marcus westbury

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Iterative cities … or why the activity is more important than the act…

December 5th, 2012 by marcus

Of late much my work has been with cities, towns and communities independently and latterly through Renew Australia. A lot of it involves taking the lessons learnt through Renew Newcastle and attempting to apply them in other communities and contexts. It also involves a lot of training up, talking to, working with and simply observing other places as they attempt to do similar things – sometimes very successfully and often less so.

In watching this and participating in these dialogues there are a lot of terms that get used to describe the project or applied to the process we’ve been doing that sit a little bit uncomfortably with me. More often than not it is not that they are wrong so much as that they capture something less important and miss the bigger point.

For example, the term “pop-up” gets used quite a bit but I’ve never been comfortable with it. The short-term thinking that it seems to imply and the association with stores as a pure marketing exercise for larger or bigger brands are not really the right angle. There is an implication inherent in there somewhere that the purpose is to come and go whereas in my mind the purpose is to come and discover what might endure. Temporariness is a tool or a feature and not, in itself, an outcome.

The term “tactical” urbanism also gets used quite a bit but again it sits a little uncomfortably. To me it implies a sense of a guerrilla action in service of a larger agenda – as protest, as theatre or as illustrative example. I’m all for it but again it is not exactly what Renew Newcastle is attempting to do. Closing a road to turn it into a park for a day or stealthily turning a wasteland into a garden greatly appeal to me but at the core it misses something quite essential about the logic of Renew.

Finally, a lot of what we have been doing is broadly captured under the term “DIY urbanism” which sits less uncomfortably — after all the logic of reducing the city to a level where you can influence it with your own sweat and imagination is critical to what we have been doing — however the low-budget nature is, in the larger sense, a tool. Ideally it is also the whole of the community (or at least a broad cross section of it) that are involved and not merely an individual or a small group.

The best way to explain the difference in thinking is to put forward the idea that the driving logic of Renew is the activity and not the act. It is not merely to showcase ideas about what might be possible in order to influence some future trajectory or to create something that might come and go fleetingly but to introduce a process of experimentation that allows that future to start now. It is to build layer upon layer of activity that endures over time and not merely a collection of powerful individual acts.

For lack of a better term, let me call it a form of Iterative Urbanism.

The most basic point at which cities, towns, communities and streets that are failing is often that they fail to fail enough. They become immune to experimentation and innovation and instead get stuck in a binary distinction between “the big solution” and “the status quo.” What Renew attempts to do — in a certain sense — is lower the cost of failure and accumulate small successes over time. It introduces a “fail fast fail cheap” dynamic to the urban experience.

The point of Renew projects collectively (although the logic of any individual project can be much broader) is not simply to pop up and disappear or to put forward a powerful provocation. It is instead to introduce a layer of experimentation and activity to the city and to build on that over time. The point, I have often said is “to discover what works by doing it” or — to put it another way — to discover what is sustainable by seeing what endures.

For whatever reason iteration and experimentation isn’t a fashionable subject. Blogs and magazines love powerful, beautiful, successful projects and examples that are beautifully designed, conceptually powerful and aesthetically pleasing and are logically self contained. As much as those examples appeal, to me it is the more mundane accumulation of unspectacular successes that make a place start to work.

It’s a tricky approach to advocate for. Planners, renewal and revitalisation experts and others tasked with making places work are generally expected to know what works, their job is not to discover it but to design, select and build it. The “renew” approach to renewal and revitalisation is not to design outcomes, or exciting short term blips, but to facilitate an iterative process that empowers individuals and local communities to experiment. Through iteration, accumulation and trial an error such an approach ideally gets to a working and successful place, through trial and error in the most cost effective and efficient way possible.

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19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anne O’Brien Dec 5, 2012 at 8:27 am

    Anne O’Brien liked this on Facebook.

  • 2 shineslike Dec 5, 2012 at 8:34 am

    RT @unsungsongs: Iterative cities … or why the activity is more important than the act…

  • 3 Michael Jameson Dec 5, 2012 at 9:37 am

    Well argued, Marcus. The right to be wrong allows opportunities for progress, and encourages a culture where people are willing to try.

  • 4 Michael Jameson Dec 5, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Michael Jameson liked this on Facebook.

  • 5 kffg Dec 5, 2012 at 10:23 am

    For experimentation over time “@unsungsongs: Iterative cities …or why the activity is more important than the act…

  • I like that you wanted to distinguish the Renew projects for yourself and for us. Thank you.

    You’ve used a great point, that it’s not about doing the projects in order to get somewhere else. This line nails it: “… to introduce a process of experimentation that allows that future to start NOW.”

    Congratulations on creating the Renew series, and on your new creation too!

  • 7 ross Dec 5, 2012 at 10:50 am

    The ‘Fail fast fail often’ approach focuses on the outcome and diminishes the emphasis on the development process. Working in the development field with architects and planners, you see a lot of what are essentially expensive experiments undertaken but never held accountable. In fact the measure of success is as much about “on time/on budget” as it is about performance of the finished project.

  • 8 marcus Dec 5, 2012 at 10:56 am

    ross, of course, the point is to lower the cost of experimentation and of failure — not simply to fail more! It is to allow things that would not otherwise be tried to be seeded and to encourage outcomes through experimentation. Obviously large scale expensive failure that you’re stuck with because you spend so much bloody money on it is the exact opposite of this approach!

  • […] Marcus wrote that many cities are unsuccessful because they are scared to fail. They: become immune to […]

  • 10 Cindy MItchell Dec 5, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    I always enjoy reading your blog, even when it is challenging. I appreciate you sharing the nuance of why Renew Newcastle works. You have to fight people’s tendency to over simplify your message. Everyone wants to take your experience and make it in to a easy 7 step recipe that they can follow to reinvigorate urban space overnight. No one wants to talk about experimentation and iteration. How do we get the message out?

  • 11 ross Dec 5, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Marcus, no I’m not advocating failure only supporting your point that low cost failure is better than expensive failure. The thing I love about the Renew method is that it seems to me to be one that activates an emergent urbanism; i.e. it speeds up a mechanism that historically, has given towns and cities vibrant commercial streets and precincts by trial and error rather than top down ‘planning’.

  • 12 Ian Stanger Dec 5, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    Cities that fail to fail enough….spot on Marcus. Many Australian urban centres are not old enough to have experienced the growth and decline cycles that make a place robust. The trouble is that commercial development projects these days are so hamstrung by the short term borrowing conditions of the banks that any long term perspective of how a place beds in over time is rendered of little value.

  • 13 EnvisagedCity Dec 5, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    Nice piece. Really like the activity / act distinction.

    And I like your particular attention to terms.

    But I wonder when urbanism can be naturally understood as an iterative process, without the need for another specific urbanism term that is reductive.

    Can we just refer to iterative processes within urbanism, or defining urbanism, without developing new terms for it?

    In the same way there are various aspects or dimensions to love and intelligence that are embodied within the terms and can be described within them, respectively.

  • 14 3Spaceorg Dec 5, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: Iterative cities … or why the activity is more important than the act…

  • 15 3Spaceorg Dec 5, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    We agree @unsungsongs – it should be about the activity, not the act – something that’s lost in majority of approaches to #emptyshops

  • 16 marcus Dec 6, 2012 at 7:02 am

    @EnvisagedCity you are right the world doesn’t really yet another definition but i couldn’t resist hanging a specific term on what i was thinking about.

    In any case, while cities are naturally iterative processes that are designed to intervene and improve them are often substantially less so and it is an aspect that can be easily forgotten in thinking about how to improve cities and places.

  • […] his blog, Renew Newcastle founder Marcus Westbury articulates the concept of the initiative: “The […]

  • 18 David Kidston Dec 11, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Thanks for these important point, particularly when it comes to use of the idea of “pop-up” shops or events etc. It they should be used to facilitate a greater process of development or learning.

    I think designers, planner do have their blinkers on when it comes to redevelopment of urban spaces. I find it telling that someoen with your back ground has got the like of renew Newcastle project up, while generally in the city the professional planners, architects and designers are very much on the conservative end of the spectrum.

    Let Newcastle be a place of experimentation and all the richer for it. Yep, not every thing is going to work, but this is all part of the process.

  • 19 Virginia Telephone Repair Dec 19, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    Working in the development field with architects and planners, you see a lot of what are essentially expensive experiments undertaken but never held accountable.