beyond the journal article

This fall, I was given the opportunity to bring my research into the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery as part of a larger exhibit about queer lives and social activism. I designed the exhibit to highlight a few of the themes that have emerged through the oral history collection: as the images below illustrate, the small wall of the exhibit offers an introduction and overview and the larger wall consists of the three topics -Policy Matters, Keeping It “Normal”, and Being & Feeling In Place- around which I organized narrators’ quotes. (Read more about the research and the exhibit content here.)IMG_7678

The exhibit opened last Thursday. It was incredibly gratifying for me to see the work that has occupied most of my waking hours in the last six weeks come to life on the walls of the gallery. More than that, though, it is really exciting to be making these stories visible to a wider audience, and in a format that is different than the typical scholarly options (journal article, book) that remain the most valued form of research dissemination. IMG_0835

The fact is that most of the narrators who have contributed to this oral history-social geography project won’t be interested in reading a scholarly monograph, even if it is priced and written to be accessible to a more-than-scholarly audience. As a result, without an exhibit like this, most narrators would not get a sense for how their stories and their experiences of queer place-making compare to others’ stories and experiences. The LGBTQ ‘community’ here has much in common with queer communities in other cities: what may appear to be one ‘LGBTQ community’ in Lethbridge is in fact many communities, divided by the usual factors (e.g., generation, class, race) as well as some additional features (like one’s status as a local or transplant to southern Alberta). Thus, while stories of queer place-making and comfort and safety are certainly shared among friends, the opportunities for dialogue across LGBTQ folks in Lethbridge are limited. IMG_0836

Given that this archive is a community resource (and, in the best case scenario, a tool for community building), I feel a sense of responsibility to share these stories in a way that will make a difference to the narrators’ lives. There are a number of ways that the project aims to enact ‘making a difference’; for instance, it has been clear from the start of the research that the oral histories would be donated to the local historical society, to become part of a public archive and contribute to the official local historical record. This exhibit is another effort toward ‘making a difference’: it gives LGBTQ voices and experiences space and visibility not often afforded in the Lethbridge region. And I hope that it will spark conversation within the LGBTQ communities and beyond, in a way that considers the opportunities and challenges of queer place-making in and around Lethbridge.

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technocratic tendencies

sennett tweetLoath as I am to squash the dreams of the young and impressionable (or the wise and not-impressionable, for that matter), Richard Sennett’s recent piece in The Guardian compels me to address a common misapprehension about urban planning: that is, urban planning is less “sidewalk ballet” and more “instruction manual”. Those who come to urban planning via Jane Jacobs’ idealistic descriptions of Greenwich Village, or by way of the smart writing about Canadian cities in Spacing, may be surprised to find that the work of planners is often dominated by bureaucratic concerns, such as negotiating zoning policies that have longer staying power than any sitting city council.

Indeed, urban planning’s technocratic tendencies are caused in part by its function: that is, planning as a strategy to govern space. The very origins of urban planning can be located in the division of land into “appropriate” uses – and users. Thus, it should be no surprise that urban planning is at its base focused on the procedural elements of municipal policy (in particular, how to operationalize policy within a context of a) competing interests and b) bureaucratic disincentives to change).

Yet, there remains a tension between the romantic ideals that are ascribed to planning – as in, the ability to create vibrant communities through urban design – and the functional purpose of planning. This is the tension that I aimed to draw out in my snarky tweet about Sennett’s article: “What? A GPS won’t provide a sense of community?!”

Don’t get me wrong: interesting, dynamic, well-used public spaces are often the product of good planning, just as poor planning can inhibit the use of urban space. But, as Sennett identifies, planning is best when it responds to and reflects the “complex tissues of local life”. Planning that is only prescriptive in its attempt to shape the urban experience is planning at its worst.

The thing that strikes me most about Sennett’s argument is that he even needs to make it. The fact that he needs to specify that “efficient” urban living may be attainable but is not desirable should serve as a reminder that urban planning must actively confront its masculinist drive to retain top-down control over the spaces that fall under the purview of a master plan. (I’m using masculinist in Cartesian terms here; it refers to an expectation that mind – and men, literally – can control matter.) Top-down control, as Sennett points out, creates passive urban consumers rather than citizens who take ownership over urban spaces to carve out their own sense of place.

“Smart cities” are simply the most recent iteration of the technocratic tendency in urban planning. Given that smart cities can be read to combine a functional definition of efficiency with a clearly defined centre for command and control, I find it entirely unsurprising that they entice planners who subscribe to a Le Corbusier ethic of urban life. However, urban life should not always be efficient (or perhaps efficient needs to be re-defined in a way that accounts for its long-term implications). (On “inefficient” urban life, take a look at this story about learning to look at one’s neighbourhood.) Moreover, many of the most vibrant urban spaces – the spaces that people want to live in and travel to and experience – are those that are defined and developed by their users.

On van Eijk

Two questions to get started:

More than anything else, van Eijk’s article reads to me as a treatise on the problem of separating the economic from the social: she wants a fuller recognition of the effects that social agendas have on urban policies. And social agendas do not exist outside of or alongside economic realities; rather, the social and the economic are inextricable. How does the author make this point?

How does community play out in this text?

On Kern, Sex & the Revitalized City

As everyone read the Kern chapters, I will use this post to prompt some discussion.

First. There are many things that I appreciate about Kern’s book: among other things, I welcome her ability to explicitly link urban policy, the praxis of development, and the experiences of young women condo owners. I am left wondering about gender, however. In the text, gender works as something of a monolithic category. It is deployed but not necessarily examined. At the same time, there seems to be something of (at times, ever so slight) a re-fashioning of how gender is understood and performed for these middle-class women condo owners. Does gender get re-worked in this text, in your opinion?

Second. Kern’s discussion of community is an important challenge to the notion that communities necessarily emerge out of “shared” space, or that new developments in existing, well-established neighbourhoods will join in with similar kinds of community engagement. It’s actually a mystery to me why anyone would make these assumptions. Perhaps this is because I have also written about community in an effort to unsettle its romantic lure. Following Miranda Joseph and others, I interrogated the ways that my interviewees employed the term/idea, arguing that these women used “community” as a way to assert agency. Here’s a piece of my argument (from Muller 2007, “‘Lesbian Community’ in WNBA Spaces”, Social & Cultural Geography):

“MN Lynx [Women’s National Basketball Association] fans reveal that ‘lesbian community’ is invoked as a claim to agency when markers that previously signalled lesbian space have been rendered incoherent. In other words, ‘community’ discourse can be read as an assertion of empowerment in a time and place when lesbian spaces have been dissolved into the urban landscape, and when there is no clearly identifiable ‘lesbian space’.”

I raise this here as another example of how “community” is marked (and marketed). Just as my focus on WNBA fans highlighted the conflicted uses of “community” discourses, Kern’s discussion illustrates how “community” is both imposed (by developers’ visions of what condo living should look like) and adopted by some condo owners, just as it is impossible to operationalize (see p. 118). What are your thoughts about the way that community works in this book?