Consuming Space: How to Foster Pro-social Transformations?


This session takes a renewed look at the consumption of space, both in its tangible, material forms (geographically “natural” or built) and social (personal, public, or symbolic) aspects. Urban environments are both a place of consumption and a spatio-market object that needs to be managed and governed effectively with marketing tools. Developing new conceptual research on the consumption, structure, and meaning of place can provide manifold means to foster pro-social place transformations to enhance sustainable communities.

Statement of the Problem

The surge in populations residing in urban areas has led the United Nations, among others, to shift its focus to the new development issues of emerging megacities and adopt a spatial focus. Problems include street congestion, housing crises, costly transport, employment, waste, and pollution. Climate change increasingly places the natural and built environments at odds, as displacements from natural disasters greatly complicate the quest for sustainability.

As the proportion of the urban population is expected to increase by 66% to 6.3 billion by 2050 (U.N. 2010), city space becomes more and more valuable. Increased density often reverses past urban/suburban class divisions. Though wealth often dominates central city districts, the poor and middle class ethnicities are pushed outward and consequently crowded suburbs become more diverse (Lacy 2016). New issues loom as consumers seek new residential amenities in emerging “edge cities” and “exburbs” (Taylor 2011).

While central city spaces are among the most economically valuable places, the wealth of the built environment enormously depends upon public funding to sustain urban infrastructure. Urban development is thus a highly contested domain among residents, developers, investors, politicians, and others. Suburban sprawl creates similarly related spatial problems. Businesses, consumers, government, and civic institutions each attempt to manage complex spatial socio-economic relations. From the daily negotiations between diverse social groups in changing neighborhoods (Zwick & Ozalp, 2010) to the dynamics behind the production and consumption of dwelling spaces as diverse as gated communities (Caldeira, 2000; Le Goix, 2005) and public housing partnerships that foster urban revitalization (Motley & Perry, 2013), urban space has clearly become a prime arena of twenty-first-century political contention.

“Spatial consumption” resists materiality traps (Burroughs & Rindfleisch 2012) since it is experiential and often ludic. As consumers “inhabit” and “traverse” places and spatially “local” attachments build community values. Attention needs to be given to new means of enhancing spatial consumption and meaning. Improving space can enhance public wellbeing, reduce urban stressors, and build social equity among different community groups (Saatcioglu & Ozanne 2013). City squares, parks, and neighborhoods are central to fostering collective place identities and the “feeling of being at home” that reduces class and ethnic tensions (Al-Sabouni 2016).


As Soja (2009: 22) notes, society and space dialectically co-constitute each other, “social processes shape and explain geographies” at the same time that “geographies shape and explain social processes and social action.” The “spatial turn” in social research includes insights from organization studies (Dale & Burrell 2008; Warf & Arias, 2009), urban sociology (Gieryn 2000; Lefebvre 1991; Soja 2011) architecture (Dunham-Jones & Williamson 2008), and destination branding (Greenberg 2008). Consumer studies have advanced understanding of the negotiations of the ideologies of “public” spaces (Bradford & Sherry, 2015; Visconti et al. 2010), examined how space provides sites for utopian praxis (Chatzidakis, Maclaran, & Bradshaw 2012), and considered the “managed materialities” of retail sevicescapes (Kozinets et al. 2004).

Place associations are highly meaningful to national, regional, and ethic identities. Space is no mere “backdrop” of consumption, however. New studies and methods employ spatial cues and configurations as key variables. Perceived familiarity and attraction to place affects consumer comfort and security perceptions. Location matters. “Where things happen” becomes an important perceptual variable to account for the “how” and explain the “why” of consumption (Warf & Arias 2009). Focusing on spatial dimensions of markets, such as territoriality and scale, leads to fundamentally different perspectives of market system functioning (Castilhos, Dolbec & Veresiu 2016).

New spatial perspectives are emerging.   Natural green spaces are demonstrated to increase performance of memory and learning tasks (Oishi 2014). Artistic expression enhances space through celebratory murals, national monuments, or theater and music events, promoting civility and a sense of communitas among those in close physical proximity (Visconti et al. 2010). A small group of protesters camping out in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park near Wall Street ignited a national and global movement with lasting repercussions. More prosaically, “Pokémon Go” repurposes public spaces by providing a means to imaginatively engage consumers for simple ludic purposes.

Our session goal is to (A) expand such spatial concepts beyond areas previously considered and (B) better articulate the multidimensional and overlapping public concerns of spaces as common-pool resources to transform behavior. For example, spatial transformations from New York’s bike sharing program attractively repurposed streets and set in motion forces that radically restructured transport modes, promoted physical and artistic recreation, and created “walkability” to improve social interaction and health (Sadik-Kahn & Solomonow 2016). Such efforts, in turn, reduce crime and spur economic development to result in a better social ethos of generalized reciprocity and trust (Putnam 2000). Other spaces, such as city community gardens, make pro-social values even more fully apparent.

Research Questions and Agenda

We inquire about the inclusiveness/exclusiveness of public space and place and question their evolving dynamics around the global. How do issues such as locality, social proximity, the emancipation of space, or preserving natural scenic places yield positive effects for consumers? Can places be meaningfully transformed to aid consumption and raise social capital? Do attractive public places help people behave more generously and cooperatively? How do dominant market actors subjugate and contributed to spatial segregation and social exclusion? What effect do “displacements” and related problems of urban redesign have on consumers? How do stakeholders with divergent goals equitably negotiate space?

An international trans-disciplinary team will be sought to examine, catalogue, categorize, and evaluate spatial concepts. The cross-cultural examination of the issues will assist new and grounded perspectives to theorizing. This work will facilitate new means to assess space, for example, new digital mapping tools or research methodologies will be considered to assist spatial visualization.

Pre-conference Activities

To expand place-based consumer theorizing before the conference, the team will undertake new means to identify and classify spatial similarities and differences. The overarching goal is to enhance pro-social consumption and assist the process of designing positive place transformations.

Step 1: The team members will be asked to choose one or more contexts of urban transformation and inquire about the following topics:

  • Geographic characteristics (e.g. location, scale, built and natural environment);
  • Socio-historic characteristics (e.g. evolution of patterns of occupation);
  • Nature of the transformation (e.g. urban renovation, civic occupation).
  • Main Stakeholders and their interests (e.g. consumers, dwellers, producers)
  • Roles of stakeholders on the transformation and negotiations that take place in space

There is no restriction concerning the scale or the types of spaces of interest. Contexts can range from commercial to leisure, to residential areas, from public to private spaces, from fixed to mobile spaces (e.g. transportation systems), from concrete to representational spaces, and from small to big spaces.

Step 2: The team will examine methodologies and classify spaces to find common contexts, dynamics and possible research questions.

Step 3: Each team member will prepare a short visual presentation (e.g. video, mapping, pictures, etc.).

Step 4: The team will collectively develop the daily conference schedule. The final publication products are intended to develop multidisciplinary perspectives and promote guidelines useful to innovative transformations of space, relevant to urban planners, architects, city planners, green designers, sustainability entrepreneurs, NGOs, city branders, artists, and transportation commissioners.

To assist preconference team recruiting and selection efforts, applicants should please provide:

  • Background research related to this area, including publication citations
  • Short statement as to what triggers interest in this domain
  • Context and desired “spaces and places” of interest to study
  • Theoretical approaches of interest, if any
  • Methodological approaches of interest, if any
  • Future research interests

Please contact the corresponding track chairs for questions about this track:

Mark J. Kay,

Montclair State University

Rodrigo B. Costilhos

Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos

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