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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Person of Interest: Site-Seeing 2.0

The establishing shot is a device of the filmic language to situate the viewer in cinematic space. Here, I briefly trace the history of this practice of filmic mapping and discuss its use in the American television show Person of Interest. Currently in its fourth season, Person of Interest is a science fiction crime drama revolving around secret agents, a billionaire tech genius and the prevention of violent crimes in New York City with the help of an A.I. mass-surveillance system.
From its inception, film sought to take its spectators to new, and exciting locations on far-reaching journeys. Giuliana Bruno, in her seminal book Atlas of Emotion, contends that film transports the spectator to these locations, turning them from voyeurs into voyageurs. She argues that the visualization of filmic travel, through the simulated cinematic movement in space, turned sightseeing into site-seeing.[1]
Traditionally mainly used at the beginning of a film, the establishing shot, just like a map used by the traveler, introduces an unknown location thus making it familiar. To further inform about and position the viewer in the filmic space, actual maps or street signs were used.

Person of Interest is a show that reframes the mapping of space while challenging attitudes towards the question of who is looking. Throughout each episode, the viewer is presented with an abundance of establishing shots, almost obsessively tracking every move of the characters while illustrating the possibilities of modern mass-surveillance techniques. Its two A.I. characters, the Machine and Samaritan, do not simply offer the viewer reassuring security by informing them about their current location. These images make it very clear that the spectator is being situated within the cinematic space as well as being watched. These two differing A.I. characters, one ostensibly imbued with ethical values, the other obviously weaponized, further problematize the importance of who is watching and with what agenda.
In its treatment of terrorist threats, the show also re-appropriates the practice of sightseeing. In “Control-Alt-Delete” (S4E12), various historical landmarks in downtown Detroit become merely endangered sites flagged by Samaritan’s all-seeing gaze. This representation of the mapping of space is Person of Interest’s dystopian vision of site-seeing 2.0.


[1] Bruno, Giuliana. 2007. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New York: Verso.

Crime mapping: creating a false sense of security?

In recent years, two interactive maps have been published online which allows nyone to look up current crime rates in London. The Metropolitan Police launched their ‘Crime Mapping’ project in 2008; three years later the UK government backed the publication of a crime map of the whole of England and Wales, Both maps allow users to access recent crime data in any part of London. The Metropolitan Police’s map lets a user divide the city into boroughs, police wards and sub-wards, whereas the map can be narrowed down to individual streets.
Both websites received press attention when they were launched. Although these articles debate the ‘pros and cons’ of the interactive maps, none seem to critically engage with the format or validity of the data provided. These maps are presumed to represent the ‘truth’, and not a socially constructed representation of the city that by its design highlights some aspects and obscures others. In the press, politicians and Metropolitan Police staff stated that maps like these would increase public safety, help communities to engage with the police, allow for a more accurate distribution of police resources and reduce public anxiety about crime.[1] The press also reported on concerns, both from politicians and the public. These included the fears that the anonymity of the victims of a crime would not be guaranteed, that housing prices would be reduced in areas which were reported to have ‘high crime’, and that inaccuracies or mistakes in the computer algorithm misrepresented actual crime rates.[2]
Despite the attention given to these potential issues with the maps, there has been no apparent questioning of the political implications of these crime maps; as long as the data is accurate and the privacy of victims is ensured, it is generally perceived as a positive development. This attitude does not acknowledge that maps have the potential to be used for political means. As Daniel Dorling and David Fairbairn explain, maps can be ‘about social control and are usually created to serve the designs of their creators rather than to inform ‘the public’.’[3] The maps are presented as reflecting an absolute truth. However, like any map, these maps construct the London streets in a specific way. Both maps, for example, group types of crime in categories, ostensibly so that victims cannot be identified by the information provided. But by using categories it becomes less transparent which types of crime are included, and which are not. Moreover, the use of categories gives the impression that all groups of crime together represent the total amount of crime, but that is not necessarily the case.

Both maps are based on data from the last few months, creating a picture which is apparently as up-to-date as possible. In reality, using this short-term data can be misleading. Looking at the total crime rates for the ‘West End’ ward on the Metropolitan Police map, there appears to be a big increase from November to December. But when one compares it with last years’ figures, this increase between the months appears to be expected, and is perhaps caused by the influx of tourists and shoppers in the holiday season. This might be the biggest problem with these maps: they provide a snapshot of a situation in constant flux and little background on exactly how these figures are collected, or what the possible social causes of these criminal activities are. Rather than questioning which social circumstances lead people to committing crime, the maps present crime in the big city as a given, and as something that the general public has the right to be informed about. Readers of the map are not encouraged to see it as a cultural representation, which should be interpreted accordingly. There is consequently no regard for the notion that these maps can encourage stigmatisation of certain social groups or areas of the city.
Rather than reducing public anxiety about crime, these maps can actually increases such feelings by not distinguishing between long-term developments and short-term peaks or troughs. Instead of seeing them as websites which help the public be aware of crime rates and police activity, I would argue that these maps are political tools which present the city in a way that is far from objective, and should therefore be approached with scepticism.

[1] See ‘Street-level crime maps launched online’, BBC News website, published 1 February 2011: Accessed 17 January 2015; Jemima Kiss, ‘How safe is your neighbourhood?’, Guardian website, published 15 August 2008: Accessed 17 January 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Daniel Dorling and David Fairbairn, Mapping: Ways of Representing the World, Harlow: Pearson, 1997, p. 65.