Emotions and the City
Guest Editorial
Nina Margies

Emotions play a role in the way we see, inhabit and build cities. Whenever we avoid walking through dark parks at night, design uncomfortable benches to scare homeless people away, cheer or suffer collectively at the city’s football stadium or when we get desperate about the impossibility to move within a city of constantly rising rents, emotions are part of the social and physical landscape and the way we consume and produce urban spaces and places.

This perspective may at first seem somewhat unfamiliar, as we are used to seeing emotions as something personal and highly subjective which take place inside an individual’s body – a view that has led us to believe that emotions are primarily the domain of psychology. One reason for this is the historically grown and widespread dichotomy of reason versus emotion, especially in the West, in which the former was associated with the masculine, civilisation and the mind, and the latter with the feminine, nature and the body 1.

Already in early antiquity, this dichotomy was used to justify the different possibilities for men and women in participating in public life and holding positions of power 2. In the Middle Ages (in Europe), the dichotomy then served, among other things, to legitimise pronounced misogyny as well as the persecution and burning of women who were considered witches, legitimised and spread by medicine, literature or theology, which portrayed women as vain, vicious, greedy, shameless or irascible 3. In the “bourgeois world epoch” 4, i.e. the period from the Enlightenment to the middle of the 20th century, the opposition emotion vs reason then took on a spatial dimension. The public market sphere became the domain of men, who were considered rational and objective. The private domestic sphere became the domain of women and femininity, associated with compassion and kindness, feelings of love and care. This was also reflected in the division of labour: the emotional, symbolised by the home and the bourgeois family, was now the primary (unpaid) duty of women 5

This brief excursion into history alone shows that emotions are far more than subjective experiences, private anecdotes or personal memories. In fact, they are always expressions of power relations, social hierarchies and thus politics. A look at the history of urban planning proves this as well.

Urban planning and emotions

Numerous interventions in urban space have been designed to counter fears and insecurities of the population or the ruling class 6. Take, for example, city walls and gates in the Middle Ages. They served to protect against the outside world and to convey a sense of security for those inside. As such, they were materialised symbols of inclusion and exclusion 7, 8.

Public lighting emerging in the 17th and 18th century also served to reduce the fear the power elite had of gatherings and urban riots. Thanks to oil lamps and later gas lanterns it was possible to now control even the smallest alleys 9. Concerns about uncontrolled rebellion also lay behind large-scale interventions such as tearing down entire neighbourhoods and rebuilding them in new forms, as happened, for instance, in Paris between 1853 and 1870. Baron Haussmann, responsible for urban planning at the time, had around 12,000 buildings demolished and replaced with wide, straight avenues and English-style parks 10.

Fear of pandemics and the associated concern about public health too had an impact on urban planning and use of the city. While at the beginning of the Covid19 pandemic in many places we completely restricted public urban life and closed, for instance, stadiums, mosques, playgrounds or parks, repeated outbreaks of cholera in London and Berlin in the early 19th century led city planners to build new or more modern sewerage systems 11.

These examples demonstrate that emotions are the driving force behind human action. They can be behind or the origin of social processes and interactions, both for us individually in everyday life and on a collective and institutional level, as the development of urban planning illustrates.

Yet emotions are not only causes, they can just as well be effects. This simply means that they are an outcome of social processes and the ways we relate to one another and to our environment. Take the phenomenon of urban change. Changes in the built environment, in the composition of the urban population or in the (im)possibilities of participating in public life in the city, produce emotions.

Urban Change and emotions

Already in the 19th century, the sociologist Georg Simmel related urban change to emotions. In his book Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben (The Metropolis and Mental Life) 12, he describes how the increasing density, speed and diversity of economic, cultural and social life in the ‘modern’ big city influences people’s emotional lives. At that time, the first large department stores open their doors, advertising the variety of their products in elaborately decorated shop windows. The development of electric light allows the extension of business hours as well as a new urban nightlife. Illuminated signs in neon colors make their appearance and compete for the attention of city dwellers on every street corner 13, 14. According to Simmel, these numerous visual and sensory impressions result in continuous stimulation of the nervous system that have to be processed cognitively as well as emotionally. He therefore observes an adaptation of the personality: the “small-town character, which is more oriented toward the soul and emotional relationships, [becomes] […] the intellectualistic character of the metropolitan mental life” 15, which adopts a “blasé attitude” as protective mechanism to be equipped for the complexity of urban life.

While Simmel’s analyses focus primarily on European cities, the historian Joseph Prestel shows that authors in Cairo equally associated urban transformations with a change in emotional regimes. He writes that “in their descriptions, these contemporaries depicted rationality as an education of the heart that especially enabled men from the middle class to control their bodies and passions”, while at the same time “processes of urban change [were seen] as a danger to the “honor” of lower-class women” 16. The latter was particularly evident in the policing of prostitution and general female presence in the city. With the developing state apparatus and the inclusion of science in its work, police stations in Cairo became central sites for the control of female honor where, for example, female doctors examined women’s hymens for virginity when prostitution was suspected 17. This example not only illustrates how urban change is related to emotions, but also points out that their interrelation is influenced by (the intersection of) social categories such as gender, social class, or ethnicity.

When we think of urban change today, we cannot avoid talking about gentrification. This process involving the upgrading of a neighbourhood and the simultaneous displacement of the poorer population 18 can lead to the development of different emotional worlds 19. For instance, “feelings of displacement are triggered for low-income residents in gentrifying areas from their encounters with individuals and groups with different (and relatively privileged) social positioning, in the places previously experienced as home” 20. In the different ways long-term and newer residents appropriate and produce space, socio-economic and power inequalities become visible and can manifest themselves in feelings of inequality, anger, frustration and the feeling of being othered 21.

Belonging and feelings of exclusion in the city

It is not only in the context of gentrification that feelings of (dis)belonging and of in- or exclusion can be observed. They are also interwoven with the representation of places in public discourse. In studying representations of public housing in two American cities, geographer Ellen Hostetter found that by associating public housing with filth, decay and danger, spatial boundaries were drawn between white and black populations 22. These boundaries were not only spatial, but also emotional and symbolic. Hostetter writes that “it is disgust and fear that racializes this landscape, giving meaning and force to an ideology that views African-Americans as inherently inferior to whites” 23.

This example shows that representations of places in the city and the labelling of people who live there or use them often go hand in hand. The feminist writer Sara Ahmed 24 calls such association of people and places with certain emotions “stickiness” 25. By constructing one group in contrast to another, the “other” is assigned certain attributes which make them ´loveable`, ´hateful` or ´fearsome`. She demonstrates, for instance, how fear draws boundaries between those who feel it and those who supposedly cause it. Individuals or certain groups such as refugees, queer or black people are often constructed as fearsome and hence associated with potential danger. This experienced vulnerability can lead to real, spatial constraints such as the restriction of one’s own mobility by avoiding public places or dark streets or by being object of frequent control and policing. It can also restrict the mobility of others by closing borders or imposing visa restrictions for certain countries 26. The sticking as well as circulating of emotions in urban space is thus deeply political and always an expression of power and social inequalities.

Contributions to this issue

The contributions in this issue illustrate these different social dimensions of emotions and shed light on the often neglected relationship between cities and our feelings. They highlight how emotions shape the urban, how they circulate in urban space and which role physical and material space play in how we become emotionally involved and attached. The contributions revolve around the themes of urban planning, changes in the city, urban identities and feelings of in/exclusion, as well as urban (affective) infrastructure, each addressed through different textual and visual approaches.

The articles by Tanika Join & Lise Serra as well as Flavia Alice Mameli consider urban planning and urban renewal processes in Saint-Denis (La Réunion) and Berlin (Germany). The authors demonstrate how these are processes in which emotions emerge in the ideas for and conflicts over the future design of urban space. Different actors, from residents, to policy makers and architects bring varying expectations into the planning process and hence attach different values and emotions to it. Both authors illustrate how these emotional dynamics intertwined with intersections of class, gender and race can signifcantly shape the planning process, even leading, as in the case of Saint-Denis, to a perceived failure.

We then turn to the theme of urban change. How transformations, whether in the physical landscape or social context of the city, can evoke and influence emotions is impressively demonstrated by the contributions of both Federico de Matteis as well as Dorotea Ottaviani & Cecilia De Marinis. Struck by a sequence of earthquakes from 2009 to 2017, Federico de Matteis delves into the emotional afterlife of several Italian cities and their inhabitants confronted with urban destruction and trauma. Combining fictional elements, photographs and drawings, he creates an “affective topography” to render visible people’s subjective experiences of dealing with and suffering of the earthquake’s destruction. Dorotea Ottaviani & Cecilia De Marinis consider an event no less incisive: the Covid19 pandemic, which has been leaving its mark since 2020. Their call for postcards representing the changes in public space at the beginning of the pandemic has become a reflection of the complex emotional world that has emerged during that time, depicting the range from loneliness, uncertainty, and fear to the desire to be with and among people again.

Closely related to this is the issue of urban identities and feelings of belonging or exclusion in cities.  The contributions that take up this topic all deal with it using different examples (individualisation, digitalisation and smell in the city), but jointly demonstrate that emotions are in part unequally distributed in urban space and that segregation is linked to emotions that can “stick” to certain places and social groups. Using the example of Zurich (Switzerland), Sabrina Stallone shows that apps or web platforms with the idea of “city improvement”, where complaints and incidents can be voiced, contribute to how affects are distributed in urban space, reproducing and reinforcing existing dynamics of difference and exclusion. Suzel Balez then shows us how the dis/identification with space also comes about through smells. Sensory impressions like odours are linked to memories that can evoke certain emotions. Depending on how we classify and interpret these memories, our perception of certain places and people can vary and lead to feelings of belonging or rejection. In the form of a review, Francesca Cocchiara and Nicole de Groot take us into the world of the novel “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” by Olivia Laing, and explore the question whether solitude is the price of living in a global city. Their reflections are embedded in the context of the global pandemic, which has given the feeling of loneliness another, perhaps more collective level, as well as reflections on the question of whose loneliness we are actually talking about and which societal structures make this feeling emerge or could rather contain it.

Last but not least, the contribution by Belen Desmaison, Catalina Ortiz, Yael Padan, Vanesa Castan Broto, Teddy Kisembo, Shuaib Lwasa, Judith Mbabazi, Paul Mukwaya, Hafisa Namuli and Jane Rendell explores the development and co-creation of affective infrastructures in the city. They take us to Yangon (Myanmar), Lima (Peru) and Kampala (Uganda) and show how processes of co-producing urban knowledge create and are created by relations of care, trust, love and respect – affective infrastructures that, as they argue, “are central to the construction of urban futures that address multiple visions and understandings of the city”.

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Nina Margies is a lecturer and postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Social Sciences, in Urban Sociology at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her research interest is in the sociology of emotion and its link to questions of social change and urban inequalities. She is co-founder of The Urban Transcripts Journal, and board member of the European Sociological Association Research Network 11 – Sociology of Emotions. She has published peer-reviewed articles in Emotions & Society, Articulo – Journal of Urban Research, CITY and The Urban Transcripts Journal. Email: nina.margies@sowi.hu-berlin.de


Volume 5, no. 2 Jun-Dec 2022