Urban Cultures as a field of knowledge and learning

Gillberg, D., Berglund, Y., Brembeck, H. & Stenbäck, O. (2012). Urban Cultures as a field of knowledge and learning. (Mistra Urban Futures Report 2012:1). Gothenburg: Mistra Urban Futures.

Publication type
Report/Paper/Working paper/Brief
Urban Cultures: Case Kommersen
Daniel Gillberg Ylva Berglund Helene Brembeck Olle Stenbäck
Published year



During the last ten years, urban culture studies have evolved as an interdisciplinary research field within urban research. This focuses on the intersection of daily life with the surrounding material, discursive, and social landscapes – the reciprocal relationship of how urban life is shaped by and, in turn, shapes the urban environment. This includes cultural practices but also spatial embodiment, i.e., the shaping of the material landscape, structures, and physical space in which urban life unfolds. Do-it-yourself (DIY) urban design and urban sports are examples of common themes. Culture is here understood in terms of possibilities. Topological approaches provide a set of tools to analyze how different kinds of change can be stimulated with network-building, spontaneity, and self-organization being consideredprimary engines for change. Humans are conceived of as constant "becomings," with the potential for lifelong growth and development. Society is seen as rhizomatic, organic, and constantly unfolding. Theoretical points of departure include works by Bruno Latour (1993), Manuel DeLanda (1997), and Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari (1988).

Prominent applications within the Urban Cultures field include Monica Degen’s Sensing Cities (2008), Lars Frers & Lars Meier’s Encountering Urban Places (2007), and Patrick Laviolette’s Extreme Landscapes of Leisure (2011). The development of Mistra Urban Futures’ Urban Cultures theme takes human creativity and inventiveness at the grass‐roots level as its starting point. It argues for a bottom-up approach and in particular pursues the goal of involving inhabitants as stakeholders and co‐researchers in a process of fostering an enabling, people- ‐friendly, and culturally sustainable city. However, the theme also involves public officials, cultural workers, and politicians in the quest to determine what an enabling city would look like and how it can be created. More specifically – Urban Cultures can be studied in the form of cultural expressions, such as identities, lifestyles, and networks. It can also be studied as artistic and everyday representations that emerge from situated encounters between people, artefacts, and the material, social and discursive structures of the city. Culture has been theorized as the processes and forces that generate or constrain the emergence of cultural expressions in such encounters. This puts the focus on everyday doings in networks of people and objects, a view of culture that gives prominence to the possibilities for change and creativity, rather than conceptualizing culture in terms of innate structures and barriers that are difficult to disrupt. Dynamic and vibrant Urban Cultures are as essential to a healthy and sustainable society as social equity, environmental responsibility, and economic vitality. It is of great importance that culture – both as a concept and as a phenomenon – is regarded as having value in itself, in addition to its potential habitat and market values. Moreover, there is a significant distinction between the social and the cultural; while the social often focuses on problems, the cultural may instead focus on possibilities. For example, in the field of urban studies, the cultural may be conceptua-lized in terms of an open city that facilitates spontaneity – an Enabling City.

The Enabling City, Collaborative Consumption, and Social Innovation are all topics of intense interest among practitioners and policy-makers. They all stem from the above-mentioned focus on network-building, change, and creativity, and can be considered practical applications rooted in the same cultural spirit of the times. Influential books, such as Rachel Botsman & Roo Rogers’s What’s Mine is Yours (2011), Chiara Camponeschi’s The Enab-bling City (2010), and Jon Hawkes’ Fourth Pillar of Sustainability (2005), are basically handbooks that describe the results of activism and entrepreneurship. Books with a stronger scientific basis include Jégou & Manzini’s Collaborative Services (2008) and Charles Leadbetter’s The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur (1997). An interesting Swedish example is Karl Palmås’s Prometheus eller Narcissus? Entreprenören som samhällsomvälvare 2011).
Urban Cultures can thus be highlighted as an indispensable prerequisite for fostering the sustainable city – as an infrastructure for urban change – and can be divided into three integrated "niches" to be filled by the Center: culture as a force for change in everyday life, enabling city planning, and Collaborative consumption and social innovations. In this report we further explore these ideas but give the enabling city a major role. Instead of being one "niche" it is here viewed as the context required for the other two to occur at its full potential.
The Enabling City is hence the platform for Urban Cultures. Culture is here seen as a force for change in everyday life. The focus is on creativity from below and the importance of network-building and of trusting relationships among people; often referred to as social capital. It requires studies of the how, the when, and the why of human activity in everyday encounters in the city, with a special interest in innovative practices with the potential to change city life in a sustainable direction. The Enabling City is very much related to a different kind of city planning; to an Enabling City Planning. This involves planning for openness, spontaneity, and creativity; Planning for the unplanned. It entails understanding the ecology of the city, highlighting its soft structures, and studying its enabling cultural infrastructures.

Collaborative Consumption and Social Innovation are in this report, described as examples of Urban Cultures that may occur within the Enabling City. Here the emphasis is on new ways of sharing, lending, and swapping. This can be done in a local and face-to‐face context, or may involve using the Internet to connect, combine, and form groups, and find something or someone to create "many-to-many" peer-to-peer interactions. One of the underlying assumptions of Collaborative Consumption is that social capital can be used to support sustainable urban development, including the development of low‐carbon cultures. The related concept of Social Innovation refers to the emergence of ideas and strategies that meet social needs.

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