23 January 2009

Urban Guerillas

sociopolitical architecture of the public realm

Christopher Roach
I [one]
On the east end of 24th Street in San Francisco, stretching from Valencia Street to Potrero Avenue, is a world that is neither exclusively Latin American, nor definitively North American, but is particular to San Francisco and, more specifically, the Mission District. I can get fresh masa to make tortillas at La Palma Mexicatessen, sip the best cappuccinos at Café Venice, buy fresh produce from several sidewalk groceries, feast on tacos al pastor for a few bucks at Taqueria Vallarta or have a malted milkshake at the St. Francis Soda Fountain. Tree-lined, two-way, crowded with slow-moving traffic on a busy Saturday afternoon, I can still call out to a friend across the street and jaywalk safely to shake his hand. Both sides of the street are lined with small storefronts, catering largely, though not exclusively, to the resident Latino community. There are relics of a more distant past, such as the St. Francis, when Mission was a working-class neighbourhood of Irish, Italian and Scandinavian immigrants. There is also a creeping, eminent gentrification: several stylish cafés and boutique stores have cropped up to serve the growing white professional class that is moving into the affordable Mission neighbourhoods.
At the other end of 24th Street, heading over the hill at Dolores Street and down into Noe Valley, is a different though not altogether alien world, where French bistros replace taquerias, and tandem strollers almost outnumber cars. At this end of the street I’m more likely to find artisan cheese and an expensive bottle of wine, or perhaps a nice pair of shoes, but I can still grab a greasy slice of pizza and watch a soccer game at the local pub. Punctuating the continuous row of small three and four-storey buildings is a small parking lot that becomes an upscale farmer’s market on Saturdays; further down, the local CalaFoods supermarket is set back behind its parking lot. Nonetheless, this end of 24th continues familiar, small-scale retail with a few storeys of housing above. The sidewalks are clean and most buildings have a fresh coat of paint, but there’s a noticeably more homogeneous and sanitised feeling on this end of the street. There are no murals, less graffiti, fewer street vendors, and I rarely hear a foreign language spoken here.
These two ends of 24th street represent a kind of urban dialectic of use and culture representative of larger forces at work in the evolution of a city such as San Francisco. There are certainly streets that are more grand, and others more important in the city’s history and culture – Market Street, Mission Street or Columbus Avenue – but in these 24 city blocks one can still read an entire dissertation on the particularity of a place and time in the life of the city. A hermeneutical reading of streets reveals a fragment of the underlying code of our entire society. By parsing the language of the social, political, and economic structures embodied in our streets, they can tell us volumes about ourselves and the world we have made; both the delights and the dangers that we face. For if we turn the page to read another street, we may find that the tale it tells is not one of urbane diversity and harmonious civility, but one of dislocation, disenfranchisement and decay.

2 [two]
Our streets, as much as our buildings, are a physical manifestation of our social and cultural values, especially those relating to the context of human settlement. Streets are, in their boundless ubiquity and variety of form, expressions of our attitudes toward communication, commerce, transportation, privacy, security, hygiene, dwelling, public speech, beauty, nature, geography, history and culture. As these attitudes shift and evolve over space and time, so do our streets, like a slowly evolving living organism.
Streets are, even more than buildings, the most pervasive and essential physical embodiment of the public realm.1 They are not just vessels and nodes in the circulatory system of the city, but are the fountainhead of civil society, and therefore one of our most precious physical and cultural resources. Streets are the public stage for our everyday lives as well as the singular events that mark the passage of a common history: battles and parades, protests and celebrations, markets and marathons, carnivals and funerals. On this stage we have played out the grand drama of our most celebrated and infamous social conflicts, from the barricades of pre-Haussmann Paris to the Civil Rights marches and anti-war protests of 1960s America.
But streets are also the theatre for the public performance of daily life, where we engage in the activities of civic Being, whether through commerce, recreation, spectacle, or speech. As Alan Jacobs notes in his seminal book Great Streets, ‘sociability is a large part of why cities exist and streets are a major if not the only public place for that sociability to develop’.2 Streets are where the personal and the political flow together, and for many, streets are the only place where sociability, or even identity, can form freely. Particularly in modern societies that are dominated by a homogeneous popular culture, streets have been the locus for the formation and dissemination of counterculture. In fact, contemporary North American counterculture is largely synonymous with street culture, whether in the form of punk, hip-hop, skateboarding, bikers or street gangs and their associated forms of music, dress, language, art and identity politics.
Most importantly, streets have historically been the locus for resistance, whether cultural or political, and resistance is a form of participation critical to the formation and existence of civil society. In our hermeneutical reading of streets, we find that resistance is still relevant, and necessary, because the physical and cultural space of our streets is threatened by the same encroachments of privatisation, surveillance, commercialisation and negligence that face civil society itself. Just as we witness the sale of our public institutions and infrastructure to private enterprise, so too can we find in our streets a creeping erosion of the public sphere.

3 [three]
Functionalism’s reign as the dominant paradigm of mid-century architecture and urban planning gave rise to a general philosophy of segregation of uses within the public right-of-way.3 This, combined with the ascendancy of the automobile, left a decades-long legacy of robust traffic engineering and weak urbanism. Ironically, the functional separation of uses that was supposed to promote health, safety, and revitalisation of the modern city mostly resulted in less safety, more congestion, and bleak stretches of empty asphalt cutting through entire neighbourhoods. Despite the eventual outcry by Jane Jacobs and the reformations of the Preservationist movement (and later, the New Urbanists), our streets remain bloated by increasing volumes of automobile traffic, and marked by the remaining artifacts of elevated highways, vast intersections, narrower sidewalks and stranded islands of nervous pedestrians. Moreover, functionalist zoning regulations and redevelopment failed to prevent, and may have even enabled, the flight of the urban middle class to the suburbs, resulting not only in the physical decline of urban centres, but also in the decline of the remaining residents’ political power.
Road building, once one of the great public works of the state, has now largely been turned over to private enterprise; our streets are increasingly entitled, funded, designed, built, maintained, policed and even owned by private or public-private entities. State and local governments stripped of funding and maxed out on their bonding capacity, can often no longer afford to build and maintain infrastructure and must turn to large developers to carry out the construction and administration of streets, public spaces and entire neighbourhoods. While these projects must go through the environmental review process and are usually handed over to the city or state upon completion, the profit motive inherently reduces the input citizens have on the form of their cities and communities. In the cases where these private entities retain ownership or administration of the streets and public spaces they construct, even basic freedoms we expect to be self-evident in public spaces are called into question.
As suburban flight has abated and as people and businesses have begun to return to downtown, political power over the planning process has once again shifted, but not into the hands of the long-time residents or cultural pioneers who created value where there once was none. Business and real estate interests have come to wield inordinate political influence over the urban planning process in cities that are experiencing an explosion of growth in the urban core. This is especially true in downtown shopping areas, where retailers’ perceived need to compete with the convenience of suburban malls drives them to lobby for policies that favour commerce over public amenity: increased capacity for automobile access and more parking versus wider sidewalks, traffic calming and green space.4 This erosion of public space is furthered by the intrusion of advertising into every aspect of the streetscape. The cacophony of signage, billboards and advertisements on bus shelters, benches, kiosks, newsstands and sandwich boards has become so familiar as to be virtually invisible, and is accepted by many as the cost of having a robust and free market.
Retail businesses rely on pedestrian traffic for their sales and are particularly interested in creating an environment of safety and stability, leading to the propagation of security cameras and private security guards and fostering a culture of surveillance and control on the street that has a chilling effect on free speech and expression. This has a subtle and insidious influence on what is deemed to be an acceptable use of the street, or even what is viewed as appropriate public behaviour. Public actors in the theatre of downtown streets are encouraged, provided they generally abide by the script of the marketplace. As long as they’re shining shoes, selling jewellery, hawking a sale or entertaining for a coin they are accepted, or at least tolerated. But as soon as they try to speak out, stage a spontaneous protest or performance or just do something ridiculous, they’re harassed, asked for their permit or just whisked away.
Many of these downtown neighbourhoods were once predominantly populated by a particular ethnic group or co-opted by specific fringe cultures. As they are being gentrified, the very rituals, customs and events that marked the outward expression of these groups and gave these areas their unique identities are coming under attack. The new residents and businesses that have become their neighbours pressure the city to crack down on parades and street fairs, either banning them outright, imposing prohibitive security and permit fees or moving them to other non-threatening sites.5 These lively street events, once the inheritors of the spontaneous expression of humanity’s inner chaos called carnival, are now so scripted, controlled, surveilled and commercialised that they are either disappearing altogether, or becoming mere symbols of themselves. The only events that seem to survive are able to do so through corporate sponsorship, or are themselves merely commercial events masquerading as festivals or parades.6
Even our remaining public open spaces may not be as public as they seem. Another disturbing artifact of the privatisation of the public sphere is the creation of pseudo-public spaces that appear to be public streets or plazas, but are in fact owned or administered by private entities. In San Francisco, a number of ‘privately-owned public open spaces’ associated with downtown highrise developments have proliferated as a result of a zoning ordinance that grants developers more building area in exchange for providing a plaza, roof deck, or atrium space accessible to the general public.7 POPOS8 may resemble a public space, but look closely, and you’ll see the security cameras, guards, and subtle markers noting that your right to pass is by permission of the owners. These and other pseudo-public spaces are becoming a common practice nationally and worldwide, the result of a Neo-liberal reconsideration, or outright questioning, of the public sphere.9

4 [four]
How are we, as architects, to engage in this discourse of multifaceted and often competing interests claiming ownership of our streets? How can we act to restore balance to the architecture of the public realm?
Architects may think themselves powerless in this battle, that the content and form of the streets outside the envelopes of their buildings are best left to landscape architects and urban planners who can operate more effectively at the scale of the neighbourhood or city. Architects relinquish to urban planners the messy business of working with the political power granted to them to leverage the resources of both the government and private investment to map out and achieve long-term planning goals. However, the power of the urban planner has been weakened by a lack of capital resources, called into question by opponents of government authority and challenged by his own disenfranchised constituents. This situation calls for all actors in the urban environment, including architects, to reconsider their roles.

Sociologist Peter Arlt calls for us to consider the role of the tactician in urban planning. In his excellent essay ‘Urban Planning and Interim Use’, Arlt draws on military theory to contrast the strategist who has the power and the money to overcome any external conditions blocking the way, with the tactician who must engage circumstances and adversaries to achieve the goal.10 Arlt argues that because urban planners have the political authority to act as strategists, but no longer the resources, they must now act more as tacticians, or ally themselves with tacticians to achieve the same ends. This means working with actors in the urban arena who propose, and impose, interim uses for urban spaces that are seen as opportunities for action, commentary and change.

The classical interim user is the squatter, but whereas the squatters appropriate underused space as an essentially antisocial act, there is a new breed of cultural interloper who seeks to temporarily appropriate a public space as a site for art, performance or political commentary. These urban guerillas are the prototypical tacticians; they operate locally in territory that is familiar, with support from locals and popularity in the media, and most importantly, are highly motivated not by money, but by putting ideas into action. ‘Enthusiasm’, says Arlt, ‘is the capital of interim users, and urban planners should recognize this and use it tactically’.

Architect Ursula Hofbauer and artist/filmmaker Friedmann Derschmidt have been having breakfast with friends and strangers in Vienna’s public spaces for over ten years. They begin by setting up a table in a plaza, street or other public space, and offering coffee and sundry breakfast items to any passers-by who care to join in. The only requirement for participation is that their guests organise another similar public breakfast the next day and invite others to join in turn. In theory, this follows the logic of a chain letter, so what may begin with four people grows to sixteen the next day, then sixty-four on the third, and on the tenth day over a million people having breakfast in public. In fact Permanent Breakfast, which began as a game, public art performance and urban critique in 1996, has since grown to take root in many European cities, as well as New York and Taiwan. The point of Permanent Breakfast is not only to surprise and delight those who appropriate public space for their own means, but to directly engage in a discourse with the limitations, both perceived and actual, to public space. As Hofbauer and Derschmidt claim, ‘it is possible to precisely gauge the understanding of just how public a location is by observing the reactions of other users and ‘protectors’ of the public space. Permanent Breakfast thus becomes a sort of litmus test for the accessibility of public space. In carrying out such breakfasts, it is possible to reveal the superficial look of invisible spatial situations, such as private, formerly public spaces or publicly disguised private spaces’.11

In November 2005, a group of landscape architects, artists, and others calling themselves REBAR ‘rented’ a metered parking space in downtown San Francisco and transformed it into a tiny public park, complete with grass, a bench for seating, and a tree for shade. The park lasted only for a matter of hours, and was met with a mixture of ‘surprise, approval, joy, and indignation’, but, surprisingly, no one was arrested or fined.12 In the two years since this intial act of guerilla urbanism, the idea has exploded into something of an international phenomenon. On PARK(ing) Day in September of 2006, REBAR installed five more PARKs, and were joined by other groups who installed 16 more in San Francisco, 13 in Berkeley, as well as PARKs in New York City, London, and Rio De Janeiro. In 2007, PARK(ing) Day grew to 180 PARKs in 47 cities worldwide.13 According to REBAR, the purpose of PARK(ing) Day is to broaden the discourse on public space in urban contexts by creating a ‘temporally distributed network of public open space’ and by testing reactions to these interventions in a variety of socioeconomic situations.

REBAR has also collaborated with the performance group Snap Out of It on a project called COMMONspace to systematically evaluate and critique San Francisco’s privately-owned public open spaces. In this project, REBAR have mapped the 14 official POPOS in downtown San Francisco and run reconnaissance missions in order to probe the explicit and implicit rules that govern these quasi-public spaces. In conjunction with Snap Out of It, they have returned to these spaces to participate in various paraformances, or Situationist-inspired performances which begin with individual plausibly-deniable actions and scale up to full-sized occupations that engage the public as audiences and participants.14 Similar to Permanent Breakfast, these performances limn the boundary of where the public and the private both meet and conflict.

Permanent Breakfast, PARK(ing) Day, and COMMONspace represent successful examples of tactical urban planning which, in conjunction with more strategic projects, can have a long-term effect on providing public open space in our streets. As Peter Arlt states, ‘Interim use is always seen as a provisional measure rather than as a permanent solution, although it can also be a way of demonstrating a concept’s success in order to convince an investor that the chosen use could also provide a permanent solution’.15 Thus, there is a symbiotic relationship between the strategic and the tactical. The tactical act relies on action and immediacy to influence its audience, and this instantaneous public outreach can lay the groundwork for broader support for more long-term changes. Strategic methods, on the other hand, leverage this political will with capital investments to implement change on a larger scale, legitimsing the tactician’s goals, and drawing a new front for further tactical action.
On PARK(ing) Day in 2007, REBAR collaborated with Public Architecture, a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to pro-bono work, to install four PARKs on Folsom Street. These included a dogwalk plaza, a beauty plaza sponsored by an adjacent cosmetology school, and a sidewalk plaza in front of Brainwash Café featuring a sixteen foot long table where participants and spectators were invited to sit and enjoy a temporary spot to relax, sip a coffee or chat. These PARKs were not strictly intended to be temporary, but rather were full-scale mock-ups of a series of permanent sidewalk plazas that Public Architecture has proposed to provide public open space along Folsom Street. As a result of this engaging community outreach, and their work with several municipal departments, Public Architecture has been awarded a grant from the city to construct a permanent sidewalk plaza in front of Brainwash Café, whose owner will provide ongoing maintenance and the remainder of the construction funds.
This and future sidewalk plazas are part of an overall vision that Public Architecture has proposed to the city for transforming Folsom, Howard and other streets in the South of Market neighbourhood to provide traffic calming, robust public transportation and much-needed open space. Their vision has many more obstacles to overcome before it’s fully implemented, but it has already gained traction with the city’s Planning Department to the extent that it directly influenced their inclusion of similar ideas in the adjacent Rincon Hill neighbourhood plan.16
Public Architecture’s collaboration with REBAR clearly illustrates how an interim use of space can directly inform the planning process to influence its eventual permanent use. Thus, through the implementation of tactical means architecture itself can act on its immediate context as well as at the urban scale to bring about strategic ends. These guerilla actions are currently taking place at the margins of architecture and urban planning, but we must co-opt them into common practice if we are to counteract the erosion of civic space in our streets. Alan Jacobs has said that ‘the best streets encourage participation’.17 In the context of the current assault on the public realm, it may be better said that the best streets demand participation. p

1 Jacobs, Alan. Great Streets. ‘In the U.S., from 25 to 35 % of a city’s developed land is likely to be in public rights-of-way, mostly in streets’. p6
2 Ibid. p4
3 Le Corbusier, for one, perceived an ever-stricter segregation of traffic as an essential affirmation of social order — a desirable and ultimately inevitable expression of modernity. To this end, proposals were advanced to build vertical streets where road vehicles, pedestrians and trains would each occupy their own levels. Such an arrangement, it was said, would allow for even denser development in the future. These plans were never implemented comprehensively, a fact which today’s urban theorists regard as fortunate for vitality and diversity. Rather, vertical segregation is applied on a piecemeal basis, as in sewers, utility poles, depressed highways, elevated railways, common utility ducts, the extensive complex of underground malls surrounding Tokyo Station and the O-temachi subway station, the elevated pedestrian skyway networks of Minneapolis and Calgary, the underground cities of Atlanta and Montreal, and the multilevel streets in Chicago. Wikipedia .
4 For example, San Francisco’s Proposition H of 2007, which was largley funded by downtown developers and backed by the Gap’s Don Fischer.
5 Some of San Francisco’s most popular outdoor events such as the Haight-Ashbury and How Weird street fairs, Gay Pride, Halloween and the North Beach Festival have recently been threatened by organised neighbour complaints and exorbitant fees from city departments. See Witherell, Amanda. ‘The Death of Fun’ San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 23, 2006
6 For the past two years, Larry Ellison’s Oracle Open World conference has erected a tent over Howard Street from 3rd to 4th Street for an entire week, complete with massive LED screens at each end. On November 22, 2004, the band U2 took over the streets of New York to shoot a video for ‘All Because of You’, the second single off their new How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
7 Section 138 of the City of San Francisco Zoning Ordinance.
8 The term POPOS was coined by REBAR
9 Hofbauer, Ursula. ‘Horror Vacui’
10 Arlt, Peter. ‘Urban Planning and Interim Use” in Temporary Urban Spaces by Haydn, Florian, Robert Temel, eds. Birkhäuser, 2006. See also de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
11 Hofbauer, Ursula, & Friedmann Derschmidt ‘Horror Vacui’ in Temporary Urban Spaces by Haydn, Florian, Robert Temel, eds. Birkhäuser, 2006
12 REBAR estimated they provided an additional ‘24,000 square-foot-minutes’ of public open space.
13 All information taken from REBAR and their website www.rebargroup.org
14 Ibid. REBAR
15 Arlt, Peter. ‘Urban Planning and Interim Use’ p 39
16 Meanwhile, REBAR has also aadopted more strategic methods, handing PARK(ing) Day off to the Trust for Public Land, and advising the San Francisco mayor’s office on the city’s Better Streets program.
17 Jacobs, Alan. Great Streets. p9

Roach, Christopher. 'Urban Guerillas' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Christopher Roach and On Site review

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