I am doing a small research on interim uses (also called temporary, meanwhile, pop-up), and researching the work of organisations such as The Gap Filler in Christchurch as a part of it.
What makes this video so lovely, so so very lovely, is in how Ryan Reynolds, a performance scholar, brings together a fundamentally urbanist practice and performance theory. And how he is able to explain the meaning of one through the concepts of the other.
Every so often, I feel very at home in someone’s thinking, and this was one such instance.
On Saturday, I dropped in on the Ctrl-Z Renewal! Symposium at the £1000 Bend, where my friend Eugenia Lim of Assemble was speaking. I was there only briefly, to say hello to a couple of people, and catch the final roundtable discussion, chaired by Nikos Papastergiadis, with David Pledger (of Not Yet It’s Difficult), Marcus Westbury (of Renew Australia), and, I think (I missed the introduction), John Hartley from QUT.
The entire event was about digital technologies and digital publics, on participation, and the notion of citizenship in this day and age. While I didn’t attend expecting to be bored, it was more interesting than I imagined, and I left with notes scribbled on many scraps of paper.
One big theme of the discussion was that the importance of the collaborative processes set in motion in recent times (through work of organisations such as Renew Newcastle and The Gap Filler, but also community art, social media, and similar) is in the process itself, not in the outcome – not just for its democratic value, but also because of its inherent efficiency. Marcus Westbury said that the biggest challenge, after the initial success, becomes how not to professionalise participation. One of the distinguished gentlemen noted that government bureaucracies have a tendency to try to solve people’s problems by removing the problem-solving capacity from those same people, from local residents (this principle applies to the welfare state, but equally so to any other branch of government). No matter how good the final outcome, the people have always already disengaged from the process. Collaboration, however, is a form of hospitality, and it must be delivered with a humility: humility of not trying to know or influence the outcome ahead.
Then there was a nice little interlude on the new citizenship of the social media, and the ability of even underage people to exercise their rights of citizenship in new, and impactful ways.
But David Pledger brought it back to government as bureaucracy (or bureaucracy as bureaucracy, to be precise). Marcus Westbury noted that bureaucracies don’t use their enabling function enough, and get stuck in cultivating the conditions of their own existence (Westbury noted that, in the 10 preceding Renew Newcastle, whenever he tried to engage the City of Newcastle, the most common response he got was “That sounds very interesting, but we’re restructuring right now”). Pledger turned that around and suggested that, even more terminally, bureaucracies actively use their disabling function: they inherently don’t believe that individuals have agency, that anything other than another bureaucracy has agency, and so look at individuals, and individual initiative, adversarily. (He also said that that’s why art funding agencies want artists to function as organisations – to mirror something they recognise.) They agreed, ultimately, that a bureaucracy has a tendency to become inefficient (Westbury: 90% of costs goes to intermediaries), and that this ineffiency then has its own force, its own influence. Pledger asked to reconsider the bureaucratic intermediary as a bureaucratic protagonist in their own right.
The other thought were noting was the very unhelpful role of politics in wanting to create genuine change. Westbury said something very lovely: our contemporary politics is extremely binary, he said, but nothing else in the universe is. And so, politics engages in this translation of the complexity of everything else into two campls: the Left and the Right. Whenever a new idea appears, there is an attempt to have it owned by one of the camps, and that needs to be resisted, because, the moment it is CAMPED, half of the audience automatically goes YES and the other half goes NO. Westbury stated that Renew Newcastle happened when it got on board the most diverse range of supporters: the real estate agents, the developers, the artists, the council, and so on. Had he tried to implement Renew through a political process, he would have been forced to take sides. And had he taken sides, it would have never gained enough bipartisan support to happen. It would have been stuck in a discussion in which, in Westbury’s words, people would be arguing the symbolism, not the practicalites of events – in effect barracking for a team.
This last bit (which chronologically happened quite early in the discussion) was genuinely interesting, because it articulated some of the frustration I’ve been feeling for years, and I’ve heard people express, with our heritage of political theory and political philosophy, and how we need NEW thoughts, NEW theories, NEW ideas. Perhaps, instead, we simply need to be practical. What a great suggestion that was.
In my 7 years in Melbourne, I have lived mainly in the popular inner-city suburbs of North Melbourne and Carlton North. These two neighbourhoods are in many ways typical inner-city Australian suburbs: built in the 19th century, built right from the start with a fairly strong separation of uses, intended to be predominantly residential, with single-storey detached and terraced houses that were not particularly desirable when built (although Carlton North had upmarket bits right from the start), but now command absurd, astronomical prices. North Melbourne has distinctly industrial parts, but a good residential core. Gentrification has come to both neighbourhoods a long time ago, mainly because of their proximity to the city.
But what distiniguishes Carlton North and North Melbourne, not just from other inner suburbs of Melbourne, but from residential neighbourhoods worldwide, is that they have insanely wide streets. They were largely built, right from the start, with insanely wide streets, streets that were, for all intents and purposes, never intended for anything other than purely residential use. Why? I don’t know. Does anyone know?
Rathdowne St in Carlton North, had a tram line going through, which has since been covered with an astronomically-sized nature strip. The rest didn’t. One colleague of mine speculated that the streets were laid out with much taller buildings in plan. We don’t know for sure. They were built before the car even existed, so they certaintly weren’t designed for the amount of parking they provide.
In any case, I am prepared to assume that these two neighbourhoods currently sport some of the widest residential streets in the world. Streets in Melbourne are generally wide, certainly wider than in Europe or Asia, and even wider than in slightly older Australian cities (Sydney or Hobart). But these are the oldest abnormally wide streets I’ve encountered. They are also significantly wider than in other inner suburbs (Fitzroy, even Carlton), which were also more mixed-use. To put this in perspective, the grand grid of the historical central Melbourne has 30m-wide main streets, and 15m-wide laneways, wall to wall. These suburban streets, with hardly any shops on them, all hover around the 30m mark.
What is the benefit of such wide streets? Well, I leave that to you to judge. Here is North Melbourne.
The phenomenon is more general than security; discretionary systems tend to gravitate towards zero-tolerance systems because “following procedure” is a reasonable defense against being blamed for failure.
A Current Affair, which is an Australian evening news show (according to almost everyone I know, watching it is a sign of mental degeneration: however, it is a prime-time show on the most watched TV station in Australia, so you be the judge), recently ran a clip about a female cyclist. Here is how they announced it:
Footage of an Aussie mum towing her baby daughter behind her bicycle on a busy road has shocked police and road safety experts. They say it is irresponsible and downright dangerous. You be the judge.
I have previously written about cyclist shaming on Australian television. But cyclist shaming is a product of a whole culture, not just of one TV program. In his discussion of the program, Alan Davies notes that the woman in the clip had sought advice after being filmed, worried that her job as a pre-school teacher might be threatened if she’s portrayed as someone who can’t look after her own child. Unless pre-schools collude with Channel Nine, which is unreasonable to assume and we won’t, Australia has a whole-of-culture problem.
Cyclist shaming, like rape victim shaming, is a knee-jerk hostile reaction to the presence of a person who has been hurt, or might have been hurt, or might in the future be hurt, by the status quo. This person ought not to exist. The fact that they do is their fault. In fact, by existing, they are showing disrespect to the entire reality. And while we’re trying to make them un-exist, we are wrapping our violence into a semblance of concern for them. “Being here is not safe for you. In a perfect world, you would face no dangers, but you do, so FUCK OFF.”
It is a bullying approach to governance, which understands democracy as the rule of the mighty, and the art of governing in democracy as one of, basically, damage control. Instead of seeing democracy as a system in which everyone should have equal opportunities to flourish, it sees democracy as a system in which the powerful rule, and the weaker need to be forced out of their way, preferably by enforced laws. It has been applied to everyone at some point, because most of us are a part of some disadvantaged minority, and all of them were, at some point, told to get out of someone else’s way, or else: women, children, darker people, people of other religions, gay and trans people, people with disabilities, elderly people, and so on.
I was in Fitzroy today, mapping the land uses and the building types on nine blocks (in order to make a map to illustrate a broader policy point). Since I had to have a good look at full nine residential blocks, from front and back, and it was a nice day and I was on a bike, I moved through the area in quite a specific way: crisscrossing a small area of about 400m x 400m in all directions, back and forth, north to south and east to west then back, stopping every few minutes to take photos, draw a line on my map, or try to peek under a fence. Come to think of it, the reason why I enjoy this kind of activity so much is that it’s very similar to how we played in my neighbourhood when I was little. Indeed, this kind of movement, directionless and slow, which covers a small area very intensively, would trace the same pattern on the map as a child playing.
I was the only person in this corner of Fitzroy doing this. I spent an hour in the area, perhaps, and I didn’t see a single person twice, adult nor child. Even if Australian cities tend to be pedestrian-dead, Fitzroy is a very beautiful neighbourhood, with narrow streets and old houses and not much traffic at all, and it’s surprising how little street life it has. But around 17h, or 5pm, I realised why this might be, when the large roads around Fitzroy started funneling commuters back home, and the traffic through the neighbourhood increased just enough to notice what’s been going on all day.
There isn’t much traffic going through Fitzroy: perhaps a car will drive down a single street once every 5 or 10 minutes during the peak hour. But each car whooshes through at an extremely unpleasant (and too high) speed of about 40 km/h, making lots of noise if anything is in their way. This infrequent, but fast, traffic was completely sufficient to make the area feel like it’s not meant for pedestrians; not even for bikes.
Yes, there’s not a lot of traffic, but each passing car is an unannounced, fast-moving ton of steel, driven by an impatient, self-righteous person. I saw cars veer round corners and take advantage of no traffic signs in the area. I saw cars speed to get through the traffic-calming green islands before a cyclist. I did not see them stop to let a single pedestrian through. I saw cyclists and pedestrians speed up or stop in order not to hamper the vehicular traffic. Every time a car went through the neighbourhood, it was clear that it never occurred to them that the entire Fitzroy wasn’t just edge decoration to their infrastructure.
But why would it? Everything in this environment is designed to promote car traffic. And I mean everything. City of Yarra is ‘committed’ to getting traffic speeds in residential streets down to 20-40 km/h, and there are traces of traffic calming green islands that narrow roads down towards intersections. But the legal limit is 40 km/h almost everywhere within the council (and this is good: normal Australian speed limit is 50 km/h on non-major roads; in Europe, for example, it tends to be 30 km/h). The roads have two lanes each. Almost every street has car parking on both sides. Perpendicular parking is not uncommon (that is 5-6m off the width of the street). In contrast, footpaths are about a metre wide on most streets: not enough for two people to pass each other.
Look at the ratio between the street width given to cars, and to pedestrians, on a perfectly ordinary small street in this area. The ratio is about 3:1 for cars. Bicycle paths are largely not marked. There is no street furniture (benches etc). There are no shops! There are hardly any cafes. There are no bus stops. There are no playgrounds. There are no water fountains. There is no bicycle parking. There is literally nothing for a pedestrian in this area that could constitute a ‘service’, nothing that would confirm their right to be on this street. In fact, we legislate specifically against any kind of such thing in the residential environments of Australian cities. Outside the private houses, there is nothing but car infrastructure.
Add to it a whole bunch of other, subtler design measures: different ways of criminalising and punishing bicycle use, such as mandatory helmets (on which another time, because it’s a policy & research minefield); an ongoing campaign to scare Australian parents against giving any freedom of movement to their children; and a whole bunch of planning regulations that demand extensive car parking provisions, and result in this kind of street interface:
in areas where this used to be the norm:
And there you go. There are no pedestrians on these streets. There is nothing to make the cars slow down. There is nothing to pay attention to. There is nobody else claiming the streets. Streets that should be designed entirely as pedestrian spaces, as spaces for play and slow, un-dangerous movement, have been left entirely as traffic infrastructure.
You can see from this map that many one-way streets have been introduced, probably in the 1970-80s, almost certainly to deter through-traffic and make the area more liveable. But, once a driver finds these streets, there is not much that can stop them driving to the speed limit, and irregular traffic can be as noisy, annoying, and dangerous as constant traffic would be. You can’t give two thirds of street space to cars, far above the minimum they need to pass through, and mandate some of the highest speed limits in the developed world, and then be surprised when it creates dangerous, unpleasant pedestrian spaces. This is an entirely designed problem.
In Japan, and also in Europe, one very often encounters the exact opposite: narrow streets, with lots of street furniture and beautiful paving (both decorative elements that very explicitly present the street as a hanging-out area). These streets are often nominally two-way, and may have very high speed limits: it’s just that two cars cannot actually pass each other, and achievable speed limits are around 5-10 km/h. It’s the uncertainty that makes cars slow down: having to look out for lots of other users. They’re called shared spaces, living streets, home zones, of woonerf (having been invented in the Netherlands). This is how they work in practice:
There is no good way to finish this journal entry. I have been very consciously trying to sustain a life I was living in Germany throughout the 2012, and have thus been noticing all the structural and social impediments to that kind of (very good) life on the streets of Melbourne. It is simply important to keep in mind that the large difference in pedestrian comfort between, say, Melbourne and central Florence is not very accidental, and also not historical. Large differences in quality of life between two cities can almost always be explained by, sometimes very small, differences in how the cities are designed. And everything in the cities we live has been designed by someone.
I have been writing about flash mobs, Erna Omarsdottir, and swingers’ clubs all of this weekend. It has been a particularly nice application of my knowledge of how cities work on the subject matter of theatre, may I say.
But then the publication of this article came through, for Assemble Papers, the first in a series planned about Berlin. Here you can see me employ my purely urbanist pen, and write about this wonderful city purely from the perspective of design, circulation, livability, human rights, and such mundane things.
The whole article is also available after the break, but I suggest you follow the link instead, because Assemble Papers pairs my text with some exquisite photographs by Henrik Kuerschner – and also is a treasure trove of good writing on cities, full stop.
1. TRUE STORY. LAST SUNDAY, at about 6am, four of us girls were returning home from a club, here in Berlin, tired and starving, having danced all night celebrating the birthday of one of us. On the corner of Revaler and Warschauer Straße, at a döner kebab shop, we got something to eat and sat outside, at a table. A (very nice) English man asked for some filters in his best German, and got them, and said thank you, and goodbye; we were very sad that he left so quickly. But he left because another man, German, approached us from the other end of the table, and, once the Englishman was gone, plonked himself at our table and started asking us detailed, personal questions, one at a time. We were tired, chewing in silence, not even talking among us, and this man’s insistent question-asking was not merely annoying, but excruciating. About 10 minutes into a conversation which consisted mainly of very polite silence on our side, it occurred to me that this man was a parasite on female politeness, nothing more: one of those men who simply exploit most women’s need not to be confrontational. So I asked:
“Sorry, would you like to go somewhere else? We don’t feel like talking to you.”
Except that he then said: “No.”
I repeated: “We would really like you to leave.”
He stayed. The German girls said it again, this time not in convoluted Australian phrasing, but using the typical German, simple syntax: “Go away. Nobody wants to talk to you.”
He shrugged and cackled and launched into a monologue about how some of us were mean, others neurotic, and some again had problems.
The third girl tried the Croatian approach, and insinuated he had mother issues and wouldn’t get far with women. To no avail. The man must have spent another 15-20 minutes at our table, talking to us while receiving nothing but the phrases above, repeated with firm hostility. “Are you going to leave?” “We’re not interested in talking to you.” “Leave us alone, please.” In the end, it was us who left, having finished our food.
This incident left me thinking because this doesn’t normally happen to me. I usually go out with male friends – and men like the one above never, ever approach mixed groups of people. I am never approached by bores when I’m alone, probably because I look vaguely lesbian-ish. And so I was simply not accustomed to seeing a man behave, consciously, like an arsehole, ignoring or dismissing the opinions that four women had over the matter. It’s not that we weren’t articulating our no well enough, or that he wasn’t able to read our subtle, feminine signs: he simply didn’t care. He was giving us no say on the matter. I rode my bike home with the creepy afterthought that this man was rapist material: he was the type of guy for whom it simply didn’t matter whether a woman agreed with his plan or not; he needed to have the upper hand. And the most awful detail was that my three friends, all beautiful (non-lesbian-looking) young women, seemed somewhat accustomed to this kind of behaviour.
A wonderful discussion about the role of the arts, particularly performing arts (such as music and theatre), in shaping our cities, and the role of our cities (particularly inner) in shaping our arts, will be taking place soon in Melbourne, and I hope many of you will get to it.
A few years ago, I worked with Dr Kate Shaw, one of the smartest and most well-spoken critics of both the existing arts policies, and the patterns of development in Australian cities, that this country has at hand, on a research project called ‘Planning the Creative City’. It was one of the most interesting periods of my life, and it opened up questions that I am, in Berlin as much as in Tokyo, Istanbul or Brisbane, still attempting to answer. We were looking at Melbourne’s self-branding as a ‘creative city’, at Richard Florida’s urbanist propaganda (in which the creative class meant growth and prosperity), at graffiti tourism and clusters of architectural bureaus and live music, the relationship between liquor licensing and the vibrancy of a music scene in a city, the relationship between housing prices and the arts, and cross-tabulating all of that with hard data. Some of it made it into newspaper and magazine articles even as the project was progressing, but, as with most research projects, there was a lot of data to crunch.
The project is now finally finished, and its findings are being presented next week on Thursday, 27th September 2012, at something called Yarra Living Arts Forum. I would love to tell you more about it, but from a quick google it doesn’t appear Yarra Council wants anyone to know about it, because there is no website, and no online announcement about this event – all the more reason to go, I would suggest.
The details are below, as is the summary of the event. I would love to be there, not just because I feel great love for this particular project, and because I think it’s hugely important for artists in Australia to understand both the social power they possess, and the structural forces that shape their lives – but also because Kate is a fantastic public speaker. You are most cordially invited to go.
Yarra Talking Arts Forum
Planning the ‘creative city’ with Dr Kate Shaw
This forum will present findings from research into the idea of the ‘creative city’. Creative city strategies are often used as economic development strategies, with the intent of decreasing vacancy rates and increasing land values. The effect is to displace lower than best economic uses of land, including low and no-profit cultural activities. The contribution that alternative cultures make to established city cultures is well documented – the City of Amsterdam calls it ‘No Culture without Subculture’ – but few Australian governments accord creative subcultures a place in their planning policies.
The presentation uses time-series maps of inner Melbourne to show the location of independent cultural activities from 1991 to 2009. These are overlaid with maps that track shifts in demographics, land values and voting patterns. Small cultural producers are being pushed into tighter and tighter clusters, but rather than going to where the land values are lowest, some are concentrating in the CBD and parts of Collingwood and Fitzroy. The presentation discusses the particular conditions that support the clustering in these areas.
The forum will conclude with an analysis of ‘creative city’-inspired urban renewal strategies, and a discussion of possible local and state government policy initiatives to encourage creative subcultures. The audience is invited to participate in this discussion.