Changescaping: doing the city

By Linda Carroli
Arts Hub, February 2011

The term ‘urban interventions’ seems at odds with the dynamic of cities as unruly and complex habitats. The language of ‘intervention’ seems intentionally corrective rather than other, ruptured or situated. For sure, cities are planned and designed to the nth degree and, to some extent, that makes them manageable, even governable, but there are limits to posturing about spatial and economic determinism. Power and culture are more nuanced and complex than that. If we force ourselves to think beyond that term 'intervention', we might devise more meaningful ways of framing those practices that are inherently fugitive, tactical and inclusive. Instead, urbanist practices and languages that espouse plurality, hacking and multiplicity and that underwrite cultural, professional and urban transformation seem to have more to offer. In a recent Design Observer article (31 January 2011), Mimi Zeiger traced a trend of urban strategies and tactics loosely grouped as 'urban interventions'. She further described this trend as "Provisional, Opportunistic, Ubiquitous, and Odd Tactics in Guerilla and DIY Practice and Urbanism", drawing on European and American examples of practitioner and community driven reclamation of the built environment. Zeiger is writing a series of articles for Places, one of the Design Observer's publications, titled ‘The Interventionist's Toolkit’ in which excavates these projects, practices and practitioners. In reading Zeiger's sweeping article, I noted the absence of Australian initiatives, that Australians slip out of the global inventory of urban reform and rethinking.*

Instead of ‘intervention’, the idea of ‘changescaping’ seems to capture broader intent of how practitioners are working and developing their ideas. Changescaping finds meaning in doing and evolves a practice that engages, evokes and provokes thinking around landscape and cultural change, drawing on influences of activism, user generation and participatory practice. Zeiger points to the challenges of America's long economic downturn as young artists, architects, designers and planners graduate into a sluggish market. Jobs simply aren't around and so these aspirants turn to more grassroots experiments. In other words, that changescaping is happening within professional practice itself. Having been hit by the financial crisis and now by a flood disaster, Brisbane is rebuilding and, hopefully, rethinking. On the one hand, the flood should mean more work for architects, planners, designers and artists, but on the other, large swathes of that work will be directed to hard infrastructure to, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard said, ‘get coal on boats’. The cultural and social dimensions of rebuilding and resilience may well fall on the shoulders of communities, local authorities and organisations whose resources are already stretched in declining urban environments.

Brisbane-based architect, Jason Haigh, recently emailed to say that he'd developed an ephemeral public art project in a driveway between a two old retail buildings in Fortitude Valley. Apparently, the owner is retrofitting the property to create small tenancies for tiny businesses, giving them a toehold in the marketplace. Even property owners can do things differently so as to seed small economies that build cultural capital as well as rewrite the cultural landscape. More importantly, it represents an acknowledgement of what has been happening informally for decades in the processes of urban decline and renewal. This seems most explicitly exemplified with the Renew Newcastle/Australia initiatives, and the raft of similar projects, which have achieved success through the formalisation of a once informal process and a higher profile than many other Australian changescaping or DIY urbanism initiatives. These ‘renew’ projects are indicating a need for diversified, affordable and flexible tenancies for cultural and social enterprises and sustainability. In times of economic decline, there tends to be loads of empty space.

While changescaping can manipulate the marketplace (or at least the short term interests of property owners and developers), it also insists on changes in the workplace. The director of a prominent architectural and design firm informs me that his staff insists on participating in events like Parki(ing) Day, in which public parking spaces are occupied for more social and cultural ends than car parking. “They need to be more socially engaged and collaborative in ways they don't get on the job,” he observed, acknowledging that this kind of engagement often had a positive impact on work productivity and quality. Developed by REBAR, Park(ing) Day occurs annually around the world to encourage city dwellers to transform metered parking spots into temporary parks for the public good. Pecha Kucha is another globally dispersed platform that takes root in the local and the practice based, providing a space for practitioners to spruik their work and ideas. During these highly sociable, rapid fire events, audiences are reminded that the professional ranks are swollen with ideas for transforming our urban environments. While changescaping is snowballing, it is perhaps yet to present a challenge to the prevailing orthodoxies of urban development practice: slipping into the domain of activation or animation strategies rather than within urban planning or economic development. Zeiger makes the point that aggregating the impacts of these localised projects - actions - may result in the assemblage of a larger framework: a toolbox, an inventory, a collection. These actions have a meme-like quality - heralding new modes to practice, new ways of doing cities - as they are distributed and shared through networks rippling across the fields of architecture, urbanism and design.

In Australia, over several decades, a breadth of events, projects and practice has made for potent and diverse engagements with place - negotiating identities, harnessing hidden strengths and altering fortunes. Sydney's Green Bans represented an unprecedented shift in resident action in the face of gentrification and heritage destruction; echoes of this activism are seen in the RedWatch and UnChain St Kilda campaigns. The Australia Council's Community Environment Art and Design program, once headed by NAVA's Tamara Winikoff, was established in 1989 to “provide opportunities for communities to express their cultural identity through the arts by encouraging artists, designers and communities to work together developing links between the cultural life of communities and the quality of their physical environment”. Practitioners like landscape architect John Mongard and cultural planner Marla Guppy deployed innovative and consultative design methodologies through such programs. Mongard, for example, developed the 'set up shop' process which involves occupying space in the community (such as an empty shop, or setting up a footpath stall) and talking to the community, using a variety of methods for visualising and narrating. CEAD ceased in the late 1990s having spawned many placemaking and community engagement projects founded on community cultural development, participatory design and cultural citizenship principles. Providing evidence of the value of collaborative placemaking, there is a legacy left by this program, which was perhaps the precursor to many integrated public art programs administered by local and state governments and woven into urban design, cultural planning and place management.

The city is a conflux of material and attitudes for making and adapting: individuals and communities increasingly seek to make their cities. Energies for DIY urbanism - and changescaping - seem to be rising in Australia through improvised practices and networks with projects emerging as prototypes for new ways of doing and living in cities (and, occasionally, their suburbs), often catalysed through social networking and blogging. In Sydney this coming April, Zanny Begg and Lee Stickells are organising an exhibition and symposium, The Right to the City. As part of this event Joni Taylor is coordinating DIY Urbanism, a collection of realised and unrealised work that challenges the spatial politics of Sydney through a bottom-up approach to transforming urban spaces. Drawing on the seminal work of urbanism and geography scholar David Harvey, The Right to the City aims to rethink the city in socially connected and sustainable ways by bringing together an ambitious collection of artistic and written works. Begg, together with Keg De Souza, developed the 2009 project, There Goes The Neighbourhood, which interrogated the gentrification of Redfern and other spatial and cultural politics through an exhibition and publication. In bridging art, social issues and community activism, Begg and De Souza noted their own displacement from the inner city Sydney suburb due to gentrification writ large across the lives and histories of lower income and long term residents through typical processes of land holding, culturally repurposed industrial heritage and statutory authority control. In the process, the values of community clash with those of professionals, while artists, as Bec Dean explained, take on diverse roles as organisers, activists, social networkers, thinkers, documentary makers and agitators around the inner city areas in which they work and live.

There's also a kind of re-enchantment with the urban and a rewriting of the city as we revel in the pleasures of blogging, mapping and locative media. We are always on or in the streets - grounded and present - expressing our knowing of well worn routes. China Heart, which ran from 30 January to 13 February, is an interactive love story and mystery co-produced by several partners including d/Lux Media Arts, Powerhouse Museum and Sydney Foreshore Authority. It uses GPS technology, performance, oral history and installation to explore Sydney's Chinatown. China Heart is a story by Annette Shun Wah presented as a multi-platform narrative that meshes video, real-world art installations and performance with a rich GPS gaming experience. The project impels the user on a walking tour of significant locations in Sydney’s Chinatown, drawing on objects from the Powerhouse Museum collection to tell the story as well as oral history interviews and archival photographs. This work enlivens and personalises the cultural and urban history of Sydney's Chinatown, while also recognising the complex mix of culture, subjectivity and place. During their 2009 Australian tour, Blast Theory presented Rider Spoke in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art. Like China Heart, Rider Spoke presented a locative engagement with the city, inviting cyclists to participate in a game-like environment for navigating and narrating the city. The politics of cycling comes to the fore in this project given the ad hoc and frustrating nature of cycling paths - described by one Sydney colleague as "paths to nowhere". Importantly, though, Rider Spoke leads the participant on a journey of discovery and tracing. As they cycle through the streets of the city, equipped with a handheld computer, participants search for a hiding place and record a short message there. They then search for the hiding places of others, generating maps of secret places. These projects are immersive and evocative, revealing the relationship between mapping and storytelling. Such stories aren't always inflected masterplans or grand designs, yet they hold cities together and pull us into intimate relation with each other. Presented in 2009 in Melbourne, Kate Richards and Martyn Coutts’ Wayfarer, engaged players and audiences in concepts of agency, physicality and ethics. In this multi-platform project, participants could register as ‘urban agent’, ‘advocate’ or ‘citizen’, delineating a realm of involvement. The participants are entreated to engage ethically and positively with the city. Consequently this creates a repertoire of documented actions - ways of knowing and caring for the city - for an engaged urban citizen as well as commentary or response to those actions. One action involved placing flowers in the exhaust pipes of parked cars, another involved chalk drawing on broken footpaths. Action, in this context, is reflexive and deliberate, potentially attracting comment (censure, approval) from those in the network or in the know. An idea of ethics - what works and what doesn't as an urban action - is socially negotiated among participants. In Wayfarer, changescaping is quiet and subtle, inflected as both an undoing and doing of the city.

Changescaping is a loose idea intended as a thought experiment for considering the processes and tactics we use, as practitioners and communities, to make and remake our cities. There are shared tendencies and attitudes in this handful of actions which seems to indicate an impatience among urban practitioners at a time when our cities are the focus of urgent policy and planning reform in the face of unprecedented disasters (i.e. floods, bushfires, cyclones). There’s a readiness, too, as architects, artists, designers and urbanists pool their resources for speculative and provocative projects like the Brisbane Ideas Competition. Outcomes from interdisciplinary masterclasses held during the Unlimited AP Design Triennial are intended to inject possibilities for sustainability, agriculture, transport and culture into policy thinking. Practitioners are enacting responses to a range of urban conflicts and issues, some of which are felt quite intimately in the grind of earning a living. There is more going on here than mere ‘intervention’, especially as user generation moves beyond tick-a-box public engagement. While the projects themselves may be provisional, experimental, contingent or ephemeral, they disrupt hierarchical flows of power and knowledge in our urban environments. Through them, practice is reformulated in the folding of idea, process, action and agency. That reformulation is not merely introspection with learnings and methodology shared and networked. It involves repositioning all our urban practices and modalities as platforms for change.

* In part, the Placing project has been exploring this territory with a view to developing publications and sharing information about Australian 'changescaping' practices. This article presents some of the projects that I have included in Placing


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