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


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.

Managing the awful precipice: law at the edge in my new article in Area

“By the extent of its prospects, the awfulness of its shades, the horrors of its precipices, the verdure of its hollows, and the loftiness of its rocks, the ideas which it forces upon the mind are the sublime, the dreadful and the vast. Above is inescapable altitude, below, is horrible profundity.”

Dr Samuel Johnston, (1816) A Diary of a journey into North Wales, in the year 1774, p.40

My latest article is inspired in part by the curated – intentionally sublime – landscape formed upon the steep cliffs of Hawkstone Park in Shropshire. The reason Dr Johnston went there (and visitors do still to this day) is to draw close to the vertiginous edges: to admire the views and to experience the thrill of standing at the limit point of safety. Here is is intended that the visitor feel a thrill, and then safely step back. In my article I attempt to explore how honouring this imperative of sublime thrill is reconciled with wider notions of safety culture. In short, in my article, I ask what happens in those situations where law has to share space (physically and conceptually) with other strong drivers, like landscape aesthetics. How does the person responsible for curating that place come to know what an appropriate point of balance looks like there?

To summon an image of intentional, sophisticated place-managers curating place in a way that requires notions of law and safety to be balanced alongside other drivers is rather rebellious – because academic commentators (from a law perspective) would normally assume that the normative drivers of law and safety fully (or at least largely) determine how the risks of place are managed, whilst a critical geographer might choose to foreground an intrepid thrill-taker’s guile in illicitly grasping a moment of thrill by finding and exploiting fragments of opportunity unintentionally left available by an uptight, risk-averse place-manger.

In my article I seek to explore a middle path, by pointing to the place-manager’s code-shifting between competing normative pressures, and thereby becoming an edgeworker: someone who deftly navigates the edge at which compliance, safety and thrill find a point of balance.

My article, entitled ‘Reconsidering law at the edge: how and why do place‐managers balance thrill and compliance at outdoor attraction sites?’ is available (free to access) in pre-publication form here, and will be formally published in the journal Area soon. Here’s an extract:

“At outdoor attraction sites, a delicate balancing act is entailed – these places must appear to be open and unencumbered – but they must also be reasonably safe. As a past senior member of the Visitor Access in the Countryside Group (a group that develops and promulgates best practice interpretation amongst public sector attraction sites in the UK) has put it, the place-manager is required to:

“…pull off the ‘con trick’ of balancing the need of visitors to feel the unrestrained freedom that is essential to the countryside experience…while in reality secretly try[ing] to manage their activities within tight legal and corporate parameters“ (Marsh 2006, 4)

The “con-trick” here is not a matter of deception – place-managers’ safety concern is genuine, but it is also a matter of user experience. Finding the balance, is often a matter of making the safety controls appropriately integrated into the setting. Thus, a visitor to an iconic ruin site declares “I would rather have come here as a trespasser”, revealing the general sentiment of the audience to an artistically augmented open day. Such visitors must be left to feel that they have roamed without constraint. But this is an impression, not a reality, to be achieved. The ruin had many perilous edges from which visitors might fall, so an event plan was made, that saw visitors led through safe areas by both human guides and a light show. Thereby, visitors’ vulnerable bodies and the ruin’s precipitous edges were reconciled in a way that achieved (in the place-managers’ view) both safety (legal compliance) and met visitors desires (the thrill dictated by sublime aesthetics) through design of an appropriate atmosphere for the event.  

At attraction sites the provision of safety (and thus the performance of legal compliance) must often be concealed lest the apparatus of safety otherwise become obstructive: literally or figuratively blocking the thrilling view, or an increasingly kinetic engagement with edges via an increasingly “accelerated sublime” (Bell & Lyall 2002). And this urge to have open communion with an unfettered edge, has been a matter of sublime aesthetics since (at least) the Enlightenment. However, whilst conventional writing about recreational, counter-cultural, edgeworkers tends to present the thrill as that of rule-breaking, the root of the sublime in landscape aesthetics does not actually set up safety and thrill as opposites. Indeed, Jean Jacques Rousseau, doyenne of the Romantic movement and all counter-cultural access-takers that have come since, revealed in 1781, that at the heart of his formulation of the landscape sublime was a requirement for safety, thus:

“Along the side of the road is a parapet to prevent accidents, which enabled me to look down and be as giddy as I pleased; for the amusing thing about my taste for steep places is, that I am very fond of the feeling of giddiness which they give rise to, provided I am in a safe position.” (Rousseau 1996, 167)

Accordingly, the place-manager is faced with the practical conundrum of how to co-create both safety and sublime, edge-embracing thrill. At a clifftop heritage landscape attraction site, the place-manager deftly addressed thrill and safety simultaneously through signage that pointed out how high up the cliff was and urged reflection on that.

The viewers’ reflection simultaneously fed the sense of thrill and the need for maintaining a respectful distance from the perilous edge. And, in a further subtle ploy that simultaneously underpinned an achievement of both safety and the sublime, that exposed escarpment was presented on the site map as “The Awful Precipice”, the doubling of thrill and safety messaging reflected in the designer’s depiction of the letters of the desiccated place name as they appear to tumble over the cliff’s abrupt edge.  

Thus, an attraction place-manager must learn to creatively and effectively codeswitch between (at least) two normative domains – that of safety/compliance and that of thrill/entertainment. An attraction site must give what its users desire of it but must do so safely. The ability of place-managers to shuttle between these seemingly incompatible frames is quite a sight to behold. But it would be wrong to give an overly autonomous impression of place-managers, for just as the place-manager may have to code-shift within their own minds to find the workable balance of safety and thrill, this balancing also plays out within management groups within place-managing organisations. Thus, a place-manager must advocate for their local safety/thrill balancings – they must act as interlocutor between others who may either not see the force of law’s safety/compliance command or may not see the value of access and thrill. The point of balance ultimately selected, may be the outcome of interpersonal negotiation within an organisation, or between a variety of stakeholder entities each with their own distinctives ways of measuring risk and benefit.

To be a place-manager, striving to find a locally workable balancing of safety/compliance and access/thrill, is a demanding, emotionally draining task. But the affective weight of that pales into insignificance when set against the emotional burden of involvement in the aftermath of an accident. Experience matters, and the affective experiences of place-managers affect how their edgework calculus is subsequently performed. Judging what is ‘reasonably safe’ at a particular site is, at least in part, a reflection of the individual (and organisational) prior experience of those involved in making that assessment. It is always open to reconsideration and adjustment, as witnessed in the reflection by architect Kathryn Gustafson upon her experience of an unexpectedly high volume of visitors to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in London’s Hyde Park, shortly after it opened in 2004. As “a flicker of remembered dread passes across her otherwise serene face” (Jeffries 2004, n.p.) Gustafson recalls:

“When it first opened, 5,000 people an hour came to see it. How could you anticipate that? …there was no precedent. The turf around the oval couldn’t survive those kind of numbers. The level of management has had to be increased because of the level of people. We really underestimated that. I thought we had a guardian angel over the project; I really wish she’d come back.” (quoted in Jeffries 2004, n.p.).

And the continual re-assessment of a site’s safety/thrill balancing is simultaneously backwards and forwards looking. The experiences of the past shape inputs to the ‘reasonable safety’ calculus, as do anticipations about the future. Schatzki (2002, 28) talks of this goal-facing, affectively driven desiring of the future as the “teleoaffective” order of practice.  The iterative calculus of ongoing place-management acts towards a simultaneously desired and feared future, and its risk assessment protocols require the place-manager to conjure the ghostly premonitions of all of the things that might go wrong there, an apprehension of all of the ways in which visitors and the site’s edges might come into harmful contact with each other.”

Image Credits

(1) Caspar David Friedrich (1818) Wanderer above the Sea of Fog: (2) Sign at Hawkstone Park, Shropshire:; (3) Hawkstone Park ‘Swiss bridge’ sign, anon (4) extract from site map, Hawkstone Park c.2009.

CFP for RGS-IBG 2020: What’s behind the fence? Exploring the secret lives of ambivalent owners, dead land and empty buildings

Greenham Green Gate May 2018


RGS-IBG 2020 Annual International Conference, London 1 to 4 Sept 2020

Proposed Conference Session:

What’s behind the fence?: Exploring the secret lives of ambivalent owners, dead land and empty buildings

Contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites tend to celebrate these vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everday 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.

For our conference session we seek to open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators. Reflecting ruin studies’ inherent multidisciplinarity we invite contributions whether theoretical, empirical or performative from across the social sciences, humanities and the arts that speak to this sense of abandonment being a purposive, active project – sometimes expressing an intentional “curated decay” (DeSilvey 2017) but more often revealing more conventional notions of a low-maintenance preservation of some, presently latent, utility or value for the future. We envisage that these contributions, and whether critical or managerial, could range across diverse aspects of the cultures and practices of vacancy, including:

  • Investigating the professional cultures and logics of urban set-aside and vacant site management
  • Comparative international perspectives to reveal the similarities and differences between attitudes to, and management of, vacancy
  • Measuring the effect of strength of place attachment by neighbours and former site occupants upon the extent of stigma and blight that a vacant site engenders
  • Ethnographic investigation of opportunistic appropriators (and whether urban explorers, rough sleepers, ravers, scrappers and scavengers), their notions of territoriality and of their own emergent normative codings devised for the shared use of abandoned places
  • Detailing the “naturecultures” (Haraway 2003) of weeds, overgrowth and the more-than-human ecologies of untended sites
  • Regulatory perception of dead land and empty buildings as “riskscapes” (Müller-Mahn and Everts 2013) by police, fire and rescue service, local authorities, insurers
  • Assessing the market for site fortification, in terms of the evolution of technologies and practices of territorialisation and bordering for abandoned sites
  • Exploring the legal dimensions of “property guardianship” and other emergent forms of vacant site defence and fortification
  • Appropriating the aesthetic affordances of fences, hoardings and other bordering strategies, and affecting how abandoned sites are separated from the explicitly occupied and active world around them.

Please send suggested abstracts for suggested 15 minute conference session contributions to Luke Bennett, Reader in Space, Place & Law at Sheffield Hallam University at by Monday, 10 February 2020.


Image credit: Green Gate, former GAMA facility, Greenham Common, May 2018. Photograph by Phil Kokoszka.

Back to the wall, back to the cave, back to the edge: three re-visits for 2016

Redux 2016

“The present has become a phantom that he searches for without ceasing,

and which always disappears the moment you think you have it in hand.

What remains is the journey through the present, even if it’s decidedly one of destruction

undertaken through images and language.  Because behind the accursed images

and words waits the wished-for life.” (186)


Bernd Steigler (2013) Traveling in place – a history of armchair travel,

University of Chicago Press

I’m dusting off some of my favourite blog essays to give them an outing at three conferences later this year…

Seeing through walls: Georges Perec and the prospects for a new urban exploration

At: Perec’s Geographies / Perecquian Geographies Symposium – University of Sheffield, 6-7 May 2016

Details here:

This presentation will consider the ways in which Perec provides a pointer towards a more expansive form of urban exploration, but in doing so it will also examine the limits of his approach. Perec’s Humanism is both the primary strength, and the primary weakness of his mode of exploration. Taking Perec’s concern – articulated in Species of Space and implemented in Life: A User’s Manual –  for the creation of an omniscient account of the lives of an apartment block by stripping away its front wall as its focal point, this presentation will consider how Perec’s sensitive peopling of his accounts of place, his search for pattern, valorising of textual rather than visual representation (all expressed in meticulous forensic detail), lays down a challenge to the more momentary, athletic urban exploration of the 21st century. Alongside this, the limits of Perec’s contribution towards finding a new, wider, urban exploration will be presented by contrasting his approach and its concerns with recent writings in both contemporary psychogeography and in the New Materialisms (and wider). Here, in relation to his interest in wall-piercing, I will argue that Perec’s approach paid insufficient attention to the wall itself and thus lost something in his literary dissolving of it. The presentation will suggest that the new frontier for urban exploration is be found in a flatter ontology in which visual accounts of embodied movement (mainstream urbexers), observations of others’ dwelling (Perec) and speculative narration of the life-worlds of non-human forms and environments (New Materialism) are held together and reported upon by ambulant empiricists (psychogeographers) who both write well and ruminate upon the world beyond their own experience and endeavour – something that Perec achieved much, but not all of.

Blogs involved: Through walls with Perec (2012); This house is making me walk funny (2012); Going Inside (2012); Exploring building services with Slavo Zizek (2013).

Standing safely at the edge: risk, law and the landscape sublime

At: Language, Landscape & the Sublime Conference – Dartington Hall, Totnes, 29-30 June 2016

Details here:

Writing in 1792, in a statement encapsulating the Romantic landscape sublime, Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared “I must have torrents, fir trees, black woods, mountains to climb or descend, and rugged roads with precipices on either side to alarm me”. But less often mentioned is his caveat that “a great part of my amusement in these steep rocks is [that] they cause a giddiness and swimming in my head which I am particularly fond of, provided I am in safety.” As Edmund Burke put it, “terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close.” For the Romantic sublime was not an unmitigated embrace of “delicious terror” (Coates 1998). This paper will consider this safety-consciousness at the heart of sublime engagement with landscape, by suggesting that much of the Romantic sublime remains embedded within what, at first glance seems its antithesis: contemporary ‘health ‘n’ safety’ culture. The paper will pursue this argument by a textual analysis of the reasoning and asides of senior judiciary in a spate of legal cases culminating in the House of Lords decision in Tomlinson –v- Congleton Borough Council in 2003. In these cases we see a deep seated belief that opportunity to congress with the landscape sublime is a public good, worthy of legal protection and something to be balanced alongside appropriate provision of edge protection in the countryside.

Blogs involved: Virtually on the ledge (2012); Risk and outdoor adventure (2012)

Noticing stone in the dark: narrating past, place and materiality in an abandoned subterranean quarry

Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference – Cultural Geologies of Stone session – London, 30 August – 2 September 2016

Details here:

This paper will explore the ways in which meaning is brought to a quarried void in southern England. Until its closure in the 1920s the site had been a source of fine building stone for over 2,000 years, that rock quarried in turn by Romans, Anglo Saxons, Normans and subsequent generations. The site is now a small scale tourist attraction, with enthusiastic local guides taking visitors below ground and into the emptiness of the evacuated strata. According to a guide’s deft narration of the pasts of this site this place is rich with history and yet it is also a place at which there is nothing to see. This is a tour of a void, the only meaning here is that cast into this stone-framed emptiness by the interpreters of this place. This presentation will examine the narrative and performative practices by which a sense of the labour and lives once lived here are summoned, and also how a sense of the materiality of this place is necessarily also framed and presented. In doing so the analysis will consider – after Samuel (1977) and Strangleman (2013) – the motivations of post-industrial homage at sites of former (hard) labour, and the sense in which historical-materialist and neo-materialist (and posthuman) accounts of the physicality of our world and our relationship to it collide in such places.

Blogs involved: Gazing up looking down (2014); A miner’s life (2015); Staring at empty spaces (2015)


Image sources: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) Caspar David Friedrich; Beer Quarry Caves; author.

On Three Outcrops: Limestone – hide and seek on Rock Walk


So, I decided. Torquay’s limestone deserved some attention.

And the more attention I gave it the more it haunted. Something not noticed, became waiting for me around every corner – indeed, it was every corner: angular slabs amassed in revetments, flanks of wall, ornamentation and dross. Lumps of local limestone all about this place, and all underlying it.

The classic Devonian red dust-rock is bisected by a fault line, the Sticklepath Fault, that summons (or permits) mounds of limestone to rise up across this town.

One such outcrop overlooks the bay. A notice tells me that the steep terraced gardens that I knew here as Rock Walk were opened in 1893, their terracing and sub-tropical planting having been to the design of the Borough Engineer and Surveyor, a Major Garrett, as part of comprehensive and confident harbourside land reclamation works (a part of which is now sinking slowly – but assuredly – back into the sea). Seventeen years later the rocks had prime view of the southern fleet, a bay full of imperial Dreadnaughts assembled for a game changing war that they didn’t realise was on its way.

The Rock Walk that I knew was a verdant place of withdrawal. A place for youthful drinking and other experimentation. Under the multi-coloured arcs of the floodlights casting this steep place into spreads of blinding colouration and corresponding patches of ultra-darkness in which these private scenes played out. There were dog-leg terraces to claim for the evening, often with a municipal bench, and irregular stone steps to reach it, rendered all the hardest to navigate courtesy of that strange blinding and darkening effect of these arc lights. Then to tarry a while, the details will remain unstated.

Nearby there was the narrow wooden bridge clinging somehow to the sheer cliff. We called this place ‘Trolls Bridge’. Once, leaning upon the rail of the bridge, staring out across the bay, a swig of drink went the wrong way. Then, spirits suddenly in the nasal cavity. Intense sensation. Too much to be pleasant. And a lesson learnt the hard way. Don’t gargle with Vodka.

So – this outcrop was a special place to me many years ago. The was is important here. Back in 2010 the rockface was stripped of all vegetation, Trolls Bridge and all of the elderly pathways ripped out. The rock laid bare was inspected, bolted, netted and fenced off. For it had become increasingly clear that this surface was a restless one, large grey boulders threatening the road beneath. These works had left a barren rock mass where I had once known darkness and exotic sub-tropical thickets. A new walkway had then been stapled back onto this barren surface. Approaching it today it looked shorn, denuded – Samson after Delilah. The bolts, nets and lashings having the feel of some trapped animal. Caged, cowed but still potent and dangerous to its captors.

I followed my family up the new walkway with truculence. I hated what this place had become, what had been stripped from it. But as we walked, the view was better that I’d remembered. Looking out from this vantage it made sense. An eclectic array ‘informational’ signs laid out along the route took my fancy too. This was a kooky take upon a tourist trail. Whether the burghers of this town realised that this was what they were getting I do not know. But to know that clotted cream may be Phoenician in origin, that the harbour’s granite came from Norway or that in 1940s a B17 bomber crashed with hundreds of tonnes of oranges on board took me by surprise, and made me chuckle in this barren place. It gave it some new – randomised – meaning. An ANT-lite take on the process of looking-out across a bay, ascending a headland and thinking about its materialities.

Thinking back to those youthful nights upon this restless hill I don’t know what these rocks, saw, heard, felt back in those days but it was the bushes and the lights that gave this place those meanings. They have disappeared in the clearance. New memories were laid down upon the same rock today, but amidst a different terrain, tone and purpose.

You can bolt the rock down, but not the events that once passed across them.

Craterology & Legal Geography – searching for law and other meaning in quarries and elsewhere


I’ve spent a lot of time writing about bunkers and bunker-hunters in recent years, so it is with a tongue pressed firmly in my cheek that I declare 2013 as my year of writing about quarries. It’s not that I don’t mean it (I do) – but I’m fully aware of the need to be seen not to be taking this all too seriously. And yet, I’m not just looking at those who playfully enchant these places, I’m also studying those who own them, and do their best to manage them. So, some of the time I need to be very serious. I’m writing for two different communities, about one place type with me in the middle trying to make sense of both sides, and shuttle alien perspectives back and forth across the mid-line.

So, hello craterology

But, having caused some friction (and hopefully some insight) with ‘bunkerology’, this is probably the one and only time that you will see me talk of my projects under the label ‘craterology’. But, essentially that’s what I’m up to: investigating how people go about making sense and order within areas of hollowed out stone.

Alongside some more user-aesthetics based investigations of these spaces, this year will be about writing up my study of the British Mountaineering Council’s quarry managing (and climbing encouraging) practices, and seeking out further angles from which to think through my research question ‘how do people interact with these places?’, and in doing so also address the sub-question ‘and how do these people make sense of both the rock and each other?’

To kick off, I will soon be posting up another blog post that will link to a short article by me for on climbers’ reactions to a graffiti incident in a former North Wales slate quarry. And more will follow in due course on culture clashes and normative orders in abandoned quarries.

But it’s actually the ‘other’ side of my work that I want to flag today. The BMC invited me to spend time with them learning about how they manage their quarry/climb sites, so that I could see owners who are not averse to climbing from a liability point of view, and how they achieve that equilibrium. My study will consider how they do that, and also examine why most other owners of these places are less relaxed and instead see the idea of recreational access to these places as a major risk issue. All sorts of issues, and ways of reading place and risk, tumble out of this.

Legal geography

And the origin for all this focus on meaning making? Well, I’m an environmental lawyer by training, but in recent years I’ve been publishing mostly in cultural geography journals. So, any opportunity to square the circle and write about all the angles that interest (or distract) me in one unified place is the holy grail. That’s essentially what this blog site is about: me sitting up on the fence, looking at both sides and trying to squeeze views, information, juxtapositions in both directions through the mesh.

So, today was especially satisfying, for with Antonia Layard (University of Birmingham) we’ve issued a call for papers on law and geography for the 2013 Royal Geographical Society conference. Our aim is to get the ball rolling towards establishing the legal geography hybrid as a worthy branch of both law and of geography scholarship, by building a conversation with all interested parties on how law and spatiality/matter co-act to construct place and space. And this is not a domain incursion – law trying to colonise a corner of a rival discipline. No, it’s more humble than that. It’s based on a realisation that spatiality and physical matter need more attention in legal scholarship, and that geographical sensibilities probably help to point us in the right direction.

As Antonia (who is Professor of Law & Geography, the first such appellation that I’m aware of in the UK) puts it, what seems to connect those projects that qualify for a putative legal geography is a concern to investigate law’s spatiality ‘from the ground up’: the studies we are thinking of start with the experience of visiting and/or being at a site. The analysis that then follows is grounded in the physical reality of that site, as it refracts through the discursive layers of site practice, local understanding, and thereafter appreciation of the wider context, and imposition of more formal legal frameworks onto places of that type, and people of the type who manage or visit them.

And that neatly brings me back to quarries – start at site level, understand the local normative order and the actors through whom it manifests, think about the interplay with the physical and the wider discursive context and formalities. Then pull it all together.

So, here’s the CFP if anyone’s interested in joining in the conversation:

Call for Papers and Contributions – Legal Geography

Submission Deadline for papers – Friday 8th February 2013 (other contributions can 
come later, please see below).

Organisers – Antonia Layard (Birmingham) and Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam)

Legal geography is an emerging discipline, located both within geography and law and 
society studies. At its core, it draws on legal and geographical techniques and 
concepts to understand ‘the role and impact that space and place have on the 
differential and discursive construction of law and how legal norms and practices 
construct space and places’ (Blomley 1993, 63).

While legal geography has been an emerging discipline for some time particularly in 
North America, it is not yet a clearly defined site of research in the UK or (with 
some notable exceptions) internationally. With the 2013 RGS Conference theme of ‘new 
geographical frontiers’ this seems as good a time as any to try to develop, 
collaboratively, how legal geography (or geographical law) might be understood and 
undertaken in the UK and beyond. 

We make two proposals for sessions. The first is for a Roundtable on Legal Geography 
and we would be very interested in hearing from anyone with a paper that engages 
explicitly with legal geography as a discipline, mapping the subject in some sense, 
investigating the subjects, techniques and approaches that legal geography uses.

We also hope to organise a world café session, which would be entirely participatory 
aiming (perhaps) at creating some initial networks, contacts, collaborations (for 
grant or scholarly purposes), bibliographies or ideas for further research.

Please do get in touch if legal geography holds any interest at all! 

Antonia Layard
Professor of Law & Geography 
Birmingham Law School


“It was willingly that I crossed over into the darkness of danger” – thoughts on the anti-aesthetics of electricity sub-stations

Aargh, she’s done it again.

There I was happily sitting eating my Sunday breakfast, content in the knowledge that I didn’t have any blog-essays budding in my mind to conflict with the need to show attentiveness to family socialities. I was grazing through tweets and then @venusingortex set my mind all swirling again.

I sit here now at the kitchen table, hastily typing out this post. Trying to purge my now preoccupying thoughts before my family wake up.

Towards the danger

“It rose before me, the space between us electric. It was willingly that I crossed over into the darkness of danger.”

It’s not the innuendo of @venusingortex’s tweet that has grabbed me, but rather its reminded me of the lure of places of electrical danger. And these are places that find a curious overlap of a variety of aesthetics: those of the thrill-seeker; the industrial aesthete; the occupational risk assessor and the metal thief. Each notice these stations, read them in their own way and take from them rich meaning.

English judges developed a ‘doctrine of allurement’ in the Victorian period, by which a landowner (usually an industrial operator) could be held liable for injury sustained by child trespassers mangled by their heavy machinery. The doctrine was a pragmatic means to an end, a way of getting around the then very limited other protection in law for the safety of trespassers. But what the doctrine had at it’s heart was a strange belief in the Siren’s call of dangerous objects. That machines almost summon their victims towards them: that their non-human agency overwhelms the human power to resist their summon. This doctrine has now rather been overtaken by other trespasser protections (the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1984), but the ghost of that way of thinking about human-object relations in a safety context remains there, just below the surface.

As part of my work on occupiers’ liability and child trespass I’ve come across the occasional case in which someone young is electrocuted whilst trespassing within an electricity sub-station. The children (if still alive) usually say that they went in there to get their ball back (the classic excuse), though I suspect that sometimes the challenge was simply to see if they could get inside. A recent case examined in forensic detail just how many fences and other barriers that the youth had to assail to reach the point at which he was seriously injured. The judge marvelled at the youth’s climbing prowess and ingenuity but concluded from this that such determination left the youth solely to blame for the injury that had befallen him.

This forensic examination of the clambering is replicated in a series of medical studies in the US. Here postmortems have attempted to contribute to metal theft research. Trying to work out the intruders’ motivations by examining the chemical composition of their blood. And the conclusion? – that most of the dead intruders were high on drugs of one sort or another. Yes, unsuprisingly, trying to negotiate a safe path amidst high voltage electrical equipment is even more risk-prone if you are off your face.

Yet, in South Yorkshire alone each year there are a handful of serious injuries (and some fatalities) caused by metal thieves drawn to the sub-stations as a source of ‘free’ copper, but without the requisite appreciation that cutting into live conductive cabling will deliver them deadly electric shocks for free too. Somehow the lure of the copper is picked up in local knowledge-networks, but not the appreciation of the danger – what the sub-station actually does.

Here I’m reminded of a quote in a book by Roger Atwood examining the cultures of Peruvian tomb raiders, and how they overcame taboos about grave robbing:

“When you first start doing this, it makes you nervous. Digging up bones, you think you are going to incur a curse. But after a while it becomes easy. You don’t even think about it….Around here there is no other kind of work. I used to work at the diary factory but it closed. There is no work but looting” (2004: 32)

Thus, that act became normalised, the spiritual risks forgotten about in the face of material gain.

The sub-station as aesthetic object

Before embarking on my bunker project I had thought about selecting electricity sub-stations as my focal point. The bunker seam does probably allow for deeper mining in chasing after representational and usage mutations, but I did notice some of the artisitic co-option of sub-stations before my bunker-swerve. The work of the Brechers (and their studies of industrial site elemental forms in the Ruhr) come close, but it is the mundane-embracing work of John Myers that is the exemplar. Here Myer’s picture (part of his mid 1970s Middle England series) speaks a thousand words about the non-place status of the rudimentary places at which the power networks intersect the local.

And then there’s the issue of how electricity infrastructure writes itself upon the landscape (a name check here for @lines_of_landscape’s photos of pylons). Lawyers have a special word for it: ‘wayleaves’. Little possessory footpads allowing the National Grid to march across the country, joining up the local encampments of transformers, huddled in hostle human country like the advance forts of a robot invasion.

But I think we can also readily see an aestheticisation of nodal points of electricity distribution in many Hollywood blockbusters. The strange transformer poles at the derelict power station or factory site that is the scene of the final show-down between the good and bad guys (perhaps set agains a thundery sky with the crackle of lightening to add a natural frisson to the proceedings). From Frankenstein through to Iron Man the electric, and its places of production and use offer us a deadly fascination.

P.S. If I had time I’d now digress into the aesthetics of risk assessment and CEGB public information films – but I think that will get an essay in its own right someday…


Atwood, R. (2004) Stealing History – tomb raiders, smugglers and the looting of the ancient world, St. Martin’s Press: New York

Bennett, L. (2011) “Judges, child trespassers and occupiers’ liability” International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, Vol. 3 Iss: 2, pp.126

@Lines_of_Landscape’s photographs of pylons:


Angular transformer poles:

Rural substation:

Myers substation picture via:

Always searching for somewhere to park: some ruminations on cows, clamps and immobilizing motor vehicles

“The way humans hunt for parking and the way animals hunt for food are not as different as you might think”  Tom Vanderbilt

So, I step out of the supermarket and look across at a familiar scene: the dark bunker-like edifice of the local Boots store’s loading bay. But today I have illicit car parking on my mind so the large ‘No Parking’ sign and elderly perimeter chain catch my eye. That will do nicely. I position myself to take a picture. It starts to rain, but I am resolute. This side road is quiet; click – photo one achieved.

But then a flurry of cars mess up my view, and suddenly two cars in turn glide off road into this prohibited zone. Each driver looks slightly surprised at the other’s like-mindedness, but in an unspoken balletic dance they both park up in this space. One car leaves almost immediately. But the red car stays. Slightly miffed I decide to try and freak the driver out by carrying on snapping. We exchange frosty glances as he and his wife (both retired and not all looking like they have any occupational association with Boots or its logistics) step out of their shiny red sports car and set off for their shopping spree, no-doubt regaining smug composure as they walk off:

We are not weak.

We know where to park.

We’re brave enough to ignore that sign.

Experience tells us that nothing happens if you park here.

Thinking about parking

According to Ben-Joseph (2012) vehicles are immobile for 95% of their working lives, they have to occupy a static point in space during such states of ‘rest’. Parking is a fundamental necessity in the urbanised world, and it provokes its own grammar of reading the streetscape – the 100 yard stare of the driver, hoping to spot a place to park-up before he has already driven past it. This need-to-park shapes how we design, manage and interact with our urban realm. As Paul Groth has put it, rather grandly:

“The ancient Egyptians organized their life and their gods in reference to the life-giving Nile. Colonial New Englanders organized their village life around the axis mundi of the meetinghouse, the place that manifested their connection to the cosmos. Although it happens just below the level of awareness, the parking space generates the most significant sense of personal and social place in the cosmos for today’s urban Americans; it is their axis mundis” (quoted in Ben-Joseph, 2012: 3).

In 1990 I stood in the basement of a Barcelona bookshop killing time. Whilst most of the books there were in Spanish, one caught my eye. The title was simple, a single English word: Parking.  I’ve never seen the book since. In my mind’s eye I see it as filled with elegant three-colour (black, white and red) stylized diagrams of parking manoeuvres, each page an instructional yet beautiful diagrammatic  depiction of a vehicular manoeuvre. On balance, I think it was probably an art book, but maybe it was an instructional manual, I really don’t know. It hovered indeterminately between the two. Whatever words were written there were in Spanish, so they didn’t help me understand the context of this book.

In a mild way that book haunts me to this day. A taxonomy of vehicular dance, a mapping of the possible ways in which a car can move in relation to other obstacles (many of which where in the book – as in life – other cars). There’s a great game – Rush Hour – that explores this, a puzzle in which a packed congregation of vehicles must be unjammed by the trial and error sliding of cars and lorries until a way can be found to unlock the gridlock.

The book left me with a feeling for the urban tessellation involved in finding (and slotting into) a parking space. That feeling that everywhere is almost full up, a clock ticking, time and space running out. That act of driving around looking for somewhere geometrically viable to park in, yet with an additional essential evaluative layer within the search algorythm: consideration of where it is permissible to park. Here’s where I return to the domain of mundane law, and it’s shaping role, within spatiality and the normative dimension of everyday life.

Let’s momentarily go back to the rear of the Boots store. The loading bay and its sign sit there passively, come rain or shine, cars coming and going – a testimony to the approximateness of such mundane, everyday declarations of territory and the city’s tantalisingly prohibited but parkable forecourts, bays and verges. As the red car shows, if you want to stop people parking you have to do something more than signage, and the available options are about to change.

On the 1st October 2012 it becomes a criminal offence in England to clamp or otherwise immobilise a vehicle because it is parked without the landowner’s permission on private land. This provision is a small portion of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 which primarily deals with the more dramatic civil liberties issues of biometrics, the regulation of CCTV and powers of entry to land. Here I want to think a little about parking, clamping and the mundane interactions of law and the technology of vehicular immobilization. Along the way I will also have something to say about ancient laws on seizing straying cows.

Thinking about clamping

In 1991, very early in my career as an apprentice lawyer, I was asked to research the legality of vehicle clamping for a client, a local University. As I looked into it I found that the legal research trail was pointing towards medieval legal rulings about rights to seize and retain livestock that had strayed onto your land, the ancient rule of distress damage feasant. That rule was a pre-industrial one, and as regards seizure of livestock it was abrogated in 1971 by the Animals Act. But that Act said nothing about the curbing or abolition of the rule as it had come to be applied to non-animals in subsequent cases. By the reign of Charles I it had started to be applied to inanimate objects, and in 1853 it had been successfully invoked to impound a railway locomotive that had trespassed onto a competitor’s line. I relished this chance to read about ancient cases of bovine ransom, and train confiscation.

At the time of my research there was no regulation of the newly emergent ‘industry’ of vehicle clamping and release fees, and in the intervening 20 odd years there few cases have reached the senior courts to specifically develop this area of law and portray it in the modern way (with cars) rather than the ancient one (with cows). But my legal training told me that cows and cars can, at an appropriate level of generalisation, be treated as the same thing. The search for answers to legal research questions often requires this descent into the realm of analogy.

Whilst a mundane – everyday – issue, clamping proved to be an emotive one over the last two decades. In the handful of cases in which its legality was tested the courts equivocated – they didn’t like the idea that private landowners, or their clamping contractors, could set their own penalties, but they accepted that someone parking on private land in an area where a notice clearly indicated that no permission to park there was given, amounted to an agreement – a contractual acceptance of the fate that would befall you if you proceeded to park there.

Attempts were made to shave off the exploitative extremities – introduction of codes of practice, formation of a clamping association and a training certificate (a similar trajectory to the ‘professionalisation’ of bouncers (night club doormen)). But the base question remained – was clamping (and charging of a ‘release fee’) lawful, and if it was should it be outlawed?

Well, as culmination of a cross-party trend, the 2012 Act, finally, sees that question answered. Clamping or towing away is now prohibited.

Thinking around barriers

But (there’s always a but) this prohibition leaves open other ways of achieving immobilization and defence of private parkable spaces. There is nothing in the new law to stop landowners introducing barriers – pole gates, chains, gates or other ways of closing a space to access or egress and as a result trapping the trespassing car inside. Provided the barrier was present at the site when the unauthorised parking occurred (even if not deployed to prevent entry – i.e. raised or not fully chained across) that will be regarded as a lawful restriction of the vehicle’s movement if those barrier devices are later moved into a ‘closed’ position. A removal fee could then still be charged, and such a charge would still be upheld by the courts provided it was shown to be a genuine measure of the cost of attending and opening the barrier, rather than a penalty aimed at punishing the unauthorised parker.

Wheel clamping was an innovation of the 1990s. Prior to that decade unauthorised parking spaces were controlled by chains, bollards or pole-barriers. But these were largely plot-wide controls. The whole loading bay (in my example) would either have to be open or closed to access at any single point in time. The clamp enabled a selective, more targeted control of territory – and a strategy which could be more readily commercially incentivised and outsourced. For the first time, by these means, individual cars could be targeted. The plot could be left physically open to access (e.g. for lorries arriving there throughout the day), and the rules of use could become more differentiated. And all of this was now achievable without the need for a permanently resident parking attendant (anyone remember their little huts and ex-colonial seeming uniforms?). Instead of a simple binary of closed/open-to-access, controls over duration of stay, type of vehicle and permit-based parking could all be enforced through immobilization against individual cars without affecting all other users of that plot, or entailing constant human oversight.

The banning of clamping and towing will see the return of older technologies of parking control – access barriers, bollards and chains (but probably not resident parking attendants). So – get ready – here come the boom days for the barrier designers and suppliers and the men driving round in vans, opening up barriers after payment of their release fee. The clamp may be dead, but vehicle immobilization will evolve via a new wave of urban plot re-enclosure.

Watch this space (but don’t park in it).

Ben-Joseph, E. (2012) Rethinking a lot – the design and culture of parking, MIT Press: Massachusetts

Writing lines on landscape: anyone for parkour, bmx, buildering and bunkers?

[a.k.a New uses for old bunkers #20: Danny, champion of the world, rides the crumbling concrete walls of death]

“An existing space may outlive its original purpose and the reason d’etre which determines its forms, functions and structures; it may thus become vacant, and susceptible of being diverted, re-appropriated and put to a use quite different from its initial one.” (Lefebvre 1994)

This blog essay is about the 2010 short film Way Back Home in which the bmx stunt rider Danny MacAskill stages a montage of jumps of jeopardy, perilous rides and brave balancing upon a handful of metal and concrete surfaces on a journey from Edinburgh to his birthplace on the Isle of Skye.


MacAskill’s use of ‘found’ built environment courses for his bmx stunt riding aligns his performance to parkour and to urbex. It is MacAskill’s inclusion of the abandoned South Queensferry coastal naval battery, and other unidentified defensive structures, that qualifies this post for inclusion in the NUFOB series. What I want to examine here is how these bunkers are rendered so anonymous and abstract by MacAskill’s dare devil riding. For he finds yet another way to use old bunkers: purely (and very effectively) as available surfaces for movement.  Indeed, the identity of the ‘ridden-on’ venues is not mentioned in the film, and the places are inter-cut (I identified the abandoned South Queensferry coastal battery via Google Earth, the adjacent distinctive red-box matrix of the Forth (rail) Bridge as my clue). Such details are simply not relevant. It is the generic geometry and texture of these structures that matters, their ride-ability and challenge. Although, watching the film I also felt at times that an ancillary urbex aesthetic was present somewhere in the background  – the military ruins, the reservoir, and some stunning natural scenery beyond.

The film is great, every second a testimony to the tactical (as De Certeau would style it) re-appropriation of these places, and the fullness of their three dimensionality via an anti-gravity ethic, a notion captured in a free-runner quoted by Daskalaki, Stara, & Imas:

“Society looks upon what we do as a bad thing, but they built up this concrete jungle around us. Concrete, roofs, whatever.  And we’re told we can only walk in a certain way, we can only move in a certain way. Mankind has struggled for centuries to be free. The pursuit of parkour for us is a pursuit of freedom. The first big high I got from parkour was when I was sitting on a rooftop in central London. A pigeon sat with us. We were where the birds were and I suddenly felt free.” (2008: 53)

What struck me most was how the ‘stunts’ flow in the film, presenting a graceful balletic performance staged with the Romantic aesthetic of ruins (and quaint island villages) and their serene natural scenery backdrops. This film presents a celebration of the places and movement through them. Here, there is no pause, drum roll, ‘bigging up’ preamble about how hard the stunt will be. There is just the smooth execution of the movement and the onward flow to the next. In the understated achievement of such manoeuvres the truly spectacular is revealed.

Yes, there are choices of framing, camera angle, scene selection, moody (but uplifting) musical score and thus this presentation is as manufactured as any film, but I like it – and it seems very truthful to the parkour ethic of flowing through space, and in doing so seeing structural spaces differently.

This vision – this alternative (and enhanced) reading of these spaces of movement is captured well by Edwards (2012) writing in an article on Parkour website,

“Walls, railings, buildings, barriers…structures of every shape and size cease to be seen as they were intended to be seen, and become instead components of a vast, almost limitless playground that one has hitherto referred to as ‘the city’…everywhere becomes an opportunity for movement, everything a training apparatus…the focus of parkour is the development of the individual , through learning to utilise the body in an effective manner so as not to be held back or hindered by his surroundings…in fact the terrain, the space being re-appropriated, is entirely irrelevant!…”

Edwards helpfully shows us here how the built environment and its structures are read as generic surfaces, as ramps, ledges, drops and landing strips. The history and purposes of the places through which the free runner (or MacAskill) flows is not relevant (except to the extent to which – in visual genres they may be presented as interesting backdrops to action, or places of incursion).

But whilst this kinetic reading of place renders them generic in one sense (eradicating that historic or contextual local knowledge which the archaeologist or architectural enthusiast might be seeking) the recorded act of riding, jumping and balancing seems to trace out the lines and form of the structures that are travelled over. This struck me most in the reservoir section of the film. As MacAskill rides along narrow lines of concrete or metal railings my attention is draw to them, they are mapped out before my eyes by his travel. Just as walking gives a sense of direct knowledge of a place that car travel over the same ground cannot, so MacAskill’s perilous performance upon these structures (for me) manages to communicate this physical essence in some way. He traces these lines for me, and by that tracing I feel that I too know them intimately.

In some strange way I’m reminded of decorating – by painting a room you get to fully know it: because your hand has guided a brush over every square inch. By that close attention and procession across the surface, space is claimed.

MacAskill’s appropriation of the coastal battery ruins as a three dimensional performance space maps out those structures for me, via his physical ‘reading’ of the concrete surfaces of those bunkers.

N.B. My previous post on quarry climbing as writing lines on stone, explores similar issues:

Daskalaki, M., Stara, A. & Imas, M. (2008) ‘The Parkour Organisation: inhabitation of corporate spaces’, Culture & Organization, 14 (1) 49-64.

Edwards, D. (2012) ‘Parkour Visions’ article at

Lefebvre, H. (1994) The Production of Space, Blackwell: London.