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Re-examining the relationship between the urban and its cultures

Re-examining the relationship between the urban and its cultures

Alison Bain

Professor Alison L. Bain and Julie A. Podmore edited a new book titled "The Cultural Infrastructure of Cities"  (Agenda Publishing, 2023). EUC work-study student, Lorraine Wong, interviews them on their new edited book and its value to students and scholars of urban studies, as well as to policymakers planning and creating cultural infrastructures.

Q: What motivated you to work on this new edited book? Did any of your previous research inspire you to collaborate on editing this collection of case studies from cities across the globe?

I received an invitation from an editor at a smaller, independent British publisher, Agenda Publishing, to contribute the first book in their new Urban Worlds series. Juggling multiple projects, I opted for an edited collection instead of a monograph. I drew from my queer geography place-making project and previous work on cultural production in Canadian suburbs. While my previous book focused on the production side of suburban cultural infrastructure in Toronto and Vancouver, I am now exploring its social infrastructural dimensions with attention to place-making in queerburbia. Recognising the oversight of culture in the infrastructural turn in social science scholarship, I saw an opportunity to showcase the complexity of cultural infrastructure. To achieve this, I invited scholars from various sub-disciplines of geography, like cultural, economic, and urban geography, and put them in dialogue with colleagues from urban planning, anthropology, and performance studies. This interdisciplinary collaboration allowed for a diverse exploration of cultural infrastructure, involving scholars at different career stages with expertise in the socio-spatial complexities of how creative labs, affordable studio spaces, public art festivals, Carnival, theatres, museums, public libraries, independent fashion, and hawker food culture function in cities around the world. The process of creating an edited collection became a means of building community, connecting people who would not typically be in conversation, especially during the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q. The book covered four thematic sections, including producing, performing, consuming, and collecting culture. Which aspect did you find Toronto particularly strong in?

This book is not exclusively about Toronto. We aimed to foster international conversations, and Toronto serves as a case study in several chapters. Take, for example, the chapter by a former MA student in the Graduate Program in Geography, Bryan Mark. It discusses boutique ice cream production and hipsterism on Ossington Avenue, reflecting on how independent businesses gentrify streets through their exclusivity and exclusionary digitally-mediated landscapes of consumption. Like many cities, Toronto faces challenges, especially exacerbated by COVID-19, leading to empty storefronts and the need to reanimate commercial streetscapes. Compared to cities like Paris and Berlin, Toronto has room for improvement in making culture, in all of its forms, more widely accessible in neighbourhoods and to marginalized communities. In Toronto, as in many cities with global city ambitions, we grapple with gentrification and displacement from constant redevelopment pressures as cultural producers and long-time residents struggle for spatial fixity in the face of escalating real estate, property tax, and maintenance costs.

In my previous book, "Creative Margins: Cultural Production in Canadian Suburbs," (University of Toronto Press, 2013), I explored how cultural producers are being pushed out of the city to inner and outer suburbs, seeking affordable places to work, like adaptively re-used strip malls in Scarborough. Toronto is losing its core production elements, hindering innovation and dynamism. Experimental spaces in the city centre, which are crucial for pushing the avant-garde and fostering broader and sustained cultural engagement, are scarce and expensive. The cyclical nature of cultural production, performance, consumption, and collection requires support at all stages. It is not just about funding groups but also individuals, ensuring everyone has a space to experiment and collaborate. We need more accessible experimental spaces of collaboration and dialogue beyond expensive opera houses and starchitecturally renovated museums, enabling critical engagement with the world and fostering community connections within and across different social groups.

Q: What are you most excited for the readers of your book to learn about?

I am excited about encouraging readers to broaden their perception of culture, emphasizing that it extends beyond traditional high-cultural artefacts to encompass everyday elements like youth music schools in informal settlements, boutique ice cream, food hawking, alternative fashion, and arts festivals. I want people to recognize the vibrant grassroots culture that often goes unnoticed but significantly shapes our lives. Another aspect I am excited about is my collaboration with EUC PhD graduate Chan Arun-Pina on the artwork for the book. Chan read all the chapters and created original pieces to frame each section, contributing to the overall theme of producing culture. Each section opens with these visual representations, culminating in a final piece in the conclusion, where Chan reflects on the creation of the entire artwork. We aim to visually convey the same themes and dialogues explored in the text, highlighting the importance of visual representation alongside written content. This integrated artwork underscores the significance of collaborating with cultural producers, ensuring they are part of the conversation rather than being subjects of analysis or study.

Q: Having completed this edited book collection, how do you see your work moving forward in the future?

As I conclude a seven-year grant with Julie Podmore, we have been reflecting on potential directions for my next project. I have been contemplating the intersection of sexual and gender minorities with art spaces, exploring the common thread of spatial politics and exclusion. The focus will likely be on how cultural infrastructure can act as a bridge, supporting social inclusion in cities. In my upcoming project, I aim to delve deeper into the role of counter-cultural infrastructure in realizing the agenda of inclusive cities. I am particularly interested in the potential of artist-run studios and galleries, indie theatre companies, radical bookstores, independent cafés, community archives, and para-museums as counterspaces and undercommons. Building on ideas from Friederike Landau-Donnelly's chapter on para-museums, I want to reflect on how traditional cultural institutions like museums and libraries have been, and can be, transformed to give voice to different stories and engage the public more inclusively. Each type of cultural infrastructure contributes differently to questions of participation and belonging, offering unique modes of inclusion. Civic leaders can learn from these diverse approaches and critically assess how to better support social inclusion in practice through proper investment in these infrastructures. My next focus will be on exploring the specificity of these counter-cultural spaces and understanding how they contribute to manifesting and realizing inclusivity in various forms.


Alison L. Bain is a feminist urban social geographer who studies contemporary urban and suburban culture. Her research essentially examines the spatial, infrastructural, and creative affordances of cities and their peripheries for cultural workers and LGBTQ+ populations. She is a Managing Editor of the Urban Studies journal and co‐editor of Urbanization in a Global Context (Oxford University Press, 2017 & 2022) with Linda Peake.