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Citizen Urbanism in Madrid


Madrid is officially a city I would want to live now. I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere and the things the city has to offer. But also its urban development is interesting. The combination of modern features and historical barrios is a delight. Not to mention the exceptional cluster of world-class museums, my favourite being the Reina Sofía Museum of modern art (not in the least its fascinating Situationists section).

Madrid has been a political center for almost half a millennium, with some brief interruptions and under various regimes. Therefore it is full of architectural grandeur and wide avenues. But the things I enjoyed most were in the fine-grained neighbourhoods that were often right behind it. There is much life on the streets, which are occupied by a very diverse population that’s generally very open to interact.

imageThe morphology of Lavapiés

The Lavapiés barrio is one of those lively ares. Although subject to a clear gentrification process, it is still regarded an immigrant neighbourhood with very diverse demographics. One feature of this is La Corrala, a tenement block with long communal balconies built around a central courtyard where the social life of the local community takes place. At night, the patio is crowded with adults lounging and kids playing. Most buildings of this typology haven’t survived (only some 500 of them are still left in Madrid) modernisation waves, because most apartments used to be no larger than 30 square metres and neighbours had to share toilets, but this typical form of Madrilian architecture is increasingly protected and regarded as heritage.

imageLa Corrala, Lavapiés

The most interesting thing I came across was El Campo de Cebada in the La Latina neighbourhood. Previously (since the late 19th century) the site was a roofed municipal market, and therefore a social hub for the area’s residents. Halfway the 20th century, the market was rehoused on the same site in a heavier concrete building because of hygiene reasons. The rest of the site was taken up by a municipal sports centre. At the dawn of this century, Madrid’s City Council came up with a plan to redevelop the area, rebuilding the market and the sports centre and handing over the management to the private sector.

The sports centre - being the only one in the area - was demolished, but there were no investors to be found to take up the development of a new one. The result was a fenced-in wasteland of 5,500 square meters, as a concrete articulation of troubled economic times.

On Google Earth, the sports centre (grey roof) is still there.

During La Noche en Blanco in 2010, an event taking place one night only with the aim to transform the city and bring citizens together through temporary interventions, the site was transformed into a rain forest with an open pool. This remained for ten days and stirred up a lot of dynamics, local pride and a shared ambition to do something with the abandoned space.

The presence and subsequent dismantling of the temporary installation struck a nerve with local residents. To them, it didn’t make sense for a location to be unused and abandoned. Especially since it was the result of decisions of the City Council. From here a community started to form under the name of El Campo de Cebada (The Barley Field), consisting of a wide variety of people from all ages and different backgrounds. Using meetings, online discussions and black boards on site, proposals for the use of the space were discussed.  

El Campo de Cebada (©Davilú)

After a plow through the regulatory process, the City Council agreed to explore a new way to develop the site. They helped providing some basics for the site, including water and electricity, and basketball and football goals. From there on, volunteering locals and artists painted and decorated the space, furniture was created out of recycled materials and a structure was created to provide shade (Madrid summers can be hot) and sitting areas. Several inflatable pools are occasionally deployed and mobile gardens have been created which are the responsibility of locals. Moreover, a variety of events and festivities take place at El Campo de Cebada, from plays and tai-chi classes and lectures to open-air film screenings and concerts.

imageEl Campo de Cebada (©r2hox)

When I visited, people who had brought their own lunch were picnicking under in the built structure while a basketball match was going on which was passionately cheered by a crowd of some 30 people. Street vendors were walking around selling beers for one euro while kids raced around on their bicycles and others just enjoyed the place reading a book or taking a siesta in the shade.


This way of grassroots urbanism clearly connects to the demands of local residents, connecting their needs and wishes to an unused space in an area they know best. The result is a well-functioning social hub (in a way returning to the times when it was a local market), where a variety of people comes together for different reasons, simultaneously feeling responsible for the public space. The space is public in the most purest sense, because it is maintained and managed by the people who use it through a form of direct democracy. El Campo de Cebada is the result of collective intelligence, working well as a place shaped by the same people who use it.

El Campo de Cebada (©Guillermo de la Madrid)

Thanks to Olga López Hidalgo for introducing me to the place and checking this post for factual accuracy.

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Wonderfully Ordinary New York City

Great video by The Color Machine for the Municipal Art Society of New York.

It’s refreshing to see a video about a city that’s not tilt-shifted, stop motion or filled with iconic cityscapes. This one is a celebration of the small, the average, the ordinary and most of all the people. It beautifully illustrates how a city is a concentration of people with endlessly divergent needs, ambitions, habits and movements, all living in one place. New York is not one city, it is a sum of all the personal cities of its 8 million residents. This is (again, just like one of my previous posts about Strelka’s new education programme) something very much in line with Michel de Certeau’s way of looking at a city in “The Practice of Everyday Life”.
By showing this diversity, the filmmakers portray New York City as an inclusive city, the city of all of these people. They also show that liveability is about opportunities and quality of life for as many citizens as possible.

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Food as an Urban Connector

am sure you know Monocle magazine. Not everyone is aware of the fact that Monocle also does radio. I have been a longtime fan of one of their podcasts in particular: The Urbanist, a weekly show about urban affairs, featuring a diverse range of themes in a fresh tone of voice and with great content.

Something I did not know yet, is that Monocle also does films. I was notified by Gillian Dobias, the executive producer of Monocle broadcast, that they just finished a film titled City Farming.
What I like about the film, is that it is a great visual illustration of a book I recently made for CITIES
Farming the City. It’s nothing new that food is a connector. But what we wanted to show and explore in the book, is that food can also function as a connector on the level of the city. It can play a pivotal role in the organization and development of our urban societies and can be used as a tool to approach the many challenges inherent in contemporary urban life from a human, locally-oriented perspective.
Monocle’s film features three inspiring projects in the US, Japan and Norway. New York’s Brooklyn Grange is fairly well-known, but I think the others are less so. I had never heard of the one in Tokyo. 

Monocle’s City Farming film is edited by Henry Albert. The contributing journalists are Richard Grehan, Elaisha Stokes and Aleksander Solum.

Here’s an earlier piece that I wrote about the backgrounds of Farming The City - Food as a Tool for Today’s Urbanisation and why we wanted to write it.

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At Strelka, The Practice of Everyday Life in Practice


The Strelka Institute in Moscow has a fascinating new educational programme coming up. The 2013-2014 theme is ‘urban routines’, which I think is great – at the same time highly realistic but also very ambitious. Connecting daily urban habits and activities to larger frameworks and design challenges is something that’s essential in planning, design and governance, but at the same time often missing. Michel de Certeau’s “The Practice of Everyday Life” has been one of my favourite books about the city for a couple of years. Simultaneously, I always find it hard to translate his writings into thinking about the city at a planning or governance level. That’s why Strelka’s programme is so interesting, and so important. How do people use space, both public and private? How do they commute, move around the city? In which places are their daily lives articulated? The answers to these questions connect the social, economic, and cultural fabric, and other spheres of urban activity. Students from different backgrounds and nationalities can apply for the programme.

The spatial distribution of mobile app developers in the Netherlands. Over 40% of them is located in Amsterdam.

The Urban Routines of Dutch mobile app developers
For my MA research in 2011, I focused on the spatial orientation of people working with creative technologies in cities (mostly app developers). How do they use urban space? What kind of dwellings, work spaces and third spaces do they use and prefer? It was basically to test popular theories about creative, footloose urban professionals and the location factors that influence their settlement choice on different levels (which city to live and work, what neighbourhood, what kind of office or café, et cetera). It turned out that some of the theories do apply to them: they do tend to cluster in cities and in temporary clusters (one-day events) where knowledge is exchanged in an informal setting (and in online communities of practice). Moreover, generally they prefer specific urban environments with cultural amenities, a historical makeup, young people, etc. They do, however, tend to stick to regular 9-to-5 times and work in a traditional office, as opposed to a high use of ‘third places’ such as coffee bars and the flexible working hours. The most important reason for this is the spatial proximity to colleagues and people to spar with – communication technologies are no more than complementary to this. So it turns out they are less ‘footloose’ than expected. The situation of creatives like mobile app developers is often idealized, reasoning that a laptop plus internet connection is sufficient for them to do their work. Even these supposedly archetypical ‘footloose’ creatives, tend to behave similar to more traditional economic actors. Next to the importance of face-to-face contact, the routines of the economic arena they play in determine their behavior – if their clients and other actors work 9-to-5 and expect to be welcomed in a neat office, they tend to adjust their location and behaviour accordingly. These findings are important in a broader urban sense in multiple ways, from understanding needs for office space, urban amenities, proximity to others in the same field, good mobility, and many other things.

Strelka programme
The case about mobile app developers in The Netherlands is just a minor example of a subgroup that exists next to thousands and thousands of other subgroups in cities and whose urban routines make up the urban fabric (maybe even more so than the physical makeup of a city). That’s why the 2013/14 Strelka programme is so interesting, especially in a city like Moscow, which has a more top-down development tradition than other cities and therefore the daily lives of Russian urbanites can easily be overlooked from a planning and design perspective. But also because urban space can only to a certain extent be shaped by its design – its use, how it is included in urban routines of city dwellers, also makes up a large part of what urban space is. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the programme in a year from now.

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Neonlights reflecting off the rainy streets of Amsterdam’s Leidseplein, somewhere in the 1960s. Image by Frits Lemaire.

Neonlights reflecting off the rainy streets of Amsterdam’s Leidseplein, somewhere in the 1960s. Image by Frits Lemaire.

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A Poetic Stroll Around London

One of the most impressive films I’ve come across lately is “Lost in London”, by Michael Smith and Wojciech Duczmal. It shows a poetic stroll through London, based on Baudelaire’s flâneur, and beautifully illustrates that the experience of the city is an individual one. How someone perceives the city, depends on his/her memories, knowledge, ways of looking at and listening to things, previous experiences, sensitivity, how they make connections between these things, et cetera.

The short film also encouraged me to go out and just walk through the city more, even though it is rather difficult to take on a traveller’s perspective in your own city.

The book “Sense of the City - An Alternative Approach to Urbanism" is a great publication that also deals with the sensory experience of the city and might be interesting in respect to the topic of the video. It argues that the city’s representation consists of much more than only its visual aspects, and that sounds, smells, darkness, and other qualities that influence the ways in which we communicate with the city deserve more attention when we talk and think about cities.

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City Picks #5: Top Reads on Cities

Some of the best articles, videos, posts and other things urban I came across this week.

Watch Dogs
This is something for me to look forward to: a video game where you can wander around freely in a semi-realistic urban world. There is no mission, only a loose plot: you can tap into electronic devices because the protagonist has hacked Chicago’s central operating system. From there, you can get several objectives.

It seems like Watch Dogs combines the best elements of Grand Theft Auto and Blade Runner, because it represents a slightly dystopian reality where you can go wherever you like and complete some tasks whenever you like. I’m afraid this is going to hurt my productivity. The Guardian published an interview with the CEO of Watch Dogs developer Ubisoft last week.

How the City Hurts Your Brain
This is an article from 2009 that I ran into this month, in which Jonah Lehrer refreshes older theories by Georg Simmel and Richard Sennett, combining it with recent scientific findings. The city calls upon the brain, and the brain’s capacity is limited. This creates a trade-off between the unique benefits of the metropolis and the psychological damage it causes. Interestingly, the city’s complexity simultaneously triggers creativity and evokes cognitive exhaustion.

The Irrational Exuberance of Rem Koolhaas
One of the best long reads I came across lately, published on Design Observer’s Places Journal. In it, Ellen Dunham-Jones goes into Rem Koolhaas’ inevitable contradictions that are the result of him trying to marry art and capitalism, radicalism and pragmatism, and icon-making and city-making. She does a great job, by going from his early works and theories to his later products and thoughts. I have the impression that she doesn’t quite know what to think of Koolhaas, acknowledging his genius but despising some of his decisions.

La Maison Tropicale: From Failure in Niamey to Masterpiece in New York
For Failed Architecture, Isabella Rossen goes into the case of Jean Prouvé’s modernist prefab icon La Maison Tropicale. It was thought of as the future in the 1940s and 1950s, but turned out to be a symbol of colonialism and did not fit the African context. Today, however, the three prototypes that were once built are being hailed in New York, London and Paris.

How Cities Reshape Themselves When Trust Vanishes
Thanassis Cambanis shows how trust shapes the public realm and how violent acts can subtly, but radically change urban societies, by going into the cases of Boston, New York, Baghdad and Beirut. A fascinating article, illustrating that trust and security might be the key elements to urban livability.

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Thomas Bayrle - Die Stadt


This work from 1976 is displayed at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. I was intrigued by it, not in the first place because it is a huge work, but because its geometric urban pattern comes across very intimidating and unfree but simultaneously as a technological marvel.

Thomas Bayrle often presents a personal tension between his fascination with and horror for at modern. This is something I can very much relate to. Much of his work is not about the city, but more about capitalism in society, systems of symbols, consumerism, advertising, and other things that have become more and more part of our world over the past 50 years.

In 2009, Frieze published a great piece on Thomas Bayrle by Dominic Eichler. 

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New Book: “Farming The City - Food as a Tool for Today’s Urbanisation”


For the past two years, I have been working on a book. Francesca Miazzo and I have collected contributions and case studies and framed them within our own thoughts about the city’s networks, meanings and mechanisms, to show how food can be used as a tool for a more substantial urban development, today. It’s titled “Farming the City - Food as a Tool for Today’s Urbanisation”.

The book was officially published April 10 under the flag of CITIES, with TrancityˣValiz publishers, during a big launch event in Amsterdam with a full programme.


The aim of the book is to show how food can play a pivotal role in the organization and development of our urban societies and how it can be used as a tool to approach the many challenges inherent in contemporary urban life from a human, locally-oriented perspective. 
The book aims to trace a path towards a socially, culturally and economically resilient society; a place where inclusive, locally-oriented modes of production are not only possible, but preferrable. 

In order to clarify this, we have invited leading and inspiring thinkers and activists to write about the ways in which innovative food initiatives can contribute to our cities. Thirteen essays by artists, urbanists, policy thinkers, architects, activists and sociologists (a.o. Carolyn Steel, Kevin Morgan, Jennifer Sumner, Derek Denckla, Chris Berthelsen, Jared Braiterman, Jess Mantell and Jan-Willem van der Schans.


Next to that, 100 pages of the book have been dedicated to exemplary projects that we have come across in the past couple of years. Here, 35 projects are showcased to illustrate in what ways food is already changing our cities, today. We see this chapter of the book as an ode to the citizens, entrepreneurs, organisations and public officers that use food as a tool to re-interpret contemporary notions of urban living, working and collaboration. This visual showcase with basic descriptions has been included as an inspiration for the readers.


Food instead of creativity
The final section of the book is an epilogue, in which we roughly argue that the same framing, governmental interest and support should be applied to the “food field” as happened to the “creative field” in the past decade. The creative clustering has proven to be a succesful way to revive cities, strengthen identities, promote new industries and develop cultural scenes. However, the creativity field has also been used as a panacea for urban challenges, directing investments to creativity based on false rhetoric, often having negative implications such as displacement, social polarization and ‘distinctive’ urban fabrics and cultures that end up looking alike.


Instead of promoting an economic sector that revolves around symbolic value, redirecting the focus to the food field can have much more substantial impact, because at its core is one of the necessities of life. The impact, therefore, implies health, social ties, livability, job security, local business opportunities and awareness, contrary to the more superficial benefits of solely investing in creativity. This is not to discredit the creativity sector. In fact, creativity can also play an important role in the various layers of the food field, for example by bringing it to a larger audience and thereby reinforcing its impact.

There’s much, much more in the book. On April 10 during an event in Pakhuis De Zwijger we shed a light on the contents of the book and set the agenda for urban food policies, with Carolyn Steel, Dickson Despommier, Culinary Misfits, Lufa Farms, Trädgård på Spåret and other great people and projects.

We thought it would be nice to put edible flyers in every book, so that there is actual ‘food’ in there.

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City Picks #4: Top Reads on Cities

This week’s most interesting books, articles, blog posts and videos.


Failed Architecture: Game Over for Architects?
Michiel van Iersel speculates on the future of architecture and asks some serious questions. He sketches radical developments in the availability of design tools, in construction technology and in dealing with intellectual property. 
With technological innovations and processes of democratization, what will be the role and relevance of the architect in shaping our cities? And what if algorithms and ‘big data’ will gain importance, who ‘pushes stop’ when all systems fail? Questions we need to start thinking about.


Atlantic Cities: Is It Time to Move Past Urban Studies and Toward Urbanization Science?
Interesting piece at The Atlantic Cities about William Solecki, who argues that urban studies should evolve into more scientific approaches that can decipher the genetic code of the organisms we call cities. More scientists are working on this, such as Geoffrey West. I think this is a highly interesting field, with findings that show parallels between cities (i.e. social organizations) and the biology of mammals. I believe that large aggregations of people can demonstrate similarities with organic systems, but that many urban issues should be approached from the ‘softer’ social sciences (sociology, geography, etc).

My Amsterdam
People from Amsterdam know photographer Ed van der Elsken. He documented the city’s life for decades. He made the video on the left in 1983, driving through Amsterdam on an early morning. It gives a great picture of what Amsterdam looked like in 1983. In 2011, artist Jan Rothuizen captured literally the same image, 28 years later. The difference is striking. Amsterdam was relatively deurbanized in the early 80s, and only started growing again (and being invested in) a few years after this film. In 2011, you see a neat inner city which is clean, organized and safe. The increased affluent population was accompanied by a neutralization of urban space and added convenience, a development that really kicked in in the 1990s. “Amsterdam isn’t what it used to be in the 70s and 80s”, is what people who have lived there during that period often say. Did it change for the good or the bad? You decide.


Farming the City - Food as a Tool for Today’s Urbanisation
On April 10, this book by CITIES will be published worldwide. A preview is already online on ISSUU. The book asks the question “how can food work as a tool for urban development, today?”. Rather than sketching out future visions for food policies, economies and technologies, CITIES looks at what is already happening right now. They did so by asking a bunch of leading writers and researchers to write down what they are seeing, but also by showcasing 35 projects from around the world that they consider to be exemplary for innovative ways of using food and of shaping cities through food.

Spike Lee - Love vs Loyalty
Spike Lee goes schizo in this great video. His two selfs - the New York Knicks fan and the Brooklyn lover - argue over what team to cheer for, now that the Nets have moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn. Is it about loyalty for the team you have always supported or about love for the borough that shaped you? A great watch, with beautiful shots and historical material.

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