Temporary Urbanism: A Tool Towards Adaptable Futures
We have recently been developing the idea of adaptable neighbourhoods, that is to say the notion that sustainable development of challenged city areas is best carried out incrementally, using existing economic and social networks as its basis. This model deliberately opposes itself to the more orthodox form of comprehensive redevelopment, which requires the erasure by means of wholesale demolition of pre-existing urban and social patterns. This paper looks at how temporary projects can embed that crucial ingredient of adaptability which alone can enable blighted neighbourhoods to thrive in difficult economic times.
Over the last year, three Occupy sites in Madrid, New York, and London (as well as a myriad of smaller ones) have activated discussion and demonstrated a version of live negotiation about space in the city – who owns it and how it should be used. In all three cities, protesters occupied sensitive public spaces, and camped out in them. In Madrid, Plaza del Sol became a compass and miniature map of the larger city, with each neighbourhood hub as an embassy relating back to its barrio. In New York the issue of so-called public space turning out in fact to be private was acted out in real space and time. Ironically the fuzzy red line of the police barricades not only sustained the protest site, but the discussions about territory actualized and dramatized the underlying issues behind that protest. The surprise in London was that the issue of the sacred and profane could play out on a rather small patch of paving around St Paul’s, revealing the cracks in a truce between the state and church brokered in the sixteenth century. The Church of England is territorially strong but appeared suddenly uncertain of both its powers and, more fundamentally, of its remit. For a while these three places will have had a heightened psycho-geographical presence for participants, other citizens and tourists. Is this enrichment a form of urbanism? Clearly the answer has to be yes, but it must also be acknowledged that the activities of these protesters illuminated a profound nervousness on the part of the city authorities and other vested interests about the issue of change instigated bottom up.
Another form of occupation of the city, long hallowed by tradition and tightly controlled by city authorities, is the street market. Is a regular street market a form of urbanism? Clearly again the answer is yes, and we want to argue that if the ebb and flow of goods, services and people is the life-blood of cities, then shouldn’t urban designers focus more on the implications of interim uses such as protests, festivals and markets? Three current projects we have initiated at Ash Sakula explore the urban possibilities of temporary or interim uses. Leicester Waterside is an unnecessarily blighted brownfield site ripe for incremental development. Canning Town Caravanserai on the site of some over hasty housing demolition in east London has a five year temporary life. Leather Lane Stars is the attempt to use social networking to help save a rapidly shrinking traditional London street market. The value of sharing these three stories is the opportunity for concrete anecdotes to shed light on aspects of temporary urbanism, to argue for recognition and support of bottom-up urban shaping, and to challenge the currently unhelpful rhetoric of place making used by the regeneration industry.
Occupy Madrid LibraryAll three projects occupy ‘difficult’ urban territory, places generally ignored or patronized by the development industry. Abandoned buildings and landscapes are fickle. In dull light their neediness is unattractive, but in the right company, at the right moment, they offer a promise of freedom. Then momentarily escaping the normative plans of the landowners, new urban inventions can take root. The problem is these cracks in the system are all too rare. Under normal circumstances, property is just not a place where people can try things out. Novelty in the serious world of real estate is restricted to marketing tactics rather than any fundamental rethinking about how we live, work, and consume. This contrasts with, for example, drug development, manufacturing and even advertising, where ways are devised to mock up future scenarios; and running back to new starting points with data to launch improved variants is completely respectable. By contrast, in property development, we have built an ossified system around the business of making cities, and with every year the burden of more risk registers, more ‘commercial confidentiality’ and more planning consultants’ fearmongering means that it gets more rigid and further away from people.
Trying things out on the ground is an antidote to the mystification latent in most twentieth century manifestos of architecture and urbanism, where there was insufficient room for anecdote, or for evidence that refused to settle into the expected patterns. As a result, over the last fifty years every city in Britain has produced inexplicable barriers to urban life: giant objects which have been insufficiently loved, mass housing that doesn’t hold its value, confusing disjunctions where one urban nostrum hits another. Jane Jacobs was amazed by the rejection of urban vitality and the failure to absorb in your face evidence. As she presciently wrote half a century ago, ‘The pseudoscience of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success.’
British street markets are temporary urbanisms of an often successful kind. They may be less elegant than French or Spanish markets, but they make up for this with a more raucous vitality: places of theatrical trade. Leather Lane Stars is a project to promote, publicize and reinvigorate the historic market of Leather Lane in the Holborn district of London.
The traders are the real stars of Leather Lane, Camden’s longest street market, playing a key role as hosts and animators of the public realm within the city. We have identified three different types of star. Established Stars: traders who have been on Leather Lane for more than 10 years, and the ones who really know how the market has changed over the years: some have been here their whole lives. Rising Stars: some have been here for months, others for years, the relatively more recent traders that make up the community of Leather Lane market. And Supporting Stars, the shops who exist on this side street because of the market, but also bring people to the street and sustain longer trading hours. Leather Lane has recently lost half its stalls. However it is in the interests of this symbiotic mix of networked Stars that it should thrive. During Green Sky Thinking Week in September 2011 we set up stalls and events which led to the Friends of Leather Lane run by a mix of local business, stall traders and shopkeepers with the aim of attracting new kinds of commerce and publicity. We are looking at a Business Improvement District for Leather Lane and Hatton Garden which will focus on street level activity and local employment. We have made strong connections with other London street markets who are further along this road. We are convinced that real change must come from the Stars themselves, but they need a vocal fanbase to turn around the fortunes of the market. http://leatherlanestars.wordpress.com/
Canning Town Caravanserai
Last year we won the Meanwhile London competition run by the London Borough of Newham with a project called the Canning Town Caravanserai. The project takes a large, barren site on Silvertown Way, opposite Canning Town train station, where old housing has recently been demolished. Redevelopment will not take place for at least five years, and in the meantime we have been given the site to attempt an urban experiment.
Our proposal is for the creation of a new public space filled with many different complementary activities designed to be relevant to and to engage with the needs of locals and visitors, kickstarted during the 2012 London Olympic summer. These activities include small creative micro-enterprises involved with trading, making, cooking and eating, housed in containers and some innovative integrally printed lightweight enclosures; a café; a performance space; a garden; a mini-golf course; and a small caretakers’ residence consisting of three eccentrically stacked shipping containers which overlooks the whole.
We are working with Groundwork London and Community Links in Canning Town on training and entrepreneurial opportunities for the build and running of the site. This hybrid commerce garden will be programmed so that it can change its spots; at times restricting entry to the under fives; at times being ticketed for a whole site performance; but most often attempting to a beer garden ambiance where the siloed generationally defined activities of London life are eroded and children are welcomed into the adult world. This is perhaps the purpose of attempting the project, to prove that neighbourhoods can host a mix of social enterprise hard sell enterprise young children’s activiites, adult games and activities and a licenced café which allows for socializing between families, young people and the elderly. https://caravanserai.org.uk/
Leicester Waterside was going to be entirely flattened and rebuilt, but now there are no real plans for the area because its land values calculate at ze. Like the adjacent riverside site of Frog Island it is threatened by falling occupation and strange fires. However there seems little reason for this neglect. The site has impressive resources, a varied collection of buildings of all ages, a range of committed local businesses, and a position abutting the main road into the city. It fronts the River Soar and a weir where the river meets the Grand Union Canal. There are herons and cormorants, protected reed banks and water lilies. The opportunity to investigate the potential of the site arose when we won an ideas competition for Loughborough University’s sustainability think tank Adaptable Futures. The brief called for a demonstration of material concepts around adaptability. However we were keen to tackle the physical challenges of adaptability in tandem with real live economics in an environment where economic and human factors are key drivers.
The People of Leicester Waterside
We started with existing uses and businesses and established a forum on the ground and online. The diversity of businesses on site is impressive. There is a simple breakfast café, a coffee bar, an ancient pub with a yard that was a bear pit along the old Roman wall, the beginnings of a nursery under the Baptist Church that has taken over the first floor of a factory, an independent singing school for children and teenagers, a jeans factory, an electronic assembly line, warehouses for shoes, an empire of toys, two wholesalers for decorators, an electrical retailers and a national firm of builders’ merchants, recording studios, bodywork garages, auto rental services, white van sales, and others. Our first forum, held in the café on site, was an immediate success. We found that while some people already had some contact with their neighbours, they all found it interesting to network, and discuss future life on the site without the pressure of comprehensive redevelopment. http://adaptableneighbourhoods.com/waterside/
We are not there yet but can already start to imagine regeneration without the middle men, generating jobs directly with local businesses without the dislocation and upheaval of a new build vision. Such a vision is insulated from economic shocks because it refuses to lay all its eggs in one basket. Instead, adaptable and incremental development can help foster a broad range of enterprises of all sizes, occupying buildings of many types, that can each respond in their own way to the winds of change.
At Leicester Waterside, we are rethinking what success might feel like for a city. In the short term, creative new signage to shout about the local businesses, pop-up gardens, events and markets using left over spaces. To start with, small modifications to buildings, like enlarged openings on the ground floor, to liven-up the public realm. In the longer term, flexible licenses and varied forms of tenure will help generate and maintain a rich cluster of small-scale enterprise and experimentation, all operating with an ethos of low carbon living, together with new housing that makes the most of the site’s proximity to the city centre.