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Reflexive Creativity in Urban Politics?

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Montaigne Gallery, Shanghai

Many years ago I coined the phrase Urban Subversion that began as an interest in parkour as a creative act of urban re-appropriation. It soon became apparent as I looked for additional ways in which people were interacting with the city in novel and innovate ways, there was a small, but increasing swath of people who were actively reconfiguring their urban environment for sometimes playful, sometimes anti-hegemonic, and sometimes subversive, but always in creative and innovate ways. Nearly 5 years hence, Maria Daskalaki and I have (finally) managed to get the ideas and musings we had about Urban Subversions all those years ago published. In the intervening period, I have witnessed (first hand through my travels and via the relentless march toward information-domination of Twitter and social media) the boom of these kinds of creative engagements become popularised and in some cases, accepted as legitimate and formal urban development policies. The latest piece to confirm this was the ever-excellent PopUpCity claiming that local cultural and creative urban practices have ‘gone global’ (something which I championed last year).

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Practising urban diversity

I’ve been reading Sharon Zukin’s latest book, and it is a stark reminder of the plight of current urbanism. While focused solely on New York, the sentiments hold true for a number of other cities around the world (but by no means all). In criticizing Jacobs, a bold move it has to said, she outlines the fact that ‘authenticity’ in cities that Jacobs so vehemently fought for is as manufactured and socially-constructed as the gentrifying forces of modernism she rallied against. The desire for bohemia and the ‘next cool place’ creates streetscapes that are a certain kind of authenticity that is sanitised. (I’m slightly paraphrasing and using a more verbose vernacular to highlight the point and because I haven’t finished the book yet!)

The point is well made, and it struck me that diversity, which Jacobs herself recognised as so vital to cities has become part of the political urban rhetoric. Economic development is predicated on a diverse provision of goods and services, mono-industrial cities rarely survive one crisis of capitalism, let alone several. Social diversity, again is considered an inherently good thing, indeed one of my blog posts argues along similar lines. Having a good mix of races, religions, peoples and ideas, if you purport to a Jacobs reading of urbanism is a healthy diagnostic of city status. But having considered this along side the often fractious schisms that occur in these areas, increased diversity seems less inviting. Sure, surrounding yourself with like-minded people can breed isolation, individualism and and increase in idiosyncratic values (sometimes to the point of excess). But the opposite of this (heterophiliy) is not always a panacea; in fact, it can be equally as deleterious.

The mere presence of diversity then, it seems, is not enough. The important conceptual ingredient here is practice. Having just finished a paper with some colleagues on the nuances of network practices (including not-working as well as networking), the message there is as pertinent to urban diversity as it is to economic geography. Having a wide variety of people and ideas in one place can only be productive if the practice of networking, or the relationships that occur within that diversity is constructive. The theory is that a more diverse population will create a wider variety of progress, innovation or community. The most innovate companies are those which create heterophilic networks and nurture the innovative thinking that arises (even if it doesn’t work). This is most evident in the disruptive innovation theories.

So perhaps the celebration of diversity should be directed at the constructive practice of connecting diverse groups of people together. Cross-Community groups are an example of these kinds of initiatives, and on a much larger more political scale, we saw the mutli-faith protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo coming together to enact political change. Cities will become (indeed, they are becoming) more crowded – that is a fact that we cannot ignore. As such they will inevitably become more diverse with in-migration and the increase ease of mobility (the current program on BBC2 ‘The Chinese Are Coming‘ is a good, palatable example of how globalisation, mobility and the spread of capitalism is creating more diverse urban populations). So surely it is of more benefit to focus on the action and practice of relationships (and championing models of good practice), then the presence of diversity itself?


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My kind of town: Ode to the crucible of modernism, Chicago

Chicago sparkles as it spills into the Lake

Stepping off the Loop onto street level in Chicago is an attempt to navigate through one of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe‘s dreams. The canyons of steel, glass and concrete are striation par excellence, linearising not only the spatiality around you, but your psychological satnav. Left, right, forward or back, but that’s it. Pick one.

Drifting across the city was a time of exploration and dérive, but also one of information gathering of a historical nature. The remit was to analyse the nuances of the colossal economic expansion of the city in the late nineteenth century, taking me to experts of the city at the time. The exchanges I had with urban historians, Chicago professors and museum curators were astoundingly mesmeric, with the stories of the stockyards, grain elevators, meat markets, political corruption and social deprivation bringing a further dimension to the already contested cityscape that I was conducting in my mind. Everyone has a pre-conception of city that is lodged in their psyche which is attacked the moment they step onto it’s concrete. Mine of Chicago was shaped by Hollywood and a previous fleeting visit in 2005. How much you allow the city’s forces of the here and now to change that pre-conception is dependent on your ability and desire to let them, and I was a willing recipient. Perhaps it was the romanticism that was being narrated to me through the historical texts and the conversations I was having, but it juxtaposed the city in on itself like a Latourian handkerchief, creating an urban tapestry that has an exposure and rawness that seductively encourages a sleazy voyeurism. No layering or concealment in this city, Chicago seems to lay its cards on the table for all to see and participate in.

Recta-linear form; up and across. Repeat.

Spots of neo-classicism among the herd of brutalists

Pounding the freakishly large ‘sidewalks’ unidirectionally for prolonged periods is anything but disorientating, unless you look up and suddenly get attacked by vertigo. The city’s architecture intermittently brutalises your view, decorating it with glimpses of individuality and whispers of a prosperous and yet multiplicitous past, before slamming the door shut with a curtain of black, rekindling those modernist lucidities that the neo-liberal city has perfected so wickedly. The sparkling yet sparse backdrop of Lake Michigan serves to catalyse such brutality; the abruptness of the city’s limit at the lake front could be mistaken for a city teetering on the edge of cliff, straining to get the best view whilst trying to keep its balance. Only the delightfully tacky Navy Pier juts out into the lake to stabilize the teetering city.

Aon, Chicago's architectural monolith

A real life Transformer, Metroplex in fact.

The tyranny of horizontal striation that is the feature of the grid city is exacerbated by the it’s second dimension of verticality. Up or down. Pick one. Up into the stratosphere to get a view of the city that De Certeau intended, with a pane of glass separating you from the ant-infested street below. Hovering above the city 100 floors up gives you a sense of perspective that is rarely matched in European cities, and it seems the city is beating it’s aesthetic chest hardest when gazed upon from above. It is a bar chart of modernist towers plotting Burgess to the exactitude that would get you an A* in your GCSEs, and makes no excuses. Only Trump’s latest addition to the forest seems ridiculously anachronistic and out-of-place.

Nothing. Or Everything. Or both

Emerging from underneath the city, bleary-eyed and confused

Down underneath the plateau of homogeneous concrete, and you reach the CTA’s subterranean dot-the-dot puzzle, for 5 year olds. The obvious spokes emanating from the Loop are as conspicuous as the lack of any lines to the East (or the bottom of the CTA map), as anything going in that direction would risk puncturing Lake Michigan. It’s simplicity is matched only by its uselessness in the face of a automotive-imbued society; the 1 hour malodorous trip from airport to Downtown is testament to that. Certain lines will criss-cross the loop underneath, with little regard for the circular precision with which it was originally designed. But the trains on these lines are then belched up from the underworld outside Downtown, and careen dangerously close to the second and third floor windows of the hapless urbanites unlucky enough to live adjacent to these harbingers of creaky metal and glass.

Unlike other vertical carnivores such as New York, Hong Kong, Sydney, Shanghai or even Frankfurt, Chicago’s surly attitude mixed with a pertinacious prevalence suggests that it uniqueness is found in its ubiquity of modernist thought. It’s unabashed narrative of brutalism and its unashamed exposure of all things modern (included in that is the general mocking of all things that attempt to escape the straight-jacket of linearity), Chicago stands out proud (or should that be churlish) among the Alpha cities of the world. For that reason alone, it would be make a great urban geography field trip destination.


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The Urban Communicate: From T-Mobile to the Love Police via the Reichstag

Having just been reading up on the ‘Media City’ (the academic fundamentals of which are articulated very acutely by Scott McQuire’s 2008 book, which I have just finished reviewing for the Urban Geography Research Group), the ways in which technology, consumption, networks and the city collide in contemporary society are becoming increasingly apparent, yet no less complex. This thought process has been catalysed by spending the last few weeks in the company of peers involved in the urban subversions ‘meme’ (for want of a better phrase). As such, it is evermore apparent (if it was ever not so), that the city is the crucible of experimentation with the splicing of media and communications techniques, viral networks and subversive ‘tactics‘ (to use a De Certeauian neologism). As much as “the city is the striated space par excellence”  as argued by Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 481), this striation forces the city to fold in on itself creating medial experimentation space par excellence.

If you still need convincing then all you have to do is watch commercial television long enough for an advert to come on. More and more television adverts these days are using ‘viral’ or ‘flash-mobing’ campaigns a lá an Improv Everywhere-style. Probably the earliest example was the T-Mobile dancing advert shot in Liverpool Street Station. One that is more recent (so recent in fact, I can only find a flikr page showing stills of behind the scenes) is where Homebase dress Carlisle station up like a showroom, to the apparent delight and amazement of the early commuters. Mass ‘art’ or urban intervention movements like this are not new, such as Christo’s work (stretching back to 1972 – with the Umbrellas in California and Japan, or the Wrapped Reichstag probably his most famous work, pictured). However, their use in the promotion of commercial goods, at least ‘in the mainstream’ is a relatively new phenomenon. The surreptitious nature of these adverts are increasing, with this offering (if anyone thinks that this isn’t an advert for Coke is either stubborn or just plain wrong).

It probably says more about the nature of the advertising industry, but there is a sense that using the city as the arena for these ‘playful’ ways is becoming more acceptable, if not to city authorities, then to the every day consumer-in-the-street. The progression of media delivery from the idiot box in the corner to technological ‘viral’ communications forces innovations in advertising and communication techniques to keep pace with the shifting prevailing winds of societal change. The city is hence the playground of such events as, I would argue, urbanites are becoming more attuned to a reaction against the ‘striation’ of the urban apparatus, which rebukes the non-place ethic which Augé argues is prevalent in urban societies.

The ability of companies, individuals and political groups to spread their message through Web 2.0 (or is it Web 3.0? I’m losing count…) techniques is broadening our informational horizons and the appreciation of the city as a place for derivé. While this opens the door for the creep of commercialisation, it brings with it the ability for such urban ‘tactics’ to gain momentum, which if used effectively (such as the Love Police’s successful rebuttal against a ‘stop-and-search’ attempt by the Metropolitan Police) are creating a more inclusive and democratic urban environment.


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CFP RGS-IBG 2010: “Urban Subversions: Conceptualising alternative urban pastimes in the modern World City”.

Call for Papers:
Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers Annual Conference, 1st – 3rd September 2010, RGS, London.

Session conveners:
Oli Mould, Department of Geography, Loughborough University.
Bradley Garrett, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway.

Sponsors:

Urban Geography Research Group
Geographies of Leisure and Tourism Research Group

Discussant:

Professor Tim Cresswell, Royal Holloway, University of London

Abstract:

The increase of the urbanised population (presently and in the projected future) and the rise of procedures for creating a ‘world city’ to attract the global flows of capital, means that the usage of urban space is coming under increasing tension. Not only in terms of a city’s primary functional capitalist usage, but increasingly so in terms of alternative, subversive or ‘underground’ uses. Alternative urban activities (or subcultures, practices, pastimes – what we have termed ‘urban subversions’) such as skateboarding, graffiti, parkour, exploration, guerrilla street theatre and many others, have all seen an increase in popularity (in terms of participants and coverage), but often exist uncomfortably with city authorities and in many cases are marginalised or prohibited altogether. In other cases, the march of commercialisation has seen these practices been subsumed into the capitalist regime, either by sponsorship, tight regulation or dilution of content.

In these modern complex times, these ‘alternative’ usages of the city by a variety of different groups and individuals are becoming more prevalent. This is in part due to the increase technological capabilities of citizens, with the Internet facilitating the dissemination of information, videos, ideologies and trends. This has had the effect of these practices becoming more ‘visible’ and hence is adding to the complexity of urban studies. The duality of capitalist versus subversive urban practices is no longer sustainable as the boundaries are being blurred by the practices (both physical and virtual) of urban citizens practicing these urban subversions.

Therefore, the session organisers invite papers that discuss the alternative uses of urban space by a multiplicity of practitioners. In particular, we will look for contributions from scholars who are engaged in any one of a plethora of ‘urban subversions’ and the theoretical implications for city life. This may include, but are not limited to:

  • Street Art and the City
  • Activism, urban movements and cityscapes
  • Technologies, Social networking and the mobilisation of urban sub-cultures and communities
  • Subversive Practices as Placemaking
  • Performing the Urban: Embodiment and Participation
  • Case studies and empirical cases of specific urban subversions such as parkour, skateboarding, urban exploration, urban pranks, trial riding, urban golf, graffiti and guerrilla street performance

Moreover, the session encourages presentations that blend theoretical and empirical case studies to further develop our understanding of how the urban terrain will be utilised in our increasingly urbanised future. There will also be a ‘fieldwork’ session in which participants will be encouraged to visit particular sites nearby to observe particular urban subversions (such as parkour, graffiti, skateboarding etc).

Please submit an abstract (of no more than 250 words) to o.m.mould@lboro.ac.uk or b.garrett@rhul.ac.uk by Friday 12th February 2010.


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Visualising Cities: Part 5… Get Lost.

Well, I never thought that my visualising cities series would be one of the more popular posts on my blog, but then if you put a reference to the women in the red dress from The Matrix in a blog, you are bound to see the hit counter rise…

Google have recently taken their world domination agenda to the next phase by sending out their fleets of vehicles that can only be described as the Model-T meets war of the worlds to photograph every street in the major cities of the western world. With just a click of a button, you can now view the facades of buildings, the layout of roads and the blurred faces of your neighbours around your city without leaving the comfort of your own home. Cities, it seems are becoming more and more navigable remotely. This has many benefits, most notably the planning of journeys but it is also being increasingly used as the first ‘scouting’ of a particular part of a city. Say you were going to meet a friend for a drink – you could log on to StreetView, find a pub that looked nice and was in a nice area and head straight for it, rather than amble around looking for a local watering hole. Or if you are planning a shopping trip, you can now look at every shop that you would pass if you walked a specific route and tailor your trip to minimise effort and still visit all the shops you wanted.

Without revisiting the arguments made by the Suituationists and dérive, Google StreetView is short-circuiting the process of discovery by laying out a virtual city at our fingertips. De Certeau argued that walking a city is an experiential movement, evoking a sense of discovery and (to take a pedagogic stance) learning which not only shapes the individual, but also the city itself. If StreetView continues to pervade our cities then how long before businesses begin to use it as a factor in location decisions? Urban planners could theoretically use it to scope out potential place-making procedures, or see which parts of the city have gentrification potential. We will begin to see the city being shaped through the virtual environment. The dystopians among us will suggest that this self-fueling system will see the city implode on itself in some horrific multiple-layered virtual reality where we walk through the city a frame at a time with a massive white arrow at our feet. This is of course a discourse best left to the realm of science fiction (and indeed it is touched upon in premise of the Thirteenth Floor), however, using these virtual environments to explore the city eschews the inherent complexity and nonlinear urban fabric. It allows the ‘viewer’ (for want of a better phrase) to isolate a singular aspect or point of the city, extricating it from the complex relational web from which it was forged. The variance of emotions, ideas, memories and experiences that go to make up a city are lost (to a more or lesser extent) if we can cherry pick our navigation virtually, ‘before’ setting out.

Hannah Nicklin, recently blogged about an ‘exploratory performance’ which she ‘encountered’ (I sympathise with her difficulty in finding an appropriate lexicon) that encourages people to walk around a small section of Covent Garden while listening to an mp3 dialogue of someone’s experiences of the same area. In doing so, there is a sense of discovery, exploration and achievement which is only obtainable via this (albeit augmented) type of dérive. Particular targeted usage and reasoning of the city (i.e. shopping or going for a drink with a friend) is clearly facilitated by such technological advancements, but sometimes the best way to improve our understanding of the city in which we live is to do away with StreetView, or our GPS and maps for that matter, and just get lost.


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A Paradox of the Urban Condition

Gary Bridge once asked “Surely it is time to banish reason, with all it’s exclusivities and homogenisations, from the city, and to let difference in?” (Bridge, 2004: 1). A poignant issue, given that that more and more people are flooding into our cities. And yet, they continue to show signs of convergence – aesthetically, politically, sociologically and ideologically. Globalisation is often blamed for the homogenisation tendencies of world cities and with some justification; however to suggest that cities are buckling under pressure from an Adam Smith-esque invisible fist of global homogenising change is to underplay the role that cities themselves are performing in this very process. Sassen famously said that cities are the ‘command and control centres of the global economy’, and this being the case, then they are responsible for their own fate, and cannot be labeled as victims of the somehow ‘out-there’ global economy.

So, the modern urban condition is inherently paradoxical. Urban officialdom (and by this I include city and local councils, politicians, development agencies, quangos, private property companies, planners and security forces) is relentlessly restrictive on urbanites, with surveillance and restrictions on movement and behaviour increasingly commonplace. This restriction is a symptom of the capitalist society in which (the majority) of world cities are situated in, however, it is a truism that this constriction of urban practices prioritizes particular processes, usually profiteering, and marginalises a myriad of misdemeanors. Yet, with the inevitable increase in the urban population, the variety of our hobbies, pastimes, interests, likes and dislikes will increase the diversity and heterogeneity of the urban cultural and social fabric. There in lies a disproportionate and reductive paradox – the urban cultural milieu is broadening, while the law-makers and policy implementations are narrowing.

Counter-arguments in this regard are often leveed at the fact that this ‘narrowing’ is an illusion, indeed, we see policies that encourage cultural experimentation, as well as officialdom actively encouraging disparate and disruptive innovation. However, I would argue that these efforts are merely crystalising a more fluid and ephemeral ‘plasma’ of urban heterogeneity, into a more commercialised and ‘bite-sized’ version of ‘urban culture’. In other words, it is only skin-deep and creating a commercial veneer to a rhizomatic ether of urban activity.

A classic example (and one which I have recently published on) is that of the dualism that is parkour and free-running. This dichotomy is due a blog post (and then some) all of its own, but suffice to say, parkour was the original format of running, jumping, playing and experimenting with the urban terrain in new and innovative physical ways. It is less a ‘sport’ or a ‘sub-culture’ more a philosophy or way-of-life. ‘Free running’ is more ‘showy’, the people who partake in it perform more spectacular stunts, and there are free running world championships, sponsored by Barclaycard. The osmotic movement of parkour to free-running is indicative of the commercialisation tendencies that work at ‘centralisation’, i.e. bringing activities and disparate urban cultures into the realms of capitalism and profit-making.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad thing at all – free-running is fantastic to watch, and the athletes who partake in it are spreading fitness and healthy living to a society in dour need of it. The message here is that while there is a rhetoric of cities embracing alternative cultures and pastimes (in this case free-running), it comes diluted, detached and distanciated from the urban fabric. And anyone practicing parkour ‘illegally’ on private property or in a way that defies the health and safety leviathan, is immediately subjugated.

This march of the profiteer is clearly a logical prerequisite for cities, in that they are self-perpetuating machines with the lubricating grease of money coating their many gears. However, to limit the functionality of the urban topology to one cause is at best limiting, at worse, selfish. There are increasing and alternate ways in which the city can be reappropriated, and for examples, there are a number of information sources (you could do worse that join the Urban Subversion network , or follow them on Twitter). In answer to Gary Bridge’s question, the answer as you now forsee is a resounding ‘yes’. Difference and variety are essential for the proliferation and health of urban life, and by marginalising certain activities, we are at risk of essentially dividing the city – which is diagnostic of catastrophe.

Now, I appreciate that I now stand before you with an empty can and worms strewn all over the place, however, I am actively developing these arguments in future publications so watch this space – and feel free to comment/make suggestions/argue/shoot down as you see fit. However, take note from history…

“He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is destroyed, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand”.

(Matthew, 12: 25, International Standard Version)

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