Of Place and Time

Up, down, night, day, left, right, right, wrong. The existing state is a world of inequality, unjustness and where polarities are entrenched – arguably more so than ever.

We are poles apart.

Our three dimensional spatial perception allows us to conceive height, breadth as well as depth and therefore, we can perceive and understand a middle ground. Here, there and in between. There is a top, a bottom and a middle. A past, a future and a present. The problem with this tripartite framing – and one well-understood by the post structuralists – is that when we establish a centre, we reinforce the polarities on the other side. Creating borders, extremities and peripheraleries. Margins and the marginalised. This is the thinking behind Foucault’s heterophobias, Soja’s thirdspace and Lacan’s “big other”.

This three dimensional perception governs not just our physical space, but virtual spaces – our spaces of governance, of politics and of economics. In these spaces, there exists the same distinctions between left and right, the same polarities of power. The haves and the have nots. The same marginalisation and othering that allows for the consensus sought in status, through classes boxes of upper, lower and an increasingly extensive middle.

What happens when those polarities are removed?

Without North and South, what is North? What is a Northern town? Who’s North is it anyway?

For decades, the North has been defined in policy making by what is not and from where it is not. Branded as “Northern” from the perspective of a South. Worse, this north has been problematised – and continues to be so – in the narrative of the skills gap, the talent gap, the productivity gap, “Leveling Up”. How do we solve the problem like the Northerners?

The North has bags of talent. It is against the grit and the grain of Northern-ness to wait passively in order to be “Levelled Up”.

All North is relative. Englands North is Scotlands South.

Without the surety of the North and South Pole, our innate spacial navigational system is thrown into disarray.

Without the need to clock in and out during the lockdowns, our relationship with time has changed beyond recognition. We are sailors without the sun.

The same space-time order governs our existing economic systems.

In the current and predominantly capitalist system, we deal with parcels of space as capital assets and measure their value over time. The toxically co-dependent relationship is evident across meta scales, from our celebration of the award of mortgages, a 25 year term debt, to the rabid colonisation of lands and globalisation; which David Henry characterises as a “downward spiral – the annihilation of space over time”.

The capitalist system is based on the trade and accumulation of space- on the carving up of land which, as we know, is a limited resource.

What if instead our system was based on the accumulation of time – the great infinite – and if our end game was not the endless conquer and colonisation of land; but contribution to our shared survival through the accumulation of more time for us, for other species and for the planet?

The trick is flipping the downward spiral toward a generative, upward and outward directionality – and our zeitgeist opportunity to do that comes through the phenomenon of place.

YS Tuan captures the nature of place beautifully when he describes it as ‘location plus meaning”. Tuan explores what he describes as the “opposing pulls’ between space and place, and a related tension between “distance and intimacy”. Space is distant. Place is intimate.

Places imbues space with meaning. It comes with intimate knowledge.

The question of agency remains a critical one in our understanding of place, and the related practice of placemaking. In 2014, the RSA asked “in placemaking, who or what is doing the making? Who should be?”.

In the years since, we have seen the commercialisation – and arguably bastardisation – of the practice of placemaking, as various experts are helicoptered in to consult and engage with the people of a place. Adopting an expensive coat of indigenous knowledge, consultants are assured in their own expertise, but theirs is the third space. They are mediators of the message. A third wheel in the relationship between people and place. Consultancy Camillas.

Similarly, sometimes connected to the placemaking agenda, we have seen the emergence of art washing, a phenomenon captured and explored in the superb portfolio work from Stephen Pritchard. “Certain forms of Art”, Pritchard writes, “have secured a place within the global urban economy as powerful placemaking tools; strategic policy devices capable of ‘improving’ places, people and ultimately, economies”.

Repeating the mistakes made in the non-innovative roll-out of innovation, where every city builds and innovation park and claims expertise in IT and biosciences, the commercial instrumentalization of art and culture in the practice of placemaking has led to a rise in identikit, homogenous places and ‘”place-based” approaches. These can be based on any place.

They are location, without meaning.

They are spaces.

Gaps.

Skill gaps, talent gaps.

Mind the gap.

Place, delivered by the people of the place, from the grassroots and imbued with intimacy and meaning. Offering us the chance to reclaim the narrative and change direction. In a place-driven model (as opposed to place-blind, non-innovative innovation, and the ‘any time, any place, any where’ place base machine), the place narrative is generated from the place, pointed upward and outward.

It is the opposite directionality of globalisation, annihilation and imposition. It is place with agency and the ability to join with other upward and outward places in collaboration across previously conceived place borders. Place offers us the opportunity to create a place-time continuum.

The Parallel State has shown us what Doncaster’s public spaces look like in a place-driven future. Public spaces become public places. Places for meaning, for interaction, creativity, knowledge, generation and exchange. For contemplation and thinking. For making and shaping equality, respect, caring and being.

This is Doncaster reclaiming its place narrative and telling its own time.

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