Come On In!: Calling all legal geographers, place management scholars and spatio-normativity researchers! The Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law is in a listening mood…

“…to examine this background assumption, to consider the idea that law does not stop at the
utterance, but continues on through causal chains into the world of stuff. Actually, it was never
anywhere else. The violence that law authorizes or blocks happens on bodies and elsewhere in the
material world. This is not separable from law, nor are these simply ‘effects’.”

David Delaney (2003) ‘Beyond the word: law as a thing of this world’. In: Holder, J. and Harrison, C. E. (eds) Law and Geography. OUP: Oxford, pp. 67–84.

Anyone who’s read my work will know that I’m a lawyer-cum-geographer-cum-artsy kind of guy. I’m interested in that point where law as words and symbols collides with the physicality of the world around us, and how we take as natural many of these quite strange collision effects. But these collisions are necessary, important and they make fundamentally important regularities in the world, they form territories, they instruct us in how to move within and to co-inhabit our worlds. And its always struck me as odd that there is no academic journal targeted towards analysing these materialisations of law in (and into) the world, and how (formal and informal) rule frameworks form, subsist and fade for the spaces and places that we dwell in.

So, I’m very pleased to now announce that earlier this year I was appointed editor-in-chief of the established Emerald Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law. Admittedly that’s not the sexiest sounding journal title on the planet, but within the cover of that rather bland tagline, there’s great scope for the journal to become a home and heartland for investigation of the ‘rules’ of space and place.

Here’s the Journal’s recently refreshed Scope and Aims statement (featuring my editorial steer in bold) and an indication of the range (and scales) of studies that the journal has published in recent years from around the world:

The Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law publishes original legal research contributions for the benefit of scholars, policy makers and practitioners in these areas, including those operating in the fields of legal practice, real estate, place management, housing, environmental regulation and land use planning. It is an established, well-regarded journal; international in scope and with a commitment to comparative legal studies, the journal publishes scholarly legal articles dealing with the application of law in these areas as well as theoretical and policy orientated research. We are happy to accept articles taking a doctrinal approach as well as those engaging with empirical and socio-legal research.

JPPEL brings together scholarship from the inter-related areas of property, planning and environmental law, as well as a diversity of methodological approaches. The journal seeks to encourage new, interdisciplinary ways of examining how law (in its widest sense) shapes how places and spaces are conceived, made, used, owned, operated, managed, transacted, changed, harmed and/or eliminated. We are particularly keen to encourage contributions from fields such as legal geography, regulatory studies, political ecology and law & technology scholarship that explore the role of law in place-related matters.

To give an illustration of the breadth and importance of the subjects that we cover, here are some of the themes that our published articles have examined over the last three years:

  • Situating real estate law for the new outer-space economy
  • Transitioning towards circular systems: property rights in waste
  • Blockchain technology in Dutch land registration
  • The law and policy on coastal damage in New South Wales, Australia
  • Regulatory failure in hotel projects in Bali, Indonesia
  • Land expropriation in China
  • Legal frameworks for Syrian urban reconstruction
  • Developments in the law of repair in the UK private sector
  • Civil liability for nuclear operators in the United Arab Emirates
  • Logics of value in community ownership of UK pubs

We currently have an open Call for Papers, and are also open to proposals for special issues that align to the Journal’s Scope and Aims.

We also have a current specific Call for Papers (closing for submission on 21st February 2023) for a special issue to be guest edited by Dr Rebecca Leshinsky of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia on ‘Sharing sky high stories – A narrative research approach addressing the law of concerns, complaints, and conflict in multi-unit residential developments‘, here’s the text of that Call:

Sharing sky high stories is a special issue for the Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law. It supports a narrative research approach addressing the law of concerns, complaints, and conflict in multi-unit residential developments. 

Land use planning and environmental studies have a long tradition with the rich information that can be gathered from narrative research. This may be through interviews, focus groups or factual discussion from court judgements. Multi-unit residential development, be it private condominium or government/community housing, comprises of concerns, complaints, and conflict. Behind these matters are narratives involving humans as lot owners, renters, committee/board members, service providers, property/strata managers and other stakeholders. Dagan (2008, 814) reminds us there is no inherent or inevitable content to property law. We argue that the time is ripe for narrative research to play a role in gaining knowledge on the lived experiences of multi-unit stakeholders. Carruthers et al. (2021), regarding their research into the pedagogy of property law teaching, note findings from their longitudinal study that some teachers want a more critical socio-legal approach to property law, rather than strict doctrinal teaching. Sherry (2021) comments that land law contains social, economic, and political values that are obvious to legal and property theorists. These are values well known to judges but the time-pressures of modern justice limits the ability of judges to “explicate those values in their decisions”. In turn, lawyers cannot see the underlying social, economic or political rationale in property case law or doctrine (Sherry 2021). The rationale then for this special issue is to align narrative research in the legal context of property, planning and environmental matters as they relate to multi-unit residential developments. Knowledge from a legal lens on multi-unit developments, from the narratives, and stories of stakeholders, will add a richer understanding regarding the lived experiences of residents and stakeholders associated with multi-unit residential developments.”

Further details of the journal and our Calls are here: https://www.emeraldgrouppublishing.com/journal/jppel

Images references: The Author, Sheffield UK (2022)

Following old leads: exploring the cable-mountain, and why I can’t throw mine away

“Today we have made the common charger a reality in Europe! European consumers were frustrated long with multiple chargers piling up with every new device. Now they will be able to use a single charger for all their portable electronics. We are proud that laptops, e-readers, earbuds, keyboards, computer mice, and portable navigation devices are also included in addition to smartphones, tablets, digital cameras, headphones and headsets, handheld videogame consoles and portable speakers. We have also added provisions on wireless charging being the next evolution in the charging technology and improved information and labelling for consumers”.

Alex Agius Saliba, European Parliament Rapporteur (European Parliament News, 2022)

The summer starts with a provocation in June: “You need to get rid of all of those cables”.

July then brings the above birthday card and its accusatory meme.

August then brings annual leave and a negotiated list of jobs to be done. Clearing out the cables is item 4.

I ruminate. I clear out other stuff, but can’t bring myself to tacking the cable mountain. I ponder the reasons for this.

  1. Throwing these items away is a waste of rubber and copper.

The residue of illicit cable stripping or burning occasionally stumbled upon in dog walks reminds me of the value inherent within cabling, if sufficient metallic mass can be gathered together. My cables would not produce enough bounty to attract a scrap dealer. But this argument for inaction has become shaky. There’s a recycling site in my city that takes domestic cables, and sends them for reprocessing. So, Reason 1 is becoming untenable.

  1. I might need them

Here we touch on something primal. Being a competent adult is about being able to solve things, and to have the right tools for the job. In the recent BBC drama series Marriage, the husband of the couple (played by Sean Bean) is a shuffling, somewhat emasculated figure. He is unemployed, slightly lost in the world, and presented to the audience as largely impotent in his interactions. But there’s scene in Episode 2 where the family home’s router is playing up, causing major productivity challenges for his more in-the-world and active wife. He is called upon to fix the problem. He shuffles into his hallway and opens the door below his stairs and reaches in. He pulls out a plastic basket, full of cables. It is clear that this is his solutions store. He finds and fits a replacement cable. The router starts working again. His wife is relieved, and appreciative of the arcane magic that he has just performed. The cable basket returns to its under the stairs lair. The husband’s cable-hoard has proven its worth. It has also vanquished threats to its existence; for a while there will be no talk of the useless, tangled nest of electric string. The husband seems less emasculated for the remainder of the episode. There is a subtle air of competence to his shuffling.

  1. Throwing out a lead is a very final step

Sharing our lives with an ever-changing array of electronic equipment has empowered us but it has also shackled us. We are (or at least need to be) tethered to our devices, and their cables are those essential umbilical cords that feed power and data to our electric friends. To throw away cables is to alienate yourself from previous devices, to abandon the prospect of rebooting that outsourced memory unit from 10, 15, 20 years ago. It is a decision to kill, because it is a decision to not just unplug life-support but rather to pull the plug on a machine in suspended animation, to renounce its possibility of resurrection. Yes, I know that most of these devices will never be reactivated (giving little – if any – resumed companionship or glimpse-of-the-past if they were lead back to life). But the decision to thrown away a proprietary charger is a death knell, and thus a decision easier to defer indefinitely.

  1. Each lead is a talisman, acquired via a quest

With the power to breathe life back into a device, the humble charge or data lead takes on the demeanour of a key or talisman. Only the correct lead will reanimate the device, and finding the correct lead has quest-like properties. The unboxing of the newly purchased device will have been the first glimpse of the devices lead-key. The view of that element will have been unremarkable, but essential. The first act (the act of digital birth) is to power up and/or connect the device. And then in later life of that device there will perhaps have been a moment when a replacement lead was needed – triggering and online or on-the-high-street search for a replicant. The box of leads is the end stage of this questing – and in the pile is invested the effort and urgencies of the circumstances in which each lead was originally acquired. That each once had to be urgently hunted and recruited into essential projects of machine-interaction, has left a resonance within this pile. The cable-pile is a the trophy mound of former questing: this stuff was once so very important, and that residue remains, like the smouldering embers of a once-roaring open fire.

  1. The cable-pile is a material history of our industrial revolution

Azhar (2021) reminds us that the act of living through an industrial revolution looks very different to the contemporary participants than it does to historians looking back at it from a critical distance. To live through an Industrial Revolution is to live in a state of constant adaptation, and to habituate to that. To live through an Industrial Revolution is to be in the state of the slowly boiled frog – it takes effort to notice how far you (and your society) has travelled over recent years. The change is incremental, but adding those increments together leads to a big gap between the world and ways of ‘then’ and ‘now’. We can only cast off our acclimatisation – and notice change, by pausing to consider the accumulated, materialised debris of earlier increments; totems that mark out steps along the way and remind us of our journey. Old leads serve this function. Azhar also points out that a hallmark of our technological progression is a move towards interoperability. He illustrates this with text messaging on mobile phones – originally messages could only be sent within (rather than between) each provider’s network. The ability to send messages between networks was mandated by legislation and licensing. The cable-mound speaks of something similar: the oldest leads are fully proprietary – they are designed only to work with one originating device. The direction of travel has been towards common standards for cable design: USB mini, the micro, then ‘C’. In the case of mobile phones by 2009 there were 30 different chargers, but now most phones charge with one of three leads (USB micro, USB ‘C’ or Lightning). Already we see some devices being sold without cables, the expectation being that every household already has an ample supply of generic USB cables of the right type.

As Criddle (2021) notes the European Commission’s research estimates that disposed of and unused charging cables generate more than 11,000 tonnes of waste per year. As indicated by the epigram, there is now pressure for interoperability of cabling, with the European Parilament pressing for EU-wide legislation to mandate that all new mobile phones, tablets and cameras must only be designed to be powered and data-fed by a USB C cable, by 2024. Apple is presently fighting to preserve the existence of its proprietary ‘Firewire’ cable, but it seems only a matter of time before iPads and iPhones must themselves submit to the ubiquity of the USB C cable.

One day all leads will be USB C leads. One day I will throw away all of my other leads. But for now, I prefer to ruminate, rather than to eradicate.

References

Azhar, Azeem (2021) Exponential: Order and Chaos in an Age of Accelerating Technology Penguin.

Criddle, Cristina (2021) ‘EU rules to force USB-C chargers for all phones’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-58665809, 23-9-22

European Parliament News (2022) ‘Deal on common charger: reducing hassle for consumers and curbing e-waste’, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20220603IPR32196/deal-on-common-charger-reducing-hassle-for-consumers-and-curbing-e-waste, 7-6-22

Approaching the painted cannons of Lisboa

“As I concentrated on these forms in the middle of apartment buildings, in courtyards, and in public squares, I felt as though a subterranean civilisation had sprung up from the ground.”

Paul Virilio (1994) Bunker Archeology(Princeton Architectural Press, Princeton, NY), P.12

This blog is an attempt to come to terms with painted cannons. A recent trip to a conference in Portugal brought me into a series of encounters with four former coast artillery emplacements, their bunkers and their painted guns. The details of these places and their roles in guarding the approaches to the harbours of Lisbon and Setúbal as part of the mid Twentieth Century ‘Plan Barron’ will remain to be substantively addressed on another occasion.

What I want to unpack today is more universal, more phenomenological. I want to make sense of my serial encounter with ‘big guns’ across the four sites, that each (but differently) emphasised to me the role of paint in the present manifestations of these structures.

We will start this meditation on paint and coastal artillery with a painted picture of a cannon: John Minton’s (1953) Portuguese Cannon, Mazagan, Morocco, painted in 1953.

Portuguese Cannon, Mazagan, Morocco 1953 John Minton 1917-1957 Presented by the Royal College of Art in memory of the artist 1957 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00159

Looking closely at the barrel of the cannon we see the patina, and this is an effect created with paint. But we see it (and the broken gun carriage) and we think of rust, decay, disempowerment. In the Tate (n.d.) commentator’s view we see Minton signalling (and materialising) the stretched-across-time (and now aged) effects of colonisation (the fortress dates from shortly after the Portuguese invaded the area in 1502).

Here then we have two intertwined meaning-making processes: the symbolic potency of cannon (what they may stand for) and the physical fact and form of cannon and their not-quite-as stable-as-we-think presence over time materiality.

In launching its ‘Save our Cannon’ campaign in 2018 English Heritage drew together these two aspects, asserting the heritage-value of coastal cannon as “precious objects, vital alongside our castles and fortifications in telling the story of England as an island nation” (English Heritage, 2018) and then raising the spectre of the material vulnerability of these sturdy-seeming structures, for “coastal guns are regularly battered by strong winds blowing corrosive moisture and salt spray over then which means that, untreated, they can corrode 20 times faster than those just a mile or so inland.” (English Heritage, 2018).

Big guns (and cannon in particular) are a quiet but ubiquitous feature of heritage sites. Sometimes the guns are survivals from the site’s former defensive purpose, at other times they are interposed. Think for example of cannon encountered at stately homes which speak to former owners’ colonial campaigns ‘abroad’ rather than the original defence of the cannon’s new-found home.

And in other modes cannon become appropriated as a surface to be written upon, a scribble pad to articulate new (and sometimes fleeting) meanings. Take for example the 1797 naval cannon in given Tufts University in 1956 and which since the era of the Vietnam war has been a beacon of ‘multilayered meaning’ (Ferguson 2018). As a focal point for anti-war protest the cannon was removed from display between in the mid 1960s. It was reinstated in 1977 following a campaign by alumni, but then painted by a protestor opposing the conferral of an honorary degree upon Imelda Marcos. Almost immediately it was repainted by counter-protestors. Thereafter it became a canvass for successive paintings, accruing over 1,000 coats of paint. A recent stripping of the accumulated paint players took contractors six weeks to accomplish, as they closely worked through the layers, hacking off chunks of multicolour paint, some of which ended up in the hands of the University’s art collections registrar, Laura C. McDonald: “we’re object people – we love objects – and we were amazed that, through the simple act of repeatedly painting an object over and over, the paint had become an object, with a top and bottom, cross-sections and colors. It was something you just wanted to look at and hold” (Ferguson, 2018).

Restoring the Tufts Cannon

Ferguson’s account of the refurbishment work suggests broad support not just for the stripping away of the paint layers – but also for the iterative work that the successive paintings represented. However, she also points to the guarding necessary to preserve one iteration of the paint scheme (for example, on the eve of a sporting event). As one defender put it: “we organized guarding shifts in an Excel spreadsheet, and divvied up blankets, sleeping bags, snacks, hot cocoa…several groups tried to either bribe or non-maliciously attack us, but we fended them off. You might think painting the cannon is easy, but nothing about the cannon is that simple”. (Ferguson, 2018).

And in other recent instance of US cannon-contestation a homeless man was seemingly paid by a protester to deface a Civil War era cannon in Mobile, Alabama that had been painted in rainbow hues in celebration of Pride month, with the blessing of the city officials. The protestor’s colour of choice was black paint: perhaps seeking to restore the cannon to its original military colour scheme (Mobile Real Time News, 2022).

(The Mobile Pride Cannon: John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

Cannons then can become a canvass onto which both symbolic notions of identity are projected and enacted with paint. They are also chunky metal objects which have strange sculpture-like, phenomenological qualities.

My recent encounters with Twentieth century cannon around Lisbon brought me to extant gun emplacements in various states of abandonment (and not always ruination). At some sites the emplacements were in near pristine condition (despite having been decommissioned from military service in the 1990s) – due to still being on sites under the care and maintenance of veterans (or the military itself) elsewhere the guns had become blank canvasses for colourful graffiti. But at each site paint was at work, either holding these guns in their original mode, or distorting their form and purpose far away from military uses.

It would be easy to ascribe an anti-military purpose to the graffiti-covered state of guns at other, unguarded, sites – but very little of the paint added to these structures was a commentary upon what the guns had been (or arguably still were). Graffiti of unattended flat surfaces in the Lisbon area seems to be a fairly ubiquitous thing – this graffiti was no more a protest against militarism than an equivalent image painted at the rear of a supermarket should be taken as a critique of consumer capitalism. And there was nothing final (and everything provisional) about these continually overlain and overpainted graffiti at these unguarded sites.

If this painting was an instance of what Giorgio Agamben (2006) has called ‘profanation’ then it is an example of how the effect of profanation (moving something out of a cherished and foregrounded state into something more prosaic and unremarkable) is not dependent upon a particular motive to bring that about. Instead, the profanation can simply be the side-effect of a new use having been found for the thing, its place and/or its surfaces. Indeed, only one graffiti image seemed to directly engage with form of the gun (below) all other graffiti ignored the three-dimensional form of the gun emplacement, treating the surfaces instead opportunistically, and simplistically, as flat ‘canvasses’.

Meanwhile, at the ‘pristine’ emplacements the fresh-looking, super-thick and uniform grey-green paint communicated order and a timelessness: provided this paint continues to be applied this scrupulously, this gun will remain ‘as-is’ (with the clarity of its ‘gun’ identity unfettered) forever.

But in either case the clue to these gun emplacements’ survival is the paint. Without regular painting and overpainting by either crew (the military or the graffiti brigade) these structures would succumb to entropy, especially in salty, coastal air.

I hear talk of unease in the heritage sector about the fetishization of bladed weapons within similar presentations of ‘our’ island story. But this press release (and its connected campaign) suggests no squeamishness about coast artillery. In part perhaps this reflects the ‘defensive’ nature of that type of gun fortification, but the outbreak of a new artillery-based war in eastern Ukraine makes in harder to unquestioningly ‘love your local cannon’.

And yet, once again, I find the phenomenological taking over. I’m tumbled back to visceral recollections of childhood: of super-thick paint on myriad tanks, planes and warships presented to me as places of curious encounter and clambering during ‘Open Days’; of the chipped paint of the sea mine sitting innocently as a tourist ‘attraction’ on the seafront promenade; and of the feverish dreams of the anticipatory child the night before a visit to Salisbury Plane to clamber into the wrecked hulks of exploded tanks. It is the overwhelming impression of being inside a machine, of metal wrought into shapes and sizes larger than any everyday from and encounter: these were the strongest impressions stirred by my trips around the Portuguese gun emplacements.

In short, the mere presence of a gun signals something. But what that thing is seems to be somewhat elusive (or at least multitudinous). A cannon can summon an impression of the past. Or it can be a less certain phenomenological object – something large, unusual, and distorting expectations of local sound and temperature (think the sounds of struck cannon, and of the colder (or hotter) surfaces of the cannon than of its surroundings).

Cannons sit in a family of objects that register in multiple ways, and this is why I can’t make up my mind about my encounters with these Portuguese guns. Should I approach them as strange, alien objects that leave the mind and body to ponder metaphorically. Or should I situate them squarely in in a context – read them as materialisations of militarism and celebrate their decline (or survival) accordingly?

References

Agamben, Giorgio (2006) Profanations. New York: Zone Books. (trans Jeff Fort).

English Heritage (2018) ‘Save our Cannons’ https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about-us/search-news/save-our-cannons/ (press release, 29-3-2018)

Ferguson, Laura (2018) ‘A Thousand coats of paint: Restoring the Tufts cannon’, Tufts Now: https://now.tufts.edu/2018/09/05/thousand-coats-paint

Mobile Real Time News (2022) ‘Rainbow Pride paint scheme defaced on Mobile’s landmark cannon’ Alabama.com https://www.al.com/news/mobile/2022/06/rainbow-pride-paint-scheme-defaced-on-mobiles-landmark-cannon.html

Tate (n.d.) John Minton – Portuguese Cannon, Mazagan, Morocco (1953) – https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/minton-portuguese-cannon-mazagan-morocco-t00159

Reflections on The Changing Campus #3 and #4: beyond the Multiverse?

“The ‘Idea of a University’ was a village with its priests. the ‘Idea of a Modern University’ was a town – a one-industry town – with its intellectual oligarchy. The ‘Idea of a Multiversity’ is a city of infinite variety. Some get lost in the city; some rise to the top within it; most fashion their lives within one of its many subcultures. There is less sense of community than in the village but also less sense of confinement. There is less sense of purpose than within a town but there are more ways to excel. There are also more refuges of anonymity.”

Clark Kerr (1963) The Uses of the University, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, p.41.

Writing over 50 years ago Clark Kerr’s nested (Village – Town – City) analogy for the evolution of the University as a place, and as an experience, seems at first glance quite modern (in the sense of contemporary). But thinking about it further it’s actually more Modern in the sense of a now-strange-to-us embrace of a diffraction of identity and experience. It’s a very liberal, mid-Twentieth Century, view of a university being a place of liberation, immersion, diversification.

Our Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group’s recent set of online ‘The Changing Campus’ sessions have perhaps identified an increasingly prominent diffraction of place-experience and place-identity. Across our final two sessions we’ve heard how campus spaces physically encode and sustain exclusionary assumptions about mobility, we’ve heard stories of enhanced senses of connection for some enabled by covid-era shifts towards online ‘places’ of interaction, and we’ve heard of the indeterminate boundaries of ‘the campus’ and of increasingly complex and hard to separate on-site and off-site university effects and impacts.

Here are the recordings of our two final sessions (the recordings and reflections for our first two sessions are here), they feature:

The Changing Campus #3: Embodiment, Materiality & Flow

Petra Vackova (SHU) & Donata Puntil (King’s College London)

Rooms of Possibilities: Making Spaces for Posthumanist (Un)doings

In our talk we will be exploring and asking what it means and what it does to be a community in the post-digital era. We will reflect on a Dream Team session we organized at the 2022 European Conference of Qualitative Inquiry in which we challenged digital capitalism, including digital labour and production, in academia by re-imagining and enacting a new approach to communing during a conference session that accounts for bio-digital becoming in/with/through rooms, both physical, virtual, and imaginative. As online, virtual ways of working are becoming normalized in academia, we argue that new meaningful and ethical ways of inquiring, living, writing, collaborating, and growing with/in/through bio-digital-material spaces must be developed to respond to the changing relationship between human and more-than-human others in the academia. Through a process of ‘quilting together’ with comments, images and connections in our online conference space, we paid attention to the role of bodies, objects, sounds and materials, the ways we encounter and entangle, across and between our physical and online ‘rooms’. By wandering and wondering between rooms, using all of our senses in physical movement, we diffracted, expanded, (re)experienced what is possible, what is valuable and what is often unseen or unheard in our bio-digital-material ways of working.

Carol A. Taylor (University of Bath)

Research-creation in the ‘posts’: Institutional kitchens, doors, cupboards

For a long time I’ve been interested in how mundane materialities constitute institutional life. In this talk, I focus on how human-nonhuman relations produce practices of mattering within material assemblages. The mundane materialities I focus on – kitchens, doors, cupboards – are often ignored, unnoticed, or taken-for-granted within the broader life of higher education workspaces. My argument is that such liminal, marginalized spaces/places/materialities can help shape the habits, routines, practices, values and norms of the everyday institutional life they are enmeshed within. The empirical materials I draw on were generated through a variety of research-creation encounters which favoured an experimentalist practice and an attentive stance. The analysis I offer is shaped by three ‘posts’: posthumanism, post-methodology and post-disciplinarity. I draw out some insights into the material, affective and political dimensions of the mundane materialities of our institutional lives and how these vital materialities produce resonances and connections across bodies, spaces and times

Pamela Holland & Nick Russell (on behalf of the SHU Staff Disability Network)

The Changing Campus: Challenging ableism

This session will explore the challenges faced by disabled staff when working on campus and remote Hybrid working. The importance of consulting disabled staff from a wide range of disabilities when designing and renovating campus buildings and facilities cannot be emphasised enough. Inclusion shouldn’t be an afterthought; it should be ingrained as part of the normal process from the start. Pamela and Nick will talk about their own positive and negative experiences as well as drawing on experiences from the wider staff disability network. We will cover a range of disabilities including physical, hidden, mental and medical within the case studies. On campus and Hybrid working challenges will be discussed to raise awareness of disabled staff experiences from both positive and negative aspects.

The Changing Campus #4: Wider learning Environments & Interactions

Teri-Lisa Griffiths (Criminology, SHU) & Jill Dickinson (Law, University of Leeds)

“I’m in a lecture hall with chairs and a big screen and someone talking […] it felt special in a way to me […] it felt like all my hard work had come to something”: Exploring what learning spaces mean to the student experience.  

During the 2020-21 academic year, campuses across the UK were in lockdown. Our research explored how students’ learning spaces had changed as a result of these restrictions. In this presentation, we will report on our key findings and explore how learning spaces can support and inhibit the social, cultural, and academic ‘becoming’ of learners. Using a sociomaterial framework, we will illustrate how students adapted and managed previously unimagined spaces of learning and what we may ascertain about the student experience as a result. We will invite discussion about the long-term considerations for policy and pedagogy which arise from our research findings.

Vicky Mellon (Tourism, SHU) 

“It feels like a job” : Understanding commuter students: Motivations, engagement and learning experiences (Stalmirska & Mellon 2022)

The number of students choosing to commute to university and remain at home, rather than relocating to the place of studying is growing, particularly within post 92 HE settings. Increased tuition fees and introduction of student loans is attributed to this growing trend. Subsequently, they are a valuable part of the student population. However, there is a lack of research on commuter students, including focus on their motivations, engagement and learning experiences. Here, the qualitative study addresses this gap and explores their reasons for commuting, their engagement and disengagement with extracurricular activities and their sense of belonging at university. The research highlights the challenges facing commuter students and how these differ from other cohorts, and offers some recommendations for overcoming barriers preventing engagement.

Julian Dobson (CRESR, SHU) 

The long shadow of the campus: ‘place’ and the civic university 

Universities cast a long shadow over places. The notion of the ‘university town’ is baked into European history: places where cultural identity and spatial form are significantly shaped by their higher education institutions. Even modern, isolated campuses ripple out beyond their boundaries, skewing property development, housing markets and neighbourhood dynamics. As universities become more conscious of their civic mission, they increasingly position themselves as agents of economic and social change within their wider communities. But the consequences of such interventions are not always fully considered. This talk will explore the porous interface between places and institutions, and present an emerging framework for understanding and assessing universities’ impacts on the places that host them.

Image credit: Sheffield Hallam University, City Campus Masterplan: https://www.rmcmedia.co.uk/vibe/movers-and-makers/article/Sheffield-Hallam-reveals-city-centre-campus-plan-

Changing Places #1 & 2: reflections on our recent SHU Space & Place Group sessions

“…whenever [Mozhayev] forgets who he is, and what he should do next in life, he gets on a bus and rides to the old familiar bus stop where he grew up and suddenly everything makes sense again”.

Peter Pomerantsev (2017) Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia. Faber & Faber: London

In his book chronicling the strange, ‘through-the-looking-glass’, world of modern Moscow, Pomerantsev presents a chapter chronicling the hectic and disorienting pace and nature of that city’s recent ‘regeneration’, wherein:

“The city changes so fast that you lose all sense of reality, you can’t recognise the streets. You look for a place where you went to eat a week ago, and before your eyes the whole block is being demolished.”

Set against this disorientation, Pomerantsev introduces Alexander Mozhayev, an urban explorer cum psychogeographer cum rescue archaeologist. Mozhayev leads walking tours in search of vanished and vanishing buildings, who declares there to his audience:

“We’re here to say a wake, to this building, to old Moscow, all these buildings are set to be destroyed.”

In Pomerantsev’s portrayal at least, Mozhayev is driven by a strong sense of a need to find and preserve the past, in order to hold his own sense of individual identity together. For Mozhayev:

“When my parents died, I could remember them through the building that we lived in. Buildings aren’t so much about recollecting time as about the victory over time.”

This strong sense of the power of place to ground an individual’s identity, and in particular of the role of the local and familiar material environment and its arrangement as a cherished store of personal memory and meaning struck me as running deeply through the five presentations given in our recent two ‘Changing Places’ online events, for which the session recordings are now provided here.

In Changing Places #1: Changing Places & Changing Identities (held on 24 March 2022) Nantia Koulidou (Art & Design, SHU) explored her experience of international migration through the design of electronically activated jewellery that could be programmed to comfort the wearer through release of visual and/or audio mementos when triggered by the environmental effects (e.g. altitude) of travelling between home countries and new horizons. This brought a sense of the way in which both jewellery and mobile electronic devices are now intimate companions in our life-journeys, props by which we remember, below and move-on.

Then Jess Scott (Social Science, SHU) outlined her ongoing research into how younger residents of care homes acclimatise to their new dwelling places, and make sense of their past, present and future by reference to the physical arrangement of their new surroundings. Jess’ concern is to better understand ow such transitions occur, in order to find ways in which the managing of that adjustment can be made to be the most positive experience possible.

Finally Joanna Dobson (SHU Humanities) presented an intimate account, through memoir and wider reflection, of a very formative family event, showing how the experience and recollection of childhood home and holiday locations was framed for her and her family members by that event and its perceived incorporation into the very form of the local landscape. [Joanna’s presentation was not recorded]

Meanwhile, in Changing Places #2: Change and the Material Fate of Place, Joanne Lee (Art & Design, SHU) and Rosemary Shirley (Museum Studies, University of Leicester) outlined the five key areas of inquiry that they are developing for their intended project to explore ‘the local’ (and it’s quality of ‘local-ness’) led by development of creative methods for the investigation of place. Growing out of their own experience of dwelling within narrowed ranges of existence during the covid years, their work seeks to find ways to characterise and explore the multiple locals inherent in any seeming place, and of the mundane (but fundamental) ways by which such senses of the local are made and transacted. In discussion it was noted that teasing out how ‘community’ and ‘locality’ differ (but potentially overlap) could be key, as will showing how qualitative (and narrative) based ‘creative’ techniques now used by marketeers and ‘place branding’ consultants can be distinguished from the more holistic (and less instrumentalist) aims of their project.

Then film-maker Esther Johnson (Media, SHU) outlined her multi-modal attempts to preserve both the form and symbol of Hull’s Co-Op department store’s ‘three ships’ mural. Esther’s project, and its collaborations with Hull residents and contemporary heritage campaigners, brought us back round to the question of where the urge to preserve the cherished built environment comes from, and how it reflects both individual and collective identity and (perhaps) a positive dimension to nostalgia, now that modernism’s faith in the-future-as-progress has itself become something of the past. It also flagged how, if (contrary to Mozhayev’s desires) buildings themselves are not good bets for “victory over time”, then perhaps a more durable victory (and aspiration to memory-survival) can be achieved by multiplying and disseminating the most iconic symbolic representations of the building’s former identity-power. Through Esther’s efforts the ‘locals’ of Hull now connect as a community of collective memory, carrying the three-ships mural emblazoned on T-shirts and other printed, portable media even in the face of the Hull Co-Op building’s imminent demolition.

Image Credit: Esther Johnson, mural on former Hull Co-Op department store

The Changing Campus #1 & #2: some reflections on our recent SHU Space Place / HEC online seminars (session recordings here too)

“In an increasingly home-based, privatised society, universities are among the few surviving institutions that draw people out of their private spaces and, for a brief but crucial time, encourage them to engage in shared public activity.”

Krishan Kumar (1997) ‘The Need for Place’ in Smith & Webster (eds) The Postmodern University: Contested Visions of Higher Education in Society, SRHE/Open University Press: Buckingham, p.34

The covid pandemic has shaken education – like so much else – to the core. For long periods of lockdown and transitional caution, Higher Education has lurched online, the physical focus of ‘the University’ shifting from the communal classrooms and cafes of campus life, to solitary student bedrooms and tutor kitchen tables. In a sense far removed from what Kumar was contemplating, Higher Education has become very privatised.

As we (hopefully) start to emerge from covid and its warping effects on daily life, questions are being asked within – and beyond – the sector, about the future of place within University life. Talk is of an ‘extended campus’ of hybrid spaces and modes of teaching and learning.

We all nod in resignation, that – somehow that we can’t yet fully express – things are unlikely to ever return to how they once were. Sometimes this feels good – that the disrupting break with how things were, opens up new possibilities, perhaps even new freedoms. But at other times the prospect seems bleaker – institutions now used to running on a crisis footing of ‘change everything, daily’, now have much higher expectations of the gymnastic, change-absorbing capabilities of their staff, and of the adaptability of their now-less-fully-occupied buildings.

So how to make sense of this challenge to the timeless physicality of the University and its civic presence? How can a new – distributed – sense of the University’s purpose as device to draw people together and to encourage them to work and grow together be instilled?

In the SHU Space & Place Group (working in collaboration with our university’s Interdisciplinary Higher Education Research Cluster) we’ve recently hosted two online seminars to consider these issues. The recordings are below, and my other recent posts summarise the content. And we are now planning a third event for May 2022.

In The Changing Campus #1 we considered how the experience of being on campus can be researched using visual and narrative methods to understand how users of University space seek to carve out territories, temporary possessions of space that they hope will protect and/or empower them.

After a short introduction from me, surveying the different ways in which University place-makers have envisaged an instructional power to their campus formations, Harriet Shortt (University of the West of England) presented an intriguing account of her use of visual methods to capture how staff and students experience the environment of a new, flagship, university building. In doing so Harriet flagged how user generated photographs reveal the multiplicity of place, and of the micro-contestations and territorial emplacement that acts of inhabitation entail. Meanwhile Amira Samatar (SHU) then gave us a powerful account of black women’s experience and use of campus spaces, and in doing so showed how the trend towards opened-out, free-for-all space can unsettle some precisely at the moment at which the place-makers are proudly declaring greater inclusivity.

In The Changing Campus #2 we looked at how being on campus entails multiple engagements with things – the stuff of the world and its arrangement: intentional or otherwise. In dynamic interaction with others: other people, other objects and their respective resistances and affordances, a person is affected (for good or ill) by the act of being upon campus.

The session was chaired by Becky Shaw, who opened up the event by pointing to the myriad ways in which our (human) lives on campus are enmeshed with inanimate (but nonetheless potent) non-human objects. Hiral Patel (Cardiff University) then took us further into this multiplicity, setting out how her research work seeks to account for how buildings (and the things that comprise and fill them) change over time, and do so via complex – multiple – ontologies, formed amidst any single building’s enmeshment in multiple parallel projects, perspectives and temporalities.

James Corazzo and Layla Gharib (SHU) then took us into their design studio and in the course of exploring the instructiveness of informality, emphasised how that informality is an active socio-material creation, something forged and sustained by hard work with choices of movement, manner and soft furnishings. In choosing to include the viewpoint of a sofa within their presentation James and Layla attracted the scorn of Private Eye which (some how) found their abstract and published it in their magazine’s Pseud’s Corner section. But James and Layla give a wonderful repost to the sneering satirists in their presentation, rightly questioning the ‘don’t they know their place?’ condescension of those who ridicule others as upstart imposters, and denying their right to think and question.

Sofa’s matter! (As do all aspects of the formation and enactment of spaces intended for learning – and we need to understand how each element operates (and its other possibilities and potentialities) in order to create and sustain places that can (in Kumar’s words) “draw people out of their private spaces and, for a brief but crucial time, encourage them to engage in shared public activity“.

Finally, Justine Pedler, Programme Lead for the Future Spaces Project (Extended Campus) at SHU followed this theme of how the campus can be arranged to enable learning in place – and to do so by acknowledging multiplicity – by titling her presentation as “Variety is the condition of harmony” (Thomas Carlyle). She gave us an insider’s insight into an ongoing project at Sheffield Hallam aimed at understanding how the new campus spaces being created at the University are being perceived and used by a variety of students. She showed how photo elicitation has been used to get a student ‘eye’ on these developments and as an aid to focus group insights.

[NB: As a change to the originally published programme, Professor Carol A. Taylor was unable to join us as a presenter for The Changing Campus #2 – but we hope to welcome Carol to a future session in this strand.]

Picture credits: Author, January 2022; Private Eye, 3-2-22

The Changing Campus #2: learning in place? (free SHU Space & Place Group online event, 2-4pm, 16 February 2022)

This event is the second in the Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group’s 2022 series of events, running under the theme of ‘Changing Places’.

Our first two events are being curated jointly with the University’s Interdisciplinary Higher Education Research Cluster. Our first event (on 19 January 2022, see details here) explores how the experience of being ‘on campus’ is changing, due to changes in student expectations and the exigencies of Covid-19, and how this can be researched.

For our second online session, we have three presenters who are each concerned with investigating the constitutive role of socio-materiality and ‘thingly’ relations in forming and transforming the campus.

Our speakers for event #2 are:

Hiral Patel (Cardiff University)

Aligning learning and space – a tale of buildings, users and technologies

Learning approaches within higher education are continuously evolving and diverse. This is evident through changes in pedagogies, curriculum content and programme structures. University buildings are required to act in tandem and need to be continuously adapted. My research on adaptations of a library building over 50 years demonstrates the fluidity of the building in response to emerging technologies, pedagogical innovations and the creation of new library services. These observations demand a shift from thinking about learning spaces as fixed entities. Instead, conceiving buildings as socio-material practices highlight their constant state of flux and the ‘ontological politics’ (Mol, 1998) that surround them.

Such a conception has two implications. Firstly, we need to rethink the design and management of learning spaces that integrate different scales (a chair to the city) and sectors (work, living, cultural and learning). Secondly, we need to develop tools and capabilities to continuously align learning practices and learning spaces.

The talk will conclude with provocations for future learning spaces. These provocations emerge from the work of LE-DR Lab, which focuses on the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on university spaces.

Mol, A. (1998) ‘Ontological Politics. A Word and Some Questions’, The Sociological Review, 46, pp. 74–89. doi: 10.1111/1467-954X.46.s.5.

Carol A. Taylor (University of Bath)

Research-creation in the ‘posts’: Institutional kitchens, doors, cupboards

For a long time I’ve been interested in how mundane materialities constitute institutional life. In this talk, I focus on how human-nonhuman relations produce practices of mattering within material assemblages. The mundane materialities I focus on – kitchens, doors, cupboards – are often ignored, unnoticed, or taken-for-granted within the broader life of higher education workspaces. My argument is that such liminal, marginalized spaces/places/materialities can help shape the habits, routines, practices, values and norms of the everyday institutional life they are enmeshed within. The empirical materials I draw on were generated through a variety of research-creation encounters which favoured an experimentalist practice and an attentive stance. The analysis I offer is shaped by three ‘posts’: posthumanism, post-methodology and post-disciplinarity. I draw out some insights into the material, affective and political dimensions of the mundane materialities of our institutional lives and how these vital materialities produce resonances and connections across bodies, spaces and times.

James Corazzo & Layla Gharib (SHU)

Part of the furniture: encountering people and sofas in the design studio

Part of the furniture: a person or thing that has been somewhere so long as to seem a permanent, unquestioned, or invisible feature of the landscape.

The unquestioned things we shall be questioning in this talk are a pair of green sofas. Arranged in an L-shape around a coffee table and forming a small domestic looking space within a larger open-plan design studio at Sheffield Hallam University. At first glance, the sofas appear ordinary, invisible even. However, upon closer scrutiny, we begin to see the sofas as active participants in how teaching and learning practices unfold in the studio. We suspect these sofas are not innocent or invisible features in this educational setting but objects with power and significance that materialize different kinds of relations (Suchman 2005), different kinds of knowers and different ways of knowing. In an attempt to understand these sofas, we sat down with them, had a conversation with them and believe it or not, they spoke back…

Suchman, L. (2005) ‘Affiliative Objects’, The Interdisciplinary Journal of Organization, Theory and Society Vol.12(3) pp.379—399

Image credit:

James Corazzo & Layla Gharib

Further information

Is available from the organiser, Luke Bennett (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk).

‘Changing Places’ – The Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group’s theme for 2021/22 – a Call for Ideas

“The more things change, the more they stay the same” (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose)

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1849)

The SHU SPG’s theme for this academic year will be ‘Changing Places’. As with last year’s (very successful) ‘Haunts’ theme, the plan is to have a number of self-contained events, each of which finds an inventive (and interdisciplinary) way to explore the year’s theme.

This is an invitation to anyone (at Sheffield Hallam University or beyond it) who would like to propose a contribution to the group’s examination of ‘Changing Places’, contributions could include:

  • creative ways of recording both the material processes of changing places and the lived experience of such change (and whether by inhabitants, instigators or passers by)
  • consideration of the role of changing places as a device within visual art and literature
  • critical evaluation of documentary portrayals of changing places (e.g. Manctopia)
  • analysis of stakeholder networks within bringing about (or resisting) changing places
  • performative work that explores the interconnection of the two senses of changing places (i.e. changing identity and changing location)
  • studies of the management of how places are changed, and what strange contingencies have to be provided for in order to make change happen either safely, or at all
  • reflection on the connection between fear of change and the materialities of place
  • philosophical reflections on incremental change (the Ship of Theseus) and/or attempts to change a place back to its ‘original’ form

Dependent on what expressions of interest we receive we will devise a programme of events accordingly to run between January and July 2022. At least some of these events will be online (thus enabling disembodied participation).

A couple of strands that we already have under development are:

  • ways of researching the changing campus
  • ways of re-presenting construction sites as modes of public engagement

We also have some interest in sessions on:

  • evaluating how the covid-19 pandemic has caused places like hotels and convention centres to be reconfigured as places of healthcare
  • considering how heritage conservation motivations are squared with urban regeneration projects within Sheffield city centre.

We intend to have a workshop to scope out a programme of events, and this will be held online (via Zoom) on Wednesday 15 December 2021, 2-4pm. So, please submit details of your proposed contribution to me (Luke Bennett: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) by 10 December 2021, for consideration at that programme-planning meeting (at which all will be welcome to attend – I will circulate log in details nearer the time).

Picture reference: Luke Bennett, city campus development site, Sheffield (September 2021)

Defying gravity: construction and deconstruction campaigns against gravity and their pitfalls

When even the gravitational field — geometry incarnate — becomes a non-commuting (and hence nonlinear) operator, how can the classical interpretation of  as a geometric entity be sustained? Now not only the observer, but the very concept of geometry, becomes relational and contextual.”

Sokal, A.D. (1996) ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, Social Text, 46/47: 217-252

Not accepting the gravity of the situation

The so-called ‘Sokal Affair’ ridiculed the postmodernism critics of modernist science who, building upon literary deconstruction, were seemingly keen to show the relativity (and instability) of all knowledge. Sokal’s academic paper in a respected and peer reviewed postmodern journal wove postmodern theorists together in a way which seemed to argue (but actually didn’t quite) that gravity itself was a relative socio-cultural construct. Actually the paper was more subtle than that – and its chief mischief is actually that it didn’t really say anything at all.

But when planning the short essay that follows it seemed a good place to start. In contemporary folklore at least the Sokal paper ridicules postmodern relativity by suggesting that that journal’s reviewers and readership were happy to endorse a relativisation of gravity – an accusation that leaves open the prospect of the defying of gravity’s force by simply unmasking its socio-cultural and/or ideological nature. Taken this way – as a crude parody of deconstruction – the Sokal paper summons the impression of an intellectual campaign against gravity (and in doing so creates ridicule of postmodernist critiques of science: because clearly – as experienced in our daily lives – gravity is real and undeniable).

Having raised a chuckle at the absurdity of a (faked) intellectual campaign against gravity by deconstructionists, in this short piece I want to think about the phenomenon of the daily campaigns against gravity waged by constructionists on myriad building sites across the world.

Taking total possession of a site

Think about it. What happens shortly after a site is transformed into a building site via the erection of a boundary fence or hoarding? Scaffolding is what happens.

Scaffolding – and whether internally or externally – is set up in order to enable works access to areas of a site which are (literally) beyond the reach of ordinary inhabitation of that place. The ceilings and exterior walls of an existing building suddenly become surfaces that will feel the refurbishment touch of the builder. And where scaffolding cannot reach, other gravity defying access techniques will ensue, via ladders, roped access, cherry pickers. Increasingly this reaching for access to the totality of the site’s 3D space is technologically enhanced, using devices once thought of as science fiction: remote viewing through the eyes and flight of drones, or now as enabled by the Iron Man engineering of personal jet packs which are now being directly marketed for construction and engineering site applications.

A construction project is a campaign waged against space with material, labour and ideas against the vagaries of time, weather, stakeholders and finite finances. It is also a campaign against the limitations of gravity. That campaign requires a total – albeit temporary – acquisition and control of 3D space upon a site. It is not sufficient to occupy only the gravity dictated surfaces that future inhabitants will confine themselves to. Indeed, the very formation of those floors and walkways may only be possible via the temporary imposition upon the building envelope of numerous levels of scaffold, to form an infra-building – a distorted ghost image of the building yet to come.

The cost of defying gravity

The temporary campaign against gravity is necessary, but such gravity-defying structures come at considerable cost, and gravity’s urge to reassert its power, and the attendant limits to occupancy must not be treated lightly. Falls from height remain one of the most common types of accidents on construction sites in the UK – 47% of all fatal construction site accidents in 2019/20 (HSE 2020) and a variety of legal requirements apply to edge protection and a whole industry of consultants and engineering solutions providers exist to facilitate appropriate safety measures where-ever gravity is being defied on a site.

Meanwhile, in New York State the Labor Law 240(1) – otherwise known as the ‘Scaffold Law’ and which was originally enacted in 1885 as a response to accidents arising in the then-emerging skyscraper construction boom, in particular because the hoists being used to transport workers up the side of the buildings were proving to be unsafe – imposes strict liability upon all construction site operators who chose to defy gravity (see Powers & Sanola (2021)).  What this means is that if a construction worker is harmed by a “gravity risk” (which includes both a worker’s fall from hight and a worker being struck by an article dropped from height) then the site operator is liable regardless of whether or not they (or the worker) can be shown to have been careless in their gravity defying actions. As a New York court put it in ruling on an accident claim brought in 2009:

“[the]single decisive question is whether [the claimant’s] injuries were the direct consequence of a failure to provide adequate protection against the risk arising from a physically significant elevation differential” (quoted in Faley, 2010)

What is notable here is the explicit acknowledgment of gravity as a force to be reconned with – gravity becomes a character in the story of each accident (and each requirement to have prevented it). In contrast applicable UK legislation – like the Work at Height Regulations 2005 – concentrate more upon the health risk of falls and means of safeguarding, rather than picturing gravity itself as a force to be named and assuaged in construction site’s temporary campaigns to defy gravity in their total possession of their worksites.

But whether we give it a name or not gravity is a very real and sobering adversary in construction (and in deconstruction too).

Image Source: M.C. Escher (1953) Relativity https://www.wikiart.org/en/m-c-escher/relativity-lattice

What’s behind the fence? – exploring dead land and empty buildings at the RGS-IBG 2021 Annual Conference (online session, Weds 1st Sept 2021)

“They came from everywhere… I fixed the fence, over and over I fixed the fence, but they kept on coming.”

A lone, vulnerable security guard, 2017

As part of next week’s Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) annual international conference (which this year is running online: details here) I’m convening a double-session next Wednesday morning (1st September), comprising eight presentations, each considering the quiet and only-noticed-if-you-look human ecology of seemingly empty sites.

Contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites tend to celebrate vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everyday normativities (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey & Edensor 2012). Keen to chronicle the ways in which wider human and more-than-human agencies are enabled in such sites, only incidental attention is ever given in these works to the continuation of a quiet custodianship of these sites by those who own, or who otherwise consider themselves responsible for them. Yet in a fleeting glimpse of a passing security guard patrol, coming across a patched perimeter fence or in the flickering of lighting served by a still-active electrical power supply, seemingly abandoned sites reveal themselves to be not quite as abandoned as they at first seemed.

This conference session will open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators. Taking a life-cycle approach, presenters will explore the stories and structures that have caused abandonment at both remote sites and those within the heart of otherwise active and occupied urban centres. They will tease out the logics of opportunistic appropriators (urban explorers, rough sleepers, ravers, artists, scrappers and scavengers), their notions of territoriality and of their own emergent normative codings devised for the shared use of abandoned places. The role of professional cultures and logics of urban set-aside and vacant site management will also be explored. In each case these readings of the motives, modes and meanings of vacancy will be attentive to the wider ecologies in which these sites and their actors are imbricated and of the important role of (positive or negative) place attachment in determining the speed at which a site is withdrawn from vacancy, or how it is maintained purposively in that state.

Here are the abstracts for our international array of presenters:

Session 1Experiencing and managing dead places (9.00 – 10.40 AM BST)

Ruins of (Post)Soviet Arctic: perceiving, coping with and commemorating abandoned sites

Maria GUNKO Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences / National Research University Higher School of Economics (Moscow, Russia) [presenting]

Alla BOLOTOVA Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki (Helsinki, Finland); Elena BATUNOVA Politecnico di Milano (Milano, Italy) [non-presenting]

The Arctic is passing through different economic and political development stages which result in changing economic and social settings, as well as shifts in the cityscape dynamics (Sellheim et al., 2019). During state socialism in Russia, large-scale development of northern territories was due to the need for natural resources extraction with the establishment of control over a vast sparsely populated area (Josephson, 2014). The collapse of the system has led to a reduction of state support for industries, science and military activities causing a structural crisis in many Arctic cities outside oil and gas provinces. Abandoned and dilapidated buildings, industrial ruins, idle infrastructures, and marginalized spaces here remain “monuments” to the Soviet period indicating the changing trends. At the same time, these cities remain home to people with community bonds, sharing values, and place attachment (Bolotova, 2018). The aims of the current research are two-fold. First, we explore the perception of and strategies to cope with abandonment in the Russian Arctic. Second, we look at the examples of abandoned sites commemoration by their former residents. The empirical evidence for the study is drawn from Vorkuta – a conglomerate of urban settlements in the Komi republic. At its peak, it comprised 16 settlements built around 13 coal mines, currently less than a half of these settlements are still habitable having severely shrunk in size. The data were obtained from a comprehensive analysis of various sources, such as planning documents, archival materials, expert and in-depth interviews (in person and via Skype), as well as non-participant observations carried out in January 2019.

What’s the use? Rethinking urban vacancy amidst Dublin’s housing crisis

Kathleen STOKES & Cian O’CALLAGHAN, Trinity College Dublin (Ireland)

The results of the 2016 census found 183,312 vacant homes in Ireland, a figure that included around 30,000 vacant homes across the four Dublin local authorities. While the Central Statistics Office indicated that this figure was a static rather than long-term measure, the ensuing political storm equated vacant properties with empty homes that could be used to solve Dublin’s burgeoning homelessness crisis. Amidst Dublin’s housing and homeless crisis, calls for affordable housing and fairer property markets have paralleled growing attention in urban housing and land vacancy. A spate of policy measures targeting vacancy have testified to the increased visibility of the ‘problem’ of urban vacancy in the post-crisis period. However, policy objectives construct vacancy within a simple dichotomy between space either ‘in use’ or ‘not in use’, therefore reproducing normative understandings that fail to acknowledge that such sites are always active, in property market formation and subject to ongoing ordering and management. As a riposte to these conceptualisations, this paper puts policy objectives and key measurements of urban vacancy in Dublin into dialogue with the critical literature on vacancy in urban and cultural geography (Ferreri & Vasudevan, 2019; Kitchin et al., 2014). We reflect on the limitations of normative understandings of urban vacant space in revealing the role of vacancy in capitalist cities and suggest that more critical assessments can unearth a multitude of urban processes pertaining to the ordering and management of such sites. This paper draws upon ongoing research in Dublin, which investigates underlying factors contributing to urban vacancy and questions how urban vacancy is identified, categorised and measured.

Empty buildings in the re-making: The case of the Hochhausscheiben A-E in Halle-Neustadt, Germany

Hendrikje ALPERMANN, Université de Lausanne (Switzerland)

Four of the five high-rise slabs Hochhausscheiben A-E in the centre of Halle-Neustadt are empty. And this for over 20 years. Between 2003 and 2016, the shrinking city of Halle reduced vacancy in Halle-Neustadt by half through demolition, enabled through the national program Stadtumbau Ost (Stadt Halle (Saale) 2017). In contrast to many other buildings in Halle-Neustadt in the beginning of the 2000s, the high-rise slabs were not chosen for demolition, but for endurance. But how can their endurance be ensured in the context of a shrinking city? While the buildings have been increasingly dilapidated since they have been abandoned in the late 1990s, a number of practices and relationships have prevented them from being demolished or renovated and contributed to their continuous life between life and death. Against what has been written on ruins in recent academic literature, the high-rises do not stand for a site of disruption (Buchli, 2013; DeSilvey; Endensor, 2012) or “the end of the world” (Pohl, 2020), but rather for a series of promised of renovations and postponed renovations. This turn towards practices and endurance allows us to reflect on techno-political modes of organizing urban change and emptiness. It will lead us to ask how agency and responsibility are distributed and enacted.

In Praise of Shutters: Hidden activity within Neepsend, Sheffield

Charlene Cross, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

This presentation takes inspiration from the 1933 Japanese aesthetic essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Junichiro Tanizaki, who made a case for accepting transience, flaws, patina, and shadows within in the built environment. ‘In Praise of Shutters’ draws attention to the shutters and fences of several ’empty’ buildings in Neepsend, Sheffield, to challenge the preconception that these are inert spaces. The images presented form part of a land use study that initially focused upon inert urban spaces, such as wastelands or seemingly empty buildings. However, as the study has progressed, no truly inert spaces have been found to date. Using narratology and a series of photographs taken in Neepsend between July 2020 and the present day, these images of physical boundaries entice curiosity within the onlooker. If the building is not derelict, what’s behind the fence? Walking past a warehouse, the shutters are up and metal work is underway. People heading to the food court across the road, which is made of shipping containers, pause to peep in. The next day, the shutters are down. To those not in the know, will they view the patina of the signage as an aesthetic remnant of the long forgotten past, rather than a marker that provides testament to their long established presence in the area?

Session 2 – Empty sites, re-use, utopia and other potentiality (11.00 – 12.40PM BST)

Rethinking Utopia: The Search for ‘Topias’ in the Paris Catacombs

Kevin BINGHAM, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

Although the idea once had great influence, utopias have proven themselves to be unattainable. Therefore, rather than viewing utopia as an actual destination this paper will argue that belief in the existence of special places of perfection has been replaced by a faith in leisure. As it will be argued, it is the activity of ‘urbex’ that can turn ruins, abandoned places and vacant sites into something similar, albeit temporarily. With this is mind, the paper continues by drawing on the work of Peter Sloterdijk and Tony Blackshaw to accentuate the point that the good life is about inventing oneself through a process of self-creation that has been referred to as anthropotechnics. To unpack this standpoint, the paper examines how a group of urban explorers – people who explore man-made spaces that are generally inaccessible to the wider public – find various substitutes for utopia in the subterranean space of the Paris catacombs. As it is argued, forms of leisure such as ‘urbex’ emerge as ‘primary spheres’ of anthropotechnics that instigate the formation of intertwining and interpenetrating ‘topias’ which have been referred to here as ‘reterotopia’, ‘heterotopia’ and ‘scotopia’. Viewed independently of one another, these ‘topias’ refer to the way urban explorers’ experiment with space nostalgically, compensatorily and in a way that incites the five basic senses. As the paper reveals, each ‘topia’ plays an important part in allowing people to discover performativity, locate a sense of collective consciousness, feel intense pleasures and pains, and, above all, experience the euphoria of freedom.

“The dead are tugging at our backs”: exploring migrant life among the headstones of an abandoned cemetery in Tangier

Maria HAGAN, University of Cambridge (UK)

Renewed and intensified criminalisation of sub-Saharan Africans in the northern Moroccan borderlands since 2018 has made their spaces of shelter precarious and their access to accommodation, particularly in cities of the north, a perpetual struggle. Those seeking passage to Europe increasingly resort to life in concealed, abandoned urban spaces. This paper explores the socio-material ecologies of an abandoned Muslim graveyard in Tangier overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar and serving as a primary space of life for a group of young Cameroonian men. Drawing on 5 months of ethnographic fieldwork with the community in 2019 & 2020, this paper discusses how, concealed and lawless, this abandoned and decaying urban space operated as a rare negotiated space of presence and sociability for the community. Detailing practices of shelter construction between the headstones, the routine destruction of that shelter by authorities, and processes of camp reconstruction and renegotiation attempted by the graveyard’s inhabitants, the paper proposes an analysis of the liveliness of a deathscape in a context of urban hostility against the migrant body. It traces how the appropriation of this undesirable territory affected the men’s self-perception and influenced their space-claiming practices elsewhere; namely the establishment of a cemetery camp in another Moroccan city.

Fortifying the empty ruin: the nightwatchman, the artists, the trespassers and their antagonisms

Luke BENNETT Sheffield Hallam University (UK) [presenting];
Hayden LORIMER, Edward HOLLIS and Ruth OLDEN of University of Edinburgh (UK) [non-presenting]

The cabin is for use by the nightwatchman,
…who is employed by the security firm,
…that is contracted by the small arts company,
…to protect the now fortified ruin of the former seminary,
…which it hopes to take off the hands of the church,
…who desperately want shot of the whole damned place themselves,
…because of recreational trespass and the liabilities arising,
if only a viable model for transferring ownership can ever be found.

This is the premise for an illustrated piece of performed storytelling, and the predicament that it explores. The modern architectural ruin at its centre is a place of competing claims, and complex social dynamics created by the securitization of property. Lately, it has operated antagonistically, existing as an aggressive milieu. The presentation delves into the ruin’s complex relational ecology, introducing its protagonists, affects, spaces, encounters and events. Ultimately, its chief concern is with the architecture of lives as much as it is the lives of architecture. In particular, the presentation will focus upon how the precarious minimum-wage lifeworld of the nightwatchman, and his embodied relationship to this abandoned site, is both more elaborate and more sculpted by the active concerns of others who rarely appear in person on-site, than we might readily assume. The presentation reports on part of the collaborators’ 2017-2019 Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland funded study of attempts to manage and reactivate the modernist ruins of St Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, a few miles west of Glasgow. Bennett will present drawing upon Olden’s fieldwork, Lorimer and Hollis’ writings upon the site and Bennett’s reflections on the pressure of anxieties about vacant site ownership.

The elephant in the room?: a facilitated discussion about absent owners

Carolyn GIBBESON, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

To what extent does scholarship on vacancy include an exploration of the motives and meaning-making of owners and their professional agents? Where mentioned do site owners only ever appear as cyphers for capital, striped of any attentiveness to their emotional labour? Does attempting to give analytical space or voice to owners and their motivations for vacancy risk loss of a Critical and/or progressive edge? This contribution will facilitate a discussion of these questions, by reflecting on the Session’s nine papers. It will open with a short presentation in which I will draw on my former experiences of working in the real estate sector as a property manager responsible for a variety of property types including vacant sites, and on my more recent doctoral research into the awkward interaction of developers’ and heritage professionals’ differing world-views and practice-logics. Through this I will consider how different groups of people within the built environment and academic sectors view each other to ask why owners are usually ignored despite their control over a site. I will then invite discussion on whether (and if so, how) a greater attentiveness to owner perspectives could augment studies of vacancy, and also tease out the particular difficulties that lie ahead for anyone trying to research owners’ creation and/or toleration of vacancy, whether as profit-maximising landbanking or for more prosaic reasons.

Image credit: Author’s photograph, St Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, Cardross, Scotland, Oct 2017.