The Create your City project was staged in the municipality of Copenhagen, Denmark in 2012 and introduced experimental urban development in the Technical and Environmental Administration through a research driven intervention in the organization. The project showed that it is possible to develop experimental urban planning practices if the organization consciously creates alibi for employees to do something new.
Create your City was a research driven experimental intervention, created in cooperation between Aalborg University in Copenhagen and the Technical and Environmental Administration* (TEA) in Copenhagen. The project was based on a PhD project within the TempoS** research alliance and took place from May to September 2012.
Alibi for experimentation
The Create your City project was designed as a framework supposed to stimulate innovation and experimentation in the TEA. The purpose of the project was to create alibi for employees in the organization to use experiments as part of their project planning, something that was quite uncommon at the time. Within the framework of Create your City, employees in the administration could suggest experiments in which they wanted to work with development of urban space together with citizens. The project was funded and supported by the board for directors in the TEA, which was vital to create a safe container for experimentation in the organization.
The design approach of the project was based on “rehearsals” or “improvisations” of future urban spaces or services challenging planners to work with temporary physical interventions in urban space as a new approach to urban planning. In the course of the project 12 experiments was staged at 20 sites in the urban space of Copenhagen. The experiments were developed by planners in the TEA and dealt with very different issues, from urban gardening in parks and bicycle parking to the future recreational strategy for the harbor.
The project also included a web based effort to connect the experiments through online interaction between planners and citizens.The web interface skabdinby.dk was central to the storytelling about the “Create your City” project as a municipal experimentation project. By presenting all the activities of the project at one platform we wanted to make the innovation agenda and the idea of intervening and experimenting in urban space very visible, both in the TEA and for the citizens of Copenhagen. The otherwise localized and not necessarily visible experiments in urban space were connected to “the experiment of the Technical and Environmental Administration” through physical banners at the urban spaces, which was paralleled by map-pins on the webpage. Furthermore it was possible to comment on and upload pictures and videos from the experiments to the page as we wanted to encourage online interactivity between planners and citizens.
In addition the page was an experiment of its own. We wanted to see how citizens and planners could interact online in new ways, by having the site designed as a skin for the planning map of Copenhagen (http://kbhkort.kk.dk/), which is used in the planning process of the city. The idea was that it might be productive to have the knowledge of citizens represented on the same map and use it for dialogue of the development of the city. Planners would post “challenges” asking citizens to map the city in different ways – from “the best nature experience” and “the best place to play in the city” to “the best quiet spot in the Copenhagen” and citizens could answer in text, pictures or video8.
Every challenge was accompanied by as video clip of a planner explaining why this question was important to her and why she needed help. Citizens were asked to help map out the city in text, pictures and video. The questions was:
- Where is your favorite spot in your part of town?
- Where is the best place in the city for movement?
- Where is the best nature experience in Copenhagen?
- Where are the good places to park your bike?
- Where in the city is interesting places, which aren’t used?
- Where is the best place for play in the city?
- Where is your favorite route through the city?
- Where is the best quiet place in the city?
- Tell us something we don’t know about the city.
The purpose of the challenges was to enable the participating TEA planners an opportunity to get access to qualitative knowledge about the wishes of citizens in the specific areas where they were working.
Rehearsing the future
Invention has to go hand in hand with rehearsing what the invention entails. A central inspiration for the Create your City project was the notion of “rehearsing the future” when working with interventions in urban space. Urban interventions can show how an innovation can be done, but also begins the process of change necessary to make the innovation a success. Interventions are in this perspective often as much an exploration of existing and new relationships, as much as a negotiation of needs and goals.
In co-design processes, the designer doesn’t necessarily create the first prototype, but invites the user to partake in the prototyping from the very beginning. This “exploration of the possible” is emphasized in co-design as is the need to organize co-design around partnerships and to create spaces where new possibilities are seen and visualized.
The experiments of the “Create your City” project had more similarities with research prototypes than industrial prototypes, meaning that they were not products ready for production but rather had focus on knowledge creation. The learning perspective was based on bringing planners out into the messy world of practice, where trial and error is vital for development and learning, moving away from expert planning perspectives. We wanted to stimulate a more reflexive planning practice through action learning processes, where planners were inspired to try new things, to suspend judgment and inquire into the nature of problems, before proceeding to their solution. The Create your City experiments was not simulations, but was dragged slowly and painfully from the here-and-now reality of the participating planners, creating controversy both inside and outside the TEA.
Based on ordinary practice
Importantly, the Create your City experiments were based in the ordinary daily work of the organization and the participating planners had to meet and overcome the “usual” barriers for innovation in the organization to realize their ambitions. A key point from the processes of developing and executing experiments within the Create your City framework is that it was actually possible to work with urban planning in a radically different way (physical interventions in urban space) within the existing institutional setup of the administration.
None of the experiments were “easy fits” into the framework. Some were based on already existing project plans; others had to be invented from scratch. Some were introduced by managers who created new project groups, while in others the planners involved needed a lot of help to make their managers understand why it made sense to experiment in this way. Some were connected to the testing of a new concept or a new service; others focused on creating dialogue while yet others were based on co-designing new spaces together with citizens. Some experiments were designed very differently from what we had expected and planned because of circumstances which were discovered during the process.
“It gives us more trouble because more problems surface and more opposing opinions come to the surface… It gets harder to write the program… On the other hand, I can write the program with a better taste in my mouth… I think it is a very reasonable way to include citizens… It has given us some problems, but they are healthy problems.”
– Project manager, TEA, September 2012
As an example, we had planned to make three pop-op urban spaces at the quay of Copenhagen harbor, to give input to the “recreational strategy for the harbor”. In the Create your City project group we facilitated meetings between the planners in charge of the strategy and the community behind an art-barge, which was already docked in the harbor, and the parties agreed on the purpose and the budget for the interventions. However the barge was never moved as it was impossible to get permits from the harbor authorities to place the barge temporarily anywhere within the Copenhagen harbor. Instead the intervention became focused around the current location of the barge, which changed the intervention radically. On the other hand the process taught the project group valuable lessons about the accessibility of the Copenhagen harbor and potential challenges to develop new and recreational urban spaces.
In other experiments, the results and learning experiences were different than what was expected. When we removed all the trash cans from within three municipal parks in Copenhagen and replaced them with containers at the entrances, the purpose was to see if this approach would make people bring their trash with them out of the park. In this way, the Department for Parks and Nature wanted to test if it was possible to reduce the amount of thrash in the parks of the city, and the amount of time that gardeners used on renovation. After the experiment ended the measurements of trash from the parks did not show any significant changes (apparently the same amount of trash would be thrown in the park, regardless of the presence of trashcans), but other very interesting results occurred.
“The main thing I liked about this process was that we got to hear the voices of more citizens. It is a much more thorough approach compared to holding two public meetings where the usual suspects show up.”
–Project manager, TEA, September 2012
When asking citizens in control parks, still containing trashcans, about solutions to the problems with trash in the park, they consequently answered “more trashcans”. In contrast, the citizens asked in the experimental parks had much more diversified ideas for how to solve the problem, indicating that the awareness and imagination of the citizens were changed by the intervention.
Intervening by trying something new and unexpected in urban space, weakens the matters of fact of the relationship between planners, citizens and the spaces, challenges planning and citizen inclusion practices and points towards new possibilities for innovative action. Not all of the experiments were successful. Actually some failed miserably. Most did however contribute with either important new knowledge about the city or contributed to actively reconfiguring urban spaces.
The purpose of Create your City was to challenge the organization to work with new and more participatory design based approaches to the development of urban space. An important part of my intervention in the TEA was connected to the creation of new ways of talking about and evaluating the experimental work practices.
“Every new stratagem, in order to succeed, has also to define, develop, position and enforce its own ways of assessing itself. Every innovation is considered as risky, difficult to evaluate, expensive, unreliable, not because we do not have good economical or technical tools to assess it, but because it is part of the innovation to redefine the very tools that evaluate how risky, expensive, efficient, reliable it is. In other words, there is an uncertainty principle in this topic that is inherent not to a weakness in our instruments but to the very phenomenon we wish to detect. Either you have an innovation and part of this innovation is in the struggle to set up measurement instruments or to settle responsibility —in this case, you lack precise definitions and the whole business is uncertain; or you do have good figures, reliable statistics, but then they are the final result of a stable, quiet and routinized network —and in this case you are no longer studying an innovation.”
– Latour 1988
Interventions also need to be (re)exposed and turned in to understandable deliverables, which can intervene by themselves. After the Create your City project such deliverables has been the homepage of the project, telling the story of the individual experiment and four short movies introducing selected experiments and their purpose. Apart from that both the Create your City project and individual experiments has been consciously brought into the strategic discussions of the development of the administration through participation in and presentations at seminars connected to the innovation agenda.
The “Create your City” project has opened some new perspectives for how it is possible to work with participatory design in the development of the city. Furthermore, “the experiment” has entered the administration as a legitimate, although controversial, way to approach development of urban space. The creation of an alibi for innovation, in this case framed by researchers and supported by the top level management of the organization, was vital for the creation of the project.
About the author
Peter Munthe-Kaas is a Copenhagen based researcher and designer. He works in the Borderland between research, activism, LARP, performance and urban development. Peter wants to develop new ways of living together in the cities of the future.