Site matters at all scales, from the planetary to the smaller than ants-scale. Inhabitability, livability, and the survival of many different species, including the human species, have to be understood through the availability of sites and how they are taken care of so they provide for habitation, life, survival, and, of course, also flourishing. Sites, and their ecologies, impact largely on the ways in which human and non-human beings can lead their lives. Sites matter to urban memory practices. Sites matter to public life, including political life, cultural life, as well as leisure. Sites matter to mobility and access. Sites matter to urban climates and urban pollution.
Through the definition and the bordering of sites the transformation of urban land takes place. Sites, understood as pieces of land and as lots, become manageable. Site-thinking, that is thinking through the logic of site, has historically made it possible for urban land to be managed, regulated, organized, and planned for. Site-thinking has also entered urban land into state economies as well as market economies. The economic value of sites is defined through the entangled interests of speculation, investment, and use, which are reflected in long-term maintenance, and care. The value of sites is dependent on the coming together of many different factors.
The ecological, infrastructural, cultural, aesthetic, or political value of sites has to be understood in relation to the impact of economic regimes at any given historical moment. Even though these values, as they are being articulated and practiced by urban inhabitants, have to be understood and studied in relation to economic power regimes, are not fully and only defined through these alone. Reducing values to economic values perpetuates the logic of the neoliberal capitalist stranglehold over urban land and thus urban sites.
As the value of sites changes over time, urban development and urban transformation can be studied through the specific impact on any given site as well as through the specific changes resulting in changed relations between sites and their changing communities and constituencies connected to them.
Sites as the ‘locus’ and ‘focus’ of urban practice are theoretical objects that highlight that urban practice is a highly inter-disciplinary field that, depending on the focus, requires many different types of knowledge to be brought together - both for practicing differently and for a different epistemic and political approach to sites. The term site has gained prominence in art historical and art theoretical analysis in response to artistic practices that have emerged since the 1960s. The theoretical concept can be understood as a response to the ways in which artists were working at the time, as they left behind their studios, made their practice part of urban sites and began to not only develop different aesthetic practices, but also made these practices part of urban life and urban transformation.
Site-specificity, with the seminal analysis developed by Miwon Kwon, has not gained broad influence in other disciplines, which are relevant to urban practice. These disciplines include, amongst others, urban studies, diverse economies, affect studies, environmental humanities, biology, digital humanities, planning and policy studies, gender studies, postcolonial studies, memory studies, urban history, or public health studies. Contested and conflictual histories and their implications to urban practices, including complex and often invisibilized and silenced histories of extraction, exploitation, dispossession, or toxicity, are constitutive to understanding the specificity of any given site.
No site is innocent. Site visits have long been standard practice in urban research. Expanding the concept of the site visit, I argue here that specifically understanding a site in all its different dimensions, physically and environmentally, historically and emotionally, economically and aesthetically, to name just a few of the important dimensions, makes abundantly clear that visiting a site to understand and theorize it cannot be done through simply being onsite, even though this is, of course, of crucial importance. Site-specific urban practice needs to be multi-disciplinary, needs to broaden knowledges and understandings to become “response-able” (Donna Haraway) to practicing with urban sites.
Elke Krasny is Professor of Art and Education at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Her scholarship addresses ecological and social justice in the global present with a focus on the politics of interdependencies and the emergence of a twenty-first century care feminism.