The Responsive City

The Responsive City addresses the increasing discrepancy between people’s expectations of active relations to urban space and the conspicuous absence of response, especially from contemporary urban design and architecture. Asplund’s concept social responsivity guides a study of interaction between users and urban environment. What supports and what prevents social interaction in/with urban settings?


There is an ongoing dispute about urban space between actors who want to affect or control its content. The views upon the estethics of urban space differ a lot, often according to differences in class and political opinion. When cities compete on a global level, being marketed as attractive and creative, such contradictions are emphasized. They show, for example, in controversies about street art. In this text, however, I would like to address the wider question about how people can affect and leave traces in the spaces they share. The concept of social responsivity is borrowed from social psychologist Johan Asplund. Here I will use it in a way that includes the material objects and structures of the city. With the starting point in three examples, I try to sketch some of the prerequisites and potentials of urban social responsivity. The text ends with suggestions for new responsive spaces — that inhabitants and visitors can contribute to give form and expression.

As one example of what I intend to study and debate, I will bring up a new shopping mall in Malmö: Entré Malmö. No urban environment can be utterly devoid of responsivity, but Entré is a case where the opportunities of users to act and interact with each other and the built environment are strikingly limited. Further on in the text, as one of the three examples, I will develop my experiences and thoughts on Entré Malmö and in what ways it does or does not respond to its visitors.


Entré Malmö from the north: What was supposed to be welcoming rather acts as a hostile wall...

... that becomes a bit more colorful and translucent at night!


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


Social responsivity

In times of a renaissance for urban life and public space it becomes necessary to examine new modes of action and to review existing ideas and ways of understanding regarding the city.

Gerard, the protagonist of Ernst Jünger’s book A Dangerous Encounter, is enchanted by a city that vibrates of the lives of generations, a power mysteriously absorbed by its walls.[1] His experience is a striking example of what Johan Asplund calls social responsivity (Sw: responsivitet). According to his definition, social responsivity is not delimited to direct interaction between individuals but also involves the mediation via material artefacts and structures.[2] For Asplund, a “true place” responds. He describes the experience of a visit to Friluftsmuséet, the open air museum in Copenhagen. Inside a cow-house originating from Schleswig-Holstein, its former inhabitants become vivid for him. He hears the cows moving in their boxes and smells the dung and straw.
When Finn Werne writes about the response of place (Sw: platsernas respons)[3], he makes a reference to Asplund. For Werne, the meaning of place – the knowledge, emotions and experiences we attach to a room or a building – is crucial. Thus the memories of the users are just as important for place as the material and spatial properties of the built environment. It seems that responsivity presupposes an engaged interaction – and thus exists between people and buildings. The preconditions for such interaction are transformed through time along with the changes of architecture and urban culture. What does social responsivity mean in today’s urban landscapes? What knowledge processes can support building the responsive city?

[1] Jünger 1987

[2] Asplund 1987

[3] Werne 1987


Social responsivity and phenomenology

Social responsivity as a concept expresses that the human tendency to commingle is intertwined with the ability to respond. My use of the concept focused the social interaction that is mediated to the materiality of urban artefacts and structures. Responsivity should not simply be interpreted as a pre-programmed or automatic response to material stimuli but as a complex interaction between humans in a social context and material environment. As I see it, responsive relations are possible in relatively open and free settings as well as in rigid and dominated ones. However, the scope of possibilities and the degree of challenge involved differ, producing radically different practises of convention or transgression. Asplund’s concept is the starting point for developing a theoretical constellation, a bundle of theoretical approaches that can help contextualising and making deeper the analyses. Whereas Asplund’s discussion leads to a rather exclusive definition of “true places”, I want to stress people’s ability to create meaning even in plain and almost sterile settings. I also understand places open for responsivity as belonging to a broad spectrum, far outside the associations to farmhouses in Schleswig-Holstein – or Schwarzwald for that part.

The phenomenology of place is crucial as one contribution to the understanding of social responsivity. If we see responsivity as between humans and spaces, there is a relevant discussion to be found in O F Bollnow’s Mensch und Raum.[1] Ambient space is probably the phenomenon that best illustrates the between-ness of responsivity. In focus of my understanding of space stands its creation, which can be a mental or concrete achievement. Space then is rather process than product. Consequently I mean that architecture is not realised until it is taken into use. In the contexts of cities or urban landscapes, when places are the issue, this is more or less self-evident. Bollnow’s authoritative treatment of “lived space” is deeply embedded in continental phenomenology and includes concrete reflections of different modes of space and of aspects of the landscape and the house. The tradition of phenomenology works in the background of several important schools of thought on space, place[2] and cities.

[1] Bollnow 1990 (Eng: Human Space 2009)

[2] Casey 1997


Example 1: Entré Malmö and the production of back streets

Entré Malmö is a recent development at the edge of the city centre, thus between the traditional city and its peripheries. This, together with the fact that this project introduces a quite specific urban order, makes the case relevant to discuss as an example of urban responsivity. Do we see here the return of blind ground floors and single-entrance buildings, i.e. structures that are relatively closed to th urban web and offer few spots of interaction and communication?


To be continued...

Example 2: Writing on the skin of the city. On traces and marks along Östergatan, Malmö.

Content will follow!

Example 3: Effective shortcuts. Tactical mobilities in the surplus landscapes of modernism.

Content forthcoming!

Social responsivity: A meaningful approach?

Content will follow!

Designing the responsive city

Content will follow!


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