School of Advanced Study – University of London
How did you become part of the T²M network and what attracted you to transport, traffic and mobility history?
I went to the T2M conference in Helmond, NL, in 2007. I was in the second year of my DPhil back then and enjoyed meeting a very diverse group of students and well-established scholars sharing similar interests. I found that most of the people I met were open, kind and supportive, and soon realised that I wasn’t the only architect learning the craft of researching and writing history. Several lasting friendships date back to that very meeting: who would’ve thought that it would be Helmond, of all places.
You have an academic background in architecture, planning and history can you discuss how you think this interdisciplinary combination shapes your research approach?
I am interested in cities. Urban transport is my lens. I don’t think much about it, but I guess one way of looking at a ‘research approach’ is that I have been learning the tools of different disciplines in order to understand and raise questions that are consequent with the reality of cities. By reality, I also mean the
ways in which the future of cities has been imagined in the past, often with no bearings as to what was built. The wonderful thing about history is that you can incorporate the past into your thinking so that we can see when, where and how similar questions have been raised, under which conditions and with what consequences. There are, of course, important differences between designing a house and visiting an archive, but if I were to speculate about their similarities I would think of both as a highly creative process that requires ordering, flexibility and constantly revising your premises, structural and otherwise.
Can you tell us more about your past, current and planned research and how it connects to the activities of T²M?
Through my research, I have developed an interest in the intellectual histories of space, particularly the ways in which the built environment is transformed by the imagining and building of transport infrastructures. This is in part the subject of the monograph Cities, Railways, Modernities: London, Paris and the Nineteenth Century (in preparation), which argues that the interaction between the different ideas about circulation and improvement in the two cities and the transformation of their urban form during the nineteenth century were interdependent with the political cultures of Britain and France and changing perceptions of the public benefit. Three recent conference panels have been and will be useful to exploring the international and comparative dimensions of this: Urban infrastructures and civic identities, European Association for Urban History (Lisbon, September 2014); Cultural and historical geographies of intra-urban mass transit, Association of American Geographers (New York, 2012); and Historicising the politics of transport and cities, European Association for Urban History (Prague 2012).
I have co-organised two international conferences at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, which attracted several T2M members: Blocked arteries: circulation and congestion history, in 2010; and Going Underground: Travel Beneath the Metropolis 1863-2013, which marked the 150th anniversary of the opening of the first section of the Metropolitan Railway, in 2013. I also organised the research workshop ‘Mobilising Demos: Democratising Mobilities’ back in 2011, which included several T2M members. Our idea after a very stimulating two-day exchange was something along the lines of Mobility and Politics in an Urbanizing World, 1851-2051. We haven’t done much with that yet, but any thoughts on how we may take this forward are most welcome.
My contribution to the 2013 T2M conference focused on traffic congestion in London c.1863-1870, specifically how individual liberties were negotiated on Victorian streets, and regarding ideas such as ‘time is money’ and ‘circulation is a commodity’. I am currently exploring how film archives can inform and challenge our reconstruction of traffic congestion in late 19th- and early-20th-century cities.
Two future projects are also aligned to the kind of research and interests that the T2M community shares: (a) Isthmus of Empire: An Environmental History of the Panama and Suez Canals, and (b) Past futures: Lessons from 19th-century London and Paris for the future of Chinese cities. Isthmus of Empire will be a global history of the opening of international trading routes in light of accessibility to natural resources, colonial labour and imperial expansion. Past Futures will encourage, and identify the challenges behind, a dialogue between the European urban past and the Chinese urban future. The project, funded by the Urban Knowledge Network Asia, is a key step in developing a common vocabulary that brings together a historical non-instrumental understanding of the past and current discourses and ideas about the future of cities, something of a life-time project, so these are only very early stages.
What are you reading at the moment and what might it offer to the study of transport, traffic and mobility?
I am revisiting Technology and the Rise of the Networked City in Europe and America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988). The editors, Joel A. Tarr and G. Dupuy, brought together a great collection of essays, which came out of a conference on City and Technology in Paris in 1983. Though transport is only one of the sections (the others being water systems; waste disposal; energy, heat and power; and communications), there are several aspects that the contributions to this volume address, which open up questions relevant to the study of transport, traffic and mobility. I can think of what kind of issues a comparison of transport developments in cities worldwide c.1850-1914 would raise concerning, for example, global capital, technology transfer, and urban and metropolitan governance. Or what does the transport connected to waste management and disposal tell us about networks of refuse and their commodification. Or how does the generation of energy, heat and power impact on the possibilities and constraints that cities and regions may have (and have had) in adopting certain transport infrastructures and technologies.
Also, I just finished a great novella by Hamid Ismailov called The Dead Lake. It uses a railway journey through the steppes of Kazakhstan to weave together the personal experience of a radioactive village and the environmental legacy of the Cold War. It reminded me of the panel on How Clear Boundaries Became Blurred in St Petersburg: Ana Danilova’s paper (which to my regret I missed) and Igor Kiselev’s own experiences of growing up not far from one such ‘secret city’: wonderful connections to be drawn there.
How mobile are you in your work and personal life?
I cycle to work as much as I can, though the weather dictates what you can and cannot do in London. Living in London also means that you are very well connected and can travel anywhere anytime, though it is advisable to plan ahead to lower the costs. I feel that I have become more mobile just by living here. One thing I noticed in the first weeks after we moved to London (from Amsterdam, around 8 years ago) was the amount of people carrying their suitcases around: they seemed to be everywhere; and they are. The sad (or, say, amusing) thing is that I’ve joined in with a backpack.
Where was your last trip and what will be your next?
My wife and I spent 2 weeks in The Gambia, right after New Year’s: very in-mobile, interspersed with short beach walks! I’m travelling to Jordan this week for a short visit.
What are your thoughts on the theme of this years T²M conference, Spin Offs of Mobility: Technology, Risk and Innovation?
I think strengthening, and formalising where possible, the links to industry is very important, and so it is a welcome addition to the rich collection of themes of the annual conference. It will be interesting to see what kind of historical research is being done in this field and how historians can engage with the currency of innovation.