AHRC Sensory Cities Network

Report from AHRC Sensory Cities London Workshop

AHRC Sensory Cities Network
23rd and 24th of OCTOBER 2016 Museum of London

By Monica Degen, Astrid Swenson & Manuela Barz

In this document we summarize the key points that emerged from the presentations and discussion of the 1st international AHRC Sensory Cities Workshop in London. The workshop focused on urban planning and researching the senses. The first day consisted of a range of presentations that outlined the importance of the senses in the particular professions and disciplines. On the second day a range of inter-disciplinary, cross-professional groups trialled different methods inspired by the discussions.

It is important to note that urban development does not only restructure the city physically and economically but radically transforms the somatic and experiential landscape of places affecting individual’s place attachments. It was therefore strongly felt by participants that a) research on urban sensing is too narrowly discipline based would strongly benefit from a more interdisciplinary and cross-professional approach and dialogue, b) planning and building the city, hence shaping the experience of the urban environment, operates within a complex network of power relations and legal-political constraints. A better understanding of how urban sensory experiences are moulded by these constraints will help to get a more detailed insight of how cities are planned and built.

Discussions at the workshop highlighted a range of themes:
1. Expertise and the senses: Participants noted how the professional and academic training individuals receive informs and shapes their ‘sensing’ as well as their methodological approaches to urban experience. Moreover, practitioners and policy makers – i.e those who shape the sensory experience of the city professionally – are under a large number of other constraints such as legal frameworks, time pressures, economic considerations, and powerpolitical constraints that frame how they approach the ‘curating’ of the senses in the public realm.  Practitioners felt that while they are aware of the importance of sensory perception in the urban realm, they find it difficult to quantify their impact and would welcome a ‘toolkit’ that would help to create better processes to evaluate the senses in urban experiencing.

2. Planning and the senses: A key difficulty identified by urban professionals is how to quantify the senses. In part because of their ephemeral nature but also because evaluations of sensory perception are linked to questions of taste. Several speakers highlighted the importance of ‘gut feeling’ when assessing planning applications, CGI’s or evaluating research data. This highlights the importance of ‘tacit knowledge’ which has been shaped by years of professional training. A common dilemma identified by planners and architects is the balancing of public and private interests. The senses are crucial in mapping the socio-economic stratification of areas both in terms of promising what is to come and in attracting or detracting certain social groups and uses of the public space. Practitioners and policy makers agreed that knowledge and awareness of the sensory is already embedded in the architectural and planning profession but it is less embedded in policy. The latter appeared, according to the urban professionals, hampered by a lack of understanding of how people perceive and understand the city. It would be desirable to have better methods and processes to attend to memories and personal feelings about places. Urban practitioners and policy makers suggested the need for more robust feedback mechanisms after planning changes have been applied.

3. Methods and senses: On the second day of the workshop we spent some time on Whitechapel Road trying out different methodological approaches to researching the senses in mixed groups of academics and practitioners. It is important to point out here that one should view these as ‘methodological approximations’, in other words they are explorative in nature and experimental in their conception. To explores the benefits, difficulties and potential complementarity of analogue versus digital and observational versus interactive methods, the four groups came up with the following methodological approaches.

Social Media and the making of place: The first group examined the ways in which people use Instagram/twitter to represent themselves in and in front of buildings. The main questions were: What types of filters are used (and what filters are provided by the particular technology?). What kind of sensory atmosphere is displayed through social media? What are important buildings in social media? How are emotional connections to places represented through people’s photographs? The approach provides a visual-emotional account of a site.

Standing and sketching: The second group chose a public space to stand still for 30 minutes and tried out a range of analogue methods by using paper and pen. Some sketched what they could see and made movement notations; another person drew a list of her immediate sensory impressions. This method tries to get closer to the fluid nature of urban sensing and capture some of the evasive and temporal aspects of urban life.

Mapping the senses: The third group chose an observational method. They suggested to create three maps of Whitechapel Road. The first one maps the senses of the observer on the street: What smellscapes can be identified? What can be seen? What do the touchscapes consist of? What can be heard? This is complemented by a map with subjective experiences from people interviewed: What are their feelings about the space? Do they experience a hostile, friendly, oppressive, etc environment? The third step is to create a ‘relationship map’ i.e. asking users of space: why do you experience this space as hostile, friendly or oppressive? The aim of this method is to create ‘places of translation’ bringing together the observational maps of the researcher with the experiences of interviewing people using this space.

Observation and evocative interviews: The fourth group chose to consciously reflect on their interdisciplinary set up by having each researcher observe the same place for 30 minutes by walking around the space. They then met to compare their observations: the disciplinary training informed very different observations of the same place revealing how our disciplinary training shapes how we sense. Agreements and disagreements came up which helped to problematise the subjective positioning of the researcher. This highlights the importance of a) group work; b) the need for interdisciplinarity when researching the senses and c) reflexibity. The researchers’ observations then fed into shaping an interview schedule in which 5 questions are asked to the diversity of users of space from the more general to the more evocative.

4. Dissimination and Education: In the final discussion about how to best represent and disseminate research findings, the importance of education was stressed: greater sensibilitation to one’s own sensory sensitivity seems important both for the researcher and for the public and it was recommended to offer ‘sensory workshops’.

To cite this report:

Monica Degen, Astrid Swenson & Manuela Barz, AHRC Sensory Cities Network, London Workshop Report, 23-24 October 2016, Museum of London, [http://www.sensorycities.com/workshop/london/report-from-ahrc-sensory-cities-london-workshop/]

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