Rebel Architecture

What is your goal when you design a building? To create something beautiful? To meet the client’s specifications?

Rebel Architecture is a six-part TV documentary about the bravery and conviction of people who skirt the law to design for the public good. The Al Jazeera series profiles “architects who are using design as a form of activism and resistance to tackle the world’s urban, environmental and social crises.”

Rebel Architecture came to our attention through Link Festival, an Australian “anti-conference” about design, technology and social change. Filmmaker Ana Naomi de Sousa is speaking at the conference in Melbourne in February (get tickets here) alongside Cities by Citizens’ Lucinda Hartley and David Week.

The entire series is available to view online – the episode below, about guerrilla architect Santiago Cirugeda, is one of our favourites.

Guerrilla architect

Can Spanish self-build legend Santiago Cirugeda turn an abandoned factory into a vibrant cultural centre?

The series’ website explains, “Santiago Cirugeda is a subversive architect from Seville who has dedicated his career to reclaiming urban spaces for the public…

With his expert knowledge of urban planning legislation, Santiago is not afraid to ‘occupy’, or squat, abandoned space and to use his knowledge of the law to enable community building…

‘What we’re doing here is not a quick-fix for the crisis – this is coming up with a new way of doing things.'”

International Congress on Adaptive Urbanism

Cities by Citizens’ co-founders were interviewed by the International Congress on Adaptive Urbanism (ICAU), which is on this week in Christchurch, New Zealand.

According to the organisers, “Adaptive Urbanism has radical revolutionary potential, but can equally bolster existing power structures. Some use it as a tool for subversion, others to complement more traditional modes of city-building. Adaptive Urbanism seems to be the next frontier where the big questions of human rights, (in)equality and democracy are playing out.”

Adaptive Urbanism Congress

Enjoy some excerpts from their conversations, with the full interviews (and indeed, interviews with all participants at ICAU) linked below.

ICAU: Adaptive urbanism, iterative placemaking, participatory design or…? What would you call it and why?

David Week: Citizen-made cities. Cities in which the citizens act directly to shape their cities, with the support of their government, rather than replaced by government. No bureaucracy. Light management. Open participation. I define it this way because making is the key act, and citizens are the key actor.

ICAU: Tell us about one project, you have been involved in, that fits the way you describe your chosen term above.

Lucinda Hartley: In Cambodia I worked on a slum upgrading project that began as a school, and ended as a footpath. The collaborative process changed the whole brief. The major issue was flooding, this kept the kids from school. Together we built a raised footpath, each household contributing a small section.

ICAU: Where does adaptive urbanism happen?

David: In any “slum” in the developing world, in community-led projects, in acts of guerrilla urbanism, in business improvement districts, on every continent in different ways, during most of history, in the future, in free libraries, wherever city-user shapes city commons.

ICAU: Adaptive urbanism – can it bring real change, or is it just symbolic of utopia? What is the future of city-making?

Lucinda: Currently adaptive urbanism is predominantly a design and activism process, therefore it interrupts only the tail end of the urban formation process: the shaping of space. In order to have real change, changes in design process need to occur in conjunction with new forms of urban governance.

Read David Week and Lucinda Hartley‘s full interviews.

To learn hands-on, come along to Cities by Citizens’ interactive city-making game workshop on Monday 27 October, part of Melbourne Knowledge Week.

Melbourne Knowledge Week

On 27 October 2014, Cities By Citizens explored collaborative city making with an interactive, life size urban planning game workshop, presented by Cities by Citizens as part of Melbourne Knowledge Week 2014.

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Using an interactive game methodology, the workshop modeled scenarios for collaborative city making and explore the challenges and opportunities of city governance and community activities.

During this session, participants acquired some  a bundle of new ideas about how to step up and work with others to take charge of their street, their neighbourhood, their city.

Image: The Guardian

The balance of powers

A recent discussion on LinkedIn group URBANIST asked “Should Mayors Rule the World?” Some suggested that mayors are “just human”, and therefore imperfect, and that a better solution would be “direct democracy.”

But this solution misunderstands where we have arrived, and why we have arrived at where we are today.

There’s a tension in governance between technocracy—”the government or control of society or industry by an elite of technical experts”—and democracy—”a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state”. Most of us interested in the city are professionals, and have a bias towards expert knowledge, and therefore technocracy. Most planners bemoan the influence of politics and politicians in city-building. But politics is just the face of democracy.

This tension goes back to the Athenian Greeks, who ruled their city through a direct democracy, though only the landed elite were allowed to participate. Democracy was criticised by Plato in The Republic. He thought that cities should be ruled by knowledge, and that knowledge requires expertise and skill. He used the example of a ship: do we want it guided by a knowledgeable captain, or by the whims of the crew?

And this introduces a third tension: the need for stable guidance, otherwise known as leadership. Where we have arrived now, in representative democracies, is a particular accommodation between the demands of:

  • the constancy of leadership
  • the knowledge of experts
  • the demands of the people

What particular accommodation would be better?

I don’t accept the quick response “direct democracy.” There are many problems with direct democracy, and though the whole ball and dice of governance is worth examining, I think that anyone who is quick to advocate for direct democracy is not dealing with the problems of direct democracy, which include:

  • the tyranny of the majority: “the scenario in which decisions made by a majority place its interests above those of an individual or minority group, constituting active oppression comparable to that of tyrants and despots.”
  • demagoguery: “political leadership in a democracy which appeals to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the lower classes in order to gain power and promote political motives.”
  • the madness of crowds: basically, the capacity of rumours and false beliefs to propagate through a populate, leading to speculative bubbles, moral panics, witch-hunts, and other nasty stuff.

The founders of the American Republic thought that all state power was dangerous, and therefore introduced the concept of checks and balances to their design.* This suggests that the various powers should be set against each other, so that no power can gain complete control.

If we are dissatisfied with this particular accommodation between these disparate powers—leadership, knowledge, popular will—what will the new accommodation look like?

That’s one question we want to explore here.

* The Wikipedia article attributes early American political thinking to Greek and French sources. But another account, which has considerable scholarly support, attributes these ideas to the Iroquois Confederacy.

Drivers are people too

This article states a common sentiment, which I’ve been hearing since 1973.

The streets are commons that belong to everyone. So imagine diverting traffic from a major street in your neighborhood, then welcoming families on bikes, families on foot, babies in strollers, people in wheelchairs, toddlers on training wheels, grade schoolers on skateboards, teenagers on single-speeds, hipsters on fixed gears, grandparents on recumbents, couples arm-in-arm and even yoga classes in the middle of the road.

Over time, I’ve come to see something wrong with this statement: and that is that cars are not mechanical automatons. They contain people too. As do buses, and taxis, and trams.

So the solution given here to making “streets for people” is to exclude a certain group of people.

Of course, I like (some) pedestrianised streets. But there are also many streets in which the people in cars mix freely with people. Some of those examples are written up in the very same “On The Commons” magazines, such as in this article. The common name for this taming (rather than removal) of people-in-cars is “traffic calming.”

So the problem isn’t with people in cars per se: it’s when people in cars dominate the street, thus excluding other people. So why do we see streets-as-commons as being streets-that-exclude-people-driving-cars?

I think that this is the Romantic imagination at work. People see the problem as humans vs machines, and victory is won when the machines are vanquished. (Ignoring the fact that in doing so, there are people in those cars.)

But the real problem—the problem that is overlooked by the Romantic imagination—is domination. And in post-Cold War rich countries, people still don’t want to use a language of domination. Romanticism is more acceptable as a trope.

But the problem with the Romantic trope is that domination is not the exclusive domain of people-in-cars, who can in fact be “tamed”. We also the lycra-clad aggressive cyclists. (In public pools, we have so-called “lane Nazis” who are their watery counterparts.) We have groups of joggers. We have the wolf-whistling men. The people who abuse the skateboarders.

In considering the street, we should let go the idea of “streets for people”, which does not useful differentiate between domination and fair use. Rather, we need to make a more nuanced analysis of what contributes to the commons, and what is fair use without diminishing the commons. And then how can we shape streets to allow that.

Streets: Transit Corridors or Underutilised Public Spaces?

Up to 70% of all public open spaces in Australian Cities are roads. Many of these are highly underutilised, supporting accessways to a handful of private properties, while others are congested bottlenecks channeling cars from A to B. While the primary function of roads is transit, many of these fail to do this successfully – either having too many cars, or too few to support the investment and maintenance required.

Streets as public spaces
There is a wide body of research and case studies that demonstrate how streets can be designed or transformed into living, active spaces with wide footpaths, bike lanes, public transport links, and green spaces that function as ecological links. Such design principles for streets have been coined complete streets or living streets. Both terms support the notion that streets are about more than just transit, they are about people – preferably people walking rather than people driving. Streets form an active part of a city’s open space network.

Resistance to change
Curiously, despite the benefits of living streets, and other similar models, such proposals are challenging to get off the ground in reality. Changes to streets is often met with opposition from local stakeholders. Traders associations fear loss of exposure and income (despite clear research demonstrating wider footpaths and reduced traffic congestion increase pedestrian footfall). Residents often resort to NIMBYism.

Their concerns are often legitimate in the short term – constructing a living street model will cause disruption. And the process of engaging with local traders and residents doesn’t create a shared vision of what the local area could be, building on local knowledge and experience. Recent examples of this include changes to the tram route upgrades in Melbourne. Disruptive construction processes along the Route 86 upgrade in Northcote had a very real and negative impact on local traders. Proposed changes to the Route 96 upgrade in St Kilda are now facing similar opposition.

But the conversation shouldn’t stop there. The long-term benefits of living streets to traders and residents has been well documented. So how do we make it happen?

Tools for change
Tactical urbanism is one approach that aims to shift mindsets about changes to the streets through low-cost trials. They help to visualise changes to a street, test how the changes will work and evaluate the impacts. It’s catch cry of “short-term action, long-term change” allows traders and residents to test out changes to streets before larger political and financial commitments are made. This helps to build a collaborative conversation with residents and traders about change, rather than traditional plan-and-deliver models which offer little opportunity for collaboration. Tactical interventions can also offset changes with early activation projects that provide positive benefits to local areas.

Recent tactical “tools” have been employed by city governments to reimagine streets, in a way that builds a positive, collaborative conversation. Some examples of this include:

1. Better block : a demonstration tool that reconceptualises a street or neighbourhood block. The project acts as a living workshop, so that communities can actively engage in the “complete streets” process and develop pop-up businesses to show the potential for change.

2. New York City Council’s Play Streets program creates a way to reduce cars in designated streets. This simple act of reducing traffic makes streets safer to play.

3. City of Adelaide’s Splash Adelaide program invites communities, traders and residents to co-create events and activities in public streets. In the recent upgrade of Rundle Mall, pop up spaces were set up around the construction works to offset the disruption.

4. “Try it for a week” initiatives such as the Dodds Street Design Lab, help to build a positive two-way conversation with the public about possible changes to a street. Here a live prototype offers a taste of the future, rather than asking stakeholders to comment on written plans and strategies that are difficult to understand.

As cities grow and densify, making the most of underutilised spaces in the city and reclaiming congested streets for people and sustainable transport is critical. Currently the process is long, and ofter heated. The benefits are clear, making it happen is the challenge. Tactical tools can help speed things up, and get things going.

The Great Urban Game

Game theory

Remarkably little work has been done on the application of game theory to urban development. Mainly, the application has been done around parking. In that case, players compete against each other for parking spaces. What are the best strategies?

But there’s a broader, more interesting understanding of a city as a game, which does not necessarily mean that people are chasing the same outcome, or competing each other. Look at a city this way:

At any time, the city is in a certain state: the shape of the city at time 0. In the city, there are various players, all poised to move according to their own objectives, each with different kinds of moves available to them.

Lucinda and I have been talking about this, with the objective of simulating such as game at Melbourne Knowledge Week.

Players

So far, we’ve considered four types of player:

  • Resident
  • Developer
  • Business
  • Council

Of course, this list can be extended indefinitely. Every day, each of us takes different roles in the city. We might, on the same day, be not just a resident or a businessperson, but also a driver, a pedestrian, a cyclist, a public transport user, a shopper, a diner, a flaneur… But we’ll keep things simple for the start.

Objectives

Each of these residents might have different objectives. Again, simplistically:

  • Resident: Create a family-friendly environment around his/her house, with low traffic, walkable access, parks, playgrounds…
  • Developer: Make money through profitable, low-risk development…
  • Business: Find affordable premises from which they can run their business, with each business having its own criteria for operability…
  • Council: Minimise conflicts between players, and keep enough of them happy that Council is re-elected…

Moves

In addition, each has a certain number of plays available at any time.

  • Resident: Stay, Move, Advocate (where advocate means to take political action to Council to object or propose)
  • Developer: Buy, Hold, Develop, Sell
  • Business: Stay, Move, Advocate
  • Council: Block, Permit, Change the rules

To these four roles we might also add now a fifth: Judge. When there is a conflict between players which cannot be resolve amicably, they can take it to the Judge for arbitration.

Points

Different moves, in different situations, will accrue points for each player. The points represent how well that move has moved them towards that objective.

More Open Gameplay

In the game as its currently established, we can see that players have very limited options. They can buy and sell pieces of land, and operate within the rules—or they can advocate to Council.

Finally, each of the players makes his or her move with imperfect information about the intentions of the other players. You don’t know that a developer has bought next door, until a development application is published. As a business, you don’t know how many similar businesses are being planned for your area.

In Cities By Citizens, we’re exploring the option that citizens might be able to more directly shape their neighbourhood, other than through the slow processes of democracy, or within the bounds of their private space. This means that all players might have more moves available to them, without going always through Council.

In other words, city development might become more like most human games, in which the players play with each other, and the Council is not active—just referee. A referee mainly watches, and intervenes rarely.

This, then, is one challenge:

Can we set up a city game in such a way that the players play directly with each other to create good city form.

Good city form here is one in which all players rack up many points, because points mean that all stakeholders are being satisfied in their quest to meet their own urban objectives.

A Cooperative Game

In conventional city planning, the tacit assumption is that players are in competition with each other. This involves establishment of a clear zone in which they can do what they like (the private); a clear zone in which they can do nothing (the public); and a clear set of rules as to the way in which the private can impact either the public, or other private zones. It works to separate parties individualistically, and have all interaction done through Council or its rules.

This works, and sits within an individualistic view of life and economy. However, it tends to shut out the value that can be created when different players start working together—i.e. cooperating. And we know from life and theory that cooperation can produce more powerful results than individuals working alone.

To refine our quest, then… We want to find a city game in which:

  • the role of the referee is minimised, so that players can work directly with each other to achieve urban outcomes, and
  • the rules of the game are such that it is a cooperative game, in which all players win, rather than a competitive one.

Ideas welcome.

Planning as enablement

Why planning processes need to reduce risk aversion in order to foster innovation and community participation.

Traditional processes of urban planning are characterised by a plan-and-control approach that offers little opportunity for immediate citizen engagement—and certainly not control. They are technocratic, rather than democratic. This makes it difficult for citizens to initiate projects, and to have shared responsibility for local neighbourhoods.

Recently, I had an interaction with a local Council in Melbourne, which highlighted this inflexibility. Together with some local business owners, I proposed creating a small public open space in two underutilised and non-revenue generating car parking spaces. Known as ‘Parklets‘, these small, modular spaces have produced measureable improvement in levels of sustainable transport, social inclusion and local economic benefit in the United States, and there are some existing examples in Melbourne.
Parket image citiesbycitizensIn this instance, the proposal was only for a trial Parklet. The project would be installed for one month in order to examine the impact, risks, opportunities associated with the space. This would then be used to build community support and evidence to inform a permanent facility.

The project was consistent with Council’s objectives for social inclusion and increasing the area of green space in the municipality. However, the lack of standard process around pop up projects or urban prototyping made a simple request suddenly very complicated. Without a procedure in place, the project passed through every level of the local government up to the CEO, who eventually recommended the project be submitted to the elected Council for review. Finally, in order for the trial to be approved, a road occupation permit and formal traffic management plan were requested. Both these formal application processes required substantial fees or expert reports.

Ultimately, the required documentation and risk management was disproportionately expensive for the low-cost trial, and it did not go ahead. Ironically, this same car park had been occupied by a skip for the past 3 months. It would have been far easier to install a rubbish bin in a public car park than it was to create a self-funded project would offer local economic, environmental and community benefit.
parklet cover

While this is just one example, it highlights a number of challenges surrounding current city-making processes. Here I want to discuss three:

Firstly, current procedures for establishing public spaces are design for experts: urban planners, engineers, architects, landscape architects. There are no parallel processes for local communities wanting to establish (and even fund) projects in their local neighbourhoods. While the current model might involve opportunities community communication and consultation, local communities have little opportunity for meaningful participation, and certainly not project initiation. A preferred approach is one that allows for both top-down and bottom-up decision making, and greater shared responsibility with communities.

Secondly, regulation caters for permanent infrastructure, and there is little scope for short-term trials and activities. While long-term planning is necessary on one level, regulating exclusively for the long-term means that resultant plans are not flexible enough to accommodate rapidly changing local needs, shifts in social structure, changes in the economy, or new insights into how cities might operate. An approach which combines long-term infrastructure planning with short-term prototyping to test and evaluate plans as social and economic needs change, would be a more effective means of city-making. This approach enables active, vibrant places in the short term, and also ensures that long-term plans can be adaptive to changing needs.

Thirdly: The risk aversiveness of local government limits citizen empowerment and innovation. Permits, fees, high insurances and lengthly application forms can make it prohibitively difficult for communities to initiate civic improvement projects. Some procedure and risk management is required, certainly, but systems should focus on fostering innovation and opportunity. Currently governments tend to act as gate keepers, rather than partners for local communities. Community partnerships can offer many mutual benefits including shared funding, maintenance and responsibility. After-all the globally acclaimed New York High-Line was a community-initiated project, and was possible because of an effective government-community partnership.

Current government planning procedures work well for expert-led, long-term planning processes. However they impose disproportionate control on projects that are initiated by communities, or demonstrate an unplanned land use. This stops citizens from being proactive in shaping, innovating and even funding projects in their local neighbourhood.

If city planning is to keep up with the needs of our rapidly growing and changing cities, there is a need to adopt more flexible approaches to urban development. Urban prototyping offers one solutions to this challenge. The benefits of this approach are:

  • Low-risk trials that allow testing of new concepts before substantial financial or political commitments are made;
  • Shared responsibility, and sometimes also shared costs, with local communities
  • Allow places can evolve incrementally, in response to changing local needs. rather than being bedded down in inflexible long-term plans.
  • Foster innovation and creative use of spaces.

Urban prototyping may offer an alternative pathway to the cycle of fees, permits and hearings. However this will only be possible if current planning processes can be flexibile to allow short term, temporary and community-led projects. As we have seen in the parklet example here, even facilitating the most basic of urban prototypes still requires some regulatory changes. However the core question is not how to regulate for urban prototyping and flexible use of space, as this could instigate a new set of inflexible rules. The question is how governments can work together with local communities to foster innovation and shared responsibility.

Democratic city-making?

Winston Churchill famously said:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

During the Cold War, questioning democracy seemed unthinkable. In 1989, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, a leading economist, Francis Fukuyama, even wrote an essay called The End of History. In it he proposed that the modern Western state—democratic, market-based, liberal—was the end-point of human social development.

Perhaps the feudal kings thought so too in their time.

Today, the flaws in modern representative democracy as a form of government seem to be increasingly evident. And so a discussion is emerging about what might come next? Something that is perhaps more democratic than current forms.

One of the criticisms of representative democracy is that it takes political power away from the citizens, and gives it to a few elected “representatives.” But the few can never really claim to represent the many. What often happens instead is they use their position to advance their own ideas and ideologies, or they become captives of an entrenched bureaucracy, or of big money elites, or just of the machinations of the political process.

We see this in cities too. In The Just City, Harvard academic Susan Fainstein analyses a number of city-funded megaprojects, and shows how they hurt the poor and small business, and favour large corporations.

But in cities today we see a variety of new processes which are bypassing these problems of representative democracy.

In slums, local communities that are ignored or even militated against by the city government organise themselves to provide basic services and organisation.

Tactical Urbanism refers to “small-scale, short-term interventions meant to inspire long-term change in cities.” It is “focused in a participatory approach of local people which aims to take back the street for its inhabitants.” Tactical Urbanism and other kindred movements allow for citizens to immediately shape their built environment, or at least experiment with it, so that decisions can be made on the ground, on the basis of lived experience and real behaviour, rather than by abstract discussions in distant offices.

In the developing world, where it’s understand how much elite capture and over-centralisation have harmed national development, there are strong processes afoot to decentralise power to the local. In Laos, the communist government instituted a new policy that the national government set policy, the province sets strategy, the district does planning, and the villages implement. In the education sector, this has led to radical changes in school construction. Indonesia, too, has seen rapid decentralisation in the post-Suharto era.

New York City has facilitated the establishment of Business Improvement Districts in which local landowners can establish a self-governing planning precinct, with extra taxes, which they themselves would decide on spending. Though criticised for leaning to far towards owners and away from tenants, the result is more local than the large-scaly NYC planning system.

What do these new movements and trends say about a democratic form of city making, in which citizens can see the impact of their ideas and their choices?