City as space, space as phenomenon.

Image by Caribb | flickr.com

Image by Caribb | flickr.com

The idea that your living environment, in this case designed accessibility and city scale, affects your social well-being, happiness, and overall health is nothing new. Urban planners and architects are highly in tune with this insight, devoting their lives to bettering the quality and experience of life. By virtue of being immediately apparent, this idea has had very little exploration in the philosophical realm of phenomenology, a field of study hinging on the postulate that a person is subject to the phenomenon of the objects around them. Phenomenology can be as difficult to conceptualize as it is to pronounce. For example, while we may encounter a cup as being separate from the table upon which it sits both the cup and the table remain indifferent to their own distinctions as separate objects, as well as insensitive to the people upon which they impose such distinctions. In this sense, the objects impose a particular sense of being, of objecthood, upon people who are helplessly drawn into the phenomenon of experiencing the objects in a particular way.

In his book, The Poetics of Space, French philosopher of science, Gaston Bachelard, explored the physical structure of houses and household objects as a phenomenological cause for how human thought is structured. On a larger scale of observation, Georg Simmel, a German thinker, considered the mental influence of cities in his essay The Metropolis and Mental Life. In the essay he makes the case that the speed of movement and life in metropoles steel our mental capacities to cope with the amount of stimulus to which we are exposed daily, a situation in which eccentricity becomes the modus operandi of those seeking to stand out from the crowd. The way we experience space and are shaped by these experiences are undeniably connected to the way a space is designed, and cities are no exception.

It’s no secret among those who know me that I am no fan of major cities, especially Toronto. I was born and raised in Toronto and make a point of emphasizing the second T in the name to falsify my familiarity with the city. No “Toronno” for this born and bred Torontonian. I grew up thinking my city was the centre of the universe, but it wasn’t until I spent a proper year in the small city of Kingston that I discovered the error of my ways. Until urban planning and phenomenology entered my vocabulary, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why Toronto, Seoul, Bangkok, Vancouver, or any other major city I’d experienced put me in a state of unease.

Growing up in Toronto, my friends and I knew that you had to budget anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes to commuting. When you're young this isn’t troublesome in the slightest, but as adults the trouble lies in knowing that time is money. The rare occasions I visit Toronto are now spent juggling social commitments between the two circles of friends that have developed between the uptown and the downtown regions. Demographically speaking, it’s apparent how these divisions came about. On the one hand, friends who typically work in finance or the private sector can afford to live, work, and socialize downtown where all amenities are accessible within 20 minutes. The uptown friends, on the other hand, moved back in with their parents after graduation or found themselves relegated to affordable apartments uptown. Suddenly income and affordability became factors to consider, previous limitations we’ve never had simply being in each other’s company. 

Space, its scale, and accessibility to space — physical and financial — are now pertinent to questions of social justice and sustainable living. In other words, city design is both cause and effect of personal and social well-being, both materially and phenomenologically. I grew up thinking the best of Toronto since I had never known how heterogeneous cities and their living experiences could be. The phenomenon of Toronto living shaped a large part of my identity, so understandably my resentment for the city lies in how successfully it had duped me. My friends and I were all uptown dwellers, going to the same malls, spending the same allowances and meager minimum wage earnings. It wasn’t until most of us moved away to pursue university degrees that a city life outside of the one we knew became possible. Unlike the stark difference between urban and rural living, I don’t think it’s reasonable to claim that the differences between types of urban living are subtler and thus much more insidious.

The phenomenon of living in a particular city neighbourhood is inevitably going to shape the thinking and values that inform an individual’s priorities. Practices and initiatives in sustainability are dreamt of in scales proportional to the values of those involved, but tangibly dependent on financial and physical resources. Take for example why a particular neighbourhood would consider starting up a community garden, and what types of resources are available to bring it into being. Viewing things in a phenomenological light allows for the community garden to be considered as a very particular mental and identity-forming space. It is in careful attention to city design and space that communities and individuals can unknowingly experience the mental phenomenon of just and sustainable space-dwelling.

This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.