Some take aways of Constantin Petcou talk in Genk on AAA's bottom-up urban improvement projects, as well as some links of inspiring databases of collective urban action.
I recently attended a presentation of the Romanian architect Constantin Petcou of the collective platform AAA (Atelier d'Architecture Autogérée, or, Studio for Self-managed Architecture), based in Paris, France. AAA transforms, together with citizens and local actors, abandoned spaces into self-managed and independent places. These spaces become re-appropriated with cultural production and parallel economic activities such as food production – all of which has influence on the social re-activation and the education of citizens. Their projects are well documented on the AAA studio website as well as the R-URBAN project website, so I won't go into details. What mainly struck me in their practice is the long term built-up of the projects – many lasted for several years and shifted and evolved through different phases. Such as the ECObox project in which they initially managed a space, later co-mananged the space together with citizens, until finally there were enough social structures in place that the spaces became auto-managed and AAA could retract and move on to other projects. Their research focus consists not only in building up these projects, but in understanding the social dynamics that take place and thinking through the tactics for the long-term survival of their efforts (such as the mobility of the interventions). One of the research methods they use is mapping and visualisation of data on the project over longer periods of time, which provides new insights on how such projects evolve both socially, financially and spatially. See some of the pictures here of the presentation. One more takeaway I got from Constantin's talk is his description of the role 'key figures' play in urban (improvement) networks. Key figures have rhizome-like capabilities: they not only pick up knowledge, but also have the ability to spread this knowledge through their social network, diversify tactics and auto-manage spaces.
This magazine article argues for the new profession of 'Creative Community Coach' within local governments that would give these governments a more educative, facilitating and empowering function, instead of a service-oriented role.
Art and design interventions in public spaces have the potential to bring positive effects to neighborhoods. It's increasingly popular for local governments and socio-cultural organizations to invite artists, designers, architects or hybrid mixes of the former, to bring in their vision and expertise. Streets and urban wastelands are transformed into new creative spaces with new social, playful, functional and aesthetic qualities (*1). When these projects come to life in a participatory way, such as works that use methods like co-design or co-creation, they even have the potential to transfer new visions, skills and knowledge from the production team to the involved inhabitants. These joint efforts often have a positive impact on the social environment, as they bring people together around a shared goal.
Some of these projects proved to be so successful, that it can be envisioned for governments to install such a way of working as a permanent praxis. Budgetary restraints, however, are a limiting factor. But instead of seeing these times of crisis as a reason to procrastinate on urban improvement, we can see it as an opportunity for new ways of thinking and problem solving. It's up to governments to re-invent themselves and take up new roles and responsibilities. Citizens should be activated to take up a part of the responsibility and engage in the spaces they inhabit. Already today, we can find beautiful examples of bottom-up, self-organized and maintained urban improvement (*2).
Many governments don't have a clear strategy on how to respond to these bottom-up endeavors, nor stimulate them. It's not uncommon for power struggles to emerge when inhabitants request permission for their plans. Differences in culture, language, background and agenda can get into the way of working towards a common goal. Many considerations of governments are well motivated, such as the follow up and maintenance of the proposed projects, the quality of execution and safety concerns, to name a few. Most projects need some improvement before they can be placed in a public space environment. Therefore we propose a new type of hypothetical function within local governments. A team of 'Creative Community Coaches' takes up a supportive and educative role to help inhabitants to realize their project with an appropriate level of quality. Moreover, they are actively on the lookout for opportunities for creative improvement and coach the community towards shared goals.
Creative Community Coaches (CCC) are persons with social, creative and educative skills. Armed with knowledge and expertise on tools and methods to support community self-organization, collaborative design and DIY building, they coach inhabitants to self-improve their neighborhoods in a creative way. Since they are embedded in the government, they easily consult with teams of specialists and policy-makers on legal and technical issues. To allow the development of bottom-up initiatives outside the government's main policy, they ideally operate semi-independently.
We envision CCC's as a network of practitioners, who document and share solutions for recurring urban problems: a community of practice as well as an open learning environment for inhabitants, volunteers, interns and unemployed workers. The primary focus of CCC's is not to produce, but to educate: to transfer knowledge necessary for the community to replicate and adapt the works and tackle urban issues increasingly independently. Since CCC's settle in a community for a longer period of time, they understand the issues at hand on a deep level and create strong alliances with other local organizations. This ensures follow up, maintenance, and adaption to new situations. CCC's grow a 'Creative Community Network' (CCN). Globally, best-practices, blueprints of interventions as well as and methodology are shared. Locally, physical materials and tools are shared and recycled. Such a network is cost-efficient, and allows a pragmatic approach when choosing or designing a project.
The concept of CCC aims to foster bottom-up but coached and supported self-organization of urban improvement projects. The coaches act as a supportive 'interface' between the inhabitants and the government. The idea is inspired by practices of participatory art and design projects, while taking into account the possible limitation these projects might have. It attempts to solve urban issues in a systemic way, but recognizes that solutions to problems often need local adaptions. As a concept, it’s an opportunity for future research and experiment in a real world context.
This article will be published in Dédalo Magazine in October 2013.
It’s based on my research in the arts fields as well as conversations I had at the workshop “Dédalo RE-ACT Urban Festival” with students, artists, designers and architects.
The ZWERM Tree became a popular hangout, for some players even a symbol of togetherness. See the images for different types appropriation.
The ZWERM Tree became a popular hangout, for some players even a symbol of togetherness. Players passed by the Tree for an occasional 'single check-in' on their way to work or an errand, or met with their team for 'combo check-in'. Team placed posters on the Tree to invite other to come at a particular moment.
Although we designed the Sparrows for public interaction, private interactions proved a powerful amplifier of the social effects.
The Sparrows are interactive interventions attached to the window panes of residential houses. The inhabitants of these houses, volunteers we call 'Sparrow hosts', at times personally interacted with the objects, evoking playful interactions between the Sparrow host and the passersby. One player described to have experienced an “exciting yet invisible interaction” with a Sparrow host who seems to “enjoy making contact by echo-whistling”. So although we designed the Sparrows for public interaction, private interactions proved a powerful amplifier of the social effects. However, one Sparrow host received a written message in her mailbox calling her a cheater, signed with “the ZWERM inspection”. In future versions of ZWERM we will carefully consider interactions that mix public and private contexts.
Sparrows are interactive birds that light up when someone whistles in the vicinity.
Sparrows are interactive birds, attached to the first floor windowpanes of residential houses. They light up in a random mix of colours when someone whistles in the vicinity, adding a ludic dimension to the neighborhood, improving the neighborhood atmosphere through an interactive poetic layer. A Sparrow houses a range of sensors, including sound, light, movement and CO2, as well as a 3G enabled SIM card.
Sparrows are part of a city game ZWERM, which aims to improve neighborhood cohesion and ultimately neighborhood participation, through a network of urban, ludic interventions. Within the game, each Sparrow whistle adds points to the neighborhoods’ score in which the object was located. Players are able to consult a map with the locations and the status of the Sparrows on the ZWERM website.
ZWERM partners: iMinds, Alcatel-Lucent, City of Ghent. With collaboration of MAD-faculty and Fab Lab Genk.
The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme FP7/2007-2013 under grant agreements n°270971: SmartIP.
Trees are totem-like interactive sculptures that are part of a neighborhood game, designed to increase social capital and provoke a process of collaboration and self-organization.
Trees are totem-like urban interventions that are part of the neighborhood game ZWERM (Dutch for the word ‘swarm’), which was played in February-March 2013 in the city of Ghent, Belgium. These interactive sculptures contain a touch-screen computer, an RFID-card reader and a 3G modem. A Tree is placed on a central square in each of the participating neighborhoods, which compete in a one-month game. Players of the game get points when scan an RFID game card at the card reader of the Tree, an action we termed 'check-in'. Players who ‘check-in’ alone score 10 points. When they scan their card together with someone they did not ‘check-in’ before, they each get 40 points. The goal is to get citizens physically together and get them to talk to each other, ultimately provoking a process of collaboration and self-organization. In the test-bed city of Ghent, a process of self-organization occurred in which people initiated events and gatherings around the tree with drinks, music and fire-pits.
The aesthetic concept of the Trees is inspired by nature (e.g. communal action of ‘swarming’ of birds) and ‘hip’ vintage computer games (e.g. low-polygon 3D models). Combined with the use of modern plywood material, a kind of ‘digital nature’ style was created.
ZWERM partners: iMinds, Alcatel-Lucent, City of Ghent. With collaboration of MAD-faculty and Fab Lab Genk and Firma 103. The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme FP7/2007-2013 under grant agreements n°270971: SmartIP.