Visualizing Contested Space

by Jeremy Loudenback

In Los Angeles, recent debate about street vending in the city has underscored important discussions about race, class, health, immigration, space, and the rule of law. As Los Angeles considers how to legalize street vendors, the Contesting the Streets II: Vending and Public Space in Global Cities conference will engage both academics and practitioners about how vendors interact with important but often overlooked nodes of our urban landscape. Sponsored by the Bedrosian Center on Governance, the Spatial Analysis Lab (SLAB) at USC, and the UCLA César E. Chávez Department for Chicana/o Studies, the Contesting the Streets conference will serve as an opportunity for critical dialogue about the role of streets vendors and public spaces in urban environments around the world.

The conference will take place October 2-3, 2015, but papers are currently being solicited.  Empirical work (either contemporary and historical) about contested spaces is welcome from graduate students and faculty representing a wide variety of disciplines. The deadline to submit one-page abstracts is April 15; if you have questions, please contact Donnajean Ward at donnajw@price.usc.edu.

As the director of SLAB and author of the Sidewalk City: Re-Mapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City, Annette Kim brings a wealth of knowledge about how spatial perspectives and critical cartography can shape our understanding of how public space is used for economic transactions and collaboration as well as for building social cohesion. She recently answered a few questions about the potential for mapping to alter old paradigms about how cities work and what researchers should think about before they visualize data.

Question: In looking back at your work in Ho Chi Minh City and the way that its sidewalks enable a multiplicity of different communities to coexist within the same urban space, do you see any parallels for Los Angeles? On one hand, the city has earned a reputation as being a difficult place for pedestrians, though it also enjoys a wonderful array of street vendors, including the familiar fruit vendors and ice-cream carts.

Annette Kim: At first blush, one could reasonably argue that LA and HCMC are completely different cities with very little in common (except good food and weather!). But this year’s conference expands the scope of the first Contesting the Streets conference in 2010 to beyond North and Latin America because cities such as these are experiencing a core dynamic that is global:  the contest for precious public space in the city, resulting from (im)migration.

These large cities have to reconsider who is actually in the city and how we are going to live together. While we are in a historic period of contesting old paradigms about the city, it’s also a time of creativity and experimentation as we have been seeing in cities around the world, such as Bogota’s Ciclavia, New York’s pedestrian streets, San Francisco’s parklets, LA’s gourmet foodtrucks—ideas that are spreading and permutating to other cities.  There’s a lot more examples from other cities, too, and we hope to gather them at this conference.

Q: At SLAB, you talk about “phenomena that are ubiquitous but under-recognized.” Aside from sidewalks, what other arenas should we be more thoughtful about as ongoing examples of contested space in urban spaces?

AK: Come and look at our new website that has just launched: http://slab.today

Q: In recent years, there’s been an explosion of increasingly sophisticated data visualization across many different disciplines. What is the value of visualization for social change? And do you see any tension in the balance between aesthetics and creating an information-dense map?

AK: There’s been such a huge explosion in so many disciplines as a result of our expansion in visualization capabilities. The social sciences have ironically been slower to explore this, when we are one of the most publicly oriented disciplines. But, it’s an exciting time to participate in its development.

The value of visualizations is that they make apparent our knowledge claims. And if visual conventions help normalize and reify received knowledge, how do we break out of this, evolve, and change our ideas and institutions?

The theory I find most compelling is the theory of social cognition that says we learn and spread ideas through a social, tacit (not necessarily verbal) process of watching our peers and exemplars embody new paradigms. While I modify this with a more critical perspective on how power structures these pathways, I still think we have agency to change. So, if we produce new knowledge claims and make them apparent to people, in ways that gain attention and engage, we can be part of the social process of re-constructing our institutions, re-narrating legitimacy. And with more accessible and open-source software and platforms, it is possible for a wider variety of perspectives and claims to be made apparent, widening potential participation.

I like to work on both the substance of the knowledge we visualize as well as experimenting with how we visualize. There is so much to explore about aesthetics and information. There is the politics of aesthetics that communicates insider/outsider positions, signifies identities and affiliations, etc. I think your question might be getting at the lack of critical or even substantive content in some of the explosion in visuals, aka a cool looking picture that doesn’t really say very much, i.e. eye candy? That’s something I really try to impart to my students and pursue myself. But, I also value great design (which requires editing down information) not only for the sheer pleasure of it, but it’s also necessary in order to be comprehensible and to make the most communicative impact.

Q: In creating maps of marginalized communities, are there concerns that by making the “invisible” visible via mapping, this attention might expose them to unwelcome attention and ultimately punitive actions?

AK:  Oh sure, of course. Ethics and reflexivity are really important. This is another thing I invest time in with my students. Visualizations involve a series of choices, and we should make ethical ones. Who are you representing? What is your relationship with them and their agenda? What level of information about location protects/makes vulnerable those being mapped? There are things that I don’t think should be visualized.

Q: What’s one map you’d like to show Los Angeles leaders?

AK: Well, that’s my next project, which I call ethniCITY. It’s too early to talk about it much right now … but it has to do with the amazing city that L.A. is because of its ethnic diversity and complexity and the particular spatiality of it. I think it has a lot to contribute to the nation.

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