Over the last five years or so a certain cohort of geographers has been playing with the idea of ‘atmospheres’. Scholars often take words with commonly accepted meanings and then redefine these to something highly technical and not at all intuitively obvious. A good example of this is ‘affect’ (a verb meaning ‘to make a difference to’) which now sits at the heart of a set of debates about how bodies and worlds interact. I like to tell my students that if they understand affect then they probably haven’t read enough…
The idea of atmosphere has been captured by the same guys (and it is mostly guys) who write about affect. This has generated kind of writing that can provoke bafflement and irritation in equal measure – not just from civilians but, frankly, from a lot of my colleagues. For example:
‘Atmospheres are a kind of indeterminate affective ‘excess’ through which intensive space-times can be created.’ (Ben Anderson, 2009, p80)
Sometimes I get excited by this kind of thing, but more often I get frustrated because there’s interesting and useful ideas here, buried beneath a mountain of academic obfuscation. And, yes, it is unfair to take a quote like this out of context because there’s a lot of argument that’s built up to a statement like this, but even still, it’s all pretty hard going.
I’ve long been interested in how you can take some of these quite abstract ideas and use them to unpick how quite ordinary, everyday things work. This is why I’m less attracted to how the “affect boys” talk about ‘atmospheres’ and am becoming more interested in the French notion of ‘ambiances’. Most of the ideas on this have been developed by the team at Cresson (Centre de recherche sur l'espace sonore et l'environnement urbain), working out of the Grenoble school of architecture. Their work is often quite bonkers, but it’s very applied. So by trying to understand the ambiance/atmosphere/feeling of a place they are also interested in how this place-feeling can be manipulated/improved. This might be through changing lighting, altering the soundscape, changing how people move through a neighbourhood, to change how people feel about that neighbourhood.
The idea that a place has an ambiance (or atmosphere if you prefer) makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. Ambiances are also something that is shared. We all experience spaces and places differently, but there can be some common feelings experienced by different people at the same time. “This place is crowded”, “I don’t feel safe here”, “This café is warm and cosy” etc. I’m quite interested in exploring this tension between when we as individuals experience places differently and when feelings about a place are shared. Why, for example, do some groups of people feel safe in a place while others don’t?
Which all brings us to the idea of sketchiness. This has come into the headlines recently with a pair of tech entrepreneurs launching their ‘SketchFactor’ iPhone app. The idea is that people should use the app to record the location of different ‘sketchy’ things that they see on the street – the man wandering around with no clothes on, the mugging, the kids hanging around on street corners. The app thus creates a crowdsourced map of ‘sketchy’ neighbourhoods within a city where such problematic things happen, presumably to warn visitors to those areas to be on their guard. Although, it has to be asked, if you feel unsafe wandering around a neighbourhood, why on earth would you start fiddling with your expensive iPhone to tell people about the fact?
Sketchiness is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and the app developers have been accused of fostering a kind of indirect racism. App users are more likely to be white and middle class and the areas that they’re more likely to feel are ‘sketchy’ will be those populated by poorer, ethnic minority groups – particularly in US cities. So we end up creating maps that say “black people are dangerous, say away from them” with the people who live in an area having a middle class reading of their lives imposed upon them.
What this comes from is a shared sense of the atmosphere of a neighbourhood which is shaped by social class and ethnicity. The people who live in that neighbourhood might well read its atmosphere differently. Indeed, some areas can be profoundly sketchy to those who live there, while this can be invisible to those passing through. Youth gang territories would be a good example of this – some kids know that they would be at risk of attack if they cross into a neighbouring area, whereas to an outsider the atmosphere of two neighbourhoods feels exactly the same.
One of the neighbourhoods we’re working in as part of the @cultintermed project is Balsall Heath here in Birmingham. It’s a fascinating and very lively area of mixed ethnicity, though predominantly Muslim, not far from the city centre. As a white middle class scholar, who lives a broadly white middle class life, Balsall Heath has a particular feel that is quite different to neighbouring Moseley – the epicentre of white, liberal Birmingham. I notice this very strongly in my own behaviours within Balsall Heath – doubtless a manifestation of my own low level racism and fear of difference – that I can feel a little edgy walking along the Moseley Road to the Printworks (a local art venue). Once inside the Printworks, however, I generally feel fairly relaxed. Outside the doors is a working class, broadly Muslim area. Inside the Printworks is a middle class and broadly white space.
One of the interesting things that this throws up is how the presence of an institution like Printworks manipulates the atmosphere of this part of Balsall Heath. It produces a reason for a white middle class person to visit and as such starts to change the nature of the space. A certain kind of arty/educated ambiance is radiated outward from Printworks. This is significant because in manipulating the feel of a location you can set in train other urban processes. There’s a well-established literature (e.g. Sharon Zukin) on how artists and different cultural businesses can be used as agents of gentrification. Artists are attracted into cheap (‘sketchy’) neighbourhoods. Their presence attracts middle class people who are interested to feel like they’re part of an arty/edgy vibe. Eventually the middle class people start to displace the original residents and you end up with a gentrified middle class district.
One of the drivers here is the feel of the place, its atmosphere. Middle class white people by and large don’t live in Balsall Heath and part of this is in the neighbourhood’s sketchiness – a white middle class construction imposed on that space. Reducing an area’s sketchiness in thmeans altering it to suit the white middle classes. If you manipulate the atmosphere/ambiance/feeling of the place, capitalist mechanisms of land and property development can start processes of gentrification. But gentrification begets displacement and thus it becomes a social justice issue to think about how atmospheres are manipulated in urban policy.
But a big warning point to end on. There’s a danger here of saying, don’t try to tackle problems in an area lest the middle classes turn up, kick everyone out and take over. Balsall Heath has all kinds of socio-environmental problems (litter, rats, drug dealing, anti-social behaviour) that comprise some of the many factors that shape the ambiance of the neighbourhood – why should people living there have to put up with these? Similarly, the idea that there are ambiances suitable for middle class white people and those suitable for working class Muslims gets us dangerously close to old fashioned racist divisions. Generating a shared sense of ambiance can be driven by a large number of different factors – gender, taste, fashion, age etc. etc. – what’s interesting is how that shared sense is generated and what would be the consequences for society if you started to manipulate that ambiance.
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer