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Cities as Artefacts of Mobilities

Book review of: Vincent Kaufmann, Rethinking the city. Urban dynamics and motility.
Paul Lewis
Bibliographical reference

Vincent Kaufmann. 2011. Rethinking the city. Urban dynamics and motility. EPFL Press, Lausanne.

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1This book is more about cities than about cities and transportation. The ambition of the author is no less than to rethink the city. In “Re-thinking mobility”, published in 2002, Kaufmann considered how speed gains provided by transportation could bring about social change. In this new book, “Rethinking the city”, Kaufmann continues this exploration, as cities are going through profound changes triggered by the speed revolution of transportation (and communications) systems, described as a “mobility turn” in the words of John Urry. These increases in speed have had significant impacts on cities: Kaufmann defines and analyzes the city based on mobility because “the mobility of individuals, goods and ideas is at the heart of the global changes that are affecting all aspects of economic, political and social life” (p. 1). This book is an essential contribution to our understanding of the development of cities.

2The book is divided in seven short chapters, arranged in three parts. In a first part, the author discusses the main concepts. The first chapter, “Rethinking urban theory”, is an exploration of theoretical and conceptual tools that enable us to understand the city. As the author reminds us, the ingredients (centrality, morphology, lifestyles) that constitute a region have changed; or to be more precise, it is their relationships that have changed. Which means that we need new theoretical approaches to understand the city, especially to fit in mobility. In chapter 2, “Defining mobility”, Kaufmann re-examines mobility, as a concept of change and movement, which links both the social and the spatial dimensions. Mobility is often seen as a positive social phenomenon. But mobility remains ambiguous. It is therefore necessary to better define mobility. Kaufmann reconceptualize mobility around three main ideas: field of possibilities, aptitude for movement (motility), and movement. To complete his theoretical examination, he revisits the history of research on mobility, divided among many disciplines, which have different views on how to define mobility. He insists on the need for an approach that better integrates the different perspectives on mobility, supported by several arguments, the first one being that we need to differentiate movement and change, or mobility. In this chapter, the author also insists on the significance of motility, a central concept in Kaufmann’s writings. Motility deals with “the conditions of access necessary for utilizing an offer” (p. 41); or, more straightforwardly, the skills required by an actor (individual or collective) so he can use what is offered by the city and so that his plans and/or projects can become reality. The third chapter of this segment consists in a description of the city, based on mobility. The goal is to examine how urban spaces accommodate the mobility capacities of urban actors. The chapter ends with a provisional definition of city: “a city is characterized by its diversity and density, which is the materialization of the motilities of past actors and which defines its receptiveness to today’s motilities” (p. 63). This definition is tested in the next three chapters.

3The second part analyses motility, either individual (chapter 4), or collective (chapter 5), as well as artefacts (chapter 6). In the fourth chapter, Kaufmann examines the individual motilities that contribute to the construction of the city, on the basis of his empirical research. He shows how the urban environment can impose limitations on the plans and/or projects of an individual. The fifth chapter continues this discussion, this time with collective motilities. The goal is to better understand the decision-making processes that make urban projects possible; the focus here is on private actors. Private and public actors have different perspectives on motility, the former having the benefit of more latitude than what the latter have access to, as far as motility is concerned. Nonetheless, public actors have the capacity to transform the city, to accommodate a large spectrum of projects, but to do so they need to succeed in coordinating (between public actors, and with private actors). In chapter 6, “Artefacts and motility”, the author analyzes the material dimensions of cities, mainly urban morphology and infrastructures (that result from past decisions), to accommodate projects, either collective or individual. The empirical evidence presented here is particularly interesting, as it shows how important artefacts can be, to define the receptiveness of an environment to projects and, as the author has shown, in defining the projects themselves.

4The last part, which consists of only one chapter, is an exploration of facts regarding mobility and the governance of cities. This final chapter is in a sense a summary of the main propositions of the book more than a conclusion. It articulates ten theories on what constitutes a city, on what are the ingredients that contributes to the urban context. Of the ten theses, the last one is probably the most stimulating. It states: “A city’s policy is naturally one of mobility” (thesis 10, p. 141). It is therefore understandable that the chapter ends with an argument about regulation and governance. Kaufmann for instance argues that to re-establish the state’s authority on the transformation of cities, the motility of actors has to be regulated.

5There is a lot to like about this book. Kaufmann has succeeded in writing a highly readable, stimulating manuscript, inspiring, challenging, even provocative at times, on cities, as they are profoundly impacted by transportation (and also by communications). The main interest of the book lies undoubtedly in the dialog between theories and empirical evidence. Kaufmann mentions at the start of the book that there were pitfalls he wanted to avoid, one of them being the “absence of tension between theoretical reflection and empirical research” (p. 5). And he succeeded in avoiding this pitfall. The book is aimed at developing the tools that we need to better understand mobility, and motility, issues, as these impact cities. Empirical results are not there to justify theoretical constructs, but to contribute to a better understanding of cities, and how they can develop.

6We have to revisit the concepts that we employ to understand cities. More than anything else, we need to build a richer approach to the concept of mobility, which is without doubt the main contribution of this book. The book deals mainly with European cities, but the discussion is also useful for North American cities, as the conceptual tools advanced by the author are relevant for all cities. The book contains many noteworthy photographs, in black and white, by Fanny Steib and Jerôme Chenal. The reader will be grateful that the author has decided to include these photographs, which are not direct illustrations of the thesis, but nonetheless complement the text, contributing to a deepening of our comprehension.

7To conclude, this is a remarkable book, to help us rethink the city, organized by mobility and motility, and urban governance, to regulate motility. A should-read, for sure.

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Electronic reference

Paul Lewis, Cities as Artefacts of MobilitiesArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Book Reviews, Online since 28 October 2013, connection on 28 September 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis is Professor at the Institute of Urban Planning and Dean for Research at the Faculty of Planning at the University of Montreal. His areas of interest are urban development, real estate, transportation, land use, planning, and management of transport infrastructures. Email:

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