miércoles, 21 de marzo de 2012

The time of the temporary city

The process of territorial expansion we have experienced in the last two decades particularly in the years before the economic crisis is one of the elements that best contextualizes not only the causes of this crisis but also the significant impact it had. The way in which local policy has been understood and the role of urban development projects have left a complex map of underutilized infrastructure, public facilities without financial support, failed housing developments, unfinished industrial developments, urban vacant lots, etc. Unfortunately, we were only been able to understand the diagnosis when it was too late. Climbing out of this crisis from a local policy perspective means finding ways to activate and convert these passives into public assets.
The crisis will involve changing the perspective, and the era of huge development projects and iconic interventions is over. Given this development model that has been able to give form and mainstream only large projects as a way of making a city, we now need a much more intelligent and adaptive strategy that, at least until we get out of the crisis.
In this sense, the crisis will precipitate (it is already doing so, in fact) the emergence of new types of intervention projects and activation of urban capabilities that until now had little place in local public policies. These are projects that in many cases, at the time of urban expansion and major urban projects had little echo or were directly considered as outsiders or alien radicals. However, at that time and under conditions of weak institutional support, groups and organizations were able to check the social value of tactical interventions as driving forces of urban life using public spaces, empty shops, underused buildings and failed public facilities as living labs for a new way to activate creative and social projects. As crisis has prevented the development of large-scale hierarchical interventions, transitional projects are more visible as the best catalog to continue reviving the city life from a logic of "good, nice and cheap". The latter term is not to impair their significance, but precisely to emphasize the value of these projects as contributions with the urban agenda. Such actions are capable of generating major impacts on key social dynamic at a very low cost and highly significant.

The temporary city, by Peter Bishop and Lesley Williams, covers this topic including different terms such as temporary, interim, pop-up or meanwhile uses for urban spaces and buildings. Though very dependent on the UK context, the analytical framework offers a clever review of the logic behind a more responsive approach to urban planning, conceived not as a guidebook but as a proposal to understand this phenomenon, to look into its drivers and find reasons to show how this can be more than hype and become a relevant instrument in the future. I found lots of coincidences with the way I am using the idea of adaptive cities, as the book tries also to offer a response to economic restraints in the current crisis in which masterplans and long term urban projects are no longer viable. However, the authors remark that these temporary projects should not be conceived -and probably I should incorporate this point of view- as a second best option where other use is preferable but, in the meantime, not viable. This is why in the 68 cases covered in the book, showing their own values and benefits by themselves provide a common ground with the descriptions.

Temporary urbanism is a threat to formal and planned regulations of space in cities, as illegal, spontaneous or accidental uses, activities and forms emerge in a hierarchical logic of planning. The history of cities is somehow determined by informality and temporality and only in the process of more detailed ordinances and regulatory activity things have become as formal as urbanism is nowadays. Having said this, authors acknowledge that this view of temporality as an exemption can be applied to countries where urbanism has gained a level of formality, while in most parts of the world the condition of temporal informality has particular patterns the book does not addresses.
The context for this growing attention to pop-up urbanism and temporary expressions in the public space is clear and has been one of the main topics in this blog for the past few months under the idea of adaptive cities. It is not a matter of the uncertainties local economic crisis has added to large development projects, but of course is one of the reasons for the current interest in what we do in the meantime. Vacant spaces in shrinking cities like Detroit, vacant factories from declining industries and vacant commercial spaces in high streets are part of the urban landscape. However, other factors are driving this trend. The way we work is changing and work places are spreading out of the formal office parks and buildings. In general, people are using public spaces more intensely or, at least, the complexity and the growing networked society means more and new needs for the use of public spaces and thanks, to new technologies, public interventions such as festivals, happenings, installations or flashmobs, for example, are competing to find place in cities using technologies as enablers. Last but not least, counterculture and activism are always seeking for spaces to gather social and cultural expressions that the real estate market is not able to offer a solution for.
As authors show, even private property owners, previously reluctant to this approach, are showing more interest in exploring how temporary urbanism can be linked to their own projects. As cases explained in the book confirm, legal, financial or planning frameworks are not a burden but conservatism and lack of vision and capacity are a bigger problem. Practice and theory of DIY approach to urbanism and informal temporary actions in urban spaces are in their infancy. However, the context favors a new understanding of cities. Contradictions with formal regulations are inherent to this change process and political and social tensions will keep rising. It is part of the idea of enjoying more complex cities where groups and individuals can gain power to intervene and influence the planning process that seems to be no longer so capable to give responses. Zoning, regulations and masterplans will need to share their roles with short term projects and more flexible activities because these projects better match not only the economic context but also the changes in the way we want to enjoy cities.
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Image from THE LIDO (Southwark, Londres): The Oslo School of Architecture and Design 

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