Tim Cresswell: On Place, Mobility & Poetry

Tim Cresswell teaching a workshop at "Practicing Place"
Tim during his workshop at “Practicing Place” in July 2023

Tim Cresswell is Ogilvie Professor at the University of Edinburgh. Trained as a cultural geographer, he is renowned for his extensive works discussing and conceptualizing the role of space, place and mobility in social and cultural life. Amongst the recent academic publications is his book Maxwell Street: Writing and Thinking Place (2019) [1]. Cresswell is also known for his creative approaches to geography, mainly through poetry, which he combines with scientific practice. His latest publication, Plastiglomerate (2020) [2], for example, looks at current environmental disasters, including plastic pollution or fires in the Amazon rainforest. 

During the course of his stay in Eichstätt in July 2023 as a Mercator Fellow of the research training group, our fellows Jessica and Nina sat down to chat and record this podcast with Tim Cresswell. 

Together, they follow Tim´s personal and academic journey and shed a particular light on the development of his research interests in place and mobility. A sneak preview of his forthcoming book The Citizen and the Vagabond – Towards Politics of Mobility opens up discussions about the relevance of rhythm and disruption in these processes. From the various aspects of politics and power that shape the (re)production and (re)configuration of places and mobilities, the trio draws links to more-than-human and postcolonial approaches. Ending on a more personal note, Tim Cresswell offers insights into how poetry, wordplay, and creativity have inspired his academic writing and teaching, always aiming at bringing fun and passion to and through his work.

Here is a small impression of the conversation. If you want to listen to our entire discussion with Tim, you can find the episode of our podcast Thereabouts here.


Q: What is your take on place and mobility today?

Tim Cresswell: […] The new mobilities paradigm emerged in about 2001 to 2006. A paper came out in 2006 called “The New Mobilities Paradigm” [3] that Mimi Sheller and John Urry

wrote, which was the same year that my book On the Move [4] came out. […] There are a lot of people writing about mobility now in different disciplines, in geography, in sociology, in literary theory, and in humanities. […] It’s interesting how these different disciplines have taken on thinking about what mobility means and how mobility is related to politics and power, particularly the concept of ‘mobility justice’ [5] that Mimi Sheller has written about; how mobilities of various kinds are fundamental to the emergencies of the world: The climate emergency, migration emergencies, urban emergencies […].

We had the great work of Doreen Massey writing about a progressive sense of place, trying to tear apart that idea of places fixed and bounded and rooted in time and instead think of place as like a cell with a semi-permeable membrane that allows things in and out of it. In fact, it can’t live without parts of things passing in and out of it. We have to think about the relationship between what’s in place, what’s in a place and how that’s related to places other than itself.

To do that, you have to then make connections and the connections are about mobility. You can’t think of place without thinking of how it’s related both to the past and the future as it traditionally has been thought but also to what exists outside of it. […] John Berger wrote a piece where he talked about place as a crossroads of two axes: a horizontal axis and a vertical axis [6]. There is language – the vertical axis – that links you to your ancestors and projects you into the future. It’s a temporal axis. Places have that sense of a past. […] But at the same time, on the horizontal axis, John Berger says the place is the place you depart and hopefully return to. You constantly have this horizontal, spatial travel that exists both for individuals, for the population in general, and, indeed, for the things and ideas that come from it and come back to it.

So, place is the junction of vertical – in time – and horizontal – in space – axes. [I like] thinking about place that way, and then adding a kind of political dimension too [and] the politics of, of how places are connected to each other: What connections are encouraged, what connections are discouraged.


Q: That highlights how mobility is able to give place a very dynamic perspective and processual, right?

Tim Cresswell: Yes. Places themselves, even if you don’t think about their connections to the rest of the world are only really places because of the way they’re practiced on a daily basis. There’s a kind of internal choreography to place. This was established [by, for example] David Seamon and Anne Buttimer [who] were writing about the rhythm of place [7]; “the dynamism of lifeworld” as, as Anne Buttermore [8] called it: This idea that if you just sit in one place at a high window and look down on a square, you’ll start to see patterns [of liveliness] emerge over time. A sense of place doesn’t just come from facades and architecture, it comes from that liveliness. […]


Q: You’ve [touched on the notion of] rhythm. Recently, we had the pleasure to already read your (upcoming) chapter on rhythm [9]. Would you be willing to explain how you think about it?

Tim Cresswell: Rhythm is something that links place and mobility. There’s been excellent work on rhythm, most famously Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis [10]. Lefebvre’s idea is that for a successful project to impose itself on the world. – a government or a change in economic situation, [for instance] – you have to impose a rhythm. There’s this idea of a top-down sense: if you can impose a rhythm on the world, then you have a sense of control over it.

Certainly, the way we think about our everyday lives, we have certain things that are taken for granted. […] Going to and from school, going to and from work. Holidays in the summer. […] Clock time and the way it divides up the day. And these aren’t all natural. They’re inventions of various times in the 19th century. And they’re struggled over. Unions struggled over what the working day is, for instance. […] At the same time as this rhythm from above, if you like, there’s also the fact that our bodies are rhythmic. We breathe; that’s one way we’re rhythmic. Our heart beats; that’s another way that we’re rhythmic. We walk and that’s another way that we’re rhythmic. This exists in relation to other forms of what you might call natural rhythm, such as the time of the day, the diurnal cycle, the seasons… There’s a kind of rooting, if you like, of rhythm in nature, which makes interesting the way in which rhythms of something like the state or of capitalism or rhythms from above map onto those natural rhythms.

[…] And then there’s also these rhythms that occur, which don’t really conform to any of this. Lefebvre talked about various levels of rhythm: eurythmia, which is where everything’s in sync with each other; polyrhythmia, when there are different rhythms but they don’t clash; and then there’s arhythmia, which is the idea that a rhythm is out of beat or out of sync with a dominant rhythm.

These Arhythmic moments can be moments when, politically, organizations or individuals do something that goes against the rhythm we’re expecting. For instance, currently, there are a number of groups who are protesting climate change and the use of fossil fuels. Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion in the UK are two of these examples. And one of their strategies is to basically stop traffic on a busy road. And it’s [this strategy] that causes extraordinary anxiety amongst people who are going to work, doing what they think is normal life because they, they would think ‘Well, roads are supposed to be for driving on; I can’t drive on it and I can’t drive as fast as I want.’ So something’s disrupting this rhythm. There’s a particular power, for protesters, in disrupting what is normal or taken for granted or common sense or, to use a Gramscian term, hegemonic. […] Rhythm becomes a political object. You can contest points in the day in space and time to both reveal something about how normal rhythms are constructed – like driving a car constantly – and point towards other ways of doing it or new ways of doing it. […]

I’m interested in these moments of tension in the rhythm of places and how places are both defined by that rhythm, but also, it’s political and contested…


You would like to hear more? Here you can find the episode of our podcast Thereabouts

[1] Cresswell, T. (2019): Maxwell Street. Writing and Thinking Place. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Cresswell, T. (2020): Plastiglomerate. London: Penned in the Margins.

[3] Sheller, M., & Urry, J. (2006). “The New Mobilities Paradigm.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 38(2), 207-226.

[4] Cresswell, T. (2006). On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. New York and London: Routledge.

[5] Sheller, M. (2018): Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes. New York and London: Verso Books.

[6] Berger, J. (1984). And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. New York: Pantheon.

[7] For instance in Buttimer, A. and D. Seamon, eds. (1980). The Human Experience of Space and Place. New York and London: Routledge.

[8] Buttimer, A. (1976). “Grasping the Dynamism of Lifeworld.” Annals of the Association of American Geography, 66(2), 277-292.

[9] During his time as a Mercator Fellow in Eichstätt, Tim worked on his next book, which includes a chapter on rhythm. As part of a workshop, our Graduiertenkolleg had the pleasure of discussing this new project with Tim.

[10] Lefebvre, H. (2004). Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. Translated by S. Elden and G. Moore. London and New York: continuum.