lunes, 9 de marzo de 2015

Transitional uses and the social value of vacant spaces

Le Parisien Magazine asked me to share my views on adaptive urbanism for their futures column  and the finally published article Futur : la ville qui se monte et se démonte. This is what came to my mind some weeks ago.


1/ What kind of answers to the economic and environmental crises can the "adaptive cities" answers to? (thanks to what kind of buildings and spaces)?

The adaptive approach to cope with economic crisis can bring some benefits that have to do with a new understanding of urban assets and opportunity spaces. It is an opportunity to look at cities from a different perspective to the expansion stage we have witnessed, based on iconic interventions, large scale developments and urban renewal projects, all of them promoting a physical expansion of our cities. As such, it can mean a change of mind in the sense that crisis is making planners and citizens caring the details, looking at minor or residual (abandoned, vacant, neglected sites) as spaces with an intrinsic social value. It means a recycling culture materialised in the urban realm, especially for open spaces (inbuilt sites due to lack of financial resources, for examples), where things can still happen even though the planned determinations cannot become real.

From this perspective, adapting urban regulations formalism into a more adapted approach that considering the current circumstances, not only related to real estate market, but also  with the explosion and rediscovery of public spaces as places for public life and urban activism, can materialise win-win situations. Agency of citizens can be enlarged by giving access to spaces to be temporarily transformed into productive, social or cultural spaces, while physical assets can maintain their vocation of spaces of social value.

2/ Are there, today, some interesting examples in the world of cities that are inventing some new kind of urban innovation and process?

The High Line in New York has been acclaimed as a good success story and it fits the idea of how looking at cities and their spaces from a different perspective can make a difference. Though it is not a perfect example, it illustrates the story of an abandoned public structure –an old elevated train structure- that was supposed to be demolished (in the traditional way of thinking abandoned structures, factories,... as disposable objects which can only be torn down to give space for new developments). But some neighbours and activists thought that there was another way out: conserving the structure and transforming it in a public space that is now one of the ten most visited attractions in the city.

But this approach is also being implemented in old factories, public facilities and commercial premises. Regarding this last example, there is a growing movement of people and organisations trying to reinvent empty shops into something useful while the market is not able to give them use. Experiences such as empty Shops Network, Meanwhile Space or Renew Newcastle have demonstrated that there is room for finding new ways to benefit social and cultural entrepreneurs by adjusting the traditional market solutions and institutional regulations so that they can include new needs for accessing this kind of spaces.

3/ What about the typical european historical centers (such as in Paris) : is there a risk to let them end as some kind of "museums"? And can we imagine some answers to develop activities and social interactions?

This is the main risk historical centres are facing. Banalization of main streets, thought, designed and planned as open commercial districts where the expected use is consumerism are converting these streets as ghettos, inaccessible, over-regulated and privatized. It has to do with global economic dynamics so difficult to confront, but there is still an opportunity for residents to take ownership and responsibility for these places if they can build creative projects that go beyond the average. As long as city halls are sensitive to promoting public life and not only business in these places for tourists, city centres can still be the most suitable place for social encounters, for vibrancy and creativity.

4/ What about the ephemeral constructions (such as the "pop-up stores", or the containers) : is it an interesting approach for the future?

It´s clearly a trend, but not a solution. Cities are facing so many complex problems and of such scale, that solutions can only be partial. In this sense, temporary interventions have the ability to show new opportunities. They are testbeds for prototyping and experimentation and city councils should be more open to this kind of strategies that cities like Dublin or San Francisco are trying to bring to their streets. Formal planning has been too focused on aspiring to give permanent and stable solutions, as if needs never changed. But complex societies should be open to changes and rigid interventions narrow the chances to experiment with new typologies for housing, public spaces design or public services and facilities. As such, pop-up shops are part of the equation, as they defy the traditional conditions settled for opening a new business, while ephemeral interventions are a lighter, quicker, cheaper approach to design public spaces (for example, a cheaper and easier way to enlarge pedestrian streets).

5/ How could (or should) be the "adaptive city" of the future (in 2050 for instance)?

Hard to answer. I am a very bad futurist and depending on the day can be more or less optimistic. But let´s say that there is a socio-cultural shift in values underlying the still-too-traditional and hierarchical approach of red tape and bureaucracies. We should expect that, even just as a reactive response, cities will be governed in a more open way and what we have been talking about participation –as attending public meetings and taking part by invitation from institutions) will change into a more active engagement. And this engagement will mean getting hands dirty in reclaiming abandoned spaces and buildings because society and community groups have a plan for them, not only a bright idea, but the skills, the technology and the aim to turn them into something else than just a “keep out” fence. We will see these changes. Gradually, sometimes reluctantly, but the adaptive city is taking shape today, maybe still as an exception or from outsiders, but it will be the only way to manage cities and live together in a time in which people –thanks to the new sociability of digital technologies- cannot stand an answer from their local councils saying “you can´t do that”.

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