Review of City Living: How Urban Dwellers and Urban Spaces Make One Another by Quill R Kukla

Review of City Living: How Urban Dwellers and Urban Spaces Make One Another by Quill R Kukla


In their book City Living, philosopher and geographer Quill Kukla brings together a robust interdisciplinary analysis and a deep appreciation of urban living in order to reframe how we think about cities. Urban spaces, Kukla argues, are not merely shaped by the material and social environment that govern a space, nor are they determined solely by the agency of the people who live in them. Kukla’s central insight throughout their work is that urban environments and city dwellers are in “mutually constitutive relationships” which, together, dynamically create shared public spaces (13). Material spaces constrain the activities of city dwellers but city dwellers also renegotiate these spaces through their own activities leading to new possibilities and meanings for the space (38). A city is, therefore, a collection of “ecological” networks instituted and regulated by the multifaceted interactions between urban spaces and the urban dwellers who live within them. Yet, Kukla’s analysis goes beyond description because they filter these conceptual resources through issues of spatial justice and inequality such as gentrification (84), repurposing historically harmful city structures (121), and an urban dweller’s “right to the city” (260). Kukla’s goal in City Living is, therefore, to set out a theory of the mutually constitutive relationship between urban spaces and urban dwellers and, from those resources, articulate novel approaches for enacting spatial justice.

Two recurring metaphors that Kukla uses to develop their “mutual constitution” framework for understanding urban spaces are “micronegotiation” (18) and “ecological ontology” (38). These metaphors highlight Kukla’s resistance to analyzing environments and urban dwellers in a reductionist manner. Standard approaches to urban theory fall into one of two camps: spatial determinism or spatial voluntarism. Spatial determinism contends that the top-down processes of city design, policies, and structures asymmetrically influence urban dwellers so the material space itself can be understood independently from the urban dwellers and as a driving force for explanations in urban theory (14-15). Spatial voluntarism, in contrast, contends that the asymmetrical power of explanation is found in urban dwellers and their individual or community-level decision-making. Kukla cuts through this crisp distinction by arguing that urban dwellers negotiate the significance of urban spaces through systems of “embodied stances” (habits and orientations), and these negotiations can only be understood within a dual-analysis of a given ecological situation, the activities oriented within the situation, and how they influence each other (21-22).

Kukla identifies the most basic level of these kinds of embodied activities as micronegotiations which are “fleeting, frequently unconscious, material actions and transactions that make up our day as we move through places in and among other people” (18). Micronegotiations institute, maintain, and regulate the kinds of meanings and actions accustomed to urban spaces and these negotiations create territories that agents become accustomed to and inhabit. Micronegotiations are performances, therefore, that intricately depend on the background context they are embedded within and help create. How one performs “street etiquette” like walking on the sidewalk and making eye contact with others is influenced, for example, by what kind of social identity the person occupies in a location (gender, economic, race, disability), what time of day it is, the person’s familiarity with the place, and a variety of other conditions (50-53). Cities, in virtue of these dynamic environment-agent interactions, require a broader explanatory model than either spatial determinism or voluntarism can provide which motivates Kukla’s movement towards a mutually constitutive relationship model of urban spaces and urban dwellers.

Kukla deepens this analysis through their interrogation of “spatial justice” (265-266). The ecological nature of urban spaces clarifies, in particular, issues regarding gentrification, repurposing city structures, and articulating basic rights of city dwelling. In terms of gentrification, Kukla argues that shifts in the ecological ontologies of territories lead longtime inhabitants of a territory to leave because gentrification attempts to create an ecology geared towards the ideal capitalist consumer rather than the actual territory’s dwellers (97). Ecological shifts in a city involve gentrifying activities from both top-down design (tax breaks for new businesses, rising rent prices, and over-policing) and bottom-up community interactions (revised norms of interactions) that lead economically and racially marginalized identities to have their territory reshaped so as to no longer include them (93). That is, the ecological ontology that was once receptive to individuals is reshaped so as to exclude them or push them out. Kukla’s mutual constitutive model of urban places and dwellers, consequently, clarifies the intricate creation of capitalist-influenced ecologies and how they force out longtime residents.

Kukla also uses “micronegotiation” and “ecological ontology” to understand the theoretical and moral relevance of “repurposed cities.” Repurposed cities are those that were “built to support one spatial order with specific economic, social, and political relations, but in which that spatial order has now collapsed, so that the city has to accommodate radically new uses, users, and purposes” (121). The explanatory framework of mutual constitution creates a conceptual apparatus in which we can motivate and understand processes of “repurposing” from the old order’s harmful use of spaces to more inclusive purposes. Urban dwellers in Berlin, for example, repurpose the bombed-out buildings from the war for non-Capitalist modes of ownership implemented through territory creation in the activities of communities (140). Thus, in addition to gentrification, Kukla develops resources to analyze the significance of and potentialities for repurposing harmful structures from a city’s past.

All of these concepts and practical analyses lead to Kukla’s passionate invitation for an ethics of spatial justice revolving around the concept of one’s “right to the city” (260). Spatial justice must be sought through a zealous pursuit of inclusion that invites urban dwellers, of all identities, to express agency within and upon a variety of shared spaces in their city (266). This basic right requires city planning to include, for example, the voice of marginalized identities in how material spaces are constructed, especially as it relates to disabled citizens whose flourishing depends on accessible spaces (285). Morally responsible urban-dwelling must involve, for Kukla, the ability of all urban dwellers to participate in urban space creation in a variety of territories across a city which means the voices of all identities must be represented in even the early stages of city planning.

Thus, in City Living, Kukla presents the reader with an illuminating theoretical and social analysis of urban spaces and how they are constituted through both the material and social environment of those spaces as well as the activities of those who live in them. An area of further nuance I would have appreciated, however, is how Kukla approached victim-involving harms in their analysis of gentrification and territory maintenance. Kukla, rightfully, offers substantive and important critiques of injustices performed by “white gentrifiers” in the pursuit of reshaping ecological ontologies towards capitalist gain but is charitable in their explanations of harmful activities such as theft and catcalling performed in gentrified communities because these activities help marginalized identities reinforce their claim to the space (100-120). While I understand the motivation, I think further discussion is required to frame these kinds of moral evaluations. This is because the quick brush-away of victim-involving harms does not take into account the way both“white gentrifiers” and marginalized community members are negatively affected by the harm. Victim-involving harms, such as catcalling, drug abuse and selling, and theft, are not merely disruptive to capitalist interests, in the form of territory resistance, but also to the flourishing of longstanding marginalized dwellers within gentrified locations. Victim-involving harms, consequently, cannot be avoided, ignored, or weakened because these are harms that influence the flourishing of all dwellers within a territory and not just the image of the “white gentrifier.” Kukla’s criticisms and exceptions would have been improved, therefore, from a more thorough discussion of the complexity involved in victim-involving harms in territory maintenance.

Yet, even with this reservation, Kukla’s City Living is a theoretically robust and socially-engaged work of philosophy. The synthesis of key concepts from a variety of disciplines (evolutionary biology, cognitive science, urban geography, and philosophy) makes it a contribution ripe with wide-ranging and deep insights. I recommend anyone interested in urban geography and the philosophies of architecture, embodiment, feminism, and mind to read this work.

City Living: How Urban Dwellers and Urban Spaces Make One Another by Quill R Kukla. Oxford University Press. 2021. 344 pp.

Review of City Living: How Urban Dwellers and Urban Spaces Make One Another by Quill R Kukla
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Jag Williams

JAG WILLIAMS is a secondary-school philosophy and religion instructor. He obtained an MSc in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh where he studied the intersections of the philosophies of cognition, mind, language, and feminism. A focus of his research is to understand how these domains of philosophy help us understand various aspects of human embodiment, rationality, and religiosity as well as the social issues that permeate these topics.

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