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.


Being a part of the Show: Bristol, UK

Last Saturday was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I spent it watching my first ever Shakespearean play, All’s Well, That Ends Well. Most of the Shakespeare that I had come to know during my time at school were tragedies and I haven’t explored it any further since. However, I think last night was a very good example of why he is often described as having been ‘ahead of his time’, filling his scenes with humour, sex and politics. All in all, a great combination.

Having said that, I have to say I am not a theatre lover. I really enjoy dance and musicals on stage but I find theatre hard to follow. Musicals like the Nutcracker and Billy Elliot keep me on the edge of my seat, wanting to get up and dance along. Whereas with theatre I sometimes find myself fighting with my eyelids, no matter how early it is.

But last night, I was sat in an open space so close to the actors, I felt I was a part of the show (and that’s saying something considering I was sat in the back row).  In fact, I am quite sure that Helena (the main character) consulted with me at one point: how she, a maid, could ever be the wife of such a noble man?!…I think I was nodding along, even if I wasn’t, I was definitely thinking: “I feel ya girl”.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, like the one on Chess, Life and the City, you’ll notice I like to make, possibly somewhat exaggerated, connections between the the dynamics of things like chess or in this case theatre, and how they mirror aspects of life in cities. In this case, I’m not talking about the plot.

What I am referring to, are the dynamics within the theatrical space. The more included I felt, the more I enjoyed the show. Like in cities. The more included people feel, the more they ‘enjoy the show’.

Amanda Burden, New York’s chief city planner, also known for the important role she played in advocating to save the NY High Line from demolition says: “…a successful city is like a fabulous party, people stay because they are having a fabulous time.”

In most cities however, that fabulous time is often exclusive to some. Cities are particularly in risk of becoming exclusive or strengthening their exclusivity if and when experiencing major regeneration for example. The regeneration of cities can either reactivate and produce greater inclusivity in to the fabulous party or make it more exclusive for some.

So, although risky, I believe regeneration can be a great opportunity. So is it worth the risk? For the sake of re-activating spaces that have been abandoned or dispossessed and generating greater inclusivity and integration for local communities? South Bristol, where I watched Helena finally win over her noble man in the Tobacco Factory Theatre, provides yet another example (in addition to those in Bogotá) where a private-sector led initiative has intervened in public life for public life.

Once again I’m back to that uncomfortable position that I don’t like to admit and that I’ve tried to hide a little in previous posts on private interventions in public life (I, II).  That position where I’m kind of liking what the ‘private sector’, or rather what two very specific private-sector-interventions have done to two very specific derelict buildings in the city (in this case, Bristol).

Here is why:

1. The Tobacco Factory

Today, the Tobacco Factory, which also hosts a restaurant, a cafe-bar called Thali Cafe, offices, loft-style apartments and a performing arts school is described as “one of the most exciting theatre venues in the country”; and although that’s a direct quote from its own website, I have actually heard other very good things about it through word of mouth.

Like the NY High Line mentioned earlier, the factory section on Raleigh Road, Ashton, was a derelict space in the city that was just a big burden and a major target for speculation. It was going to be demolished but was bought out by George Ferguson, the now first mayor of Bristol. Its theatre first opened its doors in 1998 and since it has morphed in to a multi-functional space that serves the local community and aims to provide a ‘model’ of exemplary urban regeneration.

Screen shot 2016-04-24 at 17.51.22

Source: Ray’s Bristol Pages

As I said earlier, when I went to the Tobacco Factory and sat in the theatre, I felt pretty good about it. Although thinking about it properly, I realise that I wasn’t really there for very long. I stood at the bar for about 10 mins before I was immersed in to Helen’s world, somewhere in Italy, in a different era surrounded by ladies wearing corsets and men wearing pouffy jackets. Having said that, during those 10 minutes did I spend in the bar, I was surrounded by a big crowd of happy, excited and very pleasant looking people keen to fill their minds with Shakespeare for the next two hours. So I can’t say much about it as a ‘model regeneration project’ (although the video at the end will) but I can certainly recommend the place for a visit to Bristol and have to say, I liked the use and purpose of the once-derelict and now-activated cultural space.

More contested space…

Another area, which has seen a lot of contestation over regeneration projects is Stokes Croft, heading towards North Bristol. An area that “always had an independent spirit. It’s an area that’s become a beacon of alternative thinking” – says Chris Chalkley from People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (prsc.org) to the BBC.

According to a case study (4) by Portland Works the area of stokes croft is now branded as Bristol’s Cultural Quarter after having been taken up by the PRSC who are described as “…a group dedicated to maintaining the area’s diversity and lack of commercial dominance” (Case study 4, p.2).

Standing at the crossroads and looking around, there is evidence in all directions of a collective struggle by people to have a say in how the area is regenerated.


93% of people…


Screen shot 2016-04-28 at 11.59.02

Source: BBC

Embedded within this contested ground lies Hamilton House (HH) and the very much loved Canteen.

2. Hamilton House and the Canteen



Hamilton House

Owned by Coexist (a community interest company whose architect for HH was George Ferguson), Hamilton House is an old – once derelict – office block that was bought in 2009 and transformed in to a multi-functional space. It aims to support local causes through providing a space that is ‘relevant and accessible to all parts of the local community’.

You get a feeling of the kind of place it is once you visit their  home page, where it announces that “Coexist would like to offer free use of spaces to any group that is working with or on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers”.

One review says the Canteen is a place where you can “put the world at rest”. As for me, ever since I arrived in Bristol, second week in and the Canteen was already my favourite place. And I hadn’t even been inside! It was just that feeling I got every time I passed by it, that positive energy, the buzz …the optimism. You can just see the diversity of people, wandering in and out of the bar, playing at the ping pong table, standing outside the door having a smoke and a chat with a stranger or chasing after the toddler whose wandering around visiting the different tables and eating anything it finds.

The live music from the stage livens up its balcony as well as the crossroads outside its doorstep. I’m still only standing outside, but I’m definitely thinking how fabulous this party is looking. The Breakdancing Jesus is definitely having a fabulous time.  breakdancing jesus.jpg

Finally I got a chance to walk in and have a drink on a sunday evening. At 11pm there is still a relaxing buzz, a couple of tables are taken but there is enough space to sit about 6 of us. With the mellow music playing in the background, surrounded by a warm red light from the fairy lights and a gin tonic in hand I’m thinking, on a Sunday night, I want to stay at this party.

Contesting for our space in collective city transformation…

So thinking back to some of my previous experiences with private interventions in public life, I’m coming to believe a little more in the role of the private sector in building our cities. Of course, I am not saying it is all good, these cases are certainly the exception rather than the majority.

But it seems to offer an opportunity for us as city dwellers to take a more direct approach at collective city building.


brick project

Since 2011 each separate brick in this wall has been designed and painted by its own individual artist. Each piece of work was improvised from scratch. This is the first wall in this ongoing project. There are other Brick Project walls throughout Bristol. If you would like to see the names of each artist and the titles of their bricks please go to danpetley.co.uk” – Inscription in white brick on the left

Going back to Amanda’s talk, she says that:

“Public spaces need vigilant champions not only to claim them for public use, but to design them for the people that use them, then to maintain them, to make sure they are for everyone…”

I think Stokes Croft and Hamilton House have shown me a little more evidence about the possibility of taking what Amanda says and relating it to the city as a whole. Yes cities need vigilant champions, but we can be those champions. Pushing for inclusive spaces by expressing our desires for them to be so. It seems to me that HH and the Canteen are and exemplary pieces of evidence of how a group of people, a community, is taking ownership over the changes that happen in their area.

Going back further, to the Theatre space at the Tobacco Factory. At the end of the day the more inclusive the space is, the more you can enjoy the show. But the only way we can ensure that such inclusive spaces are designed is if we as ‘spectators’ express our desires and push to be a part of the show.



More on the Tobacco Factory:



The first step to empowerment…


This quote is a tribute to Meera Vijayann who was once a victim of sexual abuse and is today an activist, a writer and a journalist.

While she speaks of women’s empowerment, I have used her words here because not only are they inspirational to women but, I believe, to all citadins. For all citadins to give themselves the authority to be a part of their city’s transformation.