Sociologie urbaine

De la ville à l’urbain émietté : au-delà du dualisme centre-périphérie

From cities to crumbling urbanism : beyond centre-periphery dualism

European Sociological Association 10th Conference


In Geneva, Switzerland, 8th september 2011


RS 23 – Bringing Lefebvre sociology back in urban studies

Hervé Marchal, Senior Lecturer, Jean-Marc Stébé, University Professor



Our aim is to show how we can better understand the current urbanised world from a re-examination of the notion of centrality, a notion defined by Henri Lefebvre (1972) in his work The right to the city . To put it more succinctly, we will examine the idea of centre/periphery dualism as described in Lefebvre’s sociological works, from research carried out in the suburbs of a city in the east of France with a population of 350,000. Is the centre/periphery dualism of industrialised cities still pertinent today in order to understand urbanised and scattered modern cities ?


1/ Centre/periphery opposition in urban society

One of Lefebvre’s most important ideas, visible throughout his writings dedicated to cities, is that of the complete urbanisation of society. He demonstrated, almost at the same time as Melvin Webber (1996) how the conventional city, the historic city, had made way for an urban reality. He predicted the fragmentation and decline of the historic city making way for a new reality “urbanism”. From that moment on, the industrial cities of the 60’s developed into “unsightly cities, non-urban, built-up areas, conglomerates, ‘conurbations’” (Lefebvre, 1970, p. 24) and forecast an unprecedented turning point in human history. Lefebvre theorised that industrialisation would decline; then, and most importantly, he predicted the emergence of an “urbanised society”, in other words, a domination of “urbanism”, not only in the rich and highly industrialised cities but also over the whole of the planet.

What Lefebvre predicted was an excessive urbanisation of conventional cities, completely distinct from the countryside. In other words, he foresaw that conventional cities would stretch beyond their limits and spill over into ever-expanding areas. He compared this phenomenon of urbanisation to a real “explosion” of the city as such.

Urbanism, as defined by Lefebvre, meant a way of thinking about what would happen to the conventional city. It was a concept which did not describe an actual reality, but a future reality ; that is to say, urbanism was on the horizon. According to him, this reality, which did not as yet exist, referred to a world where the fact of living in a town, concentrated in a restricted space, concerned an ever-increasing number of people. The higher the number of individuals living in cities around the world, the more the city, as we understand it today, would disappear and be replaced by, what the geographer, Michel Lussault (2007 ; 2009) termed as, “generalised urbanism”.

Lefebvre believed that urban areas would continue to be structured according to the dualism of the centre/periphery. The city centre would be reserved for the well-off ; reserved for the decision-makers, the managers and those who have the power to determine society’s fate. Here, one would find the corridors of power, decision-making centres like the headquarters of firms, banks and state administrations. This meant that, if the decision-making centres, the centres of wealth, power, information and knowledge were concentrated in the city centre, then all those who did not take part in these activities would find themselves living on the periphery. The periphery, therefore, would accommodate the less affluent fringes of the population. It would also be the site for factories, warehouses and transport routes.

Lefebvre was concerned about how easily the majority would have access to the centre of this new urbanised world, allowing them to have, what he called “the right to the city”. Lefebvre argued for the struggle against segregation between the centre and the periphery. This segregation was as apparent between areas (centre/periphery) as between individuals (rich/poor). This segregation was therefore spatial as well as social.

In fact, Lefebvre showed that there were strong links between, on the one hand, the city centre with its living spaces for the rich, such as the old, prestigious Haussmann buildings and, on the other hand, the periphery and the living spaces for the poor, such as council estates (in France, these are known as HLM) (Stébé, Marchal, 2010).

By inventing the notion of “centrality”, Lefebvre wanted to put an end to the dualism of the centre/periphery which is indissociable from the rich/poor divide. Inventing centrality was inventing a new type of city where everyone had the right to the best that urban life could offer and to all the facilities that this urban life could provide. Centrality restored the right to socialise and assemble ; it restored the right to live, to adapt oneself to the surroundings, to do what one wanted with one’s living space ; it restored the need for conviviality, sharing and defining spaces beyond what politicians and town planners decreed.


2/ The emergence of a multitude of centralities

But, centrality, as envisaged by Lefebvre, never materialised (Cortes, 2009). In other words, the inequalities between the centre and the periphery persisted (Marchal, Stébé, 2010). The right to the city centre, legitimate seat of power and culture, didn’t apply to everyone in this urbanised world, although, in France, major political decisions were made to reduce the division between the centre and the periphery. In spite of forty years of urban and city policies aimed at piecing together the separate parts of the cities and bringing the centre and the periphery together, social and territorial divisions have not disappeared.

But, in spite of these inequalities, it would be impossible to understand the current situation if we continued to study urban reality only from the binary and simplistic idea of centre/periphery opposition. In fact, the city, which has now “exploded”, as Lefebvre put it, is now made up of a multitude of centralities . These are now part of the gradual diffusion of the city ; the centralities form part of an ever-extending urban front, far from the historic boundaries of the city (Bassand, 2007). This new urban city is scattered and is spreading out, which is the result of the amount of construction of numerous housing estates, shopping centres, university campuses, hospital complexes and research establishments.

Our theory is that in today’s urban society, the inhabitants of suburban housing estates choose where they live not because of CENTRALITY as defined by Lefebvre, but because of CENTRALITIES which have sprung up everywhere in this scattered “urban society”.


3/ Centrality as a basis for living choices

Following research into the way of life of the inhabitants of an average-sized French city (Nancy) we want to show that the choice of living in the suburbs can be explained by research into the centrality available in the suburbs. In other words, life in a house in the suburbs, can be better explained by the fact that periphery does not only mean on the outskirts because one can also find all the conveniences of the centrality of the city centre . For example, there are shops, schools and leisure centres.

Centrality in the plural as seen in the suburbs is far from the notion of centrality as defined by Lefebvre. But, even in the plural, suburban centrality indicates that the inhabitants of suburban housing estates also spend their lives, in one way or another, around social hubs, population density and urban continuity. In this sense, the existence of a multitude of centralities does not totally invalidate Lefebvre’s concept ; whether we talk about suburban centrality or the centrality of the city centre, the common factors are social life, the amount of cultural activity and access to urban facilities. In our opinion, therefore, suburban centrality has common areas, points of convergence, with the centrality of the city centre.

Our research, which was based in part on the living choices of the inhabitants of housing estates, has demonstrated that the attraction of a house in the suburbs can be explained by the existence of centralities.
In other words, centrality, which may seem in opposition to the periphery, would in fact be the “support” mechanism, the framework upon which decisions on living choices are made. Centrality should therefore be seen not only as a spatial support but also as a social support, making sense of the choice of having a house in the suburbs.

Going back to Lefebvre, one must remember that centrality means, not only proximity to the city centre with all its advantages, but also, in a broader sense, having access to shops, jobs, health centres, cultural activities and even education, all of which can be found on the periphery. Taking all the dimensions of centrality into consideration, allows us not to fix on only one aspect of the daily lives of suburban dwellers. Their living choice is the result of a compromise between this or that centrality. In other words, suburbanites look at the many different aspects of their centralities (the quality of education, distance from the workplace, accessibility to shops, environment) in order to justify their choice to themselves and to others.

If one accepts the idea that suburbanites are looking for centrality then we must put the theory that they are seeking harmony with nature into perspective. (Corajoud, 2004). Our point of view is that these people are more inclined to look for a countrified décor, rather than total immersion in a rural setting. More than a proximity to country life, it is the accessibility to centrality (shops, schools, cinemas, jobs) that motivates their choice. In fact, their main concern is not being left out of dynamic urban life; rather, they want to be an integral part of it, totally integrated into the life of the area. Having a house in the suburbs allows people to benefit from the assets centrality has to offer as well as satisfying the desire of owning one’s own house and piece of land, with a countrified décor (Raymond et al., 2001).

Bearing in mind the importance of centrality in suburban life, leads us to re-examine the very existence of the suburb (Paquot, 2006) acknowledging the fact that centrality in today’s “urban society” is no longer attached, as Lefebvre thought, to the city centre, but is spread out into numerous urban niches, which are spatially farther and farther from the city centre. These urban niches are popping up all over the place even in the farthest reaches of the suburbs. In other words, centrality in an “urban society” is not polycentric in our opinion, like in American edge cities, but far more scattered into a multitude of centralities : there is a centrality in scattered urbanism ; there is scattered urbanism in centrality.

Therefore, in today’s “urban society”, do peripheral areas or suburban areas, in the strictest sense of the words, still exist ? Surely, this shows that a study of suburban areas in terms of centrality renders the dualistic premise opposing the centre/periphery inadequate : the centre can become the periphery as much as the periphery can become the centre. In this respect, isn’t the development of extended urban areas in the United States (Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston) an urban model, where there is no countryside, where there are no suburbs or town centres but where centrality can be seen everywhere ? (Abbott, 1987 ; 2001 ; Maumi, 2008) Doesn’t this emerging model help us to better understand the evolution of suburbia and that of ‘urban society’ in France today ?

If, to a great extent, this is true, then it follows that the centrality of the city centre in the Lefebvre sense, still exists and is still pertinent in Paris, as demonstrated by the sociologists, Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot (1989 ; 2004 ; 2007). In this sense, even if, in many ways, urban society challenges the idea of centre/periphery dualism, it is still true that this dualism hasn’t completely disappeared. Therefore, one should also examine the process of gentrification, that is to say, the return to the city centres of the upwardly mobile, upper-middle classes (“bourgeois bohemian” – “bobos”, “yuppies”, “guppies”) (Bidou-Zachariasen, 2003), who consider the attraction of the city centre essential to their existence (Stébé, Marchal, 2009).

In conclusion, doesn’t the emergence of centralities all over “urban society” result in a continuum, with the centre and the periphery as its two poles, only to finally appear as reasonably rare situations ?



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