Tag Archives: space

Charles Mills: Race and Space in the Racial Contract

Given how much my work focuses on the relationship between race and space, I loved it when this appeared in Charles Mills’ theorisation of the Racial Contract.

The norming of space is partially done in terms of the racing of space, the depiction of space as dominated by individuals (whether persons or subpersons) of a certain race. At the same time, the norming of the individual is achieved by spacing it, that is, representing it as imprinted with the characteristics of a certain kind of space. So this is a mutually supporting characterization that, for subpersons, becomes a circular inditcment: “You are what you are in part because you originate from a certain kind of space, and that space has those properties in part because it is inhabited by creatures like yourself. (42)

There is so much here to unpack — this connection between our perceptions of a person and the place they are from. We all know how we judge and are judged. For many, it is a constant battle to escape the violence of such judgments, rooted in a dark and violent past. Rooted in Colonialism, conquest, genocide.

The Racial Contract in its early preconquest versions must necessarily involve the pejorative characterization of the spaces that need taming, the spaces in which the racial polities are eventually going to be constructed. … Creating the civil and the political here thus requires an active spatial struggle (this space is resistant) against the savage and the barbaric, an advancing of the frontier against opposition, a Europeanization of the world. (43)

Conquest is necessarily a struggle over land and geography, and demands a spatial understanding of the world. The understanding created through years of colonialism was one of Europe as civilised, deserving to conquer (because if it didn’t advance it would surely be forced to retreat before brutal hordes) the rest of the savage world.

The battle against this savagery is in a  sense permanent as long as the savages continue to exist… So it is not merely that space is normatively characterized on the macrolevel before conquest and colonial settlement, but that even afterward, on the local level, there are divisions, the European city and the Native Quarter, Whitetown and Niggertown/Darktown, suburb and inner city. (47)

You see, we live with these divisions still.

Mills quotes David Theo Goldberg:

“Power in the polis, and this is especially true of racialized power, reflects and refines the spatial relations of its inhabitants.”

Mills continues:

Part of the purpose of the color line/apartheid/jim crow is to maintain these spaces in their place, to have the checkerboard of virtue and vice, light and dark space, ours and theirs, clearly demarcated so that the human geography prescribed by the Racial Contract can be preserved.

This echoes Fanon’s observations of colonial world cut in two, the segregation that still exists in our cities, the divisions between deserving and undeserving that echo an early Christian world of  vice and virtue alongside an emergent/protestant ethic of settlement and industry. The land should belong to white’s because they are the only ones who can make it fruitful. And the end result:

Since the Racial Contract links space with race and race with personhood, the white raced space of the polity is in a sense the geographical locus of the polity proper. (50)

Over and over again in racist texts is this idea of America as white, of citizens as white. Whites fought to defend this idea, and to live amongst their own (See Sugrue, Hirsch, Meyer and so many more).

Thus one of the interesting consequences of the Racial Contract is that the political space of the polity is not coextensive with its geographical space. In entering these (dark) spaces, one is entering a region normatively discontinuous with white political space, where the rules are different in ways ranging from differential funding (school resources, garbage collection, infrastructural repair) to the absence of police protection. (51)

Finally, there is the microspace of the body itself… The black body. The crazy amounts of fear and hate whites have invested in the skin of others. Mills draws a historical distinction between the old regime of Christian thought in which other races were still ‘salvageable’ and could still be saved until this shifted:

The new secular category of race, by contrast, which gradually crystallized over a century or so, had the virtue of permanency over any given individual’s lifetime. …

For the first time ‘slavery acquired a color. But for the colonial project in general, personhood would be raced, hence the concept of “subject races.” The crucial conceptual divide is between whites and nonwhites, persons and subpersons, though once this central cut has been made, other internal distinctions are possible… (57)

It is the Racial Contract that ‘constructs’ race as a group identity. Makes whiteness the norm. Toni Morrison has long pointed out that ‘Americanness’ has long meant whiteness:

deviation from which unfits one for full personhood and full membership in the polity. (54)

All of this, yet race has not been seen as central — and I know I explored this in the first post on the matter, particularly in relation to political theory and philosophy. Yet it is too often absent from geography too. I feel like this acknowledgment of what always seems to go unquestioned cannot be repeated enough:

Insofar as race is addressed at all within mainstream moral and political philosophy, it is usually treated in a  footnote as a regrettable deviation from the ideal. But treating it in this way makes it seem contingent, accidental, residual, removes it from our understanding. Race is made to seem marginal when in fact race has been central. … we should say frankly that  for whites the Racial Contract represented the ideal, and what is involved is not deviation from the (fictive) norm but adherence to the actual norm. (56)

It cannot be repeated enough that America has always been  a white supremacist state:

for which differential white racial entitlement and nonwhite racial subordination were defining, thus inevitably molding white moral psychology and moral theorizing

It is built, like European conquest was built, on some strong philosophical foundations. Kant — I never though of Kant as the modern father of race, but Mills makes a good case for it. I’d never heard of Kant’s 1775 essay  on ‘The Different Races of Mankind’, but there it is, for me to find and read. In the meantime, Mills writes:

The famous theorist of personhood is also the theorist of subpersonhood…as Eze points out, Kant taught anthropology and physical geography for forty years, and his philosophical work really has to be read in conjunction with these lectures to understand how racialized his views on moral character were. (70)

Of course, I have never heard of these lectures. Mills summarises some of Kant’s opinions, such as his feeling that there is

some hope for Asians, though they lack the ability to develop abstract concepts; the innately idle Africans can at least be educated as servants and slaves through the instruction of a split-bamboo cane (Kant gives some useful advice on how to beat Negroes efficiently); and the wretched Native Americans are just hopeless, and cannot be educated at all. (71)

Jesus. I thought I was getting to old and well-read for those moments when things you thought you knew give a great shake and fall.

So to return briefly to the differences between contracts: the social contract is always discussed and seen as a concrete event that happened at a specific time — or at least, that is how it is theorised. It’s important to understand that the Racial Contract actually exists, its construction can be witnessed over time, and by contrast to this once-upon-a-time moment theorised for the social contract,

…the Racial Contract is continually being rewritten to create different forms of the racial policy. (72)

This reminds me so much of Stuart Hall’s continual focus on the ‘work’ that racism is currently performing at any conjuncture — the importance of understanding how things shift and change to help those in power and privilege maintain that power and privilege. Two ways of theorising the same insight.

So in bringing this to bear on our history we see it transform:

In the first period, the period of de jure white supremacy, the Racial Contract was explicit, the characteristic instantiations — the expropriation contract, the slave contract, the colonial contract– making it clear that whites were the privileged race and the egalitarian social contract applied only to them.

In the second period, on the other hand, the Racial Contract has written itself out of formal existence. The scope of the terms in the social contract has been formally extended to apply to everyone, so that “persons” is no longer coextensive with “whites.”

But tensions remain ‘between continuing de facto white privilege and this formal extension of rights… a crucial manifestation is simply the failure to ask certain questions, taking for granted a status quo… (73)

This reminds me of the silences written about by Trouillot. These periodisations have been noted by Manning Marable, Michelle Alexander, Cornel West and others. These things seem so obvious, depending on where you stand.

To bring it back more fully to space, to geography, we leave the sphere of the nation and the body to look at the globe as a whole.

Globally, the Racial Contract effects a final paradoxical norming and racing of space, a writing out of the polity of certain spaces as … irrevalent. (74)

He quotes Frederick Jameson

Colonialism means that a significant structural segment of the economic system is now located elsewhere, beyond the metropolis, outside of the daily life and existential experience of the home country…Such spatial disjunction has as its immediate consequence the inability to grasp the way the system functions as a whole. (‘Modernism and Imperialism’, 1990)

Out of sight, out of mind and protection from knowledge of spatial exploitation becomes just another privilege enjoyed by those in the privileged spaces of the privileged nations.

So much here, such a short book.

[Mills, Charles W. (1997) The Racial Contract. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.]


Biosphere II

The entrance to the Biosphere II…

Biosphere 2

I remember this from my childhood, the great experiment to see if we could inhabit space under domes, live completely contained lives under glass. The great (although flawed) experiment here, here! Just outside of Tucson!

They couldn’t do it the way we hoped, the way I had read about in those Daw paperback novels with the yellow spines and the library’s mark of the atom, but the Biosphere II experiments taught so much…I remember the faces of the eight scientists who lived here for two years as seen through this glass. Way back between 1991 and 1993, way back.

I also remember them being a bit too celebrity-like, especially the women, looking at this picture I can see why I might have thought so.

Yet all these years and I had never managed to visit — I even drove all the way up here once with my friend Samantha, but it was too expensive. Worth it? Yes, but too expensive when we just didn’t have the money. Too many things are that way in this country, rather damaging to many of the potential scientists out there. But I digress.

I confess I wasn’t too impressed by the presence of a lawn in a place studying sustainability, but I love the futuristic style.

Biosphere 2

It’s at it’s busiest between Christmas and New Year’s apparently, so we were able to walk through at our own pace rather than on the tour. I’m sure we missed some things that way, but I think I might have preferred it, we had more ability to avoid other people. Best of all, we were able to climb up to the higher dome that served the original inhabitants as library — until they no longer had the calories and the oxygen to make it up the stairs. They are some stairs, I hate how much I can feel the altitude now when I come home:

Biosphere 2

The views — stunning. Out over the rainforest pyramid, with administrative buildings and the Catalina foothills in the background:

Biosphere 2

Looking over the new soil experiments (called the Landscape Evolution Observatory) where the old agricultural section used to be, the desert pyramid, one of the lungs:

Biosphere 2

A sense of the inside:

Biosphere 2

Back down a floor to the original crew quarters, it now hosts some awesome exhibits — a crazy mix up of science, science fiction books and film, casts and models and stamps. They include methane ice worms, the flower shaped ecopolis sitting sustainably (perhaps) on the ocean. But first one of my favourite things — the Lunar Greenhouse Habitat.

Biosphere 2Another experiment with a closed system (much smaller — much of the Biosphere’s appeal is just the scale at which the experiment was conducted), growing plants using hydroponic systems on carbon dioxide from human waste and respiration, along with other inputs from composting, harvesting and other waste. Very cool. The plants they are growing here? Cow peas, lettuce, sweet potatoes and basil, with a recent decision to include strawberries (these are from NASA’s approved list, for more from NASA on space gardening, go here).

Biosphere 2

Humans have been thinking about this for a while, though I think if flights of imagination in fiction were allowed, this timeline might stretch back much further than 1960 — I shall have to look into that.

Any such garden would almost certainly have to be buried underground — I love how much thought has already gone into what would be required to live on the Moon, or Mars.

They have an awesome model of Mars exploration:

Biosphere 2

The Soviet space stamps (made me all nostalgic for one of my favourite exhibitions of all time, on Soviet Cosmonauts in London’s Science Museum)

Biosphere 2

Meteorites used as blacksmith’s anvils in the 1800s:

Biosphere 2

A great deal of ‘miscellaneous’

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

I loved walking through the great glass greenhouses themselves

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

‘We are not gardeners’ said one of the employees in the rainforest dome. The first experiments were to see how much could be grown, how to keep things alive. Now they watch to see what dies and what survives, attempting to trace the complexities of ecosystems by leaving things alone unless they threaten the structural stability of glass and metal.

I don’t know if I could do that, I love gardens. I also loved walking in the belly of the beast, seeing how things worked underneath in the service tunnels — somehow this is where it felt most spectacular, came most alive in giving a sense of what it would be like to live and work in such a domed world.

Here we experienced sudden immense blasts of wind:

Biosphere 2

More tunnels (I really really love tunnels):

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

The inside of the lung itself, designed to help ‘breathe’ and maintain air pressure constant to protect the greenhouses:

Biosphere 2

The lungs from outside:

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

There was an awesome, if small, display on the Arab falaj, or irrigation system, that  works much like acequias (I think this is some of the heritage that Spanish settlers brought with them to the Southwest if I am not mistaken). Ingenious in their engineering, they also define town planning, with the Mosque closest to the water source to ensure the water’s purity.

The last stop is at the ocean section, where they tried to create a coral reef and failed quite spectacularly. I think, above all, this huge structure of overwhelming aspiration has taught us a great deal of humility. My favourite story — octopi (I prefer this to octopuses, say what you will) had smuggled themselves into Biosphere II hidden in the coral, and emerged to hunt at night. It took some time before staff realised why the other inhabitants of the ocean habitat were disappearing. Algae has essentially now taken over — this bears some relation to the actual situation of our reefs — and these bare rocks and scummy windows stand as a reminder of how we have no idea to recreate all the things we destroy.

We are very far from any possibility of survival on another planet. Best we take care of this one — Biosphere I —  and so it is scary to me that the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ were rarely mentioned here in either videos or displays, though they serve as a focus for all of the research. It showed just what scientists have to do in the face of denial from the highest levels, and that’s only going to get worse.






Valletta’s Spaces of Stone

Valletta’s architecture is unified in its building material — as is all of Malta it seems, but here it is most striking how this unifies the old and the new. Renzo Piano’s fabulous new city gate rises up as you enter, it’s massive square forms work beautifully in this space, as modern as they are. I wish I had taken more pictures.


Just as I wish I had more pictures of the opera house beyond (the columns visible just beyond), where they chose not to rebuild the massive building left in ruins by WWII bombs, but to leave its foundations and columns to embrace an outdoor performance space, which I also quite loved. Similar pictures of the ruins were shown several time through the Cities as Community Spaces conference, a symbol of the city’s resilience.

Valletta opera-house-8-april-1942Valletta is in fact surrounded by monumental space, this stairway rises up to the left as you enter, leading to Hastings gardens along the battlements that protect the city.


I’ll come back to those because they are fascinating, but still what most captivated me were the narrow streets in this Renaissance city, originally named the most humble city of Valletta, after the Master of the Knights of Malta, Jean de Vallette, who had successfully led the defense of the island against the Ottoman Turks in 1565. This city on the isthmus was to solidify defenses — and you can tell. Built in 40 years by Italian architect Francesco Laparelli, student of Michelangelo, and finished by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, I am curious to explore how it connects to other city planning from this time. Their auberges — grand renaissance building with a municipal feel that housed the langues and now house museums and government offices — are familiar, the churches also:


These wonderful grand colonnaded spaces


But the streets laid out in a perfect (then almost revolutionary) grid with these wonderful balconies — these are like nothing I had ever seen.




It is a city where the whole is beautiful to look upon, but the details are as well…




And just look at these balconies, the individuality they bring to each building front, and the craftsmanship of them, they all seem to have their individual touches amplified by the passing of time and the histories of their owners:








Interesting, though, that so many of them are enclosed and hardly large enough to be used as extended living spaces. They seem used for laundry and plants. You could not squeeze a table and chairs outside as we saw so often in Paris, you cannot easily connect and talk to your neighbour next door or across the way, even with the windows wide open as they are above. It seems an opportunity missed, a reflection of a more enclosed society or perhaps an aspect of the city that helps create one. Nor are there stoops or enough space to extend living into the doorways and streets the way families do in say New York. Much of this seems concentrated in the squares, but still, I wonder at the impact on the everyday life and conviviality.

These streets contain atmosphere, and the surprise lost through the absence of twists and turns is found instead in the variegated building surfaces and the faded palimpsests painted onto stone, the flaking remnants of the past .




I don’t have a picture of the old grafittied pictures of ships that was pointed out to me by someone from Valletta as we walked back from a panel through the streets — her friend had uncovered it as he was cleaning the stone. There is no telling how old it is, a deep ochre red and it looked like pictures of the galleys so prevalent in the Mediterranean I have seen in books. She told me too the use of statues of saints at the street corners instead of street signs — St Christopher easily recognisable embodied in stone for those unable to read the letters of his name. We laughed that no longer are we literate in that way. I had a thought to catalogue them, but it fell away, saints are not my favourite things, and these are many of them grand, not the humble saints dressed in hand-sewn clothing I am more used to. But I do love shrines.


This on the other hand…on the grand masters palace on the edge of George’s Square. Perhaps this was explained on one of the tours or if I could hit upon the right search terms, I usually love grotesques but this man in European dress riding what seems to be a naked African woman? Telling, if rather horrible.


I only really noticed it my last day, because always your eyes are drawn to the life in the square — though early on a Sunday as I headed to the airport is was more quiet than I ever saw it:


There are fountains here which must be wonderful in summer, it was  always full of children, including two little girls swanning through delightedly on scooters. Tourists and townfolk and migrants alike make use of the many places to sit that ring the square, as did I the night I wandered here alone. It is a lovely space, especially at night when the cafes overflow and there is lively talk and the clink of glasses and the smell of food…

Funny that it almost never smells of the sea here. Yet the sea surrounds it, on the other side of these enormous fortifications. This is looking towards Sliema:




Finding these fields tucked away made me so happy though, I can’t image football in this kind of setting! I was glad too, as many of the conference speakers mentioned the way they had played football in the streets as children — streets now very full of cars, and it’s true no children play there now.


More views, this of Fort Manoel with the massive luxury build in Sliema behind it:


Back over Valletta itself — in the foreground graffiti. Float like a butterfly sting like a bee, I was happy to find Mohammed Ali quoted here.


Valletta at night — it is magical, I confess I wrote reams, though nothing coalesced quite into a story. My thoughts circled around Caravaggio for some reason, swaggering through the streets. It struck me that sober he wanted to be like the knights who were lords of all this, and that drunk he wanted to destroy them. It is easy to imagine him wandering through streets such as these, unlike England the modern almost never intrudes to break the atmosphere. Maybe the story will come, tinged with the recent car bombings, the old man wandering down the street with a bird in a tiny cage held reverently between his hands, chirping as he went. The undercurrents you can feel here, though I am ignorant of their precise nature.






Looking across from the other side of Valletta, towards the Forti Sant’ Anġl


There are spaces underneath as well — I was lucky enough to visit the air raid shelter beneath the Crypt of St Augustine where the conference dinners were hosted. The crypt itself is a beautiful vaulted space where many lived during WWII, escaping down rickety stairs at the sirens. Boards covered the puddles of water at the bottom, we half-drunkenly explored the long passages and rooms and it was wonderful.

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

I had to leave too soon. But luck brought me a window seat, and it is from the air that you can best appreciate how small Valletta is, and the position it holds within this much larger urban conglomeration. I loved the fields as well, these are small plots that can never become too mechanised or monocultured.

Valletta from the air

Valletta from the air

I think this was Gozo in fact, but you can see the stark lines of the towns and the terracing of the hillsides, even if you can’t quite see the wonderful blues of the sea itself.

Malta from the air

A wonderful place, I am so thankful for the luck and generosity of those I love that allowed me come here.






Georges Perec: Species of Space

Georges Perec Species of SpaceGeorge Perec is an author whose work fills me with delight, Species of Space and the other pieces found in this collection are wonderful. Insightful. Playful. Everyday. Extraordinary. Not least because he loves lists as much as I do, more perhaps. I read his piece on the  Place Sans-Sulpice, and meant to read this too before going to Paris. So now it calls me back.

I particularly love how Perec is obsessed with space, but approaches it completely differently than would a planner, an architect, an urbanist. He approaches it from multiple directions, but almost none of them overlap with such work. The whole of Species of Space is to be found in this compilation, and excerpts from a few other works. I am almost annoyed at this stolen peek at them, because I loved this so much I shall have to go back and read all the rest.

Species of Space

It opens with this:

Perec map of the oceanHurrah.

In short order you have a wonderful definition of our experience of space.

In short, spaces have multiplied, been broken up and have diversified. There are spaces today of every kind and every size, for every use and every function. To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself. (6)

There are poems from Paul Eluard, playful drippings of words and letters across the page, plenty of empty white space between black typography.

This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, like those portolano-makers who saturated the coastlines with the names of harbours…

Space as inventory, space as invention. Space begins with that model map in the old editions of the Petit Larousse Illustre, which used to represent something like 65 geographical terms in 60 sq, cm., miraculously brought together, deliberately abstract. (13)

I remember my own childhood pouring over something like the English equivalent of such a book, full of maps and descriptions and magic. A memory of being inordinately proud of a map of South America I drew. I feel as though that memory is housed in the trailer, which means I was not more than five.

Perec gives us this, a gift:

Sitting deep in thought at their tables, writers are forming lines of words.

An idealized scene. Space as reassurance. (15)

Is this partly what I love about writing?

From here he starts on the spaces of lived experience. He starts from the inside out so to speak, with the bed itself. An interesting choice, I feel a good one. Each thing he describes, he begins with the most banal and simple of descriptions, but it serves to take something familiar and make it suddenly unfamiliar — and because the time and space between us, what is familiar to Perec is in fact not always familiar to me.

A few other banalities:

We spend more than a third of our lives in bed. (19)

Moves on to the bedroom, notes the curious fact that he can visually reconstruct every room he’s ever slept in. A few observations:


What does it mean, to live in a room? Is to live in a place to take possession of it? …

Placid small thought no 1

Any cat-owner will rightly tell you that cats inhabit houses much better than people do. Even in the most dreadfully square spaces, they know how to find favourable corners. (24)

That is honestly one of the most insightful things I have ever read … because of course cats do. The question is, how?

From there to the apartment.

I don’t know, and don’t want to know, where functionality begins or ends. It seems to me, in any case, that in the ideal dividing-up of today’s apartments functionality functions in accordance with a procedure that is unequivocal, sequential and nycthemeral. (28)

The footnote? ‘This is the best phrase in the whole book!’

I might agree. I had to look up nycthemeral:

Adjective — Designating or characterized by a variation that occurs in a period of twenty-four hours, especially corresponding to the contrast between day and night. (Oxford Dictionary)

From here he proceeds to give an outline in three columns — time | activity | room. Again, the taken-for-granted of French housewife– working husband–child in school becomes estranged, and for me now so removed from such a life, really quite interesting.

The final section:


We don’t think enough about staircases.

Nothing was more beautiful in old houses than the staircases. Nothing is uglier, colder, more hostile, meaner, in today’s apartment buildings.(38)

I suddenly thought what a difference it would make to give modern apartment buildings wonderful, beautiful staircases.

We move on to the apartment building. Then to the Street.

The buildings stand one beside the other. They form a straight line. They are expected to form a line, and it’s a serious defect in them when they don’t do so. They are then said to be ‘subject to alignment’, meaning that they can by rights be demolished, so as to be rebuilt in a straight line with the others. (46)

I can’t believe this is a thing everywhere, it definitely was in LA.

He looks at ‘practical exercises’ for understanding the street —

Carry on
Until the scene becomes improbable.
until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavement… (53)


On to the neighbourhood.

Death of a Neighbourhood

What I miss above all is the neighbourhood cinema, with its ghastly advertisements for the dry cleaner’s on the corner. (58)

A curious question, a provoking question that immediately raises in me a great rushing of answers:

Why not set a higher value on dispersal? Instead of living in just one place, and trying in vain to gather yourself together there, why not have fix or six rooms dotted about Paris? (59)

On to the Town. On to the countryside.

I don’t have a lot to say concerning the country: the country doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion.

For most people of my kind, the country is a decorative space surrounding their second home…(68)

That I find rather hilarious. As I do the whole section on the ‘Village Utopia’ (70), where you know everyone, live happily, recognize all the birds. It kind of reminds me of the Stuart Lee sketch about the family who leave London for the country and start by praising the pony and end begging for him to visit and to bring cocaine. This is not nearly as obvious, however. The next section is on the ‘Nostalgic (and false) alternative’ (71) — between putting down roots or living completely rootless. They are interesting posed this way.

On to the country. Europe. Old Continent. New Continent. The World.

In getting to know a few square meters, Perec writes

And with these, the sense of the world’s concreteness, irreducible, immediate, tangible, of something clear and closer to us: of the world, no longer as a journey having constantly to be remade, not as a race without end, a challenge having constantly to be met, not as the one pretext for a despairing acquisitiveness, nor as the illusion of a conquest, but as the rediscovery of a meaning, the perceiving that the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors. (79)

And on to space. A quote from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. I don’t really like Italo Calvino, but I love Lawrence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, which Perec seems to love as much as I do and quotes from often and at length.

Then there is this extraordinary list, already pulled out and set in a blog alone because I treasure it, but repeated again in its context, where perhaps it sits a bit differently:

The Uninhabitable

The uninhabitable: Seas used as a dump, coastlines bristling with barbed wire, earth bare of vegetation, mass graves, piles of carcasses, boggy rivers, towns that smell bad

The uninhabitable: The architecture of contempt or display, the vainglorious mediocrity of tower blocks, thousands of rabbit hutches piled one above the other, the cutprice ostentation of company headquarters

The uninhabitable: the skimped, the airless, the small, the mean, the shrunken, the very precisely calculated

The uninhabitable: the confined, the out-of-bounds, the encaged, the bolted, walls jagged with broken glass, judas windows, reinforced doors

The uninhabitable: shanty towns, townships

The hostile, the grey, the anonymous, the ugly, the corridors of the Metro, public baths, hangars, car parks, marshalling yards, ticket windows, hotel bedrooms

factories, barracks, prisons, asylums, old people’s homes, lycees, law courts, school playgrounds (89-90)

Followed by another disquieting paragraph

Such places don’t exist, and it’s because they don’t exist that space becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated. Space is a doubt: I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it. (91)

Species of Space closes with the best index I have ever seen.

Georges PerecPenser / Classer (1985)

In ‘Notes on What I’m Looking For’, Perec describes four modes of his work, and this makes great sense of Species of Space and the other things I have read — and have yet to read. They are

‘sociological’: how to look at the everyday.

an autobiographical order (141)

The third is ludic and relates to my liking for constraints, for feats of skill, for ‘playing scales’….

the fictive, the liking for stories and adventures, the wish to write the sort of books that are devoured lying face down on your bed. (142)

Then there is ‘Notes Concerning the Objects that are on my Work Table’, a list, a thinking through of all the ways to arrange a desk (he has an ammonite in his desk!).  There is ‘Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books. The stacks of books to read, half read, to be shelved…the constant rearranging by theme, by author. It is such an intimate look at a life so like mine it is uncanny, a  friendship across years and miles.

A little later on you discover in ‘Reading: A Socio-physiological Outline’ that when Perec visits a friends house he raids their bookshelves for all the things he has long wanted to read, then retreats with a stack of them to his room to read through the night.

‘L’Infra-ordinaire’ (1989)

From ‘Approaches to What’, one of my very favourite quotes from the book, one that unexpectedly captures as well as Rob Nixon’s concept of ‘slow violence’ the difference between the spectacular and the everyday:

In our haste to measure the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. ‘Social problems’ aren’t ‘a matter of concern’ when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. (209)

He perhaps captures even better at the level of the individual why these kind of problems are not better understood, better struggled against.

To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if carried within neither questions nor answers … This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space? (210)

A final, brilliant admonition that shall remain with me forever in the daily rituals of life.

Question your tea spoons. (210)

He wrote an amazing piece on the Rue Vilin — where I am headed next time I am in Paris. The street his family lived on, where he lived until he was five. He returns and describes it shop by shop, building by building, sign by sign, at different times of day (all noted of course) in February 1969, June 1970, January 1971, November 1972, November 1974, November 1975. We witness the death of the street as it was. It is poignant, extraordinary, while it never rises above concrete description.

A collection of postcard messages rendered extraordinary by being grouped together. A puzzle, recurring styles, so many good meals and sunburns.

A list of everything Perec has ‘ingurgitated’ over the whole of 1974. What struck me most? He gives years for each of the wines.

All together, as I say, this was a book combining delight and insight. I also loved that this ended with some of Perec’s (impossible, also slightly problematic) word games constructed for his friends, and a few from the translator.

I will now go read everything else he has written. Except maybe the novel without the letter e.

[Perec, Georges (1997) Species of Space and Other Pieces, edited & translated by John Sturrock. London: Penguin Books.]






Kevin Lynch on Los Angeles

Kevin Lynch -- The Image of the CityI love that LA is one of the case studies in Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (see his broader arguments in parts 1 and 2). It was almost disconcerting realising that this was written in 1960, when LA was such a different place. Bunker Hill still there, Pershing Square still a proper landscaped square not a barely functional ugly unwelcoming space covering a parking lot. But this is also a city I know very well through personal experience and study, so could bring both to bear, and this offered a good perspective on the limitations of the book.

This description of (white, professional) views of downtown are also startling:

The general image is remarkable for its emptiness east of Main or Los Angeles Streets, and south of 7th Street, except for the extension of the repeating grid. The central area is set in a vacuum. This L-shaped center is liberally sprinkled with remembered landmarks, chief of them being the Statler and Biltmore Hotels… But only two landmarks were described in any concrete detail: the ugly, black and gold Richfield Building and the pyramided top of the City Hall (35).

Wow — first, city hall makes sense but the Statler Hotel? Not a landmark I would have given, and one now torn down (for the story, see the great blog from Paradise Leased).


Second, the Richfield Building ugly? I confess I didn’t actually know this as the Richfield Building, but I did know the building itself and quite love it:

Richfield Building, Los Angeles

Third…this is such a white view of downtown LA — as Lynch himself shows later. So to look at the white map of downtown LA:

Kevin Lynch Los Angeles

Kevin Lynch Los Angeles from interviews

In describing the areas, Lynch writes:

Bunker Hill is not as strong an image, despite its historical connotations, and quite a few felt that it was “not in the downtown area.” Indeed, it is surprising how the core, in bending around this major topographic feature, has succeeded in visually burying it (36).

I suppose that made it much easier for them to tear it down, that and the way it was full of poor people and people of color, which as later findings on LA seem to show means such areas are erased from mental maps of those in power. I am still mourning Bunker Hill.

Kevin Lynch Bunker Hill

Then there is the shock of Pershing Square being a decent public space….though given his list of its uses, it’s very clear why the city council should have destroyed it.

Pershing Square is consistently the strongest element of all: an exotically landscaped open space in the heart of downtown, reinforced by its use as an outdoor political forum, camp meeting, and old people’s rest. (36-37)

Pershing Square LA

So now we get to why I should bring race into things (if you were not already on board with that and wondering):

Broadway was perhaps the only path which was unmistakable for all…Although conceded to be the core, if anything is, yet Broadway was not a shopping area for most of these middle-class persons. Its walks are crowded with the ethnic minorities and lower-income groups who living quarters ring the central section. the subjects interviewed regarded this linear core as an alien one, looking at it with varying degrees of avoidance, curiosity, or fear. They were quick to describe the status differences between the Broadway crowds, and those to be seen on 7th Street, which, if not elite, is at least a middle-class shopping street. (38)

Yes, Lynch did, in fact, only interview professional white folks working in the downtown core. It is the ‘ethnic minorities’ and ‘lower-income groups’ whose living quarters form the ’emptiness’ of the white maps, their streets the ‘no-go’ areas. This is a vision of the ‘other’ with a vengeance, the alien. It is not one that is taken up or questioned. It is just left there. Broadway is highlighted as a landmark mostly because it was the corridor for street cars rather than buses — streetcars! The destruction of public transportation networks and fear generated through racism…a pretty good explanation of what happened to LA.

What is curious, though, is that even for these white respondents fearful of Broadway, Olvera Street was special. That surprised me, but perhaps its mixture of genuine history and culture with a facade of touristy Mexican-ness rendered it palatable. Lynch writes of the courtyard at its South end:

Not only is this small spot visually very distinct, but it is the only true historical anchor-point in the city and seems to generate a fierce attachment (39).


He continues:

When asked to describe or symbolize the city as a whole, the subjects used certain standard words: “spread-out,” “spacious,” “formless,” “without centers.” Los Angeles seemed to be hard to envision or conceptualize as a whole. An endless spread, which may carry pleasant connotations of space around the dwellings, or overtones of weariness and disorientation, was the common image. Said one subject: “It’s as if you were going somewhere for a long time, and when you got there you discovered there was nothing there, after all. (40-41)

This note on trying to find something to hold on to is interesting.

Another frequent theme was that of relative age. Perhaps because so much of the environment is new or changing, there was evidence of widespread, almost pathological, attachment to anything that had survived the upheaval.

Yet they kept tearing things down. Bunker Hill was just about to go…Another thing I am so sad I never saw:

In Los Angeles, on 7th Street at the corner of Flower Street, is an old, two-story gray wooden building, set back some ten feet from the building line, containing a few minor shops. This took the attention and fancy of a surprising number of people. One even anthropomorphized it as the “little gray lady.” (81)

Kevin Lynch - The Grey Lady

Lynch continues:

In Los Angeles there is an impression that the fluidity of the environment and absence of physical elements which anchor to the past are exciting and disturbing. Many descriptions of the scene by established residents, young or old, were accompanied by ghosts of what used to be there. Changes, such as those wrought by the freeway system, have left scars on the mental image. (45)

LA as a city of ghosts.

In looking at the specifics of how the city space works, Lynch writes:

…more abrupt directional shifts may enhance visual clarity by limiting the spatial corridor… one was prevented from sensing the vacuum in which central Los Angeles is placed by the grid shifts which close off the outward view. (56)

Once again, let us remember that the ‘vacuum’ consists of the homes and neighbourhoods of poor people and people of colour. Maybe I shouldn’t be, yet I remain astonished at the lack of self-reflexivity in these statements. The degree to which the book and this kind of scholarship is rendered shoddy by a lack of questioning such constructions, and the reality that as part of a privileged group, Lynch is completely unable to see, much less understand, how other groups move through and understand the city he is studying. To end with perhaps one of the most insightful points Lynch makes (without quite realising it I think):

The psychological distance between two localities may be much greater, or more difficult to surmount, than mere physical separation seems to warrant. (85)

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Kevin Lynch on Perceptible Objects and Urban Design

Kevin Lynch -- The Image of the CityWhere the first part of The Image of the City looks at the big picture of how and why human beings need to be able to read their cities, and how they find their way through them, Kevin Lynch in Chapter III goes on to the nitty gritty, as he analyses physical, perceptible objects and their relation to imageability. Lynch classifies these into five types of elements:

  1. Paths:  … the channels along which the observer customarily, occasionally, or potentially moves… For many people, these are the predominant elements in their image.

  2. Edges: …the linear elements not used or considered as paths… the boundaries between two phases, linear breaks in continuity: shores, railroad cuts… some edges may be barriers, more or less penetrable, which close one region off from another; or they may be seams, lines along which two regions are related…

  3. Districts: …the medium-to-large sectiosn of the city, conceived of as having two-dimensional extent, which the observer mentally enters “inside-of,” and which are recognizable as having some common, identifying character.

  4. Nodes: … points, the strategic spots in a city into which an observer can enter … they may be primarily junctions, places of a break in transportation, a crossing or convergence of paths, moments of shift from one structure to another. Or the ndoes may be simply concentrations… a street-corner hangout or an enclosed square. (47)

  5. Landmarks: …another type of point-reference, but in this case the observer does not enter within them, they are external (48).

The visual drawings of each can be found in the margins (I quite love the use of the margins in this book, they make reading this unique to most books on cities)

Kevin Lynch city elements

More on how these all work:

These elements are simply the raw material of the environmental image at the city scale. They must be patterned together to provide a satisfying form. (83)

And this…oh this is an aside for Lynch, but opens up so much in terms of how people move through space and those boundary lines of race, class, age…so much.

The psychological distance between two localities may be much greater, or more difficult to surmount, than mere physical separation seems to warrant. (85)

I loved this about the various maps that people drew, how the progression of physical things didn’t change even if they experienced them in very different ways:

However distorted, there was a strong element of topological invariance with respect to reality. it was as if the map were drawn on an infinitely flexible rubber sheet; directions were twisted, distances stretched or compressed, large forms so changed from their accurate scale projection as to be at first unrecognizable. But the sequence was usually correct, the map was rarely torn and sewn back together in another order. (87)

That would be so interesting to dig more deeply into, understand how individual relationships to the city and its various communities might impact these maps.

The larger goal that Lynch is attempting to reach with this work:

We have the opportunity of forming our new city world into an imageable landscape: visible, coherent, and clear. It will require a new attitude on the part of the city dweller, and a physical reshaping of his domain into forms which entrance the eye, which organize themselves from level to level in time and space, which can stand as symbols for urban life. (91)

He continues:

The common hopes and pleasure, the sense of community may be made flesh. Above all, if the environment is visibly organized and sharply identified, then the citizen can inform it with his own meanings and connections. Then it will become a place, remarkable and unmistakable. (92)

It is interesting to think about how the ‘sense of community may be made flesh’, how by organizing an environment and providing clear markers in it, people’s quality of life and relationships might also be transformed.

To continue on to how one might actually plan for this, beginning with the improvement of paths, which are

the most potent means by which the whole can be ordered. The key lines should have some singular quality which marks them off from the surrounding channels: a concentration of some special use or activity along their margins, a characteristic spatial quality, a secial texture of floor or facade, a particular lighting pattern, a unique set of smells or sounds, a typical detail or mode of planting. (96)

Methods might include emphasizing nature of street to get somewhere with perspective, using a gradient and then there is this:

Where the journey contains such a series of distinct events, a reaching and passing of one sub-goal after another, the trip itself takes on meaning and becomes an experience in its own right. (97)

I think he captures the joy brought by traversing certain streets fairly well here. I particularly love the analogy with music he brings to bear:

There is a final way of organizing a path or set of paths … It might be called “melodic” in analogy to music. The events and characteristics along the path–landmarks, space changes, dynamic sensations–might be organized as a melodic line, perceived and imaged as a form which is experienced over a substantial time interval. (99)

On nodes he writes, that they are

the conceptual anchor points in our cities. Rarely in the United States, however, do they have a form adequate to support this attention… (102)

They need to be places, with some defining characteristics. So on to his list (yay lists) of qualities of urban design that create successful places:

  1. Singularity or figure-background clarity: sharpness of boundary…closure…contrast

  2. Form Simplicity: …in the geometrical sense (105)

  3. Continuity: continuance of an edge or surface … nearness of parts (as in a cluster fo buildings); repetition of rhythmic interval … similarity, analogy, or harmony of surface…

  4. Dominance: …of one part over others by means of size, intensity, or interest

  5. Clarity of Joint: … high visibility of joints and seams… clear relation and interconnection

  6. Directional Differentiation: asymmetries, gradients, and radial differences which differentiate one end from another…

  7. Visual Scope: qualities which increase the range and penetration of vision…transparencies…overlaps… vistas and panoramas… articulating elements… (106)

  8. Motion awareness: the qualities which make sensible to the observer…his own actual or potential motion…

  9. Time Series: series which are sensed over time … or truly structured in time and thus melodic in nature (107)

  10. Names and Meanings: non-physical characteristics which may enhance the imageability of an element.

Below are the visuals corresponding to the first 7 of these elements, to be read down the left side and then down the right:

Kevin Lynch Design Elements 1

Kevin Lynch continues:

In discussing design by element types, there is a tendency to skim over the interrelation of the parts into a whole. in such a whole, paths would expose and prepare for the districts, and link together the various nodes. The nodes would joint and mark off the paths, while the edges would bound off the districts, and the landmarks would indicate their cores. It is the total orchestration of these unites which would knit together a dense and vivid image, and sustain it over areas of metropolitan scale. (108)

A good reminder, one often forgotten. Ultimately, he argues

…the function of a good visual environment may not be simply to facilitate routine trips, nor to support meanings and feelings already possessed. Quite as important may be its role as a guide and a stimulus for new exploration. In a complex society, there are many interactions to be mastered. in a democracy, we deplore isolation, extol individual development, hope for ever-widening communication between groups. If an environment has a strong visible framework and highly characteristic parts, then exploration of new sectors is both easier and more inviting. if strategic links in communication (such as museums or libraries or meeting places) are clearly set forth, then those who might otherwise neglect them may be tempted to enter. (110)

This aspect of planning and urban design is coming to the fore now, I think, which is really something to celebrate. Like Lynch, however, many of those writing don’t really pay much attention to power, capital, inequalities, racism and fear … those tricky things. So these remain ideals, potentialities opened up though with little sense of how to make them reality. Lynch does, however, note how the city is full of many very different people, and so its designers have to create places that allow for wide differences in how people organize their city. I do love, for all my critique, that Lynch’s principal solution is that designers must provide their cities richly with the different imageable elements that people can organize according to their wishes. Can’t be too specialized or orchestrated, you don’t want people to feel that one path dominates, multiple paths and adventures must be left open.

He ends with idea that not only do planners need to build more eligible cities, but also that people need to be taught to read them better, to really see them. He advocates programs

teaching him to look at his city, to observe its manifold forms and how they mesh with one another. Citizens could be taken into the street, classes could be held in the schools and universities, the city could be made an animated museum of our society and its hopes. (117)

Something about this section strikes me as rather patronising in its wording, yet I love the idea, and particularly love thinking about how the city might in fact be an animated museum of our society and its hopes. People should think about their cities, it is an important part of having more power over them.

Two final notes of interest, first, this almost throwaway comment on the underground:

The subway is a disconnected nether world, and it is intriguing to speculate what means might be used to mesh it into the structure of the whole. (57)

I’m more excited about the netherworld, I confess. A last note on speed, which I’ve been thinking about a lot since reading Le Corbusier and Illich:

The increasing size of our metropolitan areas and the speed with which we traverse them raise many new problems for perception. (112)

I think it has, it does. He doesn’t get into the ways cities have been built for cars, but that is clearly inimical to the kind of planning and design he is thinking about.

One final post on LA specifically, a little more discussion of class and race, and on to the next book from my reading list:

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Lyn Lofland: The Public Realm and the development of urban space

lyn-lofland-public-realmLyn Lofland’s The Public Realm has been a fairly transformative book in how I think about space, I am unsure how it had never come my way before reviewing a book on mobilities containing some wonderful ethnographies of space, but I think it shows how powerful academic silos continue to be.  It is packed full of insight, so this is a first post of several — too many, because much of what she discusses here honestly has not come my way before quite like this.

It is a critique of those theorists who have found the city to be most worthy of critique — like Wirth, Miller, Simmel — to build upon those who have sought to understand what makes it work, what makes cities the places of choice for so many to live. Her favourites are Gregory Stone, Jane Jacobs, Erving Goffman, and William H Whyte (and this reminds me I have to get round to reading City: Rediscovering the Center).

She starts with some definitions – and it occurs to me that maybe I don’t do this enough. How do you defining a city? For Wirth, it is a ‘large, dense and heterogenous’ settlement (5). Lofland shifts this lightly, to define it as

a permanently populous place or settlement.’ … using “place” loosely and imprecisely enough that it is allowed to cover both those large, dense, and heterogenous settlements—past and present—that are visually distinct from their surroundings and those jumbles of variously sized settlements that are woven together into the urban blankets the U.S. Census Bureau calls “metropolitan statistical areas.” (7)

She is is also very interested in the stranger — ‘a person with whom one has had no personal acquaintance.’ (7) She notes that this is different than many other texts on the city, where stranger means a cultural ‘other’, this is a curious distinction — the more curious the more I think about it. It assumes that at some level, someone of your own skin colour and culture is not a stranger, that you have more in common by definition than you might with the cultural ‘other’. In my own experience this has been far from true, I hope soon we may reach a point where this is not the automatic default.

From the city, she moves on to define public space – starting with a general dictionary definition: space which is open to all persons, in contrast to private space which is not open or accessible to the general public. Again, she shifts it slightly to look at the public realm instead, which is such a much more interesting concept really. A first take on it, is that it is:

constituted of those areas of urban settlements in which individuals in copresence tend to be personally unknown or only categorically known to one another. (9)

I love this thinking about ‘realms’ rather than simple spaces, realms are able to have boundaries of a more ‘protean nature’. They can overlap, coexist in the same space, grow or shrink or disappear. Lofland looks at three — the public, the private, and the parochial realms. Drawing on Albert Hunter (who I have not read), she defines private realm as (and italics are all in her original):

characterized by ties of intimacy among primary groups members who are located within households and personal networks…

She defines the parochial realm as:

characterized by a sense of commonality among acquaintances and neighbors who are involved in interpersonal networks that are located “within” communities.” (10)

She continues,

what Hunter’s triadic distinctions allow us to see in addition is that cities are the most complex of settlement forms because they are the only settlement form that routinely and persistently contains all three realms. (10)

Now that is a really interesting way to think about cities and their definition, as well as what they make possible. Also interesting is how these distinctions permeate space rather than remain bounded by it. Lofland writes:

realms are not geographically or physically rooted pieces of space. They are social, not physical territories. Whether any actual physical space contains a realm at all and, if it does, whether that realm is private, is parochial, or is public is not the consequence of some immutable culturally or legally given designation (claiming, for example, this street is public space, this yard is private space). It is, rather, the consequence of the proportions and densities of relationship types present and these proportions and densities are themselves fluid. (11)


an empty public park has no realm… in a small city with a stable population and a very high “density of acquaintanceship” (Freudenberg 1986), what the outside observer might quite reasonably take to be public space (streets, parks, and so forth) may, in fact, be almost totally within the parochial realm. (12)

and also, therefore

the possibility that social territories or realms may, in general, be “out of place.” That is…if we extend his definitions just a bit [Anselm Strauss 1961] and define locations as “bounded” or identifiable portions of nonprivate space dominated by communal relationships (a neighborhood bar is an example) and locales as “bounded” or identifiable portions of nonprivate space dominated by stranger or categorical relations (an airport terminal, for example), then we can note that while locations may be said to be naturally “at home” when surrounded by parochial space, and locales when surrounded by public space, both are quite capable of taking up reisdence in alien spaces.

I love this, it gets to the nuances of spaces and how we inhabit them. It is flexible enough to sense different kinds of spatial inhabitations:

But if a group is large enough, it can … transform the character of a substantial portion of the space within which it is located. (13)

And how these shift in complicated ways:

Whether a specific place or space is considered private, parochial, or public is often a matter of conflict and/or negotiation. And spaces have histories. Even those that are consensually defined at one time may be redefined or subject to warring definitions at another time. (14)

…we need to face the discomforting fact that not only are realms unrooted, but their boundaries are protean, mercurial.

Of course, there is some connection between physical space and relational forms:

private realm — intimate physical space
parochial realm — some physical space is communal
public realm — some physical space is stranger or categorical (14)

I love — of course — how she then goes on to contextualise this in the historical development of cities. It very much echoes Sitte funnily enough:

…in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain and northern Europe (and later throughout the rest of the world), the Industrial Revolution wrought a critical shift in the relationships between private, parochial, and public realms.

… a cardinal characteristic of cities prior to the eighteenth century — wherever they were located — was that a significant portion of their social life occurred in the public realm. That is, social life and public life overlapped in the preindustrual city to a remarkable degree… (15)

I am still getting my head around this because actually it is so hard to imagine sitting in a comfortable home so far removed from this daily reality. One of the reasons why I love literature. Everyone but elites walked everywhere (this struck me so much reading Dickens for example). Also it was in the public realm that women once secured the water for the household, disposed of garbage and body waste (the public realm consisted of outhouses at best…lovely thought). At the same time private space was cold, damp, crowded, uncomfortable…

For many people to be in the public realm was to be warm instead of cold, cool, instead of hot. It was to breath air–however bad–less fetid that the air of one’s private quarters. It was to move into space — however teeming with people — less cramped than home. In sum, the preindustrial city was overwhelmingly a city characterized by the dominance of public life. (16-17)

So along with the relations of labour, the Industrial Revolution also changed so much about the city itself, Lofland argues that through it:

…new possibilities for enlarging and strengthening the city’s private and parochial realms emerged. (17)

Somehow it seems intuitively I had been assuming the opposite without analysing it. Lofland notes the two principal characteristics, which form this change:

(1) innovations in forms of transport allowed this city to be much larger in area than its preindustrial ancestor… and (2) innovations in construction and communication allowed this city to enclose many more activities than had cities of the past. To put it briefly, these two characteristics — enlargement and enclosure — together made possible the separation of workplace from place of residence, made possible the development of highly specialized and large workplaces … made possible the development of homogeneous and large areas of residence (e.g. working-class neighborhoods), made possible the siting of much round-of-life activity within the place of residence or neighborhood, and eventually, with the…automobile, made it possible for an individual to connect pieces of widely dispersed space without the necessity of actually being, in any socially meaningful sense, in the intervening spaces. … it became possible for large numbers … to spend significant portions of their lives entirely in the private and/ or parochial realms. (17-18)

So much to think about here, and it is only the first few pages, so more is forthcoming.

[Lofland, Lyn H. (1998) The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory. New York: Aldine de Gruyter)

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Georg Simmel: The Metropolis and Mental Life

georg_simmelI am finally getting around to reading Georg Simmel’s (1858-1918) sociological and urban classic ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (download here) on the relationship between the city and the people within it. As per usual in reading the classic, most of what you thought you knew you didn’t know at all, and it manages to surprise you. This short essay packs quite an intellectual punch as well, connecting space and population density with economics with human striving and human behaviour in ways that many others never manage, even with the benefit of building on such work that does.

The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life. (11)

I keep turning these things over in my mind, especially in relation to the things I have been thinking and reading that celebrate our connections to land, to culture, to community. Simmel’s celebration of individuality emerges from such a specific European, male, steeped-in-a-certain-tradition kind of place. This place:

The eighteenth century may have called for liberation from all the ties which grew up historically in politics, in religion, in morality and in economics in order to permit the original natural virtue of man, which is equal in everyone, to develop without inhibition; the nineteenth century may have sought to promote, in addition to man’s freedom, his individuality (which is connected with the division of labour) and his achievements which make him unique and indispensable but which at the same time make him so much the more dependent on the complementary activity of others … in each of these the same fundamental motive was at work, namely the resistance of the individual to being levelled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism. (11)

This  comparison makes even more salient Simmel’s focus on the difference between the city and the countryside, even more interesting that he should make newness and change the foundation of intellect as opposed to tradition and emotion:

The psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli. … To the extent that the metropolis creates these psychological conditions — with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life — it creates in the sensory foundations of mental life, and in the degree of awareness necessitated by our organization as creatures dependent on differences, a deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental phase of small town and rural existence. Thereby the essentially intellectualistic character of the mental life of the metropolis becomes intelligible as over against that of the small town which rests more on feelings and emotional relationships. These latter are rooted in the unconscious levels of the mind and develop most readily in the steady equilibrium of unbroken customs. The locus of reason, on the other hand, is in the lucid, conscious upper strata of the mind and it is the most adaptable of our inner forces (11-12)

Fascinating, too, that this translates for Simmel into pure intellectuality, and thus an instrumentality that facilitates a money economy and capitalism itself.

This intellectualistic quality which is thus recognized as a protection of the inner life against the domination of the metropolis, becomes ramified into numerous specific phenomena…. money economy and the domination of the intellect stand in the closest relationship to one another. They have in common a purely matter-of-fact attitude in the treatment of persons and things in which a formal justice is often combined with an unrelenting hardness. The purely intellectualistic person is indifferent to all things personal…

There are at least two things going on here, I think. The first is the way that the form and crowdedness of the city is both ’cause and effect’ of a certain abstraction and the impersonal relationships of the money economy:

In certain apparently insignificant characters or traits of the most external aspects of life are to be found a number of characteristic mental tendencies. The modern mind has become more and more a calculating one. The calculating exactness of practical life which has resulted from a money economy corresponds to the ideal of natural science, namely that of transforming the world into an arithmetical problem and of fixing every one of its parts in a mathematical formula. It has been money economy which has thus filled the daily life of so many people with weighing, calculating, enumerating and the reduction of qualitative values to quantitative terms. … It is, however, the conditions of the metropolis which are cause as well as effect for this essential characteristic. The relationships and concerns of the typical metropolitan resident are so manifold and complex that, especially as a result of the agglomeration of so many persons with such differentiated interests, their relationships and activities intertwine with one another into a many-membered organism.

This organism, by reason of the crowded and always-changing nature of its spatiality, requires an ever greater temporal organisation:

For this reason the technique of metropolitan life in general is not conceivable without all of its activities and reciprocal relationships being organized and coordinated in the most punctual way into a firmly fixed framework of time which transcends all subjective elements … every event, however restricted to this superficial level it may appear, comes immediately into contact with the depths of the soul, and that the most banal externalities are, in the last analysis, bound up with the final decisions concerning the meaning and the style of life. Punctuality, calculability and exactness, which are required by the complications and extensiveness of metropolitan life, are not only most intimately connected with its capitalistic and intellectualistic character but also colour the content of life and are conductive to the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign human traits and impulses which originally seek to determine the form of life from within instead of receiving it from the outside in a general, schematically precise form. (13)

Separate from this, yet connected, is the manner in which the city’s inhabitants protect their own psyche and space. Simmel writes:

There is perhaps no psychic phenomenon which is so unconditionally reserved to the city as the blasé outlook. (14)

What does that mean exactly? It’s something I recognise as a city dweller, though I am not sure I agree with this description or analysis:

the blasé attitude — in which the nerves reveal their final possibility of adjusting themselves to the content and the form of metropolitan life by renouncing the response to them. We see that the self preservation of certain types of personalities is obtained at the cost of devaluing the entire objective world, ending inevitably in dragging the personality downward into a feeling of its own valuelessness. Whereas the subject of this form of existence must come to terms with it for himself, his self-preservation in the face of the great city requires of him a no less negative type of social conduct. The mental attitude of the people of the metropolis to one another may be designated formally as one of reserve. If the unceasing external contact of numbers of persons in the city should be met by the same number of inner reactions as in the small town, in which one knows almost every person he meets and to each of whom he has a positive relationship, one would be completely atomized internally and would fall into an unthinkable mental condition. (14-15)

That last sentence is interesting. With so much stimuli you are forced to shut down a little bit, forced to create some kind of shell of indifference. There is a resonance to this that perhaps I am not quite ready to grant to the rest, but it has me thinking in ways I find particularly fruitful:

Combined with this physiological source of the blasé metropolitan attitude there is another, which derives from a money economy. The essence of the blasé attitude is an indifference toward the distinctions between things. … the meaning and the value of the distinctions between things, and therewith of the things themselves, are experienced as meaningless. They appear to the blasé person in a homogeneous, flat and grey colour with no one of them worthy of being preferred to another… the correct subjective reflection of a complete money economy to the extent that money takes the place of all the manifoldness of things and expresses all qualitative distinctions between them in the distinction of how much. To the extent that money, with its colourlessness and its indifferent quality, can become a common denominator of all values, it becomes the frightful leveller — it hollows out the core of things, their peculiarities, their specific values and their uniqueness and incomparability in a way which is beyond repair. (14)

These two in combination, argues Simmel, leads to the particularities of the city resident as the blasé person — though he pushes it further:

Indeed, if I am not mistaken, the inner side of this external reserve is not only indifference but more frequently than we believe, it is a slight aversion, a mutual strangeness and repulsion which, in a close contact which has arisen any way whatever, can break out into hatred and conflict. The entire inner organization of such a type of extended commercial life rests on an extremely varied structure of sympathies, indifferences and aversions of the briefest as well as of the most enduring sort. (15)

It is from this aversion, this purposeful ignoring of others that leads us to move, to look away that creates what many love most about the city:

This reserve with its overtone of concealed aversion appears once more, however, as the form or the wrappings of a much more general psychic trait of the metropolis. It assures the individual of a type and degree of personal freedom to which there is no analogy in other circumstances. (15)

This is in distinction for other kinds of communities, Simmel sees an evolution from small cohesive circles to whom everyone outside is a foreigner to cities. These small, traditional communities he describes as having:

a rigorous setting of boundaries and a centripetal unity and for that reason it cannot give room to freedom and the peculiarities of inner and external development of the individual. (15)

In contrast to such communities, cities provide the needed room for both perception and development of the intellect — though there is a darker side to such freedom:

The mutual reserve and indifference, and the intellectual conditions of life in large social units are never more sharply appreciated in their significance for the independence of the individual than in the dense crowds of the metropolis, because the bodily closeness and lack of space make intellectual distance really perceivable for the first time. It is obviously only the obverse of this freedom that, under certain circumstances, one never feels as lonely and as deserted as in this metropolitan crush of persons. For here, as elsewhere, it is by no means necessary that the freedom of man reflect itself in his emotional life only as a pleasant experience. (16)

This, for Simmel, is the meaning of cosmopolitanism. I term I didn’t know he used, one thrown about a great deal these days.

It is rather in transcending this purely tangible extensiveness that the metropolis also becomes the seat of cosmopolitanism. Comparable with the form of the development of wealth … the individual’s horizon is enlarged.

It is curious the way that Simmel ties this back into the economy — not into its discourses or the way it shapes the mindset and commonsense of everyday life as before, but in its materiality. First, through rent, which he does not explore which frustrates me. Maybe in that massive tome he has written about money there is more:

This may be illustrated by the fact that within the city the `unearned increment’ of ground rent, through a mere increase in traffic, brings to the owner profits which are self-generating. At this point the quantitative aspects of life are transformed qualitatively. (17)

There is something in this, I think, about the freedom that this particular kind of profit gives. But he does not forget nature or labour:

Cities are above all the seat of the most advanced economic division of labour. … The decisive fact here is that in the life of a city, struggle with nature for the means of life is transformed into a conflict with human beings, and the gain which is fought for is granted, not by nature, but by man. (17)

All of this grayness, crowdedness, freedom combines so that:

one seizes on qualitative distinctions, so that … the attention of the social world can, in some way, be won for oneself. This leads ultimately to the strangest eccentricities, to specifically metropolitan extravagances of self-distantiation, of caprice, of fastidiousness, the meaning of which is no longer to be found in the content of such activity itself but rather in its being a form of `being different’ — of making oneself noticeable. For many types of persons these are still the only means of saving for oneself, through the attention gained from others, some sort of self-esteem and the sense of filling a position.

And you have such a brief time to make this impression. This seems only an interesting aside, making me think of all the characters I have known, walked past in their colourful bids for attention and differentiation. Making me think of fashion, our increasing aim to be distinctive and unique within given limits. But Simmel takes it further than that, makes it more interesting when thinking about concrete city spaces.

Here in buildings and in educational institutions, in the wonders and comforts of space-conquering technique, in the formations of social life and in the concrete institutions of the State is to be found such a tremendous richness of crystalizing, de-personalized cultural accomplishments that the personality can, so to speak, scarcely maintain itself in the fact of it. (19)

The idea that human beings are actually in competition somehow with the built environment, and the cultural panoply of modern life. This leads to particular kind of person:

When both of these forms of individualism which are nourished by the quantitative relationships of the metropolis, i.e. individual independence and the elaboration of personal peculiarities, are examined with reference to their historical position, the metropolis attains an entirely new value and meaning in the world history of the spirit.

No longer was it the`general human quality’ in every individual but rather his qualitative uniqueness and irreplaceability that now became the criteria of his value. In the conflict and shifting interpretations of these two ways of defining the position of the individual within the totality is to be found the external as well as the internal history of our time. It is the function of the metropolis to make a place for the conflict and for the attempts at unification of both of these in the sense that its own peculiar conditions have been revealed to us as the occasion and the stimulus for the development of both. Thereby they attain a quite unique place, fruitful with an inexhaustible richness of meaning in the development of the mental life. They reveal themselves as one of those great historical structures in which conflicting life-embracing currents find themselves with equal legitimacy. (19)

There is so much packed into this brief essay — only 9 pages. I look forward to coming back to it, and it is definitely the sort of piece brilliant for teaching, as I am sure students would read it in very different ways depending on their experience. This makes me want to return to Weber, Durkheim, the Frankfurt School — there is too little time in life to do everything.

Just two other asides, one on Ruskin and Nietzsche and anti-urban sentiment:

It is in the light of this that we can explain the passionate hatred of personalities like Ruskin and Nietzsche for the metropolis — personalities who found the value of life only in unschematized individual expressions which cannot be reduced to exact equivalents and in whom, on that account, there flowed from the same source as did that hatred, the hatred of the money economy and of the intellectualism of existence.

The second, a delightful commentary on London…

a point which I shall attempt to demonstrate only with the statement of the most outstanding English constitutional historian to the effect that through the entire course of English history London has never acted as the heart of England but often as its intellect and always as its money bag.

[Simmel, Georg (1903) ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ in
Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, eds. The Blackwell City
Reader. Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.]



Street Value — Fulton Street Mall, Brooklyn

Street Value - Rosten Woo & Meredith TenHoorStreet Value is a brilliant little book from Rosten Woo and Meredith TenHoor. It is beautifully illustrated and innovative in form, with copious drawings, photographs, maps and plans that charts the history of Fulton Street Mall in Brooklyn decade by decade. It brings together quotes from business owners and customers, memories, narratives and photo essays to try and understand the history of this single street in a way that I love.

At the same time, it evokes a history of many such streets across the country by unpacking the narratives of abandonment, racial change, redevelopment and above all, highlighting the ways that racism has shaped urban spaces through some of the most honest and revealing interviews I have ever read. This street continued to make money through thick and thin where almost all other malls failed. Yet from the moment white flight really took hold and it became a shopping destination of choice for communities of colour, it has been seen as a ‘problem’ by the city and planning agencies who have continuously worked to ‘redevelop’ and ‘revitalise’ a space that needed neither redevelopment nor revitalisation in order to bring the white folks back. But let the book speak for itself.

By 1960, most of the larger department stores that had come of age with A&S, such as Loeser’s and Namm’s, were already finding it hard to compete with a new generation of discount retailers. …

The owners of Fulton Street’s largest stores perceived the problem differently. To them, the clearest indicator and proximate cause for worry was this: white people were making up a smaller and smaller percentage of the street’s shoppers. (55)

You have the influential Chicago School: Park & Burgess’s basic theory held that racial succession was, if not a cause, then a very accurate indicator that depressed property values, and abandonment would soon follow.

The concept of blight proved a powerful, though unsubstantiated, explanatory mechanism. The declaration of blight on Fulton Street was unique because the objective indicators of economic health so clearly contradicted the theory of blight. The shoppers may have come from Bed-Stuy, but business was good. Foot traffic was brisk and retail rents could compete with the best in the city. (59)

‘Preventative renewal imagined two rivals: Manhattan on the one hand, and the suburbs on the other’ (60). They simply couldn’t imagine a street that succeeded and yet was neither. So they unsuccessfully tried to become one or the other.

The Fulton Arcade was a preemptive strike against the perceived decline of the Central Business District. Designed to compete with the charms of the suburban strip, it would attract would-be suburban shoppers by constructing a proxy of a regional shopping mall… (62)

The pedestrian was to rescue the commercial life of the street; the planners only had to remove this figure’s natural enemies: the elements and the automobile. But an important contradiction haunted the scheme: the street was already a commercial success. Pedestrians already thronged Fulton street. Why was preventive renewal so necessary? … By their logic [planners], black shoppers were poor and poor shoppers had no place in the Central Business District of Brooklyn. (63)

They still kept trying. So no one with any experience of downtown revitalisation efforts will be surprised at their next steps:

Urban design could make the street look like a mall, but it couldn’t make it act like a mall. To create the impression of safety, cleanliness and order…had to invent a new form of government: the Business Improvement District. (73)

By the 1990s:

Pedestrianization had failed to bring white middle-class shoppers back to the area. Instead, it helped the mall flourish as a nationally significant locus of consumer culture. The culture’s significance, however, continued to remain invisible to the mainstream, no matter how many hit singles mentioned the mall or how many dollars were spent on the street.
Planners continued to view the street as a problem to be solved rather than as a resource to draw from (89).

The following quotes are from an interview with Richard Rosen, then a member of the Urban Design Group working on the Fulton Mall, before becoming Chief Executive Officer of the Urban Land Institute. They studied the street in 1968 and found that the number shopping there

was always around 400,000 a day. We did find it was the fourth biggest shopping center in the United States, and that the retail sales were hugely dramatic, in spite of the fact that Max Schulman, the president of J.W. Mays Department Stores, wasn’t very comfortable with who his customers were. (127)

He continues

You guys can’t imagine this because you’re younger, but this was a white America not used to multicultural activity. They wanted to be sire that they covered their white base so they went to Kings Plaza and Roosevelt Field. A&S moved further and further out.

Thus is wasn’t the lack of sales or of people that caused stores to leave, but the prejudices of the owners, their identification with a white base. ‘A cultural thing’ as Rosen says. He is astonishingly open in this interview:

well, yeah, we probably were sort of racist in our thinking at that time to think blacks were synonymous with poor. When I started to work at the Urban Land Institute in 1992 we used to tongue-in-cheek say to staff, the worst word you can use is ‘urban.’ Urban was such a bad word. It was a code word for poor and minority. And now urban is a hot word. Urban Outfitters. Urban this, urban that. I mean it’s just changed (131)

And then so revealing for the work of planners and those working on downtown ‘revitalisation’:

I think that Downtown Brooklyn happened in spite of what we did at Fulton Mall. It’s all about safety, and the perception of safety and the reality of safety. And in the 60s, one of the things that was happening with the perception of safety was that it wasn’t. Department store owners were saying that they’d rather be in a mall because in a mall you can control it, and how are you going to control Fulton Mall?

Part of the idea was to make it clean. We had people dressed up in uniforms, and it was all to create a perception of safety. But I don’t think we saw it in those days quite like you might in retrospect. I never conceptualized that the reasons that people liked malls was because they were safe and they didn’t like Fulton Street because they didn’t know if it was safe, and there’s a lot of people walking along that don’t look like you do and you’re afraid and you don’t want to be there.

You heard from Jonathan Barnett who had the perception that the economy in Brooklyn was going down. He was wrong, it was going up. We had a perception that we had to save the economy by renovating the mall, and that’s because the department store owners were saying they were going to move out. And why were they going to move out? They weren’t moving out because they weren’t selling things. They were making lots of money. They were moving out because they perceived it wasn’t safe and their clientele was not who they wanted it to be (132).

Always always always the use of the word ‘people’ in these quotes assumes white people. It’s so extraordinary and yet explains so much about American society. In an interview with Mike Weiss, former executive director of the Fulton Mall Improvement Association and the MetroTech Business Improvement District from 2003 to 2007, he says of the mall—already a vibrant and profitable mall for people of colour:

The vision would be to assist in managing change, which is always inevitable, and try to build the district into more of a kind of vibrant 24-hour diverse, multi-use district. There are constituencies that don’t yet shop on the mall that we believe could, including the college community that exists in Downtown Brooklyn (154).



David Holmgren on Permaculture Principles

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and PathwaysThere is so much in David Holmgren’s Permaculture that I am sure I will return to it, but I wanted to capture the basics in one post. One long post.

Way back when I had a house and a garden, I found out about permaculture and read the huge manual by Bill Mollison and was immensely impressed and tried to grow all my own veg. I failed, and learned a lot in the process. It is many years on now, of living in rooms and flats and no access to gardens and moving and a publishing endeavour and a thesis. I am quite excited to come back to it in thinking about urban and public space and how we live, how we create community, how we leave every place we inhabit, and the earth itself, better than we found it. That’s rarely talked about.

Uncertainty about our place and our future and our knowledge, however, is more and more talked about.

We live in an uncertain age — theoretical science has opened up a whole world of uncertainty, modernity clashing with traditional values, crisis undermines possibility of certainty about the future, and the pace of technology-driven change

Even so, what surprised me — and shouldn’t have because it is a reality that we must face — is that this book starts with, and doesn’t bother to argue for, the reality of climate change, peak oil, crisis. In fact the permaculture movement started with that foundation forty odd years ago

Insofar as permaculture is an effective response to the limitations on use of energy and natural resources, it will move from its current status as “alternative response to environmental crisis” to the social and economic mainstream of the post-industrial era. Whether it will be called permaculture or not is a secondary matter. (xvii)

It argues for a true sustainability, looked at in different ways as befits a key principle for organizing life. One is ‘as a set of coherent system priorities’. There follows an interesting set of binaries that contrast industrial with sustainable culture —

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

I am trying to think more along continuums rather than through binaries, but this is useful I think.

So on to definitions.

Definition:  Expanded from Permaculture One: “Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for porvision of local needs.” People, their buildings and the ways they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture has evolved to one of permanent (sustainable) culture.

A second definition: the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising framework for implementing the above vision. (xix)

And then there is this

Permaculture is a whole-hearted adaptation to the ecological realities of decline, which are as natural and creative and those of growth….The real issue of our age is how we make a graceful and ethical descent. (xxix)

and if you didn’t quite get that, he writes:

I am suggesting that we need to get over our naive and simplistic notions of sustainability as a likely reality for ourselves our even our grandchildren and instead accept that our task is to use our familiarity with continuous change to adapt to energy descent. (xxx)

Yes please, let’s do that. I wish everyone from now on could just start right here.

David Holmgren’s Ethical Principles of Permaculture

Three broad principles — pretty easy:

Care for the earth
Care for people
Set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus (1)

I liked this:

In particular, we need to be suspicious of seeing the philosophy of individualism as the source, rather than outcome, of material well-being. Further, we should expect that the beliefs and values that have developed with a rising energy base are likely to be dysfunctional–even destructive–in a world of limited and declining energy. (2)

I loved this:

The stewardship concept demands that we constantly ask the question: Will the resource be in better shape after my stewardship? One cannot go far in this process without challenging the ethical validity of the ownership of land and natural resources that lies at the heart of our legal system. Control of land and natural resources has been central throughout history; in a low-energy future it will again become the primary focus for ethics, politics and culture. Indigenous land right and agrarian land reform in poor countries are two issues that continue to challenge the prevailing ethics about land. The ethic of earth stewardship provides a moral imperative to continue to work out more creative ways for vesting control of land in collective structures, rather than taking as natural the individual ownership of land that goes with our Western industrial culture. Efforts to do this over the last hundred years show that it is not an easy task.  (5)

It is part of care for the earth: understanding the living soil, stewardship of land, preserving biodiversity, seeing all living things as intrinsically valuable and minimising our impact on them.

Care for people? It means understanding the massive structural inequalities, doing what we can to undermine them beginning with ourselves and our families, our neighbourhoods, our communities. I think missing here is a little deeper thought into social and racial justice and how those intersect with environmental justice —  the words environmental justice don’t appear at all, but I think will have to be intrinsic to a wider movement. Graham Haughton‘s work is a start among that of many others I am now exploring.

And hell yes to redistributing surplus.

There then follow twelve principles:

Each of course links to the others, ‘In this sense, each principle can be thought of as a door into the labyrinth of whole-systems thinking.’ (xii)

1. Observe and Interact

icontreeThe icon for this principle is a person as a tree, emphasizing ourselves in nature and transformed by it. (13)

A process of continuous observation in order to recognise patterns and appreciate details is the foundation of all understanding. (13)

And lo and behold, a popular education spiral — I use this all the time to think through things:

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

2. Catch and Store Energy

iconcatchenergyThe icon of sunshine captured in a bottle suggests the preserving of seasonal surplus and a myriad of other traditional and novel ways to catch and store energy. It also reflects the basic lesson of biological science: that all life is directly or indirectly dependent on the solar energy captured by green plants.

The proverb “make hay while the sun shines” reminds us that we have limited time to catch and store energy before seasonal or episodic abundance dissipates. (27)

Energy is stored in landscapes — water, nutrients and carbon. This is what our presence should be working to rebuild. This means we think about the land we can manage, we think about catchment and regional planning, and we think about households and the built environment as stores of energy.

When considering the development of the tools, buildings and infrastructure , we should aim to emulate, where possible, the characteristics…for natural storages of energy. The following design criteria are relevant:

  • modest in scale
  • well-designed for long life and/or made frmo easily renewable materials
  • simple to maintain (not necessarily maintenance-free)
  • multi-purpose and easy to adapt to other uses. (46) 

3. Obtain a Yield

iconobtainyieldThe icon of the vegetable with a bite taken shows the production of something that gives us an immediate yield but also reminds us of the other creatures who are attempting to obtain a yield from our efforts. (55)

Then he goes on to talk about Kropotkin‘s refutation of the Darwinists in arguing that cooperation is as prevalent if not more than competition. Yay. It means understanding where and how we are dependent on social relationships — harder to see sometimes in the modern world, just as our interdependence with the other creatures in our world is obscured.

4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

iconself0regulateIn modern society, we take for granted an enormous degree of dependence on large-scale, often remote, systems for provision of our needs, while expecting a huge degree of freedom in what we do without external control. In a sense, our whole society is like a teenager who wants to have it all, have it now, without consequences.

The Gaia hypothesis of the earth as a self-regulating system, analogous to a living organism, makes the whole earth a suitable image to represent this principle. (72)

This is really hard, because it’s been a really long time since we’ve done it. That’s all about to change.

Learning to think wholistically requires an overriding, or reversal, of much of the cultural heritage of the last few hundred years. With little experience of whole-system thinking and such cultural impediments, we need to focus our efforts on simple and accessible whole systems before we try to amend large and complex ones. (85)

5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

iconusevlaueThere is no more important example in history of human prosperity derived from non-consuming use of nature’s services than our domestication and use of the horse for transport, soil cultivation and general power for a myriad of uses. (93)

I love this, it encapsulates everything wrong with consumption, and a lovely definition of use value, evocative of William Morris somehow:

Appropriate use:

How well we use the products from natural resources is as important as the way those products are made. The dining table that is used each day to feed a large household is very different from the one used for the occasional dinner party in an otherwise empty house. One will become imbued with the memories and marks of living. The other will occupy space that is locked, insured, maintained and heated, doing little. (95)

6. Produce No Waste

iconearthwirmThe earthworm…lives by consuming plant litter (wastes), which it converts into humus that improves the soil environment for itself, for soil micro-organisms and for the plants. Thus, the earthworm, like all living things, is a part of web where the outputs of one are the inputs for another. (111)

A critique of privatisation, of built-in obsolescence. A recognition that the world’s poor know more about this than anyone else living, and instead of being looked down upon they should be held up as teachers and examples.

7. Design From Patterns to Details

icondesignThe spider on its web, with its concentric and radial design, evokes zone and sector site planning, the best-known and perhaps most widely applied aspect of permaculture design. The design pattern of the web is clear, but the details always vary. (127)

I don’t think it surprises me that he references Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language here, looking at the regular patterns to be found in our built environment. I quite love that he tries here to look towards beginning a similar pattern language for permaculture design.

This is all about thinking how energy is stored in the landscapes we create, but its interesting to think of ‘site design as cellular design’.

We can think of a permaculture-designed garden (Zones 1 and 2) as a human rural settlement cell. There is a limit to efficient garden size before we have to jump up into a more complex production system. Successful gardens do not keep expanding. Instead, they provide a surplus of plant stock and human knowledge that help to establish new gardens.

Despite the great challenges in recreating community, the expanding interest in eco-villages and co-housing as part of the permaculture vision is implicit recognition of the problem that the nuclear family is too small in scale for many aspects of ecological living. (138)

8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate

iconintegrateIn every aspect of nature, from the internal working of organisms to whole ecosystems, we find the connections between things are as important as the things themselves. Thus “the purpose of a functional and self-regulating design is to place elements in such a way that each serves the needs and accepts the products of other elements.”

Our cultural bias toward focus on the complexity of details tends to ignore the complexity of relationships. We tend to opt for segregation of elements as a default design strategy for reducing relationship complexity.

The icon of this principle can be seen as a top-down view of a circle of people or elements forming an integrated system. The apparently empty hole represents the abstract whole system that both arises from the organisation of the elements and also gives them form and character. (155)

Then there is this:

Permaculture can be seen as part of a long tradition of concepts that emphasize mutualistic and symbiotic relationships over competitive and predatory ones. Declining energy availability will shift the general perception of these concepts from romantic idealism to practical necessity. (156)

There’s a section called rebuilding community, and god knows we need that.

…almost everyone active in the permaculture movement would agree that stronger development of co-operative relationships between people, families and communities outside the large institutional structures is the perfect complement to personal and household self-reliance. Without this alternative, political strategies for taming the global institutions are like King Canute telling the sea to retreat.  (172)

I like too the list of characteristics of a sustainable community:

  • Local and bioregional political and economic structures

  • cross-fertilization–biogenetic, racial, cultural and intellectual–giving natural hybrid vigour

  • Accessibility and low dependence on expensive and centralised technology

  • capable of being developed by incremental steps with feedback and refinement (172)
    Because the design of sustainable culture is beyond the capability of any mortal, the process must be organic and iterative. Each small step and stage should be immediately useful and workable and should provide feedback for refinement, and even changes, of direction. (173)

9. Use Small and Slow Solutions

iconsmallandslowThe spiral house of the snail is small enough to be carried on its back and yet capable of incremental growth. With its lubricated foot, the snail easily and deliberately traverse any terrain. (181)

Lovely — though the use of the word lubricated still makes me giggle like a twelve year old.

I also love how clearly this stands in opposition to Le Corbusier’s paean to speed adhered to by planner after planner.

The speed of movement of materials and people (and other living things) between systems should be minimised. A reduction in speed is a reduction in total movement, increasing the energy available for the system’s self-reliance and autonomy. (181)

10. Use and Value Diversity

iconbirdThe spinebill and the humming bird both have long beaks and the capacity to hover, perfect for sipping nectar from long, narrow flowers….

The great diversity of forms, functions and interaction in nature and humanity are the source for evolved systemic complexity. the role and value of diversity in nature, culture and permaculture is itself complex, dynamic, and at times apparently contradictory. (203)

It’s also interesting that emerging from nature, this value of diversity is connected to place and it is the cultures most attuned to the places where they live that hold the most wisdom.

Permaculture uses the patterns that are common to traditional cultures for design principles and models. the diversity of design solutions, strategies, techniques and species are a toolkit towards new cultures of place. Wherever we live, we must become new indigenes. (211)

This is particularly interesting in thinking about cities, the new cultures of place that grow in them, and how their connections to the land surrounding them can be made visible and healthy.

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal

icontrailThe icon of the sun coming up over the horizon with a river in the foreground shows us a world composed of edges. (223)

I like that he looks at ‘marginal’ neighbourhoods, cites Jane Jacobs as noting that they are where space and low rent allow new things to grow and thrive. Also the ways that we see the edges between rural and urban, where it is the connections that are interesting.

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

iconbutterflyThis principle has two thread: designing to make use of change in a deliberate and cooperative way, and creatively responding or adapting to large-scale system change that is beyond our control or influence. (239)

We need to break out of the delusion of apparently linear acceleration of human material and numerical progress to a world view in which everything is contained by cycles, waves and pulses that flow between polarities of great stability and intense change, all nested one within another. (270)

Permaculture is a dynamic interplay between two phases: on the one hand, sustaining life within the cycle of the seasons, and on the other, conceptual abstraction and emotional intensity of creativity and design. I see the relationship between these two as like the pulsing relationship between stability and change. It is the steady, cyclical and humble engagement with nature that provides the sustenance for the spark of insight and integration (integrity), which, in turn, informs and transforms the practice. The first is harmonious and enduring; the second is episodic and powerful. The joyful assymmetric balance between the two expresses our humanity. (271)

I find all of these useful starting points for thinking about cities, planning, building communities. It is built for praxis, and while much of this book is highly detailed about how these have been concretely implemented in terms of household design and agriculture, I think it will be quite fruitful to explore how they can be usefully applied in a broader movement to help create a better world. All of these things fit together, and I am enjoying exploring the potential of this.

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways