Henri Lefebvre is one of the pioneering French social theorists. His works have been cited by many urban planners, particularly those involved in social space and everyday city life. Lefebvre wrote numerous books and essays on city structures. He was a professor of sociology at University of Strasbourg and the New University at Nanterre. During his times, in 1900s, city planning was still a very novel concept and there weren’t many departments that were established in the world.
Lefebvre pioneered many city planning theories such as right to the city, production of space and critiqued everyday city life. He introduced post structuralism and urban theory. He critiqued many previous urban researchers including Michael Foucault. Many urban planning concepts were developed after his theories and urban planning departments were developed after his time. His works continue to inspire many urbanist researchers and academics throughout the world.
Concepts of Social Space
Lefebvre’s works to a great deal focussed on the social side of cities and how people use their social space within and across cities. His work on social theory and social dynamics within cities, has indicated that it’s people who largely influence the structure and formation of their cities. Without the social dynamics and social structures within cities, many cities would not exist. He also suggests that there is a creative component to cities and the city is an Oeuvre, which is an artistic expression created by people. The constant interactions and actions produced by people, lead to many creative expressions and the ‘social’ side of urban planning is formed. Such theories by Lefebvre has influenced many recent urban theorists including Edward Soja and David Harvey. Lefebvre closely relates urban space to time, which later influenced Doreen Massey.
Lefebvre coined the term “lived space” which is a democratic space appropriated by citizens of each city, which are the local people. For Lefebvre, the lived space had many aspects to it, which greatly influences how each person lives their life in the city. Art, architecture and planning, according to Lefebvre was a consequence of the Oeuvre of everyday life practices. Lefebvre thought the social space was democratic and largely influenced by citizens, rather than bureaucratic power. He suggested that every person was entitled to the “right to the city.” He thought art was a very democratic expression that would influence the future of cities worldwide.
When people exist and create social spaces, they are producing deep meanings and memories with the space as they interact with the amenities in the cities. Lefebvre suggests that a city is a complex mix of social productions with differing social values and associations connected to the ways in which people perceive and use their cities. As he suggests in his book The Production of Space:
Social space is a (social) product. The space thus produced also serves as a tool of thought and of action in addition to being a means of production it is also a means of control, and hence of domination, of power.
The above quote implies that there are many components to the city, a person can sometimes overlook. There are many social and power struggles in the social production of space. This is because people are diverse and their differencing skills and goals in life are different. Some occupations or ‘actions’ are thought of as and constructed to provide more power over other people. This concept of power struggles exist since people are born and throughout their lifetime. For instance, this can even be seen even when families are constructed with parents having the power over their children. However, this has been largely because of capitalist structures in our society. Similar concept is constructed in the urban social space where there are class struggles, monetary differences and different actions by people suggesting particular meanings and associations to their daily life.
Social power struggles and social struggles can be a consequence of capitalism, however, most political theories lead to similar social power. Lefebvre criticized this concept of capitalism and called the social struggles in the post-modern world a result of “neo-capitalism.” He was largely influenced by theories of Communism by Karl Marx and understood social spaces in our cities would change if capitalism was replaced by other political ideologies such as communist theory. It is important to understand that Lefebvre was deeply influenced by the political struggles of Paris at an underlying time of war and strife, similar to Karl Marx. Lefebvre was also involved in many political strikes and protests during his time.
Henri Lefebvre was a pioneer for sociology, geography and city planning. His focus on cities was largely defined by social constructions within the city. If you want a deeper analysis of the concepts covered in this article, please refer to Lefebvre’s book The Production of Space which has been one of the most influential books for city planning. Everything that happens in the city is a consequence of the social production, from the space in which we work to the space we accommodate ourselves. More recent theorists have built upon this idea of Lefebvre, suggesting that the city should be built for the ‘people’ rather than material growth. For these reasons and more, cities should invest on people’s democracy and freedom of thought, providing more opportunities for the creative growth of cities. This can be achieved through building cities on a human scale.