Producing differences, connecting people: Symbolic construction of post urban places in distant residential areas of Moscow, Russia
The majority of cities all over the World have their symbolic capital concentrated in the central areas. Distant residential areas lack tourist attractiveness, original / authentic urban environments and any material / immaterial basics of local identities. People are not rooted in the urban districts they live in and feel Alien in them. There is no uniqueness in those residential areas (as seen by the residents), and there is no research or practical methodology to single out those unique features of a place and promote them as potential local brands.
In this paper I use the notion of place and a model of ‘place as palimpsest’ as emerging in cultural geography in order to discuss the possibilities of symbolic construction of new places and stimulation of local identities within currently ‘placeless’ distant residential areas of Moscow, Russia under the conditions of ‘post-urbanity’.
I thus aim to elaborate a methodology of picking up the unique features of distant urban residential areas regarded as place branding identifiers on the basis of the potential of the theory of regional geography and cultural geography combined together.
The development of cultural geography from the classical theories of the beginning of the XXth century (Sauer, 1925) to the second half of the XXth century was contradictory, yet important. The cultural turn has become a main trend of that change while the representatives of the new cultural geography criticized the Sauerian Berkeley school for focusing “their studies on the material artifacts, exhibiting a curious and thoroughly antiquarian ‘object fetishism’ over such items as houses, barns, fences and gasoline stations” (Price, Lewis, 1993, p. 3). Instead, they regard the cultural landscape through its human interpretation, symbolization and signification (Rowntree, Conkey, 1980). They stated that “the total cultural landscape is information stored in symbolic form” that “in part functions as a narrative” (Ibid., p. 461), and “the symbolic qualities of landscape, those which produce and sustain social meaning, have become a focus of research” as this “allows us to disclose the meanings that human groups attach to areas and places and to relate those meanings to other aspects and conditions of human existence” (Cosgrove, Jackson, 1987, p. 96).
That was the point when ‘place’ as a word turned into a scientific term: the place as being constructed by people through the process of signification. It was developed due to the cultural turn within new cultural / humanistic geography. “Space is transformed into place as it acquires definition and meaning”, Yi-Fu Tuan (1977 , p. 136) states. Dennis Jeans found the exact words for that constructing perspective: “To make a place is to surround a locality with human meanings” (Jeans, 1979, p. 209).
That is how the place becomes a kind of a palimpsest: a “fuzzy set” of diverse interpretations of one and the same landscape, not only historically different elements, but also emerging from various ethnic, cultural, social groups in the process of mythological and semiotic communications (Mitin, 2010). Each layer of that palimpsest is in fact a vision of a place, a story told, a myth, a geographical description, that is, a narrative.
In order to study this process of symbolic construction of those layers / narratives I use the theory of regional geography. Different modes of regional geographical descriptions have been described throughout the XXth century (Darby, 1962, Davis, 1915, Hart, 1982, Paterson, 1974). Being opposed by the positivist view of storing the entire data on any place in a form of encyclopedic classification, the idea of a good description as a geographer’s art of constructing a place is as follows: “Good regional geography should begin with, and probably should be organized around, the dominant theme of each region, which of course will vary from region to region. <…> Features that are overwhelmingly important in one region may be completely missing in another, and the regional geographer should give pride of place in each region to its most important or significant features” (Hart, 1982, p. 23).
Combining (a) the idea of the cultural landscape as being constructed through symbolic values, and (b) the theory of regional geographical descriptions altogether form a model of place as palimpsest as being created and re-created. However, it is to a much extent settled within a representational paradigm of geography, disputed by critical urban / cultural geographers through the calls for rematerializing the discipline (Lees, 2002). In Lefebvrian terms, cultural geography in the XXth century has executed a shift from the material / perceived space towards the conceptual space of representations, but the forthcoming critical paradigm is concerned about the third realm, that is the “representational spaces: the space directly lived through its associate images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 39), ‘thirdspace’, ‘real-and-imagined’ space (Soja, 1996). Lefebvre moves forward describing what kind of space it is. It is the product of the urban revolution, the totally urbanized space “constituted by a renewed space-time, a topology that is distinct from agrarian (cyclic and juxtaposing local particularities) and industrial (tending towards homogeneity, toward a rational and planned unity of constraints) space-time. Urban space-time <…> appears as a differential <…>. The urban space is complete contradiction” (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 37-39). It is stressed to be complex, heterogeneous, multifaceted, interrelated. This vision of the new space constitution revives the idea of a palimpsest, as the latest embraces that very endless multiplicity co-existing in one and the same place.
What is needed, is to shift the focus from those layers being constructed to the places being lived and experienced. That is exactly the point and the method I develop in my project on complex cultural geographical research of Yasenevo area in the outskirts of Moscow, Russia. I use a series of in-depth semi-structured interviews in order to try to single out what that standardized Soviet residential district is really unique and peculiar for local residents and plan to promote and use those ‘local specialties’ in a few cultural events in late 2019.
The project develops a multidisciplinary theoretical framework and is also practice-oriented. It is aimed at finding the unique features of a place, making it different from all the others, and promoting those features as the basis of local identities, connecting people into sustainable local community and thus symbolically constructing a meaningful place.
*The publication was prepared within the framework of the Academic Fund Program at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) in 2019 (grant №19-04-052) and by the Russian Academic Excellence Project “5-100”.