Living The City Differently: ‘your city has a palette of grey, but that is not the way we see it’

Alison Romaine - Writer

‘The city’ is more than a territorial delineation on a map - it is reproduced by the flows that populate and activate space. Yet the mobilities of citizens are prismatic, often interweaving and are scalar in power - with curious temporality and spatially. From early morning commuters hastily navigating the concrete, to skateboarders later grazing the same curbs, it is assumed we all have equal right to the city (Lefebvre talks of ‘droit a la ville’) until the quiet spikes, sprinklers and slanting street benches creates a hostile city for the homeless. These examples of ‘defensive architecture’ as well as the rise of pseudo-public spaces, destabilises the liberalised expectations of our place in the city - as the ‘unwanted citizens’ are designed out (Andreou, 2015) to privilege the space for ‘consumers’.

With this narrative, the playful sounds and activity of skateboarders have become politicized - highlighting how territory is not just the possession of a certain urbanite group, but for all citizens as - Borden (2019) writes: ‘Skateboarding defies the neoliberal logic of the city by making it a playground for all’. The power of this behaviour in disrupting ‘the logic’ i.e. the intended governed use written out by the built environment of housing, offices, banks and transport which caters to capitalism and to promote a lifestyle dedicated to current economic structures is indeed shattered by the transgressive acts of skateboarders who elect to use the city as ‘a playground’. This group finds a functionality in these buildings without engaging with their productive activities - freed from the competitive and regimented demands of organised sport, the little wheels which traverse and scrape the tarmacked topography of the street, implicitly deny that cities should be ‘productive or useful economic territories of commerce’ (Borden, 2019). Instead, correlating to Pat Kane’s (2014) contention that work ethic should be equated by a ‘play ethic’- where play can be ‘collaborative, creative and politicised’. This taps into this dominant framing and assumption of a city which should always be somewhat under stress and business. The rush of capitals where citizens expel time to talk to each other in order to pursue ‘the daily grind’; the presumed pathway of fulfillment - yet is this an unhealthy city with cases of ‘millennial burnout’ (BBC 2019 and Buzzfeed 2019)?

The positionality of skateboarders is told in the poem by Mat Lloyd (2015) who exposes a layering and simultaneous individualism of the city which rejects hegemonic assumptions that different social spaces of activity are categorized and segregated spatially via corresponding zones; instead he looks temporally and in terms of alternative navigations of the same space/location. Lloyd presents a thick plurality of social spaces on the same portion of pavement differentiated by the fact that commuters colonise the walk from ‘a-to-b’ while skateboarders ‘observe the cracks in the curb; and dance the periphery of yesterday’s puddles’ - and perhaps children tiptoe and waddle around the gaps in the concrete.

Same space; different use - the poem (below) performs the phenomenological experiences of place as well as moving beyond ocularcentrism as they understand the space through auditory and tactile means too.

This is our city
Your city has a palette of grey
But that is not the way we see it
We observe the cracks in the curb
The absurdity that our city has an admired beauty
Maybe its the daily commute from a to  b that blinds the site
Our commute is a to everywhere
Here to there
It is your nothing and our everything
I see streets often avoided as we dance the periphery of yesterday’s puddles
We don't shy away from the daily grind; we embrace it
Choose the opportunities
Sometimes so focused we don’t see the people or feel the chill in the air
We are at one with the city
Whose noise once calmed us and now charmed us with a well sung chorus of familiar sound
We move together and admire what only we can see.


The notable emotive use of the determining and divisive pronouns ‘our’ versus ‘your’ within the same coordinates displays binarized social space between city users - but does each group territorialise the space equally or is the dynamic one where the skateboarders are the secondary users; attempting to reclaim space or time-in-space?






A situated mapping of London through words by Mat Lloyd and skating by Sam Murgatroyd, Helena Long, Charlie Radford and Amy Ram. Stay Wild magazine. Filmed & edited Shade Media. Music & sound design Sounds Like These. Collaboration with Neon Stas.
Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=36&v=ZtO_mgMl2dA

This concurs with Hillier (2013, p.103) as she troubles the place of the border and the prescriptive nature of territory or ‘the city’:

"While borders are transgressed and our understanding of territories may have changed, they nevertheless remain. Actors define and mobilise borders in new ways for different purposes from legislative zones of land use to physical gated communities and psychological subjectivation  of 'us and them'. Lines run between communities and places, nor around them. Mobilities of humans and non-humans *including policy ideas and practices) have consequences for spatial planning, as new types of trans-territorial public and private action networks actualise. Action networks offer [...] opportunities for planners to deterritorialise the idea of space as bordered containers and reterritorialise it as multiple, rhizomic networks of spatialised relationships to begin to rearticulate territory-sovereignty-citizenship relations for cities"

This post structuralist relational reading of space and unbounding of territory is also corroborated by Brenner (2004) and McCann & Ward (2010 p. 175) who argue:

"the image of political-economic space as a complex, tangled mosaic of superimposed and interpenetrating nodes, levels, scales and morphologies has become more appropriate than the traditional Cartesian model of homogeneous, self-enclosed and continguous blocks of territory."

The example of Camden Bench in London - a sculpted grey concrete seats with an ergonomic design which deters sleeping and skateboarding - exemplifies how social spaces or groups are actively designed out of territories- excluded by use of ‘hostile’ or ‘defensive architecture’ (Quinn, 2014 and Andreou, 2015). This revisits the question ‘who’ is the city for? - and who governs that?- yet skateboarders characteristically subvert and rise to the challenge with clattering and crashing of concrete.





Skateboarders defiant acts: traversing Camden bench designed to be ‘nothing but a bench’ to deter undesirable or unwelcome behaviour.
Images: The Guardian, 2014

Photographer, Vallée (2014) discloses: ‘who do we want in this space, who do we not want, are being considered early in the design stage’. Additionally, the rejection of bench as just something to sit on, exemplifies the relationship between the built environment and people as inherently pluralistic and experimental - defying single or instructed uses.

On a comparative note, Hull as part of their City of Culture 2017 regeneration, has been hailed a skateboarder-friendly city with new projects such as Hull Venue being skateable plaza spaces designed to be skated but protective of the architecture (watch video: https://youtu.be/V02zWroalzc).

‘The idea was simultaneously simple but equally ground-breaking, especially for a country that has lagged behind the likes of Sweden and Australia when it comes to designing street culture into its cities, as opposed to trying to aggressively design them out. Rather than adopting the traditional council route of building a plaza space, freaking out two weeks later when people start skating it and covering the whole thing in horrible skate-stoppers – Hull’s council have constructed the ledges so that they can be skated (via the inclusion of rolled coping-like metal edges) with no fear of them being chipped or broken. It’s important to draw a distinction: the council have not ‘built a skate spot’, rather, they have constructed a new prestigious cultural space and designed its use by skateboarders into the final construction. Yes, on one level it’s “just some ledges” but, looked at from an architectural and Psychogeography perspective, this is unprecedented territory for the UK.Skateboarding is an organic gentrifying force, its presence has a proven track record of reducing street crime - see 5 Bridges in Newcastle and Portobello in Dublin. There’s no point crying about the death of the British city centre if you insist on attempting to design the life out of it.’ (Powell, Sidewalk 2018)


Hull Venue (Regeneration Project)
Photograph: Farran Golding

However some groups, such as the homeless who have less mobility, do not have the resilience of skaters to resist defensive architecture installations such as spikes in the urban form (from the spikes outside Selfridges in Manchester to sprinklers soaking the homeless under government offices in Guangzhou) - often in ‘dead cells’ (extending the metaphor that the city is an organism) - i.e. pockets of space which are too small to develop but would often be the ‘safe’ domain of rough sleepers. Andreou (2015) in his Guardian piece, comments further: ‘Poverty exists as a parallel, but separate, reality. City planners work very hard to keep it outside our field of vision.’


Metal studs outside private flats on Southwark Bridge Road, London.
Photograph: Guy Corbishley/Demotix/Corbis

Such furnishing suggests that we are ‘only welcome in cities or only republic citizens to the degree that we are either working or consuming goods directly’ Borden (2019).

This leads to the second discussion of privatisation of public realms as well as ‘mallification’ - where everything becomes like a shopping mall (Martens, 2018). What we perceive as free-to-occupy social space is undermined by the territory of consumerism and creeping pseudo-public spaces (Garrett, 2017).

 
Privately owned public spaces (POPS) in London
Map: Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC (GiGL) (2017)

This oxymoronic situation shows the complexity of the debate as although we assume access is free, it does actually remain at the discretion of the corporate landowner such as the outside of Paddington Station. Public, collective, social spaces have the potential to transform as democratic and inclusive values are coded into their fabric- yet their privatisation stems this into coercion or limitation as ad hoc laws can be enforced to stop natural flows- a critical juxtaposition to Hillier’s earlier argument. For example: in 2011 Occupy protestors were forced out of Pasternoster Square by court order as it was revealed Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Estate was the owner (Guardian, 2017).


Occupy protestors outside St Paul’s after losing fight against eviction in the high court.
Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images.

Minton (2017) comments:

“the architecture of any period, including the production of space, reflects the current socioeconomic forces and thus the growth in pseudo-public spaces is a reflection of the neoliberal city - an Atlanticist model primarily in North America and UK- not so much Europe as the government and private sector converse to undermine democratic rights to the city”. 


The More London development on South Bank by City Hall - permission needed to conduct politician interviews on camera and to protest.
 Map: Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC (GiGL) (2017)

Thus increasingly territorialising and bounding ‘the city’.

To reroute onto what Harvey, Marxist author of ‘Social Justice and the City’, calls ‘the path from an urbanism based on exploitation to an urbanism appropriate for the human species’, many mini grassroot movements have tried to reclaim the city - from Incredible Edible (free community gardening and growing) to ‘infrapolitical’ and activist (google it) gardening!?

But serious business time, gardening, according to Boudry (2012), can be more than the domestic, innocuous and very healthy act reserved for the suburban Jane and Nigel down the road, and is in fact:

‘a subversive use of urban land since they go against the common agreement that only the rich, powerful or educated can shape cities, and that shaping cities takes time, effort and arcane knowledge.  Where political and financial powers fight to normalize urban behaviors and uses to suit their own agendas, small actions such as throwing seeds over a fence or planting a flower in a crack of the wall can become acts of protest on the part of people with little or no power of any kind’ - a form of guerilla gardening (coined first in NYC in the 1970s) and urban greening which involve an attempt to both reclaim urban plots left vacant and neglected by owners (and therefore making their environment more liveable also), challenge the standardisation of urban nature (Wittig and Becker, 2012). 

Geographers such as Don Mitchell and Neil Smith, take on the Marxist analysis of urban life- studying the normalization of behaviour in public space; driven by the needs and desires of the dominant or governing class. Look at https://www.cairn.info/revue-francaise-d-etudes-americaines-2012-1-page-32.htm for a global discussion of urban resistance examples.

A similar discourse can be deployed when faced with high populations of private cars in densifying cities. An artists collective REBAR in San Francisco runs an international park(ing) day (held on the third Friday of September every year, if you’re keen) which involves renting a parking space for a few hours and placing grass, a tree and a bench on it. Recalling William Whyte’s argument that the quality of urban life is best measured by the availability of comfortable places to sit (hostile bench designers clearly thinking Whyte’s argument was too controversial), REBAR explains:

‘One of the more critical issues facing outdoor urban human habitat is the paucity of space for humans to rest, relax, or just do nothing. For example, more than 70% of San Francisco’s downtown outdoor space is dedicated to the private vehicle, while only a fraction of that space is allocated to the public realm… Our goal was to transform a parking spot into a PARK(ing) space, thereby temporarily expanding the public realm and improving the quality of urban human habitat, at least until the meter ran out. By our calculations, we provided an additional 24,000 square-foot minutes of public open space that Wednesday afternoon’


The original Park(ing) installation on Mission Streets in San Francisco (Rebar Group)
Available:  https://www.citylab.com/life/2017/09/from-parking-to-parklet/539952/

From the bottom-up acts of organisations revising urban public space and  trying to keep citizen’s ‘right to the city’ alive to the governmental perspectives of Hull City Council choosing to keep public spaces democratic in design, it is important to engage with but also challenge the built environment (not everything is a free as it seems) - and how would you experience the city in someone else’s shoes - perhaps those who have been subject to being rubbed out of the planner’s visions?




References:

Andreou, A. (2015). Defensive architecture: keeping poverty unseen and deflecting our guilt. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/18/defensive-architecture-keeps-poverty-undeen-and-makes-us-more-hostile [Accessed 28 Feb. 2019].

Baudry, S. (2012). Reclaiming Urban Space as Resistance: The Infrapolitics of Gardening. Revue française d’études américaines, 131(1), 32-48.

Borden, I. (2019). Skateboarding defies the neoliberal logic of the city by making it a playground for all. [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/skateboarding-defies-the-neoliberal-logic-of-the-city-by-making-it-a-playground-for-all-110552 [Accessed 28 Feb. 2019].

Brenner, N. 2004. New State Spaces: Urban Governance and the Rescaling of Statehood, Oxford: Oxford University Press.[Crossref], , [Google Scholar], 66)

Elden , S. 2011 . “Territory without Borders .” Harvard International Review , Aug. 21 . Accessed February 2019 .http://www.hir.harvard.edu/territory-without-borders [Google Scholar]

Hillier, J. (2013). Troubling the place of the border: on territory, community, space and place. [online] Taylor & Francis. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07293682.2013.776981 [Accessed 28 Feb. 2019].

Huck, J., Whyatt, D., & Coulton, P. (2014). Spraycan: a PPGIS for capturing imprecise notions of place. Applied Geography, 55, 229-237.

McCann, E. and Ward, K. 2010. Relationality/Territoriality: Toward a Conceptualization of Cities in the World. Geoforum, 41: 175–184. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2009.06.006  [Google Scholar], 177).

Whyatt, D., Huck, J., Davies, G., Dixon, J., Hocking, B., Jarman, N., Sturgeon, B. & Bryan, D., Apr 2017, Proceedings of the GIS Research UK 25th Annual Conference, Manchester, UK.

Shenker, J. (2017). Revealed: the insidious creep of pseudo-public space in London. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/24/revealed-pseudo-public-space-pops-london-investigation-map [Accessed 28 Feb. 2019].

Quinn, B. (2017). Anti-homeless spikes are part of a wider phenomenon of 'hostile architecture'. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/13/anti-homeless-spikes-hostile-architecture [Accessed 28 Feb. 2019].



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