Creative Urban Methods: Introduction

Nanna Verhoeff & Sigrid Merx

Image: CRUM workshop Walking-Thinking held in 2021 (CRUM website)

Creative Urban Methods: Introduction
Nanna Verhoeff & Sigrid Merx (Utrecht University, Department of Media and Culture Studies)

This is the first of a series of KWALON blogs (in English) about creative urban methods. In 2019 the research initiative CRUM was launched: short for Creative Urban Methods. Bringing together new creative research methods in the social and geo sciences, and the humanities, CRUM aims to develop a toolkit of interdisciplinary methods for mapping and analyzing (issues around) infrastructures within public space to contribute to the development of (more) sustainable urban infrastructures.

Infrastructural Thinking
Public spaces in contemporary cities are infused with infrastructures – e.g. of energy, waste, mobility, sociality, knowledge, and information – that co-shape our private and public lives, have an impact on our experiences and well-being, and that enable (or disable) us to live, work and move around in the urban environment (Verhoeff, Merx & De Lange 2019). However pervasive, the various interconnected and constantly transforming infrastructural networks embedded in our cities are largely invisible to us citizens on a “street level”. Awareness of the presence and insight in the (dis)functioning and impact of these infrastructures, their interrelations, but also our own participatory position within these networks is urgent for urbanites to be able to fully participate in public life as well as to participate in collaborative city making practices and what Teli et al. call recursive engagement (2015), or “the capability of a public of being able to take care of the infrastructure that allows its existence as a public”. Specifically, contemporary urban challenges need to be approached from this “infrastructural thinking” so as to allow for a (critical) citizen engagement with, and collaboration in efforts to work toward, (more) sustainable urban futures. To develop this infrastructural thinking, we believe a sound qualitative research methodology is needed that is both analytical (what are these infrastructures, how do they manifest), critical (what do these infrastructures ‘do’), as well as actionable (how can we act in, co-shape or (re)design infrastructures).

Creative Methods
In both academic research and urban design and planning, we observe an increasing interest in creative as well as collaborative methods. These comprise methods such as data walking, performative mapping, experimental ethnography, dramaturgical analysis, interface analysis, and action-based research, research by design, and critical making. Such creative urban methods are embodied and explorative, and experimental and interventionist. They share a perspective toward spatiotemporal and relational structures of urban environments, dynamics of change and forms of mobility, and with a phenomenological emphasis on embodied experiences of the (citizen/academic) researcher.

Creative methods are especially productive in bringing different perspectives together, providing fresh approaches (Kara, 2020; Dunn and Mellor, 2017) and generating questions and raising awareness around complex subtleties. This is particularly valuable for practical as well as theoretical engagement with complex social and environmental issues, with different stakeholders in specific, situated social environments, as well as within interdisciplinary research and education contexts. Also, creative methods are productive for participatory, community-based, and action-based research and are able to reflect the multiplicity of meanings that exist in social contexts, allowing for different stakeholders to participate in debate and collaborate in (practical) research (Hjorth et al. 2019). Moreover, creative methods value situational specificity (Kara, 2020) and can provide access to emotional and symbolic aspects of people’s experiences not easily accessed by mainstream methods (Dunn and Mellor, 2017).

When brought together and redeveloped in relation to one another creative urban methods can be valuable for addressing challenges and questions around sustainable urban infrastructures by facilitating the necessary awareness and insight needed for a grounded actionability of researchers, designer, and citizens in collaborative and co-creative efforts to work towards (more) sustainable urban futures. In the next blogs more concrete examples of creative methods and its implementation will be elaborated on. Watch this space!

Literature referenced
* Dunn, V. & T. Mellor (2017). “Creative, participatory projects with young people: Reflections over five years.” Research for All 1, 2: 284-299.
* Hjorth, L., A. M. Harris, K. Jungnickel & G. Coombs (2019). Creative Practice Ethnographies. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
* Kara, H. (2020). Creative Research Methods. A Practical Guide. 2nd Edition. Bristol: Policy Press.
* Teli, M., S. Bordin, M. M. Blanco, G. Orabona & A. De Angeli (2015). “Public Design of Digital Commons in Urban Places: A Case Study.” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 81: 17-30.
* Verhoeff, N., M. de Lange, S. Merx (eds.) (2019). Urban Interfaces: Media, Art, and Performance in Public Spaces. Special Issue for Leonardo Electronic Almanac (MIT Press) 22, 4.

Nanna Verhoeff is professor of Screen Cultures & Society in the Department of Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University. Sigrid Merx is associate professor in Theatre and Performance Studies at the same department. Part of the research group [urban interfaces], they are interested in interdisciplinary methods for investigating media, art and performance in urban public spaces.

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