Can Temporary Urbanism be a Permanent Solution? Urban Spaces in Liquid Times

The Flying Grass Carpet, Willy Brandt Platz, Essen during EU Capital of Culture (Studio ID Eddy, 2008)

Cities are changing and expanding faster than ever before. The world is becoming more interconnected whilst rapid societal, cultural, technological and economic transformations are breathing uncertainty and insecurity to the size we cannot control or regulate. In this new status quo, urban interventions must re-evaluate to seek for a more resilient and flexible method to respond to the emerging needs of new land uses, new space availabilities and new city dwellers. This study proposes temporary urbanism as an alternative approach to urban design and planning strategy in the contemporary society of complexity and disjuncture. It investigates the cultural impact of the bottom-up temporary initiative and explores the roles individuals and organisations play in enhancing the values of its local communities.

Temporary activities come in various forms; whether it is a travelling food truck or a parasite cinema in a stairway, the “pop-up” phenomena is opening up various possibilities for building a more resilient urban area for the its citizens (Beekmans and de Boer, 2014). Although the concept of “temporary” widely varies, this study will employ Bishop and Williams’ definition of temporary use as “an intentional phase”, where the “time-limited nature of the use is generally explicit” (2012, p. 5).

Temporary Urbanism in Uncertain Times

Zygmunt Bauman claims that the current world is seeing a shift from a “solid” to “liquid” phase of modernity (2006, p. 1). Solid modernity is based on the belief of order attained through control, regulations and domestication of nature and human life. In this phase, all aspects of human life appear well-ordered and predictable, and change is considered a temporary measure until enough information and knowledge are acquired to construct a world where further change is not needed (Bauman, 2004). However, Bauman claims that in the last forty to fifty years, the world has shifted to a phase of liquid modernity — where social forms “decompose and melt faster than the time it takes to cast them” (2006, p. 1). In this age, social institutions are left with not enough time to solidify, and change no longer means a temporary measure but a “permanent condition of human life” (Bauman, 2004, p. 5). This is in line with William Connolly’s notion of “neoliberalism”, a structure “that often seem solid and intractable…when they are in fact punctuated by hidden vulnerabilities, soft spots, uncertainties, and potential lines of flight that become apparent when they are subjected to experimental action, upheaval, testing, and strain” (2013, p. 37). In both cases, the major characteristics of contemporary society are the growing sense of uncertainty, fragility, dislocation, unpredictable risk and mistrust, due largely to mismanagement of both manmade and natural crises by centralised institutions (Connolly, 2013; Bauman 2004).

Beekmans and de Boer, the founders of the blog “Pop-Up City” identify cities as “organisms” that “live, breathe, and endure the occasional midlife crisis” (2014, p. 263). In the age of liquid modernity, cities, much like humans, are perpetually evolving. And yet, much of the urban thinking and strategies are pursuing permanence, unaware that their “strategic planning processes are increasingly unsuited to the pace of modern urban change” (Bishop and Williams, 2012). Traditionally, urban planning is a solution-oriented approach, whereby the process is considered as a step stone to establishing a desirable output (Oswalt et al., 2013). However, in temporary planning, the relationship is reversed; one begins by questioning how a dynamic can be incubated without defining a fixed, complete state (Oswalt et al., 2013). In the new “complex, overlapping, disjunctive” global cultural economy, city designers and planners are urged to develop new strategies that adapt to new land uses, new topologies, and new city dwellers (Appadurai, 1990, p. 296; Beekmans and de Boer, 2014).

Beekmans and de Boer explain that “spontaneity and temporality are important for ensuring the health of city: temporary initiatives help to refresh an urban area, infusing it with an energy that may have been displaced or even evaporated altogether” (2014, p. 263). Bishop and Williams similarly indicate that “temporary activity represents a reaction to a world where the future is more uncertain and less secure, and a response to rapid economic, societal and technological changes that are shortening the present into smaller and smaller time frames” (2012, p. 213). In both cases, the language of “temporariness” is used here as part of the discourse of new urban design method (Kohoutek and Kamleithner, 2006). Rudolf Kohoutek and Christa Kamleithner define temporary uses as “uses for which a society does not usually provide space, and they use space that, for whatever reason, stand vacant, and hence lie in the shadows of social or private attention” (2006, p. 30–31). Bishop and Williams (2012) acknowledge that although temporary activities are not a new phenomenon, they have, in recent years, flourished, suggesting a vital role in contemporary city-making. They define temporary land use in a wider context, stating it that it is “an intentional phase…The phase itself may be short- or long-lasting” but “the time-limited nature of the use is generally explicit” (2012, p. 5). Released from the negative connotation of “uncontrolled growth”, temporary use is now considered a conscious choice; essentially, it is an acknowledgment of the end before the beginning (Oswalt et al., 2013; Bishop and Williams, 2012).

Robert Temel identifies that temporary uses may sometimes be considered provisional, that is, “conceived as a mere substitute for the ‘real thing’”, but denotes that “the temporary also has its own qualities and should not be viewed as merely a substitute for the fully adequate. This special quality can, for example, be that temporal limitation permits many things that would still be inconceivable if considered for the long term” (Temel, 2006, p. 55). Indeed, the strategy to incorporate temporary thinking has only appeared in the scene in the mid-2000’s (Beekmans and de Boer, 2014). Previously, the discourse of temporariness was associated with crisis or a failure to develop, and such, was considered as a “band-aid approach” (Bishop and Williams, 2012; Beekmans and de Boer, 2014, p. 264). In other words, temporary city planning was originally a solution for failed risk management or more precisely, a lack of resilience in the system to cope with uncertainty (Bishop and Williams, 2012). Ironically, the new discourse of temporary urbanism today is a measurement to cope with — rather than as a result of — uncertainty.

The differences between “risk” and “uncertainty” must be clarified here. Deborah Lupton (1999) notes that with each human progress in science and technology, the discourse of “risk” departed from one associated with natural event to one that can be measured and controlled by institutionalised power. Reddy states that it is during this phase that “Moderns had eliminated genuine indeterminacy, or ‘uncertainty’, by inventing ‘risk’” (1996, cited in Lupton, 1999, p. 7). Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes and Yannick Barthe identify “risk” as well-identified danger that are predicted to take place, while characterise “uncertainty” as probabilities that are inestimable (2011, p. 21). Knight and Keynes make a distinction between risk and uncertainty as “predictable and non-predictable or calculable and non-calculable forms of contingency” (1937, cited in Beck, 2006, p. 334). The common thread here is the assumption that risk is predictable and controllable, whereas uncertainty is unpredictable and uncontrollable.

As a matter of fact, natural catastrophes such as the Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, the earthquakes and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean in 2004 and Japan in 2011 have proved the limit to human capacity to control natural disasters (Beck, 2006; Bishop and Williams, 2012). The world economic crisis in 2008 that resulted in the collapse of financial institutions have also undermined faith in humanity’s growth and prosperity (Bishop and Williams, 2012). The liquidity of the age proved that the key actors of solid modernity — science, politics, mass media, business, law and military — are incapable of mitigating and controlling uncertainties (Beck, 2006). Uncertainty therefore, should not be controlled or regulated — rather, it must be dominated and domesticated (Taleb, 2012). And the individuals must learn how to be resilient, or “antifragile” to the randomness (Taleb, 2012, p. 4). Bauman (2006), Beck (2006), Taleb (2012) and Callon et al. (2011) agree that in this fragmented age, the decision is up to the individuals to cope with the global uncertainty — to be flexible and resilient to rapid changes and disorders.

Creativity from the Bottom-Up

The idea of temporary city cannot be discussed without mentioning the engagement of local communities. As Bishop and Williams indicate:

The temporary city is the space designed by the individual…Temporary activities empower individuals and allow them space in a dehumanised corporate world…[I]n the twenty-first century, if we want the innovation, fluidity and flexibility that temporary activities can give us, then we will need to relinquish our twentieth-century notions of control. (2012, p. 220)

As an individual of this fragmented world, one must learn how to spontaneously adapt to the ever-changing needs in contemporary society. The importance of small, dispersed, decentralised movement is also emphasised by Connolly, who notes that “the new, multifaceted movement needed today, if it emerges, will take the shape of a vibrant pluralist assemblage acting at multiple sites within and across states, rather than either a centred movement with a series of fellow traveler attached to it or a mere electoral constellation” (2013, p. 41). E.F. Schumacher (1989) calls this the “Big Society”, a concept whereby state power is distributed to individuals or communities to encourage social responsibility and therefore promote innovation. Ronnesberger also states that “neoliberalism are designed to individualise social risks, do away with traditional protective rights and make people responsible for regulating their own lives” (2006, p. 50). Ultimately, efficient systems are those that operate in small, decentralised segments that can react and act spontaneously to their surrounding changes (Taleb, 2012).

In the context of liquid modernity, this breakdown of power allows citizens to gain authority to make positive changes in their local community. In a similar vein, Beekmans and de Boer explain that the cities “are no longer the product of master plans and fixed frame-works, but are increasingly being shaped by citizen-led initiatives and temporary projects by people hoping to make their cities better” (Pop-Up City, 2017). Oswalt et al. similarly state that there is a shift in the role of the planner, in that “the users themselves” are becoming “producers of space” (2013, p. 217). In the context of temporary land use, the “individuals” — independently and collaboratively in a form of entrepreneur, designer, urban planner, or manager — play a vital role in bridging the gap between developers and citizens. More importantly, this empowers local citizens to act on their own responsibility, innovate their own lives and share the responsibility in invigorating the culture in their own environments.

Arjun Appadurai (2013) also highlights the immense role individuals play especially in the fields of design and planning within the last two decades. He argues that “if we recognise that ordinary human beings have significant capacities to plan and design their own futures, we will find stronger connections between our ideas and the values and motives of those whom we actually claim to serve and to represent” (Appadurai, 2013, p. 267). He addresses the strong link between humans and their imagination skills, which is also a large contributor of empowering the city-making process. Charles Landry stresses the importance of creativity in the process of city-making, an element with a potential to “develop culture and identity because the innovations that it generates shape what a place becomes” (2008, p. xxv). Creativity is a process of “applied imagination” that cultivates “cultural power or soft power” (2008, p. xviii). It helps to build a narrative and add cultural distinctiveness to a world where cities are becoming homogenous. Ultimately, creative intervention is a context-driven activity; what is effective in one context does not guarantee a same success in another field. In this respect, innovative urban practice involves a certain degree of failure. It is no longer about how much of the “unknown” can be controlled and predicted than it is about leaving a space for failure — and an open-mindedness to learn from it. Combined with individual’s power and the nature of temporary city planning, the notion of creativity and failure become significant in revitalising the city culture.

This then poses the question — what is “culture” in the urban context, and what does it mean for a method to be “successful”? Landry defines culture as “values, insight, a way of life and form of creative expression” which “represents the soil from within which creativity emerges and grows, and therefore provides the momentum for development” (2006, p. 173). A successful urban planning will therefore incorporate elements of creativity, not only at the moment of implementation, but also thereafter, providing its citizens a capacity to self-organise and enhance its own local cultures. The following case study of Rotterdam-based public-sector planning, The Flying Grass Carpet, is one of the many temporary initiatives in the world that is acting to invigorate the local cultures.

The Flying Grass Carpet

The Flying Grass Carpet is the “world’s first travelling park” founded in 2008 by Rotterdam-based architecture agency, HUNK-Design and artist ID Eddy (see image above). The Persian rug is made from artificial grass consisting of several different parts that stretches from 18 by 22 metres to 32 by 58 metres, and can be adjusted depending on the context and the space availability (de Boer, 2008; Project for Public Spaces, 2017). The carpet can be transported by plane, train or truck, making it an ideal public-sector response to vacant sites that need an instant, community-gathering recreation. The temporary park can be used for all kind of purposes, from interim use to leisure use for events, contests and performances. With added equipments such as bean bags, picnic blanket, giant blocks and live entertainment, the area can be activated instantly, serving as a “lighter, quicker, cheaper” measure for local citizens to relax, socialise or play (Project for Public Spaces, 2017). This makes the carpet an ideal placemaking process in cities all over the world — and indeed, the carpet has travelled worldwide, including places such as Istanbul, Madrid and Shanghai.

This is an example of a temporary activity that began locally and expanded globally, a case where local values proved to be a shared feeling across the globe. The team claims their value as “bringing a unique experience of fun and relaxation that can be shared worldwide” (The Flying Grass Carpet, 2010). This is similarly noted by one of the founders, ID Eddy, as they identify themselves as a studio that is “inspired by the most important value of the city: people” (Studio ID Eddy, 2008). They write: “we bring people together and bring joy in their life. We are successful when we can inspire them, let them play, meet and enjoy” (Studio ID Eddy, 2008). The artists of HUNK-design, Bart Cardinaal and Nadine Roos also elaborate on the concepts of the Flying Grass Carpet as follows:

[The Flying Grass Carpet is] a unique, temporary and fun park that can be placed anywhere. The carpet will bring people together while bringing them a piece of instant green into their city life. It offers opportunities to relax, to play, to picnic and for all sorts of events. Like in the fairytale the Flying Grass Carpet travels from one city to another and connects different cities and their citizens with each other. A worldwide shared public domain is created. Since city centres all over the world are rapidly being privatised, the public domain is under pressure and is losing its quality. The Flying Grass Carpet delivers a beautiful alternative for city dwellers to enjoy the city. It brings instant cosiness and a green, leisurely feeling to any city it lands in. The combination of green, beauty, and activity makes the Flying Grass Carpet irresistible! (de Boer, 2008).

The project is a case of a bottom-up initiative by designers and architects both with a shared vision to brighten up and empower the public domain. It is designed to “motivate the users of the city to collaborate, grow and stimulate their happiness in the shared domains of the city” (Studio ID Eddy, 2008). It is a case where people are put first, that the idea of city-making is only effective when the happiness of citizens is achieved (Studio ID Eddy, 2008). The project response has been positive and universal, as proven in their travel to twenty destinations across the globe (Beekmans and de Boer, 2014; The Flying Grass Carpet, 2010).

Beekmans and de Boer furthermore note that compared to long-term urban planning methods, this project is an example of “short-term activations with more emotional and psychological aims” (2014, p. 204). They call it a “momentum-oriented urban interventions”, drawing similarities with the effect of a flash mob (Beekmans and de Boer, 2014). This hyper-temporary renovation allows for a quick transformation of a particular space for a completely different purpose. By placing it in the area until a permanent planning is decided, the city also succeeds in maintaining the image of the area and the ‘momentum’ of citizens’ footfalls.

Bauman states that the present-day global connectivity is causing local politics to carry the weight of the “globally conceived and gestate problems” that are “hopelessly overloaded far beyond its carrying and performing capacity” (2006, p. 84). This is causing social forms to decompose faster than the time it takes to shape them. The Flying Grass Carpet can be considered as a new urban exploration that responds and adapts quickly to this phenomenon. As Landry similarly notes: “creative city is about ‘becoming’…a fluid state of affairs” (2008, p. xlix). Thus, the Flying Grass Carpet is a primary example of an “antifragile” urbanism that is not only resilient to change, but is also able to “dominate and domesticate” uncertainty in a flexible manner (Taleb, 2012, p. 3).

The Flying Grass Carpet is a successful case where both the city and its citizens benefit and thus prosper from their own creative way of interacting with the space. Landry (2008) claims that a successful city-making is when creativity leverages the culture and identity of the city. He analyses that creativity in city-making process generates a shape of what a place can become — and the park, although only installed for a couple of weeks — achieves in developing a character of the area. By breathing life into an otherwise deserted area, the Flying Grass Carpet succeeds in bringing the local community together while generating a creative energy, or the “momentum” in cities all over the world.

A bottom-up, temporary initiative is a flexible method that acts and reacts quickly to its surroundings and allows for an instant transformation of the city’s landscape. This is not to say that long-term urban intervention should be removed entirely; rather, it is vital to respond accordingly to the spaces available and develop plans with an end cycle in mind. As such, temporary activity should not be employed for the sake of building a temporary activity. The city planner’s task is less to pursue the idea of permanence than to respond flexibly and create new possibilities for the local community to thrive and grow. And most importantly, temporary initiative is a space designed by and for the individuals to creatively collaborate. Collective energy from the bottom-up is what activates the development and the diversity of the city. Temporariness is an antifragile attitude towards cities and societies in motion, a resilient force against uncertainties in the liquid times.

This article is an edited version. To read the full article, contact Megumi Koyama at koyamamegu@gmail.com

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A designer + researcher + strategist with a background in graphic design and cultural studies, Megumi Koyama is a recent graduate of Central Saint Martins MA Innovation Management course interested in design for civic engagement and empowerment. She is currently based in London, UK seeking opportunities in design for social good/tech for good. Contact koyamamegu[at]gmail.com for opportunities and collaborations!

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