Engaged Urbanism: Cities & Methodologies deals with innovative ways of co-producing and perceiving cities by showcasing novel methodological explorations of urban phenomena. Compiled by Ben Campkin and Ger Duizing, the collection of more than thirty essays is the critical output of a series of events and exhibitions at the Urban Methodologies Programme of the University College London (UCL). By navigating public art, social sciences and architecture, the strategies employed alter between artistic interventions and theoretical reflections. From archival survey photographs, visual imaginaries, and walkscapes, to performances and films, an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach helps, according to the editors, to “transform conventional methods through new alignments across disciplines” (p.3).
By collaborating with other researchers, the authors then use questions inherent to different disciplines and practitioners as transdisciplinary tools to explore our urban realities. ‘What new methods are being developed to explore the changing realities of contemporary cities and urban life?’, is one of the compelling questions the publication pursues. In order to redefine disciplinary boundaries and their range of methodological approaches, the publication frames innovative ways of conducting practiceled research. The contributions range from questions of displacement in Lebanon’s politically divided urban fabric to interrogations of the production of expert knowledge in documenting urban renewal projects in London. Built up in different sections, the reader can navigate through the publication ‘consecutively or otherwise’, encountering different articulations of engaged urbanisms.
Considering urbanism to be a ‘critical spatial practice’, architectural historian Jane Rendell offers a method called ‘site-writing’, whereby the importance of the academic text is questioned within urban knowledge production. She suggests ‘writing sites’ and not ‘about’ sites, as a counterforce to the intrinsic quality of conveying meaning about places by writing. As such, artistic ways are explored as reactions to the urban that – while making sites – admit to and address a ‘situatedness of criticism’ and challenge accepted ways of producing knowledge. In Hacking London’s Demolition Decisions, researcher Kate Crawford and others set up a collaboration among engineers, university researchers and activist community groups in order to scrutinize scientific findings that serve as a base for technocratic decisionmaking about the demolition or refurbishment of social housing. Through their intervention, they show the relevance of knowledge sharing between university researchers and community groups to help determine results within urban regeneration projects. Another method applied is the undercover journalism by photographer Henrietta Williams during the Olympic games in London; through her active engagement as a security guard within one of the largest security companies in the world (G4S), she is able to reveal the corporate approach of the company that conveys an ‘impression of safety’ rather than really delivering it.
In social sciences, photographs have become an increasingly important analytical tool for the use of urban imageries. Engaging with visual culture theorist William J. Mitchell’s (2005) question, ‘what do pictures want?’, the publication responds to a rising number of academic work on the relevance of visual methodologies such as Rose (2016) and Pink (2001). Researcher Andrew Stevenson gives his research participants the freedom to choose the methodological tools they want to use to describe and depict their experiences when arriving for the first time in Manchester. Within this collaborator-led ethnography, Stevenson has to acquiesce in adjusting to proposed mobile and multisensory engagements that can take different forms than photographs. Researcher Wes Aelbrecht, on the other hand, departs from an iconic image shot by Mildred Mead in 1950s’ Chicago. She shows that depictions on urban decay can help facilitate a discourse on urban renewal and help to construct citizens’ social imaginary. With one single house left standing in the barren field in front of the newly built IIT campus, Mead’s stark image not only challenges citizens’ perceptions on policies about urban renewal but also altered the approach of urban policy makers to ask for future involvement of neighbourhood owners, tenants and business concerns. As such, photographs serve as the mediatization of “utopian and dystopian messages of redevelopment” (p.157) for policymakers and alike.
Engaged Urbanism presents an inspiring overview of current practices that showcase how collaborations among different disciplines can help create a more balanced study of urban life. The artistic collaborative practices ‘write’ sites, to speak in Rendell’s term, and not ‘about’ them, questioning the role of mediatization and authorship, as well as the position and influence of maker and spectator. Referring to the concept of ‘worlding’ by anthropologist Aihwa Ong, the publication propagates an everyday practice that aims to reimagine as well as remake alternative social futures. An allencompassing global economy is then juxtaposed by the presentation of site-specific everyday political practices. By including both collective and individual imaginations, as well as everyday conditions in the field, the publication shows, among others, that questioning the powerful in favour of lay-people can have beneficial results for both parties. The exploration of novel methodological tools and the involvement of multiple perspectives and voices can help to engage in the improvement of the quality of our built environment and to lay hands on ongoing urban changes.
Mitchell, W.J.T. (2005) What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London
Pink, S. (2001) ‘More visualising, more methodologies: on video, reflexivity and qualitative research’, The Sociological Review, jg. 49, nr. 4, p. 586–599
Rose, G. (2016) Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials, Sage Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, New Dehli