City as Collective Cultural Space

April 22, 2009

Painted wall in Geneva, Switzerland during the G8 summit in Evian 2003.

Cities are described in all kinds of ways. They can be understood in geographical and political terms. They can be seen as sites of production and financial centres. Often they are pictured as architectural artifacts, with large infrastructures and constructions.

Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has described them principally as cultural entities that emerge at junctions of a multitude of flows or “scapes:” mediascapes, financescapes, ideoscapes, ethnoscapes, and technoscapes. Looking at cities as cultural spaces allows us to connect with the spatial interventions that generations of our predecessors produced over time. Moreover, it also allows us to see the city as an essentially collective expression.

Of course, not every voice has the same resonance in the sometimes melodious and often discordant urban chorus. But the daily user appropriates the space she occupies in various ways. She can build and maintain a tiny shelter of her own in a dense informal settlement or express frustration on the walls of the large impersonal housing project where she has been relocated.

Every city has its moments in time and space when users become actors. These also come in the form of temporary events, such as festivals, flea markets and demonstrations where people gather, trade, exchange goods, slogans, ideas or songs. These are intensely cultural moments, which leave long-term traces in the city as space gets shaped to accommodate these uses, or through their influence on people’s aspirations and relationships.

These moments can also be more permanent and localized as in squats or abandoned parts of the city, which get taken over by a population looking for shelter, livelihood or creative freedom. What such moments and places have in common is the fact that they escape –by design or by default- traditional forms of authority and standard notions of legality.

Successfully or not, these spaces are actualized through processes of participation and self-expression. The capacity for urban actors to formulate aspirations and realize the potential of the space they occupy is not a given. It may need to be developed and nurtured. This is often ignored and results in a state of spatial, social and psychological alienation in which so many urbanites find themselves today.

Trapped in a space that they do not own and will never be able to make theirs, many turn to the last resort: violence against themselves and against their surroundings. Whenever such rebellion against the built environment occurs- either in the form of countercultural expressions such as graffiti or as straightforward vandalism – it should never be taken lightly.

Rioting is nothing but a desperate form of communication. Staying indifferent will only redirect the anger to other parts of the city. In this context, the expression of aspirations, the liberation of imagination and the elaboration of collective projects is a necessity. Urbanists, policy-makers and developers typically ignore this.

We have been hearing a lot about the importance of culture and creativity in cities from authors such as Richard Florida and Charles Taylor. However, we feel that the realm of culture is not only found in formal creative expressions. A lot of creativity is expressed in the daily lives of people in the process of living, in the production and maintenance of dwellings and habitats, and the way they takeover urban spaces for festive, religious, and cultural events.

Creativity is often expressed in the most innovative ways in self-made habitats, as seen in favelas and shantytowns. Even in rich neighbourhoods, planned localities and designed habitats such processes of cultural creativity emerge in surprisingly defiant ways. We desperately need to recognize how urban development, with its processes of participation, reflection and relationships itself constitutes cultural expression in the deepest sense of the term. For this to happen we must see cities themselves as collective cultural spaces.

1 Comment »

  1. this remind me the lecture by Jan Gehl on the issue of making a good city. I totally agree that the city is a culture collective space. I would prefer a city which can communicate, whereby we can see the culture of the people through the like the city in Tibet..i think…

    Comment by susanne — April 23, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

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