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Book Review: Sensing Cities

Sensing Cities: Regenerating Public Life in Barcelona and Manchester, Mónica Montserrat Degen, Routledge, 2008.

Mónica Montserrat Degen’s recent book Sensing Cities: Regenerating Public Life in Barcelona and Manchester provides an illuminating discussion of the sensuous dimension of the urban everyday, particularly in the context of ‘regenerated’ neighbourhoods. In the book’s first section, Degen lays the theoretical groundwork for her analysis. Following Lefebvre’s notion of space as experienced “first and foremost through the sensuous body” (Degen, 2008, p. 18), and drawing upon his trialectic of space (spaces of representation [lived], spatial practices [perceived], and representations of space [conceived]), Degen outlines her notion of a “socially embedded aesthetics,” which conceives of “aesthetics” in its broadest (ancient Greek) sense as “the perception of the external world by the senses” (p. 38). This conception seeks to emphasize the situated and social nature of the senses, as well as the importance of corporeal perception in structuring urban space both mentally and physically. In the second section, Degen applies her theoretical framework within an extensive discussion of two ‘regenerated’ neighbourhoods: Castlefield in Manchester and El Raval in Barcelona.

Play Urban Sound Ecology by Amy MacDonald.

This recording was taken just outside the Alberta Legislature building in Edmonton on July 1, 2008 (Canada Day). Behind the domed Beaux Arts building is a large public space that includes a fountain and wading pool, and provides a popular recreational spot on hot summer days. This sound clip could be interpreted a number of ways in light of Degen’s book; one of these involves her discussion of the tension between individual agency and imposed order in urban sensescapes. The sound clip without visual imagery might bring to mind a place of play, independence, and individual whim, but the somewhat imposing and ’serious’ visual presence of the legislative building, with its potential connotations of abstract representations of space, certainly influences one’s perception of this particular sensory experience.

Degen’s work covers much ground, tying urban sensory geography to broader processes of globalization and, in turn, bringing these processes to bear on the everyday lived patterns and practices of the residents of (and visitors to) El Raval (famed for its narrow streets) and Castlefield. Accordingly, her book offers many fruitful paths of thought to follow. One of these, which particularly struck me, involves the paradoxical nature of sensuous experience. In her analysis, Degen recognizes and maneuvers within several tensions that are inherent in sensuous experiences—for instance, the interplay between the private, or personal, and public ‘senses’ of sense, and between reception and manipulation of stimuli and sensescapes, to name just two. In terms of the former, we perceive sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches (although, as Degen notes, “at the same time we touch we are touched”; 42) often on a very personal level; certain preferred sensuous experiences—favourite colours, music, and foods, for instance—become markers of identity and individuality, and are not expected to be shared by everyone we meet. Yet a “sensuous mapping” (p. 173) of Castlefield and El Raval residents’ perceptions of the sensescapes of their ‘regenerated’ surroundings suggests not only the senses’ vital role in shaping personal “attachments to places” (p. 175) but also the presence of a “common sensuous imaginary” (p. 175), revealing a commonality among private sensuous interpretations. Further, Degen’s discussion shows that what we might at first consider personal sensuous experiences are in fact inextricably tied to the publicness of a particular space, as access to, and engagement and representation within, public space are deeply affected by the “organization of the sensescapes” of those places in the processes of regeneration that is often effected by private forces (p. 195).


Tenement House Yard, New York from Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, 1890
(Thanks to The Authentic History Centre).

Degen’s discussion also treats the interplay of reception and manipulation of sensuous experience and sensescapes, a “constant negotiation between an imposed order and individual agency” (p. 54). Dominant ideologies found in the conceived visions (representations of space) of planners and politicians provide controlled directives for activities and associated sensory experiences within ‘regenerated’ public spaces. These directives are based on the increasing need to market the experience of (regenerated) public space as a commodity, and often include the predominance of the visual; a drive towards ‘cleanliness’ and the removal of supposed sensuous pollution; and a bland, heavily edited sense of history couched within a ‘designer heritage aesthetic.’ Although these characteristics impose sensescapes upon residents and visitors that sometimes have upsetting results (such as the dissolution of El Raval residents’ strong social bonds), sensuous reorganization is not simply passively received in lived experience. Rather, individuals intervene, appropriating, personalizing, and subverting the sensescapes imposed by new housing and public squares. Degen reveals senses and sensescapes as active sites of struggle, in which individuals enter into dialogue with common conceptions of “good” urban planning and design.

Concert, Castelfield

Concert, Castelfield, 2004 (Thanks to BBC)

Degen’s work reminds us of the important role of the senses in mediating our experience with our local surroundings and the global forces that shape them, negotiating the public and the private, the social and the personal. As planners, developers, and designers hunt for the key to the ever-elusive ‘sense of place,’ Degen cautions that the role of embodied sensuous experience in making that sense, and in making sense of the world around us, should not be underestimated.

Reviewed by Amy Macdonald, University of Alberta, Canada.

- Rob