Friday 31 July 2009

Thinking through Hullness by David Atkinson

Thinking through Hullness: a geographical perspective

David Atkinson, Department of Geography, University of Hull

I am an academic geographer working at the University of Hull. I’ve lived in and around the city since early 1998, and have written several papers on the ways that various heritage and memory issues have been articulated, contested and debated through space and landscapes such as Victoria Dock, St. Andrew’s Dock and the city centre. I was asked to comment on these three essays on Hullness, and I’m delighted to contribute to the important business of exploring our city’s distinctive yet elusive sense of place.

Responses to the essayists

Given my profession, I naturally notice the geographical aspects of Hullness. Indeed, I’d argue that the identities of all cities are informed and inflected by geographies: by morphology and form, by a city’s size and dimensions, and also by its location relative to other major centres, to mountains or the sea, or to foreign countries. Not everyone appreciates such nuance, however, and I was therefore delighted to see the provocative geographies that were employed by the three essayists as they pursued a sense of Hullness.

I was pleased to see the emphasis in David Neave’s deft essay upon the wider circuits of commerce, commodities, migrants, and cultural and political influence that have constituted Hull over the ages. This kind of fluid emphasis upon the ‘routes’ of various influences upon place -rather than the imagined stability of fixed, authentic ‘roots’- resonates with what geographer Doreen Massey called a ‘Global sense of place’. Like all cities, Hull is constituted from the myriad interconnecting flows of different peoples and cultures across time. Whether these influences shape architectural style or political leanings, changing industries or dialects and accents, this is the stuff that constitutes our modern cities and if we ignore these impacts, our understandings of Hullness will suffer. David also contributed an elegant history that emphasised Hull’s longstanding independence due to its relative isolation from other centres of political power. He also noted the city’s extroverted perspective that saw it connected to Europe more than other parts of England in times past. Such are the characteristic historical geographies of Hull, and all of these help to shape Hullness.

Richard Scott also responded to the geographies of the city in his attempts to express Hullness. His images and the enthusiasm of his accompanying narrative communicated his sense of the city as an exiled Hullonian. I was particularly struck by the way that his images engaged the esturine mud and waters of the Humber, the city-skyline and the broader horizons of the waterfront, the meanders of the river Hull as it bisects the city, and the highly-defined shape of the Old Town, buried at the heart of the city and offering something unique to Hull’s identity. Richard also spoke of the proud elegance of the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian centre (always startling, I think, for a first time visitor), and the pervasive presence of water and the clarity this lends the city’s air. For me, Hullness also extends to the flat, comfortable suburbs of West Hull, and to the avenues and estates stretching eastwards and northwards along the arterial roads to Hedon, Holderness and Beverley. All of this is the particular, characteristic urbanism all makes up modern Hull, and all of this inevitably informs Hullness too.

I also enjoyed the psychogeographies of the Caravan Gallery and the photographs of their journeys around our city. Their pictures peered into the niches of quotidian Hull, the everyday corners that some of us frequent or pass regularly but that are exposed anew by the perspectives of visitors. Psychogeography is a broad and disparate practice, but in essence it encompasses a sense of drifting through the city and being open to its unique geographies and histories. It is about engaging places, about seeing and listening to the landscape without pre-judging it. What does it tell us of life and living here? When I moved to Hull I took a flat in High Street. I wanted to be in the middle of the city and I walked it routinely to get to know it: up Wincomlee, out across Witham, around the Old Town, across to the ferries, and endlessly back and forth across the city centre and the Marina. Caravan Gallery captured this same kind of wandering –that of the flâneur, some call it- who observes and comes to know space as s/he walks it. They encounter the familiar, but also the unexpected: like oil seed mills that look like they have been transplanted from nineteenth-century Pittsburgh, or long waits at level-crossings, or the scent of chocolate drifting across the rooftops. And interestingly, as outsiders, they didn’t buy the East/West division of the city. Although a favoured and fervent element of the city’s rhetoric (and therefore important in itself as a statement of self-identity), I think the East/West fracture is rather more stated than demonstrated in Hull. In practice does anybody really avoid the other half of the city? Would anyone refuse to cross the river if they had good reason? Arguably, in approaching the city without prior-knowledge of this divide, Caravan Gallery saw straight through this supposed division. In sum, the stories partially unfolded by Caravan Gallery’s fleeting portraits are many: all kinds of histories and identities swirl beneath these images. They did us a great service presenting a perspective from new pairs of eyes. They help us to see our city anew.

And what of Hullness?

So, the city council wants to know what Hullness is? What is the distinctive nature of this place? What is its genius loci and how can this be captured (if it can be represented conventionally)?

Place is undoubtedly an important element in our geographical imaginaries - and by this I mean the individual and collective ways that we make sense of the world around us. Place is also central to identities: many of us nurture subjective and emotional attachments to places where we feel rooted and connected. We often want to feel pride in our place too: think of the elation surrounding Hull City’s promotion to the Premiership as evidence of this. Further, and increasingly in post-industrial economies, the selling of place through place-promotion is also crucial to cities and regions that are competing to attract inwards investment, wealthy migrants and tourist spending. The requirements of place-promotion demand a clear and credible sense of place that the city can buy into and support. For all these reasons, and despite being notoriously ephemeral and amorphous, place remains a crucial concept for our modern world. All three essayists tried to convey a sense of Hullness, and I think all three contributed significantly.

For my part, I’ll admit that despite my years here, and despite writing about the city repeatedly, I’m not sure I know what Hullness is either. So perhaps it may be easier to first assert what it is not? I am certain that Hull is not a ‘non-place’ as described by the French anthropologist Marc Augé. For Augé, airports, shopping malls, and identikit high-streets are non-places; they are all fleeting, transient meaningless locales that could be anywhere and remind us of nowhere. His theory chimes with the frequent observation that idiosyncratic places are increasingly eroded by our accelerating world, its mass-communications and the increased mobility of people and ideas. Some of the homogenised places that result are non-places; Hull certainly isn’t one of these. It does have character; it does have a distinct genius loci. And while I can’t define this identity precisely, I’ll add mention of some elements that I think do contribute to Hullness.

First, Hull is an under-bounded city. That is, it is locked within boundaries that don’t reflect its natural scale and reach across the surrounding region. The revised mosaic of unitary authorities established in 1996 isolated the city from its natural hinterland. Beverley, Cottingham, Hessle and the villages around the city –Hull’s functioning conurbation- are mired in East Yorkshire and many of the wealthy professionals who work in Hull take their salaries and much of their spending beyond the city boundary at the end of each working day. Meanwhile the city centre, some of the poorer districts, and the bulk of the social problems are concentrated into a relatively small core-areal. This is a problem in socio-economic terms, but it also shapes a collective sense of the city.

Hull is distinctive in other ways too. As David Neave noted, it developed thanks to an extroverted trading past –as much connected to Flanders as to other English regions- but I suspect that some of this wider, outward-looking perspective has been eroded through the economically-difficult years of the late Twentieth century. Rebuilding this confidence and Hull’s European profile is a further challenge for the city. That said, Hull is not a backwards looking place. It does not wallow in nostalgia like some cities with glorious pasts, nor has it become consumed by the pursuit of heritage like some ‘historic’ towns. Despite healthy interest in local history, local perspectives tend to focus on the present.

Hull also defies easy categorisation in comparison to some other Northern cities. As manufacturing industry contracts further, Hull is gradually becoming a post-industrial city. I hear that the University is now the biggest employer, for example. Yet this change has not been as rapid as in some other Northern English cities. Leeds and Manchester have consciously presented themselves as modern, post-industrial places, for example; Hull, by contrast, has a slower but steadier evolutionary trajectory. Similarly, Hull remains a very White city in ethnic terms, and its slow progression towards the multiculturalism evident in many other comparable British cities also marks the city’s difference from rivals along the M62 and elsewhere in the North.

And what to do with Hullness?

In sum, the city is distinct. It has character and a sense of place. Consequently, the city authorities bear a responsibility to address and promote this unique and valuable resource. I’d argue that doing so presents various challenges, and I’ll outline two here.

First, we need planning, architecture, spaces and districts that respond to the city, its history, and its individuality. Such ambition is stated repeatedly by architects and planners everywhere, of course, but less frequently do we see these objectives fulfilled successfully. Key hallmark buildings, like the Maritime Museum which is a constant shadow in Richard Scott’s images, need to be celebrated as pivotal in the city’s landscape. I’d argue that the city should also invest in further high-quality architecture and urbanism to avoid the danger of becoming a non-place full of identikit retail estates, hotels and car-showrooms. This means new buildings that resonate with Hull’s inimitable traditions and locale. It means maintaining extant high-quality urban fabric, and not diluting it with uninspiring new building (or, and I echo Richard Scott here, oversized public TV sets). All of this is a central and pressing challenge for the city.

Second, if we derive a better sense of Hull’s genius loci from this nascent debate, we then need to practice and perform this Hullness. Again, places are not fixed and stable; they are not inert and simply there forever. Rather, they are made and re-made each day by mundane, quotidian practice and by the animation of people performing a place’s identity. Therefore, if Hull can establish the contours of Hullness, it has to then perform this identity publically. If, for example, we decide that our core identity is as a maritime city –a port reaching out overseas and a conduit for migrants, commerce, commodities and ideas- then we need to perform this identity by reiterating it through all kinds of media. In the maritime case, this might mean via more museums and galleries locked into maritime themes, further monuments and walking trails, and a sustained programme of festivals, historic ships visits and the like. Some maritime initiatives are already in place, and events like the Tall Ships of Sea-Trek in 2001 demonstrate the surprising levels of popular support for such initiatives. Yet the city’s investment in its maritime identity is intermittent and patchy: we find little in the city remembering whaling, shipbuilding, fishing or Hull’s role in the flows of migrants en route to the new world, for example. Whatever genius loci is identified for Hull, the city should then support and invest in it consistently. This is crucial to realising the full potential of Hull’s distinctive character.

Finally, as noted above, inevitably Hullness is a slippery, fluid concept: however well-intentioned they are, most attempts to define a discrete, bounded, essentialised city identity are partial. Officially-sanctioned city brands and identities (like the hull cog) often stir considerable debate because such representation is fraught with difficulties. Indeed, I doubt that anyone can represent Hullness definitively at the moment. And for a decent period at least, no-one should try. Instead, we need to think about Hullness, debate it, discuss and argue about it; then we need to reflect and ruminate some more. Also, the debate needs to spread to all interested parties and all corners of the community – this shouldn’t happen in a closed room amongst those (like myself) who claim a special expertise and insight. We need a wider, more democratic engagement with all kinds of voices from all sections of the city. Otherwise there is a danger that these various groups won’t all be encompassed by, or feel ownership of, the sense of Hullness that emerges.

But while it may take time to evolve, it is important that this debate starts now and that it gathers momentum and allies. It needs to be championed by those in the city who are charged with ensuring Hull’s future social and economic development. This means the city council, Hull Forward, Yorkshire Forward and others. But we also need the local and regional media to engage; ditto, it requires the input of industry, commerce, the arts and the public sector. We also need input from academic experts on these questions and other informed voices. As I said, this needs to be a broad and inclusive debate. So, I’ve said my bit for now. I invite others to follow. Let’s think about Hullness and see where it takes us…

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