“To City or not city”

72 hour Urban Action - an innovative planning scheme in Tel Aviv

I read an article on Urban Acupuncture that cropped up on my RSS feed not too long ago and given it’s proposal of more community focused and localised approach to urban planning, it certainly struck a chord. Eerily reminiscent of what Jane Jacobs proposed back in 1968, the Finnish architect, Marco Casagrande who is credited with the term ‘urban acupuncture’ could be accused of simply recycling a common urban ideal for 21st century urbanites. Indeed, the idea of ‘micro-planning’ conducted informally by local residents is nothing really new – instances of re-use of abandoned buildings or derelict spaces as micro-parks or mixed-use urban lounges can be recounted throughout many cities across the world. Whether it’s artistic interventions or playful appendages to functional urban artifacts, people have been ‘micro-planning’ for many years. There are countless examples, but for a fantastic resource of some of the best, one has to look no further than Pop-up City blog, or the Urban Subversion twitter feed. The 72 hour urban action scheme started Tel Aviv, shown in the picture above, is also a great example of the way in which planning can be interventionist, local and above all, useful.

Part of the appeal perhaps of the increasing interest in this kind of urbanism in lieu of larger, officious, bureaucratic planning projects is of course the lack of available funds, although the distain for mega-planning projects has always been present, and never been influenced by the amount of resources that may or may not be available. Micro-planning, the increased focus on hyperlocality is, I like to think, down to the increased utility and functionality of the philanthropic nature of urbanism at it’s most commune. In other words, people have always had the desire to mould their individual spaces of urbanity, but now it seems, they are finding new ways of engaging with those whom it will benefit. I’m talking here about social networking and the increased amount of technological information-sharing of course (the clean up after the riots organised via Twitter is a great example – the mass media might do well to ask whether THAT would have happened before social media was invented before they chastise it for inciting violence). But also, there is a new sense of philanthropy that is pervading certain streams of urbanity – some people have called it social enterprise, but the commerciality attached to this does the overall ethos a disservice.

Urbanites often use the same parts of the city on a daily basis. The journey from home to work, the local pub, park and shopping precinct, plus maybe a friends house – there is a select few places that any one person will visit on a regular basis. Hence there is a certain amount of affiliation felt to these localities, the emotional involvement can in some cases be highly complicated, but there is a desire to make it better, more desirable. So why not give them the power to change those places? Urban Acupuncture, or whatever the latest incarnation of it is called this week allows those people who know a place best to be responsible for it. Architects and planners may have the technical skills to create spaces that make a place ‘better’, but their desire for ‘livable’ urban spaces is fundamentally driven by a professional competence, rarely by an emotional tie to that place. Also, the systemic pre-determined bureaucratic boundaries tend to corner off administrative duties to people/institutions who have little to no knowledge or the place they are changing. Or, perhaps they do, but the processes for doing anything about it involves a wider group or institution that dilutes any local passion or desire initially stirred up. Giving people the power to turn the derelict house next door into an indoor play area, or turning the fly-tipping site across the street into an allotment from them without the need for convoluted planning laws, would go a long way to restoring some of the civic pride that is apparently so lacking in our inner city communities.

Of course, there is no magic pixy dust, and to fix the deeply entrenched social and cultural malaise that triggered/caused/catalysed the August ‘riots’ will not be a single, uni-directional, linear process. Sorry Mr. Cameron, but there will be no short-term fix so stop electioneering please. To bring the argument to it’s philosophical kernel, the complexity of city life cannot and should not be attributed to the idea of a singular. It is not even a noun. The city is a verb (hence the title of the post – just in case it’s esotericism was annoying you) – what we call ‘the city’ is really collective experiential networked relationships, and not a singular ‘thing’ that can be fixed. The sooner that is fed through to political and planning rhetoric the better.


  1. Daniela · October 21, 2011

    Great article, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I see the city as having an interesting mixture of “micro-local-generated-initiatives” and of what we could call “expertise-generated-projects” (actually the city is a lot more than that, but just keeping the scope here). Large-scale projects can (and should) benefit enormously from observing and learning local local community desires, ideas and needs. Urban self-organized projects can benefit enormously from the interaction with planners and designers. The combination of professional competence with what you called “emotional tie to the place” and I would add “local user intelligence” seems to be the answer to achieve more quality in both kinds of projects.

  2. Oli · October 21, 2011

    Hi Daniela, thanks for the comment.

    You’re right – it is all about the networking that takes place and the benefit to place that such interaction can achieve. I’m reminded of a great piece by Manuel DeLanda on the mixture of large and micro ‘networks’, albeit in a different context, but it works in this instance. I encourage all to read! (http://www.t0.or.at/delanda/meshwork.htm)

  3. Pingback: The High Line Jumped the Shark «

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