Sometimes, If You Want Something Done Right…

by Misha Lepetic

“Cultures aren’t fixed or fixable. They are barely measurable…
Culture is not so much what you plan but what you get away with.”
~ Marcus Westbury

Sc3000One could do worse than to think about a city as an endlessly frustrating exercise in the ongoing, suboptimal allocation of space, capital and – let’s not forget – humanity. Oftentimes we find ourselves contemplating extremes of density and sprawl, and occasionally the stark juxtaposition of the two (such as this notorious image which, despite having made the rounds over the last few years, has lost little of its shock value). These vistas further enervate us if we contemplate them from a divine, that is to say, aerial perspective. From this point of view, we become, by default, would-be SimCity urban planners, and consider that our benevolence, made manifest in the form of design, usually in the form of urban master planning, should at least be heeded, if not respected by those who we expect to live in our cities. This is the privilege and/or responsibility that this particular kind of view affords. At the same time, the obvious juxtapositions of sprawl and slum, of waste and want, re-assert the fundamental futility, and therefore irrationality, of many of our planning efforts. This may be conveniently summarized by the parental plea, “Can’t you kids just sit still for a moment?”

So, what gives? I have three examples in mind, although there are many more, the catalogue of which amounts to a comprehensive list of reasons that the more skeptical among us might call “Why You Can Never Win,” and the more optimistic might term “Why We Should Always Try Harder.”

At any rate, in the first case, what gives is, quite literally, the ground itself.

A11LAgoBR-gallery001xInformal settlements, to which I will informally refer as slums, are by definition built in undesirable places; citizens whose desire to live in proximity to city centers is contradicted by their inability to afford “legitimate” colonization of these spaces. Another significant attribute of slums is that services, such as transportation routes and public spaces, are foregone for the opportunity of proximity; the lack of zoning or property ownership results in even greater density. Finally and most critically, slums are oftentimes built in plainly dangerous locations, exposed to natural forces that can have disastrous consequences where not even the dead are spared.

In Paraisopolis, an informal settlement in São Paolo, a smaller landslide along one of the shallow ravines wiped out the ramshackle housing that had been there. When Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner of Urban Think Tank heard about this, they responded with a creative intervention that would simultaneously create much-needed public space while reinforcing the structural integrity of the hillside.

Urban Think Tank has begun making a serious name for themselves for their crafty slum interventions – in an earlier essay I discussed their work of re-knitting the urban fabric of Caracas via strategically placed cable cars, which elegantly re-integrated the hillside favelas with the more established commercial areas of the city. In this case, what interests me more is manner in which Urban Think Tank’s design solution is sociopolitically situated. Despite the inarguable elegance of the solution, and the fact that local populations were consulted during the design process, the intervention is thoroughly situated within the discourse of the architect-planner-government. That is, the government of São Paolo has sanctioned this design, and is funding its construction – somewhat ironic, given that Paraisopolis is a slum built on private land. In fact, Brillembourg and Klumpner have been selected by the Holcim Foundation as jury prize winners for their design. The point of remarking on this is not to impugn either the design, its motives or execution, but to point out that this intervention is effectively ex cathedra. We are left weighing the balance of a completely exogenous intervention, versus what the inhabitants themselves might have done, or learned about themselves in the process. In the words of Teddy Cruz, this neighborhood still was not able to claim “the right to retrofit itself.”


A logical next step would be to ask to what extent this discourse is necessary, or even an obstacle. Do we need designers, architects and government? To what extent can an effective urban intervention simply be a product of fresh eyes and canny negotiation? And who could possibly be qualified to do such a thing, if s/he was not one of the above professionals? An interesting answer can be found in Australia, where Marcus Westbury has revitalized the dying downtown of Newcastle.

8_newcastle_no3_bfce_demolitionWestbury is indeed none of the above. He is an arts festival director, as well as a film and radio producer. As such, he understands that culture is something that always emerges from the bottom up. His hometown of Newcastle is Australia’s version of a Rust Belt city, whose steelworks, once the largest in Australia, were demolished in 1999. With no industry arising to take its place, it is not surprising that Newcastle’s downtown languished, boarded up and abandoned, during the ensuing decade. What struck Westbury, however, was that even new developments in the city were failing to create a street-level vitality. The core had emptied out into a familiar narrative of peripheral sprawl; this was not helped by the fact that the tram system, which used to carry people into downtown, had been ripped up. Moreover, a perverse tax system incentivized landlords to keep their buildings empty, as opposed to finding tenants and productive uses for them. Long-term planning, while in process at the city level, was not addressing the current needs of city dwellers, and over 150 buildings in downtown Newcastle lay empty by 2008.

Given this context, Westbury started from the idea that any empty space is wasted space; this is radically different from a governmental point of view, which begins from the notion that capital must first be attracted (long-term planning being the logical follow-on from this). Westbury then asked, Who are the people who would be interested in large amounts of cheap space, but who don’t require significant amounts of capital? The answer, as anyone familiar with Richard Florida should anticipate, is the creative class. (Actually scratch that, since Florida lumps in accountants and such into his constituency, whereas Westbury is talking about artists, ie, the kinds who come to perform and exhibit in his festivals). Thus was born Renew Newcastle, a “permanent organization for temporary things.”

The crucial bit about Renew Newcastle is that it is not a policy organization. It is an enabling organization designed to leverage existing space that is available right now. Westbury does not discount the importance of having long-term policy and infrastructure discussion, it’s just that he doesn’t see the point in waiting around for the decisions to be made. Thus his group created a distinct business model, which revolves around rolling 30-day license agreements that emphasize transitional use and temporary occupation of these downtown buildings. The artists are not tenants, since this would trigger onerous legal requirements. The organization works directly with landlords, who get a voice in choosing who will occupy their space, and was at first financed from Westbury’s own credit card. Even now, Renew Newcastle has one full-time employee and no capital budget.

In effect, Renew Newcastle has performed an end run around the social, political, legal and economic institutions that together had congealed into an effective barrier to revitalization. The result was that, by 2010, only one storefront remained empty. It also bears mentioning that Renew Newcastle accomplished this using only local artists, stamping the revitalization of downtown with a unique flavour.

There is a simple way of describing the effectiveness of Westbury’s intervention. The streets of downtown had seen such a radical re-population in the course of a single year, that readers of the local paper wrote to the editors, accusing them of using Photoshop to enhance the number of people in the paper’s coverage.


Channel_StreetHowever, not every bootstrapped project “ends” as well as this. Let’s take it a step further and ask, is it possible to reconfigure spatial and experiential urban identity without explicit leadership? The last example of “What gives?” should serve to illustrate this point more explicitly.

One of the stories that architect/activist Teddy Cruz likes to tell concerns the DIY skate park that somehow managed to flourish underneath I-15 Freeway in San Pedro, California, over a period of the last decade or so. Cruz’s characterization of this DIY intervention as “tactics of intervention” or “tactics of encroachment” may sound somewhat dramatic but the narrative is rich indeed.

Sometime in 1999, a group of skateboarders went to Home Depot, bought shovels and descended on a disused lot underneath I-15. The initial reaction of the authorities was predictable, resulting in the cat-and-mouse games that tend to characterize the interaction between skateboarding and, well, pretty much everyone else. Where things got interesting, however, is that skateboarders got smart. According to Cruz, they realized that they needed to understand

“…whose political jurisdiction really framed this space…they had been lucky because they had begun digging not under CalTrans territory, which is a state agency, but that they had begun digging under an arm of the freeway that belongs to the local municipality, making it easier to negotiate with [the municipality]. In fact, they had begun digging in a kind of Bermuda Triangle of jurisdiction, which existed between the airport authority, two city districts, and a review board. They began a process of contacting each political actor representing the territory; they went to the city attorney, and were advised that they had to become an NGO, and as such they had to contact other skateboarders across the state who had gone through a similar process…the exchange of knowledge across these activist practices is essential to kind of practice. They realized they had get their act together and produce budgets, procure construction insurance, hire a lawyer to represent them to the city. They had to become aware of what open space is, as defined by the public code, and they realized that it was incredibly monocultural and reductive in its kind of exclusivity and the budgets that were allocated to those systems…they had to become aware of every kind of permit available for encroachment. They won the case, and the city, [by making] a transfer of liability, gave them the space to construct their small skate park. This is the story of how a small act of transgression can begin to trickle up to transform top-down policy. So the informal here is not just an aesthetic category, but as a form of praxis, that imposes political boundaries and economic recipes. Whose territory is it? And who owns the resources?”

The collision of freeway with neighborhood – a common phenomenon in southern California – created the opening for what Cruz calls the “operative dimension of participation.” It is an act born of simply asking the question, Who owns this space? When the answer is, No one, really, the possibilities of occupation are suddenly open. DIY skate parks are not unusual, however; it is entirely congruent with the self-reinforcing marginal culture of skateboarding. They tend to be discreet – for instance, how many New Yorkers know that there has been (well, until recently) a decades-old skate park underneath the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge?

Nevertheless, one might contrast this approach with Westbury’s in Newcastle. Westbury kept his organization lean and agile; its prime mission is to incubate, and to allow others to fail quickly and cheaply, and replace those failures with other potential successes with a minimum of fuss. The organization itself has virtually no physical presence. In today’s hopped-up entrepreneurial environment, he might be labeled an “ultra-light start-up.” The skate park on Channel Street, however, was conceived to be a permanent piece of infrastructure that has been inserted into a highly ambiguous physical space. As such, it needs tending, and maybe even leadership, because the urban environment never ceases to be contested, no matter how won the battle might seem. The same might be said of Urban Think Tank’s intervention in Paraisopolis – the success of that design is contingent upon that community’s embrace and maintenance of the building as a worthwhile agent of community (re)generation.

Skateboarding_is_not a_crimeWhy might this matter? Here’s why: as of September 23rd of this year, the skate park has been reported as fenced off and destroyed, thanks to a belated action by CalTrans, which “said if one of the skaters were to get hurt, the state would be responsible. CalTrans said the reason the park had remained there four years was they did not know it was there.” It’s a shame that Cruz did not cover that last development in his talk.

In any case, the mind boggles in the face of such obduracy, but on the other hand one wonders what, if any, defense was put up by the skateboarders – or if any was possible. Maybe it’s not too late to move to Newcastle, or for that matter, Paraisopolis.