The city as medium – Wakabayashi


Mikio Wakabayashi writes:

“The cultural role of a city results from the fact that the city is a medium. It is a place governed by norms, rules and cultures, enabling heterogeneous people to live together.” (p.8)

“The spatial order of an urban settlement is not only a geographical order, but also an order of communication and representation. The city exists as a complex of the social medium, which is spatial, communicative and representative. To dwell in such a milieu is, on the one hand, to live in the corporeality of the spatial world, and, on the other hand, to live in the world of meanings that are transmitted by the social media, which construct the urban environment. In this sense, the city matches perfectly the term “media”, as the plural of “medium”.” (p.9)

“…as Choay (1969) argued, in most pre-modern (pre-industrial) cities, elements of the urban environment were interrelated in the context of normative codes and rules, which in turn were acknowledged by inhabitants and planners, and were also connected with all other social systems, such as political power, knowledge, economy, and religion. It seems, then, that cities may be regarded as systems of communication and information, in other words as “semiotic systems”.” (p.10)

“Cyberspace and the cybercity are a “mirror” that projects the negatives of the physical or real city, because they are created as a result of needs and desires that have grown from a lack or dissatisfaction regarding physical or real cities and society.” (p.14)

Ref: Mikio Wakabayashi (2002) Urban space and cyberspace: Urban environment in the age of media and information technology. International Journal of Japanese Sociology 11, pp.6-18

More urban change questions


More interesting questions about humans and cities and nature…

“What is the relationship between humans and nature? How does this question play out in the specific micro-environments of cities?” (p.71)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

urban change questions


These questions are posed in the context of sustainable urban development, but I think them both interesting and relevant to fictional concerns (perhaps especially those of urban fantasy and fiction more generally?):

“Ultimately,” write, “the green city will reflect a rather different future for work. On this topic there are some very large questions: can a future of cities competing against one another in world markets be reconciled with a benign future for the environment? What are the limits of competition and how can they be enforced? Does economic growth itself have limits? How can growth be steered into environmentally benign forms of production? What forms of governance are required to regulate world markets in order to guarantee social security and environmental conservation? How do culture, place and climate influence work patterns, and consequently the physical accommodation of work?” (p.132)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

Mapping Suburban Fiction – Long


I’ve just been reading an interesting article by Christian Long on the (general) absence of travel between work and the suburbs in suburban fiction – and what might be read into this absence.

Long begins by aligning two quotes in a way I find quite powerful: “Suburbanization, probably more than any other single factor, hid the poor from view … Suburbanization nourished the solipsism of the middle class, which looked around its new environment and concluded, short-sightedly, that it was alone in America.” (Barbara Ehrenreich, quoted p.193)
Then you make a map of the book, and everything changes.” (Franco Moretti, quoted p.193)

Long then goes on to write: “…the suburbs are more than cookie-cutter tract houses and depersonalizing offices; they also are the roads and rails on which suburbanites ride. In spite of the practical importance of commuting, of all the routine segments of everyday suburban life, moments of transit seem most prone to disappearance from fictional narratives and their critical engagements. The critical history of suburban literature more often than not defines suburb/suburbia/suburban/suburbanite/suburbanization in terms of houses, workplaces, and the discursive regimes that order them, drawing a line between the urban world of work and the suburban world of ‘home.’” (pp.193-194)

Long proposes that we might “redirect examination of suburban fiction outside and beyond the bounds of houses and workplaces. By ignoring representations of in-between moments like commuting to get to the easy pickings of the ranch house or copy room, we risk ignoring an important factor of suburban life—that is, all the time and space spent coming and going.” (p.194)

“[Sinclair Lewis’s] George Babbitt’s attention to the space within which he commutes models an active engagement with his environment—an engagement that pays attention to the economic inequality embodied within the built landscape. In contrast, representative post-war suburban fictions like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Corrections narratively and formally normalize a disconnection from the spaces between home and work, between the suburbs and the city. In these narratives—which represent the standard suburban narrative of American culture—the protagonist shuttles between the conflicts of suburban life—at home and at work—with as little interference from the built environment as possible.” (p.194)

“While suburban literature thickly describes domestic-house space and office-work space, maps of Babbitt, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and The Corrections reveal that between the house and office lies a nearly-blank, unrepresented space. Such empty space on the map represents a blind spot in the suburban imaginary: inequality. Recognizing the space between suburb and city—both narratively and as a critical reading strategy—makes it possible to understand the history of suburban discourses and to challenge the inevitability of the current sprawling, stratified suburban way of life in America.” (p.195)

“…this separation of home and work also generates a blindness to the in-between spaces through which suburbanites travel—highways, bridges, streets, sidewalks, trains, trolleys, and even subways—and a similar blindness to the price non-suburbanites pay for the convenience of that infrastructure. Deconstructing the home-work binary allows us to understand and highlight that price, to uncover the hidden structures of exploitation and inequality which the conventional account of postwar suburbia glides over.” (pp.194-195)

Reading this, I was wondering how urban fantasy deals with this space between suburb and city (if, indeed, it does)…?

Note: Long also points us to the following work: “The best book-length analysis of suburban fiction I have found—Catherine
Jurca’s White Diaspora: The Suburbs and the Twentieth-Century American Novel—uses a metaphor of movement.” (p.194)

Reference: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Christian Long (2013) ‘Mapping Suburban Fiction’ Journal of Language, Literature and Culture 6(3)Dec, 193-213 DOI 10.1179/2051285613Z.00000000019

Abstract: “In spite of the practical importance of commuting to everyday suburban life, moments of commuting are rare in American fiction. While the experience of commuting offers chances for reflection and self-knowledge for the suburbanite’s psyche, that time for introspection comes at the cost of ignoring the built environment. The separation of home and work that the often-elided moments of commuting perpetuate generates a blindness to the suburban built environment and infrastructure. This article redirects an examination of suburban fiction outside and beyond the bounds of houses and workplaces by paying attention to scenes of commuting. Placing the space between home and work at the centre of the analysis allows us to understand and highlight the price of the suburban way of life, and to uncover the hidden structures of exploitation and inequality which a conventional account of post-war suburbia glides over.”

Quotes referenced more fully as: Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: Harper
Perennial, 1989), 42.

and: Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (London: Verso, 2005), 36.

We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us


Introducing his ‘Mythic Modern’ approach to architecture, Travis Price declares:

“A void permeates today’s architectural landscape. Economies of scale ignore the scale of the spirit. The result is an architecture that promulgates isolation and homogeneity.” (p.20)

Churchill’s comment that “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” takes on new meaning when we see so many buildings that are shaped the same. Where does individuality reside? When militant homeowner communities impose homogeneity, the loss of identity is magnified. All that is left of self-expression is the color of the SUV in the driveway.” (p.20)

The greatest cost of the automobile-driven environment, however, is not the sprawl nor the ecological waste and excessive consumption: it is the toll of soullessness. Yet market reality cannot be ignored; so, within our economic constraints, what do we build now?” (p.20)

“Architects of vision are stuck daily with a Promethean curse. Each day they propose the possibilities for more authenticity, but daily their livers are devoured by the blinding path of standardized buildings demanded by the consumer, the government regulators, and the building moguls. The need for regeneration of authenticity goes beyond architecture: it permeates the superficial world of fashion, it permeates fine arts, it permeates music and almost every art form there is. Everything we do exists as an art form, even if badly conceived or executed.
One could always say, well, what’s so wrong about going to the mall? What’s so wrong about coming out to my house in McVille or McTown? What’s really so bad about a new high rise with neo-whatever banality pasted all over it? What’s the big hoopla? As the saying goes, “There’s nothing wrong with it, but it just ain’t right.” The subtle curse is that these soulless buildings are so seductively safe and easy to tolerate; that’s why their growth is so rampant.
Why do people make deliberate decisions to move to such an environment? When you distill it all down, it’s because they want a material, isolationist, safe world. That’s find, but very empty. It doesn’t have the layers that Rome, London, Kathmandu, Istanbul, downtown Boston, or old San Francisco have. Where you’ve got the palimpsest of change, you’ve got memory and meaning and metaphor, metaphor that rings out with layers of authenticity.” (p.24)

“Without redressing our growing definitions of authenticity, we can’t go much further; architecture has to be metaphorically reinvigorated. What I propose to call the Mythic Modern is the equilibrium of the earth and the spirit and the industrial revolution, a combination of three “lenses” I have come to call Stillness, Movement, and Nature.
Myth matters, industrial freedom matters, and the environment matters.” (p.30)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Travis Price (c2006)The Archaeology of Tomorrow: Architecture and the Spirit of Place. Earth Aware: San Rafael, CA

gated communities as barometers


According to Atkinson & Blandy:

“Gated communities represent a new or at least relatively novel form of housing development in the European context and their number is increasing. With growing consumer and media interest the US and South African models of such development may form templates for understanding this direction in preferences, primarily directed by fear, privacy and predictability. What is less clear is why such development is growing in societies characterised by lower prevailing crime rates and higher levels of social cohesion. In this sense perhaps gated communities might be seen as barometers indicating the future shape and scale of social forces linked to social fear and aspirations toward ex-territoriality (Bauman, 2000). In this sense the significance of gated communities lies less in their number and more in what they say about a wider bundle of social pressures now directing where and how people live.” (p.184)

“The club good of security and neighbourhood services represented by gated communities resemble new medieval city-states wherein residents pay dues and are protected, literally as their ‘citizens’. With the growth of these gated mini-states, the argument has been that gated residents should not have to pay twice for services they already receive. This may ultimately have the effect that entitlements to vital aspects of citizenship, such as security, welfare and environmental services, become based on which neighbourhood one lives in.” (p.185)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Rowland Atkinson & Sarah Blandy (2005): Introduction: International Perspectives on The New Enclavism and the Rise of Gated Communities, Housing Studies, 20:2, 177-186

New urbanism and gated communities


Considering development trends in the postmodern city, Jill Grant explains “The traditional suburb is oriented to the car and family. / In many areas, however, alternative development approaches appeal to consumers. Among the options are New Urbanist developments and gated communities. While New Urbanism and gated enclaves reflect divergent planning principles, development practice reveals that they tend to occur in the same general areas and that they create residential environments with a great deal in common. Moreover, they respond to similar perceptions of crisis in the contemporary city” (p.482)

She acknowledges that: “Many would argue that New Urbanism and gated communities are in some ways opposites. For instance, the Congress for the New Urbanism (2005) suggests that in deciding which communities constitute authentic New Urbanist projects, the first premise is to “[r]ule out any project that is gated.” Because New Urbanism seeks to embrace the city, New Urbanists see gated communities as enclaves that shut the city out—and therefore as anathema. While New Urbanism advocates diversity and mixing, gated projects promise homogeneity and separate residential uses behind a veil of privilege.” (p.483)

However, Grant also points out “when we study New Urbanism and gated projects in Canada, we discover that despite their physical differences, they share many features and occupy common regions. Both types of projects reveal popular strategies that developers use for packaging new suburbs as attractive commodities. Both respond to the same fears and concerns about the contemporary city. As Sandercock suggested, “The current popularity of both the ‘new urbanism’ and gated communities is the latest manifestation of [a]…denial of diversity and fear of difference” (1999, 13). Both reflect a popular search for civility, character, and authenticity in the urban environment and a reliance on surveillance for social control in the contemporary city (Christopherson 1994). Like other planning movements of the previous century, New Urbanism and gated enclaves respond to the perceived loss of a sense of community in industrial cities (Morris 1996; Talen 2000). The desire for an imaginary or imagined community without conflict leads consumers to look for sanitized and nonthreatening suburban environments of the kind promised by these contemporary movements (Christopherson 1994; Knox 2005; Kohn 2004).” (p.893)

Turning more specifically to the Canadian context, Grant writes that “both project types most commonly represent affluent communities that adopt private design strategies to address public policy problems. Following Newman’s (1973) model, they employ design methods to reinforce social control and establish defensible space. Rather than offering general solutions to the crises that afflict contemporary urban [-p.894] development, these approaches meet the needs of particular niche markets in high-growth urban regions. As Giddens wrote, “In modern social life, the notion of lifestyle takes on a particular significance. The more tradition loses its hold, and the more daily life is reconstituted in terms of the dialectical interplay of the local and the global, the more individuals are forced to negotiate lifestyle choices among a diversity of options” (1991, 5). New Urbanism and gated developments represent lifestyle options for those with the resources to choose the kind of places they want to inhabit: domiciles for the successful.” (pp.893-894) Interesting!!!

Ref: Jill L. Grant (2007): Two sides of a coin? New urbanism and gated communities, Housing Policy Debate, 18:3, 481-501