Doing it your-self – thinking about urban creativity in the summer of 2014

Although talk of ‘the self’ creates associations of selfishness or possessive individualism, a collective concept of self might be worth taking a bit more seriously as an agent of change. At the end of this post I’ve listed a few readings on the topic of self-directed or self-organised initiatives to establish alternative ‘normals’. Do, please help me build up a bigger list.

Otherwise this entry is a tiny record of my recent encounters with the remarkable rise of urban grassroots initiatives or direct action to change the world for the better. The phenomenon is widespread, prominent and full of hope. It’s poorly defined and highly diffuse, but most definitely it exists.

‘It’ is urbanism that is handmade, low-budget, grassroots, experimental, disruptive (mainly of neoliberal ways of treating the city) ways of arranging and trying to live in the city. It might include squatting, up-cycling and repairing resources that exist but that are under-valued or out of people’s reach. It involves decentralised and sometimes social-media supported groups of local people.

It’s about hijacking, hacking, repurposing and intervening in urban space for collective benefit, about treating the city as a commons (with the prolific geographer David Harvey offering inspirational ideas, still, on the topic).

I know it’s about doing more than thinking or writing, but I believe there’s still much scope to think harder about bottom-up or small-scale urban change. There’s certainly a need to continue (as Jamie Peck has been doing so brilliantly) figuring out how we can be innovative without running our cities into constant crises.

The Commons is one concept to start from, still productive for those who seek alternatives to the destructiveness of the mainstream.

The Commons was the theme for Helsinki-based art collective Pixelache’s international unconference or festival in early June. The venue was Vartiosaari, an island accessible only by boat not 10km from central Helsinki. I am surely not exaggerating when I claim that each one of the perhaps couple of hundred who came to discuss threats to the commons and creative ways to counter them, where awed by the beauty and fullness of cultural, natural and geological worlds of Vartiosaari.

Just as surely visitors were baffled bVartiosaari pathy the city of Helsinki’s recent decision to transform it into a suburb for the so-called good tax payers that Helsinki apparently so badly needs. One of the keynote speakers, Alain Ambrosi, went around filming people’s views on both the commons and the threat to the commons that is Vartiosaari. I was one of many who were happy to oblige.

Though the venue is perhaps a digression from the topic, it underscored brilliantly the topic of the commons and the threats to it worldwide. Almost everywhere the rich continue to get richer and to get more, while the poorer get even poorer and get less. In Finland the pressure is on for the local state to help rather than hinder this worldwide trend.

At the Pixelache festival experts of all kinds came to think about retaking the urban project, with walks, talks, dialogues and more. The unconference had a strikingly intellectual embedded element: 2-day scenario workshop on the Bio-Commons, hosted by the Finnish Society of Bioart.

This introduced us to almost mind-bending possibilities of citizen science in the realm of the life sciences. The workshop seemed to suggest that it is possible retake the future from the sociopathic and inhumane market imperatives of the corporate pharmaceutical sector. It also pointed out the terrifying possibilities should the life sciences continue to be captured by corporate ideals. Apparently, ‘despite a steady exponential increase of available scientific information in form of peer reviewed publications and digital database sizes, the number of new drugs which were introduced to the market per billion dollar spent fell exponentially’ (quoted in the ‘White Paper’ generated by the event).

Taking place in a wooden hut, on a jetty poking out into the water, under the trees and just the sky, the talking and listening and doing amounted to a concerted effort to think and imagine collectively. Invoking ethics and collaboration did not mean avoiding asking hard questions. There was critique here, and much politics.

One of the presentations at Pixelache talked about a now well-known intervention in Madrid, el Campo de Cebada. A public space left over and left vacant in the historic heart of the city, it may yet end up a shopping mall or some such, but at present it is an example of a new type of commons in the city, celebrated internationally as well as at home.

Campo de Cebada also featured in my encounters with urban change later in the summer, when in a noteworthy heat-wave, the European Association of Social Anthropologists gathered in Tallinn under the rubric of Collaboration, Intimacy and Revolution.

This conference title inspired many of us to translate our interest in practices of urban transformation into intellectual and anthropological debate. Panels discussed these topics under themes of shifts in democratic practices, urban commons, collective place-making and, the panel I was involved in myself, collective design experiments.

I hope to write more about our panel later, so will skip the details here. What I will note is that from a call for contributions that picked up quite simply on the relatively novel idea of making cities fit for the social needs of a somewhat stable population, we ended up with a great panel with many empirical accounts of how people around the world are dis-assembling and re-assembling the worlds around them as they strive for more meaningful lives. From the deserts of New Mexico or community experiments like Findhorn to people’s efforts to build just futures in mega-cities like Istanbul or where mega-events have left scars like the Olympic legacy areas of East London, people are working things out by making physical things not just jointly but in solidarity.

RioWhich brings me to my third encounter with designing a better world, the ENTREMEIOS symposium in Rio de Janeiro in early August. What a privilege to join these anthropologists and designers and their students, and to learn about the way our academic practices – in both design and anthropology – meet the realities of a remarkable city like Rio.

And indeed, what a contrast from the other venues. I fell in love with this city endowed with such unusual views and such a sense of cheer. This despite the ubiquitous police presence and apprehensions about restrictions on democratic freedoms so recently won. And I fell for it despite the crazy social structure, the incomprehensible economic inequality and the fear for personal safety.

It took a while to understand that taxis drive at speed through red lights in order to be safe, not to be reckless.

In Brazil everything informal or ‘self-service’ has a prominent presence in many people’s lives notably in the cities’ favelas. These cities within the city were temporarily brought under the spotlight – for both good and ill – during last summer’s World Cup Football.

On the other hand, using design and other professional skills to make the world more livable is a type of informality that, though obviously highly developed, fits easily into a global repertoire of urban activism today. For example the shape, atmosphere and features (the bicycles!) of the artists’ collective Casa Nuvem reminded me of initiatives in Helsinki and across Europe. There’s a good description on this blog.

Taking place at the Centro Carioca de Design on the edge of Tiradentes Square, the symposium focussed on ‘Ways of life and creative practices in the city’. Creativity in urban policy and creativity at the grassroots are both prominently at play, creating new opportunities for initiatives at the grassroots, but also fueling anxieties. There was much debate about the way alternative design projects get co-opted or cynically exploited for the usual fun-oriented but profit-seeking activities of urban elites, infatuated as some now are, with the edgy but productive vibe of the grassroots.

The symposium involved workshops for students as well as presentations by graduate students from the Laboratory of Design and Anthropology, and round tables on related topics. The impression I received was that while we in Europe are creating more unhelpful divisions, the anthropologically inflected design work taking place in Brazil is dismantling precisely the things that create cultural as well as economic barriers.

The intellectual work, as well as the practical and political interventions, done here is mostly in Portuguese for now, but I sincerely hope that more will become available in English as well. One hopeful example is Zoy Anatstassakis’ thoughtful commentary on why and how anthropology and design are good partners.

Over here in Helsinki, academic engagements with designing better cities appear more attuned to innovation as an economic good. More radical ideas circulate among networks of activists, artists and others. Partly this grassroots creativity can be accounted for by the rise in under-employed creative labour, or simply talented young people who would prefer to design for the real world than for profit. Partly it may be fashion, political and intellectual waves, perhaps even a necessary response to environmental catastrophe and the routine disasters of capitalism-as-usual in our times.

Compendium-style catalogues about the phenomenon continue to be published. These celebrate but also analyse it.

Marcos L. Rosa, one of the speakers at ENTREMEIOS, has edited one recently, Handmade Urbanism: From Community Initiatives to Participatory Models. Another to look out for is Make_Shift City, edited by Francesca Ferguson and also published by Jovis. An older but compendium that includes historical examples is Awan, Schneider and Till, Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture, published by Routledge in 2011, also online.

Having produced such a ridiculously long post merely to get to my adventures and discoveries in Rio, I will leave it there. Except to note some of the more academic analyses I’ve come across.

Ida Susser and Stéphane Tonnelat write about ‘Transformative cities’ that are built on the social needs of a population rather than those of profit-making (in Focaal–Journal of global and historical anthropology). Gordon Douglas surveys ‘Do-It-Yourself urban design’ in City & Community. In the journarl CITY Margit M The short commentaries in the Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, Vol. 38. No.4 last year, by Susana Narotzky, Michal Osterweil and Jane Collins, are also concerned with grassroots reactions to economic hardship.

I welcome suggestions for more resources!

p.s. And meanwhile, the good folks at Helsinki’s Turntable vegan cafe and vegetable garden were keeping busy and happy with making a better city. Some of us produced a short update (in Finnish), available here.

1 comment
  1. Glad you liked the blog! Hanging out with the Casa Nuvem guys was a pleasure and really interesting before and during the World Cup.

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