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A city’s obsession: A commentary on the BBC’s ‘London and the Rest’

MInd the Gap: London and the Rest (Source: BBC)

The show currently on BBC2, Mind the Gap, is well worth a watch as it covers many of themes that are important to modern urban geographical studies (you can watch it on the iPlayer, but only till 17th March), notably those being taught at undergradute level, not least by me for GG2053. The first episode ‘London and the Rest’, offered a useful insight into why London is a Global City, and what this means not only for the population of London, but for the rest of the UK and indeed the world. However, despite it’s rather glossy veneer and The Apprentice-style, helicopter, Gods-eye-view aesthetics that is so ubiquitous within mainstream documentaries, the program masked just as many important issues as it did illuminate. It failed to launch the visceral critique that its presenter threatened to do at times (his conservative approach masked an obvious desire to launch a tirade against this gargantuan urban behemoth), and in so doing presented a rather polemic, but no less informative pointer to why London has become the teeming Global City it is today. So I want to map out (using the traditional scalar model for clarity’s sake) a few points of departure from the episode that will help contextualise it in the wider relevant debates about contemporary urban studies.

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Zombie Films and the Urban Condition

The rampaging hoards of urban development?

Recently, I was involved in a Twitter conversation with Allan Watson (and others) on a recent debate he had in his class about a zombie invasion, and whether it would be better for survival to live in a sprawling city or a dense urban centre (and what a great way to engender such a debate by the way!) I then took to Google to find this article, about a concerned citizen of Edmonton in Canada, who has argued that a dense urban centre would be easier to defend against a rampaging horde of brain-munching zombies than a sprawling megalopolis. Zombies love sprawl, apparently. As well as being a brilliant way to engage students about urban geography, I want to consider three of the more famous zombie films that take place in urban areas, and see what conclusions about sprawl versus density (and indeed, the broader urban condition under late capitalism) can drawn from them. So here goes… Continue reading


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Am I a gentrifier?

I’ve recently moved. I moved from a small flat to a house to accommodate a growing family, but in order to afford to do so, we had to move out of the area we were in, to a smaller town/village nearby that has a large traveller community, a significant Nepalese diaspora and soon to be homeless service men and women once the neighbouring barracks are torn down and replaced with mock town housing. As an urban geographer I’d like to think that I’m aware of some of the nuances of urban processes including gentrification, and as such, I was acutely aware that, as a middle class, white collar academic from the heartland of Surrey, I was potentially a gentrifier of the area. In upsizing for a growing family, my situation is typical of a myriad of academics who find themselves looking for alternative accommodation on an (often) meagre income, and as a result, looking in more diverse areas of ethnic communities and/or lower social-economic class.

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Time Lapse Urbanism

It seems a day does not pass without a new professional time lapse film of a city landing in my Google Rea…, Feedly or twitter stream. They all seem to follow a similar pattern; they’re shot at night and from an elevated position perhaps with a slow pan; they contain a collection of shooting angles that span highways, bridges or capture the throng of a pedestrian-heavy zone; some will have the seemingly ubiquitous (and simply annoying) tilt-shift effect (which seems to make everything look miniature) perhaps added to increase the visual metaphor of the ‘God’s eye view’ of the city engendered by such films (a good list of the best ones can be found here). Some of my particular favourites are from Dubai, Sydney, Melbourne, Quito and this rather Miévillian offering of New York. Time lapse films represent the vibrancy, complexity and gleaming aesthetics of urban life, or at least a particular kind of urban life. For me though, the increasing proliferation and professionalisation of these films is an interesting trend because it could be seen to represent a number of cross-cutting contexts and themes that have been debated in contemporary urban geography discourse of late, but also, the time lapse video could be viewed as part of urban entrepreneurial strategy.  Continue reading


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Terminator Tour, Los Angeles

Los Angeles is one of the most written about cities in the world, particularly from an urban geography perspective. Perhaps because of its magnificent sprawl, its constant mediation through film, television, music and other cultural artefacts, or its postmodern-inflected anti-liveable layout, no other city in the popular consciousness has such an imaginary that combines enigma, fascination, frustration, confusion and awe all at once (although I suspect that Shanghai, Mexico City and perhaps Johannesburg are giving it a run for its money). One of the major reasons for my fascination with it is the way it has been so scrutinised through film. Masterpieces such as Pulp Fiction, Timecode and Collateral portray the de-centred, fragmented, multiple, nonlinear and alienating characteristics of the city fascinatingly. However, for me the Terminator films (and here I refer to the first two, not the bilious and soul-destroying detritus of Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation) put Los Angeles firmly in my minds eye as a city of fascination and wonder. The films themselves do not necessarily have a narrative that ‘gets’ LA’s character, but Cameron has utilised the cityscape as a platform for thrilling action and compelling story-telling perfectly. Continue reading


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Save the South Bank’s Undercroft

The Subversive Beauty of the Undercroft

The Subversive Beauty of the Undercroft

On the 6th March this year, I tweeted about plans to redevelop the South Bank in London. The following day, the full extent of these plans were detailed. The new ‘Festival Wing‘ development includes “the under-used spaces from the undercrofts” being turned into retail outlets, and the creation of a “new riverside area for urban arts”. This translates as the reconfiguring of the iconic skateboarders ‘mecca’ (known simply as the ‘undercroft’) into a row of shops, as it is a key site of entry into the new Festival Wing. Moreover, the plan is to create a new site in which the skateboarders and graffiti artists can go, situated a few hundred metres further west, under the Hungerford Bridge (more details here).

For me, this exemplifies many of the problems associated with current urban redevelopment policies. Not only is it a case of a consumerism that is predicated upon a rarified notion of urban culture trumping a subcultural community, but the notion that the skaters (and associated activities) can be ‘rehoused’ in a designated area shows a complete lack of understanding of how such activities work, and what they can bring to a city’s cultural offerings. There are many (inter-connected) reasons why I am in such staunch opposition to this particular part of the development, but for the sake of clarity, I have delineated them into 3 key points…
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Will the ‘Real’ Gentrifiers please stand up?

Having given two lectures in a week that featured a long, detailed analysis of the creative class, it was perhaps with a little bit of cosmic timing that I came across this article that same week in The New Republic, on the ‘real’ problems of gentrification. The process of gentrification (and all it’s subsequent ‘real’ problems, more on that later) is obviously mechanistically linked to the inward migration of the ‘creative  class’ into any given area of the city – which is essentially any of those places that are ‘cool’ and ‘bohemian’ this week (which is, now, apparently, it would seem, the suburbs). On first reading of the New Republic article, the genuflection to Jacobs and her ideals rang true enough, the championing of street culture and the lamentation of homogenized urban development is clearly in the vein of the much lauded Jacobsian urbanism. However, while it was commendable that the article was highlighting the ‘sterility’ of contemporary urban aesthetics, this is where it’s derision toward gentrification was focused – this, the article claimed, is the ‘real’ problem of gentrification.  Continue reading

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