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Cities in the British Isles in the 19th-21st centuries: Laboratories, hothouses and crucibles for societal change?

Deadline for abstracts: February 28, 2021

Charlotte Gould and David Fée, guest editors of a special issue on Cities in the British Isles in the 19th-21st centuries, are soliciting contributions for a Special Issue of Angles, an international online peer-reviewed journal published bi-annually by the SAES.


Cities in the British Isles have long been a fertile ground for experiments. Since News from Nowhere (Morris 1890), they have inspired the critical discourses of countless visionaries and provided a locus for their innovation.

In the 19th century, some of these pioneers tried to put their visions to the test while their country was being blighted by anarchic urban growth and forced-march industrialisation. Their legacy can still be found in the model urban settlements of Bourneville, Port Sunlight or Saltaire, built by industrialists with somewhat ambiguous motivations in mind (Fishman 1982). At an individual level, this spirit also underlay various philanthropic schemes to redesign the late Victorian city (covered markets, housing tenements, etc.). At municipal level, the incorporation of new cities and the growth of municipal powers enabled enlightened city fathers (such as Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham) to prime what has been termed municipal socialism. Finally, at a cultural level, cities have been places where new tensions and opportunities have emerged, where utopian and dystopian fictions have been set.

The 20th century was initially dominated by “New Town” experiments, first designed by individual visionaries as a response to urban woes (Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities), and then by the state in a context of national reconstruction. However, from the 1960s onwards the focus of the authorities shifted to the living conditions of city dwellers, opening the way to countless experiments at the local level. Under the influence of American political civil movements, and with the support of some city councils, experiments in citizen participation flourished in order to give urban residents a voice in the planning of their communities (people’s planning) (Ambrose 1986). Furthermore, following “the rediscovery of poverty” in the mid-1960s, the Wilson governments implemented various programmes, with the joint aim of reducing poverty and encouraging cooperation between citizens and local authorities. Because the Thatcher years were not particularly favourable to political and economic decentralisation, they paradoxically fuelled numerous experiments in Labour and far-left controlled towns and cities, as well as at neighbourhood level, in reaction to national government policies (the battle of Coin Street or the people’s plan in Docklands for instance).

While it opposed the activist political art supported by Ken Livingstone in London, the Thatcher government was also finding inspiration in the American model of culture-led urban regeneration, supporting artistic and cultural initiatives in derelict neighbourhoods and tackling their renovation by encouraging philanthropic giving and sponsorship. Installation and performance-based New Genre Public Art had been encouraged by the 1977 Art in Public Places scheme; and while, after 1979, these interventions often aimed to challenge the tory government, the latter also counted on their capacity to drive inner city regeneration programmes (Duman et al. 2018; but also Iain Sinclair’s true fictions).

In the 21st century, the New Labour years (1997-2010) were characterised by the emergence of what some academics have called New Conventional Wisdom (NCW) (Butler et al. 2005), a renewed optimism about UK cities and the conviction that they held the key to a number of contemporary issues: as a result, the policy agenda shifted to economic competitiveness, social cohesion and good governance. Within this agenda, culture was given renewed pride of place. Both the production and consumption of culture were seen as a catalyst for city regeneration and marketing, leading many provincial cities to launch flagship cultural projects to rebrand themselves (Manchester for instance) (Hewison 2014). The Golden Age of Culture celebrated by T. Blair culminated in the opening of Britain’s new main tourist attractions, its contemporary art museums, Baltic in Newcastle, as well as Tate Modern in London (Donnellan 2018). The 2008 recession changed town centres. Haunted by the image of boarded-up high streets, the Department for Communities and Local Government advocated the pioneering reuse of non-commercial temporary empty space and in 2009, the then-director of Arts Council England, Alan Davey, launched the “Art in Empty Spaces Initiative”. Artists, the original creative class who, in the 1980s, had transformed disused buildings and factories into studios and temporary galleries, were now accelerating the pace of cities in flux by providing interim occupations of empty shops (Minton 2017) in a move which could adumbrate the solutions cities will have to come up with to revive city centres after the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, citizens’ participation was fostered by successive government programmes designed to address urban social problems (New Deal for Communities for instance).

Since 2010, British governments have joined forces in defence of localism, namely experimenting with local-scale solutions to local issues, with financial help from central government in the form of City Deals. This new agenda has given rise to local economic experiments (the Bristol pound), IT ones (smart neighbourhoods in Glasgow, Manchester, Hull, etc.) or initiatives to improve the sustainability of the urban environment (by joining the slow cities network for instance).

UK cities have experienced and witnessed the birth of a multicultural society and are where new identities have been created (Smith 2000), including through the use of a new urban language. Local stakeholders have come up with a wide range of initiatives to address these challenges in many UK cities (ethnic housing associations for instance).

Visions for improved cities — but also dystopian ones which can act as deterrents — have formed the backdrop of many fictional narratives and some experimental novels and films. The importance of visualisation in the invention of future cities has given a central role to technical advances, literary anticipation and all social, artistic, filmic or writerly attempts at presenting the future in the present (Cureton & Dunn 2020). In 1890, already, William Morris had imagined decentralised cities inspired by the back-to-the-land movement. For H.G. Wells, aerial viewpoints made possible by technological advances in transportation shifted perception and reshaped what Henri Lefebvre later called people’s “right to the city.” Meanwhile, E.M. Forster’s 1909 science-fiction short story “The Machine Stops” drove all city dwellers underground, making cityscapes all but invisible. Films set in a dystopian future such as Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) often foreground an eerie urban landscape.

This Angles journal issue on urban experiments and societal change in the British Isles will therefore focus on both the hard and soft urban projects — pertaining to architecture and town planning as well as to creativity and the imagination — that have been devised and implemented since the late 19th century as a means of transforming towns and cities and addressing local issues, if not sometimes changing society in its entirety.

Call for papers

Papers may focus on:

  • Town planning and architectural social experiments designed to change the urban physical environment;

  • Social and economic initiatives designed to improve urban living conditions and economic performance;

  • Culture both from a production and consumption perspectives;

  • The geopoetic representation of cities, psychogeography, science fiction and the urban imagination;

  • Literary representations of social or urban change in the UK;

  • Technological innovations and experimentations;

  • Initiatives to improve sustainability;

  • The interaction between macro-national, meso-local or micro-individual levels of action, including the organisations and actors behind the said experiments.

  • Challenges to and protests against the dominant urban and political policies;

  • The drivers and the influence of those experiments on British and Irish societies as well as their outputs;

  • Spatial and geographical contrasts within the British Isles;

  • Other, related topics.

Submission guidelines

Please send a 700-word abstract and your biography to both David Fée and Charlotte Gould by 28 February 2021 at the email addresses indicated below.

David Fée

Charlotte Gould

Full proposals will need to be submitted by November 15, 2021. The issue is scheduled for publication in April 2022.

About the guest editors

Charlotte Gould is senior lecturer in British culture and art at Sorbonne Nouvelle where she is a member of the research group 19-21. The focus of her research is contemporary British art, as well as public art commissioning since the nineteen-eighties and environmental art practices. In 2012, she co-directed the Ashgate volume Marketing Art in Britain: A Cultural History, 1700 to Today with Sophie Mesplède, which was reissued by Routledge as a paperback in 2017. She is also the author of Artangel and Financing British Art which was published by Routledge in 2019. Her co-edited volume British Art and the Environment. Changes, Challenges and Responses since the Industrial Revolution will come out with the same publisher in 2021. She is a member of SAES, of the Association of Art Historians (AAH), and of The Arts in Society Research Network.

David Fée is professor of British Studies at the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris and head of the research centre contemporary British society at Sorbonne Nouvelle. He specializes in the study of housing policies in the UK as well as the British welfare state. He is the author of many articles on housing and planning questions (including “Housing Policies in London, 2000-2015: Policies for a World City?” in Douglass, C. M., Ho, K. C., The Rise of Progressive Cities East and West, Singapore, Springer Verlag, pp. 79-99) as well as a book on the housing crisis in the UK (La crise du logement en Angleterre : 40 ans de politiques du logement et de la ville, Paris : Michel Houdiard, 2013). In 2020, he has co-edited Lessons from the French and British New Towns. Paradise Lost? (published by Emerald, UK) with Bob Colenutt and Sabine Coady-Schaebitz. His current topics of research include asylum housing in the UK and the comparative evolution of the British and French housing systems. He is a member of SAES, North American British Studies Conference, and Housing Studies Association.


Ambrose, Peter. Whatever Happened to Planning? London, Routledge, 1986.

Butler, Nick, Ian Gordon, Alan Hardling and Ivan Turok. Changing cities: rethinking Urban Competitiveness, Cohesion and Governance. London, Palgrave, 2005.

Cureton, Paul and Nick Dunn. Future Cities. A Visual Guide. London, Bloomsbury, 2020.

Department of the Environment. Policy for the Inner Cities. Cmnd. 6845. London, HMSO, 1977.

Department for Communities and Local Government. Locally-led Garden Villages, Towns and Cities. London, HMSO, 2016.

Donnellan, Caroline. Towards Tate Modern. Public Policy, Private Vision. London/New York, Routledge, 2018.

Duman, Alberto, Dan Hancox, Mailcolm James and Anna Minton, eds. Regeneration Songs: Sounds of Investment and Loss from East London. London, Repeater, 2018.

Fishman, Robert. Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1982.

Hewison, Robert. Cultural Capital. The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain. London, Verso, 2014.

Howard, Ebenezer. Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. London, Swan Sonnenschein, 1898.

Jordan, Shirley and Christoph Lindner, eds. Cities Interrupted, Visual Culture and Urban Space. London, Bloomsbury, 2016.

Kubrick, Stanley, dir. A Clockwork Orange. 1971. 136 mn.

Marcuse, Peter et al. eds. Searching for the Just City. Oxford, Routledge, 2009.

Minton, Anna. Big Capital. Who is London For? London, Penguin Random, 2017.

Sinclair, Iain. The Last London, True Fictions from an Unreal City. London, Oneworld, 2018.

Social Exclusion Unit. Bringing Britain Together: A National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal. Cd 4045. London, Cabinet Office, 1998.

Social Exclusion Unit. A New Commitment to Neighbourhood Renewal, National Strategy Action Plan. London, Cabinet Office 2001.

Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. London, Penguin Books, 2000.

Urban Task Force. Towards an Urban Renaissance: Final Report of the Urban Task Force. London, Spon, 1999.

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