What is city?


I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. Actually, I had been waiting for the Daily Post to chose the topic of ‘City‘ for a long time too as I am continuously searching to better understand how people around the world relate to, understand and experience this, universal but very complex, notion. Cities bring so many different human and non-human elements together in a tightly packed space, forcing them to encounter each other, creating multiple connections. So when the Daily Post posted City, I seized the opportunity to get some insight into others’ experiences.

From the outcomes of the Daily Post, the notion of city was understood in so many interesting and curious ways. For Crushed by the City, it is a space of alienation; for City if is a place that is ‘like a disease’ that those who live within it cannot recognise; for City Burden it is a place that you need to get away from; for I still Found me in the Midst of the City it can be a meditative experience; but it is also a camouflaged evil for others Urban Evil.

Coincidently, around this time, a friend – Lou lou – also wrote to me about her experiences in different cities on her trip around the world, which you can follow in her blog, inward-outward.

“I am in California right now and to be frank LA and San Diego were not my thing. San Francisco is better but I need to explore some more to have a better idea. It occurred to me yesterday why I am not liking the cities in Cali so much…. They just feel quite individualistic and materialistic.

People talk about cool neighbourhoods that have nice cafes, shops and restaurants and I cannot help but think to myself: what if I do not want to eat/ drink and do not want to buy anything (traveller’s budget and not space in my backpack)? Is there anything more to it?

I have the strong suspicion that the life here (and in other places in the world) revolves largely around consumption and I am thinking that other places I have visited gave off a stronger sense of community due to their parks, communal spaces where people could interact and exchange. Also here people rely largely on cars to commute much more than they do on public transport.

So my questions I guess are: have you come across these phenomena during your studies? Do you think the atmosphere of a place and mentality of its people is shaped by how the city is mapped out? What can be done in terms of urbanism to create a stronger sense of community and connection between the people?

I just feel that in cities people can become so disconnected and since I have started my trip I feel this strong desire to connect and exchange, a feeling that a lot of travellers feel. But I do not see why this desire should be limited to travelling…

Anyhow as you can see I have been thinking quite a bit and just wondering about those things especially as I have visited quite a few cities now and gotten curious about how they function.” – lou lou

These are such important questions and I do not have an answer to them, in fact they are amongst the questions I seek to explore through this blog too. However, I think a part of the answer has everything to do with how cities are formed and constructed, and by ‘construction’ I don’t just mean laying bricks, I also mean how people like you and I contribute to shaping the city in our daily lives.

Our city

Small changes in the city can have a big impact and reach many people by altering their experiences as they walk through a city. One of my favourite examples it the Urban Knitting Graffiti or ‘Grandma Graffiti‘ movement. What better way to make the concrete jungle a more colourful experience?

You can also see some of my favourite examples in Bogotá visiting this post ¨The memory is on the walls¨. Bogotá is to me, out of the cities I have visited, one where I have seen the most inspiring examples of how people intervene in shaping their urban experience on a day to day basis. The memory is on the walls shows you some examples of urban graffiti that touch on the social and historical complexities of the city and of Colombia. Other, bigger changes, carried out by people that want to shape their cities can be through movements or political campaigns, for example Long Live Southbank. Have you ever been to London Southbank? It’s an area along the river Thames where you get a mixture of second hand book stalls, a wonderfully adapted skate park full of crazy colourful tags and many cafés and food stalls. However, slowly, gentrification is creeping up on it. Long Live Southbank (llsb), the movement, hopes to preserve the history, culture and dynamics of the area, protecting it from the effects of the increasingly rich and growing metropolis.

I think the more people that walk the streets, use the public spaces and dwell in the chaos of a city, are involved shaping it; the more they will engage with the ‘product’ and make it unique to their personal, cultural and societal needs rather than the standardised model of a ‘city’ that meets only the needs of the market like that which llsb is fighting.

Our spaces in the city

Public spaces are an example of what shaped lou lou’s experience and I was sad to hear, but also understood why she found that in cities, people disconnect. From TED, Amanda Burden tells us that a city and its public space is like a “fabulous party” in her talk on “how public spaces make cities work” . Open spaces in cities are opportunities, (1) for commercial investment, which is sadly often the leading principle of city developers. But the second is (2) for the common good of the city. These two things are often not in line with each other, Amanda argues, and therein lies the conflict. So as Lou lou points out, some spaces give off a stronger sense of community, as they have been formed following certain principles or unintentionally, by the common good of the city. These spaces have more things to do than to consume, because they are made for everyone. Something I have also felt is that these spaces, ‘communal’ spaces, are simply more inviting to the outsider, the explorer.

“A successful design always depends on that very individual experience” – Amanda Burden

I guess the parallel I am trying to build here is the link between how you and I, as individuals or collectively, shape the spaces around us in the city, and how Amanda the urban planner, argues that urban open spaces should be designed.

Having said that, there is something else that a different friend of mine keeps mentioning, which is the notion of ‘user-experience’. It’s something that not all those involved in the design of cities seem to be very aware of. At least, not those who designed spaces that are un-organic, supervised by security guards that shout at you when you walk on the grass, and surrounded by pristine grey walls that make them look like hospitals making you feel like a sickness in the city; yes, that is how I feel about some public spaces.

Or perhaps they are aware of it but they can’t be everyone, be everywhere and think of everything at the same time. I guess nobody is perfect. But the best part is, designers, architects and engineers don’t have to do it all alone, they have thousands of citizens that are interested in making their cities better; more people-, pedestrian- and child-friendly for example. I have explored some examples of this in Bogotá, ColombiaBristol, UK and Bangkok, Thailand where people have taken the re-shaping of urban spaces in to their own hands.

The most recent – and most basic yet most human – example that I have explored is in a small informal settlement on the edges of Valenzuela City, Manila. Here people make a public space theirs and in doing so make it obvious what they need and want from the space too. I was bemused by how many different uses for the same space, were found by the community living there.

I walked in to a market in desperate need for a towel to wipe the drips of heat off my face and was greeted by someone who pointed out to me exactly where I could find one. Looking around, the kids where running through and amongst the stalls, the young and old men and women were all involved in organising the stands and unloading the merchandise. On the other side of the market was the community hall, which was where I was going at the time. Within the hour I was back outside, walking in the same place where the market had been, but this time it was a basketball court. Through, I went, trying to dodge the young and adult men playing ball.

In my three or four visits later that day, the same space had been transformed to a school playground for the nursery, to a car park, to a garbage collection point and back to a playground. What in other places in the city takes up vast quantities of space and resources, here the same space, with the contribution of the local community was meeting the needs of many different people, of all shapes and sizes.

“Everything you desire in 30 by 15 sq. meters…”

‘City’ to me

Open spaces in cities are highly contested, which is why they are so complex and very difficult to design. Yet in this case the space is shared by many living in the surrounding, and very dense, urban slum and there is hardly any need for ‘design’ seeing as people have taken design in to their own hands in a highly organised way. But as the above examples show, open spaces and the city as a whole is an opportunity; An opportunity to shape individual and collective experiences.

Perhaps I have a romanticised vision of cities, however the fact that they are shaped by people and that people are shaped by cities creates an interdependent relationship that gives us the power to have a greater say in how our cities are made. That is, if we take the opportunity. This is why to me, ‘city’ is a magical phenomenon, a powerful but also dangerous energy and an incredible opportunity. But it is up to us to make it so.


Moving Layers of Manila

Manila is a city formed of multiple layers…

A layer for motor creatures

Whatever lies beneath the ground remains unknown to me, although I sometimes get a glimpse of it as I pass over open drains or sinking tarmac.

At the ground level, the fumes from the traffic cloud your vision, although you can still see the once colourful, but now greyed, jeepneys, shop houses, cars and publicity boards. Perhaps the one thing that is constantly clean and of striking colours are the clothes that Filipinos wear. All the same, each cloud of new emission fumes pumped in front of you consistently disrupts your vision of the city.

The sounds around you are a mixture of loud screeching engines, swerving wheels, beeping drivers and music. There is always music playing in the distance.

Occasionally, the smell of fried pork, chicken and calamari accompanied by a complementary cocktail of Toyo (soya sauce) and coconut vinegar taint the air. From many houses, shop houses particularly, escapes a pungent scent of dried salted fish. As I walk along the street and accidentally inhale these scents, escaping through open doors and windows, I get a slight migraine. To add to the experience, the open garbage bags, with clouds of hovering flies over them, also reek.

The combination of these multiple smells can make your nose go numb.

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Walking alongside many creatures

At this level you walk alongside all forms of creatures, both human and non-human. There is one type of creature that dominates, the motor creature. If there is no space for it in the lanes of the roads, it will mount the pavement. So all human and other non-motor creatures should be careful.

The dominance of the motor-creature seems to dilute as you, the human creature, ascend to the second layer of the city.

A layer for human creatures

This layer is formed of a network of tunnels and bridges. They meander high over the tarmac, traffic-congested, streets and through the air-conditioned malls, of which there are many. If you wanted to, you could spend an entire day walking through sections of the city, having only touched the ground level twice, on entry and on departure from this layer.


Outside of the Inside, Trinoma, Manila

This layer has somewhat lighter air, breezier weather and the scents are less pungent than those of the first layer. Here on this level, you can recognise the shampoo that the lady who has just walked past you has used, despite the ever-present scent of fumes.

You can also hear the muttering words of a young boy who approaches you, asking for some change. You can hear the quiet music from the vendors’ phone as you walk past their display of multicoloured phone covers laid out on plastic sheeting.

On this level you rarely stop to look around, except after hours. During the day, people rush past you fully relishing the freedom to walk without the risk of being mulled over by motor creatures.


“McView” –  Source: David Hoffmann @davidhoff_mann


A layer for gliding through the cityscape

Then, there is a third layer, a layer which allows you to glide through the city, overlooking the layers beneath you as they diverge and converge. Overlooking the human and non-human creatures that encounter each other in the first two layers, the essence of the city’s serendipity.

From this layer, you can look across the cityscape at eye-level. The concrete forest is frequently disrupted by the tall palm trees that spring up and colour the scape with a diverse range of greens.

But to be at this level, you must access entrance to an giant, electric, man-made creature, the ‘MRT’ or Manila Metro Rail Transit System. Within this creature, there is little or no breeze, except that coming from the air-conditioning vent on the roof of the creature. Here the scents are bland. There is perhaps a lingering smell of perfume from the most recent passenger that just walked out or from the creature that sits next to you. But both scents are quickly diffused or blanked out by the cold or the AC, I’m not sure which.

So at this level, there are fewer distractions. Your nose is not numb but perhaps a little bored, having been disposed of its role.

As your eyes scan the city and then look down at those dwindling in the lower layers, you might get a guilty feeling of superiority from being able to look down on the city as if you own it. A feeling you might not be too open about.

The third level is where this journey ends. Any higher and I might disconnect from the city.

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Layers of mobility, Manila

A breezy ride or a hidden camera: Tricycles in Manila

Tricycles are like little beetles that scatter around, breaking speed limits, winding in and out of traffic and on and off the sidewalks of Manila. Wherever you look, you will see them. They are the tiny, colourful bubble-like machines. If you don’t want to look, wherever you are, you will still hear them. They have those squeaky sounding motors that teenagers use on their mopeds… That’s the only way I know how to describe that musical sound…

In fact, in Philippine cities, they are the most popular form of public transport. Apparently, each city has its own version. Some form part of standard routes and others can be hired privately. They are designed for about four people in addition to the driver but there don’t seem to be any laws about a maximum number. It’s great to see how many ways people find to fit their whole family into one tricycle.


Tricycles in Tandang Sora, Quezon City, Manila

A breezy ride

There are two ways to ride a tricycle. Or at least, two conventional ways. Other options, I think, are limited to whether or not the driver trusts your balance on the ride.

My first choice has so far been to ride on the back of the bike. The heat of Manila is not easy to handle and I’d jump on anything that would give me a few seconds of breeze, even when its a warm one.

However, as I duly noted the other day, being a lady and riding on the back of a male driver can sometimes be seen as improper. So it’s possible the driver won’t actually let you do it, unless you are travelling with others. Luckily for me, I have only experienced this once, most other times I have been riding with other people. You can sometimes share a ride with another passenger too.


Mounting the vehicle, Valenzuela City

It should only cost you about $15 Philippine pesos per person as tricycles do not go for great distances. If this is what you want, it’s better to ride the Jeepney that I mentioned in my last post.

So the breezy ride offers a lovely view of the street as you observe whatever happens behind you. You also get a little adrenaline rush every time the tricycle overtakes anyone. Since you are sitting sideways with your legs hanging over the side of the bike, you feel the tip of your toes almost brush the wheels of the jeepney riding in the opposite direction as the tricycle squeezes in between the buses and cars.

The breezy ride is more about mind and body than about what you see. Yes you see a lot of things and take it all in very quickly. But you also hear things around you and are able to connect what you hear to what you see and smell. You can smile at people who look at you (I stand out a lot here, so mostly they look at me with curiosity, the same way I look at them). The breezy ride makes me feel more connected to the chaos of the street. I like chaos.

A hidden camera

Today I had to take the second option, that of riding inside the beetle (I am calling it that, it’s probably better referred to as the sidecar). This requires that you crouch down and slide into a rounded seat. It is low and you get the direct impact from the maneuvers that the driver makes. So if you drive on to the sidewalk, get ready to need a pillow to sit on for a couple of days.

As you are at the level of the sidewalk, you are up close to the road and if anything comes around or near the beetle you’ll probably hear it before you see it. This particular ride is usually full of surprises. It is particularly good for getting into a slightly intimate closeness with whomever is riding the beetle with you. Whether you like it or not.


A view from the beetle

Again, the heat of Manila never goes away, so enjoy the sticky-ness, the amusing awkward-ness and relish the experience.

Today, my friend riding with me revealed a great thing about riding the beetle. The hidden camera. In fact, your hidden camera, if you like that sort of thing.

One of the things that I most enjoy about cities is observing the richness of their diversity. There are moments that I see things as I walk along, that I wish I could capture in my memory forever. It’s difficult to capture them with your camera, especially when you enjoy genuine moments rather than posed pictures.


Walking home from school, Quezon City

Riding in the beetle allows you to be a hidden observer, and in a way, an almost hidden photographer. Cameras tend to  attract attention so i am not sure this is ever possible. Nevertheless, it is a rare advantage to be able to capture a genuine moment unaltered by your position as the observer.

Remember to feel the city

Having ridden both options, reflecting back, I have to say that the minute I took out the camera I forgot about taking in the smells, the bumps and swerves, the adrenaline and only thought about the picture I captured.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy photographs and love being able to capture those moments I mentioned earlier. But when given the choice, I’d chose the breezy ride over the hidden camera ride any day.

I realised that as much as I love my camera, it sets me apart from the city because the moment I take it out, I become the observer rather than the be-er.

A friend told me a great quote the other day (the same friend who showed me the hidden camera trick).

Nadie te quita lo bailado” – Spanish expression

In other words, no one can take away that, which you have already danced.

I thought about this the other day when I was sitting on the back of the bike, feeling the breeze and suddenly noticing a pungent smell emanating from the noticeably flooded river. Will I remember this smell when I leave this city in a few months? I can take all the pictures I want, but once I leave this city and look through the snap shots again, will I remember how the breeze felt when it blew my sticky, sweaty hair away from my face (I forgot about elegance a long time ago)? How it felt to meander through the cars with nervous excitement?

Not unless I actually took the chance to build these memories, not unless I danced, or in this case rode the city, not as an observer but as a part of it.