Tag Archives: Public Space

Material Struggles, Imaginary Struggles

by James Scorer, Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies

via flickr by Doug88888

via flickr by Doug88888

In December 2010, thousands of people seized the area known as Parque Indoamericano in Buenos Aires, a large space of open land in the south of the city’s autonomous central district.  Demanding the right to dignified housing, the occupiers were forcibly removed after some days by the three state police forces that bear some jurisdiction in Capital Federal (Policía Federal, Policía Metropolitana and the Gendarmería).  Local vigilante groups from adjacent neighbourhoods also participated in the evictions, which eventually resulted in three deaths.

The taking of Parque Indoamericano highlights the ongoing material struggle over housing and the right to the city in Latin America, a tension that, in Buenos Aires, continues to afflict the city despite the significant advances that have been made in social housing during the centre-left Kirchner era (2003-present).  In the wake of the events of 2010, the use made of the Park by the Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires [The Government of the City of Buenos Aires], led by the right-wing Governor Mauricio Macri and staunchly opposed to President Cristina Kirchner, has underlined the importance of that material struggle over the city.

The information provided on the City’s website about the Park is an exercise in sleight of hand.  The same administration that, both via judicial means and state-sanctioned violence, uprooted the occupiers, now states: ‘El Parque Indoamericano es una causa de los vecinos que este Gobierno abrazó desde el principio’ [The Indoamericano is a cause {also lawsuit} of the neighbours that this Government has embraced from the beginning].  The statement implies sympathy for the vigilante groups, suggesting that those protesters living in the shantytown bordering the park (Villa 20) were not neighbours.

The words also draw a veil over the xenophobic comments that Macri made during the occupation about the protesters, some of whom, in turn, expressed their political affiliations by stating that they wanted to call their future settlement ‘Néstor Kirchner’ after the deceased former President.[i]  The Governor exploited the protest by stating misleadingly that the City of Buenos Aires was suffering from waves of immigrants and that the City was propping up the poorer countries that neighbour Argentina.  The city’s ongoing housing crisis can hardly be attributed to immigration, however, levels of which, if anything, have fallen rather than risen since the economic crisis of 2001.  Not only did Macri’s words reflect the growing fear that the Argentine capital is suffering from ‘Latinamericanisation’ but they also tried to massage the material realities of Buenos Aires.

The webpage of the City’s Government also demonstrates that, since those verbal interventions, Macri’s administration has invested heavily in the Park.  The public space now benefits from walkways, new lighting, tree planting, public toilets, basketball courts and football pitches, among other amenities and improvements.[ii]  The tents of the protestors, symbolic of their precarious living conditions, have now been replaced with an assortment of other, pointedly more permanent, material interventions.

These transformations embarked upon by the City take advantage of the Park’s political capital both in material terms and also to reinforce the image of the incumbent as a governor who, as his advertising campaigns state, ‘makes’ Buenos Aires.  The administration’s belief that politics (and the political imaginary) is achieved, measured and sustained via the material, therefore, not only reflects the corporate-led vision of the governor but also masks the manner in which Macri also manages and refashions the urban imaginary.

The recurring formulation of the relationship between the material city and the urban imaginary as a dichotomy between the real and the not-real is not the most effective way to analyse the intersections between the social, political and cultural landscapes of the city.  It often leaves out the imaginary altogether or, at best, relegates it to the position of an inferior cousin.  We need to think beyond such rigid frameworks of analysis and move to a conceptual position that situates the imaginary as a constitutive and structuring dimension of urban politics.  In the case of the Argentine capital, for example, such analysis could include the recent attempt to market Buenos Aires as a ‘green city’, Macri’s mobilisation of the city’s youth via rock music on the campaign trail, the City’s advertising campaign ‘Haciendo Buenos Aires’ [Making Buenos Aires], or the altogether more anomic depictions of the city-being-made in films such as Medianeras, directed by Gustavo Taretto.  Using this interdisciplinary approach to reflect on how these and other urban imaginaries participate in the construction of the city will illuminate how imaginaries mobilize the multiple material and contested infrastructures of the global urban south.  Such is the departure point for the Argentine case studies that Dr. Leandro Minuchin and I began to research in 2010.

James Scorer, Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies, University of Manchester


A (Green) Roof Above Your Head?

by Andrew Speak, PhD candidate in Geography

There are some exciting, positive changes going on in some of the world’s cities and most people don’t even know it is happening.  That’s because it is happening above their heads!  I’m talking about green roofs.  A green roof is basically replacing conventional bitumen or concrete roof surfaces with a layer of plants.  The main type is known as an extensive green roof and consists of a thin layer of soil, which supports a mat of Sedum plants.  Sedum is a succulent plant that comes in many varieties, and has pretty flowers, but importantly can withstand the harsh conditions on a rooftop – periods of drought and high winds for example.  At the other end of the scale is an intensive roof which has a thicker soil layer that can support a wider variety of plants such as small trees, shrubs and even vegetables.

Extensive sedum green roof on Number One First Street, Manchester


Urban vegetation has many benefits, which are increasingly being recognised by city planners.  Street trees possess these benefits, but there is generally a lack of space at street level for tree planting schemes, so the space afforded by rooftops is a perfect site for urban greening.  There are a number of specific benefits:

  1. Reduced solar energy gain by building materials, through shading and replacement of concrete surfaces.  This lowers the need for air conditioning in summer which can lead to huge financial benefits.  Plants reflect more radiation than conventional urban surfaces.  Vegetation also has a cooling effect from the process of evapotranspiration which uses incoming long wave radiation to change water from liquid to gas.  The altered thermal budget of cities leads to a reduction in the Urban Heat Island phenomenon, which can make cities very uncomfortable places to be in summer.
  2. Plants act as passive filters of urban air pollution by providing a larger surface area for deposition.  Pollutants are then washed off in rains.
  3. Replacement of impervious urban surfaces with soil can reduce the pressure on urban drainage systems by acting as a storage buffer in rainfall events.  The water retained by green roofs is then returned to the atmosphere by evapotranspiration.  There is some evidence that pollutants can be retained within the soil layer as well, thus reducing the impact on receiving water bodies.
  4. Green roofs can provide habitats for birds and insects, thus replacing the biodiversity lost to urban sprawl.  Using native plants on green roofs is frequently promoted.
  5. Urban green space has a strong aesthetic quality and has been shown to reduce stress and promote feelings of well-being.
  6. By protecting roof membranes from huge diurnal temperature extremes and UV radiation, the lifetime of the roof is extended, thus adding another long term financial incentive.

The ability of green roofs to counteract high urban temperatures is being promoted as a form of climate change adaptation.  Work done by Manchester University’s Ecocities group has demonstrated the usefulness of green roofs to keep the city cool under future climate projections.

So if they are so beneficial, why aren’t UK cities full of them?  Currently, a lot of green roofs in this country tend to be ‘showcase’ roofs on National Trust visitor centres, garden centres and art galleries.  One inescapable reason is that green roofs do have a fairly high initial construction cost and intensive roofs can also have considerable maintenance costs.  Plus, not all existing buildings can support the extra weight that a wet or snow-laden green roof would add to the structure.  But this hasn’t stopped countries like Germany, Austria, and more recently the US and Japan, changing their googlemaps satellite street views from grey to green.

The contemporary green roof movement started in German-speaking countries.  One theory is that they sprouted spontaneously from flat roofs in Berlin that had been covered in sand as a fire-proof method after the war.   Deliberate roof garden construction was a large feature of the modernist movement, with flat roofs seen as an extra space to be utilised for enjoyment of healthy outdoor lifestyles.   The environmental movements that started in the 70s ensured growing numbers of people would start to look for alternative ways to live more sustainably.  Germany, Austria and Switzerland have always been very proficient at incorporating verdant elements into urban design, as beautifully demonstrated by the architect Hundertwasser.  Perhaps, it is something unique about the German appreciation of nature that has influenced the design of cities with a desire to bring nature into them.  Whatever the reason, Germany leads the way in green roofing with 5 square miles of green roofs being built every year, helped by government subsidies for construction costs, and policies that state new builds of a certain area with a flat roof MUST have a green roof.

‘Waldspirale’ in Darmstadt, Germany, by the architect Hundertwasser


Ubiquitous green roofing also exists in Scandinavia, where the turf roof dominates.  These roofs serve the purpose of acting as insulation from extreme winter cold, and have been in use since Viking times.   A recent trip to Norway opened my eyes to the possibilities of turf roofs, with everything from car garages to bin-sheds supporting mini-meadows.

No roof is too small for a green roof in Norway

A traditional turf roof in northern Norway


The UK lacks a definite policy at the moment with regards green roofs.  A number of architects install them on new builds, with the motivation being mostly driven by meeting BREEAM sustainability standards and getting an A or B on the Building Energy Rating, but there are no legal or carrot-and-stick methods to ensure green roofs are factored into new building designs.  Some new living roofs are even criticised because they are high-profile and well-publicised, which has led to accusations of them being a form of green-washing of neoliberal construction projects.

There are signs that the UK is catching up though.  The Green Roof Centre in Sheffield is doing great work at promoting green roofs and carrying out research on suitable plants and substrates.  They have also drawn up a UK specific code of best practice for green and living roof installation.  The Centre have been involved in a number of projects on schools, bus shelters  and university buildings, helping Sheffield towards having the highest number of green roofs.  London is also unveiling more and more green roofs of various sizes and types, often thanks to the influence of charismatic urban ecologist and green roof fanatic, Dusty Gedge.  Here in Manchester there are a number in the city centre, such as Number One First Street, The Hive, Spinningfields Apartments, Whitworth Art Gallery and MMU’s All Saint’s building.  There are a couple of notable roofs in the suburbs as well, such as the roof vegetable garden at Hulme Garden Centre and the intensive green roof on Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton which even has a pond on it!  And small DIY green roofs are popping up all over the place in people’s gardens.

So the ball is rolling, albeit slowly here in Britain.  Whether the motivation is to reduce air conditioning bills, attract wildlife, lower the burden on the city’s drains, or just have a conversation piece on the garden shed, more and more plants are sprouting up in the urban roofscape.

Andy Speak is a 3rd year Geography PhD student, investigating a number of environmental benefits of green roofs in Manchester. Watch Andrew talking about his research in this video.

Further info on green roofs:



City as Museum / City as Instrument: new possibilities for sound and the city

Image from Manchester's Sonic Meta-Ontology Project

Image from ‘Manchester’s Sonic Meta-Ontology’ Project


See end of article for details of Locative Audio event on 29th June.

It’s an exciting time to be a composer or sound artist. Innovations in and new connections between methodology, technology and creative practice are creating a host of new possibilities for the sonic exploration of experience. NOVARS, the Research Centre for Electro Acoustic Composition and Sound Art at the University of Manchester work at the cutting edge of this new territory. So what are these developments? To keep it simple here we will talk about two, both of which relate to space.

The first concerns the composition and performance of sound in relation to space. Composition tools and performance environments are becoming increasingly sophisticated through collaboration and feedback between composers, musicians, researchers and engineers. For example, virtual 3-dimensional environments and multi-speaker matrix diffusion sound systems mean that composers and sound artists are increasingly able to realise complex and immersive sound environments in concert halls, performance spaces and headphones.

A second key development, also space-related, arises from mobile phone technology and virtual geotagging.  Groups like Escoitar, who work at the fluid edge between art and technology – are developing mobile applications which can add a virtual and interactive layer of sound – a sonic annotation – to places and spaces. Escoitar’s NoTours application detects location (via GPS), which triggers the playing of audio files as the individual listener moves through space and enters specific location points.

Augmented Aurality Tour Map

Augmented Aurality Tour Map

cities@manchester have supported NOVARS’ work in the urban environment, which is brought together under the banner Locative Audio.  Last year NOVARS worked with Escoitar/NoTours on the experimental Manchester’s Sonic Meta-Ontology project. This research and composition project culminated in an augmented aurality tour of the city, open to the public. The project had a number of stages. The initial part was the composition of five sonic pieces in response to specific sites in the city, for example around China Town and a bus journey. These were then ‘tagged’ on to specific geo-locations in the city using the software. The outcome was a tour of Manchester along specific routes; participants were given a prepared smartphone and headphones and taken along these predefined routes.  As they moved through the city with the device in their pockets their GPS-tracked location automatically triggered the playing of sonic pieces in specific sites. It can be highly interactive as the audio files play in particular formulations depending on how the listener moves through space.

This mapping of sonic materials on to spatial environments has huge practical and creative potential. Ricardo Climent, project director and NOVARS co-director, explains:

“by ‘Augmenting the Aurality’ of a specific every-day location, composers can recover memories of a particular place, can produce sonic alternatives to repositories of visual information; and even attempt to forecast desired futures through sound”.

This short video featuring Ricardo and others involved in the project explains more.

This year Locative Audio focuses on the concept of ‘City as Museum/City as Instrument’. Culminating in an interactive audiogame showcase event on 29th June, researchers, composers, artists and practitioners have been invited to respond to:

  •  “The study of Cities from a sonic perspective” (e.g. using mobile technology and physical tours around the city), with
  • “The concert hall’, as an immersive interactive environment (often using physics-graphics-audio-game engines and virtual worlds) which can potentially connect with the former.

So if last year’s project brought composers and audiences out into the city, this year sees an attempt to link the city back to the concert hall.

Ricardo explains:

“with renewed support from cities@manchester the 2012 Locative Audio Project takes our exploration a step further by connecting the ‘Augmented Aurality City Tours’ with ‘The Concert Hall’. We are inviting a number of participants from the UK and abroad to share their creative thinking with us, combining Location-based Audio and Media with game-physics-audio engine technologies often found in the production of virtual environments and games”.

The profusion and diversity of these interactions between sound and technology can obscure a quite simple understanding, shared by many of the practitioners involved, of the value and potential of sound and sonic experience. One of the speakers at the upcoming Locative Audio event on 29th June, Roddy Hawkins, tells us why he thinks it is so important for understanding and experiencing cities:

“One way or another sound affects us all in the city. And yet we know remarkably little about how people engage with the sensory overload that is presented by the urban landscape. When you consider that over 50% of the world’s population now live in urban areas you very quickly begin to appreciate the enormity of the topic and the relevance of a critical and creative approach to the study of sound in that context. From product design to acoustic cocooning, sonic branding to noise pollution, the city is a complex space that both constructs and reflects the fragmented experience of the modern day city-dweller.

“What is particularly exciting about the topic is its relevance and impact beyond academia: in my experience, given the opportunity, most people have something to say on the way they experience sound in the city — as pleasure, escape, noise, information, warning. Understanding this experience is fundamental to the way we engage with the city as an idea. But there is something about the experience of the city which isn’t captured by academic discourse. It’s crucial, therefore, that its complexity is captured in as many ways as possible.

“‘City as Museum/City as Instrument’ is especially important because it reaches out through the medium we are exploring: sound. It brings together academics, sound artists, new technologies and listeners in a model of exchange that we need to build and sustain in the future. I’m really looking forward to the sonic journey promised by the forthcoming Locative Audio event; with GPS and game audio technologies, we’re going to explore the city and its complex sound in an interactive, engaging way. We need to open our ears to open our eyes.”

This ambition for the possibilities of sound both as a medium and as a creative tool is echoed by Ricardo:

“As composers, we want to take a step forward in the way we interact with cities and people and learn from other agents who do so; e.g.  historians, social enterprise leaders, developers, policy makers, archaeologists, urban planners, heritage officials, to mention a few. By combining creative forces to collage narratives and sound via soundwalks, composers and sound aggregators can also interact with other disciplines to project a new understanding of a specific place and time. Such audio-guided geo-walks may convert the city into a new ‘open hall’ to experience sound.”

Locative Audio are holding a big open event on Friday 29th June from 12:00 to 17:00 at the John Thaw Studio Theatre, Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama, University of Manchester. The event aims to brings together the range of potential applications and possibilities opened up by digital technologies and methodologies. It will include talk, media and virtual installations, live music events and audio guide tours of areas in the city. Full details including the programme can be found on the website: http://locativeaudio.org/.

Text by Caitriona Devery.

‘Every Revolution has its Space: from Occupying Squares to Transforming Cities?’: Audio Recording

Image from Elentari86 via flickr

25th April, 4-6.30 pm,  Cordingley Lecture Theatre, Humanities Bridgeford Street

Presentations by:
Erik Swyngedouw, Professor of Geography, University of Manchester
Andy Merrifield, Leverhulme Visiting Professor, Department of Geography, University of Manchester
Neil Smith, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography, CUNY Graduate Center, New York

Play audio recording 

A conversation among three geographers exploring the relationship between contemporary political movements, symbolic and material spaces of the contemporary city, and strategies for radical social change in an era defined by consensual party politics.  The presentations and audience participation extend from theoretical considerations of politics and urban society to speculations on what contemporary political manifestations might mean, and how they might be interpreted and encouraged.

This event was organised by:
OpenSpace:  An interdisciplinary forum for doctoral and postdoctoral research supporting dialogue on cities and beyond, initiated by PhD researchers in the Department of Geography

And was supported by:
The Leverhulme Trust: Visiting Professorships
The Urban Transformations Research Group, Geography, University of Manchester

For further information, please contact brian.rosa@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk

Fragrant Cities – Relationships between smell and urban environments

By Victoria Henshaw, Architecture, School of Environment and Development.

When people hear about my research examining the sense of smell and the city, they frequently question why it might be important that we consider the role of this elusive sense in urban environments. Many go even further, suggesting that we’d be better off if we couldn’t smell the pollution, the rubbish bins, the cigarette smoke or the sewers. At first, such comments used to surprise me, but over time, I’ve come to appreciate these as symptomatic of society’s preoccupation with the way things look (people, environments and objects) and, to a lesser extent, the way they sound. Such views are further reinforced by some of the special characteristics that our sense of smell possesses. I therefore attempt to respond to these comments with a number of key points.

Manchester China Town

First, I highlight that as much as we try and distance ourselves from our inner animality, as human beings we are in fact living, breathing masses of flesh, nerve, muscle, bone, sinew, sense and instinct and as such we rely on all of our senses, and there are many not just the traditional five[1], to come to understand and gain meaning from the world around us. Second, the very way that the sense of smell operates means that it frequently isn’t until people lose their sense of smell that they come to appreciate the important role and influence it has in our everyday lives. I know a philosopher in Barcelona who has congenital anosmia, meaning that she was born without a sense of smell, and she has concluded in her investigations into aesthetic experience that the world ‘is both a less beautiful and a less ugly place without a sense of smell’[2]. In this respect, the sense of smell becomes a quality of life issue and certainly all the evidence I have collected over the years, have supported this idea and indicated that the perception of environments, and their odour, are significantly related.

Thirdly, given its important role in self-preservation, the human sense of smell has a special relationship with memory, allowing us to transport across space and time to people and places often long gone. How many of us have detected smells that have taken us back to childhood memories that we thought long-forgotten? One research participant informed me that the combined odour of a specific perfume with cigarette smoke always reminds her of her mother, now deceased. The same unique combinations of scents are true for places and cities too, stored in the back of our memories for long periods of time for places we have visited in the past, and frequently at the forefront of our consciousness when first visiting unfamiliar territory.

Finally, the study of smell in the urban environment allows us to think about cities, societies and the challenges they face, in a new way. Just as the feminist movement placed an important emphasis on the study of the everyday in revealing new perspectives on the social world, the study of people’s everyday experiences of odour, similarly draw attention to key urban issues such as air quality, public health, social inclusion and the fine balance between public and private space in the city.

But before I elaborate further on city odours today, allow me to briefly summarise some background to this line of enquiry. The term ‘smellscape’ was first coined in 1990 by geographer J. Douglas Porteous, in his book ‘Landscapes of the Mind: Worlds of Senses and Metaphor’[3]. Similar to the term ‘landscape’, or more recently that of ‘soundscape’ which can be traced back to the work of Shaffer[4] and colleagues on the World Soundscapes Project, ‘smellscape’ is used to describe the smell environment surrounding us; both its individual component odours and its totality[5]. Indeed, it was the interesting work on urban soundscapes carried out at the University of Salford’s Acoustics Research Centre, and specifically that investigating the positive role that sound (as opposed to noise) plays in urban experience and perception, that first wet my appetite or rather tantalised my nostrils, and got me thinking about smell and the city.

Cities have historically been thought of as dirty, smelly places fuelled by the gathering of large numbers of people in concentrated areas, supported by a cycle of food and goods supply, waste production and removal. Pre-industrial towns and cities across Europe were extremely odorous places by today’s standards. Laden with excrement, mud, de-composing animals, meat, vegetables and blood, the pigs that routed around in the street for organic matter offered only small comfort in reducing the filth within which urban dwellers went about their daily lives[6].

Industrialisation, dubbed by Barbara and Perliss[7] the ‘excremental age of architecture’ (2006, p30), brought pollution of urban air as a by-product of burning coal in the home and industry, however it was the smell rather than the smoke that people disliked most as diseases, believed to be carried in the air through foul smells, were feared more than respiratory illnesses[8].

Academic research and popular programmes such as the BBC’s recent Filthy Cities series[9] have increased awareness of historical urban smellscapes; however few studies have examined contemporary urban smell environments. Difficulties experienced when measuring or describing odours undoubtedly contribute towards this gap in knowledge, although techniques such as gas-chromatography[10] or technologies such as augmented noses[11] are starting to emerge. Furthermore, it wasn’t until the publication of Buck and Axel’s paper on the function of the smell system in 1991, for which they went on to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2004, that the scientific community gained a degree of consensus regarding how our sense of smell even works.

Moreover, modern architects, urban designers and planners have been widely accused as preoccupied with visual aspects of the environment, argued by Richard Sennett[12] to result in towns and cities that deprive the senses, creating, “…the dullness, the monotony, and the tactile sterility which afflicts the urban environment”. My research attempts to gain insights that might assist in overcoming this bias, through the investigation of everyday experiences of smell in the contemporary city. Through undertaking smellwalks, a practice where I walk with participants in defined areas and ask them to focus upon what they can smell, I have examined what odours we detect in cities, how we perceive these and in turn, what relationship odours have with our perceptions of the places in which we detect, or associate, particular odours. There is also a practical side to my research, a hangover from days spent as a practitioner delivering large scale urban realm projects, where I identify tools by which planners, architects and urban designers might better accommodate considerations of smell within their work.

So what factors influence the smell of our cities today and what smells might we expect to detect? Clearly, the smellscapes of towns and cities today are very different from those of the past, largely a result of conscious and unconscious odour management strategies that have attempted to: separate smells away from the city (e.g. heavy industries, waste water treatment facilities, abattoirs) or away from source such as through elaborate ventilation systems such as those in the alleyways of Manchester’s Chinatown; deodorise environments by introducing sophisticated waste management systems and cleansing activities that remove or wash away odours; mask existing odours with other odours that prevent or change the perception of those existing in the smellscape (e.g. odours of traffic overlaying those of local vegetation); and scent urban environments, (e.g. the use of scented cleaning fluids in public areas and car park stairwells or synthetic odours in outdoor commercial advertising campaigns).

Perfumed Fountain (Grasse, South of France)

Perfumed Fountain (Grasse, South of France)

The impact of these various strategies can be felt wherever we wonder; the expectations we have of what we might smell in contemporary cities and the different types of areas within them, varies significantly from expectations of the towns and cities of twenty, fifty, one hundred years ago. And what smells do we actually detect in the contemporary city? A much wider variety than we might initially think. When I ask people to name the odours that they expect to detect in the city, they usually highlight those stereotypical urban odours of traffic pollution, waste, cigarette smoke and coffee, and admittedly such odours do feature as important components of urban smellscapes. However, there are many other odours that are also frequently detected, ranging from local vegetation, materials, construction and key environmental features such as rivers, canals or the sea, through to markets, restaurants, ventilation emissions, street vendors and people. Factors such as the physical place we inhabit, our previous experiences, and the time of the day, week or year when we detect an odour, will likely influence our perception of that odour as well as the odour also influencing our perception of that place. So next time you walk down the street, have a sniff and see what you can smell; you might be surprised!

Smell advertising in London, February 2011

Along with colleagues in Geography and the Manchester Business School, Victoria is organising an inter-disciplinary workshop on Smell and the City, to be held on Monday the 19th March 2012, 12-4.30pm at the University of Manchester. Places are strictly limited so to find out more or reserve a space, please email Victoria.henshaw@manchester.ac.uk. Victoria will also be organising a series of smellwalks in Manchester in April and May, so please let her know if you would like to participate.

To find out more about Victoria’s work, visit http://manchester.academia.edu/VHenshaw, follow her on twitter @VictoriaHenshaw or alternatively you can download a podcast of a recent radio interview with her, on American Public Media  (3rd March 2012 edition of the show).

[1] The most widely recognised senses in the western world are those of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch (including haptic elements such as vibration) however, the scientific community also identifies the vestibular and proprioceptive senses (also referred to as kinaesthesia), see for example Lackner, J. R. and P. DiZio (2005). “Vestibular, Proprioceptive, and Haptic Contributions to Spatial Orientation” Annual Review of Psychology 56: pp.115-147

[2] Tafalla, M. (2011) Smell, Anosmia, and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature Presented at the Sensory Worlds Conference at the University of Edinburgh, 7th – 9th December 2011

[3] Porteous, J. D. (1990) Landscapes of the mind – Worlds of Sense and Metaphor. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.

[4] Schafer, R. M. (1994). Our Sonic Environment and the Soundscape – The Tuning of the World, Rochester.

[5] Porteous, J. D. (1990). Smellscape. Landscapes of the Mind: Worlds of Sense and Metaphor. Toronto, University of Toronto Press: pp. 21-45.

[6] See Classen, C. (2005). The Sensuous City: Urban Sensations from the Middle Ages to Modernity. Sensing the City: Sensuous Explorations of the Urban Landscape. Canadian Centre for Architecture; Cockayne, E. (2007). Filth, Noise & Stench in England. London, Yale University Press.

[7] Barbara, A. and A. Perliss (2006). Invisible Architecture – Experiencing Places through the Sense of Smell. Milan, Skira.

[8] Cockayne (2007)

[9] See http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00z8r9l. The programme was launched with an accompanying scratch and sniff postcard of historical city odours such as those of XXX

[10] See Buchbauer, G. (2011) Flavour and Fragrance Chemistry: An Overview. In Diaconu, M., E. Heuberger, et al., (Eds). Senses and the City – An interdisciplinary approach to urban sensescapes. London, Transaction Publishers. P139-143

[11] See products such as the ‘Nasal Ranger’ which measures the dilution level of specific smells (Weber, C. (2011). “Augmented nose sniffs out illegal stenches” New Scientist. Issue2799)

[12] Sennett, R. (1994). Flesh & Stone – The Body and the City in Western Civilization. London, W.W. Norton & Company. P15

New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens

by Andrew Irving,  Social Anthropology, University of Manchester

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”
Oscar Wilde

As Oscar Wilde suggests, because there is so much to be gained by observing surfaces, their study is not to be concerned with the shallow, superficial, and trivial. However, after making this declaration Wilde cautioned “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril”. Consequently, I would argue it has become necessary for the social sciences and humanities to place themselves in greater “peril” by venturing beneath the surface to try to gain a better understanding of the interior dialogues and imaginative lifeworlds that constitute people’s experiences of urban life.

The capacity for a multifaceted, imaginative inner life encompassing internally represented speech, random urges, unfinished thoughts, inchoate imagery and much else besides—is an essential feature of the human condition and a principal means through which people understand themselves and others. Simply put, without people’s inner expressions and imaginative lifeworlds there would be no social existence or understanding, at least not in a form we would recognise. And yet, while early modernist writers, such as Joyce, Dos Passos and Celine, strove to represent the ongoing streams of inner dialogue and expression that mediate the city, the social sciences and humanities find themselves without a generally accepted theory of how interiority relates to public expression, nor an established methodology for accessing interior expression, and are thus at risk of only telling half the story of human life.

The Limits of Science

Manchester: Monday 12th December 2011

Here is a photograph I took this morning in Manchester and I have an extremely simple question about it that nevertheless places us far beyond the limits of science and other modes of understanding.

The question is what are these people thinking?

What for example is the man in the red coat thinking as he walks towards us? Or the man immediately to his right? Or the two women in red coats walking away from us? What is the empirical content of their thoughts? As with any crowded city street, people may be engaged in diverse, or even radically different, forms of inner speech and imagery, with one person trying to remember if they locked their front door while others are respectively fantasising about an actor, deciding where to go for lunch, communing with a dead spouse or negotiating a major life change, such as having lost their job. In Ethnography, Art and Death (Irving 2007) I try to enter into the consciousness of a man walking around a city looking for a place to commit suicide, while Dangerous Substances and Visible Evidence: Tears, Blood, Alcohol Pills (2010) and Strange Distance: Towards an Anthropology of Interior Dialogue (2011) both concern persons who have received an HIV diagnosis and attempt to understand the experience of someone confronting the radical uncertainty of their own existence in public: a person who remains a social being and is required to act accordingly as they walk along the street, but whose inner dialogues and lifeworlds are not always made apparent to the wider world. The extent to which the people we see in streets, parks, cafes, bridges and vehicles are engaged in the same practice remains an open question but once urban life is understood as a whole-body phenomenon—indivisibly combining inner speech and imagery, muscle movement, the circulation of blood, heart-rate and the nervous system—it reinforces the idea that the seemingly congruent social activities we observe in a city are differentiated by diverse inner lifeworlds that remain uncharted across the social sciences and humanities.

Random Encounters

What would it be like to enter into other people’s heads and find out what they are thinking: the person sitting next to you on the bus; the girl sitting in the corner of the café; the man staring at the pigeons in the park. What would it be like to be able to listen to the inner conversations, hopes, fantasies and worries of the people we see in the city? What daydreams, ideas and opinions would we uncover? What would we learn about human-beings?

For New York Stories, funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation (Grant No. 8046), I collected more than 100 interior dialogues of random strangers as they moved around the city. The method was very simple: I stood at different points in the city and asked people what they were thinking about in the moment immediately before I approached them. I then invited them to wear a small microphone and narrate the stream of their thoughts as they continued their journey. I found it surprising not just the level of interest in the nature of the project but by the amount of people, from all walks of life, who said yes. Below are 3 short excerpts of people randomly encountered in the city taken from the full-length recordings that range from 15 minutes to 1.5 hours.

Meredith: Soho


Thomas: Manhattan Bridge


Tony: Chelsea

The above videos can only offer the tiniest glimpse into those realms of experience that can be articulated and approximated through words and images within a public, narrative encounter, and thus cannot claim to provide a comprehensive approach to people’s lived experiences of the city. Not all thought processes take place in language and routinely incorporate various non-linguistic and non-symbolic modes of thinking and being that operate beyond or at the threshold of language. The narrations are necessarily subject to many layers of self-censorship and the act of recording would have substantially influenced the content and character of the material in indeterminate ways.

Nevertheless, as the person walked through the city narrating their thoughts it soon becomes apparent that there are as many ways of thinking as there are of speaking. Meredith’s thoughts stretch from the trivial to the tragic over a few short steps as she begins by looking for a Staples stationary store to buy CD covers, then shortly after is dwelling on a friend’s cancer diagnosis she learnt about the previous night. Meanwhile, she looks over the road and notices a cafe she likes to watch people in. Thomas is concerned with people’s prospects in the current social and economic climate and his thoughts are organised as a sustained social analysis and argument about the position of working people and the historical migration of black workers from the agricultural south to the industrial north. Tony, a writer and video artist, walking from his boyfriend’s house, his thoughts emerging in staccato bursts: as he walks quicker and his blood circulates faster he begins to get more argumentative with himself as he negotiates a significant life event and keeps returning to the same words suck it up or let it go.

Inner expression is a shared phylogenetic capacity that is constitutive of a broad range of experiences ranging from routine and mundane interactions to extraordinary moments of existential crisis. To strengthen our truth claims about human experience and action, I argue it is necessary to develop new ways of researching and understanding how the contents of people’s inner dialogues might relate to extrinsic, audible, and observable expressions, which accords with general processes of knowing and cognition. As there is no objective, independent access to another person’s consciousness or experience, this presents a deep-seated difficulty for evidence based disciplines first, because it is primarily a methodological and practical problem rather than a conceptual one, and, second, because conventional social scientific methods and measures are often too static to capture the unfinished, transitory, and ever-changing character of people’s interior experiences and expressions as they emerge in the present tense. Developing practical approaches to knowing, theorising and representing the interior dimensions of being and its relationship to social life and would provide empirical data for investigation rather than rely upon abstract theoretical debates and exegesis remote from people’s lives. Such approaches will necessarily involve establishing new criteria for what constitutes evidence and require a rethinking of the ontological status accorded to people’s experiential interior. And although such an imperiled anthropology may not ultimately succeed in getting beneath the surface, as Oscar Wilde and his fellow writers and artists know, failure is necessary to the creative process—to which anthropologists might add that failure is equally necessary to field research, entering new social worlds and learning about people’s lives.

 “Between thought and expression lies a life time”

Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground


Irving Andrew, 2011 “Strange Distance: Towards an Anthropology of Interior

Dialogue”. in Medical Anthropology Quarterly. Vol 25: 1

——– 2010     “Dangerous Substances and Visible Evidence: Tears, Blood,

Alcohol, Pills” in Visual Studies. Vol 25: No. 1

——— 2007. “Ethnography, Art and Death” Journal of the Royal

            Anthropological Institute n.s.13(1), pages 185-208

Wilde, Oscar. 1992. The Picture of Dorian Gray. London: Wordsworth Classics.

Are Riots Normal? Or, ‘Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring!’

London Riots

by Leif Jerram.

As we watch riots tear through the centres of British cities, many people have (instinctively and understandably) tried to see something of profound importance in them. For Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, they show why the budget for his police force should not be cut. For those on the left, the riots have been an essay in the perils of vacuous consumerism on the one hand, and shameless abandonment of the poor by the state on the other. And for our Conservative prime minister, it is confirmation that parts of our society are sick and evil. For David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham (the epicentre of the riots), we must tackle the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ culture of gang pride and instant gratification.

But as a historian there is a parallel issue we need to consider. Consider this take from the Manchester City News:

Brutality is still in the ascendant. Day after day the shameful and sickening catalogue runs on. No morning comes now without its black calendar of disgusting crime. Neither the sentences of justice, such as they are, nor the protests of the press, seem to be of the slightest avail… [W]e are only expressing the feeling which is shared by all decent persons, whether rich or poor, when we say that this is condition of things altogether unendurable by a civilised people. (1)

The next month, the new Conservative government set up an inquiry into the law on assault. Disraeli was the Tory PM, 1874 the year.

People have been vociferously complaining about an alienated or feral or disconnected or criminal or impoverished or hopeless urban underclass (especially youth) since they became an object of study and classification in the late 18th/early19th centuries – with the emergence of modern cities themselves. And periodically, ‘stuff’ happens involving this ‘class’ of people. As we rush to explain this wave of violence, who remembers now the all-absorbing press coverage and social concern about gang cultures in Manchester and Glasgow between the wars? Or the anti-Semitic riots of post-World War Two Liverpool? The flick-knife violence around mods and rockers in British seaside towns in 1964? The football violence of the 1900s (it was far worse then than ever since), or the 60s, 70s and 80s? The swiftly rising crime and drug addiction of the pre-Thatcherite ‘golden age’? By forgetting our history, we have paralysed ourselves in expensive (emotionally and financially) frustration, on both right and left.

There is a terrifying alternative – terrifying to academics, journalists, and politicians alike. Maybe history shows us that these riots, horrible as they are (and particularly in light of the deaths of three young men in Birmingham) mean nothing at all? Maybe they’re just one of those random things that happens in all sorts of societies from time to time? Maybe there is no story of decline here? Maybe these sorts of things have happened episodically in all sorts of British cities for all sorts of reasons? Sometimes rich bankers go bonkers and wreck loads of stuff for reasons they themselves don’t understand; sometimes 30 year old classroom assistants do it too. Of course it’s bad that fathers abandon their kids – but it’s bad because it’s bad, not because it leads to riots. It’s always been bad, riots or not. People sometimes just do weird stuff they can’t really explain – sometimes, there isn’t an over-arching narrative. Society, like Celine Dion’s heart, goes on.

The deaths of three young men is a terrible, terrible thing. So is the destruction of homes, the muggings, the fear, the arson. I would have been terrified to have been a police officer or a shopkeeper in Wolverhampton or Woolwich. But some of what we need to think about is this: which parts of relatively persistent features of urban societies (like disorder, and anxiety about disorder) are random in their occurrence but persistent in their nature, and so probably don’t need explaining, because in fact they can’t be explained? (Except with a grand theory of everything) Which parts of the persistent features do have a common cause, but one which we don’t really know how to start explaining because haven’t got really convincing tools? And which parts have a common cause, and one which we can explain reasonably clearly? Before we rush to blame absent fathers or computer games, we have to be sure that these riots aren’t just random, otherwise we’ll spend a lot of money on not very much, and expend a lot of emotion getting not very far. A proper survey of urban disorder over the last 100 years could show us this.

Because by crisis-ifying this, we may in fact be playing right into the hands of those who seek to dismiss whole chunks of our society as being sick or evil or criminal, and thereby avoid having to include them in our vision of the future. Equally, by crisis-ifying it, we might be playing into the hands of those who advocate huge government programmes of interference and intervention where it is unwarranted, ineffective or unwelcome. After all, the economic harm caused by these rioters pales into insignificance compared to the economic harm caused by bankers – but we don’t spend much time trying to understand their moral alienation (for those on the left), or identifying them on the front pages of newspapers and locking them up (for those on the right). And which has rendered more people homeless and destroyed more small businesses: the banking crisis, or the riots? Sometimes in history weird stuff happens – universes are created, planking takes off as a craze, banks collapse, Steve Jobs invents the Mac. At each point, we should be ready to ask ourselves whether we’re handling a wacky anomaly or not. Is Britain Broken? I don’t think so. If we go looking for friendliness and good behaviour, we’ll relatively easily find it, but we give it almost no thought. ‘Years of Calm on Poor Estate’ has yet to appear on the front page of any newspaper, though it would describe most poor parts of Britain.

The nature of the problem is infinitely complicated – not just in this disorder, but in all of the moments of our collective urban lives – by the utter randomness of city spaces. Real encounters with real people make a mockery of journalistic scene setting or blame-making, academic investigation, or governmental strategies. Louise of Louise’s Hair by the bus depot in Wolverhampton came out of her shop and shouted at the 200 or so rioters to leave her alone – and they did. Louise is black; a woman; speaks with a mixture of a West Indian and Wolverhampton accent. According to most of the hackneyed theories we have, she shouldn’t be powerful, in control, confrontational, dynamic, or even a businesswoman at all. Yet she drew a line in the sand and confronted 200 young men with sticks and rocks, and they just left her, and her shop, alone. She was asked by the BBC why she did what she did. She said,

‘[My life] is a long story. But I’m here. And I don’t think some low life who dow’ want to work, who want everything given to them should just come along and destroy my shop. In five minutes? No way in hell. … I bloody well stan’ my ground. I told them, “Just leave my shop”, in no uncertain words. I give’em the language they are used to. They are used to nothing better. We all suffer. We all grown up with nothing. We all come from the same place. We all struggle for what we have and work hard. Nothing is easy, but get a job. If you want trainers you can damn’ well buy them and you’ll appreciate it more… It was just for fun – there was no protest.’ (2)

I say this not to heroise Louise, but to randomise her. The randomness of Louise is clear – we couldn’t set up a programme to produce Louises; we couldn’t train them; we couldn’t station them around a town if we could. We’ve got no idea whether Louise is a good or bad person in other areas of her life. We can’t define why Louise was successful in getting the rioters to move on, when the police could not. It was a random person in a random moment exercising random effects. So why, then, should we expect to be able to understand the rioters, whether through metaphors of evil, decline, or alienation? Let’s fix what we’re sure we understand. Let’s allow a bit of randomness into the world to though, and stop pretending we can understand everything. History shows us we can’t do that even in retrospect. Sometimes, bad things happen. And sometimes good things too.

1. Cited in Andrew Davies, The Gangs of Manchester (Preston, 2008), 74-5.
2. Interview on BBC Radio 4, PM, 10.8.11.

Explosive urbanism: fifteen years after 15/6

by Kevin Ward.

Manchester City Centre IRA Bomb

Image: Greater Manchester Police


It is a sunny Saturday morning in the centre of Manchester. I have just arrived into the city and I am heading from the bus station in Piccadilly Gardens to the train station. It is a ten minute walk. England are due to play football against Scotland at 3pm at Wembley, as part of Euro96. I have a ticket for the game against the Netherlands on the Tuesday. There are helicopters overhead. Why, I wonder. This normally only happens late at night when the police take to the skies. People are talking about the helicopters as I step off the bus, and begin to make my way, slowly, around the periphery of the Gardens. I am almost at the end of the street and about to turn right, to walk up to Piccadilly train station. Strange. The Gardens seem unusually busy. Last renovated in the 1970s they are not the sort of gardens you would want to spend too much time in, especially at night. Then there is a bang, a loud bang. A bang the like of which I have not heard before (or since). And then there is a hush. It is unnerving. Manchester city centre is never this quiet. And then there is noise and lots of it. People are screaming. Shop alarms are all ringing. And there is smoke where there shouldn’t be. I pause. Piccadilly Gardens is getting busier. I turn and walk to the train station. I know something has happened. I don’t know what. I figure I will find out soon. I do. My train is delayed by an hour. Not an uncommon occurrence of course. However, in this case the train instructor informs us this delay is due to an ‘unforeseen event’ in the centre of Manchester. Trains are unable to enter or exit the train station. People look at each other. No one says a word. A bomb has gone off in the centre of Manchester…

15 June 1996 and its aftermath

It is now fifteen years since a large explosion ripped through the heart of Manchester city centre. This was before New York and 9/11 and the images that accompanied it. It was before London and 7/7, the subsequent bombing in Madrid, and the more general growth in counter-terrorism urbanism. The viewing public was shocked by the scenes. Smoke was rising upwards while buildings were falling downwards. People were unsure where to run to, but had concluded that it was better to run than to walk. The three and a half thousand pound IRA bomb, left in a white van at the junction of Cross Street, Corporation Street and Market Street brought devastation to the surrounding area: literally creating a space. But what to do with it? In the immediate aftermath Manchester City Council, together with others, set about talking up the opportunities created by the destruction. While only a handful of buildings were structurally damaged, those in charge of the city would not be limited to pure necessity. They had their eyes on a bigger prize: a wholesale revalorization of a swathe of the centre.

The impetus for remaking the city centre wasn’t new or solely a result of the bomb; Manchester had already been undergoing redevelopment. To the south of the centre Hulme and Moss Side had been rebuilt. Nearer the centre, a series of new apartments had been built in Castlefield, next to the canal. All around the city centre old and disused exchanges and warehouses – remnants and reminders of the City’s industrial past – were being converted into apartments. New builds were emerging, as the price of land in the centre and to the south of the city continued to rise sharply. Gentrification was at full throttle. The ‘Northern Quarter’, adjacent to the centre, and the ‘Gay Village’ to the south were being constructed as sites of cosmopolitanism and difference, open and tolerant and ripe for marketing and exploitation. The City Council together with other city, regional and national agencies had taken a lead on the revalorization of the city centre and neighbouring areas. Capital had begun to return to the city, and people were not far behind it. That was the point. Those governing the city already knew what kind of city they wanted: theirs was a model borrowed in part from elsewhere but partly a product of Manchester.

Yet, some areas of the city centre had not kept apace. At the time there were concerns about what to do with the Arndale Centre. A prime example of all that is great about modernist architecture to some it may be but to many others it was viewed as an absolute eyesore. Next to it Shamble Squares was considered to be a magnet for social undesirables. Their behaviour, together with that of the alcoholics, the punks and the others that gathered there day in and day out was considered a threat to the project the Council was overseeing. Piccadilly Gardens, right in the centre of the city and organised loosely around a set of public gardens, showed signs of neglect. You took your chances if you walked through it at night. I was chased more than once by a group of alcohol-charged youths. That they failed to catch me said more about their drink consumption than it did about my turn of pace! In a flash at 11.15 on Saturday 15 June 1996 the future of each of these sites became up for grabs.

No sooner had the dust settled – literally – than plans were afoot to undertake a significant redevelopment of the retail core of the city. This unfolded over the following months. Speed was of the essence. The Trafford Centre was nearing completion in the neighbouring borough, and Manchester City Council were keen the city retained its share of what Harvey (1989) terms ‘the spatial division of consumption’. That it did and over the subsequent decade and a bit saw almost unbridled growth, as Manchester created a niche for itself as the regional retail centre. And the Council’s ‘silver lining’ story stuck. The following is not uncommon amongst those who write now about the city centre: ‘The IRA did the city a favour by forcing large-scale rebuilding of an area spoiled by the bad retail architecture of the 1960s’. So, the Council successfully packaged the post-Bomb redevelopment as an opportunity to radically overhaul the city centre, allowing them to pursue a narrow and aggressive consumption-driven agenda.

15 June 2011 and the current situation

Fast forward and what sort of city centre does Manchester have? Well it is one that certainly looks better. It consists of, amongst other things, cleaned up Victorian buildings, some new funky architecture, the odd piece of greenery, and a sprinkling of ‘public’ spaces. The core is punctuated by expensive clothes retailers of many sorts. It is awash with designer names. It has a Selfridges together with a Harvey Nics and the largest Marks & Spencers in Europe. It is also not possible to go far without coming across a bar, restaurant or pub. There is no shortage of hotels, at both the lower and the higher ends of the market. So, those consumer tourists who visit Manchester have somewhere to store their purchases, and don’t have to stumble far after a night eating and drinking. The Arndale Shopping Centre continues to be gentrified, although it may have reached its limits on that front. It retains a notional nod to its working class roots, while a growing proportion of its outlets seek to capture more of the middle class market. Piccadilly Gardens has been completely re-sculptured. There is now a water feature in the centre, and it is both a bus and a tram stop. At the corner of the Gardens is a large development, consisting of offices and bars and restaurants. This is an altogether more private ‘public’ space. As if to reinforce this, the area is now under the auspices of CityCo, a public-private partnership responsible for managing the city centre. This arrangement is emblematic of a new culture of ‘authoritarianism and control’ according to Anna Minton (2005: 40).

Piccadilly Gardens_EH Smith

Image: E H Smith

CityCo and its approach to urban ‘public’ space perhaps embodies the kind of centre Manchester now has in 2011. It is one made in the image of residential and retail consumption. The core is a business, the city centre an experience to be packaged and sold. It is about stakeholders (or is shareholders) rather than citizens. The over reliance on residential consumption was brought into sharp relief recently. The over-supply of apartments that had accrued in the preceding decade left the city centre housing market horribly exposed as the economic winds of change blew through the city during 2008 and 2009. Many apartments simply could not be sold and a series of incomplete building sites remain testament to how quickly capital can flow out of a city. When the sums don’t add up, capital cuts its losses and runs. While many bars and restaurants have remained viable businesses during the recession, others have not been so fortunate. Empty outlets have begun to pop up around the centre.

Whether the city centre model pursued so vigorously by an alliance of the City Council and various representatives of capital is robust and resilient enough to survive the next couple of years is a moot point. On a number of indicators those in Manchester are set to get a whole lot poorer. With more public sector employment cuts on the horizon and a private sector that is just about muddling through the omens are not good. And remember, this is already a city that is one of the poorest in the UK. Perhaps that is to miss the point however? Maybe the City Centre we have not is not for the citizens of the city. Somewhere along the line it was wrestled away from us and we did not even notice. The Council together with a number of other stakeholders placed all their bets on a particular sector of the economy, a decision which raises questions about the Centre’s very sustainability.

The Centre seems to be for those who come from elsewhere, those who can continue to engage in one form of conspicuous consumption or another. For sure the city centre remains busy. Are people spending enough money though? Perhaps out of the next couple of years will emerge a realization that there should be more to a city centre than consumption? A rebalancing to the debate might open up the possibility for a reinsertion of ‘the public’ into the city, as problematic as that term remains. We live in hope.

Harvey D (1989) The Urban Experience. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, Maryland.
Minton A (2009) Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty First Century. Penguin Books: London

“Happy Crisis and Merry Fear” (Slogan on Athenian Wall, December 2008): Designing the dissensual city

Erik Swyngedouw at the School of Environment and Development writes about cities and urban activism.

Cover of Newsweek, 17 February 2009

On 6 December 2008, 15 year old Alexis was shot by the police on an Athenian square, an event that triggered weeks of violent urban protests and cascaded throughout Greece. Less than two years later, on 5 May 2010, three people were killed during riotous protests in Athens in the aftermath of the draconian policy measures the Greek socialist government had to take under the policing eye of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to restore budgetary rigour and to safe French and German banks overexposed to Greek sovereign debt. On 17 July 2010, Grenoble was set on fire in a clash between rioters and the police. These are some of the recent installments of a sequence of events that saw insurgent architects in the global North trying to re-assemble the urban through anarchic outburst of irrational violence. This they did in the face of turbulent urban and social transformations for which they felt neither responsible nor had much power over their design. Emblematically starting with the French urban revolts of the fall of 2005, the retaking of the streets by protesters jumped around from Copenhagen to Lisbon and from London to Riga. Urban revolts and passionate outbursts of discontent have indeed marked the urban scene in Europe over the past decade or so. Rarely in history have so many people voiced their discontent with the political designs of the elites and signaled a desire for an alternative design of the city and the world, of the polis. Yet, rarely have mass protest resulted in so little political gain.

Politically impotent as they may be, these signs of urban violence are nevertheless telltale symptoms of the contemporary urban order, an order that began to implode, both physically and socially, with the onslaught, in the fall of 2007, of the deepest crisis of capitalism in the last 70 years, a crisis that finally exposed the flimsy basis on which the fantasy of a neo-liberal design for the city and the world of the 21st century was based. Several trillion Euro worth of bailout funding was put up by governments in the US and Europe to safe the financial system while the subsequent budgetary difficulties, manifest from 2010 onwards, prompted radical and devastating austerity measures of which the devastating implications still have to become clear.
There is apparently no alternative. The state as the embodiment of the commons has to be marshaled to serve the interests of the elite few. On 7 February 2009, Newsweek headlined its cover with the slogan ‘we are all socialists now’. Indeed, Newsweek is correct; they (the elites of the world) are all socialist now, corralling the state to serve their interest and to make sure that nothing really has to change – that capitalism can go on as before. And indeed, political dissent is virtually absent; few dissenting voices among ‘official’ political leaders, whether left or right, are heard. The only way – or so it seems in which real dissent can be articulated –is by making the public spaces of cities as recurrent theatres of impotent, violent, but passionate, outbursts of radical insurgent architects.

Urban activism that is aimed at the state and demands inclusion in the institutional registers of urban governance ripples throughout the urban and rituals of resistance are staged as performative gestures that do nothing but keep the state of the situation intact and thus contribute to solidifying the post-political consensus. Resistance as the ultimate horizon of urban movements has become a hysterical act; a subterfuge that masks what is truly at stake – how to make sure that nothing really changes. The choreographing of urban conflict today is no longer concerned with transgressing the boundaries of the possible, acceptable, and representable. Rather it is a symptom of the deepening closure of the space of the political.

Yet, the Real of the political cannot be fully suppressed and returns in the form of the violent urban outbursts, outbursts without vision, project, dream or desire, without proper symbolization. This violence is nothing but the flipside of the disavowal of violence of consensual governance. And it is exactly this repression of the properly political that surfaces invariably again in violent gestures in a sort of re-doubling of violence. That is, the return of the repressed or of the Real of the political in the form of urban violence, of insurgent architects, redoubles in the violent encounter that ensues from the police order whereby the rallying protesters are placed, both literally and symbolically, outside the consensual order; they are nothing but, in Sarkozy’s words and later repeated by the Greek prime minister, ‘scum’ (racaille), people without proper place within the order of the given.

If the political is foreclosed and the polis as political community moribund in the face of the suspension of the properly democratic, what is to be done? What design for the reclamation of the polis as political space can be thought? How and in what ways can the courage of the urban collective intellect(ual) be mobilised to think through a design of and for dissensual or polemical spaces. I would situate the tentative answers to these questions in three interrelated registers of thought.

The first one revolves around transgressing the fantasy that sustains the post-political order. This would include not surrendering to the temptation to act. The hysterical act of resistance (‘I have to do something or the city, the world, will go to the dogs) just answers the call of power to do what you want, do live your dream, to be a ‘responsible’ citizen. Acting is actually what is invited, an injunction to obey, to be able to answer to ‘What have you done today?’ The proper response to the injunction to undertake action, to design the new, to be different (but which is already fully accounted for within the state of the situation), is to follow Bartleby’s modest, yet radically transgressive, reply to his Master, ‘I’d prefer not to …’. The refusal to act, to stop asking what they want they want from me, to stop wanting to be liked. The refusal to act as is also an invitation to think or, rather, to think again. The courage of the urban intellect(ual) is a courage to be intellectual, to be an organic intellectual of the city qua polis. This is an urgent task and requires the formation of new imaginaries and the resurrection of thought that has been censored, scripted out, suspended, and rendered obscene. In other words, is it still possible to think, for the 21st century, the design of a democratic, polemical, equitable, free common urbanity. Can we still think through the censored metaphors of equality, communism, living-in-common, solidarity, proper political democracy? Are we condemned to rely on our humanitarian sentiments to manage socially to the best of our techno-managerial abilities the perversities of late capitalist urbanity, or can a different politics and process of being-in-common be thought and designed. I like to be on the side of the latter. This brings me to the second register of thought required.

This second moment of reclaiming the polis revolves around re-centring/re-designing the urban as a democratic political field of dispute/disagreement: it is about enunciating dissent and rupture, literally opening up spaces that permit speech acts that claim a place in the order of things. This centres on re-thinking equality politically, i.e. thinking equality not as a sociologically verifiable concept or procedure that permits opening a policy arena which will remedy the observed inequalities (utopian/normative/moral) some time in a utopian future (i.e. the standard recipe of left-liberal urban policy prescriptions), but as the axiomatically given and presupposed, albeit contingent, condition of democracy. Political space emerges thereby as the space for the institutionalisation of the social (society) and equality as the foundational gesture of political democracy (presumed, axiomatic, yet contingent foundation). This requires extraordinary designs (both theoretically and materially), ones that cut through the master signifiers of consensual urban governance (creativity, sustainability, growth, cosmopolitanism, participation, etc…) and their radical metonymic re-imagination. Elements of such transgressive metonymic re-designs include

1. Thinking the creativity of opposition/dissenssus and reworking the ‘creative’ city as agonistic urban space rather than limiting creativity to musings of the urban ‘creative class’
2. Thinking through the city as a space for accommodating difference and disorder. This hinges critically on creating ega-libertarian public spaces.
3. Visionary thinking and urban practices: imagining concrete spatio-temporal utopias as immediately necessary and realizable.
4. Re-thinking and re-practicing the ‘Right to the City’ as the ‘Right to the production of urbanization”. Henri Lefebvre’s clarion call about the ‘Right to the City’ is indeed really one that urges us to think the city as a process of collective co-design and co-production.

Thirdly, and most importantly, however, is to traverse the fantasy of the elites, a fantasy that is sustained and nurtured by the imaginary of an autopoietic world, the hidden-hand of market exchange that self-regulates and self-organizes, serving simultaneously the interests of the Ones and the All, the private and the common. The socialism for the elites that structures the contemporary city is Really one that mobilises the commons in the interests in the elite Ones through the enrolling and disciplinary registers of post-democratic politics. It is a fantasy that is further sustained by a double fantastic promise: on the one hand the promise of eventual enjoyment – “believe us and our designs will guarantee your enjoyment”. It is an enjoyment that is forever postponed, becomes a true utopia. On the other hand, there is the promise of catastrophe and disintegration if the elite’s fantasy is not realised, one that is predicated upon the relentless cultivation of fear (ecological disintegration, excessive migration, terrorism, economic crisis and urban disorder), a fear that can only be managed through post-political technocratic-expert knowledge and elite governance arrangements. This fantasy of catastrophe has a castrating effect – it sustains that impotence for naming and designing truly alternative cities, truly different emancipatory spatialities and urbanities.

Traversing elite fantasies requires the intellectual and political courage to imagine egalitarian democracies, the production of common values and the collective production of the greatest collective oeuvre, the city, the inauguration of new political trajectories of living life in common, and, most importantly, the courage to choose, to take sides. Most importantly, traversing the fantasy of the elites means recognizing that the social and ecological catastrophe that is announced everyday as tomorrow’s threat is not a promise, not something to come, but IS already the Real of the present.

Every Revolution Has Its Square

Tahrir Square - February 9, 2011

Erik Swyngedouw at the School of Environment and Development offers us the following intervention into on-going debates over the place of public space in the enactment of politics. A longer version is forthcoming in Political Geography.

Tiananmen square, Place de la Bastille, Red Square, Alexanderplatz, Tahrir square, Assaha-al-Khadra, Syntagma Square, Green Square, Wenceslas square: these are just a few of the public spaces that have become engrained in our symbolic universe as emblematic sites of revolutionary geographies. Their names stand as points de capiton that quilt a chain of meaning through signifiers like democracy, revolution, freedom, being-in-common, solidarity, emancipation. The emergence of political space, these examples suggest, unfolds through a political act that stages collectively the presumption of equality and affirms the ability of ‘the people’ to self-manage and organize its affairs. It is an active process of intervention through which (public) space is reconfigured and through which – if successful – a new socio-spatial order is inaugurated. The taking of urban public spaces has indeed always been, from the Athenian ochlos demanding to be part of the polis to the heroic struggle of the Tunisian people, the hallmark of emancipatory geo-political trajectories.

There is an uncanny choreographic affinity between recent urban revolts in the Middle East and eruptions of discontent and urban protest in Athens, Madrid, Lyon, Lisbon, Rome, London, Berlin, or Paris, among many other cities. However, although the Middle Eastern uprisings are celebrated by Western media pundits and politicians, their European counterparts are often disavowed as illegitimate outbursts of irrational anger and anarchic violence. Consider, for example, how a few hundred thousand people acting in common on Tahrir square are staged as the stand-in for The People, for the totality of 81.3 million Egyptians, while the participants in urban insurgencies in the global North are customarily labeled as protesters, rebels, anarchists and, occasionally, as ‘scum’. Particularly when things turn nasty, every effort is made to assure that the ‘rioters’ are not identified with The People. Despite their highly variegated political-economic and socio-cultural embedding, the events in Europe and the Middle East share that they are considered illegitimate, often repressed, and invariably disavowed by the ‘local’ elites. Their participants are not considered to be proper political interlocutors. Sarkozy called the 2005 rioters ‘racaille’,Gaddafi repeated something similar six years later in his repudiation of rebelling Libyans. Yet, these events also share an indisputably ‘political’ character.

The contemporary urban condition is marked by a post-political police order of managing the spatial distribution and circulation of things and people within a consensually agreed neo-liberal arrangement. Rancière associates this condition with the notion of ‘The Police’, conceived as a heterogeneous set of technologies and strategies for ordering, distributing, and allocating people, things, and functions to designated places. These managerial practices and procedures colonize and evacuate the proper spaces of the political; the Police are about hierarchy, ordering, and distribution. Spatialized policies (planning, architecture, urban policies, etc…) are one of the core dispositifs of the Police.

Politics inaugurate the re-partitioning of the Police logic, the re-ordering of what is visible and audible, registering as voice what was only registered as noise, and re-framing what is regarded as political. It occurs in places not allocated to the exercise of power or the instituted negotiation of recognized differences and interests. As Badiou insists, politics emerge as an event: the singular act of choreographing egalitarian appearance of being-in-common at a distance from the State. Whereas any logic of the Police is a logic of hierarchy, of inequality, politics is marked by the presumption of equality within an aristocratic order that invariable ‘wronged’ this presumption.

It is within this aporia between la politique (the Police) and le politique (the political) that urban insurrections can be framed. While much of the State’s attempts to re-order the urban through mobilizing discursively a set of signifiers of inclusiveness (social cohesion, inclusion, emancipation, self-reliance), while reproducing in practice well-worn clichés of urban doom (exclusion, danger, crisis, fear). Attempts to produce ‘cohesive’ cities revolve around choreographing distribution and circulation of activities, things and people such that the police order remains intact. While the state’s statements frame particular trajectories of ‘inclusion’, they shy away from acknowledging division, polemic, dissensus and, above all, from endorsing the assumption of equality on which the democratic political rests. Justice, equality and communality are censored from the script of urban policy prescriptions.

It is precisely this suturing process that suspends political litigation, voicing or staging dissent or asserting polemical equality. These cut through the police order and tentatively open up the spaces of the political again. The urban insurgents have no demands; they do not expect anything from the Police. They have no program, no pronunciations; neither leader nor party. Perhaps they are part of something that is called into being through resonance, viral infection and affiliation, not through hierarchy and structure. They do not demand equality, they stage it and, in doing so, produce, pace Balibar, equa-libertarian spaces. This staging of equality and freedom, the interruption of the normalized geographical order of the sensible, exposes the aristocratic configuration and in-egalitarian ‘wrongs’ of the given, and invariably encounters the Police’s wrath. Such exposition of equa-liberty cannot remain unnoticed: it either succeeds or meets with violence, the terror of the State that – in its violent acting – precisely affirms that some people are not part of The People, that the police order is indeed in-egalitarian.

This constitutive gap between Police and Politics needs to be affirmed. Politics cannot be reduced to managing and ordering space, to consensual pluralist and institutionalized policy-making. This is the terrain of the Police; the ontic dimension of everyday socio-spatial management. The political – as the staging of equality in the face of a wrong – is nothing else but the affirmation of impossibility of consensual management, of autocratic rule; it is an anarchic interruption that affirms the foundation of the democratic invention, i.e. the equality of each and every one qua speaking beings – a condition that is predicated upon affirming difference and the dissensual foundation of politics.

This notion of politics centers on division, conflict, and polemic. Politics appears as a practice of re-organizing space under the aegis of equality; it emerges where it is not supposed to be, in public space. Such political events are interventions that transgress the symbolic order and mark a shift to a new situation that can no longer be thought of in terms of the old symbolic framings. Proper politics is thus about enunciating demands that lie beyond the symbolic order of the Police; demands that cannot be symbolized within its frame of reference and, therefore, would necessitate a transformation in and of the Police to permit symbolization to occur. Therefore, the political act is, as Žižek argues, “not simply something that works well within the framework of existing relations, but something that changes the very framework that determines how things work …. it changes the very parameters of what is considered ‘possible’ in the existing constellation”. This constitutes a proper political sequence; one that can be thought and practiced irrespective of any substantive social theorization. It is the political in itself at work. Such new symbolizations are where a possible re-politicization of public civic space resides. These symbolizations should start from the premise that the presumption of equality on which democracy rests is ‘wronged’ by an oligarchic police order. It emerges where those who are un-counted and unnamed, whose fantasies are only registered as noise, produce their metaphorical and material space. Such claim to the Polis is what links the urban protests in the Middle East and the Global North. It signals the ability of The People to take hold of their future.