As I stumbled back home late one Friday night after many hours of travel to get from a tiny town in Southern France to London’s own Tower Hamlets, people busy painting a line along the pavement and doing various other things made it hard to get my roller bag past them. I was not pleased, but I woke up to this:
The London Festival of Architecture brought the University of Innsbruck’s Walk the Line project, and the weekend was full of activities, games, food (I suppose it was too much to hope for it as a Johnny Cash reference). The statue of Gladstone in front of the old church looked happier with his blue scarf.
None of that was for me sadly, I was exhausted and had one hell of a deadline coming up. But the idea was interesting, changing how people use public spaces and form community with the simple use of some paint and some props.
I think, however, that the aftermath was even more interesting, because for a few days the props were left, the hosts were absent, and my neighbors were left to do with the space and the props as they would. Of course, I was still on deadline, so I just saw it as I walked to and fro work and school. But this was after all just a student project, a taste of what this space could be with just a tiny bit of investment.
They took everything away, and my own pictures came just a few days late to capture the small magic – so I have borrowed some photos from Loopzilla, who has made them available for just this purpose. And you can read a short story about the effort on Diamond Geezer.
But let’s take the Seating Furniture for example:
They had made innovative little tables out of plywood with holes in the middle to fit down over the bollards, and painted tree stumps blue for people to use as seats. And all kinds of different people used them, from big burly guys to the guys who worked in the little shops to families to teenagers. The same way they used the “dinner at eight” station with a more traditional table and chairs. It made me happy to see a whole family sitting down there on a warm summer evening eating a meal.
Now I have no idea what this was supposed to be exactly, it’s the wrong shape and size for hopscotch…
And I don’t think anyone is much celebrating the olympics around here, but kids seem to like to play on it. They play in the “official” games area as well, with balls and stones where the tic-tac-toe board was painted (noughts and crosses anyone?) that once had x’s and o’s. And loads of different people used the “theatre” (just another bunch of blue tree stumps) as another place to sit and chat in the shade. These things very visually created more opportunity for my neighbors to come together in ways they wouldn’t usually do, and spend time in an otherwise rather unwelcoming space that most just travel through, apart from the hordes of teenage boys in the afternoons and evenings, and the chatty crowd in front of the bookies.
So now that it’s gone, what are the lessons learned?
- You can do an immense amount of good with very little money. Stroudley Walk could clearly become a vibrant enjoyable place, and I applaud the student’s imagination and effort. You’d think planners would have figured this out by now.
- DO set up seating areas. Do NOT set up seating areas without providing bins. Or trash cans. Depending which continent you’re in. Or people will no longer like the seating areas.
- It’s always good know a bit more about the community when planning. If they’d spent much time here they surely would have thought of painting a football (soccer) pitch where the boys are always playing. And maybe had some better games? Like chess boards? A giant backgammon board? How cool would that have been? Maybe added some Bangladeshi artwork and made people’s smiles even bigger?
- It’s a bit crap to come into a community and do a project like this, and then take most of it away though I’m sure the Council didn’t want to have to deal with it. But the next bright-eyed students with an idea will wonder why the residents are a bit jaded and blame them for not being open and participatory. These projects should always be connected to the actual and real, as there are currently what seem to be rather terribly generic plans to redevelop the walk. This would have been an amazing way to test out things before they became permanent, and I could not think of a better way to start people thinking creatively about what they want from their neighborhood plaza and how they could actually use it. If the Council cared to ask them in a way that actually invited creativity and enjoyable participation.
Thanks for reporting on such a fun event. You mention being frustrated that the installation improvements weren’t permanent, and that “you’d think planners would have figured this out by now” in regards to being able to do real good on the cheap. I think the trouble in both cases is not the planners but, as you mention, officials and departments. In LA, the planning department staff are generally very stoked on making changes, but prevented from doing so by budget restrictions and dinosaur Bureau of Street Services and DOT regulations (even when there are individual staff within those bureaus and departments who are down).
But yes – definitely wish it was one of those “pilot projects” that is a sneaky way to get in real, permanent, awesome improvements! They’ve done a good job with that in New York and are about to roll it out in Boyle Heights, so we’re on the right track…
It’s definitely an interesting question, isn’t it? And I was a bit to flippant probably! I definitely agree that the absence of political will is the principal problem in actively and creatively engaging community in creating public spaces that are to be well used and lived in. Just as I don’t think that there’s much, if any, desire on the part of officials and department heads to actually build and encourage this kind of shared community space. There seems instead to be a steadily increasing move towards sanitized plazas that are more unfriendly than not, and easily controlled and policed. Which gives me immense sadness. The question becomes just how much ability those actually doing the work of planning have to take these innovative kinds of ideas on board and actually create vibrant neighborhoods working closely with those who live there in the face of that. That’s definitely something you don’t really learn in planning school!
But you can tell a little of my experiences in organizing have seeped through! And frustration at ‘community’ events where participation is reduced to choosing street trees from expensive looking placards with impressive architectural schematics, which misses the whole point I think! The city could do so much more with much less I think, and it would be amazing to see them do it…