Edmonton Pipelines: Living Together in the Digital City

By Russell Cobb, Maureen Engel, Daniel Laforest and Heather Zwicker

What is Pipelines?

“Edmonton Pipelines” is a research cell based at the University of Alberta that is interested in bringing together urban theory, digital technologies, and deep mapping techniques in order to narrate the city of Edmonton. Our goal is to create a series of interactive digital maps of the city of Edmonton to serve as both a platform for ourselves and other scholars’ experimentation and research. While we take the city of Edmonton as our focus and object of study, we are also the founding research group in The Canadian Institute for Research Computing in Arts (CIRCA’s) Digital Urbanism Collaboratory. Through this structure, we also hope to connect and collaborate with urban and digital scholars around the world, building a network of humanists who share our interests and concerns.

Why the city?

In order to understand how Pipelines conceptualizes the urban space, we need to acknowledge three things.

First, we are living less and less inside a city, or at least that space that used to be considered as a city, and more and more inside urbanization itself. That is: inside a material and social space increasingly perceived to be in a constant state of flux, and in regards to which the stakes brought forth by material development —expansion; superposition; destruction; reconstruction—are challenging the formerly strict structural distinctions between centrality and periphery.[1] Roger Keil has recently pointed out how “the old models of urban research which populate the schools of literature such as Paris, Manchester, Berlin, and Chicago are increasingly being compromised in terms of their illustrative and explanatory value and are even becoming obsolete” (57). Clearly, the reshaping and acceleration of urban life at the onset of the new century brings a renewed context in which to think of the production of knowledge itself. The notion of flux permeates all this. It has gained currency since the advent of the current neoliberal economic order. It expresses what is formless and yet active, thus not only defining an increased experience and awareness of circulation as a cornerstone of everyday rhythms of life, but also hinting at the diminishing semiotic or symbolic difference between individual, social or material circulation, and the circulation of global values. In turn, our conception of the urban fabric itself comes influenced by flux and dense circulation. As Alexandra Boutros and Will Straw remind us, “cities become marked and differentiated by their capacity to absorb influences, by the manner in which they act as nodes, or clusters, within the circulation of modernizing forces” (5). Concentration and orientation of flux in the urban fabric means that the supposedly economically efficient cityspace of today’s capital production should not be hindered by the intricacies and interpretative non-immediacy of representation, be it linguistic or otherwise.

We know this is never true in practice, and that representational forms are constantly interweaving or contradicting with urban fluxes.[2] But what becomes important for us is that we might be lacking a suitable model of history capable of including this very knowledge. We might be lacking the narrative capability to address the experience of relating to our own stories and feelings in a constantly shifting urban space. Indeed, when it comes to representation, the most elusive aspects shared by the 20th and 21st century cities are the forces at work in their physical development. Thematic and patrimonial spaces, consensual frontiers, along with traditional categories and oppositions (urban/rural, cosmopolitan/local, private/public) have been favoured over transitory moments and shifting forms of urban living. Subjectivity, transportation and habitation are always somewhat transitory affairs, especially in the current model of suburban and exurban development. Thus we ask: how to narrate one’s personal experience of living inside urbanization? But also, how does urbanization exist in the past; what are the visual forms of its memory? And what to do of all those dreamt-up presents that never came; of all those possible futures that never happened?

Secondly, it appears to us that the lesser-known Canadian cities have recently become fascinating in this respect. Entire neighborhoods springing up from the ground in a matter of weeks; large downtown areas being re-conceived and re-branded through ambitious projects is a spectacle that Canadian cities like Edmonton have been infamous for in the past decade or so. This is a unique experience in the history of urban development. From the perspective of the everyday, individual life, it might very well be an untold experience.

The third thing to acknowledge is that we are not content with simply walking, commuting or driving in our cities anymore. Many of us are now reflecting on how we accomplish these things while we accomplish them on mobile digital devices and GPS-enabled maps. There is a new surface where subjectivity and urban space intersect. A surface on which we are becoming our own characters in a new type of urban narrative. Looking at these three aspects, we realize how they allow for a new take on some aspects of urban studies in relation with interdisciplinary research in the Humanities.

Although much interesting work has been done on urbanism, scholars usually rely on what’s visible. This is why grand gestures and ideologies pertaining to urban planning or liberal speculation have come to summarize the alpha and omega of modern and postmodern cities alike in the eyes of historians and critics. There is a vast and fascinating history of urban planning, development, and city growth politics, but its main character has remained rather heterogeneous, and often broadly sketched. Against such a heterogeneity, Pipelines wants to make it clear that the city is a place.

The distinction between space and place has traditionally rested on the individual, subjective experience of the city. Space is a set of coordinates, an area delineated by objectivity alone, and place is what happens when this area is experienced by someone [3], someone who creates and interacts with memories, who builds his or her own path along with the traces left behind, who questions the layers of meaning and experience in any given location. Cultural and urban theories have produced three major concepts in order to sum this up: the flâneur, the everyday, and psychogeography.[4] With Pipelines, we certainly follow these concepts in that we believe the city should be defined from the ground of the experience up. But we are more interested in the questions that result from such a belief in a city like Edmonton today. What do individual narratives (e.g. literary) absorb from their physical urban surroundings? What happens to these individual narratives when they get access to urban data showing how their physical surroundings are themselves the result of complex histories yet to be told? And how, exactly, does a place acquire an aura of authenticity in such a context?

The urban environment has a way of forcing us to think of digital technologies as proponents of a reality less “virtual” or dis-incarnated than what we used to believe a decade ago. There is certainly a new creativity in the redoubling of one’s experience on the screen of a mobile device. Our belief in the classical, linear, bildungsroman-type narrative is now being challenged by a set of unforeseen parameters. The mobility of the screen itself has become as important as the one found in images. Urban space around which such technologies are developed has acquired a heuristic value for the projections of one’s personal narrative. For, indeed, the interfaces rapidly developing at the crossroad of GPS location technologies, electronic mapping and cloud-based computing are being designed, for the most part, with the urban experience first in mind. From this development we can conclude that not only is the representation of urban experience being transformed by technology, but also how we look at ourselves through the city.

The Specificity of Edmonton

As a post-war, car-centered, mid-sized city, Edmonton represents both a unique and
representative case study. Edmonton is unique in that it is North America’s most northern city of over one million inhabitants, but it is also representative of the main type of urban space developed after World War II and based on mobility. These are cities that have been either understudied or dismissed as characterless manifestations of “sprawl.” It is precisely this lack that animates this project. Edmonton is under-narrated even by comparison to cities of similar age and type.[5] However, far from being a detriment to this project, being under-storied is a positive boon, since it means Edmonton cityspace is still malleable, amenable to a plethora of stories that intersect in complex ways. Any single city location might mean a number of things, and our various pipelines attempt to distribute distinct meanings through semiotically dense urban spaces.

We do this using several traditional means – urban theory, close reading, psychogeography, creative nonfiction and literature, to be sure – but we also find inspiration in ludic ways of inhabiting the city, like Manhunt, geocaching, and parkour. What truly sets Pipelines apart is its infusion of all of these approaches with data. Edmonton, unlike many North American cities, has committed to making all of its non-confidential data open to the general public. “Open” in this context means two things: first, it is freely available; second, it is available in multiple non-proprietary formats that permit users to decide what to do with it. From median family income to crime statistics, to density of green spaces, quantitative information about the city abounds. Anyone with an Internet connection has unprecedented access to a range of data about the city. What this project hopes to accomplish is to make sense of this data by distilling it and creating narratives and digital platforms that will encourage citizens to become more engaged with their surroundings. The city has the data; we want to produce the knowledge.

Inspirations and context

We are obviously not the first to be using locative technologies to produce knowledge about Edmonton; there is a growing number of digital maps that visualize a particular issue. The city police service has published a crime map which they regularly update with current statistics. Feminist activists have produced a sexual assault map. Several community leagues have put together walking maps. Many of those sites are unidimensional, but there is a burgeoning interest in using locative technologies more creatively. WiserPath[6], a project by Matthew Dance, maps the Edmonton river valley for recreational users. The website, and soon to be smart-phone app, covers both official and informal trails and allows for on-the-go microblogging. Similarly, a collaborative geohistorical project led by William Aragon at King’s University College in Edmonton is mapping the industrial history of the North Saskatchewan River Valley.

Edmonton Pipelines is inspired by these local sites, but also by international web-based cartographies that take cities as object and inspiration – particularly those that offer creative takes on the possibilities of urban living and digital representation. The list of such examples is constantly growing. Hitotoki[7], for instance, particularly in its “classic” form (the site has since become Twitter-based), offers short place-based narratives from Tokyo, New York, Shanghai, Paris, and Sofia. Sound maps like the Calendonia Road project[8], published in The Guardian, demonstrate new ways of collecting and publicizing popular history. Like our conception of a “pipeline,” the Calendonia Road project uses a single trajectory through the city as the organizing principle for gathering and conveying urban meaning. Finally, the mapping projects [9] that Christian Nold has initiated are particularly compelling for the way they map urban intensities (the San Francisco Emotion Map) or their opposites (the Stockport Emotion Map). Nold equips community mappers with an electronic device that measures physical responses, then sends them into city spaces. After he amasses responses, he can map the city sites that evoke particularly strong physical responses. But his work has also morphed into community-based mapping, and, as in the case of Stockport, he helps citizens understand how and why the city might fail to elicit intensity. Edmonton Pipelines hopes to adapt many aspects of projects like these – their community-mindedness, their attention to narrative, their understanding of history “from below,” for instance – while mobilizing the city’s open data to make sense of this particular city, in the here and now.

Technologies and projects

In its initial stages, we had imagined the Pipelines project to entail both the development of the deep mapping content about the city, as well as the actual development of a platform to house and render that data. As the project progressed, however, we came to understand two important facts: 1) the range and diversity of ideas we had for our map would prove unmanageable at a certain scale; at least in the beginning stages of the project, we would need to produce multiple, smaller-scale maps; 2)  attempting to build an entire platform would inevitably delay the production of the maps themselves, the core research outcome.  As a consequence of these realizations, we chose to develop multiple granular projects, each headed up by a project lead and each involving different members of the Pipelines group. We also decided that, at least in the early years of the research program, we needed to work with an established platform where we could concentrate on developing and structuring data. Ultimately, we have chosen to work with Hypercities, an application that allows for the development of layered maps that are both geographically and temporally referenced. (We discuss Hypercities more fully below.)

We see our set of connected yet distinct projects as “pipelines” – something like the plethora of pipelines you might see at a refinery. “Amiskwaciwâskahikan,” for example (the Cree name for Edmonton), lays bare the city’s colonial logic by superimposing Treaty 6 Aboriginal maps over conventional maps of the space we know as Edmonton. This pipeline’s historical breadth, connecting Fur Trade contact to the present day, will demonstrate the city’s ongoing colonial commitments, but it will also demonstrate how colonialism literally changes shape over time, moving from a logic of exclusion (the “Indian” reserves being initially outside of the city limits) to a logic of containment (the inner-city poverty now being disproportionately Aboriginal). The pipeline project “Vertical Suburbia” challenges the assumption that suburban spaces are visually horizontal: it asks, instead, what we can apprehend and reconnect if we look for what literally goes into the ground of suburbia. “Future Cities” will look at the Edmontons that never were, superimposing planning maps onto city maps in order to analyse the differences. Drawing on the belief that every social change begins with a shift in the field of vision, “City Punctums,” for its part, will investigate through open user participation how a city like Edmonton becomes unique to the eye, and how it produces its own consensus on realism by displacing the classic equation proposed by Kevin Lynch between “imageability” and habitability (Lynch). “Queer Edmonton” is another pipeline that locates community activist Darrin Hagen’s historical research on queer Edmonton histories in three ways: a simple Google map, a rich Hypercities installation, and a locative smartphone-readable QR-coding initiative that will connect to archival, narrative, and audio information about the site, thus literally inserting queer history into city spaces. “Towards a Cultural Economics of Parking” examines the meaning of parking by looking at the unique arrangement of social space inside the parked car.

Each of these projects mobilizes the genre appropriate to its theme, using the richest digital media appropriate to the pipeline. Photography, video, narrative, animation, audio are used to link analysis with representation. In addition, each pipeline is led by a different researcher in conjunction with a specific team. Research teams certainly involve the four of us who are centrally committed to the Pipelines project, but they also include graduate and undergraduate students, community partners, and colleagues in other disciplines. Our collaborations are thus both deep and broad. Edmonton Pipelines certainly draws from theoretical insight inherited from the so-called “spatial turn” in the Humanities; but we also aim to model new possibilities for future collaborations across disciplines.

Pipelines Infrastructure: Building the Base

The individual pipelines that make up the larger endeavour are multi-modal and variously scaled.  One of the key philosophies behind our diffuse structure is to allow the concerns and research questions of each pipeline to drive the format it expresses itself in. Nonetheless, a majority of our projects will in some way be mapped, and we’ve selected the Hypercities platform as our prototype for map-based work.

Hypercities is being developed through a partnership between UCLA and USC. It allows users to layer historical maps over contemporary map/satellite imagery (from Google), and to adjust the opacity among those maps in order to see the historical relationships among them. Beyond this core functionality, it allows for a variety of media objects to be embedded into the maps. In its own terms, Hypercities  is “a globally-oriented platform that reaches deeply into archival collections and aggregates a wide range of media content (including broadcast news, photograph archives, 3D reconstructions, user-created maps, oral histories, GIS data, and community stories).”[10]

While most media objects can be configured and placed into the existing Hypercities environment, the actual historical maps go through a different process. To date, no maps of Edmonton have found their way into the platform, so this is the first, foundational pipeline. The base maps group is currently developing a timeline of significant Edmonton dates, and locating appropriate historical maps from those dates, in partnership with the City of Edmonton Archives, the University of Alberta Libraries, and the Provincial Archives of Alberta. The maps will then be geolocated according to Hypercities’ guidelines, and submitted. As other projects progress, the base maps group will continue to  support their work by locating the maps that they request and preparing them for the Hypercities environment. Once the maps have been submitted, they are available to any user of the platform for any purpose they choose.

What follows is a sketch of three developing pipelines.

Pipeline: Rossdale Flats

The Rossdale flats, a three-square-kilometre zone geographically central to Edmonton, yet symbolically as well as topographically beneath the city core, have staged quintessentially urban contests between private and public, efficiency and commemoration, settlement, commerce and resource extraction. Rossdale is the site for pre-Treaty 6 Aboriginal settlements, the second Fort Edmonton, the inauguration of the Province of Alberta, a burial ground, an ice house, a fair ground, a ball park, a power plant. In the early twentieth century, it offered working-class housing near the coal seams of the North Saskatchewan; in the early twenty-first century, it is characterized by expensive vinyl Victorians alongside the Capital City Recreation Area. Rossdale has seen conflicts over circulation, civic, environmental, and corporate interests. It is the site for powerful past futures (see below): here is where the planetarium was to be built, where baseball would flourish, where power generation would triple, where artist studios and chic cafes would amp up Edmonton’s cosmopolitan cache.

Such a dense cityspace hosts multiple, contradictory stories. What does it mean to “read” such a densely signifying space? Stand in one spot in the Rossdale Flats to apprehend the complexity of place. If you look closely at the boreal bush along the bike trails, you can discern raspberry canes and apple trees on the riverbanks, domestic remnants of the backyards from houses expropriated in the 1970s to build the “Ribbon of Green.” Where you stand and marvel, trying to imagine that disappeared cityscape, will be on a riverbank hollowed by coal extraction: a formative city phenomenon beneath the plane of the visible. Beneath that vision, another made forcibly invisible by the false celebration of this city as a hundred-year-old entity: aboriginal Rossdale, routinely inhabited for six thousand years. You may be watched by a ring-necked pheasant, red squirrels, a coyote, foxes, and certainly magpies: denizens of the urban river valley. Look uphill, downriver, and you will see the brick brewery, now a residence for the city’s best-loved architect, implicated as well in gentrification; upriver, the brickyard site has become a fitness centre. Running past you this whole time is the river itself, its water not far from the Saskatchewan Glacier, though heated and treated by the Rossdale power generating station.

Rossdale does not tell a narrative of progress. In fact, it does not tell a narrative at all. Instead, it shows us that every urban phenomenon has contestatory values that collide in one moment and diverge in another – it highlights the “flux” and “circulation” of urbanization that we discuss above. Rossdale tells us that a city is a palimpsest, replete with connotations that accrete and occlude one another. The Rossdale Pipeline aims to draw out these meanings using digital technology to represent what linear narrative cannot: simultaneous visualizations of dense cityspace. The Rossdale collection in Hypercities will offer industrial histories against natural histories, will show the burial grounds and the traffic circle built on top of it, will demonstrate the power relations and the neighbourly relations that together built this place and continue to give it meaning.

Pipeline: Vertical Suburbia and the narration of the barely visible

The pipelines project entitled Vertical Suburbia has been created to look for new storytelling models in which to conjugate the everyday individual and cultural experiences of Edmonton with the scattered signs of an untold material history of the suburbs. The current importance of suburban spaces as a common social problem offers a mixture of focus and disengagement. The focus is on how capital’s logic of speculation comes to be brutally inscribed into the land. The disengagement has to do with how no one really knows how to think of History, and more specifically historicity, when it comes to that particular space and to the forms of living thereof. Outside the circles of urban studies and sociology, everything seems to be taking place as if the historical development of suburbia could be summed up (or superseded) by its simple expansion in space, regardless of one’s critical or political perspective. John Sewell, in his detailed study of Toronto’s sprawl, recalls that “in the early 1970s, Stephen Lewis, then leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, announced with some regularity how many acres of good farmland were being converted into subdivisions every hour and every minute” (162). In other words, there is an implicit assumption that what’s visible is what it is; or that what we see is what we get. Vertical suburbia has been conceived as a practical, field-based and user-oriented alternative to that reductive model. The immediate goal is to produce a series of location-based narratives drawing from different, punctual experiences of the suburban landscape. These narratives that will also include a strong visual content, the bulk of which pertaining to photos taken on-site. The project makes full use of the layered base-maps from different eras of Edmonton’s history which stand at the core of the Pipelines initiative.

We know how every suburban spaces in a town like Edmonton are connected to each other. It’s easy. They are all the same. This remains true as long as you don’t happen to live somewhere. It all changes when we realize that, for example, the neighborhood we live in, a neighborhood that has the capacity to comfort us in the belief that we made it, politically and ecologically, as a central city dweller, used to be a suburb not so long ago, although the connections to its past and to the other most recent suburban areas of the town are now blurred. Or when we take into account the still under-studied cultural diversity created in the suburbs as they increasingly become the settlement of choice for new immigrants [11]. Thus one comes to ask: apart from the obvious question of commuting, how are everyday suburban living spaces related to each other in different parts of the city? What historical threads can we find to create new connections in the material space around us? Do the visual narratives we can come up with share a common ground (literally) with to the ones woven in another suburb? And ultimately: how does that make us feel? Because on an interactive map, our emotions and the way we relate to them can only gain common value.

A way to address the questions that precede is to acknowledge that suburbia is arguably the sole sector of urban space with which we engage only horizontally. Moreover, it is the physical layout of suburbia that produces this horizontality which in turn transmits into our everyday, affective worlds, tainting them with a bland, permanent sense of unremarkable functionality. There exists a distinctly suburban field of view in North-America that possesses a political dimension because for that reason. To oppose the white-collar dreariness of suburban culture, in that respect, is to engage visually with its horizontality, which is produced on multiple levels:

  1. The zoning regulations, stating that even commercial stretches will not have buildings with more elevation than x or y, are producing horizontality on a formal level.
  2. The real estate speculative development of the neoliberal city, being at once devoid of roots and teleology (unlike the “planned city” of the past century), is producing horizontality on an communal level (the widely accepted word for this being “sprawl”).
  3. The markers that the pedestrian and car-bound commuter will use for everyday orientation are rarely associated with landmarks visible because of their height. In a city like Edmonton, people are invariably going from crossroads to crossroads to find their way. This is thus producing horizontality on an individual level.

Moreover, in a soil-oriented economy like Alberta, it is a well know albeit rarely discussed fact that private land and home ownership are themselves horizontal processes. Individuals do not own the resources potentially lying under the bedrock of their yard. Nor do they have access to the material remnants of memories it may contain. And the complex infrastructures making life possible by organizing, channeling, and distributing resources to house and neighborhood remain for the most part an occult affair [12]. However, the commonplace assumption that the only ways to exist in suburbia are either to be lost, clueless, or depoliticized does not take into account the verticality of the individual urban experience.

But verticality in suburbia is hindered. It demands to be uncovered. If suburbia can be defined, as it so often is, by its high degree of homogeneity, then its emotional regime is even more prone to involve everyone. There are, potentially, a vast number of shared suburban experiences and emotions, however limited or even poor they might be. But one obvious problem is that this potential commonality is cut short by the segregationist layout of private land ownership and accessibility. No one really looks into each other’s yard. Curiosity in suburbia is not a producer of social relations and intersected stories; it rather destroys them through the spectre of legality. And yet that might not be the case when we look to the skies, or to the ground. The potential paths and narratives laying dormant above and under the functional angle of our everyday gaze are unhindered by fences, garages, and noise walls. This is why verticality, from all accounts, seems to begin where the frontiers of property are becoming blurred. There is an unexplored and as-yet unorganized emotional space on the edges of our peripheral vision where the notion of urban property loses some of its clarity.  When we reconstruct the suburban experience by leaving out the visible field that corresponds to the functional economy of the everyday, what’s left? Can we attempt to make a world out of it? What form of realism will this produce? Will the results make us think of proximity and neighborhood differently within the neoliberal city?

Vertical suburbia is not interested in what is concealed or invisible. It is interested in what is barely visible. The only mandatory instruction of theproject is to focus on the neglected points of view in the suburban space. Look up, look down, but never look straight ahead. Take pictures of what you consider unusual aspects in your field of vision. The intersection of electricity wires, picture windows, and the faraway cityscape; the idiosyncrasies of rooftops and the things people will leave on them; half-buried objects in the ground; ephemeral markings for street repairs; remnants of children games; the distribution of streetlight and darkness at night, etc. These are all the beginnings of narratives: individual and interconnected stories of what it feels like to live in a space neglected by History itself.

The nondescript nature of suburban spaces makes the project malleable in such a way that its initial implementation in Edmonton can be followed by other experiences in different cities, leading the way for comparisons and a better understanding of individual and communal living in today’s urban North-America.

Pipeline: Past/Futures

In a 2007 exhibit titled “Capital Modern: Edmonton Architecture and Urban Design 1940 to 1969,” the Art Gallery of Alberta took the bold step of trying to recuperate a period of urban design and architecture widely seen as a failure in the eyes of contemporary designers and architects (Boddy). To the curators of the exhibit, the boxy, minimalist design of the period, was not a soulless, conformist emblem of post-war conservatism, but rather, a forward-looking innovation. The glass and steel buildings and wide roads and freeways would liberate, rather than repress, the post-war subject. Edmonton, flush with new money and waves of new immigrants, hoped to be at the forefront of the modernist revolution in architecture and urban design. Plans were drawn up to remake the city’s River Valley, its downtown core, and old streets like Whyte Avenue. Many of these plans were discussed, debated, and then later shelved as a new wave of urban theory gained traction.

The modernist dream envisioned by Le Corbusier and his epigones lost its momentum as critics like Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs argued that urban modernism was strangling the lifeblood of North American cities: the dense urban neighbourhood. With the development of New Urbanism and the advent of Smart Growth policies in the 1990s, it appears that modernism is dead. But what happened to some of its more utopian fantasies? What can the plans for the future in urban design and architecture tell us about who we are today?

The Past/Futures project looks not to the cultural centres of New Urbanism, but to the peripheries. It is in places peripheral to the centres of cultural capital that some of the most daring, visionary plans for future cities have been envisioned. From Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa’s “plano piloto” for Brasilia, to Oral Roberts’ “City of Faith” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the Students Union Housing at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, many of the great experiments in urban design have happened beyond the confines of the big city at the centre of economic and symbolic power. Because many of these projects proved to be less than utopian in their execution, they have often been dismissed as “failures.” What explains the disjuncture between the futuristic rhetoric in the design and the lived reality? What can we learn from past visions of the future? And what past visions of the future remained as plans?

By looking at blueprints, design competitions, and media accounts of future plans for peripheral cities, Past/Futures hopes rescue the hope for the future from the failed legacies of such projects, understanding what seemingly disparate cities have in common and how they might go forward in creating new, sustainable forms of urban life without destroying what already exists. The immediate task, then, is to excavate, as it were, the original plans post-war Edmonton, the “pilot plan” of Brasilia, the designs for the City of Faith, so that we might connect the dots and understand what such designs had in common and where they differed. The next task is find plans for futures never constructed, highlighting the utopian impulse behind them and the realities which undercut them. Ultimately, Past/Futures should arrive at a narrative that transcends nationalism and regionalism to reveal the impulses that fuel futuristic designs.

Pipelines and the commons

The pipelines project is, at every level, a project in and of the commons.  Practically, the project is a collaboration, based around a core group of four researchers, and welcoming others to enter and exit the group according to their endeavors and interests.

Theoretically and philosophically, Pipelines takes the real, lived sense of the urban as both its object and its setting, configuring the city as a sequence of shared, multivocal, contradictory, and contested spaces; this is not the city of zoning, property lines, and privatized spaces behind closed doors. As a user-based project, Pipelines draws on the potential of any number of people’s experience in navigating and inhabiting the city – ultimately, it aims at expressing the network-based, affective and transformational social forces at play in the very fact of inhabiting.

And yet, working with open urban data also involves aspects of the common that are unstressed because of their non immediately social nature. From that perspective, the availability of raw urban data in digital form means that the forces at work in city development are now way more visible, more accessible, and more diverse than they have ever been. Thus one important thing we want to investigate in regards to the contemporary city is what it means to inhabit in a statistical world. And more importantly, how we can construct other worlds out of that experience? What to make, for instance, of unresolved areas within the statistical distribution of the neoliberal city? The often overlooked fact is that urban statistics do produce spaces of the common. However, they do not do so by relating people or objects to one another; they do so by relating a variable quantity and a set of social value. In reality, nothing really prevents statistics and raw data from expressing something of the potential of the common. But they do not need us in order to achieve that. [13]

That being said, living inside urbanization can also mean living in a process where the fluctuations of material space give us the main rhythm for our collective experience. The creation or production of new spaces is one thing, but maybe the democratic process is really more involved when, as Jacques Rancière has repeatedly shown, people actually cease to occupy their own space – when they cease to occupy the space that they are expected to occupy, and when they begin to speak and weave stories about an everyday that is as much on the move as everything else in the fabric of the city. Pipelines’ intervention in exploring and reinstating narrating possibilities with multiple digital representations of a XXIst century city like Edmonton wishes to make that visible. If only to see what might happen.

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Self, Will & Ralph Steadman. Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007. Print.

Sewell, John. The Shape of the Suburbs: Understanding Toronto’s Sprawl. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Print.

Zwicker, Heather. Edmonton on Location: River City Chronicles. Edmonton: New West Press, 2005. Print.


[1]Saskia Sassen expresses it best when developing her well-known concept of the global city: “Today, there is no longer a simple straightforward relation between centrality and such geographic entities as the downtown and the central business district” (110).

[2]This is the main focus of Julie-Anne Boudreau, Roger Keil and Douglas Young when they write that “urban neoliberalization can be read as a specific intersection of the global —in the sense of both general and worldwide— shifts in the structure of capitalist economies and states with the everyday life of people in cities” (22).

[3]This distinction is hinted at by Edward S. Casey, in his 1997 book The Fate of Place. But it is most clearly made by Augustin Berque in is 2000 book Écoumène. Introduction à l’étude des milieux humains.

[4]See Melvin Coverley, Psychogeography (2010).

[5]As pointed out by Heather Zwicker in Edmonton on Location: River City Chronicles (2005).






[11]In 2006, Micheal Jones-Correa was lamenting the scarcity of studies and public attention given to this aspect of suburban transformations: “Much of the recent literature on immigrants and ethnic minorities […] still maintains a traditional focus on the urban core. For both researchers and policymakers, immigrants and other ethnic minorities in suburbia are, in many respects, an unknown quantity” (184). The situation has, arguably, not improved much since then.

[12]See: Scott Huler, On the Grid: A plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make our World Work (2010).

[13]François Dosse shows how this has been an important part of Michel de Certeau’s extremely influential view on space through his criticism of Pierre Bourdieu’s use of statistics: “[What is denounced] quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when the massive realities of statistics are favored as a point of departure over the gaze of the individuals acting in reality. It is always the practical spaces that should allow for theoretical questions, not the opposite” (195). (We translate).