Your thoughts on cities, city living and realpolitik in times of physical (and for some even social) distancing. Thank you for sharing.

April 22, 2020

Big City Small Canvas by Rhianne Fiolka ’20 McGill School of Urban Planning

Is scale still relevant to planners? Territory, scale, the platform economy and the Covid crisis

by Richard Shearmur, Professor, McGill School of Urban Planning,

Spatial scale: why it matters

Many – if not all – social, economic and environmental processes play out at different spatial scales, from that of the individual (or even the molecular, the viral or neuronal) to that of the planet. Each researcher can only focus on certain of these scales. In my own area of study, urban and regional economics, some focus on neighbourhoods, some on cities, some on regions and some on countries and continents. Furthermore, points of entry can be geographic (e.g. a jurisdiction, a labour market) or can be actors (e.g. companies, regulators, employees). Each of these points of entry can be thought of, and positioned, within processes and dynamics operating at different scales. Thus, for instance, if I wish to study the effect of geographic surroundings on the performance of small companies, those surroundings can be thought of as immediate (the building, the street), somewhat wider (the neighbourhood), wider still (the city or region), or national and global.

This idea of scale structures the way we think about processes, and the notion of hierarchy that accompanies it – carrying connotations of power and subservience – shades our understanding. Indeed, spatial scale implies verticality and hierarchy: larger scale processes subsume smaller scale processes, and the power of individuals and local communities to act decreases as scale gets larger. Furthermore, certain scales of analysis are considered “more important” then others, and this importance varies depending on the interests involved. As planners, we are painfully aware that economists and policy makers rarely take street corners, or even neighbourhoods, seriously: ‘real’ problems, those that merit attention, lobbying and thought are those that occur at national or global scales. Not coincidentally, it is advisors, politicians (and academics?) who address issues at these scales who earn more money, get media recognition and become household names.

Spatial scale: a social construction?

It is these types of consideration that lead Sally Marston[1] to argue – in a series of papers written in the 2000s – that scale is a social construction which promotes certain issues and processes (and, of course, the people involved with them) whilst demoting others: “scale is not necessarily a preordained hierarchical framework for ordering the world – local, regional, national and global. It is instead a contingent outcome of the tensions that exist between structural forces and the practices of human agents” (Marston, 2000, p220).

Her arguments do not imply that scale is irrelevant or does not exist[2]. Rather they highlight that scalar thinking is only one way of parsing spatial and social phenomena, and these different ways of thinking are interconnected. Thus, whilst many processes do indeed play out across global, national and local scales, the relevance assigned to each scale is contingent and socially constructed.

Furthermore, scale is not the only way of thinking processes through. Space can also be apprehended relationally: interconnections between people and things are not necessarily hierarchically organised, but occur along various types of networks, which do not always slot into each other in the way that scalar thinking implies. Space is also fuzzy: scalar thinking tends to categorise processes (or at least their consequences) into ‘levels’, whereas some processes cannot be so easily classified. Even an economic geographic concept as straightforward as a local labour market is not strictly scalar: local labour markets are fuzzy. This fuzziness does not only mean that their physical edges or limits are unclear. More fundamentally, international workers, for instance, can simultaneously be part of neighbourhood and global labour markets – does that mean that local labour markets are also global, that global labour markets are local, or that the conceptualisation of labour-markets as spatial ‘regions’ is problematic?

The limits of scalar thinking: the platform economy (as an example)

The purpose of this short piece is not to invalidate the idea of scale, which is an incredibly useful way of apprehending many processes. It is particularly relevant for planners because jurisdictions, administrations and territorial divisions are organized in scalar fashion, scales constructed to reflect and project relations of political power. Scalar thinking should not, however, be reified: it is one of many ways of conceptualising how processes play out as they aggregate (or not) across actors, organisations and space, one that seems natural because it is so pervasive and ingrained in our culture and structures of governance.

This is not only of academic interest. One of the ways that the platform economy has become so dominant so quickly is by flouting socially recognised hierarchical scalar logics: other logics – network, distributed, diffused, fuzzy, chaotic, complex, etc… have been superimposed on classic scalar structures that shape politics, state regulatory power, economic institutions, and ‘common-sense’ views of the world. The scale effects that the platform economy benefits from – its absolute size (or scale) is manifestly important – have no necessary connection with space, territory, or jurisdictions, and cannot be understood using spatial metaphors.

It is the other logics mentioned above, that are not related to spatial scale in any straightforward way, that are propagating the platform economy’s impact and power outside of recognised policy frameworks (which remain spatially scaled). David Wachsmuth’s current work[3] on AirBnB grapples with this disjunction between platform economy logics and our inherited spatial (and hierarchically scalar) regulatory system.

As planners, particularly given the fundamental ways in which some basic economic processes have changed (and are changing), we must remain vigilant: scalar thinking is important, but so are alternative ways of thinking about how social, environmental and economic processes operate in, and interact with, the cities and regions where we work.

To conclude : scale and the Covid 19 pandemic

It is not only the platform economy that exemplifies the limits of scalar thinking. Scale, its social construction and its fashioning of policy imaginaries, currently structure (and restrict) responses to the pandemic. The virus spreads along physical social networks, with no respect for jurisdictions, presidential tantrums or European fiscal arrangements. Scalar structures that govern policymaking are of limited effectiveness. Public health interventions cannot be decreed from above: they are necessarily local (testing, treatment, confinement, etc. can only be implemented and organised locally) yet their combined effect leads to global issues (economic slowdown, shortages of supplies, logistics bottlenecks, political tensions,…) that require accompaniment, reactivity and coordination from actors at many scales.

In this instance it could be useful to supplement spatial scalar thinking (which remains useful) with chaos theory: local responses to the virus lead, in a chaotic way, to emergent global issues. The international community (made up of independent national governments) has trouble recognising, let alone dealing with, these issues as it oscillates between attempts to impose hierarchical order on a virus, attempts at collaboration across scales, and attempts at sensibly reacting to fluid and unpredictable events driven by viral processes.

It is worth repeating Marston’s (2000) words:

“scale is not necessarily a preordained hierarchical framework for ordering the world – local, regional, national and global. It is instead a contingent outcome of the tensions that exist between structural forces and the practices of human [and non-human?] agents”.

As tensions are reconfigured, and as unexpected structural forces emerge, the hierarchical framework for ordering the world is proving inadequate for purposes of governance (whether of the platform economy, pandemics, taxation issues, etc…). Yet it remains persistent because alternatives are difficult to imagine, and even more difficult to socially construct.

[1] for example: Marston, S., 2000, The social construction of scale, Progress in Human Geography, 24.2, 219-42

[2] for example: Cox, K., 2013, Territory, Scale, and Why Capitalism Matters, Territories, Politics and Governance, 1.1, 46-61

[3] such as:

LoFi inspired city from my window by Michelle Brais ’21, McGill School of Urban Planning