Does urban diversity dwell the same places as violent unrest?

by Yiorgos Papamanousakis

Exarchia. For Greeks, the name alone stands as a long-established semiological landmark for all things anti-establishment. This is the name of a district in central Athens, whose representations float among the ‘epicentre of socio-political struggle’, the ‘alternative scene of Athens’, and the ‘ghetto of the anarchists and the junkies’. Yet, in a more dispassionate view, it is one of the few places in the city’s centre still retaining a multi- functional and diverse character of a true urban community.

A study of the distinctive features and patterns by which space is constituted, as well as used and appropriated by its users and activities, reconfirms this later view (Papamanousakis, 2009). It is suggested that Exarchia’s socio-cultural heterogeneity and diversity coexist within and are supported by a distinctive spatial structure. In terms of spatial use, the area’s land uses are most balanced, both globally and at the scale of the individual building block, while its street life is animated through a mixture of day, night and time-flexible activities for locals and visitors alike. In terms of spatial structure, Exarchia is markedly distinguished by small block sizes, high street-grid connectivity, evenly distributed mixed use, an increased variety of building types, and an increased presence of public interface elements finely interweaved in its built environment. This spatial model of ‘small but different’ is demonstrated to actively support an animated and diverse urban realm. Critically, it is argued that its portrayal as an impermeable ‘ghetto’ is far from having any substantial credit; on the contrary it is a prime place for bringing together what is otherwise apart.

Back in London, following a rare wave of violent unrest last summer, the boroughs of Tottenham and Hackney have now one more tag added to their less than enviable reputation. A study by Space Syntax Limited (Space Syntax, 2011) has revealed the spatial character of these riots. Large post-war housing estates, near local town centres, seem to be prime places fro hosting social unrest. Interestingly, as shown in previous Space Syntax studies, these places are prominently characterised by segregation, low levels of mixed use, introverted local areas poorly integrated within the global city grid. Their spatial model stands as a counterbalance to that of Exarchia.

Despite an infamous ‘ghetto’ reputation, the spatial structure of Exarchia acts as the backstage for a diverse and heterogeneous urban community, bringing together what would otherwise be apart. Naturally, and rightly so, this includes the full spectrum of political discourse and action as well as the full manifestation of society and its culture. In the places of the London protests, the large housing estates intended to create harmonious homogenous ‘communities’, space in fact divides and segregates, amplifying social tensions, and quite possibly contributing its share into violent unrest.

It may perhaps be obvious that tension eases when and where differences have an opportunity to communicate with one another, and this may well be argued to be true of social and political as well as religious and ethnic tensions. It should also be obvious that space is a very effective tool, which can enable the communication of differences, a tool that can discourage social tensions and violence not through their suppression but through the effective support of diversity.

REFERENCES

Papamanousakis, G. (2009), ‘Exárchia Athens, unlike the rest? The structure of diversity in urban space’, MSc AAS Thesis, The Bartlett School of Graduate Studies, UCL

Space Syntax Ltd. (2011), ‘London Riots’, [e-source, available at: < http://www.spacesyntax.com/project/2011-london-riots/ >]

A rather informative event, which brought together views form different academic disciplines on aspects related to the impact of urban migration processes, took place this February in UCL. The UCL Urban Migration Film Festival, organised by Professor Laura Vaughan, Rastko Novakovic, Searle Kochberg and Dr Sonia Arbaci and funded by the UCL Environment Institute, hosted an interdisciplinary symposium that enhanced a fruitful exchange of ideas based on films introduced in the festival. As stated in the event’s brochure, the intention was to ‘explore the impact migrants have on their physical, social, cultural and economic environment as well as how cultural, spatial, legal and ideological forces affect rights, mobility and settlement’. The work of the young filmmakers who participated was organized and introduced in three thematic sessions: ‘Journeys’, ‘Transition’ and ‘Negotiation and Accommodation’. Stimulli, ideas and future perspectives on urban migrants’ movement, settling and profile of their modes of living, rising form the presented films, were discussed under two interdisciplinary rounds of dialogue. The event maintains a blog site (see link bellow), where material and details regarding the event can be found, while providing a chance for post-event questions, insights and brainstorming.

Links:

http://www.bartlett.ucl.ac.uk/planning/events/film-festival-2012

http://urbanmigrationfilms.wordpress.com/