Last month KTH – Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm had the distinction of installing world-leading Harvard scholar, Edward Glaeser, as an Honoury Professor. To mark the occasion Ed Glaeser visited KTH and gave a lecture titled: Cities and the Post Urban World.
The recording is available here:
As always, Professor Glaeser gave a sparkling performance spinning data, method innovations and insights together like the premier craftsman of contemporary urban studies he has become. The great thing about watching his lecture on YouTube is that you can pause it (!) to let the impact of his many powerful observations and interpretations sink in. This is a Master’s course in contemporary global urbanism delivered in a little under an hour.
Sustainability for Stockholm – and Beyond
In the context of prosperous and beautiful Stockholm, Ed’s core message really hit home. The global battle for sustainable urbanism will have its front-lines in developing world cities. It is here that the majority of the world lives today and will live in the future. It is here that the greatest urban challenges are being faced – around housing, transportation, healthcare, energy provision and, vitally, equity. And, it is here that we must find solutions.
For a university like KTH in a city like Stockholm that is, perhaps, the world’s most sustainable capital, there is a responsibility beyond ensuring our own future. Those insights we establish in Stockholm and technologies we develop here must be taken forward and made use of in cities around the world. Sustainable urbanism is a global, shared challenge. Many of our projects (and projects developed in other European capitals) would benefit from having this perspective in mind from their initiation. Great for my city AND great for the world should be our mantra.
A challenge to how we understand urban development today
This week the blog will focus on DIY Urbanism as a global phenomenon. As the Ordinary Streets film from London showed, beyond the hip, new label of “DIY Urbanism”, many communities around the world are engaged in building grass-roots urban capacity. In developing countries its often the only type of urban development on the agenda; in developed countries its a form of local re-engagement and, sometimes, push-back against the establishment.
There is much that can be learnt from DIY initiatives in other countries and access to the internet as well as social media is changing the impact these initiatives have. DIY Urbanism has now raised itself to be a global force, concerned with civic engagement, fairness, quality-of-life and climate change, with which urban planners and other in positions of more traditional authority are learning to engage.
What’s new in the DIY Urbanism world?
Certain cities such as Berlin, Amsterdam and Barcelona in Europe and Portland or San Francisco in the US have strong reputations as pioneers in DIY Urbanism. In Berlin, the massive urban park created at a dis-used airport, Tempelhof, has become a hub of experimental DIY Urbanism.
Pioneer field, Tempelhof Berlin. Image from www.uncubemagazine.com
The future of Tempelhof is heavily contested in Berlin, with some wanting it to be developed, in part, for housing and commercial uses, whilst others want it to remain a public and un-commercialised park. Many sites in cities across the world are similarly contested, a frequent outcome of which is that they sit, un-used and neglected, for many years whilst the planners and protestors battle it out.
Not so in Berlin. Whilst discussions about Tempelhof’s future are on-going, the city and citizens are working to ensure it finds an interim purpose, especially as a home to DIY initiatives. A part of the field has been dedicated to so-called “pioneer plots” where citizens can apply for a temporary tenancy of a grass plot, no more than a few meters squared, which they can do anything they like with, as long as it is not for commercial purposes. Most people turn their plots in to allotments – many of which are eye-catching and innovative, providing a fantastic scene for other Berliners to enjoy a stroll past. The planning process of Tempelhof field is being studied by Meike Schalk at the KTH School of Architecture and further reflections on this innovative process can be read here in the recently published book, “Green Utopianism”.
Karin Bradley comments, “What we are seeing in Berlin is a new approach to urban planning where activities take place whilst the plan is being negotiated, indeed, these activities are influencing the urban form the plan will make possible. This is a far more dynamic, flexible and engaged type of urban planning than we traditionally see”.
Is DIY Urbanism only for big cities?
Vitally, it’s not only big cities that are being rocked by DIY Urbanism. In the north of England the modest-sized, former industrial town of Todmorden has been transformed through a bottom-up community gardening initiative called Incredible Edible. The project has engaged local people in planting edible crops at numerous locations throughout the town so as to share knowledge about food growing, improve people’s diets and build a stronger community.
Is DIY Urbanism only for rich cities and empowered citizens?
A criticism of the DIY Urbanism trend is that it is primarily a “hobby” for the urban, latte-drinking classes who have the time and resources to engage in projects. Indeed, some cynics comment that it’s as much about raising property prices as it is about raising communities.
DIY Urbanism as survival
Poor communities and cities have made use of DIY Urbanism under the more realistic label of “surviving” for hundreds of years, coming together to solve problems through local solutions – primarily because no external sources of support exist. Think of the “dubbawalla” lunch box delivery system in Mumbai (see the film above) or the Cooperative movement that developed across Europe during the industrial revolution. In Namibia, a grass-roots, cycle-design project has helped hundreds of communities across Africa access better health care. Started during the height of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, the Namibian Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN) constructed a simple “bike ambulance”, a bike trailer able to transport sick people to hospital. BEN also re-conditions bikes for health workers so that they can work over larger distances.
Karin Bradley comments, “Actually, a lot of the DIY tactics comes from the ways of working and the experiences in poorer parts of the world, in informal settlements where you have to solve things together locally. The Hindi concept “jugaad” has received a lot of interest in innovation and urban development circles – basically meaning low-cost, ad hoc, solutions to solve immediate problems. There is a similar idea behind the concept of “tactical urbanism”, meaning low-cost urban interventions initiated by citizens. This is now being picked up by many official planning departments, in the US, UK as well as in Sweden, and used as a tool to make cities more livable, and one should add, sometimes covering up for the budget cuts in public planning.”
DIY Urbanism is a long-standing, global phenomenon that is being revived today as communities try to take greater control of their environments and futures. Its making cities more vibrant, creative, inclusive and diverse. The rapid expansion and increasing influence of DIY Urbanism has sparked questions about the authority and role of traditional city-makers, such as local authorities and developers, and top-down approaches. Questions have also been raised about the accountability and power of those who drive DIY initiatives. Who owns the city and who has the right to change it? In the next blog we will explore what research is telling us about the future of DIY Urbanism.
The feature image for this post was provided by Meike Schalk at KTH – thank you!
Until recently most of us could take it for granted that we would have somewhere to live, a place to call home. We had shared ideas about how that home would look – perhaps a large-windowed apartment downtown or a small timber-framed house in the suburbs, with a lawn and obligatory trampoline. We looked forward to getting to know the neighbourhood – to “putting down roots”.
In just a few years, the situation for those of us who live or want to live in cities has changed dramatically. The rapid influx of people in to cities has created a new reality leading us to question what home is – and explore new possibilities for what a home might be.
“Don’t look to Stockholm!” the poster cries “21,000 people are already looking in vain for homes”.
Some of the issues are deeply challenging – a lack of housing stock in cities, housing (un)affordability, the renovation of ageing housing stocks, unsustainable profit-driven development, social alienation and the breakdown of neighbourhood…. At the same time, shoots of possibility are starting to push through, a new openness and curiosity, allowing us to explore different ideas about what a home could be.
Over the next few weeks the Centre blog will highlight some research themes around “homes” and “housing” emerging at KTH. The Sustainable Homes Focus Area being developed by the Centre provides a platform for exchanging and developing ideas around this theme.
First, some basic background information on the situation faced in Stockholm (and mirrored in many other urban centres). It is estimated that the population of the Stockholm region will grow from 2.2 million today to 3 million over the next 30 years. This growth will come primarily from rural depopulation and immigration to Stockholm from outside Sweden. Plans are underway to build 140,000 new homes in and around Stockholm to accommodate the influx. At the same time, almost 1 in 4 homes in Stockholm require renovation, if carbon dioxide outputs (mainly from heat waste due to poor insulation) are going to reach European targets. Property prices in the capital are at an all-time high and the waiting lists for rental properties are measured in decades. The situation, clearly, is acute.
Despite a building boom, many struggle to find a home in Stockholm.
Sixty years ago, as Europe raised itself out of destruction wrought by the Second World War, people likewise rushed in to Stockholm. The poster above, plastered up on railways stations and small town notice boards across Sweden, told them to go home. Today we’ve learned to see the potential in big cities – and have become dependent on the creativity and productiveness of our urban economies. We can’t and don’t want to go home. Our challenge, then, is to understand what “home in the city” is and how we can deliver viable homes to all of our city’s residents.
*if you want to make sure you receive these blog posts, please subscribe to this blog using the field on the right hand side.