Space, translations and media
First Monday

Space, translations and media by Simone Tosoni and Matteo Tarantino

The paper examines the role of media in the processes of the production of urban space in the case of Paolo Sarpi, a central neighborhood of Milan that is characterized by long–standing spatial conflicts between the residents and the Chinese migrants. The purpose of this complex case study is to highlight the many roles played by media in the processes of socio–spatial production, as well as the benefits of reading media within those same processes. To this end, we interrogate the space by drawing on concepts from science and technology studies and media studies. Finally, by analyzing the representations and practices enacted by users of three location–based social networks (TripAdvisor, Foursquare, and Facebook Places), we show that urban processes and media are in a relation of reciprocal shaping. We find that these representations and practices are informed by and feedback on the broader socio–spatial production patterns investing the area. Our conclusion is that extracting media from broader urban processes and focusing on them could be analytically counter–productive. Instead, investigations of the relationship of media and the city should take into account their reciprocal shaping.


1. Understanding the role of media in socio–spatial production processes
2. The RPM model: An STS–informed inquiry of socio–spatial production
3. Case study
4. Discussion




The city of Milan is currently undergoing a phase of rapid transformation. It is easy to forget how things there looked only recently. If you walked down the newly pedestrianized Paolo Sarpi Road, the main street of the eponymous neighborhood, you would not think that only a few years ago, the road was the core in a large node of an international distribution network of garments through a plethora of Chinese wholesale trading businesses.

Along its 880 meters, the road now glistens with tasteful pavement, graceful urban furniture, and inviting sidewalk patios where you can have a coffee — or a Chinese meal — even in winter. It almost makes you forget that traffic jams routinely paralyzed the area just three years ago, and piles of cardboard boxes — traces of the wholesale businesses — encumbered its sidewalks.

In fact, it is easy to forget the former Paolo Sarpi. Its new physical elements (new lampposts, new bicycle lane, partial tree–lining of the street, new benches, etc.) have greatly altered its appearance. Moreover, the media has made many efforts to promote the area’s new image. For example, place–branding campaigns have aimed at framing the area as a business improvement district and an “open air shopping mall.” Associations of local retailers have promoted these representations through dedicated Web sites that present the project as well as related events and exhibitions organized in the neighborhood. Also the Facebook group, “Paolo Sarpi — Quartiere di Milano,” a bottom–up space that started in January 2010, can be read as a part of this effort. The users are mostly area residents who advertise and discuss local events and issues. The site is also a new joint forum for Italian and second–generation Chinese residents — possibly the first in its kind after decades of sparse communication. Among other things, users are starting to discuss — and complain — about the drawbacks (especially noise) of the area having lately become a nightlife attraction.

Traces of the “old” Paolo Sarpi are scarce in these new online spaces. To find them, you may want to log on the Web site of the “Vivisarpi” Association. Throughout the past 15 years, the Association has been documenting the neighborhood through photographs and videos. This material was intended to depict the area as degraded and unlivable, littered with the cartons, cars, and detritus discarded in Chinese business practices. This online repository of images represents the backbone of the Association’s political activity, and is aimed at obtaining the legal curtailment of the Chinese wholesale businesses in the area. This lobbying campaign finally convinced the municipality to pedestrianize the area, which forced some wholesale businesses to close.

Or you may want to simply look at the thoroughfares and side streets outside of the main road. Here wholesale businesses carry on as usual. Here you can find the traffic jams, loading and unloading of goods, noises and litter that formerly characterized the main road. Today, Paolo Sarpi is indeed an “open air mall” placed in the middle of a still–operating hub of wholesale distribution, fragmenting a once somewhat homogenous — if problematic — neighborhood.

Urban space is always thus: writing, rewriting, and overwriting itself, sometimes spectacularly, as in Paolo Sarpi, and sometimes subtly. To retrace how urban spaces transform over time is politically and methodologically relevant. Such retracing makes it possible to read a space sociologically: that is, to identify how it both shapes and is shaped by practices, how it both reflects and contributes to define social identities, and how it both reproduces and sustain power relationships. Indeed, it is key for scholars who intend to account for the role of media in this process.

In our case, reconstructing the process of transformation allows us to understand how the latest re–engineering of the morphology of the Paolo Sarpi Road is also the latest episode in a long–standing conflict between Italian residents and Chinese migrants. To read this space and its processes of social shaping, we need to employ a diachronic approach that embraces a plurality of social actors and practices across time, as well as an array of analytical concepts flexible enough to accommodate it.

In the next section, we illustrate our analytical strategy and its main concepts. In the third section, we apply this strategy to the neighborhood of Paolo Sarpi, focusing on the pedestrianized street and on the role played by the media in the transformation of the neighborhood. Finally, in the conclusion, we provide the implications of our findings for studies of the relationship between the media and urban processes.



1. Understanding the role of media in socio–spatial production processes

The widespread adoption of personal and portable media has both increased and changed the nature of the “media involvement” in the urban daily practices of a wide range of social actors. This has drawn the attention of media scholars to “urban space as a new context of media usage.” For example, “walking” may be imbricated with listening to music, talking to distant people, microblogging on Twitter, or checking the road on navigation software. Of course, “walking” in the city has seldom been a “pure” activity, always featuring an intertwining with different kinds of audiencing (signs, billboards, auditory advertisements, etc.). However, the new affordances granted by mobile media have deeply reshaped not only this practice but also many others. “Media as practices” (Couldry, 2008; Couldry, et al., 2007), “modes of action” (Ridell, 2010), “activities assemblages,” and “primary and secondary audiencing” (Tosoni and Tarantino, 2013) are some of the concepts that have been put forward to analyze the media involvement in daily (urban) practices.

Urban geographers have known for decades that urban space cannot be conceived as a static container of processes, but must be thought as continually shaping and being shaped by them. Henri Lefebvre (1991) provided a key intuition in this sense by bringing socio–spatial production to the level of people’s daily life. Social spaces are seen as continuously produced and reproduced by the social actors involved in them as they go about their lives. While institutions have an important role in spatial production, from this perspective they are like other actors (although more powerful) enacting structuring practices in/of space.

Consequently, in order to approach urban space as a new context of media usage, we need to determine the relationship between urban space and urban media–related practices as mutually constitutive. Lefebvre’s approach has already given us an indication of the heterogeneity of this relationship: in the French theorist’s model space emerges as the result of the interplay among “conceived space” (spatial representations), “perceived space” (the material aspects of space) and “lived space” (spatial practices) [1].

Media play a key role at all three levels. Media are often integral to the production and circulation of social representations of space thus contributing to the definition of a symbolic frame for urban activities, which legitimizes and de–legitimizes specific practices (with various forms of institutionalization — unspoken, official norms, and provisions). Relevant to our case, many studies have been conducted on the representations of Chinese neighborhoods across the world and on how those representations legitimized specific practices and criminalized others (Wong, 1995). In another example, place–branding is largely based upon the power of spatial representations to attract specific flows, such as people, goods, and capital, to specific places (Greenberg, 2008; Kavaratzis, 2004; Kavaratzis and Ashworth, 2005).

Media can also change the material level of the space in which they are deployed, as in closed–circuit cameras or billboards installed in specific spaces. For example, many studies, (including a First Monday special issue) have investigated the “urban screens” phenomenon and the deployment of closed circuit cameras. Of course, a changing materiality entails a change in affordances (e.g., the presence of cameras may lead us to avoid anti–social behavior in a space) (Mazerolle, et al., 2002), and representations (e.g., billboards become staples in places such as New York’s Times Square) (Makagon, 2004).

Media also modify the affordances of a space by opening and closing possibilities for other practices, that is, they transform practices that enable (or forbid) other practices. For example, free riding on Starbucks’ wireless Internet connection (i.e., using the connection without actually entering the shop) can lead people to gather on the sidewalk in front of this shop, hindering pedestrian circulation but opening up new possibilities for socialization (Hampton and Gupta, 2008).

Moreover, media play a role in all three levels at the same time. The circuit interconnecting materiality, practices, and representations (i.e., material, pragmatic and symbolic entities) is tight, and distinguishing each level is analytically difficult. However, since this complexity cannot be eluded, we need a set of methodological tools to help us account for the fine–grained nature of the exchange of properties among heterogeneous entities and, at the same time, simplify the complexity of the networks connecting them. One such attempt is described in the following section.



2. The RPM model: An STS–informed inquiry of socio–spatial production

In studying the relationship between space and social processes, geographers and urban scholars have strived to complement existing macro–structural approaches (e.g., Harvey’s studies on the production of the “space of capitalism”) with analyses that center on everyday practices and performances (Jones, 2009).

All the main attempts in this direction — from Thrift’s (2008) non–representational theory (his “geography of what happens”) to the more recent urban assemblage approach (Farías and Bender, 2010) — have undertaken a dialogue with science and technology studies (STS), particularly with the actor–network theory (ANT) proposed by Latour and Callon (Latour, 2005). In doing so, they have developed concepts and methodologies to detail the complexity of spatial socio–shaping processes.

Aside from their differences, all these approaches have been inspired by ANT’s option for a “flat ontology,” which sees all entities involved in a process as analytically equal, and by its focus on the connections among entities (the “collective” or ”the network“). From here, they derived a set of sensitizing concepts to deal with the heterogeneous nature of space and with the contribution of non–human entities (e.g., a concept, a piece a technology, or the material elements of space) in structuring and emplacing social processes and practices.

Within the field of media studies, scholars have only recently started to explore the potentialities and implications of this theoretical framework (Couldry, 2004), with the objective of overcoming a static conceptualization of “context of use” towards a more relational one.

An interesting attempt in this direction is Mubi Brighenti and Mattiucci’s (2008) proposal to employ the “concept of prolongation ... as an integrative and a corrective to media theory” [2]. Inspired by both ANT and Lefebvre, “prolongation” is “not an organic evolution nor a systemic prescription”, but instead is “pointing towards the existence of zones of indistinction between radically heterogeneous (material and immaterial) spheres” [3], since “in practice, in contemporary urban environment the material and the immaterial ceaselessly prolong into each other” [4].

Those “zones of indistinction” are also our main focus, but we prefer to emphasize the extent to which interconnection transforms heterogeneous entities. Hence, we employ ANT’s concepts of “translation” and “chain of translations” (Akrich, et al., 2006; Latour, 1999). According to Latour, “in its linguistic and material connotations, the concept refers to all the displacements through other actors whose mediation is indispensable for an action to occur ... . In place of a rigid opposition between context and content, chains of translation refer to the work through which actors modify, displace and translate their various and contradictory interests” [5]. In sum, translation “means displacement, drift, invention, mediation, the creation of a link that did not exist before and that to some degrees modifies the original two” [6].

The concept of “translation” is helpful in envisioning the complexity of urban space in its relationship with the media and focusing on the rhizomatic networks through which heterogeneous entities exchange properties and continuously modify their own nature.

The complexity of these networks is overwhelming. Once addressed, it seems immediately to exceed any analytical accountability (Pinch, 2010). To overcome this impasse, we can again refer to the STS tradition for other methodological resources that we can use to orient and simplify the analysis. Specifically, the social construction of technology (SCOT) approach originally proposed by Pinch and Bijker (1984) begins the analysis of the social construction of a technological object by identifying the “relevant social actors” and their representations of the object.

For our purposes, mapping relevant social actors and their representations enables a reduction of the complexity of the network and allows the researcher to focus on the “chains of translations” of her interest. We call our analytical strategy Representation/Practices/Materiality (RPM) and have discussed it at length in a previous paper (Tarantino and Tosoni, 2013). RPM proposes to read social space as the outcome of the interaction among various “sociospatial production patterns,” which are networks of representations of space (what people think about a space), spatial practices (what people do in space) and spatial morphology (the changes in the materiality of space) in a relationship of continuous translation and co–shaping.

Beginning the analysis with social actors and their representations does not negate the relevance of non–human actants in the processes under analysis. However, we argue that nonhuman agency (i.e., the role played in shaping urban space by a concrete sidewalk, a piece of infrastructure, the wind, etc.) can be accounted for only through the mediation of the representations of specific social actors. An actant (human or non–human) that is not perceived and therefore not included in any representation of any of social actor becomes unaccountable for the researcher. Hence, the focus is on mapping social actors that are relevant to the aspects of an urban phenomenon that are of interest to the researcher. Such aspects may also include the agency of nonhumans. For example, the evergreen trees planted in Paolo Sarpi since 2011 have contributed to its current cozy atmosphere. The architect who selected the trees told us that they were chosen for aesthetical reasons (they remain green in winter) as well as to minimize the maintenance costs related to falling leaves. Hence, “falling leaves” affected the morphology of Paolo Sarpi through the mediation of the representation of a relevant social actor.

Finally, it must be borne in mind that social actors change over time, as do their relevance, alliances, relationships, representations, and practices. Any map of relevant social actors and their representations needs to be historicized. We need to account for those changes and for their effects on space. Although some chains of translation can temporary stabilize space, lending obduracy to its configurations, the process of spatial production is always ongoing.

For these reasons, the RPM approach requires a diachronic perspective on the social shaping of urban space. With this approach and our analytical tools, we now continue to tell the story of Paolo Sarpi and the many roles of media in it.



3. Case study

As we mentioned earlier, Paolo Sarpi street today looks like a leisure area. However, if we look at it through the lens of the RPM approach, we can see that its architecture is not merely aesthetical. It is also a technology designed to contain and regulate a socio–spatial conflict that has persisted for the last two decades. The conflict arises from the presence in the area of at least three main patterns of socio–spatial production [7].

We called these three patterns the “space for work,” the “ideal village,” and the “space for leisure.” Each model entails specific representations of space and of the social actors involved. Each model also legitimizes or delegitimizes specific practices and has specific implications for the materiality of the space.

Being an “historical” neighborhood (i.e., one whose layout has not been revised in the last hundred years), Paolo Sarpi possesses features of the “old” Milan: old, tall buildings and relatively narrow roads. In Paolo Sarpi, this translated into a traditional scarcity of “public” spaces which, at least in the memory of residents, rendered shops and stores important places of sociability.

Although over 90 percent of the residents are Italian, the place has also been one of the historical destination of Chinese immigration (mostly Zhejiangese with a minority of Fujianese), which has intensified since the early 1980s (Ceccagno, 2003). Chinese migrants established businesses and workshops in the area as early as the 1960s: however, such businesses were mostly located in the inner courtyards of buildings and therefore remained relatively invisible.

In the late 1990s, migrants’ businesses in the area shifted from manufacturing to wholesale retail, mostly textile–related. Wholesale businesses entail intensive logistic spatial practices (e.g., goods circulation and docking/undocking), which in Paolo Sarpi have been constrained by the material features of space.

Constructing and maintaining the hub

The growing concentration of wholesale businesses translated into transformations in the usage practices of the area. As commercial vehicles occupied larger amounts of public space during the day, walking, traffic and parking became more difficult.

Moreover, wholesale business practices left visible traces in the space, in the form of packaging, cartons and rubbish. Ethnic services (Chinese restaurants, grocery stores, bookstores, travel agencies, etc.) started to increase, multiplying the presence of Chinese insignia in the area. What until then had been a relatively invisible presence rapidly gained visibility and therefore the attention of residents.

To explore the pattern of spatial production enacted by the migrants, we start with their dominant spatial representation: the area of Paolo Sarpi as a “place for work,” specifically a “hub for the circulation of goods.” “We are here to work” our informants stated on multiple occasions. This representation entailed spatial practices aimed at managing the flow of goods in the area, such as moving, loading, unloading, selling, purchasing, moving, packing, and unpacking them. All practices were pragmatic and business–oriented. Ethnic and cultural elements were peripheral in the construction of what has come to be known as the “Milanese Chinatown.” Throughout the years, our interviews (Tarantino and Tosoni, 2009a; Tarantino and Tosoni, 2009b; Tarantino and Tosoni, 2013; Tosoni and Tarantino, 2013) consistently yielded data that showed migrants mobilizing above all a representation of themselves as a community of practices, that is, as merchants instead of a community of Chinese.

Part of the legitimacy of this self–representation is because the majority of migrants working in Paolo Sarpi do not reside there, but are scattered in other less expensive areas of the city. This primacy of the economic identity is also caused by the political fragmentation of the community into a plethora of “associations,” each reflecting a specific territory (e.g., village or county in China) or a specific family or group of families. “They call not themselves Chinese; we are from this village, that village” one senior Chinese informant told us. Scholars have remarked that for decades “community life” has been scarce or non–existent for these migrants in terms of “shared events, rituals and social occasions” (Martinelli and Volonté, 2004). However, this is true only if we assume that ethnic identity is necessarily foundational for the subjects. If we realize instead that the dominant shared social identity of this social group is that of the merchant, we realize that there is a healthy “community life” in a space that, until it came under attack, had been collectively created and enforced, possessing its own rituals and socialized spaces, which, however, related more to cartons of goods than to golden lions [8].

As this study shows, this space came under attack because of its success. Within a decade, wholesale trading became the economic backbone of the Chinese economy in the city. Whereas in other Italian regions (i.e., Tuscany) the driving force is garment manufacturing (Ceccagno, 2009; Fladrich, 2009), in this area wholesale is paramount. The success of these enterprises attracted to the neighborhood further migrant labor that consumed ethnic services, thus benefitting the broader migrant economy through a “dripping effect.” Moreover, throughout the years, wholesale trading motivated more migrants to open similar enterprises in the area. Intra–communitarian (when not intra–familiar) debt has been the largest means of financing entrepreneurs (Martinelli and Volonté, 2004), providing migrants with a powerful motivation to succeed.

Throughout the years, concentration of wholesalers brought about more concentration. As more traders became present in the area, more customers would come for the convenience of a single trip. “You come here with your van,” one of our informants told us, “and you can go from trader to trader and load all you need and go home.” The increasing concentration of wholesale businesses therefore added value to existing ones, reinforcing the representation of the area as a hub for the circulation of goods.

From the mid–nineties to 2007, through this socio–spatial production pattern, the morphology of Paolo Sarpi came to be increasingly more informed by the “space for work” representation. It has to be stressed that migrant businesses have always been legitimate from formal and legal points of view, and therefore could not be driven out of the area by legal means — a situation that persists today.

Enforcing the ideal village

Since the late 1990s, some of the Italian residents formed neighborhood committees that eventually became associations: of these “Vivisarpi” is the most active and well known. These associations have strenuously opposed the presence in the area of wholesale businesses because as incompatible with the “true vocation” of the area as a “residential neighborhood.” The informants described this area as having once possessed a healthy mix of shops and services, which was allegedly destroyed by the Chinese presence thus also destroying sociability and quality of life. Their spatial production processes mobilized this representation of space (that of the “ideal village”), which was translated into the practices of lobbying, representation, and eventually, through the enrolment of the municipality, into the materiality of space [9].

From the late 1990s to the present, these social actors have been translating the materiality and practices related to migrants’ businesses into photographic and video representations of the neighborhood as a space invaded by aliens and their objects rendering it unhealthy and unlivable. The allegations of the illegitimacy of Chinese spatial practices were supplemented by accusations of various criminal activities ranging from disregard of sanitary standards in food shops to prostitution, illegal abortion clinics, labor exploitation, and organized crime. Moreover, the presence of Chinese shop signs was interpreted as rendering space illegible and, as such, “expropriated.” These representations were uploaded on the Internet (first on the association’s Web site, and then on YouTube) and eventually attracted the attention of the national media, which reappraised, spread, and consolidated the negative spatial representation of the area since the year 2000.

This representational effort echoes other similar representations of the spaces of Chinese migrants as secluded, incomprehensible enclaves and “foreign colonies” (Takaki, 1998), and the Chinese themselves as “unhealthy, unassimilable, and undesirable immigrants” (Takaki, 1998). However, the full political value of these representations is only visible if we consider the practices of their production: not only the content played a role in the conflict. As our informants remarked many times, the very action of photographing was interpreted by migrants as possessing the character of aggression. The ostentation of the photographic action through body posture, the selection of “banal” activities stigmatized as exceptional by the same act of photographing, and the evident violation of the privacy of the photographed subjects constituted a form of aggressive communication and thus became a part of the conflict.

During this phase, this representational effort was not met by any discernible, collective response from migrants. The “media territories” of residents and migrants — intended as the assemblage of media technologies and content mobilized by social actors around specific issues and practices (Tosoni and Tarantino, 2013) — were indeed insular. This was also caused by linguistic barriers. The migrants (mostly first generation) were not proficient in Italian to consume Italian media, and the Italian residents could not speak or read Chinese to approach, for example, the local Chinese–language press that serves the migrants, a weekly newspaper known as the Europe China News. Because of this lack of contact with the residents, the migrants were mostly unaware of Italians’ negative representations.

On the night of 27 October 2000, a day after a lively public debate about the Chinese presence in the area, the neighborhood space was used as a shared medium for anti–Chinese discourse. Messages such as “Prostitutes live here” and “Say No To Clandestinity” were painted by unknown perpetrators on the entrance doors of selected buildings and Chinese shop windows [10]. The entire operation appeared as a deliberate attempt to connect the media territories of migrants and residents by using public space as an “unavoidable medium,” forcing citizens, mass media, and the migrants into a state of forced or “captive audiencing” (Ridell and Zeller, 2013). This form of communication (like the aggressive photographing mentioned above) can only be fully understood by inserting it into the broader socio–spatial production pattern (and conflict) to which it belongs.

Enrolling the municipality

When the municipality decided to enter the conflict, it sided with the residents. Several attempts to relocate migrants’ wholesale businesses outside the city center were refused because they lacked any form of compensation. The municipality then attempted to circumvent the legal impossibility of driving out the wholesale businesses from the area by enacting spatial practices. The municipality enforced strict rules that limited the circulation of commercial vehicles in the area, and systematically imposed fines for transgressions, which rendered the businesses of migrants difficult. This action resembles the Sidewalk Ordinance enacted by the San Francisco municipality in 1870, which similarly attempted to impede Chinese businesses and drive Chinese migrants out of the area by forbidding the use of poles to transport goods on sidewalks (Wong, 1982).

This normative change translated into a change of practices by migrants, who substituted commercial vehicles with private cars, bicycles, and trolleys to transport goods into the area. When the municipality then started to fine these practices, a minor riot erupted between Chinese migrants and city police on 12 April 2007. This is arguably the only incident of this kind involving Chinese migrants in modern European history. The riot drew national attention to the neighborhood, and finally triggered the first attempt by migrants to respond to the representational efforts of their counterparts. Given the linguistic barriers and impossibility of producing a spokesperson because of the internal fragmentation of the “community,” the migrants responded by using the urban space as a medium, attaching posters and writing on shop windows and walls, which was analogous to the actions of their counterparts on 27 October seven years before. The signs explained the migrants’ point of view in terms such as “let us work” and “work is a human right,” thus affirming their self–representation as “businessmen first.” Moreover, after the riot, the migrants attached printouts of images of police violence taken from the Internet where they rapidly circulated in Chinese blogs and forums [11]. The function was also similar. Because they used the shared urban space as a medium, the migrants made their message to Italian residents unavoidably clear.

However, after this attempt, which was totally ignored by Italian media, the migrants’ “collective” communicative efforts withdrew into the background. Throughout the years of our study, our informants repeatedly indicated that tension had a negative influence on business — and “business” appeared to be a key resource in the migrants’ self–representations.

Towards the “open air shopping mall” through the ideal village

While the imposition of fines was somewhat relaxed immediately after the riot, the attempt of the municipality to impede Chinese spatial practices by adhering to Vivisarpi’s representation of the area as the “ideal village,” which until then had been enforced only through normative means, continued in subsequent years. Between 2010 and 2011, the main road was transformed into a pedestrian zone, impeding access to any non–residential cars outside specific windows by means of five closed–circuit cameras. Obstacles, such as concrete flowerbeds, benches, bins, and trees, were installed on the sidewalks, not only serving as urban beautification and socialization areas but also preventing car and truck parking for loading and unloading operations. Moreover, the circulation of commercial vehicles carrying goods for wholesale traders was limited to 120 minutes per day (from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.), a unique situation in a city where this kind of traffic is officially allowed for four hours per day and these limitations are largely disregarded.


Urban furniture impeding car parking
Figure 1: Urban furniture impeding car parking.



Easy access granted to private garages
Figure 2: Easy access granted to private garages.


These changes also inconvenienced Italian shopkeepers in the area; some initially reacted with hostility to the traffic limitations and the deployment of the pedestrian zone. However, the new zone soon opened up the possibility for a third socio–spatial production pattern. This pattern relied upon a representation of Paolo Sarpi as a leisure area, and its proponents aimed to translate its “ethnic flavor,” central location, and proximity to other leisure and night life locations in Milan (e.g., Corso Como) into a competitive advantage.

Before the pedestrianization of the area, stakeholders (e.g., retailers, barkeepers and restaurateurs) promoting this third socio–spatial production pattern had limited their activity to backing Vivisarpi’s effort. Since 2011, 31 of them (including two Chinese), under the umbrella of the SarpiDOC association [12], have been trying to use pedestrianization as an opportunity to develop an “open–air shopping mall” dedicated to “historical shops,” including long–established and high–quality shops owned by the migrants [13]. This “open–air shopping mall” represents compromise between the “ideal village,” which called for traditional high–quality shops serving residents, and the “leisure area,” with its aim to attract customers from outside the area.

Since the pedestrianization, some Chinese wholesale businesses have indeed relocated — but simply from the main road to nearby thoroughfares and side streets. In effect, the spatial practices entailed by wholesale businesses have remained unchanged. Equally unchanged have remained the constraints on these practices offered by the even narrower side roads. In response, in 2012, a municipal ordinance extended the limitations to the circulation of commercial vehicles outside the main road. This ordinance was to be enforced by additional cameras, which were installed (but remained non–operational) at the entrance points to the neighborhood. While their function was purportedly to regulate the circulation of commercial vehicles, according to our informants, the closed circuit cameras (irrespective of their operational status) caused further changes in spatial practices by discouraging non–residents from entering the neighborhood by car for fear of incurring a fine, which was detrimental to all businesses in the area.

As of 2012, Vivisarpi’s spatial production pattern, supported by the retailers’ leisure area, appeared to prevail over the migrants’ spatial pattern. However, its obduracy is now threatened by two challenges.

The migrants pose the first challenge. Most wholesale traders did not move outside the area after 2011, but simply adapted their business practices to the new regulatory system. Specifically, according to our informants, they accepted the fines as another business cost. Moreover, a new association, the Italy–China Union of Entrepreneurs (UNIIC), which is headed by bilingual second–generation migrants, has finally emerged as a viable representative of the migrants’ business interests. This media–savvy association managed to establish itself as a communicative buffer among the various components of the “community” (i.e., the existing associations), Italian mass media, residents and the authorities. The Association does what no other Chinese association has done: gives interviews to newspapers; intervenes on Internet forums (including Facebook pages) about the neighborhood, and participates to television talk shows. Its founder, Francesco Wu, confirmed these activities in an interview: “We speak to everyone: Chinese traders, associations, Italian residents, the municipality. We speak to media: sometimes I give two interviews per day ... [I]t took us some time but now Chinese traders trust us and so does the municipality.” In 2013, the Association gained its first significant victory when it successfully challenged the ordinance regarding the circulation of commercial vehicles in the Regional Court. Consequently, the extension of the limitations was suspended in May 2013, strongly legitimizing UNIIC in the eyes of the migrants. The courts explicitly ruled as unlawful the attempted translation of a top–down imposition of an intended use of the area into provisions regarding traffic regulation. This chain of translations was therefore recognized and blocked.

The second challenge comes from the former ally of Vivisarpi, the third spatial production pattern active in the area: that of Paolo Sarpi as a “space for leisure.” The pedestrianized area has become “hip” place where recreational areas are increasingly frequented by people enacting a set of spatial practices (e.g., drinking, chatting, and littering), which does not fit the “ideal village” representation of Vivisarpi. Especially after dark, the area has increasingly attracted users because of its proximity to other night life venues in Milan, much to the disdain of residents. In an interview, the president of the Vivisarpi Association confirmed the distress of the Association concerning this transformation: “We wouldn’t want to jump out of the frying pan of Chinese wholesalers into the fire of the movida ... [W]e don’t want not to be able to sleep at night ... [W]e don’t want the empty bottles and cans on the ground.”

As the temporary compromise of the “ideal village” and “leisure space” offered by the “open air shopping mall” began showing the first cracks, new forms of social tension arose in the area, as documented in the new and increasing complaints by public forums such as neighborhood assemblies and Facebook groups.


Number of articles with Chinatown on the total of articles Paolo Sarpi
Figure 3: Number of articles with “Chinatown” (in blue) on the total of articles “Paolo Sarpi” (in orange). Source: Corriere della Sera archives. Elaboration by the authors.


The persistence of “Chinatown” in location based social networks: Some final remarks

The three spatial production patterns in the area are clearly incompatible, a fact that subjects the area to rapid changes which of course reflect on how the area is represented.

If we examine the degree to which “Paolo Sarpi” was associated with “Chinatown” in the main Italian newspaper (Figure 3 above), Corriere della Sera, we can see that although the 2007 riot skyrocketed the attention of the nation to Paolo Sarpi, after that peak both the association with “Chinatown” and the general relevance of the area have been decreasing, the former showing a particularly steep decline. This may indicate that that the label of “Chinatown” has been applied in times of conflict, but now the area is perceived as undergoing a process of normalization, and the representation of the area as “Chinatown” is being de–emphasized in the mainstream media. Another sign of this normalization is that Google Maps has recently removed the “Chinatown” label from the area.

However, the analysis of grassroots representation revealed another picture. We analyzed three location–based social networks (LBSN): TripAdvisor, Foursquare, and Facebook Places. TripAdvisor features both a “Paolo Sarpi” and a “Chinatown” landmark, with the latter receiving 265 percent more reviews than the former did. Seventy–four percent of reviews insisted on the “Chinatown” nature of the neighborhood, in both positive and negative terms. Most reviews of the area insisted that the space was characterized by “otherness,” well after pedestrianization. Twelve percent of reviews lamented the “good old times” in which Italian shops were predominant in the area. About five percent acknowledged the area as being “in transition.” Foursquare also features a “Chinatown” landmark (having 190 percent more check–ins than the Paolo Sarpi one did) [14], with only 13 reviews. Most reviews were positive, and all focused on the night life and leisure aspects of the area.

Facebook Places marks a further departure from the other two LBSNs. As of 9 October 2013, the location “Chinatown Paolo Sarpi” had been checked into only 301 times and liked five times, whereas “Paolo Sarpi” had been checked into 11,781 times and liked 259 times. This difference may indicate the preferential attachment by users to the neighborhood instead of its ethnic connotations. This place attachment is not elaborated in the Facebook Places location, but in another Facebook space: the mentioned successful discussion page “Paolo Sarpi Quartiere di Milano”, which is shared by both Italian and second–generation Chinese. This page effectively enacts a bottom–up, place–branding operation centered upon a representation similar to the “ideal village,” although it is more cross–cultural than the one proposed by Vivisarpi. Indeed, the page is much more frequented than Vivisarpi’s page is; the latter showed only 144 likes on 5 October 2013. Users of the “Paolo Sarpi Quartiere di Milano” include people complain about the Chinese presence which may signal the demise of Vivisarpi’s political relevance in dictating the representational agenda of the neighborhood.

It is interesting to observe that each LBSN appears to have aligned with one of the three socio–spatial production patterns: Facebook with “ideal village”; TripAdvisor with “hub”; and Foursquare with “leisure space.” Some hypotheses can be put forward to explain the difference between Facebook and the other two LBSNs. TripAdvisor and Foursquare need memorable and recognizable landmarks to fulfill their missions: the former makes tourist recommendations, which of course need landmarks (O’Connor, 2008); the latter has several uses (including gaming) that are related to user sharing, particularly in public places (Lindqvist, et al., 2011; Ludford, et al., 2007). In “Landmark–ization” a space becomes a reference point by making specific features of a space — in this case the Chinese migrant presence — the dominant descriptive element. The Facebook platform is instead geared toward the presentation and management of identity: in those processes, mobilizing “mundane” elements, such as one’s own neighborhood, can be valuable, for example, as a mark of belonging or attachment to place. Hence, we may hypothesize that checking into “Paolo Sarpi” may mean that users assess their belonging to a less–contested, more peaceful place than “Chinatown”.

These observations may also lead us to pay more attention to the fact that “check–in” spatial practices are not value–free. We do not check into a “place” per se but always into a representation of a place, thus contributing to the reinforcement of this image and — in RPM terms — eventually translating into changes in the practices and morphology of the place.

Although further research on these LBSN–related processes is needed, it is clear that we would not understand the relevance of these practices if we abstracted them from the broader socio–spatial production patterns in which they are enrolled. Although the specific relevance of each has changed through time, all three socio–spatial production patterns — and their related spatial representations — are still active in the area: each enrolls a different LSBN, claiming its place in space and maintaining the dynamics of the socio–spatial production process in the area.



4. Discussion

Socio–spatial production processes entail the interaction of a plurality of heterogeneous entities that continuously and mutually exchange properties: that is, they “translate” into each other.

In our case study, the Paolo Sarpi road currently appears to be an “outdoor shopping mall.” This morphology represents the temporary result of the following:

a) A physical re–engineering of the main road, entailing the repaving of the area, the establishment of barriers blocking vehicle access to specific sections, the deployment of urban furniture, and even the shape of the sidewalks, which are built to allow access of residents’ cars to their private garages while making as difficult as possible the use of trolleys for the transportation of goods.

b) A normative system that includes the institution of the limited traffic zone and ordinances forbidding the exclusive use of Chinese characters on shop signs; the human and non–human means to enforce this normative system (the presence of law enforcers in the area, the CCTV system, and even lights that show that the deployed cameras are operating); its new representations (fostered by the new place–branding campaigns and the bottom–up representations of the area).

c) The new practices it hosts, such as strolling, bicycling, shopping, and spending time in leisure activities, all of which were difficult (or dangerous) in the previous Paolo Sarpi.

Every symbolic, pragmatic, and material aspect of these three lines of transformation contributes to keep the others in place, conferring on the Paolo Sarpi space its present shape while maintaining a certain level of reference to its former configuration. The present has not been reached in one broad sweep, but along chains of translations that have developed through time.

Many steps in the chains of translations can be read as the moves enacted by each conflictive social actor in response to other moves. We will provide a few examples for the sake of clarity. The peculiar shape of the sidewalks of Paolo Sarpi is also one of the municipality’s many answers to the use of motorized vehicles in migrants’ working practices. Migrants replied to this by enrolling trolleys; the municipality counter–replied with a normative change leading to the institution a police garrison and the deployment of video surveillance. This deployment was triggered by the media–wise campaign of Vivisarpi, which reacted to the encumbering of space by the practices of migrant businesses in the neighborhood. Those practices were in turn related to the flow of goods and capital within a global network shaped by macro–economic factors. Indeed, since the 2008 economic crisis, business has been declining, and so have the related socio–spatial practices in the area.

The present configuration is now somewhat stable, but certainly not permanent. New chains of translations, planned or unforeseen, are claiming their “place in space.” For example, the bicycle lane implemented in 2011 [15] enables the safe use of bicycles in the area. However, despite the assigned parking area, cyclists are now locking their bicycles to the urban furniture in order to keep them in view of the traffic cameras, a pattern leading to a new, previously unexpected form of spatial encumbering.


The new bicycle lane, and non-orthodox practices of bicycle parking
Figure 4: The new bicycle lane, and non–orthodox practices of bicycle parking.


Another possible chain of translation comprises the attempts to make Paolo Sarpi a new landmark for urban night life, which again challenge the socio–spatial pattern of the ideal village facilitating the return of noise and confusion to the neighborhood — at night instead of during the day.

It has to be stressed that although they are a useful exposition strategy, the apparent linearity of these chains is really the result of a distortion in the researcher’s retrospective eye and analytical choices. Because each entity in urban space is potentially in relation to every other entity, each step in a translation chain has an open outcome. In our case, some relationships among entities were not strong enough to configure urban space significantly. Others were actively blocked; however, others were actualized, allowing the researcher to identify a chain.

We can describe this process as rhizomatic because any ring in a chain of translation belongs to a number of other chains. Let us point to another example from our case study. The positioning of trees and their alternation with urban furniture in the new pedestrianized area is also related to the positioning of water pipes, because the latter can be damaged by the growth of roots.

There are always other translation chains and other socio–spatial production patterns involving other social actors. Our analytical choice was to focus on chains that were the most politically relevant to urban conflict. This focus led us to recognize the relevance of a specific set of social actors and to identify as relevant some chains of translations. Our choice allowed us to recognize in the area the deployment of an architecture that is manifestly hostile to specific uses of space by some while being functionally (and representationally) inclusive for others, as well as some of the processes reinforcing and challenging its obduracy.

Other analytical interests, such as the role of maintenance practices and actors in shaping urban space, would have led us to map the relevant social actors differently and possibly consequently to focus also on other chains of translations.




When approaching urban processes, media have to be understood like any other element of the urban — as parts of broader, ongoing processes. In keeping with the chain metaphor, they must be approached as “rings” in multiple chains of translations that connect them to other elements through their specific materiality, related practices, and representations. Media mediate — but so does any other element of urban space. Hence, their role in the process of the construction of urban space can be read only within the context of the translations chains of which they are a part.

In their contributions to the understanding of urban processes, media scholars may have to take a methodological leap of faith. We may first have to remove the main focus on media to study the heterogeneous networks of which media are a part. We will regain our focus only at the end of the analysis, after having identified, reconstructed, and followed the multiple chains of translations involving media.

It is not merely a matter of “reconstructing the context.” It is rather a matter of de–constructing the very separateness of context and media, by observing media in their doing, as transient, temporary and partial elements of larger processes of spatial production. In this way we can perhaps avoid risks of over–emphasis, and contribute to a better understanding of processes of great social and political relevance. End of article


About the authors

Simone Tosoni, Catholic University of Milan — ARC — Centre for the Anthropology of Religion and Cultural Change.
E–mail: Simone [dot] tosoni [at] unicatt [dot] it

Matteo Tarantino, Catholic University of Milan — ARC — Centre for the Anthropology of Religion and Cultural Change.
E–mail: Matteo [dot] tarantino [at] unicatt [dot] it



1. We are well aware of the fact that Lefebvre’s theorization of space as the product of a trialectic is much more nuanced than the tripartition we present, but the limited space here does not allow us to engage in active debate of Lefebvrian concepts. However, we take from Lefebvre the centrality of the pragmatic, everyday element.

2. Mubi Brighenti and Mattiucci, 2008, p. 89.

3. Mubi Brighenti and Mattiucci, 2008, p. 91.

4. Mubi Brighenti and Mattiucci, 2008, p. 86.

5. Latour, 1999, p. 311.

6. Latour, 1999, p. 179.

7. This paper reports the synthesis of a research project on an area that was conducted between 2007 and 2013. We studied the area through 35 ethnographical in–depth interviews with privileged informants (Chinese traders and representatives, Italian residents, municipal authorities, cultural mediators, Chinese and Italian journalists, and real estate agents) and the analysis of Chinese and Italian media (newspapers, television, Web sites, blogs, and forums). We have detailed the conflict in other works in which readers will be able to find thorough discussions of many specific elements of the phenomenon. In particular, we focused on representations enacted by the Chinese (Tarantino and Tosoni, 2009a; Tarantino and Tosoni, 2009b), on aspects of shaping their social identity, on the mass media coverage of the event (Gelpi and Tarantino, 2009), on the media–related practices of migrants and Italians (Tosoni and Tarantino, 2013), and on the theoretical implications of the case (Tarantino and Tosoni, 2013).

8. Notice that we do not imply that ethnic identity is completely obliterated. Ethnic identity is a resource sometimes mobilized by migrants, as in the celebrations of the Chinese New Year that take place in Paolo Sarpi. However, we contend that the symbolic centrality of the area for the migrants–as–Chinese has been built upon the success of the migrants–as–merchants (Tarantino and Tosoni, 2009a).

9. While arguably not the primary cause, these social actors were also motivated by the real economic factors in their opposition. As home–owners, they saw the Chinese presence in the area as a threat to the value of otherwise very valuable real estate. The data appears to lend some credibility to this fear: according to data from the Milan Chamber of Commerce, the area’s real estate did not rise in value as much as other comparable areas of Milan did. However, it consistently remained in the upper echelon of value per square meter. This factor was never mentioned in our interviews with informants from Vivisarpi.

10. It is important to stress that the Vivisarpi association later publicly condemned the action.

11. These images were published on the Web sites of Italian major newspapers covering the event. Elsewhere (Tarantino and Tosoni, 2009a) we detailed the practices of circulating these images across multiple platforms.

12. DOC means “denomination of controlled origin” in Italian and is used in everyday language as a synonym of “true, authentic.”

13., accessed 9 October 2013.

14. Ninety–seven reviews were taken from TripAdvisor, combining “Chinatown” and “Paolo Sarpi” landmarks (the former had 79 reviews, and the latter had 18 reviews). On Foursquare, “Chinatown” featured 5,726 check–ins; the two Paolo Sarpi landmarks totaled 1,182 + 309 = 1491 check–ins.

15. The bicycle lane was not included in the original transformation project. It was also the outcome of a specific socio–spatial controversy. It was successfully lobbied for by another group of social actors, bicycle enthusiasts. Traces of this controversy, including a comparison of blueprints, can be found on the blog



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Editorial history

Received 20 October 2013; accepted 27 October 2013.

Copyright © 2013, First Monday.
Copyright © 2013, Simone Tosoni and Matteo Tarantino.

Space, translations and media
Simone Tosoni and Matteo Tarantino.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 11 - 4 November 2013>
doi: 10.5210/fm.v18i11.4956.

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