This is a short paper that was delivered at the symposium ‘Sustainability in the City of Flux’ at Newcastle University in November 2014. The focus for the workshop was how the city can be ever changing, impermanent and in constant flux, whilst also being sustainable.
The day before yesterday I was at a book launch in London. The name of the book was called ‘Sustainable London?’ This question mark made me think about the term ‘sustainability’ – how it is used and what it really means. It’s become a buzzword – it’s used so much and in so many different ways by so many groups and individuals that it’s hard to come up with something definite. The editor of ‘City’ journal was at the book launch and he questioned whether sustainability is just used to sustain a system (i.e. the capitalist system) which is ultimately unsustainable. So, as public benefit is often equated with economic benefit so sustainability is often also equated with monetary value, therefore it is ultimately a discourse designed to keep the system working, to keep the system growing. Thus it becomes a depoliticised term.
However, I want to suggest a more holistic approach to sustainability – one that encompasses not just the environmental but the social, economic and political, and see whether it can be reclaimed in this sense.
So, in this context of the impermanent, ever-growing capitalist city, how can the urban ever be sustainable? Buildings continue to be built which are inflexible to change, where there is too tight a fit between the form and the function of a building so that if a change of use needs to occur, the building becomes obsolete and often it is cheaper (or so we are told) to bulldoze and build back up from the ground as oppose to reusing. This is hardly sustainable. But if the future is unknown to us then how do we create flexible and impermanent spaces whilst also being more sustainable?
This is something that I started thinking about when I was on fieldwork in Albania this year doing research in a huge informal settlement on the outskirts of the capital city; observing how people co-constructed housing here. Two days into my fieldwork I had a conversation with a lecturer at POLIS University, one of the main architecture and planning schools in Albania. He told me about a project that he had worked on with students in architecture, planning, art and design called the ‘Revival of City Squares in Balkan Cities’. The starting point for this project was a question into why the residents of Tirana weren’t using the main central square in the city. So they started with this broad framework, questioning more widely the reasons why people weren’t engaged with the city space and didn’t have a stake in it. So they were questioning top-down methods of planning and design.
The fact that a government may be able to spend as much money as they want on a square, with seating, fountains, statues, doesn’t mean that people will automatically take ownership of it. A good example of a public space being completely disengaged from the community and the life of the city is this main square in Minsk, Belarus with the city’s cultural centre in the centre. The photo below was taken in the middle of the day and as you can see it’s empty. Ok, so it’s not the most inviting square but you would expect people to be gathering here, sitting on the steps of the Cultural Centre and socialising here but there was nothing, no-one.
So instead of reviving city squares through expensive and complete permanent redevelopments the aim of the project in Albania was to first test the space through art, through temporary means: urban games and participatory mapping and planning and performative works to observe and examine how, when and why people engage with city space. Thus they were observing how art practice could be used as a tool to find out how these spaces are used and engaged with by the public.
Some of the ‘actions’ that they did in the city including building a temporary exhibition/event space that could be moved and reassembled in different locations. Another was a series of actions within the city to try and connect up disparate areas of the city through light and others have included building green ‘plug ins’, ‘pocket parks’ with local communities – using the unused ‘cracks’ of the city space for food production.
I think that this last example links to something that the Sociologist Fran Tonkiss discusses in a paper called ‘Austerity urbanism and the makeshift city’. She talks about the potentials of urban cracks, leftover, forgotten spaces, away from the glitz of development, between formal planning, speculative investment and the local possibilities of place, and discusses how these cracks represent glimmerings of new and different potentials, something outside of the system. Maybe in isolation, by themselves, these ‘cracks’ cannot change anything on a large scale – they become ineffective in their individualism – but if they are connected up in a network of cracks then they become more than glimmerings, and become more like a bright, steady light and then become more powerful. So in this paper she questions why small-scale and auto-initiatives, like in the Albania project, that quickly embed in place should be devalued on the grounds of being merely ‘temporary’.
So in this sense temporary forms of art and building can be used to test how people use and re-appropriate public space with a final aim of creating a more sustained development that would last. Thus art can be used as a catalyst.
By observing the possibilities of city space through the use of artistic actions, the students at POLIS were able to observe how and why people took ownership of space. So there was a focus on active public participation – the active citizen – involving the citizens to see how they co-construct and use space. They integrated meaningful public participation into the project engaging the public into a discussion about what is important to them and what they wanted for their urban space, recognising that with ownership comes sustainability of use and resource. So they recognised that citizens are not just passive users or spectators but that public spaces are for democratic and cultural expression and can act as focal points for civic relationships and civic dialogue. Therefore the participatory nature of the project was able to harness the inbuilt energy of the people.
Another source of inspiration for a flexible city space has come more directly from my PhD research, which examines what can be learnt for the UK from informal approaches to city-making. So I observed how people in the informal settlement incrementally built their housing over years. Of course this relates to economic circumstances, being a more flexible approach for more precarious lives, but it also reflects a long-term agenda: thinking about how families might change and grow and how housing needs to reflect these changes.
Yet whilst the improvisational practices of many informal communities around the world shows a certain energy, a certain amount of creativity, adapting to changing situations with meagre resources, there is also a survivalist aspect to these make do approaches. This improvisation is frugal innovation and so often goes hand in hand with the language and celebration of ‘the entrepreneurial poor’. So I also think it’s important to be cautious about some of these celebratory approaches to informality and ask when does improvisation become precariousness?
But in the western context, it’s more difficult to create this flexibility of urban space, with rigid planning systems, but perhaps there are potentialities, just as the Albanian project has shown, to use artistic expression to test and unlock the potentials of space before unsustainable, expensive and non-engaging developments are built.
So potential might be found in allowing for temporary activities, and adaptable spaces, particularly in light of growing economic uncertainty and the fact that change can happen very quickly in the city. Thus urban spaces should be less rigid reflecting this transience within them.