On 15 November the winners of the ‘Space Invaders Dublin’ competition to redevelop a vacant lot on Thomas Streets were announced. According to the Irish Times, the winning proposal offered “a mixed-use development with a large digital wall at the centre of an open space on the site which will be a tourist attraction in itself and also a showcase for companies using it”.

In the same article , it was announced that the Digital Hub Development Agency, the state agency which owns the vacant site, is considering “allowing artists and cultural bodies to use existing derelict buildings on the site to help regenerate the area”. Ronan Tynan*, property manager for the Digital Hub noted that “We are trying to get something together to get us to the next stage if parties are interested in using it, but there is a cost for even temporary use. We’ve got to see if it is feasible money wise.”

The interesting point illustrated here is the desire to use artists and cultural groups to help redevelop a site. It is noted that the currently derelict buildings which have no heating, water or lighting would require a lot of work to provide even a “basic level of services” and that there would be a cost for even temporary use- though it is not clear how this cost would be shared between the Digital Hub and the user groups.

It is unclear if users will be expected to pay a rent, but the intention remains: to use groups known to be under-resourced to inhabit and work in spaces with a basic level of services in order to add value to a site. The arts and cultural groups will be facilitated until they have added enough value to the site, they will then be replaced, likely, by higher-end and more profitable uses.

That this process is allowed to be presented as an act of altruism towards arts and cultural groups rather than the act of exploitation is telling of the scarce opportunities available to these groups, as well as the uncritical eye through which the media views urban redevelopment. In my thesis ‘Crises without Retail: A Street Level Approach to a Global System‘, among other approaches I examined the role that temporary uses have played in efforts to relieve vacancy was. From that research I found a popular association between arts and cultural groups utilising derelict or unused spaces. Such an arrangement gives these groups a space to work and organise from, which they may not be able to acquire conventionally. Traditionally, where capitalism cannot find a profitable use for a space, it lets it depreciate until the rent gap widens or more profitable markets saturate and the space can be traded or developed. This process can be accelerated by managing the organic response arts and cultural groups have to seek out space with a low exchange value, but still with a feasible use value.

In valuing space based on use value and with little ability to acquire space based on exchange value, abandoned or dilapidated spaces are often sought by arts and cultural groups and their use tolerated or even facilitated by land owners or city authorities. The problem is that the work of artistic and cultural groups is rightly valued by people when choosing where to live, and as these types of uses grow in an area the opportunity for gentrification ripens. With this the possibility of displacement for the arts and cultural groups as well as other residents looms.

A difficulty in critically exploring the dynamics of temporary use (see the discussions over Granby Park previously presented on this blog) is the amount of good will that often features. To help understand the actions of the relevant actors it is helpful to distinguish between ‘consent’ and ‘compliance’ with the underlying processes of urban development and the wider system of capitalism.

Where land owners concede to discounts and alternative uses due to having their property vacant they are helping arts and cultural groups as well as offering residents a new amenity. Despite this they are still compliant with the same system that made their property empty and makes access to space for arts and cultural uses infeasible in the first place.

The arts and cultural groups who accept and seek out temporary uses are compliant too, once the space they are offered is prime for redevelopment they will have to leave and the ability of other residents to stay will also be threatened –  this they do not consent to. Though arts and cultural groups would prefer more secure and more purposely designed spaces to work in, these are not always available so they take what they can get. Where these groups once sought alternative uses for abandoned spaces they are now offered, sometimes at a cost, the use of spaces explicitly as part of a redevelopment strategy that may lead to displacement.

Those who are both compliant and consenting are another story. The plan to provide temporary spaces to arts and cultural users on the lands of the Digital Hub, allowed to remain derelict while in the ownership of the state for 12 years, and the media that presents such an act as gracious are more clear cut players.

The arts and cultural sector need real supports and sustained access to purposely designed spaces and it is important that that is made clear to those with the power to provide those spaces. The incorporation of temporary uses or alternative uses of spaces as part of the development process is testament to the value arts and cultural uses provide. At the same time, people who live in an area and add value to it through the community they build also deserve protection from gentrification aided by the latter uses. But the nature of value has been so disturbed that those who add value to places and spaces are not rewarded, but instead are expected to be grateful for the privilege of helping others make money and in keeping a system that devalues them working.

*An attempt was made to contact Ronan Tynan via the Digital Hub, seeking more information on any plans for temporary uses, with no reply.

Liam Duffy recently graduated from the 4Cities UNICA Euromaster in Urban Studies. His interests include retail planning, urban economic policy, brownfield development as well as arts and cultural policy. He is currently in Copenhagen and looking for employment and other opportunities in Denmark and further afield. He can be contacted at Lmtduffy@gmail.com

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