City Changing: Re-mixing Built Environments

Recently, Toronto's city council approved plans to transform Jarvis Street from a five-lane car-only street to a four-lane street with bike lanes. This came after significant resistance from council members who claimed that an alteration of the street was but one battle in an alleged "war on the car". Dissenting council members also claimed that all parties involved—the some 27,000 cars that traverse Jarvis Street on a regular basis—had not been consulted. Instead, the city had sponsored an ad in NOW Magazine querying public opinion on the idea of bike lanes. Because NOW is a local, youth-oriented publication, it was assumed that thousands of drivers were being excluded from the conversation at the expense of Toronto's cyclists, who appeared at public planning meetings in droves to exhort city planners to move forward with the bike lanes.

While the approval of the lanes is good news for both environmental improvement and cyclist safety, the length and speed of the debate indicates the kind of uphill battle in store for people who want to engage in what we might consider "urban re-mix." Predominant narratives of urban space liken it to a body or a machine: a series of systems whose purposes intersect for the benefit of the organism or user (inhabitants). Roads are like veins, or wires, or pipes. Traffic congestion is like an arterial clog, or a misfiring transmitter. Thus, changing the city feels like surgery: delicate and dangerous, expensive. Thinking with these metaphors in place can explain reticence—aesthetically, we prefer systems that appear whole, and we tend to think of bodies and machines in pieces as ugly and incomplete, broken and useless, or inconvenient and frustrating.

But if we consider the city as a text, this prejudice vanishes. The city is a work in progress. It will never be finished. It is always developing its latest sequel. (You, the inhabitant, are a bit player in that sequel.) As such, it makes complete sense to re-inscribe (literally) the surfaces of every road, to re-write the space, to collaborate on re-visions. It makes sense to cut and paste. It makes sense to re-mix.

For example, Ottawa's summer "bikedays", wherein various motorways are closed to automobile traffic and opened solely to bikes and other alternative vehicles. Or Derek Lomas' architectural interventions, which seek to disrupt the topographical and architectural narrative of the UC San Diego campus by making room for nourishment, experiment, and play. These are spaces re-purposed through human activity, and the recognition that a single space can have multiple uses, and multiple user demographics, in the same way that a single text—a song, a clip of footage—can be altered to involve new participants.

Of course, "architecture fiction" has been discussed for some time now, by both BLDGBLOG and Bruce Sterling. By this phrase, I suspect that Mr. Sterling means not only fiction regarding architecture, but also architecture that takes into account the fact that narratives about how humans use space are frequently fictional, because spaces can be (and are) regularly re-purposed and re-populated at the whim of history. Neighbourhoods change. Buildings are torn down, or renovated. Sometimes, as in the case of Kowloon Walled City, the narrative of a city unfolds in a collaborative, participatory manner—a hammer-and-nails RPG, a multi-user domain made real. (There's a reason Idoru chose the KWC as one of its foremost metaphors.)

In short, this idea is not new, not even in the realm of architecture theory. When I wrote to my fellow SciBarCamp Toronto attendee Sarah Neault about this issue, she informed me that the idea of city-as-text is an old one for students of architecture, despite the fact that users and inhabitants rarely think of it that way. This thinking has since evolved into the work of people like Jan Gehl, who presents on the topic of public uses of public space Wednesday, 3 June at 3pm at the Design Exchange in Toronto. She also pointed me to the work of Robert Venturi, who along with his partner and collaborator Denise Scott Brown shaped the discourse of participatory, emergent, and bottom-up architecture with their piece Learning from Las Vegas. Denise Scott Brown expresses this philosophy neatly in her article "Building the Future Without A Blueprint":

To think realistically about housing and communities in 2030, we must see them as dependent variables that will owe their structure not to architects' dreams, but to forces at work within the society, technology and the natural world at the time they are built.

For such a self-evident insight—namely, that users and cultures shape environments more than designer intention ever can—it's one that rarely occurs to us in our daily use of built environments. We can understand the city (and other residential and commercial forms) as a series of surfaces and narratives that will remain mutable. This means no longer thinking of districts in ways that are determined by age, ethnicity, or queerness. (It also means not thinking of the city in terms of genre, which Morikawa Kaichiro says is a key to understanding a map of Tokyo.) It means thinking instead in terms of activity, fertility, and accessibility—who can use the space, what for, and with what available resources?

A mutable city would include accessibility to and availability of things like wireless networks, regular information streams from public transit authorities, and other helpful public information resources. In some ways, we might end up treating residents like tourists: more maps (and smarter ones, linked to e-paper posters or mobile-friendly barcodes), more targeted advertising of events and services, and better service in multiple languages across a wider variety of platforms. If the rules of a city can change by the hour, then the residents need to know so they all can play.

Photo credit: Mark Tovey


For more of Madeline Ashby's exchange with Sarah Neault, see the entry 'city as text' on Sarah Neault's blog:

Posted by: Mark Tovey on June 1, 2009 8:47 AM

Madeline, your observations are very much in line with a great deal of historical precedence in regards to the ways we understand the "city". Nevertheless, I would suggest not to depart from the metaphor of the city as an organism for it is in theory the same as a city as text. With the example of the bike lanes, you speak of a process which is based on small incremental changes which have their origins from the currently housed population as opposed to those in seats of power. Such a concept first originated in the mid 1950 through the architectural collage of thinkers better known through their group name of Team Ten. They, among a few other ideas, stipulated that the city should not be a series of permanent built objects [and traditions] but a fluid reflection of their current housed population's needs. They pushed further and suggested that changes in the needs of this population automatically manifested themselves on the larger form of the "city"; the latter term no longer a catalog of past experiments kept regardless of success of relevance but in fact a perfect, adaptable counter-form.

What I attempt to stress in my own graduate work is the need to see our cities as products of a slow evolutionary process. Where, just like your example with the Kowloon Walled City, there is a gradual growth of spaces, programmes, services that emerge [or disappear] based on the needs of the now current population, not the one which has just past. Although KWC no longer exists, there are other versions of this type of urban arrangement present for study. Simply looking at default human housing that grows out of necessity for shelter in the leftover spaces of developing nation cities such as Mumbai, Lagos, Sao Paulo to name a few, demonstrate an environment which is held together by temporary spaces and agreements based on proximity and usefulness rather than what tradition would expect.

All this to say that you touch upon a way of understanding our urban world that first emerged in contrast to Modernism and unfortunately has not been given the importance it deserves. My university college, Sarah Neault, of who's research I am familiar with, [correct me if I am wrong Sarah] attempts to identify the bottom-up forces that would cause a change in this urban counter-form. I feel that the investigation of the city as a series of fluid forces is a way of observation that needs to be brought back to the foreground and we should not be afraid of the experimentations that will follow.

Posted by: Eric Malboeuf on June 14, 2009 9:30 AM

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