Defining No-Man’s Land: Unobserved Gaps in the Urban Fabric

I recently saw Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which plays out in the period just before the Berlin Wall was raised in 1961. The film depicts in detail areas of East and West Berlin and the building of the wall, including shots of the empty no-man’s land, a zone of surveillance between East and West Germany. The film got me thinking about definitions of a no-man’s land: How the notion is connected to surveillance or spying, and how a place designated as no-man’s land can help us theorize the city and its spaces. In Spielberg’s film the tract of land in-between two competing ideologies and nations is presented as a space full of bullet holes, a space for no-one. The phrase is evocative and loaded with meaning – usually negative, conjuring up images of displaced peoples and heavily controlled state borders. According to a recent BBC article, the term has been with us for a long time; in it, Alasdair Pinkerton, an expert in human geography at the Royal Holloway University of London, explains that it first came into use in the Doomsday Book, where it was used to describe the land immediately adjacent to the city of London, but separate to the city proper. Returning to this original usage, is there a different way to imagine and interpret this place that exists between two worlds, a different way to think about the notion of a ‘no-man’s land’?
I am interested in the idea because it presents a gap in the state of things, and also, metaphorically, a gap in the state: a hole in the fabric of the city, as well as a gap in the built environment. I don’t believe that gaps are something we should be afraid of. They let things in and out. Since 1086, the no-man’s land has migrated from its space outside of the city walls and can now be situated firmly within the city.  Post-war Berlin is the example par excellence, but every city has them. Budapest, London, Oslo, Prague – pick your conurbation and co-ordinates. There are some tracts of land, open spaces that are outside – in all senses of the word. Intriguingly this opens up an array of possibilities relating to their use – theoretically at least they are open to use (and misuse) by anyone.
The no-man’s land is not where you might expect, and usually has more to do with time of day, than physical space. Spaces like this are places where dialogues can take place – like the bridge at night in Bridge of Spies – bridges that connect disparate social sectors, where exchange can happen between unlikely partners. The no-man’s land as bridge hints at a dualistic split in city space, whereby unwatched spaces coexist with observed ones – that is to say that the land and the no-man’s land are one and the same space: like the two cities in China Miéville’s fantasy novel The City and the City – two spaces that exist in one geographical location. Every space in a city holds within it a potential no-man’s land. Perhaps more so than time of day, the very act of mis-using a space, appropriating it for an activity it was not intended for, can transform a space into a no-man’s land. The designation of a space as inside and outside of a state’s jurisdiction is above all a temporal and performative issue, an issue not merely geographic in nature. There are unwritten rules, as well as written ones, about activities you can and cannot engage in, in various spaces. Yet, notions of accepted uses of space are closely linked to the idea of surveillance.
In the age of CCTV – the real no-man’s land must be an off-stage/off-screen space. These spaces are a necessary part of the urban map, even when they do not appear on it. They are undesignated, undefined, and as a result open up a space for all kinds of unusual relationships, uses, and interactions: interactions that do not have a place in the City proper. The no-man’s land is a space for acting out and acting outside. These are spaces where objects can cluster in unlikely combinations – brought there by the users of the no-man’s land: some objects are discarded, and then re-appropriated.  A no-man’s land is really a no-purpose land: a space without a specific role designated by its architecture.
Thinking through the notion of ‘no-man’s land’ throws into sharp relief the kinds of prejudices and ideas that we employ when we think about space and the city. Such gaps in the urban fabric can be openings of opportunity: spaces for the marginal in society – in terms of objects, activities, and people. Paradoxically, whilst such spaces lie beyond the bounds of CCTV, they function as a shadow of the city, a reflection – where the rules do not completely cease to exist, but are rather seen through a screen – and are changed, refracted. Unlike the military no-man’s land, the new no-man’s land is unplanned, and neutral (gender neutral too). And above all un-watched. These are the spaces in which the city speaks, whether or not we like what it has to say.

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