How can learning and experimentation improve urban sustainability?
Co-design and co-management of urban environments to promote social and ecological resilience and health for a sustainable and equitable future. Requires a social environment that tolerates experimentation, and lack of trust and forces with strong vested interested in the status quo can block experimentation. Encourages teamwork in a context that encourages experimentation and rapid prototyping. It also builds strong connections to local leaders who have the capacity to get things done.
Urban Designed Experiments are projects that embed ecological research into urban design to study and shape buildings, landscapes, and the infrastructure of human settlements. Designed Experiments are a type of project rather than a specific project, and several have been conducted in the USA. They combine elements of adaptive management with landscape architecture and urban renewal to co-create new urban landscapes that are sustainable and human-friendly. The projects are adaptable, flexible and are based on connecting educational organizations, grassroots organizations, local Governments, and local Stakeholders.
Prof. Alexander Felson (Yale) has been a leader of many urban design experiments. He conducts an entire project each year in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, with the aid of graduate student volunteers. In 2015 the project was The Baltimore Earth Stewardship Initiative which organized a demonstration project of how ecology can help solve societal problems. The project connected the Ecological Society of America and multiple agencies in Baltimore, and over 8 months they developed a project, connecting communities with ecologists, urban planners, designers, and students. The initiative proposed co-design and co-management of urban environments to promote social and ecological resilience and health for a sustainable and equitable future.
Designed experiments are scalable and connectable, but require a social environment that tolerates experimentation, and lack of trust and forces with strong vested interested in the status quo can block experimentation.
This encourages teamwork in a context that encourages experimentation and rapid prototyping. It also builds strong connections to local leaders who have the capacity to get things done.
Further information can be found in series of papers:
- Lesley Evans Ogden. 2013 Integrating Designed Experiments into Urban Planning. BioScience 63(11):845-851. http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/bio.2013.63.11.2
- Alexander J. Felson, Emily E., Oldfield and Mark A. Bradford. 2013. Involving Ecologists in Shaping Large-Scale Green Infrastructure Projects BioScience 63(11):882-890. 2013 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/bio.2013.63.11.7
- Alexander J. Felson, Mitchell Pavao-Zuckerman, Timothy Carter, Franco Montalto, Bill Shuster, Nikki Springer, Emilie K. Stander and Olyssa Starry. 2013. Mapping the Design Process for Urban Ecology Researchers. BioScience 63(11):854-865. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/bio.2013.63.11.4
- Alexander J Felson, Mark A Bradford, and Timothy M Terway 2013. Promoting Earth Stewardship through urban design experiments.Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 362–367. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/130061
Cities that Work for People and Ecosystems: Demonstration Projects for the Application of Ecological Science
The first Earth Stewardship Initiative took place during the ESA 2014 annual meeting in Sacramento, and focused on the American River Parkway. In 2015, we built off of that success and transitioned the project over to Baltimore, MD for the ESA 2015 meeting. The overall goal of the Earth Stewardship Initiative – to connect communities with ecologists, urban planners, and designers, and student fellows to promote social and ecological resilience and revitalization — builds on the U.N. Millennium Development Goals to provide a vision for a sustainable and equitable future
Kolenkitbuurt in western Amsterdam, Netherlands
Kolenkitbuurt is a neighbourhood in western Amsterdam with a bad reputation. It was built shortly after the second world war as part of a major urban expansion plan, following the garden city principles outlined by Ebenezer Howard. Today, the neighbourhood is characterised by a repetitive pattern of monotonous, four-storey tenement blocks. Ninety-five per cent of the mostly small houses are in the social-rent sector, and they are occupied by some 7,000 people, many of them from large immigrant families.
Built between 1949 and 1953, the neighbourhood wasn’t originally given a name, just a number, so residents began calling it by the same nickname as the church around which it was built: Kolenkit, or “coal-scuttle”. Fifty years on, the area had fallen into despair and in 2004 was proclaimed the least popular neighbourhood in Amsterdam, with all “liveability” indicators in the red: high unemployment, poverty, youth crime and a relatively high rate of high-school drop-outs.
By then an urban renewal programme had started, demolishing more than 1,000 houses and building back bigger homes to diversify the housing stock and attract more wealthy residents. Yet in 2007, when neighbourhood liveability and social security were made priorities on the national political agenda, Kolenkitbuurt was still listed as one of the worst neighbourhoods in the Netherlands. All 40 areas on that list were targeted with an intensified programme to prevent ghettoisation.
The need for a different approach to solving the problems of disadvantaged neighbourhoods has been widely supported in theory and practice. Academics argue that “bottom-up” urbanism can respond more quickly to societal needs, compared to a top-down approach. Kolenkitbuurt is an example of this strategy – for the social part of the programme, the district government adopted an unusual approach.
A tender call was put out to garner ideas on improving liveability in the neighbourhood. The eventual winner would be awarded the opportunity (and an operational budget) to execute their plan for a limited amount of time, during which they could prove their value to the neighbourhood. The tender was won by Cascoland, a small international network of artists, architects and designers formed by Dutch community artists Fiona Bell and Roel Schoenmakers. Cascoland has guided participatory projects in South African slums and in Rio de Janeiro, among other cities; each time it has provided an empty casco (“frame”) of facilitation and artistic skills which is eventually given meaning by local communities.
Cascoland had already been working in the Kolenkit area for three years as part of a study by the University of Amsterdam into the role of cultural enterprises in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The fact they were already known by major stakeholders in the area – indeed were residents themselves – created the preconditions for a higher degree of local involvement, which was an advantage over other competitors.
According to Stephen Graham, professor of cities and society at Newcastle University, one of the benefits of bottom-up urbanism is that it highlights creativity – in addition to encouraging entrepreneurship, providing incentives to property owners to maintain properties, and supporting environmentally sustainable development. In this sense, Bell and Schoenmakers have acted as cultural process managers for bottom-up initiatives and ideas.
Due to the open character of their approach, however, no promises could be made about the outcome – which meant policymakers were initially reluctant to accept Cascoland unconditionally. The collective was allowed to run a pilot project for eight months from August 2010, with an operational budget that enabled two or three artists to work in the neighbourhood. The local housing corporation also made two small locations available for free; to gain a better understanding of the local residents and what services or activities were lacking, Cascoland began by organising weekly activities in these locations. The first was an open neighbourhood dinner where ideas were exchanged over an affordable meal.
By hosting activities with a low barrier to entry, Schoenmakers and Bell gathered many participants to share information about what small additions would impact the quality of life in the neighbourhood most efficiently. This research phase revealed that the issue of liveability in itself was not perceived as problematic. Instead, the local families, many originating from rural areas of Morocco and Turkey, expressed a desire to keep small cattle as they had done in their home countries.
According to Nina Wallerstein, professor of family and community medicine at the University of New Mexico, “empowerment is a social-action process that promotes participation of people, organisations and communities towards the goals of increased individual and community control, political efficacy, improved quality of community life and social justice”. Cascoland’s involvement in Kolenkit increased its residents’ feeling of responsibility about the interventions and services developed in the neighbourhood. Moreover, the empowerment process increased the residents’ happiness with their living environments, because they could replicate some habits and activities typical of life in their home countries.
For example, residents said they wanted more meeting places such as parks in the area. As a result, one of Cascoland’s first interventions focused on a one-acre plot that had been vacant for years: the plot was derelict and surrounded by a fence, and perceived as a source of discomfort. Still, this piece of land was valuable because of its central location and its proximity to shops and the main walking routes in the neighbourhood, so Cascoland began by organising playful activities connected to the boundaries of the site – creating a labyrinth made from the fences so people could interact with the fenced environment in a positive way.
As some residents had expressed a desire to keep chickens, Cascoland also developed four mobile henhouses for the site, which were designed and made in collaboration with the residents. Several neighbourhood families with children were selected to keep the chickens, under the condition that they would feed them and clean the henhouse.
Gradually, the vacant plot developed into a meeting place. The henhouses stimulated commitment from neighbours and encouraged them to take responsibility for the management of their public space. The government saw the success of this intervention and eventually removed the remaining fences, allowing the community to fully reappropriate the unused plot.
Indeed, the mobile henhouses proved such a success that Cascoland could not meet the demand of neighbours interested in keeping chickens. Schoenmakers and Bell saw this as an opportunity to implement another important aspect of their approach: empowerment. They helped these interested neighbours apply for a permit at the district office to enlarge the henhouse project, and ultimately enabled the community to co-operatively design and build a large chicken coop surrounded by fruit trees.
Meanwhile, Kolenkitbuurt residents who frequented barbecue spots outside the city expressed a wish to have the same facility within their neighbourhood. At the time, other districts of Amsterdam were imposing stricter regulations to prevent the development of barbecues in parks and squares, but thanks to the moderation of Cascoland and the involvement of the local community, Kolenkit was able to implement this project. The HoutsKolenkit, a publicly accessible area furnished with three barbecue grills and several picnic tables, created a viable place for residents to cook dinner and eat together; it was a valuable social asset to the neighbourhood.
Cascoland’s strategy went further than simply facilitating general requests from residents, however. It was also able to identify less visible problems around the neighbourhood – for instance, children at the local school who were often appearing tired in class. Upon investigation, this was traced to families letting visiting relatives sleep in children’s bedrooms due to lack of space. The kids, forced to sleep on the couch, were tired the following day. Cascoland and the residents came up with a simple solution: one of the vacant apartments was turned into a neighbourhood guestroom, maintained and managed by neighbours, that can be booked for a small amount.
In all, more than 20 interventions have been implemented since the beginning of the Cascoland project in 2010. Others include the decoration of a formerly dark and dank tunnel by neighbours, the creation of an ice-skating rink and a festive neighbourhood breakfast. Each project has its own purpose, its own planning, management and financing process, and different combinations of artists and residents are involved in each one.
In the beginning, policymakers had been reluctant to agree to such an open-ended approach to the Kolenkitbuurt programme. However, the openness of Cascoland’s strategy – which did not include a precise set of outcomes, only a working method – can be considered its strength. No single “result” should be regarded as the final stage of an urban revival process, and when institutions support the creation of a bottom-up initiative, they should also define how to transmit the management of the process to the citizens themselves.
Cascoland was always focused on empowering the community to keep the programme going in the long term, helping residents to initiate and manage their own projects without outside assistance. In theory, this makes the Kolenkit programme resilient and Cascoland, in itself, redundant – so they can move on and focus on new initiatives.
This is an edited extract from CITIES Foundation‘s new book, We Own the City: Enabling Community Practice in Architecture and Urban Planning, published by Trancity/Valiz and launching from Amsterdam on 27 May. Read more of We Own the City here
In Montreal, Canada, Building Community – Solidarité Communautaire is a project which aims to build a public arena and communal space within which residents and students work together to decide on the priorities of their neighborhood and city. Starting in 2015, this project seeks to encourage community development and organization through popular education and social action.
This project is inspired by the field of “social ecology”, which considers a dual and simultaneous approach to addressing social and environmental problems, rooted in community development. It aims to create awareness of the ecological and democratic dimensions needed for societal change in the Anthropocene. The project focuses on solutions to local as well as global problems; although no challenge is too large to think about and discuss, solutions are always concrete and community based.
The members of the executive committee are culturally diverse, inter-generational, and gendered-balance. The process involves a close commitment to direct democracy and participatory decision making processes. The meetings are open to long-time residents as well as students living in the area.
Since the project was founded, multiple projects have been realized, such as a mobilization on the right to housing of homeless and low income people in the city, as well as a community discussion around local solutions to climate change. Ongoing projects and involvement include an upcoming public assembly of the future of Hotel Dieu, a community workshop on the principles of social ecology as well as the preparation of a presentation at the World Social Forum this summer in Montreal.
Building Community – Solidarité Communautaire is a project still in its beginning stages. Its mission statement and governance structure have only recently been developed, and many of the projects goals and actions are still in the realm of potentiality and imagined ideas. It has a small number of active members and is seeking to reach out to the community to create more social, positive inertia. Its objectives are vast and diverse, and there is no telling exactly how the project will evolve in the coming years. Aspirations include promoting cooperatively managed local renewable energy sources and reducing dependency on external sources of food through urban agriculture projects such as green roofs.
Considering its strong emphasis on local actions and participatory processes, the structure of Building Community – Solidarité Communautaire can easily be reproduced in other neighborhoods around Montreal and around the world. The vision of the organization is to inspire others rather than to scale up; ideally this could create a network of grassroots initiatives working at the neighborhood or municipal level. Each one can then adapt and respond to their own socio-ecological challenges, wherever they may be. The resulting sense of empowerment is central to this approach, so that confident and organized citizens can progressively learn how to build a resilient community.
The project also has its own barriers and challenges. Creating a long-term momentum requires dedicated activists and students, which can be hard in most cities where so many young people come and go. The absence of sustained participation and funding can slow down the momentum of these types of community-based projects.
Perhaps this project’s greatest innovation is its strong devotion to organize itself internally through egalitarian, just and participatory principles. This process reflects Ghandi’s famous advice to, “be the change you want to see in the world”. While it is hard for one person to make the change they want to see, as a community, the impact can be far greater. Building Community – Solidarité Communautaire is about creating a simultaneously hopeful and pragmatic future for Montreal and beyond.
Earth Stewardship Initiative
At the upcoming Ecological Society of America (ESA) 2017 meeting in Portland, Oregon this August, the Earth Stewardship Initiative (ESI) Demonstration Project is organizing a “learning from the city” program. Working in conjunction with the City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (BES), we will evaluate Portland’s green infrastructure (GI) design and implementation practices and propose design research and monitoring strategies to inform their process. We will do so through a field trip, targeted workshop, and writing session during the ESA. We now invite applications for as many as 30 ESI Student Fellows to participate in this exciting project.
Since 2014, ESI has collaborated twice with representatives from the cities where the ESA conferences were held and brought together multiple local organizations and academic institutions. ESI solicits fellows from around the country to work with city officials, practitioners, and ESA organizers on large-scale land planning projects. Participants collaborate on an urban design process to generate sustainable design strategies, and propose ways of improving research methods for these projects through designed experiments and other adaptive management tools. ESA 2017 offers unique opportunities to evaluate current GI design for the City of Portland and to develop designed experiments with a team of senior ecologists, ecology students, and city managers. Portland is a national leader in implementing green infrastructure, and has established a city-wide green network drawing on considerable experience with GI design, implementation, monitoring, maintenance, and community engagement.
Prior to the meeting, selected ESI Fellows will review synthesized materials from Portland and participate in a conference call with ESI advisors and the City. At the ESA meeting, fellows will attend an organized field trip on August 8 to Portland GI sites with BES officials, and discuss how research can be integrated into the design of these built environments to assess their ecological value and add ecological function. During a subsequent workshop on August 10, fellow will collaborate with senior ESA research scientists, landscape designers, and city managers to develop strategies around the design, engineering, and maintenance of local GI for future integration of ecological research. Workshop participants will engage in a collaborative brainstorming session to develop strategies for integrating experimental research into GI projects. Following the workshop, fellows will hold a writing sessions to synthesize materials from the field trip and workshop and make recommendations for integrating monitoring and research through designed experiments and other adaptive management tools for GI in Portland. After the meeting fellows will use this synthesis work to complete a white paper on Portland’s GI implementation, leading to potential scientific publications. Fellows will also benefit from opportunities to network with ESA scientists and City of Portland BES officials. ESI fellows are expected to: 1) register for and attend ESA 2017 for both the field trip and workshop, 2) review materials and attend the conference call and planning session, 3) attend the workshop, field trip, and writing session during the ESA in Portland, and 4) dedicate several days of remote work following the conference to edit and complete the white paper. Funding is available for outstanding fellows to cover conference and transportation costs. To apply, please send a one-page statement of interest and resume/short CV as a single PDF document to Yishen Li ([email protected]) by May 20th. Applications received after May 20th will be considered on a rolling basis. We look forward to working with you!
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