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A. Professor Ellie Cosgrave

Ellie is Associate Professor at University College London where she researches innovative approaches to inclusive urban policy. She is also the Director of Publica’s not-for-profit company which champions gender inclusive public space. You can listen to our conversation with Ellie in Episode 2 of The DNA of Cities podcast. 

Photo credit: Ronni Kurtz via Unsplash.

Caitlin Morrissey

Well, I'll kick off with the first question then, which is, in what sense can cities have DNA? Do they have DNA? And is that idea more useful if it's literally applied or is it better understood as a metaphor?

Ellie Cosgrave

So I find metaphor a really useful way to interrogate a city or any complex problem. So I find that when you look at a piece of complex interactions, you're always coming at it, looking at it from your own worldview and perspective, but that's not always made evident or explicit about the lens that you're using. So I find that when we decide to kind of have a parallel metaphor, we can use that to look for certain things within the city and say, does it have this characteristic, can one structure of existing tell us something interesting about another structure, and can it help us to look for things that we might not naturally observe? And I think that sometimes leads us to make quite strong leaps of imagination that maybe are slightly over-abstracted and potentially not that useful or interesting. But what it does is, it starts to expand the ways in which we're able to think and understand things, so I think the idea of trying to un-code, understand, investigate the city through a lens of something that we know quite a lot about is a useful way in.

And so I think it is certainly useful to think about it as a metaphor, particularly, are there certain elements? Is there a blueprint or a code that leads to emergent properties that we can start to understand? And if there is that code, which we may or may not agree with, what would those elements be? Could it be that the elements are, as in DNA, a set of chemicals or physical properties that combine together to encode certain physical outcomes and then experiences or organisms? Does that code have a history? Can it mutate? Can it be mutated or ineffectual in such a way to cause disease? And then can we manipulate those core, basic codes to outcomes that we want to see? And I think that is one way of looking at the city: as a system of elements that interact in a certain way to have emergent properties and outcomes. So, yes. It's a long way of saying, yes, I think that that is an interesting way to think about the city.

But how could it be literal, is what I'm wondering. How could it be that literally there is DNA, the city has DNA? And as I looked around my room thinking about that question, I was like, there is a lot of DNA in the city. We as humans are full of DNA. I have plants around me. Looking out into the city, we are an amalgam of a lot of living forces that has encoded in it, traits. I mean, again, I think that's a useful way of using the metaphor of DNA to dig into what is the city because I don't think it's the obvious-- I don't think it was where we were supposed to get to, thinking about all of the life that creates the city.

But in a sense, you could say, OK, so the actual DNA of my door - which it does have DNA - combined in a certain proximity to my table, my plant, my body is in itself a kind of interaction of DNA. And we could just scan the city for the DNA of the city and then create a map of the DNA of the city. And then we might ask questions of, how do we want to be custodians of that interacting set of DNA of the city? Do we want to protect one set of DNA over another set of DNA? How do we value DNA? How does my DNA interact with another's DNA? So I think we can see, by just kind of placing one simple question, there are all sorts of ways in which we can understand what it is that is going on in this complex interaction of space and time.

Greg Clark

Ellie, what you're saying is really helpful and also beautifully articulated.I suppose one of the places where your comment leads to is whether a city is itself a living organism or whether a city is itself an ecosystem or a series of ecosystems that are interconnected. Do you have observations to make about whether those ideas are interesting, whether they're mutually exclusive, whether a city could be both a living organism and be a series of ecosystems? How do you see that?

Ellie Cosgrave

I think there are interesting observations and meaning and decisions to be made from a variety of ways of understanding the city. I think we can think of the city as an organism, by which it's a living, evolving system that grows, dies, is healthy or unhealthy, and that serves as one purpose. That's one way in which we can hold up a framework in order to be able to make decisions. What do we want to preserve about that organism or otherwise? By characterising it as a series of ecosystems, it leads us into another direction of what we assume the problem to be. So we assume that by taking a lens of kind of ecosystem services or ecosystem preservation, there is something about those systems that we are interested in. So it's a kind of filter and a way of seeing the world.

And I think what's so mysterious and interesting about being an urbanist or being someone who is interested in the city is that elusive question of what it is that we are interested in: what is the city? And the city is absolutely multiple things depending on what you want out of it at any given time. We reimagine, recreate, re-observe the city depending on what our interest is. So I'm hungry. The city is a place of sustenance, or it's a place of gastronomic adventure, excitement, cultural history, contested places, but I see it because I'm hungry. If I see it because I want power, I'm going to see a whole load of different structures, I'm going to see the institutions that are at play, I'm going to see, what is it that put someone at the top of a tree, and I'm going to do those things. So I think that's why we have all sorts of people who are engaged with urbanism but who talk about and understand the city in lots of different ways. So I think when we are choosing the metaphor, the lens or the methodologies that we use to untangle the city, it's useful to also interrogate our subjectivity and our purpose.

Caitlin Morrissey

I want to pick up on a point that you made which is, when you're looking around your room, there were multiple DNAs that were interacting. And there was an interaction there, and you said that that could be applied to cities. And so I wonder when you think about how that might metaphorically or literally be useful as a way of understanding cities, what actually constitutes the different genetic codes of these different DNAs? What would be interacting, as you see it, in cities?

Ellie Cosgrave

Well, I mean, this is taking a very literal direction which I-- great. And the image that I have in my head is that you've got like a DNA scanner flying over the city, doing a 3-D model of the literal strands of DNA that exist. We would then be able to understand, like, densities, topology, protocol, we'd be able to see that I ingest DNA, that I shed DNA, and we would get one view of this city's pulsation, a physical property that we extract and look for. I mean, I'm going on a thought journey here. I feel like I'm entering some sci-fi movie, but why not?

Greg Clark

You're amongst friends.

Ellie Cosgrave

But then I think about, OK, so if we did see the city or the world as purely an amalgam or of strands of DNA, then what can we do with DNA? What might DNA do with us? What powers do we have over it? What powers does it have over us? I mean, the obvious thing for me is, if we were some, powerful gene-editing super-race that could actually see the interconnection between-- I don't know. Let's use the example from before of what DNA do we ingest and how does that affect our own DNA. You may be able to have different opportunities for solving certain problems. I don't know.

I do like the idea that there is that DNA itself, or our own DNA sequences are actually made up of smaller genes or interactions, that essentially, we could think, then, of a whole city DNA which is constituent of individual strands of DNA. What that means is for the playground; let's play around with that idea. But obviously, we're not going to have new government systems built up around only management of DNA, but what we can do is see if those ways of thinking or those insights offer us anything or can be appropriated for the systems of governance or operation that we currently hold.

And I guess one example where I have used a lens to understand how the city works, that in itself is not necessarily practical, but we may be able to appropriate or use or adopt ideas from that way of thinking into our own city management systems, is my work with choreographers, or dance makers, as we have decided to call them. Because choreography implies a power over, so we've decided that the choreographer-- anyway, that's another story. So I have, in my work, paired dance makers with urban designers, particularly engineers, and taken them out into the city to see how they see the world differently.

So we asked them three questions, the first being, what do you see in this urban space; the second question, what are the possibilities for this space; and the third question, how would you go about taking action to achieve those possibilities? So we were interested in, what do those practices or those assumptions allow you to see about the world, and what does it close off for you? And what does your discipline or way of thinking about the world allow you to think about the scale or type of intervention or the type of change that you might want to see about the world? And what does your discipline or way of seeing the world tell you about the mechanisms that are possible or appropriate for you to intervene? 

Greg Clark

You're saying something that's very, very interesting, and I'm going to be very simplistic in reacting to it in order to get you to say some more. So if you take a group of dance makers and a group of engineers and infrastructure experts and you put them together and ask them these interesting questions, you're deliberately putting together people who have a different orientation. The people who are the engineers and the infrastructure providers are, in a sense, people whose primary interest is in structures. The people who are dance makers, their primary interest is in human beings, how they behave physically and how they learn to innovate in their movement and also to synchronise their movement, one with another.

And it seems to me that what you're perhaps deliberately doing is contrasting the organic synchronised behaviour of humans with questions about fixed structures and how they behave and what they look like and what they [design?]. And this is what makes what you're doing very interesting because it allows you to ask questions about whether the structures could be done in ways that would be more enabling to the dance makers and whether the dance makers, in a way, can find a way to dance with the structures.

And I suppose I'm just asking the question, firstly, please would you react to that, and secondly, then, is there something rather deep in here about urban life being more of a dance than rural life, for example, simply because of the density, the proximity and the synchronisation that urban life requires?

Ellie Cosgrave

It's wonderful to talk about choreographing a city with different people because there are so many different ways in which it moves people, and people see such different depth and value in it. I've not actually been asked to contrast the danceliness of a city as opposed to a rural life. But what I would say is, the quality of movement is certainly very different between the countryside and a city and in urban life. There are more interruptions, interactions, requests for response in one's movement than there are in a more, maybe, undulating pace of rural life.

I don't know if more movement counts as more dancely. There may be a way in which we can create spaces within cities that just allow for a different quality of experience and movement that may offer a kind of more holistic, healthy way of life. But to play with pace, quality, rhythm is certainly something that you have more utility within an urban realm to do because you have more opportunities for that interaction for creating those moments. And in rural life, what I have noticed - although I am a city dweller - is that actually, there are less opportunities to move one's body unless it's through your own volition. So in some sense, you have great freedom and space and opportunity within rural life to move, but because there are fewer interruptions, the range of movements that you get is quite different.

So I talk a lot about the technique of improvisation within dance making. A lot of people's assumption about the word improvisation is that it's kind of making it up as you go along or that it's random or by chance, whereas, in fact, a choreographer or a dance maker designing through improvisation will put in very specific constraints or frameworks through which the dance will emerge. So by putting in certain rules, which might be something as simple as two of your body parts always have to be touching the floor or the wall, or you can only move when you notice X, Y and Z - there are all sorts of different rules you can put in - but what those rules mean is that you create the creative potential for new movement, that if you were just left free and without kind of rules, then you will do your habit, so there is no opportunity for transformation, newness or creativity.

So actually, by putting in rules or frameworks, which you can argue we have very much more of within the city, you are actually creating much more opportunity for novelty and interesting things to occur. So that's the kind of response, maybe, to a reflection on the difference between an urban dance and a rural dance. And the question around the different ways of knowing through a dance practice or engineering practice is a super interesting one and not always that expected. So I think you're right in a lot of senses that the dance maker is much more focused on the embodied experience and the perspective of my physical self interacting with the urban environment and that the engineer perhaps comes much more from the other way around: how can I put physical things in such that bodies are safe or bodies move quickly or slowly?

And one example that I think works really well, that came up a lot in the interviews, was around what safety means: what does a safe city mean? And actually, the dancers were often very interested in bodily autonomy as being safe, so creating moments where if I need to get somewhere, I have the physical ability to be able to do it, that I know that I can run somewhere or skip somewhere or stop somewhere safely. The dance-makers were often interested in creating experiences, creating areas of focus: in this whole milleu of complex things that are happening in space, how do I create a moment of meaning, noticing? And that in itself is about creating safety for a person.

Whereas the engineers were much more interested in control as a form of safety, so a kind of more paternalistic view that I must create an urban environment in which you are not going to hurt yourself. And therefore, a barrier between a body and a road is safe, but of course, that conflicts with the dancer's idea of what is safe in the sense of an ability to move freely. So that was an interesting point of view of, how can we make it such that the car is not going to run me over, yet I am not simply confined to a limited range of movement.

Greg Clark

Is there an assumption behind this work that you're describing, Ellie, that in a sense, a more danceable city would be somehow a better city in the sense that it might have positive social, health, environmental or other consequences? Is there an assumption that we want our cities to become more danceable in this rather simplistic way I'm putting it?

Ellie Cosgrave

I love that question, Greg, because it is something that -- when I first started playing with ideas of choreographing the city, engineers felt really threatened and really annoyed with me, that we have hundreds of years of history that is really good stuff about how to manipulate or use the resources available to us to make people's lives better. And that's what we're in it for: to make it safer, healthier, cleaner. And we've done all of those things hugely around-- you know, we've got sewers. Fantastic. We can't really argue that the ingenuity of engineering has transformed our planet and many people's lives to be happier, healthier, safer. Of course, it comes with it all of the complex issues that we deal with today around mass population growth, urbanisation, overconsumption… continue the list?.

And so it's not that I think that dancers have the answer and dancers are better and no better; it is that, in order to radically transform the ways in which we live in cities, we cannot rely on the predominant paradigm that has got us to where we are. So the types of thinking that has created places that are reliant on overconsumption, that are unequal will not get us out of those issues.

And it may be that other disciplines, other art forms - and engineering is, of course, an art form - may have training, insight, useful methodologies that we can learn from, expand ourselves with, transform some of the ways in which we see the world, see the city such that we may be able to make better decisions. So it's much more, is there something in a different way of thinking that can transform what we currently do? So it's not that dancers would make better urbanists or engineers; it's that engineers don't have all the answers.

Greg Clark

And in a certain way, it possibly is that engineers could help to make cities more danceable.

Ellie Cosgrave

Absolutely. And, you know, engineers and artists collaborate all the time. I'm thinking of Anish Kapoor, that very architectural, engineering-informed sculptor. Dance-makers create work for theatres, often, or within cities and therefore, deeply interact with built form. And in fact, we had to stop some of the dancers being architects or engineers because they have such strong opinions about how public space should be to create interesting modes of movement. I mean, that was great, but we were also like, okay, but we want you to come from your discipline because we want to see what methodologies might be able to be appropriated, for want of a better word.

Caitlin Morrissey

So in terms of the concept of DNA and, I suppose, it's metaphorical application, do you think that different cities can understand their DNA? And if they do, how might they use it?

Ellie Cosgrave

So if we see DNA as a series of codes that leads to emergent properties, then I think each city has a right and each actor within the city has a right to say what are the important constituent parts. So what are the things that are really the important codes that lead to the emergent properties; what's important that we look at? From my point of view, just thinking about it very quickly, I would say it's about people, human bodies experience, it's about institutions, which is essentially a collection of people with some authority, and it's about resources. Actually, they may be soft resources, but I was thinking much more in kind of material resources.

That kind of get the backdrop and the ways in which those interact is going to tell you something about what kind of place we are living in. I think you can probably go on infinitely, nearly, to say what are the base pairs, the codes that are important, and I think it's important that we do debate that and hold those multiple views together and then use those understandings to say, is something fundamentally not working? Can it be diagnosed? Can we find new theory to explain what's going on, and therefore, might we treat it?

And I think that is the role of academia, in a sense, to hold that space for those kinds of discussions and debates and to create theory that helps us re-understand the city. And I think, in a sense, that would be like building theory on the theory of DNA or of the theory of DNA. So thinking about the city in DNA terms is an ability for us to think from a systems perspective and hold lots of elements and see the interrelationships between anything at any one time.

Where it maybe starts to fall short is that if you're holding too tightly to the idea of DNA as the organising principle through which we'll understand the city, you may misdiagnose. And in that sense, I mean, is it possible that if you're looking for a genetic reason for any given disease, will you find one and miss some other factor that doesn't fit in your model? So it's very important, when we're thinking about our modes of investigation, what we do see and what is excluded from that - and of course, that's for debate and discussion and well-held discussion - but that would be a concern: that, you know, we put on this lens that everything can be codified, and if it doesn't, if we can't codify it, then it won't be part of our diagnosis.

Caitlin Morrissey

I think that sort of comes onto the last question which is about the limitations of the idea and what it misses out about the way that cities evolve, and I think that you're getting onto one of those. Are there other things where you think there's so much more going on, this only explains one part of it? And what might some of that other stuff be?

Ellie Cosgrave

So much. So if we're keeping the metaphor alive, we found our base pairs, we sequenced them, we've identified some genes that we maybe think are problematic or causing illness or disease, and now we want to edit it, we want to intervene such that this disease does not occur-- and, you know, I'm not a biomedical expert, but I do understand that there are some actually reasonably simple ways to now start to do gene editing, and we can be quite deterministic and focus it and swap out bits of our genes and that we can very much see the direct correlation or the direct effect of that edit.

So we can make mice who glow in the dark, for example, and we know that that is going to happen if we do that. The issue with translating that into an urban context is how much we can relate cause and effect, how much we can say that if we do alter how much social housing there is available, that it will lead to this emergent property about the city. I think it's unlikely to be as straightforward as that in a sustainable fashion, in the sense that once you've edited DNA, I believe, it's heritable, so it will continue and be sustainable throughout the generations. If you create a big new housing project to home all the people, that's not necessarily heritable. So it's a silver bullet like it might be in gene editing.

And also, in gene editing, there's one person with the power. You can see a problem in the DNA, and I, as the scientist who wants to replace a section, can decide which bit where, and I can play around with it. In a city, actually, it's very limited who actually has power over even any one given part of the code. So even if we had the solution, which is unlikely, implementing it in a way that is going to be transformative is also a challenge. So I think the metaphor and understanding the city through DNA and trying to think about, where can I target change, is very useful. To think it might be as easy as swapping one thing in and out is where we kind of come to a problem.

And the final thing I'd say is coding the city as DNA doesn't necessarily tell us anything about meaning. So we can deconstruct and understand all of the constituent parts, and we can have a really, really long sequence of numbers and letters and codes through which we might be able to make some changes, but it doesn't necessarily tell us anything about the experience, to use the example before of the, now, glow in the dark mouse, and that experience will not be the same from mouse to mouse. I'm realising now that I'm giving you quite a difficult editing job, to use that metaphor. But, yes, there's something that is a limitation, in that codification of its constituent parts leaves us wanting in really understanding meaning, experience and values.

Greg Clark

I'm having a kind of pregnant pause with what you've just been saying because there's a lot in it actually, Ellie. The transplanting idea, I think, is very important. The assumption-of-evolution idea is a very important one. There's a point you made before that, actually, which is, in a sense, my summary of your point-- is that you've also got to think about exogenous factors as well as endogenous factors, all sorts of things that can affect the city from outside that are not part of the code but are external events. And those external events could be structures, systems or anything else. So there's a lot in what you're saying.

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