Tag Archives: Public Space

The Original Modern

Grid image of arches -  Brian Rosa

Grid image of arches – Brian Rosa

by Brian Rosa, PhD candidate in Geography

Manchester is a city of superlatives: it was the prototypical “shock city” of the Industrial Revolution, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx’s model for everything that was abhorrent in the industrial capitalist city, and one of the birthplaces of the labor and women’s suffrage movements.  In its heyday, Manchester was depicted in literature of Engels, Alexis de Toqueville and later the paintings of L.S. Lowry, as an uninterrupted, chaotic anti-landscape of chimneys and smoke, strewn across a featureless topography. Its unprecedented configuration invoked equal parts awe and dread, moral panic, and tempestuous visions of the future. In 1833, Toqueville described the crowded conditions, poorly constructed housing, hulking factories, and environmental degradation of Manchester: “From the foul drain the great stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world.  From this filthy sewer pure gold flows.  Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilization works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage” (cited in Konvitz 1985).

Like so many formerly industrial cities that followed, the inability to eradicate the industrial history in Manchester was not out of a lack of desire. From the post-World War II period of deindustrialization until the late Seventies, Manchester city planners’ main goal was to not repeat the ‘indiscriminate building of the industrial revolution’ (Nicholas 1945, p.87), and to counteract the ‘image of grime and obsolescence inherited from the industrial revolution’ (City and Council Borough of Manchester 1967, p.39). In his 1978 description of Stockport, just south of Manchester, historic preservationist Randolph Langenbach described the demolition of the mills around Stockport Viaduct: “the destruction is so complete that one can only believe that it must have been the result of an intentional effort to expunge the 19th-century industrial image” (cited in Parkinson-Bailey 2000, p.203).

We can see these phantasmal landscapes in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants in Max Ferber’s walks through 1950s Manchester: “In Ardwick, Brunswick, All Saints, Hulme and Angel Fields too, districts adjoining the centre to the south, whole square kilometers of working-class homes had been pulled down by the authorities, so that, once the demolition rubble had been removed, all that was left to recall the lives of thousands of people was the grid-like layout of the streets….  On that bare terrain, which was like a glacis around the heart of the city, it was in fact always and only children that one encountered” (2002, pp.157–158).

Despite the wholesale erasure of industrial-era working-class housing, what is left of Manchester city centre still bears considerable evidence to its industrial past: the monumental warehouses of Whitworth Street have been converted to residential lofts and offices, the opulent Cotton Exchange building has been transformed into the Royal Exchange Theatre, and the Manchester Central Railway Station is an exhibition and conference center.  In the areas closest to the employment, entertainment and retail center of Manchester (and accordingly, of the Northwest of England), the “Dark, satanic mills” are now the realms of the yuppie.  Throughout much of the city, the soot has been removed from industrial facades to reveal red bricks, made more vibrant by consistently cloudy skies.

Just as “Cottonopolis” was the first industrial city, and accordingly, for a moment, world’s most futuristic city, it was also one of the first ‘postindustrial’ cities.  Since the 1970s, this city of red brick has become the master of municipal entrepreneurialism based on a sanitized industrial history—a new heritage industry emerged, repackaging the city in the sepia tones of nostalgia. Branding itself as “The Original Modern”, city boosters Marketing Manchester project an outward image as a risk-taking city that shirks convention and always has.   After decades of embarrassment and disavowal of its industrial dowry, the city’s well-branded “urban renaissance” has been predicated on a reinvention that both conceals and reveals its cultural heritage, in an amalgam of selective memory and outright amnesia.

In a visual and material sense, what symbolizes a demystified Mancunian modernity? It’s a more difficult question to answer than one might presume. Domestic scenes of back-to-back tenements are the realm of dusty dioramas in museums—mannequins behind glass, nestled among obsolete machinery. In Ancoats, just east of the city centre, the world’s first industrial suburb has been reworked as an “Urban Village” inviting in the new pioneers, real estate developers have built an ornamental extension to the Rochdale Canal, site of a former housing estate, to increase waterfront real estate.  In Castlefield, the central node of industrial era productive networks, simulacral warehouses provide residential lofts where real warehouses were demolished in the 1960s.

Amidst all of the erasure and reconfiguration, industrial-era transportation infrastructure looms large on the built environment of the city in the form successive layers of canals and elevated railways. Within the sea of brick, the scoliotic railway viaducts stand as the primary beacons of a bygone era that is still central to Manchester’s identity. Accordingly, the arches serve as a backdrop to many a Manchester mise-en-scène:  in the opening credits of every episode of Coronation Street, the everyday environment of Manchester is signified in the railway viaduct that is nestled in the background of a working-class neighborhood.  By the same token, the arches become so familiar in the everyday life of the city that they rarely seem to be in the foreground. From the ground level, they interweave through the urban tapestry, appearing and disappearing, but never far away.

Foregrounding the Backdrop

To identify the “original modern” in Manchester would be to excavate material traces of Manchester’s ascent into industrial modernity- the maelstrom of rapid change, technological discoveries, social upheaval, exponential urban growth, and the fluctuating markets of proto-globalization. The industrialization of Manchester was predicated on the development of a vast, networked transportation system and the colonization of the countryside, with the railway playing a central symbolic and material role in this upheaval.  As political philosopher Marshall Berman explains, if we move forward a hundred years from when Jean-Jacques Rousseau first used the term moderniste in its contemporary form “and try to identify the distinctive rhythms and timbres of nineteenth-century modernity, the first thing we will notice is the highly developed, differentiated and dynamic new landscape in which modern experience takes place.  This is a landscape of steam engines, automatic factories, railroads, vast new industrial zones; of teeming cities that have grown overnight, often with dreadful human consequences” (Berman 1988, p.18).  In this sense, the railway becomes the apotheosis of modernity, and nowhere more so than in Manchester.

We are left with the brick railway viaducts: structures that must have seemed so futuristic at the time, time-space platforms hewn from the same red brick as the temples to industry that they supplied. This infrastructure is not superimposed on the city; its presence continues as an imposition that still affects the reshaping of the city.

References:

Berman, M., 1988. All That is Solid Melts into Air:  The Experience of Modernity, New York: Penguin Books.

City and Council Borough of Manchester, 1967. City Centre Map 1967, Manchester: City and Council Borough of Manchester.

Konvitz, J.A., 1985. The Urban Millenium: The City-Building Process from the Early Middle Ages to the Present, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.

Nicholas, R., 1945. City of Manchester Plan.

Parkinson-Bailey, J.J., 2000. Manchester: An Architectural History, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Sebald, W.G., 2002. The Emigrants, London: Vintage.


Safe to breathe yet?

by Andrew Speak, PhD candidate Geography

Remember the hole in the ozone layer?  It’s amazing how little discussion is given now to what seemed like a major global crisis just 20 years ago, but such is the nature of the media.  A huge hole in the Earth’s protective ozone layer was discovered over the Antarctic in the mid 1980s which prompted a ban on refrigerators and aerosol sprays that contained the culprit – CFCs.  It was another example, of which there are many in recent years, of how the whole of the developed and developing world was forced to wake up to the consequences of altering the composition of our atmosphere, and the media was full of cartoons of giant hairspray cans burning a hole in the planet.  Well the good news is that the hole is repairing itself since the CFC phase-out, albeit very, very slowly but a whole generation are coming along now with no idea that it ever existed.  This brings home the fact that environmental issues, that no longer seem important, can get neglected from media coverage and thus escape the attention of the majority of people.  So what about urban air pollution?

The UK has a long history of urban air pollution, with laws introduced as far back as the 13th century to regulate the use of coal in London in a bid to reduce smoke pollution.  In Manchester in 1792, the town hall emphasised the need for industrial chimneys to reduce smoke from coal combustion.  Many of Manchester’s buildings were covered in a layer of soot and grime, which undoubtedly found its way into the lungs of Mancunians.

View from Blackfriar’s Bridge over the River Irwell, 1870’s

View from Blackfriar’s Bridge over the River Irwell, 1870’s.  Engraving by Charles Roberts (Evans Picture Library)

The Clean Air Act of 1956 was introduced as a reaction to the Great London Smog, caused by burning low grade, sulphur-rich coal in a winter temperature inversion period, which caused an estimated 12,000 excess deaths.  Since then, the quality of the air in our cities has gradually improved thanks to a switch from coal to gas, industries moving out of city centres, and improvements in the technologies that reduce emissions.  So now, air pollution feels like something that happens far away in LA with its daily photochemical smog cycle, or in the permahaze-shrouded megacities of China where coal is still a major energy source and car ownership is increasing exponentially.  Well don’t breathe too deeply when walking down Oxford Road just yet.  The reason is road traffic, which is responsible for most of the main urban air pollutants – carbon monoxide (CO), benzenes, oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulate matter (PM).  The latter consists of fine particles, smaller than 10 micrometres in diameter (a human hair is about 50 micrometres wide) which can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing inflammation and allowing harmful substances present such as lead and copper to exert effects.

Illustration of the size of particulate matter fractions, PM10 and PM2.5

Illustration of the size of particulate matter fractions, PM10 and PM2.5

Car ownership in the UK is still increasing (DfT, 2009), despite efforts to convince people to cycle or use public transport, and this is offsetting the impact of vehicular emission controls.  These emissions are linked to 50,000 premature deaths a year in the UK, and shorten our life expectancy by an average of seven to eight months.  They have also been linked to childhood asthma and even type II diabetes.  So the effects of air pollution are a bit more profound than just a blackening of bogies, personally experienced in London, a place not lightly called ‘The Big Smoke’.  Just because it is invisible, and only infrequently mentioned in the newspapers, does not mean the problem has gone away.

Monitoring stations have been set up around Manchester to provide information on the urban background air quality.  Ever wondered what that little building is in Piccadilly Gardens?  The website www.greatairmanchester.org.uk provides online access to these air quality data.  Most days the air quality is acceptable but there are spatial and temporal patterns to be aware of.  For instance, there is a peak twice daily coinciding with rush hour traffic, and this appears to be strongest in the city centre and on a Monday morning.  Also, roadsides are places to avoid being in for long periods of time.  Interestingly, a study in Lancaster found that if you are walking on an inclined road it’s better to walk on the side of the road that cars goes downhill because trees on the side of the road next to cars driving uphill were found to have higher loads of PM pollution on their leaves from the increased emissions of cars struggling up a slope (Maher et al., 2008).

Urban air quality monitoring station in Manchester city centre

Urban air quality monitoring station in Manchester city centre

This particle-capturing property of vegetation is being exploited to improve the air quality in cities.  Strategic roadside tree planting can remove a large amount of pollution by trapping it on the leaf surface where it is subsequently washed off by rains.  This is yet another example of the benefits of urban greenspace, which include keeping people cool in heatwaves, reducing the risk of surface flooding, and simply lifting people’s spirits and making them feel better.  Tree-planting schemes are hindered, however, by a general lack of space within cites, and the fact that there is a considerable dollar sign attached to urban land.  For example, the site of the old BBC would make a lovely park but we all know it is destined to be a glass and steel multi-purpose hotel/supermarket/student accommodation/leisure complex.  Or something.  So it would appear that air pollution is here to stay, as technologies to reduce vehicle pollution at its source seem to have stalled.

One solution is to use the space afforded by rooftops and install green roofs.  Recent research in Manchester has shown that they can make a not-insignificant dent in the PM concentrations in the city centre, with 0.2 tonnes being removed a year in a scenario that involved all flat roofs getting a sedum green roof (Speak et al., 2012).  Larger plants, such as grasses and shrubs, would have a bigger impact, but are a bit more expensive to install and maintain than an ‘extensive’ sedum green roof.  See A (Green) Roof Above Your Head? for my other blog on green roofs in the UK.

An extensive green roof on the Number One First Street building, Manchester

An extensive green roof on the Number One First Street building, Manchester

A helping hand also comes from that seemingly permanent fixture in Manchester – the rain.  The rain droplets scavenge pollutants from the air as they fall, and recharge the capture efficiency of urban surfaces by giving them a good wash.  This, along with frequent strong westerly winds, means Manchester’s air quality isn’t as bad as in some other European cities, especially those in central and southern Europe.  However, the European Commission recently gave the UK a final warning over failures to meet limits for PM in London.  Perhaps it’s time to see urban greenspace as more than just an optional design feature for our city centres.  When combined with a decrease in car usage, maybe then we can ‘safely’ forget about this invisible threat.

References

DFT 2009. Department for Transport: Transport Trends 2009 Edition. London: HMSO.

MAHER, B. A., MOORE, C. & MATZKA, J. (2008) Spatial variation in vehicle-derived metal pollution identified by magnetic and elemental analysis of roadside tree leaves. Atmospheric Environment 42: 364-373.

SPEAK, A. F., ROTHWELL, J. J., LINDLEY, S. J. & SMITH, C. L. (2012) Urban particulate pollution reduction by four species of green roof vegetation in a UK city.  Atmospheric Environment 61:  283 – 293.

Urban Jacobinism?

by Andy Merrifield, Leverhulme Visiting Professor, Geography, University of Manchester

via flickr by Cocoloco Photography

via flickr by Cocoloco Photography

 

“When the government violates people’s rights, insurrection is, for the people and each portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties?”

— Robespierre

“The history of the revolutionary movement is, first of all, the history of the links that give it its consistency”

— Agents of the Imaginary Party

One of the recurrent gripes about the movement we’ve  come to call “Occupy” — from the mass demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the eventual clearing out of Zuccotti Park — has been its failure to conceive a plan of action, a concerted strategy during its insurrection. There wasn’t and still isn’t any strategic campaign, critics says, no coordination between particular occupations, no sense of how to amalgamate and channel all that anger and dissatisfaction into a singular, unified oppositional force — one that can stick around over the long haul. (The most recent salvo is Thomas Frank’s in The Baffler magazine (#21): “With Occupy, the horizontal culture was everything. ‘The process is the message’… Beyond that there seems to have been virtually no strategy to speak of, no agenda to transmit to the world.”) The other, related quip is: What comes next after the insurrection, after the good guys have assumed power, or even when they’re still trying to wrestle against power? (Zizek has been vocal here: “carnivals are cheap,” he says. “What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?” Egypt, as a case in point, is still feeling the heat of a “successful” insurrection from a year or so ago.)

These two questions are intimately related and form part and parcel of the same revolutionary simultaneous equation: organizing an insurrection, consolidating it, moving through it, and, then, planning for its aftermath, putting in place something new, establishing a different set of social institutions and social relations in lieu of the old oppressive ones. (Simultaneous equations, we might remember, are equations between two unknowns, unknowns that must be solved at the same time.) This dual conundrum has preoccupied revolutionaries and revolutionary thought since time immemorial. Walter Benjamin, we know, plotted the revolution in his own head, even while — especially while? — he lurched toward his shadow figure, Blanqui, the man of action; Blanqui the arch-conspirator who spent thirty of his seventy-six years on earth in various French gaols.

Blanqui was everything Benjamin wasn’t: practical, fearless, ruthless. His very raison d’être was organization, plotting and propagandizing for the insurrection; Blanqui, Marx said, was the “head and soul” of the French workers’ movement. But Blanqui satisfies only the first part of that revolutionary simultaneous equation. “The activities of a professional conspirator like Blanqui,” Benjamin says, “certainly do not presuppose any belief in progress — they merely presuppose a determination to do away with present injustice. This firm resolve to snatch humanity at the last moment from the catastrophe looming at every turn is characteristic of Blanqui — more so than any other revolutionary politician of the time. He always refused to develop plans for what comes ‘later’.”

Blanqui dreamed of a worldwide league of revolutionary communists. He also tried to put that dream into reality, countenancing conspiracy as one method for instigating insurrection. Blanqui’s communism was an eclectic mix of Marxism avant la lettre and heterodox anarchism, of trying to consummate the revolutionary hopes begun in 1789, yet which ended in Thermidorian backlash. Blanqui “couldn’t adjust himself to an organization of huge dimensions,” Samuel Bernstein says in Auguste Blanqui and the Art of Insurrection (1971). “It rendered absurd his strategy of insurrection; and it placed in the foreground the working class which he had never regarded as a key propeller of history.” Blanqui’s political organization was limited in size, Bernstein says, tightly pulled together, hierarchical in structure; made “like a seamless garment, programmatically homogeneous, disciplined, obedient, and ready to move.” Blanqui’s insurrection  was vertically organized yet spread itself out horizontally, immanently entering daily life, not so much a factory struggle as an urban war, a civil war rooted above all else — or below all else — in the street.

*  *  *

The key organizing medium for Blanquists was the “Society of the Seasons,” formed in the 1830s when Marx was still a fresh-faced lad. The society met clandestinely; leaders went unseen; meetings recruited foot soldiers who’d form an army of revolt, ready for action, likely violent action. The Society’s network barely stretched beyond Paris; but its covert nature of cells unnerved the powers that be and meant the Society punched above its weight, or at least threatened to. In Blanqui’s time, these Society of the Seasons were the revolutionary Jacobin clubs forty years down the line. (Blanqui may have disagreed: In his early career he admired the “Incorruptible” Jacobin, Robespierre, but later claimed he was really a Hébertist, a descendent of the radical eighteenth-century journalist Jacques-René Hébert.)

Blanqui knew, just as Robespierre knew, just as any revolutionary today must know, that if an insurrection were to succeed, and consolidate itself afterward, it would have to muster support from the faubourgs, from the banlieues, from the peripheral hinterlands. We might see any society of revolutionaries nowadays similarly needing to establish cells in the banlieues, cells within urban cells, revolutionary activity flowing through the capillaries and arteries of our global urban fabric, through its physical and fiber-optic infrastructure, through its hardware and thoughtware. These secret cells must plot to stymie the dominant flow of things and will likely be spearheaded by professional organizers and tacticians, by black bloc’er anarchists, by socialists and autonomous communists of different stripes and persuasions, by anonymous rookies, by those who’ve never been politically active before, by men and women, blacks and whites, young casseurs and voyous, by everybody who, with Occupy, with the Arab Spring, with the revolt in the banlieues, with the ongoing urban civil war everywhere, with growing unemployment, have found some medium to channel and refract their energies and dissatisfactions.

Perhaps there’s a neo-Jacobinism blowing in the wind, not quite bawling out but certainly getting whispered, a revival of Jacobin values with its great desire to abolish slavery in our urban neo-colonies, to denounce aristocratic plenty and root for sans-culotte empowerment. In 2010, for instance, Jacobin: A Magazine of Culture and Polemic was launched in the US by a young socialist journalist Bhaskar Sunkara; the mag attempts to tap a younger radical readership, urging people “to modify your dissent,” to turn the screw against neoliberalism; within its pages Zizek has already invoked “The Jacobin Spirit,” defending Robespierre and his “virtue of violence.” (See, too, Zizek’s presentation of Robespierre: Virtue and Terror [2007]; and Sophie Wahnich’s In Defense of Terror [2012].) Meanwhile, French radical publisher La fabrique not so long ago published the selected writings of Robespierre — Robespierre: pour le bonheur et pour la libérté [for happiness and for liberty]: “citoyens, voulez-vous une révolution sans révolution?”; and a biography by Georges Labica, first published in 1990, is scheduled to reappear soon, maybe at a riper moment, through the same house: Robespierre: une politique de la philosophie. “La Révolution n’est pas terminée,” warns editor Eric Hazan, mischievously.

The Jacobin club was founded on the eve of Revolution, in a Dominican convent on the Seine’s Right Bank, along rue Saint-Honoré. Meetings there were secret debating societies, made up of left-leaning deputies, republican enemies of the monarchy who’d push for the constitution of 1791. The club bore the noble label “Society of Friends of Liberty and Equality”; later it opened its membership to small storeowners and artisans. Over 5,000 clubs operated throughout France; pamphlets and newspapers got published; rallies and processions organized. After the fall of the monarchy, Robespierre led the Jacobins in the National Convention. But the revolutionary fervor of the Jacobins came through its popularism, through the support of the sans-culottes, “those beings,” a 1793 archive says, “who go everywhere on foot, who at no point have millions in the bank, nor a chateau, nor valets at their beck and call; who lodge simply and at night present themselves to their section … applying all their force to pulverize those who come from that abominable faction of stately men.” And those stately men, the aristocrats? “They’re the rich,” another 1793 document says, “all those fat merchants, all the monopolizers, the mountebanks, the bankers, all the swindlers and all those who have something.” Sound familiar?

And a “Society of Friends of Liberty and Equality,” a neo-Jacobin radicalism today that’s as organized and offensive as its namesake from the 1790s? Why not? This time, though, any society would really need to be “popular,” would need to open its doors to all types of sans-culottes, and of all genders. Meeting halls, debating chambers and political networks might be less grandiose: in cafés and on street corners, in estates and at youth centers, in universities classrooms and at mall bowling alleys, anywhere where young people hang out; dialogue might be online as well as face-to-face; a society of “friends” puts another egalitarian spin on Facebook camaraderie. A contra-Tea Party that drinks fair trade coffee.

But let’s be clear: secrecy would be paramount in these meetings, certainly initially, during the plotting, given how the forces of law and order mercilessly cracks down on all subversive politicking. We’ve heard about how the FBI infiltrated Occupy Wall Street (OWS), tracked known activists and student radicals, even on college campuses. The “Partnership for Civil Justice Fund” (PCJF), a US watchdog civil rights group, recently blew the whistle when they obtained FBI documents: “from its inception,” PCJF say, “the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat.” FBI offices and agents, “were in high gear conducting surveillance against the movement even as early as August 2011, a month prior to the establishment of the OWS encampment in Zuccotti Park and other Occupy actions around the country.” And in France, especially in the banlieues, the “Brigade anticriminalité” (BAC), overtly and covertly, has intensified “special police units” patrolling “les zones sensibles.” As Mathieu Rigouste writes in La domination policière (La fabrique, 2012), “the generalization of the BAC in urban territories is one of the decisive stamps of the counter-insurrectional restructuring of the police.”

If anything, “austerity” these days has become a veritable 9/11 in Europe: a watchword, in other words, for neoliberal governments to quieten any dissenting voice. In Greece, where austerity has been most brutally implemented, “centers of lawlessness” have been nipped in the bud. Early this past January, two longstanding “occupied” social centers in Athens, Villa Amalias and Skaramanga, with over 100 makeshift residents, were summarily evicted; and former denizens promptly arrested in an relentless police war of attrition, “Operation Zeus,” against all those outside the dominant orthodoxy, including undocumented migrants. (In Al Jazeera newspaper, Antonis Vradis reports from the frontline: www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/01/2013115105715250554.html.) “The eviction of Villa Amalias and the forthcoming police operation,” Vradis says, “reveals what is an inescapable contradiction in the reformulation of power in the Greek territory: In its short-term quest for stability, it is accelerating long-term social and political change.”

*  *  *

Against such short-term desperation for stability comes, then, an urgent and accelerated need for social and political change. Any Jacobin revival has to take us into and through the insurrection; and  it has to leave us with something to build upon on the other side, in its aftermath. Which leads us to the second part of our revolutionary simultaneous equation. One of the amazing things Eric Hazan points out in Une histoire de la révolution française (La fabrique, 2012), his fresh, partisan take on an old story — the French Revolution — is how quickly it all happened, how fast an immense and deeply entrenched power structure and administration evaporated, caved in, without neither warning nor transition. Hazan evokes the spirit of the Jacobin club, as much about what it might still be as what it once was: “the Society and its affiliates functioned as a system of diffusion of radical ideas. Nothing is more absurd than the notion of ‘Jacobinism’ as an authoritarian Parisian dictatorship. That’s a fabrication inherited from the [counter-revolutionary] Thermidor, which endures along with a hatred of the Revolution.”

Hazan devotes memorable, generous lines — again with the same spirit of going back to the future — to the National Convention, the first revolutionary assembly elected through universal (male) suffrage. “Was the Convention representative of the people?” he asks. If considered as an electoral system, he says, which is to say, as a system of participatory democracy, then clearly not. Yet the virtues of the Convention, as well as its suggestive, enduring visionary politics, came and might still come through an altogether different means. To be sure, the Convention is still unprecedented in how it allowed ordinary people to intervene in its sittings. That ordinary citizens and not a few sans-culottes could pass through the hollowed gates of Parliamentary politics was remarkable then and almost unthinkable now.

Although the Convention’s “Salle du Manège” was limited in size, it did manage to receive three thousands citizens at any one time; and at tribunals, says Hazan, ordinary folk “didn’t hesitate to noisily speak out their opinion”; deputies were forced to respond on the spot and were directly answerable to peoples’ plain outspokenness, to interrogation from their constituents. Alongside this popular participation, sittings of the Convention kicked off by listening to peoples’ letters, often voicing long commentaries on deputies’ propositions, offering suggestions, sympathetic encouragement, angry critique. “In this regard,” concludes Hazan, “the Convention is the first and only national assembly where the people had been able to have their voice directly heard.”

So a message rings out, loud and jarringly: what an insurrection needs to do is force those Parliamentary doors open, smash them down if necessary, so that “the people” gain access. Not so much a participatory government as the chance for a real representative assembly, one in which elected politicians, for the first time in centuries, would actually be responsive to their electorate, engaging with them within an open democratic structure; they’d be answerable, in other words, to the populace not to the usual powerful suspects.

But how to keep counter-revolutionary economic and political interests at bay, how to justifiably shut them out of any new Convention, how to ruthlessly shut them out if necessary? The theme of violence inevitably enters the scene, the idea that there’s a legitimate violence responsive to the everyday violence initiated by the forces of law and order, from its judiciary to its paramilitary, from its surveillance and containment to the outright wars it wages against people its power base doesn’t like. War, from this standpoint, is a just-in-case response, a strike-first-ask-questions-later initiative, a branch of “democracy” that needs to construct its own inconceivable foe: terrorists. Guy Debord confirmed as much back in 1988: “Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results.” “People must certainly never know everything about terrorism,” says Debord, “but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable.”

More than two hundred years after Robespierre’s execution, an ideological logic lives on in governments around the world, one that defiles the Jacobin legacy, panders to a revisionist, right-wing Thermidorian telling of the truth: Robespierre was a bloody tyrant, a fanatical monster, a terrorist butcher. And yet, as Eric Hazan maintains, “Robespierre took positions of great coherence and astonishing courage — positions where he was always a minority and sometimes absolutely alone: against suffrage censitaire [census suffrage], for civic rights of actors and Jews, against martial law, against slavery in the colonies, against the death penalty, for the right to petition, for the freedom of the press … In what country, in what assembly, have we ever heard so much contre-courant argument declared with such force of conviction?” Robespierre was defiled, still is defiled, because what he said threatened ruling class privilege, upset their status quo; to defile him thus serves to tarnish every future hope of revolution, of future social change. “I was born to fight crime,” he says in a final speech from 1794. “The time has not arrived for men of substance to be able to serve their homeland with impunity; defenders of liberty will be outlaws, for as long as the horde of scoundrels predominates.”

The new urban question is about creating a Jacobin movement that can contest the “horde of scoundrels” who still predominate, stand up to their arsenal and ideologues; a movement that can loosen the neo-Haussmannite grip on our society, and declare war against its protagonists and puppets. Manuel Castells saw the old urban question as a question answered by “urban social movements” struggling for their right to the city; yet the new urban question needs to be countered by something much more expansive, something much more far-reaching: by an urban political movement that struggles for generalized democracy, that organizes a concerted insurrection; and, moreover, knows exactly what it’s fighting for as well as against. To do so we need visionaries as well as agitators, conspirators like Blanqui but also leaders like Robespierre, people with big plans and grand convictions — outlaw mathematicians who know, perhaps more than anything else, all about revolutionary simultaneous equations.

 

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:

www.livingroofs.org

www.thegreenroofcentre.co.uk

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
cities@manchester
The Urban Transformations Research Group, Geography, University of Manchester

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