Feeling the city
Reclaiming urban spaces is a touchy subject
So this story begins with my experiences living on residence at SFU, which happens to be located on top of a hill/mountain (did you know that there is actually no official difference between a hill and a mountain?). The common discourse that I hear is that our campus is very depressing and isolating, and was designed by an architect who also designed prisons (technically Arthur Erickson designed “prisons of the mind” aka psychiatric hospitals). It makes sense that students feel this way because our campus is mainly cement edifices and grey slabs of concrete. During the winter season our grey campus is covered by relentless cloud, fog, rain, and occasional snowfall. The slew of construction projects have added detours, dust, and noise. And this disengagement from the physical environment manifests in headphones in ears, eyes on phones, the quick shuffling from class to class, the emptiness of campus on weekends, and the packed buses as soon as classes are over. Is it a stretch to imagine that cold, unwelcoming and visually uninspiring walls might create cold and uninspiring student bodies?
Have you ever touched your building? Think about your house, your school, your workplace, or somewhere else you frequent regularly. I don’t mean touching as in the way you step across it to get from one point to another. Nor do I mean touching the things designed to be touched: doorknobs, furniture, light switches, fixtures, appliances, sinks, toilets, etc. I mean touching your building in an intentional way, just to see what it feels like. How often do you touch your building? How often are you feeling the physical environment around you? Most of the built environment is never designed to be touched. We touch the things inside of them, for sure, but the physical structures that permanently alter our landscapes, block our skies, disrupt our lives, and take up space are never meant to be felt.
I had been attending my university for two years before I decided to feel my campus. I first touched one of the exterior walls in our Academic Quad. The concrete was scratchy, cold, and unpleasant. The concrete railings were the same. The tiles were hard and unforgiving. I was wearing a brown fleece jacket that I had purchased back in November. It was so fluffy and soft a it was made to be rubbed and felt and experienced. It was ridiculous, but I wondered: what if the walls were made of fleece? What if the floor was soft? How would that change we view (touch) the world?
What if the urban environment was meant to be touched? What is the buildings around us were physically designed to be felt and a part of our everyday lives? What if instead of passing through them, we lived inside of them? What if we didn’t need to escape to ”the wilderness” to reconnect with the world around us? What if feeling the environment already around us was a way of deconstructing colonial frameworks of human-nature separation?
When I started feeling the built environment, I started to realize that the built environment isn’t built for people, but for bodies. This is not a new idea — feminist geography has long studied how “universal” urban spaces may in fact be designed and conceived for specific users that conform to heteropatriarchal and colonial systems. As kids we run our hands along fences, smell flowers, and swing around streetlights, intimately connected to the land. As we grow older, it seems like we start to conform to colonial systems of land ownership, and slowly we are conditioned to respect other people’s “private property.” To me, feeling the environment is a radical way of decolonization and reclaiming the public sphere.
I think for many of us who have grown up in urban spaces, it can feel difficult to feel connected to the environment or the world around us. Maybe touch is a way to to physically connect, even briefly. During this pandemic, touch has become an even more policed and contentious act. Can we still feel connected to the earth, to society, to each other, when touch is increasingly discouraged? Can we find ways to engage our senses in a safe and sanitary way? I believe so.
Touch the petals: feel how the rhododendrons are crêpe, the magnolias smooth but textured. Touch the leaves: waxy, soft, cold, dry, wet. But most importantly, touch the city: cars along the sidewalk, mailboxes, fences, the Skytrain doors as it slows to a stop, your fingerprints a trail in the dust. Touch to reclaim. Touch to exist. Touch the city and the city touches you back.