What is the Centre of Modern Cities?

29 12 2010

By Carlie Douglas

What is the centre of modern cities?  In Medieval times, it was the Church, visually, physically, economically, and socially.  Visually, no structure rose nearly as high as the church tower.  As soon as a person entered a village, they could see the tower easily.  This can still be seen in small villages in the English countryside.  Physically, the towns often grew around the church (barring restraints in the landscape), making it the centre.  Economically, the church was often times responsible for the well being of the townspeople.  Socially, all town activities revolved around church functions.  In modern times, however, this church-centred society has largely dissolved.  Visually, we have built close to and above the level of the church tower so that it is no longer a visual connection for residents and these medieval structures are often overlooked.  Physically, the towns have expanded due to a variety of reasons unconnected to the church such as proximity to employment, amenities, etc.  Economically and socially, the church has largely been taken out of the equation due to the erosion of the church in modern life.  So, what IS the centre of modern cities?  Is it the largely disused civic centres?  Or the shopping and business districts?  Or are our modern cities missing a defined, united centre?




8 responses

31 12 2010

Probably, there isn’t one and only centre as general and dominant as the church in Medieval times in the West. It appears that, as you said, shopping malls are surely one of the multiple centres of modern cities. People became more dependent on market trading for daily life and, moreover, what you buy became more significant in the modern society as it is called consumerism. Therefore, even the ones outside cities can act as focal space, like the Metrocentre in Gateshead with the help of convenience of using cars. Although it is criticized for environmental concerns or deteriorating impact on physical city centres, it can be said the life patterns are formed by rational economic reasons such as cheaper land and cheaper products.

1 01 2011

Before answering what the centre of modern cities is, it is essential to understand the history, the context and the socio-economic profile of a specific city. Indeed, Newcastle itself saw it’s ‘centre’ being displaced many times; from a geographical centre of a fortified settlement, the ‘centre’ shifted to the quayside as the Tyne became an important trading port for the region, and more recently it was shifted to the Eldon Square area, as Newcastle became the regional economic and employment hub.
As stated in the original post, the Church and its square were often the ‘centre’ of the medieval towns. This does not mean they were geographically centrally located, but rather it meant that these constituted the ‘centre of activity’. As discussed during the Urban Design Seminars session entitled ‘Different readings of the city’ with Profs Ali Madanipour, global cities attract worldwide companies and supporting services. Consequently, the centre of activity of these cities shifted to the central business districts.
Another point that could be further discussed is the fact that as opposed to the medieval society, the modern society is much more liberal and secular. Thus, activities within a city are no longer ‘expected’ to revolve around the church since the importance of the latter is highly reduced, especially in northern European countries and the USA. This point becomes valuable when one compares and contrasts this lost sense of the ‘city centre’ to all the legislation and planning frameworks safeguarding the ‘centrality’ of historic urban cores in southern European countries.
A study carried out by the author analysed Italian, Greek and Cypriot planning frameworks against the Maltese planning regulations to investigate the approach taken up by the different countries in tackling development pressures whilst preserving the meaning and functions of the cities’ urban cores. In brief, legislation forces developers to find alternative ways of locating their businesses within the city without totally upsetting its spatial and socio-economic balance.
Summarizing the main points discussed above:
• The ‘centre’ of a city is directly related to the main activities occurring within the city. Hence if the main activity within the city is based on commercial outlets, etc, it is only natural that the ‘centre of activity’ occurs in the site where these shops are located
• The fact that the church no longer features as the ‘centre’ in north European and American cities is only a reflection of the society’s secular lifestyle. Cities are after all a reflection of their societies.
• Churches continue to dominate the centre of southern European cities because people still attribute a special meaning to these ‘buildings’. Legislation and planning frameworks are drawn to safeguard this spatial organization.
What is interesting is the fact that some people in southern European countries define their policies as outdated and hindering economic development, whilst policies in northern European countries are trying to define what is authentic and regenerating their historic centres to present a better offer in the current experience economy and re-instil the sense of community.

3 01 2011

In my point of view, city centres for existing cities always had a relation with where the city started, which automatically connected them to heritage and history of place. In history, as soon as the city starts to find its place according to geography, the need for a prayer place will occur, as a result, religious places where always the centre of cities.
So when cities have extended by time, activities kept taking place around religious buildings and made them the centres.
Now a day, as religion is not playing the same strong powerful role it was playing in previous eras, new cities started to have new character and new way in creating their centres, trying to find another major attraction elements to identify the centre with and to give it identity.
That’s why when we look at some new cities we find them with no centre or character, and definitely without identity.

4 01 2011

I think the driving force of the physical dimension of modern city center is economy, as the influence of political and religious is smaller than before. Even the location of the city centre in the modern city is same as the old one, the function of this centre may has changed into CBD or commercial area, etc. But the city centre, as the significant place in the city, is shaped by the memory or the feeling by the citizens. Even the function of the building (as the landmark) has been changed, the place still hold the feeling of the urban culture. I think this kind of spirit place is the centre of the city no matter in modern city or historical cities.

4 01 2011
Harveen Dhillon

I agree with Majeda, especially when looking at the centre of modern cities in Asia.

Kuala Lumpur’s foundation of its centre is located at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak River’s, where the city was established. This is a strategic location near the Central Market, which opened in 1888, and the Masjid Jamek (one of the cities oldest mosques). However, it can be argued that cities now have more than one centre in these regards.

As of, September 2010 Kuala Lumpur’s central business district today has shifted around the Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC), surrounding the Petronas Towers where many new and tall buildings with modern and postmodern architecture fill the skyline. This new centre has seen an influx of many mix-use developments and a soar in property prices as a result. What is more significant is in addition to this a new mosque As Syakirin was constructed surrounded by a central park.

So despite the main central business district being the economic core for the city it has incorporated the religious identity as part of its centre as it was in the past. Furthermore the old centre is still a fundamental part of the city, which has a historic affixation to it. Personally I feel the centre of a city will vary for different citizens and where they have a relation to a particular area of the city.

5 01 2011

The city center in the medieval time was shaped mainly under the force of political. The power class and the rich people drove the society in their way. There was nothing called ‘equity’. Thus, people were put in poverty and weak situation, where they could not lay their hope on anyone but God. The Church serving as the place of supernatural powers became the most important place in any city.
In the modern society today, people are released. There are driving forces that shape the developments of a particular city. Three main of them can be listed as: the political force, the cultural force and the economic force. Therefore a city may include one of them (a political center, a cultural center or an economic center), or some could have all three or even more.

6 01 2011

I agree with Jing. I feel that the centre of modern day cities are those parts which have experienced economic driven regeneration. Obviously, each city is unique and this may vary slightly. However, if one looks at Manchester it is interesting to see which area people perceive as the ‘centre’. For me the centre is definitely the area around the Corn Exchange, the part of the city that was named the Millennium Quarter, post the 1996 IRA bomb destruction. The regeneration of this area became synomous with the quest to reimagine the city, by city leaders. The council took the events of the bomb and used it as a catalyst for regeneration and an opportunity to remodel the centre and attract investment. As a result the Millennium Quarter is now a commercially thriving area, home to business, culture, leisure and residential uses. However, it is interesting to consider what happens when the centre of a city moves and changes. In the Industrial period the civic space around the Town Hall was the centre of the city; an area of grand gestures to wealth at that time. Now post industrial decline, the MQ stands in defiance as the new Manchester, contemporary and modern in the face of global competition.

7 01 2011
Lizzie Bird

Carlie good question – feel like I should join in! I Just wanted to say I went to Essaouira, Morocco just over a year ago. A traditional city that grew up around the port in the 18th Century Essaouira is walled city with no cars allowed into the Medina – see photos I’ve uploaded on Flickr. The core of the city, the Medina felt very alive – with lots of people about, visiting the numerous souks/markets and street cafes. When prayer was called the whole Medina gravitated towards the Mosque. However there were some signs that the dominance of the core city might be beginning to change with wealthier families, schools and other services moving out of the Medina into the new town just outside the city walls.

Essaouria is a good example of a traditional city but in an attempt to answer Carlie’s question – what is the centre of modern cities? I wanted to use Oldenburg’s idea of the ‘third place’ from the Great Good Place: Cafes, coffee shops, book stores, bars, hair salons and the other hangouts at the heart of the community (1989, 1999). Oldenburg argues that while seemingly ‘amorphous and scattered’, informal public life is actually highly focused, emerging in ‘core settings’. His term the third space represent ‘fundamental institutions of mediation’ between the individual and larger society. Oldenburg argues that third spaces are often specific to cultures and to historical eras: Paris has its sidewalk cafes, Vienna its coffee houses, Germany its beer gardens. Public Places Urban Spaces by Carmona et al (2003) links Oldenburg’s ideas with those of Banerjee (2001) who suggests in many American cities Starbuck’s coffee shops, Borders bookstores, and health clubs and video rental stores have become ‘major icons’ of the third place. Quite interesting I thought.

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