Review: MONU Magazine #20 on “Geographical Urbanism”

MONU magazine's latest edition examines ‘Geographical Urbanism’. In this review, Karlis Ratnieks emphasizes the plurality of geography’s implications on urbanization in order to push geography toward a critical practice.
by Karlis Ratnieks


MONU magazine continues to be an important platform that allows crucial conversations to begin across disciplines and inspire professionals to rethink the urban phenomenon from new perspectives. The latest edition of the magazine is dedicated to examining the changing role of physical geography for cities. Contributions from international scholars, representing a variety of disciplines, challenge the traditional assumptions and bring into question practices that shape our environment.

The Urban Fabric of Hybrid Geography

The powerful cover photo comes from Edward Burtynsky’s photographic series called “Seduction and Fear” – a sequence of images of striking atmosphere that resists being pulled apart under traditional dualism of the “natural” and the “artificial”. Nature no longer can be seen escaping or outside of human productive activity. The methodological shifts that have historically transformed the understanding of nature and natural geography are explored by Nikos Katsikis, placing geography in its relation with the concept of planetary urbanization or urbanization fabric of planetary dimensions. Katsikis claims that “the urbanization fabric should be actually conceptualized as the crystallization of artificial geography merging with natural geography”. This new hybrid condition has led to the appearance of new kinds of cultural discourses. The changing ways of how geographical features have been described and constructed by stories are explored in this issue by Kohlwein, Lokman, and Dewey, among others.

Image, Imagination and Identity

Furthermore, geographical elements have an important role in the formation of the collective imagination of city residents and, thus, also in relation to the identity of a city or region. Architectural historian Bart Lootsma, in an interview with MONU’s editor-in-chief Bernd Upmeyer, discusses identity formation with particular emphases on the case of Tyrolean landscape, revealing some of the dangers to which one-dimensional branding and global tourist industry can lead. Yet geography is powerful, as Lootsma concludes, and it cannot be fully absorbed by the expanding characteristics of “generic cities”. Lootsma gives an example showing how even a carefully replicated simulacrum of a Dutch town in Japan looks different due to the inability of certain place-specific details to be transferred from one climate zone or soil condition to another. Details become the cracks in the system through which the power gets exposed.

Toward a Critical Practice

While touching upon the political decision making and reasoning that shapes the landscape, many authors in this issue have brought to light the hidden environmental risks that accompany large scale interventions. Often these risks are related to the emergence of another phenomenon that drives urbanization, that are so-called “spaces of exception”. Hidden from the public eye these spaces are, for example, offshore oil rings (examined by Ghosn and Jazairy in their contribution) or the mysterious Bosporus strait, which was even labelled an “environmental risk zone” in 1990s (Turan). A constant fear of ecological catastrophes can become part of the identity of a city as Orensanz points out writing on Mexico City. The internationally renowned professor of urban planning Bernardo Secchi believes that we have to take into account extreme scenarios, that will allow us to become more informed of the environmental risks and problems we are facing as we continue designing useful projects of artificial geography. Secchi also emphasizes that to carry out this task the formation of new cross-disciplinary alliances of professionals is necessary. What is the role of geography in these alliances? I think that Christopher de Vries has phrased it well: “A polemical method that reveals the paradoxes, dilemmas and tensions between our collective and individual aspirations and the limitations of our planet’s resources.”

About the author

Karlis Ratnieks

Karlis Ratnieks studied architecture at Riga Technical University and urban studies at Estonian Academy of Arts. He received a masters’ degree with his thesis on production of public housing in Riga within two periods of capitalist development.


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