A hidden geography

December 3, 2009

Eleven weeks in, five more to go, and I’m still finding my way around this place. It’s got me thinking about the different ways we can get to know a city. How to get under the skin?

The job of geography is to explain the production of space, place and the everyday life of those places. Jane Jacobs tells us to think about cities as ‘problems in organised complexity’. We should pick an angle and work around it, pick another and connect to the first, and so on.

Why and where

This works for me. My way in is via urban economics and economic geography. The first task is to draw a line. In practice, it’s many overlapping boundaries – from satellite images, terrain maps, political units, transport networks.

We identify hubs and start linking them up. Then we can begin to fill in what happens where and why. At base, economic geography is about understanding the push and pull forces that help explain location. At the heart of successful places are increasing returns – from matching, sharing and learning. Feedback loops amplify these returns; bad luck or bad choices can run them down. Each local recipe is always slightly different.

So we start with people’s ‘demand for urbanness’. Then by looking at who gains and how, we can factor in the institutional, class and political forces shaping production.

The best geography of this kind – Jacobs, Michael Storper, Ian Gordon, David Harvey – succeeds in connecting macro to micro, megatrends to real places.  But a lot of everyday life falls between the lines – the ‘Bay Area-ness’ of the Bay Area is gone. What can bring it back?

The city as conversation

The local mediascape is more powerful than you’d think. As Jane Jacobs says, we should look less at the front pages and more at the small ads to understand what’s truly valued – or what isn’t. Dave Eggers’ San Francisco Panorama is a fantastic piece of street-level writing, if nothing else.

The city as story

Fiction helps us intuit urban experience. Each of the eight million stories in the Naked City reveals a little more of New York. The Wire does the same for Baltimore, to the point that it’s hardly a crime show at all. David Simon says it aims to be “…a show that would, with each season, slice off another piece of the American city, so that by the end of the run, a simulated Baltimore would stand in for urban America, and the fundamental problems of urbanity would be fully addressed.”

The city as you find it

Benjamin and his disciples in psychogeography show how powerful wandering, image and imagination can be for understanding urbanity. Essentially you are wiring the city into yourself, from your own impressions and resonant memories. These are Lefebvre’s ‘representational spaces’, or lived space. Yours is only one of eight million stories, but if intuition is a kind of hyperlogic, others will share it. This excellent post by Owen Hatherley on seeing Sheffield via Red Riding, brutalist architecture and Warp is a great example.

The city as game

The mobile and social web is – finally – starting to help us multiply urban possibilities. Matt Jones talks about a better kairos – more opportunity, richer knowledge – as technology tells us more about where we are, what’s happened, or who’ll be around. And one level up, we’re using the data itself. Here’s Dan Hill mapping a building from the wifi cloud. Or MIT’s Senseable City Lab using mobile phone data in real-time urban heat maps; or Mapumental linking access, price and quality of neighbourhood life. Urban Tick has masses of interesting real-time stuff.

For me, this is exciting but risky: the danger in this perspective is that urban life reduces to codeable routines or design solutions. A city can’t always be hacked.

Being there

As Benjamin says,  ‘the power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane … Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands.’

The most knowledgeable people I’ve met here have simply spent a lot of time in the Bay Area. They’ve walked the roads; they know it inside out. So I leave you with A Hidden Geography, an awesome piece of spatial synthesis by UC Berkeley’s Richard Walker. As a layering of image and text, framework and dot-joining, it’s hard to beat. Enjoy it.

2 Responses to “A hidden geography”


  1. […] Links on 19 April 2010 with no comments A hidden geography " squareglasses blog Good stuff on ways a city can be understood. (tags: Cities Geography […]


  2. […] picture was originally used to illustrate ‘A Hidden Geography’, written in the Bay Area in late 2009. Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like […]


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