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||| a drifters guide to physical and virtual urban space [part 2] |||
Graeme Murrell

the city centre: commodified space as Situationist playground
||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] 1 . 2 ||| [part 3] ||| [part 4] |||
An urban neighbourhood is determined not only by geographical and economic factors, but also by the image that its inhabitants and those of other neighbourhoods have of it.
Chombart de Lauwe (1952), Paris et l'agglomeration parisienne, Bibliotheque de Sociologie Contemporaine
The spectacular image of the modern urban centre is that of a facilitator of commercial exchange, a place where people go to shop. It is also usually the location of urban, local or wider government and a place where many people work. While its façade is that of 'a purely business and therefore economic entity' 1, it forms a spatial node which must be amenable and encouraging to all these activities whilst also offering time and space for those who inhabit it, however briefly, to take a breather and relax. Michel Foucault refers to such spaces explicitly as 'sites of temporary relaxation' 2. Whilst the city centre is functional, it offers diversions from its own functionality. The spectacle must pander to its audience or risk them going elsewhere. Sidewalk café, public plaza, inner city park and public arts all form vantage points from which the spectator can spectate. The functional nature of the city or town centre is therefore built upon a network of intensely social spaces and places. Such spaces may be related to historical usage, be constructed by commercial interests or town planners or may be the result of unforeseen juxtaposition resulting in public intervention that often bisects intended usage. In Huddersfield, skateboarders congregate in Sainsburys car park, while public drinkers prefer the partially hidden benches by the bus station. The image of the centre is multifaceted, and many of its faces describe social rather than economic interaction, or overlays of the two.

The presence of so many social spaces in the city centre creates an intensely sociable environment. Like any environment involving a large amount of people, the nature and locations of sociable exchange are not always predictable. The flipside of seemingly asocial spaces such as Sainsburys car park gaining a tangible popular presence is that spaces constructed with specific social intent may fail to invite the public. William H. Whyte's 'Street Life Project' in the mid-80's 3 drew attention to the fact that usage of New York's downtown plazas varied wildly and bore little relation to extant theories of constructed space. Architectural and town planning theories, expecting sunlight or surrounding design to be major factors, were confounded as volume of seating space was found, unexpectedly, to be of primary importance. He could have amply illustrated this conclusion by observing Huddersfield punks throughout the 1980's, who chose the otherwise uninviting concrete-stepped amphitheatre of the Piazza as the venue for almost daily mass gatherings in the summer months.

The social potential of the urban centre opens up the possibility not just for functional commercial exchange, but for enjoyment that may be tangential to spectacular intent. Invitation of the public to popular social venues at the centre, be they plazas, cafes, bars or cultural nodes like museums and concert venues also enlivens the surrounding area. Sociable exchange, and in particular chance enjoyable meetings, can and do happen anywhere about town. And, as William H. Whyte observes, people are likely to stop, sit down and interact anywhere with enough space to be comfortable.
The playful pursuit of pleasure has nothing to do with parasitic hedonism… It is about the pursuit of social and personal happiness, not just within defined areas but throughout the whole breadth of everyday life.
Larry Law (1983), Spectacular Times #12: The Bad Days Will End
The city centre reveals itself as a place where people can play. Its social spaces host exhibitions, concerts and readings. People come to the centre to drink, dance, enjoy food, meet friends and associates. Where there are inner city parks, games can be played and children may be entertained in playground areas. The potential for sociable exchange and the pursuit of happiness is vast. However, not everybody enjoys the centre, and not everybody is included. The city remains the stage upon which the spectacle is played, and it is very carefully stage-managed. The punks who once graced the Huddersfield piazza don't do so any more, not just because they are older and, arguably wiser. On the contrary, their ranks were constantly being renewed by fresh blood. After the space was redeveloped it was made clear that their return was unwelcome. Commercial interests muscled them out and put in their place Pulse Radio entertainers and Salvation Army bring-and-buy sales. Like the punks and other unwanted habituaries of Tomkins Square Park in New York 4, they were not part of the official cast and refused to sing to the same hymn sheet as the commercial concerns which supplanted them.
The social world is written in economic language.
Pierre Bourdieu (1998) 'A reasoned Utopia and Economic Fatalism', New Left Review, No.227
Bourdieu's statement points to a fundamental problem. Playtime is realised as just another commodity, encapsulated by terminology of the 'leisure industry'. Hence there are acceptable ways to play, those that sit nicely under the industry umbrella, and there are those whose inclusion in the milieu is treated with suspicion. Commodification of play brings it safely back within the spectacle. The spectator relaxes over a Starbucks coffee. Leisure loses its distinction from work, because pay-to-play culture is finite, its edges defined by harsh reality of the wallet. Urban social culture suffers from what Guy Debord calls 'problematic satisfaction… the actual consumer can directly touch only a succession of fragments of this commodity happiness' 5. The leisure industry is based on this very premise. Like advertising, the shop window of the spectacle, it presumes individual enjoyment to be inadequate and promises momentary respite through consumption of another experience. The boundary between product and emotion is necessarily blurred, the former sold as enabler of the latter. Returning again to Bourdieu's statement, Ken Worpole uses it to illustrate the inadequate response of many cities to the deteriorating condition of public parks. Many such spaces have their origin in 19th Century philanthropy, their ethos based more around pleasure than commodified leisure, and they are no longer seen as profitable. However, the spectacle is osmotic and has rewritten pleasure in its own image before. Spud, in the film Trainspotting, shows unwitting insight when he states, 'Your leisure is my pleasure' 6. Such willing identification of personal pleasure with commodified leisure is what the spectacle seeks to cultivate. Parks designed for pleasure will only remain derelict while their enjoyment cannot be co-opted into spectacular narrative. A recent example is the many derelict lots around New York that have been turned into community gardens by local volunteer groups, often revitalising neighbourhoods 7. City government, noticing the increased desirability and rents of surrounding property, muscled in to sell many garden plots to commercial concerns. Their success had unfortunately awoken spectacular interest, and the predictable response was to treat them as commodities and draw them back into mainstream spectacular narrative.

||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] 1 . 2 ||| [part 3] ||| [part 4] |||

1. Helen Woolley & Ralph Johns (2001) 'Skateboarding: the City as a Playground', Journal of Urban Design, Vol 6, No. 2, p. 211

2. Michel Foucault, 'Of Other Spaces', in Nicholas Mirzoeff (1998), The Visual Culture Reader, Routledge, p. 239

3. William H. Whyte, 1988, 'The Design of Spaces', in Richard T. LeGate & Frederic Stout, eds (2000), The City Reader, Routledge, 2nd edition

4. James Q. Wilson & George L. Kelling (1982), 'Broken Windows', in Richard T. LeGate & Frederic Stout, eds (2000), The City Reader, Routledge, 2nd edition

5. Debord, Guy Debord (1967), 'Society of the Spectacle', Black & Red, paragraph 65

6. Danny Boyle, dir. (1995), Trainspotting, Universal Pictures

7. David Bollier (2001), 'The cornucopia of the commons'
Middlesbrough Institue of Modern Art

Middlesbrough Institue of Modern Art
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