PLACING

place writing | writing place

The PLACING project is produced by Linda Carroli, a Brisbane based writer, researcher and consultant. PLACING is a critical and cultural exploration of place, writing place and place writing. The project will result in writings and publications addressing the intersection of cultural and urban life. It is comprised of Changescaping and PlaceBlog as well as other writings and works published in other contexts including the Urbanista column for Arts Hub.

The objective of the project is to draw out emerging and changing ideas about urban environments with a particular emphasis on the role artists/art, designers/design, planners/planning, architects/architecture and other urbanists/urbanisms can play in changemaking. It is grounded in a ‘critical planning’ approach or praxis that is attentive to the need for innovation and change (restructuring, retrofitting, recreating, replacing, renewing, redirection etc).

Theorist Jane Rendell engages the idea of ‘site writing’, interleaving the word with site and architecture. PLACING considers practices of place. However, the project is not only about practices of place but also about practices of writing place. Place is both a noun and a verb. This prompts an inquiry of place as something we do; beyond placemaking.

PLACING: An introductory statement

Linda Carroli
March 2009

Over the past few months, I have been collecting information and submissions about interdisciplinary projects that investigate ideas about place and the urban environment. PLACING is concerned with urban practices and projects that demonstrate the built environment in process, as living and lived in. It is concerned with projects that have captured some emerging, unsettling and ‘other’ directions and solutions for planning, design and artistic practices and practitioners – it asks if ‘we’ are well-placed to change and creatively reinvent our cities. Some of this inquiry is manifest in a sub-project, Changescaping[1]. This aspect of PLACING is a ‘publication’ that presents and profiles examples of Australian urban innovation and creativity.

The intention of the PLACING Project is to present emerging and changing ideas about our cities, communities and places. This includes interventions, artworks, events etc that are articulated in urban, suburban and community situations and that have catalysed or enabled other ways of thinking, living and doing in the urban environment. These projects, regardless of scale, are genuinely concerned with the way we envision, create and live in our places. This is the groundwork of urban creativity, innovation and futures. The project arose out of some initial note taking through intermittent waves of environmental scanning. This was recorded simply by posting notes and links to Facebook, Delicious, Google Earth, Flickr and Twitter, which I work with as a writing and publishing spaces, where tagging, sharing, commenting and reposting can enliven the research, writing and publishing process; where we can write and publish in webs.

Societies the world over seem to have become overwhelmed by urban and suburban ills. So I am particularly concerned with how this country, its cities and its communities are harnessing the energies to do more than just react. Some are creating. As I work at my desk in my outer suburban home, the steady stream of traffic, predominantly on its way to the city heart, rumbles along the highway. I’ve joked to my partner that I long for the day when that road can be reclaimed as a green boulevard for more sustainable forms of transit and community peace, that it is reconfigured for solar energy collecting and water management, and that, as a pathway, it connects people as well as places rather than ploughs through or over them. At times, urban planning and design seemed to struggle under the weight of mounting and connected crises: from public health (obesity) to peak oil (car reliance and transport) to climate change (energy, land and water management). There are also some hardened mindsets in some of these professions. For example, while speaking to an urban planner about community gardens, I made the comment that a local park would be an ideal location. He was aghast, declaring that parks cannot be used for such things. Why not? Land use planning and community planning also need to find spaces for collaboration and exchange.

In 1971, the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote “The fate of the world depends upon the way we live” (from ‘Las Vegas Tilt’ in Open Eye). Ferlinghetti wasn’t the first person to make this claim and won’t be the last, but I found it particularly resonant and this provoked some questioning and thinking about the question, “how are we to live?”. I ask that question because I often hear claims about proposed changes of all kinds, particularly those in urban and community development, sounding the death knell for “our way of life”. Understandably, we’re all anxious and uncomfortable about any proposed change to the urban fabric. However, sometimes it seems that the grasp of our fears means we’re not prepared to change (such as our consumption or driving habits) in order to stop other more encapsulating changes (such as climate change). The threats are apparently everywhere. On the basis of protecting “our way of life”, communities and/or councils can refuse the introduction of higher densities as a means of containing the environmental footprint in the same breath as opposing the development of a mosque. Yet, we continually make adjustments to maintain that way of life, such as becoming a multi-income family, working longer hours etc. And so, this value of “our way of life” leaves me considering the anonymity of the ‘our’ whose idealised way of life or lifestyle is being safeguarded. If “our way of life” is so precarious, what does this say about our sense of place?

And so, as I turned to the writing of R. Buckminster Fuller, I was again confronted by similar questions, though this time more personally directed: “If success or failure of the planet and of human beings depended on how I am and what I do … How would I be? What would I do?”. I find Buckminster Fuller’s question more interesting because he puts it back to me, you and us. The relationship between self and world is readily drawn: there is no ‘if’. The fate of the planet depends on how each one of us is and how each one of us does.

Taking as my starting point a practice I am very familiar with – my long established practice of researching, recording and writing – I started scanning the ‘scapes’ and talking to people about options and alternatives for our cities and communities. It is a way of telling stories and of shaping the narrative. I searched out the sites of difference, the fugitive experiment and the surprising conversations. Artists and designers are often acknowledged as the early adopters of new ideas, methods and technologies. They are often at the forefront of exploring emerging issues. Artists have always practiced all kinds of urban interventions with the intention of ushering other experiences into and disruptions of the urban flow. My scanning process started quite informally with artistic practice, then gradually I found connections to planning, design, community development and other built environment practices. This brought me into contact with a pool of initiators, changemakers and innovators in the non-profit sector, social enterprises, social networks, developers, local government, small businesses, studios, universities and others. Manufacturers and technologists are also in the mix with a raft of building and infrastructure solutions and products including all kinds of technologies. (However, it is difficult to situate some of those solutions within this project until some of these technologies are applied.) With each ‘finding’ I made a mark on a mental map or web, kept searching and kept asking people about what they are doing or working on. I was consistently reminding myself of the original intent of the PLACING project which was to explore place as something we do, an action or activity. PLACING engages practices of place and practices of writing place. Place is both a noun and a verb. This prompts an inquiry of place as something we do; beyond placemaking. Place, then, is realised in or as our practices.

I am endeavouring to ground this project in possibilities. I am looking for the iterative and the disruptive. These projects already exist or are within our grasp as designs, plans or ideas. This means they have some force of presence that potentially impels us to take more steps down an unknown path. Because there is both hope and fear in our current situation, I was resolutely searching for paths, utterances and moments of hope through these examples and the ideas that speak to the promises of sustainability, community, economy, technology and culture. As Peter Newman says, our cities need to be developed for resilience, for hope. This will involve, he argues, applying (green) technological and social innovation, introducing new forms of planning and design, and changing attitudes and behaviours towards consumption.

My project had clearly started to trace a much bigger set of conversations, actions and exchanges. If that hope means the way we live has to change, then the question is ‘what are you/we/I prepared to change?’ The question was reiterated during my participation in a series of seminars with Tony Fry on ‘design futuring’. In a mix of poetry, philosophy, politics and performance, Fry situated alternative possibilities for design and the possibility of a ‘future by design’: he speaks of ‘redirected practice’. I can’t say for sure whether PLACING is impelled by redirection, perhaps it leans in another direction. What I found most compelling about Fry’s commentaries in relation to my interests was his assertion that the prevailing human condition of current epoch will be one of ‘unsettlement’. Increasingly, he said, individuals and communities will be insecure in the way and where they are. In large part, this ‘unsettlement’ will be the result of climate change. If we are ‘unsettled’ what does that mean for our sense of place, our relationship with the world and our connections to each other? It is another iterative experience of disengagement? In this seminar series, Fry too asked “What will change you?” In reflecting on the self, we begin to reflect on how things, more generally, are changed, where something different is brought into existence.

The projects gathered and discussed for PLACING (and its sub-project Changescaping) are my field notes from my scanning processes, where I think (sometimes I am not sure) something different or other has been brought into existence. They are beginning to chart an Australian experience of how artists, designers, planners, architects and other urbanists are creatively pursuing changemaking in the current system, potentially with a view to transforming that system. It is a random and personal collection of projects that tell ‘other’ stories. Perhaps it is a ‘minor history’ of sorts. Many of these projects are not new (even though elements of them might well be). For me, these are the kinds of enrichments that I hope will become the basis for our ongoing discussions about transformation and adaptation (or, as Fry says, ‘sustainment’). I hope this constellation of stories will usher in other ways of life.

Note

1. Inspired, in part, by the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s Actions: What You Can Do With the City, this project seeks to document urban projects, acts, interventions and events that reinvent the city. It is particularly concerned with culturally grounded work by artists, architects, planners and designers that engage communities. The project also draws some influence from the London Festival of Architecture and aims to provide those working in and with urban space an opportunity to expose their work and ideas, while also drawing attention to emerging and changing ideas about the city.

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