The recent occupation of Stapleton House by the Occupy Movement in Cork points to the relationship of such a movement to a wide-array of overlapping groups, emerging in various locations, who are seeking to transform the everyday use and meanings of the built environment by active and participatory means.  The more politicized of these groups are focused upon activities aimed at subverting the normalized fashion in which the built environment is regulated. Their activities include the unofficial transformation of public and private spaces, as expressed by the recent Unlock NAMA event in Dublin. Others are perhaps more playful in their approach, such as is emphasised by activities discussed on the Urban Garden Dublin blog. The more officially sanctioned examples include ‘pop-up’ shops, space for arts, and the establishment of temporary parks within undeveloped parcels of land, which, as municipalities seek stop-gap measures in the face of the unknown, have now become common aspects of current ‘fast policy’. Given the broad-range of activities, to refer to such groups collectively as a ‘movement’ would be misleading. However, whether they be official or unofficial, such endeavours represent a common desire to seek out new ways of relating to our built environment. A recent exhibition at the NAIM-Europa in Maastricht, entitled ‘Common Ground’ (Gedeelde Grond), served to highlight a sample of such initiatives. The exhibition drew on examples from Detroit, to London and Maastricht itself. The broader context was illustrated through an animated version of David Harvey’s commentary on the crises of capitalism, while greater detail was given through the presentation a number of urban farming initiatives and projects focused upon creating temporary public spaces. One of the local examples of the latter was the ReSphinxed  project, which aimed at transforming part of the  land at the former Sphinx ceramics factory (as part of the currently delayed Belvedere regeneration project) in Maastricht into a temporary park in November 2011.

Former Sphinx factory in Maastricht which was used as temporary park in November 2011.

As I have alluded to before with relation to the example of the half-built Anglo Headquarters, the bringing together of different projects also served to highlight some important questions about the long-term impacts of such endeavours, and particularly those that are now more embedded within mainstream planning practice. Terms such as ‘meanwhile’,  ‘in between’, ‘slack spaces’ and ‘pop-up’ are all now firmly embedded within the lexicon. Given the commitment shown to various projects, there is no doubting the motives of those involved. However, it still seems important to question whether such activities will have a long-term impact on our relationship to the built environment or not. It would seem like a lost opportunity if such initiatives discussed above were to wane at the first sign of an upward swing in the property market.

Some pointers towards the long-term potential of such initiatives are given in the documentary Grown in Detroit, which was featured within the NAIM exhibition. Linking the educational welfare of teenage mothers – living in the archetypal post-industrial city, Detroit – with the emergence of the urban farming movement within disused suburban lots, the documentary evokes the potential for a new urban future. It is one that in re-adapting vacant land seeks not for temporary solutions but re-embracing the land as a resource for this generation and perhaps the generations afterwards. Grown in Detroit gives an insight into the means by which the connections can be made between education, productivity and land-use in ways that remind us of what creative processes can initiate when viewed outside what Martha Rosler recently referred to as Richard Florida’s ‘gospel of creativity’, which has so dominated urban policy agendas of recent years.

Philip Lawton

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