Review: Creative Urbanity

Guano, Emanuela. (2017). Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 9780812248784. 242 pages + notes, bibliography, index, acknowledgements.

To a casual visitor, any city usually appears to be a monolithic collection of buildings, people and open spaces, all somehow connected by a hidden code of conduct that eludes outsiders. Emanuela Guano’s nuanced Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization allows the reader to steal a few furtive glances at Genoa’s subtle inner workings hidden beneath the superficial exterior of an Italian port city. This is what polyvocality looks like at its finest, supported by distinct voices of its actors in six main chapters, bookended by a thorough introduction and poignant conclusions, followed by notes, bibliography, index and acknowledgements; maps and photography by the author and other contributors constitute another valuable dimension of this project.

From the effective opening vignette of Beatrice, a tour guide in Genoa’s centro storico, who informs her walking audience about mysteries of the city long-gone while “conjuring the hidden out of the familiar” (2), Guano commands her readers’ attention with ethnographic case studies viewed through a fresh gaze as she offers “a few glimpses into the city’s nature as a fluid assemblage” (18). While the supporting ethnographic field research is impressive, the motivations behind Guano’s project constitute a solid case study in and of itself. A diasporic Genoese flaneuse, Guano walked the streets of the city in a Baudelairean style, watching, taking notes, drawing conclusions and exploring the urban everyday shaped by the corporate capital. While her methodology and concept are well explained, Guano saw her project as a labor of love grown on the genesis of her own nostalgia for the city where she would have been precluded from pursuing an academic career.

The well-edited monograph contains a healthy balance of opposing views on the role of the middle classes in the production of urban space. At its very core, the book is an exploration of “the lives and experiences of those middle-class Genoese who, seeking to escape consistently high unemployment rates, invented self-employment venues for themselves” (15).  The book does not “represent the city as a bounded and stable entity” (23), and it leaves room for investigating other creative practices informed by revitalization. Commandeered by blue- and white-collar workers in the 1960s, the parading life on display, passegiata, or an urban stroll, with the underlying air of aristocracy, is symbolized by the quirky cover photo with a quintessentially Italian Fiat 500 painted with a colorful cityscape of nearly uniform buildings—a combination of sloping roofs and high-rises.

(Guano, 2016)

The introduction, grounded in anthropology and urban theory, addresses students of neoliberalism while promising to present a cross-section of urbanity and its transformations, with a particular focus on the residual creative class. Following the outstanding literature review, Chapter 1, Chronotopes of Hope, is moderately autoethnographic as it traces the recent developments in Genoa’s rise to and fall from the level of Florence, Venice or Rome as an object of a tourist gaze, something in which the port city’s residents took great pride; this chapter provides chronotopic perspectives on the urban everyday starting with the 1970s and tracing the city’s ups and downs through the 2010s. The first major case study, Chapter 2, Genoa’s Magic Circle, narrates the dramatic events of the 2001 G8 Summit that cut short much hope for the city’s entrance to the global stage; the corollary of violence and state repression informs the discussion of local middle-class urbanity to present a different kind of aestheticization of the city stemming from its reimagining as a stage for the performance of a global political drama. Written as an ethnographic analysis of the gentrification that has unfolded in Genoa’s centro storico since the early 1990s, Chapter 3, Gentrification without Teleologies, presents a fascinating example in the study on spatial relations of solids vs. voids in an urban environment—the vertical stratification based on access to daylight; the chapter tackles gentrification as an assemblage of people, logics and materialities: one whereby a nexus of neoliberal rationality, the built environment and old and new neighborhood residents and users contribute to making a world whose emergent dynamics may, at times, unfold along the lines of the well-researched template of the capitalist “spatial fix”—and yet, at other times, they are considerably more complex. The discussion of how women eke out their living while being accused of stealing a man’s job serves as the framework for Chapter 4, Cultural Bricoleuses, with antique fairs and dealers as the subject against the backdrop of the transformation that has unfolded not just through the regeneration of the built environment, but also through spatial practices that are part of the urban everyday within an economy of consumable heritage based on the marketing of cultural and symbolic goods, services and experiences. Genoa’s walking tour guides who tread the tenuous line that separates academic knowledge from cultural consumption feature in Chapter 5, Touring the Hidden City, which contrasts the high vs. popular culture in the tourist vocation enmeshed in the aristocratic rejection of urban ostentation. The ethnography of the annual Suq, a multicultural festival—informed by its intentional hybrid spatiality—held annually in Genoa under the supervision of two women on a mission to further the cause of diversity in the city comprises Chapter 6, Utopia with No Guarantees, followed by a cautiously optimistic final research section of the monograph, Conclusion, that offers hope through a combination of empathy and sympathy Guano has for the city of her formative years where the never ending revolving door of businesses dying out, born, improved and declining points to a luminous future (195). The additional notes to various sections dispel any possible lack of clarity while framing the discussion in a much broader cultural event or a series of events, e.g., the Chinese migration to Italy.

The brevity of the monograph makes the work a victim of its author’s skill and expertise combined with the engaging and heartfelt narratives. As with any ethnography, a few elements of this one might have seemed outdated already at the time of press, and Guano realized that some of the realities she was analyzing were no longer quite as current. Any superficial deficiencies aside, Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization constitutes a solid contribution to the areas of anthropology, urban studies, aesthetics, political economy, labor studies, ethnography and gender studies—one could only wish to read more of such intricately and exquisitely crafted ethnographic portraits of cities in the 21st century.

Caesar Perkowski (Gordon State College)

Review: Spatializing Culture

Setha Low. (2017).  Spatializing Culture: The Ethnography of Space and Place. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-138-94561-6.

(Setha Low, 2017)

Setha Low is an anthropologist long recognized for her contributions to the study of space and place.  In her most recent book, Spatializing Culture, Low draws on over twenty years of research to outline, clarify, and expand upon the concept of “spatializing culture,” which she has been developing since her 1996 article in American Ethnologist: “Spatializing culture: The social production and social construction of public space in Costa Rica.”  While Low claims that her most recent book is not a review of space and place in anthropology (p. 11), in many ways, it functions as a survey of key formulations and theories that have influenced and generated current ethnographic research on space and place, providing illustrative examples of such ethnographic research from around the world.  Consequently, Spatializing Culture would be especially useful as an introduction to space and place for undergraduate and graduate students across various disciplines, particularly those that already utilize or would benefit from ethnographic methods such as anthropology, sociology, cultural geography, urban studies, and environmental psychology.

Low’s systematic organization of the material lends itself well for a textbook.  Apart from the requisite introduction and conclusion that highlight the importance and relevance of ethnography, space, and place, the second chapter, “Genealogies: The concepts of space and place” draws on the tradition of Foucault’s genealogies to structure the discussion of major influences.  Low loosely ties together ideas and theories that have influenced one another, whether through French social theory or disciplinary traditions such as architecture, geography, or anthropology as opposed to presenting a historiography of space and place. Her use of Venn diagrams of space and place to represent the relationship of these concepts as they are used and understood within different genealogies exemplifies her attempt to make the differing theoretical orientations accessible to novices.

As Low, herself, explains:

This book is organized around spatializing culture as a framework made up of various conceptual frames.  Each is examined with three objectives in mind.  The first is to trace its scholarly development and discuss its strengths and limitations….The second objective is to demonstrate how ethnography can elucidate each and provide insights into a range of places and problems….The third objective…is to show how the different conceptual frames overlap and intersect. (pp. 8-9)

Chapters three through eight explicate the six conceptual frames that constitute her framework for spatializing culture, titled 3) the social production of space, 4) the social construction of space, 5) embodied space, 6) language, discourse and space, 7) emotion, affect and space, and 8) translocal space.  The first half of each chapter provides the theoretical grounding that scholars have developed and used to understand space and place through the particular lens or frame of embodiment or language, for example, while the second half provides ethnographic examples of how these frames are operationalized.  The use of ethnographic examples, apart from being a major methodological contribution of Low’s anthropological background, serves to address two interacting methodological questions.  “How does the conceptual frame shape a particular research project,” and how, in turn, “ethnographic research help[s] to clarify and enhance the utility of the approach?” (p. 9)

It is clear that chapters three and four on the social production and social construction of space occupy what Low sees as the most significant or established ways in which space and place have been traditionally framed.  Moreover, her choice to begin with social production over social construction reveals her own political leanings that highlight materialist approaches to power, hegemonic processes, and relationships of inequality.  Where many scholars of space and place might begin with social construction as a departure point for understanding space and place in which social interaction and symbolic processes take the lead, Low’s attachment to an “engaged” anthropology demands a political alignment with those who have been systematically excluded, rendering their limited ways of constructing space practically invisible.  Low’s ethnographic examples for social production in Costa Rica and Taiwan demonstrate the strength of a social production frame that offers insights into unequal development, surveillance, and incursions of capitalism while her examples for social construction in Philadelphia and Beirut reveal how local communities contest redevelopment that ignores local meanings and attachments to places and spaces.

Chapter five on embodied spaces is Low’s response to the limited binary of social production and social construction.  In it she defines terms such as body, embodiment, and sensorium and places them within the complex literature that moves from proxemics, to phenomenology, to mobility.  Her ethnographic examples highlight how space can be located in the body, whether individual or collective, and provides avenues for coalescing social production and social construction within the body.

With subsequent chapters six through eight, the overlap with previous theoretical underpinnings becomes more pronounced and it appears that while ethnographic approaches within these frames certainly focus on discursive, affective, or translocal approaches, they play a more supportive or extending role tied to social production, social construction, or embodiment. This, of course, speaks to Low’s objective of demonstrating how these frames overlap and intersect, but also reveal the limitations of using these conceptual frames as an organizing structure for an ethnographic textbook. Nevertheless, the review of literature within each chapter is extensive, with ample examples of how different scholars theorize space and place through these frames.  Consider Low’s referencing Ben Anderson’s and Kathleen Stewart’s work to discuss how affective atmospheres circulate spatially through bodies and also extend beyond the body as a kind of sensory attunement to others’ worlds.  Their work demonstrates how Low’s conceptual frames of embodiment and affect can intersect.  The ethnographic examples in these chapters again offer an array of global research that takes us from New York  to Cairo to Tel Aviv.

Low acknowledges that her conceptual frames are not exhaustive, drawing particular attention to the largely absent notions of mediated and virtual frames.  While it may be true that such a treatment could easily fill another book, it is not difficult to imagine another chapter in which she traces the scholarly work in this area and provides one or two key ethnographic examples of how this plays out in understandings of space and place.  Could it be that an examination of virtual space challenges notions of traditional ethnography’s hold as a particularly useful method or that textual and mediated approaches push the boundaries of what constitutes ethnography? More likely, such an approach may be outside of Low’s own experiences as ways of understanding space and place, unlike the other six frames that are all born out of her own struggles to make sense of her ethnographic research.

This is a minor critique when we consider that as a textbook on space and place, Spatializing Culture offers much as a reference guide to key theories and demonstrates the contributions of an ethnographic approach. The organization of the text has its benefits and limitations with some redundancy in overlapping and intersecting approaches, but ultimately serves its student audience well.  Setha Low continues to make an important contribution to current understandings of space and place and makes complex ideas accessible through numerous examples that underscore the significance of studying space and place.  For those interested in a survey of ethnographic approaches to the study of space, place, and culture, Spatializing Culture is a worthwhile departure point.

Jessica Montalvo (University of South Florida)

 

References:

Low, S. M. (1996). Spatializing culture: the social production and social construction of public space in Costa Rica. American ethnologist, 23(4), 861-879.

The Social Life of Infrastructure

On Friday, October 27, 2017 Dr. Rob Shields gave a talk on “The Social Life of Infrastructure” for the Space and Culture Research Group at the University of Alberta. Below is a brief description of Dr. Shield’s talk along with an audio recording.

What are the social effects of built infrastructure? Changing public interaction with civic infrastructure accumulates to changes in Canadian social forms. Infrastructure affects social integration, accessibility, and inclusiveness. Infrastructure choices affect the relations of core and periphery, and the exercise of sovereignty and Canadian values.

Listen to Dr. Shields’ talk here:

Podcast: Conserving the Future, Precipitate Ecologies and Architectures

On Sept 29, 2017 Dr. Paulina Mickiewicz gave a talk entitled “Conserving the Future, Precipitate Ecologies and Architectures” for the Space and Culture Research Group at the University of Alberta. Below is a brief description of Dr. Mickiewicz’s talk, some related links, and an audio recording.

What does it mean to archive nature? The growing unease about cetaceans and other species in captivity echoes our increasing unrest and mounting need to reintroduce “nature” back into our urbanized, industrialized, and technologized lives. This presentation will explore the increasingly complex relationships between conservation and preservation, media technologies, architectural design and the reconceptualization of the environment, and how these issues are bound up with states of saturation that inevitably (and materially) precipitate novel organizational and architectural responses.

Before listening to the talk, check out this New York Times article on the race to preserve nature and Shannon Mattern’s website on infrastructure, architecture, libraries, etc…

Canadian Utopianisms – Design from the 1967 centennial

Over the summer, Contemporary Gallery Calgary had a wonderful exhibition looking back 50 years to the futurism of late 60s designers who were commissioned to produce buildings for the Centennial of Canadian Confederation in 1967.  Architecture and National Identity: The Centennial Projects 50 Years On, curated by Marco Polo & Colin Ripley for Confederation Centre Art Gallery of Charlottetown is currently at Paul H. Cocker Gallery, 325 Church Street, Toronto until Nov. 10 2017.

C Gallery Calgary

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Review: Human-built environment relations as a necessary component to architectural designs

Lindsay, G. and Morhayim, L. (Eds.). (2015). Revisiting “Social Factors”: Advancing Research into People and Place. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-4438-7734-3. 

In Revisiting Social Factors, Georgia Lindsay and Lusi Morhayim take on an ambitious set of questions both reflective and forward-looking: What is the status of social and behavioral research in environmental design? How can the rich, fifty-year history of Social Factors continue to shape, for the better, the places we design and inhabit and inform scholarship at the intersection of culture, space, and place?

(Lindsay and Morhayim, 2015)

We begin in Berkeley, California, where the first Social Factors program in an Architecture department began in the 1960s and where, in 2011, a conference entitled “The Death and Life of ‘Social Factors’: A Conference Reexamining Behavioral and Cultural Research in Environmental Design” convened to investigate the state of “research regarding the relationship between culture, individuals, and the built environment.” As a young Social Factors scholar at Berkeley, the “d” word—death—haunted me: how could Social Factors be dead? Undoubtedly, the field has undergone substantial change since its 1960s heyday, and, in some ways, is marked by the patina of time: neither the behaviorist origins nor the language we use to talk about Social Factors is adequate for today’s research and practice agenda. Yet this book, born from the papers presented at the “Death and Life of ‘Social Factors’” conference, testifies to the long and still robust life of the field. Echoing Jane Jacobs, who both acknowledged the lifelessness of ‘renewed’ urban space to contrast (and attempt to preserve) the promise and joy inherent in historic, diverse city life, the chapters that follow do not chronicle or foretell the death of Social Factors, but rather celebrate its life, then and now.

In fact, as Galen Cranz argues in the Foreword to this book, a social perspective reaches farther into architectural education, scholarship, and practice today than ever before: the National Architectural Accrediting Board requires that all students engage in courses that expose them to social and cultural concerns, the rise of interest in architecture for the public good demonstrates a profound appreciation for contextually sensitive design, and, according to Cranz, “approximately half of the research in building science entails social variables” like comfort and use. Further, the eight essays that comprise this book show how the previous accomplishments of the field and the innovative, interdisciplinary work being done by researchers and practitioners regarding people and their spaces continue to reverberate—and make significant contributions to architectural theory and practice—today.

Though rooted in its Berkeley origins, Revisiting Social Factors boasts broad appeal in the breadth of subject matter it takes on. The book, divided into two sections, begins with a series of essays that orient the reader to the linguistic, historic, and methodological underpinnings of Social Factors and chart a course for future scholarship. In “The Words We Choose,” Karen Franck explores how the language we use to talk about Social Factors research can obscure the value, scope, and disciplinary edges of this field. For example, though “tremendously inclusive,” the terms environment and behavior tend to atomize and stagnate concepts and, in so doing, belie the complex co-influence of people and their places. Instead, we might say space and use—as in the social use of space—or choose other words that convey something multiple, relational, dynamic, and, yes, alive.

Next, Suzanne Cowan and Ayda Melika offer a critical reflection on the history of the Social Factors field—which they articulate as two separate yet parallel strands, one attempting to apply social science methods to social problems and the other aiming to integrate partnerships and participatory methods into design—from the pioneering work of Edward T. Hall and Berkeley’s Clare Cooper Marcus, to the more contemporary contributions of Rem Koolhaas and Teddy Cruz. In considering the origin, successes, and critiques of Social Factors, Cowan and Melika highlight the uneven legacy of this field: its institutionalization in design schools is both its enduring success and its great limitation. Still, the authors suggest a way forward: “This type of research can serve to ground and substantiate the fervor of good intentions and desire for social reform that seem to remain a fundamental part of contemporary architectural discourse.”

Similarly bridging past and present, Dominic Fisher investigates whether the findings of William H. Whyte’s seminal 1971 study of New York City’s small urban spaces remain true today. In a comparative study of two parks—Paley Park, the darling of Whyte’s study, and its predecessor, Harlem’s Collyer Brothers Park—Fisher demonstrates how contextual factors shape the success of a park (Paley) or its neglect (Collyer). Ultimately, he concludes that, in today’s changing urban fabric, Whyte’s praise of small urban spaces as “multipliers” of activity “is still invaluable, but cannot be applied verbatim to seemingly similar spaces in communities underserved by healthy streets and opportunities.” Fisher’s work demonstrates how a contemporary approach to Social Factors research can—and should—continue to inform urban design practices.

If Part 1’s orientation to Social Factors suggests a modern approach to long-standing questions in the field, Part 2 makes good on this promise by showcasing people doing social factors research in both academic and professional settings. Comprised of five studies “that assume the user perspective, with human responses and needs as the unit of measurement,” Part 2 conveys how Social Factors is uniquely poised to address some of the most pressing concerns of our time.

Designing for people with disabilities has long been an interest of socially-minded architects. Yet Ann Heylighten challenges normative approaches to designing for disabled bodies by focusing not on positivist universal design standards, but rather on how people with a range of disabilities—lack of sightedness, hearing deficiencies, and autism—experience built settings in unique ways; such insights can inform new understandings about both definitions of disability (which she defines relationally in the context of person-environment fit, rather than as an inherent individual condition) and spatial experience more broadly.

Programmer Emily Golembewski similarly urges the reader away from a normative practice, this time of programming, a distinct discipline from design, though equally integral in ensuring person-environment fit. Informed by her work at Francis Duffy’s innovative office programming firm, DEGW (now AECOM), Golembiewski offers a toolkit for programming methods: she introduces readers to the strengths and limitations of “formulaic” and “messy” approaches to user research, with the ultimate goal to “identify needs and project drivers, which may be organizational, financial, functional, or cultural in nature.” Though Golembewski’s audience ostensibly is professional programmers and designers whom she hopes will integrate user research into architectural practice, she also makes a compelling plea for architectural educators to “explore the (sometimes tense) relationship between programming and design,” in order to achieve the best possible design outcome.

Marie-Alice L’Hereux also considers the role of education in Social Factors work, particularly regarding sustainability. L’Hereux sees sustainability through a decidedly social lens: “aesthetics, behavior, and technology,” she argues, “all need to be engaged for projects to be successful from both a community and a climate change perspective.” Translation: to be sustainable, buildings must be designed for human use and must perform socially as much as environmentally. Yet L’Hereux demonstrates how easy it can be to neglect social needs when residents are not consulted as part of the design process and social factors are not an explicit part of the curriculum or design criteria. For example, students in a Design-Build Studio focusing on sustainable affordable housing ignored “the fine-grained features of daily life and…maintenance and utility costs,” such that, in the end, according to one student builder, “we did not really design a house that people would live in…it had a neat effect, made good pictures” but did not meet the needs of clients. This chapter reinforces the importance and role of social factors as a primary tenet not just of sustainable design, but of design itself.

A chapter by Yael Perez and colleagues complements that of L’Hereux by offering digital and methodological tools to design sustainably with people; in other words, to engage in co-design to create sustainable housing. Reflecting on their work with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation (PPN), a Native American Nation near Berkeley, CA, Perez and colleagues demonstrate the power of co-design to support a sustainable design approach. Additionally, they show how social media technologies—including Facebook, email, blogs, Google Maps, YouTube videos, and Twitter— can facilitate dialogue among participants and designers in order to articulate how architecture is experienced and—ultimately—design buildings that celebrate community needs.

Such an understanding of people-place interactions—and their translation to meaningful policies and practices—is one of the important legacies of the Social Factors field. A contemporary example of this comes from Cecilia Bodelmann and a team of colleagues from the United States and Sweden. Recognizing two parallel shifts—the rise of sedentary behavior among children and the expansion of preschooling—Bodelmann and colleagues studied the health promotion potential of preschool outdoor environments. After scoring a range of environments based on factors such as size and integration of vegetation and play areas, the authors found that resource-rich environments correlated with increased levels of physical activity among preschool-aged children. This study has clear implications for policy and design practice, especially regarding the need to create healthy learning environments for young people as a means to combat deleterious impacts of sedentary behavior. It also is an inspiring model for how interdisciplinary collaboration can fruitfully address person-environment concerns.

This book began with a lofty promise: to show how questions and research regarding people and place are very much alive today. Though the case studies included are limited in breadth, as is the nature of case studies, they prove nevertheless that the basic priorities of Social Factors serve a vibrant and important role in education, research, and practice today. Indeed, though difficult to convey in just a few chapters the full depth—or potential—of the social factors field, the “cross-section” approach employed by Lindsay and Morhayim successfully uncovers the range of questions alive in person-environment studies as well as the many voices—emerging and seasoned scholars, different disciplines, local and international perspectives—they engage therein.

Importantly, this text is not simply for those of us already familiar with, drawn to, or invested in revisiting Social Factors: in fact, it can inform research and practice in other fields as well. First, it offers an agile framework for thinking about and designing for the intersections of people and place, a topic of interest to geographers, historians, and public health researchers, to name just a few. Second, its authors collectively call for reform in design education—a timely topic as we consider the challenges of designing in a world defined by increasing diversity and complexity—and offer case studies that would be at home in many (interdisciplinary) course syllabi. Finally, this book is edifying reading for designers of all types: a reminder of the value of the social perspective and a toolkit for how to think about and design for the social use of space.

Caitlin DeClercq (University of California, Berkeley)

Review: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity

Lorinc, J. and Pitter, J. (Eds.). (2016). Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity. Toronto: Coach House Books. ISBN: 9781552453322.

Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity (2016) is a collection of essays taken from a varied source of contributors writing about their experiences of diversity living in Toronto edited by Jay Pitter and John Lorinc. The book attempts to unpack the municipal and national mantra of “diversity is our strength” by exposing the reader to a myriad of unique experiences and world views and complicate the narrative of Toronto as the most multicultural city in the world. As Pitter writes, the reality of hyper-diversity demands a recognition of “diversities within diversities within diversities” and of the intersectionalities of the identities associated which make up that diversity.

Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity (Lorinc and Pitter, 2016)

Neither of the editors belong to the discipline or the profession of urban planner or have been involved in municipal governance, they are better described as city-builders: writers and activists that have invested personally and professionally in advancing progressive action in Toronto. Pitter has worked (and grew up in housing) with the Toronto Community Housing Corporation and both have written for publications such as Spacing and Walrus, among others. The rest of the contributors make up a diverse group of writers, urban planners, journalists, and lawyers among others.

With a narrative form and personal stories, Subdivided is aimed at a broad audience. While the inclusion of more theoretical and ideological language might distance some readers, the personal tone of the contributions anchors their stories in a very real and relatable way.

Although the stories shared in the book are very different, what they and the editors share is a desire to critique the current conception of diversity in Toronto and to explore the socioeconomic realities of the divisions separating those diverse groups. An interesting thread that the book picks is the universality of the impact upon these disparate groups relating to the changing economic realities of Toronto as housing prices skyrocket and government programs have been curtailed or abandoned completely. While reaching few conclusions, this exploration of the meaning of diversity in a changing economic and social context does accomplish its intended purpose – to start conversations. Exposing the reader to experiences of the “diverse” living at the margins of the popular and institutionally supported conception of Toronto’s diversity as a fait accompli (an attitude the transnationally wealthy in Toronto like to pat themselves on the back for), this anthology raises the question of what that attitude really means for those living that diversity without the power to challenge the accepted rhetoric.

Kieran Moran (University of Alberta)

Spatial Machinations

A shoutout to Sam Kinsley’s site Spatial Machinations.  Its reach across contemporary theory and global issues more than fulfills it ambitious mandate to chronicle and catalogue how media produce temporalities and spatialities.  Recent discussions of affect theory and geography, American military visions of cities as dystopic are typically engrossing and on point.   However, taking the time to archive a missed event – I just picked up “Paramatta”, so inferred its not only past  but was far away (suburban Sydney Australia), gives us not only an echo of an event but flags important insights such as the declining rate of innovation.

A typical gem of a post is the 2009 A Vision – Simon Armitage’: which draws on Simon Armitage‘s Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid a lyrical contrast between a found architect’s rendering and a bleak-looking photo of Thamesmead, a huge Brutalist housing project in SE London.

Thamesmead was the setting for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.  There is little online in photographs that capture the social life of the development.  Thamesmead seems stuck in black and white 60s and 70s, including the outstanding photography of George Plemper.

  Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Review- The Digital City and Mediated Urban Ecologies

Scott, Kristin. (2016). The Digital City and Mediated Urban Ecologies. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN: 9783319391731.

 

The Digital City and Mediated Urban Ecologies (Scott, 2016)

Kristin Scott’s The Digital City and Mediated Urban Ecologies explores the era of digitalized cities. This book made noteworthy claims concerning city’s relationship with technology in terms of social, economic, and political utopianism. Other themes explored in the book are neo-liberalism, security and surveillance, and political participation and democracy. Scott further investigates three American cities (New York City, San Antonio, and Seattle) in order to fully conceptualize her overall themes of utopianism, neo-liberalism, and security. Specifically, throughout the book, Scott initially describes how the surge of digital technology in cities is justified by the cities’ goal of digital utopia. However, as Scott reveals through investigation of the three American cities, many issues the cities attempt to solve through technological amenities are further complicated or serve other larger systemic intentions. For example, in the chapter discussing Seattle, Scott explains how the city has introduced numerous digital technological programs to address racial and class disparities; however, Scott reveals that with citizen’s access to technology such as public crime maps, social and economic disparities are further exacerbated. I thought this claim was an interesting perspective on the functionality of technology since my previous understanding of mass-digitalization in cities was to promote inclusion. However, as Scott demonstrates, there appears to be negative effects to the collection of data within cities.

Furthermore, Scott describes how the digitalization of cities can conceal the city’s overarching ability to construct productive citizens. As explained in the chapter concerning New York City, some cities will aim to improve democracy, transparency, and citizen’s engagement. However, Scott concludes that through New York City’s attempts to improve governance, digital technological programs are misused and represent a mechanism of biopower to fulfill neo-liberal interests. By using Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower, Scott explains how digital technological programs interpellate citizens to behave in a favourable sense. This concept is further supported in Scott’s chapter about San Antonio where she discusses how citizens can be interpellated to assist in the protection of democracy through cyber security. Essentially, San Antonio has initiated programs where citizens self-police one another in order to maintain security of the internet or other digital technological programs.

Despite the fact that I previously had limited knowledge of the digital technological programs present New York City, Seattle, and San Antonio, I found this book to be unexpectedly captivating. Therefore, I would argue that the appropriate audience for this book would those who are interested in globalization, technology, and how these topics interact and effect neo-liberalism, security, citizenship, and democracy. Also, this book incorporated theoretical concepts suggested by compelling philosopher such as Michel Foucault and Richard Grusin. For example, Scott explains the functionality of digital technology in terms of Foucault’s concepts of biopower and surveillance, while also using Grusin’s concept of mediality and premediation to discuss how technology is a governing apparatus of citizens, especially in regards to security.

Essentially, Scott intended to analyze the functionality of digital technology in regard to cities. Scott explained that cities utilize digital technology in order to interpellate their citizens to act in favour to the city’s larger goals, that is, their neo-liberal goals. For example, if the city releases a mobile application where citizens can report crime, this transfer responsibility, to some extent, from police services onto to citizens. Rather than police having to patrol the city or the city having to finance emergency dispatchers, the mobile application would be the communicative median between citizens and the police. Therefore, the city will save money while also instilling the responsibility of reporting crime or emergencies in the citizens. This means that through the production of digital technologies, citizens are taught to survey their environments for the protection of their city and follow citizens. I think this theme reveals the extension that technology unknowing coerces citizens into performing the will of the city, which in this example, would be to have citizens survey one another in order to protect the city. I found this concept to be convincing, and the example Scott explained in regards to New York City and San Antonio were further interesting.

Mimi Ward (University of Alberta)

Review: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films of Beijing

Zheng, Yiran. (2016). Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films. Lanham MD: Lexington Books.

In recent years, the dialectic relationship between tradition and globalization has become even more visible in the urban spaces of Beijing. In the majority of news reports highlighting economic and cultural attractiveness of Beijing, we may find seemingly disconnected expressions, such as ‘greatness of imperial history’ and ‘rising center of global economy.’ This implies that there is a significant temporal gap taking place, and thereby, and points to the drastic urban transformation of the nation. Yiran Zheng’s recent book, Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films (2016), also acknowledges this presentation of Beijing. The conceptualization of Beijing as “the fusion of “traditional” Chinese city and a modern international metropolis” is one of the central themes that is constantly brought up in the book.

Writing Beijing (Zheng, 2016)

By this point, it is also important to note where all those urban spaces are located in the spatial structure of Beijing. According to the author, the area showing a concentration of typical Beijing buildings or courtyard houses is geographically located near the center of the city. Then, the next layer of architecture that loops outside the center is dominated by three to four story military compounds constructed under the guidance of Soviet experts. Thereafter, in the outer layer loop, there is new architecture and urban spaces that were built in the global era. Based on the three types of urban spaces identified above, the book largely consists of three parts: the first part focusing on military compounds (chapter 1,2,3), the second part concentrating on the typical building or courtyard house (chapter 4,5,6), and the third part exploring some examples of Beijing’s new architecture and urban spaces (chapter 7,8,9).

However, when considering the geographical map of Beijing and the structure of the chapters in the book together, Zheng does not fully explain why she organizes the three parts in such an order; namely, starting from military compounds to typical traditional Beijing housing, and ending with contemporary buildings. In the introduction, Zheng notes, “Beijing has been transformed from a traditional imperial capital city to a political center of communist China, then into a cosmopolitan metropolis (p. x).” The structure of the book does not seem to illuminate this transitional and changing character or flow of the city, but captures the configurations of the city in specific moments framed within the specific literary works. In that sense, to meet the author’s aim of this book, it is more persuasive to organize the parts and chapters in a geo-temporal order, moving from the central area of traditional housing to the outer area of contemporary buildings developed in present day China.

Each part of this book has three sections (chapters). In every first section, Zheng explores the architectural and spatial qualities of specific urban spaces. Then, Zheng discusses some representative writers and filmmakers in every second section, and finally in the third section, the author analyzes the configuration of the city in the literary works. Throughout the parts and chapters, Zheng uses different sources from different disciplines, such as urban studies, architecture, literature, cultural studies, history studies, and sociology. And Zheng also makes a balanced use of sources between foreign and Chinese authors. Zheng’s cross-disciplinary and cross-national use of sources is what makes this book interdisciplinary and allows it to retain a more balanced point of view.

In this study, the methodological framework is inspired by Lefebvre’s theorization of space. Lefebvre (1991), in his book The Production of Space (1991), proposed the spatial triad to understand the production of space and its embedded power relations. The triad divides space as: spatial practice (producing physical space), representations of space (conceived space), and representational space (lived space). According to Lefebvre, our spatial experience in space consists of these three interrelated elements (Lefebvre, 1991). Zheng specifically points to two of the spaces in this triad, representations of space and representational space, to formulate her methodology.

Within this framework, she emphasizes the intermediary role of artists (writers and filmmakers) between these two spaces. To be more specific, writers are influenced by urban spaces and architectures that are the “representations of space”, reflecting the ideology and expectations of designers. At the same time, writers and filmmakers respond to and reflect on those “representations of spaces” through their use of symbols, signs, and images in their literary productions. Thus, they create literary and filmic texts that refer to the space lived in by artists, “representational spaces”. However, except for brief explanations about the framework in the introduction and conclusion, the author actually does not conduct an extensive engagement with spatial theory, which she bases her work upon. It would have been more helpful if Zheng had continued to connect her discussion to her framework while discussing different type of urban spaces. By doing so, it would have been more apparent how the dialectic relationship between the three moments shown in Lefebvre’s spatial triad can be manifested and applied in this study as well.

Most interestingly, as noted in the beginning of the book, the concept of the coexistence of local and global in Beijing is an important issue for Zheng. This is clearly addressed when the author says that “the “ideal building” should be both modern and Chinese.” (p. 99). Zheng’s personal voice and position towards the relationship between the local and global in cityscape becomes especially prominent in Chapter 7, where Zheng discusses modern and postmodern architecture in the global era. These include the “three new symbolic architecture” in Beijing—National Centre for the Performing Arts (the Giant Egg), National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest), and CCTV New Main Building (the Gate).

In Chapter 7, Zheng is concerned about Beijing becoming “a common metropolis with no distinct cultures” (p. 91). According to Lefebvre, the urban spaces of Beijing produced within the context of global capital are Abstract Spaces, which are homogeneous and transparent, showing the orders and power hierarchies of capitalism (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 50-51). The Abstract Spaces of these new contemporary buildings of Beijing are shown in their symbolic architecture marked with the dominant activities of the cities (Castells, 2005). The three new buildings mentioned above are examples of the symbolic architecture that Zheng criticizes for its disconnection from the surrounding local context and environment. In that sense, Zheng also demonstrates that these designs are not “Chinese” because they were built by “non-Chinese” designers, which I thought was a bit difficult to understand (p. 102). Although this may be partially true, the concern should not lie in the nationality of designers, but with the strategies used in incorporating this symbolic architecture within the local city at large.

The book is, in general, interdisciplinary in its approach and provides a broad socio-cultural and political context on urban issues of Beijing. In addition, the book is approachable because it does not use discipline-specific academic jargons and is written in an illustrative and descriptive manner. It is clear that Zheng wishes this book to be read by broad range of students and scholars who are interested in the city of Beijing. Zheng also achieves this by consistently and systematically reiterating the important points throughout the introduction, the beginning and at the end of each chapter, and the conclusion; the structure of the writing is easy to comprehend. Finally, the book is very narrative and poetic in that it smoothly introduces us to the artists’ world of imagination. Thus this book creates another “representational space” that is lived by its readers, who have or have not been to Beijing, and encourages them to engage with the mode of imagination of the urban spaces of Beijing.

Jeongwon Gim (University of Alberta)

 

Additional References

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Castells, M. (2005). Space of Flows, Space of Places: Materials for a Theory of Urbanism in the Information Age. In B. Sanyal (Ed.), Comparative Planning Cultures (pp. 45–63). New York: Routledge.