Agency & the Multifaceted Stories of Hybrid Places

Ryan Dewey

first appeared in MONU #20 Geographical Urbanism, April 14, 2014, reproduced here by permission of the publisher.
(purchase the issue, download the article)


Cities and landscapes tell a multifaceted story that invites us to participate and spectate. This is 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.

Image 1: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Frame: 2109" [aerial photograph]. Scale - 1in:1km. Flight line No:018. 16/5/00

Image 1: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Frame: 2109" [aerial photograph]. Scale - 1in:1km. Flight line No:018. 16/5/00

Movement and Experience

Our very movement through a city takes us back and forth between being a spectator and a participant. Whenever we happen upon a view out over a large space we take the spectator role, and whenever we have an immersive experience we take a participant role. Think of a city like Honolulu or Paris. Being at street level you are immersed in the feel of the city while walking under palm trees on Kalākaua Avenue or under horse chestnut trees on the streets of Paris - this is what it feels like to have a participant view. Moving to higher ground, whether it is your office building or atop landmarks like the Arc de Triomphe or Lēʻahi (Diamond Head Crater), you get a better view of the lay of the land from the spectator viewpoint. Our experience of the city is an oscillation between these two viewpoints, viewpoints which we will see play an important role in the way that we experience the vibrancy and agency of the landscape and the city.  

Natural World and Constructed World

Sticking with our two cities, Honolulu and Paris, consider the presence of the “natural” form in these cities. Landforms intermingle with urban forms; geography penetrates the city. Our movement through the city brings us another oscillation: the natural world and the constructed world. From an office window in La Défense we see the Bois de Boulogne at the same moment a tourist on La Tour Eiffel sees those same woods. We cross La Seine to the Rive Gauche or we leave our house in the foothills of the Ko‘olau Range and drive into the city center. The city is a hybrid place with bridges and buildings to our left and rivers to our right – or perhaps mountains, or coastlines, or even road cuts, cliffs, or hillsides, or, (fill-in-the-blank).

Geography is a part of the urban experience because geography supports urban development, giving the city a place to grow. At the same time, geography limits the reaches of the city as some land is more suitable for urban development than other land. Cities that adapt themselves to natural boundaries seem to feel like they belong in a place because they fit themselves to the lay of the land. This is a naturalness of fit that cannot be attained by way of bulldozer. Consider the Ko‘olau Range whose leeward slopes create a border for part of Honolulu, the mountains become a backdrop for the city as the city creeps upward on some of the slopes of the Range, interlacing themselves with the finger valleys that descend and tickle their way into the city. Notice this edge in aerial image #1. This image calls to mind Charles Mulford Robinson’s (1906) description of Honolulu as “one great park, with a city tucked in between, in the vacant spaces”. This border between urban form and landform is like a needle and thread stitching back and forth to hem the edge of the city, the geomorphology both enveloping and penetrating the neighborhoods to create a boundary.

Landforms and Culture

Geography shapes more than the contours of the city, it also shapes the lives of inhabitants by affording different behaviors. Imagine the differences between being a dedicated surfer in Paris versus a dedicated surfer in Honolulu. In Paris, it is nearly an 8-hour drive to good surf break whereas in Honolulu it may be as short as an 8-minute walk. This might appear to be a trite association between terrain and the type of people that dwell in a city, but this is only the beginning of the relationship between landform and culture.

Geography gives us a kind of physical scaffolding that allows us to use land as places to store our memories. The role that landmarks play in wayfinding provides a crisp example of this blend of spatial relations and conceptual structure. Sometimes our languages encode these thinking strategies. For instance, Hawaiian language speakers use two words that distribute orientation information onto the landscape. The two words, mauka and makai connect landforms to human cognition by setting up an unchanging frame of reference that can be used in spatial reasoning. Mauka means mountain and makai means ocean. The intrinsic frame of reference in these two terms serves a similar function to the way port and starboard act to replace the confusion of relative frames of reference (right-left), while remaining separate from absolute frames of reference (north, east, south, west). In other words, depending on your orientation, mauka could be on your right or left, or it could be north, east, south, or west - mauka establishes a guidepost that does not depend on your orientation to be meaningful. Given that most of the cities of O‘ahu are bordered by the sea and by the mountains, mauka and makai fill useful roles for describing location and orientation with respect to the guideposts of mountain and sea (see image #2).

Beyond supplying simple landmarks, geography also works its way into social practices and culture. Moving beyond simple topophilia (Tuan 1974), recent studies of the interfaces of culture and landscape explore how different cultures categorize landscape elements into unique ontologies that deeply structure belief systems and ways of living (Mark, et al. 2011). For instance, Renee Pualani Louis has shown how Hawaiian place names work to tie culture to geographic knowledge emerging from “constant interaction of people and their environment” (Louis 2011). In a way, part of the narrative of culture flows from the structure of the landscape that hosts the culture. The land actually organizes cultural knowledge and in doing so becomes a part of cultural heritage. This reflects the value of a place to its people and opens doors for studies into the ethical issues of geographical urbanism in our shrinking world.

Image 2: Dewey, R. "Dry standpipe labeled for fire-fighters to determine which side of the building they are accessing, Honolulu" [snapshot]. 01/02/14

Image 2: Dewey, R. "Dry standpipe labeled for fire-fighters to determine which side of the building they are accessing, Honolulu" [snapshot]. 01/02/14

Non-Linear Narratives: Geologic Time meets Civic Time

At this point, we might say that geographical urbanism is a major theme in the storyline of a culture, but at times the narrative appears very nonlinear. The geographic element has emerged over deep geologic time with processes like sedimentation and orogeny, while the urban element appears overnight in civic time with a crane and a building permit. When geography persists in an urban environment, inhabitants live in two timescales with one foot in the present and one foot in the past.

Compared to the endurance of landforms that have emerged and sustained a presence throughout geologic time, cities clearly operate on a timescale that is brief and fleeting, a mere moment in deep time. Both timescales are juxtaposed in our contemporary cities which enfold natural landforms with the constructed environment. Neighborhoods inhabit the heights and hills while old urban rivers (the Thames, the Seine, the Chicago) meander through young architectural canyons. Cities like barnacles and lichens quickly cover the stable natural form, two timescales coexist, coextending side-by-side in cultures of urban adaptation and geologic adoption. On any given path through a city a pedestrian encounters a mix of natural and constructed elements. This fact makes it fair to say that geographical urbanism is a non-linear process in which people cross back and forth between timescales as they alternate between encounters with elements shaped by deep time and those engineered in civic time.

What is the effect of the presence of deep geologic time in the middle of our cities that operate in human-scale time? Does this juxtaposition matter to us or the mountains? It does shape how we think of the landscape and it shapes how the landscape affects our lives. This juxtaposition sometimes even seems to compress timescales when it shows up in the language we use to describe the environment.

Motion as a type of Agency

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 range runs along the outer 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: overlook, to tower, to line up, to face each other, to cluster together; cities grow and expand, sometimes they shrink and occasionally they die (see Oakley 2009 for a discussion of this type of language in architectural writing). This is more than figurative language - it is a type of cognitive simulation called fictive motion (Talmy 2001), a sort of mental imagery that helps us reason about the organization of the space around us (Dewey 2012). In a way, this motion language turns static scenes into dynamic stories and otherwise inanimate objects come alive like characters on the stage.

Landscape theorist Janike Kampevold Larsen’s essay Imagining the Geologic (2013) argues that this sense of movement comes from the “...geologic masses’ own agency” and later she correctly suggests that this type of language reflects a speaker being “confronted with earth’s time”. Fictive motion is often used to describe what landscape elements appear to be doing, an appearance that often reflects the ancient actual movement that produced the landscape element in the first place. Geography is a trace of the past movements of the earth. Our use of fictive motion is simply a reanimation of the landscape process, a speeding up of earth’s timescale until it is fast enough that we can use motion verbs to describe very stable and static landforms.

There may be a relationship between spectatorship and our use of fictive motion descriptions (Dewey 2012), in which our ability to see the overall shape of a landform may facilitate a motion description. In other words, people may use fictive motion more when they have a big-picture view of what is going on (such as a view from a high-rise window), and may use less fictive motion when they are immersed in a scene without big-picture views (such as a view at street level). When a landform evokes descriptions of agency it is because the trace of the geologic motion that produced that landform is recorded in the landform’s shape and location in space. The vertical assent of a mountainside is a permanent trace of the mountain being pushed up into space from its flat surrounding context. The depth of a winding ravine is a permanent trace of the eroding force of the river that winds its way through the ravine, carving ever deeper and wider with each passing year.

Seeing traces of past movement in the geography, we describe the geography as if it were actively moving, and in so doing, we compress our time with earth’s time. In a way we could say that this compression speeds up deep time before our eyes and we sense the natural landscape as being an active agent.

The landforms and urban forms by nature of their shape and extent invite us to animate them with our language. Could it be the contrast between urban form and landform that encourages our notion of apparent motion? Returning to image #1, the urban development and geomorphology tells its hybrid story through our mouths as we narrate their actions. “Look at how those neighborhoods creep their way up into the mountains”. Or is it the other way around? Because with the same palpability, “those mountains seem to poke their way down into the city”. In the case of the aerial image, both the city and the mountain make good fictive motion candidates, but other suitable characteristics in this scene present good attention paths. Consider the erratic zigzagging line that we see in this image as it creates the border between mountain and neighborhoods. Zigzagging is a fictive motion verb that Talmy classifies as a “co-extension path” (p 138) where the path of our attention follows the extension of some linear shape. Even this defining boundary relationship between urban form and landform invites us to think of geographical urbanism as an active agent.

The negotiation of place that unfolds in civic time as the city adapts to the geography that adopts it is itself a dynamic entity. This dynamicity is evidenced by our willingness to animate it through fictive motion descriptions of the transitional spaces between wilderness and urban places. We give this transitional place agency by describing its zigzagging path.

If we can use language that animates a static entity when we describe the growth of a city, the formative trace of a landform, and even the transitional places at the intersection of landscapes and cities, then it might be fair to say that this relationship of geographical urbanism is a force of vitality for a place, bringing a place to life and giving it an identity that emerges through relationships between people and place.

Geographical Urbanism as Participatory Theater

We’ve seen a complex story emerge that reflects the non-linear structure of the hybrid place. Cities adapt to the landscapes that adopt them; geography shapes the physical identity of a city by limiting its scale and providing scenery. These geographic actions provide frames of reference and networks of landmarks that shape the cultural identity of the communities that inhabit the hybrid place. In a way, cultures reflect the landscapes they call home.

Beyond shaping our cities and cultures, landscapes invite us to participate in telling their story. Geography shapes the way we look at its form, telling us its origin story through traces of geologic activity that have persisted through deep time, asserting its identity as a dynamic place on the long timescale of geologic time. Responding to the trace of time we reanimate the static world when we use fictive motion to describe a scene. We treat the fossil landscape as an active agent in the production of place. We speak for the land when we tell its story through fictive motion.

It seems as though geographical urbanism results in a sort of participatory theater, a story told by the interaction of people and place. Geographical urbanism is a blending of landscape and urban experience that has an impact on human cognition, making landscape relevant to the urban dweller, grounding a city’s present to its deep past while simultaneously determining the shape of its future. Because of this relevance, geographical urbanism is a vital key in understanding the story told through the relationships between cities, places and our embodiment in hybrid places.

Works Cited (in order of appearance):

Robinson, C. Mulford. (1906). The beautifying of Honolulu. Honolulu.
Retrieved from
Tuan, Y. (1974). Topophilia: A study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Mark, D. M., Turk, A., Burenhult, N., & Stea, D. (2011). “Landscape in language: An introduction”. In D. M. Mark, A. G. Turk, N. Burenhult, & D. Stea (Eds.), Landscape in language: Transdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 1-24). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Louis, R. P. (2011). “Hawaiian storied place names: re-placing cultural meaning” in In D. M. Mark, A. G. Turk, N. Burenhult, & D. Stea (Eds.), Landscape in language: Transdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 167-186). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Oakley, T. (2009). From attention to meaning: Explorations in semiotics, linguistics, and rhetoric. Bern: Peter Lang.  
Talmy, L. (2000). Toward a cognitive semantics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dewey, R. (2012). A Sense of Space: Conceptualization in Wayfinding and Navigation. (Electronic Thesis). Retrieved from
Kampevold Larsen, J. (2013). “Imagining the geologic”. In Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse (eds.) Making the geologic now: Responses to the material conditions of contemporary life. (pp. 83-89). New York: Punctum Books.

Image Citations:

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Frame: 2109” [aerial photograph]. Scale ~1in:1km. Flight line No: 018. 16/5/00. Downloaded from on 15/2/14." 
Dewey, R. “Dry standpipes labeled for firefighters to determine which side of the building they are accessing, Honolulu” [snapshot]. 01/02/14. Personal collection.