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.

A space to dance: “the community of stars”, Bangkok, Thailand

When curiosity strikes…

Last week, in Bangkok, I visited a magical little place…


Turn into this corner….


…and at the end of the alleyway you will come to the Dance House, Nang Loeng, Bangkok


At the foot of the entrance door, you’ll recognise the Dance House Mosaic

Once inside…

“…that is the corner I got married in!” – recounts a friend, remembering what a lady said as she walked in to the Dance house for the first time after twenty years.

Nang Loeng, the neighbourhood where the Dance House can be found is very well known for having once been a centre for cultural activities in the city. The locals call themselves the ‘community of stars’ because of the generations of famous artists, musicians, dancers and actors that have been and gone.


Door forms a platform over a waterway in Nang Loeng, Bangkok

It used to be a dance school but since it closed it gradually became a derelict space due to lack of maintenance. After being empty for many years, the owner decided she wanted to use it for the good of the community. A community that lives in both formally and informally constructed homes built along and over the waterways of this old neighbourhood.

But as the space has gradually transformed through the ideas and efforts of the community in collaboration with Open Space and with the support of Red Bull, the opportunities and possibilities for the Dance House continue to multiply.

So far, there has been an incremental process of design and reconstruction within the old school. It seems to have allowed for a people-centred and people-led transformation. For example the first time people were able to enter the space, once the first changes had been made to strengthen the structure of the house, they were able to experience the space and touch it. This says Open Space, triggered more ideas for its further changes, which they were then able to contribute in future collective design workshops. So the process is based on the value of giving time and flexibility for changes to take place not only in the space itself but also as an element of people’s daily dynamics; making it part of their routines and building the sustainability of its use.


Looking through the old wooden stairs, on to the dance floor…


And from the other side, spectators can sit and watch the dancing…

Open Space described the process of transformation as an opportunity to learn about the history of the building as well as the history of the community. As the materials are re-used, stories of their original place and function in the school are discovered, allowing the design to revisit and articulate these original elements in to the design of the new space and preserve the recorded history of the community within its structure.


The structure tells you a story

“This middle column used to be the “partner column”, for students who didn’t have a partner to dance with…”

What I find most inspiring about this process is that it is not only the transformation of a space in its physical design and re-construction but it is also paralleled with community activities, dancing events, exhibitions and the work of a local art group.

It is also an important space for local children, particularly those who cannot attend school because of financial difficulties.


“…we put out a call for cassettes and people started turning up with bags of them, some of people were artists we know and really like!”

So this really encapsulated how the transformation of physical spaces in the city can also play a role in the transformation of communities. Through this process, the community has taken action, organised and appropriated themselves of a process that strengthens collective capacity, social fabric and knowledge. This is the most important element of this project, which is that the community itself, particularly the community leader who has volunteered for her community for the past 30 years, is pulling the rains and giving it direction.


Nang Loeng, Bangkok

Thinking beyond the space…

Today, Nang Loeng is under threat of the city’s plans for local gentrification (read: “Gentrification: Friend or Foe?” for more info on this term). A large part of this residential area will be transformed into a station for the Metropolitan Rapid Transit (MRT) system.


Interactive walls with important characters from the community, Dance House, Nang Loeng, Bangkok

As areas like these are gentrified, so is their social fabric and composition, that is often what eventually pushes people away from their homes and communities.

Whilst this space, re-imagined by its community, is part of a story that shows the beauty and strength of small change and will luckily remain between the stations that are planned to be built; there is a pressing question. Will the community that has been part of this process, invested their time, energy and passion in to it, be able to continue benefiting from its on-going metamorphosis; particularly as the rest of the city continues to grow and follow its own agenda of transformation?


Re-imaginando los espacios de la ciudad: Desaparecer o Articular?

Hace como un mes, en una pieza llamada Clear out or Collaborate les conte sobre un chico, Jhonatan, que trabaja vendiendo arepas en el norte de Bogotá. Les conté en íngles, entonces puede ser que no lo hayan leído, o puede ser que s’i, pero les quería recordar de él, ya que sabemos que Peñalosa será el alcalde de la ciudad en el 2016.

Para resumir un poco, la razón por la cuál les escribí sobre Jhonatan se debe a los muchos cambios que vienen con el nuevo alcalde, muchos ciudadanos se beneficiarán y otros no tanto. Entonces les escribo nuevamente para reiterar una llamada con la esperanza, de que poco a poco se reduzca el numero de personas que son parte del segundo grupo, los que no se beneficiarán tanto.

Jhonatan, Clle 100 con carrera18, Bogotá, Colombia

Jhonatan, Clle 100 con carrera18, Bogotá, Colombia


En la esquina de la calle 100 con carrera 18 trabaja Jhonatan. Vende arepas rellenas de queso, jamón, huevo revuelto con o sin cebolla y tomate, lo que usted diga, él se lo prepara. Dependiendo los ingredientes, cuestan como $3,000 COL ($1.00 USD) cada una.

De lunes a sábado, Jhonatan se despierta antes del amanecer cruza la ciudad, se demora mas o menos una hora, y llega a las 5.a.m con suficiente tiempo para servirle el desayuno al público a las 6.a.m.

Al otro lado del anden, una señora vende jugo de naranja, ensalada de fruta o yogurt con cereales. Para que se antoje y desayune completo.

A unos cuantos metros sobre el mismo anden esta el puesto de un viejo amigo, ‘el mono’ quien antés vendía sanduches. Ahora el puesto lo tiene su cuñado.

Durante una epoca tuve la fortune de ser uno de los que madrugan y desayunan las arepas de Jhonatan con el juguito de naranja, acompañado con una buena plática sobre el último chisme o la útlima noticia.

En estos momentos de dialogo con Jhonatan, me introdujo al sistema informal pero efectivamente organizado que mantienen estos vendedores -supervisados por los policías de la zona- que privatizan el espacio público.

Como muchos de ustedes saben, la privatización del espacio público es un tema sensible. Mientras que los vendedores se organizan, rentando los metros cuadrados del anden para poder sobrevivir, los peatones se quejan por que los puestos interrumpen la movilidad del peatón en la ciudad.

No lo voy a negar, la transformación del anden, de un espacio banal que solo sirve a la función de tránsito a un espacio mucho más orgánico donde la gente se demora unos cuantos minutos más serpenteando entre el laberinto de personas y puestos, es dramática.

En este caso, y uno supondría que es igual a muchos otros, el nivel de organización es sorprendente. Las actividades de los vendedores son supervisadas por los policías a través de un contrato mutuo entre policía y vendedor, teóricamente bajo la presencia de ´la ley´.

No solo están organizados, si no que también, a través de sus actividades, estos vendedores transforman un espacio en la ciudad y su dinámica social, cosa que en una ciudad de inequidad como la de Bogotá es algo increíblemente valioso y necesario.

En estos 4 metros cuadrados del anden, gracias a las actividades de Jhonatan y la vendedora de jugos, el significado del espacio público tiene una re-significación. Hoy, no solo es un anden pisado por cientos de personas que pasan afanados a sus destinos. Hoy es un lugar donde los ciudadanos pausan, toman un momento de su día para aprovechar el contacto y la diferencia que crea la densidad de la ciudad. Se exponen a un momento de intercambio, gracias al apetito que tienen y al servicio que les da las arepas de Jhonatan.

Entonces estos 4 metros cuadrados cada mañana, se convierten en un desayunadero temporal y un espacio donde muchas personas que de otra manera podrían ser desempleados, responden a sus necesidades por sus propias iniciativas. Funciona como un espacio de socialización, entre personas que puede ser que en otro contexto nunca se cruzarían. Al parar y observar este espacio, uno se da cuenta de que aquí las estructuras sociales que fragmentan muchas sociedades, como la clase o el genero, se disuelven por un momento a través de la conversación. ¿No me creen? Intenten, y de una, saluden a Jhonatan de mi parte.

Intenten y de una vez comparen. Con el Starbucks de la 85 o los Dunkin´ Donuts de la 100 con 19. En estos otros espacios, no se sientes observados? Entre nosotras las mujeres, no sienten que al entrar a un café la gente te analiza, a ver si eres de la categoría social adecuada para estar en ese lugar. Al entrar a un restaurante, café o bar mi relación con la puerta que cierro detrás mío, el mesero que me atiende y el vecino sentado en la mesa de junto esta ensombrecida por estas estructuras o más bien, barreras sociales. En los 4 metros cuadrados de los que les cuento, no hay una puerta, no hay un mesero y no hay otra mesa. Me entiendes?

En fin, junto con muchos otros vendedores que forman estos espacios de interacción, quienes podrían ser una gran oportunidad para la ciudad de Bogotá, Jhonatan muestra algunas preocupaciones.

En realidad, mirando el Plan para Bogotá 2020 de Peñalosa, uno tiene que buscar bastante para encontrar lo que dice sobre el empleo, mucha de la iniciativa se enfoca en la educación de los futuros jóvenes. A primera vista, no habla mucho de los jóvenes que ya están empleados de manera informal.

Antes de ver su entrevista, me gustaría que consideres, ¿que se podría hacer? ¿Desaparecer a todos los vendedores (quienes nos hace sonreír y nos llenan las panzas para tener días de trabajo mucho mas productivos) de las calles de Bogotá?; O ¿articular su organización (aun que es informal, es un modelo que demuestra funcionamiento) y su conocimiento sobre las dinámicas de la ciudad (visto que pasan la mayor parte de la mañana, de lunes a sábado, en su espacio público) para colaborar, incidir en política pública y no solo apoyar la disminución del desempleo, de lo que sufren muchas personas en esta ciudad? sino que también ¿apoyar la re-imaginación del espacio hecho por la misma gente que lo habita? ¿Podría ser?

La entrevista: