October 3: “An Embodied Sense of Place”


• Montserrat Degen & Rose (2012) The sensory experiencing of urban design: The role of walking and perceptual memory, Urban Studies, pp. 1-17
• Koefoed & Simonsen (2011) ‘The stranger’, the city and the nation: on the possibilities of identification and belonging, European Urban and Regional Studies 18, pp. 343-357
• Cope (2008) Patchwork neighborhood: children’s urban geographies in Buffalo, New York, Environment and Planning A, 40, pp. 2845-2863

For those who would like to write a Reading Response for Oct 3, here are four questions that you may consider to prompt your writing:

  1. Degen and Rose demonstrate that the feel of urban space is a multi-sensory experience: in addition to perceiving the city through sight and design (which has long been the focus of research into the sensation of urban space), we also feel the city through its sounds and smells and tastes. The authors show us that these sensory perceptions are “mediated by different and shifting spatial and temporal practices” (p. 4). In other words, where we walk, how we walk (on auto-pilot, as in the Milton Keynes case study, or in a “spidery-like movement,” as in the Bedford example), what memories and previous encounters we have in particular places…these “shifting spatial and temporal practices” all matter to how the city feels to each of us. Use Degen and Rose’s article to explore your own sensory experience of urban design. Imagine that you are conducting a walk-along during an ordinary walk in a familiar part of your city. Take note of how you walk; how the urban design encourages some types of movement and discourages others; and how you feel as you move through the space. Tie your findings to a discussion of the Degen and Rose text.
  2. Koefoed and Simonsen’s article discusses how immigrants and Danish-Pakistanis identify with and develop a sense of belonging within (and to) the city (of Copenhagen) and the nation (Denmark).  In fact, the authors distinguish between the feelings of belonging that their research participants described: the sense of belonging to the city or neighbourhood is often different than the sense of belonging to the nation. Explain this distinction in your own words. What specific elements encourage a sense of belonging to the city, especially when people do not feel welcomed by (or in) the nation?
  3. How are the Degen and Rose and Koefoed and Simonsen texts complementary? As in, what might we learn by examining the sense of belonging in terms of perceptions of the city (and the ways these perceptions are formed via memories and spatial practices like walking or driving)?
  4. Cope’s research shows us how “children visibly practice and perform the neighborhood” (p. 2861). What does she mean by this? How might the kind of research practice Cope describes inform conversations about social inclusion in the city?

Lecture overview

What does this phrase mean, an embodied sense of place? The readings this week provide us with a complex definition: they encourage us to think about urban design, and how the practice of walking and memories of place inform our feel for (and our feelings about) the urban landscape. The authors persuade us to consider how certain racialised minorities and immigrants are figured as strangers in the city (and nation) through very specific spatial processes: being stopped at borders, being under surveillance on streets and in shops, being able to access housing only in particular neighbourhoods. And they ask us to hear children’s experiences and interpretations of their neighbourhoods to learn about how the meanings of place are constructed.

I would like to start with a slightly different example to think about –and to begin to feel– what an embodied sense of place means. The example comes from a Q&A session at the British Film Institute about the film Stud Life. Stud Life is a recent feature directed by Campbell X. The film features JJ, a young butch lesbian, JJ’s best friend Seb, who is gay, and the on-off love interests that test their friendship. During the Q&A, actress T’Nia Miller gives a rich description of moving through her home city of London, UK as JJ. Miller states:

“What was really interesting – I live in London, I was born here, I love London, and it’s a really welcoming place – but when I was walking around in JJ’s shoes, it was completely different. It was an isolating place. I was either feared/ or met with an air of suspicion, or invisible, one of the two. And for the first couple of days, I kind of started to get peeved off when people are budging me and barging me and all those kind of things, and not being seen. So I got really angry. For the most part, I think people mistook me for a young black boy. So women would hold their handbags a little bit closer to them, you know. So I said to myself in my head, in my adult head, I can’t walk around with this tension, there’s something I have to do about this. I have to change me. So instead of being barged, I would be the gentleman and make way, you know? [I had to] think it and be one step ahead. Yeah, it was isolating.”

(Watch the full Q&A session here. The full answer begins at 9:45 and the segment quoted above begins at 10:55.)

At the heart of Miller’s description is reception: how people read/perceive/make assumptions about others. As the Koefoed and Simonsen text points out, the figure of “the stranger” does not objectively exist. The stranger is a relational figure –someone who is different in relation to the majority– and “we” (defined as those who are normalised within the majority) actively produce the stranger as a body that is out of place. The authors argue, “It is not pos­sible, it is argued, to simply ‘be’ a stranger; one becomes a stranger through specific, embodied encounters” (p. 344, my emphasis).

Miller also illustrates how a particular kind of reception informs our own behaviour, mobility, and sense of self. She identifies feeling tension that she had not previously felt, and notes that she decided to change her own behaviour to be one step ahead of the people who she encountered on the street. Again, this is akin to Koefoed and Simonsen’s argument, which demonstrates how being –or feeling like– a stranger is a learned experience. And these kinds of lessons influence how we feel in the city, how we move about in the city, where we go, etc. Those who suggest otherwise (read: those who suggest that race/gender/class or other ways that our bodies are read by others do not matter to how we occupy spaces in the city) speak from a privilege of not having had to think about the ways that their bodies and their movements are normalised. (Here’s another popular example of how having a sense of place –or learning the sensation of being out of place– can be understood as lifelong learning, or an accumulation of experiences. This is from a well-read blogger who writes about parenting and transracial adoption. In this post, she, as a white mom, discusses what it means to give her sons, who are black, the tools and role models to grow up to have a strong sense of identity as black men.)

With these examples in mind, think about your own embodied sense of place in the city. Do you feel like you belong? Where do you feel this most prominently? What specific elements (the landscape, the built environment, the people around you, your sensory perceptions, your memories, feeling “recognized” or that you share something in common with others) influence your sense of belonging (or of not belonging)? Further, what does this teach us about the policies and practices that aim to address social inclusion? Comments are welcome.

1 thought on “October 3: “An Embodied Sense of Place”

  1. Pre-meeting Qs for Oct 3:
    Degen and Rose (2012) outline the numerous ways in which sensory experience of an urban space is influenced not only by design, but also by individualized memories associated with that space (and others like it). Three types of sensory interactions are described: present experience can be overlapped with memories of previous experiences within that environment, encounters with one environment inspires memories of comparable environments, and such comparisons can develop a typology to articulate judgments (i.e. “this is ‘just another town center.’”) The authors outline the complexity of each interaction: how does the role of perceptual memory create a paradoxical experience of sensory engagement with a particular urban space? Or, how might memories both increase and reduce sensory immersion in an environment in different ways? How might this be related to gendered experiences?

    When talking about the physical and symbolic nature of the stranger, in their article “‘The stranger’, the city and the nation,” Koefoed and Simonsen mention that the stranger takes on an abundance of shapes and roles depending on the context which it is performed. What is your interpretation of this? Can you think of different roles, or shapes and the context in which they are performed and how/if they apply to you?

    In the article “‘The stranger’, the city and the nation” we see the idea of ‘the stranger’ and the example of the Pakastani families in Denmark feeling discriminated against due to the fact that they don’t appear to be Danish. Do you feel that because Canada is multi-cultural the idea of ‘the stranger’ is less prominent in our society or as equally prevalent?

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