arch-peace editorials

21 August 2012

Occupying the street

The Occupy Frankfurt camp, one of many in the global movement, was reportedly ‘cleared’ by police a few days before the Olympics ended, as I wrote this, and according to Occupy Frankfurt, was successfully relocated. In light of the complex discussion in the previous editorials about solidarity and “clarity, strategy, and purpose” and investigating the accountability of the Occupy Movement, in this editorial, I reflect on my own research on ordinary street occupations in Frankfurt and London, which are not usually associated with media or spectacle.

The idea for my research on streets initially developed about 2002 in Perth, partly inspired by events at that time, including the urbanism effects of street festivals and protests in street environments. In a course on cities at the Berlage Institute (1990-2012) Roemer van Toorn, for example, was writing about these phenomena. Street parade traditions, often with ancient origins revived in the city and media of early modernity, like urban protest encampments have a parallel history with the modern city. In 2000 I had attended a reconciliation walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge and visited the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Sydney’s Victoria Park during the Olympic Games. I wrote about this in the Architects for Peace Book (Maturana and McInneny eds. 2010, p.136) The twenty-first century began. For me the streets research has been a journey to identify a politics of the street, from Australia to Europe, and spanning across my period of international development work in Ulaanbaatar, about which I have also previously written for Architects for Peace in 2007 and 2008 ( ).

My recent field work on streets in Frankfurt and London involved a recording a score of interviews in each location, investigating perspectives on strengths and weaknesses of the street, from users and managers in or near these sites. The two streets I have studied each forms part of its respective city’s international railway station quarter. International flows of culture and goods and people blend with local people and visitors about their day to day business in the street. I have been seeking to find how a better balance between place and movement could be struck on streets, in inner city contexts where transport plays a key role along with walkability and liveability. Emergent themes have included everything from planting and de-cluttering to active building facades and pavement use. Unsurprisingly, there was some feeling expressed among the interviewees that ownership and management of these public realms – streets which also function as public space for citizens – may be improved. However the conflict experienced was strangely attractive. Positive change might occur through design or ‘management’ but it was clear that these measures may be complicated to follow bureaucratically and also potentially relatively invisible.

Disparate disciplines and interests are at play in these mixed-use inner-city streets. The professional methodologies of the sociologists, writers, photographers, activists, architects, urbanists, highway engineers sometimes seemed a world away from the interests of shopkeepers and pub-goers, hotel guests and receptionists, drug addicts and outreach workers, beggars and police officers. The social science findings and the physical findings of my investigations in my case studies are also all held in two respectively “disparate bodies of research” which the research attempts to bring together.

social urbanism ------------ physical urbanism

These inner city streets are cores of mixed-use neighbourhoods – they are both residential and commercial neighbourhoods, and people not only shop, work and play in these areas, but they also carry out the everyday domestic rituals of sleeping, cooking, washing and eating. Some of the modes of doing these could be considered aberrant or diverse, with sleeping in doorways or eating in a church as examples. This form of urbanism is sustainable and diurnally balanced in the original sense of a city accommodating diversity. Occupy protesters are experimenting with the civic notions of diversity, balance, sustainability and resilience in an idealistic, theatrical and radical way, while my research has focussed on banal occupations. Occupation nevertheless involves challenge and conflict. The street poetry of Professor Kayoss in King’s Cross at cyclist’s action (9 Jan 12 ) was a little-noticed moment of street theatre in London. The report of an incident in which a church worker was attacked in Frankfurt (Email from LvJ) was also a rare moment, an irruption of the constant conflict in which restaurant goers, bankers, people parking cars and prospective punters share the street with prostitutes and drug users in a curated Red-Light district. (BHVN) in this sense, the streets are occupied by users with diverse interests. Quantitative engineering methodologies and approaches could be said to dominate generally across a spectrum from physical spatial design to social community development method.

These streets occupied in a quotidian way, and they are sites of everyday, ordinary reconciliation. Sites in which a domestic or commercial sense of peace is sought by diverse citizens. One person seeks peace though a substance fix, another by divine resurrection, another by an uneventful health and safety inspection, another by finding an available parking space.

‘Expert’ disciplines addressing the street as a physical realm include the twentieth century’s post-war hope for a solution to the city – the highway engineer – who will calculate the correct volume and design the surfaces and signage in compliance with national highway standards. On the other hand, local experts include the creative artist, urban designer and sociolologist, delving into field work in the most challenging ways, opening discourses, accused of re-arranging deck-chairs. The tour guide, the sausage stand and the graffiti artist add further decoration. Pedestrians, non-experts by definition, train their journeys back and forth along the street, day and night, summer and winter over years, observing and experiencing details which experts do not.

In the social urbanism realm again there are quantitative methodologies and consultation targets (Buergerbeteiligungsverfahren) and these are gradually transmogrifying. The authorities have the responsibility to consult and to cooperate with those using the street, and in each case, they attempt to respond to the changing sense of the civic. In Frankfurt, beautifying a square and incorporating public toilets is a challenge in an area fully of junkies and streetwalkers, while in London King’s Cross, users attempting to tame a traffic gyratory installed in the sixties are stymied by bureaucracy. In both sites, the day-to-day reconciliation of interests plods on, and change occurs at a snails pace and without spectacle.

In the post-Olympic Games lull in London, as the segregated VIP (‘Zil’) traffic lanes are erased all over the capital, we reflect on the occupations of the Olympic park urban regeneration area. Cyclists navigating around the outside of the Olympic Park on a spontaneous ‘Critical Mass’ ride, celebrating the freedom and benefits of cycling, were arrested by tense security forces. Urban regeneration benefits to the area so far were reserved for the captive ticket-holding audience eating corporate hamburgers inside the Olympic compound. Local east London traders with approved and licensed ethnic food stalls nearby made enormous losses when attendees were redirected away. ( ). Despite celebrations, the tense security environment and ticketing difficulties apparently made the street ambiance in the area tense rather than ‘vibrant’. However there was at least a symbol of hope in the Rio 2016 contribution to the Olympic closing ceremony.

Renato Sorriso came under the spotlight in overalls, an unlikely agent of the city street and agent of conviviality, a Rio street sweeper who is a noted samba dancer. The script for the short segment in the 2012 Olympic closing ceremony had Sorriso sweeping the stage, and when a guard came to escort him away, the guard was shown how to samba. These figures of the informal street economy, the increasingly anonymous uniformed operatives of corporate agencies like G4S and Veolia, play an insidious part in streets. Might these lowly paid contract workers indeed band together and create conviviality in the street? Could they create a sense of caring, ownership – even what Jane Jacobs called ‘Eyes on the Street’? Press headlines reporting on Sorriso’s act and personal story confused road sweeper, cleaner and street sweeper, missing the significance of the street’s role as the stage in this theatre of the city. The locally-grown choreography of this Carioca improvising rhythmic steps on the pavement of the street would not occur in motor traffic on a ring road. It would not occur on a bicycle or in a car or taxi or bus or HGV. This informal use of the public realm depends upon the pedestrian interest in the street. The street is a space which is both a place and a link, which privileges and protects the pedestrian, the human, with or without their transport.

Gregory Cowan 
Architects for Peace, August 2012


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