The Concept City: Reflections

As the midpoint of the semester zooms by (we only have four weeks of classes left here at the University of Edinburgh!), I thought it would be wise to think a bit on what I’ve already experienced and studied, looking at the posts I’ve already made and ahead to the topics I’ve yet to study. The first half of this course, dubbed “The Concept City,” focused mainly on the theoretical studies of space, including how historical context, topography, and culture influence uses and perceptions of space and place. My goal was to gain a solid grounding in theories of ‘the urban’ and also to get to know this city of Edinburgh a little better, in order to create a foundation upon which the second half of my time here will be built (architectural pun intended?).

In general, I can definitely say that I am very comfortable with Edinburgh as a pedestrian in the city. I’ve yet to take a bus to get anywhere within the city, though I have used the bus system to get to and from other cities, so my main experience of Edinburgh has been on foot. I know street names, general directions and locations, and some very specific ones, such as university buildings, grocery stores I frequent, and even random buildings and flats with which I’ve become acquainted mainly through my church or Christian Union events. I know the streets around the City Centre, especially the Old Town and some of New Town, enough to be comfortable saying I live here in Edinburgh. Perhaps I feel I have earned my stripes. Or at least a few.

The first couple weeks of being here, my studies in actually all of my classes focused very heavily on establishing an accurate context, constructing – and correcting – the lens through which I view Scotland, Edinburgh, and, more specifically, the study of the urban whilst I’m here. I discovered very quickly how fascinating Edinburgh’s architectural history is, especially with its juxtaposition of the Old and New Towns, and how this layout speaks directly to the creation of urban spaces throughout history and today. It was fascinating to read about the theoretical making of space – how academics talk about the ways our environments influence and are influenced by our occupation of them – and then get out and do a little participant observation of sorts. Being out on the ground was a powerful way for me to see the city; it forced me to really contemplate how my position as a visiting, foreign, international, American, student, short-term resident affected the way I experienced the spaces around me. My other classes certainly, and very quickly, fed my critical eye, making even a simple walk up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle an exercise in visual criticism and analysis.

Being familiar with the city is important for the next half of my time here, as I will be engaging with more narrative and visual aspects of how we use and encounter space. The critical approach to which I have been introduced over the course of the semester will become increasingly important yet subtle, as my posts and reflections shift from theoretical musing more to practical and narrative experiences such as my readings will guide me. In readings on autoethnography and the ethnographer’s perspective of foreign places and cultures, I have already discovered the care with which we must approach things like portraits of others (and even moreso “the other”) or entering into colloquial spaces for the sake of academic inquiry. What that means in theory and practice, I will be discovering in the coming weeks. And I cannot wait!

One point I would like to raise before this new section, “The Lived City” (which is very much for me the visualized city), is my belief that something need not have convoluted academic diction and complicated theoretical ideas to be highly critical. Social commentaries, for example, are often most potent when presented as narratives or things like cartoons and film. In a similar vein, my posts from here on out may seem less “academic” – which may mean for some (myself included) they are more comprehensible – but be wary of assumptions based on appearances. I speak to myself here as much as anyone when I remind us all that images speak loudly and intentionally, stories always exist in larger contexts and can be revealing in sometimes shocking ways, and experience never happens for the sake of experience.

That being said, let’s see how this goes.

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