I last posted something at the end of August. During the six months since then, I’ve done little other than prepare and deliver online teaching. I still don’t understand how that takes up far more time than normal teaching. There was almost no respite: each week just rolled into the next, and any pauses were filled with other admin. But it’s been a sweet Easter weekend. No more lecturing till the end of September.

Still, I did get at least two things done beyond those fixed commitments. First, I finally managed to organise some mini-workshops with people from King’s College London and Westminster City Council, exploring collaborative relationships between universities and local authorities. These would have been held last Easter, but global events intervened. Although what happened had to be scaled back in terms of the number of participants, it was also part of a five-country study, led by the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University. We’re starting to write up our findings now, so more news about that in due course.

Second, final edits were made to a new article which I co-authored with Simon Joss (University of Glasgow). This was published online in December in the Journal of Urban Affairs. It grew partly out of a sense that the shaping role of national government policies tends to be underplayed in commentaries about city-level innovations. Specifically, we were looking for examples of national ‘urban innovation competitions’ from around the world: such competitions seem to be a characteristically contemporary way of enticing local authorities to innovate in what national governments decide as desirable directions. But alongside the ‘big picture’ findings, we also closely traced what had happened during and following the implementation of one such competition in the UK (whose results were patchy). Actually, the article was quite a long time in the making, but it ended up being a very satisfying piece of work. Have a read if you like – details below, or get in touch if you want a copy:

Cowley, R. and Joss, S. (2020). Urban Transformations Through National Innovation Competitions: Lessons from the UK’s Future City Demonstrator InitiativeJournal of Urban Affairs. Online advance publication. DOI: 10.1080/07352166.2020.1828903

I recently went on a day trip to Dungeness – an isolated settlement on the South coast of Kent, widely known as a peculiar sort of place.  In fact, it attracts a constant stream of visitors, specifically because it is such an unusual place.  On the way home, I was wondering how we might account for it as a place.

These days, we tend by default to theorise of a ‘sense of place’ as shaped by connections to elsewhere. A place can somehow ‘hang together’ even if it has multiple resulting identities, and these shift over time, as its relations to the rest of the world change.  Alternatively, it has become common to think of places as ‘assemblages’ (of materials, resources, bodies, ideas, perceptions, historical traces, etc). I can’t help feeling that there is something centripetal in all this: an underlying emphasis on places as acted upon, shaped by the ‘outside’; place as an outcome or result.

But what if we also consider the possibility that some places are more obviously centrifugal. This is one perspective taken by AbdouMaliq Simone, in his (2018) book Improvised Lives, on a series of deprived parts of cities (mostly) in the global South. Such areas are populated by people, activities and things, but their constituent parts aren’t necessarily in tension, conflict or harmony – they more obviously don’t really speak to each other.  People end up there without actively wanting to be there; they function most evidently as ‘platforms’ from which people depart to go about their daily life elsewhere in the city. Things and activities share the space, but largely because there’s nowhere else for them to be. This isn’t place as a coming together, so much as an arbitrary and unenthusiastic coexistence. (I’d do Simone’s ideas more justice if I could have another look at his book – but that’s in my office at work, and not so accessible due to lockdown.)  One analogy that came to my mind was of magnets being forced together so that the same poles are touching.  The two magnets are copresent because they have to be, even though each is oriented towards being elsewhere.

So I was playing with the idea of Dungeness as being a somehow centrifugal place.  One of its key features is an old lighthouse. Lighthouses send out signals to warn people away; they signify a place where you don’t want to be. Sitting in juxtaposition is a nuclear power station.  Nuclear power stations tend to be built in places where very few people want to live; they send energy to elsewhere.  The landscape itself is hardly hospitable: no trees, salt, rocks, sea cabbages.  In fact, the place is full of bad omens: rusting machinery and rotting boats; a sign warns of artillery fire on the beach at certain times; all the roads nearby are bordered with barbed wire; a sign warns that the water there is “deep and cold”. It all shouts at you: This is no place for you to be.  

But all these things are there, together. It’s a very distinctive place, but has no coherence; it is repulsive in a literal sense.  Do we find it so alluring specifically for this reason?  Anyway, a couple of hours there was plenty for me. I wish I’d booked a tour of the nuclear reactor, though.

London, 27 August 2020

Everybody seems to be speculating about the ongoing implications that social distancing will have on urban life. So I thought I’d look at Edward T. Hall’s book, The Hidden Dimension, published in 1969, and seen as the foundational work on the topic of what he called ‘proxemics’.  The ideas first sketched out here have come to influence lots of fields – anybody learning to make films, for example, will be taught all about ‘character proxemics’ (how to position actors and objects in relation to each other), and ‘camera proxemics’ (the effects of having different distances between the camera and the subject). But I hadn’t heard of this book, until I saw it mentioned in a student essay that I was marking.

Hall drew on his research among middle-class white North Americans, to identify four categories of distance (intimate, personal, social and public), each with a ‘close’ and ‘far’ phase:


Close phase (direct contact)

  • The distance of comforting, protecting, sexual relations, wrestling, etc.  Smell and body heat are important alongside vision of small details. Speech typically takes place through whispers.

Far phase (6-18 inches)

  • Still possible to detect smells and body heat.  Conversational volumes are low. Tactics are needed to deal with situations (eg a packed train) which force us to be this close to strangers.


Close phase (1.5 – 2.5 feet)

  • Still possible to touch or hold the other person. A person might feel jealous or suspicious if they saw their partner holding a conversation with somebody at this distance.

Far phase (2.5 – 4 feet)

  • “At arms length” – just outside easy touching distance. Often used to discuss personal topics.

Social distance

Close phase (4 – 7 feet)

  • Common for discussing impersonal business; typical distance between office workers’ seats; or between people at a networking event, etc

Far phase (7-12 feet)

  • “Can be used to insulate or screen people from each other” – the distance at which people can share space without feeling the need to converse. The finer details of people’s faces are lost.

Public distance

Close phase (12-24 feet)

  • roughly the distance between most audience members and a speaker in a small meeting or seminar. Grammar and syntax tend to be more formal than at closer distances. Possibility of easy escape.

Far phase (25+ feet)

  • “the distance that is automatically set around important public figures”. Amplified or exaggerated forms of speech. Body language becomes more important than the details of facial expression.

Hall is keen to emphasise that these distances differ across cultures (in fact, the main aim of his book is to suggest that we should pay more attention to cultural differences when designing the built environment, to avoid problematic forms of overcrowding).  Others since then have tried to measure such cultural/spatial differences more systematically – see eg Sorokowska et al (2017), who also distinguish between men and women’s preferences.

Anyway, the UK’s current regime of 2-metre (or 1-metre?) distancing places all face-to-face interaction outside Hall’s ‘personal’ distance range. I’ve been noticing how uncomfortable I’ve felt recently when conversations take a more personal turn (eg gossiping with a neighbour, or establishing rapport with a shopkeeper), but I and my interlocutor have to stay outside each other’s personal spatial zone. Or that I have to repeat what I’ve said because I’ve been speaking at a low volume, appropriate to the casual subject matter, but not to the physical distance. I feel less obliged generally to enter into informal conversation with others when I’m standing further away than usual (with face masks seeming to amplify the effect even more).

Perhaps that seems obvious.  In parallel, though, I was thinking about how I feel when reading this sort of text– it feels somehow typical of a certain genre of earnest non-fictional (but not academic) book published in the 1960s. I’m sure it would be slated if published today. Hall’s argument often proceeds on the basis of personal anecdotes and generalisations that might cause offence. He makes ambitious speculative leaps between different fields of enquiry, but leaves all sorts of assumptions unchallenged. Some of the ideas he draws on have been widely discredited; other points seem blindingly obvious to a 21st-century reader.  To my eyes, the discussion rambles in places, and lines of argument remain painfully underdeveloped. I might even say it’s not worth reading – except out of a sort of historical curiosity.

And yet, I rather like this type of project, where somebody is sketching out a brand new field, struggling enthusiastically to give written form to an idea for the first time.  I also enjoy the way that Hall’s writing style and points of reference feel a little alien after 50 years, even though the social issues he’s grappling with have contemporary resonance.  He takes aim at car-dependent built environments, and reflects intelligently on the links between urban design and social deviancy and unrest. He deals in presumptive categories and stereotypes, but these allow him to forward a progressive argument against the tendency to treat ethnic minorities as “recalcitrant, undereducated, middle-class Americans of northern European heritage instead of what they really are: members of culturally differentiated enclaves with their own communication systems, institutions, and values”.  He flags up the implications of new communications technologies; he speculates on the role that computing might play. And the activities and settings are all very familar.  His evidence base is populated by characters who work in offices, sit at cafés, travel on the train, have guests over for dinner, speak to each other on the telephone. A recognisable everyday social life that we lost, all of a sudden, at the end of February.

It leaves me wondering whether 2020 will turn out to be the year when the twentieth century finally ended.

London, 28 February 2020


Hall, E.T. (1969). The Hidden Dimension. New York: Anchor Books

Sorokowska, A., Sorokowski, P., Hilpert, P., Cantarero, K., Frackowiak, T., Ahmadi, K., Alghraibeh, A. M., Aryeetey, R., Bertoni, A., Bettache, K. et al. (2017) Preferred interpersonal distances : a global comparison. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(4): 577- 592.

There are obvious difficulties in trying to separate out some kind of objective essence of any phenomenon from the words we use to talk about it: the way we name and frame things is part of their reality. And, in the early days of the Coronavirus crisis, as it gradually began to infect every conversation, the discursive dimensions of its spread were evidently as ‘real’ as its terrifying material ones.

The conversation has moved on since then. I’ve been struck by the way that its most recent discursive phase seems to have had certain overtones which – amid all the fear and worry – might be described as somehow celebratory.  “This is what I’ve been saying all along,” crow the commentators, “COVID-19 has made the truth visible to all!”

Perhaps all major crises are perceived and narrated as having this agency.  But it’s interesting that metaphors of illumination appear so prominently in what is being written. In recent days, I have read about how COVID-19 is shining a light – and often a spotlight – on all manner of varied issues: our unequal housing system; the fractures in global politics; violations inside Qatar’s labour camps; international energy inequality; the inadequacy of statutory sick pay; US economic inequality; the life-saving potential of wearable health tech; water and sanitation challenges; the perils of insecure work; the conditions in our jails; the nature of the science advice system in the UK; and our common humanity and shared vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, it has exposed the “ugly truth about celebrity culture and capitalism”, alongside inequalities in the UK’s food system, and provided a “rare moment of clarity, when we finally recognise how much we owe to the low-paid ‘key workers’”.  It eclipses Greta Thunberg’s influence on reducing carbon emissions; and illuminates “the importance of addressing another looming health emergency: climate change”.

Elsewhere, I learn that COVID-19 reveals the ongoing importance of the nation state; our dread of a shift towards a new world order; national cultural differences; China’s weakness in handling public health crises; the need to bridge the digital divide; the failings of the EU; the fragility of rugby’s finance; our problematic reliance on single-use plastic; the shortcomings of traditional manufacturing and food supply chains; the broken nature of America’s economy; Bitcoin’s broken infrastructure. Indicatively, some have described it as one of the Plagues envisaged in the Book of Revelation. I could go on – and you can add your own examples.

Anyway, it would seem that the virus is very busy showing and teaching us things. We defer to its illuminatory powers. But this is a strange type of light: it casts no shadows. Though irrefutable, measurable, and ubiquitous, it’s not straightforwardly or objectively ‘out there’: it runs through us, and is always shaped by human actions. It tells us whatever truths we want to hear; and yet all these truths seem to co-exist harmoniously. This seems like a very twenty-first century type of enlightenment.

I just wanted to capture this moment in our relation to the Coronavirus (or a pattern, at least, in the way that media commentators are feeding off it). I think it’ll be interesting to look back at how the framings and metaphors used in the global conversation have shifted over time.

Meanwhile, Happy Easter.

London, stuck at home, 12 April 2020

Two vignettes from a fieldtrip with undergraduates to Southern Spain.

Remarkably, until 40 years ago nobody had any idea that the Roman amphitheatre in Cartagena existed: it was covered with houses. I asked our guide whether, even retrospectively, there had been any clues of any kind.  Perhaps a muffled reference to its existence in a folk song, or children’s rhyme; perhaps some submerged meaning in a local place name.  But there was nothing. Not even a trace of a memory. 

Res non verba

On a different day, we visited Sunseed eco-village, near the village of Sorbas. For me, this seemed to be as ‘experimental’ as you can get. It makes no claims to be self-sustaining: funding comes from the EU and their various educational programmes. It’s run on an explicit philosophy of learning by doing. People try things out, contributing any notes and thoughts to a now extensive archive – but nobody really goes back to study that systematically. Things work for as long as people take an interest in them. Although the project has been running for 30 years, there are no ‘old-timers’. In fact, people usually only stay for a few months. Nor does it have a fixed constitution to which residents have to adhere.  There is a ‘rule book’ which new arrivals have to sign – but these rules change over time depending on what the current set of residents agree on. 

Andalusia, 21 February 2020

When I was starting my PhD, back in 2011, a friend asked “So where are these eco-cities then?” I was a bit stumped. What was it that I was actually studying? Something that didn’t really exist? Would I just be doing a kind of journalistic work, delivering easy critiques of inflated rhetorical claims? Anyway, I soon realised that the more interesting questions lay elsewhere. But I’ve remained keen to find out more about urban developments using this sort of terminology to describe themselves.

Relatedly, I noticed some of the newer local train maps in Kuala Lumpur include a station named ‘Eco City’ or ‘KL Eco City’, sometimes followed by ‘(Coming Soon)’. So, of course, I went to investigate.

It turns out this is a new high-rise development, accommodating a new shopping centre, offices, and residential towers. It’s being delivered by a public-private sector partnership between Kuala Lumpur City Hall and KP Setia (a large Malaysian company, and one of the main backers of the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station in London).

The shopping centre has been open for just under a year, and is still filling up its retail units. But when the connector bridges are open, it will be the third in a row of three shopping centres, making it possible to walk all the way from MidValley to Abdullah Hukum train stations without stepping into the non-air conditioned world outside.

There didn’t seem to be anything evidently ‘eco’ about it at first glance.  The official website casually refers to the new residential blocks as ‘sustainable’ – but that’s about it.  After a little more internet searching, a few more credentials emerged. A press release-style article in the national Star newspaper describes its underlying philosophy of “Live Learn Work Play in an urban setting”, and its aim “to be the country’s first integrated Green development targeting both the Malaysian Green Building Index (GBI) and US-based Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications.” It is certainly well connected to public transport – but also to the multi-laned road/motorway system running all around it. Unsurprisingly, its promoters don’t dwell on the fact that the Haji Abdullah Hukum kampung (‘village’) was flattened to make space for it.

Kampung Haji Abdullah Hukum in 2007 (Photo credit: Two hundred percent, CC BY-SA 3.0)

So how should we think about this ‘eco-city’ development? KL Eco-City may not presage a new transformative era of urban sustainability (if anything, it catalyses the structural forces that continue to lead us in the opposite direction). But I think it’s easy to overlook the immense difficulties of getting anything built in the real world – particularly a huge complex such as this. An optimist might argue that it could have been worse: at least they are applying for green building accreditation and investing in public transport.

What interests me, though, is what it says about the trajectory of the ‘eco-city’ concept (and at this stage I would humbly refer you to my recent book chapter on the topic, which is full of further references). The big picture is that an originally radical idea has gradually been compromised as it has entered mainstream thinking and practice around urban development. What you’re left with is little more than the eco-city as real-estate marketing strategy (increasingly only associated with large developments in East Asia): a way of using green credentials to facilitate planning permissions, help shape an urban ‘brand’, add to public acceptability and market value. But what’s fascinating about the KL example is that it barely even tries to promote its green credentials as evidence of its eco-city status.  The eco-city as an almost entirely ‘empty’ label.

And yet this linear story, of a hopeful idea being gradually absorbed into ‘business as usual’, isn’t the only one we can tell. I’d see the eco-city as having always been defined by a multiplicity of heterogeneous practices. Rather than searching for the eco-city as a fully formed urban place, and evaluating what we find against utopian criteria, we can see it as one of many loose labels which come and go, but at least facilitate different types of experimentation and innovation. Some of this innovation may be very modest in its aims; much of what emerges may barely differ from what would happen anyway. It’s not just the case that the hopeful, grass-roots vision of the eco-city has been usurped by the corporate megaproject, but rather than all sorts of varied eco-urban goals and activities continue to co-exist, whether or not they use the eco-city label, or even use the spatial framing of the ‘city’.

In this particular case, it seems a real shame that the KL Eco-City project has (so far) made no obvious attempt to take advantage of one key asset. I think the Klang River, which runs directly beside it, could easily be turned into a more pedestrian- and wildlife-friendly environment – even given the risk (I imagine) of regular flooding. Still, it seems that a group of local residents (the ‘Friends of Sungai Mid Valley’) regularly cleans up the area.

Perhaps we might argue that this clearing-up activity shouldn’t be left to volunteers. But perhaps this group has sprung into action precisely because the river environment has been further degraded by the KL Eco-City development; perhaps both these activities draw on a growing, broader sensibility that cities can be more environmentally friendly. Clearly, the power relationship between the Friends of Sungai Mid Valley and the combined forces of an international property developer and KL City Hall isn’t a symmetrical one. But I think it’s more generative to start by thinking of all this as dynamically interconnected, rather than only in oppositional ‘good guy/bad guy’ terms.

Section of the Klang River, running beside KL Eco City

Kuala Lumpur, 1 August 2019

In all sorts of places in the centre of Moscow, I feel that I’m looking at streetscapes which I can only describe as ‘dreamy’.

On the one hand, this is probably just to do with the more monumental parts of the city causing flashbacks to half-remembered Stalinist propaganda films which I’ve seen over the years.

On the other, though, I think it’s because there has been such a mind-boggling amount of renovation work going on here recently. I find myself walking along streets full of perfectly restored buildings, painted in beautiful pastel colours, freshly laid tarmac, brand new pavements. It’s hard to capture this in pictures, but here are a few that might give a rough idea.

It might also be something to do with the Italian influence on the older architecture, which brings this sort of utopian image to mind:

Strangely enough, the dreamy feeling reminds me most of my reaction to Poundbury, the new extension to the town of Dorchester in the UK (you can easily read about that elsewhere), which I visited for the first time earlier this summer. Here are a few Poundbury shots:

In most other respects, though, I can report that Moscow and Poundbury tend towards dissimilarity.

Moscow, 13 July 2019

As part of the ongoing and remarkably extensive programme of beautifying central Moscow, an amphitheatre-style seating area (‘Яма’ – ‘the pit’) has been created around a section of the ancient city walls on Khokhlovskaya Ploshchad. It has become a very popular place for young people to socialise and drink alcohol.

This is interesting because drinking alcohol in public has been strictly forbidden in Moscow for the last few years. But it’s tolerated at Яма – a public space set aside for deviant behaviour.

I’d say this sort of liminal space or zone is quite common in cities: it’s probably easier to maintain public order by providing a specific spatial outlet for a given transgression, rather than prevent it happening anywhere. But what I found surprising here is that there is simultaneously a very heavy visible police presence in and around the ‘pit’. Yesterday evening, for example, there was one pair of policemen standing in the middle, another pair walking around the edge, six tough-looking guys in combat outfits, and two large police vans.

One conclusion, drawn also from my wider walks around Moscow, is that there is no shortage of police here: I’m sure the Metropolitan Police in London would be very happy to have so much manpower at their disposal. But also it struck me that what you could call ‘securitised-transgressive’ public space is an interesting ‘type’ that I’ve not read about before. (Perhaps the nearest thing I can think of back home is a music festival with lots of regulations and security checks.)

And I think this space has become so well-known in Moscow (and widely discussed) is precisely because it is full of contradictions and tensions. It always seems to me that the ‘publicness’ of space doesn’t relate to some notion of ‘freedom’, but rather describes, and is constituted by, ambiguities, processes of juxtaposition, and shifting contestations. The most ‘public’ of spaces, in other words, are ones which you’d expect not to work well at all.

Moscow, 13 July 2019

A quick post to announce two new publications.

First, a chapter on ‘Eco-Cities’ in the Handbook of Urban Geography published by Edward Elgar, edited by Tim Schwamen and the late Ronald van Kempen. This outlines the various ways that this term is used, the history of the practices associated with it, and an overview of critical perspectives on it. I haven’t got hold of a copy of the whole handbook yet, but it looks like a fine compendium. Detailed contents can be seen on the publisher’s website.

Second, a short position piece on the question of whether we should colonise Mars. I think about this question through the lens of ‘Martian Rights’, including the rights of Mars itself. This forms part of a collection of themed articles entitled ‘To Mars, the Milky Way and Beyond: Science, Theology and Ethics Look at Space Exploration’, in the journal Theology and Science. You can find it here.

Full references and the abstract for the Mars article are shown below. If you want to read either, but can’t access them, get in touch and I can send you a pdf of the relevant ‘accepted manuscript’ (ie almost final version).

Cowley, R. (2019). Eco-Cities. In Schwanen, T. & van Kempen, R. (eds.) Handbook of Urban Geography. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp.725-750. ISBN: 978-1785364594

Cowley, R. (2019). Yes, We Earthlings Should Colonize Mars if ‘Martian Rights’ Can Be Upheld. Theology and Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1080/14746700.2019.1632521


I argue that programmes of Mars colonization might usefully be guided by a consideration of “Martian Rights”. I outline four categories of possible rights which would need to be guaranteed, depending on the precise nature of the colonization: those directly transferable from existing human rights, new rights, rights in need of modification, and the rights of Mars itself. Debates over Martian Rights should not be deferred until the technological challenges of supporting human life on Mars have been resolved. Rather, they have the potential to usefully inform the development of relevant space technologies.

London, 5 July 2019


“It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves”

Robert Ezra Park (1950), p.249.

On the first day of my visit to Trondheim, I was keen to seek out its ‘bike lift’. This has been keenly promoted, and reported on, as a shining example of innovative urban infrastructure.  It seems significant that its narrative setting is a Scandinavian city: praise for the bike lift resonates easily with a widespread discursive idealisation of Scandinavian cities as beacons of liveability, social equity, good design, functionality, and so on.  It seems common for people to make sense of our own countries’ failings by constructing Scandinavia as a non-dysfunctional/utopian ‘other’.

How does this bike lift work? Well, a metal groove runs up a steep hill in the centre of the town (see picture above). You sit on your bike with your right foot on a sort of shark’s fin that moves upwards, pushing you and your bicycle to the top.  I believe that using it takes some practice. Like the vast majority of people trying it, I failed.

What interested me was the way that so many people were not only dutifully paying homage to this iconic innovation, but also seemed to express a sort of gleeful pleasure (mixed in with embarrassment) when they discovered that its reality didn’t match up to the hype.  In this sense, visiting the bike lift seemed to illustrate something much broader about our experiences when we visit places.  Unless we are able somehow to arrive in a place with no knowledge or visual images of it at all, our instinct is first to seek out those phenomena (in the city, perhaps a cathedral, a famous square, a tower, an atmosphere, a way of dressing, a type of food…) which play a dominant role in some kind of external image of that place.  This is not to say that a coherent, singular image of a place will be specifiable – we should expect the image, rather, to be multiple, contradictory, fragmented, contested.  Still, the visitor is positioned as a sort of deferential pilgrim.  We eagerly comply with this role, but simultaneously delight in finding ways in which our expectations go unmet (for better or worse). “It’s nothing like the way it looks in the film!”, we furtively joke to our companions. “There are a lot of fast food restaurants for a city renowned for its haute cuisine!”, we proudly note. “Nobody talks about all the ugly sprawl outside the historic centre!” we smirk, while attempting to keep that sprawl outside the frame of our own photos.

I was thinking about this because I was reading Erving Goffman’s well-known book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, first published in 1959 (the quotation from Park above is taken from it).  Goffman explores our complex performances when we deal with each other, through the use of words, rituals, clothes, and material settings. We often adjust our own performances in deference to the way that others present themselves, in the spirit of social harmony and cooperation.  At the same time, we are secretly keen to see through other people’s masks; we are delighted when any verbal or non-verbal clues seem to give us insights into some other ‘real’ person hidden behind the persona.

It turns out that Goffman’s model (to which I haven’t done justice here) has already been used to think about contemporary ‘city branding’ (see eg Zavattaro 2013). But I was interested in the Park quotation specifically.  If person comes from ‘persona’, might there be some kind of equivalent idea – something around duplicity, masks, etc – lurking somewhere in the etymological history of ‘place’? I’m always suspicious when definitions of concepts rest on etymological evidence. But it’s fun at least, and sometimes revealing.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid to say that my dictionary searches didn’t uncovered anything startling. I already knew that place comes via Latin from πλατεία (οδός) – ‘broad (road)’ – and so in Modern Greek ‘πλατεία’ means ‘square’, and we have ‘piazza’ in Italian, ‘plaza’ in Spanish, ‘plaats’ in Dutch, etc.  ‘Place’ also has a particular historical meaning as a ‘battlefield’. That’s all not much help, but it does at least underline the relational nature of place: a location defined in terms of convergences from elsewhere. The common thread across the different contemporary uses of the verb ‘to place’, meanwhile, is to relate an entity to a setting.

Perhaps a little more interestingly, all this relationality is interwoven with a strong sense of normative ordering: place variously refers to “position or standing in an order or scale or estimation or merit”; “rank”; “a proper or appropriate position”; the correct seat at a dining table; “a position occupied by habit, allotment, or right”, etc. But this doesn’t really add up to the type of juicy etymological finding that I was looking for.

Still, I think Goffman’s framework does seem to have a useful application to the way we relate to places as visitors. And, more broadly, to the way images of places are co-created by insiders and outsiders. It reminds us that even a relatively stable ‘place image’ belies, on the one hand, all the ongoing work being done by insiders ‘behind the scenes’ to craft this image, and, on the other, the continual enthusiasm on the part of outsiders to see through it.

Trondheim, 20 June 2019


Goffman, E. (1990) [1959]. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin.

Park, E. R. (1950). Race and Culture. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Zavattaro, S. M. (2013) Expanding Goffman’s Theater Metaphor to an Identity-Based View of Place Branding. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 35:4, 510-528.

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