“…in making the city, man has remade himself.” – Robert Park, quoted by Harvey
Probably one of my favorite urban theories is the idea of recreating the city by living in and engaging with it. David Harvey, a huge proponent and influential theorist of things like the right to the city and the recreation of the city after one’s own image, quotes Park in his piece ‘The Cartographic Imagination: Balzac in Paris,’ as a way to introduce this idea of making and remaking the city. He then goes on to describe Balzac, a nineteenth-century French writer, and his interpretations of Paris through his novels. Through his writing, Harvey argues, Balzac helps constitute the ‘possible worlds’ existing, but often unseen, within the urban fabric surrounding us daily. He creates the city for what it is to him, or his characters, at that moment and for that purpose. The settings are described and concocted according to what he needs them to be.
In a similar way, my time in Edinburgh has created in my cartographic imagination a map this very specific to my experience in Edinburgh. In all my various roles – student, researcher, woman, tourist, American, Scottish-ancestry, Christian – Edinburgh is reconstituted in my mind to fit my purposes and desires. So what does my cartographic imagination have to say about the urban landscape of Edinburgh and how does my interpretation of it affect how you see it? I suppose the latter question is for you to ponder for yourself and me to consider from afar.
I arrived in Edinburgh with the intention of enjoying my time here, learning more about the city and eventually coming to at least understand some of its inner workings (from an urban studies standpoint). However, I realize as time has gone on that my experience of Edinburgh has come to align moreso with Balzac’s approach to Paris: ‘Balzac is out to possess Paris and make it his own’ (Harvey 2001, 67). To ‘possess’ a city and make it your own means to experience it as if it were built for you to understand and explore. The closes are for your enjoyment, the convoluted streets are for your pleasure, the old stone buildings are for your consumption. It means recognizing the street names as guidelines for understanding the general layout that are then allowed to change according to how you experience them; the combinations of letters become imbued with a new sense of purpose when you live them by walking along them and until you do so, the city is incomplete.
Though perhaps not in so many words, I recognize that I indeed wish to make Edinburgh my own because I wish to feel comfortable here – and we are often most comfortable with those things we feel we understand and in which we can have some ownership. Making the city after our own image can sound very selfish, but it is something we all inherently do by mere virtue of existing within the cityscape. My Edinburgh is going to be different from yours – we will share placenames, landmarks, even stories, but our individual experiences are our own. The cartographic imagination is more than the streets and buildings in place: it is those things combined with the experiences lived within and around and through them. It is incredibly individualistic, and it is also very empowering – according to Harvey, Balzac discovered how to annihilate space and time by his mental capacity to ‘internaliz[e] everything [from the city around him] within himself’ (Harvey 71). This annihilation allowed him to experience the city in its totality, simultaneously in its historical, present, and future existence.
Harvey uses the word ‘imagination’ for a reason when describing this process. At risk of becoming so abstract that it feels irrelevant to daily living, he locates this reimagining of the cityscape within the mind of the beholder, if you will. It is all very theoretical, this abolition of space and time, and seems to contradict the idea of living in a concrete urban space. However, because this imagination is cartographic, such terminology makes sense. A map in itself is a sort of simultaneous annihilation and reinforcement of space and time: it fixes a certain place into being as it existed at a certain time while also allowing the ephemeral qualities of space to float across the page as we imagine getting from one place to another (for we can’t very well walk our fingers across a map and actually go anywhere in that moment).
Edinburgh in my cartographic imagination is unique – it is a set of individual and collective experiences gathered during my time in different spaces. It exists within a structure yet it in some ways ignores that structure. I am not being very specific here because I am still figuring out what my map looks like; after all, an imagined cartography is really never complete.
Harvey, David. “The Cartographic Imagination: Balzac in Paris.” Cosmopolitan Geographies:
New Locations in Literature and Culture. Ed. Vinay Dharwadker. New York, London:
Routledge, 2001. 63-87. Print.