Infra-structured landscapes

Adriaan Geuze and Matthew Skjonsberg explore the social impact and negotiation of urban infrastructure – and the the advocatory role landscape architects can play in designing public spaces

The High Line park in New York. Source: boomsbeat.com
The High Line park in New York. Source: boomsbeat.com

Infrastructure can be wielded as a means of promoting the common good or as an institutional weapon of exploitation. While the highways, bridges and dams funded by international economic interests and built in outlying regions like the Amazon play a role that is difficult to conceive of as being anything other than devastatingly exploitative, the public parks and greenways of the world’s major cities also clearly serve economic functions while delivering a variety of benefits to the common good.

Infrastructure can be conceived of as opportunistic and multilayered, serving explicit functions of enabling mobility, energy, and communications – but also potentially prioritising access to light, air, and water: creating open space for social gathering and spatial continuity for ecological habitats. This is true whether infrastructure is regarded as a public space or as private commodity. Semi-public spaces now proliferate in major cities. Of course, the term ‘semi-public space’ is effectively a euphemism for ‘private property’, and while this trend might be criticised, there are also examples of these spaces being used in such a way as to provide alternative commons when the public are denied their right of free access to public space.

For instance, when in New York City the Occupy Wall Street movement was prohibited from gathering in public space on Wall Street itself, the protesters instead inhabited nearby Zuccotti Park. A small granite plaza in close proximity to the New York Stock Exchange, Zuccotti Park is one of over 500 ‘bonus plazas’ built in the city – privately-owned public parks created according to a little-known law established in 1961, the result of a compromise struck between the city and property developers.

The law states that should developers desire to build a taller skyscraper than zoning would otherwise allow, they can construct a compensatory plaza that provides ‘light and air’ for passers-by: the taller the building they desire, the bigger the plaza they must build. These bonus plazas are generally required to be open 24 hours a day, barring a safety issue, and they are governed by specific regulations in the zoning law. The law states that the layout of such plazas must provide easy pedestrian circulation throughout the space, and, thereby, promote public use.

Police presence at the Occupy Wall Street protest camp in Zucotti Park, October 2011.
Police presence at the Occupy Wall Street protest camp in Zucotti Park, October 2011.

Indeed, this was effectively the case at Zuccotti Park from the arrival of protesters there in September 2011 until police forcefully evicted them in a raid two months later. When protesters initially occupied the park the only rules visibly posted there were: ‘No Skateboarding, No Rollerblading, No Bicycling’. Subsequent to their arrival, the owners of the site made public an additional set of rules banning everything from erecting tents and tarps to lying on the benches, although these rules were not enforced until the November police raid.

At that time barricades and police presence were established so as to discourage protesters from returning, and those who chose to enter the park were subjected to search and checkpoints monitored by police. This situation persisted until, in January 2012, civil rights groups filed a complaint with the city’s building department, asserting that the barricades were in violation of the city’s zoning law as they restricted public access to the park – stating that by allowing the barricades to exist the city was failing to enforce the law. The barricades were swiftly removed, and open access to the park was once again provided.

The High Line Park in New York, also a ‘semi-public space’, generated controversy when park officials brought in police to arrest an artist – Robert A. Lederman – selling his work there. After his release, Lederman vowed to return to vend his art on the High Line, and he did so – only to be arrested once again by Park Enforcement Patrol officers. The current city administration then stepped in; Lederman was personally contacted by the Parks Commissioner, who informed him that he would not be arrested again, that the charges against him were dropped, and that the Parks Commission had begun developing terms by which to accommodate artists and other vendors on the High Line.

The High Line
The High Line

Clearly, the struggle over infrastructure and public space is an ongoing negotiation – in contrast to the relatively amicable outcome in the case of the High Line, following the 6-month anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street Protests hundreds of protesters were again evicted from Zuccotti Park, and 73 arrests were made by police who used batons and tear gas in dealing with the crowd, dramatically illustrating the sometimes emphatic nature of this struggle. Among the perennial questions that persist is under what circumstances the rights of one group or interest are to be diminished by those of another, and whether infrastructure, by virtue of its interoperability, can be an effective means by which to reconcile disparate interests.

As designers, we talk about space, not politics – but we are aware that the two are interrelated. As distinct from visionary cities of the future, we are particularly interested in learning from the urbanising processes at work in the day-to-day creation of real cities and the role of infrastructure in these processes.

There is always the risk that the designers of infrastructure – whether architect, landscape architect or engineer – become merely technical enablers of narrowly focused interests all too often purely intent on short-term economic gains. We might imagine that megaprojects like the Three Gorges Dam in China – which along with the ‘green energy’ it provides has had negative social and environmental impacts that are widely acknowledged – are inherently more harmful than, for instance, the infrastructure needed for internet service.

Three Gorges Dam, China. Source: Reuters
Three Gorges Dam, China. Source: Reuters

We believe in the proactive assertion of designers to champion the reality of interests beyond those financially vested in the work. In this regard, it is necessary to acknowledge that the disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture, engineering and construction all operate extensively within the public realm: to reach decisions and to establish finances we have to work with politicians, local citizens, and bureaucracies with quite diverse systems.

We must deal with outreach, public opinion, interaction, legal systems, implementation, and compromise. Our disciplines cannot avoid responding to socio-political contexts. While this situation might be regarded as a liability if design intent is fixed on a single predetermined outcome, it can also be seen as a real opportunity to engage the fluid condition of the city’s evolution – and to develop a mindset that can be characterised as ‘radical contextualism’.

Considering both the historic and contemporary phenomenon of the privatisation of common resources – whether water, air, and light or mobility, energy and communications – infrastructure is fundamental to civilization’s second nature, that body and activity of civilization that provides both connection and buffer between ‘nature’ and ‘city’, and between community interests and individual interests. Do we, as designers, effectively embrace our conciliatory role in making these resources available to the public? Are we willing to accept our responsibility if we fail to proactively advocate the public good, and design infrastructure that fails – in one way or another – to acknowledge context?

Now is the time to get a handle on our intentions, compare them with the outcomes of our efforts – and if the two are not convincingly aligned, make a change. Best, a radical one.

This piece is an edited version of an article titled ‘The Interoperative’ first published in Oz Journal, Volume 34. Adriaan Geuze is the founder of West 8 urban design and landscape architecture. Matthew Skjonsberg, architect and urban designer, is a Ph.D. researcher at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

 

Makers in spaces: new urban manufacturing and its role in placemaking

by Francesca Perry

C-Base

Whilst we all accept a shift in the urban economy from manufacturing to knowledge and communications, it would be foolish to say that manufacturing does not take place, matter or play a continuing role in urban centres. But this new post-industrial wave of urban manufacturing is independent, local and DIY; centred on the growth of tech innovation and entrepreneurialism rather than mass production. This is about citizen empowerment to make change through making itself.

So exactly what role can manufacturing play in place-making and community development? It can unite people in the process of making, as a form of socially productive production. It can also bring life to urban centres long starved of manufacturing activity. This is specific urban manufacturing that responds to new ways of working and doing, and in turn has the potential to make new places and community hubs. Whilst there have already been big steps forward, there is still a way to go to marry urban design and places with contemporary communities and activities. An example of this is the disjuncture between the much-lauded Tech City in London and its ugly pedestrian-unfriendly home, the Old Street roundabout. Spaces should reflect and nurture their communities, in relation to work as well as home.

NYC Resistor

After zoning and cars pushed manufacturing activities out of city centres and into what would often come to be termed as industrial wastelands, a certain diversity of urban life was lost. It also resulted, along with the evolution of services, in a number of vacant spaces in cities, emptied of their former industrial use. Warehouses, factories, mills and workshops stood unused. Though many of these faced a fate of luxurious conversion, the recent effects of the economic recession has only added empty retail units to the list.

So, what do you do with vacant urban spaces and a new movement of digital and entrepreneurial industry? The answer is makerspaces – or hackspaces: hubs where people come together to create, collaborate, make and share (see César Reyes Nájera’s great article). Now these activities are beginning to animate urban districts, supporting an enhanced diversity of use.

The digitisation of – well, everything – has led critics to believe that physical space and proximity is less important for successful business and industry. But this is far from the case. We live in cities in order that we might interact and share: computers will not change this. So of course the new ‘industrial revolution’, as Chris Anderson calls it, composed of start-ups and independent makers, requires new kinds of physical community and productive spaces.

Milwuakee Makerspace

Whether you call them co-working spaces, workshops, hubs, hackspaces or makerspaces, they are becoming vital to this new economy. Now, I’m not just talking about tech, as seductive as this would be, because physical manufacturing and crafts still take place – to an increasing degree in fact. In this post-industrial age, we have a heightened interest in the hyperlocal product – whether it be coffee, beer, clothing or furniture.

We need to embrace this movement in to the thriving network and places of urban activity. Many maker groups are indeed taking on new spaces in the city and transforming them; others are growing out of or tacking on to existing public spaces like libraries:

Recently many libraries have begun to develop spaces for design and activities that both teach and empower patrons. The learning in these spaces varies wildly–from home bicycle repair, to using 3D printers, to building model airplanes. Fittingly, they are called makerspaces.’

Library Makerspace

Over in the US, June’s National Day of Civic Hacking aims to bring together citizens and entrepreneurs to collaboratively create, build, and invent new solutions to challenges relevant to neighborhoods and cities. Initiatives like the maker education initiative are nurturing opportunities for young people to get involved in this maker movement, fostering creativity and learning. Of course, the rise of technology has made the process of making and manufacturing more accessible, with 3D printing breaking down the barrier between idea and creation. These are new ways of making for new ways of working. It’s only sensible that urban development supports and reflects this, as the physical reflects the social and must always learn from it.

It’s crucial for makerspaces themselves to interact with the wider urban area and community – there’s little point in making a great place which remains internal and exclusive. Some are heading in the right direction. On the tech front, London Hackspace, a ‘community-run workshop where people come to share tools and knowledge’ holds regular open evenings and public events.

London Hackspace

Sugarhouse Studios in Stratford has used an abandoned warehouse to be a community hub and productive workshop, to give the opportunity to the local community to get more actively and creatively engaged with both existing and future public spaces in the area.

A great model has been Assemble & Join, who run community micro-manufacturing workshops that re-imagine the role a high street can take within a community and in turn the role a community can play in the way an area develops over time. Through free site-specific workshops, the organisation offers shopkeepers, residents, traders and community groups the chance to collectively research, design and build changes to the public realm to better suit their needs. This includes everything from wayfinding schemes and flat-pack market stalls and seating systems. A&J are using manufacturing to help communities play a more active role in shaping where they live and work.

A&J

If A&J is anything to go by, this maker movement has the potential to form a core of urban regeneration, animating empty spaces and opening themselves up as productive interactive hubs, engaged in high street life, public places and community. In the longer term, they can lead to the creation of new jobs and encourage young people to feel empowered and inspired to make their own opportunities – and products.

So far, in general, the city has reflected this new start-up, entrepreneurial DIY movement in the ‘pop-up’ culture, but it’s time we support this new economic and social infrastructure and make places for new kinds of community and business interaction.

The old form of work and making has long been behind closed doors and on city outskirts. Now, more accessible and mixed in with all other urban activities, it stands to become more fully integrated in both the social and design aspects of the city. Reflecting the new entrepreneurial spirit, we should embrace making and makers in urban life and placemaking itself. It may sound as if I’m arguing for a Berlinification of cities – but I know many places which could benefit from such an approach!

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