Tag Archives: geography

Changing the Environment

The topic of the “smart city” is one that is cropping up over and over again in various streams and sources, as much a sign of the rapidly urbanising times as of how technology is striding ahead purposefully in the city, albeit in a much different way to development in the countryside.
An interesting and captivating article on the BBC News website from September 2013 is a typical example. It highlights the various ways in which residents of some of Brazil’s favelas use a combination of simple (kite) and new (smartphone and camera) technologies to map out and instigate change in their communities. Much of the new technology associated with smartphones in particular seems to fit snugly into the environments of these dense social worlds, and it would appear that the people living there are by themselves able to modify and improve their surroundings by simple means, rather than by edict from above.
Nevertheless, one interesting facet that appears time and time again is that at some stage, no matter how intricate the technology, there is always a human node, a gatekeeper perhaps, or at the very least a transition stage through which the information has to pass, and who consequently and inevitably has an impact on the form and shape of the data passing through. Information is selected, favoured, filtered as it flows: all these macroscopic changes that are seen at the end of the day come from microscopic inputs and manipulations along the way.
It is at this stage that once again technology intersects with psychology, economics, and geography, and is presumably the reason why even an identical technical solution in one location is bound to have a very different flavour when applied to another. Changes start at this microscopic level and then propagate outwards: after all,  how can individuals change the flow of a city in a substantial way? By moving away from a roundabout, spreading news about congestion, proposing or crowdsourcing an easier route, anything that will change people’s behaviour might be said to influence the currents of a metropolis. By logging in at a specific place, a reference, a rapid dispersion of a key event, this might trigger further steps and stops down the line, if only enough connections are fired up.
In cancer there is talk of a microenvironment, and if you want to influence the tumor it is really necessary to focus on what goes on at the microenvironment level rather than just the systemic (with therapies to match). The interaction between individuals and the environment is not that different: there are systemic changes that will influence all city-dwellers (e.g., the weather: some more, some less), and then local/microenvironmental changes (street-related, drain-related, connections, internet, maintenance) that have an impact on groups, how individuals interact with groups, and consequently how localities shift. Most normally I suspect that this results in local oscillations, and minor changes in a specific locale do not have much of an impact on neighbouring areas, let alone spaces on the other side of a metropolis.
Sometimes, however, an idea might catch hold and spill over from one region to another. Again there is an analogy in the natural world: systems that change might reach a critical mass, a certain power and influence that by its very nature causes a shift away from equilibrium in spatially distant zones. And here again is the key influence of the human element: any geography story always contains elements that can be used in a human story, the psychogeography, trying to pinpoint and define specific focal points, corners, familiar pavements that serve as anchors for an individual. Unlike what is normally found in physical systems there are dotted lines between individuals, a certain tunnelling of ideas across social and spatial divides, that can distribute change in a multitude of often unexpected ways, and eventually takes over society like a slowly creeping bacterial colony across a petri dish.


Re-visiting a BBC Radio 4 – Start the Week podcast from late last year (28 October 2013) in the context of a story that is in a continual state of creation I was returned once more to the subject of the city, and how the individual interacts with the city.

Three main topics came up that are all inter-related and weave in and out of each other:

  • Seeing the city – Seeing the city when you visit, and when you live in it. You see the city at different levels, you see different layers: different distances, perhaps, as visitors often see the up-close, the grime, the quotidien, whereas locals overlook these, at a different height, blending out the noise (different signal-to-noise ratio).
  • Re-using old buildings, re-purposing: building life, or perception of people living in them? – Are old buildings worth saving? What constitutes the criteria for preserving something? Is it a feeling of an era, something representative, something that fits into a temporal environment? And so when moving out of this frame/window, what happens to the building? Does it become a museum, attracting visitors, or can the building be used again to attract people who will live in it (again, the immersion question)? And how is the feeling of the building perceived, depending on which it will be?
  • Patrimonie, not heritage nor nostalgia – A call to define something that is not heritage (i.e., needs to be preserved as is) or nostalgia (i.e., go back to how they were), but rather that the old becomes incorporated into a library of “things” which the people living through an era, and those coming directly afterwards (since the effect wears off over time), share and can at any time dig into to root themselves, ground themselves, and find a framework.

Overall, the sense is one of what happens when one immerses oneself consciously in a city, beginning to see things that one might not have seen before. Light, layers, a built-up history of settings, buildings, an urban environment in which one is both forever a (transient) visitor as well as a permanent resident, leaving behind a scent, a trail, a kernel of existence.


Rivers and Oceans

The river as a metaphor in terms of passive and active participation in the past, present, and future keeps re-appearing, this time in the context of a discussion heard on a BBC Radio 4 – Start the Week podcast (10 March 2014).

The thrust of the discussant seems to be the need to move away from an idea of history and the future as a river, i.e. with a given course, flowing along, with rapids that need to be navigated, falls that need to be dealt with, and more towards the future as an ocean, with possibilities and opportunities in every direction. The key is to move away from a passive participation, allowing onself to be carried along, and towards active interest and learning.

Digging up the dead

Ironically, this is the third reference to anonymity in a row, although in an entirely different context: “rescuing these soldiers from anonymity.”

I refer to a BBC Radio 4 – Crossing Continents podcast on the volunteers making extraordinary efforts to find the bodies of Russian soldiers fallen during the second World War.

The story touched me both for the emotional aspect as well as the psychogeographical element: there is a strong psychological and historical element regarding where these men fell, how they were “incorporated” into the landscape (i.e., overgrown, intertwined with trees, planted over, lost [actively] in the forest), and how their simple historical reality is reflected in their physical presence in the landscape (literally).

Community and geography

Inspired by a Start the Week podcast from December 2013, I made myself a note before Christmas to spend some time thinking about the lively discussion, which was loosely centered on the idea of an “old-fashioned” community based on geography, and whether this can really be re-created in the current modern world, with its variety of different connections and reasons for connections. As a counter-point, the idea was raised to what extent a community arises from the existence of a common purpose as opposed to simply a physical geography. This is probably especially interesting if the common purpose exists in the face of adversity, and raises a multitude of additional tangential questions:

  • How does one define a community?
  • Who defines a community? Those within it or those from without?
  • Do communities form in physical locales, or do individuals/groups move to a specific locale with the creation of a community in mind?

My particular interest, as might be expected, relates to the psychogeography aspect of this discussion. Psychogeography is also tied to community, but in two different ways. On the one hand, it is tied to community as most of the memories linked to its geography happen in the community, in a shared area that is familiar. On the other hand, however, one of the key points of psychogeography as it has been studied, described, and formulated was to move into the unfamiliar, explore the areas outside the community, or perhaps to better describe it: outside the known community. This generates in my mind an image not just of overlapping communities, but stacks of communities, where sub-groups exist within larger entities, and individuals are defined (and define themselves) as belonging to different circles based on their personality, belief, or other subjective or objective criteria.

An idea for a story that came to mind (related to the additional discourse on the disappearance of the traditional high street) was of a person walking down such a high street, with the narrative focussed on the sensory experience: sights, smells, the overall experience of what made the high street a special place and often a/the central location of a community.

Just in time to save me the effort, a recent Thinking Allowed podcast about the multicultural smells of an East End market in London brought this back again. This kind of sensory description can be used to link different cultures with different locations, different times, and the many layers and waves of immigration and assimilation into big urban centers such as London. And at the core are people such as “Ali the assimilationist hero” who by understanding his customers (from many different backgrounds) is able to stitch together a pathwork of sensory and cultural triggers that not only satisfy each customer individually but make up the rich tapestry of which each individual is a part.

Bodele Depression

As someone interested in geography (and pretty pictures), I used to be on a mailing list run by NASA which showcased the most stunning and intensely thought-provoking satellite images of natural phenomena. One of the images and accompanying stories that has stayed with me since I first saw it years ago was of a region in Chad called the Bodélé Depression.

Although visually striking, what really captivated me was the mechanism behind the combination of wind and earth that is this natural conveyor belt, located at the southern edge of the Sahara, at the lowest point in Chad in central Africa. To quote from Wikipedia:

“Dust storms from the Bodélé Depression occur on average about 100 days per year … [a]s the wind sweeps between the Tibesti and the Ennedi Mountains in Northern Chad, it is channeled across the depression. The dry bowl that forms the depression is marked by a series of ephemeral lakes, many of which were last filled during wetter periods of the Holocene. Diatoms from these fresh water lakes, once part of Mega-Lake Chad, now make up the surface of the depression and are the source material for the dust, which, carried across the Atlantic Ocean, is an important source of nutrient minerals for the Amazon rainforest.”

This last sentence is the frankly rather unbelievable key to the story, and deserves closer scrutiny. In work published in 2006 (and subsequent reports), it was shown that

“…about half of the annual dust supply to the Amazon basin is emitted from a single source: the Bodélé depression located northeast of Lake Chad, approximately 0.5% of the size of the Amazon or 0.2% of the Sahara. Placed in a narrow path between two mountain chains that direct and accelerate the surface winds over the depression, the Bodélé emits dust on 40% of the winter days, averaging more than 0.7 million tons of dust per day. … About 40 million tons of dust are transported annually from the Sahara to the Amazon basin. Saharan dust has been proposed to be the main mineral source that fertilizes the Amazon basin, generating a dependence of the health and productivity of the rain forest on dust supply from the Sahara.”


As an analogy for what a single person or small group of individuals can do in the new era of digital media, this natural phenomenon seems to me to be unsurpassed.