A layered thing: life under Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction

A new film explores the overlooked spaces and forgotten histories of Britain’s most famous road junction – and meets the people who call it home


It’s been a long time since city ring roads, motorways, flyovers and were considered delights of the modern age. Most are now associated with nightmare traffic, dangerous pollution or seen as a physical blight on the urban landscape – a nightmare in concrete. Where parks were once destroyed to build roads, highways are now being removed or buried to create parks. We have gone full circle.

But what are we missing by automatically rejecting these hulking giants of car-oriented modernism? These road-dominated places are still places: life happens on, beneath and around them; they bear the traces of the past and shape an ongoing present. Without seeing them simply as engineering or eyesores, some have explored such places for their unique character – attempting to understand the strange urban ecosystem they support around them.

Even in 2002, psychogeographic author Iain Sinclair was exploring the “liminal space” of the London Orbital, the M25 motorway. A decade later, Assemble’s “Folly for a Flyover” project explicitly celebrated the undercroft space beneath where the A12 crosses the River Lea in East London, holding cultural public events in a space usually dismissed as an urban planning afterthought where anti-social behaviour thrives. This Spring, the Disappear Here project brought together artists and poets to reflect on the significance of the Coventry ring road.

And now the attention turns to Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction. As part of the Lost But Not Forgotten project looking at hidden spaces and remote landscapes across Europe, new short documentary “Living Under Spaghetti” ventures below the famous Birmingham junction, meeting the people from the local area and hearing their memories and experiences of living near (or under) the city’s busiest transport route.

Although officially named Gravelly Hill Interchange, the tangle of roads on the northeast edge of the Midlands city became known primarily by its nickname – a nickname that has since been used for similarly complex junctions around the world. As well as the main roads of the M6 and A38(M) which the junction was designed to connect, the location is a confluence of multiple other routes, including local roads, the rivers Tame and Rea, Hockley Brook, the Cross-City and Walsall railway lines and Salford Junction, where the Grand Union Canal, Birmingham and Fazeley Canal and Tame Valley Canal meet. It is a complex and layered labyrinth of routes.

Commissioned in 1958 and opened in 1972, a number of properties were demolished to make way for it: 160 houses, a factory, a bank, a block of flats and a pub. “I remember as a young child, going with my mother towards what is now Spaghetti Junction and there would be all different shops there,” a resident explains in the film. “There was the Ansells Brewery, HP Sauce and then slowly all that disappeared as Spaghetti was built – and now there’s absolutely no sign that they were ever there.”

The junction holds a mixed place in the hearts of local Brummies and UK residents alike. When it was opened, there was apparently “giddy excitement” about it, complete with dedicated guided tours. Now, it is known as an ugly eyesore, intimidating driving nightmare and dinosaur of urban planning – but it is also a famous landmark, feat of engineering, daily route, and home to many. “I think people deep down have an affection for it,” Steve Price, Highways Agency traffic office manager, told the BBC. “Spaghetti Junction belongs to Birmingham.”

The film immerses us in the strange world of the junction. As cars speed noisily above, so residents sit peacefully in their canal boats below. “I’m sitting here feeling quite calm and all these cars are rushing all over the place,” one canal boat owner says. “Most people just fly over the Spaghetti Junction, don’t realise what’s here. For me, it’s so peaceful, it’s feels like time stops down here.”

Both physically, historically and socially then, Spaghetti Junction – in the words of another local resident – “really is a layered thing.”

“Living Under Spaghetti” is directed by Joe Sampson and produced by The Progress Film Company as part of the original series Lost But Not Forgotten

From Rihanna to Portlandia: can culture ruin a city’s reputation?

By Francesca Perry

Rihanna Causes A Stir On Music Video Set
Rihanna shooting her ‘We Found Love’ music video in Belfast in 2011. Photograph: INFDaily

Can a pop song blacklist a neighbourhood? Can a TV comedy tarnish a city’s reputation? These may seem like ridiculous questions, but the power of cultural imagery is often stronger than we realise. After the pop star Rihanna chose the New Lodge flats estate in north Belfast as her primary filming location for her We Found Love music video – in which the key repeated lyric is “we found love in a hopeless place” – local residents attempted to reclaim the place’s reputation by planting wildflowers. Rihanna, they argued, was making their home synonymous with hopelessness.

“As far as publicity for Belfast as a tourist destination is concerned, it was a disaster!” wrote local resident and columnist Frances Burscough. “It made Belfast and its environs look like a hell-hole, showing graffiti everywhere, grimy slum-like housing and people living in squalor surrounded by drug paraphernalia.”

No doubt the pop star looked to a council estate in a grey-skied climate as a visual cue for the kind of place where the drug-using couple of her video might call home. Often used as the setting for “gritty” dramas about crime and poverty, the cultural depiction of council estates creates a misleading reputation that residents of social housing around the UK and further afield are desperate to shake off.

The funny thing is, even when a place is portrayed in a negative light, it can actually end up having a positive impact on that area. Take the US city of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest metropolis, home to roughly half a million people. It is also home to the fictional characters in the hit TV show, Breaking Bad, about a teacher with cancer who turns to drug dealing. Following the success of the show, tourism to the New Mexico city was massively boosted – turning around struggling businesses, generating new ones and contributing hugely to the local and state economy.

Many felt the show “put the city on the map” for the first time – even though the city’s visitors bureau admitted “the drugs and violence [in the show] were the reasons we didn’t have anything to do with it at first.” Nothing like an economic boost to change minds.

A ‘Breaking Bad’ bicycle tour in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Still, there remain residents and city officials who are keen to do what they can to distance their home turf from whatever fictional backdrop it has formed for songs, TV shows or films. Portlandia, the comedy series which uses fictional characters to mercilessly mock the hippy-hipster reputation built up by the city of Portland, Oregon, ended up the subject of a “fuck you” blogpost written by a local feminist bookshop, In Other Words.

The store, used as a filming location for one of the show’s sketches which also depicts a feminist bookshop, accused the show of being “in every way diametrically opposed to our politics and the vision of society we’re organising to realise. It’s a show which has had a net negative effect on our neighbourhood and the city of Portland as a whole.”

The post goes on to outline the offensive nature of some of the show’s humour, but would people really accuse bookshop owners of having the same views as two fictional characters running a fictional bookshop which was filmed in the same space? Even the mayor of Albuquerque, whose city was depicted as a drug-addled and violent place, seemed cheerily assured that viewers knew Breaking Bad did not reflect the real city: “I’ve never run into anybody that doesn’t understand it’s a fictional drama.”

In Other Words also claimed that Portlandia was “fueling mass displacement in Portland” as the city’s real estate industry apparently used the show to “market the city as something twee and whimsical for the incoming technocrat hordes.” Writing in the The Guardian, Jason Wilson noted that some people saw the show as “the marketing arm of the gentrification driving those changes [in Portland].”

Portland’s ‘In Other Words’ feminist bookstore. Photo: Gina Murrell

The thing is, Portlandia’s humour is strongly focused on ridiculing the wealthy gentrifiers of the city. Portland started seeing waves of gentrification in the 1990s, and between 2000 and 2013, 58% of its lower-income neighbourhoods gentrified, meaning it saw more gentrification than any other city in America during those 13 years. Portlandia, meanwhile, launched in 2011. If gentrification has continued apace, it is unlikely to be the fault of one TV show which pokes fun at the lifestyle of these gentrifiers.

Compton, a small city in the neighbouring state of California, became saddled with a different kind of reputation. Home to the iconic hip hop group NWA, the city consequently became associated with the things they rapped about: violence, poverty, gang killings. Since the 1990s Compton has struggled with this reputation “seared into American pop culture”. The impact was so great that even surrounding cities changed the names of streets and neighbourhoods with the word “Compton” in them, to distance themselves from the city.

NWA’s lyrics describing life in the city were based on the real situation Compton found itself in – but the city has changed massively since those years of gang violence. Since the early 1990s, crime has fallen significantly in the municipality. When the 2015 movie Straight Outta Compton – about the rise of NWA – came out, local leaders were keen that viewers did not confuse the place portrayed in the movie with the city of today. “People think of Compton as a very dangerous place,” the city’s mayor Aja Brown told the LA Times. “But it’s a different city from 25 years ago.”

Juarez, a city in Mexico, used to be known as the “murder capital of the world”. In 2010, the border city suffered up to eight killings a day at the height of a drug cartel war. The 2015 film Sicario – a crime thriller about an FBI agent encountering the violent cartels of Juárez – used the city’s reputation and history to create a fictional tale. But fiction or no fiction, Enrique Serrano Escobar, the mayor of Juárez, was so incensed he called for a boycott of the film upon its release. The city had changed much in recent years, he insisted, and was keen to carve out a new reputation for itself, distant from its murder-capital status. Indeed crime has fallen and there have been efforts to reinvigorate local community spirit and culture.

“There is a whole community making an effort to restore the image of the city, and now they come along and speak ill of us,” Serrano told the New York Times, calling the film “out of date” and confessing his concerns about tourists being dissuaded from visiting. He took out adverts in a number of US newspapers, denouncing Sicario’s apparent defamation of the city. The fact that the movie was filmed for “security reasons” in El Paso, Albuquerque and Mexico City, thus contributing nothing to the local economy of Juárez, may have added insult to injury.

The Edinburgh suburb of Leith, meanwhile, was used as the setting for Irvine Welsh’s blockbuster 1993 novel Trainspotting. It was depicted as an area full of poverty, drugs and anti-social behaviour. But just over two decades later, Leith is the area with the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in Scotland.

A pattern emerges: culture responds to reality, but then as reality shifts and changes occur, the places anchored to these cultural images want to shake them off. Still, as the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. Economically at least, this can often be true for places too.

Rihanna’s music video was not the only driver behind the flower-planting initiative in north Belfast. The Sow Wild New Lodge Community Garden redeveloped an unused and overgrown communal space in the area. One project manager, Gerard Rosato, admitted the area was a “concrete jungle”. “North Belfast is very densely built up and nearly anything that can be built on has been built on,” he told the BBC. “My hope is that when this is a success we can get other, similar schemes off the ground and continue to spruce up the area.” It seems in this particular example, a pop star was the trigger for much-needed local regeneration, rather than the sullying of an entire area’s reputation.

Places change. And when we consume cultural depictions of them – from a pop song to a book or TV show – we should be aware of just how transient, if not fictional, these are. But in our Netflix-saturated lives, maybe it’s harder than ever to draw that boundary between fiction and reality.

How art and street seating exposed a city’s social divides

When a nonprofit arts organisation installed public seating to connect communities in San Francisco, they had no idea that resulting tensions would lead to its removal. Here, the people involved share their story – and their hopes for the future of public art and inclusive streets


block by block
Block by Block installation. Photograph: Darryl Smith, Luggage Store Gallery


On a busy street in San Francisco, known as much for crime and homelessness as swanky cafés and sleek towering apartments, the city’s economic extremes come into sharp relief: technology workers pour into the companies ushering in the future, passing by those left behind by the city’s boom.

Public art can reach broad audiences, and we felt this particular SF neighbourhood, Central Market, was ripe for a project that could start building bridges. While public art is not designed to solve systemic problems, it can serve as a vehicle for bringing people together in new ways and for developing creative interventions.

Last year, our foundation – the Kenneth Rainin Foundation – awarded its first public art grant to the Luggage Store Gallery, a long-time Central Market Street organisation, for the ambitious “Light Up Central Market.” This project included illuminating the area’s murals at night and installing a sculptural element called “Block by Block”, a platform intended to offer some fun, encourage interaction, and incorporate visual novelty into what is now an empty streetscape with few places for gathering.

“While public art is not designed to solve systemic problems, it can serve as a vehicle for bringing people together in new ways”

Central Market’s lack of seating isn’t a coincidence. As the boulevard of grand theatres and department stores decayed during 1960’s BART subway construction, the benches that had become resting places for homeless people were removed. More recently, the chess tables on Market Street were cleared away along with the heavy chains between posts along the street. As new money pours into the area, the only seating is private, the property of cafés catering to the city’s more affluent.

Block by block
Music at Block by Block. Photograph: Darryl Smith, Luggage Store Gallery

“Block by Block” was intended to change that. The piece was designed by Marisha Farnsworth of Hyphae Design and installed near Sixth and Market streets. The series of platforms invited people to sit down, with a swing, lighting, and a soundscape.

The installation was taken up by a group who stayed all day and played music into the night. Soon, passersby reported that people were selling drugs and making them feel uncomfortable. In two cases, attacks were reported. Complaints from local merchants, the city, and people living nearby began to pile up. In a country where issues of class and race are at a boiling point, “Block by Block” plunked those tensions right into the heart of San Francisco’s polarising economic boom.

Bringing art to that spot had been a feat of collaboration , requiring permits, coordination among city departments, and buy-in from nearby merchants and arts organisations. These relationships were tested as the discord mounted, and eventually, the city informed the Luggage Store that the platform had to go. In May 2016, eight months after arriving on Market Street, “Block by Block” was relocated to a sidewalk out in Mission Bay, a newly developed neighbourhood of hospitals and biotech companies with little foot traffic.

We wanted to start a conversation about what happened, so we spoke to local stakeholders. Excerpts of some of the interviews are below:

Wayne Shaw, local resident

Wayne Shaw

“I have back problems. I wish there was somewhere to stop and sit on Market Street, but I have to force myself to keep going because there’s nowhere to sit. So when “Block by Block” first came, I was the first person there: I met the artist, I sat on there, and it was a needed convenience and a great novelty.

But the people out there, they don’t see it as a place to be appreciated or to sit down, they see it as a place to sell drugs. They congregate there and it becomes like a territory.

There was some hostility against “Block by Block” that I didn’t feel was deserved [from other residents]. They would say, “I’m working to stay off drugs, I don’t need this right here.” Still, the complaint cannot be levelled at the structure itself. This neighbourhood is a dumping ground, man. This is where you go when you ain’t got nothing, and are trying to get something.

A lot of us in my SRO (single room occupancy) hotel live by the skin of our teeth, and we don’t have opportunities to leave that building: our Section 8 (government rent assistance) doesn’t apply anywhere but that building.

I’m not glad that the “Block by Block” installation is gone.”

Neil Hrushowy and Paul Chasan, city planners

City planners“No one had done this successfully for 40 years on Market Street  –  any sort of installation meant for the public to hang out. We’d done a lot of work as a city to actually remove those things and discourage new ones from coming up.

We were looking for ways to bring public life back to Market Street in a way that’s truly inclusive, and invites everyone to be there. It’s not for one group or for the other. And this was a really critical step along the path to learn how to do that.

“Block by Block” was the only comfortable place to sit on Market Street. People were partying and playing music into late in the night, but people were also vomiting and there was defecation around it. A tourist was taking a picture and people were dealing drugs and didn’t want to be in the picture, so they knocked her down and broke her camera. We also had a separate incident where we had a college bring students out there to learn how to do urban prototyping. One of the students was assaulted with a knife.

With the San Cristina Hotel [nearby single room occupancy (SRO) hotel], it was a vulnerable population on Market Street that we had no business imposing upon in that way. We have to see this as reopening Market Street for a lot more art down the road, versus the life of this one installation.”

Marisha Farnsworth, artist


“Our hope with “Block by Block” was it would bring people together. You have a really diverse population in the neighbourhood: techies, people living in SROs [single room occupancy hotels], homeless people, and tourists…anyone can sit on “Block by Block”, unlike say a café behind a little wall. The idea behind “Block by Block” was to create a space that wasn’t obviously programmed.

When we installed it, I saw tourists taking photos there, people eating lunch there, it was just nice to have a break from the monotony of the sidewalk. But as time went on, you had people sitting outside at the tables at a nearby food court, and the people sitting on “Block by Block”: you could really see a divided population.

Some city officials said the neighbourhood wasn’t “ready to try art.” Yes, it is. I think part of the reason people were so upset when “Block by Block” was removed was that it provided a sense of place and people had become emotionally attached to it. They also took responsibility for the project in some ways. If I ever brought out a broom, the people hanging out would help clean and would discourage other people from graffiti-ing.

I definitely think it provoked a lot of really interesting conversations in the city. And I’m not talking about discussions about art ; I mean  discussions about what’s really going on in the neighbourhood. And to me, that’s a success.

Block by Block was a public art project funded by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, a nonprofit based in Oakland, California and focused on championing the arts, promoting early childhood literacy and supporting research to cure Inflammatory Bowel Disease. This piece is an edited excerpt of an article originally published on Medium, where you can read more interviews with stakeholders. 

Welcome To The Sky Farm

A rooftop garden at a hospital in Indianapolis engages patients and staff to learn more about food and healthy living

Sky Farm

by Dawn Olsen


Urban farmer Rachel White walked up, down, and around the raised garden beds, watering her most recent plantings. Every few moments, she would pause and scratch her arms, which were tanned from the summer sun, but itchy from harvesting. She had collected tomatoes, beans, and berries all day, working non-stop. White didn’t take a lunch; instead, she took care of the garden – a “sky farm” on the roof of an Indianapolis hospital.

The 5,000-square-foot Sky Farm, which yielded more than 2,200 pounds of food in its first year, is located atop the Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital in downtown Indianapolis. The hospital is part of Eskenazi Health, the oldest and largest public health care system in Indiana, with a mission to advocate, care, and teach, with special emphasis on vulnerable populations.

The Sky Farm, now in its third season, fully embraces Eskenazi’s mission. It teaches patients, staff, and community members how to engage with food, and it promotes healthy living. “People know what vegetables look like in a store,” said White, “but maybe they don’t know what they look like when they’re planted or growing. People come to the Sky Farm and make the connection.”

To create the Sky Farm, the hospital partnered with Growing Places Indy, a non-profit organisation that focuses on urban agriculture and provides farm support services. In addition to working with Eskenazi Health, Growing Places Indy farms several “micro-farms” in Indianapolis. At the largest site, a 13,000-square-foot U-Pick farm, community members can learn how food is grown, pick their own produce, and learn about food preparation and storage. Like the Sky Farm, it exposes individuals to urban agriculture, teaches them how to engage with food, and promotes healthy living.

Sky Farm

White emphasised that the Sky Farm isn’t “just a garden” – it’s an educational space. Dietitians hold nutrition classes there, and people can take vegetables home. And since the Sky Farm is open to the public 24/7, visitors can stroll among the garden beds, point out things they recognise, and ask questions about what they don’t. “It’s kind of like a science lab,” said White. “That’s one of my favourite things about working here. Just seeing everyone learn.”

“It’s nice for patients to have a quiet space away from their room,” White explained. “I do know some nurses and physical therapists use the space … and the patients who talk to me really like it and are amazed that it is at a hospital and on a roof.”

In other words, the Sky Farm serves as a reprieve; patients can leave their hospital room, breathe the fresh air, and bathe in sunlight. It’s refreshing. It’s encouraging. And it gives patients the opportunity to learn about preventive medicine and ways of healthy living.

Produce from the Sky Farm also goes to the cafe located on the hospital’s campus. “I like to give them things that are in their menu already so they don’t have to create new recipes,” said White.

But despite the Sky Farm’s size, it doesn’t stretch to all of the hospital’s 5,000 employees and one million annual outpatient visitors; however, there are plans to expand it. Some of the Sedum plots – which help regulate the building’s temperature – will be converted into additional beds and add about 2,000 square feet.

Sky Farm

There is also a beehive maintained by Bee Public, which is making Indianapolis a more bee-friendly city. The organisation, which does not harvest the honey its bees make, focuses on increasing awareness about honeybee plight and the link between pollinators and the food system. It gives classroom presentations and has also installed hives at four area schools, an urban kitchen, and one of the Growing Places Indy farms. As for the hive at the Sky Farm, it gives bees access to the plants and flowers at Eskenazi Health, as well as the Indianapolis Zoo.

Other Sky Farm features include 30-inch-tall beds for patients in wheelchairs, who come to the rooftop garden for physical therapy. There also are 14 employee plots, for which demand is high.

White, who is on track to harvest more than 3,000 pounds of produce this year, said she loves the Sky Farm’s ability to connect individuals – patients, hospital employees, community members – to the earth. Because the Sky Farm is more than a garden: it’s an educational space, and a spot that inspires individuals to start a garden of their own.

White scratched her arm. “Sometimes, you just have to start growing stuff and see what happens.”

Dawn Olsen is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis. She writes about architecture, historic preservation, and art and photography

Women can be city leaders, too?

In celebration of legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, I spoke at an Urbanistas event on women’s role in city leadership, myths about gendered urbanism and the value of inclusivity


The bottom-up v top-down tension in urbanism seems to be encapsulated by the clash between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses in New York, and their divergent approaches to urban development. But when we speak of the need for female leadership in cities, I think we fall into a trap of simplifying this as: women care about the community, men care about money. This, in my mind, is a reductive myth that will get us nowhere if we are to achieve better inclusivity in municipal management.

First of all, not all women champion the community and not all men prioritise the bottom line. We are all individuals, each with our own belief of what is important to make a city work. Binaries created by an assumption of “female priorities” and their male counterparts serve only to cloud and prevent progress. Saying this, there are of course experiences that some groups have of urban space that other groups may not understand, so the key is to assemble a range of voices when we make cities.

Secondly, in terms of the caring v money myth, one clearly needn’t be at the expense of the other. Community can go hand in hand with a thriving economy – and in many cases it generates it. Jacobs certainly promoted this idea with her advocacy of diverse, localised economies. If our cities are more inclusive, our economies will flourish because all people are being supported and enabled to thrive.

Myths aside, whether we like it or not there is still a gender imbalance in the built environment sector and city leadership, although it’s getting better. If we want it to keep improving, notably on a global scale to include places where it remains far more imbalanced than it does in countries like the UK, we do need to start from the bottom up. To ensure that women’s voices and needs are heard and valued in planning processes, and that capacity is built for them to have an active role in shaping their city.

I recently met Kathryn Travers, director of Women In Cities International, an organisation set up to help make sure issues around women’s safety in public spaces could be better integrated into urban planning and management policy around the world. Their Because I am a Girl Urban Programme, in collaboration with Plan International, operates in Cairo, Lima, Delhi, Hanoi and Kampala. It works with teenage girls to help them voice and map how unsafe they feel in their public spaces and transport networks, and think about what improvements could be made. At the same time, it builds their capacity for meaningful participation in urban development and governance by encouraging them to review existing city policies and propose changes.

One of the Because I Am A Girl Urban Programme workshops. Photograph: Women In Cities International
One of the Because I Am A Girl Urban Programme workshops. Photograph: Women In Cities International

Helping these girls to have a say in shaping their cities is crucial in a context where women around the world continue to face harassment and violence in the urban realm: in some cities, Kathryn tells me, more than 90% of women experience daily sexual harassment in public space. Of the girls that the programme have worked with, roughly a quarter of them said that they never feel safe in public places. What’s more, most of these girls felt undervalued and rarely listened to in their community, convinced they would never have a say in how their city is shaped. Globally, there is a lot of work to do on a social and attitudinal level in terms of valuing the female voice. Only when we ensure women are able to participate, can we ensure they can lead.

We don’t see a great deal of female mayors, but I think the ones we can, such as Barcelona’s Ada Colau, Paris’ Anne Hidalgo and Madrid’s Manuela Carmena, provide heartening inspiration to women and girls around the world who maybe don’t feel they could ever have such a role in their city.

One of my fellow Young Urbanist members spoke to me about the challenges she faces being a woman in the built environment industry. When she was working at a local authority, she was told by people making planning applications for large schemes that as a young woman they were unsure of her judgement. At meetings, despite being the lead planning officer on the case, comment and conversation would always be directed to her male colleagues. Even when women are present and have a central role, they can still be undermined. Although her current public sector role is better, the domination of men in the departments often means she’s the only woman in meetings.

Nevertheless, she insists, progress is being made: she’s come across inspiring female senior managers and directors in the public sector, and in policy we are seeing a more gender-inclusive understanding of experience of urban space.

Maybe we need inspiring women, like Jacobs, to lead by example until the rest of the industry, and society in general, can catch up. At which point it’s not about putting people on a pedestal, but about ensuring inclusivity is engrained into every part of growing, shaping and leading our cities.

By Francesca Perry, Editor

The ultimate ‘linear city’

In a long drive down the Overseas Highway, Charles Critchell explores the peculiar experience of an elongated island city: the Florida Keys

Illustration by Nate Kitch
Illustration by Nate Kitch

Under the auspices of a southern sky, the road ahead of us unwound invitingly as Miami’s Downtown buildings and tangle of free-ways steadily receded from view. The palpable sense of escape which comes from shrugging off any big city is often compounded by the adventure of what lies ahead – in our case the one hundred mile length of the Florida Keys, starting in Key Largo and finishing in the fabled Caribbean Island that is Key West, very much the end of the road in all senses.

Along with its celebrated cousins, the heroic Route 66 and scenic Pacific Coast Highway, Florida’s own Overseas Highway provides the backdrop to one of the great American Road trips. Whereas those other routes intermittently range from perfect isolation to expansive urban vistas, The Overseas Highway presents a very different dynamic. Considering its location on such a seemingly remote string of islands, it is in fact well populated for much of its length, a tribute to the road’s importance in facilitating the growth of not only a plethora of neighbourhoods and businesses but the critical ancillary infrastructure needed to support it. It soon becomes apparent that the Overseas Highway is much more than an expansive ribbon of tarmac, but a linear city – a one hundred mile long High Street.

The development of the Overseas Highway came into being in the early twentieth century, though it was not then known as such – or even recognised as a continuous Highway. Like many road networks throughout America the route was a palimpsest of an earlier railway network, The Florida Overseas Railway. The Railway was the creation of businessman Henry Flagler’s fertile mind – the man credited as the ‘Father of Miami’ – and was envisaged to be both a key artery in prizing open Latin American markets south of Key West’s deep water port, as well as a pleasure line for wide-eyed tourists and all the opportunities of the 1920s Florida land boom.

What becomes immediately evident as you leave Miami’s wide ubiquitous boulevards and join the confluence of traffic headed South is that this road is one of business as much as it is pleasure, as wide-bodied tankers and goods trucks happily trundle along behind open top hire cars and weathered family station wagons. The two lane highway is certainly more than the sum of its parts; the thread by which a myriad of ecologies, communities and businesses hang off – dependent on its passing trade for their survival.

Strip mall, Florida Keys style

Lining the route are a proliferation of different building typologies – most comprise simple concrete or clapboard structures alongside gaudy service station architecture. It is however the repetition of three key building types – gas stations, banks and churches – which speak of the trade off the Keys has had to make between commerce and community. Head away from the main road and these communities begin to reveal themselves; from discount outlet warehouses and shiny new condos clustered around small newly developed business parks and marinas in the upper Keys, to the family-run and fiercely independent small traders and long established residential neighbourhoods in the mid and lower Keys.

Much like the typical High Street, the character of the built fabric inevitably varies as you venture further, though the juxtaposition of the mundane alongside the sublime serves as a constant reminder that this very much a functioning strip of city.

One of the major pulls of the journey south is the passage alongside the infamous Seven Mile Bridge, which straddles the middle and lower Keys. Though hailed as the eighth wonder of the world at the time of construction, it claimed the lives of over seven hundred labourers before being largely destroyed as a result of the1935 Labour Day Hurricane. The original superstructure exists today as a disused and decaying concrete deck, idling atop a mass of staunch pilings only meters above the placid Gulf.

You could be forgiven for missing it entirely though, as the roadway motorists now travel along exudes a drama all of its own; climbing steadily you are soon seemingly thrust headlong into the oncoming clouds as the water to either side drops away and the impression of speeding in some otherworldly domain takes hold for just a few seconds.


Aside from this welcome digression, the steady procession of vehicles runs pretty much the full one hundred mile length of the keys, all reined in by the variable 35-55 mile per hour speed limit, which ensures the road can fulfil its function as a souped-up sidewalk.

The speed limit dictates that you window shop as you travel the road, giving businesses the opportunity to vie for your attention whether it be for a burger or a tank of fuel. Not all businesses fare so well however, as rust-ravaged billboards and derelict motels are interspersed throughout, simply left to bake in the incessant Floridian sun.

Indeed the effect of an extended drive seemingly sandwiched between sun and sea gives way to a condition locals call ‘island time’; the idea of embracing a more leisurely pace not to be found on the mainland. To this end I believe that it is in fact a new form of ‘city time’ particularity in the vicinity of the highway itself, as all the cues of urban life remain; the labourers toiling amid mounds of earth at the side of the road, or the gleaming red fire truck and sheriffs patrol car – both ready to be despatched at a moment’s notice.

The figurative downtown of this linear city is without doubt Key West, a seemingly self-governing principality known for its loose morals and hedonistic wants. Here the Overseas Highway tightens into a knuckle of romantically named boulevards and side streets as the familiar American grid re-asserts itself. The clamour of activity and industry soon thrusts itself upon you as the linear cities strip malls and stirring panoramas are replaced with a dense web of telegraph poles, street signage and a canopy of vegetation. The diversity of sights and experiences which the Highway presented us with confirms my belief that it is very much a city in every aspect, and one that despite running in a straight line, is in no way predictable.

Key West

All photographs by Charles Critchell

Brutal heritage: renewing London’s icons

From Tower Bridge to Buckingham Palace, Jasper Sutherland’s montages blend the traditional icons of London with brutalist housing in a reimagined cityscape

'Twin Tower Bridge'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Twin Tower Bridge’. Image: Jasper Sutherland

What if London’s feted architectural icons were replaced with brutalist blocks? That’s he urban landscape imagined by designer Jasper Sutherland in his ‘Postcards to London’ series.

Mingling notions of tradition and monumentality, the postcard montages – created by pasting brutalist icons into ornate landmarks of London’s picture postcard history – seek to reference the often unusual juxtaposition of architectural styles in the UK capital, much of which remains as a legacy of the Blitz.

“London is both of the things in the picture – and more – but you have this layered spectrum,” explains Sutherland. “Grand wealth and imperial antiquity at one end and the changing face of modernity, often responding to social deprivation, at the other. What I find interesting is when this spectrum is compressed and ends up side by side as it is, all over London.”

“Part of my interest was sparked by the link between architecture and the ‘future’,” he adds. “We are always living in a vision of the future from the past. We do live in a postmodern city – something like a watered down 2019 LA in Blade Runner. London in the future is never going to look shiny and coherent because of its existing context. And that’s kind of what I love about it – it’s diverse to the point of incoherence, architecturally speaking. It doesn’t look ‘planned’ because things happen at distinct moments in time, in a very condensed amount of space.”

'Trellick Circus'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Trellick Circus’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'Heygate Palace / One below the Queen'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Heygate Palace / One below the Queen’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'Bovril Heights'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Bovril Heights’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'Apartments of Parliament / Second Home'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Apartments of Parliament / Second Home’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'British tele-column'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘British tele-column’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'Abbey's Loft conversion'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Abbey’s Loft conversion’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'St Paul's Terrace of Alexandra'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘St Paul’s Terrace of Alexandra’. Image: Jasper Sutherland

Book of the year: City by City


I began to read this anthology of stories in the summer – a distant memory for many of us now. “The weather is perfect until the city burns,” writes Jordan Kisner in the opening essay. A familiar feeling to many urbanites in summer, this is how Kisner sets the scene of San Diego: a city of extremes.

Taking us across the entire United States in reflections that are both personal and educational, City by City captures two things that are too often separated: the living, breathing urban experience – and the facts that explain why these places are the way they are.

The book takes us from the seductive, destructive casinos of Las Vegas to the black bears rifling through city dumpsters in Alaska’s Whittier. It describes the complex stories around big urban developments like Atlanta’s BeltLine, but it also immerses us in feelings, like that of returning to your home city: “as though I were preparing to watch a movie I’ve seen many times before.”

Nikil Saval charts the industrial changes in the US – from the factories of manufacturing that established cities like Detroit to the skybound office towers that define today’s working world in places like New York – and the social developments and problems that happen around this. “New York has led the way in modelling how a city based on production can be transformed into one based on services and how a skyline of church spires and smokestacks can be elevated into a jagged, Tetris-like collection of tall glass boxes,” Saval writes.

We hear about the loss of downtowns to megamalls, the loss of independent radio stations to strip bars. A process that is sometimes irrevocable, and sometimes not – as Ryann Liebenthal realised when discovering the re-emergence of a thriving cultural scene in his hometown Boise, Idaho, with its local music and proliferating public art. But when Liebenthal sees a cultural metamorphosis become his city’s “remapping of self”, we realise the perils of change.

From the “revitalisation” efforts that stamped out heritage in favour of convenience manifested by homogenised shopping malls, to new waves of “renaissance” that embrace independent culture at the risk of gentrification, there is always baggage saddling changes that we may not quite understand until it’s too late.

We are so used to this dichotomy, though: one group telling us change is positive progress; another group deciding change is bad. The reality is somewhere in the middle, both beneficial and problematic: the middle ground of the urban grey. But one thing is sure, and that is cities change, and they will continue to do so. The aspiration is that we can all be involved in these developments, and shape them to be as inclusive and equitable as possible.

Of course it is not just urban development that needs to be fair and inclusive – it is society itself. In cities across America in 2015, on streets and online, the Black Lives Matter movement continued to highlight unjust violence against black people in the country. Lawrence Jackson’s powerful essay ‘Christmas in Baltimore’ describes his trip home for the funeral of his friend who had been killed by police. Jackson contemplates the contemporary experience of being black in the US: “No one wants to accept this in a country based on upward mobility and the hope of individual distinction, but it is a fact: blackness still causes the distance to evaporate between who you are and what you have done and what the society has made you.”

City by City reflects on urban America’s history, how things are shifting now and muses at changes to come. These are immersive and often poetic dispatches; stories and history lessons without the didacticism. They chart the realities, irrationalities, wonders and injustices of US cities – and I suggest you have a read.

What was your favourite book about cities from 2015? Share them in the comments below

City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis is edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb and published by n+1 / FSG.

Second cities

Marseille and Manchester: what can we learn from ‘second cities’?


Young Urbanists Julie Plichon and Nicholas Hugh Goddard consider the characteristics, connections and changes of two ‘second cities’ 

France and the UK are often seen as two centralised countries dominated by their capital cities. While parallels can be drawn between Paris and London, we think the same can be done with Marseille and Manchester, two cities enjoying a renaissance that can increasingly be considered as “second cities”. But what does this term really mean – and how does it play out?


Marseille is in many ways France’s second city – even their football games against the Paris Saint German team express the underlying rivalry between these two cities. Home to 1 million inhabitants, Marseille is France’s primary port and its commercial gateway to Europe; as a result it has a hugely multicultural character. Its spectacular location perched on two bays make it an iconic place in France. Beyond this idyllic imagery, however, the city has suffered from a negative image – whether local Mafiosi, drug trade or dirt. Indeed the city is characterised by dramatic inequalities where pauperised populations are found in “quartiers nords”, those isolated urban ghettos, where the beautiful tramways and tubes that make the “Marseillais” so proud do not go.

The city has worked hard to improve this infamous status. Two years ago Marseille was the European Capital of Culture, enhancing many existing places and creating new landmarks for the city, like the Museum of Mediterranean Civilisations (MUCEM), new amenities along the Vieux Port and bringing international attention to its geographical and cultural potential. The year of 2013 and the European Capital of Culture status can be seen as the climax of a regeneration strategy initiated in 1995 called “Euroméditérannée” that aimed to position Marseille as a strong link between Europe and the Mediterranean. The project has been given the status of an “Operation of National Importance”, and financed at different public scales: local, national, and European to promote Marseille as the “biggest Southern metropolis in Europe for business”.

La Joliette, Marseille

This regeneration has its dark side though. A less successful version of it can be found along the new business district “La Joliette”. The former docks have been redeveloped, with the help of some American banks (among them: Lehman Brothers) to host commercial offices and luxury housing. But the docks remain empty, and the offices are still “to let”. They have been “to let” for many years now. The political will to bring world-class investment into Marseille contrasts with the empty reality of those docks, and mirrors pretty well what is happening in the city. Perhaps Marseille is just a city that is naturally resistant to gentrification.


The idea that Manchester is in any way “second” to any other locale is an anathema to most Mancunians. Manchester is special, unique and gritty but sophisticated and elegant. The story of Manchester is well known; the first industrial city, the dark satanic mills, Engels’ “Condition of the working class in England”. This manufacturing heritage is important, but equally as important was the nexus of the service industries such as banks, insurers and merchants that co-located in the city to serve much of Lancashire and the North West. This has left both an excellent built legacy, and an institutional legacy which enables it to remain economically competitive to this day.

Manchester Town Hall
Manchester Town Hall

Pragmatism is a key quality of the citizens of greater Manchester. Lets not forget that it was a pretty grim place in the 80s and early 90s, like many cities in the UK. However during this time it still produced the culturally significant Madchester scene, which kicked off the development of the Gay Village and the Northern Quarter, two areas that are now fundamental to the city’s life and vibrancy.

It took a bomb in 1996 for the powers that be to get serious about making the city centre a tolerable environment once again, after the grievous town planning of the 1970s. What could have been a disastrous response was turned into a triumph by the council and it is now held up as a poster child of city centre regeneration. It has not been perfect: ‘The Triangle’ (the old Corn Exchange to most people) has had a troublesome recent history, as has the Fire Station. Victoria Station has only just been improved, having been essentially ignored for years. Other areas, such as Hulme, have been successfully transformed, and Castlefields has been a phenomenal success with warehouse conversions and new builds around the dramatic viaducts and canals that were once the commercial veins of the city.

Scratch beneath the surface though, and Manchester too has its problems. About a quarter of Greater Manchester ranks in the 5% most deprived areas in the country according the Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2015. Spatially, this deprivation is concentrated in the North and East of the city and one of the city’s key challenges is now channeling some of Manchester’s success into these areas.

Harpurhey in northern Manchester was once named the most deprived area in England. Photograph: Gent Hunt
Harpurhey in northern Manchester was once named the most deprived area in England. Photograph: Gent Hunt

These, then, are two proud and compelling cities with very different histories, but that in some ways share a common trajectory. By learning from these places we understand that perhaps cities should not be perceived in terms of being “first” and “second” – but should be taken as individual entities that offer unique qualities. Both cities are beginning to convince their capitals of this fact and should look forward to the commensurate attention, however, it remains to be seen if they will be able to harness this to solve the engrained difficulties that are faced by both.

This post is written as part of Charles Critchell’s “Second Cities: Manchester to Marseille” project which has been supported by the Academy of Urbanism’s Young Urbanists Small Grants Scheme. Charles is presenting the project on Monday 30 November at The Alan Baxter Gallery.