Geography is getting stranger: the map is breaking up. The compass needle is starting to spin.
The world’s unruly zones are multiplying and changing fast. They are all unique but also connected: the uncanny ruins, the unnatural places, the escape zones and gap spaces, are sites of surprise but also of bewilderment and unease.
The dizzying fragmentation, the overlapping and shape-shifting of borders that is seen in so many parts of the planet, tell us that geography is not a staid and dusty affair but is enthralling and often alarming. I’ve been trying to work out why I’m so obsessed with place. It’s certainly not just because I’m a professor of geography. If I’m honest, it’s not a cerebral thing at all. It’s to do with the glee and the drama, the love and the loathing — the powerful emotions that are poured into place.
The maps of human and physical geography can seem overwhelming; the forces at work have become too unpredictable to be easily or neatly summarized. That’s why we need to attend to the hidden places, like the overlooked zone of anti-pedestrian cobbles and jagged paving that forms the spikescape of the modern city. And why odd little places — like a traffic island in my home city of Newcastle, cradled in the indifferent arms of grinding roads — have come to feel so important.
It’s a quiet afternoon in Newcastle, and having made my way across one traffic lane, I’m now somewhere I’ve been to often before — the central reservation, the median strip. The absence of vehicles should make the final leg easy, but no; there’s that familiar jagged unevenness underfoot. I’ve stumbled into no man’s land; a non-place that hates pedestrians. There’s no elegant or easy way forward. I adopt bow legs, then tiptoe; take teeny steps amid the snarling, toothed brickwork.
All I want to do is cross the road, but now I’m a twisting thing caught on urban flypaper. I have only myself to blame: I have a weakness for shortcuts, which means that I keep finding myself in the spikescape. The slightest deviation from the prescribed path across the prescribed surface and suddenly you’re in it; the landscape hisses and spits, “Go back and go the right way!”
Anti-pedestrian cobbles, ribs, and nodules have been sprouting under our feet like angry mushrooms with a vendetta against the human race.
Spikescapes are designed to channel pedestrians and move on loiterers and skateboarders. They started popping up about 30 years ago, and are now so common that they rarely attract attention. Only the most egregious examples — the small metal spikes designed to prevent the homeless from bedding down — stir any passion. But anti-homeless devices are just one product from the catalogue of deterrent paving: anti-pedestrian cobbles, ribs, and nodules have been sprouting under our feet like angry mushrooms with a vendetta against the human race.
I’ve been trying not to get drawn too deeply into the subject of deterrent paving. I have just listed the most interesting types to my partner — tiny pyramids are my favorite — as we drive to the coast, and it turns out she isn’t as interested in the topic as I initially thought. Conversationally this has left me with unspent reserves, as I’ve also been researching the manufacture of bench and ledge studs — “We manufacture cone shaped studs which can be used on window sills and wall tops to stop people sitting where there [sic] not wanted” — and want quite badly to talk about Chinese benches with retractable barbs.
They started life as an art installation by the German sculptor Fabian Brunsing, who created what he thought was a protest piece about the evils of commercialization. His bench has a coin slot that you have to keep on feeding in order to stop spikes jabbing you in the rear. Indifferent to its critical intent, Chinese officials ripped off Brunsing’s invention and installed coin-operated spike benches in Yantai Park in Shandong Province. “We have to make sure the facilities are shared out evenly,” a park official explained, “and this seems like a fair way to stop people grabbing a bench at dawn and staying there all day.”
The prospect of being impaled turned out to be an effective way of keeping bench use to a minimum. It is an extreme example, but the same logic is at work in many urban spaces where you are prodded and humiliated into obedience. It’s not just literal spikes that create hostile architecture. Spikescapes are edgy, nervous, “move along now” type places where your nerves are jangled even if your heels aren’t. Other deterrents include water sprinklers designed to shift dawdlers, as well as a range of specifically anti-teen devices, such as “mosquitoes” that emit a high-pitched squeal that only youngsters can hear and a form of fluorescent-pink lighting that highlights spotty skin. Making spaces hard to be in is not only a question of putting things in, but also of taking them away. Benches, toilets and dustbins are often hard to find in the city because they have been removed in anticipation of their misuse. The same is true for bushes and trees, chopped down and removed because they are potential hiding places for thieves and rapists.
All this public ire about anti-homeless spikes is channeling a more complex disquiet about the increasingly disciplinarian nature of public space.
Spikescapes are difficult, defensive, vigilant places; they are wide-ranging and far-reaching, but the star exhibit remains the anti-homeless spikes. They shot to fame in June 2014 when a snap of a small patch of inch‐high metal studs installed in an alcove of an apartment building in south London was shared on Twitter. The post originated from a user called EthicalPioneer, who added the text “Anti‐homeless studs. So much for community spirit :(.” Over the next few days the tweet went viral and became a worldwide discussion point. Since then, various actions against the spread of anti-homeless studs have been taken. “A mother incensed at the installation of anti-homeless metal spikes outside a Manchester building has hit out at the owner — with cushions,” runs one BBC headline, while CTV in Montreal reports a similarly hostile reception: “It’s a disgrace. This is not the kind of society I want to live in, and when I noticed that happened I want to make sure we kick that out.” In both cases, the spikes were removed.
I suspect that all this public ire about anti-homeless spikes is channeling a submerged and more complex disquiet about the increasingly regimented and disciplinarian nature of public space. It’s more complex because these things are there for our safety: we’re being looked after; someone, somehow, cares. One geographer who has tracked down this new urban realm with analytic precision is Steven Flusty. In Building Paranoia, he has classified five different types of “interdictory space,” by which he means “spaces designed to intercept and repel or filter would-be users.” Flusty’s list has a poetic quality and runs as follows:
Stealthy space — space that cannot be found;
Slippery space — space that cannot be reached, due to contorted, protracted or missing paths;
Crusty space — space that cannot be accessed, due to obstructions such as walls, gates, and checkpoints’
Prickly space — space that cannot be comfortably occupied Jittery space — space that cannot be utilized unobserved.
Flusty connects the spread of deterrent paving and the rise of gated communities, linking small-scale impediments to walkers and larger-scale processes of surveillance and fortification.
Back on the anti-pedestrian paving on that ungenerous central reservation, I’m certainly getting my share of the slippery, crusty, prickly and jittery. They sound like the seven dwarfs’ unlucky cousins, but they describe my predicament perfectly. The irony is that the only reason I’ve been snared is my determination not to use the dedicated pedestrian passage that tunnels under the road. I’m not prepared to go down there. That’s not only because it will take five times as long but also because it is a gloomy, filthy place. The lighting, if it’s on at all, flickers, and there’s a permanent stench of urine. The most potent hostile architecture in this part of town is not the deterrent spikes — it isn’t the stuff that is meant to deter us — it’s the pathways and tunnels that were once thought to be offering an attractive and safe way home.
The subway is one of many left over from the 1970s across the city; a decade when urban planners must have imagined that humans were evolving into small-brained rodents who could be channeled along mazes and culverts (see “Skywalks”). It was the kind of perverse misjudgement that helps explain why we’re now so indifferent to a dehumanizing landscape. Spikescape is the unwanted and malicious child of an older generation of civic planners who eradicated the ordinary and humane pleasures of the street from our cities.
So now I’m across; there’s a slight loss of dignity, but I’m used to that. I still have to pass the subway’s smelly maw, and I’m reminded how much worse it could have been; better to face any number of spikes that descend into that dungeon. So I guess I’ll be back on the spikescape very soon; it doesn’t want me, but it will have to try harder if it wants to keep me off.
Wild Strawberries: Traffic Island
There are many types of love, and many bonds between them. The love of nature and the love of place — biophilia and topophilia — have a particularly intimate relationship. Our lifelong affinity with animals and plants is a passionate commitment that tumbles over and into our bond with place. These love affairs merge in the garden, the age-old site and symbol of human well-being.
This helps explain why we have such a problem with the modern city. Walking or, more likely, driving past barren and stony land — shards of unloved territory in between roads heavy with traffic, or endlessly ripped-up and rubbish-strewn “development sites” — is an affront, a poke in the eye and, more than that, a source of guilt and loss.
I imagined I could be a motorway Robinson Crusoe; I hadn’t expected the forlorn traffic island to be quite so murderous and panic-inducing.
The land should be a garden. It should not just be beautiful; it should be alive. To see others treat it with contempt and, worse, to know that I treat it with contempt — for, of course, I just hurry past, eyes down — is unforgivable. So I am taking some wild strawberries and mint plants to a traffic island, a triangle of land cradled in the cold arms of Newcastle upon Tyne’s A167M and A1058. This unlovable and abandoned orphan, around which grinds a perpetual din of traffic and over one corner of which hangs a multi-lane motorway, has been on the edges of my consciousness for a number of years. I went there once before, imagining I could be a motorway Robinson Crusoe; that it would be an adventure and make a good yarn. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so murderous and panic-inducing. Feeling so visibly out of place was much tougher and odder than I expected and I scuttled away, beaten.
But now I have to go back; if only because my colleague in the Geography Department, Dr. Nick Megoran, an expert in border disputes in ex-Soviet Central Asia, is pressing me to show him this no man’s land. He’s upped the ante by suggesting we take some university forms with us and do a little light bureaucracy.
It’s a fine blue day in late summer, and Nick has just knocked at my office door. He’s equipped with two large camping chairs, some sandwiches and a flask of tea. We haven’t far to go; it’s almost round the corner, but the transition is abrupt. At one crucial point you have to walk on a narrow and uneven cobbled strip into oncoming traffic and then nip quickly across. I’ve done this before, but it feels very different now that Nick is along for the ride; paranoia is edged out by something approaching a jovial solidarity.
Scrabbling away at the thin earth and hard core, I tuck my strawberries in one corner. They’ll be OK, but I’m less confident about the mint. Despite the compost I’ve brought in my rucksack, as soon as they’re in the ground they curl downward, sad victims of avant-garde agriculture. It’s at that moment that a policeman turns up. “Could you tell me what you are doing?” Nick’s professional charm is on hand. He explains my eminence in the academic field of doing this sort of thing, and asks the policeman to take our photo for his Facebook page. Given my supposed expertise, I’m rather embarrassed about the sorry state of my mint; a point rubbed in by our new friend. “Are you sure that’s going to grow there?” he asks, in the indulgent tone of someone who’s just been told that arsing around on a traffic island is an academic specialism.
The bemused policeman edges his way back to wherever he came from and Nick and I move to the center of the island, in the shade of some thin saplings, and conduct our business meeting. Nick’s a keen Christian, and I am not altogether surprised that the conversation has segued to the Book of Daniel. Several weeks later, after a dose of late-night googling, I realize that I could have waved my hands knowingly and made an allusion to the island as Hortus Conclusus, the “enclosed garden” that is an important symbol of Eden and chastity in both Islam and Christianity. The following weeks also bring me up close to my new garden in a more conventional fashion, pelting around the surrounding twist of roads at speed in a car. It’s hard to catch sight of them and, if anything, the sense of guilt-soaked care is worse than ever. How are my miserable plants going to cope? They were happy in their native soil, and now they’re trapped in horticultural hell.
I console myself with the conceit that I’m part of a mighty movement, an urban insurrection of “guerrilla gardeners.” Indeed, I could have lobbed my strawberries from a moving vehicle now that compostable grenade-shaped seed bombs are on sale, at only £9.37, on Amazon: “Turn the concrete jungle into a wilderness with our compacted wild flower seed grenades.” One of the doyens of the movement, eco-activist Richard Reynolds, turns up the heat: “The attacks are happening all around us and on every scale,” he declaims, “from surreptitious solo missions to spectacular horticultural campaigns by organized and politically charged cells.” This kind of language is heady stuff, and it’s making me nervous. I had no idea my strawberries were a form of weaponry. It seems I’ve amateurishly stumbled into a flower- and vegetable-based war.
Touting the reclamation of waste space for flowers and food as an act of heroic insurrection by armed militants doesn’t work for me. After all, it is not passers-by, not the police, not anyone in particular that makes planting a few bulbs feel dangerous, but something more diffuse: it’s the modern city, with its impenetrable officialdom and strict spatial routines. The most profound of these routines are the ones that we’ve internalized; the ones that tell us that anything beyond our front door is none of our business; that the streets, verges, and parks — the public realm — are spaces to be passed through and not places to be cared for. When he’s describing his own planting activities, which began on the Elephant and Castle Roundabout in London, Richard Reynolds drops the military imagery and allows us to see that “guerrilla gardeners” are just people who, like so many of us, have a thwarted sense of involvement with the earth around them. His pleasure in reporting that “the pimped pavements, guerrilla traffic islands and roadside verges are without doubt looking their best ever” is that of the nurturer, not the soldier.
Guerrilla gardening has joined a range of ‘street crafts’ which attempt to rehumanize public space; to bring a sense of care out into the open.
It’s an urge as old as life itself, but its modern phase may have begun with Adam Purple’s “Garden of Eden,” fashioned on an abandoned lot in Manhattan in the mid-1970s. Instantly recognizable for his long white beard, purple clothes, and mirrored sunglasses, Adam created an Eden that covered 15,000 square feet and was planted in Zen-like concentric circles with tomatoes, asparagus, corn, raspberries, and 45 trees. Adam lost his garden to developers, but even when they don’t last long, urban gardens live on in the memory and nearly always attract popular support. Copenhagen’s “garden in a night” was sustained for several years, despite being created by one thousand people over the course of just one night.
Guerrilla gardening has joined a range of “street crafts” which attempt to rehumanize public space. Urban crochet, craftivism, yarn bombing, origami and lace graffiti, light sculpture graffiti, miniature installations … the labels might not mean a lot to most people, but each of them shares an interest in beautifying and reclaiming boring, unloved bits of the city and turning them into real places, landscapes with stories and imagination. They also share something else: in contrast to the macho vandalism of ordinary graffiti, they dare to bring a sense of care out into the open. Bringing an ethic of care outside may help end the distorted, unhealthy but common idea that kindness and care is something we do in private, something shared only with a very few in our high-walled homes.
That sounds romantic, but it’s a risk worth taking. Making it feel easy rather than some act of derring-do will also surely help. I should have learnt that before I set off to my inaccessible traffic island, which is a very lonely place and frankly a little terrifying. It is never likely to be a happy home for strawberries, or anything else. I have moved on to planting sunflower seeds. International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day got me started with this. It’s an annual occasion held on May 1, when people all over the world follow simple instructions: “In open ground, ideally not too compacted (loosen with a small hand tool first), plant a single seed about 2cm deep and cover with soil. Water if necessary, but in Northern European climates, usually the planting is all that’s necessary. Suitable locations include an infrequently tended municipal flower bed, pavement verge or nature strip.” It’s odd, fascinating, how this simple act can make me feel so nervous. Am I allowed? A better question is, will I allow myself? It is, after all, the most natural thing in the world.