City life thrives on pamphlets and manifestos, like the 1970 classic, Kenen Helsinki? or Whose Helsinki, which arguably prevented wholesale demolition of many places Helsinkians still love.

We just got another pamphlet.

Kenen Kaupunki? Helsingin Kaupunkisuunnittelu ja kulttuuriympäristö törmäyskurssilla – Whose City? Helsinki urban planning and cultural heritage on a collision course (my translation) – was published this spring.

The authors are architectural experts, deeply unhappy with current planning in Helsinki. They view it as participation-washed as well as green-washed, and even more opaque and conflict-ridden than before. Worse still (perhaps), the environment it produces is not up to the standard that Finnish architecture has historically aspired to – and often achieved.

As we gear up to local elections on June 13th, people and the media really are interested. What the administration’s growth ambitions and the needs [sic] of foreign capital mean for life in future Helsinki are, it seems, finally news.

The book approaches current planning through fifteen controversial proposals in or close to the city centre. If these go ahead, the book suggests, they will smother and spoil the low-rise and breathable cityscape Helsinki now enjoys. The iconic South Harbour is a particular area of concern, the surroundings of our equally iconic main railway station another. The authors also point out that the city’s plans are often contrary either to the international principles of heritage preservation, for instance, we have signed up to or actually illegal.

Echoing the book, letters to editors and online commentary by citizens is overwhelmingly opposed to the city’s visions. People don’t like the scale and the bling. A prominent example concerns building over the open-air but covered bus terminus between the former main post office and the railways station: below a screenshot from the city’s online consultation.

It’s not just the buildings people oppose, it’s how they will block out the sky and slowly suffocate life at street level. The pamphlet is in fact refreshingly alert to the pedestrian experience of a place. This is a welcome feature in its architectural approach, it is after all, jointly published by Docomomo Finland, Icomos, the Finnish Association of Architects SAFA and the society for built heritage (my translation).

The old pamphlet is now a precious antiquarian collector’s item.

The new pamphlet is available in not just neat print but also as handy pdf, in Finnish, as it should be, and I am certainly hoping it will have a similar impact to the 1970 publication.

The problems are neither unique nor new, but imaginations and hopes for good futures have been clawed back since 1970. The institutional structures for making good cities are simply wrong (some references as they relate to Helsinki can be found in a paper I co-wrote here). Any city now deemed successful has to cope with financialization and its costs on people and lively surroundings. As the documentary film Push showed so nicely, heavyweight lobbying and dominant financial practices push people out while pulling investors in. Democratic accountability and social fabric suffer, as does built heritage.

What’s strange is how long it took the public in Helsinki to notice that this is also happening here.

A slow waking up was prompted by the rather unhappy process of drawing up Helsinki’s City Plan or the 2016 development plan. This plan explicitly encourages finance-led construction: dense, high, efficient and efficiently built, remorselessly marketed, where the new squeezes out the old. The atmosphere will be less that of Helsinki’s low-rise cityscape, which suits our peculiar light conditions so well. What is in the pipeline also threatens the quiet elegance of the city centre and many suburbs, and in cramming formatted and over-designed novelties across the city, will weaken the quirky attractions Helsinki still nurtures. So much of this place-based good has already been replaced by bland sameness because this is what big investors and their accomplices want.

British architecture critic Jonathan Glancey reflected on the effects of this on Helsinki in wistful language back in 2015, in the book Cindy Kohtala and I edited. Helsinki, which Glancey had once experienced as a gem, had started losing its shine. Cheap global brands had displaced a dear local uniqueness. What, Glancey mused, was the point of coming to Helsinki at all.

If the public were unconcerned in 2015, things have changed. I was told that the first print run of Kenen Kaupunki? quickly sold out. I did get mine – eventually.

Caring for the neighbourhood and following planning is still hard work. The outpouring of property porn (as in a picture I’ve used before, flogging Kalasatama, below) and populist talk of housing shortage constantly narrows down public debate. Large and ever more complex development proposals are presented to council representatives as black boxes too complicated to be opened up (to use one councillor’s term). With these black boxes in hand, the construction sector and its friends, offer great futures but also make demands that, the pamphlet argues, go against any notion of the greater good. They allow our parks, protected cultural heritage, our streets and squares to be turned into construction sites while private interests usually trample over public value.

Harri Hautajärvi, one of the editors, does a great job of linking the troubles in our city to global patterns, calling out as he does so, the falseness of any claims to save the planet with “efficient” construction. The other editors, Timo Tuomi and Juhana Heikonen, write chapters detailing just how, exactly, the tensions between short-termism and historical values affect planning in Helsinki today. Now that Helsinki is recognized as an excellent place to invest, telling this story is more important than ever. Indeed, a great strength of the pamphlet is that it zooms out to comparative situations from other places and other times.

The fact is that cities everywhere have to worry about how “form follows finance”. Most municipalities probably struggle against economic imaginaries that make it impossible or difficult to support the social good, like publicly financed homes or inspiring school buildings. And, as the book notes, the anarchy of markets has never been known to solve housing crisis. Of course, when we look back into history, as Maria Kaika and Korinna Thielen argued (in 2006), we do find that of course architecture has long glorified power, individual companies, for example. Think in Helsinki of the corporate headquarters like the telephone company, HPY, or the insurance company, Pohjola. But now, what gets built in your town now simply glorifies big-companies-in-general, the point being to extract rent from businesses that are passing through more than putting down roots.

Helsinki’s administration, and even its Green Party representatives, do not actually deny the main criticisms made in the pamphlet, appealing simply to the TINA-doctrine (there-is-no-alternative) or stereotyping opponents as backward. It is indeed city strategy to “to enable private interests access to those places they want” (our outgoing mayor Jan Vapaavuori, who is about to start working for an international property developer, as quoted on p. 18).

It’s a complicated thing, running a city. Talking about its planning in an era of grave Earth Systems imbalances and other novel vulnerabilities, one can’t ignore the nonhumans that are also part of the complex kaleidoscope of social relations and urban metabolisms. (Which point gives me the excuse to nod towards Helsinki’s Sustainability Science Days last week, where we enjoyed a viewing of Matthew Gandy’s wonderful documentary, Natura Urbana, about Berlin and its politically generated ecology).

By concentrating on built form, the Kenen Kaupunki? pamphlet turns a messy reality into a compelling and important story. It also opens up the terrain for wider and deeper treatment of the issues, and for different approaches.

Understandably its authority lies largely in the writers’ and publishers’ professional status and appeals to international treaties on cultural heritage and interpretations of planning law and policy. Hence the many references to how decision making has run roughshod over cultural heritage values, policy on historic buildings (weak as it is in Finland), and so on. Several chapters are about the histories of the old, largely 19th century, buildings still here for us to enjoy, low-rise, wooden and appreciated not just by the connoisseur but by all of us who live here.

The expert-lay divide matters here, because the city’s built form, which is overseen by the planning system and architects, is everybody’s world. No wonder they can tend towards the arrogant, their work concerns nothing less than the environment in which we Helsinkians dwell. Bearing this in mind, the rather social angle in the pamphlet is a welcome exception in Finnish architectural discourse, I would say. It also addresses another Helsinki blind-spot, the way our troubles are connected to world-wide issues.

For it is the case that people around the world, in many social movements, are spending inordinate energies simply preserving what they love and need, in the global North (a shrinking German town, say) as much as the South (as environmental defenders, say). Heritage is shared and extends beyond individual stories, and so gives meaning to place and to life. It grounds shared future horizons. Writing about heritage as a current issue, the pamphlet has already encouraged a lively local debate.

The thing is, the city (of Helsinki) is an experience. But this is not the brief encounter you can sell to a tourist, nor is it the nicely formatted spatial configurations created by today’s huge urban development projects. Like any city worth the visit – for tourist or other – Helsinki is above all made up of people who are committed to being here rather than somewhere else.

What is so great about the pamphlet is how it is inspiring people to share diverse ways of knowing and breathing life into the city. These are out there in letters to and copy in newspapers, online discussions and countless exchanges people are having in their daily encounters. It’s also the case that Helsinki is becoming big enough and its people perhaps self-confident enough, that there is room for many Helsinkis (as we put it with Cindy and the contributors to our book back in 2015). Different people and different publics make visible different aspects of Helsinki.

I’m hoping to see more stories of people valuing Helsinki simply because it is our home, whether ancestral (which in Helsinki means about three generations) or recent. These stories aren’t opposed to those of architectural historians, but they are different. Importantly, they are not the stories of the “demands” made by large-scale development companies or retail conglomerates. When city leaders cosying up to big money talk about supply and demand, they are talking about the need for big companies to make profits and please their shareholders. Meanwhile we Helsinkians need accessible and affordable places to live, but we also need beautiful and meaningful surroundings, to support everyday life and to nurture our physical, social and mental health. We need places like the Lapinlahti former asylum (above), frequently discussed on this blog and one of the cases in the pamphlet.

Delightfully, the complex development situation with Lappari, as I call it, was also a topic taken up in a panel debate in anticipation of those elections. In that discussion the debate did not, I’m pleased to report, get flattened into the lazy binary – for versus against – that the city and too many developers tend towards.

Thank you to the creators! Kenen Kaupunki? helps us non-experts be bolder about our demands for good living in our cherished city and for everyone to start debating with more depth and breadth.

I was trained in ethnography and that generally involves walking, whether or not you make it into a ‘thing’. As I find myself doing just that, I find inspiration in many places.

Walking artists, those attentive noticers, continue to influence me. It’s a roundabout and amateur relationship. There’s Richard Long and his Lines Made by Walking from 1967, and Marina Abramovich and her (and her partner’s) The Great Wall Walk, plus the many contemporary British authors with a liking for the pedestrian life, like Ian Sinclair and Will Self, or comedian Doon Mackichan. And then there’s been the Walking Artists Network. Their blog (not sure if it’s being updated) and other resources are available through this link. Helsinki colleagues have developed urban hitchhiking. And then of course there is Morag Rose, of the wonderful artists collective, LRM or Loiterers’ Resistance Movement.

Geographers, empirically minded sociologists with a penchant for deep hanging out, and anthropologists walk and often reflect on it. Those with an interest in landscapes and how they are shaped tend to be attentive to how steps, human and other, create pathways. Environmental historians and the walking thinkers they have written about, like the 18th-century Gilbert White, also go on my list. Urban walkers, flaneurs, Situationists and others likewise.

Below, a few favourite references from other places.

I have to begin with Tim Ingold whose work blew my mind when I was struggling to make toxic waste a material concern while writing my doctorate. My go-to introduction to some key ideas would be Ingold, T. (2000 [1993]) ‘The temporality of the landscape’, in his collection of essays, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill [also in World Archaeology, Vol.25, 1993.] More about walking can also be found in Ingold T (2011) Being Alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. New York: Routledge and Ingold, T. (2009) ‘Against Space: Place, Movement, Knowledge’, in Kirby, P. W. (ed.) Boundless Worlds: An Anthropological Approach to Movement. And of course there’s the volume, Ingold, T., & Vergunst, J. L. (Eds) (2008) Ways of walking: Ethnography and practice on foot. Ashgate.

In close conversation with Ingold: Árnason, A., N. Ellison, J. Vergunst and A. Whitehouse (eds) (2012) Landscapes Beyond Land: Routes, Aesthetics, Narratives. Berghahn, and for instance Jo Vergunst & Arnar Árnason (2012) ‘ Introduction: Routing Landscape: Ethnographic Studies of Movement and Journeying’, Landscape Research, Vol. 37, Number 2, 147 – 154. Chris Tilley, Tim Edensor and Thomas Widlock are also in this company.

(I need work on the gender imbalance here. Flaneuses and decolonizing flaneuses, in particular, surely offer leads for finding improved understandings and ways of walking.)

Much of the scholarship mentioned above draws on phenomenological thought, highlighting the need to appreciate what links activity, movement in particular, to surroundings. In that way, obliquely at least, it gently draws attention to the accelerated tempos and associated troubles of capitalist modernity (or whatever concept one might want to use – I hope you understand). Following Martin Heidegger, this work also critiques the tendency to celebrate dwelling and stasis. At times it (inadvertently?) appears to celebrate it.

A wonderful book, not so much about walking, but a pioneering collection that’s probably influenced many walking folks, is the 1996 volume edited by Steven Feld and Keith Basso, Senses of Place. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press. I can see in my mind’s eye exactly where and how Widsom Sits in Places!

A more recent growing literature and practice puts the emphasis on decolonizing thought. This makes for a different starting point or rather way of walking with leading to a thinking with (these are almost technical concepts). As you might expect, Australia’s colonial history is furnishing us with ample examples such work, for instance, Springgay, Stephanie and Sarah E. Truman (2018) Walking methodologies in a more-than-human world: WalkingLab. Routledge, developing explicitly feminist-queer, anti-racist, anti-ableist, and anti-colonial walking.

This then leads me to how walking as a methodology can be linked to fears for sustainability and to the language of the Anthropocene. Below a rather random selection, reports, articles and such. As part of a wider concern to educate the senses, these endorse a walking pace and perspective, on foot, in a wheelchair or in some other slow mode, in the company of artists, scientists, “lay people”and others.

Ernsten, C., Shepherd, N., & Visser, D. J. (2018) The Walking Seminar: Embodied research in emergent Anthropocene landscapes. Amsterdam University of the Arts, an art-science project focussed on South Africa.

Van Dooren, Thom, Eben Kirksey, and Ursula Münster. “Multispecies Studies Cultivating Arts of Attentiveness.” Environmental Humanities 8.1 (2016): 1-23, is a review of the methodological challenges of doing research in emergent environments and also of the key conceptual resources from neo-materialist or vitalist thought. An earlier text that doesn’t labour these theoretical issues in the environmental humanities so, is Eernstman Natalia & Arjen EJ Wals (2013) Locative Meaning-making: An Arts-based Approach to Learning for Sustainable Development, Sustainability, Vol.5(4), 1645-1660; doi:10.3390/su5041645.

New directions in walking methods are being developed in conservation research, for instance: Carruthers-Jones, J., Eldridge, A., Guyot, P., Hassall, C., & Holmes, G. (2019) The call of the wild: Investigating the potential for ecoacoustic methods in mapping wilderness areas. Science of the Total Environment, 695, 133797. Also evocative and helpful is Tümerdem, N. (2018) Recording the landscape: Walking, transforming, designing. A| Z ITU Journal of the Faculty of Architecture, 15(2), 83-106, Istanbul, Turkey.

In this kind of work, the dynamism of walking and the apparent stasis of tools like maps are getting reconfigured – hopefully in order to generate robust evidence for (environmental) policy makers. (If and as this happens, I hope myself to contribute to ways to better understand pedestrian experience among technical infrastructures, at all stages of their manufacture and use, from mines to cables to phones in our pockets.)

Perhaps in this embarrassment of riches there is a typology of ways of walking worth developing. Maybe that’s already been done. You may well know about it. If you do, I’d love to know.

In any case, the deliberate pedestrian turns out to be enduringly peculiar as well as peculiarly enduring. That figure is indeed an invitation to pay better attention a world like ours, inimical in so many ways, to caring about what’s around.


Being critical

Some weeks before formerly taken-for-granted pleasures like classroom teaching began to be curtailed, I sent an abstract to an ERC/UEF conference on sensory methodologies, for a paper I called ‘Meandering in modern landscapes’. I thought of it as a sympathetic critique of sensory methods. I imagined that I could base at least some of it on walks I would do with students in the Design Department at Aalto over the spring of 2020.

Instead, in the past months I have mostly walked with like-minded friends and I have read about walking. Fortunately I did get to walk with Lucy Davis, intrepid enquirer into migrantecologies and member of the Art Department at Aalto University, whose students have been doing a lot of walking recently, as I’ll explain below.

When I sent in my paper abstract last spring, I was particularly concerned with the way sensory research can slip into ‘romanticism’. I had noted that not everyone who is extolling the virtues of embodied and slow methods like walking has the (anthropologists’) luck of being familiar with the endless variety of ways that humans can arrange but also experience their worlds. Celebrating the human body and one’s own senses can, namely, lead to simplifying and parochial habits, like talking about human experience as if it were a transparent thing. I worried that sensory methods can forget one of the key lessons of the anthropology of the senses: the senses are made, not given (David Howes 2019).

This important lesson (that human life is culturally constructed) has been forgotten or, more exactly not appreciated, by many environmentalists. We European green types still channel heroic efforts from 200 years ago even, to get in touch with the most awesome aspects of nature in solitude, as if climbing up a rugged mountain were a route to universal insight. The standard example is Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog. A typical experience of the sublime, I was indulging in it a few weekends ago here in Helsinki, with Lucy and Guy Julier, see the photo below. What a lovely afternoon we had. But though this kind of communing is rewarding, readers may know that it has been eloquently critiqued by William Cronon and other environmental historians.

Vuosaaren huippu January 2021 with colleagues

Sensory methods can also limit inquiry to the small scale and the low-tech. If, like me, you are interested in landscapes and lifeways that are largely shaped by capital-intensive digital infrastructures, that is a shortcoming.

In research around environmental politics more generally, turning away from the large-scale technical structures and related forms of mess left by modernity (to borrow from Kim Fortun), leads to dead ends, I think.

Where changing the world (for the greener) is part of one’s motivation for working on better research methods, there’s even a danger that disciplines favouring sensory methods (anthropology and design are those that I know) may become irrelevant if they mainly indulge in and celebrate our embodied experience. After all, to respond to real and shared threats like a heating climate, we unambiguously need seriously sophisticated extensions of the human senses – technoscientific apparatuses of one kind or another.

My immediate environment and those pesky global processes

Several critical voices, Alf Hornborg among them (e.g. here), are pointing out these problems. It’s fine to attend to the “sensory, perceptual engagement of humans with their immediate environment”. But those scholars promoting sensory methods, while also extolling the arts and critiquing academia as Tim Ingold has been known to do (e.g. in this paper), can end up downplaying “the abstract territory of global political economy” (from Hornborg). But it is this which has created the conditions we (sic) now experience as problematic. Power politics, from the most discursive (elite talk, say) to the most materially embodied (the production and consumption of digital devices, say) “increasingly constrain[] most humans from experiencing the world in the way Ingold advocates”, Hornborg writes.

By my reading, this would include the extra-linguistic involvements of sensory (or multimodal) methodologies and the emotional rewards of, say, climbing up snowy artificial hillsides with like-minded colleagues, as I did with Lucy and Guy.

There is also the problem that enquiry involving affect-saturated sensory methods will fail to connect with the hegemonic, often (digital-)data-driven, knowledge practices of those with the greatest technical and economic power, on the other.

A similar problem was picked up some time ago by my colleague, Cindy Kohtala, in a different context, sustainable design. (Her blog post should be compulsory reading for all who are going into that field.)

In it Cindy took aim at manifesto-like mainstream publications gushing about how lovely are the grassroots initiatives seeking alternatives to destructive practices. She exhorted junior researchers, perhaps themselves involved in those initiatives, to get out there and study the world beyond them. She also advised researchers to be precise about what sustainability means in their work. Specifically, she encouraged being clear about what one is studying, the “‘sustainability’ of a system, or participants’ beliefs about the sustainability of the system”.

Here, I suppose, is the core of my discomfort. While capital-intensive infrastructures and toxic relationships of all kinds continue to be rolled out through business-as-usual, creating patchy anthropocene landscapes around the world, as Anna Tsing’s research team argues, can sensory research engage in non-trivial ways with the design of collective futures? Isn’t it in constant danger of confusing beliefs and hopes on one side with actual processes on the other?

But wandering is often also wondering

Well, from my reading around the topic recently, beliefs and hopes, but more importantly, narratives, compose knowledge anyway. We all tell stories, including engineers, scientists and financiers. The infrastructure projects that have created the landscapes we now call home – the Vuosaari landfill, the international port next to it, the massive and rather recent transport infrastructure that dominates the route we walked – are all also the result of competitive storytelling.

And even as we all use our bodies, we all rely on technical apparatuses for knowing. I guess I’m trying to say that even as we use those apparatuses or draw on our specialist expertise, a kind of eclecticism and superficiality is always part of learning. It’s nurtured in particularly acute ways when you’re walking, and particularly walking with others. Everything is up to be focussed on, to be questioned and even marvelled at, whether natural or artificial.

So I’ve turned around on myself before even having written up that ‘sympathetic critique of sensory methods’, to say, we need it the walking and the sensory as well as the technologically mediated knowledge. We need it all!

Let’s then continue with the walking, the multimodal research, the burying ourselves into others’ texts, the conversations with the experts on whatever particular site concerns us at any given time.

Place and time matter for how things play out

Vuosaari, with its curious but not unique landfill-turned-recreational-area (landfills have long been turned into destinations), has now inspired me as well as Lucy and her students.

Next to Vuosaari’s new-ish port is also one of my favourite industrial buildings, Paulig coffee roastery. This ensemble is a handy visualization of globalization and its materiality – the port and railway taking stuff coming and going, the roastery fuelling our bodies with the energies needed to sustain lives as we have come to know them and bringing colonialism right into our very bodies on a daily basis…

So, Lucy also sent her students up the hill on what no doubt became quite fun ambulatory explorations. The thing is, she had given them very fine company: art historical perspectives on animals at Medieval religious sites, Eero Hyvönen, a local journalist who gave a talk, the Feral Atlas and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Lucy’s course is Art &/in Ecology, in the Art department, not in environmental politics. Yet I found the materials she shared from her teaching absolutely enthralling and totally germane to my own efforts to understand environmental conflict and management.

To those companions for the students, in a zoom lecture I added my own thoughts about how layers of history have been materialized in today’s Vuosaari. I also shared some of what we learned a few years ago when, with the Narratiimi collective, we did several walks in the area. We put particular emphasis on the beauty of walking together: side by side, walkers may come from different places but they are, for a while at least, moving towards and looking at the same thing. Makes for mutual understanding as well as opening up opportunities to learn from each other.

I hope I get to discuss the students’ walk or hike, and to learn how it has affected their explorations of Helsinki’s urban ecologies. To that end I have invited myself to tomorrow’s online session.

One of the students last week asked me if I’ve written about walking. Well, no, I’ve not. Hence, in part, this blog post. But lots of people have written about walking – in many, many ways. I will do a part II of this blog in the form of a short list of references. For now I’ll mention two new books. Both are about walking in the city and both contribute in important ways to filling out new, better, non-trivial narratives.

Cindy (mentioned above) gave me Matthew Beaumont’s (2020) The walker: on finding and losing yourself in the modern city. This is a great book of wandering and wondering, words and steps, navigating mostly English-language literature on urban walking. It draws generously from many writers and teaches, without being stolid or didactic, about pedestrian life and its value(s).

The other is Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson’s Urban Awakenings: Disturbance and Enchantment in the Industrial City, Melbourne in fact. Reaching across the divide that is pre-Covid and post-Covid, their ability to walk a city so designed for other modes of being is quite remarkable.

A relevant insight towards the start of their book, which serves as an endorsement to develop sensory experience more, not less, is this: “everyday modern life conspires remorselessly to stultify human sensibility and insight” (p. 32). Part of my teaching task will thus be making effort to counter this.

I wonder if I ever will write at length about walking, as sympathetic critic or otherwise. If I did, this quotation, from environmental historians Henrik Ernstson and Sverker Sörlin (eds) Grounding Urban Natures: Histories and Futures of Urban Ecologies published in 2019, would be a good starting point.

“If there is anything that the rich traditions of urban studies, critical environmental studies, and environmental history has shown, it is that place and time matter for how things play out.”

Over the holidays my colleague, expert on social enterprise Eeva Houtbeckers and I both reacted to the same opinion piece in a Finnish newspaper.

From Kirkko & kaupunki 29.12.2020

The letter we reacted to had a provocative headline. It exhorted young people to “work for the environment, protest doesn’t help”. The letter by turn was a response to earlier editorial content on environmental fears and activism among young people. The paper has recently written rather sympathetically about activism, for instance about Extinction Rebellion. The movement gained new visibility in Finland in October, when its activists were peppersprayed by the police after they refused to stop blocking a busy street. The event provoked considerable debate about policing.

Below is our letter in my English translation, here a link to the original in Finnish.

My disagreement stems from a political conviction, but also from having studied social movements on and off for the last thirty years. They very much do change the world.

Here’s our response:

Markku Metsäranta (K&k 17.12.) encourages young people to solve our epoch’s terrifying threats by pursuing familiar modern paths. He mentions science, engineering, enterprise, parliamentarianism and progress. 

The letter’s concluding claim – decision makers are totally dependent on enterprise – is partly true. Economic growth has been made synonymous with progress and is said to guarantee social peace.

At the same time, we forget or ignore how many different ways there have been over the centuries to organize life on this human-friendly planet. But as progress became reduced to economic growth, our imagination was narrowed.

From such a perspective, enterprise does appears like the foundation of many things and it seems it is best served by engineers and scientists, marketing and financial professionals. Social enterprises is also on the rise, but it is more of an accommodation than a challenge.

In the lives of the young people, who protest by sitting on the streets or going on school strike, and whose lives are affected by affected by the slowdown in economic growth that predates the pandemic, this recipy for progress is outdated. It is not possible for them to continue as before, or to deny the ever more palpable ecological crisis.

For that reason, our message to youth would be quite different: we value your energy and activism, we hear your imagination-expanding activism, which brings comfort. After all, though we have been taught to worship enterprise, we know that at the end of the day that is not what we depend on.

Eeva Berglund

Eeva Houtbeckers

Helsinki

We also both discovered, somewhat to our surprise, that we actually read this “free” paper published by the Lutheran (State) Church in Finland. It is still delivered, on paper, to (tax-paying) members.

Pretty much on a daily basis I consider writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper. On e-scooters. I am saddened frankly, at how quickly they have transformed the rules on sharing space.

Just as I was beginning to believe that the selfish car-based road usage typical for Helsinki might be on its way out, e-scooters put wheels back to work for #individuals-in-a-hurry.

Many years ago (2005), I wrote about the scarily large vehicles that were then beginning to clog up many streets around me, then known as 4-by-4s (‘citymaasturi’ in my mother tongue). Even back then I was inspired by George Monbiot (who wrote about them again last year). SUVs, or Sports Utility Vehicles, are now normal. Heavier, more dangerous to other road users, and gluttonous devourers of materials and fuel (as the IEA has told us), choosing one must seem natural to some, despite these anti-social impacts.

My complaint is that whether parked or on the go, these high and mighty successes of marketing block road space and mental space that could be open to more public spirited uses. SUVs don’t just take up large amounts of parking space. They are very BIG, and even seem to block out the light.

So I had to go and see the exhibition at Espoo’s EMMA by Elmgreen & Dragset titled 2020, which takes a new look at cars and storing them. I was not disappointed.

EMMA’s gallery space works brilliantly as a spoof car park. An essay on the website spells out more. It includes the important point that “[m]ore than most other design objects, cars can reveal a lot about the power structures in our society.”

The exhibition is open until 17.01.2021.

EMMA is in a repurposed printing press – beautiful concrete and permanently unwashed windows. It is perfect for visiting in the dark season, even in pandemic times.

Closing on the same day, 17.1.2021 at Helsinki’s HAM is another thought-provoking show. The visual artist Terike Haapoja and the writer and playwright Laura Gustafsson have put together an ensemble of three works under the umbrella, Museum of Becoming.

It’s composed of a video, Becoming, an installation of the imaginary Museum of Nonhumanity and a curated collection of works owned by the City of Helsinki, under the title Remnants.

I bought the publication called Bud Book: Manual for Earthly Living, which accompanies the video. It’s available in English and Finnish. I recommend it warmly.

“Footprints are weighty, gluttonous, profligate”, writes Radhika Subramaniam, commenting on walking in a piece that I am – obviously – going to have to revisit later.

As at EMMA, the HAM exhibition points to an atmosphere, perhaps a world, seeking lightness and open space. Both exhibitions come from awareness of things not wanted. With my preoccupation with space taken up by cars that seem to keep growing, the ‘Mini’ below, for instance, both struck me as also concerned with questions about how to make conceptual space. Room for the imagination in this cluttered situation we are in.

Another strand for me to follow up – with my #colleex preoccupations – is something put into words in the book by Satu Herrala, who, among other things, is doing a doctorate at Aalto. She asks, “What is the minimal structure necessary so as not to fill space with everything we already know, but where we could and would dare to trust and try things out”.

Had I not been so slow about writing this, I could have put in a good word for another exhibition still, the Post-fossil show that ended last month at HIAP in Suomenlinna.

But there we have it. My life was quite cluttered enough, so I didn’t write about it. There is, however, a blog, maintained by HIAP, together with the Mustarinda artist network from Kainuu, here.

Besides, the take is quite different from the HAM and EMMA shows, so just as well to save it up for another day – or not.

Below is the advertising text for the walk that I led in Otaniemi earlier this week as part of Designs for a Cooler Planet events for Helsinki Design Week 2020.

The weather was appalling.

The wind and rain, however, were excellent for demonstrating the importance of infrastructure design in climate changing times. Thanks to Henriette for the photos – I think they convey the atmosphere!

Our blurb: Physical infrastructures are crucial foundations of ordinary life, conditioning our shared futures and guiding individual choices. Infrastructures connect the far-away to the near-at-hand. They blend almost unnoticed into the landscape, yet they carry hidden costs, about which only experts are normally aware. These include energy or material flows whose negative effects are distant. Infrastructures also harbour hidden risks, such as water damage and ecological disturbances, dangers with both local and far away impacts.

Of course, the point of infrastructures is to make life run smoothly. Today, however, we know that combinations of old and new technical improvements also generate novel problems. As intensified land-use meets changing Earth systems, designing for sustainability and for usability will require new ways of thinking. Innovating for resilient futures demands that we identify and communicate better about both the technical and meaningful aspects of our surroundings, and anticipate problems before it is too late.

Walking is part of fieldwork, a way to learn to pay attention. The infrastructure walk is a convivial and educational practice, combining technical expertise with local knowledge. It is guided but open-ended, aiming at identifying qualities worth noticing.

On this walk we combine forces with the Environmental Hydraulics Lab of Aalto University to focus on stormwater management on campus. The intensification of construction, more active and varied use, and land use and planning in Espoo beyond Aalto, are exactly the kinds of incremental changes that easily go unnoticed.

Specialist understanding of the challenges of stormwater management will be combined with small-scale techniques for heightening our awareness of the landscape. The goal is to notice what is often hidden in plain sight and then to imagine better alternatives together.

Walking and talking together, experts and users alike learn from each other and from the surroundings. An ancient learning practice, walking projects in recent years have drawn attention to public discomforts with mainstream development.

Professional urban experts can learn from these. Embodied experience leads to understanding the practice, not just the theory, of life in urban space. Besides educational, we hope learning to see with others will also be a joy.

Sustainability requires understanding flows of matter and power. This walk joins the dots – it will help us connect large-scale and somewhat abstract goals related to climate (13), land-use (15), water (6) or sustainable cities (11) to the local environment.

The walk was hosted by me, Eeva Berglund and Idil Gaziulusoy, of NODUS, the sustainable design research group in the Department of Design. Our guides to nature-based stormwater management solutions – and lack thereof – were Chun Lin and Juha Järvelä (below) from the Water and Environmental Engineering, Department of Built Environment, Aalto University. To our delight, Professor Harri Koivusalo and Aalto University Campus & Real Estate’s new chief, Ville Jokela also walked with us, so the conversation as we walked and talked really was a conversation.

With different weather and perhaps with more success suppressing COVID thus making people happier to join large groups, our walk might have been huge. As it was, we were a small group who braved the elements. I hope some of us will come together again to discuss our surroundings. I’m particularly keen to continue walking with folks together. Watch this space…

The one thing that stuck in my mind from what was said during the walk, was something Juha said. He pointed at a bin shelter in one of Aalto’s ubiquitous car parks. It was originally built with a green roof. It was not just a standard flat one. Nobody, Juha explained, had been taking care of the shelter and eventually a rather large tree grew on top of it.

Then it was cut down and the roof replaced with something lower maintenance.

It put a new spin on the design world’s justified interest in care.

As for walking as a practice or method of research. I think it became apparent that walking helps us slow down enough to notice things we’d not otherwise care about. This has professional significance of those who do fieldwork, whether surveying for naturalist purposes (counting trees, say) or more humanist ones (the deep hanging out that ethnographers do, say). I will write more about that on this blog later.

I look forward to walks that do both. And that get me out of the head-only world of Zoom meetings to the full-body experience for which my physique was, I guess, designed.

We, Guy Julier and I, wrote a text for a special issue of the Journal of Social Studies/ Sociální studia on “(Not) my green city? Green spaces in times of urbanization”, Vol 17, No 1 (2020). 

It’s open access so you can get it via this link.

Like many good things, writing it came out of a series of serendipitous face-to-face encounters among academics. It was at a pre-zoom-era meeting, the 2019 Sustainability Science Days conference. Attending the Degrowth panel, convened by Eeva Houtbeckers and Pasi Heikkurinen, was Katri-Liisa Pulkkinen, with her colleague from the nearby city of Tallinn, Helen Sooväli-Sepping. And she, with her colleague, Bianka Plüschke-Altof, was preparing a journal issue. Emails were exchanged, lunch squeezed in on an unrelated visit to Tallinn, etc.

Such geography, like geography and scale generally, matters to our paper. And economics matters. We may be unhappy with Helsinki’s urban policy, but don’t want to blame, as local discourse tends to, either globalization or (greedy) local decision makers. It’s more that Helsinki’s “entrepreneurial real estate policy [as] practised both by the state and cities [has] had harmful consequences and created conflicts in Finland” (in Mika Hyötyläinen and Anne Haila.  2018. Entrepreneurial public real estate policy: The case of Eiranranta, Helsinki. Geoforum, 89, 137-144.)

Our paper is titled ‘Growth in WEIRD Helsinki:  Countering Dominant Urban Politics and its “Green” Pretentions‘. In it, Guy and I draw on our own research in Helsinki, and on Harvey Molotch’s simple but powerful idea of ‘the city as growth machine’. (It’s horrific to think his paper, published in the American Journal of Sociology, dates from 1976. So much time lost to not learning.)

In our paper we play with the idea that Helsinki, like many apparently ordinary cities of the wealthy world, is weird. We believe that needs to be addressed.

We found the idea of WEIRD, in our title, Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic, in a 2017 paper by a team of social psychologists. It’s good for self critique. When that list is mistaken for “humanity”, as it often is, it points at a crisis of academic imagination that is devastating for efforts to deal with humanity’s multiple technogenic crises. (Consider, if necessary, your recent media intake or consult the Stockholm Resilience Centre). It really is shocking that even the science of human possibility (psychology) fails to appreciate how peculiar Western culture (in all the vagueness and hubris of that concept) actually is.

Our paper is more specifically about economic growth as a taken for granted aspiration. Helsinki is used as an illustration of how economic growth becomes elided with progress. What you get is a kind of politics that is not about creating social value or about the resilience of regenerative processes so much as about the perpetuation of a normality that suits the winners of capitalism.

We also note that there is considerable weirdness to Helsinki’s ambitions to be like New York City. Kalasatama bumph 2010a ldscp

Here’s the abstract:

Despite persistent concerns over sustainability, cities continue to be developed that serve capital more than citizens. Where urban politics prioritizes growth, ‘green’ credentials easily turn out to be illusory. Helsinki, with its pro-environmental administration, is an example of combining ‘green’ agendas with a culture of growth and depoliticizing debate. This essay presents two cases of this broadly ecomodernist approach. In one case [Vartiosaari] it led to proposing the destruction of irreplaceable green space and in the other [Kalasatama], to drawing residents into international circuits of finance and data. This problem does not just emerge from corporations and elites, however. Drawing on Harvey Molotch’s idea of ‘the city as growth machine’, we suggest that growth ideology reflects a culture that, following psychologists, we might call WEIRD:  Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic. Its claims are founded on a historically particular but widespread conception of global progress that is increasingly questioned.

Kalasatama continues to fascinate me with its property porn, and its adverts proclaiming its buildings to be the biggest in Finland.

Vartiosaari remains in the news, though mercifully it’s not massively changed since the photo below from 5 years ago. But so long as growth continues to orient urban policy, this exceptional island within Helsinki will appear to decision makers and the construction sector as empty space waiting for them to fill it. 10 urban wild

The small piece of good news is that a new boat connection is up and running, allowing for more visitors in the summer. As explained on the city’s website, the boat is solar powered and the project benefitted from Helsinki’s participatory budgeting.

The debate about what here is weird (or weird-like) is already here, I’m pleased to report. Critiques of growth like ours can be heard here and there, thanks in part possibly to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even in an afternoon paper, Ilta Sanomat (in the photo above, headlining of a potential future Helsinki-as-Manhattan), the debate has begun. For instance, a great column by Saara Kankaanrinta appeared just last week arguing that our world is topsy-turvy. More specifically, we destroy in bulk and care in miniature (to do a very loose translation).

I recommend it for gems like this

For instance bug hotels are important, but if meanwhile our land use disregards the needs of biodiversity, we will be re-arranging (screwing in) our bug hotels as the Titanic goes down.

And in the original (which I warmly recommend to readers of Finnish)

Esimerkiksi hyönteishotellit ovat tärkeitä, mutta jos niiden rinnalla maankäytöllämme ei ole monimuotoisuuden reunaehtoja, jäämme ruuvaamaan pörriäishotellejamme Titanicin kannelle.

Noticing the taken-for-granted in novel ways

I feel acutely that my own experience since the pandemic has been privileged. I have also reduced my intake of Covid-related online news, but I am routinely conscious of heightened levels of anxiety. Nobody, least of all the British government, needs explicitly to encourage me to “Stay Alert”!

But this novelty on planet Earth, the virus known as Sars-CoV-2, hasn’t merely created anxiety, it has got folks thinking.

In this post, I too shall muse on what could be learned from the unprecedented transformations to everyday habits that the pandemic has brought about. Like most people around the world, I hanker for a more normal life. More than that though, I want more people to rethink and rework what normal means.

bell curve

https://www.mathsisfun.com/data/standard-normal-distribution.html

A good place to start would be to acknowledge that although normal in the sense of predictable and safe is no doubt worth cherishing, normal is not a synonym for universal or ordinary. As a way to categorise things in the world, the normal is a specifically modern concept. It rose in importance alongside the development of statistics for public policy (a fascinating story, beautifully told at least by Porter).

But normality in modern life also became a cultural thing. Thought of as the unremarkable and unmarked lifestyles of “modern people”, it’s also an aspiration, perhaps more than ever before in history even. Sometimes it is even a comfort, as in being categorised as normal as opposed to belonging to a risk group.

These days normality is also an existential issue for the planet. Stop to think about it, and habits that are utterly normal in modern times, people’s normal hopes and dreams, and of course, normal forms of consumption, are, or they at least create, problems for the future of human life on the planet. None are sustainable.

It’s also true that NOT consuming ‘normally’ is an economic problem. People have been told to protect themselves from Covid-19 and avoid ordinary activities like shopping and travel, but we are also incessantly being told that this avoidance is itself a huge problem.

We don’t actually need to be told. There are plenty of signs of this in our town and cities.

Vuokrataan Turku 2020

One of many to-let signs in retail properties spotted today in Turku, Finland.

Living a paradox so acutely makes you think. It’s strengthened a hunch of mine from years back. I think the normal, ordinary, taken-for-granted things that make up modern life are weird. I’ve been baffled that this weirdness, the pushing and supporting of unsustainable socio-economic structures that are known to be so damaging, isn’t recognised as a form of madness by everyone. My hunch is that it’s because the weird was long ago made normal.

That said, many have been shouting lucidly about how the pandemic indicates that thinghs were badly wrong were before Covid-19 already. They are now noting that perhaps the kind of normal that passed for “global” wasn’t much to celebrate. To quote Dan  Hill’s wonderful Slowdown Papers:

Crucially, then, the virus is intrinsic to the same patterns of activity that create the climate crisis, and its attendant crises of chronic health and inequalities. In essence, the virus is an articulation of … crisis

Some people even started asking could the pandemic actually usher in more progress.

Anyone interested in environmental issues therefore, is bound to be fascinated by the cultural, including economic, and the technical ruptures of 2020 as well as the ecological dimensions of the pandemic. The nasty future that green thinkers have long been concerned about has, in some significant way, now arrived. The links between disease in our bodies and diseased environments, links that environmental justice campaigners have had to work hard to establish, are now horribly real. The pandemic and the troubles around it amount to a kind of unveiling, as a friend put it, of all manner of self-deluding stories that all is normal and all is well. Stories of ordinary people in ordinary places who have for decades protested against ordinary threats to their quality of life, have a different hue now. Covid-19 is thus an environmental justice issue.

The havoc that the virus wreaks is worst for the most vulnerable. But even the most comfortable among us learned what it means to be scared and feel threatened.

Normal, natural, dysfunctional – making the choices

Anyone interested in changes to planetary systems has been expecting a pandemic and been at pains to point out that it is not a natural disaster.

That also means there are important choices to be made about how we respond. It’s too late to hide behind the neoliberal mantra of the last 40 or so years, that There Is No Alternative. Demanding the impossible is no longer just realistic, it’s imperative. Having followed some protest networks in recent years, I also know it’s happening. There is less talk about how complicated and impossible to fix things are and more action to make change.

You could say humanity has really taken action in recent months. You could also (though I’d hesitate to do it) argue that nature has returned with a vengeance.

I always recommend caution with big, capitalizable, words like Nature and Humanity. They erase devastating inequalities and make us ignore interesting histories. Yet Inger Andersen and Johan Rockström, writing in Time magazine, are quite quotable:

Humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with nature has caused this wider disease.  … [Covid-19] evolved into a pandemic due to the now well-established risk cocktail of the 21st century: ecosystem destruction, species loss, global warming, colliding with risky human behavior like illegal wildlife trade. All of this has played out in a globalized network of trade and travel.

That’s a scary list, but much worse are the direct and indirect human impacts of the disease: physical pain and incapacity, sometimes going on for weeks, fear of being an asymptomatic carrier, restrictions on movement and other everyday activities, losing loved ones, but also income, home, routine and social contacts. During lock-downs in particular, the toll on mental health, and in some cases life, has been off-the-scale scary. As social life shifted into physically isolated places, the scary translated into long-term devastating but also unnoticed.

As it harms, the virus is an amplifier of pre-existing inequalities and injustices.  The pandemic has also been used to great effect by the greedy or simply those for whom market competition is natural: purveyors of protective equipment, those who make money in healthcare, and all those for whom crisis equals opportunity, like tech-companies and all those who feel reliant on the ‘solutions’ they offer.

A crisis opens up all kinds of opportunities, including those lucid commentaries I hinted at, on how the pandemic could help prepare for worse disaster to come. I’d recommend at least Rebecca Solnit’s essay on hope in The Guardian (drawing similar insights as her excellently titled A Paradise Built in Hell) Dan Hill’s Slowdown papers (quoted above), several #NoBackToNormal videos from degrowth advocates, sustainability lobbying from Paul Chatterton, and, in a slightly oblique way, rethinking the power of science from Lorraine Daston.

There is quite simply a wealth of news about how, in the last weeks and months, what was considered impossible and utopian has happened or, more importantly, been made to happen.

Then there is this interesting initiative from Bruno Latour, ‘Where to land after the pandemic? A paper and … a platform’. This collective endeavour seeks ways forward that do NOT involve going back to what is, as the site notes, a catastrophic normal.

The only way to take advantage of the current situation is to learn the political lesson this virus provides us. It is capable of imposing its law everywhere in the world…

Latour starts from the observation that the pandemic has led to the halting of many activities once thought not just normal but absolutely necessary. The results – like quieter skies, cleaner air, recovering Parisian and other once-clogged up streets from motorised traffic – can take us from the concrete and actually existing to thinking more creatively about the possible and potentially desirable.

What should be stopped? What should be developed?

Values, futures and other tools for sustainable designers

In response to the virus, teaching went online of course. This included the course I co-taught with my wonderful colleague Idil Gaziulusoy, Values in Design Futures, as part of the Creative Sustainability masters programme. It brought together sustainable design, trans-disciplinary futures work and the anthropological study of value formation. We could obviously not avoid dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak. I know many of the students found it difficult emotionally as well as academically, we assigned an essay on the pandemic. I’m pleased to report that the results were excellent and, I hope, empowering more than distressing.

Using the texts and concepts we considered in class, particularly around how values become concrete in the design of environments and habits, students were able to reflect not only on problems and fears, but on society’s ability, despite deeply ingrained conceptions that There Is No Alternative, to respond creatively, swiftly and thoughtfully to threats.

Had I written an essay on the topic myself, I would probably have continued along the train of thought from my earlier musings in Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough, edited by Francisco Martinez and Patrick Laviolette by arguing that although most powerful decision makers are totally oblivious to the fact, modernity and its problems are fundamentally cultural. I know among anthropologists such claims raise eyebrows, but basically, unless anthropologists and others show evidence of modern normality being utterly peculiar and probably toxic for both planet and people, the multiple crises it has set in motion are unlikely to be addressed with seriousness.

I would have written, echoing Idil, about how I dream about a world without carbon emmissions. I’d have written about how futures research has already generated scenarios, forecasts and speculative visions of futures that don’t depend on fossil fuel. I’d also write about how one might imagine a world that had taken a different track from around the 1970s oil crisis. My understanding is that the neoliberal, competitive, extractive and mostly macho culture that actually came to dominate not just in business but in geopolitics, in municipal government and even individual decision making, can be traced to events and choices of the 1970s. I’d write about the advertising slogan for an internet provider, “speed makes the world small”, and its loud, clear and clueless proclamation of values that are likely to push human life into danger zones that few actually want.

Kun nopeus on suuri

I’d find a way to argue that now, with the pandemic making people long for things to be normal, in the sense of safe and predictable, designers, politicians and everyone who wants to make the world a better place, could get a lot out of simply questioning what passes for normal.

I mean, I don’t believe that the airports, motorways, industrial zones and polluted skies above them, were ever so easily accepted as the only route forward. I believe that the achievement must owe a lot to the skills and cunning of marketing and design. It was those institutions, after all, that made them normal. If anything is cultural, surely that is.

With all contact teaching at Aalto University suspended, only those with express permission can access the buildings on campus. Teaching happens online.

No chance then of incorporating walking into my courses this spring as I’d hoped. That means we won’t be able to approach environmental sustainability on foot, using all our senses. No chance to develop my idea of infrastructure walks with the students.

We are having to consider in more cerebral and discursive ways the nodes and lines that connect us here in Helsinki with far-away things, people and processes. Shame, since in one way or another, to support sustainability creatively (it’s in the name of the master’s programme), we need to understand those connections.

Still, a while ago, as part of Helsinki Design Week 2019 I did instigate a small walk on the Aalto campus. Walking seemed a natural fit for the theme, Designs for a Cooler Planet.

Walking is the speed for noticing, as Anna Tsing reminds us, so walking together offered a way of noticing more richly. In the pitch I’d made for the Otaniemi Walk, I boasted that like the Ancients, we would stroll together to learn. No great innovation there, I suppose, walking has swiftly become an approach-of-choice for many of us curious about the environment, and I will continue making notes on it on this blog.

Anna K HDW walk Otaniemi 2019

Photo by Eeva Berglund

And so, with Anna Kholina (above), who has walked, talked, sketched, listened, photographed and videoed most of Otaniemi campus for her doctorate, we ventured into a sunny September (!) evening. We attended particularly to the infrastructures or foundations that our ways of life depend on.

I got to indulge my passion for pipes, handles and boxes. We all got to quiz each other about such things – as experts in ways of life (culture and history you might say, though I take an anthropological view on that stuff – pretty much everything is included!), others as technical experts, still others shared local stories. (The masculine bias of those stories, though, in this hub of Finnish engineering prowess, meant we didn’t dwell on those*.)

Drains at Otaniemi 2019 GJ

Photo by Guy Julier

We were a small but enthusiastic group. I was also glad to have Samir Bhowmik along to share his knowledge of the subterranean supports of our Finnish normal. We need archaeologists of contemporary (and recent) media infrastructures like him, to help us attend to things like underground cables that are ordinarily invisible.

Back in September I was nurturing the idea of attending to such technical networks with the students. We could perhaps work out some grounded and easy-to-point-at examples of how the nearby and far-away are linked in ways that affect their sustainability. We could maybe also develop a new awareness of what it might mean to speak of the environment, nature, infrastructure and so on. We might work out ways to analyze how seamlessly – or not – growing things, manufactured things and ideas are blended into the landscape and how they operate in our everyday worlds.

I thought that if we built up our conversations from the act of walking to notice, the courses would work differently. My hope was that walking might help us all consider the environment as irredeemably historical and surprisingly human without ever ceasing to be natural.

Over the months since then I have found afficionados of learning from the immediate and sensory – walking for example – keen to understand urban networks, whether (easily) sensed by us or not. There are so many papers, books and online references for one to get lost in… I want to indulge in infrastructural tourism.  I’ve even started daydreaming of being twenty-something again, starting university studies over again, since these days it is possible to seriously research such modern things as cables, toxic materials or city streets and still be an anthropologist. Despite its colonial baggage, i.e. an early interest in precisely the non-modern, anthropology can be a fabulous way to study things that are overtly modern, technological and industrial (like waste disposal) in character.

That folks with such sophisticated and up-to-date knowledge of technological innovation are also into walking has been a particularly welcome discovery.

It’s a change from the common tendency for emphasizing the body and the senses in quiet, out-of-the-way or relatively solitary contexts. As beautiful and empowering as such accounts can be, I still get the impression that walking methods  are overwhelmingly for researching worlds and experiences that are earth-bound in a pre-anthropocene way – without cables, wires, magnetic fields and monetizable digital data. Without those, though, it’s hard to acknowledge and analyze, let alone to start redesigning, the normality that industrialism has bequeathed. To turn away from current unsustainability towards real sustainability, it’s the damaging mainstream that needs analysis more – I think.

So it feels sad that I can’t do those infrastructure walks with the students right now.

That being said, student-led initiatives flourish at Aalto. They demonstrate that students already do appreciate the entanglements and connections I wanted to work through by walking. Better still, students are actually acting to change things.

Our September walk, for instance, ended up (see image below) at a student-led experiment in sustainability that is known as the Test Site (I might blog on the irony of that term at some point). Besides the garden, it has a host of initiatives that put into practice design with nature, low-tech systems and social innovation.

I know it’s stupidly late to thank our hosts from September, but it was a wonderful place and a great way to conclude our walk, with food, foot-bath and conviviality and much talk.

Thank you Andrea, Ada, Jinwook and everyone else. A mix of fast and slow, of tech and nature, of infrastructure and event, its a place where learning the here and now goes together with learning the far away. Making those connections, in my view, is precisely what sustainability expertise must be about.

So it’s a pleasure to note that there will be another walk at the Helsinki Design Week this year. Surely whatever Covid19 does, the collective – small – walk will survive through it.

 

Test Site 190912 Jinwook cropped

Photo by Hwang Jinwook

* It’s coming up to vappu, valborg, Mayday eve, that crucial festival of light towards the end of a Nordic winter. It is a fascinating cultural phenomenon whichever way you look at it. Otaniemi campus has a particular role in the festival here in Finland. Otaniemi as Technical University has long been the fount of engineering skills and of a particular kind of masculine student humour and pranks. The students have always also made a publication distributed to the  public, which at least in my experience, has traded in  gendered jokes that are understandably not equally appreciated across the current student body. Anyway, all of the above is noticeable by its absence in this year of Covid19, but anthropologist of technology, Vincent Ialenti noted its salience among technical experts in a short article.

COVID changes everything

Before COVID19 became a pandemic, I proposed to the Finnish Journal of Urban Studies, the only professional publication in Finland dedicated to urban research and spatial planning, that I write a review for them (in Finnish) of this book.

Soc Ecology and Right to the City cover

I’m working on it. Here, some English-language thoughts.

The book reflects on the injustices of urban lives in the early 21st century, seeing today’s crises as socio-ecological in nature – the social and the ecological always deeply entwined. In pandemic-struck April 2020, it would be hard to deny the entanglement of the natural and the political. It would be impossible to deny that even urbanites are also animals, human animals, susceptible to mega-scale nuisance and avoidable human tragedy caused by very, very, very small things. The shock is the extent of the trouble even in societies with spectacular technological capacity.

In social ecology terms, this is no shock, though. As an interdisciplinary field with a history, social ecology has been exploring ways to promote social and ecological diversity for decades, and looking for ways to turn around the tendency to simplify landscapes everywhere. Social ecology, less technically understood, is also an approach to planning for the future that puts relationships of dependency at the centre.

So, if everything is now up for grabs, and even the end of capitalism is printable in polite company (e.g. in this post on The Slowdown Papers), a field like social ecology is a place to go and learn. This book speaks to those concerned specifically with cities, where the aggravations of ecological and social crises are particularly intense.

The longer legacy of social ecology makes it impossible, however, to approach “the urban” or “the city” without considering its complement, “the rural” or “the countryside”. I was particularly keen to see this book because I am so frustrated with the amnesia here in Finland about the ties that bind us Helsinkians and other urbanites to the forests and smaller towns beyond. Our province is currently under lockdown but that doesn’t make us an island. Animals that we are, the borders now closed to human travellers are still open to food and medical supplies. (A theme to pursue in another post.)

What is below, was written some weeks ago and temporarily forgotten about, but as the situation continues, social ecology will surely offer evidence of and ideas for new normals to build after this great pause is over.

Social Ecology and the Right to the City: Towards Ecological and Democratic Cities, edited by Federico Venturini, Emet Değirmenci and Inés Morales – a review

The key message is that ecology and urban democracy are part of the same story. All 14 diverse chapters by thinkers and activists share that starting point.

For full disclosure, let me note that I was particularly curious about the book because it includes a chapter by my friend and former colleague Brian Morris about a key inspiration for the volume, Murray Bookchin. According to Morris, Bookchin who died in 2006, has been overlooked by academics. Yet, Morris writes, he “offers the only real solution to the immense social and ecological problems that confront us” (p.12).

Indeed, I read Bookchin in the 1980s and 1990s. Recent democratic and local assembly experiments, for example in Kurdistan, have brought him back into at least some conversations. Bookchin explored how capitalism has tendency to simplify landscapes in the process of plundering it for resources, often to fuel comforts in cities.

Animals of a special kind

Concerned with the flourishing of human and other lifeforms, he oriented himself towards maintaining what he called the restorative powers of nature and humanity. He saw this task as social ecology – as in the book’s title. Bookchin’s understanding of the relationship between ecological and human exploitation was rooted in what Morris calls his philosophical naturalism. Part of this perspective was an insistence that humans are a product of organic evolution. We are animals, if of a very special kind. This way of framing nature and humans also underpins his argument that we can develop a politics (even a way of living) that involves neither “communing with the spirit world (mysticism), nor the technocratic solutions offered within the current capitalist system” (in Morris’ chapter, p. 12).

The rest of Social Ecology and the Right to the City travels through a variety of theoretical and empirical resources to return over and over again to the multiple crises of contemporary capitalism. The whole demonstrates a strong sensibility nicely captured in one of the endorsements by Sutapa Chattopadhay, who sees it as responding to the rise of “hostile and narcissistic policies”.

Some brief comments then on those contributions that most elaborate on how this is exacerbating the problematic disconnections between urban and environmental thought.

The aim of the work as a whole is to deepen discussions of “the right to the city, spatial justice and social ecology” to support “urban social movements aiming towards ecological and democratic cities” (P.86). So writes Federico Venturini – an activist-researcher with a PhD in philosophy and first editor.

Though informed by scholarship, the book is explicitly activist, arising largely out of the work of people involved in The Transnational Institute of Social Ecology, who discussed these issues at a conference in Thessaloniki in 2017. The authors clearly have an acute awareness of inequalities, as well as practical and theoretical knowledge about urban and political processes. The variation in style and content of the texts affirm the editors’ claim that the volume is an undisciplined production.

Societycide, not just ecocide

Its critique is certainly strident, and will appeal to some for that reason. Perhaps it will put off others. Those may include all who remain“under a spell”, as Olli Tammilehto puts it in his chapter, of taking what is [was?] around us as normal. The predominant tone of the book is closer to the Kurdish activist Abdullah Öcalan, who brought Bookchin into the struggles over Kurdish futures. According to Havin Guneser and Eleanor Finley’s chapter, Öcalan refers to what has been happening as societycide, not just ecocide.

Though diverse, all the chapters take a close-to-the-ground perspective on politics that, as an anthropologist, I appreciate. This becomes quite concrete in the final two chapters, whose authors aply demonstrate that the contemporary city is best understood on foot. Also, longstanding social ecologist, Daniel Chodorkoff makes explicit his debt to anthropology for understanding different types of leadership and ways of organising human existence. He returns at the end of his theoretical text to what this means for contemporary urban life, the politics unfolding where we live, in our neighbourhoods, in assemblies, town meetings and other democratic experiments. His chapter is one of many in the book, which makes positive reference to recent anarchist experiments, but Chodorkoff wants to push them further. For instance, he wants permanent autonomous zones, not just temporary autonomous zones.

The chapters also vary with respect to who they see as most active in claiming rights to the city. A number offer rather optimistic if not romantic visions of widespread potential for political mobilisation. Although it is hard to disagree with the depiction of contemporary (“successful”) cities as dead ends of a sort – aseptic, reduced to arenas of capitalist competition, perhaps no longer even cities – the forces reasserting these worrying trends are huge, and the resistance is probably not as widespread as the book makes out. Many urban activist initiatives, after all, fall far short of mentioning let alone denouncing capitalism as the source of their troubles. Still, as informed and critical commentary on what currently passes for urban development and attractive visions of the future, the book has some delightful contents.

In particular, in a chapter titled Is the Right to the City Are Right or a Revolution? Magauli Fricaudet offers a theoretically informed take on urban growth and its impacts, for example how they exploit nature, intensify the power of international elites and normalise financialisation.

The theoretical inspirations are mainly Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey in addition to Bookchin, with appearances by Eleanor Ostrom and, to a lesser extent, Saskia Sassen. Her book on Expulsions would offer a framework for putting together the types of extractivism, appropriation, rent seeking and other, often parasitic, urban activities that current mainstream debate confuses with wealth creation.

Sometimes the authors indulge in problematic generalisations and make over-stretched claims. Regardless, I do commend its ambition to go well beyond critiques of today’s [make that at least in part yesterday’s, from this April 2020 perspective] frenetic but resisted capitalism. Authors consider often overlooked types of state power, for instance as it has developed and is evolving in China (Metin Guven), and latent tendencies in society that perhaps do herald more optimistic times (Olli Tammilehto).

Towards really asking what’s important

Rewriting my final two paragraphs in April I return to my friend Brian Morris. He writes that Bookchin and, I believe, by extention social ecological narratives generally, have always understood that besides being animal, humans are intrinsically social beings, not autonomous possessive egos. We [sic] do not, by any criteria, “need” Wall Street or its everyday manifestation, shiny new shopping centres (Tripla, below, from a before-and-after-COVID19 story in Helsingin Sanomat).

Tripla 20.3.2020

Mutual dependencies between towns and hinterlands are then newly visible. So is the fact that humans need humans. No longer does one need to be a romantic to recognize and applaud mutual dependency and human contact at very local level. Nor does it any longer require quite as much imagination or radical thought to appreciate that ubiquitous capital-intensive technology does not prevent me or you from being human as well as natural/animal. Perhaps with COVID19 social ecology will flourish anew, strengthened further by attending to the urban and the Right to the City.