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September 24, 2015

Creative Spaces Need a Caring City

Creative Spaces Need a Caring City

There are many ways that cities can support grassroots experiments with public space. But a good start is to pay attention to what’s already going on. This was an overall lesson from a meeting on “New Urban Space”, organised by SEiSMiC's Swedish National Network August 26 in Stockholm.

Cities that want to shift from a top-down approach need to map existing initiatives to understand citizens’ concerns and priorities, participants agreed. As well, city administrations need to go where the people are, hosting discussions with citizens in supermarkets and local shops, for example.

There is progress on this front in Sweden. “Participatory planning and  involvement of civil society has been discussed since the ’70s but now there are finally signs that citizens are involved in the actual making of the everyday city,” said meeting moderator Caroline Dahl, a researcher at the Swedish University of Agriculture, when opening the seminar.

The event drew 80 participants and was held at the Centre for Architecture and Design (ArkDes). The event theme, "grass roots initiatives and social innovators in urban development", was a good match for a follow-up event at the same venue “ArkDes Talks: Reprogramming the City.”

The latter event showcased projects from an ongoing exhibition that challenged visitors to think in terms of “what if?” The work on show was selected through an open call for project ideas that demonstrated how cities could become more efficient at giving new functions to underused spaces. The SEiSMiC seminar dove deeper into discussions about how cities can become better at embracing initiatives of grassroots groups and social innovators.

A project in the Norra Älvstranden area of Gothenburg has shown how areas in transition can be opened up for temporary projects and take on new life as the district changes function. During the long timespan of the district’s transformation, citizens have been invited to take part in temporary projects that seek to activate the area and to trial ideas proposed during citizen dialogues. The project Mellanrum in Malmö, described in a separate article, is another example of this strategy.

City districts in transition are examples of “white spots”, i.e. places outside a rigid structure and without an obvious function. As such, they can more easily accommodate local initiatives and temporary activities that add something new to public space. It was suggested that cities should purposefully leave white spots.

The "pop-up" park Pallis in Stockholm is an example of how temporary pilot projects can be used to challenge laws and regulation. Proponents of the park went through long negotiations to sustain Pallis over the summer with various activities. The proponents now plan to work with city planners to write a handbook based on the lessons learnt. Although some people manage to realise such projects within existing frameworks, cities generally need to bend rules and praxis to get them going. For their part, social innovators and grassroots activists need to get more active and get projects moving on a small scale before applying for permits and scaling things up.  

External process leaders can help catalyze processes and mediate between parties. For example, the city of Umeå hired a young person to organise initiatives involving young people in the preparation for the city's European Cultural Capital of the Year. Meanwhile, the city of Gothenburg hired the Architectural firm Raumlabor to assist with projects in Norra Älvstranden. And the city of Nacka brought catalytic skills in house by hiring an artist (Katarina Fredrika) as a renewal strategist.

Projects that break new ground can thrive when the authority believes in them. Amanda Larsson, founder of Magical Children Architects, described how the faith and gentle steering from the city’s project leader combined with the support from a curator gave her the room she needed to realise ideas true to her vision.

Finally, embracing citizen initiatives is not only a democratic imperative but a necessity to address the complex challenges that cities face. There is no single working model, and the city administration sometimes needs to step in and give legitimacy or even take over a project. In other cases, it is better to ignore a project and let it develop outside regular structures.