The 2019 conference explores who can ‘speak’ and who has ‘spoken’ in, about or on behalf of the city from 1600 until the present. Planners, governors, powerful interest groups and a host of established elites have often loudly declaimed their right to shape both the form and the experience of the city. However, other groups and individuals have made the city a site of action and activism in which the voices of the notionally ‘powerless’ might be amplified in the pursuit of diverse political and social goals. In addition, the city as a lived space has provided people with a place to experience, create and understand multiple, often overlapping identities, which themselves have articulated the complex dynamics of urban society. Amongst this clamour, urban historians have often privileged the loudest voices: those able to command podiums and squares, print books and dominate headlines, or those who have left material evidence of their architectural or infrastructural ambitions amongst the urban fabric. In contrast, more obscure aspects of the city remain either ignored or frustratingly obscured by the established practices of recording and research. The conference seeks not to simply correct this imbalance or invert an existing binary, nor to merely promote certain voices as more valuable or authentic. Instead, its intention is to understand the origins and mechanisms at work in creating the hierarchy of voices and the ways that we might complicate our approaches to these.
We encourage potential participants to interpret the conference theme in a broad sense and welcome creative approaches to the question, but would draw their attention to two particular themes. Firstly, the ‘voice’ or impact of marginalised urban groups on the past life and governance of the city; and secondly, the role of historians in making our understandings of the city and its history more inclusive at a time of government directives around ‘impact’, ‘public engagement’, and ‘heritage’.
Potential framing questions might include:
- How have historically marginalised groups in the city (women, racial/ethnic and religious minorities, the poor and working classes, and LGBT+ people), shaped or challenged the image of the city (both urban-generic and place-specific)?
- How has expertise in and of the city been constructed ‘from above’; how can we complicate, problematize and challenge this dominance; and how have ‘below’ and ‘above’ communicated/clashed? ‘Experts’ may include planners, officials/politicians, landowners etc.
- How does power operate through ideas of ‘heritage’ in the conservation, regeneration, and celebration of the city? Who has been excluded or ‘othered’ in processes of ‘place-making’?
- What disciplinary approaches or novel sources can improve our understanding of the urban marginalised; and how could historians work with local communities? Methodologies may include oral history, geography and GIS-mapping, and heritage studies.
- What value can the ‘history of emotions’ bring to understanding the voices of the city?
- What roles can and should historians play today in setting the agenda for urban policy? How can we ensure diversity in who can speak on the city? How has ‘applied history’ supported or challenged the erasure of minority voices in the past and present?