Thursday, 3 November 2016

Reclaiming the streets: An interview with Nick Dunn about his new book Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City

One of the first pieces of advice given to students moving to a city – particularly young women – is to avoid walking the city streets at night. If it’s absolutely essential to do so, you’re told to stick to a large group and “always walk towards the oncoming traffic”. Are the streets really fraught with fear, potential menace lurking around every corner? Are they places to be passed through as quickly as possible, potentially hazardous passages to be navigated from work to bar to club to home?

In his new book Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City, Nick Dunn suggests that walking after dark is not just a means of getting from A to B, but an experience that can itself be rich in interest and stimulation. When he started to regularly walk around Manchester at night, Nick says, “I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.”

“Walking is so natural to humans,” Nick tells me. “It is calming, meditative and therapeutic. It’s about wellbeing and a connection to the world. It’s an escape and a welcome respite, allowing you to be in a time and place in a way you can’t be in your daily life.”

Night time changes expectations, patterns of movement and encounters; places, shapes and materials shift in form, appearance and function. “Years ago people thought darkness rose out of the ground and might even kill you if you touched it,” says Nick. “We don’t think that any more, but it’s still immersive and sight is not that much use in a lot of areas by night.”

Walking at night activates the imagination, raising questions about what it means to be productive and creative. “Walking can be subconscious and you don’t really have to think about it – you can percolate other thoughts whilst walking,” observes Nick. “I’m not a luddite, but so much of life nowadays is mediated by screens, and we’re losing touch with the things that make us human. People would much rather live through proxy. Walking can allow you to give your attention to things. It’s an inscriptive practice.”

Over the past couple of years Nick estimates he has spent a couple of thousand hours in total walking at night, sometimes walking all night until dawn. “I’m only doing what you see lots of couples and families doing on Sundays!” he points out. Despite the boom in interest in psychogeography and walking as art practice, however, for many people cities are still not an obvious place to walk. “With a lot of British cities, you go into the city centre as a pleasuredome, to consume,” says Nick. “I’ve always loved walking around cities, but it has usually had a purpose – to see friends, to go to gigs.” 

Cities might be places to live, work and socialise, but there’s an expectation that if you want to walk you get the train to the hills or drive out to the countryside. “On the rare occasion friends have come out with me they’ve been bored and underwhelmed by the city’s ordinariness,” says Nick. “Some people expect entertainment and engagement – they’re not very good with silence.”

Nick’s spent a lot of time walking in London, an oft-trodden literary path, and many other cities, but Dark Matters turns its attention closer to home, to the particular experience of his native city. “I love Manchester but it’s not a 24-hour city,” says Nick. “Apart from the little bumps and grinds of clubs and stuff, Manchester dies at night. It feels like a completely different city. It’s not like London and doesn’t hold the imagination in the same way; it’s surprisingly quiet. Manchester still has massive pockets of quiet, whereas London is teeming with life 24 hours a day. Manchester is also very, very compact – you can walk around the centre, the area contained within the inner ring road, in twenty minutes.”

Much of Nick’s time has been spent on the edges of the city, in semi-rural environments such as the river Mersey, and in suburban south Manchester. These places, familiar to many of us and replicated over and over again throughout the city and its outlying towns, contain a “certain set of houses which are identifiable” and offer a glimpse into a “deeply personal diorama of family living”. At the same time, they’re unfamiliar, rendered “eerie, odd and uncanny at night”, and often empty apart from the occasional speeding car.

Night walking in inner-cities, meanwhile, can throw up “problems and things that don’t stack”. For example, says Nick, Manchester is not an age-friendly city. Its centre isn’t multi-generational. “I look at the future of cities in my day job [Professor of Urban Design at the University of Lancaster] and it’s very pertinent – cities at night is a global problem. The response is usually to make them safer and to use surveillance, often at a huge ecological and environmental cost. There are other ways to approach the nocturnal city.”

No two nights are the same, but Nick has done different walks in the same place, cross-hatching paths which “overlap in a big waggle dance across the city centre”. Small written snapshots of these walks featured in the recent exhibition Loitering With Intent: The Art Politics of Walking in Manchester and Beyond at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. They were presented alongside photographs capturing the invasive, uneasy orange glare, the “strong glow of LEDs and lighting” that pervades the city at night, contributing to a collage of nocturnal experiences.

Nick also led a night time wander alongside the exhibition, showing “there’s so much variety so close to the city centre”. Over a couple of hours it took in canals, elevated motorway the Mancunian Way and its half-finished slip road that hangs over the city like an ellipsis, the landscaped calm of the 1960s UMIST campus, now emptied out and partially demolished in favour of a new-build, high-rise campus elsewhere in the city, the bubble of affluent housing that is Piccadilly Village, which arose from the dust of the almost uninhabited city centre Manchester in the early 1990s and whose private canal basins are hermetically sealed off from the red light district with high security gates, and the former industrial areas of the gentrifying inner-city area of Ancoats, half-abandoned and half-reinvented as a place for living, working and consuming. The walk finished with the “beautiful compressing experience of the passageways leading to St Ann’s Square”.

It might seem odd to organise and collectivise something so inherently spontaneous and so often done alone, especially now that everything from graffiti to drinking to smell is packaged as a city tour, an experience to be purchased and consumed, but Nick’s night walk wasn’t just an architectural guide or urban walk – it was a challenge to participants to do something different. “What I get out of walking is different to someone else; walking with others is a very different experience,” says Nick. “People came as it wasn’t something they’d do on their own. You’re asking people to pay attention to their surroundings and enjoy the city – the texture, smells, sense of enclosure and sense of openness.”

Dark Matters was prompted in part by Nick’s participation in the Royal Academy's Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined exhibition in 2014, where he spoke at a seminar and got really positive feedback about his work on the nocturnal city. He acknowledges that he’s not the first person to think about walking or cities or night, or walking as a spatial practice, or to connect it with capitalism, contemporary politics and social critique – but says he wanted to go beyond walking, to sensing.

“Lots of books have been written about walking and night and cities, from sociological and geographical perspectives,” Nick explains. “I didn’t want to do that, or to generate hundreds of words of footnotes. The book is more open, and more of a framework and way of thinking about things. It’s a series of short ideas that ultimately says just go and do it. It doesn’t reduce itself to nuggets. It glories in being unfinished and starting the conversation and asking questions.” Nick also notes a tendency for walking in literature to be “very solitary, male, macho and heroic”. He admits: “I hope the book has vulnerability, uncertainty and openness to it.”

Despite a long gestation period, Dark Matters was written in a short space of time, giving it, says Nick, a sense of urgency and propulsion, a “call to legs”. Academic musings are interspersed with quotations from poems and vignettes giving the reader a distilled impression of the city by night. As an architect by training and a “designer of things”, Nick experimented with drawing and mapping his journeys, but he realised “words work best – a photo never does justice to the thickness of the night, but it’s amazing how rich and potent memories are and how quickly they come back to you”. Rather than “fuzzy photos”, then, the book uses creative non-fiction as prompts; descriptive interludes convey the idea of what Nick felt and sensed, but “don’t lead by the hand”.

Music also pulses through the book. In particular, LoneLady’s 2015 album Hinterland provides a mental soundtrack. “LoneLady’s second album is very insightful about landscapes, and desolation is very set up in the rhythm of what she does,” says Nick. The jerky, restless, funkiness of Hinterland is part of a distinct northern musical lineage, drawing on post-punk and industrial music like Cabaret Voltaire, whilst remaining resolutely of the contemporary city. It’s frail, fragmented and spidery yet flowing and robust. It’s mechanistic and human, sparse and worldly yet at the same time a product of Manchester and its restrictions, frustrations and opportunities. Ultimately, it’s a pop record. LoneLady was also part of the Loitering With Intent exhibition; a series of opaque clues, teasingly familiar yet just beyond touching distance, led visitors on a treasure hunt of the city that made even the most intrepid explorer and active gatherer of arcane facts question their knowledge and understanding of the places around them.

Dark Matters contains a strong element of critique and, as the title implies, a call to action. “It’s getting increasingly difficult to walk around the city,” says Nick. “The amount of landscape accessible is diminishing. The city is foreclosing and we are constantly being told what we can’t do. We mainly think about it as an arena for consumption, and as cities as having to attract investment – Manchester sometimes believes too much in that story.”

Physical fences and boundaries are mentally reinforced by our own expectations and inhibitions about where we go and where we don’t go. “Roles and routines are deeply embedded”, says Nick. “To move too oddly in a city, to dance through a space, to move too quickly or too slowly is to bring circumspection on yourself. You’re quickly made to feel unwelcome if you’re not spending anything. For example in Piccadilly Gardens, you self-identify as ‘other’ if you’re not about to get on a bus, or on your way to somewhere. Your motives become suspicious and attract attention from not just police and security but from other members of the public. You’re conditioned into how you expect people to behave in public.”

In spite of this, says Nick: “The urban landscape can be an amazing and wonderful thing. To walk is to read the landscape beneath your feet. The whole thing is underscored by improvisation. You hear voices behind a wall, see something that catches your eye. I make it up as I go along. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, and you don’t need to be instructed – anyone with the will can do it.”

As Nick says, walking in the city is “about finding the extraordinary and fascinating in the everyday”. Everyday life sometimes seems fraught with danger, but it is also be full of beauty and wonder. As our society, culture and politics are increasingly overhung by a cloud of fear and suspicion of the unknown and the other, perhaps it’s time to embrace risk in search of freedom, understanding and even adventure.

Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City is published by Zero books on 25 November costing £9.99. For more information visit