The Home of Many

First, a poem by Claude McKay entitled ‘The City’s Love’;

For one brief golden moment rare like wine,
The gracious city swept across the line;
Oblivious of the color of my skin,
Forgetting that I was an alien guest,
She bent to me, my hostile heart to win,
Caught me in passion to her pillowy breast;
The great, proud city, seized with a strange love,
Bowed down for one flame hour my pride to prove.

I may have spoken about cities such as London being lonely places, but in their vast, sprawling disarray, they can also be the most inclusive.

The city of London may be large, but it is comprised of several smaller communities within it, leading to a rich diversity of peoples, culture and languages. Oliver O’Brien, a researcher from the UCL Geography Department, has created a map based around the London Underground stations, looking at the most commonly spoken second languages. This gives a visual representation of the variety of groups that inhabit the city.

In London there are reportedly 275 languages spoken, and our languages and ways of speaking actually make a vast contribution to who we are, in terms of gender, politics and culture (Goodwin has done work in to the language of the playground in a multicultural American high school, looking at how if boys/girls/different cultures speak differently, do they in fact think differently? This led to work on how males focus on conflict and females focus on co-operation, but that is not what I want to look at for now)

On O’Brien’s blog there have been calls to represent his work on a larger scale, including train stations across the whole of the UK, as well as other European capitals such as Paris. A key comment has also been that of ‘market research’, in terms of business owners using the map to know the best market to set up a new eatery or similar.

But why is this important? Why do we see groups of those speaking the same language clustering together, and why is this something we want to know?

In relation to the body and the poem I quoted earlier, we can extrapolate from this data to reach the most superficial aspect of our bodies. Skin colour. How we look. A mark of our heritage and a shared experience, and ultimately in a new environment, finding bodies that share these characteristics has been found to be a comfort (Ben-Ner et al, 2006). The poem speaks of the city being oblivious to the colour of the authors skin. This, to me, speaks of the diversity of a city. We are used to seeing a whole spectrum of ethnicities in one tube carriage and see this as entirely normal, but coming from a country, or town, that is less familiar with forms of migration, it may be a shock. And when you come from a minority in one of these less diverse areas, to come somewhere and no longer feel that… well, you gain an impression from the poem about how that must feel.

The city is diverse, but it is composite. A mosaic of bodies. Sometimes this can go wrong, and cause tensions, but often it can work well, offering a sense of unity in both the small and large community. Maybe self defining as Somalian, Portuguese, Scottish or American, but at the end of the day, all being Londoners.

*Beyond us all being Londoners, I would also like to go on a brief tangent as to why this divison of skin colour may not be as stark as it appears. Neil Harbisson is an artist who was born colour blind, but has an ‘electronic eye’ that allows him ‘hear colour’, becoming what he deemed, a cyborg. Ironically for a person who could previously quite literally see in black and white (achromatopsia only allows vision in greyscale) he is quoted as saying ‘I found out that there are no black or white skins. We all are different shades of orange.’ The way we view colour is a very ‘human’ experience which helps us to categorise our world, which we have seen throughout history, from apartheid to my example of community division within London. I wonder what it would be like if we were all to experience the world through our bodies in the same way as Harbisson, through sound rather than colour? It is likely we would still distinguish through tone, as it is human nature to want to ‘classify’ what is around us. 


1. Ben-Ner, A; McCall, B. P; Stephane, M; Wang, H . (2006). Identity and Self-Other Differentiation in Work and Giving Behaviors: Experimental Evidence*. Available: Last accessed 29th April 2015

2. Goodwin, M. H. (2006) The hidden life of girls: games of stance, status and exclusion, USA: Blackwell Pub. 

3. Harbisson, N. (2014). Cyborgism. Available: Last accessed 29th April 2015

4. McKay, C. (2003). The City’s Love. Available: Last accessed 29th April 2015

5. O’Brien, O. (2014). Tube Tongues. Available: Last accessed 29th April 2015.




The London Necropolis Company was formed by an Act of Parliament in 1852, to help cope with the overflowing London cemeteries. The company aimed to create a single, multi-denominational graveyard that the dead of the city could be transported to, which was now possible with the introduction of railways. The London Necropolis Railway was now able to transport both cadavers and mourners to the location of this ‘super-cemetery’ in Brookwood, Surrey.

The Westminster Bridge Road (First) Terminus of the Necropolis Railway. Who needs a ghost train at a fairground?

This series of events that led up to the formation of this system could be seen to correlate directly with Mary Douglas’ idea of dirt being ‘matter out of place’. As it was in London at the time, corpses were piling on top of each other, and the idea of ‘miasma’- the unpleasant smell that emanates from rotting corpses- was seen to be a genuine public health concern. The cholera epidemic of 1848 meant that bodies were piling up like never before, spilling out of the graveyards and moving next to schools and churches- youthful  play and community activity contrasting starkly with the static, solitary nature of death. Matter displaced.

Mary Douglas made the point that when you clean, you do so to create order. She saw everything about a dead body to be wrong, not just in the sense of hygiene as would be a most pressing issue in overcrowded London, but if we are also to look to theories such as the ‘uncanny valley’; being surrounded by dead bodies would be a most unsettling experience, through the ‘almost human’, but not quite, nature of the dead.

Therefore this mass movement and relocation of dead bodies was the government’s attempt at restoring order.

An interesting aspect of the system was that despite the site itself being muti-denominational, and a tiered cost system being in place allowing both the poor and the rich to bury their dead, a segregation of class and religion still existed in the train carriages, and the trains would go down different branches for Anglicans and Non-conformists.

trains london

Sadly the scheme was not as successful as was initially hoped, and after sustaining damage from a WW2 raid in 1941 the London Necropolis Railway was never used again. However, the idea of moving bodies from crowded areas has in fact remained. In places such as Singapore, Germany and Belgium a public grave is free- but only as a ‘rental’- after 20 years, someone can pay to keep the plot, or the body will be moved to a mass grave or similar.

The biggest challenge as to how to deal with dead bodies have remained the same cross-culturally and over time though. Firstly, the deeply embedded cultural and religious practices of certain groups- that may forbid actions such as cremation- and secondly, the cost of a burial. With burial space becoming more and more difficult to come by, the cost of a plot- particularly in overcrowded cities such as London and Hong Kong- is becoming astronomical, leaving some groups essentially unable to afford to die. In terms of alternatives to burial, many have arisen. The Urban Death Project ( proposes turning your loved ones in to compost like material, returning them to the ‘cycle of nature’, or maybe we should adopt a Tibetan Sky Burial? Whereby the corpse is left to decompose and be eaten by birds of prey on a mountainside.

Death by it’s very nature is mysterious, taboo and has different meanings for different people, whether it is an end or a continuum. And as long as we hold different beliefs as to what death means, it seems unlikely that we will ever reach a full agreement as to how the dead are laid to rest.


1.Arnold, Catherine (2006). Necropolis: London and its dead. London: Simon & Schuster. 

2.Clarke, John M. (2004). London’s Necropolis. Stroud: Sutton Publishing

3.Clarke, John M. (2006). The Brookwood Necropolis Railway. Locomotion Papers 143 (4th ed.). Usk, Monmouthshire: The Oakwood Press

4.Connor, J. E. (2005). The London & South Western Rly. London’s Disused Stations 5. Colchester: Connor & Butler

5.Douglas, M. (2003). 10- The System Shattered and Renewed . In: Douglas, M Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Volume 2. London: Psychology Press. p160-180

6.Gerard. (2015). London Necropolis Railway. Available: Last accessed 15th March 2015

7.Jackson, L. (2015). Death in the city: the grisly secrets of dealing with Victorian London’s dead. Available: Last accessed 15th March 2015




Reclaiming the City

Sometimes a city can feel like it is not your own, or has been taken away from you, a current example of this being in Gaza- a part of the Palestinian territories which includes the infamous West Bank. For the inhabitants of this district their movements are restricted both in and out of the area, and no building materials- amongst other things- are allowed to be imported in. Therefore, the buildings that are crumbling- either through conflict damage or age- are unable to be repaired, so it becomes difficult to maintain the city that is yours. However, some of the residents of the region have set about reclaiming the city through movement, fighting back against the system that confines them, and opposing the danger of the territory with the danger of their sport;

What could be more unsafe than moving across, over, between, or under the city’s structures with what seems to be a joyous and blatant disregard for their intended use? -Thomson, 2008

This resistance in the face of adversity has been documented by the street artist ‘Banksy’ who has gone about reclaiming the city in his own way through art, creating a number of new works in the territory.

Bavinton (2007) examined parkour’s key philosophy of turning ‘obstacles into opportunities’. The author found that traceurs’ (a person who takes part in parkour/free running) ability to reinterpret ‘space’ and use it in unconventional ways upsets embedded power relations within urban settings. Through the traceurs use of their bodies, they exert the power of their movement and their ‘selves’ on the city that is crumbling around them, making it their own, a playground from a battleground; as well as contributing to their sense of agency- something that may be threatened when their actions are so restricted.


1. Banksy. (2015). After Banksy – Parkour in Gaza . Available: Last accessed 14th March 2015

2. Bavinton, N., 2007. From obstacle to opportunity: parkour, leisure, and the reinterpretation of constraints. Annals of leisure research, 10 (4), 391–412

3. Clegg, J. L., Butryn, T. M. (2012). An existential phenomenological examination of parkour and freerunning. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health. 4 (3), p320-340

4. Thomson, D., 2008. Jump city: parkour and the traces. South Atlantic quarterly, 107 (2), 251–263

It’s Not Easy Being Green

The Daily Mail- by no means known for it’s subtleties- produced an article in 2011 entitled

‘Why living in a city makes you fat, infertile, blind, depressed and even causes cancer’

The article cites how exposure to pollutants, even before you are born, can have an impact on your weight and metabolism, yet then includes how over hygienic homes lead to asthma and allergy development. It also looks at how the city causes some of the mental health problems can arise as I discussed in my previous post.

A key issue the article concludes with is the lack of nature and greenery in a city-dwellers day-to-day life.

‘Not only should we slap a health warning on urban life — we should put a regular spell in the countryside on prescription.’

The human need to connect with nature has been termed ‘biophilia’ and is something that I have noticed in myself particularly since moving to London. Before coming here I never really thought about the impact being surrounded by trees and open space had on me, but since arriving I find myself seeking it out, trekking to Hampstead Heath or Primrose Hill, or even one of the many ‘squares’ located near the university. Sitting in a park has a great calming effect, but it’s not just good for well-being, it’s also good for the city, improving our air quality too.


Picture taken on my most recent trip to Primrose Hill

In a blog praising street trees and urban greenery, the author states ‘When we are deprived of nature, we lose a basic aspect of humanity’. Green spaces have certainly been proven to have health benefits, but the idea of humanity seems to encompass a lot more. On a spiritual level, nature as something that is not created by man in the same way as tower blocks and multi storey car-parks, gives us a possible connection to something bigger than ourselves, whether we choose to attribute that to a God or not.

Luckily for me, though it’s not quite rural, London is the greenest major city in Europe and the third greenest city of its size in the world. But is this a trend that will carry on?

Green areas are fairly well protected in the UK for the moment, but as other cities continue to grow in population size and expand, my question is- how will we see this drastic urbanization affect the body? Will our health fail or adapt? Will new pathologies arise? And will our need for green dissipate or remain?

Could this be our only way of sustaining green space in the future?


1. Benfield, K. (2014). The many benefits of street trees and urban greenery (excerpted from People Habitat). Available: Last accessed 10th March 2015

2. McGlone, C . (2013). London ‘greenest city’ in Europe. Available:–greenest-city–in-Europe-/. Last accessed 10th March 2015.

3. Naish, J. (2011). Why living in a city makes you fat, infertile, blind, depressed and even causes cancer. Available: Last accessed 10th March 2015.


1. Bloggers own photograph


Have you ever been alone in a crowded room?

Whilst I was still at school and making my final choices for which university to go to, my German A-level teacher said to me at the time;

‘Are you sure about London? It can be an incredibly lonely place to be.’

At first I was confused. I was going to the capital city from a very small town on the outskirts of Yorkshire. There would be people upon people, crowded pavements and a perpetual buzz. How could you possibly be lonely when you’re surrounded by people? This was part of what excited me, the move from sleepy streets to a metropolis.

However, on reflection, and upon experiencing my first term at UCL, I got it. When you walk down Oxford Street your mindset is focussed- you plough through the streams of people walking against your tide, each with their own destination in mind. Nobody looks at each other. Rarely do you hear someone apologise for bumping in to you (which did annoy me at first, as I would always say sorry, and be irritated by not receiving the same courtesy!) And as for talking on public transport? Not a chance! You are surrounded by people, but remain very much alone.


Moving to a city has changed what I expect people to be ‘like’, from what I have seen people in cities are different to those in more rural areas, and it appears our body’s chemistry may actually reflect this.

An article from the Guardian newspaper last year was entitled

‘Sick cities: why urban living can be bad for your mental health’

and this actually talks about a ‘loneliness in crowds’ theory leading to poorer mental health in cities. A German researcher- Mazda Adli- is cited as saying;

“Obviously our brains are not perfectly shaped for living in urban environments,” …”In my view, if social density and social isolation come at the same time and hit high-risk individuals … then city-stress related mental illness can be the consequence.”

Some other research mentioned in the article suggests that living in cities leads to an overstimulation or alteration in the neurotransmitter dopamine, a change which is often seen in the brains of those with schizophrenia.

So is moving to the city a damaging experience that puts your health at risk? The evidence is mixed. Some say it conversely offers benefits, such as the sound of traffic improving children’s learning ability. However even if the scientific data is yet to be in agreement, from observation it is clear. The way we interact and react towards each other is very different in rural compared to urban areas. Though our bodies are forced more physically close together than ever before in cities, it seems to be simultaneously pushing people away and isolating them.

Loneliness is something that has long had a link to mental state of mind, as early as Durkheim’s work on suicide showing that the larger the familial group, the lower the likelihood of suicide, and Kohn and Clausen, along with others have looked at the role of social isolation in the etiology of mental disorders, particularly schizophrenia. More recently, a lot of work has gone in to combating loneliness in older people, with befriending campaigns being widely advertised and special helplines such as ‘Silverline’ growing in demand and popularity, due to the prevalence of mental illnesses such as depression in this population.

Are effects on mental health strictly in relation to the body? I think so. Not only can our mental health cause a change in how our body may look- stress can cause premature ageing, and there can be a tendency to not look after yourself as well, possibly leading to an unhealthy lifestyle with limited exercise and poor nutrition. These are visible, physical changes, which I will go in to more in my next post. But, if I am to confine myself to a Cartesian dualism of mind and matter, Descartes himself saw the brain as separate from the mind, and it is in this ‘matter’ that we can see physical changes from city living that can impact on our mental well-being.


1. Benedictus, L. (2014). Sick cities: why urban living can be bad for your mental health. Available: Last accessed 4th March 2015.

2. Durkheim, E (1895-1917). On Suicide. London: Penguin

3. Kohn, M. L. Clausen, J. A. . (1955). Social Isolation and Schizophrenia.American Sociological Review. 26 (1), p265-273

4. Lederbogen, F. Kirsch, P. Haddad, L. Streit, F. Tost, H. Schuch, P. Wust, S. Pruessner, J. C. Rietschel, M. Deuschle, M. & Meyer-Lindenberg, A. (2011). City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans. Nature. 474 (7352), p498-501

5. Lowenthal, M. F. (1964). Social Isolation and Mental Illness in Old Age.American Sociological Review. 29 (1), p54-70

6. Roberts, M. (2014). Lonely elderly flood Silver Line helpline with calls.Available: Last accessed 4th March 2015.




The Creative City

Both the body and the city have long provided inspiration for artists. If we are to look at Vitruvius, he authored ‘de Architectura’, covering every aspect of Roman architecture, from water supply to building materials. It also spoke of the sense of proportion and geometry that was required in a building, and Vitruvius described the human form as being the principal source of proportion among the classical orders of architecture. The ‘ideally proportioned’ body was later immortalised in pen and ink by Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’.

However, since these writings in 15BC, new ways of expressing the city as a body have transpired. In Manhattan’s Lower East Side ‘The city as a living body’ was used as a theme for a community art project, where the aim was to engage the broader community through painting murals and art demonstrations. The resulting piece of art showed

‘the brick wall peeling away to reveal living veins branching out and connecting us all to the pumping heart of the city.’

This has the idea of being connected to the city, as well as connecting different cultural groups within the community. We are part of the body that is created, even if that body no longer fits the perfect proportions that Vitruvius desired. The city has remodelled itself and has been reclaimed by those who inhabit it, even if this is simply by tattooing it with murals.

The artists embody the mural's themes of collaboration and interdependency by "holding up" their creation-- a heart-like globe of city grid.


1. Groundswell. (2013). THE CITY AS A LIVING BODY. Available: Last accessed 1st March 2015

2. Art Directory. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. Available: Last accessed 1st March 2015

The Gendered City

Every day our comments on a city reflect our interpretation of it as a body, even when we’re not thinking about it. The mayor being the head of a city, the heart of a city being the cultural or commercial centre, or referring to something as the lifeblood of a city. But what about it’s gender? Is the city a man or a woman? Or even breaking out of these binaries. The author Angela Carter is quoted saying,

‘Cities have sexes: London is a man, Paris a woman, and New York a well-adjusted transsexual’

The idea of how a city is modelled, and the aesthetics of a city, I believe could be seen to reflect this opinion. Looking at the skyscrapers that dominate many major city skylines nowadays, the buildings are phallic structures filled with white male professionals, exerting power not only over the rest of the city, but the rest of the country and beyond.

The author Michelle Murphy has written a book on how she feels this predominantly male construction process can lead to health problems in the city, specifically Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), stating even the ventilation engineers seem to have a gendered leaning when designing systems for new buildings- such as these skyscrapers and tall office blocks. The reason this is interesting is that statistics relating to SBS have shown that women are more likely to be affected by this than men. Interestingly, the author comments on universities being a key site for SBS episodes. Particularly for older universities, not only did they fail to foresee the upcoming digital changes that would need to be incorporated in to the buildings, but it could be argued that institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge that were founded with only the male student and professor in mind. Sources: Image- 1. Cohen, B. (2008). Sick Building Syndrome as a Problem of Design and Expertise: Part II with author Michelle Murphy. Available: Last accessed 14th Feb 2015. 2. Murphy, M (2006). Sick building syndrome and the problem of uncertainty : environmental politics, technoscience, and women workers. London: Duke University Press. 3. NHS Choices. (2013). Sick building syndrome. Available: Last accessed 14th Feb 2015.