Who has the right to leave their mark in the city?


The urban environements of today often stand out as fixed and finished. A lot of architecture produced since the middle of the last century is characterized by large, bleak and empty spaces. Materials are often mute and sterile. People move along facades with no windows or doors, movements that are reduced to transportation only. Even more intense and varied places are characterized by hard, shinty and repelling surfaces. The form and materiality of the city often appear as indifferent to the users of urban spaces.


Natural environments are different in that sense. Here it is impossible to move without leaving traces. Grass is trampled, branches ar broken, footprints are left in the moist soil. Where animals and humans often move, paths appear. Where they rest, lies are formed and camps are cleared. Humans build to protect themselves and their livestock against climate, wild animals and enemies. It is a characteristic of primordial architecture to be antropomorph, not in the sense of formed like humans but literally formed according to her measures and by her hands.

According to phenomenologist philosopher O F Bollnow, the origin of the word space (Geman: Raum) in the verb to clear (German: räumen). So, form a linguistic point of view, the abstract concept of space has its roots in concrete human activity. Of course, etymological derivations can never be used as proof when deciding the contemporary meaning of words, as this meaning is a result of how they are use in today's language. In this case, the origin of Raum cannot be used to tell how peoples' relations to space are or should be. But still, the etymology of the word can be employed as a starting point for reflections about the origin of space. Thus, for me space is an ongoing process rather than a product. What we call architecture is realized when it is taken into use. The word place includes all this: the creation, the ongoing reconstruction and the processes of use.

The responsive city is an idea derived from my research of the last few years. My study within the larger project The Potential of Public Space to Transgress the Boundaries of the Segregated City[1] concerned the inhabitants’ tactics to overcome the obstacles introduced by modernist planning from the 1960ies and onward. In Flemingsberg, like in many parts of the urban landscape, the residential areas are enclaves, separated by interzones and residual areas that on one hand work as barriers and on the other offer space to be appropriated. Spontaneously created shortcuts and footpaths showed to be important for connecting the parts of the Flemingsberg district.[2] Thus, in a concrete sense, the inhabitants produce their vital environment and, against the odds, a peculiar responsive relation to the urban landscape is sustained.

Movements as an active relationship to the city was also addressed by the EU project Agora – Cities for People. In its focus were capital routes, the important streets of the cities involved, and their content of culture and commerce. For the participating architects, the research was thought-provoking in the sense that we tend to think about public space in terms of places with mainly stationary activities. But mobility is a basic condition for urban life and walking stands out as the most prominent way of taking part of urban public space. In spite of the ongoing removal of retail from city centres and residential neighbourhoods, the mobile street-life – ranging from walking to the more extreme practises of skaters and traceurs – seems to grow in popularity. My article Writing on the Skin of the City[3] maps “the library of the street” along the studied route in Malmö, those images and texts in the form of (illegal) posters, ads, stickers, stencils, graffiti and tags.

The ongoing research program MobiScape[4]  includes studies of the mobile phone as an urban tool. My preliminary results suggest that the mobile intensifies a tension between presence and absence in concrete space. Because of the users’ ubiquitous availability, it has the potential to make the urban landscape accessible for the interaction of its inhabitants. However, the engagement of mobile conversations tends to estrange them from the urban surrounding. The experiences of these projects has made me more aware of what de Certeau calls “consumer production”, in this context that citizens inevitably are active co-creators of urban space.

The wider scope of the project relates to a large and complex field of research including the city and the dispersed urban landscape of modernism, public space, the production of space, the phenomenology of place and materiality in relation to human action (see under Theory below!). The responsive city primarily focuses a narrower field involving attempts to address certain issues concerning new urban cultures and sub-cultural practices, reflected in spontaneous actions as well as planned interventions. Such experiences are for some part researched but to a large extent available only in the form of journalism, websites, debates and live examples.

There is quite a lot of research on “established” urban alternative culture – from communal buildings to communities – whereas tactical and mobile interventions are debated but to a lesser degree researched. The new mobile urban practices involve features that have got much attention.[5] Small shops stand out as important meeting-places that due to individual initiatives are blooming even in the housing enclaves of modernism.[6] Street art and all sorts of markings provide non-sanctioned narratives that provoke and vitalise urban space.[7] Mobile telephony and other wearable media take part in the transformation of public space.[8]

Within the discourse of architecture, the interest in exploring and discovering the city as human experience has grown.[9] The critique against the conventional approaches of architects and urban designers and new architecture’s frequent lack of sensuality and complexity is sometimes hard.[10] The shortcomings of urban public space are also exposed.[11] New urbanism – as idea and as realized – is useful for pointing at the difficulties within the frame of the contemporary urban landscape to create alternative urban environments.[12] The unclear and splintered spaces of the new urban landscape have been heavily criticized but are also explored and mapped with great curiosity.[13]


[1] Funded by FORMAS (Sw: Det offentliga rummets gränsöverskridande potential i den segregerade staden)

[2] Wikström 2005, 2007b

[3] Wikström 2006 (Sw: Att skriva på stadens hud)

[4] MobiScape (Mobilities and Meeting-Places in the New Urban Landscape) includes the projects Trajectories and Places in the New Urban Landscape (FORMAS) and The Lived Urban Landscape – urbanities, architecture and tactics of movement (VR), 2006-2009.

[5] Rheingold 2002, Wikström 2008

[6] Olsson 2008

[7] Wikström 2006

[8] Castells & al 2007, Ito & al 2005, Katz & Aakhus 2002, Ling 2004, Wikström 2008

[9] Borden & al 2002, Bech-Danielsen & al 2004

[10] Pallasmaa 1996, Leach 1999, Till 2009

[11] Bauman 2000, Hajer & Reijndorp 2001, Graham & Marvin 2001, Mitchell 2003

[12] Hultman 2002, Söderlind 1998

[13] Bech-Danielsen & al 2004; Boeri & al 2001; Kolb, Nielsen, T & al 2004; Schumacher & Koch 2004, Sieverts 2003, Wikström 2007a