Introduction: Creative Urban Methods — Generative and Situated Practices for Researching the City

A Co-Creating Neighborhood Data Interfaces Walk-Shop. Image Courtesy of Utrecht University & Travelling Farm Museum, 2020), see: https://tfmdepot.hotglue.me/workshop.
In their introduction to the Creative Urban Methods dossier, Sigrid Merx, Coco Kanters, Michiel de Lange, and Nanna Verhoeff advocate for revisiting "situated knowledges" and adopting creative approaches for studying the multifaceted nature of contemporary urban life and culture.
[Ed. Note: This article is part of a dossier on Creative Urban Methods.]

With this collection of articles, we aim to explore the merits of creative methods for researching contemporary cities and urban culture. In the context of various social, environmental, and political crises on multiple and intersecting local, global, and planetary scales, it is imperative to understand the contemporary condition of urban living. We believe it is productive to revisit what Donna Haraway has termed “situated knowledges” and to take stock of some current developments in creative methods that offer us tools for generative ways and forms of knowing (about) the city from a situated, embodied, and/or relational perspective.1Donna J. Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575–99.  A growing catalog—or hive, to use a metaphor that emphasizes collaborative and transformative constellations—of new and innovative creative methods for various disciplinary and interdisciplinary urban inquiries demonstrates a wide array of theoretical approaches, critical concepts, and scholarly techniques. These include data walking, performative mapping, experimental ethnography, dramaturgical or interface analysis, and curatorial, or action-based research methods to activate and mobilize innovative approaches to data collection, analysis, and situated forms of knowledge production.2Nanna Verhoeff and Sigrid Merx, “Mobilizing Inter-Mediacies: Reflections on Urban Scenographies in (Post-)Lockdown Cities,” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 5, no. 3 (August 2021): https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2020/08/mobilizing-inter-mediacies.; Nanna Verhoeff, Sigrid Merx, and Michiel De Lange, Urban Interfaces: Media, Art, and Performance in Public Spaces. Special Issue for Leonardo Electronic Almanac (MIT Press) 22, no. 4 (March 2019): https://www.leoalmanac.org/urban-interfaces; Nadia von Benzon, Mark Holton, Catherine Wilkinson, and Samantha Wilkinson, Creative Methods for Human Geographers (London: Sage Publications, 2021). These build on and speak to a multiplicity of disciplines, perspectives, and concepts, enriched in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration. As fundamentally creative urban methods, they are in various ways explorative and experimental, as well as generative and transformative. Moreover, all share a focus on the dynamic character of spatiotemporal and relational structures (and infrastructures) of change and mobility in urban situations, environments, and embodied experiences. Creative urban methods acknowledge the intricate dynamics between research subject and the research object, and reflect on the structures and conditions within which these are embedded.3Iris van der Tuin and Nanna Verhoeff, Critical Concepts for the Creative Humanities (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2022), http://www.rowman.com/webdocs/CriticalConceptsCriticalHumanitiesOA.pdf. Therefore, creative urban methods activate and mobilize the embodied experiences of the researcher, who is (also) a citizen, an academic, an activist, or an artist, etc.4The order of our names does not signify our respective contribution to this text. As authors of this text, we have collaborated closely together and share equal authorship. We wish to thank Elle Zwinkels for her invaluable assistance in editing this collection of essays. We also want to acknowledge the contributions to our work by other colleagues and dialogical partners, specifically those associated with the research group [urban interfaces] and the Open Cities Platform at Utrecht University. In the same vein, we also want to thank all the activists and artistic researchers beyond academia that we have worked with over the years.

This collection of essays on creative urban methods has been written by researchers from various academic disciplines across the humanities, social sciences, and geosciences. The researchers were invited to describe and reflect on their own innovative, experimental, and generative practices of “doing theory” about the city, within the city, and for the city. The essays aim to emphasize the importance of these characteristics and connect them with underlying methodological ambitions and research ethics. While this dossier can only present a selective foray into this field, we hope that the sketched routes inspire methodological exploration, didactic experimentation, and stimulating debates about the design and practices of creative methods in academic, educational, artistic, and other research contexts—specifically about the merits, limitations, and implications of such tools for research, teaching, design, or debate. From such an overarching aim of reflection and inspiration, in preparation for this collocation, we invited the authors (and now also you, as the reader) of this dossier to think through the epistemological and ethical grounding of specific creative methods developed in direct response to particular, situated inquiries that are all, in their specific ways, related to, and responding to various (inter-)local, urban realities. Some of these underlying questions were (in no particular order):

  • What (new) forms of situated, embodied, and/or relational forms of knowledge about urban, public spaces, and experiences can we produce with creative methods?
  • How is the researcher positioned in and by means of creative methods in relation to the situation that is being analyzed? What kind of relations are produced or sustained by these methods?
  • What criteria can we establish for assessing the value and meaning of the knowledge produced with creative methods, and how can they thereby complement or even replace more established, traditional urban research methods?
  • What are the ethico-onto-epistemological values of creative methods for understanding urban situations, positionalities, and experiences?

While all contributors in this collection develop their central research questions around specific, situated urban phenomena, each article proposes not only its own set of concepts and methods in relation to these research questions but also addresses the shared fundamental epistemological and methodological questions about the “why,” and also the “where” and “how” of creative urban methods. The following, from our editorial perspective, introduces and frames these questions.

Why Creative Urban Methods?

Let us start with the “why” of creative methods. From our respective backgrounds in the humanities, social sciences, and geosciences, as contributors to this dossier, we are all interested in new ways of understanding the many intersections of media, technologies, and the various socio-material structures of urban life. Cities today are changing and responding to a myriad of intersecting technological, social, and ecological challenges concerning, for example, processes of digitization, algorithmization, and datafication; concerns around ecological sustainability and climate change; and social frictions around diversity and inclusion, and equality and social justice. While we do not want to dismiss the value of more established research methods and traditions for studying urban life, in the face of such transformations and intersectional challenges we also find an urgency to explore new methods that allow us to ask new and different questions, to enrich our tools and vocabulary, to establish meaningful connections between theories and concepts from other disciplines, and most of all to generate new kinds of knowledge. Therefore, this collection is motivated by several socio-cultural as well as methodological considerations and a range of questions that these considerations bring about. These questions have to do with research positionality, aims for societally engaged and productive scholarship, and a need to reflect on the methodological ethics or methodological implications of the ethico-onto-epistemology of such a “response-ability.”5Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007; Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822373780.

First, we—both editors and authors—wish to thematize our own role as researchers and our own subject position as also actors within urban settings. In our own research, we do not aim for a position of fly-on-the-wall observers, but instead take the position of active, embodied, and present actors. As such, we are entangled with, and partners in, various collaborations with artists, makers, designers, local and municipal stakeholders, businesses, cultural organizations, knowledge institutions, and other discursive agents and frameworks. From such a situated and entangled, collaborative position, the question arises of how we can methodologically ground and build (on) individual preferences, experiences, and affinities in our work on what Puig de la Bellacasa calls the “matters of care” that we not only work on but also presentify and (thus) make debatable with our work.6Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

Second, in line with such a position-taking and care-ful ambition, creative urban methods can help us to investigate the intersectionality of various, contemporary urban challenges by doing justice to their complex layered and interrelated dynamics, and also by imagining possible avenues for future transformation. For example, as previously mentioned, digitization, algorithmization, and datafication pose urgent challenges to urban living. Digital media technologies have become important tools for managing urban services and processes, while simultaneously disappearing from sight and public scrutiny. How can creative urban methods help us “interface” with these background technologies? How can we make smart urban tech more people-centric and involve people in the debate? In light of the current climate crisis, another challenge involves ecologically sustainable urban living, including co-existing with non-human species. How, then, can creative methods allow for more-than-human perspectives on co-inhabiting urban spaces together, not just by embracing human diversity, which has been central in urban theorizing from the outset, but also inclusive of other species and with a responsible and caring attitude towards the environment? How can creative methods, for instance, offer perspectives and voices to more-than-human entities to be seen and heard? Connected to the previous challenges, how do we make our cities more inclusive and just? How can creative methods give voice to marginalized and subaltern urban communities? In what ways can we understand the lived reality of those populations as a form of creative praxis? How can creative practices foster agency, promote resilience, and be institutionalized?

A third reason for focusing on creative urban methods is that there is currently a wealth of new and exciting theorizing that is either directly connected to cities or adapted to be made applicable to cities. These theories frequently attempt to imagine and conceptualize possible and desirable urban futures beyond the grasp of what is often broadly labeled as “neoliberal logics.” They further delve into the relentless commercialization of urban space by market principles that corrode civic solidarity. Attempts at totalizing control through data and algorithms, coupled with the dominance of Big Tech and platforms, are prominent features of this landscape. Concurrently, depoliticized managerialism focuses myopically on short-term financial interests, aiming to mitigate risks and uncertainties. All these elements are neatly packaged within optimistic “smart city” innovation agendas, championing efficient and optimized urban living while maintaining a staunchly anthropocentric stance.

How can creative methods fill this imaginative gap? How can these generative theories be translated into generative methods? Even if we are a little skeptical of declaring yet another crisis, we take note of Amitav Ghosh’s claim of being paralyzed by “a crisis of the imagination” to envision potential alternatives for the future.7Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016). How might different ways of observing and representing the city shape imagined possibilities for its future?  How can creative methods present a sense of the “ineffable” in the study of cities, for example through aesthetic, visceral, collective, and transformative experiences? If every theory comes with its own assumption of reality, not only reflecting the world but also producing the world, how then can we responsibly translate theories into productive methodologies for generating new kinds of knowledge? How can we avoid our theories being labeled as a priori superimposed frameworks, but allow them to be adaptive, and likewise permit our own positions as researchers to be malleable in response to the phenomena and environments we work in? Who benefits from this, and who does not? How can we be aware of and responsible for the inherent biases that knowledge production entails?

All these questions together motivate not only the development of creative methods for situated, relational, and embodied knowledges—emphatically in the plural—for intersecting urban transformations. Importantly, they also signal how fundamental methodological reflection is needed for such creative urban methods. Moreover, from this aim for situated, relational, and embodied knowledges, such reflection includes specifying the where and the how of creative methods. The following introduces the individual contributions of this collection by outlining their approaches to these questions.

The Where and How of Creative Urban Methods

In “Leaks and Rumblings: An Experimental Confluence of (In)Visible Rivers in São Paulo and London,” Jan van Duppen, Augusto Aneas, Aileen Harvey, Sandra Jasper, Laura Kemmer, and Claudia Andreoli Muniz think laterally across more-than-human life, its affects, and its temporalities in the urban setting. Their twinned tracing of rivers, both invisible yet seeping through the cracks of London and São Paulo, is not a binary comparison but rather an experimentation with post-plural imaginaries where there is no plurality of bounded entities but instead a fractal amalgam of more-than-human elements.8After Marilyn Strathern, Partial Connections, Asao Special Publications, no. 3 (Landan, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, [1992] 2004). The modes of analysis and description in “Leaks and Rumblings” express this post-plural world. They do so precisely by explicating how the embodied and sensory method of walking through urban landscapes, following the sounds, smells, and colors of forgotten rivers, invokes the memories, histories, and ghosts of past violence. Rather than containing these into knowable and bounded entities, this contribution is “an experiment in testing out material conversations on the page”.9Ibid., 10. Analogue photography and watery drawings reveal different ways of registering urban life. Crucially, the method of twinned river tracing highlights how creative urban methods are exceptionally effective in grappling with the complex and layered, if not muddled, temporalities that constitute the present(s). By gathering and generating situated knowledges, and by being attentive to how being and knowing in the present is a sensorial experience that interlaces (and interfaces) with different materialities and echoes of past times and future imaginations, creative methods allow for complexity and non-linearity in data collection and analysis.

Van Duppen, Aneas, Harvey, Jasper, Kemmer, and Andreoli Muniz explore how the past leaks into, is alive in, the present, and so too in the future. This is what Inte Gloerich and Gabriele Ferri demonstrate in “First-Person Speculative Fabulation: A Workshop Method for Times of Crisis.” Their contribution presents a case against short-termism, showing how creative urban methods might unlock roads into an unpredictable and unknown future by opening up scenarios of the “otherwise-possible.” Such a path is especially relevant in times of crisis, where urgency leads to rushed policy action – for example, the immediate experimentation with smart technologies and datafying systems during the Covid-19 pandemic. How might such systems be communally and creatively reclaimed for social justice? Gloerich and Ferri explore this question through a workshop format anchored in Donna Haraway’s notion of speculative fabulation.10Haraway, Staying with the Trouble. Crucially, through its very process, this workshop aims to enable collaborative, entangled, productive thinking and its outcomes are directed at the emergence of inclusive, more-than-human, urban imaginaries. By integrating methods and theories of design studies with the field of the humanities, this contribution highlights the importance of fiction, speculation, as well as moments of suspended disbelief in grasping the urban experience. The context of Covid-19, in which Gloerich and Ferri developed their workshop model, exemplifies why the methodological toolkit of urban researchers must be increasingly equipped with methods and techniques to productively understand, and work with, unpredictability and uncertainty.

Yet flexibility is not only required in moments of crisis. Anastasia Hacopian emphasizes in “Flex in the City: a Creative Approach to Urban Ethnography in Rotterdam” how such much-needed flexibility when conducting research in urban environments is fruitful when facing frictions and obstacles. Moments of constraint are paramount to all forms of research. Hacopian chronicles the obstacles she faces while designing and piloting ethnographic research on the tension between collective pride in diverse multicultural identities and the adverse experiences people might face while expressing such pride. She situates her creative methodology and arts-based methods in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, of which she herself is a resident who identifies as multicultural. This makes her exploration of setbacks in part autoethnographic. As she guides the reader through the holds of institutional constraints and issues of social safety, it becomes clear how her method of conscripting the social media platform Instagram emerges and responds, creatively, to such corrals. Thus, this essay not only demonstrates how arts-based methods per se can be valuable for urban research in navigating and working with and through situated frictions and obstacles, but, maybe even more importantly, also suggests that the affirmative attitude towards uncertainty, ambiguity, and non-linearity that seems to be inherent to such methods, is highly relevant for all forms of research, foregrounding the creativity in the flexibility, adaptability, and response-ability of the researcher.

What becomes evident, too, is how creative urban methods are firmly situated in the idiosyncrasies of the local. As we travel from Rotterdam to Rome, Karin van Es and Marcel Broersma deep-dive into the hybrid place-making and place-maintenance activities at the Trevi Fountain in the heart of the Italian capital. In “Place-Maintenance at the Trevi Fountain,” they posit an analysis of lived realities and idealized representations that together constitute this famous landmark. Their discursive and participatory research methods together reveal the frictions between the city-as-a-concept, i.e. the symbolic and discursive construction of the Trevi Fountain, and the thick, lived, day-to-day messy reality of the city. While their mixed methods approach allows them to analytically unwrap the many layers of urban realities, they remain respectful of the ways in which layers must be seen as historically grown palimpsests where each bears the imprint of another. In addition, Van Es and Broersma explain a shift in the positionality of media studies scholars through creative urban methods, as they move from more discursive analyses to becoming subjectively entangled with urban spaces.

This subjective entanglement of the researcher with the urban materialities they investigate takes on an even more palpable form in “Exploring Fat Embodiment In Urban Space Through ‘Fermented’ Poetic Inquiry,” a collaborative writing of Gillian Sonnad and Noortje van Amsterdam, in which they creatively analyze the (in)visibility of the fat body in urban space. For this, they experiment with a dialogical autoethnographic practice, using personal narratives and poetry techniques, to bring forth in and through writing the affective experience of exclusion. They term this poetic inquiry as “fermented,” signifying that theirs is a slow practice of attending to and caring for each other’s complex and intricate experiences of shame, anxiety, and discomfort. The writings of Sonnad and Van Amsterdam not only propose, but, most notably, perform the mutual giving and taking of time: time to feel, write, share, read, listen, and respond. In their argument for a deliberate ontology of slowness, the authors assert its paramount importance for the recognition, appreciation, and ultimately production of knowledge from marginalized urban embodied experiences. From their poetic dialogical approach, we glean the profound suitability of creative urban methods to carefully analyze the multilayered and differently situated affective dimensions of lived urban realities, and, ultimately, also to act and intervene in these realities. Here, writing assumes a poignant political significance.

Similar to the insights of Sonnad and Van Amsterdam, Sylvana Jahre and Antonie Schmiz hold the conviction that creative urban methodologies possess the capacity to carve out space in research for marginalized urban subjects and their experiences and knowledges. In their article “Behind the Scenes: Reflecting Feminist Approaches in Participatory Mapping,” Jahre and Schmiz advocate for a feminist ethos in the practice of participatory mapping, drawing from their own research project, wherein refugee youth and women from two Berlin neighborhoods were asked to map their personal narratives of their spatial surroundings. What stands out in their feminist approach is the integral quality of self-reflection: an ongoing critical engagement with the role of the researcher in the process of participatory mapping, in particular with regard to the power asymmetries that are at play in designing and executing the research and disseminating the outcomes. Jahre and Schmiz regard their feminist approach to participatory mapping creatively, emphasizing, like many other contributors in this dossier, how it prioritizes process over product and embraces failure and frictions as constructive elements in the research process. Acknowledging that power imbalances cannot be eradicated in participative mapping endeavors, the authors contend that these can at least “be embedded in a dialogical process and continuously reflected upon.” With their contribution, Jahre and Schmiz manifest the potential of creative urban methodologies to invite and foster a (self)reflective disposition, thereby opening the way for the inclusion and production of alternative urban knowledges.

Creative urban methods can also open up space for generative and experimental forms of knowledge production at the intersection of education, research, and public engagement. In “Closing the Gap: Community Engaged Learning as Creative Method,” Irina van Aalst and Gery Nijenhuis discuss the City Studio, a Community Engaged Learning (CEL) course in the Human Geography and Spatial Planning program at Utrecht University. They situate the City Studio as a creative method for knowledge production because of its boundary-crossing properties, whereby students, local stakeholders, and lecturers exchange and co-produce knowledge and experiences. As undergraduate students collaborate with urban partners (civic initiatives, businesses, neighborhood agencies, social enterprises, and residents) and lecturers to address urban challenges and contribute to the future of the city, the method aims to foster active citizenship and social engagement. Hence the place-based learning and knowledge creation that takes place involves not only students but also stakeholders. Van Aalst and Nijenhuis point to moments of discomfort, uncertainty, and the role of emotions in the learning process, as students and partners navigate unfamiliar territory.

In a temporary and provisional conclusion, then, what do these articles share? In their individual response to the various motivations, necessities, and urgencies — the multifaceted “why” of all specific situated, relational, and/or embodied methods as developed, worked with, and evaluated — all authors take the reader along in their description of the also unexpected and non-linear pathways that the research process inadvertently entails. We can read in the relay of their research experiences, not only which specific creative urban methods are being developed in response to what questions, but also how this as a process includes complexity, serendipity, and even failure as productive aspects of the research process. Besides the intricacies of the processual account, what also becomes clear is that the research “products” or outcomes often go beyond conventional textual or mono-media representation, exploring diverse modes of expression that the types of knowledge require. Moreover, all of the essays testify to the fact that the distribution of these knowledges and subsequent readership or reception extends beyond traditional publication platforms or educational contexts. In this sense, together, the contributions emphasize the possibility, if not necessity, for expanded interaction and meaningful exchange with our various scholarly, professional, civic, and dialogic partners in co-creative and collaborative entanglements. Thereby, creative urban methods not only enrich our methodological and conceptual toolbox but also contribute to various forms of shared knowledge production that our contemporary urban condition calls for.11The work by Michiel de Lange and Karin van Es was partially supported by a Spinoza grant of the Dutch Research Council (NWO), awarded in 2021 to José van Dijck, Professor of Media and Digital Society at Utrecht University.

Notes

Notes
1 Donna J. Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575–99.
2 Nanna Verhoeff and Sigrid Merx, “Mobilizing Inter-Mediacies: Reflections on Urban Scenographies in (Post-)Lockdown Cities,” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 5, no. 3 (August 2021): https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2020/08/mobilizing-inter-mediacies.; Nanna Verhoeff, Sigrid Merx, and Michiel De Lange, Urban Interfaces: Media, Art, and Performance in Public Spaces. Special Issue for Leonardo Electronic Almanac (MIT Press) 22, no. 4 (March 2019): https://www.leoalmanac.org/urban-interfaces; Nadia von Benzon, Mark Holton, Catherine Wilkinson, and Samantha Wilkinson, Creative Methods for Human Geographers (London: Sage Publications, 2021).
3 Iris van der Tuin and Nanna Verhoeff, Critical Concepts for the Creative Humanities (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2022), http://www.rowman.com/webdocs/CriticalConceptsCriticalHumanitiesOA.pdf.
4 The order of our names does not signify our respective contribution to this text. As authors of this text, we have collaborated closely together and share equal authorship. We wish to thank Elle Zwinkels for her invaluable assistance in editing this collection of essays. We also want to acknowledge the contributions to our work by other colleagues and dialogical partners, specifically those associated with the research group [urban interfaces] and the Open Cities Platform at Utrecht University. In the same vein, we also want to thank all the activists and artistic researchers beyond academia that we have worked with over the years.
5 Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007; Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822373780.
6 Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
7 Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
8 After Marilyn Strathern, Partial Connections, Asao Special Publications, no. 3 (Landan, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, [1992] 2004).
9 Ibid., 10.
10 Haraway, Staying with the Trouble.
11 The work by Michiel de Lange and Karin van Es was partially supported by a Spinoza grant of the Dutch Research Council (NWO), awarded in 2021 to José van Dijck, Professor of Media and Digital Society at Utrecht University.
Merx, Sigrid, Coco Kanters, Michiel de Lange, and Nanna Verhoeff. "Introduction: Creative Urban Methods: Generative and Situated Practices for Researching the City". Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 4 (November 2023).
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