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Adaptive urbanism: creative solutions when long term planning doesn't work by Manu Fernandez

Manu Fernandez from Spain is an independent strategic urban thinker and designer of innovative urban actions. His blog is about an adaptive strategy for municipalities. Fernandez: the current state of permanent paralysis and widespread budget cuts which municipal policies are going through has led to a landscape of stalled projects, white elephants and stationary cranes. Residential developments will take longer to accomplish, large scale regeneration projects will need extended schedules, failed transport infrastructures and projected real estate operations will keep their doors closed waiting for better times to come.

The crisis came and we are not sure yet if it will go someday. However,  “Under construction” or “Keep out” signs draw a line to prevent any alternative transitional use in these sites that will remain incomplete for years. Everything was planned but it failed and became out of date before it started to work.

What can we do with such an amount of sites, buildings and public facilities while they are being completed or there is enough public budget to run them to their potential capacity?

Rigid planning and formal regulations give narrow chances to face this unexpected situation. They were not designed to cope with the circumstances we are witnessing. They were thought out in a business as usual scenario in which usual meant the big party of iconic buildings, large developments, and massive public resources without economic and social bottom lines. But the party is over and thinking cities as hardware –just build it and things will happen- came to an end.

The crisis, much to our regret, will involve changing this perspective if we want things to happen in cities and we need an adaptive strategy that, at least until we get out of the crisis, can rescue these public assets (land, buildings and public investments) for the revitalization of community life in cities and the expansion of urban software intelligence.

In the last two decades, for example, if I'm not mistaken, almost any provincial capitals in Spain except for a few examples have built their own contemporary art centre following the pattern of the Guggenheim Bilbao, and expecting the same effect without understanding the transformation was due far beyond a mere container. They are children of an age in which it seemed so simple to dream of putting any city on the map with the excuse of art and tourism, and iconic architecture was used as an argument. Reality has shown that many of these projects have failed and these facilities are struggling to keep their programmed activities, are under-utilized or directly closed for lack of funding, burying with them all the investment and the multiplier effect promised.

From an adaptive approach, cities should avoid keeping these assets out of work and expelling any alternative use to the one they were planned for. But this requires changing the mindset, regulations adapted to the new conditions and a new possibilities for creative projects that could make suitable use of these sites and buildings in the meantime: infrastructures, public facilities, public spaces, empty shops, new urban developments, unused roofs in residential and public buildings, etc.


Cities need to manage this exceptional "meanwhile" time because it will be the new normal for some decades. It is difficult at this point to know when we will be able to recover from the crisis, but we know that it will take time, more than expected, and we have doubts as well if things will get back to the way they were. From the perspective of urban policy, it would be hard to explain to return to the practices that were a common denominator in recent years. I hope they never return because they are part of the crash we are living now.

Think of high streets, city centres and retail spaces in cities. They are undoubtedly one of the most visible effects of the crisis, both in the inner cities and the suburbs. Local businesses could not withstand the crisis and have been forced to close, leaving in each town or city a network of available resources right on the streets. There are many examples in other cities around the world that show how to give transient use to this kind of premises, convert them into social resources for community use, etc.

The same happens with vacant lots, whose owners are no longer able to build or develop. They represent an enormous inefficiency in terms of consumption of urban space. There are flexible ways to activate these spaces with minimal interventions that are able to generate effects in the form of community ownership, reactivation of social life, etc. These urban voids require imagination to mediate between all the interests involved, with a more open and horizontal logic than just saying “Something will be built here, but not sure when, so just keep out”.

The crisis has also prevented, in many cases, finishing large scale regeneration projects on former industrial sites. Projects claiming for renewal of historical cities or waterfronts have been a common urban policy, but experience shows how difficult they become when there are shortages in public budgets. Lots of cities started their regeneration plans when the crisis made the finances of the projects collapse and they will need to enlarge the schedule for years. Again, fences will be part of the landscape but, really, should we put up with this just because permits, agreements and regulations were not envisaged to cope with these circumstances?

In all these situations, hierarchical and formalistic understanding of planning and urban policies offers definitive and permanent solutions: keep out, close, stop, interdict, etc. Planning for permanent circumstances and definite solutions is what makes us feel secure even though we know cities are more and more complex and always changing systems. This way of thinking in which outputs from public policies -not process- were the core of urban action and is the kind of framework that supported the massive obsession with buildings and infrastructures. If there was a material/physical output expected, everything was legitimate. However, in current economic constraints, even when social needs are higher, cities must keep offering solutions using flexible formulas and transitional planning, and give importance to social, collaborative and grassroot processes now that big investment cannot be part of the agenda. It will be time for the imagination. It will be time for limited resources but more creative action, time for case-by-case solutions instead of pretentious long-term planning. Over the years there is an accumulated wealth of experience and knowledge on how to address tactical interventions in cities with a more adaptive, suitable, creative and participatory approach. It is a matter of raising the shutters and tearing down the fences, exploring and testing to see if there is something that can be done on those sites and buildings apart from waiting for better times to come.


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