Sunday, 18 March 2012

Don't waste the grey

What is it to experience urban life?

The city is a multitude of things, real and imagined. We experience it in our minds, with our feet, in our cars, out of windows, in books, on film as relic and ambition. As more and more of us live out our lives in cities it becomes ever more important to consider how we make them work better for us; or more importantly, how we can work better for them.

Because I don’t feel we really make the most of our cities. And I don’t just mean milking real estate value or pretty postcard potential. I mean something more raw and basic than that.

Cities are sponges of human experience. Over time they have absorbed and recorded our behaviour and relationships like the rings of a tree. Reading our urban landscapes and cities as living records of social experience can help us to understand the codes and keys for successful urban living. Seeing cities as fixed, bricks and mortar containers fails to acknowledge their influencing role on behaviour and well-being.

Cities are where everyday life happens. Not just the bladder-challenging massive epochal amazingly wonderful moments of collective history. But where you pop out to get your milk and bread, stagger home past the chicken shop, go and pray, eat, love, talk, mope, sigh…..etc. It’s where stuff happens. It’s the arena in which we play out our lives. The experiences and times we share that may not on the surface seem that exciting but add up over time to be the full record of our lives and relationships with others. Everyday life has been dealt a hard hand; its sheer ubiquity makes it bland beyond detection. It happens without us noticing so we think its crap. It just isn’t though is it?

Listening to Mary Rowe a few months ago giving a talk up in Birmingham at MADE’s offices about the unbelievable mending that went on in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina by ordinary people trying to get back to ordinary life, I was struck by the thought that it’s only when things so spectacularly awful that the one thing you crave for is a return to the ordinary and everyday? To be able to switch on the light or go get some water. For the shops to be open and to be able to get on the bus to the job you still have. Then: ordinary becomes luxurious and unattainable.

What can we do to make ordinary a thing of value and wonder? By paying attention to its inherent value; not the value that has been created or taken away by advertising or rules. By recognising the beauty of the informal and imperfect. In the city; it’s about seeing the beauty in the forgotten spaces and places that haven’t been branded or given an identity; it has crafted one of its own by the people that use it. We are so apt to be told what is nice and what isn’t. Which places are “in” and which are swiftly about to replace them. Like any creative construct, cities are prone to fashion, trend and fad. The white noise of clattering place snobbery and blindness to quirk and difference have been presiding for too long.

What is it to experience the city?

The stark crevices of the abandoned building. Scantily clad skylines and foreboding suburban maze. Billboard fantasy lands of monocultural zombies and their identikit balconies. The reality being the vacant apology of a new build. Adopted and official area maps that render white featureless deserts out of juicy territory, pitted with local lore and finds like a pomegranate. Take instead the joy of randomly making the connection between one bit of town and the other. The jammy wormhole that opens up and makes sense of a place. The unexpected park. Secret shops and looping alleyways. Never looking but always finding.

Cities are parallel universes; they exist in our minds as well as “out there”. The purpose of planning should be to make real the connections between them. And this is where it falls apart. Because planning just isn’t real. It is an art of the abstract. It is a form of version control; used to impose a single, official and usually narrow view of what and who the city is for over other, alternative and informal views. Whilst everyday life and urban reality goes on, the grid of planning floats above in abstract, bearing no resemblance to the networks, flows, actions, reactions, mess of the world below.

To control the city is to literally control our lives. We rely on the good nature of plans, planners, decision-makers to not make us climb urban equivalents of Mordor in a Tolkien quest to get to work everyday or see our loved ones. But in doing so we handover the capacity for dictating the form and quality of our everyday lives. I’m not talking guys in placards and loud speakers herding us into lines and giving us daily instructions….then again….no, seriously; I mean our urban environments planned to an extent that we sleepwalk our way through them oblivious to the wonder of discovering things for ourselves, or paying attention to the detail. Looking up at what is happening in the first floor window when so much attention has been paid to the ground floor lure. What are the conversations going on outside, the noises, the body language.

Why has the station you go to everyday got such crap lighting, why does it exit “there” instead of “here”? What I’m saying may sound trivial but when you have annoying journeys every. single. day. it starts to eat away at your core and you start to wonder at the sheer buffoonery of the person that designed it and had they really thought through what it was like to actually use this bloody space!?

So this is what I mean about making cities work. It’s the detail, the experience and the behaviour of places that can only be appreciated at a micro level but this is exactly what gets left out of plans. They draw imaginary lines around even more imaginary perceptions of place and the richness and complexity of actually experiencing and being in that place and what works get lost.

An antidote? Life/experience/behavioural-led planning.

I think it's time for a reality-check. An approach to planning and designing cities that is behavioural led and that appreciates the experiences and everyday quality that can be generated by them. A new benchmark for place is not award-winning spankery - but how good everyday milk-buying would be.

I've heard psychogeography is having a revival and I'm all for it. Appreciating that the urban environment has specific effects on human bahaviour and emotion is an established idea. So can we build cities along psychogeographical lines and grow urban life and experience as more than occasional note-worthy episodes with a bit of grey filler in between?

(Mend is looking at a form of planning that is founded on behavioural economics, cognitive psychology and psychogeography. We woukd like to hear from you if you are interested in getting involved.)

Where plans try to impose order and control and the holy grail of predictability onto an emergent system such as a city or place, which has no truck with any sort of that behaviour thank you, we kid ourselves into thinking that urban life will concur and fall into line.

Cities are in charge of us and they will go their own way.

What is it to experience the humans…..

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