Research – Lake on “Value Magic”

February 3, 2023


The urban process encompasses vast structures and practices engaged in creating, extracting, and accumulating value in and from the urban landscape. But what is value and how does it attain its coercive power over urban life? The unreflective deployment of axiomatic assumptions regarding the source and substance of value constitutes a form of magical thinking conjuring something out of nothing and transforming an immaterial abstraction into a material force that is real in its consequences. Unpacking the concept of value reveals a contentious debate regarding the ontological status of value as a driver of the urban process. Alternative formulations posit value as intrinsic or extrinsic, objective or subjective, residing in the world or constructed in the mind, driven by universal law or spatially and temporally contingent. Transcending all such dualisms, a transactional approach drawn from Deweyan pragmatism understands value as a co-constitutive interrelation among a valuing subject, an object of valuation, and the enveloping context in which valuation occurs. The delineation of value’s ontology is fraught with political consequences for reproducing or altering the urban status quo. The move toward desired outcomes begins with articulating the foundational assumptions that underlie the value practices propelling the urban process in specific situations. Pluralizing value assumptions focuses the problem on the political question concerning whose value(s) prevail in a given situation. This redefinition shifts the focus from ameliorating current practices of extracting value to politically contesting the value commitments at work in the world.


Lake, R. W. (2023). Value magic. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space0(0).

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Robert W. Lake is Professor Emeritus at the Bloustein School

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