Posts tagged community

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UK cities: from privatized dystopias to fertile soils for community projects?

How citizens and communities taking control of their neighbourhoods are outlining hopeful urban futures

Cardinal Place, London. A great example of not so great urban development

Ah, Britain. I had the privilege to visit London for two days, as a result of the kind invite by Philips’ Livable Cities programme to participate in a round table discussion and help select the winner of the #pinyourcity contest.

The great UK cities
A quick count tells me that I have been to eight British cities in the past two years. It keeps fascinating me how privatization is perceptible in these cities. Privatization has resulted in the securitization, shinification and standardization of the British inner city. Securitization is wonderfully described in Anna Minton’s Ground Control. Initially from 2009, an updated version was published this year – with an extra chapter about the impact of the Olympics on London in terms of the ‘suburbanization of the inner city’ (as I like to call it) – the book explains how British cities are now owned by private corporations, designed for profit and watched over by CCTV. The shinification is illustrated by the clustering of corporate offices in the city centers, most of them built since the 1990s after the market had been severely deregulated. Cities wanted to show that their city centres were back in the global game of finance, business and consumption. This great article by Rowan Moore shows how the sky scrapers that have been popping up over the past decade and will continue to be built over the next few years, do not meet planning guidelines, community needs and architectural standards. Still, politics seems to encourage the ongoing shinification. Often, these shiny towers do not contribute to their surroundings, producing anonymous and even hostile public space and hardly offering public facilities. And there’s the standardization, which has to do with urban environments becoming as safe, clean, and predictable (similar to other places) as possible.
The privatization has also resulted in a sharp divide. Both in society (after a dismantling and marketization of the welfare state), and in cities. Spatial segregation is increasing, just as the pressure on low-income residents of neighbourhoods that are the new frontiers of gentrification. The always great Polis just published a great article on new developments in Stratford, where UCL is planning to build a new campus, the protests against it (by the local community, but also by groups from within UCL), and the role and responsibility of the university in urban renewal.

Civic response
But a relatively polarized society also seems to encourage grassroots action with a social and sustainable agenda in cities. In Western cities, these seem to become the next popular urban thing, both for policy makers and for creative urbanites, as a sort of follow-up to creative cities policies and only symbolic creative production. I think that’s great, because there is much more ‘use value’ in it, compared to ‘sign value’. I visited three of those projects founded on such principles in London. Being on a tight schedule, I could only visit three of them in Dalston.

Dalston Eastern Curve Garden

First I visited Dalston Eastern Curve Garden. Created on the former Eastern Curve railway line running from Dalstion Junction Station in 2010, the Garden grows stuff but also has a great wooden construction under which you can meet, eat and drink. More recently, a glass house was added. Regular events and workshops are organized there, working together with local communities and youth groups. I was only there briefly, but it felt like a great place run by a great bunch of people.

Arcola Theatre’s bar

After that I checked out Arcola Theatre, which is amazing. In a converted paint factory the studio theatre is now providing high-end performances and plays, but is also delivering community engagement and creative learning. Moreover – and even more exceptional – it has set up an energy business, Arcola Energy. This added sustainability to its social agenda. The theatre became a testing and demonstration ground for energy-efficient methods, cutting its standard energy consumption by 60%, and Arcola Energy now does consultancy and provides sustainable energy solutions to theatres and other organizations. The theatre works with local volunteers and other organizations. It also runs a fantastic eco-café, now open all day and offering organic and handmade food and drinks from local gastronomes. One of the things about Arcola Theatre that I like most is Pay What You Can Tuesdays, which lowers the threshold for local people to visit the theatre.


My last stop before heading for the airport was FARM:shop. This is the third inspiring place I visited within not much more than a square mile. The name FARM:shop basically explains what it is. A farm in a shop. It is a café where you can have coffees and sandwiches. It is also an urban farming space, where different growing typologies are demonstrated – aquaponics, polytunnel, indoor allotment and a rooftop chicken coop. The produce is also sold in the shop and used in the food they sell. Their aim is to have shops like these all over the UK, connect peripheral farms to urban communities and inspire people to grow their own food. And it is inspirational. Especially because it has a DIY feel and the people are very nice. It makes you feel like doing the same stuff at home. And the sandwiches are incredibly good.


These projects are just three of them that I visited in a rush There’s a great publication, Compendium for a Civic Economy, which features more inspiring examples of communities and citizens taking control of themselves and each other in social enterprises. You can buy it in hard copy, but the first edition can also be read online:


No magic potion
The retreat of government from civic society (and handing over parts of it to private service providers) and a dismantling of the welfare state seems to evoke creative civic entrepreneurship. We should not see this as an overall solution because it cannot fill all the voids left behind and cannot help everyone affected by unemployment, poverty, sickness and gentrification. It is too easy to point at the success of a handful of (exceptional) projects to show that a policy such as Big Society is successful. I believe national and local governments should be the ones providing social safety nets. 
Visualising what is possible
Nevertheless, projects like these can (potentially) have a considerable impact on local communities, individuals, urban economies and the environment. And, their progressive and experimental character gives us an inspiring peak into the future of how we might want to live and work together cities. They are also showing us how to relocalize money streams to benefit local communities and that local governments are happy to chip in on meaningful projects. Moreover, they show that creativity is increasingly being used for more meaningful initiatives, rather than just for the production of symbolic value.

At first, coming to London to discuss livability, I couldn’t help but thinking about the city’s livability as also being segregated: to the rich, London is highly livable because high-end lifestyles are perfectly catered. The less well-off, however, are being more and more marginalized, and much of the city’s amenities are not affordable or suitable for them. According to Saskia Sassen, an inherent ‘quality’ of global cities is social polarization. But some kind of countermovement is taking place and I cannot wait to see it crystallize in the near future.

Images by dunclukPreoccupationsArcola Theatre, me. 

Note 1: I am always very much trying to decypher the ‘dark matter’ in urban development. But not all of the institutions’ agendas are solely driven by economic and financial growth in urban renewal. The Guardian published a great story about a housing corporation in chic North-London is building for low-income tenants in Islington.

Note 2: While the UK government is often characterized as only having acted from a privatization and deregulation mantra over the past decades, it is remarkable that all of the UK’s national museums have free admission (since 2001, actually), which is a great gesture to the country’s residents and tourists. This is something the Dutch government could definitely learn from.

Filed under privatization london public space capitalism neoliberalism civic economy community urbanism

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An Artist’s Impression: Larissa Fassler On Berlin’s Kottbusser Tor

"Kotti", 2008, by Larissa Fassler

While doing preliminary research on Berlin’s Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum, we came accross the amazing artworks of Larissa Fassler, a Canadian artist living in Berlin. Her works are inspired by everyday life in cities, and focus on perceptions, patterns and human behaviour within the built environment. She uses traditional architectural instruments such as drawings, models and maps, but adds anthropologic layers and personal impressions to them. The results are fascinating cityscapes that combine the hardware and software of a city: a mapped aggregation of the actions and perceptions of the users within the architecture they inhabit. She also worked on Kottbusser Tor, and the Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum, which is the topic of our 5-day workshop in Berlin.
"Kotti", 2008, by Larissa Fassler

"Kotti" is one of her works, consisting of a scaled model and drawings. The scaled model is a representation of the publicly accessible spaces of the NKZ and its surrounding area. The cartography drawings include a wide variety of information, from the number of people crossing and the places were people urinate to the current weather and the locations of the food stalls. It seems to be a combination of a mind mapping, community mapping, and ethnographic research.
"Kotti Revisited", 2010, by Larissa Fassler

We wanted to know more about Larissa’s inspirations, impressions and ideas regarding Kottbusser Tor and the Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum, and she has been so kind to answer some questions.

MM: You have made artworks of other places before working on Kottbusser Tor. What triggered you about Kotti that made you want to get into it and make artpieces on it?
LF: Before beginning work on my sculpture and subsequent drawings of Kotti, I had done two other pieces focusing on urban architecture. The first Hallesches Tor and the second Alexanderplatz are both works that are based on underground sites. At that time I was interested in looking at the subterranean spaces of cities that contain public life. In 2004 I moved to Keuzberg not far from Kottbusser Tor and ‘Kotti’ became a place that I used and passed through daily over a period of years. This over-scaled, monolithic concrete structure, an amphitheatre-like space, held such a clash of people― punks, dogs, addicts, tourists, street-drinkers, commuters, shoppers, Turkish business owners, charity-workers, beggars, buskers, families and artists. It was a place of noise and chaos, of forced-tolerance, of misunderstanding and clashes all pressed together in an array of derelict passageways, plazas, stairwells, tunnels, platforms and aboveground walkways. Rather than constructing a model based on the positive masses of the buildings, I wanted to built and define the public space – the negative volumes – in the tunnels and between façades, following the surfaces of sidewalks and plazas, and leaving the rest as empty voids. By creating an inversion of the classic planning model I wanted to make visible the in-between, uncertain and transient spaces that delineate public life.

MM: What do you like about Kotti, and what do you like less?
LF: I like the complexity of the place - socially and historically; its liveliness and chaos; the mix of shops, cafes and housing; its atmosphere - it is a place for anyone, for everyone.
What I like less is the traffic and the traffic circle. Moreover, some of the back passageways, especially on the north-east side, behind the shops and below the first balconies. It can feel quite dangerous there and one can find oneself suddenly alone and not visible to people on the street or to the inhabitants above. Also, I don’t like the fact that the rents are going up and low-income residents are being forces out.

MM: Did your impression of Kotti change after working on it?
LF: I came to respect it more as I learned about its history, mostly from the Keuzberg museum and archive (Bezirksamt Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg) which is based just behind the NKZ.
During the time I lived nearby (2004-2008) the shops in the NKZ kept failing - a flower shop for example couldn’t survive. Commuters wouldn’t stop at Kotti to shop and the residents couldn’t afford the goods of the shops moving in. Today shops - especially cafes and lunch places seem to be doing good business but I believe this has to do with the fact the the area is gentrifying and many people now using Kotti have more money.

MM: Do you think anything should change about Kotti or the NKZ?
LF: I worry that the rents are going up. The area is becoming popular, cool, even hip and the people who have been living there for decades are being moved out.  I think low-income residents must be better subsidized and/or rents better controlled to allow people to stay.
I think as well some sections of the NKZ could be redesigned to be safer, lighter, more accessible and to increase visibility - more “eyes-on-the street”.

MM: In what ways do you think Kotti/NKZ has failed? And in what ways do you consider it a success?
LF: Even within an absurd architecture that blocks light, shuts off streets and sight lines, is too high, too narrow and creates dark passageways and blind corner, there is a lot of life and energy and many different communities. I don’t think Kotti has failed. It is definitely not pretty but I believe it succeeds it being a thriving, changing and energetic place.  

I initially wrote this post for Failed Architecture.

Filed under Berlin architecture art anthropology community maps urbanism

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Farming The City: Amsterdam’s online urban agriculture platform

For the past year, CITIES Amsterdam has been working on the extensive research project Farming The City. On March 25th, the online urban agriculture platform will be launched. is a free online resource featuring and mapping a diverse range of city farming projects across Amsterdam. It is the first online tool to empower and support the creation of a local food system in Amsterdam. 

At the launch event, several tools and initiatives to help everyone get involved with and support city farming will be revealed, including:

  • The results of a detailed investigation into urban agriculture in Amsterdam, focusing on twenty innovative projects. The results, available as reports and videos, outline project practice, aims, opportunities and challenges, along with suggestions for future action
  • Our analysis of the potential for developing a local food system in Amsterdam, plus advice on how to get started 
  • Our report on Amsterdam’s site specific urban infrastructure and city farming potential (which food shall I grow in which type of urban environment, and how can I make best use of the existing infrastructure in the city?
  • Information about how to make a city farming project work: local policies, available spaces, how planning and regulation works, opportunities for engagement in urban farming across Amsterdam, and practical advice on how to get started – what, where and how to get local help and support.
  • Our video on sustainable local food transportation and consumption, supported by Rabobank.

From March 25th until May 7th, a 3D interpretation of the platform’s contents will be shown at ARCAM, Amsterdam’s Centre for Architecture (free entrance).



Filed under urban agriculture community Amsterdam city farming farming