UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


The Bartlett and STEaPP late at Bloomsbury Festival

8 November 2018

Read about the Departments programme of events at the Bloomsbury Festival on Saturday 20 October as written by Emilia Smeds - a PhD student at STEaPP and a member of STEaPP's City Leadership Laboratory.

Ways of Seeing and the City – STEaPP at the Bloomsbury Festival 2018

On October 20th, STEaPP and the City Leadership Laboratory collaborated with The Bartlett on a ‘Late’ event as part of the Bloomsbury Festival. Over 220 people attended ‘The Bartlett and STEaPP Late’ – an absolutely fantastic level of interest for a Saturday evening, and a big motivation for STEaPP and the City Leadership Lab to continue to invest in public engagement with partners across UCL.

The creative programme of events included opportunities for interactive learning about urban research and issues such as urban inequality, while also providing opportunities for making ‘guerrilla urbanist’ objects, life drawings, and prose and poetry about experiences in the city. As a PhD Candidate at STEaPP and the City Leadership Lab, I had the privilege of supervising two tours on offer – free and open to all members of the public – that explored the urban fabric around UCL and Bloomsbury. In this post, I am sharing some of my personal reflections on the tours, which I

hope reflect the broader ethos of other activities that were part of the Late.

The first tour of the evening on Skateboarding in the city was led by Theo Krish, Co-Director at SkatePal, and focused on how skateboarders use urban infrastructure. During a second tour, Photography and the city at night, professional photographer Grace Gelder guided participants in visually capturing a range of moods and ideas manifested in the built environment. 

The first thing that struck me about the tours was how they demonstrated the value of free cultural events in bringing together Londoners in unexpected ways and build public debate and engagement about the city. Many of the people attending each tour had no link to UCL or STEaPP. In a busy and often anonymous city like London, meaningful interaction between strangers as part of everyday life is limited. Learning about urban policy and design is not necessarily accessible to all, with often costly ticket prices for specialised exhibitions on architecture, photography and urban culture at major museums. The interactive walking tours offered by the The Bartlett and STEaPP Late provided a forum for a diverse group of Londoners to meet each other, discuss, debate and even produce art together. This is very valuable in allowing people to build a sense of connection to the city, and fostering a sense of publicness or citizenship in an era where many academics (such as Richard Sennett and Robert Putnam) have argued that this is being lost.

For example, the skateboarding tour raised an interesting discussion around public versus private ownership of our streets and public spaces, and who has the right to use them and in what way. While skateboarders see the city as there ‘to be used’, with streets, railings, stairs and buildings all inviting the performance of tricks, decision-makers and property owners use policing and ‘defensive architecture’ such as ‘skatestoppers’ to control the use of spaces.

Indeed, both tours revealed the fascinating variety of ways that different people look at and see the city. As the art critic John Berger famously suggested in his work Ways of Seeing, “the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled”. While I first started studying at UCL in 2013 and have been walking through the campus on a daily basis, before the tour I had no idea that it is in fact full of well-known skateboarding spots. Now when I walk past the UCL Farmer’s Market, I see the same square but my understanding of what this space is, and means to skateboarders, is different. Similarly, I think the photography tour allowed participants to observe aspects of the Bloomsbury campus from a different angle. Grace Gelder told us that Woburn Square Gardens historically used to be marshland and allowed us to imagine this by taking some abstract photographs of vegetation, while over at the Institute for Education building we explored the forms of brutalist architecture and talked about the relationship between urban lighting and people’s feelings of safety.

Seeing the city through the eyes of other people – whether skateboarders or someone else’s camera lens – provides an important opportunity for Londoners to build understanding of diverse experiences and needs in relation to the city. London is a tremendous resource offering endless inspiration for research, policy-making and citizen engagement – if we know how to look.