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Sensing our need for authentic experiences of cities

Impact case study for REF 2021: Sociology (UoA 21)

We live in cities every day, and we take them for granted. And what we don't consciously think about is that urban environments make us feel in certain ways. We perceive certain places as homely or attractive; other places we experience as ugly or unsafe. My research is about how embodied experiences shape how we engage with cities, and how to plan and design more inclusive public spaces.

Dr Monica Degen

Dr Monica Degen's research has shaped new ways of thinking and has informed new working practices for museum curators, educators, architects and urban planners, who have benefited from her understanding of how sensory and time-related dynamics inform urban design, and the crucial role sensory experiences play in framing people's attachments to places.

"Since the 1980s, urban living has become much more of a financial asset across the globe," said Degen, an urban cultural sociologist at Brunel. "So there's a real drive for cities, from Sao Paolo to Lagos and from London to Paris, to redevelop their city centres into more interesting places to live in and enjoy. And people want to come into cities to be surrounded by a pleasant and exciting environment, lit up at night, and filled with engaging events and experiences."

But this redevelopment can cause tensions because of the way power relations work in cities. For example, as parts of east London become gentrified, the fried chicken shops where young people get together to eat and socialise are targeted for closure by councils, who replace them with coffee shops serving a more middle-class clientele and allow landlords to demand higher rents. One set of smells and noises is replaced by another deemed to have a higher value.

"Once we start recognising how we evaluate public spaces and the social life they promote through the ways we sense the city – the volume of buildings, the smell of traffic or trees in a park, other people talking and brushing past us – we realise that the senses really matter in urban life because they structure how we relate to our surroundings and each other," Degen said.

Viewing cities in this way was the driving factor behind research projects Degen led from 2013, starting with a project funded by ESRC, the UK's Economics and Social Research Council, which analysed the ways in which digital visualisations have changed the design process of cities and their future planning. These are the depictions produced by architectural studios which, her research shows, tend to be selective and narrow in the social life and uses they portray.

Between 2015 and 2017 Degen was funded by AHRC, the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council, to set up an EU-wide network of urban museum curators, urban planners and academics, and which led to a range of new approaches to researching sensory and emotional relations with the city, such as sketching sensory experiences, conducting evocative interviews and analysing social media. These approaches are summarised in a free online toolkit to support museums curators, architects, urban professionals and the general public.

This toolkit has been used to redesign London's Charterhouse Museum interiors and to develop their public engagement programme, which enabled them to win Heritage Lottery Funding. The museums' community engagement programme now puts sensory activities to the fore as a way of making it more likely that hard-to-reach groups would visit the museum or take part in its events.

Other museums that have benefited from Degen's research, incorporating sensory experiences in their curatorial practices and the design of new museum buildings, include the Museum of London, Cologne City Museum and the Centro de Cultura Contemporanea Barcelona.

The Museum of London will move to a new site in the coming years, involving the renovation and redesign of large parts of Smithfield meat market and the surrounding streets. According to the head of the New Museum of London, Degen’s workshops with staff and her research of the area resulted in the incorporation of sensory–temporal considerations in parts of the museum's Interpretation Masterplan, such as the design, experience and usage of the main museum’s entrances.

Balancing tourist desires with the needs of locals is key for Barcelona’s City Council, who used the research methodology from Degen’s toolkit when remodelling the Ramblas, the city’s famous pedestrian boulevard. “Pre-Covid, there were 20 million people a year visiting Barcelona, which is great financially, but locals feel pushed out of their public spaces,” Degen explained. “The council has been thinking how they can redesign the Ramblas so that locals can also enjoy it, and so it doesn’t just become a tourist attraction. Their feasibility studies have been informed by my way of mapping these places sensorially and emotionally.”

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Project last modified 11/05/2022