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Tactical Urbanism and the Question of Authenticity

Posted By Laura Tate, Thursday, June 1, 2017
Updated: Friday, June 2, 2017

Cutter Square in Somerville, MA. A typical pop-up urbanism example of a temporarily occupied public space  - photo by Dan Bartman.

Guest posting by David Franco, Assistant Professor at Clemson University

Since the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis began to have spatially tangible impacts on cities all over the world, we have been witnessing the resurgence of a diverse collection of urban practices characterized by the informal, low-cost, and usually temporary, occupation of public space. These include practices labeled under terms like DIY, Tactical or Pop-up Urbanism whose origins can be tentatively traced to two different strains of precedents.  The first of these consists of selected urban practices conceived by excluded social groups and minorities in order to create a space of their own without the support of the established power.  The second embodies certain counterculture proposals from groups active during the sixties and seventies, such as the International Situationists, in which transgressive politics and urban art were intimately entangled.

Two key influences

To fully understand these practices and how they relate to authenticity, we must acknowledge two key recent developments. First, the early revival of tactical urbanist practices largely coincided in time with the wave of protests that in 2011 took over streets and squares across the world–the Arab Spring, the Indignados or the Occupy movement–, bringing again urban space to the center of the global political debate. Second, while culturally closer to anti-establishment activism, these alternative forms of urbanism have developed into primarily realistic strategies: praised by its cost-effectiveness, and fully incorporated to mainstream local politics. We might even conclude –as David Spataro[1] has clearly explained– that contemporary DIY urbanism has given up the struggle for public space, which was intrinsic to its cultural precedents, to become one more item within the professional toolbox of planners, urban designers and architects.

And some important contradictions...

In her book Naked City, The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places Sharon Zukin places the creative class’s yearning for authentic urban places well beyond the debate about the problems of gentrification processes. Just as the resurgence of DIY urbanism signals to an attempt to deal with the contradictions of political dissent in contemporary societies, Zukin’s notion of authenticity speaks to anxieties about how urban places inevitably change. Therefore, the relevance of authenticity may not be contingent, as it may seem, on the innate qualities of urban places –as those studied by Zukin from different New York neighbourhoods–, or on the actual social effects of temporary urban actions, which I am discussing here. On the contrary, in the words of Zukin, the notion of authenticity is relevant because “it connects our individual yearning to root ourselves in a singular time and place to a cosmic grasp of larger social forces that remake our world from many small and often invisible actions”.[2] Along those lines, we need to understand how the attempts to involve citizens in temporary urban actions cannot merely be interpreted as agile, networked, low-tech, low-budget and smart solutions, or as Andre Duany puts it in his preface to the first Streets Plans Collaborative publication on Tactical Urbanism[3], as “the urban planning equivalent of the iPhone replacing the mainframe”. They also need to be understood as intrinsically political actions that connect us to a wider context in which the general crisis of democracy and the consequential re-emergence of social participation are ubiquitous realities.

In the same way that the attraction of gentrifying neighborhoods lays paradoxically on the very authenticity threatened by their transformation, the attraction –and the mainstream success– of Tactical Urbanism rests with the civic authenticity that temporary urban actions reproduce without really carrying it through. The internal conflict originating from this paradox –similarly to that described in Zukin’s discussion of authenticity– is the source of the diversity of the practices we see labeled as DIY, pop-up or guerilla urbanism. It might be useful to briefly examine at some examples that embody such a wide range, and that go from depoliticized and commercial proposals, to radical actions of dissent.

Some brief examples

First, we can check out what Mike Lyndon and Tony García, principals of the firm Streets Plans Collaborative, defend in the same publication cited  earlier. This series of guides, whose first volume was published in 2011, was obviously intended as a foundational reference for a new movement.  Volume one also has the revealing title of ‘Tactical Urbanism. Short Term Action, Long Term Change’[4]; and it basically consists of a series of case studies organized around well-known categories such as pop-up cafés, chair bombing or guerrilla gardening. A striking argument from later volumes, such as the one from 2015,[5] is the insistence on how Tactical Urbanism offers a new way to integrate top-down and bottom-up efforts, making coherent the actions exerted by developers, authorities and administrations with citizens demands and desires. In other words, Lyndon and Garcia offer a vision that dissolves the political conflict inherent in earlier forms of urban action. A clear example is the inclusion in the guide of the transformation of a parking space into a parklet by the Democrat mayor of Ithaca Svante Myrick, who appears relaxed in the now converted parklet,in what seems to be a campaign ad photo, surrounded by happy constituents.

Svante Myrick, Mayor of Ithaca, NY (wearing tie), in his transformed town hall parking lot. -Photo supplied by Svante Myrick/Facebook

On almost the opposite side of the spectrum we find Spanish architect and urban activist Santiago Cirugeda, founder of the collective office ‘Recetas Urbanas’ and located in Seville. Cirugeda has a very long history of developing actions that always border on the illegal, challenging the professional, political and even the social conventions that govern cities.[6] The bulk of the work developed by ‘Recetas Urbanas’ embodies small actions that take advantage of unregulated public spaces, such as the bike path network they painted during the night on the asphalt of some of the main urban arteries of Madrid. But there is another even better example of the level of criticism and political radicalism that Cirugeda and his team achieve in their work. As a response and a commentary to the brutal Spanish housing crisis that came after the crash in 2008, they designed ‘Grúa’ (Crane)[7]: a technical and logistic system to build illegal housing units over urban rooftops without any auxiliary structure, only using the final structure of the house.

 

Crane by Recetas Urbanas, Madrid, 2008. Recetas Urbanas constructed two cranes for delocalized projects and another one, for an exhibition at the 11th Architecture Biennal in Venice. -Photo by Recetas Urbanas)

Concluding thoughts

These two extreme examples, the mayor’s transformed parklet and Cirugeda’s carefully planned illegality, show us the possibilities of DIY urbanism to react to different urban and political circumstances. But they also tell us about the challenges we need to face, as these practices become part of the future of planning and urban design. Apparently, as in Zukin’s urban places, we want them to be an acceptable, transformed version of themselves, but we also want them to remain authentic and politically relevant. Should they really become part of our official planning tools, or should they remain an open source for anyone to be used? Or both? Will they lose any of their strengths when, as in the example in Ithaca, they stop implementing dissent to represent the ruling power? Do they really give up their social and political authenticity when they do it?



[1] David Spataro, ‘Against a de-politicized DIY urbanism: Food Not Bombs and the struggle over public space’, Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability (Jul, 2015), pp185-201

[2] Sharon Zukin, Naked City, The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011) p220.

[3] Andres Duany, ‘Forward’, Tactical Urbanism Short Term Action Long Term Change (Washington: Island Press, 2015), pxii.

[4] Mike Lydon, Dan Bartman, Ronald Woudstra and Aurash Khawarzad, Tactical Urbanism Short Term Action Long Term Change Vol 1 (Next Generation New Urbanists, 2011)

[5] Mike Lydon and Tony Garcia, Tactical Urbanism Short Term Action Long Term Change (Washington: Island Press, 2015)

[6] See webpage: http://www.recetasurbanas.net/v3/index.php/en/

[7] Iñaqui Carnicero and Carlos Quintáns, Bienal de Venecia 2016 Unfinished Pabellón Español / Spanish Pavilion (Madrid: Fundación Arquia, 2016)

 

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