Monthly Archives: January 2012

Rioting and Architecture

by Mark Crinson, Art History

They broke every window in our street… You have to hammer at the window glass for twenty minutes to get an impression. They were able to batter them to such an extent they were able to break through the glass (i).

More than 130 people, many youths, were arrested in a night of turmoil which saw £500,000 of damage caused when the mob descended on the exclusive Emporio Armani (ii).

The rioters vandalized the centre of the city and have destroyed everything that came in their way. Fire bombs were thrown at shops and windows were smashed. The police was overwhelmed by the huge number of rioters that reached 2000 persons… After they have destroyed the shops, the looters have stolen electrical items, jewelry, designer clothes, mobile phones and alcohol. They have trashed high street shops and banks and smashed them to pieces and banks too (iii).

Armani Store and John Rylands Library , Spinningfields


Was architecture merely incidental to last summer’s riots? Did it seem not only to contain the things desired or reviled, but in itself to be loathed: the complacent bank and the sleek boutique, as much as the decorated sheds of retail parks? Could not some of the damage be seen as an attack – if often blurred and mis-targeted – on the architectural forms of our ‘rampantly feral’ capitalism(iv)? Images of burning buildings and broken glass certainly played a notable part in the media coverage, acting as both trace and symbol of broken Britain. Because this damage was largely to shops and high streets, however, it was easily subsumed to the politicians’ view that the riots were not symptoms of social breakdown but opportunistic outbreaks of acquisitive criminality. Yet, in such a complex sequence of events and causes, could not some of this building bashing be interpreted in a different way?

That the immediate target of much of the rioting, the membrane to break through, was glass, has not been commented on in the numerous blogs and articles on the riots. In a sense it’s too obvious and therefore ignored in the search for reasons and causes. Of course people smash windows when they riot, it’s much easier than smashing concrete or brick. Along with fire, the shattering of glass offers the most direct challenge to the materials of urban order. And now there is an awful lot more glass around – glass walls and floors, the aquaria of offices and shops, the time-denying gleam of glass towers. By extension, then, this smashing can be understood to deal a different kind of violence to a history of modern urban and architectural thinking. Glass was never just glass, never a mere building material – there was a poetics and theoretics to it (v).  Glass embodied many of the symbolic properties of modernity, including the interpenetrating magic of space-time itself. It meant intoxicating forms of living through the dematerialisation of walls and the exposure of previously hidden interiors. It would revitalize experience, offer a ‘new vision’, and promise new states of consciousness. It would clad the Stadtkron and other crystalline fantasies. It promised a new reconciliation of man and nature, a new oneness facilitated by modernity, and a life leaving behind old habits and traces. If it had once shown people glimpses of paradise and let in God’s light, now it enabled the panoptic gaze, ‘[spawning] new paranoias’ and new forms of ungodly exhibitionism (vi).  Its taut skins seemed to supersede oppositions of the mechanical and organic. It evidenced democracy and promised egalitarianism, a new social transparency, the open society, accessible government: as contemporary architects like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster still repetitiously insist, glazed walls signal ‘democratic values of openness and participation… [or] the accessibility of a judicial system’, ‘the transparency and openness of the democratic process’, ‘dignity, transparency and openness’ (vii). In all this glass was always closely bound into modernism’s dialectics of the rational and the enchanting.

If such is the rhetoric of modern architects and their clients, for others glass may not and may never have signified in these ways; it may actually be about false accessibility, about temptation and leading astray. One of the original arguments, for instance, against building the Crystal Palace – that free trade utopia, icon of modernist pre-histories, and paean to glazed showcasing – was that it would inevitably be stoned by the mob (viii). The 2011 smashing of glass might be seen, then, as an appropriation of the architects’ view of it, and if it was sometimes a refusal of that kind of rhetoric it was also a way of taking it literally. What is inside is desirable and must be got at even using illegitimate means? Democracy is just another means of delusion? Transparency is finally recognised as obfuscation? If so, then this doesn’t mean the end of a now long history of utopian glass thinking but another chapter in it. After all, even some architects might continue to welcome riots as ‘the awakening of cleanliness’.(ix)

Suggestive parallels to the recent riots can be found in Isobel Armstrong’s fascinating book Victorian Glassworlds (2008). The breaking of glass in riots leading up to the 1832 Reform Act and then during the Chartist-linked Birmingham Bull Ring riots of 1839, were clearly demonstrations of alienation from political process: ‘[the crowds] affirmed something about the specificity of their own experiences as well as, or through, shattering glass’ (x). The patrician attitude of establishment figures like the Duke of Wellington (whose houses and tours were a frequent target for stone throwers) was that such smashing up demonstrated the endemically irrational behaviour of the lower classes, justifying their exclusion from legitimate politics (xi). Although those riots did not have an element of material acquisition to them, it is the cathartic fury directed at glass that parallels the recent riots. Breaking glass generates a visceral excitement as barriers are broken and the building’s orifices penetrated: the façade can demonstratively be cracked, defenestrated. Armstrong suggests that the sound of glass breaking was more than the accompaniment to this somatic release, but also an ‘insistence of being heard… [being] redeemed from anonymity’, challenging the insulation of privilege through the direct agency of body against building. This kind of corporeal assertion contrasts with the property-owner’s order, ‘demonstrating that his are literally constructed categories, bound up as they are in his very buildings (xii).’

Like E. P. Thompson’s famous argument for the ‘moral economy’ of eighteenth-century rioting against the economy of the free market, Armstrong insists on the self-discipline and idealism of her Victorian rioters, their refusal to loot. This may not sit easy with comparisons to the summer of 2011, let alone to other crystal nights. A glib way to express this is to say that the commodification of labour has been replaced by the commodification of desire – a demand for change by a demand for trainers – though this misses the initial protests of 2011 and the sense of deep injustice around stop-and-search and the killing of Mark Duggan. That there were protesters and there were looters, and sometimes the two were indistinguishable, is what makes the riots of 2011 too complex, too diverse in cause and effect, for us to reach easy conclusions about. But there are some parallels with Armstrong’s account. Among its drives, rioting is about a taking over of space, an ownership of it and a sense of power through owning it, however briefly. Such was certainly behind the spontaneous taking to the streets of the powerless and the disaffected after Duggan’s death. And the group action of rioting, its ‘performative unity’ (xiii), raises the prospect not of the spectral rabble but of an urban collectivity acting on its disenchantment – as indicated by those instances of co-operative looting among rioters, even between members of different gangs (as observed in the recent Guardian/LSE report ‘Reading the Riots’). Is to riot in this way to reverse the expected behaviour of the disempowered subject and the individual consumer?

It’s clear that in Manchester’s case the spaces in which riots took place were the same spaces as the city’s much acclaimed ‘regeneration’; that’s to say, at the centre of the Victorian industrial city in those areas revamped in response to the 1996 IRA bomb and the threat of out of town shopping in the Trafford Centre. The post-1990s regeneration has been uneven, and largely focused on the central city. A new urban order has been created which seems mainly to be about the rebranding of central Manchester. Yet although it does not use shops to hide slums from the bourgeoisie, as in Friedrich Engels’s canonical account, it does share much with Engels’s notion of a ‘hypocritical plan’. The conspicuous demonstration of the resources and pleasures of affluence are narrowly bestowed on certain areas of the city, leaving the ‘underclass’ as marginal onlookers. In this context, then, we might adapt Armstrong’s idea that her Victorian rioting constitutes its own style or aesthetic into an understanding of the 2011 rioting as a form of architectural criticism. Was this an ironic way of dealing with the spaces of consumerism as disqualified consumers seized hold and upturned the effects and meanings of transparency? To put it differently, how does the shattering of glass sit with the hermeneutics of glass? Let’s look at one – admittedly limited – instance.

Among the areas of Manchester’s city centre attacked on the evening of 10 August was Spinningfields. The name is redolent of Manchester’s Cottonopolis past and the area, midway along Deansgate and between it and the River Irwell, was one of the most notorious slums of the Victorian city, one selected by Engels for particular attention. Spinningfields was re-zoned in Manchester’s postwar city plan as an area for Manchester’s courts and its legal profession, and it is this legal architecture that has been updated in the last five years, linking it to a considerably expanded business quarter. Two of the features of this form of regeneration are particularly important for the argument here. One is the extraordinary vista of glazed buildings that have taken over the area; and the other is a new kind of mixed zoning that has deliberately been built into this as the area touches Deansgate itself, for long one of Manchester’s main shopping streets.

One of the shops targeted by the 2011 rioters was Emporio Armani, fronting Spinningfields on Deansgate. (Emporio Armani was also a particular target of the looting in Birmingham, as one of the quotes at the head of this article shows.) Apparently, rioters were baulked here by a line of security guards and only smashed one large window before heading off to easier targets. The shop fills the ground floor of No 1 The Avenue, an entirely glazed building but of a specifically 21st century type. It was designed by the London-based architectural firm Sheppard Robson and opened two years ago. Sheppard Robson is one of the many middling practices (though of large size) that diffuse (and perhaps defuse) vanguard styles for mainstream clients. In this case the building is a near-parody of late deconstructivism mixed with high tech, Daniel Libeskind crossed with Norman Foster. Such buildings must have a ‘concept’, and here this is based on a simple-minded game of slicing a parallelogram, flipping it and then misaligning the two blocks. The cantilever created by this misalignment provides a wedge-shaped canopy for shoppers, with a sharp-edged arris of glass panes pointing at the street. One detects that recent concerns about architecture and security have entered many architects’ unconscious – even in a shop like this there is a strange combination of vulnerability and aggression, come-hitherness and repulsion. Across the whole building and reinforcing its strident geometry is a jazzy diagonal cladding of trapezoidal glass panels. The skill of the architects here, if it can be called that, is to tantalize and enthrall. We look into the darkened windows to see the displays but also see beyond them to view parts of the shop’s interior. Perhaps it’s meant to flatter the consumer with a sense of discretion, entitlement, and hipped up slickness. Transparency as obfuscation, then: as teasing glamour, a heightening of emulative desire, with more than a hint of those intoxicating qualities that some modernists perceived in the potential of glass.

No 1 The Avenue is a local if not very distinguished example of a widespread phenomenon, named by Owen Hatherley as ‘pseudomodernism’ (xiv). Here, in a reactionary metamorphosis, the postmodernist love of the building as sign has now turned back to the surface effects of modernism – a veneer of its good taste or even of its political associations – so providing the boosterist built logos of our neoliberal age, its glass shards, obelisks and gherkins. As Hal Foster has suggested, the old transparency of modernism has become ‘spaces that are not only opaque, but that are illusionistic… [such space] purports to be about perceptual experience, but in many ways it does the perceiving for us.(xv)’ One cannot argue that these glazed buildings were the particular target of rioters; in fact many styles and periods of buildings were attacked. But there was a particular poignancy at Spinningfields that would emerge only a few days later.

Passage, Spinningfields

In the week following the riots across British cities many of the perpetrators of both righteous protest and opportunistic shopping were hastily brought to court as part of the avenging government’s attempt to show that it was in control. One of the busiest courts was the Manchester City Magistrates Court and Coroners Court located, as it happens, in Spinningfields just behind the Emporio Armani shop. The court building’s entrance façade is clad to its full height in glass and displays a multi-level escalator within, implying a kind of vaguely efficient and, of course, ‘transparent’ disposal of functions. On one side the court building turns a corner and becomes a menswear shop, on the other it terminates a wide pedestrian passage – while Armani is on the left, the new extension to the John Rylands Library is on the right (the library also fronts onto Deansgate). This passage is parallel with The Avenue, which houses several more luxury clothes shops, but the link between the courts and The Avenue is barred by a glazed wall, clearly an ad hoc measure to separate a restaurant’s outdoor space from court attendees snatching time for a last cigarette. The passage can’t be described as a street nor is ‘pedestrianised way’ quite right – too old fashioned for one thing – though it certainly evokes vague associations with older planning fantasies. Such passages are designed for shopping and certain other leisure activities deemed legitimate, a ‘right to the city’ is the thinnest of its effects. Manchester has quite a few of them, and quite a few were also the places where the rioting happened – in the pedestrianised Market Street, for instance, and in New Cathedral Street. The latter is not as cloistered as it sounds but actually a group of high-end shops on an elevated curve of walkway leading to the ersatz environment that is Manchester’s version of a cathedral close.

With these spaces, seductive and absurd by turn, the city attempts to ward off the rivalry of the out of town shopping centre, offering an urban density of commerce close by the cultural, civic and religious institutions of the traditional city. In Spinningfields the uniform material of different building types signals a uniform rhetoric of accessibility – whether of the judicial system (transparent justice), of a library (access to learning), or even of an ‘exclusive’ menswear shop (‘modern lifestyle… with a sense of classic sophistication’). Cynical and insensitive in social terms, the development is alternately ‘sensitive’ and ‘cutting edge’ in the terms of architects’ and developers’ jargon, the commercial and cultural cream for the business quarter beyond. In Sheppard Robson’s own publicity No 1 The Avenue is described as pivotal in form and location, ‘tying Manchester’s retail and business district with its civic core (xvi),’ and the building itself embodies this mixed-use, combining Armani with offices, a roof terrace, and a basement nightclub. (Another example, that epitomizes the absurd end of this fad for mixed-use, is close by – the oast house-style pub, clad in faux-distressed materials, that now fills the square in front of the older court building.)

Emporio Armani benefits, then, from its proximity to the Rylands Library and the courts. And they all benefit from an extraordinary CCTV concentration inside and outside the buildings, the vehicle of a new social contract assuring security and inviting affluent exhibitionism. We are in the heart of a 21st century panopticon here, one intersected by the complementary practices of shopping, surveillance, and punishment, and coterminous with an immaterial architecture of data formation and retrieval (xvii). And like most previous panopticons, of course, it courts failure, reproducing the conditions that brought it into being, its pleasures and disciplines emptied out and turned perverse because of the lack of a complementary political space.

In its great wisdom Manchester University in 2007 saw fit to build a minimalist glass box to house a café and shop as the most public face of the Rylands Library’s extension in Spinningfields. Sitting in the café one can take a table right beside the glazed wall and, eating one’s carrot cake, observe the human traffic into and out of the courts, as well as into and out of Emporio Armani. The rioters apparently sniffed at attacking this extension, probably because it had nothing obvious that could be looted and perhaps also because a library had no evident recognition factor – it clearly wasn’t a bank or Starbucks or Miss Selfridges. One might complacently say this confirms the marginality of learning in these our neoliberal times, but if so it is a marginality the university itself had already played into with the architectural appearance and the very function of its new extension. The original Victorian library’s glory, now made into a mere appendix by the new extension, was the way it addressed the street directly and then absorbed the visitor in its evocative entrance spaces. It used the gloomth of neo-Gothic tectonics to suggest the special mysteries of learning; access here was a matter of passing through successive spatial densities. Now the hidden structures of contemporary architecture suggest nothing but the lightness of modern being.

So, there is this extraordinary conjunction of functions more or less cheek by jowl in Spinningfields – designer clothes shop, magistrates court, and academic library. And inbetween these buildings, as if to cap the conjunction, is a mini glass shard, an enigmatic transparent pyramid that turns out to be the entrance to the underground nightclub – not so enigmatic after being boarded up following the night of 10 August. So in this 21st century corridor we run the gauntlet or we take to the catwalk. Glass is used to different ends, but the glazing also unites these institutions in a common play on a now meaningless accessibility. Part of the lost potential of this area might have been in the very dissonance of these institutions; that there might be something interesting about the clash of their values. But, post-riot, the leveling transparency had become guilty spectacle. This was where Manchester’s regeneration got differently confrontational, where the contemporary glassworlds of the law, security, consumerism, and learning were newly exposed in terms of who is entitled to use these streets in the manner for which they had been designed.

Georges Bataille defined architecture as the physiognomy of a society’s authority, and saw such events as the storming of the Bastille as a way of transgressing against the very nature of architecture: ‘it is difficult to explain this impulse of the mob other than by the animosity the people hold against the monuments which are their true masters (xviii).’ It is perhaps no more than an interesting fantasy to imagine the riots as an uprising against our present phantasmagoric forms of transparency. But even to say ‘this shattered window is the work of my hands’ is to reveal a certain kind of meaning in the moments of madness.


i. John Henn, owner of a shop in Wolverhampton, as reported in The Guardian, 5 December 2011.

ii. accessed 8 December 2011.

iii.…, accessed 6 October 2011.

iv. David Harvey, ‘Feral Capitalism Hits the Streets’, The Bullet (Socialist Project e-bulletin), 535, 12 August 2011, accessed 10 November 2011.

v.  For the various mythologies that follow see Detlef Mertins, Modernity Unbound: Other Histories of Architectural Modernity, London: Architectural Association, 2011.

vi. The architectural practice Diller, Scofidio & Renfrew, as quoted in Hal Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex, London: Verso, 2011, p. 98.

vii. The first quote is Richard Rogers, the second and third are by Norman Foster: as quoted in Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex, pp. 29, 48.

viii. Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 11.

ix. Le Corbusier, The Radiant City: Elements of a doctrine of urbanism to be used as the basis of our machine-age civilization (1935), New York: Orion, 1967, p. 23.

x. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, p. 62.

xi. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, pp. 65-66.

xii. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, p. 68.

xiii. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, p. 67.

xiv. Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, London: Verso, 2010, pp. xx-xxiv.

xv. ‘Art lessons’, interview between Thomas Wensing and Hal Foster, Architecture Today, 222, October 2011, p. 14.

xvi., accessed 7 December 2011.

Violence and the city: A view from the ganglands

Image from flickr: Il Fatto Quotidiano


by Dennis Rodgers, Senior Research Fellow, Brooks World Poverty Institute.


Although there has long existed a concern that urbanisation amplifies violence, there is sense in which cities are increasingly being put forward as key sites of violence in the contemporary world. The fact that much recent conflict, terrorism and civil disorder has occurred in cities such as Baghdad, Beirut, or Nairobi, or that the world’s highest homicide rates afflict cities in Central America, Colombia, or South Africa, has become ever more noted, and has clearly added to the ubiquitous notion that cities and violence are intimately related. It is striking, however, that the city as a particular type of space rarely reflected upon directly in such debates.

An important exception in this regard is the gang literature, which has consistently sustained that in order to truly get to grips with gangs, it is critical to understand the context within which they emerge. Certainly, two major insights of gang research are that they are on the one hand are fundamentally epiphenomenal social formations, and on the other, that they are inherently urban in nature. For example, in his pioneering study of gangs, The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago (Chicago University Press, 1927), sociologist Frederic Thrasher paradigmatically suggested that “the gang and its problems constitute …one of many symptoms of the more or less general disorganization incident to …the rapid growth of cities and all the internal process of kaleidoscopic movement and rearrangement which this growth has entailed” (page 487).

Indeed, Thrasher argued that “the beginnings of the gang can best be studied in the slums of the city where an inordinately large number of children are crowded into a limited area. …Such a crowded environment is full of opportunities for conflict”, which “coupled with deterioration in housing, sanitation, and other conditions of life in the slum, give the impression of general disorganization and decay” (pages (26 & 37-38). In a manner clearly reminiscent of Louis Wirth’s famous analysis of “urbanism as a way of life”, Thrasher contended that such conditions of anomie and impersonal social relations led to the emergence of “an inevitable repertoire of predatory activities and a universe of discourse reflecting the disorganized social environment”, most obviously manifest in the existence of gangs.

At the same time, however, Thrasher’s research simultaneously undermines the notion that there exists an inherent relationship between urban contexts and gang violence. The ethnic nature of the gangs that he highlights in his study for example clearly contradicts the idea that violence emerges as a result of the superficiality and anonymity of urban social relations, insofar as it suggests that gangs can be based on elementary forms of social connection. Thrasher attempts to explain this paradox by suggesting that the actions of social agents cannot go beyond their individual experiences, and that gangs therefore had to have their “beginning[s] in acquaintanceship and intimate relations which have already developed on the basis of some common interest” (page 30). In addition to ethnicity, he thus also lists kinship and feelings of local neighbourhood belonging as basic vectors for gang formation.

In many ways this is not surprising, however. Anthropologists have provided us with a plethora of studies of neighbourhoods, barrios, or quartiers in cities around the world that describe how urbanites effectively reproduce small-scale community forms of living within urban contexts by interacting repeatedly with relatively small numbers of individuals, moreover within a normally localised territory. Social life is not a mass phenomenon, but something that generally occurs in small groups, and therefore any generalizations about social life in the city must inevitably draw on the study of these smaller universes rather than on abstract statements about the city as a whole. While this makes eminent sense, it also suggests that it is important to examine the underlying nature of gang violence more closely in order to truly understand the way that the phenomenon articulates with urban life in general, and the city in particular.

Thrasher justifies specifically focusing on slums in cities – which he likens to frontier zones – by arguing that they constitute “geographically …interstitial area[s] in the city”, and that just as “in nature foreign matter tends to collect and cake in every crack, crevice, and cranny”, so “life, rough and untamed” materialises in the interstitial areas that constitute “fissures and breaks in the structure of social organization” (pages 22-23). Gangs, from this perspective, are “rich in elemental social processes significant to the student of society and human nature” (page 3), because they represent an unmediated form of life, a primordial reflection of the violence that inherently bubbles under the surface of things and inevitably erupts at points where the social fabric is weak.

Such a perception of violence manifesting itself when social order breaks down clearly constitutes the phenomenon as something that exists outside of the social order. Although this kind of thinking is part of a long tradition, which perhaps finds its most obvious expression in Thomas Hobbes’ classic argument that violence is an incipient facet of being human in a state of nature that is held in check by the establishment of an encompassing social order, it is a viewpoint that also naturalises violence by projecting it as an autonomously pre-existing phenomenon that comes to the fore organically and automatically as a result of the existence or absence of certain objective conditions. For Hobbes, this was the absence of the Leviathan, but in relation to Thrasher’s framework, it was the existence of cities, or at least of the particular social relations that he associated with the spatial characteristics of cities as anomic, disorganized social spaces.

When seen from this perspective, it could be argued that urban space is not necessarily violent per se, but rather constitutes a particular type of territorial space with intrinsic characteristics that naturally unleash the violence inherent to being human. The notion of space is not only concerned with the territorial environment, however, but is also fundamentally about social relations. The gang literature once again provides us with an interesting window onto this, including for example Philippe Bourgois’ modern classic In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (Cambridge University Press, 1995), which offers a detailed ethnographic study of drug-dealing gangs inEast Harlem. This presents a nuanced and multifaceted analysis that balances economic motivations and individual choices with structural constraints, showing how the Puerto Rican gangs that he studied could be understood in terms of a mixture of local resource distribution, local cultural identity, and implicit political resistance.

Bourgois describes in great detail how gang violence was an instrumental means to protect markets, enforce contracts, and ensure that the local drug economy ran smoothly in order to provide for neighbourhood inhabitants in a context of limited resources, and how it built on local cultural norms and networks. But he also links the emergence of gangs to the way in which the wider urban labour market effectively condemned the inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods such as the one he studied to dead-end jobs, which thus made joining drug-dealing gangs a logical aspiration, particularly for youth rejecting the low-grade options on offer to them. In doing so, Bourgois highlights how gangs in East Harlememerged not just as instrumental adaptations to a context of limited resources, but also very much as responses to a broader context of limited access to resources within a broader city context characterised by extreme socio-economic marginalization.

Bourgois thereby suggests that gangs are not a natural ecological feature of a city’s spatial form, but rather epiphenomena of very specific wider socio-political circumstances. As such he is drawing on a very different epistemological tradition to the Chicago School sociologists, and assuming that questions pertaining to the distribution, allocation, and use of resources are the fundamental organising vectors of society, with violence not a natural phenomenon that is unleashed by social breakdown but a means through which control over resources, or access to them, is achieved instrumentally. Indeed, this is something that Bourgois underlines starkly when he discusses East Harlem in terms of “institutional violence” and “urban apartheid”, emphasising the active and purposeful process of segregation that occurs between the inner city and the rest of New York in the form of particular patterns of Police patrolling and the targeting of particular racial profiles, oppressive architecture and technologies of surveillance, the provision of deficient social services, and cultural stigmatisation.

At the same time, however, Bourgois also comments how if inner city neighbourhoods such as East Harlem represent “the United States’ greatest domestic failing, hanging like a Damocles sword over the larger society”, “ironically, the only force preventing this suspended sword from falling is that drug dealers, addicts, and street criminals internalize their rage and desperation”, and “direct their brutality against themselves and their immediate community rather than against their structural oppressors” (page 318). The reasons for this are a complex “mesh of political-economic structural forces, historical legacies, cultural imperatives, and individual actions”, but in the final analysis reflect the fact that gangs are desperate forms of social mobilisation, whether viewed from a micro or a macro perspective. Locally, their natures as limited institutions means that they can only benefit a minority within the ghetto, while at the macro level they simply do not have the strength to challenge the city-wide system of oppression, which is backed by an extensive apparatus of power and control. Seen from this perspective, it can be argued that it is this latter form of structural subjugation that is ultimately the most devastating type of urban violence that can afflict cities. In other words, what the view from the gangland suggests is that understand violence in the city requires understanding the political economy of the city first and foremost.

Urban health: challenges and opportunities

image from flickr

by Stephanie Steels, Manchester Urban Collaboration On Health, University of Manchester.

On the 31st October 2011, the world’s population crept over the seven billion mark. It was, to quote the BBC, “a population milestone”. This is not the first (and nor, I imagine,  will it be the last) global milestone as we edge forward into the twenty-first century. Back in 2008, the world quietly reached another milestone – over half of the world’s population now lives in an urban area. Today, that means that there are over 3.5 billion people living in urban areas worldwide. To put simply: that’s a lot of people living within geographically small areas on this planet.

As a result, population health within urban areas has become an important topic for research. Urban health, which can be defined as “health that is specific to urban areas”, is a growing field of research internationally. From a health perspective, urban areas have specific problems associated with health that are different to non-urban areas.

It has, until very recently, been assumed that living in an urban area was beneficial. Indeed cities can offer more job opportunities; better education; access to a variety of health services and more opportunities for social interaction. But is urban living really that good for us? Air pollution, heavy traffic and limited (or no) access to ‘green spaces’ are starting to take their toll on urban populations.

Incidences of injuries caused by traffic accidents as well as respiratory problems are on the increase. And it is not just cities that are expanding. Long working hours coupled with a sedentary lifestyle means that our waistbands are growing ever more expansive. And it is not just our physical selves that are feeling the impact of urban living. Our mental health is also suffering. If anything, urban living emphasises the health inequalities and poverty that exist in many of our cities. And here I don’t just mean the U.K and Europe: these are global health issues.

Unfortunately, many of these problems cannot be identified using national or regional investigations or data. We have to go down to the urban level to really investigate the social, economic and environmental effects of urban living on health. The problem is that there is not that much data available at the urban level. In the developing world, this issue is even more problematic where urbanisation is occurring rapidly.

The European Urban Health Indicators System (EURO-URHIS 2) project is starting to address the data gap. Using four specially designed data tools, EURO-URHIS 2 has been collecting urban population health data across the U.K, Europe and beyond. By the end 2012, it will house the world’s largest repository of urban health data, which is both representative and comparable between all urban areas that took part in the study. The project has focused on trends in population health of children, the aging population, women and hard to reach groups (such as ethnic minorities) to investigate any inequalities in health or healthcare system suffered by these groups.

At the same time, we are working with policy-makers to produce easy to use tools for evidence based policy making. Many urban areas have health policy determined at the local level, but by using regional and national data sets, policy-makers end up using local estimates. In many cases this can lead to resources simply being wasted. Having data at the urban level will allow for better resource allocation, which is even more important in the current economic climate. Our data will also help national and regional policy-makers evaluate the impact of local policies. But this is just the beginning.

As urban areas continue to grow, being able to monitor the health of populations has never been more important. Here, I would like to take the opportunity to say that urban health is not just a public health or epidemiological research topic. If anything, urban health can bring together researchers and academics from all disciplines; whether you are a geographer, anthropologist, sociologist, economist or computer scientist. I believe that it is only through collaboration and working together that we can really start to tackle the issues of population health inequalities and urban poverty.

See some of the specific projects MUCH researchers have been working on:

Resilience: Motherhood Statement, Rhetorical Slogan or Neo-liberal Shift?

Tewkesbury flooding, 2007 - image from cheltenhamborough via flickr


by Iain White, Director of the Centre for Urban and Regional Ecology at University of Manchester.

Are you an ‘enemy of enterprise’?  No?  How about an opponent of ‘progress’ or ‘freedom’? Unless I’ve seriously misjudged the readership of this blog, there would be little support from the largely indeterminate but oddly silent pro- stagnation and fear camp.  Concepts that few would disagree with are known as ‘motherhood and apple pie’ statements, associated with the similarly unassailable support for the role of mothers or fruit-based pastries. It is easy to dismiss these utterances as empty political slogans and the rapidly emerging consensus on the need for ‘resilience’ is becoming subject to comparable criticism.

Societies are frequently urged by political leaders to be ‘resilient’, more able to both cope, and recover from, the unexpected economic, environmental or social shocks so prevalent in the 21st century.  Superficially the term is a positive, pliable and fuzzy concept that appears difficult to dispute.  The case for supporting less resilient economies, cities or infrastructure is irrational, akin to advocating that development should be unsustainable.  Resilience appears instinctively incontestable, portraying a desirable, aspirational goal relevant to practically any given issue; traits which have proven critical to its easy acceptance by strategic decision makers.

Within planning the term has gained currency as a way to adapt to various problems, such as climate change, economic downturns or the threat of terrorism. Symbolically, the deployment of this discourse is a valuable political strategy, transforming crises or uncertainty from being subject to prospective allegations of mismanagement to appearing to be in control.  For instance, a policy advocating ‘resilience’ to the impacts of climate change provides a positive message to oppose the reality of what may be a political failure to agree mitigation or invest in prevention or protection.  Particularly when the state has done little to immunize citizens from risk, resilience – embedded within a language of assurance and comfort – may be used as a strategy to help blunt negative opinion frequently levelled at decision-makers in the aftermath of detrimental events. Significantly therefore, from a political perspective resilience may be described as a mechanism to uphold confidence rather than enforce change.

It is, however, incorrect to label this concept as either superficial or positive – attempts to pursue agendas of resilience may generate significant governance changes or spatial and social inequalities. For example urbanisation and climate change are increasing the financial cost of flood defence and there has been a resultant policy shift toward resilience, and its associated strategies of preparedness and recovery, rather than the simple protection of people and places.  Whilst seemingly logical, this move also transfers the costs for risk management from the state toward the private sector, communities and individuals in a largely veiled manner.  Resilience in this context emphasises the ability to ‘bounce back’, in effect to experience detriment and recover quickly, and with regard to flooding may relate to the purchase of insurance or products designed to either resist water entering the home or to reduce the damage if it does.  Given the opportunity to consider the policy outcomes do you think citizens want to be responsible for being ‘resilient’ or do they simply expect protection?  Seemingly agreeable resilience agendas can therefore be used to legitimise the reduction of financial resources which underpins much neo-liberal governance ideology and are often accompanied by parallel narratives of fatalistic complexity, geo-political impasse, private sector stimulation or even increasing personal freedoms.

In much the same way that Sustainable Development captured the zeitgeist of the late 20th century, resilience may prove to be the perfect exemplification of its time: a conveniently nebulous concept incorporating shifting notions of risk and governance, which can facilitate the transfer of responsibility and cost away from the state and toward the private sector, the market, communities and individuals.  Those with power and resources may be able to engage with and influence resilience agendas, conversely vulnerable people and communities may find themselves significantly affected by a retreat of the state and a reframing of the services provided.  In an ‘age of uncertainty’ where the globalised complexity of our social, economic and environmental systems appears to drive seemingly ‘unavoidable’ shocks, resilience has found a welcoming political home.  The effect of this widespread acceptance is as yet undetermined, however.  Whilst its ubiquity may suggest resilience is either a motherhood statement or vacuous slogan, there is a real need to analyse policy outcomes to help this potentially useful concept benefit both the city and its citizens.

Egyptian filmmaker Ibrahim Elbatout: events in Manchester

by Dalia Mostafa, Middle Eastern Studies

cities@manchester, in cooperation with Middle Eastern Studies, the British Academy, and the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW) at Manchester University, sponsored a public talk with renowned Egyptian filmmaker Ibrahim El Batout as guest speaker. The event, which was entitled “Filming the Revolutionary City: Independent Filmmaking in Egypt after the January 2011 Revolution”, took place on 8th December 2011 (5.30-7.00pm), followed by a wine in the Samuel Alexander Foyer. The event was open to staff and students, as well as the general public. It was well attended, with an inspiring discussion taking place between the speaker and the audience after his speech. El Batout also showed a short film clip from the recent demonstrations against military rule in Egypt.

El Batout’s event came as part of a week he spent in Manchester (4-9 December 2011) whilst taking part in a number of activities. On Monday 5th Dec., Elbatout’s award-winning film Ein Shams was screened as part of the course module “Contemporary Cinema of the Middle East”, with an introduction by the director. Then, on Tuesday 6th Dec., the director held a master-class with the students on the module. However, both events were also open to all. On Wednesday 7th Dec., the Cornerhouse Cinema in Manchester screened El Batout’s latest film Hawi (Juggler) which was released in 2010. The screening was followed by a Q&A session with the director, facilitated by Dr Dalia Mostafa (Middle Eastern Studies) and Dr Joseph McGonagle (French Studies) from Manchester University. These events attracted different audiences who showed great interest in communicating with the director and in discussing fascinating issues with him about the themes presented in his films, his cinematic stylistics, and his future work in Egypt.

Ibrahim El Batout is best known for his internationally acclaimed feature film Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun, 2008), which was rated number 6 of 10 best films of the year 2008. The film won several awards including The Golden Hawk in Rotterdam Festival, and the International Carthage Festival Award. Elbatout is also one of Egypt’s pioneering independent filmmakers. He has traveled widely across the globe and made a number of documentaries in war-tarnished areas, including on the Iran-Iraq war (1987); the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka (1992); the massacres in Rwanda (1994); the war in Kosovo (1999); and many others. In 2004, he stepped into the world of fiction and made his first feature film Ithaki in 2005. His third film Hawi won the best film award at the Doha Tribecca film festival, and the Dubai film festival in 2010.

Elbatout’s feature films aim to bring together the two worlds of fiction and documentary. They focus on the experience of living in and shaping urban environments: we see representations of Cairo in his first two films Ithaki and Eye of the Sun, and of Alexandria in his last film Hawi. His characters appear to be products of the cities they live in, and their lives are shaped and influenced by the political and cultural dynamics of the urban spaces they inhabit. In Elbatout’s films, we see beautiful cinematography of city streets, urban landmarks, the sea, and the Nile, as well as little shops, traditional cafés, and private rooms, places which embrace the characters, articulate their identities, and determine the choices they make. On the other hand, cities in his films cannot be perceived in isolation from the masses which re-appropriate urban spaces whilst continuously negotiating and creating new horizons for themselves: reclaiming the streets and squares in mass demonstrations; transforming gender relations; and establishing new free places of their own, and so on.

In his public talk on 8th Dec. at Manchester University, Elbatout stressed the integral relationship between the documentary and the fictional in his films. He said that he was drawn to the world of feature filmmaking after spending so many years as a war reporter and documentary filmmaker, because he felt freer in the world of fiction. He could capture certain emotions through his fictional characters, which he could not do within the documentary sphere. He said that his next feature film, which is due to be released this year, focuses on the lives of three characters who could not take part in the January 2011 Egyptian Revolution, and the story follows the characters to explore their private lives, their relationships with each other, and their relation to the city they live in. The film interrogates the question of why these characters did not participate in the revolution, hence raising many issues about the individual and politics as well as the relationship to a radically transforming public space in today’s Egypt. Elbatout also explained that cinema in Egypt will see important developments in the aftermath of the momentous event of the revolution.

Indeed, the week was very successful and many important discussions took place throughout. I look forward to inviting Elbatout again in Manchester with his new film!

Dr Dalia Mostafa, Lecturer in Arabic and Comparative Literature
Middle Eastern Studies, School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures