Many years ago I coined the phrase Urban Subversion that began as an interest in parkour as a creative act of urban re-appropriation. It soon became apparent as I looked for additional ways in which people were interacting with the city in novel and innovate ways, there was a small, but increasing swath of people who were actively reconfiguring their urban environment for sometimes playful, sometimes anti-hegemonic, and sometimes subversive, but always in creative and innovate ways. Nearly 5 years hence, Maria Daskalaki and I have (finally) managed to get the ideas and musings we had about Urban Subversions all those years ago published. In the intervening period, I have witnessed (first hand through my travels and via the relentless march toward information-domination of Twitter and social media) the boom of these kinds of creative engagements become popularised and in some cases, accepted as legitimate and formal urban development policies. The latest piece to confirm this was the ever-excellent PopUpCity claiming that local cultural and creative urban practices have ‘gone global’ (something which I championed last year).
The surge in community-led creativity and (sub?)cultural programs has been to the benefit of many cities across the world, although looking down the lists on offer and the examples cited, it is mostly Global North, so-called ‘progressive’ cities. What does this say about the mobility of these kinds of initiatives? Their growth and serial replication is no doubt a testament to their success, but have they become a Latourian immutable mobile? Have they become just the latest iteration in a long line of creativity-orientated schemes that fly around the world, unchanged, from city to city?
The problems associated with the policy development of the ‘creative city’ and the notorious ‘creative class’ have been well documented (see here and here for just two in an ocean of critical articles, books and papers). The critiques focus on the vacuity of many of the enacted policies, and the rush for cities all over the world to adopt these copied-and-pasted creative initiatives that mask a more real estate based, neoliberal land-grab exercise. And the significant financial reward to the individuals involved (academics and government officials alike) has only stoked the fires of denouncement. Another case of the unreflexivity in urban development plans is the unfathomable replication of the High Line as urban regenerative tool, something I bleated about on this blog in an earlier post. Also, more recently I came across this article, professing the critical importance of ‘Cultural Creatives’ to the future of our planet – a seemingly creative class 2.0. One quick look at their website shows however that the two individuals involved are available for consultancy and speaking engagements. Hmmm.
It seems that urban officials, or more accurately the urban governance ‘machine’, consisting of an entangled web of public, private and now third sector interests, are more keen to vacuum up the latest ‘cool’ idea for their city rather than seeing if it will be of any benefit to their citizens (this idea is of course nothing new, David Harvey has been banging this drum for a while). Perhaps the problem lies in the inflexibility of current urban development paradigms to include local-level or (dare I say it) informal levels of input. Urban planning is notoriously bureaucratic, that is unless you have the financial clout to circumnavigate formalities (which by the way, is in itself an informal act), run the city as a corporation or the means to bend the will of stakeholders to your way of thinking. Building a new media city, business park, shopping mall, block of flats or mass-transit system involves so many different parties except the ones that count. Is there room for experimentation in these plans? Can they engage with the informal entities of cities to create a new urban development paradigm?
As we enter into the 13th year of the ‘urban century’, I will continue curating those instances of urban subversions, people interacting with their city in interesting and innovative ways. But it would be a difficult, but surely welcome challenge to entice the urban growth machine to incorporate these into the development process.