Monday, 22 December 2003

'Residents don’t need signs' Can we develop a method of ‘reading neighbourhoods’? How exactly do you read the spatial and social signs when, say, someone takes you into their neighbourhood and shows you round, or when you visit a project or a community centre somewhere? Without thinking about it, we pick up information from things like the style and state of the housing, the number of people walking about, the presence of corner shops and shutters, and so on. So what if people could augment such spatial information with observations of their own, for the visitor to cull according to their needs and interests? All you may need is a mobile, or maybe not even that. These thoughts were sparked by a conversation with Giles Lane of Urban Tapestries, when I went to see him with David Wilcox. The Urban Tapestries project is looking at how people can associate place-based information of their own, with that place, using location-based wireless technologies. The Urban Tapestries blog carries some material about their recent public trial in north central London. We talked about how different content would be authored in different kinds of locality, which brought to mind a comment in Paul Carter's absorbing book, Repressed spaces: “Residents don’t need signs, only foreigners do… In this sense, all signs are signs of not belonging, of coming from somewhere else. Thus, logically, a city in whose streets signs cluster like bees is designed for strangers. It is constitutionally for the other.” And it's true, when you visit a marginalised neighbourhood, with no through-traffic cos there's no way through, and just a few incursions by, say, the utilities or delivery vans - there are few signs. The fewer signs, the fewer advertisements too of course, and so on. Hence the sharp distinctions between, say, a lively urban centre and a severed outer estate that may have begun to atrophy. But if you were picking up additional information about a place from material 'left' there for you, by others (both residents and visitors) - information that could be tailored to your interests or your gender or race or age or degree of mobility - that could alter significantly the ways in which we read neighbourhoods. It could alter the ways in which we behave, in terms of territoriality. Hopefully there will be opportunities with projects like Urban Tapestries to explore such implications from the point of view of people in low-income neighbourhoods. Reference: Carter, Paul. 2002. Repressed spaces: the poetics of agoraphobia. London: Reaktion Books.

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