IDEA

The most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world,
this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy,
landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.

– Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Walking and thinking have always been intertwined. Beginning with ancient philosophers, through Rousseau and Kierkegaard and from modernist flâneurs to urban ethnographers, many theories have originated from a surprise peripatetic discovery or a chance encounter. Today’s format of academic conferences – dominated by PowerPoint slides inspected in air-conditioned rooms – is not conducive to this. Thus the pertinence of INURA’s unique conference format, allowing us to revisit the very roots of urban research by exploring cities from the bottom up.

There is a notion that Warsaw is a post-socialist city. But what does this actually mean? Instead of defining it by what it no longer is (a capital of state socialism) or what it, in theory, is supposed to become (a poster child for market capitalism), we will delve into places and processes defining its contemporary mien. Over the past decade, a budding urban scene comprising academics, activists, architects and artists has emerged in Warsaw. Many knowledge gaps have been filled in, and many new research vistas have been opened. What we need now is to understand how these various pieces of the urban puzzle fit together – or, to borrow David Harvey’s term, what constitutes Warsaw’s “structured urban coherence”.

We will thus handle Warsaw as a theoretical clean slate and turn to its ordinary predicaments: housing, transit, labour, consumption, migration, its nature and its non-human denizens. It may turn out that, for example, the annus mirabilis of 1989 constitutes no watershed in Warsaw’s trajectory. Instead, longer continuities may be at work, and more recent forces may have shaken the city to the core. Warszawa Funkcjonalna, a research manifesto from 1934 that we have adopted for our conference logo, turns out to have been uncannily precise in defining the pattern of Warsaw’s spatial expansion, despite dramatic intrusions the city experienced during the Second World War and soon after. Conversly, Poland’s 2004 accession to the EU ushered in flows of capital that engendered entirely new spaces and redefined some extant ones, substantially unsettling the city and altering its position in various networks (global, national).

We hope this peripatetic intellectual experiment and the encounter between local and international researchers will be reinvigorating for urban theory. There has been plenty of jumbo-scale theorising about the urbanisation of our planet, and we have a plethora of micro studies either describing certain places or dissecting specific urban issues. With a few exceptions (such as Filip de Boeck’s work on Kinshasa and Hidenobu Jinnai’s work on Tokyo), we are in a dire need of research that shows how various fragments are, as de Boeck put it, sutured together. When Jinnai set off to walk the streets of Tokyo in the 1980s, he probably did not expect that these peregrinations would allow him to discover a planning paradigm that had never been formally expressed but in fact explains precisely how his city came about and how it works.

And yet the departure point for Jinnai’s discovery was walking. By that same token, a novel theory stitching contemporary Warsaw into a coherent whole may be just around the corner. We only need to make our way to it.

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