Do you speak urbanism? On our changing language of cities

Could Borgen and The Killing make Copenhagen the next big tourist destination? Image: Getty.

One language most people speak fluently without really realising it is urbanism: reading and understanding and engaging with a city. Of course, being thrust into an unfamiliar urban environment can often be disorienting at first, but it doesn’t take too long to find your bearings, even if you happen to be one of those people who are absolutely hopeless at reading maps.

Cities abound in as many varieties as snowflakes but most can be “parsed” without too much difficulty, actual linguistic barriers notwithstanding. For some people, this engagement goes beyond the merely functional – the city is a sounding board, an external stimulus, a puzzle to be deciphered. The late, great Ian Nairn said he liked to see how the architecture of towns and cities came together and “operated” the same way others like to watch football; it was “the greatest game in town” for him. 

Such forays have long been a staple of tourism, but the tourist, even at their leisure, is often following a prescribed curriculum laid out by their guidebook, package tour or the travel pages of their favourite broadsheet. Others go off on their own bat, be it when travelling or in the city they call home, choosing the vulgate of happenstance rather than the scripture of travel guides. This has proven a rich seam for a particular subset of writing about cities that is loosely known as “psychogeography”.

Curiously though, it is only recently it has really gained a foothold in the English-speaking world. Not that there has been any shortage of writing about place in English, with travel writing having flourished since the heyday of the Grand Tour in Georgian times (though some might even put it as far back as Geraldis Cambrensis and Chaucer). But cities and their urban fabric have rarely been central to these works – even in fiction, as Perry Anderson pointed out recently, 19th-century English novelists were rather coy about the settings for their books, often dressing them up in fictitious names, while French, German and Russian novelists used topographically real locales.

"The gastronomy of the eye"

Much of the non-fiction written about cities in English has historically tended to the sociologically taxonomic, such as Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives and George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. Vital and urgent as these works were, their concerns were more focused and their narrative more methodical than much of the city writing that emanated from across the channel.

The French concept of the flâneur, the dandy who traverses the city on foot in search of impressions and experiences – “the gastronomy of the eye” as Balzac called it – is at the root of what we now know as psychogeography. Charles Baudelaire was the most famous of a number of illustrious avatars though even he acknowledged a debt to Edgar Allan Poe, whom he translated and whose short story, The Man of the Crowd, served as the spiritual and aesthetic template for these urban strollers.

Whereas the Romantics’ relationship to their environment bordered on ancestor worship, with their fondness for ruins, the stuff of antiquity and the “perfection” of Latinate philology, the Parisians of the later nineteenth century were more attuned to the immediate city of their everyday life. They found fascination in the metropolis rapidly growing around them, its sporadically paved streets newly connected by a network of covered arcades housing cafés, boutiques, curiosity shops, cabarets and boulevard theatres.

A number of theories might explain why such a subjective exploration of the urban space took hold in Paris at the time. Rising consumerism during the Second Empire is one; another is that Paris, even more than other European cities during a tumultuous century, had seen its topography change so often and so rapidly. It was occupied by Russian troops in 1814, who reportedly brought with them the word “bistro” (meaning “quickly”) which in time passed into the French lexicon.

Barricades dotted the streets of the city on three occasions, in 1830, 1848 and then during the Commune in 1871. In the meantime there was the 1851 coup d’état that turned President Louis-Napoléon into Emperor, leading to two decades of authoritarian rule. Baron Haussmann had free rein to dig up and bulldoze entire neighbourhoods, and remodel the city with his “strategic embellishments”, intended to facilitate the easy movement of troops and artillery to quell any future uprisings (as the Versailles Guard would do to the Commune in May 1871). To Parisians of the mid-century, it would probably have been natural to view the city as a series of palimpsests, a protean morass of urban activity.

Though the city featured heavily in much French writing of the 19th century, particularly Balzac’s Comédie humaine and Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris, it was with the Surrealists that the more recondite aspects of Paris took centre-stage. Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1926) delved underneath the skin of the city, using maps, newspaper cuttings and restaurant menus, anchoring his narrative around the gothic Victorian Parc des Buttes Chaumont and the Passage de l’Opéra, one of the 19th-century arcades, which was demolished during the writing of the book.

Boulevard Haussmann, named for the creator of modern Paris, Baron Haussmann. Image: Thierry Bézecourt/Wikimedia Commons.

The book echoes the Surrealists’ favourite photographer, Eugène Atget, whose ghostly images of statues, doorways and staircases present a much different Paris from the branded city of romance later crystallised in the work of Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The eerie, unpeopled pictures (unpeopled largely because of the lengthy exposure times of the day) were a spectral counterpoint to the everyday, something which would become a hallmark of the ‘interior’ writing of the psychogeographer.

The Situationists took things a step further, Guy Debord coining the term “psychogeography” and theorising it while simultaneously taking a playful, “ludique” approach to the city’s terrain, which involved explorations of the city guided by fixed rules, and also intoxication (Walter Benjamin had in 1928 experimented with familiar surroundings by taking hashish for the first time in Marseille). The dérive, or drift, ostensibly an unserious phenomenon in the service of a critique of contemporary society, underpinned the reification of urban existence in contemporary French writing, be it in the nouveau roman, the experimental games of the Oulipians or Julien Gracq’s long meditative essays. It began to seep into Anglophone writing first through JG Ballard’s fiction, initially ignored by the literary establishment because of its “genre” status, and also by way of Alasdair Gray, Paul Auster and the non-fiction works of Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, Geoff Dyer and Will Self, as well as through Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films.

But it was the huge international success of WG Sebald’s novels in the 1990s that finally gave geographical writing a settled place in English-speaking countries. No doubt it helped that he lived in England for more than three decades before his death in 2001, and even more so because most of his novels took England at least in part as their setting. Sebald was an outsider familiar enough with the locale to offer a recognisable portrait of Britain, while erudite and foreign enough to provide the necessary distance of strangeness. Though writers taking the city and/or geography as their subject didn’t need Sebald’s prompting, he certainly raised interest among readers and made publishers somewhat more receptive to it.

Teju Cole’s fictional exploration of New York and its history (and in passing Brussels too) in Open City draws from the same well as Sebald, while the pot-smoking narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station reminds you of the ingenu Benjamin getting stoned in Marseille. Karl Whitney’s Hidden City brings the dérive and the games of the Situationists to Dublin. Lee Rourke’s 2010 novel The Canal channels Ballardian anomie on a graffiti-strewn canal on the interzone between Hackney and Islington. The latter novel, whose titular canal runs through an urban landscape with one leg in an edgy working-class milieu and another in the oncoming tide of corporate gentrification, embodies the background against which the rise in city writing has taken place. 

The urban tourist

It may even be this changing face of the urban environment and of the perception of cities that is driving this interest. After decades of being associated with social decay, alienation and violence, cities have enjoyed a newfound good press in the past 15 to 20 years. Gentrification is the most obvious vector but there is more than simply that to explain how people are more comfortable in cities. Falling crime rates, particularly for violent crime, on both sides of the Atlantic, have encouraged people to be adventurous and more attentive to their surroundings.

A greater respect for public transport has brought improvements and also elided psychological divisions within cities, as has the greater mobility facilitated by technology. Even Brutalism, long maligned, is coming back into fashion. The growth patterns of inner cities and suburbs has in some cases been reversed (though this again is largely because of gentrification).

There has also been a proliferation of informal street tours that fall outside the traditional tourism remit, such as those focused on the 1916 Rising in Dublin, street art in Paris or the TV shows The Killing and Borgen in Copenhagen. Some excellent blogs such as Messy Nessy ChicForgotten NY and Invisible Paris cast a light on the underside of major cities. Urban explorers have always been the more intrepid of sorts (even those that have steered clear of sewers and condemned buildings), but cities certainly seem less daunting places for the ordinary citizen than they did three or four decades ago.

There is also a more nuanced impression of neighbourhoods that might previously have been dismissed out of hand by middle-class people as “dangerous”. French people reacted with anger and derision when Fox News announced parts of Paris were no-go zones for non-Muslims, and residents of Nørrebro in Copenhagen were similarly bemused by some of the commentary after a resident killed two people in twin attacks last month.

Some might argue that these neighbourhoods are in the process of losing their soul or becoming sanitised as property prices rise and public spaces become gradually privatised. This is certainly true, though “boring” parts of town can be just as much of interest to the psychogeographer – not least for what lies hidden beneath the exterior.

This article originally appeared on our sister site,


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.