Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Course Update #1

I am now getting towards the end of my first term on the Cities and Cultures masters course at Queen Mary. I’ve finished all three pieces of coursework due in this term, which is a great relief, although now I have to think about planning for two large hand-ins in January after the winter break. Lurking in the background amidst all this is the d word (that’s ‘dissertation’), which I have to be considering even at this early stage. Before I talk more about what the next steps are, though, I’ll say a bit about what I’ve been doing during the course so far.
My course is made up of 4 modules alongside the dissertation.  These are:

- Geographical Thought and Practice, a compulsory module running across the first two terms that gives a grounding in geographical theory, writing and research methods.
- Cities, Space and Power, which runs only for the current term, with the final coursework deadline in January. This module focuses on the public spaces of cities, and started off by thinking about what ‘public space’ and ‘public’ mean, and how modern Western understandings of public space arose in the 17th century. We then looked at how public space could be understood from a non-Western perspective, using the post-colonial city of Calcutta and how it is represented in film and other art. In this last section of the module, the focus shifts to contemporary cities, and issues that arise from different uses and regulations of public spaces.
- Cultural Geography in Practice, another module only running this term with the final coursework hand-in in January. So far, we have looked at how geographers have used creative practices as a form of research and dissemination in cultural geography, particularly through collaborations with institutions such as museums and art galleries. In this second half of the term, the focus is more on the concept of ‘home’, including how this is affected by migration, and how creative projects have tried to communicate geographical ideas about the complexity of home as a space of belonging, shelter and rootedness, but also potentially detachment, loneliness and violence.
- Art, Performance and the City, a module that will be running next term. This will look at the relationship between art and the city through urban cultural practices (e.g. urban exploring and walking) and projects by artists in London.

The material for these modules is organised around a series of 2-hour seminars, that I have once a week for each module. This currently means that I only to go into university twice a week, which is incredibly useful and money-saving given that I’m living at home and commuting into London. For each of these seminars we have reading to do in advance, so that we can have an engaged discussion on the material during the 2-hour slots. Apart from coursework, this is my main consistent source of workload. This is typically what I’ll be doing at the library in Canterbury during the week when I don’t have seminars.
The seminar format itself is fantastic. At Cambridge, the Geography undergraduate course is based solely on lectures and small follow-up supervisions, which meant that there was limited opportunity to discuss issues amongst a wider group of people, and between students ourselves. In this masters course, not only is there ample opportunity to talk about our own perspectives on particular topics on the reading, but because the students taking the modules are so diverse (with some modules including people from theatre/performance studies, exchange students and those with backgrounds in a variety of subjects), the seminars are incredibly thought-provoking. I love being able to hear from such a wide range of positions.
As well as seminars, field trips have also been an important part of our modules. For Cities, Space and Power, we had a 2-hour guided walk of Edwardian London, in which we navigated today’s streets while looking at printouts of maps from the Edwardian period. This was a clever and interesting way of looking at some of the changes in public space during this historical period (such as the growth of green ‘squares’ in London), which we could see traces of both in the physical environment and on the maps. We could also see how public space had changed since the 1700s to create what we know as London today.
In Cultural Geography in Practice, we visited the Geffrye Museum of the Home in Hoxton. This museum uses display rooms to show how the interiors of homes have changed since the 1600s, and hosts other exhibitions and events that look at the concept of ‘home’ – as much more than just a ‘house’, but a place with emotional and symbolic importance. We’re fortunate enough to be taught by Professor Alison Blunt for this part of the module, who has worked closely with the Geffrye Museum and whose work on home has been path-breaking within geography.

An striking outdoor feature at the front of the Geffrye Museum called 'The Last Hug'

And finally for Geographical Thought and Practice, we visited and learnt about the Jewish cemetery on the Queen Mary campus. This is an extremely interesting site that says a lot about the migrant community of the East End of London, and the university’s relationship with it.
As I said before, I’ve had three pieces of assessed work so far, one for each of my modules this term. The first was a 1000-word definition of public space for Cities, Space and Power, which you can read more about here.

The first page of my definition of public space

For Cultural Geography in Practice, we had a 2000-word essay about the values and challenges of creative public geography work (such as exhibitions, collaborations, etc.)

Spider diagram for Cultural Geography in Practice essay

And finally for Geographical Thought and Practice, our 2500-word task was to write summaries of two of the ideas/approaches we’d looked at so far, and then write about how these can be applied to our own research interests.
As you can see, it’s been a busy but very enjoyable first term so far. It’s going to stay this way in the months ahead, starting with a 4000-word essay and a 3500-word exhibition proposal to submit after the winter break! As I mentioned before, the dissertation will also start to gradually tighten its grip on my life. This is a 15,000-word piece based on research I’ll be doing from about May onwards, which counts for a third of my overall mark. It’s very important. At this stage I’m still very torn between two ideas for what I’ll be researching, but I’ll definitely be talking more on the blog in the coming months about what I eventually decide to do.
What I can say for certain is that I really, really love this course. It couldn’t really be better matched to what I’m interested in. I’m also very impressed with both the Geography Department and the institution as a whole at Queen Mary, and I feel lucky to have met so many kind, interesting, diverse, and down-to-earth people since starting my masters here.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Defining Public Space

At the end of October I submitted the first piece of assessed work for my Cities and Cultures MA course. The task was part of my Cities, Space and Power module, and required us to define one of three key terms that we had talked about so far in our seminars and reading: public, public sphere or public space.
As the concept that formed the foundation of my approach to my previous work on the regulation of busking, and thus the one that I had the best grasp of, I chose to define public space.
Doing a definition was a thought-provoking exercise because rather than making arguments about a preconceived or typical understanding of the concept of public space, I needed to interrogate the concept itself. What does it mean to call a space ‘public’ in the first place? Where do these meanings and associations originate from? And what different directions and interpretations have since arisen to create what we understand as public space today?
With a 1,000-word limit, this wasn’t a typical dictionary definition in that there was scope to expand the discussion of public space beyond a superficial description of how the concept is typically understood.
Before delving too far into different histories and theories of public space, though, I wanted to start my definition broadly so that it immediately recognised how there are multiple ways of approaching what is an inherently complex concept.
After a lot of thinking, I filtered these different perspectives down into three main categories:
-          ‘Formal’ approaches – understanding public space as a legally defined ‘public property’, which is held and managed by governments on behalf of their people.
-          ‘Functional’ approaches – the notion that public spaces are functionally open for access and use by a wide, generalised population.
-          ‘Ideological’ approaches – the political and philosophical associations that public space evokes, typically those of democracy and political participation.
In Western thought, we often understand these approaches to public space as opposites to ‘private space’ – those spaces that are owned by specific individuals/groups who have the legal right to exclude others from access and use. But, in keeping with the theme of complexity and ambiguity, the division between public and private space isn’t always a simple one to make. One example of this is the shopping mall, which despite being privately owned is open to a much wider population than the private space of the home. But there are in fact many ambiguous or ‘semi-public’ spaces such as schools/universities, airports and police stations that seem to fulfil some characteristics of publicness and not others.
As you can start to see, public space eludes precise definition, and it wouldn’t be hard to write a great deal more than 1,000 words on the topic if you explore it in all its depth. But the word limit encouraged me to think about what would be the most relevant aspects of the public space concept to include in the main body of the definition. What are the most significant or fundamental ideas that have contributed to how we understand public space in geography today?
Public space and democratic politics
At the centre of both popular and academic discussion of public space for decades, the vision of public space as a site of democracy and sociability between citizens is an important one to consider. Also known as the ‘republican’ tradition of public space, this line of thought sees the value of public spaces in their potential to host and provoke political discussion and representation for people from all social backgrounds, thanks to how they are relatively open for use and access.
Jurgen Habermas, a social theorist, argued that public spaces have these democratic qualities because they are based upon certain norms: specifically, the idea that discussion between people in public is rational, and that participants are treated as equals, irrespective of social standing. Habermas traces the origin of these norms back to the 18th-century British coffeehouse, which he claims was the first space where people outside the ruling classes regularly came together to collectively talk about political issues – where being in public could also mean having a political say that was as valid as any other.
But for humanist thinkers, public space shouldn’t be considered as a space where differences between social groups are erased, and people become a unified, equal ‘public’. Instead, public spaces are spaces where these social differences become more visible, as they allow us to encounter people from different backgrounds. From this perspective, public spaces have democratic potential because they allow people from diverse social groups to represent themselves and be seen, even if they are disempowered within society generally.
Overall, though, for all those who associate public space with democratic political participation, it is the possibility of openly interacting with different people that makes public space a site of political importance, and also gives it democratic potential.
The ‘end’ of public space
For many commentators, however, public space in the last few decades has become increasingly hostile to these kinds of open, sociable encounters. Through a trend of ‘privatisation’, it is argued that public space is becoming less ‘open’ to different uses and groups of people, and is instead increasingly owned, managed and regulated by private companies. Examples of this include the growth in number of indoor shopping centres, gated communities and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).
Geographers Neil Smith and Don Mitchell have claimed that this trend is a symptom of capitalist logic in an era of globalisation. Since capital has become more mobile, city authorities feel they must compete to attract investment and stay relevant on the global stage. By involving private companies in the organisation of urban space, and regulating public space to remove signs of disorder while promoting cleanliness and comfort, authorities aim to create the best possible conditions for commercial activity. The flipside of this, though, has meant that certain groups of people and certain uses of public space are often no longer welcome. The classic example is homeless people, who are largely unable to participate in the commercial life of cities, and whose uses of the space for sleeping, urinating and defecating, for example, define them as a ‘disorderly presence’.
Are these regulations an example of the traditions of freedom in public space being eroded, therefore signally a growing ‘impurity’ or even ‘end’ of public space? This is certainly what some accounts have argued.
The situation isn’t necessarily as bleak as this, however. There are lots of examples today where the creative and collective potential of public space is being explored. Community gardening and experimental artwork are two examples of this. But it is also important to be wary of the common assumption in the ‘end of public space’ arguments that public space was once ‘pure’ or ‘free’, and now we are in an inevitable process of decline. Public space has never been free. Marginalised groups within society have struggled for access to public space throughout history, and even written statutes regulating public space have existed for centuries.
So how might we think of public space beyond an ideal of democratic politics and a narrative of decline?
Beyond humans
One way to do this is to consider how public spaces are continually changing rather than reaching some kind of homogenised endpoint, both in terms of their physical environment, and its less tangible elements such as the memories and emotions that we associate with different spaces.
Public space isn’t only made up of human interactions. Non-human things such as paving slabs, regulations, bollards and lighting all play important parts in making public space what it is. Moreover, these different conditions will vary significantly in different places and at different times of day. For example, on a sunny Saturday in a UK high street, public space is likely to be lively and bustling. Yet a suburban underpass in the middle of the night will probably be deserted, and potentially feel dangerous.
As this last point suggests, the kinds of encounters that people have in public space also don’t always conform to the republican ideals of equality and respect of difference. Again, this depends on context. In certain places and at certain times, for example, women, ethnic minorities and LGBTQ individuals can be more likely to be victims of abuse and discrimination.
Ultimately, then, we can say that public space is not a level playing field. Instead, public spaces are sites that are continually produced and whose conditions will therefore vary according to the particular situation.
Hopefully what has become clear from this discussion of public space is that it isn’t a simple concept!
Although there are many competing ways that geographers have attempted to understand it, one thing that nearly all will agree on is that public space is inherently political. It is a space not only where diverse people encounter each other, but also where the tensions between openness/freedom and ownership/governance become clear.
For me, this is why public space is such an interesting topic to study. It is where some of the fundamental boundaries within society are negotiated, and yet at the same time it is very important for the lives of individual people too. While this importance may be more evident for people such as buskers and the homeless who depend on public space for their livelihood, we all use public space in some way – whether that is for walking to walk, shopping, playing sport, or finding a quiet spot to eat your lunch.
Simply put, public space matters for all of us.