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Geographical Urbanism - How Landscapes and Geography Contribute to Experience of the Built Environment

Cover: ©MONU.  Image on Cover: “AMARC#3; Tucson, Arizona, USA, 2006” from Edward Burtynsky’s contribution “Seduction and Fear”. Photo ©Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/ Flowers, London.

Cover: ©MONU.  Image on Cover: “AMARC#3; Tucson, Arizona, USA, 2006” from Edward Burtynsky’s contribution “Seduction and Fear”. Photo ©Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/ Flowers, London.

My article "Agency and the Multifaceted Stories of Hybrid Places" appears in MONU #20 Geographical Urbanism (April 2014).  The final draft ended up describing my old neighborhood in Honolulu and also a little about Paris. I compared and contrasted a range of topics showing how a large part of culture is shaped by landscape and also looking at the ways landscape interfaces with cognition. 

Here is the original abstract to the article: 

Cities and landscapes tell a multifaceted story that invites us to participate and observe - a story of relationship and a story of agency, where mountains and valleys and rivers act like characters in the same way that buildings and streets and neighborhoods have a life of their own. Both cities and the geographies that support them converge in a story of identity and imageability, making geographical-urbanism a sort of autobiographical tale of this hybrid place. 

Consider the type of language we use to describe landforms and urban forms, it is a dynamic language giving mountains and Main Street the muscles to move. Landforms can do all sorts of things: run, rise, plunge, extend, descend, meet, leap, twist, turn, spring, jut, meander, wind, or zigzag. Consider “The ravine runs along the edge of the city” or “Corcovado rises above Rio De Janeiro and looks down onto Sugar Loaf Mountain” or “The peninsula springs out into the ocean nearly a mile before coming to an abrupt stop”. Architecture and the built environment also come alive in order to: overlooktower, to line up, to face each other, to cluster together; cities grow and expand, sometimes they shrink and occasionally they die. This is more than figurative language - it is a type of cognitive simulation called fictive motion, a sort of mental imagery that helps us reason about the organization of the space around us. In a way, this motion language turns static scenes into dynamic stories and otherwise inanimate objects come alive like characters on the screen. What other stories unfold at the confluence of city and geography?

We might say that a timeline of some sticky plot develops into a nonlinear narrative as geologic time and civic time mingle and juxtapose. Neighborhoods inhabit the heights and hills while urban rivers (the Thames, the Seine, the Chicago) meander through architectural canyons; at every moment the urban dweller has one foot in the present and one foot in the past. Cities like barnacles and lichens cover the natural form, two timescales coexist, coextending side-by-side in cultures of urban adaptation and geologic adoption. The narrative of culture flows from the structure of landscape - in fact, cognitive ethnography has shown how conceptual structure and cultural networks sometimes mimic surrounding geographical structure. Geographical urbanism develops as an entanglement of relationships to gain critical mass and form an identity unique to that particular locational marriage of space and structure. What moral will this story offer?

Narratives become tools to make sense of details, and as the details of the city uniquely blend with the details of the landscape, the story is more of an autobiography of a hybrid place, and the narrative weaves itself through the life of the location. This article uses tools from cognitive science to give a simple and accessible reading of the story of hybrid geographical urbanism, exploring how people think about their environment and providing a cognitive basis for the relevance of geography to urban experience.

You can buy MONU #20 at select bookshops, order an issue online, gain digital access through the MONU app, or browse the issue on YouTube.