An old axiom in urban sociology considers space as a reflection of society. Yet life, and cities, are always too complex to be captured in axioms. Thus the close relationship between space and society, between cities and history, is more a matter of expression than of reflection. The social matrix expresses itself into the spatial pattern through a dialectical interaction that opposes social contradictions and conflicts as trends fighting each other in an endless supersession. The result is not the coherent spatial form of an overwhelming social logic—be it the capitalist city, the pre-industrial city or the ahistorical utopia—but the tortured and disorderly, yet beautiful patchwork of human creation and suffering.footnote1

Cities are socially determined in their forms and in their processes. Some of their determinants are structural, linked to deep trends of social evolution that transcend geographic or social singularity. Others are historically and culturally specific. And all are played out, and twisted, by social actors that impose their interests and their values, to project the city of their dreams and to fight the space of their nightmares.

Sociological analysis of urban evolution must start from the theoret-ical standpoint of considering the complexity of these interacting trends in a given time–space context. The last twenty years of urban sociology have witnessed an evolution of thinking (including my own) from structuralism to subjectivism, then to an attempt, however imperfect, at integrating both perspectives into a structural theory of urban change that, if a label rooted in an intellectual tradition is necessary, I would call Marxian, once history has freed the Marxian theoretical tradition from the terrorist tyranny of Marxism-Leninism.

I intend to apply this theoretical perspective to the understanding of the fundamental transformations that are taking place in West European cities at the end of the second millennium. In order to understand such transformations we have to refer to major social trends that are shaking up the foundations of our existence: the coming of a technological revolution centred on information technologies, the formation of a global economy, and transition to a new society, the informational society, that—without ceasing to be capitalist or statist—replaces the industrial society as the framework of social institutions.

But this analysis has to be at the same time general and structural (if we accept that a historical transformation is under way) and specific to a given social and cultural context, such as Western Europe (with all due acknowledgement to its internal differentiation).

In recent years, a new trademark has become popular in urban theory: capitalist restructuring. Indeed it is most relevant to pinpoint the fundamental shift in policies that both governments and corporations have introduced in the 1980s to steer capitalist economies out of their 1970s crises. Yet more often than not, the theory of capitalist restructuring has missed the specificity of the process of transformation in each area of the world, as well as the variation of the cultural and political factors that shape the process of economic restructuring, and ultimately determine its outcome.

Thus the deindustrialization processes of New York and London take place at the same time that a wave of industrialization of historic proportions occurs in China and in the Asian Pacific. The rise of the informal economy and of urban dualism takes place in Los Angeles, as well as in Madrid, Miami, Moscow, Bogota and Kuala Lumpur, but the social paths and social consequences of such similarly structural processes are so different as to induce a fundamental variegation of each resulting urban structure.