A city with no more secrets

Digitising urban knowledge means the death of hidden treasures, but the birth of a shared city. So why are we still obsessed with ‘secret’ places? By Francesca Perry

I have long held, and will no doubt continue to hold, reservations about the smart, data-led, internet-enabled, hackable city, mostly driven by a mix of demand for greater convenience and desire for maximised money-making, under the banner of ‘innovation’.

Amid all our many apps and digital platforms that aim to make city living seemingly easier and more efficient, showing us the quickest route (Waze), the nearest taxi (Uber), the closest potential dating partner (Tinder), the best local restaurant (Google Maps), and more, there is now an online tool that helps you locate areas of ‘calm’ in your city, for when you just need to find a quiet spot to sit in.

There is a certain joy as a long-time city dweller of knowing your metropolis inside out; of having built up, over years, a wealth of information and experience that gives you insights into a city’s secrets, whether that’s where to stand on a tube platform to get on the right carriage for a swift exit at your destination, when to avoid certain places due to overcrowding, where to find little hidden nooks and gardens to sit and read in, what the lesser-known routes are that get you somewhere quicker, or where to locate beautiful yet uncelebrated buildings.

The pleasure of discovering an off-the-beaten-track oasis of calm in your city — a quiet garden, an empty square, a perfectly placed bench, a rarely used river path — is a great one, mainly because daily life in a large city can wear you down; in an environment where nothing ever seems calm, where noise and crowds and stress is the norm, to find a quiet spot that enables rest and reflection is like discovering a diamond in the rough. Spending time in these places can relieve the pressure of city life, restore a sense of strength that enables you to cope with it.


My discovery of such places has usually been as a result of a meandering walk, or a wrong turn on the way to somewhere I’ve never been. But now, of course, the process of urban discovery happens mainly through your phone. A few years ago, a now-defunct app called Stereopublic promised to provide a crowdsourced map of places of peace and quiet in cities around the world. Now, the new Tranquil City project seems to do something similar, though it has only tentatively started with London.

‘Tranquil City is a project to find spaces of calm in the city and to promote them,’ the website states. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we can discover new peaceful places while we walk to work? In the near future we aim to link these spaces and design more pleasant and relaxing routes to walk around the city.’ The project uses a collaborative online map called the ‘Tranquil Pavement’ for people to record and locate their cherished quiet spots.

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Don’t get me wrong, the drive behind these specific apps is hugely positive and not about making money: it’s a celebration of experiencing the city and of that I massively approve. What’s more, platforms and resources like these — especially harnessing open source mapping — speak to a democratisation of urban knowledge. Us long-time urbanites (I’ve lived in this beautiful behemoth of London for 30 years and counting) don’t need to be the gatekeepers of the city and its secrets. If there are quieter gardens, quicker routes, hidden treasures, surely everyone should have access to this information.

Of course, the problem is, once this becomes just more data in an app or online map, not only does it become a target as marketable information, but, if it achieves a significant audience, it results in a homogenisation of the city: quieter places become busy, quicker routes become slower, hidden treasures become tourist hotspots, until there is no more hidden knowledge of the city to mine. Hence why the appetite for the ‘unknown’ or ‘secret’ aspects of a city has grown — even a cursory search will reveal the multitude of websites and businesses dedicated to helping people ‘discover’ the alternative, unknown or so-called hidden parts of cities.

The marketing of this is so successful because really there is little about our cities that is unknown these days — it’s all there on Google Maps, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet, blogs, articles, apps, books — but we’re desperate for that not to be the case. Many of the apps, tours or digital tools which claim to unearth a city’s secrets are no longer doing anything of the sort: they are just playing to an audience, marketing place, and attempting to repackage an increasingly homogenised city as they contribute to its homogenisation.

This is not a new game — books and walking tours have been doing this for a very long time  — but of course the internet means the scale of it is unprecedented. We are stuck in a paradox: while we promote a shared city and open information, we simultaneously desire knowledge that only we possess. I am seduced, like most people, by the unknown, hidden, quiet, secret spots in a city, but as an urbanist I also know I want this information to be accessible by all, as cities exist for the many, not the few. But that won’t stop me from musing: have cities lost all their secrets? And once everything is known, where do we go from here?




The tools of exclusion in American cities


by Christo Hall

“Contested space.” I first heard that term in reference to the communities that surrounded the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There — where political, religious and geographic disputes brought about physical violence and an interruption of shared space — the term was apt, but using the language of conflict and competition to describe issues of public space overshadows what is surely the greater objective: harmony.

A new collection of essays, The Arsenal of Exclusion and Inclusion (Actar Press, 2017), seeks to address strategies and interventions it calls “weapons”, which have been used with the ambition to create both exclusive and inclusive spaces in cities. Weapons that have historically — especially considering the focus of the book on American cities — often brought about racial segregation, such as Robert Moses building low bridges along the Long Island Parkway in New York to prevent poorer black communities — who were travelling by bus — from accessing beaches built for the overwhelmingly white suburbs.

But is the language of weaponisation appropriate in the discussion of public space? My feeling is that to describe the guerrilla attempts at spatial inclusivity like the wide-ranging Occupy movement or the wade-in protests that accessed “private beaches” as examples of public space warfare is counterintuitive. These were peaceful challenges to schools of thought that encourage inequality; they were not looking to inflict harm.

A group of African American and white demonstrators surrounded by police during a wade-in at St. Augustine Beach, Florida, in 1964. Photo: AP/Horace Cort

Nevertheless, as a reader from the UK, I’m aware that many of the tools of spatial exclusion that we see in this country are latent forms of manipulation rarely addressed or understood until recently.

The fact is that many tools of exclusion are covert. Many mixed-tenure developments have one door for private tenants and another for its social housing tenants (something that has become known as the “poor door”). Many public benches are designed with armrests to prevent homeless individuals sleeping on them, while some cities have banned people from providing food to the homeless in public space.

In the suburbs of Cleveland and Chicago, neighbourhoods lobbied to remove basketball hoops from public space to prevent the arrival of “outsiders”, which was code for a white neighbourhood seeking to keep its neighbourhood white. A Baltimore neighbourhood demanded one-way streets along every road that led to the avenue which divided them from a majority black community living on the other side.

Volunteers in Philadelphia distribute food to the homeless outside a public hearing on rules banning outdoor food distribution. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

Examples like these are eye opening, and the book is an excellent resource to spot the exclusive policies that are often executed under the guise of another aim, with more than a hint of sleight of hand. But as a resource it also helps identify those tools of inclusion that might not be immediately obvious: design elements such as detectable warning surfaces or building ramps that work to better include people with disabilities in the public realm, for example.

Not all the tools of exclusion and inclusion are hidden: gated developments, or the proposed bill in US congress that will provide lactation rooms in all American airports, are hard to miss.

The hundreds of listed ‘weapons’ in this book, many in relation to housing policy in the United States, contribute to portraying a situation where access is often regulated by affordability — and, increasingly, desirability. For example, regulations against non-criminal behaviour such as skateboarding, parkour and “loitering” — whether implemented by public or private orders, and often by groups such as ‘block clubs’ and Business Improvement Districts — are prejudices against certain groups of people in the name of so-called “common decency”.

To regulate what is desirable in public space is an ambiguous business, and one that suggests that someone or some authority knows best. And in an era of state relinquishment of public space to the private sector, what is desirable is often defined as what people and behaviour leads to the most profit rather than what can lead to social good, and where wealthy members of the public are privileged over others.

While the book’s essays do a great job of assessing the individual “weapons”, they do little to propose a cohesive thesis as to how to tackle opposing ideas about space and civil liberty. It is, largely, a safe study and an epidemiology of public space disorder. What’s needed now is discussions that weigh up what is needed to accommodate attitudes, whether we should be trying to reach consensus in public policy or instead somehow trying to find a solution that works for all, or if indeed there is such a thing as a city which is too permissive. To crack attitudes of fear and closed-mindedness we don’t need weapons — we need conversation.

Christo Hall is a freelance writer, the founding editor of Cureditor, an editor at LOBBY magazine and founder of MagShuffle

Ménage à trois cents: the rise of co-living in Paris

L’Atelier de l’Arsenal includes co-working, co-living… and a public swimming pool.

by Matthew Lesniak

The current co-housing, or co-living trend is one of many alternatives to the housing crises that exist in almost every metropolitan area in the world. This shared living model is often managed by a startup or other type of service operator that provides a fully furnished communal living arrangement with private bedrooms, common areas, amenities and group activities. The rise of independent freelance workers – 35% of the American workforce are freelancers, 20-30% of active workers in France are independent and 9 million in Europe – contributes to this trend, as individuals are seeking more flexibility in their daily lives regarding where they live and work.

The profile of co-livers are often people who are in a transitory phase such as young professionals coming out of university or freelance entrepreneurs working for multiple clients in cities around the world who seek short to medium term housing offers (they’ve also been called “digital nomads”). Although this trend is prevalent among millennials, co-living is an offer that can appeal and cater to a much wider spectrum.

Co-living can be seen as the sharing economy’s response to housing: living as a service. As a service, it offers a range of all-inclusive amenities and experiences that people seek in different phases of their lives. It’s easy to see the appeal: such a model removes the hassles created by rigid rental agreements and strict landowners, facilitating access to housing for people who may in traditional real estate criteria “tick all the right boxes”.

But obviously, it’s not quite so perfect: the accessibility of co-living in terms of pricing is still not where it should be, to be affordable for a wider public. Most co-living spaces are more expensive than market prices, making already unaffordable housing even that much more inaccessible for many city dwellers.

Saying this, the future of housing and the co-living sector is becoming more focused on designing spaces that attempt to facilitate cross-generational and cross-cultural connections and collaborations, rather than simply providing housing offer for wealthy digital nomads. It is a model that is being integrated into current and future urban development projects and calls for proposals in major cities around the world.

Co-living developments are already taking root outside Paris, such as Art/Earth/Tech.

As a Paris-based member of PUREHOUSE LAB – a do-tank dedicated to informing and enabling the spread of the co-living phenomenon – I have witnessed and participated in these co-living models emerging in the French capital.

The city is a late bloomer when it comes to the co-living industry, but actors on all scales are finally entering the market. With various large-scale international competitions – such as Inventons la Métropole du Grand Paris and Reinventer la Seine – the Grand Paris municipality is working with French developers and local / international architect firms to propose hybrid co-living spaces in the central city and peripheral territories.

Just recently, French real estate developers REI Habitat and Icade, in partnership with French architect firm Laisné Roussel and New York designers SO-IL, have been selected as one of the winners of the Reinventer la Seine competition at the Place Mazas site. This site is located near Place de la Bastille on the crossing of Canal Saint Martin and the Seine River.

The multidisciplinary group has proposed a hybrid space dubbed L’Atelier de l’Arsenal, that includes co-working, fabrication labs, cultural and green spaces open to the public, social housing, co-living, food courts and waterfront activities along the Seine river, including a biodiversity research centre and a public swimming pool. Similarly, the Inventons la Métropole international competition launched last winter – which is a citywide competition in more than fifty sites in the agglomeration of Île de France – has over a dozen proposals that include a co-living element in the project.

Paris’ Station F (the biggest startup campus in the world) will also launch a co-living hub housing 600 people

Despite these ambitions for large-scale hybrid co-living spaces, independent co-living operators are having trouble launching initiatives in the centre of Paris. Institutional barriers such as high market prices, hesitant landowners and investors unfamiliar with this new housing alternative, make launching co-living spaces difficult for Parisian startups like Colonies (who will be operating the Atelier de l’Arsenal co-living space) and Koalition.

The co-living market in Paris still seems to be in the hands of larger projects such as the new startup campus Station F (the biggest startup campus in the world), which will also launch a co-living hub in 2018, housing 600 entrepreneurs. The market seems to be evolving elsewhere in France, however; rural co-living spaces and shared living spaces that curate innovation and collaboration are being developed in the outskirts of Paris and in the south of France, such as La Mutinerie Village and Art/Earth/Tech outside of Paris, and thecamp in Provence and Lime in Biarritz.

French culture may be more hesitant to adopt the mindset needed to operate and live in co-housing developments. However, the efforts and ambitions that innovative actors are making to integrate accessible, affordable and hybrid shared living spaces into future development projects show that these new co-living spaces could become models for other projects around the world. And once the model is scaled up, prices will hopefully be far more accessible and inclusive.

An archive of NYC’s public transport graphic design – in pictures

In 2011, photographer and New Yorker Brian Kelley started collecting MetroCards from the city’s subway system. Fascinated by the nuanced variations in design of this simple everyday urban object, he began documenting them and expanding his collection to include other artefacts from the public transport system, from the present day and stretching into history.

His growing archive of objects was shared on Instagram (@the_nycta_project),  positive treasure trove of the design history of the city’s transport, and has now been made into a fascinating book, published by Standards Manual. From tickets and maps to the materials used by transit staff, it showcases (through approximately 400 objects) the design of everyday life that may often be overlooked and which yet is entirely distinctive of New York and its transport, particularly through the use of helvetica that – along with many other graphic design aspects – formalised in use through the 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual.

Below is a short taster of the archive – but head to the Instagram page or buy the book to explore it in all its glory.



New York City Transit Authority: Objects is published by Standards Manual

The Democratic Monument: rethinking Britain’s town halls

by Adam Nathaniel Furman

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What town halls are, their names, their forms, their programmes, and the way they relate to the public and the city has changed dramatically over the centuries, with each new incarnation absorbing lessons from the last, and building up a rich legacy full of successes and lessons that can be brought forward into future manifestations.

The 1800s was an era of dramatic change, tumultuous growth, vigour, and pride for British cities, all of which was anchored and guided by the Victorian town hall. Liberal mayors across the country spearheaded reforms and massive urban improvements that transformed the lives of those living in the new metropolises. Huge resources were funnelled through local government, with half of all national public spending being dispensed from town halls.

As well as directing public improvements, better schools, infrastructural provision and housing programs, these homes of local government themselves became symbolic embodiments of their respective cities. Their eloquent facades spoke of civic pride, communal purpose, economic strength, and artistic verve. Their interiors contained opulent multipurpose halls, which were used for events and meetings whose purpose was the pursuit of public betterment through the spectacle of public art and democracy, rather than the pageantry of an isolated monarchy.

These homes of local government became symbolic embodiments of their cities

After the second world war, in a national equivalent of the pioneering reforms of the great Liberal mayors of the 19th century, Britain was reconfigured into a nation that designed itself into a more equal and opportune disposition, in which infrastructure and opportunity were crafted by the public purse, for the broadest possible demographic. Gone were the vast republican Roman temples competing with the beautiful behemoths of British neo-baroque, the people palaces of competing virtual city-states, and in came modernity, a universal design language that spoke of a shared future, and common values.

The distinctly monumental town hall became the civic complex, and the deliciously florid interiors of pomp-for-the-people became the shining, diamond-cut glass, and rough-hewn concrete collected forms of libraries, sports centres, polytechnics and municipal offices, all carefully orchestrated around and within plazas, spaces slightly removed from the profane life of the city, elevated and set apart as glimpses of an organised, perfected collective destiny.

As globalisation, deregulation, and the European dream reached their respective zeniths in the 2000s under New Labour, architecture once again took on a starring role in the perpetual transformation of our cities. Private capital mingled with state funding to deliver colourful new spaces which mixed consumption and education, and profit and provision, in an apotheosis of an historical compromise between society and the market.

The presence of municipal bodies and of the state was reduced, modified, and rebranded within the context of leisure and shopping, of pleasure and experience. Single function iconic architectural objects, libraries, galleries and music halls, were inserted into the partially-privatised, super-slick new urban environments in a manner that sutured the feeling of growing wealth and cultural expansion, with the idea of an otherwise visually retreating state.

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We are fast moving into another period of profound change in which society is resurgent, cities are once again looking to govern themselves, and there is an expectation that the state will return in a novel and more varied form to give sustenance to a population that has grown tired of the empty calories of shopping, and their sense of separation from the centres of bureaucratic power.

Our cities are expanding at a rate not seen in a century, and as mayors and city councils with muscle and financial independence begin to return to regions clamouring for devolved autonomy, there is an opportunity to reconfigure the balance of our cities. Through reforms and muscular policy agendas these political units will need to reinvigorate the agency of civic authorities, while at the same time there is an opportunity to anchor our expanding urban areas with symbolic social fulcrums that embody a shared sense of progress, of cultural production, of history, and of democratic projection.

It is time for the town hall as Democratic Monument.

We are living through what is perceived to be one of our democracy’s most intense crises in generations, which means it is in fact the perfect moment to build monuments to its rebirth. In crisis lies the greatest opportunity for reinvention. In each island of progress may there rise Democratic Monuments of symbolic sustenance, and practical pageantry, for our sprawling cities, for our expanding towns; beauty, but for everyone.

Adam Nathanial Furman’s project The Democratic Monument was commissioned by the Architecture Fringe as part of New Typologies (curated by Lee Ivett and Andy Summers) under 2017’s core programme and the project was supported by Lee3d. This text is an excerpt from the full version available on Furman’s website and is kindly republished with permission.



Cycling in Mexico City: the good, the bad and the terrifying

The world’s traffic capital introduced a pro-cycling programme 10 years ago, but has anything really changed in the city? Meira Harris explores


Mexico City is notorious for its traffic and pollution problems – it’s often listed as the city with the worst traffic congestion in the world and the geophysical structure of the city does not allow for smog to easily escape. The average daily commute for those living and working in the city is about three hours, which adds up to a full 45 days each year spent commuting. Congestion on the roads is frustrating for drivers, but public transportation is overcrowded and often requires multiple transfers. So what about cycling?

Arie Geurts, a cyclist mobility expert who lives and bikes in the city, believes its monster traffic problem greatly incentivises biking there. As a commuter, it is easy to look at cyclists gliding through traffic and think, if only I had used my bicycle, I would have saved time and money. While you’re in a packed metro or MetroBus (the city’s bus rapid transit), the freedom that bicycles offer can be incredibly tempting.

Of course, biking in the city is not always simple – or safe. Bike lanes have increased throughout the city – the infrastructure has expanded by more than 45 km in the past four years – but often unofficial “shared” bike lanes can feel hugely dangerous. In Avenida Universidad, bikers share a lane with frequently passing buses, weaving in and out of heavy traffic. While experienced cyclists might be used to this, for those new to the roads it can be nothing short of terrifying.

As a way of helping people get accustomed to their city on two wheels, the city government-led programme Muévete en Bici (Move by Bike) provides a safe and family-friendly opportunity. On Sundays, the city closes 55 km of streets to cars to encourage cycling. The project’s main objectives are to increase bicycle use through the reclamation of public spaces focused on healthy forms of civic coexistence; to contribute to the creation of a cycling culture through education and recreation activities; and to promote the use of bicycles as an accessible and efficient mode of transportation that reduces pollution, presenting it as an alternative to cars in the medium and long term.

Muévete en Bici

Muévete en Bici, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, has become popular with the city’s residents: the highest participation rate to date was one Sunday last July when 75,263 people took part. Geurts considers the project vital to the future of a cycling culture in Mexico City: as an initiation for new cyclists, complete with cycling instructors, the programme helps people grow their confidence so that they are more likely to use their bicycles during the week. But Muévete en Bici is completely recreational; although it promotes the culture of cycling, it is not instrumental in making roads safer for cyclists.

Another government-led biking programme is Ecobici, the city’s bikeshare network. There are 452 bike stations in 42 colonias (neighbourhoods) within the capital and 100,000 registered users of the service. There have been over 40 million trips and the programme has expanded by 400 percent since it began in 2010. It is especially helpful for workers who come from far parts of the metropolitan area by providing a mode of transportation for the last leg of their trip to offices in the centre. With 3km as the average Ecobici journey, the bikes are largely used for getting around the city centre rather than commuting long distances. Many users also end up buying their own bikes – meaning Ecobici can serve as an affordable test run for those interested in biking as a mode of transportation.

Muévete en Bici

Despite the many advances made in the last decade, cycling advocates still have a long way to go. Some main roads are still missing bike lanes and the smog of the city can mean cycling can be unpleasant and unhealthy. But the more people who turn to bikes, the fewer cars will be polluting the city.

The city government is currently designing a new protected bike lane and a massive parking lot for bicycles, both of which are planned to be built in later this year. Commuters who travel by bike from their home to a metro or bus hub can park their bikes in the massive parking lots.

Policymakers fighting for cycling rights need to fight with pedestrian and public transportation advocates, as they are all campaigning for limited space and funds. Nevertheless, cyclists are confident that by considering the needs of all residents, bike culture will certainly flourish in the Mexican capital.

Meira Harris is an urbanist from New York City currently based in Mexico City

A layered thing: life under Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction

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


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 an 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 Kenneth Rainin Foundation and other stakeholders share their story 

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.