Visualising the City

Visualising the city discloses the fundamental relation to the city as a possible object of study. In order to know the city, to understand it, and eventually to redesign and remodel it, the city must be seen, and must give itself over to being seen. Visualising the city is always related to the question: how do we know the city? This question conceals two possible interpretations: (1) what methods can we employ to gain knowledge of the city? And (2) how is it possible to come to know the city at all? In response, we should also question whether we can have any knowledge whatsoever of the city outside of the field of the visual, and if so what type of knowledge? As a discipline, urbanism has developed a theoretical disposition for understanding how the city works. Yet, theory attempts to understand the city as an object of quantifiable data that can be interpreted for the purposes of planning – with the many ideological forms that this practice can assume. Is there then a case to be made for the formation of different types of knowledge that resist the reification of the city and refocus on the social dimension of the production of urban space, e.g. collective responses to the urban question? In other words, when asking what the city looks like, should we also ask who is looking at the city, and why?

The relation of the visual and the theoretical are discussed in Martin Heidegger’s famous exposition on the etymology of “theory” in his essay Science and Reflection. From the Greek theōrein, he uncovers two root words: thea and horaō. The former is related to the theatre, i.e. a spectacle – the look of an object placed on the stage. Meanwhile, horaō signifies the act of looking attentively at something. Theorising something is rooted in the act of seeing something that gives itself to being seen only through the act itself. Visualising the city involves seeing that which discloses itself to the gaze. This might sound tautological: theory theorises that which can be theorised; visualisation, visualises that which can be made visual. However, it is better understood as a modal problem: only objects that can possibly be visualised can be included within the field of vision. This implies that the field of the visual is not an absolute field of all knowledge, but leaves open the question of possible non-visual objects. Is it possible to imagine a form of knowledge that speaks of those aspects that theory doesn’t see and cannot know?

We can begin to address this by determining the relation of the visual to the non-visual, and wondering whether this relation is necessary or contingent. In other words, would it be possible to imagine a visual field that contained no lacunae, that saw everything perfectly and disclosed an absolute representation of a given world? Or rather, does the act of visualisation necessarily indicate a non-visual field? If so, can we imagine a form of knowledge relating to the non-visual? Can we simply re-visualise, re-draw and re-theorise the city in order to reveal that which was previously cast into the shadows?

One attempt to answer these questions might draw a parallel between the visible/invisible relation and the figure of the subaltern. This concept is not just a synonym for the downtrodden and oppressed. Rather, it represents a social class whose political vision remains inarticulable within a given hegemonic regime. As such, the subaltern is defined through an antagonistic relation to the ideological other, whose own hegemonic superiority depends upon this very antagonism. Therefore, the political non-representation of the subaltern class takes on an ontological significance: being invisible, it’s as if they didn’t exist at all. We might, therefore, suppose that the disparity between the visible and the invisible maps onto the difference between presence and absence. We can see what is, what is there before our eyes, if only we could open them wide enough to see.

Here, all the complexities of visualising space appear to be methodological, which becomes just a way of sorting through the manifold of sense data, making choices about how to represent social and political space. Is it, therefore, possible to map the totality of urban space? As we will see, the problem is not so straightforward – producing a visual representation of space is not merely a technical exercise, but always contains a political choice. Let’s take for example the tourist maps of Rio de Janeiro produced to accompany the 2016 Olympic Games. Unsurprisingly, the city’s favelas (representing up to 25% of Rio’s entire population) were featured on them only as blank green areas. Now, it might seem a fairly harmless gesture to want to project an “unblemished” image of the city ahead of a major global event in which billions of dollars have been invested. Indeed, visualisations often take the form of what the city wants to show, how it wants to appear. However, this wasn’t exactly a unique instance of cartographic hubris – the favelas have always been absent from the official maps of the city. They are, in fact, re-presented as being-absent, and the people who call these neighbourhoods their home are equally absent-beings. Representing them as non-existent is therefore a convenient tool for justifying the arbitrary destruction of the favelas – as took place, e.g. in Vila Autodromo in 2016, whereupon thousands of “invisible” inhabitants saw their homes demolished.

The bureaucratic practice of excluding “marginal” spaces from urban representations produces myriad chronic consequences unfavourably affecting the inhabitants of these districts. Without inclusive mapping practices, it can also be difficult to ascertain how poorly the municipality serves the favela – where basic services are often in dire short supply – and how planning might respond to these basic inadequacies. Resistance to these practices of erasure often takes the form of counter-mapping. Notably, some internet based mapping projects, including even Google, have begun the process of mapping the favelas (not without a certain degree of controversy, it must be added). In this sense, counter-mapping takes the form of a demand for recognition, and the field of possible representation appears to be the battleground. The foremost strategy in this war of recognition is to produce counter-cartographies, which aim to make visible those who are being erased, and therefore delegitimise their social exclusion. But if this entails a war being fought for representation and visibility, then both protagonist and antagonist are engaged in a battle to dominate the visual. This occurs not only through mapping but through a range of technologies aiming to regulate access to the field of visibility, and determine the conditions on which this is possibly granted.

Increasingly, digital technologies are being employed on both sides of the visible/invisible divide. Aerial drones, for instance, are being deployed to map the vast uncharted, informal settlements that dominate the urban landscapes of the Global South. One such project, being carried out by CfAfrica in the Makoko floating slum district of Lagos, is using automated technology to produce detailed maps for the benefit of planners, developers and residents with aim of improving the accessibility of basic services. While this represents an instance of cartographic resistance to the de facto erasure of the district and its inhabitants, in other instances the use of technology can equally serve to solidify the state’s capacity to dominate the visual field through enhanced surveillance techniques.

The use of automated, mechanical eyes, from CCTV to data tracking in smart cities, has long been theorised as a form of panopticism, drawing upon Foucauldian notions of disciplinary power. Total domination of surveillance increasingly obliges subjects to self-discipline under the threat of arrest, persecution, exile or even death. The disciplinary power of surveillance therefore attempts to engineer how the city is visualised by determining the types of practices and interactions that can possibly be included in the visual field. In perhaps the most extreme contemporary example, Palestine – already characterised by security checkpoints, road blocks, walls, sentry towers, etc. – is now home to a new ever-present threat from the skies: the drone. The mechanical Cyclopes enable the theorisation of a Manichean visual field that is not fought over, but policed. Like the Homeric Cyclopes who live apart from society and law, drones transform the military objectives of counter-insurrectionism into a form of militarised policing. Here, making the invisible visible succeeds only in representing what has already been designated as an “axis of evil”, something to be scorched from the face of the earth without hesitation. With the wide dissemination of surveillance technologies we see not only an attempt to control populations but also how the gaze actively tries to determine the possible visualisations within a territory. Whereas, the use of colonial technologies aim to provide a visual justification for the politics of racism and apartheid, in an urban context we can also observe how the gradual creep of surveillance technologies within urban centres the world over represents a new method of political control, and a new epoch of disciplinary power. The line between the visible and the invisible is here being regulated in order to retain supremacy over any demands for recognition, rights and freedom.

However, the Israeli state doesn’t restrict itself to the deployment and development of surveillance technologies in order to discipline the indigent population. The basic premise of the Zionist project relies upon a historico-theological justification for the rightful claim to Eretz Israel, and there is no shortage in endeavour to secure this claim. For instance, the City of David, on the contested outskirts of East Jerusalem, has become emblematic of this struggle for territorial legitimacy via archaeological proof. In 2016, an excavation was carried out to determine a substantial Israeli claim to the land. In this instance, visualising the city is not only a spatial or even temporal endeavour, but can also become a historiographical venture. Visual foregrounding of a certain historical moment plays a direct role in, if not exactly subjugating a subaltern population, then at least justifying a claim to presence and to moral and political superiority. In this acute example, a whole array of perspectives are combined to produce multi-dimensional visualisations that aim to produce absolute political and military dominance over a subjugated people. Here, the limits of visualising space on a horizontal plane are overcome through the exploitation of vertical representations of space and time. It is therefore crucial to abandon limiting visualisations either spatially or temporally to horizontal representations of the city landscape. The advent of verticality in the politics of the visual demands new forms of resistant representations to counter this strategy.

Outside of colonial and post-colonial perspectives, cities in the Global North are also subject to the interplay of visual and non-visual interpretations. As has been discussed, vision possesses a dual aspect: seeing and being seen. Cities are increasingly concerned to employ a variety of tactics in order to project a particular image of themselves as well as manage perceptions about them. Such so-called place branding strategies, prominent within entrepreneurial and post-modern planning practice, turn cities from locations to destinations, competing with each other for people, resources, and business. Visualisation in this sense acquires its own agency over urban development itself. For example, the globally distributed images of many cities as holiday destinations alter not only their local development model but their citizens’ way of life. Only recently, the city of Amsterdam stopped advertising itself as a tourist destination acknowledging that visitor overload can severely impact its liveability. Images do not merely represent, selectively as they do, the city – they create it. The rebranding of Barcelona’s El Raval as an international cultural hub saw the further marginalisation of vulnerable groups strategically excluded from such polished images of culture-led tourism. Visualising the city according to a global brand image deprives places of their complexity and obscures much of their ‘globally uncompetitive’ aspects in the interest of an economic development that leaves many behind.

Who visualises the city, and who does the city visualise, becomes then the critical lever in a process of visualisation. Isn’t the recent planetary wave of protest movements – the Gilets Jaunes, the Sudanese and Algerian revolutions, and the Chilean protests among others – an act to visualise exactly those complexities of place by the previously invisible? One Chilean protester recently summed up the situation succinctly: “si no dejamos la cagá, no nos pescan” (“if we don’t fuck shit up, we don’t exist to them”). In a time when authoritarianism is on the rise democratising the ways of seeing the city appears as urgent as ever. Only by seeing the city through the eyes of the invisible can we grasp the full impact of urban development. Creating the enabling conditions for the invisibles to participate in creating an inclusive urban vision, one that aspires to a form of success which everyone has an equal share in, becomes then our primary challenge. The participatory planning approaches and experiences, from visioning to budgeting, have much to teach us about how to see the city anew. When Porto Alegre’s mayor Olivio Dutra institutionalised the then novel participatory budgeting (PB) approach on a citywide level in 1989, he institutionalised for the first time a process of democratic deliberation and decision making through which those traditionally left-out of the vision for their city, the poor, the favela dwellers, could not just create their vision for the city they want; they could equally materialise this vision by allocating parts of the municipal budget on the realisation of specific urban projects. In the first decade of PB Porto Alegre saw significant improvements for the poor and those on low incomes, extended sewer and water connections from 75 to 98 percent of households, increased public housing units from 1700 to 27000, quadrupled its number of schools, increased health and education budgets from 13 to 40 percent. Creating a vision together matters.

Drawing lines is the intuitive essence of visualisation in the form of geometrical representations of space. In this issue Karin Grundstrom focuses on how the Swedish notion of Stråk has been incorporated into urban design and planning practice as an approach to (re)-connect polarised cities. This cuts through the Euclidean spatiality that stands outside time through the drawing of movement itself, connecting inter-scalar urban spaces to each other and creating corridors of social interaction and dialogue. Different approaches to representing the city can also be detected in Cristiano Lippa and Fabiano Micocci’s comparative study of urban sections of Athens, Beirut, Hong Kong, New York, Rome, and Tokyo. Here, the counter-topographical is put forward as a means to visualise the sedimentation of material economic and historical forces intrinsic in the production of space, thus revealing the effects of wars and migration upon the city. This approach is echoed in Nausica Pezzoni’s phenomenological work in The Uprooted City, whereby European metropolises are reimagined through the immigrant experience. The way we experience the city is also at the forefront of Jonna Tolonen’s thought provoking piece in which the real life casualties of gentrification take centre stage. In the space of a decade, vast swathes of communal history have been deracinated only to be replaced by marketable units in an episode of capitalistic enthusiasm that history will not regard kindly.

In order to counter the commodification of our urban spaces, it is vital to imagine different ways of preserving the history of our cities and the communities that have built them. Planning practice must work with the historical forces that have shaped the city. Bearing this in mind, Stavros Mouzakitis develops the idea of Playful Polyculture: an urban design proposal for the Attica Basin that draws on a critical engagement with the topographical and historical attributes of the local region. In an equally revealing project by Adela Petra Popa, the Janus faced city of Timisoara, Romania, is depicted through diurnal and nocturnal opposition. We are reminded that the diverse economic and social needs of the city require visualisations that are never universal – how we light the city at night enables us to visualise this potential diversity of perspectives. Critically reflecting on the assumptions underpinning urban visualisations and their impact on how we perceive urban density, Yorgos Garofalakis, Alexander Alexiou, and Daphne Delphaki, argue for an understanding of density as a tool for better place making. Finally, the team at Hyper Studio are researching how technology can enable us to synthesise these perspectives through the collection, distribution and sharing of urban data on hypermedia platforms. Right now, the future of visualising the city is glimpsed through the aperture of real-time access to the flow of urban forms – one never steps foot in the same city twice!

In conclusion, we are reminded of Claude Levi-Strauss’ experiment concerning the spatial disposition of the buildings in a village belonging to one of the Great Lakes tribes. In order to establish how the villagers perceived the village, he separated them into their hierarchical social groups, the superiors and their inferiors. What he found was that both groups mapped the village in distinct ways: neither map corresponded precisely to the other, nor to the objective arrangement of the buildings themselves. It would be easy to conclude from this that the way we visualise the city depends upon a distinctive socio-political point of view. However, Slavoj Zizek’s analysis of this experiment is quick to observe that the problem lies elsewhere. It is not only that each group possesses a perceptual bias based on already existing social prejudices, but that the contrast between the two visualisations of space reveals a more real rupture. The “real” here is not the actual objective spatial arrangement of the village but the social antagonism that invisibly generates the separation of the two maps. Visualising the city is not the problem of visualising the buildings, the services, the flows of people and goods, etc., but is more fundamentally the problem of uncovering the real social conflicts that are disclosed in the very process of visualisation. We have to look behind the gaze itself in order to locate the antagonism that lies within.

Image notes: Chris Hadfield’s photograph, taken from the ISS, 200 miles above the earth, illustrates, more than two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the East-West division of the city: fluorescent lamps cause a brighter, whiter glow, in western Berlin while sodium-vapour lamps, unchanged since the Cold War, give off a softer, yellowish hue, in the eastern part.

Volume 3, No. 2 June 2020