UI Director Simon Marvin reflects on the “Usable Past” workshop, jointly held by the Urban Institute, USP, and the Centre for the History of the City on Tuesday 8th January, 2019.

The workshop took up the well-worn adage that ‘history matters’ and explored how, exactly, history can matter in dealing with today’s urban challenges. How can ways that we see the present (and future) be enhanced (and misused) by knowledge of the past and how it has been constructed? By what mechanisms are today’s urban trajectories influenced by past phenomena and historical narratives?  The workshop was designed to start a constructive dialogue between urban studies scholars’ interest in history and historians active in the urban context.   Participants reflected on where they saw the value of history and what methods could be used to advance research at this interface between historical and contemporary urban studies by: i) enabling scholars to talk about their use of urban history within their own work; ii) exploring different methods and approaches to urban historical research and or discusses experiences of engaging with urban practitioners through history and iii) focusing on boundaries and interrelations between the past, present and future of cities.  Following a keynote presentation from Tim Moss and short presentations on their work from the participants – the following 4 themes were identified for further examination.


  1. The City as Archive – What might it mean to think of the city as an archive and could this be more than a metaphor? Focusing on the city as a site might open the possibility of exploring the hidden, ignored histories, the loss (and partial recovery) of memory, revealing failed experiments etc.  In this context what is an archive, what methods are needed and how is it governed and used?
  2. Uncomfortable Urban Pasts – What is at stake in presenting to professionals/users with uncomfortable lessons from history that question contemporary and “false” readings from history? Focusing on the multiple and contested understanding of urban history how are dialogues and debates structured with users and professionals about different ways of understanding the past and how might this shape contemporary future priorities?  What contexts and forums are required, how are attentive histories foregrounded and compared and with what consequences and implications?
  3. Using Urban History to Understand Alternative Urban Futures – How can debates about potential urban futures and new development trajectories be enlarge and enriched through an understanding of past debates about urban futures? Key here is thinking through the range of possibilities states and urban agencies considered in response to prior crises and period of turbulence.  How can forums and sites be created to explore the range of possibilities considered in the past, to excavate the ways in which pathways were closed down and enlarged and to utilise such thinking in creating futures process for the 21st century?
  4. Reflexive Urban Histories – How can issues of concern to contemporary urban scholars inspire fresh perspectives and approaches in urban history? Exchange between urban studies and urban history needs to be of mutual benefit in a bilateral learning process. The workshop revealed how interaction with the researchers, topics, concepts and methods of contemporary urban scholars can reveal new opportunities for historical research. Such interaction can be a source of inspiration for original research agendas in (urban) history. What issues or concepts might we want to identify for future historical research? How might such a process of reflexive history be structured?




Philip Withington

AboudMaliq Simone

Vanesa Castan Broto

Ryan Powell

John Flint

Simon Marvin

Jon Silver

Sam Burgum

Mary Vincent

Jonathon Rutherford

Olivier Coutard