Posts tagged public space

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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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Critical Urban Interventions, Right?

Questioning the right to the city in Amsterdam.


Public art can be interesting, whether in a visual way or a food for though way. Mostly, unsanctioned art beats commissioned art, as long as it goes beyond spraying tags.
Russian artist MAKE has recently installed a series of street signs in Amsterdam. They are simple, uncommissioned street signs, showing satirical, critical and awareness-raising texts.


The signs feature questions - or rather statements-turned-questions - about society, culture, capitalism, environmental issues and urban life. The interesting part of it is that all statements end by saying “, right?”, which is kind of a two-fold “right”:
First, it is a way of making a statement and simultaneously questioning that statement, immediately doubting the positive assertion just made. It shows how certain values are not always so self-evident, or cannot just be taken for granted.
Secondly, “right” says something about the “right to the city”-debate, which discusses the ongoing power struggles in the city. The debate is about who belongs in our built environment and the physical and mental space in between buildings. Who owns the city? Can anyone make free use of public space? Can anyone express oneself there? Can anyone make use of everything the city has to offer? What about the less wealthy, the less healthy, the less adjusted and the less average-looking?

The installations by MAKE are very interesting in this respect, questioning the human aspect of the urban within the context of greater processes. They have been placed in locations that the questions apply to, making a direct link with the place people find themselves in, raising awareness of the fact that they are part of a greater whole; of a city that can be more than just a ‘growth machine’. 
Some of the signs have already been removed, which directly answers some of the questions asked in the project.


Last year, MAKE put up similar signs in St. Petersburg. The project provoked discussion and received a lot of media attention, according to a text at, to which MAKE is affiliated.

All images are courtesy of MAKE. Thanks to Shriya Malhotra for pointing out this project.

Filed under intervention public space art right to the city urbanism

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ECO-BRUTALISM and how contemporary architecture (criticism) leads to the deadening of space

The new Cooper Union Building in New York (©Ahmed ElHusseiny). According to PPS, “architecture critics praise it with absurd language that is disconnected from the reality of how the building makes people feel. The arrogant 1 percent fail to understand how the 99 percent react.” 

The ideas and publications from PPS are always impressive, focusing on how to actually create places for people, rather than for capital or anything else. Their very focus is on the human aspect of space and how places and buildings can create and strengthen social networks and communities. Their last piece is about contemporary architecture and how it more often than not numbs space. The article calls for extraordinary places, rather than iconic architecture.

According to Fred Kent, who has written a wonderful article on the PPS website, new buildings that have received the mose acclaim, are only so because their designers have built in some “green” or “sustainable” elements. In fact, however, these pieces of architecture remind us of Brutalist architecture, with a uniform disregard for human scale and for connection to the surrounding streetscapes.
While the architecture is “purporting to address the pressing ecological needs of our species and our planet”, it is “often too dismissive of the needs of people.” 

Kent criticizes architecture criticism in general as well, saying that this elite division of journalism is being too easy on contemporary architects. Hailed buildings are often highly isolated and turned inward, creating dead spots in the urban fabric, rather than being inviting, facilitating social networks and creating community places.

The New York Times building is seen as a succeful piece of extraordinary architecture, being very public and relating well to the surrounding streets. ©JLeon

The article ends with a summing up of buildings that DO work and are examplary cases of ‘Architecture of Place’, but also showing a hall of shame with architecture that is only harming public space.

The piece on the PPS website is an absolute recommendation. It is also great reading material to take into account for the Failed Architecture series, making ‘publicness’ or ‘connectedness to public space’ an indicator for succesful architecture.

Filed under Brutalism architecture failed architecture place making place public space

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Public Home - Private City


Dutch graphic artist Urlie Verduyn Lunel has done a wonderful project about the vanishing distinctions between private and public life. People are increasingly giving away their privacy by displaying their more intimate sides on the internet or having loud personal phone conversations on public transport. They are starting to feel at home in other places than just their homes.


To illustrate this, Urlie has reversed this in an interesting and funny way. In her works, she literally takes the private lives of people to the street, using the urban context as household equipment.










Related posts:
Urban Interventions
Hüttenpalast - Sleep in outdoor caravans in an indoor garden 
Trespass: A history of uncommissioned urban art

Filed under Urlie art privacy public space urban intervention urbanism

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Un concert à emporter / A take away show
A video of Andrew Bird, performing while walking through Paris’ Montmartre area, giving the people on the street an unexpected experience.

That’s basically what Vincent Moon does: filming artists who are performing in public space. It’s great to see how these musical public interventions by great artists divert people from their everyday routines. Many of the videos also give beautiful insights into the small scale of the world’s metropolises.

Moon has documented over 200 artists in cities all over the world, from New York to Reykjavik to Phnom Penh. Wyclef Jean, Architecture in Helsinki, Mumford & Sons, Beirut, Feli Kuti and Sharon van Etten are only a few of them.

polis wrote an interesting post about Vincent Moon last week, strikingly summarizing:

The performances act as momentary interventions that elaborate relationships between musician, citizen and city, naturally distilling the ethos of an urban environment”

Filed under Vincent Moon public space intervention music polis