The Mediapolis Q&A: Monica Degen and Gillian Rose’s The New Urban Aesthetic

Photo: Chris Clark, "Anonymous women walking in city near illuminated skyscrapers at night".
Monica Degen and Gillian Rose discuss their book The New Urban Aesthetic: Digital Experiences of Urban Change with Scott Rodgers.

In the latest installment of the Mediapolis Q&A, Scott Rodgers interviews Monica Degen and Gillian Rose about their book, The New Urban Aesthetic: Digital Experiences of Urban Change (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022). An audible version of the interview has also been published simultaneously as part of the Mediapolis Now Voices podcast series.

Scott Rodgers: In the preface to your book, you mentioned how in 2017, the two of you realized in a conversation over a coffee that there was a common theme emerging from some of the projects that each of you were working on, individually but also together. This centred on the ways that digital visualizations are changing how we conceive of and engage with cities. I’m wondering if we can start with a brief vignette into the trajectories of your research and thinking, which led to you coming together to write this book.

Gillian Rose: Monica and I met when we were both working at the Open University, I think about fifteen years ago now, and the first time we collaborated was on a research project, which interestingly — and I had forgotten this — was actually called “Urban Aesthetics”. We were interested in how people were experiencing two very different kinds of high streets, in so-called ordinary towns in Middle England, such as Bedford and Milton Keynes. And I was interested in urban design — particularly how people saw places. It now looks like a shopping mall, but at the time Milton Keynes was a very modernist, new version of what a high street might be. I was interested in how we might develop new methods to grasp those sorts of experiences, and Monica was bringing her own set of interests to that shared project.

Monica Degen: I was more interested in thinking about methods to capture experiences. I’ve had a long-standing interest in sensory experiences and how we can qualify them, but also research them, and finding different methods. So, the project was really trying to test different methods to understand how very different social groups experience high streets in very different ways.

GR: Following that work, we hooked up with Professor Claire Melhuish at UCL’s Urban Lab. We started to get interested in how those embodied feelings or views about designed urban environments were being mediated, in particular because Claire has quite a strong architectural background. Combining our forces, the three of us decided to put together a research grant application looking at how computer-generated images were shaping the architectural design process. We got the grant, the three of us, and after a slightly hairy period when it turned out that all the architecture studios who had offered us access turned around and said, “Sorry, we’ve changed our minds,” we eventually landed on one case study, which was a large urban redevelopment project in Doha in Qatar, where computer-generated images were absolutely fundamental to how they were trying to integrate the look and the feel of a very large project that had a lot of different architects, quite high-end architects, working on it. The three of us worked through that, particularly the role of these computer-generated images, and that was really the first moment, for both of us, that we started to think about the digital, or at least about computer-generated images and what a force they were in terms of urban design. Subsequently, we’ve gone on to think about how that shapes urban experience.

MD: And it made it quite clear to us, I think, that digital technologies are crucial in architectural practices to imagine future developments, but also a tool to make it easy for audiences to understand what the future would feel and look like. I found that particularly interesting to research in more detail. But we then also diverged again, and Gillian started to research smart cities. I did two things in the following years. On the one hand, I got a British Academy fellowship to look at timescapes of urban change, where I had more time to think about how experiences are also underpinned by temporal scales and different temporalities. And at the same time, I was also doing an AHRC networking project that worked with museums, branding companies, and local authorities to understand how we can work together and learn together how to research the senses in urban environments. I think it’s quite important as an academic to acknowledge that there’s a lot to learn from practitioners. It was really interesting, in this project that was called Sensory Cities, to work across three different cities in Europe — Barcelona, Cologne and London — to understand how city museums are curating the history and also the contemporary issues of different cities through different curatorial practices and methodologies. In Barcelona, for example, we had one of the branding experts of Barcelona council sharing a box with us that had different smells of Barcelona as a branding product. And to really think, how can both academics and practitioners start using each other’s methodologies to not only research the sensory, but acknowledge how important it is in urban redevelopment and tourism in branding cities?

SR: All these trajectories come together in the premise with which you start the book: “Something is changing in cities. Something about how we feel in urban spaces is altering.” And I guess this something is what you are calling “the new urban aesthetic”. Now, aesthetic is sometimes associated with the visual but your conception in the book is rather more complex. Tell me a little bit about the notion of aesthetics that is at play in your argument in this book.

MD: Aesthetics for us is much more than the visual. It is the whole bodily experience and we’re drawing on the original Greek concept of aisthesis, which means perception through the senses. What we were really trying to do with this concept is to think about how it is used and brings together bodies, digital technologies, and urban redevelopment. It has become a central concept through the notion of the experience economy, for example, in the development of cities across the world. We argue strongly in the book, and I guess I’ve argued throughout my career, that experience has become the crucial tool for contemporary cities to catapult themselves as tourist resorts, but also places for investment on what I call the global catwalk. What we wanted to do with this concept is to draw attention to the sensory experiencing of cities and how important the senses are in engaging us in our everyday understandings of the city. And that it’s the fine-grained sensations — the smelling, the touching, the feeling of cities — that slowly build up into this kind of lived urban experience, where our body constantly interacts with the materiality of the city, with the infrastructures of the city, and with other bodies.

What we’re arguing in the book is that digital devices are increasingly part of this sensory texture of everyday urban life. If you think about it, bodies hold and carry smartphones with them, and we have tablets, laptops, gaming devices, e-book readers — we’re constantly interacting in our everyday urban life with all these digital tools. We can say that bodies in many city spaces now simultaneously occupy both material urban spaces and the digital on-screen environment. Anna Munster has described this as a “double digital embodiment”: bodies inhabit a space grafted between the experience of being in online environments and corporeality, which they experience in situ in a physical place.1Anna Munster, Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics (Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2006). What we wanted to grasp with our notion of the new urban aesthetic is that these urban spaces are increasingly sensorially mediated through digital technologies. Thinking about that really shifts the attention from individual bodies towards the extension of sensory feelings in digitally mediated urban environments, and that’s really what we meant with the new urban aesthetic.

GR: I can say a little bit more about the digital angle on that, which I think for us is partly about the technological affordances, but also very much about how it is experienced, practiced, and imagined – the discursive construction of the digital. So, throughout the book we pay attention to things like sensors — environmental sensors, but also the fact that everybody’s smartphone is also a sensor. For example, they change a body into a blue dot on a screen or they convert bodies into geolocated data. We talk quite a bit about screens, so both smartphone screens like Monica commented, but also large public screens. There were so many on the Tube coming here; the new stations all have screens embedded against the escalators, with constantly moving imagery. In particular, I think that shapes how we interpret urban spaces, how we see them. And then of course, all of this is networked. Francesco Casetti, who’s a cinema theorist, has this notion of hypertopia, which I think is really interesting — this idea that you’re in this space, but that online environment that Monica was also talking about is also really distributed. So, we think there’s something very interesting about a way in which we can develop a vocabulary to grasp this in a more analytical sense, which is to focus on how spatial and temporal organisations are shifting along with and through this new range of digital technologies.

SR: The one thing that comes through really strongly when you read the book is a kind of commitment to thinking about the multiplicity or different forms of newer urban aesthetics. That comes through in many ways, but one of the ways it comes through most obviously is that you have these three case studies that you use, each of which connects thematically — but as you put it, loosely — with one aspect of Henri Lefebvre’s triadic conception of space.2Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991). Let’s begin with the first case study, which focuses on place branding imagery in Doha. What is it about images of Qatar’s capital that tell us something about how we see and experience cities today? And in particular, as you see it, the conceived new urban aesthetics of what you call “glamour”.

GR: Yeah, so that was, I guess, the first major case study that we worked on together and it prompted a lot of the ideas, and at least got us thinking about the larger project of the book. I think when we started that project, that kind of imagery was a little less familiar than it is now. When we see these sorts of computer-generated images, they’re very familiar to us. You know, it seems like every single housing or urban development uses them, large or small. I think what was distinctive about this Doha project in particular was that it was a very large project. It was very high prestige, and so there was a lot of money available for what are actually very demanding images to create, even now. There’s a lot of skill that goes into them. The architectural language advisor, which was the role of the person who was in charge of the creation of these images and making them work as design tools, was very clear that he wanted them to evoke the feel of the place. They were built from the actual architectural models that the architects were working with, so they were also “realistic.”

But they were also very much intended to be glamorous and alluring. They had a very particular colour palette. There’s quite a literature on the idea of glamour, and we really felt that the idea is that glamour is kind of magical, elegant; it has to be effortless, it has to be a little mysterious, it has to kind of draw you in somehow. This was very much what those computer-generated images were trying to do. So, in a sense they were just a branding exercise, but — and I think this comes back to Monica’s early comments about how you learn stuff when you talk to people who are actually making these kind of things — we also realised that there was a very strong desire among the developers who were Qatari based that these images should look distinctive, and that was a lot to do with the colour palette, with the light, with the particular shadows, with a slight dusty feeling in the air. Distinctive in the sense that they didn’t want it to look like just another one of these repeated urban formations, that there was a distinctiveness that they wanted as well. So, I think now, although we are quite sceptical about these branding images, it was a good example to start with about the ways in which the digitality of these images allowed them to be worked across by lots of different stakeholders and really emerge as a very powerful visual image that shaped how the project was developed.

MD: Just to add, I think we were very keen to show, like you mentioned at the start, the different urban aesthetics: there are many of them, they are differentiated, they are multiple, and they express themselves very differently in different localities. So, we chose three very different case studies. As Gillian said, Qatar was this grand regeneration project. Milton Keynes, the next case study, was much more a retrofitting kind of urban regeneration, and our third study was a cultural regeneration in London. We deliberately chose different scales of cities but also tried to really think about how regeneration is not this uniform kind of template but is expressed very differently and operates very differently in different localities. So, there are many different aesthetics and these are mediated through different digital technologies differently again. It really helped us to think about these different constellations that happen with the new urban aesthetic. There are many more that we hope other scholars will identify and research in much more detail.

What we also then try to do is to expand Lefebvre’s triad of the conceived, perceived and lived with André Jansson’s notion of texture. He describes mediatized spaces as textured spaces, and that refers to — and I’m quoting him here directly — it refers to “the communicative weave, or fabric, that is created through human activities in space.” These different mediations of place are therefore not just visual, but they have a real effect on how people interact, feel, and practice urban environments. We try to disentangle that in each case study in more detail.

SR: Maybe we can come to the book’s second case study then, which you’ve already mentioned, Monica. You explore in the second case study a place that’s rather different to Doha, at least on the surface, which is Milton Keynes, a place I know from my time at the Open University, which is this sort of ambitious 1960s English New Town. And for someone who comes from a planning background, like me, I know well that it was originally built to service housing shortages in London. But in more recent years, it has become this venue of various kinds of smart city projects. One of the things you’re arguing about Milton Keynes in the book, I think, is that it particularly illustrates a perceived urban aesthetic, or urban space, of what you call flow. How is that the case in Milton Keynes?

GR: Milton Keynes is really interesting city. It has always tried to innovate in terms of urban technologies from its beginnings as a New Town — it was designed in the late 1960s, built through the 1970s, and it continued to expand. What the council have been doing there is trying to bring in as many smart city technologies and experiments, innovations and projects as they can persuade to arrive in the city to kind of allow it to become a test bed for a whole range of different kind of smart urbanisms. So, on the one hand, there’s a lot of diversity in those projects, but when the team of researchers at the OU I was working with explored a whole range of them, one of the things that certainly struck me was this interest in how human life and human embodiment was potentially being reconfigured through these various projects, and that there was a massive emphasis on mobility, partly in a very obvious sense as transport.

One of the very earliest innovations that took place in the city was a kind of Google Maps before Google Maps — they tried to integrate all the different transport possibilities into a single interface that you could then use to navigate your way around the city. Milton Keynes has a very poor public transport system, so unfortunately that was rather overtaken by Google Maps. But I think it does also speak to a sense that in a lot of the projects we found, there was a whole sense of kind of making urban life better. A lot of them were not run by big corporations. They were often run by the council, or the council working with different kinds of community groups. But even then, there was a sense of mobility, mobility for health, getting out into the city, enabling people to cycle better, and then a whole load of commercial apps around delivery and bookings. There was a very strong emphasis on engaging with the city through using different kinds of smartphone app, particularly around being able to move and access the city.

Another example that struck me was that a local midwife collaborated on an innovation project to make the city centre more amenable to people who wanted to breastfeed. So, you downloaded the app, and if you felt comfortable breastfeeding in a place, you’d give it five stars. It was all about opening out the city, which is kind of radical in some ways, I think, although how it’s commercialised, of course, in other contexts, can be very different. But a lot of it was about this sense of kinaesthetic flow, I suppose, of physical embodiment. I think that’s why we described it as perceived, because it’s very material — you know, with your tech, with your body, you’re entering the city physically.

SR: One of the other ways that perceived space is described is as “practiced space”, or I’ve heard that term used in relation to that concept from Lefebvre. But I was just wondering, is there something about Milton Keynes that leads to particular kinds of configurations of practice with technology, or makes it a particular venue for certain types of experiments? Maybe some of the listeners haven’t been there, so it might help to let them know a bit about what it’s like, because I think it’s compared often to American cities, but I don’t think that’s a very good comparison. It’s very distinct and unique in some ways.

GR: That’s a fair point. Again, it comes back to this sense that we called it the new urban aesthetic, and on reflection, perhaps we should have pluralized that because we emphasize very much in the book that it works in different places in different ways. Milton Keynes is built on a grid system, which makes it unique, actually, in the UK. I think that’s the only sense in which it looks a bit like American cities. There are grids formed from dual carriageway highways, and in each grid block there is a well-designed neighbourhood with local facilities and so on. It’s also overlaid with a set of cycle paths exclusively meant for cyclists. But when it was designed, it wasn’t intended to be accessible in the sense of physically accessible, so all the curbs have drops into the road and so on, and that makes it, for example, a good environment to test driverless cars, which has been a really big project there as well.

It also enabled quite a lot of apps to really maximize that focus on transport in the city. For example, the cycle paths are great, but they’re not on a grid and they’re actually very disorienting and they also get covered with leaves. One of the apps that was designed was with the local cycling enthusiasts to report where the cycle paths needed to be cleared of leaves by the council and so on. So, it is true that the physical environment of Milton Keynes does enable, to an extent, this kind of emphasis on mobility. But I would say that looking more broadly at how the digital is affecting urban life, and Scott McQuire writes about this quite eloquently, generally it’s about speed and immediacy and convenience, all through this sense that you’re constantly online, you’re constantly connected, you’re constantly able to message. I think that while Milton Keynes has a particular expression of that, in terms of its embodied mobility, more generally there’s a speeding up of life in the digitally mediated city.

SR: In the final case study, we’re taken to Smithfield Market, which is a heritage building at the heart of what the City of London Corporation has branded as its Culture Mile. Here, your attention not only turns to lived urban spaces — as in the Lefebvrean concept of lived urban spaces, which you also describe in the book as “dramatic” — but also to the mediations afforded by social media platforms, and in particular, Instagram. What kinds of new urban aesthetics might we see through the coming together of this particular location and that particular social platform?

MD: I should say that the Culture Mile has been wrapped up in March this year, which is quite interesting. It’s being dismantled very rapidly. It’s actually being turned into a Business Improvement District, which has been launched in May this year. At the same time, the Corporation of London has also created what it calls Destination City, a new tourist strategy to bring people back into the City of London, post-Covid and post-Brexit. Things are moving very fast. Just now, thinking of temporality, it’s quite interesting how urban redevelopment is speeding up overall across the world. What sometimes took five or ten years, now is done in a year or less. A marketing expert mentioned to me that when gentrification might have taken a decade before, it’s now done in a year because there’s a template for it. What is interesting about this new Destination City launched in May 2022 by the City of London is that it’s really focusing on the cultural consumption of this area. It’s focusing on events, activities and placemaking very much through these so-called meanwhile spaces.

What I’m trying to show here is that it’s the experience economy at its best, and it comes back to our argument that when we look at urban developments nowadays across the globe, we need to think about how they are engaged in and enveloped with digital technologies and the experience economy. That’s something we try to analyse in much more detail with the case study of the Culture Mile and Smithfield Market. What we argued there, or what we actually showed there, is that social media with its search for this constant affective intensity that we have when we scroll, etc., is really dramatizing how urban environments are conceived, marketed and branded, but also how they are increasingly being planned. What we discovered through the Culture Mile case study on Smithfield Market is that although the urban regeneration wasn’t happening yet, the ground was prepared through all kinds of social media activities that would, of course, reflect the events and the place activation of the locality, but it was really a preparing of the ground of what is going to come now soon — the move of the Museum of London into this former meat market, etc., etc.

What we tried to capture with the notion of drama is that what the affordances of social media provide is that ordinary people can become the directors, let’s say, of a photo montage, of a show, and create these really dramatic images of the area, not just of its architecture and its people, but also through close ups of certain materialities or details like, for example, meat or the phone boxes in Smithfield Market, which really create this kind of staged experience. What we’re arguing in the book is that people then also visit these spaces because they encounter them on social media. It probably is common sense, but we found it really interesting that the branding of spaces is now done both by ordinary citizens and the branding companies and they work hand-in-hand. The Cultural Mile marketing experts knew and chose specific events and public art projects that they knew would be captured on Instagram or other social media. So, what we’re arguing is that urban planning is increasingly conceived with social media in mind and as a dramatized urban landscape.

SR: I was going to ask about that, and you’ve already partly answered the question I was going to ask, but has an anticipation of the production of imagery through social media become one of the key components of place branding now? That when you’re branding a place, one of the things that’s being anticipated is staging the possibility for a continuing production of imagery about that place? As you know, I’m really interested in King’s Cross in London, and that does seem to be clearly something that’s going on with the King’s Cross Partnership, that there’s an effort to not just anticipate social media, but even almost stage the physical spaces in such a way that they are amenable to especially the Instagram-type imagery of food, and of posing in front of particular buildings, and that kind of thing. Is this something that is being taught in in place branding, or something that’s kind of part of the discourse of place branding?

MD: I don’t know the answer in terms of whether it’s being taught. I haven’t attended a branding course for quite a while. Actually, maybe I should do that very soon again – I did study marketing and branding at Lancaster as one of my minor subjects. That’s why I’m really fascinated by it, because I think what’s been happening through the experience economy or aesthetic economy — a term that’s also often used — is that branding takes over the physicality and the production of places. A classic book is No Logo by Naomi Klein, where she argues this about ordinary products from sneakers to handbags, etc., etc. I do find it shocking actually that branding on social media has become now a key factor in designing new urban spaces, definitely.

We don’t only see this in the Global North, but I’ve been recently to Bali. I’m speaking here without having done any deep research on it, but I was quite shocked how in a developing country, in the area where we were, Pererenan, you can see the local houses, quite simple housing, next to hipster cafes that have been built in the last two years, if not in the last twelve months, which all have a very similar aesthetic. When you enter them, a lot of digital nomads are sitting with their Apple Macs there, and you could be anywhere in the world. And when you go outside, you are in Bali, where the streets are still being constructed, so to speak. It’s a complete kind of paradox, I feel. I don’t think this is designed on purpose, of course, in Bali, but I think increasingly urban planners and urban designers have very much in mind: how will this be branded through social media?

SR: Towards the end of the book, you turn your attention to the politics of aesthetics. And for this, you draw on Jacques Rancière’s work, which is under the same heading, The Politics of Aesthetics, and particularly his notion of the “distribution of the sensible”.3Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, ed. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013). So, I’m wondering how this notion of the distribution of the sensible helps you conclude your book by turning to a discussion around the relationships of the new urban aesthetic and power?

GR: The aim of the book is to find a conceptual vocabulary, to try to develop a conceptual vocabulary through which these different manifestations of the new urban aesthetic — we’ve been talking through lots of different examples of them — how we can describe them and think about their consequences, which I guess is their power relations that they enact, that they create. For me, I think that the body, if there is such a thing, is a really powerful site for thinking about this. It’s one form of power. It’s certainly not the only form of power that I think has been enacted by, for example, platforms and so on in the city. And there’s so much other really important research examining the political economy of that and so on. But I think this sensory aspect is also really critical, and Rancière gives you — I think we use him fairly lightly, but this notion of the distribution of the sensible is a useful way of focusing on the embodied, fleshy consequences of the kind of things that we’ve been discussing. The phrase “the distribution” begins to talk to the kind of spatiality and temporality of how particular embodied experiences are felt. I think because bodies themselves are always already sites of kind of power — they’re gendered, they’re racialized, they’re abled in different ways, sexualized and so on and so forth — how certain bodies’ dispositions kind of line up or don’t with particular distributions of the sensible is a really useful perspective in trying to get to grips with this particular kind of power dynamic.

I think looking back on the book, I guess it’s implicit in the conversation that we’ve been having, the framework that we develop — Lefebvre, Rancière — was a bit of a post hoc framework. The projects emerged, we developed them and then we were like: there’s something going on here; how can we try and bring it together? And I think if we’d started off with the framework, we probably would have conducted some of those case studies differently, and I think we would have probably used some different methods to look much more closely at exactly how people felt, you know, when they were doing these things. We read that a little bit from the case studies, if I’m being honest, but there’s certainly lots of other work, particularly around social media and the urban, which is beginning to address these issues, or at least that we can sort of flex and adapt to our framework.

One of them, of the many I could have chosen, is a project by John Boy and Justus Uitermark. I think they have something like four and a half million posts scraped from Instagram that they’ve located in Amsterdam. And of course, how you geolocate social media posts, it’s a complicated thing, so they’ve got a lot of technical expertise underpinning this project. But they’re also making it very clear how through all sorts of different kinds of both large-scale computational methods for researching, but also qualitative, interview-based methods, the different forms of different visual posts line up with different kind of social groupings. And in fact, they’re particularly interested in different kinds of gentrifying groups within the city, and the kinds of things that get pictured.

This is what Monica was picking out in Smithfield as well: how things get pictured, and what gets pictured in a particular location. Particular kinds of activities, particular sorts of objects are pictured in particular kind of ways as they are pictured and shared across particular social networks, and certain kinds of gentrifying identities emerge. And I think that’s quite a powerful way of figuring out this sort of embodied sense of gentrification. These are very much white, middle-class gentrifiers. I think a lot of white women are doing this particular kind of wellbeing/gentrification intersection.

There’s a paper that recently came out from their project talking about the ways that a lot of the immigrant small businesses in many of these areas are now having to reshape, or they are being advised to represent themselves in ways that are going to be Instagrammable and appeal to these gentrifiers’ interest in the “exotic”. I think that’s a really good example of the ways in which these apparently very soft and fluffy feelings — “I like my coffee in a particular way, I like to eat this, I like to dance here” — can actually turn into very material politics in the city.

MD: We deliberately wanted to also focus on power relations to challenge the view that the sensory is just this fluffy kind of topic. What we really wanted to show here is that aesthetics and the sensory itself is political. It’s been a lifetime attempt in my work to show that it’s key to understand who or what is included or excluded in the mediation and framing of experiences. It has, like Gillian said, real material consequences that are very much framed within very important power relations.

I wanted to add that we deliberately used the word aesthetics. We drew very much on Gernot Böhme’s work on the aesthetic economy, which really focuses on the production of experiences.4Gernot Böhme, Critique of Aesthetic Capitalism (Milan: Mimesis, 2017). On the one hand, we experience places, but increasingly places are staged and produced to create particular experiences which then means that other experiences don’t have the space to be there – they might be challenged or disrupted, etcetera. We also use the word aesthetics because when you think about aesthetics in non-academic ways, people relate the word aesthetics to lifestyle issues. We really wanted to highlight that as well in relation to the aesthetic economy. Other people have written in terms of aesthetics in relation to Bourdieu and the analysis of taste and differentiation of class taste through aesthetics. So, it’s a very deliberate use of aesthetics that we wanted to bring to the fore in this book, and we wanted to really highlight that focusing on the sensory allows us to link structural changes, economic changes, political changes with everyday life, activities, practices, and experiences.

For me, there is a real political motivation in showing that politics is about experiences, it’s about emotions, it’s about what a lot of people in the past have called fluffy things, and they’re not fluffy at all because I think social media is showing us that they have a real impact on people’s lives. The point of the book is to show how our cities are now physically being transformed because of all the digital technologies and changes in the digital world that are happening. They will have a real impact, of course, on how we live, but also how we encounter each other.

SR: We started the conversation talking about the trajectories that led you to this book, and it makes sense for me to then ask you, what are the trajectories that are now flowing from the book for each of you, individually and collectively?

GR: I’m actually bedding more into my comfort zone, I suppose, which is to think through forms of sort of cultural critique. I started as a cultural geographer. I’m really interested in the ways in which visuals, especially digital visualisations and digital software, are creating all sorts of imagery of cities that is beginning to, I would argue, reconfigure human life in the urban’ I’m calling the project “animated urbanism.” And what the project is trying to do is to look through a series of case studies of different kinds of digital visual productions, and in particular, reading the ways that they’re kind of hybridising across different fields of practice’ I’ve got a bunch of case studies of urban planning and management techniques that are digital visuals — such as digital twins and agent-based modelling. I even tried reading some AI but that’s a step too far at the moment. I’m also looking at disaster movies, looking at digital visual effects in movies more generally, and looking at city building games’ I’ve actually just downloaded a computer game for the first time in my life. This is new territory.

SR: What game? Is it Cities: Skylines?

GR: It is! So, not original but I’m not going to turn into a gamer overnight, so I will go for a game widely known, but also used to teach planners how to plan. Actually, it’s got a very specific visualisation of what urban life is like, which is very similar to city digital twins and to movie VFX.  They’re all computer graphics, they’re all three -dimensional volumetric regimes as it’s been called, through which human life in cities is being pictured in very, very particular ways. That’s my project. I’m having a lot of fun looking at things like generic disaster movies and trying to become a gamer. Also, I think again it’s kind of fun, it’s kind of fluffy, but actually it’s really got a very consistent sense of how life, how human life in particular is configured as mobile crowds, individual objects, and so on. I’m trying to think that through across these different fields.

MD: I’ve been looking more at branding campaigns in the last year, back to where I started a lot of my work. During my Master’s I looked at the Barcelona Olympics and how the city had been catapulted to the global catwalk through new branding, and from being a grey city it became this tourist haven nowadays. So, I’m back there, back in Barcelona looking at the latest branding campaigns, especially since COVID. And it’s just really interesting how the city doesn’t feature its tourist attractions anymore, but it is the life on the streets in Barcelona and really it is trying to sell being part of what I’ve called the civic experience of being in the city. So, I’ve been writing on that. Also, what we’ve been thinking about both of us in more detail is that basically digital visualizations are really extending their form and reach much more into urban spaces in new ways, and these immersive environments or even immersive cities like NEOM are emerging across the globe. I think there’s a lot of potential for new research to find out: what next?


1 Anna Munster, Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics (Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2006).
2 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).
3 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, ed. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).
4 Gernot Böhme, Critique of Aesthetic Capitalism (Milan: Mimesis, 2017).
Rodgers, Scott, Monica Degen, and Gillian Rose. "The Mediapolis Q&A: Monica Degen and Gililan Rose's The New Urban Aesthetic." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 4 (November 2023).
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