From Ballarat to Helsinki: further urban history conference reflections

A couple of weeks ago I was in Helsinki for the European Association for Urban History (EAUH) 13th international conference on the theme ‘Reinterpreting Cities’. This blog post follows on from my AHA Ballarat conference reflections on Australian urban history last week. 

Whilst preparing for my PhD in late 2014, I attended the EAUH conference in Lisbon. Coming at a significant point, that conference had a strong impact on my research project. In particular, the sessions on urban agency, emotions and affect resonated.  I presented a paper on the urban heritage conflict at Melbourne’s Rialto Towers, on which I have blogged, and which will be published in a scholarly journal in the coming months. That project formed the basis for further substantive research into ‘Australian skyscraper urbanism’, on which I intend to publish soon.

The EAUH conferences are large—this year, over 600 attendees—with many parallel sessions and papers from leading urban historians. Attendees come not only from Europe and the UK but also from across the world. As always there was a strong Australian contingent. It is a great opportunity to engage with the latest historical research and methodological trends, and to meet like-minded and often interdisciplinary scholars.

As many of the parallel sessions run over multiple time blocks, basically mini-conferences, I spent much of the conference in my two sessions on urban myth making and settler cities. In addition to the various keynotes, on the third day I attended a session on urban automobility. I summarise these below.

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Prak delivering his keynote

An opening keynote was delivered by Maarten Prak of Universiteit Utrecht. Praak called for the focusing of urban history around the research themes of migration, creativity and citizenship. He made the case for this in terms of funding, impact and coherence. Such a call is somewhat controversial since it effectively seeks to streamline research, which has its obvious benefits, but for independently minded historians is a challenge that might be in reality impractical. For me, whether or not this research agenda will actually be realised, it was one of those moments when a leading urban historian was unabashedly declaring a personal vision for the field.

I spent the first full conference day participating in a session on myth making in the city. This session was hosted by Rebecca Madgin twitter-icon-15x15, Richard Rodgers and William Gould. A range of papers were presented: temporally, from the early modern to contemporary period, and spatially, from Europe to the Middle East to Australia to the Americas.  What emerged across the papers was how cities are socially entities in which myths and realities tangle, impacting our placed based experiences amidst the urban everyday.

My paper was called ‘All the historic buildings worth looking at are in Paris or London’: the Australian city and the myth of heritage absence, in which I considered how urban preservation practice has been impacted by the myth that Australian has no heritage worth preserving. My colleague from the University of Melbourne Nicole Davis twitter-icon-15x15 presented on the idealised construction of nineteenth-century Australian shopping arcades, which in reality were messy urban spaces where apparently undesirable behaviours were often exhibited. Across the day important questions were asked around power and agency: who makes the myths and who benefits from them? This issue resonated strongly for the papers on Brasília, Israeli cities, Edinburgh and others. The session was stimulating and enjoyable, addressing a potent and enduring urban theme.

The next day, I participated in the Settler Cities panel. It was arranged by Carl Nightingale, Vivian Bickford-Smith and Johan Lagae, and also featured a diverse range of speakers on settler cities from across the world. I had the fortune of discussing the themes at length with a few of the younger scholars in the session, David Hugill twitter-icon-15x15 and Michael Thornton, as well as with the Australian contingent that included my colleague Sue Silberberg.

I gave a paper on the Australian ‘national estate’, tying the term’s nineteenth-century settler colonial meanings to its twentieth and twenty-first century heritage application, from the UK to the US to various other colonial contexts and lastly to Australia. Overall, this session was intended to further the settler city as a theoretical and lived entity, developing a basis for future transnational and comparative research. The variety of papers and contexts, including a number of papers on Israel, showed the complexity of such an agenda and also its potential scholarly fruitfulness.

Old Student House, Helsinki
Old Student House, Helsinki

After a conference dinner in the immaculate Old Student House (student union), on the final day I attended the session on urban mobility. A number of excellent papers on twentieth-century mobility were delivered, a couple of which I’ll discuss. Furthering his book Car Wars (2004), Australian urban historian Graeme Davison explored how Australian city planners had visions of mobility from Los Angeles and London, ultimately selecting the former, creating a motor vehicle dependency that Australia still endures today and into the foreseeable future. Sarah Mass’s twitter-icon-15x15 paper on Glasgow, for which she was awarded the EAUH student prize, incorporated a close reading of various mid-twentieth-century motorway planning reports, which attempted to scientifically document the responses of market stall holders and marketgoers, to determine whether those market places should be preserved, or replaced with modern motorways and supermarkets.

Scanning the full programme with its many papers, the sheer range of urban historical research was on display in Helsinki. The field of urban history is indeed strong. A great conference overall, and I hope to attend the next EAUH in Rome in 2018.

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