Struggling to engineer good futures

Last week I was in Washington DC at the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association. As editor of the European Association’s book series, I went to Washington primarily to find out what is happening in the discipline. The 7000 or so delegates swarmed across two large hotels in salubrious surroundings. What little I saw of the capital of the USA, suggests that all is well there, no potholes, no homeless people even.

The worlds presented in the conference panels told a very different story. For most people, it seems, life unfolds in crumbling infrastructures or ones built for the sole benefit of others. The conference panels presented a world shot through with imagination-defying injustices, North and South. The protests going on at the time of the conference, against police brutality, were a reminder that systematic injustice pervades cities like Washington DC as well.

I participated in a panel titled “The center cannot hold”? Pivotal spaces and political geometries in the ‘polycentric’ city, with a paper about Helsinki’s DIY urbanists.

I talked about Helsinki’s Happihuone or Oxygen Room greenhouse, which stood in leftover city-centre space from 2000 to 2007. Supported at the time with public money, initially known as Växthuset, it was a bit of DIY urbanism cleverly inserted along with an Art Garden into the city’s programme as a European City of Culture that year. (See here for another short blog-post in English). Then the Oxygen Room continued for several summers showcasing sustainable design and living quirky urban culture. In 2007 construction machines took over.

In Washington I also talkedKääntis fillarit ja kasvihuone about the Turntable urban farm and hub of environmentalist activity that flourishes today in former railroad buildings in a tucked away part of Pasila. The bulldozers have arrived here too, just up the road. Twenty-first century construction methods have taken over the plot just north of the two old turntables and redbrick roundhouses, which themselves are protected as heritage.

Alive with activity, the work-spaces, hobby-ists and the greenhouse here are a world apart from the building site. They are human scale and hopeful.

My paper drew attention to the way both these no or low-capital greenhouse schemes have captured imaginations. Both have relished their small-scale and practical world-changing activities in the shadow of massive, capital-intensive urban development. Both are considered utopian and odd. It’s the bulldozing that more often passes for normal.

Having been bombarded for years now with endless images of the great future promised to us by planning, Helsinki residents are learning to see a high-rise future Pasila as inevitable. Below is an architect’s fantasy composition as seen from more or less the same angle as in my picture of the bikes and greenhouse last summer, above.

Zucchi Pasila rendering 2011

The panel was great (with due thanks to its organisers Jonathan Bach and Michal Murawski). But it can feel odd to be an anthropologist of Nordic worlds. Things here in Helsinki are really comparatively comfortable: little extreme poverty, not that much insultingly obvious inequality on display. (How xenophobia has become respectable is of course, a topic an anthropologist of Finland might find important as well as academically productive!)

So what could I say of anthropological interest about activism in a comfortable country like Finland? Like in Margit Mayer’s study of urban activism in privileged cities (in the journal CITY), it’s clear that marginalized and weak urbanites are not involved in the activism I’ve looked at, with its focus on sustainable futures.

This might be my answer to the question: It’s not just the downtrodden who struggle in our age, those who are or should feel comfortable also struggle. And it would be worth writing about how activists and ordinary people are making a plea for a different tomorrow for everyone, for a new normal. People are trying to establish not just an ecological viability, but a scale and feel to the city to make them feel good.

Helsinki’s DIY activism is about spelling out and trying out a different normal. It is a struggle, but not for survival (perhaps). It’s a struggle over defining the good and the sane. These kinds of middle-class claims to better tomorrows also have a long history. Artists, architects and designers have always had prominent roles in this kind of utopia-exploring work. Engineers have too.

Building human-scale structures like greenhouses and saunas in central Helsinki has produced things that people want but the authorities don’t provide. Undoubtedly there is quite a contrast with the DIY urbanist efforts of people in poorer parts of the world. I’ll end by quoting from a great piece in the online architecture journal, Uncube, by Justin McGuirk.

In 2011, in the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution, a community in Cairo built itself four access ramps to the city’s 45-mile ring road. Living in an informal neighbourhood, residents of Al-Mu’tamidiya had long been bypassed and so they took matters into their own hands. There is no denying their initiative or resourcefulness. We are used to squatter-citizens building their own homes but DIY infrastructure is still seen as somehow beyond the pale. It is no wonder that the Al-Mu’tamidiya ramps have been celebrated as a triumph of grassroots empowerment.

McGuirk insists that it’s not necessarily worth celebrating all this DIY and I agree. But I remain extremely grateful that it exists, North and South.

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