Naomi Klein: How science is telling us all to revolt

Waste land: large-scale irrigation strips nutrients from the soil, scars the landscape and could alter climatic conditions beyond repair. Image: Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/ Flowers, London, Pivot Irrigation #11 High Plains, Texas Panhandle, USA (2011)

In December 2012, a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, held annually in San Francisco. This year’s conference had some big-name participants, from Ed Stone of Nasa’s Voyager project, explaining a new milestone on the path to interstellar space, to the film-maker James Cameron, discussing his adventures in deep-sea submersibles.

But it was Werner’s own session that was attracting much of the buzz. It was titled “Is Earth F**ked?” (full title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”).

Standing at the front of the conference room, the geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego walked the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it “resistance” – movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture”. According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups”.

Serious scientific gatherings don’t usually feature calls for mass political resistance, much less direct action and sabotage. But then again, Werner wasn’t exactly calling for those things. He was merely observing that mass uprisings of people – along the lines of the abolition movement, the civil rights movement or Occupy Wall Street – represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control. We know that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on . . . how the dominant culture evolved”, he pointed out. So it stands to reason that, “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics”. And that, Werner argued, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem”.

Plenty of scientists have been moved by their research findings to take action in the streets. Physicists, astronomers, medical doctors and biologists have been at the forefront of movements against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, war, chemical contamination and creationism. And in November 2012,Nature published a commentary by the financier and environmental philanthropist Jeremy Grantham urging scientists to join this tradition and “be arrested if necessary”, because climate change “is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence”.

Some scientists need no convincing. The godfather of modern climate science, James Hansen, is a formidable activist, having been arrested some half-dozen times for resisting mountain-top removal coal mining and tar sands pipelines (he even left his job at Nasa this year in part to have more time for campaigning). Two years ago, when I was arrested outside the White House at a mass action against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, one of the 166 people in cuffs that day was a glaciologist named Jason Box, a world-renowned expert on Greenland’s melting ice sheet.

“I couldn’t maintain my self-respect if I didn’t go,” Box said at the time, adding that “just voting doesn’t seem to be enough in this case. I need to be a citizen also.”

This is laudable, but what Werner is doing with his modelling is different. He isn’t saying that his research drove him to take action to stop a particular policy; he is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed that challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe.

That’s heavy stuff. But he’s not alone. Werner is part of a small but increasingly influential group of scientists whose research into the destabilisation of natural systems – particularly the climate system – is leading them to similarly transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions. And for any closet revolutionary who has ever dreamed of overthrowing the present economic order in favour of one a little less likely to cause Italian pensioners to hang themselves in their homes, this work should be of particular interest. Because it makes the ditching of that cruel system in favour of something new (and perhaps, with lots of work, better) no longer a matter of mere ideological preference but rather one of species-wide existential necessity.

Leading the pack of these new scientific revolutionaries is one of Britain’s top climate experts, Kevin Anderson, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, which has quickly established itself as one of the UK’s premier climate research institutions. Addressing everyone from the Department for International Development to Manchester City Council, Anderson has spent more than a decade patiently translating the implications of the latest climate science to politicians, economists and campaigners. In clear and understandable language, he lays out a rigorous road map for emissions reduction, one that provides a decent shot at keeping global temperature rise below 2° Celsius, a target that most governments have determined would stave off catastrophe.

But in recent years Anderson’s papers and slide shows have become more alarming. Under titles such as “Climate Change: Going Beyond Dangerous . . . Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope”, he points out that the chances of staying within anything like safe temperature levels are diminishing fast.

With his colleague Alice Bows, a climate mitigation expert at the Tyndall Centre, Anderson points out that we have lost so much time to political stalling and weak climate policies – all while global consumption (and emissions) ballooned – that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the fundamental logic of prioritising GDP growth above all else.

Anderson and Bows inform us that the often-cited long-term mitigation target – an 80 per cent emissions cut below 1990 levels by 2050 – has been selected purely for reasons of political expediency and has “no scientific basis”. That’s because climate impacts come not just from what we emit today and tomorrow, but from the cumulative emissions that build up in the atmosphere over time. And they warn that by focusing on targets three and a half decades into the future – rather than on what we can do to cut carbon sharply and immediately – there is a serious risk that we will allow our emissions to continue to soar for years to come, thereby blowing through far too much of our 2° “carbon budget” and putting ourselves in an impossible position later in the century.

Which is why Anderson and Bows argue that, if the governments of developed countries are serious about hitting the agreed upon international target of keeping warming below 2° Celsius, and if reductions are to respect any kind of equity principle (basically that the countries that have been spewing carbon for the better part of two centuries need to cut before the countries where more than a billion people still don’t have electricity), then the reductions need to be a lot deeper, and they need to come a lot sooner.

To have even a 50/50 chance of hitting the 2° target (which, they and many others warn, already involves facing an array of hugely damaging climate impacts), the industrialised countries need to start cutting their greenhouse-gas emissions by something like 10 per cent a year – and they need to start right now. But Anderson and Bows go further, pointing out that this target cannot be met with the array of modest carbon pricing or green-tech solutions usually advocated by big green groups. These measures will certainly help, to be sure, but they are simply not enough: a 10 per cent drop in emissions, year after year, is virtually unprecedented since we started powering our economies with coal. In fact, cuts above 1 per cent per year “have historically been associated only with economic recession or upheaval”, as the economist Nicholas Stern put it in his 2006 report for the British government.

Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, reductions of this duration and depth did not happen (the former Soviet countries experienced average annual reductions of roughly 5 per cent over a period of ten years). They did not happen after Wall Street crashed in 2008 (wealthy countries experienced about a 7 per cent drop between 2008 and 2009, but their CO2 emissions rebounded with gusto in 2010 and emissions in China and India had continued to rise). Only in the immediate aftermath of the great market crash of 1929 did the United States, for instance, see emissions drop for several consecutive years by more than 10 per cent annually, according to historical data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre. But that was the worst economic crisis of modern times.

If we are to avoid that kind of carnage while meeting our science-based emissions targets, carbon reduction must be managed carefully through what Anderson and Bows describe as “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations”. Which is fine, except that we happen to have an economic system that fetishises GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, and in which the neoliberal political class has utterly abdicated its responsibility to manage anything (since the market is the invisible genius to which everything must be entrusted).

So what Anderson and Bows are really saying is that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which may be the best argument we have ever had for changing those rules.

In a 2012 essay that appeared in the influential scientific journal Nature Climate Change, Anderson and Bows laid down something of a gauntlet, accusing many of their fellow scientists of failing to come clean about the kind of changes that climate change demands of humanity. On this it is worth quoting the pair at length:

 . . . in developing emission scenarios scientists repeatedly and severely underplay the implications of their analyses. When it comes to avoiding a 2°C rise, “impossible” is translated into “difficult but doable”, whereas “urgent and radical” emerge as “challenging” – all to appease the god of economics (or, more precisely, finance). For example, to avoid exceeding the maximum rate of emission reduction dictated by economists, “impossibly” early peaks in emissions are assumed, together with naive notions about “big” engineering and the deployment rates of low-carbon infrastructure. More disturbingly, as emissions budgets dwindle, so geoengineering is increasingly proposed to ensure that the diktat of economists remains unquestioned.

In other words, in order to appear reasonable within neoliberal economic circles, scientists have been dramatically soft-peddling the implications of their research. By August 2013, Anderson was willing to be even more blunt, writing that the boat had sailed on gradual change. “Perhaps at the time of the 1992 Earth Summit, or even at the turn of the millennium, 2°C levels of mitigation could have been achieved through significant evolutionary changes within the political and economic hegemony. But climate change is a cumulative issue! Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post-)industrial nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony” (his emphasis).

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that some climate scientists are a little spooked by the radical implications of even their own research. Most of them were just quietly doing their work measuring ice cores, running global climate models and studying ocean acidification, only to discover, as the Australian climate expert and author Clive Hamilton puts it, that they “were unwittingly destabilising the political and social order”.

But there are many people who are well aware of the revolutionary nature of climate science. It’s why some of the governments that decided to chuck their climate commitments in favour of digging up more carbon have had to find ever more thuggish ways to silence and intimidate their nations’ scientists. In Britain, this strategy is becoming more overt, with Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, writing recently that scientists should avoid “suggesting that policies are either right or wrong” and should express their views “by working with embedded advisers (such as myself), and by being the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena”.

If you want to know where this leads, check out what’s happening in Canada, where I live. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper has done such an effective job of gagging scientists and shutting down critical research projects that, in July 2012, a couple thousand scientists and supporters held a mock-funeral on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, mourning “the death of evidence”. Their placards said, “No Science, No Evidence, No Truth”.

But the truth is getting out anyway. The fact that the business-as-usual pursuit of profits and growth is destabilising life on earth is no longer something we need to read about in scientific journals. The early signs are unfolding before our eyes. And increasing numbers of us are responding accordingly: blockading fracking activity in Balcombe; interfering with Arctic drilling preparations in Russian waters (at tremendous personal cost); taking tar sands operators to court for violating indigenous sovereignty; and countless other acts of resistance large and small. In Brad Werner’s computer model, this is the “friction” needed to slow down the forces of destabilisation; the great climate campaigner Bill McKibben calls it the “antibodies” rising up to fight the planet’s “spiking fever”.

It’s not a revolution, but it’s a start. And it might just buy us enough time to figure out a way to live on this planet that is distinctly less f**ked.

Naomi Klein, the author of “The Shock Doctrine” and “No Logo”, is working on a book and a film about the revolutionary power of climate change. You call follow her on twitter @naomiaklein

Colombia’s internally displaced people caught in corridor of instability

Colombia’s internally displaced people caught in corridor of instability

Despite progressive policies, battles over territory and drug trafficking mean the number of IDPs is increasing

MDG : Colombia : IDP Rosalba Dura in Norte de Santander

Colombia has 4.7 million internally displaced people, according to government figures. Above: Rosalba Duran and her family. Photograph: Obinna Anyadike/IRIN

Rosalba Duran and her family of 11 live in a single-room hut on a patch of government-owned land on the outskirts of El Tarra in the northern province of Norte de Santander, Colombia.

Eight months ago, she had a house in town and her husband a job at a nearby fish farm. But the home in which they had lived for 25 years was next to an army checkpoint that had come under repeated fire by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) guerillas.

The Durans felt they had no choice but to move to this miserable stretch of mosquito-infested land, without running water, miles from the nearest schools. They are officially part of the roughly 5 million, or one in 10 Colombians, displaced by the conflict waged by the Farc, its revolutionary cousin, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and successive governments since 1964, originally over land reform and social justice.

Norte de Santander, bordering Venezuela, forms part of a corridor of instability stretching across the mountainous northern part of the country to the province of Choco on the Pacific coast.

The prominent graffiti extolling the Farc and ELN throughout these Andean towns, even a banner across the road in one setting the speed limit and levying a fine on those that disobey, underlines this is a contested region, despite ongoing peace talks in Cuba between the Farc and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos.

The mayor of El Tarra, Jota Mario Arenas, is honest about the difficulties he faces in trying to walk the line between the guerillas and the country’s capital, Bogotá, in a town in which the insurgents wield tremendous influence. Central government feels distant here, soldiers nervously patrol the streets, potential targets for the mines and improvised explosive devices increasingly employed by the Farc and ELN. The only doctor at the health post quit recently – the rumour was that he had been threatened.

Clashes over coca eradication

Since June, the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander has been in turmoil, with clashes between farmers and the army over the government’s periodic coca eradication programme. Farmers say it will deprive them of a livelihood, as no alternative crops are established before the coca is uprooted, while the government accuses the Farc of provoking the unrest and a strategy of confinement – the closure of roads in the area that locks up local communities, affecting their access to supplies.

“I do what I can,” Arenas told IRIN. But it was clear his political survival depends on not rocking the boat in what has historically been a major coca-growing region, where smuggling – petrol from Venezuela included – is routine, a vacuna or unofficial tax, is added to virtually every purchase, and the state struggles to provide services, security and the opportunities that would allow young men to resist taking sides in the conflict.

But it was to the local authorities that the Duran family turned to for help. Although land was provided, it was only 200 metres from an oil pipeline that the guerillas had tried three times to blow up. When IRIN visited, the Durans had received two payments, amounting to $1,100 (£725), and were expecting a third and final instalment from the Victims’ Support Unit. “This is not enough for so many,” Rosalba said.

According to the government’s figures, Colombia has 4.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), based on monitoring that started in 2000. NGOs, which begin their count from 1985, put the number at 5.7 million.

For the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha), the significant point is that the numbers are increasing. “There were more people displaced in the first quarter of this year than over the same period last year. Although they’re talking peace in Havana, there are still growing numbers of IDPs, more people affected by mines than in Afghanistan, and a reduction in humanitarian funding,” Ocha’s head of office, Gerard Gómez, told IRIN.

The IDP system

Colombia’s IDP policy looks progressive, strengthened by Santos and key court rulings. It recognises their rights, including to emergency assistance, social support and land restitution. “Unfortunately many of these rights are routinely violated,” assistant director for policy at the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Mary Small wrote. “In general, programmes for IDPs do not cover all IDPs, are uneven in quality, end too soon and are underfunded.”

“They are great laws, but the problem is implementation,” Gabriel Rojas of the NGO CODHES (in Spanish) said. How IDPs are registered – and the trust required in the authorities to include your name – is one area. Until a constitutional court verdict earlier this year, the law did not recognise the casualties of the expanding violence of the rightwing former paramilitaries known as Bacrim, which will increase the demands and costs of the programme.

The shortfalls of the system also include a crisis of protection, where IDPs pushing for rights to land restitution have been attacked, especially by paramilitaries in league with the new landowners; bureaucratic undercapacity worsened by the tangle of the various programmes; and the basic problem of implementing care and support in the middle of a conflict where the government has incomplete control of the country.

Military pressure has pushed the Farc and ELN into hard-to-reach areas like El Tarra, or along the underdeveloped Pacific coast, and an eastern axis covering Arauca, Casanare, Vichada, Meta and Guaviare. Many of these disputed regions are drug-producing, mineral-rich or straddle lucrative smuggling routes. It is terrain shared with the Bacrim, elements of the former death squads, which, after demobilisation in the mid-2000s, re-emerged as rich, networked and ever-ruthless mafias. Along with the guerillas, they have a mutual interest in maintaining the state at arms length and their stake in the illicit economy.

“For the overlapping armed groups of guerillas, neo-paramilitaries, narco-traffickers, and organised crime, the war has splintered into a fight for control of land for large-scale agriculture and ranching, the drug trade, illegal mining and, at the Venezuelan border, the movement of gasoline,” Small said. “As the war has become de-ideologised, all armed groups rely on the strategic use of terror to control communities and silence opposition.”

African-Colombians, indigenes most affected

The violence employed by the guerillas, Bacrim and the military gives Colombia the world’s largest population of IDPs. It is to a great extent a rural crisis, in which African-Colombians and indigenous people are disproportionately affected. Although constituting just 14% of society, they comprised an estimated 83% of those driven from their homes in 2010, according to a Global Humanitarian Assistance report (pdf).

The majority of displacements involve a steady trickle of individuals or families moving to the cities. But major upheavals – of 50 or more people – are on the rise. Notorious gangs like Los Urabeños and Los Rastrojos were responsible for the majority of these displacements in 2011, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

Intra-urban displacement is also a growing phenomenon, with vulnerable IDPs shuttling between poor and unsafe neighbourhoods controlled by drug-dealing gangs. “They don’t want to leave the cities because at least they have access to services,” Rojas said.

In the remote ore-rich regions, gold, coltan and tungsten is replacing coca as the main revenue generator for armed groups, with only an estimated 14% of the gold produced in Colombia mined legally, according to Ocha. Communities farming the land are in the way, so large-scale forced dispossession is occurring. It can be at the barrel of a gun, a coerced sale at rock-bottom prices or a land grab legalised by a crooked notary.

Colombia’s long history of strong regions, weak central government and astonishing levels of violence by various groups of armed young men, suggests the crisis may not end with the formal demobilisation of the Farc, should the Havana talks reach a settlement.

Colombia is a middle-income country and in many respects has the trappings of a modern economy. But, according to Gómez: “In a country where you have [lucrative] drugs, gold and extortion, you might get a peace agreement today, but in the coming years there could well still be violence.”

• This article was amended on 14 August 2013. In the original, the writer referred to Mary Small as a Central America migration researcher. This has now been corrected. The quote from Small in paragraph 12 has also been amended.

Crossbenching – Interview with Markus Miessen [commonthejournal]

Konjunktur und Krise?, No 2

Federica Bueti: I would like to start from the very beginning, from a simple question that could help us to contextualize your practice. When and how did you become interested in participatory practices? And what interests you in a collaborative approach?

Markus Miessen: I spent three years between 1998 and 2000 in Glasgow after which I moved to Berlin for a year. This moment in Berlin at the tail-end of the 90’s was very interesting; when I moved to London in 2002 for further studies at the Architectural Association, my belief in the potential of architecture had almost diminished and I was hoping for it do be revitalized, which – thankfully – it did. In the late 90’s one could witness a very interesting phenomenon in Berlin, which was that many architectural practices had moved towards participatory approaches, and I was really sceptical of this. In retrospect, one realizes that many of these practises were the result of an economic crisis in architecture: practitioners simply needed to define and inhabit a niche, a margin of opportunity. However, it wasn’t exactly the case that they had originally set out to become social workers.

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter.

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter.

When I finished my studies at the AA, I started a research-project called Did Someone Say Participate?, which I developed throughout my post-graduate work and later in a book, co-edited by Shumon Basar. In it, we attempted to give a non-romantic overview of what we thought of as interesting and challenging practices, which redefine the way in which we look at and understand the production of space today. What they all had in common was that they rethought the relationships between the participatory and their own role as independent actors, they set out to interrogate the often romantic and nostalgic participatory practices that are or were at play. Not in the sense of them inviting others to participate, but in the sense of immediate single-handed involvement, pro-active agency and authorship.

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter

This project provoked a series of projects and on-going inquiries in regard to the subject of participation and collaborative approaches in the fields of architecture, spatial practice and art, from a distance so to speak, from an outsider’s perspective. I am interested in the role of someone, who is not – by default – assuming the character or position of the good-doer, but a passer-by, an observer, who is attempting to understand a particular phenomenon, or cliché one might say – and then to act upon it without being entangled in its intra-politics. I tried this through projects such as The Violence of Participation, which was a project at the Lyon Biennial as well as a publication, ›The Nightmare of Participation‹, a more theoretical work, and ›Waking Up From The Nightmare of Participation‹, which presents a reflective anthology of texts by authors, who are critically dealing with and interrogating The Nightmare of Participation.

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter

The text (NOP) was always thought of as a starting point, a trigger so to speak; to throw something in the ring in order to start a productive conversation around a particular subject. These projects were thought of as a set of different species of work around a single question. I am now working on a book called ›Crossbench Praxis‹, the actual propositional work, which essentially is the PhD I am working on at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths in London and which will both present a thesis towards an alternative type of praxis as well as a series of examples, which will act as case studies, work that I have produced as an architect. Since 2002, when I was still studying at the Architectural Association, I have been working through a sort of agency or platform called Studio Miessen, through which I have been collaborating with a very differentiated set of practitioners. The way that I tend to work is instead of pre-empting project-teams or working with a set structure in an office, I assemble working groups in order to approach every context with the necessary specificity.

Participation, collaborative practices, self-organized practices, autonomous, independent and community-based practices, are all terms used to describe working modalities in the cultural field. However, this seems to be the mantra of the moment, collaboration is somehow what and how we are expected to work in seemingly open neoliberal working environments. What I found interesting in your approach is that you try to destabilize the dominant consensual model of collaborative practices by introducing the figure of the uninvited outsider. How does this figure function in relation to the neoliberal demand for collaborative labour?

I think there are two things to recognize here: one is that we need to be very careful when considering participation and collaboration as practices per se. What does this really mean? There is often a slight romanticization involved, which goes hand in hand with a nostalgia that relates to and calls for the 1960s and 70s. My understanding of collaboration is neither one of auto-exploitation nor one, which exploits others. I think everyone is responsible for him- or herself. As a collaborator, you should always follow your own, opportunistic agenda. You can always say no. Only when people with different agendas meet there is actually a productive outcome, which produces new ideas or concepts. One has to set up professional frameworks and working mechanisms in order for this dynamic to eventually turn prolific.
To get back to your question regarding collaboration, what I would like to promote is a frictional and potentially dissensual production towards a common goal, which is in fact the whole point about collaboration in the first place: working with friendly enemies. In each project the force-field of actors needs to be redefined. Otherwise one should rather think about partners as pre-empted consensual colleagues to cooperate with over a longer period. The creation of the role of the Uninvited Outsider and Crossbench Practitioner is an attempt to propose a model in which participation is radically rethought: moving away from the romantic idea of all-inclusive democratic processes, where everyone is invited to the round-table to add one’s point, which – from my point of view – ultimately will lead to watered-down and weak consensus. I think we need to work towards the notion of the first-person-singular actor, an independent actor with a conscience. Collaboration can only work if there is something in it for everyone. But this does not mean that it needs to turn into uncritical and consensus-oriented cooperation.

Where does the model of the crossbencher stem from?

What I am refering to when I talk about Crossbench Practice is a specific role that I am developing, which works towards an independent and pro-active individual without political mandate, who retains an autonomy of thought, proposition, and production. This role entails that in a given context one neither belongs to nor alligns with a specific party or set of stakeholders, but can openly act without having to respond to a pre-supposed set of protocols or consensual arrangements. Especially in the context of the recent culture crisis in the Netherlands the role of the crossbencher – as they call the independent politician in the über-conservative British House of Lords – becomes increasingly relevant. I am hijacking this role from this conservative setting in order to (mis)use it as an analogy: it proposes a way of acting, in other words a practice, which operates on the basis of alternative and self-governing political parameters. Crossbench Practice aims to open up a fresh debate, not as a theory, but a way of acting politically.

I think what we need today is a new vocabulary to describe our practices. I recently watched a documentary on Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back‹ and in one scene he complained about that fact Times magazine defined him a Folk Singer, but he wouldn’t consider himself a folk singer. In this sense, there is a fundamental problem of how to define a practice without forcing it to fit a limiting definition or consensual model. Is there any way to define participatory practices differently? What terms do you propose to describe your practice? How would you position yourself in the general field of the discourse around the definition of participatory practices?

I think you are absolutely right; it all comes down to the question of one’s role, and the way in which this role becomes productive from the point of view of praxis. Historically, architecture, as a profession, is very interesting in this regard. During the Renaissance the architect was thought of and taught to be a polymath. In reverse, what we are witnessing today is that architects tend to be, both by education and personal choice, highly skilled and super-specific experts, who are very good at catering for one particular item within the complexity of construction, but are often not equipped with the gear that it needs in order to understand and act upon the complex cultural specifics around a particular project. Someone else can easily replace them; and that makes them expendable. They become office robots. It really reminds me of the great recent movie The Expendables, starring essentially the whole bunch of getting-aged action-superstars, from Sylvester Stallone to Bruce Willis, Arnie and Dolph Lundgren to name a few. This stuff simply does not fly any longer.
I am not so much interested in thinking about what genuine participatory practice may be or entail. From my point of view we have in fact been trying to theorize it too much over the past two decades. What we instead need to do is to force ourselves into contexts into which we have previously not been invited, redefine our position, and demonstrate that we can deal with the cultural complexity that surrounds contemporary spatial production. To rethink participation, I would like to introduce the German word ›Einmischung‹(intruder) to our conversation. Germany’s former minister for foreign affairs, Joschka Fischer, poses an interesting example in this regard. He is essentially a self-educated thinker, who first became active during Frankfurt’s 1969 student revolution in which he played a pivotal role as a non-student. He then, later, decided against armed resistance and became one of the founding members of the German Green Party and their first minister. Under the Labour/Green government led by chancellor Schröder at the tail-end of the 1990s Fischer became minister for foreign affairs. He is really the only person I can think of, who fully physicalized and turned into praxis Gramsci’s notion of the long march through the institutions. Absurdly he was the one that was for a long time the focal point of critique within the German Green Party and the Labour Party, which is quite telling I think. As we know, the Left is best at auto-critique and not so productive in terms of coming up with turning into practice counter-proposals. Although one can of course criticize particularities about his decision-making in the past, Fischer can and should be understood as an interesting case, someone who has been interested in the framework of democratic structures, but not for the sake of the structure itself, but in order to generate and stir change. This also means that the party in which one is a member is only a means to place oneself in the larger formal-political structure, which is the parliament. I do not believe that Fischer was ever very interested in intra-party politics and consensus. In this way, he could be compared to a crossbencher, although he is not, at least not from the point of being a fully independent actor.

Fair point and difficult task. To think about structure, not for the sake of the structure, but in order to generate and stir changes, how does this translate into your practice?

To start to answer this means to start to think about, rethink and interrogate the role of the architect and the role that architecture with a big »A« can and should assume in society today. In order to ask what is new knowledge in architecture today, one must ask or rather define what architecture means in the first place. Over the last two decades the role of the architect, at least viewed from a critical perspective, has been interrogated and developed substantially. The question of what does one consider to contribute to the production of space is one that circulates around the potential effects on space and how those effects and affects are and can be generated, amended and influenced – and who are the people and practices in charge of those proliferating changes. Architecture with a big »A« can only assume relevance again once it assumes responsibility: responsibility in terms of negotiating, mediating and enabling relationships and conflicts that individuals and groups, whether public or private, can perform within space. Anyone interested in a subject of societal relevance will by default realize that any reality is based on complexity. »A«rchitecture deals with precisely this complexity: socially, and therefore politically, and spatially. Where critical and collaborative research, first-person singular participation (i.e. »I contribute«), and individual dedication towards an ethical position question the modalities of practice, new sets of knowledge are being generated. This is the way in which I hope to practice. Sometimes this works more successful than at other times. Some of my projects are dealing with a-physical frameworks, such as a consulting project I ran for the last two years for the Dutch art organization SKOR, together with Andrea Phillips. Here, the main question was how, as an external observer, you could help to redesign the organizational and content-related »software« of an institution.

Miessen_Institution Building_Goerlich

Institution Building; edited by Nikolaus Hirsch, Phillip Misselwitz, Markus Miessen, Matthias Görlich; Sternberg Press,2009; photography by Matthias Görlich

In other words: how can you alter the way in which the institution functions on a day-to-day basis, what is its goal, what kind of programme to they produce, how do they speak to different sets of audiences? Together with Nikolaus Hirsch, Phillip Misselwitz and Matthias Görlich I worked on a project for the European Kunsthalle (Cologne) called Spaces of Production. The project conceptualized, tested, and practically applied a spatial strategy for the European Kunsthalle. The investigation did not result from purely theoretical or conceptual considerations, but was the result of the activities incorporated into the European Kunsthalle’s founding phases’ two-year work practice from 2005 to 2007. Our spatial strategy for the European Kunsthalle was the direct result of applied research – an iterative investigation informed by resonances between theory and practice.

Miessen_Manifesta Backbench

Backbench, Manifesta 8, Murcia, Spain, 2010. Spatial design by nOffice (Miessen Pflugfelder Nilsson). Photography by Pablo Ferao.

In the past I have also worked on several architectural-scale projects for institutions such as Performa Biennial in New York, an archive and film-set for Manifesta in Murcia, an interior for Archive Kabinett, a Berlin-based discursive forum and bookshop. These three projects were done in collaboration with my former partners at nOffice (Miessen Pflugfelder Nilsson).

Miessen_Winter School

Winter School Middle East, nomadic, currently based in Kuwait; founded and directed by Markus Miessen, co-director Zahra Ali Baba;

At the moment I am working on projects with the Witte de With in Rotterdam, Powerplant in Toronto, an office space in New York, the Winter School Middle East (Kuwait), an NGO in Los Angeles, a public forum in Gwangju, and the development of a rural art centre in the greater Frankfurt area.


Gwangju Biennial On Site, a community Hub for content production, 2011. A project by nOffice (Miessen Pflugfelder Nilsson). Photography by JomgOh Kim.

But my practice also concerns teaching, writing, editing, sometimes curating. However, I would still introduce myself as an architect. Teaching and writing is very important for me. The constant exchange stimulates thinking in all sorts of directions. Also that one is constantly being exposed to different backgrounds and nationalities that sometimes just laugh at one’s own suggestions is very healthy.

The concept of participation and the term crisis seems to be equally present in current discussion about cultural politics. It seems that the two concepts are closely linked, they complement each other as indispensable parts within contemporary political rhetorics: crisis is the problem, participation the therapy. Do you think that collaborative practices can help to solve‹ or to survive the crisis? How do collaborative practices work in a time of crisis and how does a crisis play itself out within the space of a collaborative practice?

I think your point about participation being understood and used as some form of therapy is brilliant. Modes of participation have, in terms of state politics, but also on smaller, less formal scales, most recently been used as a kind of placebo. Just look at the United Kingdom or The Netherlands. What was once thought of as a pro-active mode of individual engagement has been cleverly revamped as a populist tool to regain a larger consensus, even if agendas do not add up or meet. However, there is the question of what we are really talking about when we talk about crisis? Are we talking about a content crisis or an economic one, which then leaves us with infrastructural changes that have an effect and affect on the cultural landscape? I think there is a danger of calling everything a state of crisis today. This is similar to the danger of refereeing to the notion of urgency. If we only ever deal with the urgent we may in fact forget the important. Collaborative approaches can on the one hand be sustainable while on the other they can produce and foster specificity, which would otherwise be very difficult to achieve.

You have recently been appointed Professor for Critical Spatial Practice‹ at the Städelschule in Frankfurt and on many different occasions you have expressed the need to define spatial practice in terms of a »critical modality«. Could you elaborate on this concept?


Architecture + Critical Spatial Practice, annual newsprints, edited by Markus Miessen, design by Matthias Görlich, Städelschule Frankfurt, 2012/2013,

What I am doing in Frankfurt is to set up a framework through which one can critically think, learn, and pose questions about and around the production of space; not only in terms of a theoretical construct, but also in regard to specific spatial problematics. The most important question in architecture, to me at least, seems to be: how can we, as practitioners, manage to be involved in some of the most pressing societal issues and questions. I think the way to do this is not to get too bogged down on the nitty-gritty of the building or construction processes, but to understand the cornerstones of spatial design and to be able to curate the very complex cultural territory and its processes, the many different stakeholders, interest groups, benefactors, sufferers et cetera. This is where the role of the Outsider comes in as a very productive character. The problem of course is that it is a very thin line: you are either a morally responsible individual with a conscience or a fucked-up autocrat with neoliberal intentions – there is not really too much space that one could inhabit in-between those two polar conditions. What is fantastic at the Städelschule is that it offers me the possibility to open up the process of investigation across different student communities, from architecture, but also from the different art studios directed by Douglas Gordon, Simon Starling, Tobias Rehberger, Willem de Roij or Isabelle Graw, to name a few. Students are coming to my studio with very differentiated personal agendas, which makes it a real pleasure to teach there. It is not about communicating hard skills, but to carefully sensitize the group as to how one can act in space: how one’s individual practice can alter existing and produce new spatial conditions, be they of urban, architectural, or 1:1 scale.

In »the Production of Space« Lefebvre argues that »a Spatial Practice refers to the production and reproduction of spatial relations between objects and products. It also ensures continuity and some degree of cohesion. In terms of social space, and of each member of a given society’s relationship to that space, this cohesion implies a guaranteed level of competence and a specific level of performance.« Lefebvre seems to suggest that to engage with space in a critical mode is a matter of competence and performance. Do you agree?

Absolutely! Competence not in the sense of being authorized to do so, but in the sense of being sensitized and being able to understand the forces and variables that have an effect on the production of space. Not every problem favours a physical solution. There is the legendary quote by Cedric Price that he was once having a client-conversation with a couple, who approached him to build a house for them. His response was that what they really needed was a divorce.

Markus Miessen is an architect, consultant and writer. The initiator of the Participation quadrilogy, his work revolves around questions of critical spatial practice, institution building, and spatial politics. His practice, Studio Miessen, is currently working on projects for an with Bergen Assembly, Performa Biennial, Witte de With, Kosovo National Gallery, Weltkulturen Museum, and the artist Hito Steyerl. Their largest project to date is a strategic framework and new Kunsthalle building for a former NATO military site in Germany. In 2008, Miessen founded the Winter School Middle East. He is currently a professor for Critical Spatial Practice at the Städelschule, Frankfurt, and guest professor at HEAD Geneva as well as USC Los Angeles”


Mapped: Every Protest on the Planet Since 1979 – By J. Dana Stuster | Foreign Policy

Mapped: Every Protest on the Planet Since 1979 – By J. Dana Stuster | Foreign Policy.

“Mapped: Every Protest on the Planet Since 1979

From Cairo to Wall Street to the West Bank, plotting a world of upheaval.


This is what data from a world in turmoil looks like. The Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) tracks news reports and codes them for 58 fields, from where an incident took place to what sort of event it was (these maps look at protests, violence, and changes in military and police posture) to ethnic and religious affiliations, among other categories. The dataset has recorded nearly 250 million events since 1979, according to its website, and is updated daily.

John Beieler, a doctoral candidate at Penn State, has adapted these data into striking maps, like the one above of every protest recorded in GDELT.”



Q&A: ‘Time to De-Grow’
IPS, August 3, 2009
Claudia Ciobanu interviews economist SERGE LATOUCHE

BUCHAREST, Aug 3 (IPS) – Serge Latouche, professor emeritus of economic science at the University of Paris-Sud, is one of the main proponents of “the society of de-growth”.

He calls for “abandoning the objective of growth for growth’s sake, an insane objective, with disastrous consequences for the environment.” The need for a ‘de-growth’ society stems from the certainty, he says, that the earth’s resources and natural cycles cannot sustain the economic growth which is the essence of capitalism and modernity.

In place of the current dominant system, Latouche argues for “a society of assumed sobriety; to work less in order to live better lives, to consume less products but of better quality, to produce less waste and recycle more.”

The new society would mean “recuperating a sense of measure and a sustainable ecological footprint,” Latouche says, “and finding happiness in living together with others rather than in the frantic accumulation of gadgets.”

Author of many books and articles on Western rationality, the myth of progress, colonialism and post-development, Serge Latouche describes the main principles of the de-growth society in his books ‘Le Pari de la Décroissance'(The Bet of De-Growth) and ‘Petit Traité de la Décroissance Sereine” (Small Treaty of Peaceful De-Growth) published in 2006 and 2007.

Serge Latouche spoke to IPS correspondent Claudia Ciobanu about de-growth society.

IPS: What are the features of the society of de-growth, and are any practices in the world today compatible with this vision?

Serge Latouche: De-growth does not mean negative growth. Negative growth is a self-contradictory expression, which just proves the domination of the collective imagination by the idea of growth.

On the other hand, de-growth is not the alternative to growth, but rather, a matrix of alternatives which would open up the space for human creativity again, once the cast of economic totalitarianism is removed. The de-growth society would not be the same in Texas and in the Chiapas, in Senegal and in Portugal. De-growth would open up anew the human adventure to the plurality of its possible destinies.

Principles of de-growth can already be found in theoretical thought and in practical efforts in both the global North and the South. For example, the attempt to create an autonomous region by the neo-Zapatistas in Chiapas; and many South American experiences, indigenous or others, such as in Ecuador, which has just introduced in its constitution the objective of Sumak Kausai (harmonious life).

All sorts of initiatives promoting de-growth and solidarity are starting to spread in the global North too: AMAP (The Associations for the Preservation of Peasant Agriculture in France, that promote direct links between producers and consumers, and organic agriculture), self-production according to the example of PADES (the Programme for Self-Production and Social Development, developed in France to help individuals and communities produce goods for themselves and others, eliminating monetary interchanges).

The movement of Transition Towns started in Ireland and spreading in England could be a form of production from below which closest resembles a society of de-growth. These towns are seeking firstly energy self-sufficiency in the face of depleting resources and, more generally, promote the principle of community resilience.

IPS: What would be the role of markets in the de-growth society?

SL: The capitalist system is a market economy, but markets are not an institution which belongs exclusively to capitalism. It is important to distinguish between the Market and markets. The latter do not obey the law of perfect competition, and that is for the best. They always incorporate elements of the culture of the gift, which the de-growth society is trying to rediscover. They involve living in communion with the others, developing a human relationship between the buyer and the seller.

IPS: What strategies could the global South pursue in order to eliminate poverty in a different way than the North has, at the expense of the environment and producing poverty in the South?

SL: For African countries, decreasing the ecological footprint and the GDP are neither necessary nor desirable. But from this we must not conclude that a society of growth must be built there.

Firstly, it is clear that de-growth in the North is a precondition for opening up of alternatives for the South. As long as Ethiopia and Somalia are forced, during the worst food shortage, to export feed for our domestic animals, as long as we fatten our cattle with soya obtained after destroying the Amazonian forest, we are asphyxiating any attempt at real autonomy in the South.

To dare de-growth in the South means to launch a virtuous cycle made up of breaking economic and cultural dependency on the North; reconnecting with a historical line interrupted by colonisation; reintroducing specific products which have been abandoned or forgotten as well as “anti-economic” values linked to the past of those countries; recuperating traditional techniques and knowhow.

These are to be combined with other principles, valid worldwide: re- conceptualising what we understand by poverty, scarcity and development for instance; restructuring society and the economy; restoring non-industrial practices, especially in agriculture; redistributing; re-localising; reusing; recycling.

IPS: The de-growth society involves a radical change in human consciousness. How is this radical change going to come about? Can it happen in time?

SL: It is difficult to break out of this addiction to growth especially because it is in the interest of the “dealers” – the multinational corporations and the political powers serving them – to keep us enslaved.

Alternative experiences and dissident groups – such as cooperatives, syndicates, the associations for the preservation of peasant agriculture, certain NGOs, local exchange systems, networks for knowledge exchange – represent pedagogical laboratories for the creation of “the new human being” demanded by the new society. They represent popular universities which can foster resistance and help decolonise the imaginary.

Certainly, we do not have much time, but the turn of events can help accelerate the transformation. The ecological crisis together with the financial and economic crisis we are experiencing can constitute a salutary shock.

IPS: Can conventional political actors play a role in this transformation?

SL: All governments are, whether they want it or not, functionaries of capitalism. In the best of cases, the governments can at most slow down or smoothen processes over which they do not have control any more.

We consider the process of self-transformation of society and of citizens more important than electoral politics. Even so, the recent relative electoral success of French and Belgian ecologists, who have adopted some of the de- growth agenda, seems like a positive sign. (END/2009)

Serge Latouche

Philosophy of the Possible or Utopianism in the 21st Century Urbanism

By Anna Koledova

‘If I could wish for something, I would wish for neither wealth nor power, but the passion of possibility; I would wish only for an eye which eternally young, eternally burns with longing to see possibility’.

(Søren Kierkegaard, 1849)


Historically, the search for a model of a good city has been a quest, equivalent to the search of a precious object or knowledge of a venerated narrative (Hall, 2002). Due to a significant contextual influence of actual difficulties of the city, those of economics, sociology and politics, it is problematic to assume that such models existed unaltered through time and space. Yet, paradoxically, as Amin states (2006, p. 1010) the history of practical efforts to enhance the experience of city’s inhabitants ‘has also been influenced by universalistic imaginaries of the good life, with cities placed at the very heart of the various projections on offer’.

It is important to remember that a good city debate is by all means a debate about utopia or ‘no place’, which in turn always implies an ideological dimension of looking at and of portraying the city form. Thus, city planners such as Howard, Haussmann, Le Corbusier, were pushing radicalism in addressing the evils of Victorian cities. Utopian vision of modernist planners, often underpinned by shire environmental determinism and associated with the belief that society was not riven by contradictions, argued that a good, clean city could make a better society  (Fishman, 1982, Beauregard, 1996, Hall, 2002). Such urban imaginations, however, proved to be problematic when realising ideas into brick and mortar. London, Paris, Barcelona, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia have all undergone significant urban interventions and transformations, which left cities as symbolic, highly expressive of power and status places, yet depressingly incapable to serve all wider social purposes (Hall, 2002).

Today, it can be argued, planning practitioners conceive their duty more modestly. Fainstain (1997) believes that the concept of visionary leaders imposing their perspectives on the urban populace is in disrepute, whereas the notion of an identifiable model of a good city meets skepticism. Hence, the aim of creating a good city over the last decades ‘has been content with theorising itself unencumbered by the economic and political realities of the global capitalist system and has been self-referential within a singularly contained mainstream ideology’ (Banerjee and Sideris, 2011, 57). Along this line, Amin (2006) suggests that utopia has lost its gist, appeal and organising force, as meanings of the good city shift to immediate, temporary, private and hedonistic projects.

There has been an extensive academic debate on the topic of utopian thought and its role in the creation of modern day urban landscapes. The 20th century in particular saw many negative depictions of the good city, including Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. On the contrary, academics like D.Harvey, H. Lefebvre, J. Jacobs, L. Sandercock, D. Pinder and others believe, although there can be no one good or neutral city like those imagined in the past and driven by totalitarian practices, ideals of processes and objectives can determine fair and flexible practice in generating urban change. Drawing on the example of London and two of its urban narratives, this essay discusses whether utopia as a process in contrast to utopia as standardized urbanism can be seen as a germane approach to raising questions about cities and their development.

Got an idea? Got IKEA.

Urban development of London and its East End has been under considerations of politicians, academics and city’s populace over the last few years. Olympic Games of 2012 have definitely assisted in pulling the trigger in the process of this urban change, especially for the Stratford area. Millions of pounds have been invested into several large-scale interventions dedicated to expansion and renewal of local transport infrastructure, public realm, housing stock etc. The case of Strand East or IKEA city, urban planning project launched by Swedish home-furniture giants, is of the particular interest to this paper.

The idea of the project, said the head of the LandProp (a real estate subsidiary of the Inter Ikea Group) is to bring a very Scandinavian model of urban design and ‘managed living’ to turn the ‘post-industrial wasteland surrounded by goods-shipping canals and highway ramps’ into a flourishing neighbourhood titled Strand East (the, 2012). This IKEA city will boast ‘480,000 square feet of office space, yoga studios, a crèche, a Marriott hotel and shops’ all these on the 26 acres of land acquired by Landprop in 2009 (independent,, 2012). By the plan, 1,200 residential units are very much family size as well as price orientated, cars will be kept off interior streets in the underground parking garage, leaving only bus lanes and accessible pedestrian walkways cutting across neighbourhood, which will also enjoy numerous squares and public spaces. ‘The whole thing is designed to create the sense of felicity and discovery you get when wandering around a historic European neighbourhood’ (, 2012).

anna 1

(, 2012)

anna 2


Although, it seems like a better urban design than most of the centrally planned neighbourhoods that have infected British cities for the last 60 years, the IKEA city does pose some questions as a modern-day urban planning project. Firstly, the IKEA Empire encompasses more than 300 furniture stores in 27 different countries. Swedish brand’s furniture designs are known and appreciated by various consumer groups mainly for three outstanding features: pleasant appearance, simple to assemble and bargain price. When interviewed, developers of the IKEA city repeatedly state:

‘this place will not be an Ikea. There will not be Poäng armchairs adorning the living rooms and Billy bookcases covering the walls. The houses will not require Allen keys to assemble. Meatballs in lingonberry sauce will not be served at the restaurants’.

Nevertheless, all those wanna be’s Strand East’s residents will be offered three possible types of interior design for their new apartment along with vouchers for IKEA stores. In this respect, it can be argued, although IKEA might dominate the way people furnish their homes, it can be problematic when the brand comes to design the whole district. While interior design is private-urban design should remain a strong public component that claims to have an unalienated collective right to make the city (Harvey 2000, 2012; Jacobs 1989; Sorkin 1991; Soja 2000). Also, the concept of a ‘sense of place’ as characteristic of a good city often emerges from an experiential appreciation of the uniqueness and distinctive feeling of a particular place, one connected to history, culture and locality (Hall, 2002) something that even the best creative minds behind IKEA city project can hardly provide.

Secondly, the IKEA city is not only a private urban development project but also an all-rental private neighbourhood, which is run and overseen by a company that will supposedly impose an artificial order of selecting those who gets to become a resident as well as limit and control the rights of the community to adapt the neighbourhood according to their needs. This brings us back to the critic of the utopian urbanism that in Pinder’s (2000) opinion, while opens up possibility of improvement in what is known, simultaneously attacks the dynamic of change to a single outcome. At a larger scale according to Amin (2006), today, place urbanization is labeled with homogenization, referring to ‘the imprint of globalization that duplicates urban experiences in different places.

Thus, while utopic representation remains within dominant values and ideologies it still fails to offer a mode of critique, ‘it takes status of myth or collective fantasy’  (Marin, 1990) and creates a plausible environment for conjoining of technologic creativity, commodity culture and endless capital accumulation (Harvey, 2000). It can be suggested that the IKEA city project, which is by all means a nowadays utopian urbanism might on the first sight constitute a model of a good city. However, it still lacks a vision of urban and social future of East London as those who will practically fill it with meaning can imagine it; it counteracts the cynicism of urban form and attend purely utilitarian or materialistic regime (Liscombe, 2006). Harvey (2000, p.406) describes it as ‘politics of contempt and neglect’ that is moving nowadays planning.

Warehouse Culture. Hackney Wick, Fish Island case.

To the West of the Olympics’ Site is located the area of Hackney Wick, Fish Island. In the beginning of the 20th century HWFI was a hub for diverse industrial activity including food processing, importing and processing of raw materials and engineering works. During the war, part of HWFI suffered severe bomb damage, which led to extensive residential housing clearance and further development as predominantly industrial zone (, 2012). The latter, defines much of HWFI character today with a mix of industrial buildings, ‘ranging from two and three-storey brick warehouses and factories dating from the 19th century, to more recent post-war buildings of up to 6-9 storeys, including factories, mix-use buildings, storage and distribution units’ (FIAAP, Tower Hamlets, 2012). Currently, residential population is very small (approximately 800 people) party due to the industrial character but also because planning policies have restricted residential development except a limited number of live/work blocks. The existing residents are relatively young with 40% aged between 25-49. (FIAAP, Tower Hamlets,2012).

What about HWFI that is of the essence for this particular paper is the radically different mode of development that has brought about seemingly successful urban change in this area. Although, lacking planning in its conventional manifestation and led by a pioneer community of young creative practitioners, local urban living in simple terms is based on ‘recycling’ of already existing structures no longer suitable for modern requirements. Individuals are taking advantage and re-using fragments of former factories and industrial warehouses as living-working spaces designing them exclusively up to their taste, needs and lifestyles. Research undertaken by the London Development Agency (LDA) identified over 600 live/work studios and small businesses across Hackney Wick and Fish Island area; occupiers include designers, media practitioners, artists, galleries and a variety of supporting businesses from printers to financial consultants (FIAAP, Tower Hamlets, 2012). Also, a number of buildings are transformed into multifunctional cultural platforms accommodating church services, community festivals, licensed music events and theatre performances what invites people from the neighbouring areas and from other parts of London into HWFI.

anna 3

(, 2011)

anna 4

(, 2011)

A few years of existence and bottom up growth have gained HWFI district a substantial level of attention within official planning institutions and received practical support from economically powerful development agencies. Thus, in 2010, Thames Gateway Development Corporation (LTGDC) has published a report identifying that although HWFI is showing a high potential to become a successful creative hub in this far off part of East London its growth is presented as dependent on a set of basic and then more advanced ‘hygiene factors’ ranging from intermediate public realm (connectivity and porosity of the area) to improvements to on going affordability and security of tenure for creative businesses (LTGDC, 2010).

A model of HWFI’s creative neighbourhood was not so much as a goal of urban development (initially at least) has been generated by pluralistic imaginations and practices of its residents. Academics such as Jane Jacobs 1989, Michael Sorkin 1991, Edward Soja 2000 and Leonie Sandercock 2003, supported such alternative interpretation of a Good City, one that can grow out of local climate, custom and culture, one that is discovered instead of imposed condition of civic life. The ability to envision a transformative potential of the physical landscape of HWFI and its future has interrogated the status quo of modern-day urban living and efforts of town planning. The greatest lesson one needs to learn from utopian thought in creating cities of the 21st century, as suggested by a number of academics and this particular paper is the on-going questioning of our assumptions about urban futures.

Philosophy of the possible.

Calvino (1979, cited in Pinder 2002, 232) urged, ’cities like dreams are made of desires and fears’. In fact, the discourse of how the cities are imaged and how these imaginations come about in reality is crucial for understanding how cities are thought, conceived and lived. Hence, what is happening in modern day urbanism according to Harvey (2000), is that much of the creative urban thinking concentrates on how to escape from urban ills and from the so-called conditions of ‘otherness’ in order to protect those with money, whilst the capacity to imagine and conceptualise social transformation and different urban futures is itself thrown in doubt. Jane Jacobs, also castigated planners for attempt to impose an artificial order, as if ‘a city is a recalcitrant child who must be forced to obey those who think they know better’ (cited in Alexious, 2006, 5).

In course of this paper we have looked at the urban narratives of IKEA city and HWFI creative district in dialog. It is clear that both of narratives have a particular utopian dimension to them, although epicentres of analysis vary. Ikea city project offers us a model of a good neighbourhood as it is portrayed and in this case literally pre fabricated by a private development agency. Despite the intentions of developers to include considerations of the significance of history of the area, its local identity, environmental concerns and issues of affordability in the master planning it is done in a fixed way like there is one defined solution to a problem. It can be argued, that IKEA city just as almost any other example of modern urbanism takes form of an utopian degeneration, a project that does not radiate a transformative move but takes the status of a myth, of a collective fantasy (Pinder, 2000). Such projects of spectacular architectural entertainment and fantasy spaces that are ordered secured and controlled, as Harvey (2000, 168) points to in his sharp criticism are substances of ‘developers utopia’.

Therefore, in the times when urban experiences and representations have been colonised by private concerns – progressive utopia, one that has more to do with becoming rather than with achieving and being, is scarcely in demand (Scherpe, 1992). Utopia in this case should be understood as a social project concerned with living together and celebrating difference in the urban landscape, where the agency of the possibility to portray city in a desired way is distributed in a more equal manner among various stockholders inhabiting this city. To put it simple, planning practices should consider modes of social interchange that recognise difference and resist suppression by one other group (Jane Jacob, 1989; Sandercock, 2003; Liscombe, 2004). For Healey (2003, 110) planners should evaluate planning practices according to normative concepts of the just city. Although, it is argued, concepts of the ‘good’ and the ‘just’ are themselves constructed in a dialog of knowledge and power, the processes of articulating values and the manner in which these might become embedded in established discourses and practices of urbanism are important. In addition, process should not be understood merely as an ultimate outcome, but equally have process results.

The case of HWFI’s creative district discussed earlier serves an example of a collective action in attempt of transforming a derelict area into a new functional space through preservation of its existing physical landscape. The interplay of industrial past and the continuation of a creative productionist character of the area today reproduces its historical narrative and by doing so preserves local identity so much important for the sustainability of an urban landscape. Along this lines, when thinking about architecture, urbanization and utopia Yona Friedman (2007,203) stated that city’s architecture is a continues process with no terminal phase where details are of a special importance for the daily life. However one cannot always plan details and that for every domain. ‘We plan too much. Reality is in state of equilibrium.’ In this way, he believes that architecture should not be rooted, as we are incapable of predicting how it is going to be used, its evolution.

The vision of possibility of the industrial ruins points to the anticipatory moment in thinking about conventional urban living of its inhabitants. Such an alternative way of envisioning a model for a good city has trigged a reaction within conventional development agencies; it has attracted their minds in a way what could be done further to help HWFI to thrive into a creative hub of East London. As suggested by Sandercock (2003), working towards more creative and sustaining cities, we need some new models of planning system, which expands the language of planning beyond instrumental rationality and the system world; one that speaks about negotiating, hope, organizing fear, mediating memory and daring to break rules as well as developing the habits of critical and analytical mind.

There is a certain danger in longing for one model of a good city because it will be constrained by the frames of a moment in time and its context. Nevertheless, conceptualizing utopianism as transformative in its intentions one which accepts the contestation and anticipation in the production of space as in need of acknowledgement rather than something to be hidden plays a significant role in the questions about cities and what they might become (Sandercock, 1998, Pinder, 2002).



Visualizing a Walkable City [polis]

polis: Visualizing a Walkable City.

by Eduardo Ares

A public square in Pontevedra, Spain. Source: Turespaña

The city of Pontevedra in northwest Spain has become a leader in walker-friendly urban policy over the past 15 years. In light of its relative anonymity and population of 83,000, one might find it difficult to imagine the traffic congestion that prompted this transformation. However, as the capital of its province, county and municipality, Pontevedra attracted enough automobile commuters each day to overwhelm its antiquated streets.

Instead of razing old buildings and constructing bigger roads, the city council began taking proactive measures to reduce traffic. They widened sidewalks, established a free bike-lending service, installed speed bumps and set a speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour throughout the city. They even banned motorized transport in sections of Pontevedra. Walking zones now extend from the historic center to streets and squares in newer neighborhoods. Although the driving ban initially faced resistance, it is now broadly supported and has become an essential part of the city’s identity as an attractive place to live.

Pontevedra’s Metrominuto Map. Source: Pontevedra City Council

To further improve walkability, Pontevedra’s city council produced a map that visualizes the distances and travel times between key places on foot at an average speed of five kilometers per hour. Known as Metrominuto, the map has color-coded lines that resemble those of a subway guide. The pink line from Peregrina Square shows that it takes about 14 minutes to walk from there to the train and bus stations. Free parking areas are marked to encourage visitors to leave their cars outside the city center. According to the map, someone who parks in the free lot near the police station can get to Peregrina Square in less than eight minutes via Santiago Bridge. Metrominuto reminds residents and visitors that many automobile trips can be made in a more convenient, environmentally friendly and healthy way by walking.

A banner listing distances and travel times from the Metrominuto Map. Source: Eduardo Ares

The Metrominuto initiative recently won an award from Intermodes, the organizers of an international transport convention for the European Congress, who explained: “Metrominuto is an idea that can be easily transposed in cities that have 80,000 inhabitants (or less), of which there are more in Europe than there are very large conurbations.” Pontevedra’s urban restructuring program has also earned accolades from the Spanish Committee of Representatives of Persons with Disabilities and the Spanish Directorate General of Traffic.

Pontevedra’s walker-oriented initiatives raise questions as to how they came into being and how they’ve influenced living conditions in the city. Researching these questions should tell us whether Intermodes’ recommendation is warranted, offering insights into the potential for similar initiatives in other cities around the world.

Eduardo Ares is a doctoral candidate in computer science at the University of A Coruña in Galicia, Spain.