Connected Spaces, Controlled Movements: notes from a Brazil-UK exchange at the UCL Urban Laboratory

A year of privatised public spaces, exhibiting Brazillian film for UK audiences and conversations with Jeremy Bentham

By Rodrigo Firmino | Honorary Senior Research Associate, UCL Urban Laboratory

Dr Rodrigo Firmino discussing his research project with Dr Clare Melhuish at an Urban Laboratory seminar on 26 October 2015

I have spent just under a year sharing the “space” of the UCL Urban Laboratory, and by space I mean not only the physical infrastructure, but the people who constitute this centre. I first got in contact with Dr Ben Campkin (the Director) back in the summer of 2014, speculatively searching for a university in the UK — where I completed my PhD — to be based during a research sabattical from my home institution in Brazil. Emerging from the various conversations I had, the transdisciplinary context of the Urban Lab fit well, as my research spans the boundaries between built environment studies, geography, security and crime sciences.

Earlier this year, when I had the pleasure to be introduced to Professor Richard Sennett at an Urban Lab Films screening I was curating, he asked me to explain what the Urban Lab was. Here’s how I’ve seen it during the past year.

Urban Lab is a multidisciplinary hub connecting researchers, students and staff inside and outside UCL. Moreover, it fosters a creative and active environment for critical thinking about cities, with the input from a broad array of disciplines and matters that are relevant to the urban. Being hosted in such an atmosphere meant I could go beyond the original research agenda for my time — doing things I hadn’t planned for, but which certainly enhanced my experience of London as a “theory destination” to be studied and understood

During this period, three types of engagements emerged from the Lab: direct opportunities through events hosted by the centre; activities and networking made possible by my involvement in the centre; and my own research project, with its tasks and by-products.

Direct possibilities

I was invited to give a couple of lectures to display my interests and connections with the Urban Lab, as well as the reasons I chose London and UCL as the base for my research leave. This happened through an informal lunchtime research conversation, chaired by Dr Clare Melhuish (Co-director and Senior Research Associate, UCL Urban Laboratory), but also as part of the programme for the Situating Architecture lecture series, where I was able to talk about security, surveillance and territorialisation in public spaces. In a different form of involvement, I curated the aforementioned Urban Lab Films evening ‘Guarded elites and paranoia in the (Latin American) city’. A debate was led by Anna Minton (author of Ground Control and reader in architecture at the University of East London) and Dr Tiago De Luca (lecturer in Portuguese and World Cinemas at the University of Liverpool), with active participation from the audience, following a screening of Brazilian film Neighbouring Sounds (“O Som ao Redor”, 2012) directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho. I also had the chance to join many other events hosted by the Lab in a variety of themes related to cities, memory, places and urban development. Most recently this involved leading a group of summer school students, studying university-led regeneration, on a landscape and security design tour of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London, with the Urban Lab’s Centre Manager Jordan Rowe.

Opportunities

The second type of opportunity created through my connection to the Lab, due to its visibility and ample network of partners, was the possibility to be invited to participate in lectures and events outside UCL as well as to interact with other people and research centres in UCL faculties, notably within the Bartlett. Just to name a few, I have given talks or been a respondent in events at Keele University, the Ephemeral Cities research group, the University of Oslo, and in a Theatrum Mundi workshop on Designing Politics. I have also had research meetings or taken part in Masters modules in the Space Syntax group and the Geography department, both at the UCL.

Research project

Article published in the Spring 2016 edition of LA+ Journal

Thirdly, in the original plans for my own research project “Connected Spaces, Controlled Movements: Technology, Surveillance, Security, and Cities”, one of the core ideas was to find levels and examples of territorialization comparable to the ones I previously studied in Brazil, namely the cases of private monitoring of public urban spaces (see http://usj.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/01/20/0042098014567064.abstract). Obviously, I wasn’t expecting to find exactly the same phenomenon due to cultural and legal differences between Brazil and the UK regarding placemaking processes in contemporary cities. However, as far as the production of territories is concerned, I was interested in understanding the particular way in which public spaces, private and public actors, historical facts, the urban scene, surveillance and security technologies and practices, land ownership, the real estate market, architecture, planning and urban design come together to form very specific assemblages of tightly controlled and monitored pieces of invisible territories in the urban fabric.

I spent a fair amount of time trying to form a theoretical framework to deal with these issues and relate them to the phenomenon of the smart neoliberal city which relies on technology, control and the market to define today’s spaces and places. Don Mitchell’s idea of territory as floating bubbles, Peter Sloterdjik’s spherology, Stuart Elden’s notion of territory as a political technology, Milton Santos’ conceptual tensions between place and territory, are among the strands of theory that helped me understand the complexities of multi-layered and multifaceted processes of territorialization in the city — or even “volumetric territories” as it was once put to me by Urban Lab Co-director Dr Andrew Harris.

Empirically, I was trying to understand the power disputes and the process of spatial control in privately owned public spaces (POPS) in London by the use of architecture, design, surveillance and security technologies. The inherent production of invisible and unnoticed bounded areas — territories — where activities, behaviour, flows, numbers, and even identities are controlled was the focus of this study, which is not yet finished.

The rest of my time here was dedicated in finding and collecting documents of a selected number of POPS in London as part of their original planning application or current management strategy, in order to identify practices and elements used in crowd, access, flows and behaviour control. These plans are usually expressed in documents called “management and maintenance plan” or “access and inclusivity strategy”, with these names varying from one case to another. This was what made the task more difficult than it seemed at the beginning.

The second part of the study, to be continued when I move back to Brazil, will focus on the analysis of the documents towards the understanding of the territorial constitution of these POPS, and further compare them with the Brazilian cases. As a result, there will be one or two publications in major journals in the near future. The cases being studied are: the proposal for the Garden Bridge across the River Thames in central London; the More London development surrounding City Hall; King’s Cross; Regent’s Place; Central Saint Giles; Fitzrovia; Old Spitalfields Market; and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Jeremy, I’m watching you watching me watching you!

Finally, an unexpected by-product of this period was the experimental project “watching Jeremy, watching me, watching Jeremy”. For a few months, I exercised a daily debate with important news and themes in surveillance and security studies through a research conversation with Jeremy Bentham — philosopher and spiritual founder of UCL, who’s remains are preserved as an Auto-Icon in the university’s south cloisters. The conversation was prompted by the PanoptiCam (from the UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, UCL Public and Cultural Engagement, and UCL’s Bentham Project) - a webcam installed on the top of the Auto-Icon, watching the reaction of passers-by and broadcasting the images via Twitter and YouTube. My project interacted with the PanoptiCam by posing to the camera at any given time with sentences related to surveillance and security, collecting the picture on the internet, and blogging about it on the project’s website: jeremyproject.lavits.org.

There was also the possibility of receiving suggestions for themes from readers through a form on the blog site. For four months, I used phrases and expressions derived from topics such as: global surveillance; privacy; Panopticon and the derivatives of seeing, being seen (or not) and watching; whistleblowing; the relationship between space and technology; territorialisation; violence and fear in the city; tensions between public and private spaces; smart technologies and cities; and spatial securitization. At the beginning, I would only show the message and post the picture on the blog. But then I realised I had something else to say about each topic and that it was a good opportunity to reflect on important issues that were directly or indirectly connected to my own research; thus I started to add comments to the pictures. The project gained some popularity to the point of having other people doing the same or trying to meet me during my 30-second performance, being noticed by the people in charge of the PanoptiCam, and even being indirectly mentioned (“a bloke”) by online magazine Londonist.

I could not end this brief account about my “spatial journey” in London and at the UCL without emphatically expressing my gratitude to Ben Campkin and Jordan Rowe, for all the support they provided before and during my visit. It was a year of preparation, meetings, emails and document exchange, plus a fair amount of patience on their part, that made this visit possible. I’ve had valuable discussions about my project and other activities with people inside and outside the Lab, including Clare Melhuish, Max Colson, Henrietta Williams, Ava Fatah, Laura Marshall and Justinien Tribillon, to whom I am also grateful. Thus, this is the recognition that the Urban Lab made this period an incredible professional and personal experience.

Rodrigo Firmino is Honorary Senior Research Associate at UCL Urban Laboratory from September 2015 —September 2016. He is Associate Professor in Urban Management at the Pontifical Catholic University (PUCPR) in Curitiba, Brazil, and chief editor of urbe, a leading Brazilian urban studies journal. You can follow him on Twitter, @rodrigo_firmino.