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Transforming Cities

Metroplex, the Transformer City

Metroplex, the Transformer City

Cities, on the surface at least, seem stable. The imposing physical materiality of concrete, steel and glass projects an endurance that is ‘built to last‘. Yet decades of urban critique have elucidated the fluidity of cities. From Walter Benjamin’s Arcades, through Cedric Price’s Fun Palace to Nigel Coates’ Ecstacity, people have been envisioning cities that are mobile, mutable and malleable. These concepts of literature, art and architecture articulate cities that are far from static; they are fluid assemblages that wax and wane in response to cultural representations, economic global processes and social practices. And one only has to take a short walk through seemingly any city today before they encounter some construction or development of some kind. This affirms that the urban landscape is constantly changing in response to development pressures, policy tweaks and financial speculation. The ‘stability’ of cities is hence only an illusion; there is far more than meets the eye… Continue reading


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#AAG2015 afterthoughts

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The Annals of American Geographers annual conference this year was in Chicago, and as usual, was a hectic 5 days of sessions, networking, partying and pontificating. The ante seemed particularly high this year, there was a heightened sense of a complex mix of emotional states; excitement (perhaps a symptom of being in such a great city), enjoyment (plenty of people seemed to have beaming smiles), anger (name-calling was heard), insecurity (lots of discussions about academic precarity) and exhaustion (no-one I spoke to seemed well-rested). I targeted a route through the sessions that was focused on my current and future research plans, namely critical urbanism, activism and subversion, and so I found myself gravitating to sessions with ‘neoliberalism’, ‘activism’, ‘urban justice’ and ‘subversion’ in the title. Some were fantastic, others less so, but that is an inevitable consequence of the AAG’s policy of excepting all abstracts. One of the major themes though that I took home was that critical urban theoretical discussions are slightly laboured, a bit tail-chasing, and while important to provide a conceptual framework for activism, still seems not as connected to ‘on the ground’ experience, marginality and radical politics as it could be. Continue reading


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Walking the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall of the new Creative Berlinᵀᴹ

The Berlin Wall of the new Creative Berlinᵀᴹ

One cannot have failed to notice the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall over the weekend. Coupled with Remembrance Sunday, it has created a milieu of memorialisation over the weekend that has invoked process of grief, global strife, hegemonic power, activism & resistance, personal loss and spirituality. There has been a lot of pontification and media chin-stroking about the geopolitical wrangling and consequences of the fall of the Wall in the lead up to the anniversary, but what has always been present in the urban studies literature is the way in which the Wall acts very much within the urban geography of Berlin. I was lucky enough to visit Berlin last month for a very interesting and enlightening Workshop on Controversies of the Creative City, and given the content of my talk (which was, in a nutshell, a 20-min dash through the themes of my book) the inventible question I always seem to be asked is ‘what is the alternative’? If neoliberal capitalism is unjust, damaging and polarising, just what is the answer?** Given that we were in the city that symbolically saw the collapse of one viable ‘alternative’ it seemed like an apt arena in which to have the debate. With the workshop discussions pinging around my thoughts, I took it upon myself to practice what I so often champion which is the act of drifting à la The Situationists, something which can (can) begin to inculcate a more creative city. But of course, this is neigh-on impossible in the contemporary Creative City, so using the old line of the Wall (which is of course now, a recognised tourist route – Berliner Mauerweg, the Berlin Wall Trail), I walked from the SouthEast of the city centre to the North, keeping as close to the line as I could. This practice has been done elsewhere far more vividly that I ever could by Will Self (the flâneur of our time), and my photography skills have a lot to be desired (to say the least – click on the photos to see a larger version). But what follows is a photographic essay which speaks to the changing urban condition in Berlin from a city divided along geopolitical and revanchist lines, but which now has perhaps lost the former in favour of a more global city-inculcated version of the latter.  Continue reading


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Harvey on Urban Entrepreneurialism

Another quote that I seem to be going back to a lot when talking about the shift from urban managerialism to urban entrepreneurialism and city marketing…

“Many of the innovations and investments designed to make particular cities more attractive as cultural and consumer centres have quickly been imitated elsewhere, thus rendering any competitive advantage within a system of cities ephemeral. How many successful convention centres, sports stadia, disney-worlds, harbour places and spectacular shopping malls can there be? Success is often short-lived or rendered moot by parallel or alternative innovations arising elsewhere. Local coalitions have no option, given the coercive laws of competition, except to keep ahead of the game thus engendering leap-frogging innovations in life styles, cultural forms, products and service mixes, even institutional and political forms if they are to survive. The result is a stimulating if often destructive maelstrom of urban-based cultural, political, production and consumption innovations. It is at this point that we can identify and albeit subterranean but nonetheless vital connection between the rise of urban entrepreneurialism and the post-modern penchant for design of urban fragments rather than comprehensive urban planning, for ephemerality and eclecticism of fashion and style rather than the search for enduring values, for quotation and fiction rather than invention and function, and, finally, for medium over message and image over substance”. (Harvey, 1989: 12-13)


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De Certeau on Walking

As I’m currently finishing off my first monograph, it’s customary of course to (re)read some of the great texts that formulated the ideas of the book in the first place. So I thought I’d start a blog series that block quoted some of the prose that has inspired/is inspiring the book writing. They won’t be in the final edit, but are worthy of note given their foundational status to the ideas of the book. So to start off, a piece from De Certeau’s classic, Walking in the City (the full pdf of which can be found here):

“It is true that the operations of walking on can be traced on city maps in such a way as to transcribe their paths (here well-trodden, there very faint) and their trajectories (going this way and that). But these thick or thin curves only refer, like words, to the absence of what has passed by. Surveys of routes miss what was: the act of passing by. The operation of walking, ‘wandering or window shopping’, that is, the activity of the passer-by, is transformed into points that draw a totalizing and reversible line on a map. They allow us to grasp only a relic set in the nowhen of a surface of projection. Itself visible, it has the effect of making invisible the operation that made it possible. These fixations constitute procedures for forgetting. The trace left behind is substituted for the practice. It exhibits the (voracious) property that the geographical system has of being able to transform action into legibility, but in doing so, it causes a way of being in the world to be forgotten”. (De Certeau 1984: 161).


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Who Framed Roger Rabbit as urbanist critique

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Doom v Rabbit or Moses v Jacobs?

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) is no doubt a classic film. It was technologically innovate, and spliced the detective film-noir genre with the comic, slapstick animation of classic ‘toons of the 1960s and 70s. Truly, a masterpiece of Hollywood cinema, and if you are not familiar with the film, you can read a great review of it here. One aspect though that often goes unnoticed is the urbanist narrative that runs through the film’s plot. It is set in 1947, and essentially, ‘Judge Doom’, the evil protagonist of the film, is plotting to destroy ‘Toontown’ (the suburb of Los Angeles where the animated characters live) and replace with a freeway. The film therefore is very much a critique on the ‘freeway-ization’ of LA, with overt glorification of the city’s transit-orientated past. Such a mantra is signposted early on in the film with the main hero ‘Eddie’ sitting on the back of a trolley car proclaiming, “Who needs a car in L.A.? We got the best public transportation system in the world!”

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The Americana, transit-orientated history depicted in the film

In his famous villain’s speech where he reveals his dastardly plan to the heroes, he claims that the freeways will revolutionise LA, and create a vast automobile-based city that will “be beautiful”. You can see his speech in the video below.

This short segment highlights one the film’s most overt social critiques, namely that of the automobile dominated city that Los Angeles had become in 1988, and still is to this day (relatedly, you can read about my day-long trip around LA by car in search of the film locations of The Terminator films here, and my ode to UK motorways here). With this narrative in mind, it becomes extremely obvious that ‘Judge Doom’ and Toontown are simply comic metaphors for the classic urbanism argument of ‘walkability’, most readily articulated by the battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Continue reading

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