A Weeping Elephant

In the central Brussels neighbourhood of Ixelles, a fifty-metre-tall elephant has been introduced to Place Flagey. The place is an open square where people gather, young children splash around in water fountains, and each weekend a vibrant market transform the square to bustling, throbbing mass of colours, smells, and textures. The sculpture is called a weeping elephant and has been positioned in the northern corner of the place across from the imposing Flagey building that houses a cultural centre and the school of architecture from the Université libre de Bruxelles. The elephant is part sculpture, part performance art, and part provocation and will stand in position from July 12th until September 22nd 2017.

 

Images courtesy of Anna Plyushteva

 

The elephant is part of a series called Ode to the Wilderness by Dutch artist Jantien Mook who has been fascinated by rhythms and patterns from childhood. Her love of nature and animals is part of the rationale behind the weeping elephant, looking to explore the subtleties and movements of the natural world. The weeping elephant is a sculpture of an African elephant, made of beech stems, patterns in steel, segments of bark and knots for the eyes.

 

Jantien Monk explains that the sculpture ‘travels around the world and appears in cities, she ‘weeps’ to make her presence felt’. The elephant provokes the public to think about the daily presence of such creatures and the interactions between nature, animals, and humans. At the same time the weeping elephant is an interesting object that draws attention. Children will play with the sculpture, people sit at the elephant’s feet, and others just enjoying taking pictures as the colours change in sunlight.

 

The elephant certainly brings about changes in the felt atmosphere of the square, at the same time it helps to make a direct and daily confrontation to people’s awareness and appreciation the role urban places have on the wilderness and wildlife. The elephant will travel around Europe till the end of the year, instigating daily confrontations and atmospheres.

 

For more see: http://www.hln.be/regio/nieuws-uit-brussel/weeping-elephant-vindt-plek-op-flageyplein-a3207588/

 

 

On Good v. Bad Urban Government, City-States, and Cultural Symbols: Reflections from Fallen / Falling Empires

On a recent trip to Italy, I had the pleasure of visiting the cities of Rome and Siena. Rome, the “Eternal City”, enchants with its multiple layers of history. The modern city super-imposed on several earlier urban texts: Mussolini’s functional and monumental fascist infrastructure on top of the Baroque city of flourishes and curves; the neo-classical Renaissance city on top of a messy Medieval street grid; Medieval housing blocks on top of ancient Roman foundations, which in turn sit upon even earlier foundations (Greek, Etruscan, etc.). A shopkeeper informed me that beneath her shop was an Egyptian temple.

Siena, one of the powerful and wealthy Renaissance city-states, arguably the Frankfurt of its time in terms of its banking dynasties (Monte dei Paschi di Siena is still one of Italy’s largest banks), sits atop a hill crowned by a marble-clad cathedral.

I have visited Italy before, most recently in 2009 and before that, studied one undergraduate semester in Rome (in 2004). But this summer’s visit felt especially timely and powerful, given the stories that these ancient cities tell about the waves of history and the rise and fall of empires. It is perhaps cliched to compare Rome’s rise and fall to Pax Americana and / or the rise and fall of the global capitalist empire, but it is hard to avoid such comparisons (at the time of this writing, a controversial play portrays Donald Trump as Julius Caeser, widely considered Rome’s first dictator). The Colosseum towers above the crowds with its numbered entries, as global cities build and destroy sport arenas constructed in the same way. The market (or shopping malls of its day) of Emperor Trajan (below) crumbles beneath modern retail advertisements, as modern retail itself creatively destroys itself with Amazon and drone-delivery. History is always present.

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In particular, I was struck with three thoughts while meandering through cobblestone streets.

1. Urban Governance as “Bad” or “Good”: Both the ancient Roman urban world and the Renaissance Italian era had very strong and well-developed concepts of “good” v. “bad” urban government, that are directly relatable to our contemporary era. 21st-century urban governance is fraught, difficult, and increasingly characterized by divides and schisms within the new global populism. “Good” urban mayors emerge as global superstars (in popular imagination, LA’s Villaraigosa or Bogota’s Penelosa come to mind); while “bad” mayors seem determined to destroy, rather than to build, urban best practice (Toronto’s Rob Ford one recent example). In an urban world where an increasing majority of humans live in cities, and cities compete globally in an interlinked economy, the difference between good and bad urban governance has huge implications.

This was starkly the case as well in 14th century Siena. While touring Siena’s medieval city hall, I came across three frescoes dating from 1338-1339, painted by Amborgio Lorenzetti, representing the allegory of “good and bad government” (see below). 20170622_154044

“Bad government” (above) features the devil-like horned tyrant, while the captive figure of Justice lies bound. They are flanked by the figures of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division, and War, and above, float the figures of Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory. These figures, according to an advice book for city magistrates of the time, were considered to be the “leading enemies of human life” (Skinner, 2009). Surely these same character flaws apply to many vainglorious modern mayors, council members, civic leaders. 20170622_154033Meanwhile, in the allegory of “good government” above, there are six crowned, stately female figures: Peace, Fortitude and Prudence on the left, Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice on the right. “Peace”, however, sits upon a cache of weapons: a city maintains its peace but must not surrender its strength if attacked.

In the new populism, cities around the world are maligned, otherized, and blamed for many of society’s ills (e.g. the anti-urban language of New Yorker Donald Trump, or the anti-London rhetoric of the pro-Brexit discourse in Britain). Siena’s leaders understood the power of good urban governance as a tool to placate the people, a lesson relevant today.

2. City-States as a Natural Political / Economic / Cultural Organization

Medieval and Renaissance Italy was not a unified nation (that wouldn’t happen until the 1870s), but rather a competitive collection of powerful, autonomous City-States that gained commercial, political and cultural dominance at different times. Venice, Genoa, Florence and Siena are just four examples of this territorial organization. Each city maintained a powerful army; had a powerful economic competitive advantage usually centered around one or a cluster of specialized trades; and also cultivated a unique sense of self and culture through the patronage of art and architecture. Time also cultivated a distinctly local, rather than national sense of belonging; unique customs and traditions, and in many cases even distinct dialects and languages.

The 19th century through the end of the Cold War was a period of national unification and amalgamation, as unique cities with centuries of history were swept up into the re-ordering of empires and joined into (often artificial) nation-state boundaries. “Italy” and “Germany” came into being; and “Yugoslavia” was just one example of the blurring of smaller boundaries into a larger whole. The advent of the European Union in the late 20th century is perhaps the most prescient example of the collapsing of the city-state layer of government into a broader sense of global region. Many other national and supra-national clusters emerged, from NAFTA and MERCOSUR to ASEAN and OPEC. Urbanism was envisioned by theorists as increasingly “planetary” (see Brenner, 2014), embedded in relational global flows and networks and no longer tied specifically to particular geographies. Harvey (1989) predicted this new global urban geography in late capitalism, as global supply chains and labour flows circulated more rapidly in an increasingly flat world.

However, more recently, the failures of the 19th and 20th-century conception of the “nation state” or even “global region” seem to point again to the primacy of the City-State as a rational, and even utopian, scale of global territorial governance and organization. One can point toward the (economic) success of City-State models such as Singapore, or to the increasing dominance of mayors and urban leaders in terms of global governance and policy. Localism has challenged notions of state, nation and region from Brexit to the continued attack on Federalism v. State in the United States (by the right-wing); cities in the Global South are emerging as command centers for larger and larger hinterlands as rural to urban migrations continue from Africa to China. Indeed, some argue that in certain contexts, effective national governance is becoming nearly impossible. Britain continues to devolve power to locally-elected mayors (following the American model). As the United States rejects global climate change accords, its mayors commit their cities to CO2 reduction.

Amidst the flows of the current populist Balkanization (which also manifests in cyberspace), we may be returning to an age like that in which Siena fought for dominance with its urban counterparts.

3. Cultural Symbols as Essential to the Old, and New Nationalism 

20170629_163545Somewhat contrasting the observations above, I had another thought while meandering through the ruins of the Roman Forum. The most poignant artifact I encountered was the Temple of the Vestal Virgins (above), where beautiful statues of the Vestal Virgins have miraculously survived the millenia. The Virgins guarded the “Sacred Fire of Vesta”, Rome’s eternal flame, and its most poignant and holy cultural symbol. Popular lore stated that should the flame be extinguished, so would Rome’s heart. Entry to the Temple was strictly forbidden, save for a select few.

As the Roman Empire slowly collapsed due to both internal and external forces, splitting into two (with the power center moving East to Constantinople) and sacked / burned several times by marauding intruders, still the flame burned.

Finally, in  394 AD, by order of the Christian Emperor Theodosius I, the rites of Vesta ended and the fire was extinguished. A collective sigh resonated through Rome’s chattering classes, chronicled by Roman historians. The weight of this symbolic act was apparent, even then.

This anecdote was chilling to me. I began to think about what our contemporary cultural symbols are: what is the metaphorical “fire” that burns at the heart of our civilization? What is the eternal flame that maintains human light, hope, development? What will it look like were it to be extinguished, and it what ways might this happen?

Has our eternal flame already been extinguished, and will future historians be able to point to an event that has already occurred, to events occurring all around us today?

As we continue to lament the fall of many of our institutions (in America, for example, bipartisan government; public education; a non-partisan judiciary, just to name three), we may be too distracted to notice when indeed, the fire is put out. Let’s hope we keep it burning.

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More on Grenfell

By Gareth Millington

Following on from my Grenfell related post yesterday I have compiled some of the most useful articles on this tragedy. Many in the UK will be familiar with these but I’m aware that most readers of the blog are from outside the UK and will be interested to read more about a terrible event that many agree is emblematic of the failings of neoliberal and austerity urbanism.

The first article tell the story of how The Labour Party won the North Kensington seat in West London just a week before the fire. This victory, seen by many as unlikely, was in large part due to urban tensions in the area.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/12/labour-kensington-general-election-london?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

The second article, published just days after the fire on The Sociological Review blog, is by David Madden, an urban sociologist based at the LSE. He sees parallels between Grenfell and Hurricane Katrina.

https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/blog/deadly-cityscapes-of-inequality.html

These two articles are from the City journal blog. Paul Watt has been charting London’s struggles over social housing for the last decade.

http://www.city-analysis.net/2017/06/23/those-people-in-there-like-the-phoenix-shall-rise-from-the-ashes-the-truth-shall-come-out-debbie-humphry/

http://www.city-analysis.net/2017/06/23/this-place-is-post-something-londons-housing-in-the-wake-of-the-grenfell-tower-fire-paul-watt/

The following articles are by the excellent architectural writer Owen Hatherley. The first talks of the institutional contempt shown for the diverse and generally poor residents of Grenfell. The second addresses predictable commentary from the right that focuses on the architectural design of London’s high-rise homes and argues that towers should be torn down. As Hatherley states, such a view is of course concomitant with the discourse of ‘regeneration’, whereby estates are demolished or made derelict by local authorities, the land sold and residents dispersed outside the city to make way for middle class residents.

https://www.dezeen.com/2017/06/16/grenfell-tower-fire-lethal-failure-oversight-opinion-column-owen-hatherley/

https://jacobinmag.com/2017/06/grenfell-tower-fire-uk-housing-safety

Here is an article, which I drew upon yesterday, by the critical criminologist Steve Tombs, concerning the increasing removal of protection from legislation under neoliberalism.

https://oucriminology.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/undoing-social-protection/?utm_content=buffer030f7&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

The final two articles are more visual in focus. Both powerfully capture the human extent of this tragedy and the solidarity that has been shown by residents—from across London—in its aftermath.

https://plutopress.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/grenfell-tower-a-photo-diary-from-activestills/

http://www.redpepper.org.uk/a-beautiful-message-to-the-grenfell-community-from-the-housing-estates-of-east-london/

 

Running Plan: encouraging running in cities

Running is a burgeoning activity in cities across Europe. In some cities, it is a prominent activity while for others it is a nascent practice. In all cities running speaks to the desire to encourage citizens to adopt healthier practices as well as being part of a suite of ideas to foster more sustainable urban places. In Brussels, recently there have been calls for running to feature more prominently within the city. In the Brussels Parliament, Flemish Socialist politician Jef Van Damme introduced an initiative that brought together a broad coalition of colleagues to propose the implementation of a running (or jogging) plan. The idea is to help to promote running as an everyday practice by improving visibility and availability in public spaces. In addition, the plan will aim to make Brussels the running capital of Europe. Brussels has several parks that are popular for running this includes the Bois de la Cambre and Parc Cinquantenaire. The plan aims to improve running in places that are not as picturesque or attractive to runners. In recent years, the city authorities have renovated Parc Josaphat and the pathways around the Ixelles lakes which has opened these areas to more runners and people wanting to use the spaces to relax. These spaces are now friendlier for families and people of all ages with the addition on new surfaces, lighting, and regular maintenance. The aim of the plan is to encourage city authorities to improve public running infrastructure. This would entail providing signs for routes, improving lighting, and providing toilets, lockers, and fresh drinking water. If the plan is adopted it could become a blueprint for other cities across Europe.

http://www.lesoir.be/96346/article/2017-05-27/un-plan-jogging-pour-la-capitale

Brussels Runner Canal.BE

Photo courtesy of Canal.Brussels

On handshakes and aliens: two pedagogical lessons for the urbanist classroom

When you observe two people sitting at a park bench, or walking down a block wearing suit or a dress or jeans – what assumptions do you attach to their bodies? How do these assumptions inform how you read people in urban space?

When you think of a city you’ve visited or lived in, what adjectives do you think of? When you think of a city you’ve never visited before (I, for example, have never been to Cape Town, South Africa, and Berlin, Germany, and Buenos Aries, Argentina, and Hanoi, Vietnam, among many other cities) what adjectives do you think of?

I ask these questions to frame two brief pedagogical lessons for the urban cultural studies classroom. Each asks how discourse – produced knowledge that circulates – attaches to (urban) bodies and ideas of cities.

I learned the first exercise at a 2013 ATHE conference (panel: “The Games We Play”) and came up with the second exercise a few years ago. I have taught both, and shared and further developed both exercises earlier this month with input from other participants and under the direction of Professor Carrie Preston at the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Studies at Harvard University which had the theme: “Research, Pedagogy, Activism.” I offer these exercises here as in-progress pedagogical tools.

Handshake Exercise: “What do you see?”

Goal: To have students identify the type of assumptions attached to bodies and roles people play in urban space.

(pre-step). If possible, go to an urban setting such as a park bench or an area near a bus stop.

1. Ask for two volunteers from your class — lets call them A and B. When they come up to front of the classroom (or to the park bench, etc.), ask the two to shake hands.

2. As A and B shake hands, ask the other students “what do you see?” or “what type of assumptions might we make if we saw these two people shaking hands here?”

3. As A and B continue to shake hands, listen to responses from the class.

4. After a few moments, substitute out one volunteer for another such that A and C are now shaking hands.

5. Again ask, “What do you see?” and listen to responses.

6. Repeat this exercise several more times, such that different pairings of students are shaking hands (C and D shake hands, D and E shake hands, E and F shake hands, F and A shake hands and so on), and with each pairing, ask the rest of the observers “What do you see?” The combinations are often such that two men shake hands, or two women shake hands, or two people of the same or of a different race shake hands, or of similar or different ages shake hands, or similar or different heights shake hands.

7. When the exercise is over ask your students: “what didn’t you say?” The exercise ultimately asks what meanings do we have and make about raced, gendered, aged bodies, and combinations of those bodies, in urban spaces?

Alien Exercise: “What does it look like?” “How do you know?”

Goal: To explain the concept of discourse, and have students think about how and where knowledge about concepts (such as cities) is produced and circulated within society.

1. Ask students: “Draw an alien.” (Give students about 2-3 minutes to do so).

2. Next ask students: “Share your alien.” Give willing students a few moments to describe their alien.

3. Then ask: “Have you ever met an alien?” “How do you know what an alien looks like?” “Where have you seen aliens?” Use this prompt to make students name the specific sources where they’ve seen aliens (television, movies, magazines) that have influenced their ideas of what aliens look like.

4. Use their naming to introduce the concept of discourse. (Here are some sources: The Chicago School of Media Theory, University of Chicago; Michael Foucault, “Discourse on Language”; Social Theory Re-Wired, Routledge.)

5. Re-explain this concept of discourse, now through meanings we attach to cities. Ask students to describe cities they may or may not have been to: “How would you describe New York City?” (or another city if you teach in or near New York City).

6. Then ask students, “Raise your hand if you’ve been to New York City.” For those who didn’t raise their hands, ask, “where have you learned ideas of New York City?” For those who have been to New York City, ask, “how do those ideas compare to and contrast with what you’ve experienced in that city?”

7. Repeat with other cities.

8. Discuss how discourses of cities circulate in dialogue with and beyond the embodied experience of a city – and what this means for power/privilege (how discourses of cities center and privilege certain people and knowledge over others) and what this means for various methods (ethnographic, archival, aesthetic) of studying cities that may or may not address those differences in power and privilege.

I used this exercise last semester in my Urban Ethnography class, linking it to Michel de Certeau’s ideas of place and space.

What exercises do you use to have students think about how meanings are produced and circulated in urban spaces?

The right to protection

By Gareth Millington

I’ve been working with Henri Lefebvre’s formulation of the right to the city for a while now.  Recent events in London—I am referring in particular to the Grenfell Tower fire (14 June) and the death in police custody of Edson da Costa (21 June)—have driven home a doubt that I’ve long harboured. In short, Lefebvre’s conception of this right, which famously incorporates the right to difference, the right to habitat and the right to centrality, does not go far enough—for contemporary times—in encompassing the right to protection and/or the right to safety. In addition, it does not (cannot) account for racialized experiences of precarity in a city as unequal as contemporary London. Without ever wishing to lose the spirit of both fullness and openness in the Lefebvre’s original work, the issue of protection has become fundamental in understanding the right to the city in neoliberal cities where the threats of interpersonal violence, state violence, health and safety deregulation, pollution, terrorism and austerity budgets causing cuts to vital services are lived with by the majority as an everyday urban reality. As David Madden, co-author of In Defence of Housing, has written in the wake of Grenfell: ‘There are aspects of urban environments and everyday life that can kill, either swiftly through catastrophic failure or ecological disaster, or slowly through illness or poor health. But the chances of being subjected to these conditions are distributed unevenly.’

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Of course, Paris in 1968 (where and when Lefebvre wrote La droit de la ville) provided a very different context. As a Marxist (of sorts) in a country dominated by an authoritarian Gaullist state, Lefebvre understandably favoured self-organisation and self-determination (autogestion) among urban communities. He was justifiably wary of eradicating dissent, desire or play from the city. He was worried of the influence of planners, technocrats and the police—in fact any agent of the state—seeing them as responsible for ‘urbanism’, a nebulous ‘science of the city’. I think it’s fair to say that Lefebvre didn’t want or trust the state to have much to do with ‘protecting’ its urban citizens. He wanted city dwellers to learn how to do this for themselves.

The Grenfell tragedy with its intimations of criminal negligence demonstrates how an alignment between critical criminology and Lefebvrian urban studies is perhaps overdue. Critical criminology—with its Marxist roots—is concerned with who in society has the power to criminalise. It seeks to explain the aetiology of crimes of the powerful and identifies the social harms that state and corporate actors are responsible for (Grenfell, in a manner that is characteristic of ‘neoliberal’ tragedies, blurs boundaries between the two). Critical criminology seeks to make more visible these social harms, to pinpoint their causes and to pursue means through which both legal and social justice may be achieved.

An important concept in critical criminology—one which was misappropriated by the New Labour government (1997-2010)—is that of community safety.  Originally, this notion encompassed much more than protecting citizens from crime or anti-social behaviour. It was never intended to divide the working-class between ‘roughs’ and ‘respectables’.  In fact, it was devised as a way of critiquing governmental concern with street crime over and above the other harms that blighted the lives of the urban working-class. Community safety argued for a radical, pan-hazard approach to improving urban lives that involved tackling domestic violence, poverty, diet, health and road safety and so forth on an equal footing to crime. It also advocated a horizontal multi-agency approach to setting an agenda for protection that was necessarily derived from deep and continuous engagement with the urban communities most at risk. One aim, in the wake of inner city riots and a loss of trust between police and black communities in the first half of the 1980s in London, was to develop a more consensual mode of urban policing.

While Grenfell has shown that listening to communities (and taking their concerns seriously) remains more important than ever, it also reveals the ‘cry and demand’—to use a lexicon familiar to readers of Lefebvre—for a renewed social democratic state that is willing and able to protect citizens from the harms caused by failing, delegitimised neoliberal urban policy. A re-worked conception of community safety, most likely under a new rubric, can help to identify, act upon and neutralise the hazards of urban living that have been created and exacerbated by decades of rolling back the remit and influence of the state. Indeed, in the context of austerity, many urban dwellers are angrily demanding adequate protection, especially when—in a marketised society—they have no means of securing themselves. As the response to Grenfell shows, the organic forms of spontaneity and convergence that Lefebvre so admires do exist. People in this diverse and degraded pocket of North Kensington (London’s wealthiest borough) were quick to organise (more so than the threadbare local authority) and to demonstrate compassion and support for each other—but they, like millions of other urban citizens, also deserve recourse to safe and secure public housing, legal aid, information on the safety of loved-ones, a non-racist police force and a fully resourced fire service.  The right to the city must surely comprise the right to protection.

An excellent piece on the Grenfell tragedy from The Independent can be read here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/grenfell-tower-tory-austerity-class-war-outsourcing-inequality-kensington-corbyn-may-mausoleum-a7805666.html#gallery