Reading Cities – from a European Perspective

Listening today to Karl Schlögel at GUST (Ghent). Re-reading European (mid-size, peripheral) cities and re-reading the European project in “Steden lezen” (Reading Cities), the Dutch translation of a selection of his publications on cities.


“… cities are like open books, history books as well as encyclopaedias of daily lives. Their squares, facades and blueprints can be deciphered as a text that is rewritten, over-written, scratched, copied and again rewritten time and again.” (free translation of the introduction to the Dutch translation; Schlögel 8)

For more, see here Ed Taverne’s perspective on Schlögel’s contribution to redefining the European city.

Schlögel is also the author of this fascinating book on Moscow 1937.

Tactical Urbanism: the new “Quick Fix” for Urban Policy?

Moving on from my previous post: in “Tactical Urbanism: The New Vernacular of the Creative City“, Oli Mould looks at how the “creative city” discourse has gradually become replaced by a new vernacular, that of “tactical urbanism”. De Certeau’s concepts of urban, everyday “tactics” is one of the relevant concepts in this context, and Mould has a rich set of data to work with, with a global outlook.

Is “tactical urbanism” merely the new “quick fix” for urban policy, as Mould suggests? There is certainly a risk that this is (or will be) the case. De Certeau (and Deleuze & Guattari) have in several instances (and, of course, often in fairly complex language) described just how thoroughly totalizing, profit- and control-driven ideologies can incorporate and appropriate small-scale, everyday counter-“tactics”. It is a disturbing phenomenon that could also be discerned in research on parkour conducted by Sirpa Tani and myself on parkour – as we wrote in the conclusion to our article “Parkour: Creating Loose Space?”: “the potential of unexpected and unintended activities such as parkour to foster a positive atmosphere for other loosening activities should be investigated further and … the perceived subversive character of traceurs … will need closer scrutiny and contextualization.” (Ameel & Tani 2012: 28)

What I missed most in Mould’s text was a the sense that small-scale urban tactics are worth the trouble – the sense that these welcome, and in indeed necessary, elements in the contemporary city, whatever their name and the narrative that is being attached to them (often unwillingly). As researchers, we can sit back and point out how (often white middle class) citizens in the urban trenches put up small-scale activities only to have them incorporated in the neoliberal newspeak they were supposed to upset. Worthwile activities are turned into totalizing tools by way of forceful narratives, and researchers have the potential to work actively towards providing people with a vocabulary that enables them to counter (neoliberal) “creative city” (and other) mantras.

GIS & Cultural Mapping for Preserving, Developing and Reconnecting the City

Getting acquainted with a rich collection of articles on the historical urban landscape, its preservation and development: Francesco Bandarin’s and Ron van Oers’s (eds.) Reconnecting the City. The Historic Urban Landscape Approach and the Future of Urban Heritage (2014).



The importance of a rigorous cultural mapping to understand the city’s many layers of meaning is one of the things rightly foregrounded in this volume.

And an interesting (and rare) warning about using GIS: GIS-based mapping “is useful for coordinating visual data and capturing the visual morphology of the city, but has its limitations when recording the urban experience” according to Julian Smith who has a few critical words for “modernist assumptions about mapping and documentation” in this volume (p. 224). Food for thought for the emerging GIS-enthusiasm in literary studies (see my earlier post here).

From the little I’ve seen of the volume so far, nevertheless, there are some points of view I would’ve like to see more of in a book like this. One is the potential of literary sources for a cultural or narrative mapping of place. A second one is the importance of resilient, everyday practices that give meaning to place, and that are so hard to pinpoint in urban heritage discourse. How to preserve and foster everyday spontaneity, in its many forms? And is preservation even desirable? One of the things that came up in the work I conducted with Sirpa Tani on parkour (see here), in particular in our article “Parkour: Creating Loose Spaces?”.

In view of this second comment, I’m increasingly looking forward to reading the upcoming book by Oliver Mould (a fellow parkour researcher), which promises a counter-narrative to the creative city discourse in the form of new interest in forms of urban subversion.

Geocritical Explorations, GIS-based literary analysis at MLA 2015

At the 130th Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association, Vancouver, a special session entitled “Geocritical Explorations inside the Text” will be organized, with several abstracts dealing with GIS-based literary analysis.


Following up on recent geogricitical explorations such as the collected volumes Geocritical Explorations and the volume Literary Cartographies, both edited by Robert Tally.  with some articles on city literature.

Recent applications of geographical technologies in literature include Gregory & Cooper’s article on GIS and Victorian literature and culture (2013).

[update] All feeding into what could be called the larger field of geohumanities, the advent of which is briefly touched upon here by Tim Cresswell.

Reminds me I have to take this volume off the shelf and start re-reading: GeoHumanities. Art, History, Text at the Edge of Place (Michael Dear et al. 2011).