This piece provides an introduction to the essay

Urban Terroir - despite increasing globalisation, certain cities retain a unique sense of place. Is it possible to create a portrait of a city?


The essay can be download in full in PDF here.

The notion that London 'feels' like London, that there is something that makes New York quintessentially New York, that Tokyo is uniquely Tokyo is something that most people have some affinity with. Our need to compare and categorise seems such a fundamental part of how we define ourselves, whether it's a way to differentiate villages only a few miles apart or vast metropolis' in opposite hemispheres. 'People walk faster here', 'the sirens sound wrong', 'why aren't there any proper bakeries?' - the characteristics that people use to define what makes (city) feel like (city) are bound up with how they define themselves. TheUrban Terroir project is an exploration of the idea of a city portrait, a portrait not of the residents of the city, nor a portrait taken by its residents, but a portrait of the city itself. 

I have a sense of what 'my' London looks and feels like, but I was interested in using this project to explore whether there was something outside of the subjective experience of city, an <gasp> objective representation of place.

The project consisted of two pieces of comparative analyses, one based around data, one around the visual. The data analysis would look at urban grain, systems and economy, the visual analysis, representations of city through different digital image platforms.

From the first decision as to what data to look at, and where to source that data from, the idea of any kind of objective representation was waved a fond farewell as it drifted off into the sunset... 

This is a comparison of factors that I chose to represent urban grain.

It might be subjective, but the idea of using data to draw the 'shape' of the city is fairly beguiling.  The data is as 'official' as I could source (Government Census, Bureau of Statistics, etc) but as soon as I chose which factors to plot, the order in which they were  tabled and how the units were rescaled to allow them to sit on the same graph I was shaping the visual representation of the data.

The visual analysis developed late in the project, in one of those rare and welcome moments when how I was thinking about representations of cities wrote its own visual methodology. My experience of cities is one of iterative experience, impression builds on impression, experience on experience, and I know that my experience is unique to me. So how to replicate this process in an 'objective' way?

What I chose was to source images from three of the most well-known photo and image locations, Google images, Instagram and Flickr, using the name of the city as the search term. 

The first ten results that were returned were then overlaid with a reduced opacity to allow the images to show through one another.

For me, the way in which 'iteration' and the subjective/objective conversation is played in so many aspects of this methodology s hugely satisfying. I choose the platform, the platform chooses the images to deliver. The results are determined by an algorithm, the algorithm is written by an individual. The internet is freely available to all, all who are economically, culturally and technologically capable of accessing it.

Tokyo.jpg

The final part of the project was completed with Simon Saint who took the concept and automated the process using the Google Custom Search API (and spent many hours working out a way to get around the API's pesky 100-returns/day limit.) I'm very grateful to be in a position to have someone who offers suggestions as to what else we could do instead of asking 'why would you want to do that?'

This automation seemed fundamental not just to reinforce the subjective/objective divide, but also because the image created is intrinsically linked to the time of its creation. The search results returned aren't static. New images are uploaded, older images might be deleted, the algorithm determining the ranking might change or evolve.  

The resulting programme can be viewed at CITY on CITY.