The City as a Journey, or a Project?

For anyone interested in cities or urban studies, know this: the ‘city’ you have in your head, the one you think you’re living, breathing, existing in, is different from that in my mind, or anyone else talking to you, telling you about what they think a city is capable of, and what it does from day to day. This includes academics – not least esteemed urban sociologists and policy researchers from Goldsmiths and Harvard. We’re living in the same, different place.There is also a difference between an inaugural professorial lecture, and the annual lecture of a Cities Research Group. In the former, the focus of the lecture is on the new Professor and her most treasured pieces of research. A colleague gives an over-the-top introduction, attendees listen with rapt respect, the lecture is full of detours and musings, there are no questions. She has already proven herself.

In the latter, the reputation of a young interdisciplinary coalition is at stake. The speaker and topic must be chosen to fit the times: the speaker must be cutting edge and serious; the topic contemporary and thought-provoking. The floor must be opened to cumbersome questions, and perspectives must be challenged.

I had the honour of attending both of these events in the past week, and the perspectives I gained from them were markedly different.

Caroline Knowles, now Professor Knowles, of Goldsmiths University became an urban sociologist when investigating the lives of mental health patients in Toronto. Commissioned to investigate the community healthcare system, Caroline discovered that there was in fact no such system in place. So instead, she followed two ‘mental health patients’ around town, to find out how they navigated (that is not ‘flowed’) from space to place, place to space. It took knowledge and skill to find friendly security guards (who let them sit in food courts), free soup kitchens, sheltered bus bays. What Caroline proposes is that the journeys which a city’s inhabitants take themselves construct and constitute the city. For her, a city is the product of a million people negotiating difference, interests and obstacles. In other words, a city is a world of translation and travel.

I must confess I fell in love with Caroline within the first ten minutes. Its difficult not to fall for a lecturer who doesn’t use a powerpoint, but Google Maps, to show you the way journeys play out on a variety of scales. After Toronto, Caroline took us to Hong Kong to look at the way British expatriate women navigate an essentially Chinese city (‘studying privilege can be as revealing as studying poverty’). For these woman, walking was about energy, vitality, talk – not surviving. They moved from luxury apartments through hills, to the market, through aestheticized poverty, back home. And their maids? From home, across continents and seas, through a new country buying and re-collecting, and back to…work. Who’s restricted? Who’s freed?

Another interesting thing Caroline did was to follow the journey of a flip-flop. That’s right, object biography. She started from Fuzhou, amidst the ‘choreography of flip-flop feet on a factory floor’, via legal (and illegal) routes across Somalia, to the markets of Ethiopia, and on to the feet of a third of one of the world’s poorest populations. She emphasized the skill required for smuggling; choosing the right kind of person to do the job (and here, the older the better), the right routes with few guards, or guards who desert. Information gathered from cleaners and janitors near checkpoints. Smuggling isn’t a network; it’s a negotiation.

This kind of a city, seen from an the perspective of individuals by an (albeit critical) individual herself is one kind of city. It is the kind of city I experienced when I stepped onto the train at Waterloo East, changed to a rustier one at London Bridge, walked without a map through Lewisham, and towards the altermodern facade of Goldsmiths. It is a city I pretend to be alone in, that I pretend to skillfully navigate although this is all fake because I have a one-month unlimited rail, tube and buss pass in my pocket.

Am I truly ‘navigating’ if I already know the paths, people and obstacles? Does my single journey really matter in this vast, incomprehensible, autonomous intersection of movements and structures that is the city?

The second lecture, by Susan Fainstein of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, presented a strikingly different version of the city: that of a product of public-private interests that worked with and around the city’s population to shape a city they envisioned and wanted realized. Susan spoke about the need to maintain equity by institutionalizing urban justice (re: legalizing community benefit agreements), insisting on the participation of people in development decision-making, providing social housing whenever a community is displaced. A few choice case studies from New York, London and Amsterdam illustrated both sides of this dynamic: the city as a site of contestation, not creation; one in which different interest groups claimed authorship and territorial rights. It is the city that fills the spaces around people, squeezes them, impresses its tempo upon their time. What can one do except lobby the city? Where can one move?

The city is as much a product of actual processes on the ground, whether individualistic journey or collective interest, as well as that of academic discourse. How one begins to think about where one lives is influenced by whom we listen to and where we listen to them. How often to we listen to the streets themselves, or ask people on them what they think about the whole thing? What about the experience we ourselves had in getting to these places where people talk? What kind of city did we move within and between?

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