miércoles, 5 de junio de 2013

Adaptive cities: co-design for social creativity

Notes of my talk at Forum PA/Peripheria project final conference (Rome, 29th May 2013)


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I use the idea of adaptive cities as a response to the current economic crisis. In Spain, the real estate bubble has set a landscape of abandoned building, vacant lots waiting for better times to be built, stalled new urban developments, underused facilities and so on. All of them will be incomplete or abandoned for years. What can we do with such an amount of sites, buildings and public facilities while they are being completed or there is enough public budget to run them to their potential capacity? In this sense, adaptive urbanism is a way to come back to cities, to reclaim our cities, to foster place engagement and sense of ownership with the places we live in. And, at the same time, to boost bed-testing and use cities as platforms for new designs and new solutions by using transitional and temporary strategies in the meantime

Can we afford to have so many urban spaces not being used? Isn´t it a waste of potential energy for social creativity? What can we do with such an amount of sites, buildings and public facilities while they are being completed or there is enough public budget to run them to their potential capacity? There is a need to make use of them in the meantime and here is where transitional and temporary creative projects appear as a reponse.

My idea of adaptive cities is a way to add an strategic layer for public cities to shelter new urban practices and participatory approaches in building the city, resisting the idea that these places are residual and not worthy trying to use them in a transitional approach.

So, the basic question here is: can we afford to have so many idle urban assets, vacant spots in our cities? Here is where adaptive urbanism makes sense, as it proposes transititonal approaches and temporary uses for the meantime. There is a need to adapt some assumptions and business as usual practices in planning to allow transitional use in the meantime

In fact, this approach is not new and the interest on making the best of the public realm with reactivation project is a well known strategy. The good news now is that there is a stronger experience on temporary uses, new emerging topics such as tactical urbanism and a growing literature in the last years (Urban Catalyst and The temporary city are great references).

The interest in empty buildings and vacant spaces is not new. for example, I would like to mention now two initiatives, Temporiuso and Impossible Living, as two initiatives, among others, addressing especifically this topic.

Adaptive urbanism is a way to deal with the limits of formal planning. Planning intends to regulate uses and permits with the promise of offering a permanent solution. When a project is planned, there is an expectation that weverything will work fine (schedules and finances, but also final uses and operations). But every urban plan is out of date since it is approved, because circumstances change –and how have they changed in the last five years!- and users and citizens give new uses and behave and interact with the icty in different ways than the expected one. Formal urbanism thinks in terms of projects, material projects as an output. But now that lots of envisaged projects won´t become real for years, it is time to think in a more adaptive ways and give priority to social creativity processes and local networks as the main outcome we have to promote. This is the software of the city.


Adaptive urbanism is needed today because we are living uncentain times. All those sites, buildings, prmises waiting for new life will have to wait for better times, it seems. Well, we can wait and keep them abandoned, or we can change our minds and urban practices and introduce transitional uses. It is something that is happening in fact: in the previous economic stage, some activists, collectives and people have been working on this kind of interventions, most of the times as outsiders, and now we can discover they have suitable answers to the situation. The new economic scenario for local policies is full of constraints, but also with lots of news from citizens for physical activites, social services, cultural actions or leisure activites. And the fact tat there is an increasing demand for public expression, a new wave of social activism and a huge potential for cretivity, it is the best time to promote this kind of projects.

Just think of a vacant lot in the inner city. There is an owner, with a building permit. An urban plan and  a planned use for that site. There is even an institutional expectation for this plan to be accomplished. But now it will remain vacant for years, as it is likely that the owner won´t find it easy orprofitable to build. What can we do? What´s the traditional answer? Waiting and, at the same time, preventing any other potential use to take place in these spaces. There is something planned there, so it is not worthy making things complicate with new permits or agreements with the owner. Is that clever? Isn´t it a waste of urban capacities?

Let´s see some examples of the many that could be mentioned:
  • 596 ACRES. Some people start thinking and reach to a surprising figure: there are almost six hundred acres of vacant public land in Brooklyn. Why don´t we mediate between the public owner and potential users for community activities?
  • THE CINEROLEUM. There is an abandoned filling station and a group of culture agents decide that this is not a infrastructure waiting to be demolished, but a potential scenario for something to happen. And they decide to build a low budget cinema for the neighbourhood for a couple of weeks.
  • CANNING TOWN CARAVANSERAI. A vacant lot in London waiting to be built. And some people decide that this is not a vacant site, but a potential agora, with a market place, premises for entrepreneurs and stages for concerts and performing arts until it is built.
  • LENT SPACE. Or a private owner that understands that it will take long to build and decide to lend it to the city to make possible that something occurs there. And then it turns into a public space for cultural exhibitions.
Just some final remarks on the benefits of this approach. First, for those who fear the contradiction with planned uses, the good thing is that transitional temporary uses does not interfere or preclude planned uses or expectations, it´s just a meanwhile strategy to take advantange of paralyzed projects. Second, it is a way to test alternative uses, new practices or new ways to make people take part in the process of city building.
The kind of uses that can include, from co-working spaces to pop-up shops or start-ups incubation, it can give room for creative local economic development and, at the same time, enhance an intensified use of public space for community activites. They can shape a new understanding of urban capitals, in which not only economic capital counts, but also, knowledge, social os symbolic capitals are relevant.
And these projects shift the focus from building and expansive strategies to social networks and civic engagement for social creativity as open processes.

I just need to mention Jane Jacobs with a final remark: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” This is all about, people building the city with our own hands.

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Here you can find the video of the presentation, though the audio is actually the italian translation:

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