Academic journal article Urban History Review

The Everyday Usage of City-Centre Streets: Urban Behaviour in Provincial Britain Ca. 1930-1970

Academic journal article Urban History Review

The Everyday Usage of City-Centre Streets: Urban Behaviour in Provincial Britain Ca. 1930-1970

Article excerpt

Introduction

This article examines the everyday experiences and uses of provincial city-centre streets in the middle decades of the twentieth century in the UK. The period 1930 to 1970 saw increasing interventions in city centres as authorities responded to rapidly increasing motor transport, postwar reconstruction, innovative urban planning, and central legislation. Nottingham and Leicester, as dynamic centres of urban production and consumption, provide our core focus for their midland typicality, which offers a contrast with extant metropolitan street studies. (1)

The central aim is to examine the mundane activities and emotional experiences that took place in the spaces between the buildings and street frontage, on the pavement and on the road, from the perspective of the individual user. While Benjamin argued that the streets are the dwelling place of the collective, this is not our concern and we do not examine street activities such as communal celebrations or demonstrations. Rather, we focus on the individual user's experiences and the personal significance of the urban street space: (2) Within these limits we seek to relate these experiences to space, time, and life course. Other categories of analysis, such as gender and class, feature less prominently here but remain significant in understanding the nature of street usage and its experience.

Everyday experience of city centres contributes to the theory of urban experience and practice. Moving about the city, and most especially the practice of walking, has produced varied and complex possibilities for understanding the nature of being in an urban environment. The user relationship (particularly that of the pedestrian) with the urban space has been articulated as that of reader and text: for Roland Barthes, users "read" the text of the city and produce meaning as they move through it. (3) Michel de Certeau takes this idea further by regarding city walkers as "creating" the urban through footfall: "Their intertwined paths give their shape to spaces. They weave places together. In that respect, pedestrian movements form one of those 'real systems' whose existence in fact makes up the city." (4) In both of these visions the city is an "empty" space awaiting engagement with the individual. De Certeau, however, understands this space as a system of "strategies": "official," formalized articulations of established power that the users "resist" and negotiate through "tactics" including informal and "unofficial" behaviours. He argues, "The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language. . it is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian." (5) This understanding of the "resistance" of urban-space users to an authoritarian environment and their appropriation of place is important to this article, as is Henri Lefebvre's concept of the city as both a "force of production and an object of consump-tion." (6) While these significant concepts inform this research, they are also limiting. Urban space is not just constantly formed and reformed through capitalism; it is not necessarily functionalist or transgressive. Rather, as Ian Burkitt has argued, "the lived experience of everyday life is rich, complex and multidimensional: it is an experience of diverse and differentially produced and articulated forms, each combining time and space in a unique way." (7) Thus this article demonstrates the interactive, constructive, and meaningful uses of urban space, as well as the functionalist or transgressive.

Historiographies of youth culture, leisure, town planning, and sociological studies of the city centre inform this study. (8) City-centre research, influenced by histories of civic culture, urban development, and expansion of the regulating state, has produced a necessarily "top-down," city-wide perspective. (9) At street level, research on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century town centre has been concerned largely with material improvement, social transgression, and public and civic cultures. …

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