One Flew Over The City: Sensorial Experiences of Urban Space

Montreal from Street Railway Power House chimney, Quebec, 1896. Photo courtesy of Musée McCord Museum.

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“Plan Wathelet PAS QUESTION!” screamed the little yellow signs. They were taped to practically every window of the quiet Brussels street that my family and I had moved into late last August. Displaying a big, black airplane flying menacingly low over the urban skyline, the signs were part of a broader citizen-led mobilisation against new flight paths in and out of Brussels Airport. These routings concentrated flights over residential neighbourhoods in the eastern part of the Belgian capital, drastically increasing the number of people exposed to regular air traffic. Named after Melchior Wathelet, the transportation minister responsible for its implementation, the plan incurred the wrath of residents for whom the loud and constant rumble of jet engines – stretching from before dawn until late into the night – was a source of stress, troubled sleep, and, they feared, declining home values. As I became friendly with some of the neighbours, one man told me about how the noise had pushed him to volunteer extensively with the Pas question group. The rest of his spare time he spent at the local swimming pool. At least with his head under the water he couldn’t hear the planes… as much.

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“Plan Wathelet PAS QUESTION!” Photo by Nicolas Kenny.

After several years away, I had just arrived in Brussels for a one-year study leave. The airplane controversy immediately piqued my curiosity. At stake, and on full display, were the ways in which bodily and sensorial experiences conditioned people’s relationship to the urban environment. I had spent years researching this very topic in Brussels and Montreal, asking how the monumental transformations under way at the turn of the twentieth century were felt both physically and mentally by urban dwellers who, in a short span of time, saw their cities swell to unprecedented proportions. This undertaking was at the heart of my doctoral dissertation, which, following much reworking, became The Feel of the City: Experiences of Urban Transformation, published by the University of Toronto Press in June 2014. I am grateful to the editorial team at The Otter for the invitation to reflect on it here.

During the period I covered, 1880-1914, the crowds converging in the streets of Montreal and Brussels, the incessant comings and goings of boats and trains in their ports and stations, and above all the sprouting of industrial installations, from small workshops to massive rolling mills, in and around the urban core generated new and unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells. Their accumulation prompted urban dwellers of all backgrounds to question what it meant to live in a modern city. Many pushed back against the nuisances they associated with industrialisation: the plumes of smoke spewing from chimneys jutting out from massive factories, the din of machinery that filled their ears day after day, the cramped and unsanitary accommodations that passed as home for the precariously employed workers on whose labour the whole apparatus depended, the stench and humidity, the extreme temperature variations, the risk of disease and death widely associated with living and working in these conditions. Of course, modern city life came with its sensorial pleasures as well. Commentators raved about the spectacle of electric lights glowing in the evening mist, the joyful ambiance of crowded beer-serving establishments in Brussels, and the breathtaking panorama of streets, houses, spires, steamboats and factories framed by verdant pastures and distant mountains that one could behold from the summit of Montreal’s Mount Royal.

This project had begun with my own sensorial experiences of urban space. I had spent countless hours wandering through the streets of Montreal and Brussels, fascinated by the enduring legacy of the industrial period in their look and layout. Contemplating the intricate brickwork on the façade of an otherwise functionalist factory or noticing the surprising curvature in a row of houses that had been built along a railroad track, I had wanted to understand what it must have felt like, viscerally, to live in these places during the tumult of the Industrial Revolution, a period that now seemed so distant despite the physical traces it had left.

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Montreal from Street Railway Power House chimney, Quebec, 1896. Photo courtesy of Musée McCord Museum.

In listening to contemporary remonstrances against airplanes over Brussels, however, I am struck by the extent to which, a hundred years on, the impact of technology on the quality of urban life is still discussed in specifically sensorial terms. We use the very same arguments about lost tranquility, a sense of unfairness about the distribution of nuisances across different areas of the city, and a concern for potential economic consequences inflicted on innocent bystanders. Some might simply dismiss this as NIMBYism. They might point out that if airplane noise seems so loud, it is precisely because of the relative calm we enjoy in large cities today, especially when compared to the soundscapes of the laissez-faire industrial era. Indeed, this would fit well with the established narrative that since the nineteenth century, cities have become increasingly sanitised and deadened spaces of insipid shopping malls and suburban freeways to which our bodies no longer react.

It’s difficult to deny the general trend over the past century toward smoother urban surfaces and a diminished tolerance for loud noises and pungent smells. Yet I argue in this book that this perspective has, until recently, overshadowed the sustained importance of the moving, sentient body in the way people made sense of the city, and has prompted historians to dismiss the redolent sensorial language of urban observers as mere rhetoric. My purpose, then, was to dig deeper into these commentaries in order to uncover the deeply embodied nature of the relationship to this unique environment, indelibly marked by the way urban dwellers touched, smelled, saw, heard and moved through their cities. A comparative and transnational approach that considered two urban centres, on different continents but coming to grips with similar processes, served to show how these experiences were rooted at once in local contexts and in the broader flows of people and ideas that reshaped the western world in this period – and that, as the airplanes demonstrate, have since taken on an increasingly global dimension.

In the wake of protest against the Wathelet plan, a Belgian court has ruled that the federal government must revise the flight patterns, and has ordered a moratorium on use of the controversial routes. The Brussels municipal administration, for its part, has equipped itself with mobile sonometres in order to monitor the impact of the changes. The issue’s ultimate resolution remains uncertain. Residents of the smaller suburban communities who had initially lobbied for the changed routes have promised to fight back. In the meantime, I’ve gone back to what brought me here in the first place – research into another soundscape, one produced by radio broadcasting in Brussels during and after the Second World War. And with the quieting of the planes I’ve enjoyed reconnecting with other, more enjoyable sensorial experiences this city has to offer… the sound of frites sizzling in hot oil, the soft caress of an artisanal brew enveloping the taste buds, a ray of sunshine piercing the dense cloud cover of winter and playing on the blue stone of the same buildings the people in my book would also have walked by and perhaps contemplated for a moment, before going on with their busy days.

Nicolas Kenny is a member of the History Department at Simon Fraser University.  His research examines the bodily and emotional relationship to the urban environment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focussing especially on Montreal and Brussels.  He is the author of The Feel of the City: Experiences of Urban Transformation (University of Toronto Press, 2014), and co-editor, with Rebecca Madgin, of Cities Beyond Borders: Comparative and Transnational Approaches to Urban History (Ashgate Press, forthcoming 2015).

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