May 30, 2010

David Engwicht:The Art of Placemaking

On Friday, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with David Engwicht, and hear not one but two fantastic presentations delivered by the Australian Urban Philosopher. The earlier presentation encouraged everybody attending to use the power of story to deliver the future you want. The latter presentation entitled ‘Placemaking’ and arranged by Dublin City Council, attracted a huge crowd to its new wood quay venue despite its Friday night scheduling.

In his lecture, David outlined the lessons he has learned throughout his career of successful placemaking from around the world. In what was a highly interactive lecture, he began the night by asking the crowd ‘What makes you feel at home?’. Noticing that there were architects in the crowd (they’re easy to spot, just look for anyone dressed in black) he proclaimed “the sense of home is the inverse proportion of the amount of money you can spend on it”. He asks, what invokes a sense of home? Does a swish contemporary pad with clean lines and polished floors, or does a ramshackle house with some odd bits and bobs strewn about the place? His point was that poor people furnish their house with a sense of generosity that gives a spirit to the place.

Setting up the throne on a traffic island in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
The most entertaining story of the night was definitely that of David’s suitcase that he brings with him on his travels to cities around the world. Inside this wonderful little case is a delightful pop-up throne, crown and sabre. Whether he’s on the Champs Elysees in Paris or a vacant parking lot in LA, the moment he pops out this throne, it attracts a spontaneous party. People come and sit in the throne, cars slow down to see what is going on, sometimes even stopping and joining in. In the vacant parking lot in LA, a homeless lady became the queen of Los Angeles. What this little exercise does is actually give the people back a sense of ownership for their streets. The art of Placemaking, Engwicht preaches is in “creating these memorative experiences that are transformative in nature”. Lesson # 1 Create Memorable Experiences.

Recently, the french farmer (and their cows) took over the Champs Elysees.

David’s eureka moment came to him during a visit to Paris over 30 years ago. Working as a traffic planner at the time, he was bemused and simultaneously amazed upon observing the city's café and street-dining culture. At the time in his hometown of Brisbane outdoor dining was actually banned! While earlier in the day at the Resilient Cities conference, Minister for Sustainable Transport, Ciarán Cuffe, made the point that cities are a positive thing, Engwicht went one step further by proclaiming that cities were in fact ‘a giant step forward in the evolutionary process of humankind’. Instead of having to travel the world in search of consumables, cities act as a magnet attracting inwards the material delights of what the world has to offer. Cities, he says, ‘are a mechanism for maximising the diversity of exchanges while simultaneously minimising travel’. While there exists planned exchanges and unplanned exchanges, what ultimately drives the creative city and the economic vitality of the city is the spontaneous exchanges that it creates. The perfect example of a spontaneous exchange is the person walking down the street with an ice-cream who inspires every third person they walk past to go in and get themselves an ice-cream. Lesson # 2 Foster Spontaneous Exchanges.

One of the true delights of David Engwicht is his free spirit and ability to think radically differently, especially when it comes to the role of transport in the city. While most people believe that the job of the public transport system is to get you from A to B in a predestined time frame, David believes differently. The job of the public transport system is in fact to maximise the number of exchanges offered to the citizen. He resolutely believes that cities that are only interested in planned exchanges are missing the bigger picture; it is the interaction at the bus stop, the nod to the bus-driver, the chat to the randomer next to you, all these unplanned exchanges are also what defines a good public transport system. A great example of this approach is in San Francisco, which I visited in March. I have to admit that I am a bit of a public transport junkie when I go and visit a new city, taking the opportunity to take every mode of transport offered by the city. In San Fran’s case; the trolley bus, the metro, taxis, and of course the famous trams. In each case I have to admit to being consumed by the unbelievably friendly and relaxed atmosphere while moving about the city. While waiting for one of the quiet, electric-run trolley buses in and around the Filmore neighbourhood of the city, we struck up a conversation with a very friendly bus driver who was formerly married to an Irish lady. When asked did he enjoy living in Ireland, he replied “Not at all. I’m a city guy, San Francisco is nice and easy, I love it here”. I was taken aback, but understandably so.
Broadway in New York recently became pedestrianized.

One reason that cities such as San Francisco, and even more so in Copenhagen, are successful is that most of the public spaces are not mobility-centric in the design of the space. The public spaces in these successful liveable cities offer the potential for exchange rather than just solely designed to move people through the space. Why can’t I have a conversation with somebody on Dame Street? Probably because it is solely designed to move vehicular traffic through it, even if the speed limit has been reduced and HGV have been banned. In a fantastic analogy, Engwicht imagines what our homes would be like if we gave precedence to the movement function. This absurd request would imply that the home owner would make requests to the architect such as, “please find me a house with the maximum amount of hallways”, he says, but why stop there, why not “paint some white lines in the carpet down through the centre of my living room, put some 'turn right only' signs on the coffee table and plonk a ‘No Parking between the hours of 9am to 7 pm road sign’ on the sofa!” Of course this stance is absolutely ludicrous, but it is a stance nevertheless that is been taken by city authorities around the world. Engwicht concludes lesson # 2 by affirming that placemaking is about creating exchange-centric spaces, spaces that offer dual purpose, not mobility-centric ones.

In his hometown of Brisbane, Engwicht decided to throw a street party on the main street. Ever since that day since that street party the traffic has moved slower down the street. The street party changed the resident’s mental image of the street. It became a space for socializing not just for traffic. Social infrastructure was built connecting the neighbourhood. After that day, social activity blossomed on the street. Cities unfortunately deal with road traffic by treating it as a design problem when it is in effect, a social and cultural problem. The moment a parent makes the decision to say to their kids, ‘don’t play on the road, play on the footpath’, it is an invitation to the motorist to drive faster. This psychological retreat is an issue that can only be resolved by the residents, the citizens by gradually reversing the psychological retreat and slowly reclaiming places from traffic. Lesson # 3 Slow People Flow.

In yet another story he tells us where there was a neighbourhood that had a particular problem with boy-racers speeding through the street at night. The city council was willing to spend $250,000 putting in speed bumps along a road to solve this problem. The five boy-racers in the neighbourhood causing the problem would have certainly accepted the $50,000 each that the council was willing to spend on resolving the problem. What this shows us, Engwicht explains, “is a complete loss of civility in the city”. “It’s a social revolution that needs to happen”, he states. There needs to be a complete change in people’s attitudes, but this can happen, as illustrated by the change in people’s attitudes after the introduction of the smoking ban and also the plastic bag ban.

Engwicht then went on the give many examples from around the world of how residents have started to reclaim their streets, both psychologically and physically. These small-scale individual steps have the potential to create a positive chain reaction that can make their neighbourhoods more civilised places.
One such example was an action carried out by Engwicht himself. Many yeas ago, he attached red devil horns to his bicycle helmet. Not only has he sent 10,000 people to work a little happier since making that decision, but he has also “totally and utterly removed his road-rage as a cyclist”.

Engwicht also installed a public water fountain in his front lawn. Every time a person comes to drink at the fountain, his rickety water pipes let him know that there’s someone having a drink and a “mystical sense of connection” with that person is established. When visiting Thailand last year, I was lucky enough to visit a traditional Thai house in Ayutthaya. I was struck by one particular tradition where the family always leaves a bucket of drinking water outside the front steps of their house so as people passing, or homeless people in the community can have a drink of fresh, clean water. It’s amazing to think that this civility, this act of building community has always existed in our societies and we have just seemed to have lost our way and retreated from the public sphere more and more since the dawn of modernity.
What is your leafpile?

But it is not about what he does, but what we can all do individuals, how we can unleash our creativity to build civility. One such example is a lady in the States who, after years of raking up leaves into piles in the front of her house decided one day to put a sign down saying quite simply “Jump”. She even left the rake out on the street beside the pile so as people can rake up the leaves back into a pile after jumping in. This lady’s action was an unmitigated success, bringing untold joy to her neighbours and passers by alike. The rake was never stolen.

Engwicht finished with a very interactive session by asking us all what will be your leafpile? Mine was an idea for an art project to make road signs that ridicule the myriad of road signage that blight the streets of Dublin. One such road sign would be one with what appears to be a pole that was crashed into. The actual sign itself signalling ‘Watch out for road signs”. So, have a think and let us know by writing a comment below, what little thing can I do that will change my city forever?

There are three questions that you need to answer so as to give your ideas grounding in reality. They are;
1. What is it that gives you the most joy in life?
2. What is my gift to the wider community?
3. What is my sphere of influence?
As Leonardo Da Vinci points out, “Art lives in constraints, and dies in freedom.” So get thinking and let us know your ideas and remember Gandhi’s famous saying “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”.
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