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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Tags: cities · creative cities · DIY urbanism · Fail fast fail cheap · iterative cities · iterative urbanism · Renew Australia · Renew Newcastle · tactical urbanism · urban renewal · urbanism19 Comments