and theories on urban spaces including Doreen Massey and Lefebvre (book: Production of Space) who were very well known in this field. Space in urban planning terms is about outdoor open spaces and the daily inhibitions of human beings who use this space. It cannot be quantified and can be measured only in qualitative terms and research. This is closely related to cultural geography and cultural side of urban planning which suggests that the link of humans in the open spaces are important in understanding in order to gain knowledge about the different spaces people inhibit and the ways in which they relate to these built environments. The space is usually a consequence of city life, mostly to the ways in which people have built these outdoor and indoor spaces that result in a variety of behaviour by people as a consequence to the ways in which the space is built. It is this space that Edward Soja and other philosophers are referring to.  It requires academic knowledge and some basic background in urban planning to understand the concept of space in its fluid sense as it is mostly taught at post graduation in Universities.

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Understanding ‘Third Space’

Soja was an advocate for a fully lived space and closely followed the works of Lefebvre in understanding the connections between spatiality and sociality, relating to the way people live in socially produced spaces. According to Soja, most of our lived spaces are socially constructed indicating that humans have an impact on other human beings and the ways in which our cities and social spaces are constructed, can have a big impact on our daily lives.

As Soja states “Rather than an actual force in the shaping of society and theory, space became ” reflective mirror of societal modernization.”

The above quote indicates that the ways in which the society modernizes and evolves in different ways is closely related to societal modernization which is about the ways in which society at large changes and becomes modern. People become more flexible to the changes in the society with age and this creates a big impact on what is known as the “Third Space.”

According to Soja, there are three spaces which are described below:

  • “Firstspace is the ‘real’ space – the urban built form of physical buildings that can be mapped and seen.
  • Secondspace is the ‘imagined’ representational space – i.e. how the space is perceived, seen and argued over. In urban settings, this would be evident through, for example, the role of marketing and redevelopment projects.
  • Thirdspace takes this thinking further – it combines First and Second space to create what Soja describes as, ‘a fully lived space, a simultaneously real-and-imagined, actual-and-virtual locus of structured individuality and collective experience and agency’. Thirdspace is the experience of life in the Firstspace mediated through Secondspace expectations”

In layman’s terms, this suggests that the Third-Space is the life we live as individuals that is the experiences we have gained from the society and our individually imagined experiences with social space as a whole. He uses Los Angeles as an example in his book: Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Our experiences are both based on individuality and collective nature of our society and they are both reliant and reflective of each other. The performative nature of our daily lives is reliant on the ways in which we perceive the first, second and third spaces that is described by Edward Soja.


Edward Soja has contributed a lot of work in the field of urban planning and as an urbanist has changed the ways in which philosophers and other planners think about the concept of ‘space’ in general. If you are interested in understanding more of his philosophies, I suggest you read more of his books and concepts relating to urban spaces and Third Space in particular. This article highlights some of the main points in his theory, but to understand Soja’s work in more detail, reading and relating to his book for the use of planning, might initiate some new ideas. He is one of the few academics that has had a major impact after 2010 and a few who have developed Lefebvre’s concept of ‘space’ further. Some of his notable books are Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory and Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions. If you are thinking of gaining more knowledge into this field of academic study, then it would be advised to read these books by Edward Soja.

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