CHANGESCAPING | TALK | Right to the City

Posted on 20/12/2011


In her keynote address for the Right to the City Symposium, held in April 2011, Professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Margaret Crawford, made an unusual plea. She asked that the urge towards a ‘hypercritical’ response be quelled to enable a different approach to exploring and theorising grassroots urbanism. This request, which became a running topic in conversation during the Symposium, arose from a desire to speak without constraint so as to trace some contours of possibility and promise. Crawford’s plea was equally embraced and rejected; praised and criticised. Is it really a symposium if critical response is sidelined? Consequently, Crawford’s call drew attention to considerations of the role and purpose – even responsibility – of critical response in the face of emerging and changing urban phenomena and practice. To observe diverse grassroots and DIY urban practices attentive to remaking the city, and in which so many design and community oriented practices are implicated, seemed to warrant a more reflexive, nimble and open-ended conversation. Such an approach, she argued, was underpinned by Henri Lefebvre’s theoretical framing of the right to the city which expresses a challenge to existing power relations by wresting or asserting a right of participation in the production of the city. To claim a right is to express citizenship.

Presented at the University of Sydney, Right to the City was a multiplatform event with the symposium accompanied by an exhibition and publication, produced by Lee Stickells and Zanny Begg. Seeking connections between art, architecture, philosophy and action, the project honed in on the ways practitioners endeavour to ‘remake’ the city in more socially connected and sustainable ways with specific attention on Sydney. An ouevre in the Lefebvrian sense is in development here; both assertive and tentative, the works in the exhibition put evocative propositions and provocative questions. The packed program for the one day symposium featured Australian and international speakers, including researcher Sarah Barnes, critic Mimi Zeiger, architect Rory Hyde, academic Kurt Iveson and artist/architect Jonathon Mosley, recalled tensions from the pressure points of urban politics and theory. In the highly regulated inner city, the dynamics of urban development are hitting people literally where and how they live, with the same predictably circular narrative of resistance, co-option, displacement and erasure.

The ideas presented in Right to the City Symposium, and also inflected throughout the book, not only make a claim on the city, they also hint, in part, at how the city could be (if only). Even though it seems that the city is slipping out of the hands of communities, for brief moments it can be the product of collective imagining and making. Various projects offer modes of participation where none existed previously and, more simply, constitute the city as a better place to live. This requires untangling the ideologies that conflate ‘better’, ‘growth’ and ‘development’ – tilting at the smooth platitudes of planning and design hierarchies that soothe corporate, consumer and bureaucratic hegemony.

To plan a city is one thing, but to make or remake a city is quite a different proposition. The symposium speakers and exhibiting artists explored this difference through nuance, tactic and agency. Noting activities like street vending, community gardens and garage sales, Crawford charted a series of tendencies in grassroots practices with the objective of interrogating how such acts and activism might shift from the tactical or insurgent to the strategic to produce more permanent results. Otherwise, it seems like throwing stones or words at bulldozers. At the final ‘open space’ session to explore ‘the way forward’, there was a heartfelt appeal to expand the dialogue to address broader publics. With architects, planners, designers, academics and artists as the focus of Right to the City, there is a sense of talking in a small circle. There are others – like community development officers, cultural planners and social workers – who perhaps could be drawn into a broadly collaborative interdisciplinary ethos of practice. A collaboratorium of urban practice focused on enabling communities and places. While design and planning can regulate people and things in and out of place and space, community development workers, for example, also shape social webs, minor practices and power relations.

There are cues in the projects, politics and processes presented in the Right to the City symposium and publication that indicate a myriad of conversations are well underway. While it is parroted that artists are the stormtroopers of gentrification (which will only get us so far), there are clear signals that artists can unsettle singular visions of the city and that communities can take matters into their own hands. Disrupting the normative narrative, through poetic interventions, new scripts and grassroots action, as though it can never be a fait accompli, is to claim a right to the city as only citizens can.

Right to the City

This text is an edited version of an article published in Architecture Australia, July/August 2011

Posted in: changescaping, talk