Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Big World in the Small: Layered Dynamics of Meaning-Making in the Everyday

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Big World in the Small: Layered Dynamics of Meaning-Making in the Everyday

Article excerpt

1 Layered dynamics

1.1 Introduction

A neighborhood is a complex urban space formed by history and happenstance as well as individual experience and imagination. But, to quote novelist Georges Perec, "What's really going on, what we're experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it?" (1997[1973], page 206).

The goal of this work is to address "the rest" that we live through, the qualities of experience and meaning-making at multiple levels (from the body and social life to the cultural and the political) in the sorts of common public and shared spaces most difficult to address. This work explores how proximal, quotidian, and in-between neighborhood places are in fact essential to people's lives and their understanding of the larger world. Every physical environment is, as psychologist Harold M Proshansky has written, "also a social, cultural, and psychological setting" (1978, page 150), and individuals experience an everyday that philosopher Henri Lefebvre has described as "producing and produced by social relations" (1991, page 289). To truly understand the space of the in-between or the everyday, it is important to answer geographer Doreen Massey's call for an "adequately progressive sense of place" which understands place as not static, not simply bounded, not based on a single identity, and yet which acknowledges the uniqueness of place (1994, page 151).

Hence, this research develops a framework for understanding an individual layered epistemology of everyday place, exploring how through emergent and often conflicting experiences we make local and global meanings in our most common places, and the process by which place helps shape us. This framework works with the "progressive sense of place" and suggests that everyday spaces are crucial for study and concern, not only for environmental psychologists and geographers but also for planners. When we make urban interventions and plans, it is crucial that we consider these kinds of in-between neighborhood spaces, and consider spaces that support the kinds of meaning-making addressed here as essential parts of our built environments.

To create this framework, this project is built from research in four ordinary yet complex neighborhoods, and uses specific examples from Mosswood, Oakland, California, as well as theoretical considerations of how different conceptions of the individual intersect with different conceptions of the everyday. The framework proposed here is a range of dynamic and emergent layers that let us understand the complexity of what neighborhoods are really for--as the sites where individual and place meanings are made through a reciprocal dynamic process.

Over the past ten years I have been trying to pin down the everyday through a series of research projects on everyday spatial use in Mosswood, Oakland (figure 1); Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, NY (Bendiner-Viani, 2005; 2009); in London, UK; and in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Bendiner-Viani, 2002). To get at the elusiveness of everyday experience, something not often verbalized, I use innovative methods that weave together walking and static encounters, encounters with physical space itself, and with space as represented. I always return to a simple question that has arisen in every neighborhood I have worked in, on every neighborhood walk I have taken: how can individual people understand so differently some of the ordinary spaces that one might think were easy to define? How can a sidewalk, a doorway, a supermarket, a roll-down gate, a parking space have such a multitude of meanings for different people? And what does this imply for our different uses of these spaces, our creation of ourselves, and indeed our sense of ourselves in negotiation with the world?

1.2 Defining the layered dynamics

The dictionary defines 'dynamics' as "the forces, physical or moral, at work in any field" (Barnhart, 1947, page 376); hence, I propose the framework of 'layered dynamics' as the forces at work in individuals' experiences and knowledge of the everyday world--in short, the process of developing an individual's everyday epistemology. …

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