Urban Experiments

Cities are intense sites of social experimentation. Our Urban Experiments integrative theme explores city processes of cultural, material and mobile change that affect us all.

Convenor: Prof Sophie Watson
Email: sophie.watson@open.ac.uk

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) we have now entered the ‘urban millennium’, with more than half the world’s population now living in cities. This is of great significance for research on socio-cultural change because cities have tended to be sites of novel mixing and innovation, contestation and diversity, as well as for the display of hierarchy and symbolic authority.

Cities concentrate, display and accentuate difference, diversity, inequality and trends in politics, providing opportunities for social and policy experiment and more spontaneous forms of social organisation. In this sense cities are social experiments in action.

Urban differences

However, despite the apparently common experience of urbanisation, we need to be careful in the ways that we treat this phenomenon: not all cities are the same and despite common trends in the movement of people and goods under the impact of ‘globalisation’ the experience of different groups in different cities can clearly be highly variable.

There are obvious physical differences between cities on the level of size, structure and geographical location, wealth, the quality of existing infrastructure and so on.

There are also more intangible cultural differences, both in the broadest sense but also at the more specific level of institutional memory and long-term experience of particular governmental problems.

At the same time, despite these differences, it is clear from our research that cities old and new actively seek to learn from one another in order to address what they perceive as common or at least complementary problems.

In order to understand the impact of urbanisation and the nature of urban life in cities old and new, large and small, we need to carry out empirical research that is both comparative and historical, able to engage with commonality, continuity and difference across time and space.

Early focus

In the first period of research in Urban Experiments we concentrated our focus on two strands of research, city cultures and city materialities, maintaining particular interests in the material and cultural manifestations of difference and attempts to shape mobility through the urban environment.

This led to research into a range of areas including religious cultures and attachments, multicultural suburbs, and street market as spaces of diversity and public space.

In the final year of the (Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) we continued to pursue an interest in these dimensions of urban life, but we also began to draw together the material and cultural aspects of the city and explore the ways in which these different facets are inter-related.

We pursued this research through projects on urban ecologies, particularly on the role of water in the city In shaping urban sites and conducted (with Thames Water and Groundwork) a study of different patterns of household water consumption practices. We also developed new interests in urban security and its histories, charting not only the ways in which cities present particular security problems for individuals and government, but also the ways in which cities have been shaped through security concerns.