A City in Your Mind: HSE Urbanists on Perceptions of Place and Imagined Neighbourhoods
Associate Professor Kirill Puzanov of the HSE Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism and HSE University Professor Oleg Baevskiy have held lectures at the Red Square Book festival. They talked about perceptions of the city, its private and public aspects, chamber and representative spaces, and imaginary (or ‘vernacular’) areas. The open lectures took place as part of the HSE University Open to the City project.
Kirill Puzanov gave a guided tour of a ‘vernacular’ district. This is a mysterious place which is hard to find on a map—it is your subjective view of the space where you live, and your own idea of its extent and the distance between the objects within it.
‘A vernacular district reflects a resident's belonging to a particular territorial and social community,’ Puzanov explained. ‘Administrative districts are often too large for residents to address their identity to the whole district and feel a sense of belonging to all the processes taking place there.’
Vernacular districts in Moscow are often linked to metro stations, which were usually built on the borders between different administrative areas. As such, intracity vernacular districts may cross the borders not only of municipal districts, but also of administrative districts. For example, the ‘Universitet Metro Station’ vernacular district occupies territory in the Ramenki, Gagarinsky, and Lomonosovsky city districts.
Researchers study vernacular districts using mental maps, asking respondents to describe familiar places and comment on various objects. During his lecture, Kirill Puzanov presented a map of the city that included vernacular districts. It turns out that they do not fill all available space—there are empty spaces between them.
‘As a matter of fact, they don't have to cover the entire city area. This happens from time to time even in cities with an established neighbourhood system. The reason for this is twofold. First, areas without a distinctive image may not form a social community or vernacular neighbourhood around them. Second, it is important to understand that the borders of vernacular neighbourhoods are not a hairline that you cross to enter another reality. They are part of a gradient, a gradually changing environment. So, when we look at the map, we can assume that unallocated areas experience a gravitational pull towards their neighbours, and the right level of development enables an area to be included there over time,’ he explained.
Oleg Baevskiy went deeper into the topic of the relationship between people and the city. Our environment can be represented as a ‘core’, something stable that does not require constant concentration, while the ‘periphery’ is something changeable, mobile and diverse. To regular inhabitants, the ‘core’ is home, the point of reference for private behaviour. It is where we feel at ease and free. The ‘periphery’ includes places such as the city centre or our office. Actions there require tension and attention, creating a sense of urban activity.
‘It is theoretically possible to fully adapt to the “periphery”,’ said Prof. Baevskiy ‘There, city dwellers are interested in everything that is different from the “core”—from themselves. Full adaptation to the “periphery” means a complete loss of oneself, one's individuality. The “core” means no individuality, the “periphery” means no differences from it.’
Exchange between the ‘core’ and the ‘periphery’ is a necessary part of the development of urban dwellers, noted Oleg Baevskiy. Closure and the immutability of the ‘core’ is a falling out of this process, a loss of adaptive properties of the environment. At the same time, a balance is important, because full openness of the ‘core’ causes instability, which threatens the loss of orientation in the social space.
The attractiveness of the city as a whole is influenced by the proportionality of the urban environment to people, its development and safety, cultural identity, and diversity of the environment. Prof. Baevskiy noted that it is possible to expand the diversity of the environment by giving different parts of the territory and facilities their own individuality and uniqueness through names, the external appearance of facilities and their inhabitants, events, etc.
The researcher also spoke about the ‘poles’ of the urban space: which can be representative or chamber, public or private. They define appropriate forms of behaviour and attitudes towards others. For example, we understand how to behave on Red Square and how to behave in the small courtyard of an apartment building. In urban life, certain types of behaviour are consistently associated with spatial configurations and sets of things.
The lectures by the professors of HSE Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism promoted discussion among the audience, which reflects the growing popularity of urbanism as a discussion topic in recent years.
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