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So, I learned a new skill today. It is called urban hitchhiking. Find out more about this excellent pursuit via this Facebook page from last year. And harken to possible encounters with it anon.

Even before hearing the papers at the Urban Studies Days in Helsinki, I was  primed for thinking about walking. Spring is, or should be, the season for walking. Through most of history, cities grew up to accommodate the needs and express the meaning of people on foot.

Masses of people on foot have made history in the world’s towns and cities, a phenomenon that is beginning to irritate those people for whom political protest has become more and more necessary and therefore ordinary in recent months.

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Cities also grew up to be diverse and full of surprises.

This morning’s plenary speaker, Geci Karuri-Sebina, reminded us about that.

She also encouraged us urbanites to reconnect with earth.

It used to be so that dirt or earth didn’t so much come into one’s thoughts in relation to urban living. The rise and rise of urban gardening has changed that, for good I hope. Still, I was startled by her invitation for us to think about how many times a day, a week, we get into contact with earth, with dirt, in our city lives. Not often, unless you are very active in a community or other garden, I’d guess.

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This picture from London (Glengall wharf), from last year, the idea of green shoots on this late and cold April day in Helsinki feels depressingly distant.

Karuri-Sebina also asked her audience this morning how often we come into contact with people who live very different lives from ours: people not in the same workplaces, not part of our family, not at the same schools. Those famous strangers that 20th-century urbanists celebrated.

She explained that as cities get bigger and denser, it seems they also get more disconnected socially, more “exclusive”. She mentioned a billboard advertising a luxury development in South Africa that actually explicitly said that it was aimed at the “fortunate few”!

After leaving the conference, I learned that thousands of farmers across Europe woke up this morning to see devastation wrought by unprecedented frosts. These things are all results of how modernity didn’t just forget in general (to recall Paul Connerton’s great read), but forgot the body specifically.

There’s no city, no life, in fact, that will survive on the augmented, enhanced, digitally rendered (“horrenderings” as Karuri-Sebina called them) that guide most planners’ urban visions and dreams.

Horrendering is indeed a great name for this property porn used to titillate Helsinki’s leadership over the possible future of Pasila a couple of years ago!

YIT.fi:images:businesspremises: etc Uusi Pasila Pohjoisesta

A city is not a computer, wrote Shannon Mattern in a great article recently, and nor is it code or software or informatics.

It’s possible that some places called cities (‘shopping city’, ‘movie city’, ‘eco-city’, ‘smart-city’) are largely made up of those things. Yet those are things that probably shouldn’t be confused with cities as such.

You’d know, because you’d not be able to inhabit them let alone get to them on foot. It would be escalators, elevators and a myriad contraptions you might call disconnectors. It all makes me think of George Clooney Up in the Air (and that was, I guess, the point of the film).

So in just over a week I’m going to reconnect with Helsinki by walking and talking, hopefully with lots of people I don’t know yet, many of whom will hopefully also have different working lives from mine.

Yes, Jane’s Walk season is upon us and there are 2 walks coming up in Helsinki.

The first in Vuosaari on Friday 5.5.2017 is kin to the series of walks we did with my Narratiimi partner Hanna Kaisa Vainio last summer. Among other things, those memorable forest-walks helped generate the almost-one-off newspaper, Skutsi Huutaa (Call of the Forest) now available at Vuotalo (Mosaiikkitori 2). The walk will explore the city spilling into the forest and the woods spilling into urban life. Everyone is welcome!

Skutsi huutaa kansi

Two days later, with experienced urban explorer Pauliina Jalonen we head off towards Lauttasaari, at 2pm from Sähinä (address Heikkiläntie 10), a hotbed of cultural and community activity with a great vegan cafe.

“Investigating integrated landscapes” could be one way of capturing what we’ve been thinking about doing. Though usually Jane’s Walks are led by residents, we do have an aim, namely to map out and sketch those things in the townscape that don’t usually merit our attention (more on that here via Facebook). We hope locals together with visitors can more easily pick out what to see.

I realise that all these variations on walking seem to be making it rather contemporary: walking-plus, a bit of value added. Hitchhiking, gardening, telling stories (narratiimi is a kind of narrating team), sketching.

We kind of captured this on the front page headline of our paper. We put a shocking story there more or less about “people found walking”.

Recalling Keruri-Sbeina’s talk at the conference, changing perspective is actually quite easy when you’re on foot. Just turn around for a moment.

Here are some notes on two books that I’ve recently reviewed, and one I simply enjoyed. They all relate to a growing preoccupation with futures. The plural is important, grand narratives scare me as much as simple stories do.

First off, Douglas Murphy has written an expert and entertaining book about past futures. Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecturewas published late 2015 by Verso. The publisher’s blurb captures its essence very well.

In the late 1960s the world was faced with impending disaster: the height of the Cold War, the end of oil and the decline of great cities throughout the world. Out of this crisis came a new generation that hoped to build a better future, influenced by visions of geodesic domes, walking cities and a meaningful connection with nature. In this highly readable work of cultural history, architect Douglas Murphy traces the lost archeology of the present day through the works of thinkers and designers such as Buckminster Fuller, the ecological pioneer Stewart Brand, the Archigram architects who envisioned the Plug-In City in the ’60s, as well as co-operatives in Vienna, communes in the Californian desert and protesters on the streets of Paris.

Now the 1960s came and went, but not entirely. World-improving activism is once again on the rise. Communes and geodesic domes, not to mention DIY-cultures of many hues, seem to be here to stay.

(This post is illustrated with examples from around Europe that I visited last summer.)

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Arts for the City, St Petersburg, Russia May 2016

 

Besides, it’s also the case that the breathless cybercapitalist lives that today pass for normal (even desirable) owe a considerable debt to “the long 1960s”. Like environmentalism, they too emerged out of the planetary imaginaries and practical experiments (combined in the world-wide web) also fostered by the techno-eco-utopian tinkerers and artists whose products and fortunes Murphy’s book recounts.

In those days the future was “pop” and not always quite respectable. Now it’s serious business.

The increasingly influential futures research industry is hopefully learning some lessons from the utopian dreams of the past. These are not just about plans that go awry or even about unforeseeable and unintended side effects. In studying past futures one learns that human beings are fundamentally collective, social and political animals, but for all that, highly unpredictable.

That’s where I’m hoping design anthropology’s contributions might be developed.

A little bit like 50 years ago, the world is out of joint and epistemic authority is in disarray. At the meeting points of the design disciplines and the empirical social sciences, that epistemic multiplicity is being studied and fostered.

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From Open Sources Circular Economy Days (OSCE), Helsinki, June 2016

Design Anthropological Futures, edited by Rachel Charlotte Smith, Kasper Tang Vangkilde, Mette Gislev Kjaersgaard, Ton Otto, Joachim Halse, and Thomas Binder. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, 304 pp. PB 9781474280600 $29.95.

This volume has grown out of the work of The International Research Network the Design Anthropology, whose “concluding” conference I reported on earlier on this blog. The book is a collection of mostly short essays. These showcase but also problematize the methodological inventiveness of the research being done at the meeting point of designing for the future and and anthropology originally born of studying the present/past.

What makes it anthropological, is that it takes seriously the endless variety of ways in which past, present and future are conceptualised and managed by human beings. This sensibility has much in common with critical design. But arguably the so-called ethnographic record, produced in anthropology departments over the last century and a half, with its often mindbending challenges to industrial modernity’s common sense, informs its radically open conception of possible futures.

My main misgiving about the volume is that this sensibility is not more thoroughly spelled out. I doubt that the arguments as presented there would convince even a mildly sceptical reader. Still, perhaps this is because so many of the texts are rather short. Who knows what the editorial contraints were, but the authors might have benefited from more space to flesh out the empirical content, conceptual arguments, and unconventional uses of common, but polysemic terminology like ‘design’, ‘anthropological’ and ‘futures’.

To further irritate readers who might be uncomfortable with the vocabulary of critical design or with the methodological looseness of this kind of emerging social research, the prose is often hesitant and hugely self reflexive.

Having said all that, for readers already engaged in debates about creating futures of coexistence between humans and others, the texts here should provide helpful reference points for making sense of the need for and the development of design anthropology.

The other book I’ve been reviewing is:

Urban Cosmopolitics: Agencements, assemblies, atmospheres, edited by Anders Blok and  Ignacio Farias, and published by Routledge.

Cosmopolitics as a concept is likely to gain in popularity among scholars and activists engaged in designing less scary features. Developed above all by Isabelle Stengers, but also by Bruno Latour, the vocabulary and the attitude of cosmopolitics recognises and respects the existence of multiple, divergent worlds, but at the same time also recognises and respects the power of and need for theory.

In Urban Cosmopolitics the concept is invoked to address some of the shortcomings of assemblage-based urban research. Though related, cosmopolitics promises to get a firmer grasp of what is really at stake in the modes of coexistence emerging – being forced upon – the world today.

It is perhaps in cities, where dominant morphological and cultural projects are at their most intense, that future dreams and nightmares are most acutely felt. So, however one approaches the problems, there is certainly a need to spell out more clearly what recent changes in environments (in cities and elsewhere) mean for shared futures.

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Melliferopolis Fest, Helsinki 2016

With a nod to assemblage urbanism, I think the following characterisation of the book might be justified: it is made up ofaccounts by sociologists, anthropologists, geographers and scholars of architecture and technology, who offer analyses involving artists, commuters, public toilets, publics, human and nonhuman actors and infrastructures, drawing on work by John Dewey and Jacques Rancière, about and inspired by networks, Madrid, Hamburg, London, Peter Sloterdijk’s philosophy, architects and, of course, the work of Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers.

The book has one feature in particular in common with Design Anthropological Futures, namely writing style. Hyper-alert to their own positions, to the potentially violent effects of expert abstractions, and to their indebtedness to the nonacademic partners whose work they report upon, many (though not all) of the authors produce prose that can frustrate. Readers looking simply to learn something new and be confident of having learned something new, have to work to pass through the authors’ own hesitations to get to their mostly nuanced and arguably challenging arguments.

Personally I do find both books insightful and illuminating. They testify to a hunger for epistemologies and conversations that have little place in the institutions of industrial modernity and capitalism, including the corporatised University. They indicate that new methodological approaches to more-than-human world-making are taking root and blossoming.

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Urban gardening in Budapest, 2016

P.S. Today’s dominant discourses about the future feature mostly Pollyanna-ish or hyperbolic rhetoric and generally support technology driven visions. Sometimes they do put the human at their centre,  often they invoke the experience-near the virtues of design practice. Rarely, however, do they really get what these books get, which is the incredible creativity as well as unbearable necessity of coexisting with the full range of the creatures that exist through design or accident (or something else).

The discipline that’s done most to nurture appreciation of this situation is, I think, anthropology.

Links to the ventures behind the pictures in order of apperance.

About project

https://fi.okfn.org/2016/06/30/osce-days-2016-helsinki-report/

https://melliferopolis.net/

https://budapest.degrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/11/Budapest-Degrowth-Week.pdf

Today and tomorrow Finland’s impressively growing band of urban scholars and people interested in the future or fate of cities are gathering in Helsinki’s House of Arts and Sciences for a conference under the title City of Actors.

This is not a reference to the increasing significance of dissimulation in collective life (though branding has come up from time to time) but a way to capture all those who may potentially be making the city, activists in particular.

So, I was delighted when one of my pet topics, the heroism of small shopkeepers, was taken up in the lunch-time panel by a Janne Viitamies, PhD candidate and urban entrepreneur active in the town of Lahti. For Viitamies there is no question: shopkeepers are not conservatives who resist pedestrianisation (as portrayed in the Finnish media). They are passionate and energetic, and their undervalued efforts are what make cities good places.

In the short presentations, designed more to be uplifting than to be analytical or deeply critical, the economics of what makes shops such a fraught issue was barely touched on. This is not going to be about economics either, but does present a slightly less optimistic view.

As it turns out, I had already written about the place of shops in place-making after a deeply unhappy experience of some classic non-places, airports. Maybe it’s a good time to share them here.

Let’s start with an image that I like so much I’ve probably used it before.

AvoinnaIt may bring to mind any modern city. But if you are familiar with Helsinki, you will probably recognise it as a particular place. These small, eye-level, independent shops, open as usual for business, are in Yrjönkatu.

Cemented in granite, beautiful and simple, those doors make Helsinki just a little more welcoming, and a little more intriguing. OK, it’s not just the architectural detailing but the shoes, the ballet paraphernalia and other necessaries that draw us in. As Viitamies emphasised, it’s the conversations and social encounters we have inside the shops. (Well, I’d add, some shops. A forced smile from a part time employee of a global brand doesn’t quite do it).

Architecturally too, without shops, it’s hard to imagine what could make ordinary city streets this lovely.

Of course, commerce and markets have always been a big part of city life. The Finnish word for town or city (kaupunki) actually has the word shop (kauppa) embedded in it. In the UK, the New Economics Foundation has been trying for over a decade to argue that “clone towns” are not something to wish for. Unfortunately it’s usually only the generic brands with their global distribution that can afford to pay the high rents. But as far as city life is concerned, they attract only the unimaginative or the desperate (such as teenagers testing out new freedoms).

High quality shopping (by which I do not mean expensive!) requires highly motivated (maybe even moderately mad) shopkeepers. Their passions and personalities are reflected in their shops and hence in our city. This is what gives commerce entertainment as well as market value. We should celebrate it and praise those who make it possible, those crazy, lovely shopkeepers.

Alas, alack, the twenty-first century has done terrible things to the idea of shopping. I think in the same process it’s doing awful things to city life everywhere that there is money to spare.

But let’s look first, not at real places like Helsinki or Rome or Totnes, but at airports. These are the ultimate non-places where commerce too has become a nightmare for the would-be customer.

Pay Here (Airport)I know so many people now who wince at the way they have to meander through the brightly-lit identical shopping-hell that now takes up most of any airport’s public areas.

Even the plastic bags toted by passengers as they transit past one another are identical. “The world’s airport”. Yes, just the one, the same in Helsinki and London at least, as I recently noticed.

The other day, flying between Helsinki and London, I raged at commerce of the wrong, that’s to say, global, kind. I walked as fast as I could through Helsinki-Vantaa’s airport. The main terminal, built 1969, was once airy and open and, yes, characterful. Living abroad in decades past, each time I arrived there, it gave me a sense of coming home to something I’d never find in the USA or the UK. And their airports were horrid already in the 1980s and 1990s.

But today, the airiness of Helsinki-Vantaa’s terminal building is gone. The retail designers have stuffed it full of crummy and tacky identikit shops. The same as the ones in London, Copenhagen or Denver, or anywhere actually. All are staffed by underpaid staff whose friendliness doesn’t come from the heart but from customer liaison guidelines.

More distressing still was the discovery that choice has gone. At Helsinki-Vantaa I looked for blueberry soup in a small carton and round rye-bread sandwiches. Rye bread is on offer, kind of, but I just could not bring myself to try the spicy chicken versions sitting forlornly on the shelf. Had I wanted a faux-baguette with filling, identical to what I used to buy in London railway stations in the early 1990s, I’d have been fine. Alas, like many people, I don’t eat wheat.

No, I’m definitely not against shopping (or window-shopping) as a pastime. In fact, I think shopkeepers, the independent kind, should be given medals!

Not that I despair of all large shops either. When in the 1920s Stockmann’s commissioned the magnificent modern emporium we can still enjoy today, they weren’t just about selling nice stuff to a populace aspiring to reach the next ladder, they were doing something for Helsinki.

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The goods inside made possible the normal and the everyday: dairy and meat products, paper goods, mixed goods, colonial goods, shoes, underwear and overwear and many kinds of other wear. All manner of newly necessary services could also be found close by, like banks and post offices. In addition to stuff, these provided us with identities, and ways of being.

Actually, as an anthropologist I realise that to a large extent I became who I am through shops.

I’m not exaggerating. As a child of the sixties, shops were probably rather important in teaching me manners and how to do that supremely urban thing, interact with familiar strangers. I also have a recollection of a peculiarity that non-Finns and many young Finns won’t know about. The identities on offer were kind of divided into two camps. As a small girl, I knew that Saludo coffee was exactly the same as Kulta Katriina (Golden Katriina) coffee and yet I knew that the two should not be confused with each other.

I learned about my social world through going to grocery shops. These came in two versions (which sort of still exist in the infamous S and K chains).

A few hundred metres from our home, I could find Lehmuskoski and Sons, a small self-service supermarket with a familiar blue “K” over the door. Mamma and Pappa, my grandparents, lived a few hundred metres in the other direction. On my way there I’d pass an Elanto co-op. We kids were always reminded that we were to remember to keep Elanto receipts, as my grandparents would get dividends with them.

My other grandparents would probably not have been seen dead in an Elanto. They were not that kind of people. And so I learned about social divisions, about what’s the same, what’s different and what is valued and by whom.

To the chagrin of many Finns and the detriment of many a Finnish town, the split has continued and worse, it’s carved up Finnish retail into the two camps: entrepreneurs under the sign of the K, socialists and co-operative members under a range of more regional signs (often with a bee symbol like co-operatives around the world). These have gradually merged into the no-longer-quite-co-operative sign of the S.

Actually, come to think of it, supposedly consensus-driven Finland was divided along similar lines in most areas. There were workers’ sports clubs and national ones, workers’ theatres and municipal ones. Helsinki even had a workers’ cultural centre in use as a classical music venue. Alvar Aalto, our most famous architect to date, designed it. He also did the Finlandia Hall, thus showing that an architect could straddle these opposing political worlds, and create beauty for all kinds of clients.

What’s interesting in hindsight, it how much moral weight grown ups seemed to give to these differences between places that were, after all, functionally identical if identity-wise opposing.

Morality still comes into it. At least I feel indignant at the way corporate power has come to limit my options of consumer goods and homogenise the built environment in the process. OK, finding airport shopping traumatic is a huge privilege. But it should not be a privilege to enjoy shopping built on local passions rather than global invasions or even national quasi-monopolies like the K and S chains.

The speakers at today’s panel called for sustainable and above all fun things to improve street-level life (as always, using pictures of the short Finnish summer!)

I really applaud their efforts and want the shopkeepers to make good profits. I also hope that retail policy will be recognised as the planning problem that it is.

Alas, I’m not too, too hopeful. I still see the stunning desire of decision makers to be nice to big capital taking us in the wrong direction: not lively streets close to where real people with real needs live but rather, the mass appeal and libidinal fantasies of Europe’s airports.

A somewhat gratuitous picture of a thing, the trace of an object

A somewhat gratuitous picture of a thing, the trace of an object

Inspired by recently meeting a couple of people involved in putting together the impressive (and expensive) Objects and Materials: A Routledge Companion (Penny Harvey, Eleanor Conlin Casella, Gillian Evans, Hannah Knox, Christine McLean, Elizabeth B. Silva, Nicholas Thoburn, Kath Woodward) here are some thoughts on it.

A product of the path-breaking interdisciplinary team at Manchester’s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), the book’s essays written by over forty international scholars from many disciplines include many many theoretical and methodological approaches. This certainly justifies the way that in the first sentence of the introduction its authors, Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox, invoke the crazy Chinese encyclopaedia described by Borges and imported into social theory by Foucault in Les Mots et les Choses (The Order of Things). Objects and Materials really is more of an explorer’s companion than a guide along well-beaten paths!

To summarise the work briefly is impossible, and I can only mention a handful of its themes or authors.

Still, deep breath: the collection sets out to address a relatively new but now core question in social thought: What matters about objects? Thus the back cover and the main introduction and the introductory texts to the five sections into which the volume is divided, rehearse a vocabulary familiar from humanities and social science investigations of the current condition: practice, relations (or relationality), mediation, agency (particularly non-human agency) and affect. The most prominently cited authors are, unsurprisingly, Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour, but it is perhaps the latter whose influence is most felt. This is reflected also in the editorial line that gives generous room to empirical illustrations but also to ethnographic investigation as a type of analytical work.

The book will interest readers from very divergent backgrounds with very different methodological toolkits (even mutually contradictory ones). Its strong anthropological  content will appeal to those already immersed in the literatures on socio-technical change, or the many different ways in which that small word, ‘thing’, has been subjected to scholarly scrutiny by so many thinkers from Martin Heidegger to Elizabeth Grosz.

But the issues are not just of academic interest. Several texts consider the shared crises that beset our times and which are increasingly framed as symptoms of earlier intellectual and even academic mistakes, notably of misplaced trust in the continuities of the material and object(-ive) world. This is perhaps the area where Deleuzian thought, especially around the concept of ‘affect’, becomes prominent: it gives the volume’s authors tools for keeping in view both instability and resistance to change.

The first section, ‘Material qualities’ offers provocations to think in new ways about what exactly the material could be, or how it could be understood, and thus rehearses philosophical questions around epistemology and ontology. The second part is titled ‘Affective objects’, the third ‘Unsettling objects’. These sections include texts that explicitly draw out emotive responses as they consider material, often fleshy processes of human suffering, but also the virtual dimensions of experience. Both consider time, objects and experience altogether in often eloquent writing. Part four turns to ‘Interface objects’ and to the capacities that objects have in different domains, such as in the household or in scientific research and, of course, the ways these are animated in human interaction. The fifth and final part, ‘Becoming Object’, left me thinking that whatever it is, the thing is stably unstable and consistently inconsistent.

Depending on the reader’s preferences, these texts may feel like an excess of self-consciously unsettling ideas and modish vocabulary, or like a timely intervention into the ways contemporary life could be rendered more adequately thinkable. Or they may inspire to think about the fragility of things these days in unexpected and helpful ways.

Considering the insights about the generative powers of materials and objects spelled out throughout its chapters, it is a little disappointing that more space was not given to ‘stuff’ understood as either consumer desirables or infrastructures, which are part of the reason for the growing interest among sociologists and anthropologists, in ‘the material’.

The volume does not pretend to offer a uniform theoretical framework for the study of materials and objects. Nor does it appear to build consistently on a specific scholarly heritage despite the Deleuzian and Latourian references or, indeed, recurrent mentions of Tim Ingold’s anthropology and other (implicitly or explicitly) Heideggerian approaches to knowing, being and becoming. What is taken as given is that to make sense of the world as social thinkers or, indeed, as artists or activists, it is necessary to understand the world as complex and relational. On the other hand, the relationship between objects and materials is something that each text deals with on its own terms. And so some of them end up labouring what should be the obvious complexity. Fortunately the authors manage to say constructive and novel things about as philosophically a tricky terrain as this without getting stuck on binaries. In a textual (predominantly) work such as this there will always be pairings that both writer and reader know to be tricky, such as matter and affect, thing and object, detached and attached.

Without a doubt, the topics in Objects and Materials brush on many important problems in political life and scholarship. So it is still worth highlighting Graham Harman’s text, ‘Objects are the root of all philosophy’, which takes aim at no less than “several centuries” of “anti-object-oriented trends” (p. 238) in philosophy. Harman also suggests that many scholars simply find grappling with the world outside the mind boring. I find the “weird model of objects” (p. 245) that he proposes anything but boring, but what bores and what excites in this varied collection, will depend quite simply on each reader’s predispositions.

This is all very academic and the hard-back version is massively expensive. But it is due out electronically and in paperback.

(Scroll down for some English) Viime viikolla tupsahti postilaatikosta uusin Yhdyskuntasuunnittelu lehti. Kyseessä erikoisnumero aiheesta kulttuurin ja muotoilun arvo kaupunkien kehittämisessä. Kaikki sai alkunsa Turussa Kaupunkitutkimuksen päivillä eräänä kauniina kevätpäivänä. Helsinkiläisen antropologikolleegani Pekka Tuomisen kanssa vedimme paneelin ‘art and design as tools of urban transformation’. Konferenssin teema oli arvostusten vaikutus kaupunkikehitykseen: avainkysymys, kun tarkastelee kaupunkien vähemmän kuin loistavaa kehitystä niin Suomessa kuin muuaallakin. Kokosimme yhteen mielenkiintoisen ryhmän tutkijoita ja Skypen välityksellä saimme myös tallinnalaiset kolleegat mukaan keskusteluun. Mieleen painui myös Metropolian Suvi Ahon kokouspaikalle tuoma vantaalainen lohi, josta voi lukea lisää täällä.

Tässä sisällysluettelo.

Artikkelit

Eeva Berglund & Pekka Tuominen: Kulttuurin ja muotoilun arvo kaupunkien kehittämisessä

Jukka Vahlo: Kulttuurisuunnittelua tulevaisuuden kulttuuripääkaupungeissa?

Guy Julier & Malene Leerberg: Kolding – We Design For Life

Katsaukset

Suvi Aho: Muotoilu ja draama kaupunkikehittämisen välineinä

Lieven Ameel: Kohti kerronnallista käännettä yhdyskuntasuunnittelussa

Teele Pehk & Jaanika Ait: Tallinn neighbourhood associations as the experts of local living

So, iin English, the abstract for the introductory essay for this special issue of the journal on culture and design in urban transformation: The concepts of culture and design have entered politics and economics in new ways, and both are used in strategic ways to pursue urban development goals. As an introduction to a collection of two articles and three shorter texts that critically survey experiences in Finland, Denmark and Estonia, this article considers the uses of culture and design under conditions of normalised neoliberal place competition. Taking an anthropological view of social processes and drawing on Helsinki’s year as World Design Capital (2012), together with illustrations from the contributions, it raises questions about the political dimensions of culture and design policies.

Kannen kuva, alla, on otettu Pasilassa Kääntöpöydällä, missä kaupunkisuunnittelun tulevaisuutta pohditaan ympäristönäkökulmasta ja vapaaehtoisin mutta sitäkin inspiroidummin voimin. Hyvän kaupungin rakentamista ei kuitenkaan pidä erehtyä luulemaan leikiksi.

Legoukot Kääntiksellä small

 

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.

OK, so there was a long academic paper here. For reasons to do with copyright and somewhat beyond my comprehension, I have deleted the text itself, but the abstract remains. I continue to develop these ideas, and I have had many, many great opportunities to do so this past summer, so chances are that I will post something fresh here soon. Meanwhile, here the abstract of the paper I wrote and will rewrite and hopefully publish elsewhere. 

Activist design in Helsinki: creating sustainable futures at the centre, the margins and everywhere in between

Abstract: Initiatives and projects to create an alternative ‘normal’ are flourishing. Seeking socially just, culturally meaningful and materially sustainable futures, practical world-improving efforts of ‘activist design’ proliferate. This arena is an increasingly important route for contesting the status quo. However, design projects to create better tomorrows do not just seek to disrupt and oppose corporate-friendly policy initiatives. They are also part of policy, integral to normal neoliberal governance. Today’s expanded conception of design is increasingly explicitly used to address shared problems, typically via collaboration and experimentation. Activist design has affinities with older urban movement demands, particularly in how it critiques top-down expertise and reconsiders relationships between politics on the one hand and material objects, technological change and environmental threats on the other. Using illustrations from Helsinki, the paper takes an ethnographic approach and shows that although design is easy to identify as activism – design activism – this fuses with government-driven design activity (and rhetoric), with the two often employing similar language and claiming identical goals. The paper calls this expanded space where design is promoted for social good, activist design. As has been noted, social movement scholars could be more actively researching this growing phenomenon, and exploring its implications for political change. Context-specific analyses of activist design could add to our understanding of contemporary politics, without taking design’s emancipatory, radical and even world-saving pretensions at face value. Seeking to avoid both naïve celebration of activist design and a perspective that reduces it to co-optation by the neoliberal city in particular, the paper takes an initial step by considering design interventions as ranging from the technocratic or politically limiting to the politically emancipatory.

KEYWORDS: design; design activism; social movements; environmentalism; urban sustainability; material politics

AND SOME REFERENCES of interest to those seeking information on activist design or on design anthropology

Awan, N.; T. Schneider; J. Till (2011) Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture, Routledge. Parts accessible at http://www.spatialagency.net.

Berglund, E. (2013) ‘Design Activism in Helsinki: notes from the World Design Capital 2012’, Design and Culture 2013/2: 195-214.

Binder, T.; P. Ehn; G. De Michelis; G. Jacucci, & G. Linde (2011) Design Things. MIT Press.

Botero, A.; A.G.Paterson; J. Saad-Sulonen (eds) (2012) Towards Peer Production in Public Services: Cases from Finland, Helsinki: Aalto University.

Botero, A. (2013) Expanding Design Space(s): Design in communal endeavours, Doctoral Dissertation 85/2013, Aalto University, School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Department of Media.

Boyer, B.; J. W. Cook & M. Steinberg (2011) In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change. Helsinki: Sitra.

Cataldi, M, D. Kelley, H. Kuzmich, J. Maier-Rothe & J. Tang (2011) ‘Residues of a Dream World: The High Line’, Theory Culture Society 2011 28: 358-389.

Clarke, A. J. (2013) ‘‘Actions Speak Louder’: Victor Papanek and the Legacy of Design Activism’, Design and Culture 2013/2.

Compendium for the Civic Economy, 2012, 00:/ (London) and trancityxvaliz (Amersfoort), also online at http://civiceconomy.net/

Di Salvo, C. (2012) Adversarial design. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Evans, J. P. (2011) ‘Resilience, ecology and adaptation in the experimental city’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, NS, Vol.36: 223-237.

Evans, J. and A. Karvonen (2014) ‘Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Lower Your Carbon Footprint!’ — Urban Laboratories and the Governance of Low-Carbon Futures, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research , 38(2): 413–30

Fry, T. (2011) Design as politics. New York: Berg.

Fuad-Luke, A. (2009) Design activism: beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world. London, UK: Earthscan.

Gunn, W.; T. Otto & R. C. Smith (eds) (2013) Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Hernberg, H. (2012) Helsinki Beyond Dreams: actions towards a creative and sustainable hometown

Haenfler R., B. Johnson, E. Jones (2012) ‘Lifestyle Movements: Exploring the Intersection of Lifestyle and Social Movements’, Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 11:1, 1-20.

Julier, G. (2013) ‘From design culture to design activism’, Design and Culture, 5 3.: 215-236.

Kimbell, L. (2011) ‘Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I’, Design and Culture, Vol.3(3): 283-306.

Latour, B. (2011) ‘Un Prométhée circonscpect? A Cautious Prometheus?’, Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. No. 381. 2011: 109-119

Manzini, E. (2008) ‘New Design Knowledge: Introduction to the conference Changing the Change 12.7.08. pdf retrieved from www.allemandi.com/university/ctc.pdf

Markussen, T. (2012) ‘The disruptive aesthetics of hijacking urban space’, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol.4, retrieved from http://www.aestheticsandculture.net/index.php/jac/rt/printerFriendly/18157/22783

Mayer, M. (2013) ‘First world urban activism’. City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, Vol.17(1): 5-19.

McKay, G. (2011) Radical Gardening: Politics, idealism & rebellion in the garden. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd.

Novy, J. & Colomb, C. (2013) ‘Struggling for the Right to the Creative. City in Berlin and Hamburg: new urban social movements, new “spaces of hope”’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol.37 5.: 1816-38.

Osterweil, M. (2014) ‘Another view from Europe’: Forum comment, Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society.

Papanek, V. (1971) Design for the real world: Human ecology and social change. New York: Pantheon Books.

Sadler, S. (2012) ‘The Dome and the Shack: The Dialectics of Hippie Enlightenment’, in I. Boal, J. Stone, M. Watts & C. Winslow (eds) West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California. Oakland: Retort/PM Press.

Scott, F. (2007) Architecture or techno-utopia: politics after modernism. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Susser, I. & S. Tonnelat (2013) ‘Transformative cities: the urban commons’, Focaal-Journal of global and historical anthropology, 66: 105-132.

Thorpe, A. (2014) ‘Applying Protest Event Analysis to Architecture and Design, Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 13:2, 275-295.

Unsworth, R.; S. Ball, I. Bauman, P. Chatterton, A. Goldring, K. Hill, G. Julier, (2011) ‘Building resilience and well-being in the Margins within the City: Changing perceptions, making connections, realising potential, plugging resource leaks’, City, Vol. 15 2.: 182-203.