The crisis came and we are not sure yet if it will go someday. However, “Under construction” or “Keep out” signs draw a line to prevent any alternative transitional use in these sites that will remain incomplete for years. Everything was planned but it failed and became out of date before it started to work.
What can we do with such an amount of sites, buildings and public facilities while they are being completed or there is enough public budget to run them to their potential capacity?
Rigid planning and formal regulations give narrow chances to face this unexpected situation. They were not designed to cope with the circumstances we are witnessing. They were thought out in a business as usual scenario in which usual meant the big party of iconic buildings, large developments, and massive public resources without economic and social bottom lines. But the party is over and thinking cities as hardware –just build it and things will happen- came to an end.
The crisis, much to our regret, will involve changing this
perspective if we want things to happen in cities and we need an
adaptive strategy that, at least until we get out of the crisis,
can rescue these public assets (land, buildings and public
investments) for the revitalization of community life in cities and
the expansion of urban software intelligence.
In the last two decades, for example, if I'm not mistaken,
almost any provincial capitals in Spain except for a few examples
have built their own contemporary art centre following the pattern
of the Guggenheim Bilbao, and expecting the same effect without
understanding the transformation was due far beyond a mere
container. They are children of an age in which it seemed so simple
to dream of putting any city on the map with the excuse of art and
tourism, and iconic architecture was used as an argument. Reality
has shown that many of these projects have failed and these
facilities are struggling to keep their programmed activities, are
under-utilized or directly closed for lack of funding, burying with
them all the investment and the multiplier effect promised.
From an adaptive approach, cities should avoid keeping these assets out of work and expelling any alternative use to the one they were planned for. But this requires changing the mindset, regulations adapted to the new conditions and a new possibilities for creative projects that could make suitable use of these sites and buildings in the meantime: infrastructures, public facilities, public spaces, empty shops, new urban developments, unused roofs in residential and public buildings, etc.
Cities need to manage this exceptional "meanwhile" time because it will be the new normal for some decades. It is difficult at this point to know when we will be able to recover from the crisis, but we know that it will take time, more than expected, and we have doubts as well if things will get back to the way they were. From the perspective of urban policy, it would be hard to explain to return to the practices that were a common denominator in recent years. I hope they never return because they are part of the crash we are living now.
Think of high streets, city centres and retail spaces in cities.
They are undoubtedly one of the most visible effects of the crisis,
both in the inner cities and the suburbs. Local businesses could
not withstand the crisis and have been forced to close, leaving in
each town or city a network of available resources right on the
streets. There are many examples in other cities around the world
that show how to give transient use to this kind of premises,
convert them into social resources for community use, etc.
The same happens with vacant lots, whose owners are no longer
able to build or develop. They represent an enormous inefficiency
in terms of consumption of urban space. There are flexible ways to
activate these spaces with minimal interventions that are able to
generate effects in the form of community ownership, reactivation
of social life, etc. These urban voids require imagination to
mediate between all the interests involved, with a more open and
horizontal logic than just saying “Something will be built here,
but not sure when, so just keep out”.
The crisis has also prevented, in many cases, finishing large
scale regeneration projects on former industrial sites. Projects
claiming for renewal of historical cities or waterfronts have been
a common urban policy, but experience shows how difficult they
become when there are shortages in public budgets. Lots of cities
started their regeneration plans when the crisis made the finances
of the projects collapse and they will need to enlarge the schedule
for years. Again, fences will be part of the landscape but, really,
should we put up with this just because permits, agreements and
regulations were not envisaged to cope with these circumstances?
In all these situations, hierarchical and formalistic understanding of planning and urban policies offers definitive and permanent solutions: keep out, close, stop, interdict, etc. Planning for permanent circumstances and definite solutions is what makes us feel secure even though we know cities are more and more complex and always changing systems. This way of thinking in which outputs from public policies -not process- were the core of urban action and is the kind of framework that supported the massive obsession with buildings and infrastructures. If there was a material/physical output expected, everything was legitimate. However, in current economic constraints, even when social needs are higher, cities must keep offering solutions using flexible formulas and transitional planning, and give importance to social, collaborative and grassroot processes now that big investment cannot be part of the agenda. It will be time for the imagination. It will be time for limited resources but more creative action, time for case-by-case solutions instead of pretentious long-term planning. Over the years there is an accumulated wealth of experience and knowledge on how to address tactical interventions in cities with a more adaptive, suitable, creative and participatory approach. It is a matter of raising the shutters and tearing down the fences, exploring and testing to see if there is something that can be done on those sites and buildings apart from waiting for better times to come.
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