On February 26, Penn IUR and the Humanities, Urbanism, and Design (H+U+D) Initiative hosted a public lecture “Sensing the City,” a sensory exploration of the city to discuss the various ways to experience and understand the urban environment. Moderated by Penn IUR Faculty Fellow Domenic Vitiello, Associate Professor and Assistant Chair of City and Regional Planning and Urban Studies, the lecture included presentations from distinguished Penn IUR Faculty Fellows and Professors in the exploration of sensing the city.
Penn IUR Faculty Fellow David Barnes, Associate Professor of History and Sociology of Science, presented his comprehensive research on “The Olfactory Sentinel,” an exploration of the role of smell as an investigatory tool in diagnosing healthy and unhealthy urban neighborhoods. By using examples from Philadelphia and Paris between 1790 and 1900, Barnes spoke of the connections between odors and health hazards as they related to everyday urban life. His analysis examined the urban grid form and the subsequent pattern of development as an integral favored approach in establishing cities and promotion of healthy open spaces, exploring the humanistic approach on odors and disease. By using the Milton-Parc neighborhood of Montreal as her case study, Penn IUR Faculty Fellow Francesca Russello Ammon, Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning and Historic Preservation, discussed the use of different forms of visualization and how they shape new ways of seeing in a battle between demolition and rehabilitation. By using sight as a sensory tool, specifically through the form of photography in the period of urban renewal, Ammon explained its subjective form. By strategically planning frames, photographers had the ability to show the value of what had existed before demolition in favor of large-scale urban renewal, therefore projecting a significantly different image of progress. By employing the third sense of place, soundscape analysis as a form of methodology, Naomi Waltham-Smith, Assistant Professor of Music, explored the transformative impact spatial dispersion powered by sound plays within cities. Waltham-Smith foregrounded the role played by listening in urban social movements and local alliance building around economic, housing, and environmental justice through interventions of sound-art collective Ultra-red in Los Angeles and London over the last 20 years. By noting the ways in which we can analyze sound we can then begin to consider listening as a political potential practice, questioning and understanding our social environments and using its outcome as a way to interpret and broaden urban ills.
Vitiello’s concluding remarks and proceeding Q&A underlined that the political construction of the world around us, by means of sounds, smells, and visual content, analyzed at different contexts, can be employed as useful tools in better understanding the urban environment. These distinct but interconnect senses cannot be taken in isolation, but rather once employed collectively can help foster significant answers to the places we live and engage on a daily basis.