Architectures and designs

With its buildings rooted in granite foundations Helsinki appears to grow out of the very earth itself. Now, in 2015, it is a technological world amidst forests, and a recognizably European but still unique capital city. Here low-rise building facades have long reflected the low-slanting northern sunshine. Helsinki has in fact become a home environment where the conditions are exceptionally propitious for people to enjoy a good life.

Linnunlaulu autumn

Unfortunately, this cultural heritage – buildings and other historic landmarks – is also disappearing and being overshadowed by global fashions. Also at risk are stretches of natural coastline and water, and much-loved landscapes of rock and woodland.

Towards an urbanized world

With the majority of humanity now living in urban areas, anthropologists are also increasingly researching city life. Both the pace and scale of urbanization are striking in those places where cities are not actually dying. Some researchers even feel that one cannot treat all urban construction projects today as producing city-like conditions. Business-parks, mammoth residential blocks for migrant workers and gated but half-empty luxury complexes do not usually generate lively city environments.

Through history cities have been self-organizing places of diversity. Not so much any more, as urban scholar Saskia Sassen recently wrote.

The accelerating pace of urbanization processes is intimately linked to global financial circuits, and now appears to have reached Finland as well. A few years ago the biggest construction boom in over a century began to unfold in Helsinki. The Finnish capital, so the rhetoric goes, would become a metropolitan centre of international significance. Branding is needed, investments are sought, and a particular kind of attractiveness must be promoted.

Conversation is also an imperative, however. We residents are invited to meetings and unveilings of plans for new neighbourhoods and to participate in making places online. Actual listening is another thing, distinct from consultation as defined by the bureaucracy.

The changes in Helsinki are sometimes accompanied by rather colourful debate. The role of overseas investment has created novel types of political discord. Töölö Bay’s new construction, at the heart of the city and impossible to ignore, at least unites people in being loathed across party-political boundaries. In residential areas and elsewhere, Helsinki now appears to be reproducing the worst of global planning and building: layouts to suit the construction sector rather than home owners, over-designed and still bland semi-public space.

Töölönlahti by Lukumaa

Photo by Jaakko Lukumaa

Changing Helsinki? Eleven views on a city unfolding, published 2015

It was into this unhappy mix that design researcher Cindy Kohtala and I decided to venture with a book project. So many times had we raged about what is going on. As Helsinki residents – but also as semi-outsiders, Cindy being Canadian and I having lived abroad over half my life – we decided that from our perspectives we could try to inject a stronger sense of what Helsinki means and the significance of its specific identity.

Together we edited a book whose core message is that we can talk about the Finnish capital in more nuanced ways than has been typical so far. We could show that there is no one truth about the city, nor even two opposing truths. In our experiences there are in fact many Helsinkies.

The richly illustrated book, in three languages, is published by Helsinki-based Nemo publishing. The texts are written by 14 authors with experience of working with Helsinki’s buildings, and all of whom live in Helsinki, with the exception of Jonathan Glancey from Britain. Yet Glancey’s text is shot through with a palpable love for the city.


Our book highlights that the city is not just space on a map, neither is its significance reducible to investment opportunities or housing and other crises. Instead, Helsinki is a place. It is culture, collaboration and bio-physical processes that its citizens, in one way or another, are committed to.

And as the flourishing of new urban culture tells us, citizens are ever more actively making their city themselves. Urban gardens, restaurant days and active neighbourhood groups are no surface phenomenon: clearly they are more and more important in reproducing the city, something that municipal government is also starting to recognize.

Indeed, Helsinki has many examples of how protest movements and grassroots activism have been channelled into developing good governance. On the other hand, Finland’s political culture risks muffling debate about change, by seeing disagreement as party political.

Historically the vitality of cities has not, though, been based on bureaucratic institutions nor even on big business. Rather, in the liveliest cities, even society’s weakest have been able to make history and feed cultural dynamism. In our introduction to the book we cite architecture critic Michael Sorkin, who also knows and admires Helsinki. He has written memorably that “architecture is produced at the intersection of art and property, and this is one of the many reasons it so legibly records the history of communal life”.

This is also why construction projects deserve to be thought, talked and written about in careful, slow and deliberate ways, with and for more people than only architects, builders, developers and planners. Besides, it has been extremely rewarding to explore the process from the intersection of anthropology and design.

I hope you join the conversation, e.g. at the City Planning Department’s ‘Laituri’ exhibition space on Friday 4th December where, for a change, we will debate the city in the majority language, Finnish. Facebook link here.

The text above is largely based on the introduction to the book that we wrote together with Cindy Kohtala.

Very excited, as “the book” is finally at the printers.

uusi-helsinki-LO-RGB-200x262With my friend and colleague Cindy Kohtala, and a surprising number of wonderful people with writing, photography and other skills and resources to offer the joint effort, we have put together a book to celebrate our home town, Helsinki.

Well, not just celebrate. What inspired us to produce it was our sense that like so many other cities, Helsinki is not necessarily being built as well as it could be. So we invited people who work professionally on caring for or changing the city, to write about it. We also invited British architecture critic Jonathan Glancey, who knows Helsinki well and clearly loves it, to share his thoughts on the changes. His melancholy text still put a lump in my throat when I read the final proofs.

This is my first foray into producing a book for the general audience – previous efforts have been directed at academics and professional audiences, so I am curious and a little apprehensive about how it will be received.

Fortunately, Cindy and I were lucky to find a fabulous graphic designer, Matti Berg, to do the fiddly but extremely important work of compiling a book that includes not just written text but generous illustrations of many kinds. Add to that challenge, there is also the fact that the book is in three languages throughout: Finnish, Swedish and English, something that the publishers Nemokustannus were not so keen on at first (they presumably knew what a hassle it was having done one before, Suomen Majakat).

There will be a number of opportunities to join us to discuss the book. First, in English/maybe Finnish, with author and architect Pia Ilonen, at Arkadia International Bookshop (Nervanderinkatu 11) on 28.10.2015 at 18:00. I will lead a discussion with authors/architects Tarja Nurmi and Hella Hernberg at the Helsinki Book Fair on Sunday 25.10.2015 at 14:00 (in Finnish). The book will be available at Nemo’s stand too, if you would like to come and get it (stand 6e91).

(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.


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

Jukka Vahlo: Kulttuurisuunnittelua tulevaisuuden kulttuuripääkaupungeissa?

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


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

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

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

Markussen, T. (2012) ‘The disruptive aesthetics of hijacking urban space’, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol.4, retrieved from

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.


Tänään Säätytalon arvokkaissa interiööreissä kuulin Suomen Kotiseutuliiton ja sen yhteistyökumppaneiden ajatuksia siitä, mitä on kulttuuriympäristö ja miten sen arvostusta ja kehittämistä voisi edesauttaa. Siellä pidettiin tämän vuoden Suomen Kulttuuriympäristöpäivien avajaistilaisuus. 

Kovasti myös kehotettiin aktivoitumaan ja liittymään siihen laajaan eurooppalaiseen joukkoon, joka pääasiassa vapaaehtoisvoimin on jo pitkään vaalinut kulttuurimaisemia ja yhteistä perintöä ympäri maanosaa.

Samalla palkittiin vuoden 2013 Eläköön Rakennus-kilpailun mainio voittaja-tiimi Eläköön Leikkimökki-blogin nuoret tekijät. He veivät oululaispihan kulttuurimaiseman myös nettiin. Ja tuli mieleen, että on se tulevaisuus ihan hyvissä käsissä!

Ja sitten käynnistettiin tämän vuoden vastaava tempaus, kilpailu nuorille teemalla “Löydä näkymätön ympäristö”.

Palanen (melkein) näkymätöntä kulttuuriympäristöäni

Palanen (melkein) näkymätöntä kulttuuriympäristöäni

Kilpailun tavoitteena on aktivoida nuoret pohtimaan omaa ympäristöään. Tuloksena olisi myös voittajalle 500 euron palkinto, ja “tähti” Euroopan Neuvoston ylläpitämälle interaktiiviselle kartalle merkiksi tästä aktivoitumisesta.

Käytännössä, jos ei tahallaan, nämä tähdet sitten mainostavat Suomen erinomaisuutta, varsin samalla tavalla kuin virtuaaliseen ja ruumiilliseen informaatioähkyyn vievät rankkaukset muilla elämänaloilla.

Rohkenin kuitenkin ehdottaa, että jatkossa voisi kenties ajatella pedagogista kulttuurityötä, varsinkin oman ympäristön tiimoilla, hiukan eri välinein: ilman rahapalkintoa ja ilman että tavoitteeksi esitetään tähden syttyminen EU:n ylläpitämällä nettisivulla. Miten voisi innoittaa ihmisiä rakastamaan omaa maailmaansa huomiotaloudesta riippumatta?

Inspiraation moiseen villeyteen – miksi puhetta johtanu Kotiseutuliiton Riitta Vanhatalo ehdotustani leikillisesti kutsui – antoi yleisöstä provosoivasti puhunut taiteilija Laila Pullinen.

Pullinen peräänkuulutti mm. vastuullisempaa otetta kulttuurin tukemiseen valtiolta ja viranomaisilta; hän ehti kertoa suru-uutisen, että Helsingin Ylipiston Arppeanumin mainio (mutta ehkä liian näkymätön – ainakin joidenkin silmissä) Yliopistomuseo lakkautetaan tämän vuoden kuluessa; ja hän ehti syyttää Helsingin Sanomien toimittajia vääriin asioihin keskittymisestä.

Tietenkin kilpailuilla on oma paikkansa ja ne kannustavat, varsinkin nuoria. Mutta kun kilpailua – kuten Pullinen totesi – yhteiskunnassamme jo on yllin kyllin, tärkeämpää olisi kannustaa kilvoitteluun.

(Virkistävää kuulla aiemmin niin tuttu sanapari, kilpailuyhteiskunta, jota ei enää kuule, ehkä siksi koska se on päässyt meihin itseemme niin syvälle että se tuntuu olevan osa luontoamme).

Ajatuksena talouden ulkopuolella pysyminen oli ilmeisesti läsnäoleville mieleen. Kuitenkin selvästi edes sellaisen ajatteleminen, että tekee jotain sen itsensä tai jonkin eettisen tai sosiaalisen arvon takia, on myös suomalaisessa virkakoneistossa erittäin vaikeata.

Muun kuin myyntiarvon tunnistamista ja tukemista täytyy kuitenkin harjoitella. Kun huomiotalous joku päivä jää historiaan, luultavasti kulttuuri kuitenkin säilyy. Mitä kulttuuri siinä vaiheessa voisi olla, onkin eri asia.

Mutta kuitenkin – tässä me elämme. Niinpä en voi olla laittamatta linkkiä pieneen mainokseen, jossa allekirjoittaneella on jokin osuus. Antropologikolleegani ovat kirjoittaneet pienen pätkän siitä, miksi lähdin mukaan ylläpitämään ja kehittämään eurooppalaista antropologiaa, toisin sanoen toimittamaan kirjoja European Association of Social Anthropologists-järjestölle. Nettijulkaisu Allegran juttu aiheesta täällä.

Haastattelussa totean suunnilleen, että antropologia yhtäällä ja kirjojen luku toisaalla voivat myös olla osa  uusliberalistisesta huomiotaloudesta irtaantumista. Sitä Ihminen ja Maa juuri nyt kaipaavat.

I have just spent aBridges week in Cape Town, World Design Capital 2014.

Rather than design stories I have come back with thoughts of what the global “normal” is. More specifically, I’m thinking about what city managers (whoever they are in these confused days) do with land. And, following on from there, about what land use does to social organisation.

Cape Town’s My Citi rapid transit network (buses basically, but with a twist) is one of many efforts by the city to make it green, efficient and “liveable”. But these schemes struggle, in Cape Town as elsewhere, to make a dent in a global addiction to driving. Shame too that the network does’t extend very far into the less salubrious neighbourhoods.

Charming, even seductive, Cape Town still sprawls. Besides all the cuteness of the central neighbourhoods, it has miles and miles of shacks and those overhead lines and so-called telegraph poles by which life in the unplanned city is made possible.

I was lucky enough to catch a walking tour organised by Open StreetOpen Streetss Cape Town together with Langa Quarter Langa 1 organisers Tony Elvin and Mike Zuma, before heading back home from my all-too-brief stay. In two hours in Cape Town’s real centre* we came a little closer to what is the global normal in urban living.

More and better images here.

Like other cities, as Cape Town spreads it takes up space on the back of those “attractions” deemed necessary by city politicians and managers to luring those creative types who are believed to create wealth by innovating.

In practice, however, this strategy is producing vast areas of impervious surfaces – roads, parking spaces etc.. These kill biotic and social life alike. In North America, Europe and South Africa alike. And probably elsewhere.

Mike talked eloquently about his city. Sadly I can’t reproduce his words for lack of memory or adequate note taking, but he did mention the city’s orifices, and that each new development he sees is a mall.Cricket

In order to support real life the city should invest in sports facilities, cultural venues and other aspirational developments that would make it easier for the inhabitants to flourish.

Land use, that means, is not a boring or unimportant issue.

District Six

Where most cities are like Cape Town in allowing malls and roads to mushroom, most cities do not have a District Six. Here right in the heart of Cape Town, in 1966, white supremacy took another sick turn. Apparently disgusted [sic] by the cosmopolitanism of this central Cape Town neighbourhood, the apartheid regime decided to bulldoze it. Of most streets, only the street placards now remain.Street names District Six MuseuToday it is a heritage site and rebuilding is promised, right of return as well, to old residents. A vibrant and wonderful community centre that parades as a museum continues to campaign to this end.

Our cab driver on the way to the airport noted that in case we were interested, he was born in that there empty area by the highway. He pointed at a palm tree behind one of the few old buildings still standing in District Six.

We were interested – and the journey to the airport wasn’t long enough. He did, however, express his sadness at the slowness of the rebuilding process. He put in his claim to go back in 1998, and is still waiting for anything to happen. People are dying, he said.

So District Six is rather special, in so many ways. In the middle of the city its emptiness is a reminder of many things that we mostly forget.

And of that curious way in which houses of worship – where people gather to celebrate each other and the miracle of the world – so often are the ones to survive. In District Six, it was places of worship that escaped the bulldozers.

What did occur to me was that the land of District Six would make a great spot for an urban garden. Not unlike this one from down the tracks at Langa.

Methodist church and cabbage patch

I already miss being in Cape Town.

* By Cape Town’s “real centre” I mean Langa, the township. It’s the oldest of Cape Town’s townships, and closest to what’s usually called the city centre, really the CBD or Central Business District.