Archives for posts with tag: phenomenology




I spend a lot of time, especially these days interning at the Pop-Up City, reading blogs about cities, planning, architecture and design.

This post is dedicated to those statements that I see constantly repeated in the urbanism blogosphere. They are repeated so much that they are taken for granted, and for fact.

I invite us to challenge the simplicity of a phrase used too much. We all rely on a certain economy of thought, but vagueness when it comes to argument is good to avoid. I know the blogosphere isn’t the place for thorough referencing and citation (I am also rely on these statements) but, let’s be active and look for a bigger story that could be behind these apparently pre-known ideas in urbanism.

The sense of vision is most important in cities today.

In our modern time, the age of high-speed communication, cities are the venues of incredibly dense networks of activity and information. The number of messages that one perceives as they negotiate the streets and paths of a city via car, bicycle or by foot are countless: from explicit advertisements to city logos embedded in the infrastructure; from the way people dress to the facades of strange and familiar buildings.

Our sense of vision both enables and prevents city-induced confusion. The city must be abstracted to be understood. Visible simplification of the complicated-city to simple, readable signifiers, facilitates otherwise overwhelming urbanity.

We could never perceive and know everything that exists in the city — there’s simply too much of it, and not enough time or reason. In a small town, a store, building or person can be made sense of in their entirety, because they stand unique. In the semiotics of the city, signifiers emerge naturally so that some sense can be made of a teeming, highly and densely populated urban place.

In a passive state-of-mind, the many houses and apartments one passes in a city remain two-dimensional facades, with minor features of architecture and quality simplified to tell a story about the contents inside. Houses and apartments are categorized into types, so that in our economy of thought, we can quickly understand these objects and pass them by without constant scrutiny.

People too are visually simplified into signifiers. The shape of a passing person becomes simply that, a passing person — with little thought about their personal history or intent.

My bike lock broke recently, and it no longer locks properly. But I continue to use it, even in extremely crowded city-spaces, because within the complexities of a city, a bike lock loses its meaning and becomes simplified as a signifier. When somebody happens upon my bike, and sees a black U-Lock in it’s typical spot, the fact that so many bikes exist in the same configuration means that it’s automatic message is: “Locked” — even if it is not locked at all.

So what do we do to counter-act the inevitable modern malaise that occurs from a world of so many sensory stimulations that we must simplify everything into symbols? We must be inquisitive, forge meaningful relationships, be forever interested in the urban space that surrounds us. Dig deeper, make communities, and get past the compartmentalization, the visual simplification of the modern city, modern life itself.

It’s notable that in our negotiations of the urban environment, we hardly ever notice the power-lines. In Halifax anyways, they’re everywhere — running along the streets overhead, criss-crossing over intersections  — I can see twelve right now out of my front-room window:

We must see these power-lines as we walk-about the city. They are incredibly conspicuous, starkly standing out against the softer greys, blues and whites of the surrounding urban environment. It seems we choose to ignore power-lines, these black wires that frame almost every road and intersection of the city.

Obviously, many details of a city must be ignored so that some sense can be made of it. Focusing on every element of the urban environment would be impossible, meaningless-ness resulting from the overwhelming amount of information that can be read, scene and heard from the city and those who populate it.

It is these invisibilities that make living — and more specifically living in the dense-clustered-complex-intertangled networks that are cities possible.

Negotiating the city also means choosing not to engage with the hundreds of people that pass-us-by in the streets and parks. Next time you remember, pause, look around, and there will surely be at least three people walking around, carrying on with their own rich, complex, lives. There are always hundreds of people surrounding us in the city — on the streets, in the houses, stores and apartment buildings — we must ignore them or pay them little attention so that we may get on-with-our-lives.

The city must abstracted to be understood, to be inhabited.

I’d like to acknowledge what I’ve come to realize as something I’ve been doing for many years now, and announce the future of my ideas.

Phenomenology is the philosophy of interrogating various phenomena in life through the way we experience them. It serves as an opportunity to go further than other, more rigid schools of thought, notably modern science, that tend to take for granted our structures of knowledge and treat what we know as objective. Studying urban geography, architecture, and urban planning has lead to some frustrating instances where I’ve found myself fed up with those claiming to know exactly the way things work (see: the history of Western urban planning). Phenomenology doesn’t pretend to be explanatory: rather, looking at the basic experiences of our lives provides a productive and enriching way to view the world.

A life project of urban phenomenology will be my attempt to apply the tenants of this philosophy to the urban phenomena I observe and experience daily. I am currently reading many phenomenologists, and am excited to apply these ideas to urban phenomena I find in need of explanation. I am by no means an expert, and I have no desire to do this in formal academic channels, so the disclaimer is I may be completely misguided in my attempts, but in all honesty, who cares. But then again, please help me if I seem to be going off track…even if you don’t know what phenomenology is. The main goal is to re-approach the way cities work, in order to get to what could be a deeply satisfying way of viewing the world, and maybe some ideas that could be applied to my potential future life in the world of urban design.

The point of this blog is to get my ideas down with less of a concern for the way they “sound”, or a deep scrutiny of poor grammar or word choices. In this sense, I am excited to carry out some fun, thought provoking and messy urban phenomenology.

Another note is that this post has no influence on past or future posts; what I have written, and am going to write may or may not be phenemenological, but again, who cares. As I read more phenemonologists, I am eager to see where my ideas go.