The short version
New Urban Orientations is the project of MA Environmental Humanities graduate Jonathan Eldridge. In September 2019, Jonathan submitted his dissertation ‘Creative, caring and critical orientations: towards an urban ethics of place.’ This work was the synthesis of his feeling and thinking on the subject of people’s relationship to place. It was written in three parts: an autoethnography of place during the first Covid-19 lockdown; primary research involving semi-structured in-depth interviews; and, theoretical research on place itself, what it means and how people relate to it. New Urban Orientations is an extension of this process of feeling and thinking. Through this project, Jonathan will identify places, mainly in the Bristol and Bath area, and use data, poetry, stories, music, photography to provide a grounding for creative, caring and critical engagement. He expects places to be made more complex, mysterious, problematic, valuable and magical through an exploration of how they have come into being, and how they are continuing to become in the present and into the future.
The longer version
In October 2019 I began an MA in Environmental Humanities. This involved studying multiple humanities disciplines within an ‘environmental’ framework. I also took a creative writing module called ‘The Writer and Place’.
For a long time, I have been interested in place and how it affects us. When I was younger, I’m sure I did not think that I had a peculiar interest in ‘place’, but I was conscious of the difference in feeling that accompanied being in different places; The Lake District, as opposed to London, for example. This awareness might have grown from a sense of displacement, growing up on suburbia’s inner edge in a city that was constantly redefining what place was (go back 60 years or so and my childhood home would have been in Essex, not London). Whilst the form of that change may have altered, the pace has not. Perhaps this is why when I began writing prose it was heavily descriptive and characterised by a desire to have setting/place be a fundamental component. Far from being a backdrop for (predominantly) human action, I felt that place played an important role in shaping narratives and, therefore, in creating identities, including my own.
In 2015 I wrote my undergrad dissertation on setting and landscape in film adaptations of 21st century literature, exploring the extent of ecological sentiment of these texts in the way they gave narrative significance to setting and place. I was studying the texts themselves, rather than the intent of the authors. Later, as my understanding developed during my post-graduate degree, I came to see place not merely as a fixed area delineated by stable boundaries, but a negotiated ‘pause’ (Tuan in Bryson, 2005) in space formed by the relationships between different aspects: the past, the present and the future; urban grids which channel movement and people who constantly search for shortcuts; vegetation and concrete; abandoned spaces and lived-in dwellings; insects and motorists; far-away places which produce the material of the quotidian and our unruly sense of immediacy which blinds us to these ‘shadow places’ (Plumwood, 2008).
Another reason for my focus on place during my MA was a desire to move away from using the concept of ‘nature’ – familiar, romanticised, sublime, fear-inducing, comforting – as a foundation for ecological ethics, especially in urban contexts. I am not against calls to protect nature or the natural world, rather, it seemed to me that there was (and is) a difficulty in defining humanity’s place within, and relationship to, nature. This feels problematic because it concerns our spatial, social, psychological, ethical, and ecological orientations, all things which shape how and why we act. Yet, it is not as though the concept of place is without issue, especially when it is deployed in the context of political and social exclusion. As much as I want to draw attention to the importance of place, I also want to disrupt simplistic and damaging discourses of belonging, which are increasingly divergent from the complex actualities of place at both micro and macro scales.
This is the basis for this project. It is a mixture of art, ethics, and politics. It is a complex statement. It is personal. It feels at times beautiful, at others confusing, and at others terrible. It encourages different ways of looking at, thinking about, intra-acting (Barad in Bawaka, 2008) and becoming with place. It is, in the words of Stuart Hall, “without guarantees”, but seeks to open up the possibilities of place. Who we are is, in part, the projection of where we are and where we have been into the confusing space of the future. It is a transformation of this openness into place, into a pause which makes sense, if only for a brief moment. That is why I believe understanding place is so important for where we will end up, both as individuals and collectives.