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DIY urbanism

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.

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On February 11th, forty or more Helsinkians gathered in the small auditorium of the former mental hospital in Lapinlahti to hear a panel debate. It was dubbed simply Lapinlahti’s Value (“Lapinlahden Arvo”).image003

Designed by Carl Ludvig Engel and opened to patients in 1841, the hospital’s value as architectural heritage is not (or should not be) in doubt. Yet it has required remarkable persistence from poorly resourced volunteers to prevent it from falling into disuse.

Right now – and for at least one more year – Lapinlahti offers natural and architectural beauty near the city centre. There is also a range of unique small-scale commercial activity, a national hub for mental health and good living Lapihlahden Lähde, work spaces for producers of arts and crafts, a cafe, restaurant Loop, and not surprisingly, a sauna.

As one of the organisers of the event, I was surprised and very gratified that so many people came. And they came to listen and debate, not just to enjoy one of the most beautiful and interesting waterside walks in Helsinki. Until 2008 the hospital operated as a psychiatric unit and was for most of us admired from a distance (below, a snapshot taken from Hietaniemi cemetary last weekend).

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For several years after that, the beautiful and serene site was left idle and the buildings fell into disrepair. There were fears its fate would be the same as that of so much city elsewhere: to be turned into luxury properties. Instead, it is a lively and open place of activity. This was achieved largely by the tireless efforts of people in and around the Finnish Association for Mental Health.

As a sporadically active member of the environmental organisation Dodo, I helped contrive the discussion with Katja Seppinen, long-time active member of the organisation. It was effectively a case of us Dodos inviting ourselves to do an event in Lapinlahti.

Four other speakers completed the panel. Katja Liuksiala, chair of Pro Lapinlahti and a manager at Lapinlahden Lähde, Kimmo Lehtonen of the work-space coop Tilajakamo, writer Maija Kerko and artist and PhD candidate in interdisciplinary environmental studies, Antti Majava.

A winter flu meant we didn’t get the recording we planned to post online, so the notes that follow are based on an audio tape.

I pick up just on a few themes. Each talk was a gem in itself, and each one very different. I sincerely hope that they will be developed into texts, connections or joint activities. They would all nourish the good life in Helsinki.

The first theme I want to pick up on is the one we organisers rather had in mind: freedom to just be. As Helsinki’s decision-makers plan for more shopping malls, the public is feeling the downsides of the attendant privatization of public space, relentless surveillance, and architecture shaped to suit profit more than people.

Each speaker highlighted the value of Lapinlahti as a good place just to be. (Others have made the same observation, here someone writes in English).

Katja Liuksiala’s connection with the place goes back to when she worked at the psychiatric hospital as an occupational therapist. Channelling Lefebvrian ideals of the right to the city – though I have no idea if she has ever read Henri Lefebvre’s work – Liuksiala talked about the people who have come to Lapinlahti recently because here they are free to just be, free to find they own passion and free to have impact the life of the place. Indeed, free to affect its fate. There is openness and looseness to Lapinlahti that most contemporary urban space simply cannot even aspire to.

Indeed, the grounds are now open, and much of the main building also, plus the sauna. Residents have found the place. Still, although the “keep out” signs at the entrance from the road have been replaced with inviting posters, for many locals the site probably still has associations that are ambivalent at best.

Below and further down are some photos from April 2015.

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Another theme of our discussion was how market values in real estate, dominant in public debate on urban space, actually make little sense.

“We pulled out 2 euros” recalled Kimmo Lehtonen of the Tilajakamo work-space co-operative, talking about their negotiations with the authorities. The city kept insisting on what they called market rent for the site. Well, since there were no other takers, the going rate might be considered close to zero, so 2 euros wasn’t bad!

Although considerable sums went into fixing plumbing, Lehtonen explained, the low rents and low-key maintenance they offer, make a stark contrast with the sums that the city administration deemed necessary for ensuring a future for the site. Tilajakamo (literally translated sort of as “Space Division”) is bringing life into the building as it is. Of course, to run a modern hospital within a site of architectural heritage would, Lehtonen mused, be prohibitively expensive.

In Lapinlahti history speaks. It is not just in the classical architecture or in the tiny room where author Aleksis Kivi was a patient, but in the corridors that are both sombre and light-filled, and in the bunches of wires and other twentieth-century trappings of institutional life.

Patients must have felt the Nature outside the windows calling them. Even today the gardens are beautiful (below two years ago). In Lapinlahti it is easy to appreciate how an environment that so obviously invites gardening has been recognised over the generations as a force for healing.

lapinlahti-flowers-2015

Maija Kerko is writing a book about the campaign organisation, Pro Lapinlahti, which was started in the late 1980s to defend the hospital from the combined forces of notional progress and intensifying urban growth. I can’t begin to do justice to her finely crafted talk about the hospital as a place that symbolises a right to vulnerability at the same time as being, in the most concrete way possible, a place of care. She drew on the words of many people, including many former patients, who have been spelling out why Lapinlahti has been so cherished since Tsar Alexander I set it aside for the care of the most vulnerable. I look forward to Kerko’s book!

Antti Majava’s interest in Lapinlahti turned out to have an unexpected source, namely having been brought up as the son of a psychiatrist! His presentation picked up on freedom, vulnerability and markets, but also expertise in financial accounting, and spun from these an intriguing image of a society – ours – severly out of kilter. Antti surmised that it is society, surely, that is mad here, as Erich Fromm suggested.

Lapinlahti may no longer be suited to being a psychiatric hospital. But Majava made the point that “care in the community” has also failed the country. Psychiatric units have been torn down and not replaced. While this is happening, places that make us sick are practically forced upon us. Urban development is a cavalcade of endless shopping opportunities, never mind that this devastates the inter-personal commerce of any town or city.

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One take-home message from our evening’s debate was then that Lapinlahti outshines, in every possible dimension, the tawrdy stuff of the retail therapy that Helsinki is currently building in so many parts of the city.

The challenge is to convey that message to elected politicians and other decision makers. Perhaps the message also needs to go out to the dedicated volunteers involved. For it has begun to seem like the generative capacities and the healing powers of Helsinki’s most valued places need spaces “left over” by retail-led real estate “requirements”. Wellbeing of place and people here rests, for better or worse, on the shoulders of ordinary citizens.

There are clear similarities but also differences between the debates on planetary crisis today and forty-fifty years ago. As a major similarity, there is a hunger and a thirst for different ways of doing things and living lives. This goes for Helsinki, London and Budapest, right now hosting the 5th international Degrowth Conference.

The climate march in London two years ago offered lots of examples, for instance capitalism portrayed as the grim reaper. Other examples are legion.

2014 grim reaping capitalism

Based on texts I’ve read and footage I’ve seen, the drive to think and live differently in the 1960s was quite similar to the efforts taking place today on DIY, post-growth and other alternatives to profit and competition-driven social arrangements.

I was a little surprised that even in the academic degrowth community, currently converged in Budapest, not many appear to know about and realise how relevant those 1960s and 1970s experiences were to today. Whatever you think about their long-term effects (Fred Turner’s view is worth pondering), they certainly captured the imaginations of many smart young people.

But as an anthropologist I’m bound to keep reminding myself and others, imaginations, even global imaginations, are shaped in historical context.

So here is a short text I wrote on how some young Finns in the 1960s responded then to the palpable sense of urgent crisis. Without a doubt, these people shaped many dimensions of recent Finnish history.

The text was published in Ark, The Finnish Journal of Architecture, issue 1, 2016, and came out in the winter already. Below is the start of the text, here a pdf.  The text is in both Finnish and English.

Along with the radical 1960s came more than illegal drugs and rebelliousness; in architecture the permissive mood of the times opened up new techno-utopian possibilities. A central figure of the new thinking was the American Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983), a nonconformist preacher of technological  salvation. His views on how to solve the socio-economic problems of the twentieth century made an impression on business and military circles as well as on hippies. Fuller was also invited to lecture in Finland. In July 1968 he participated in a seminar held on the historic Suomenlinna fortress island under the title “Industry, Environment and Product Design”.

I’m not a historian or a design theorist. I hope someone who is both, or at least one of those things, will delve into this fascinating story in more depth and with local nuance.

With a focus on the San Francisco Bay Area, Greg Castillo has, however, written a great text available here.

(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.