New Approaches in Urban Humanities

Lieven Ameel, Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna & Samu Nyström

What is the role of the urban humanities within interdisciplinary urban studies? How can new kinds of data and new approaches within urban humanities invigorate the theory and practice of urban studies and urban planning? This theme issue of the Finnish Journal for Urban Studies provides new insights into our understanding of how urban layers of meaning are structured and experienced.

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Multidisciplinary research on cities

The themes of this special issue were generated by a network of researchers working in different disciplines within the humanities and urban studies. The idea for the theme issue was initiated within the multidisciplinary research network “Suurkaupungin kerrostumat” – “Urban Layers of Meaning” –  ( ) at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Helsinki. The network connects scholars from history, linguistics, cultural studies, literary studies, ethnology, theater studies, and urban history as well as economic and social history, and cultural geography.

The network was founded on the notion that the in-depth study of cities and their layers of meaning, both in their material and immaterial aspects, requires multidisciplinary approaches. The network discusses the challenges of incorporating diverse forms of knowledge into a common understanding of cities, and seeks to build bridges across the boundaries of existing fields of study with a shared language and terminology. Already, the network has initiated and developed diverse multidisciplinary activities, including lecture and seminar courses, discussions, sessions and papers in scientific forums, public lectures, presentations, and research.

In November 2015, the network organized an international conference in Helsinki to bring together researchers representing different approaches to cities. Keynote addresses were presented by Professor Olga Zinovieva, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Professor Jean-Yves Andrieux, Université Paris–Sorbonne, Assistant Professor Annemarie Steidl, University of Vienna, and Lecturer Jason Finch, Åbo Akademi University. The themes of the conference were related to urban layers of meaning, particularly in the context of the European city. The issues focused on urban history, urban citizenship, identities and languages in changing cities, inclusion and democracy, and the politics of remembrance as well as the images, narrations and representations of the metropolis.

The themes were united under the idea of urban humanities as a solid foundation for multidisciplinary research. As argued within the research network “Urban Layers of Meaning”, a better understanding of complex layers of meaning could be beneficial for a more inclusive and democratic perspective on urban complexity, and enable taking stock of diverse experiences, memories and everyday tactics in the city.


Towards Urban Humanities

The last decades have seen a number of paradigm shifts – the spatial turn; the linguistic and cultural turn – that aimed at bringing human experience, the language in which it is couched, and its cultural and historical contextualisation, into disciplines that have been traditionally more preoccupied with quantitative data and methods. Some of these paradigm shifts have resulted in the appearance of well-established sub-disciplines, such as cultural or humanistic geography. As we have entered the “urban century”, following a century of continuous, dominating urban growth, has it become time for a renewed turn towards more culturally, linguistically and historically oriented research of the urban condition – time for a new kind of urban humanities? A renewed urban humanities could bring crucial and refreshing perspectives to sometimes elusiva data, as well as new ways to include and study immaterial layers of meaning in the context of conflict, inequality, and exclusion. It could enable addressing some of the most important challenges for current urban planning and policy: how to account for radically different kinds of knowledge and place-based information, from quantitative and objective data (soil, construction material) to more sociologically, historically, or culturally oriented experiential information (see Lapintie 2003; Sandercock 2010)?

A renewed urban humanities means also widening the scope of available sources and methods in a manner that is explicitly cross-disciplinary. One particularly beneficial element of urban humanities is the way in which it could address the call for more experiential knowledge: not questions of what, where, and how much, but questions of how and why. For example, how are plans for the future couched in persuasive terms, using rhetoric strategies (Ameel in this volume), how do people attach meaning to place via place-naming strategies (Ainiala et al. in this volume), why do we find certain kinds of memory activation in specific historial periods (Seppälä in this volume), and how do literary and other narratives reflect historical complexities (Finch, Kekäläinen in this volume)? Historical studies can bring much-needed temporal and analytical depth to present-day narratives of cities in conflict (see e.g. Nyström 2013). European ethnography, art history and theatre studies add further dimensions to our understanding of the complex layers of meaning inherent to the urban condition, and the extent to which cities remain always cities of words, of shared, shaped and contested memories and identities.

Highlighting these aspects of the urban condition could attune urban policymakers as well as their recipients – city’s inhabitants – to the extent to which urban policy and planning entails negotiating between often competing visions. The present volume want to present diverse and sometimes unespected kinds of data, with the explicit aim to make these available for scholars from outside the humanities.

In international perspective, several projects bear witness to the rewards of a distinctively humanities perspective to spatial and urban studies. At the University of California at Los Angeles, the Urban Humanities Initiative, initiated since 2012, aims to enhance the “collaborative study of urbanism that bridges design and the humanities” (UHI 2016). At the University of California at Berkely, the Global Urban Humanities Initiative develops “new theoretical paradigms, research methods, and pedagogical approaches in order to help address the complex problems facing today’s global cities and regions” (GUHI 2016). Since 2013, the initative organizes symposia, lectures and exhibits in a cooperation between the UC Berkeley Arts & Humanities Division of the College of Letters & Science and the College of Environmental Design.

Similar initiatives have also been launched at Washington University in St. Louis and at New York University. In the European context, the “Profilschwerpunkt Urbane Systeme” at the University of Duisburg-Essen and the Italian-based Cross-Disciplinary Urban Space Research Network can be mentioned as examples of interdisciplinary – and at least partly humanities-driven – initiatives aimed at addressing the complexity of contemporary as well as historical cities. Organizations such as the Association for Literary Urban Studies and the Ghent Urban Studies Team similarly bring together scholars from a range of academic fields around questions of urban studies, with a distinctive literary and cultural emphasis.

In their article “Mapping the Geospatial Turn”, Todd Presner and David Shepard sum up the task of the ”urban humanities” as follows: to “ally architecture, design, urban planning, computational analysis, GIS, and the humanities to investigate the complexities of cities – as embodied, lived in, built, imagined, and represented spaces” (2016, 209). They make the point that the urban humanities will need to ally itself with actors outside academia to reach full impact: “a plurality of perspectives and expertise as well as partnerships beyond the walls of the university with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), city councils and regional governments, developers, museums, and countless cultural and social constituencies are, of course, needed” (ibid.).


Contributions to this Issue

The umbrella theme of this issue, uniting all the contributions, is urban layers of meaning or, if we translate the name of our research network “Suurkaupungin kerrostumat” more precisely, the layers of meaning of great cities. With the notion of urban layers, we refer not only to the social and cultural layers inherent in urban societies of the past and the present, but also to the economic and political dimensions of cities. In this issue, our focuses include Helsinki and London, but our scope is broader: that of European cities and their history. In the contributions, three major streams can be identified: the role of urban history in planning and directing the changes cities face today, the varying forms of urban citizenship, and the significance of urban polyphony – the coexistence of divergent voices and cultures – for understanding cities and urban ways of life.

Urban history as a continuously active element in cities is discussed in several articles. Mikko-Olavi Seppälä analyzes the 1920s processes of renaming streets in Helsinki in the decade following Finland’s independence, when naming reflected the political tensions. Jason Finch compares the different historical phases of the St Giles area of London, using  a range of sources to explore the changing meaning of the area from the nineteenth century up until today. The history of London and its urban culture as an early example to other cities in Europe is also present in Markku Kekäläinen’s reading of eighteenth-century city guides and travelogues, which provide exceptionally rich sources on the social and moral geography of the city.

In her review article, Pia Olsson shows how the ethnographical studies of the National Museum of Finland were influenced by the major changes of the postwar decades, from a predominant interest in rural culture to a gradual acceptance of urban culture. Laura Kolbe examines research based on statistical data, also in terms of the analysis of long-term changes in urban history of Helsinki and the other Nordic capitals. The focus of the book reviewed by Mika Mäkelä is on the history of modern reconstruction in the postwar period. Laura Ekholm’s book review on an already classic series of books on the older parts of Helsinki opens new perspectives on urban history.

Another major theme in the urban humanities is urban citizenship in its various forms. In their article, Terhi Ainiala, Hanna Lappalainen and Samu Nyström illustrate how the unofficial name – the nickname or pet name – “Vuokki” has been used as an instrument in constructing the urban identity of the multicultural Vuosaari suburb in eastern Helsinki. The authors represent a range of disciplines, involved in the histories of names, language and urban society. From the perspective of literature studies, Lieven Ameel emphasizes the significance of diverse kinds of narratives of places within the context of urban planning, calling for more polyphonic planning practices.  Seppälä elaborates on the historical dimension of place-names and narratives. Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna discusses redefining urban citizenship in the context of urban humanities.

The third theme expands the idea of the city as a place with different cultures and voices. A useful concept with which to approach this diversity is the notion of polyphony, developed by Mikhail Bahtin and examined by Lieven Ameel in his article on narratives in planning in the context of Helsinki’s waterfront, an article that calls for a keener understanding of the diverse narratives of the city. The relations of the inhabitants to their own neighborhood are clearly illuminated also in the use of an unofficial toponym, analyzed by Ainiala, Lappalainen and Nyström. The changes in the ethnographic surveys compared by Olsson similarly demonstrate the variation in perspectives to one and the same city.

In their Pro Teesi (“pro thesis”) column – the Journal’s forum for debating issues in urban planning today – Hanna Mattila and Jonne Hytönen discuss the current pressure within Finnish academia to use English and an Anglo-Saxon theoretical apparatus in urban planning education. They argue that this carries the distinct risk of eroding existing best practices that are based on a vision of society and planning which differs profoundly from that of Anglo-Saxon contexts. With their argument, Mattila and Hytönen also demonstrate concretely the more general themes of urban humanities, grounded in the understanding of the city as a fundamentally cultural process, unthinkable outside of language.



GUHI (2016). Global Urban Humanities: About. 2.3.2016

Lapintie, Kimmo (2003). Suunnittelun paradigman muutokset ja tieto / valta. Yhdyskuntasuunnittelu 41:2, 9–25.

Nyström, Samu (2013). Helsinki 19141918. Toivon, pelon ja sekasorron vuodet. Minerva,


Presner, Todd & Shepard, David (2016). Mapping the Geospatial Turn. In Schreibman, Susan & Ray Siemens & John Unsworth (Eds.): A New Companion to Digital Humanities. John Wiley, Oxford, 201–212.

Sandercock, Leonie (2010). From the campfire to the computer: An epistemology of multiplicity and the story turn in planning. In Sandercock Leonie & Giovanni Attilli  (Eds.): Multimedia Explorations in Urban Policy and Planning: Beyond the Flatlands. Springer, Heidelberg, 17–37.

UHI (2016). Urban Humanities Initiative. 2.3.2016


Lieven Ameel

Postdoctoral researcher, Department of Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies, University of Helsinki