Featured image courtesy of The Matrix Makeup Dept.

The urban imaginary and authenticity.  Wow- sounds like that came from a textbook.  But we confront these two ideas every day when we travel, and also at home.  The urban imaginary is about the unseen aspects of a city- literally how people imagine or perceive a city and their own interactions with it.  If you’ve seen the film “The Matrix”, you know how extreme the difference between the real and the imagined can be. This post appreciates that distinction; and it considers how travel might (or might not) engage in healthy ways with the urban imaginary of cities.

Some  differences between the real and imagined aspects of a city may be subtle.  A city may be considered “friendly” or “aloof ” in the urban imaginary.  How different is  this from reality?  It may be hard to verify.  But where differences between the real and imaginary are more tangible, they may  lead to action.  For example, if locals think of their city as very modern, they will view everything through the lens of modernity.  Anything that is not modern and high tech is seen as an exception -or something to be eventually “fixed”.  People in (and travelling to) Copenhagen might view that city as eco-friendly, and bike-friendly.  And so eco-friendliness and bike-friendliness become part of the urban imaginary of Copenhagen.  In the latter instance, fixing aspects of reality that don’t mesh with the urban imaginary can produce many positive benefits for locals, such as added cycling trails, or new buildings with energy-efficient features.  Sometimes the urban imaginary  is simple, at other times it is multi-layered.

The idea of the urban imaginary has fascinated many scholars and philosophers.  For urban planning scholar Edward Soja  “The city exists as a series of doubles; it has official and hidden cultures.  It is a real place and a site of imagination.  Its elaborate [set of physical attributes] … is paralleled by a complex of attitudes, habits, customs, expectancies, and hopes that reside in us as urban subjects” (Postmetropolis, 2000:324).  In short, these attitudes, habits and hopes are part of the urban imaginary -and of  authentic urban life.

Following Soja’s understanding, to travel authentically  one would seek (through one’s travel choices) to  uncover various aspects of the urban imaginary that locals hold.  In an earlier post, I mentioned the value of reading local newspapers or blogs by local people to find out what they care about (click  here ).  In addition, one could uncover the urban imaginary by talking to local people about how they see their city- what they love about it as well as what they would change if they could.  The term “urban imaginary” probably won’t resonate with most, but good questions and a genuine interest can tease this out, and enhance understanding.

Not all aspects of the urban imaginary lead to authentic experiences, though.  One of the more famous takes on the urban imaginary comes from French scholar Jean Beaudrillard, who talked about the problematic blurring of the real and the imagined, and complained about the “Desert of the Real”.  This desert emerges when an idealized version of reality (captured in  various symbols representing that reality) are preferred to the more mundane versions of reality (warts and all).  For the record, The Matrix stole shamelessly from Beaudrillard.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it called our attention to an extreme that deserves reflection.  And let’s face it -probably more people have seen The Matrix than have read Beaudrillard.

An example in travel terms of a Desert of the Real might be a coffee shop that calls itself “Le petit café typique parisien” (the typical little Parisian coffee shop), which is laid out, and staffed with people who take great pains, to fit the stereotyped tourist version of a Parisian café, down to the haughty waiters.  This stereotype might have drawn upon aspects of the urban imaginary, but likely only its most superficial -and probably more from the tourist urban imaginary than the local urban imaginary.  Where a quarter or district has more “petits cafés typiques” than restaurants that have evolved in less self-conscious ways, one could argue that the entire district has become a Desert of the Real.

A similar situation exists in a Las Vegas Hotel that will go unnamed, designed around very superficial replicas of Italian urban landscapes, including canals and gondolas but flanked with luxury shopping opportunities (minus the inconveniences of the real where one would have to navigate in Italian, and confront pigeons, Vespas, plus crowded sidewalks). And it doesn’t necessarily have to do with whether or not chain stores are present or absent, unless they start to become a monoculture and to reinforce only the simulated understandings of the neighbourhood.

Desertification is not just about stereotyping- it is also about leaving out various aspects of reality (including people and stories whose presence detracts from the simulated version of reality).  Think of gentrifying neighbourhoods you’ve visited, where initially artists mix with lower income people, and then people of means start to buy homes in the area, drawn by the ability to identify with artistic and creative types but eventually pushing out the lower income people and even, often, the artists who initially helped attract them. Avoiding desertification is not always about blocking gentrification.  It is about remembering that, where people value authentic communities, they will make efforts to ensure there still remains room for those who might otherwise be excluded.  This could include social housing, housing cooperatives, and affordable rental units in new buildings within the district.  I have mentioned Vesterbro in Copenhagen in an earlier posting.  Vesterbro is a great example of a community that has remained authentic as it upgraded the built environment, by ensuring housing remained accessible to the neighbourhood’s original inhabitants.  In a similar vein,  I  love my local Starbucks, because it has been very accommodating of people who are best described as neighbourhood characters, and who don’t always purchase while hanging out there.  (But I still take care to support the nearest independent cafe too.)

So how else can you appreciate the local urban imaginary and avoid “Deserts of the Real”?  Here are some questions to ask yourself when planning your next trip:

  • Will my itinerary lead me to neighbourhoods where people from a mix of incomes and educational backgrounds are likely to be present? If not, consider adding in places where this presence exists.
  • In a heavily tourist-oriented precinct, what opportunities are there for me to connect with varied (perhaps even opposing), stories about, and perspectives on, this place and the artifacts that I am seeing?  Seek out these opportunities, and favour sites where they exist.
  • To what extent has this store/ restaurant had to change business practices just to cater to tourists, rather than locals? If the answer is “a lot”, consider a place where the answer is “partly, but not a lot”.

You might also want to check out a related post for further tips (click here).

Getting in touch with the urban imaginary of your next travel destination in a positive way will take some effort, and perhaps a bit of research.  It will be well worth it, though, and could lead to any number of pleasant discoveries- perhaps even a few surprises.