Announcing: ‘plastiCities: re-thinking the past, present and future of damaged topographies in urban environments’

FP montage

We are very excited to announce that an occursus led post-disciplinary bid for a major 5 year funded research project to investigate urban plasticity has been submitted this week. The bid is led by occursus director Amanda Crawley Jackson (French Studies, University of Sheffield), with  Luke Bennett (Built Environment – Sheffield Hallam University), Katja Hock (Fine Art – Nottingham Trent University), Tom Stafford (Psychology, University of Sheffield), John Barrett (Archaeology, University of Sheffield), Cristina Cerulli (SSoA), Vanessa Toulmin (University Head of Engagement) and Sophie Watt (French Studies, University of Sheffield). The bid is grounded upon the existing collaborations and explorations already catalysed by occursus and the Furnace park project, such as Scree (Bennett & Hock) and academic papers reflecting upon the site assembly phase of the Furnace Park Project (Bennett & Crawley Jackson).

We have set out the summary below that was submitted with the bid. We will know at the start of 2014 whether our bid has been shortlisted, and if successful in the process will commence this exciting project in October 2014. Fingers crossed!

plastiCities is a project about the damaged topographies that litter our contemporary urban environments – brownfield, neglected and abandoned sites; wastelands and tipping grounds; and the post-traumatic, post-industrial sites that are awkwardly left over in the gaps between regeneration and housing projects. A post-disciplinary team of researchers will investigate the ways in which recent advances in understanding the plasticity of the brain might help us repair and re-purpose such sites, evolve new futures for them and connect them to wider urban recovery. Through an innovative live project, Furnace Park in Sheffield, and through widening engagement with other similar projects, we will develop and disseminate effective and innovative practice through case studies, workshops, guidance notes and a variety of other resources (including extensive online media). Our concern in this project is to examine both how ‘wasteland’ sites have adaptive potential and to understand also those material and other resistive factors that retard change – for example, contamination, structural remnants, liability and powerful narratives of perceived risk, redundancy, blight and danger.

The fate of the places we are concerned with is wrapped up in their pasts, but there is an urgent need for these pasts to be considered in a more holistic way. It is precisely for this reason that the project engages voices from the arts and humanities in order to disrupt and re-cast perceptions, putting forward other visions and narratives of damaged topographies drawn from literature, art and film, in order to release and expose alternative futures. This will be complemented by the work of artists in residence and other creative practitioners who are embedded in the research team, alongside lawyers, geographers, archaeologists, psychologists, architects and literary and cultural theorists. Voices and expertise from the arts will therefore play a part in developing creative but also pragmatic responses to caring for the future of damaged topographies, acknowledging the resistance of the past while at the same time refusing to remain bound by it.

We will explore the idea that the past is multi-layered and multi-populated (by humans, animals and other things). We will suggest that it is as important to consider the materiality of the past as it is its human spectres. This stubborn materiality, we will argue, radiates out into our future, creating constraints and strange knock-on effects that we often struggle to understand within conventional forms of urbanism. The resonance of the past in the present and future is not always understood, but it is tangible nonetheless. The past piles up and forms the made ground of the sites humanity occupies, abandons and passes through.

This is what we mean by plasticity: first, it recognises the ways in which past, present and future are enfolded in and impact on each other. Secondly, it affords both the possibility of change and, in its appreciation of the vibrant agency of the ground itself (the site in which the past is barely contained), an acknowledgement of both contingency and constraint.

The ethos of our project is one of learning and reflecting through doing, as the gardener learns how to work her site through her hands-on engagement with it. From this vantage point, which characterises, critiques and builds on traditional and established practices within urbanism, we will develop novel ways of seeing, defining and managing damaged urban topographies in order to contribute tangibly to their future repair, recovery and resilience. We aim, finally, through this research, its dissemination and a series of spatial interventions, to improve community well being and show how other groups of practitioners, enthusiasts and citizens might reconsider and reconnect with  these ‘dead’ spaces, which have hitherto been assumed to exist outside of community purview.

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About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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