From struggling football club to vital community hub: the story of CS Lebowski

Just outside Florence, the first fan-owned football club in Italy is working to support local communities and promote inclusivity. Chloe Beresford reports

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A recent victorious match at CS Lebowski’s home ground, Centro Sportivo Tavarnuzze in the town of Impruneta

When is a football club more than just a football club? This is a question posed by an amateur Italian team, CS Lebowski, based in the small town of Impruneta just outside Florence. Their supporters could find top-tier football just down the road at ACF Fiorentina, the Serie A powerhouse located in the city. Instead, they have invested everything in a project that benefits the entire community.

Centro Storico Lebowski was named after the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, in honour of the main character, The Dude. The image of a slacker like him was consistent with a team that were the bottom of the lowest league in Italian football, a side that would lose every week by large scorelines. 

In 2004, a group of local disenchanted teenagers named Marco, Fosco and Duccio discussed their exasperation with the corporate world of modern football. They decided to become ‘ultras’ – an organised group of ultra-fanatical support – for CS Lebowski, a team that was, at the time, somewhat of a joke. What started as typical teenage anti-establishment sentiment soon grew into an unexpected initiative, and a far cry from the hooliganism that ultras are often associated with.

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Celebrating a win in ‘ultras’ style

Six years later, those teenagers had become young adults and had slowly attracted others to support the team. They had an ambitious vision to take over CS Lebowski and create a community-based and fully inclusive club that welcomed anyone who wanted to watch the matches or even play for the side – no matter their faith, gender, sexuality or ethnicity. Despite some progress, football in Italy remains a white, male-dominated environment; in some places, incidents of racism are not unusual. By actively promoting its inclusivity, CS Lebowski made it easy for minorities to feel welcome.

No-one stood in the way of the Lebowski Ultras when they came together to take over the struggling club, and form the first fan-owned, community-focused club in Italy. The idea of not having a powerful owner in charge was unheard of, even in the minor leagues, but among them these supporters could now boast qualified football coaches, doctors and lawyers, all of whom could contribute their skills towards the team. ‘Our club is not dependent on the fortunes and whims of a single owner, but is the expression of a collective project, economically and politically,’ explains David Ginsborg, a former volunteer for CS Lebowski and doctor of social anthropology.

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A community meal organised by the football club. ‘Ultimi rimasti’ means ‘the last ones left’, and refers to original Florentine residents

After establishing the team in its new form, these fan-founders drew in players from the local area to bolster the squad and improve the quality of those already in place. Even people in Florence and further afield, when they heard about what was happening, wanted to join in. This new and idealistic idea of pooling skills and creating a range of teams has seen the group of friends grow from three fans to thousands of supporters all over the world who identify with the unique community spirit of this project. 

However, the people who have really made a difference are those based nearby. A group of local volunteers give their time to CS Lebowski in order to make it into a welcoming social space to those in the area who feel excluded or displaced from society. On match days an army of people prepare the Centro Sportivo Tavarnuzze — the home of the team — and cook huge meals for the players and their supporters to share dinner together. Away from the pitch, the club hosts communal dinners and social events to unify the community. It has become known as ‘la famiglia Lebowski’ (the Lebowski family).

Where most minor league clubs are an escape for young, adult males, here nobody is pushed aside; women, children and elderly relatives are all actively encouraged to participate by contributing what they can in terms of practical help to keep the club running. ‘Being founded on the collaboration of many individuals means by definition we are open to involving as many people as possible,’ Ginsborg continues. ‘Indeed, the club is reliant upon this involvement in order to continue to exist.’

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CS Lebowski’s free football school in San Frediano, Florence

The work of the club is particularly important for the residents of the San Frediano district of Florence, a neighbourhood on the southern banks of the river Arno within the city centre. This is one of the only communities in the heart of the city still predominantly inhabited by locals, the others having seen Florentines forced out by the demand for tourist accommodation. Indeed, according to the Italian tenants’ association, Florence has the highest proportion of Airbnbs of any Italian city, and around 1000 residents of the city are forced to leave their homes each year as landlords turn their properties into profitable holiday rentals for tourists. Many residents of Impruneta were themselves residents of Florence before tourist-driven higher rents and housing scarcity pushed them out. 

In 2015, CS Lebowski decided to support the community of San Frediano by opening a football school, giving local children coaching free of charge. While Florence is a global attraction, the school is a purely local attraction, a part of town that is exclusively for local residents. The school is one of CS Lebowski’s efforts to retain and restore the ‘community soul’ of Florence, which they have seen disappear over the decades.

The project allows the members of CS Lebowski to build a bond with the area, a hub of remaining Florentines, as they work to protect it from large companies looking to construct yet more lucrative developments in the city. The club is also active in organising and participating in protests in Florence against the evictions of local residents.

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Children play football in a San Frediano piazza in the 1950s. CS Lebowski shared this photo as an example of the community spirit in Florence that has been lost with the decline of residents

Pulling together in such an inclusive manner is what CS Lebowski is all about, using football as a vehicle for community cohesion – both within the club’s town and within an urban area under threat of tourism. It also allows young people and their families to see the positivity that can be brought about by a game that so often draws negative headlines. 

Most of all though, it harnesses the power of the collective, the idea that so much can be achieved if many people give a little towards a common goal. And speaking of goals – CS Lebowski is no longer bottom of the barrel; last year the team finally achieved promotion. 

All images courtesy of Centro Storico Lebowski

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The void deck: Singapore’s secret community infrastructure

An overlooked part of public housing in Singapore performs an undervalued role for residents – and now it’s under threat. Syafiqah Jaaffar reports from Singapore

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A typical void deck

The most unassuming places are often the ones closest to our hearts. For 80% of Singapore’s population who live in public housing, this takes the form of the void deck, an empty space located at the foot of a public housing block which serves as the main communal space. Perhaps this was why the recent disappearance of void decks elicited public anxiety about its future.

It began in 2016, when several of Singapore’s town councils installed railings to render the void deck unusable for ball games in some estates, a move which generated a whole slew of tongue-in-cheek articles on mainstream media such as The Straits Times and alternative news platforms such as Mothership about how the government is adamant to prevent children from having fun. It also led to a surge in art projects seeking to document the space, including by Singaporean photographer Nguan, known for his signature pastel-hued photos of everyday spaces in the city. Recently, as part of Archifest 2018, an annual architectural festival in Singapore, Kite Studio Architecture created a pop-up void deck for the festival’s Pavilion as a nod to how integral the void deck is for Singaporeans’ everyday life.

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Children play in one of the city’s many void decks

The void deck generally houses the lift lobby and letterboxes. For some larger blocks, it can also be home to amenities such as coffee shops, sundry stores, and public kindergartens, often staffed by and catering to residents or those who stay in the surrounding area.

Despite their emptiness, void decks have come to function over the decades as third spaces; not quite home, but definitely away from the workplace. The void deck morphs itself to be whatever its users want. Children turn it into a sheltered space to play. The numerous “Do Not” notices nailed authoritatively onto the walls do little to deter them. For families, the void deck can be transformed into an event space for weddings and funerals alike. It is also a convenient meeting point, a resting area for labourers assigned to nearby projects and, of course, shelter from the erratic Singapore weather.

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The spaces host all kinds of community events. Photograph: Choo Yut Shing

Since the void deck’s incorporation into public housing designs since the mid-1970s, following former Law and National Development Minister E.W. Barker’s push to have a sheltered playing area for children its most distinctive trait has been the flexibility of its open, uninhabited space. But with mixed residential-commercial complexes being the preferred model for newer public housing estates springing up across the city, the future of the void deck remains uncertain.

Clementi Towers, for instance, is a public housing development located in the western part of Singapore, consisting of two 40-storey towers. Instead of a void deck, these sit atop a four-storey shopping mall and a bus interchange. Residents access their flats via lifts within the mall. When the project was completed in 2011, it was hailed as the first of its kind, a groundbreaker for a new integrated type of public housing; but one that left its residents without their void deck.

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Clementi Towers, one of the new types of pubic housing without void deck spaces

Similar models have since been announced for future housing developments in other parts of the city. Northshore Plaza is a public housing estate set to be completed in 2020 in Punggol, an area in the north-east. Like Clementi Towers, it will feature public housing blocks integrated into a shopping complex and a direct link to the nearest train station. Communal spaces for residents would no longer be in the forms of void decks, but ‘precinct pavilions’ or rooftop gardens shared across the various housing blocks in the estate. However, being located between floors, or at the top of the building, in blocks restricted only to its residents, such spaces are not quite the same as the porous empty spaces of the void decks which are more accessible due to them being on the ground floor.

It would be easy to dismiss public reservations about the changing face of the void decks as simple nostalgia. But the void deck has indirectly served as a space for the private citizen to negotiate their relationship with the state and its economic ambitions. It marks the transition into a space where the individual is freed from the unrelenting demands of economic productivity expounded by the state that is tied to the workplace as well as commercial districts.

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Void decks perform many roles for residents

However, in integrated public housing blocks which are no longer developed and sold by the state, but by private developers contracted to do so by the state, and the latter’s tendency to convert empty spaces into profiteering spaces, where is the space of disengagement from the economic system to be found?

Perhaps the anxiety expressed at the loss of these void decks speaks of broader fear: the sublimation of neoliberalism into the private sphere. The mixed-use model is defended as a way to make sure that available land space in land-scarce Singapore is maximized and not ‘under-utilised’: code, of course, for not letting space go to money-making waste.

Void decks, as free spaces that constantly refuse to serve any single purpose exclusively, are thus anathema to such ambitions. The state’s push for mixed-use developments will likely spell the end of the void decks in future public housing. But in 2017, in response to the concerns expressed by citizens at the loss of the void deck, the state formally declared it part of the country’s community heritage. Who knows, in an ironic twist of fate, the politics of heritage might allow these void decks to stand empty once again.

Inside the decline of London’s youth clubs

Marcus Lipton Youth Club is one of London’s few remaining centres amid exclusionary regeneration and government cuts to youth services. Writer and youth worker Ciaran Thapar, who volunteers at the club, explores why such places are vital for London’s communities 

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Ira Campbell, managing director of Marcus Lipton. All photographs: Tristan Bejawn

The first time I knocked on the door of Marcus Lipton Youth Club in Loughborough Junction, south London, over three years ago, fresh flowers lay on the pavement across the road. Placed in memory of a murdered teenage boy, they remain there to this day, dead and drained of colour, a reminder of normalised tragedy in the contemporary city.

The community centre rests in the shadows of the modernist slab blocks of the Loughborough  Estate. It is a squat building with a thick, barred front door. The astroturf football pitch at the back sits next to an abandoned nursery, overgrown with weeds and a scrapyard piled high with the carcasses of rusting cars. Raised railway tracks nearby, upon which trains trundle past carrying commuters to and from the City, are lined with barbed-wire fences to resist invasion by graffiti artists and urban explorers.

Within the centre, a large hall with a table-tennis table, old furniture and games console leads through to a sports hall and small gym. On winter evenings, when local teenagers crave the centre’s warmth and electricity most urgently, food bubbles on the stove in the kitchen. UK drill music, the soundtrack to local life, blares continuously from a speaker. I’ve sat in the studio there, with boys I mentor, whilst they lay down their dark lyrics over rumbling instrumentals, narrating their hidden lives in adolescent catharsis. The centre is covered in CCTV cameras, all of which feed onto a live television stream in the office, where I spend most of my time speaking to staff.

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Helen Hayes, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, holds an audience at Marcus Lipton

For local young people, Loughborough Junction is an unforgiving pocket of the capital; a long-deprived residential hinterland, wedged between the regenerating hubs of Brixton and Camberwell. Whilst volunteering at Marcus Lipton, I have met visitors of all ages: from 11-year-olds receiving football coaching and teenagers who have lost siblings to knife crime, to 40-somethings who have returned to counsel younger men. Here, different generations of local life pivot around the community centre.

“Youth work used to be a thriving game” says Ira Campbell, managing director of Marcus Lipton. “But under austerity, it’s becoming harder and harder. It’s funny, because everyone’s getting together – politicians and that – and saying these kids need somewhere to go. But what else are they going to do apart from sit on their estate and make trouble if there is no service available?”

In 2018, youth violence has soared across London. Young people from socioeconomically stretched families living in high-risk areas feel neither safe in public, nor comfortable at home, and thus require safe spaces to spend their time more than ever. Yet for those in charge of local organisations, like Campbell, providing this safe space has become increasingly difficult under the Conservative government’s funding cuts.

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Research released this year by Green Party politician Sian Berry has found there has been a 44% cut from London youth service budgets since 2011. At least 81 youth clubs and council-funded youth projects have been closed in the city, and 800 full-time youth worker positions scrapped. This equates to a state-sponsored stranglehold of young life.

To do youth work today, “you have to be a cook, cleaner, mum, dad, case-worker, policeman, mentor, and teacher, all in one,” says Campbell. “You’re stretched more and more in different directions, but have less time and money to do a proper job.”

Tania de St Croix, lecturer in the sociology of youth and childhood at King’s College London, echoes Campbell’s sentiments. “Young people, especially in London, live in more cramped accommodation and have less disposable income than ever before,” she says. “With the academisation of state schools, which has emphasised discipline and punishment, there is less trust in teachers. A gap therefore exists for youth workers to fill, as adults who children choose to go to for personal, non-hierarchical support. Youth services really are at a crunch time.”

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The Loughborough Estate

Alongside government cuts, community centres such as Marcus Lipton are threatened by rampant development in London. Like so many parts of the city, Loughborough Junction is experiencing the insidious creep of gentrification. New blocks of luxury flats pop up every few months alongside neglected council flat towers; artisanal cafes and extortionately priced gift shops brush shoulders with longstanding Jamaican bakeries and hardware stores.

As market forces compound to transform local life, it is difficult to see how institutions like Marcus Lipton will thrive, let alone survive. A stalled regeneration proposal for the area includes a plan to rebuild the centre and use the current land for new private homes. De St Croix says this type of insecure reality is especially bleak for youth-friendly spaces which have existed for many decades. “There is an assumption that young people need stuff to be bright and brand new,” she says. “But there is a space for the old-school youth club which has been in the community for generations. That brings something special.”

She believes the fundamental thing is simply having a basic space so young people can feel a sense of co-ownership and community around it, and laments the endless losses of well-established youth clubs due to local authority closures. “You’re never going to get those buildings back to public ownership,” she says. “That loss extends to the loss of an older generation of experienced youth workers, too, who aren’t being valued as mentors, or replaced when they burn out. Some people have put a lifetime into their communities.”

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On a recent visit to Marcus Lipton, I sat down with Campbell in his office to catch up. The early autumn sun streamed through the grubby window onto his face as he leant across a cluttered desk. I asked him what he thinks young people in communities like the one he serves need most from youth services. “The kids that use youth clubs are not well-to-do kids,” he says. “Why would a wealthy kid need to come here? They’re comfortable at home. Kids that come to places like this, it’s their escapism from everything else they’ve got going on in their household, in their school. The community centre is a place where they can be free for a bit.”

 

All photographs by Tristan Bejawn and all rights reserved.

Ciaran Thapar is a youth worker and writer based in south London. He is planning a book about life at Marcus Lipton Community Centre

 

How does place shape who we are?

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by Francesca Perry

Sometimes it’s hard to put our finger on it, but part of us knows that where we live, the places in which we spend our time, play a part in shaping who we are. A particular Winston Churchill quote is oft-cited — ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us’ — and the point it makes of buildings can equally be made of cities, neighbourhoods or places.

As we shape our local area through physical changes and social activities, so we collectively define its identity; in turn, as stage sets for life, hubs for community and activity, these places piece together our own individual, and communal, identities. But what role does, or can, this people-place relationship play? Can engaging with the identity of place help it — or us?

While people’s relationship to place is in many ways practical, it is also very much emotional. In 2017, surveys undertaken by scientists at the University of Surrey for the National Trust revealed that ‘meaningful places’ played a key role in shaping people’s identity, across all ages; 67% of younger people said their meaningful place has shaped who they are.

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That our surroundings can shape our feelings, behaviours, and even sense of identity, has long been reflected upon, but became formally recognised with the rise of the field of environmental psychology in the 1970s. Since then, the interrelation between place and society has been explored by many writers and thinkers.

‘Because there is constant interaction between society and the urban fabric, we cannot tinker with our cities without making some adjustment to society as well — or vice versa,’ wrote Joseph Rykwert in The Seduction of Place (2000). ‘Any description of a city’s shape that can be gathered from a citizen’s comments,’ he continued, ‘represents a constant and intimate dialectic between the citizen and the physical forms he or she inhabits; this may influence [the city’s] image as radically as its economic or political life.’

As such, so those physical places shape us. In a Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), Rebecca Solnit wrote of the places in which one’s life is lived: ‘They become the tangible landscape of memory, the places that made you, and in some way you too become them. They are what you can possess and in the end what possesses you.’

Hastings pier, before it was successfully rebuilt through a local community-led initiative

Beyond simply a place’s physical form, it is what happens in it — the experiences inhabitants share, whether negative or positive — that start shaping communal forms of identity. Of course, identity — whether personal, collective, or linked to place — is not a clear cut and fixed thing: it morphs, shifts, evolves, much like the places in which we live. But within this flux lies certain characteristics, histories or memories, that continually inform the evolving identity.

What has happened in a place can shape, directly or indirectly, how people see it, feel about it, and create narratives around it; this can range from the collective pride felt from the success of a local football team or a well-known historical event happening nearby, through to communal grief experienced after a local tragedy. Such memories and stories are as much a part of the identity of a place as the bricks and mortar.

Local tributes following the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in North Kensington, 2017

Place identity in recent decades has been harnessed as a marketing tool, packaged and promoted as a means to generating profit. But the reason this takes place comes back to a truth that is far more innocent: engaging with the identity of a place — whether that be its physical attributes or social history — can help ground people to feel more at home. Cities are forever in flux, and their populations largely transitory; we seek out stories and markers of identity to anchor ourselves and create a comforting form of place attachment that in turn nurtures our own identity. Instead of promoting the identity of a place for profit, we can do so for social, and community, good. And the first step towards this is inclusive conversation.

In Loughborough Junction, south London, co-design studio make:good brought people in the area together to talk about the neighbourhood’s unique history, character, assets and needs, translating this into co-designed proposals for public realm improvements; improvements that would in themselves celebrate local identity. Conversations across the whole spectrum of the area’s inhabitants revealed that what people saw as defining the identity of the neighbourhood was its diversity and sense of community. By harnessing this into the improvements being made, people were less worried that the local identity could be lost to the changes.

Discussion and design workshops with the community, including over 100 local children, led to the creation of colourful lamp post banners and bridge decorations which celebrated the local area through stories of its history, as well as patterns referencing its assets, its past and the cultural heritage of its inhabitants.

make:good Loughborough Junction community workshop

As places change, and despite that change, engaging with memories from a diverse range of people can help embed a sense of place identity even for people who are new to the area. Engaging with stories of a place — discovering more about it — strengthens our attachment to it. And then, we go on to participate in making new local stories ourselves.

The original version of this article was published on the make:good blog, which has many other reflections about the nature of community, city life and co-design

Could self-build help tackle homelessness in the UK?

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by James Andrew Cox

A lack of affordable, good quality housing in the UK is affecting everyone; thousands of people are being priced out of their homes every year. For more than 78,000 households (a city the size of Wolverhampton), this means living in temporary accommodation — and for many more, on the street.

With a record number of homeless people dying on the streets or in temporary accommodation (a figure which has doubled in the past five years), its critical to look at innovative approaches to help alleviate homelessness. One approach is to explore the potential of self-build accommodation, supported by additional social infrastructure and training.

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A common misconception of homelessness is that lifestyle choices are a fundamental cause. According to recent research undertaken by Homeless Link, in England some 4,750 people sleep rough on any one night, an increase of 15% since 2016 and 73% in the last three years. This steep rise in homelessness reflects structural changes relating to housing provision and welfare reforms, including but not limited to the end of assured shorthold tenancies (2010), the introduction of the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ (2012), the tentative rollout of universal credit (2015), cuts to young people’s housing benefits (2017), a shortage of affordable housing more generally, and ever-soaring rents.

Despite this inexcusable rise, responses are slow, as we have seen with the £28m rough sleeping fund still remaining unspent and recent comments made by the new homelessness minister, Heather Wheeler, that she ‘does not know’ why numbers are up.

As professionals in the built environment, we can use our influence to create homes, places and cities that are designed to work for everyone. This belief was the main driver behind my post-graduate research project, ‘Forgotten Land, Forgotten People’, at The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL.

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In partnership with Trident Group, a Midlands-based organisation which aims to help the most vulnerable by providing good quality affordable homes, services and support, my thesis proposed a new way in which housing associations could better use small under-utilised pieces of land within their ownership (for example garage sites), as self-build sites for groups of ‘self-build ready’ homeless individuals and families.

With the pressures currently faced by housing associations (such as the 1% Rent Reduction, Right to Buy Extension and introduction of the Value for Money Standard) alongside the need for more affordable, adequate and secure housing, self-build may present an innovative solution for tackling homelessness through the built environment.

The process of self-building also has the potential to help alleviate many of the consequences of homeless­ness; it can equip participants with tools and skills that can enable reintegration into the job market. New technologies and systems such as WikiHouse have the potential to help support this outcome, through lowering the skills’ thresholds needed and the costs involved in building homes.

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The process of taking a ‘self-build ready’ group and enabling them to build their own homes is not a short-term quick win for housing associations. However, the benefits would be felt widely across the both the development and health sectors — and beyond — through providing new homes and opportunities for homeless people, cleaning up a previously under-utilised or unused and resented site, and delivering a marketable ‘product’. Whilst my project focussed on garage sites for permanent homes, further discussions indicate that this prototype solution could work for many stakeholders even if only on a temporary basis, for example as a meanwhile use for a development site which aligns with the new Draft London Plan policy (H4) on meanwhile use for a development site that responds to local need.

James Cox is a senior planner at Lichfields UK and recently completed a MSc in Urban Design and City Planning at The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL. This blog post is an edited extract of a post originally published on Lichfields’ Planning Matters blog

 

The Romantic City

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by Francesca Perry

As it’s Valentine’s Day, let’s think about love. Or more specifically, how do urban forms – if at all – affect and even shape attitudes towards and behaviours surrounding love, sex and romance? I’m not seeking a claim of outright environmental determinism, but I do think it’s interesting to consider possible connections. Romantic and sexual behaviours are part and parcel of social practices – something that most agree the built environment plays a significant role in. How we live our public lives, in the public realm, is coordinated by how a city is built and organised. The ways in which we work and play, in which we come together or separate ourselves off – the city both reflects and perpetuates this.

A fascinating article by Abigail Haworth, exploring the current social phenomenon in Japan in which young people seem to be decreasingly interested in sex and relationships,has long stuck in my mind. It is well known that Japan is a conglomeration of mega-regions – which is to say it is a country of endless cities. For me, then, this social phenomenon seems to be a particularly urban one. Haworth cited the pressured economic and work culture as primary reasons in this attitude shift. Her mention of urban conveniences-for-one, however, particularly grabbed my attention. In a city like Tokyo catered towards the individual, where apartments are tiny, density is high, products are sold individually-wrapped and visual stimuli is excessive, is the notion of togetherness designed out or made unappealing?

I often quote Georg Simmel, whose seminal essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ in 1903 suggested that the busier our cities and the greater the level of stimuli in our urban environments, the more likely we are to retereat into ourselves and adopt a blasé attitude to the external world. I am not saying that Simmel’s extreme conclusion is what is going on here, but it is an interesting psychological context to consider.

This got me thinking about other cities, other romantic practices. Paris may be known as the city of love, but beyond tourist rose-tinted glasses, what is the reality of romance there? From both first- and second-hand experience, it seems to me that some romantic attitudes are as stuck in their ways as the obsessively-preserved architecture. In this snow globe of a city, where the real diversity of modern life is pushed out beyond the Boulevard Périphérique, one can find very male-dominated traditional attitudes that result in an imbalance not palatable to any feminist. Monogomy is rare; men peacock around the metropolis, as sure of their virility as Paris is of its legendary status. Paris in its elegant beauty certainly encourages romance – but it is often a fleeting act, an ongoing merry-go-round that sparkles as brightly as the Eiffel Tower’s light show, and burns out just as quick.

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In London, we can’t help but feel that the sprawling size of the city plays a role in our romances. When it can take as long to travel to a (potential) partner’s house as it would to fly to another country, does the sheer dispersed bulk of London form a barrier to sparking – and sustaining – romantic connections? What, then, will happen when tube lines are opened around the clock in 2015 – could transport infrastructure be the facilitator of love? Prague seems to have taken this one step further, with dedicated ‘flirt trains’ which encourage romantic connections. In London, whilst our public spaces become ever-more privatised, and our social spaces ever more commercialised and unaffordable, our places for pursuing romance seem to become increasingly restricted – perhaps flirt trains are next on our agenda too.

Can a city’s form be more ‘intimate’? Think of Barcelona, where in the close-quarters of the central Gothic Quarter, life is certainly lived more in the public realm: togetherness is enabled, encouraged, celebrated by every square and every pedestrianised street. Does it follow, then, that facilitating social interaction affects romantic connections? Or is this rendered meaningless in an age of digital encounters via dating and hook-up apps?

In dense, concentrated cities, apps such as Grindr and Tinder are more successful. The more people in your immediate location, the more options and opportunities there are to you. Perhaps facilitated or reflected by this, the high-density city of New York seems to be known as a ‘dating’ city, with a culture of hook-ups and romances that seem to be yet just another activity slotted in the queue of consumption. Whatever you want, whenever you want it, you can pretty much get it in New York, whether it’s a hamburger delivered to your door, a person to walk your dog in the middle of the night, or a hook-up (or all three).

What of the city of sex? Whilst some define Amsterdam by its Red District and associate it with sexual indulgence, the real picture is a more wholesome – but happily liberal – one. As a city, Amsterdam is low-density, low-stress, open-plan, beautiful and with generous and inclusive public spaces. Fitting, then, that a life-long resident (and friend of mine) should call it ‘tolerant, progressive and liberal’ in terms of sex and romance, with a focus on equal and settled partnerships: ‘the culture is just quite open, practical and sober about sex, it isn’t something taboo or forbidden so there’s no ‘exciting’ cultural fixation on it.’ IMG-20131006-02351

Of course, I have somewhat set myself up to fail. Urban form cannot dictate sexual and romantic activity – culture, economy, social norms, even laws will always play a more dominant role. In Singapore, a single person is not eligible for a HDB (public housing) flat until they’re roughly 35, meaning most people in their twenties still live with their parents – or have to get married in order to move out and achieve any romantic privacy. A culture of dating, as you can expect, does not blossom under such circumstances. And it can get even more extreme: in Purwakata City in Indonesia, unmarried couples are forbidden to be seen on dates after 9pm – and as the (reported) story goes, those found to be defying this law are forced to get married ‘on the spot’. Yes, seriously.

Whilst, then, other factors are more critical, as urbanists we must always consider how the design of cities enables or hinders social interaction. And social interaction, of course, is the start of it all. Happy Valentine’s Day.

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This is an edited and updated version of an article originally published on this site in 2014. Thank you to some truly wonderful women who helped me with this piece: Anna Berezina, Zing Tsjeng, Natasha Lennard and Rosie Haslem.

From Athens to Anfield: the successes of community-led regeneration

In extracts from a new book, Fiona Shipwright looks at two inspiring projects where people power has positively transformed city neighbourhoods

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NAVARINOU PARK, ATHENS, GREECE

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, as Joni Mitchell once sang. Located in the somewhat typecast “anarchist” Athens neighbourhood of Exarcheia, Navarinou Park exemplifies something of a reverse scenario. The initiators and users of Navarinou are not working with something so static or “complete” a state as paradise though; rather, they are attempting to sustain this rare patch of open space amidst the density of the Greek capital via an ongoing process of autonomy and self-management that is not without its challenges.

The site has had a variety of former lives since a clinic was built there in 1907; at one point intended to host a new public building, then a new city square, it instead became a car park in limbo. Its most recent metamorphosis as a piece of urban commons was set in motion following the riots of 2008 that took place in a number of Greek cities, which amplified the feelings of many regarding the country’s precarious economic situation and government corruption. As authorities attempted to curtail tensions, those seeking modes of resistance that didn’t entail rioting were compelled to consider what Italian anthropologist and activist Anna Giulia de la Puppa describes as “new ways of using public space, new experiments [regarding the] occupation of space.”

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On March 7, 2009, the Exarcheia Residents’ Initiative, who had been working on ideas for the site for 18 months, and the collective Us, Here and Now and for All of Us initiated this particular experiment. Alongside local residents and supporters, they arrived at the car park armed with tools and began breaking into the cement and planting. Maintaining this commons ever since has highlighted that despite external misperceptions about Exarcheia, the principle conflict associated with the park is not about street fights but the perception of city space.

Hosting urban gardening schemes, community events (both political and cultural), as well as sport and leisure activities, Navarinou’s status lies somewhere between park and occupation – meaning that the dynamics of the responsibility that apply are distinct. Open, collective meetings take place every Wednesday evening at 7pm, in which no expressed idea is declined without discussion but with consensual decisions binding for all. Autonomy remains a process, not an end result here; a continuing practice of urban communing that fosters connectedness, centred around a space produced by people and used according to their needs and preferred forms of control.

© Matt Thomas

HOMEBAKED, LIVERPOOL, UK

In recent years, the words “urban” and “intervention” have increasingly been coupled together alongside that most ubiquitous of phrases: “pop up”. Whilst short-term tactics can be effective in their own right, it is the employment of intervention as a long-term – and evolving – strategy that really results in the effective, sustained involvement of residents in city making. Homebaked, in the Anfield district of Liverpool in the UK, is one such example of intervention taking place at a large scale, in terms of both duration and vision.

When Mitchell’s Bakery opened on a residential street corner in the neighbourhood (home to Liverpool FC’s stadium) in 1901, it was at the centre of a vibrant community. By 2010, thanks to multiple failures associated with wider regeneration plans for the city, the family-owned business had sold up and the empty bakery found itself marooned within a landscape of boarded up houses in the cross hairs of demolition trucks. That same year, Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, working with Manchester-based architects URBED, initiated the 2Up2Down project as part of a Liverpool Biennial commission, putting the notion of community autonomy centre stage.

Whilst the Biennial itself ran between September to November 2010, the 2Up2Down project ran for two a half years, during which time around 60 young people worked with the artist and architects and made use of the empty bakery space to devise a scheme of re-use for the premises and two adjoining terraced houses. In contrast to the top-down, birds’ eye view of the city’s regeneration plan, this model allowed for the completion of manageable, tangible achievements, demonstrating to participants the power of their own instrumentality whilst lending a sense of momentum for scaling up such efforts.

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In 2012, the project found a new durational trajectory, when participants established the Homebaked Community Land Trust, a membership organisation that allows local people to collectively buy, develop and manage land and buildings (and which exists alongside the community-owned Homebaked Bakery Cooperative). The CLT then set its sights on extending the community-led intervention further into the wider cityscape.

In 2015, when the houses directly next door could not be saved, the group set in motion a project called “Build your own High Street”, underpinned by an extensive community-led design process. The community chose the architects, Architectural Emporium, and the resulting proposal is a scheme that includes 26 flats situated above shops on a community-led and owned high street development. The “brick by brick, loaf by loaf” approach will begin with the flat above the bakery. Once ready for occupancy in early 2018, this first step will allow the group to secure the council support and loans needed to build the scheme.

Homebaked is testament to the fact that whilst long-term interventions are undoubtedly complicated, it is precisely this quality that can bypass the reflex reactions of speculation-driven development, bestowing a value that goes beyond the purely financial.

These are excerpts from the book Explorations in Urban Practice – Urban School Ruhr Series, published by dpr-barcelona    

Urban School Ruhr is a learning platform and pedagogical experiment investigating participative and artistic practices in urban space. An initiative of Open Raumlabor University developed in cooperation with Urbane Künste Ruhr  – find out more here

A city with no more secrets

Digitising urban knowledge means the death of hidden treasures, but the birth of a shared city. So why are we still obsessed with ‘secret’ places? 

By Francesca Perry

I have long held, and will no doubt continue to hold, reservations about the smart, data-led, internet-enabled, hackable city, mostly driven by a mix of demand for greater convenience and desire for maximised money-making, under the banner of ‘innovation’.

Amid all our many apps and digital platforms that aim to make city living seemingly easier and more efficient, showing us the quickest route (Waze), the nearest taxi (Uber), the closest potential dating partner (Tinder), the best local restaurant (Google Maps), and more, there is now an online tool that helps you locate areas of ‘calm’ in your city, for when you just need to find a quiet spot to sit in.

There is a certain joy as a long-time city dweller of knowing your metropolis inside out; of having built up, over years, a wealth of information and experience that gives you insights into a city’s secrets, whether that’s where to stand on a tube platform to get on the right carriage for a swift exit at your destination, when to avoid certain places due to overcrowding, where to find little hidden nooks and gardens to sit and read in, what the lesser-known routes are that get you somewhere quicker, or where to locate beautiful yet uncelebrated buildings.

The pleasure of discovering an off-the-beaten-track oasis of calm in your city — a quiet garden, an empty square, a perfectly placed bench, a rarely used river path — is a great one, mainly because daily life in a large city can wear you down; in an environment where nothing ever seems calm, where noise and crowds and stress is the norm, to find a quiet spot that enables rest and reflection is like discovering a diamond in the rough. Spending time in these places can relieve the pressure of city life, restore a sense of strength that enables you to cope with it.

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My discovery of such places has usually been as a result of a meandering walk, or a wrong turn on the way to somewhere I’ve never been. But now, of course, the process of urban discovery happens mainly through your phone. A few years ago, a now-defunct app called Stereopublic promised to provide a crowdsourced map of places of peace and quiet in cities around the world. Now, the new Tranquil City project seems to do something similar, though it has only tentatively started with London.

‘Tranquil City is a project to find spaces of calm in the city and to promote them,’ the website states. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we can discover new peaceful places while we walk to work? In the near future we aim to link these spaces and design more pleasant and relaxing routes to walk around the city.’ The project uses a collaborative online map called the ‘Tranquil Pavement’ for people to record and locate their cherished quiet spots.

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Don’t get me wrong, the drive behind these specific apps is hugely positive and not about making money: it’s a celebration of experiencing the city and of that I massively approve. What’s more, platforms and resources like these — especially harnessing open source mapping — speak to a democratisation of urban knowledge. Us long-time urbanites (I’ve lived in this beautiful behemoth of London for 30 years and counting) don’t need to be the gatekeepers of the city and its secrets. If there are quieter gardens, quicker routes, hidden treasures, surely everyone should have access to this information.

Of course, the problem is, once this becomes just more data in an app or online map, not only does it become a target as marketable information, but, if it achieves a significant audience, it results in a homogenisation of the city: quieter places become busy, quicker routes become slower, hidden treasures become tourist hotspots, until there is no more hidden knowledge of the city to mine. Hence why the appetite for the ‘unknown’ or ‘secret’ aspects of a city has grown — even a cursory search will reveal the multitude of websites and businesses dedicated to helping people ‘discover’ the alternative, unknown or so-called hidden parts of cities.

The marketing of this is so successful because really there is little about our cities that is unknown these days — it’s all there on Google Maps, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet, blogs, articles, apps, books — but we’re desperate for that not to be the case. Many of the apps, tours or digital tools which claim to unearth a city’s secrets are no longer doing anything of the sort: they are just playing to an audience, marketing place, and attempting to repackage an increasingly homogenised city as they contribute to its homogenisation.

This is not a new game — books and walking tours have been doing this for a very long time  — but of course the internet means the scale of it is unprecedented. We are stuck in a paradox: while we promote a shared city and open information, we simultaneously desire knowledge that only we possess. I am seduced, like most people, by the unknown, hidden, quiet, secret spots in a city, but as an urbanist I also know I want this information to be accessible by all, as cities exist for the many, not the few. But that won’t stop me from musing: have cities lost all their secrets? And once everything is known, where do we go from here?

 

 

 

A compendium of the tools of exclusion in American cities

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by Christo Hall

“Contested space.” I first heard that term in reference to the communities that surrounded the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There — where political, religious and geographic disputes brought about physical violence and an interruption of shared space — the term was apt, but using the language of conflict and competition to describe issues of public space overshadows what is surely the greater objective: harmony.

A new collection of essays, The Arsenal of Exclusion and Inclusion (Actar Press, 2017), seeks to address strategies and interventions it calls “weapons”, which have been used with the ambition to create both exclusive and inclusive spaces in cities. Weapons that have historically — especially considering the focus of the book on American cities — often brought about racial segregation, such as Robert Moses building low bridges along the Long Island Parkway in New York to prevent poorer black communities — who were travelling by bus — from accessing beaches built for the overwhelmingly white suburbs.

But is the language of weaponisation appropriate in the discussion of public space? My feeling is that to describe the guerrilla attempts at spatial inclusivity like the wide-ranging Occupy movement or the wade-in protests that accessed “private beaches” as examples of public space warfare is counterintuitive. These were peaceful challenges to schools of thought that encourage inequality; they were not looking to inflict harm.

A group of African American and white demonstrators surrounded by police during a wade-in at St. Augustine Beach, Florida, in 1964. Photo: AP/Horace Cort

Nevertheless, as a reader from the UK, I’m aware that many of the tools of spatial exclusion that we see in this country are latent forms of manipulation rarely addressed or understood until recently.

The fact is that many tools of exclusion are covert. Many mixed-tenure developments have one door for private tenants and another for its social housing tenants (something that has become known as the “poor door”). Many public benches are designed with armrests to prevent homeless individuals sleeping on them, while some cities have banned people from providing food to the homeless in public space.

In the suburbs of Cleveland and Chicago, neighbourhoods lobbied to remove basketball hoops from public space to prevent the arrival of “outsiders”, which was code for a white neighbourhood seeking to keep its neighbourhood white. A Baltimore neighbourhood demanded one-way streets along every road that led to the avenue which divided them from a majority black community living on the other side.

Volunteers in Philadelphia distribute food to the homeless outside a public hearing on rules banning outdoor food distribution. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

Examples like these are eye opening, and the book is an excellent resource to spot the exclusive policies that are often executed under the guise of another aim, with more than a hint of sleight of hand. But as a resource it also helps identify those tools of inclusion that might not be immediately obvious: design elements such as detectable warning surfaces or building ramps that work to better include people with disabilities in the public realm, for example.

Not all the tools of exclusion and inclusion are hidden: gated developments, or the proposed bill in US congress that will provide lactation rooms in all American airports, are hard to miss.

The hundreds of listed ‘weapons’ in this book, many in relation to housing policy in the United States, contribute to portraying a situation where access is often regulated by affordability — and, increasingly, desirability. For example, regulations against non-criminal behaviour such as skateboarding, parkour and “loitering” — whether implemented by public or private orders, and often by groups such as ‘block clubs’ and Business Improvement Districts — are prejudices against certain groups of people in the name of so-called “common decency”.

To regulate what is desirable in public space is an ambiguous business, and one that suggests that someone or some authority knows best. And in an era of state relinquishment of public space to the private sector, what is desirable is often defined as what people and behaviour leads to the most profit rather than what can lead to social good, and where wealthy members of the public are privileged over others.

While the book’s essays do a great job of assessing the individual “weapons”, they do little to propose a cohesive thesis as to how to tackle opposing ideas about space and civil liberty. It is, largely, a safe study and an epidemiology of public space disorder. What’s needed now is discussions that weigh up what is needed to accommodate attitudes, whether we should be trying to reach consensus in public policy or instead somehow trying to find a solution that works for all, or if indeed there is such a thing as a city which is too permissive. To crack attitudes of fear and closed-mindedness we don’t need weapons — we need conversation.

Christo Hall is a freelance writer, the founding editor of Cureditor, an editor at LOBBY magazine and founder of MagShuffle