Agency/Agents of Urbanity: Introduction and ToC

by Dario Negueruela |

Appeared online: November 2, 2016


In this Issue of Contour, we had the intention of addressing urbanity by approaching it from one of the most enduring preoccupations of research in human and social sciences—agency. Agency, expressing the capacity to act, is a key concept in understanding urbanity in its problematization of the relation between humans and non-human agents and material and immaterial constraints.

Urbanity is an elusive quality of an urban place. It can be found in an Alpine town and yet be absent from a large American city. It is neither determined by building density, population density nor good design. Urbanity is a quality that emerges from a combination of elements that are greater than its parts. Nothing that contributes to its presence seems to do so intentionally. The failure of many attempts to artificially create urbanity suggests it will remain just out of reach. It is both physical and social, manifest and ephemeral—it cannot be fabricated.

Or can it? A contemporary understanding of agency would suggest that each element both human and non-human that comprises the experienced environment engages passively or actively in creating the emergent phenomena we call urbanity. From the people in physical and digital places to the technologies that mediate their interactions to the sensory qualities of the built and natural environments and the affordances they provide for movement and co-presence, urbanity as contingent and constructed can only be unpacked through the lenses of multiple methods, objects and theories of research.

This Issue builds on the contributions to the PhD colloquium, Agency/Agents of Urbanity, held from June 1st to June 2nd 2015 at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. Authors were invited to submit an article that built upon their presentation at the colloquium. These submissions were double-blind peer reviewed in collaboration with Contour Journal. Contributions ranged from the empirical to the philosophical, and were asked to shed light on one or several agencies of urbanity by addressing one or several of the following themes, which raised several questions that we compiled following the colloquium.

  1. Thinking Urbanity Materially and Agentially: What theoretical tools exist to help address the elusive nature of urbanity? How can we think urbanity in a way that avoids reducing our investigations to purely social or spatial categories and interactions? How do we do justice to the material aspects of urbanity—from the agency of urban morphology to that of the seemingly ‘non-material’ (more ephemeral) practices that promote or preclude urbanity’s existence? What is the place of non-human agency in urbanity?

    Post-colloquium thoughts: If urbanity is often thought of as forms of encounter, what is the role of avoidance and what forms of avoidance (of not meeting) are essential to urbanity? If we address urbanity as something composed of (or emerging from) actor-networks or assemblages, how does the engagement with these latter entail a responsibility to question commonly-held categories (e.g. experts/lay people, informality/formality, specific land uses)?

  2. The Performative Ontology of Urbanity: What is the performative and emergent nature of urbanity? Who and what participates in its production and what is the nature of this participation? What are the meaningful actions that contribute to urbanity? How and at which scales do interactions occur? How does the definition of urbanity (un)intentionally imply ‘non-urbanity’ and who or what precludes the possibility of urbanity’s coming-into-being?

    Post-colloquium thoughts: How could urbanity be understood as a form of intensity that covers the urban? Is it really ‘somewhere’ in particular or ‘more or less’ everywhere? How do particular places or moments in time become agencies of urbanity? How are spatial and temporal dimensions of these places instantiated differently (or even reinforced in the same ways) through information and communication technologies?

  3. Facilitating Urbanity: What agencies are at stake in facilitating the emergence of urbanity? How can we measure urbanity or the potential of a place to support its emergence? Are there certain elements of the social and physical environments that are particularly important and how can we imagine their enrolment as agents within urbanity-enabling practices?

    Post-colloquium thoughts: What is the role of infrastructure (streets, roundabouts, cars…) as a particular agency of urbanity? In attempting to quantify urbanity, what is being symbolized mathematically (e.g. density, intensity, accessibility) and how do we address the extremes of urbanity’s presence and absence while perhaps looking for an ‘optimum’? Yet, what part of the ambiance of urbanity is beyond the calculable? What is the role of play in urban spaces and how can interactive art become an important agency of urbanity?

The issue is composed of two main blocks. The articles in the first block arise from selected contributions by the participants to the International Colloquium. The second block is comprised of invited contributions by established researchers, among which some members of the scientific committee of the International PhD Colloquium.

In the first article of this issue, Brieuc Bisson, PhD candidate at Université Rennes 2, addresses the difficult question of the definition of urbanity with a meta-study that looks into the discourse of researchers and practitioners coming from geography, urban sociology, urban planning and architecture as well as psychology around that notion. Departing from the postulate that urbanity has become a fuzzy and even polysemic concepts, he develops a theoretical typology identifying four ways to tackle urbanity: Urbanity considered above all as an interaction; urbanity thought as an interaction in situation; urbanity thought in a critical and relative approach and urbanity as a key to reading the contemporary urban realities. This article sets the tone for considering the potentially fruitful consequences of these divergent understandings of urbanity, and lets us imagine their capacity for informing a fertile research agenda through constructive controversies.

In the next four articles, urbanity is explored through the application of varied methodologies to the study and discussion of three different empirical case studies. In the second article, postdoctoral researcher at McGill University, Guillaume Ethier, reflects upon the fundamental question of how urban forms act in themselves as agents of urbanity, discussing digital culture’s impact on urban environments. Ethier hypothesizes that a phenomenon of cultural transfer has started to happen between the values implicitly supporting the omniscient “digital culture,” and a conception of urban space driving present-day planners when they design new networking public spaces in cities. In order to explore this hypothesis, Ethier focuses on the concept of connectivity by looking at exemplary urban design projects in Montreal, Canada, which display certain spatial characteristics denoting the deep influence of digital culture on their conception.

The third article by Hesam Kamalipour, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, relates the emergence of urbanity to the ways in which urban informality, morphologies, activities, and temporality work in relation to sociality and spatiality. The author explores urban morphologies of informal settlements to unravel the capacities of these settlements as places of self-organization in which complex relations between sociality and spatiality contribute to the emergence of urbanity. To this aim, the author tackles the study of the neighbourhood of Khlong Toei in Bangkok, Thailand, with a wide range of methods.

In the fourth article, Nastaran Peimani, also PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, addresses how urbanity emerges in relation to overlapping connections between socio-spatial networks within transit-oriented developments. In effect, the analysis of spatial structures in a city needs to be conjoined with the ways through which everyday urban life takes place. The article describes the study of the urban morphology associated with a transit-oriented development in the city of Tehran through a conceptual model of density, mix, and access, in which the permeability and pedestrian flows throughout the city are integrated with pools of use and different levels of concentration.

Ending this first block of empirical studies, Frederic Rossano, a PhD candidate from ETH Zurich, tackles the role and agencies of wilderness as a rediscovered agent of urbanity. The article explores the transformation of the Isar River in Munich with a discussion on the overlaps of aesthetics, pragmatic engineering and cultural constructs of the wild, and the impact on the social sphere through public debate.

The second block of this issue develops a more theoretical approach with contributions addressing current pressing questions from philosophy, social thought and the study of the built environment. Research from the KTH in Stockholm and one of the colloquium keynote speakers, Daniel Koch, discusses the implication of the recent parallel developments of our capacity to track and record ever increasing amounts of data, and of theories that attempt to return to materiality, a claimed ‘flat ontology’, and to observing the world as-it-is beyond discourse. Koch lays out these reflections with attention paid to the risks of confusing the observed for the real, the acted for the intended, and the outcomes for the desired. His contribution chiefly reminds us of the risks of displacing reflexivity in an age of real-time big data and apparent immediate capture of phenomena to be observed.

As the issue is a rolling one, in the spirit of Contour journal’s editorial approach, the second block will continue to be added to and updated as further essays in the pipeline are received. This includes an essay by the keynote speaker at the colloquium, Vera Bühlmann, professor at TU Vienna, and an interview conducted with Nikos Salingaros, following up on his keynote he delivered via video conference (with a link to the original conference). The table of contents will be updated as these essays are completed.

Table of Contents

Editors’ Introduction Michael R. Doyle & Darío Negueruela del Castillo

1 – Urbanity: Looking into the Discourse of Researchers (Brieuc Bisson)

2 – Connecting the Dots: How Digital Culture is Changing Urbanism (Guillaume Ethier)

3 – Urban Morphologies in Informal Settlements (Hesam Kamalipour)

4 – Transit Morphologies and Forms of Urban Life (Nastaran Peimani)

5 – Isar Plan: The Wild as the New Urban? (Frédéric L.M. Rossano)

6 – Memory, Projection, and Imagination (Daniel Koch)

7 – Architecture, Urbanism and Science: an interview with Nikos Salingaros (Michael Doyle) (Forthcoming)

8 – Irreducible Urbanity: A Conversation (Dario Negueruela del Castillo & Michael Doyle) (Forthcoming)

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