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Navigating cities: Urban life in the 21st Century

Updated Tuesday, 17th May 2011

More  people than ever before are coming to live in cities. How do we cope sharing relatively small urban areas with a diverse range of people? Melissa Butcher of the OpenSpace Research Centre has some ideas...

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Listen: Difference in the city

Copyright The Open University

Living in the city

Living in the city has become a complicated act of navigation. Urban conglomerations now contain fast changing, diverse populations. The built environment is constantly renovated, redeveloped and gentrified. Residents move in, out and through these spaces, in search of better lives, enriched economically or by the excitement of living in this cacophony.

Others attempt to avoid its stresses and pitfalls, searching out interstitial moments of peace. Different ideas of how urban space should be used, what is permissible or not within it, must be constantly negotiated.

The study of this everyday life in the city now entails exploring the experiences of more than half the world’s population. The importance of this to understanding social organisation today has placed urban studies as a key research theme within the OpenSpace Research Centre.

OSRC was established in 2009 as an interdisciplinary hub for geographical and environmental research at the Open University. Its focus on the city has brought together sociologists, geographers and environmentalists to examine various aspects of urban life, including how we understand the management of diversity, and how we can use visual cultures to understand the city.

Diversity has become a marker of global cities that can now contain the world. In London, for example, often described as a ‘super-diverse’ city, it is estimated that over 300 languages are spoken. The diversity of different ethnic backgrounds is only added to by varying claims to public space made by people of different ages, gender, sexuality and socio-economic background.

Theories of cosmopolitanism have been developed to describe and explain how we manage this diversity, often emphasising hybridity, that is, the mixing together of different cultural practices and representations.

However, a problem with this approach is that it often ignored what, for some people, are real feelings of discomfort when they have to work out what to do with the new vegetables they see in their corner shop, for example, or when new buildings appear in their street where they no longer feel welcome. Diverse communities still have to work out amongst themselves how they are going to live together.

Parking meter in Chinatown, Liverpool Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Ewan-M under CC-BY-NC-ND licence
City collision: A parking meter in Liverpool's Chinatown


There are obvious questions of power involved in this ‘working out’, determining who has the right to use space in what way, but there are many examples of residents transcending differences to act together on the basis of association.

Jane Wills’ work on the London Citizens coalition is a good example of this. As well as social contracts, there are looser forms of cosmopolitan engagement based on reciprocity and forms of altruism, for example, neighbours swapping vegetables over the back fence.

These acts give rise to the observation in research now of the co-existence of everyday prejudice and everyday co-operation in the same neighbourhood. This may not represent what government’s refer to in official policies of multiculturalism as ‘harmony’, but it does enable people to manage a degree of conflict in diverse urban spaces.

Another way of managing our life in the city is to develop what sociologists such as Goffman and Wirth described as ‘civil inattention’ or, ‘blasé indifference’, that is, the ability to ignore the unsettling, or just plain odd. These may be necessary skills to navigate our cities today, to avoid distractions and collisions, to avoid being overwhelmed by ambient noise and temporal acceleration.

But paradoxically, this can also be a means by which we have come to ignore the ethical, the sustainable, the slow and the serendipitous.

In response, the city has become marked by creative interventions in an effort to catch the eye, or the attention of the passer-by, to offer alternative thoughts on the use of urban space as well as question power relations that underpin it.

Urban art practices have become synonymous with this activity, challenging how cities are encountered, and made sense of, visually. They are recreating playful spaces, unanticipated, participatory and spontaneous. For example, street art, such as graffiti, has become re-valorised as part of what Gillian Rose has argued is an effort by city dwellers to redefine and re-appropriate urban space visually over the last two centuries. This can add to the sense of diversity in the city, and also add to the discomfort that some residents may feel when their predictable, urban order is destabilised.

This returns us to the argument that urban populations develop a complex repertoire of skills in the process of managing ongoing transformations and ambiguities. Identifying how people imagine their place in the city, and manage their interactions with others, becomes part of discovering the myriad ways that we navigate through urban space.





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