Book Review: Realising the City edited by Camilla Lewis & Jessica Symons

Review by Sharleen Estampador-Hughson

Realising the City: Urban Ethnography in Manchesteredited by Camilla Lewis and Jessica Symons, was published by Manchester University Press in December 2017.  

Camilla Lewis is a researcher in the department of Sociology at the University of Manchester. Her interdisciplinary research centres on the themes of ageing, inequalities, housing, belonging and community with a strong methodological focus, spanning a variety of ethnographic, sensory as well as longitudinal approaches. In 2014 she completed a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. The thesis provided an ethnographic account of the lives of older people living in East Manchester, a locality which has undergone waves of urban regeneration. Her publications have provided theoretical analysis on the everyday experiences of inequalities in urban environments and also practical suggestions for how to tackle marginalisation in socially excluded groups. She is currently PI of an ESRC-funded project entitled, ‘The experience of ‘ageing in place’ over time: a longitudinal perspective’.

Dr Jessica Symons is Honorary Research Fellow in Architecture at the University of Manchester and Director of Visioning Lab, a creative digital agency developing immersive experiences for global audiences focusing on British arts, culture and heritage. Her career spans private, third and public sector roles with a unifying mission to understand how ideas come to be made manifest. As Research Fellow in the Universities of Manchester and Salford, she carried out ethnographies into low income and rural areas to consider the barriers to entry into the creative digital economy. As Director of a community organisation in Manchester, she developed projects aimed at empowering people to deliver on sustainability initiatives. As a Senior IT Consultant, she worked with city leaders and civic officials to develop digital solutions for challenging issues. She has authored several papers on anthropology and social change arguing for creative self-determination as well as speaking regularly at conferences and events. She is currently exploring how to use virtual and augmented reality to enhance wellbeing. See visioning lab for more information.

Urban theory has predominantly focused on megalopolises of the global northRealising the City has expanded this terrain to the global south by drawing attention to the contemporary development of Manchester city, where the former city-centered growth model had failed the greater periphery. Between 2010-2016, residents saw a reduction to their public services and opportunities. This once thriving city of the north, experienced severe austerity that brought worsening conditions to these surrounding areas. However, through a remarkable devolution of power, Manchester City and its regional councils, have been given localised control to manage their own futures. The chapters presented in this work disentangle the complexities of urban creation. Through the agency of individuals, multiple worlds collide and diverge. This work takes a unique urban ethnographic approach that does not dichotomise the urban/suburban divide. What has been captured through the research is a progressive tension between the outer areas of Manchester, or ‘greater Manchester’ and its centre. Realising the City sets out to challenge universal assumptions of northern urban ‘global’ theory through inverting this perspective in an attempt to draw out a southern urban approach. They ask: What kind of theories can emerge from an urbanizing global south? How would cities in the global north be impacted? Could a novel theory transpire, that debates the current universalism of urban theory? The authors do this through exploring unconventional ethnographic accounts. What is provided, is an array of ethnographic cases that explore themes from politics of environment, parade making, loungification, the village, futuring, civic engagement, urban politics, FC United fans, deindustrialization and self-policing. 

The book’s material has been arranged into a well-balanced three-part series exploring ethnographies from urban organisations, spaces and communities. The authors unravelled the present and historical tensions that are involved in co-creating both the city and greater Manchester through its residents, municipal officials, stakeholders and voluntary members of the public.

In the first section of Realising urban organisations, Knox’s chapter documented the emerging friction through the involvement of business leaders, governmental left and right-wing members, whom must work with communities to envision and co-construct a collective Mancunian identity. Symon’s (2018:44) topic on ‘parade making’ stood out where she mentions Strathern’s (1996:521) ‘strings of circumstances’ and its association with an emergent versus regulated co-construction of the civic parade. Collective individual interests work together to pioneer the official cultural strategy of the city. O’Doherty’s third chapter, takes an ethnographic account of Manchester Airport’s Escape Lounge through loungification. Micro/macro cultural politics are reflected through trying to encapsulate the ‘Manchester vibe’ within the lounge.

In the second section on Realising urban spaces, Atkins explores the private and public realities of life in the Manchester Gay Village, where two worlds live side by side: the sophisticated and safe village, next to the precarious, unsafe one. The fifth chapter questions the concept of ‘commoning’ through public spaces through examining the rights and responsibilities of public authorities to these civic areas. Lang does this through a historical ethnographic account drawing on the many cultures that have impacted Cheetham Hill. In the next chapter, Pieri’s research surveys ‘futuring’ through the stakeholders to shed light on the impact and correlation between security and cosmopolitanism. The marketing for Manchester was to convey a family friendly environment to encourage families to move to the city, however it seemed to target visitors with families and not for long-term residency.

The final and third section encompasses Realising urban communities. Poulton discusses the pressures facing the fanbase of Manchester United between local and non-residential supporters through documenting the changing attitudes and reactions of the locals towards outside supporters. As Manchester United became a global brand it alienated local fans who could not afford the cost to attend matches, thus the establishment of the local FC Community Club signified these growing anxieties. The 8th chapter communicates the disconnection expressed through East Manchester residents, a once thriving industrial area, left behind through the ravages of deindustrialisation. Lewis voices the residents’ nostalgic memories and loss of community, where in the present many are preoccupied with precarious existences and disengaged from contemplating a common future. The final chapter exposes the everyday ethical decisions made by those living under austerity. It describes the self-policing ethical decision making within the community of Harperhay, where overlooking unsettling situations become a method of protection from the State. These chapters describe the marginalisations, cleavages and amalgamations that happen through realising a shared identity and place.

Realising the City echoes the substance of individual agency and structure reflected in C.S. Mills, from the top-down through official structures and through the bottom-up through the residents and communities. Closely examining the lived experience of these denizens allows room for a more nuanced understanding of the everyday, which is not deafened by the influence of the local authorities and businesses. Realising the City, reverberates Lefebvre’s analysis of the rhythms of everyday life, where he amuses over, ‘The right to the city cannot be conceived of as a simple visiting right or as a return to traditional cities. It can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life. These ethnographies challenge the assumption that the inner city predominantly shapes the social lives of those in the wider urban sprawl. The intersectionality of social stratification is perturbing, however productive for co-creating the city in all its elements. As Harvey expresses, ‘it primarily rises up from the streets, out of the neighbourhoods, as a cry for help and sustenance by oppressed peoples in desperate times.’ Realising the City gives representation to the unorthodox and invisible, through allowing the residents’ stories to be heard along with the official engagements. The various stakeholders and organisations must work together with its residents to determine a united Mancunian identity. This book is highly recommended for sociologists, urban ethnographers and those with an interest in the progressive development of Manchester city.

Sharleen is currently a tutor at the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. She was supported by the White Rose East Asian Centre and Economic Social Research Council at the University of Sheffield’s School of East Asian Studies for her PhD study on international exchange, soft power and nostalgia. She tweets @Sharhughson.

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