Citizenship Redefined : Urban Humanities in Context

Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna

Cities are increasingly important for understanding societies, not only contemporary ones but also those of the past. As objects of study, cities have inspired researchers from a wide variety of disciplines such as history, sociology, geography and anthropology. Today, research on cities often involves multidisciplinary problematizations and approaches, more effective than methods of any one discipline for addressing complex urban phenomena.

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Cities as objects of study

When a researcher studies a large European city, what precisely is the object of study? Tentative answers can be found in traditions of research, varying according to disciplinary frames.

For urban historians of the industrialized period as well as researchers in history of technology and planning history, the city has often referred to the large city and to major urban issues such as urbanization, industrialization, and rapid growth. Their consequences have included problems of housing, sanitation and transportation. The concept of the large city (die Großstadt, suurkaupunki, la grande ville) was defined by the International Institute of Statistics in 1887 on a quantitative basis, a population over 100 000 inhabitants (Rowell 2010, 551); in this sense, the approach has roots in processes of urbanization from the 19th century. The figure marked the threshold where the issues of urbanization could no longer be solved by increasing the efforts applied in a smaller town, but required completely new kinds of approaches.

In comparison, cultural geographers and economics have perceived cities from the point of view of the region. Their object of study has often been the metropolis defined as a city that has had a dominant economic, cultural and political position within larger regional, national and international networks. A metropolis (Weltstadt) has traditionally been defined as a principal city that has influenced its surroundings and generated the birth of smaller cities, like the relationship of the capital city of the empire to its dependent colonies and colonial cities (Sutcliffe 1984, 3). Today, metropolization is also seen as a socio-economic process in the global economy, fundamentally different from the historical process of urbanization (Ghorra-Gobin 2010).

The city of urban sociologists, urban anthropologists and social historians has been the urban society and its communities: urban life. The approaches, rooted in studies by the Chicago School in the 1920s and 1930s, have emphasized the city’s social groups and their heterogeneity (Gans 1975; Hannerz 1980, 89 et passim). The field of study has been expanded through the adoption of more analytical concepts such as urban minorities, subcultures, social classes and segregation (Raulin 1991). The notion that each of these urban communities have their own values, ways of life and language, distinct from those of others, has opened new objects of study on cities also for researchers of other disciplines, including language and cultural studies.

For architectural historians, planning historians and some urban historians the city has been, above all, about its concrete physical and visual reality and about visions for its improvement (for example, Benevolo 1980). Images of cities have been perceived as representations of society and particularly its government, the plans for grand axial vistas associated with the civilized and prosperous European capitals (Port 1999, 101, 121 et passim). In the context of urban heritage, parts of cities have also been studied as essential elements in constructing the identity of a nation (Kervanto Nevanlinna 2006). In this perspective to the city, history is present in the materiality of the time layers that can be directly observed and experienced in cities today.

Old and new multidisciplinarity

The distance between the different disciplines has meant that the definitions of the city may be, and often are, unconnected. This can seriously hinder multidisciplinary research projects. In earlier research, the need for a wider perspective was achieved by selecting a common theme and presenting the spectrum of views to it from a number of disciplines, side by side, as in the two-volume The Victorian City: Images and Realities. The editors emphasized that they were not attempting at a synthesis based on the disciplines represented, but at a continuing discussion among them (Dyos & Wolff 1973, ix–x). The approach has been extensively applied, also in European urban studies, also recently.

Another path for multidisciplinarity was identified by Roland Barthes in the early 1970s: “Interdisciplinarity, much discussed, does not consist of confronting already established disciplines (none of which, in fact, are willing to retire). To implement the interdisciplinarity, it is not sufficient to take a subject (a theme) and bring together two or three fields of study. Interdisciplinarity consists of creating a new object of study that belongs to no one.”(Barthes 1972, 3; my translation) Although Barthes’ comment should be seen as a reaction to the strict disciplinary traditions and institutions in universities in the context of the 1968 upheavals in France, it suggested a new approach to interdisciplinarity. Essentially it involved defining research issues that have not been addressed with the tools of the established disciplines.

What could be the contribution of the urban humanities as a multidisciplinary project? In what sense could humanistic approaches represent an innovation in relation to earlier multidisciplinary endeavors and open new avenues to the study of cities?

Multidisciplinary urban research has been pursued for various purposes. Within the biosciences, urban studies have been used to solve problems related to urban environmental ecology. Urban planning and governance studies involving several disciplines have generated models for sustainable development and cultural integration. Today, strategic planning based on multidisciplinary studies is seen as crucial (for example, Schulman & Söderström 2014, 234). The conventional frame of reference, followed not only in research projects but also in university programs in Europe and North America, has been that of producing experts and specialist knowledge for public organizations, private companies, or national and international agencies. The agenda of multidisciplinary urban studies, then, has been oriented to the needs of strong institutions in society.

Yet the urban studies that have been oriented to specialists have shown inadequate responses to the requirements defined by the citizens’ communities. The strengthening of the civil society today gives a new mandate for the urban humanities: multidisciplinary approaches in urban research based on humanistic ideals and practices. The idea of understanding the relations between the varied agencies involved in the urban processes, sometimes even in contradiction with each other, forms the foundation of the humanistic approaches in urban research.


Cultures, meanings, identities

Historically, the nation-state was connected to the notion of culture, in the singular, based on a community sharing the same land and held together by values, history, language, traditions, and ways of life. Citizenship in the nation-state presupposed cultural unity. In today’s Europe, the notion of a unified culture does not apply to cities. Urban societies are comprised of a variety of different communities or cultures, in the plural. This multiplicity of cultures is fundamental to the idea of a contemporary city. The old conception of a dominant “parent” culture and its subcultures has lost its validity. Today, each cultural community is an “other” in relation to the others and exists in the heterogeneous context comprised of all the others (Kervanto Nevanlinna 1996, 36–42). Every city has its particular network of different urban cultures that produces its unique identity.

For each community, places in the city have meanings that may differ, and often do, from those of the other groups. In this sense, the meanings are cultural. For example, the neoclassical area at the South Harbor of Helsinki holds different meanings for the ferry workers of the port, the staff at the City Hall, the inhabitants of the adjacent residential area, the shoppers at the Market Hall, the international employees of the global paper company, the officials of the Foreign Ministry, the tourists visiting Helsinki and the investors assessing the economic potential of a property on sale in the area. The cultural meanings of urban spaces are primarily neither characteristics of the built forms as such nor subjective views of individuals, but collective. The meanings portray the relationship of a community to the place, shared by its members (Kervanto Nevanlinna 2002, 21–23).  Each community uses and interprets a particular urban place in its own manner, giving them meanings on the basis of its values, world views and ways of life.

The cultural meanings of urban spaces are developed in practice, through the forms which the community uses for living the city. Places that are important for and support the activities of an urban group gain special cultural meanings for that group. Places that prevent particular uses of a group also reject the meanings of that community. The identity of the urban community is strongly connected to urban places. The relationship is reciprocal, as the Maurice Halbwachs has described it: the community gives cultural meanings to the place and the place, then, strengthens the cultural identity of the community (Halbwachs 1950/1997, 193–197). The cultural meanings of the urban places are developed through time and gradually become part of the collective memory of the community.


Citizenship redefined

Since the eighteenth century, the notion of citizenship has been connected to the idea of the nation-state to establish, in the modern sense, full membership in society. Modern national citizenship has been used as the unifying frame for all the different kinds of identities, including family, social group, religion, ethnicity, and region (Holston & Appadurai 1999, 1). This has included the identity of the inhabitants of a particular city. In the definition, the unified frame of citizenship has been seen as stabile and unchanging. However, in the context of cities, citizenship – urban citizenship – can be perceived as a process. Citizenship is about the changing relationships of the citizen to various urban communities, each with its particular identity, collective memory and urban places with special meanings.

From this perspective, cities and their urban communities can provide a vital platform for the generation of active engaged inhabitants with common concerns and a shared understanding of urban values. The old civic ideal of urban citizenship involved two forums of action. Participation in political activities only was not perceived as sufficient. To fulfill the ideal of citizenship, the citizen was also to take part in voluntary associations that were independent of the state. The duality is still relevant.

To serve the new citizenship, researchers in urban humanities need to construct a new multidisciplinary understanding, a new frame shared by all the disciplines involved in the project. This requires the reformulation of not only the objects of study, but also the concepts and languages used in the research (Noiriel 1996, 111). We can compare it to a new discipline or a new research culture, partly emanated from the different disciplinary traditions but partly also something original. To bridge the distances between the earlier disciplines and to understand them, the new research culture needs a shared language, a common conceptual network.

A parallel can be drawn to how a shared language can facilitate us to understand another culture. Charles Taylor has suggested that this kind of understanding calls for a particular language that is not our language, nor theirs, but “what one could call a language of perspicuous contrast” (Taylor 1985, 125–126). In other words, what is needed is a language which does not disregard or suppress the differences between the disciplines, but clarifies and even emphasizes them. For the urban humanities, the shared language can also be used as an instrument in integrating the approaches rooted in the different disciplines.

As I see it, the conceptual network of the new research in urban humanities should be extended beyond the research community to include also the urban citizens and their communities. With the shared language, mutual understanding can be developed and expanded. Concepts that can be shared by the citizens and the researchers alike need to be included in the processes of redefining citizenship. In this sense, the development of the conceptual network for the urban humanities in fundamental.

When cities are understood as the plurality of urban cultures, also the concept of citizenship is necessarily altered. Citizenship no longer refers to access to the rights guaranteed by the nation-state, but to more active and integrated forms of participation in the urban communities. In these processes, multidisciplinary research in urban humanities opens new paths to understand the particular urban communities and their practices. By generating novel approaches that address major contemporary issues, researchers can contribute to the urban changes arising from international economic, social and cultural processes. Research in urban humanities strengthens the civil society in cities.



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