At a civil society level, experimental urban development is all about working with alternative (but viable) ways of living in a city, with everything that implies – for example how to use a public space, how to consume in a local area, how to build homes or how to interact with each other. In many cities we have become so used to curated public space and official stories about everyday life, that we believe that is the way it has to be. An experimental approach to your own life in the city and your own neighborhood has the potential to give you back the authorship of your life and empower your local community.
The baseline for working with urban experiments from a citizen angle is that everyone else is terribly busy doing stuff that is much more important than your little project. It can be impossibly hard to open a space for dialogue if you want to do something that is not already covered by existing regulation. Luckily you have the advantage that you are not bound to work within the complex systems of urban planning to do something in the city. A core decision in any citizen driven urban experiment is thus “how much contact do we need with authorities?” which of course depends on the scale and timeframe of what you are doing. In some cases it might be best to fly under the radar, while it is vital to mobilize the right developers, planners or politicians in other.
- COUNTER PLANING
The future of urban spaces in the city often seems like it is impossible to influence, but the truth is that citizen driven initiatives often have a major influence on urban development. This is not least because citizen driven projects can change and challenge public space, disregarding the complicated ownership and maintenance systems that regulate the space, but focusing on the actuality of it instead – something that can be very hard to see or do from a planning office. Presenting an initiative as an experiment can make it more tolerable for city authorities to allow it to happen, as there is a meaningful outcome or a visible end. Counter planning projects can often feed into existing political controversies and benefit from forming alliances with politicians, planners or developers. The core force of counter-planning is to show that the future of the city might be better if it looked in another way than what is suggested in the current official plan.
- GUERILLA URBANISM
If your experiment doesn’t involve a big change, a lot of people or is not supposed to stay for long, there is probably no need to formalize it too much. Far too often ideas die because organizations has to be in place before the projects can start and many have tried to spend years debating and negotiating with public administrations about very small scale projects, that if they had just been done would probably never have been registered by the authorities. The general advice from many citizen driven urban development projects over the years is “just do it”. If the experiment leads to something good, chances are that you will be in a better position to build an organization or talk to the authorities based on what you have learned.
- CULTURAL PROTOCOLS
On a more personal level, experiments can offer opportunities to explore alternative ways of doing perfectly ordinary things such as taking a walk, eating dinner or shopping. When it comes to everyday life the experiment can be a playful way of making the ordinary unordinary. It opens the opportunity to try something that might be valuable for your life, in a relatively safe setting. Naming something as an experiment gives the alibi to try it out, without having to have made a serious life choice.
- CO-CREATED NEIGHBORHOODS
It can be hard to find a space to live in, that has not been defined by the “normalicy” standards of the building industry, but there are examples of groups assembling around exactly that. Collective development and building processes have most often been connected to intentional communities such as eco-villages in rural areas, but there are examples of groups of citizens going together to form “building groups” that co-develop new apartment blocks, built to their own desires.