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When is counterculture authentic, and how should planners engage?

Posted By Laura Tate, Thursday, June 22, 2017

For planners, celebrating counterculture may be an exciting way to bolster something that seems to express part of the city’s spirit.  For many, authenticity is linked to place-based counterculture movements and expressions –but not all of the latter are authentic.

Many counterculture movements initially protested social hierarchies, seeking more equality and freedom. To appreciate why this protest has also backfired in a big way on many occasions- check out The Rebel Sell by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter.  (The Rebel Sell was known as Nation of Rebels in the US, because relatively few people there were familiar with the Billy Idol punk rock anthem “Rebel Yell” to which the title payed a tongue in cheek tribute.)  The Rebel Sell / Nation of Rebels argues that yesterday's counterculture quickly evolved into yesterday's -and today's- conformism and, increasingly, has been appropriated as a marketing tool.  This was ironic, because many of these movements had themselves begun by protesting the ways that mass produced goods and culture was lulling people into accepting inequality.  Counterculture was the answer because it questioned mass culture.  And then counterculture itself became commodified.  This continues to happen, as many of us saw in the controversial Pepsi Commercial which tried (and failed) to enhance its product appeal by seeming to copy several real protests.  But this commercialization doesn't happen immediately.  And there remains value in countercultural expressions for communities during key periods in their evolution.

Counterculture Imaginaries and Authenticity

So when and why does counterculture bolster community authenticity (assuming we can agree on what authenticity is)? And how should planners encourage authentic aspects of counterculture?

In responding to these questions, a digression is important.  Lately, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the link between the authentic and the urban and social imaginary of a community.  Confused?  The urban imaginary refers to a type of collective understanding (by its inhabitants) of what a city is all about, and how the people in it relate to each other, at a given point in time.  The social imaginary, a related and overlapping concept, was first discussed by Castoriadis (1975).  The social imaginary embodies a similar collective understanding by members of a society—and it is also something which can never fully be made explicit, because part of it is unconscious (as illustrated shortly).  Symbolic representations of this imaginary can sometimes convey deeper truths than mere words; but even non-verbal symbols don’t fully express these truths.  For Castoriadis, the closest way we can make the social imaginary explicit is through the problems that we choose, and then act upon, to solve.   

In keeping with this more symbolic approach, the rest of this blog post explores the link between two specific sites and times of countercultural expression, authenticity, and the urban and social imaginary.  This is not exhaustive, but intended to help sow the seeds for further understanding.

Prague's John Lennon Wall

This wall evolved from a spontaneous expression of grief after former Beatle John Lennon was killed in 1980.  It was quickly whitewashed over by Communist Party authorities -and then just as quickly re-painted by the original mourners.  This cycle of suppression followed by repainting happened several more times before Communist authorities gave up and left the grassroots paintings.   In short--as the wall came to be touched by more and more people, it grew beyond an expression of grief for a lost musician, into a form of broader protest, and a call for more freedom of expression in the country as a whole.

The John Lennon Wall in Prague, 2015. Photo by Laura Tate

Using Castoriadis’s understanding of the social imaginary, the wall seemed to help members of Czech society to express seething frustration with broader aspects of political life which had been curtailing their freedom.  The various recreations of the wall were stealthy, and they were persistent.  One could see the wall as an active (and relatively less confrontational) symbol of problem-solving behind the scenes related to more fundamental questions about how that society should govern itself and engage with self-expression.  While popular with tourists, the wall remains a moving tribute to something real and important in the Czech Republic’s history.  Residents’ continued support for the wall may also be emblematic of their ongoing determination to hold onto hard won freedoms, which they still express actively.  On the same visit when I saw the wall (summer 2015), there were small demonstrations against Russian occupations of the Ukraine, and clear messages that Russian occupiers were not welcome in the Czech Republic, whose citizens remembered an earlier, repressive Soviet occupation.

Protest against Russian occupation of the Ukraine.  Prague, 2015. Photo by Laura Tate

The Commercial Drive Parade of Lost Souls (Vancouver) or East Side Culture Crawl

The Commercial Drive area, while increasingly gentrified, has long been one of Vancouver’s counterculture centres, favoured by Italian immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s.  Also known alternately as Grandview Woodlands, or “The Drive”, the neighbourhood today is diverse, including a mixed range of immigrant communities, artists and musicians, Indigenous people, and people who increasingly value its properties as a good real estate investment.  This parade has been happening on the closest Saturday to Hallowe’en for roughly two decades.   Having participated in the Parade, while also watching neighbourhood real estate prices skyrocket, I have mixed feelings about linking it with authentic counterculture.  But on balance, this event intuitively feels authentic (even though it is advertised on blogs and websites promoting Vancouver real estate ).  And this is partly because the event remains completely accessible to those for whom the event has meaning, by remaining free of charge, and by also keeping the event from becoming mobbed or overly commercialized by keeping the location a secret until midnight the day before the event.

Parade of Lost Souls, Vancouver, BC.  Photo by Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret, 2016

While not explicit, a part of this event’s resonance may also be its ability to symbolize a culture or social imaginary of resistance  against the growing dominance of real estate speculation on the city’s neighbourhoods ( see this thoughtful article for more detail) and even on their psyche, as zombie neighbourhoods  emerge.  Today the parade is now run by a non-profit artist collective focused on the east side of the city (the broader district in which the neighbourhood is located) called The  Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret.  This organization has also participated in past projects exploring other key social issues.  Among these was a collaboration with the Pivot Legal Society on a show called The Listening Jar, which explored themes of justice.  Pivot Legal Society is well-known in Vancouver and the broader province for having taken on important legal battles to help marginalized people.  The battle for affordable housing in Vancouver is far from over, and while the Parade of Lost Souls has been only one of many, many citizen initiatives to implicitly or explicitly protest harms to the city from real estate speculation.  Nonetheless, several recent initiatives at city and senior government levels were launched in the last year, intended as more aggressive steps to reduce pressure on local housing markets, including a speculation tax (provincial government) and an empty homes tax (City of Vancouver).

Parade of Lost Souls, Vancouver, BC.  Photo by Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret, 2016

Planning Takeaways

While many modes of counterculture expression are worthy of support, both counterculture examples discussed above have a strong focus on visual and performance art, with symbolic roles to play in their respective social imaginaries.  Understanding the social imaginary’s role in articulating and working through problems, there is a role to play for planners in creating, honouring, and protecting spaces where more intuitive, and exploratory engagements with the social imaginary can occur.   

Not all of these expressions need the support of government or other agencies informed by planning.  But they do eventually need some form of support from governments and other powerful interests to survive.  This can include grants to grassroots organizations, and it can also include micro-grants, which have become popular means of enabling much smaller scale, and less formal neighbourhood-based projects which seek to express and redesign the social imaginary (see for example the Vancouver Foundation’s neighbourhood small grants program ).  Importantly, this support must involve a broader civic sensibility of inquiry –one in which government’s first move is not to quash down new and potentially challenging forms of expression, but to at least listen and seek to understand before responding.  This means there is also a role for planners to play in leaving these spaces alone- and convincing permitting departments to do the same.

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