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Over the course of the nineteenth century in Europe and North America, urbanity came to be conceived as a personality trait. According to Richard Sennett (1974), public experience outside the private sphere of the home became an obligation for the self-development of men. Conversing in cafes or walking the busy streets, just like traveling, was a means to acquire sophistication and to become comfortable with diversity. Urbanity, cosmopolitanism, and sophistication were almost synonymous. For women, on the other hand, exploring the public sphere was considered immoral. Moving about the city alone and freely was associated with loose sexual behavior. It was in the sphere of the bourgeois home in the city that women acquired the manners and accent of urbanity. Present-day standards of politeness, such as the notion that each person has the right to be left alone when in public or norms on proper English and proper dress, were derived from the social control of the urban bourgeois home.
Indeed, urbanity is often conceived as the cultural capital of higher social classes. As a personality trait, it is used for exclusion in jobs and for residential segregation. For instance, the speaking accent of youth living in the French banlieue (suburbs) acts as a serious barrier to employment in a discriminatory environment. In addition to their relegation in housing projects outside cities, these youths are not seen as endowed with enough urbanity and sophistication to work and they are often tagged with a lack of civility.
For Pierre Bourdieu (1979), cultural capital provides people with a structure of predispositions transmitted by their family; urban, white, middle-class youth would thus be better equipped to succeed than their poor, suburban counterparts. There are three forms of cultural capital, each of them closely associated with the notion of urbanity. Firstly, embodied capital refers to investments in self-improvement; it is thus focused on urbanity as a personality trait that can be developed. Secondly, objectified cultural capital is represented by material objects such as a nice car or a house in a trendy neighborhood; it is thus closely related to the politics of space (who has the right to be in the city?). Thirdly, institutionalized cultural capital provides certain people with access to decision-making powers affecting everyday life in the city.
White, middle-class, urban dwellers endowed with these three forms of cultural capital have a discriminatory and exclusionary impact on other city dwellers. They can shape the city to their own image. Derelict landscapes in central cities are regenerated, pushing away poorer residents for processes of gentrification. The revamping of Times Square in New York City, for instance, is an example of what Neil Smith (1996) calls revanchist urbanity, whereby the white middle-class appropriates spaces in the city for their own pleasure and the fulfillment of their own urbanity. In the name of economic growth and safety, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani went on with this model of what Sharon Zukin has called “pacification by cappuccino” (1995, p. 28), eliminating greasy mom-and-pop joints and other venues that were not attractive to the white middle class.
As a personality trait enhanced by spatial practices and institutional power, urbanity is used as a means of exclusion. However, more and more voices are rising to claim other forms of urbanity that would not be linked to class and ethnicized cultural capital. This became particularly visible in the wake of the worldwide urban revolts of the late 1960s. Henri Lefebvre (1968) wrote then about the rights to the city—that is, the right to be in the city and to have decent living conditions, but also the right to define the codes and norms of social life in a manner closer to everyday practices than to technocratic power.
In fact, according to Lefebvre (1970), after the agricultural, mercantilist, and industrial ages, we are now going through an urban revolution. This does not only mean that more than half of the world population lives in cities that cover more and more land, but also and mostly that the way we conceive of the world has become urban. For Lefebvre, personalities, economic behavior, spiritual beliefs, modes of social interaction, all aspects of human life have become urban. Urbanity, in this second definition, is not confined to a personality trait of the white middle class but is a general characteristic of the world since the 1970s. Even for peasants in a country of the “global south,” Lefebvre would argue, urbanity is part of their life, their values, and their mental schemes.
In this sense, urbanity can be defined by a set of distinctive social characteristics, regardless of geographical location. Diversity of people, beliefs, and histories is the most important of these characteristics. Whether it is celebrated, commercialized, tolerated, or oppressed, diversity is a trait of urbanity that is very different from rurality (which is often associated with homogeneity). Other related characteristics of urbanity are speed, flows of people, information, and goods, and mobility, as well as concentration and density. Combined, these traits are sometimes seen as having pervasive effects, such as deviant behavior or alienation. Yet, the tenuous social bonds and anonymity often associated with urbanity in contrast to rurality are caused not so much by life in cities as by what Lefebvre calls technocratic control. Obsession with rational planning, rather than privileging the spontaneity and diversity of everyday life, has individualization and alienation effects.
- Bourdieu, Pierre.  1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Lefebvre, Henri.  1996. Writings on Cities, trans. and eds. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Lefebvre, Henri.  2003. The Urban Revolution. Trans. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Sennett, Richard. 1974. The Fall of Public Man. New York: Norton.
- Smith, Neil. 1996. New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. New York: Routledge.
- Zukin, Sharon. 1995. The Cultures of Cities. Cambridge, U.K.: Blackwell.
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