Time and Urban Change at AAG2016, San Francisco

Rob Shields and myself chaired the session “Time and Urban Change” at this year’s AAG 2016 in San Francisco, see outline below.

The session looked at time, space and the urban from a range of perspectives: the contestations between queer and straight time in Sao Paolo through the lens of ‘travesti’ everyday practices and the city’s ‘citizenship programme’; the temporal relationships between building’s lifespan’s and capital accumulation; the interplay of nostalgia and progress time regimes in gentrified mill villages; the multiple timescapes overlapping and destabilizing the regeneration of el Raval (Barcelona); a rhythmanalysis framework of ecological crisis; the material, embodied and imaginary topologies of affect in aboriginal residential schools in Canada; L’Aquila’s (Italy) post-earthquake temporalities of physical and social reconstruction; the idea of the chronotope to understand the making of urban agriculture; and an analysis of the multiple and layered temporalities of Edinburgh’s use of festivals in the contemporary experience economy. Needless to say that the papers generated a lively and rich discussion and we are hoping to put together a special issue from this session. So watch this space!

Time and Urban Change 1


  • Christine Woodward (University of Kentucky) Queer Time in the City: reshaping the normative temporalities of urban change in São Paulo, Brazil
  • Joseph Pierce (Florida State University) Capital’s unintended bequests: the effects of declining inter-generational infrastructural subsidies to contemporary urban actors by historic urban capitalists
  • Rachel Cotterman (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) Nostalgia and Progress in the Post-Industrial Mill Village
  • Monica Degen (Brunel University London) The Street: examining timescapes of urban change
  • David W. Janzen (University of Alberta) Collectivising Eco-Time: Towards a Rhythmanalysis of Ecological Crisis


Time and Urban Change 2


  • Rob Shields (University of Alberta) Time-Space and Topological Affect
  • Claudia Faraone (Venice School of Architecture) Biography of a Reconstruction Process. L’Aquila’s Post-Earthquake Temporalities
  • Michael Granzow (University of Alberta) Intersections of time and space in the making of urban agriculture
  • Kirstie Jamieson (Edinburgh Napier University) Festival Timescapes: The Entanglement of Transformative Topographies

John Urry (1946-2016)

…man is nothing; he is, at most, the carcass of time.

(Marx quoted in Urry 2000:105)


I recently received the sad news that my PhD supervisor John Urry passed away. It would be an understatement to say that John has re-shaped the field of sociology – not only in Britain but globally. His writings have challenged and advanced post-modern and contemporary sociology into new spheres. His work including The End of Capitalism (with Scott Lash), The Tourist Gaze, Economies of Signs and Space (with Scott Lash), Global Complexity, Sociology Beyond Societies constantly pushed the agenda forward and challenged how we viewed capitalism, nature, mobility, time, the senses, cars, tourism, to mention only a few topics he covered. He expected the same from his students and colleagues. His work, ideas and words have shaped several generations of scholars over the 44 years he served at Lancaster.

But it is not only the intellectual I want to remember, but also the person. In Germany your PhD supervisor is your ‘Doktor-Vater/Mutter’, meaning your PhD father/mother, and this is what John was to many of us: a generous, warm and supporting figure that guided and challenged our intellectual thinking and inquiries. As many of the comments on his website and Twitter attest he was especially generous and encouraging to the upcoming generation of scholars, always happy to share thoughts and ideas with Master and PhD students over a coffee, in an email or at a conference.

He was also an immensely modest person and extremely funny. He attended my first PhD conference paper and, to everyone’s amusement, John was happy to keep working the light switch for me, as he said afterwards with a twinkle in his eyes: “That’s what supervisors are for!” Over the years, John taught me to follow my gut instincts about research ideas and topics, whether it was my work on the senses that I started with him in 1997 or, more recently, my musings on time and the urban, John pushed me to follow my inklings and to trust myself. It is with immense sadness that I have to wish him well on this last journey and can only say: thank you, I will miss you John.

See also: http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/john-urry/

Why do I focus on el Raval to understand temporality and urban change?

The theme of my fellowship: timescapes and urban change, was inspired by my long term research on the neighbourhood of el Raval in Barcelona.

El Raval 2015

El Raval 2015

I was born in Barcelona and lived there till I was twenty years old. As my parents have continued to live there I’ve been able to follow the development of the city from an ‘outsiders’ perspective, being part of the culture yet also geographically distanced from it. Crossing el Raval with my mother to go to the Boqueria market was part of my experience growing up as a child in Barcelona. El Raval was then colloquially knows as ‘el barrio Chino’ Barcelona’s red light district, with some streets certainly lined with brothels, street-sexworkers and punters; yet also a lively working class neighbourhood with small businesses, shops and bars. It is situated right in the city centre, part of the Old City – Ciutat Vella.

El Raval grew within the medieval walls of the city of Barcelona, first as agricultural land, then with the advent of industrialization, the neighbourhood attracted in its the south-side large factories and cheap, insalubrious working class housing. It soon became one of the most densely lived neighbourhood in Europe. Nevertheless, some industrialists chose to settle in the bourgeois residences in the north of the neighbourhood next to religious institutions and hospitals. The old Roman road Carrer Hospital still divides nowadays the neighbourhood into two. With Barcelona’s expansion in the 19th century, industry moved out of el Raval into other areas. The leftover factory shells would soon be turned into precarious housing for waves of migrants from other areas of Spain. The neighbourhood’s working class and industrial character was accompanied by a booming sex and leisure industry at the start of the 20th century, catering for the upper classes, visitors and the poor alike. El Raval’s 24 hour bohemian and cosmopolitan feel became legendary and el Raval’s permissive character operated in opposition to the bourgeois Barcelona. This was further accentuated by the neighbourhoods anarchist and trade union activity. With the rise to power of Franco in the 1940s el Raval started a gradual decline as theatres, brothels and other leisure establishments were closed down and street soliciting increased. The entrance of hard drugs in the 1970s led to a rise of insecurity on its streets and el Raval became literally a ‘no-go’ area for much of Barcelona’s residents.

A map of the Raval by Reskate Studio 2016

A map of the Raval by Reskate Studio 2016

As a newcomer to the city and unaware of the stigma and stereotypes that did surround this neighbourhood my German mother did not shun el Raval’s streets or people, guiding me along it. My most lively memory is looking up its narrow streets and being captured by the play of sunlight and shades in the green plants hanging from balconies while a constant murmur of voices emanated from open windows.

While I witnessed Barcelona’s city centre transforming from a rarely visited, grey environment in the 1980s to a colourful tourist attraction in the 1990s, supported by the famous slogan ‘Barcelona posat guapa’ (Barcelona make yourself beautiful) – el Raval seemed to stay untouched. Yet, after some time abroad and venturing into el Raval in 1995 I witnessed major building work transforming the neighbourhood. Not surprisingly, the regeneration consisted of designating this working class neighbourhood as Barcelona’s new ‘cultural quarter’ and thereby attracting to the northern area of el Raval a range of new cultural infrastructures such as museums, universities, research centres and other cultural institutions. It’s flagship development became Richard Meier’s Museum of Contemporary Art (Macba) which opened in 1995, a modernist white building situated on a vast minimalist square (a range of housing blocks had to be demolished to make space for the museum).

It was in 1997 that I started to think about the ways in which the regeneration processes were reshaping not just spatially the neighbourhood but more importantly experientially. I was fascinated by the stark contrast of the sensory features between the ‘old’ non regenerated areas of el Raval and the ‘new’ regenerated areas. As mentioned earlier, el Raval’s medieval and ad hoc spatial structure means that it is characterised by narrow streets, with balconies almost touching each other above, where one is quickly immersed in a sensuously intense, sometimes overwhelming, public life: negotiating narrow sidewalks with beeping mopeds and people; being assaulted by a cacophony of sounds: TV blaring, voices and hammering tools coming from shops and balconies; and being subjected to the musty smell of the sea mixed with sewage and urine sometimes or clean laundry and food at other times. The new ‘regenerated’ spaces on the other hand are less sensuously challenging. For example on the Placa dels Angels, in front of the Macba, due to its large scale, smells don’t linger as readily, sounds are muffled, tactility is minimised by its smooth surfaces. A hierarchical relations of the senses emerges

Temporal and sensory contrast in el Raval 2016

Temporal and sensory contrast in el Raval 2016

where the sensory rhythms of the place heighten the visual sense, whereas odours, sounds and tactile experiences become a supporting feature.


So, on first sight one could conclude that these new regenerated spaces stand in stark contrast to the rest of the neighbourhood. However, over the last 15 years I’ve had to concede that the story is not as straightforward. Firstly, the passing of time means that global changes have impacted on the regeneration processes of the neighbourhood. For example the financial crisis and Spain’s property bubbly in 2008 let many regeneration plans to a halt; or unexpected global migration patterns have made el Raval Barcelona’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhood with more the 50% of its residents not being Spanish. Secondly, when analysed over time one can witness that locals have appropriated many of the new spaces by immersing them gradually into the rhythms of the neighbourhood. Hence groups of skateboarders take over the ramps of the museum – their rattling rhythms mixing with the voices of Filipino youngsters and German tourists, while the homeless assemble their cardboard shelters in the cavities of the museum. Similar patterns happen in the other regenerated areas of el Raval, whether it is the Rambla del Raval which has become an important thoroughfare and green space in the dense neighbourhood or the highly contested Catalan Film Institute which opened in 2012 in the core prostitution area and symbolised ‘the end’ of a 20 year regeneration process and yet has not found its identity in this neighbourhood yet. That the regeneration of el Raval has not played out as expected by its enthusiastic planners nor its critics has led me to think about the role of time in urban planning and urban life. How are we to evaluate urban renewal when viewed as a long term-process and place making as a temporal practice?



Timescapes of Urban Change: what’s it all about?

So, why am I starting this blog? I’ve been granted a one year British Academy Mid Career Fellowship starting on the 1st of January 2016. This fellowship offers me the great opportunity to take stock of my work over the last 15 years as well as develop my interest in the temporal aspects of urban experience. So this is the first post in a series where I will share what I am doing throughout the year but also reflect on what I am learning about time, the senses and urban change.

The central aim of the fellowship is to examine how different people’s experiences of time shape urban regeneration processes. To put it simply: planners, developers and policy makers are all working with time constraints and deadlines and with certain understandings of time that shape how and what they build. Residents, visitors, shopkeepers, on the other hand, live and experience their urban environment within different timeframes and at different speeds according to their age, activities and attachment to the places around them. The aim of this project is to understand how a multiplicity of temporal narratives, ideologies and everyday practices underpin urban change and work at different speeds and intensities to produce a particular sense of place.

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El Raval’s backstages

Cities are constantly changing. Sometimes in obvious ways – as buildings are built or demolished, or at other times change is induced through the different flows of people coming and going – shoppers, or tourists or students. Or we notice the passage of time through the opening and closing times of shops, markets and public buildings. And, of course, we perceive changes through the different seasons of the year which provide an ever-varying environmental background that influences the activities in urban public places – parks and squares, cafes and fairs.

I argue that we experience these changes first and foremost through our bodies. We encounter the city as a corporeal space. We assimilate our immediate surroundings through each of our five senses, perceiving before we understand what happens around us and we are guided through spaces with assistance of our whole sensory body.

I have written in Sensing Cities about how urban redevelopment doesn’t only restructure the city physically and economically but it also radically transforms our sensory experience and the landscape of the city. When certain neighbourhoods are regenerated, it’s not only the look but also the ‘feel’ of the place that changes (and often it’s also the social set-up). Behind this sensory-experiential transformation of public places are different ideas of whose time and what time matters on the one hand, as well as changes in the rhythms and uses of space. A good example is the transformation of Southbank in London in 1999, from a declining riverbank to a well-used tourist promenade in the 21st century.

The challenge of this project will be to bring together my interest in time and sensory experiences in order to help us understand cities not just as material, economic or political landscapes but as being actively experienced and therefore ‘lived’ entities. Such an approach offers not only a new lens to understand urban conditions but also to highlight the importance of the ‘soft’ attributes of urban life shaping and how they can work hand in hand with the ‘hard’ attributes of the city and urban planning. The aim is to start a discussion between academics, the public and urban professionals of why temporal and everyday urban experiences dynamics matter when neighbourhoods get regenerated. I furthermore hope to offer planners, developers and urban policy makers an understanding of why planning needs to take into account city dwellers’ and users’ lived experience to understand the wider emotional and social significance of urban change on individual’s lives and urban communities.