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Switzerland-based urban planner Silvia Gugu provides her takeaways from the conference "Happy City - Faire la ville par l’événement" (December 9th 2016 at the Haute École Spécialisée de Suisse Occidentale in Geneva). A collaboration between the Geography Department at the University of Geneva and the Swiss Geographic Association, this one-day conference brought together academics and professional citymakers to explore the potential of one-off events in helping to create a “happy city”.
The "Happy City" agenda was famously articulated by geographer and writer Charles Montgomery in his 2013 book Happy City. Transforming our Lives through Urban Design. This book brings together evidence from psychology, neuroscience, public health and behavioural economics to discuss the ways in which urban design affects psychological wellbeing. It has generated spin-offs such as the Happy City Labs in Vancouver and Geneva, where a key focus is on devising urban events that foster social interaction and a sense of ownership of public space.
Disrupting the urban rhythm
Over the past decades, community, commercial, arts and leisure events have been frequently designed as disruptions of the urban rhythm, temporarily altering urban form, function and social relations. Many are organized by administrations and are primarily attributed to the competitive neoliberal ethos that calls for cities to build their unique brand in the global economy. Others are initiated by individuals or associations, falling into the recent category of tactical (do-it-yourself / guerrilla / lighter-quicker-cheaper / pop-up) urbanism; in other words, grassroots attempts to re-inject agency in the relationship between residents and their environment. Leisurely and convivial, urban events are malleable instruments that can fit neatly into any of the quality-of-life-oriented urban agendas developed since the 1970’s, such as: Cities for People, Participative Cities, Creative Cities, Liveable Cities, and of course, Happy Cities.
The conference considered both grassroots do-it-yourself interventions, and official policies of ‘event-based urbanism’, highlighting their effects on urban form and function. The talks remained theoretical and exploratory; nevertheless, they opened interesting questions about the way events can mediate the relationship between the urban environment and psychological well being by changing mood and behaviours. Here are a few takeaway hypotheses:
Urban events may make us happier by providing additional aesthetic stimuli
Several speakers referred to how urban events alter the urban aesthetics and our perception of it, making use of a broad range of props and techniques, from images, lights and installations to highlights, reframing and unexpected vantage points and narratives.
Urban events are by definition designed and staged. They are often initiated to beautify and render cities more attractive; and they may be accompanied by physical urban improvements in order to ensure adequate “display windows” (public or private venues). Some are primarily itinerant or episodic ambiances (the circus, the fun fair, the Christmas market, Park(ing) Day – which transforms parking lots into green patches). They play down the familiar and the unremarkable and place the emphasis on memorable, festive choreographies.
Events can thus stimulate the senses and create feelings of awe and discovery in an otherwise familiar environment. Lea Sallenave (University of Geneva) showed for example how street art festivals draw attention to neglected corners; stimulate physical and sensorial apprehension of the city through unexpected trajectories and critical commentaries.
This temporary increase in aesthetic stimuli and capital seems to be popular with the residents that can directly benefit from them (but less so with the ones that feel left out). While urban form is slow to evolve and adapt to new taste, urban events can quickly respond to current expectations by cladding physical infrastructures with new shapes, colours and accents, thus allowing for a continuous symbolic and material renewal of the environment.
Urban events may make us happier by negotiating between social interaction and privacy
Many participants stressed the relational logic of urban events, most of which are designed for social interaction, attracting large numbers of people in the public space and providing a reason for eye contact and conversation. The mere collective consumption of an experience fosters bonding and belonging, and the pro-active participation in public life facilitates “eudaimonia”, Aristotle’s idea of happiness as self fulfilment through benefiting others, a fundamental concept in the “Happy City” theory.
Importantly, the episodic nature of events allows for equilibrium between the need for social interaction and for privacy. As pointed out by Diego Rigamonti (AIDEC), quality of life is a subjective assessment of a complex environment that has to function for everyone, hence conflicts are inevitable – we desire more events as opportunities to encounter others but we don’t want the mess and risks that come with them; we like densification as long as it does not happen in our neighbourhood etc. The temporary nature of urban events appeases such conflicts by allowing conflicting interests and needs to take their turn.
Urban events may make us happier by changing urban uses in favour of desired activities
A prominent and much-cited application of the event in city-making is the temporary adjustment of land uses or the subversive reprogramming / occupation of space in favour of activities preferred by the community. Many of these started as DIY, illegal uses enabled by loopholes in legislation or tolerated due to being temporary. Some were adopted as permanent changes, showing how, thanks to its temporary nature, tactical urbanism can negotiate with legal and institutional frameworks.
Moreover, examples cited at the conference demonstrated that temporary uses, together with the “tactical” approach, have been embraced by planners and administrations to respond to immediate needs and expectations (small green spaces, beach-volleyball fields, snack bars, community gardens, family spaces or simply loosely-articulated structures that permitted people to assign them meaning and function).
Urban events may make us happier by allowing us to exert agency on our environment
There seemed to be a consensus among conference participants that, whatever their source, urban events stand in opposition to the 20th century approach to planning cities. The latter presumes a vision: a finite, virtuous state of equilibrium, to be reached through a strategic plan – an instrument that aims to control both internal and external environments, leaving nothing to chance. In contrast, urban events are a way of refocusing the attention on the city as something that happens, as a process not a product, a continuous transformation that we witness and in which we can choose to participate or not. By providing opportunities for participation, they render the city more “open”. The universal appeal of tactical urbanism, which operates primarily through small and temporary, but scalable interventions, lies precisely in presenting urban change as a matter of choice, not of resources or power.
Events may keep us happy by appeasing permanent change
Throughout the conference, the most iterated role of events was simply taking the edge off drastic urban change brought by new technologies, policies or projects.
Speakers from urbaplan noted that events can facilitate the popularization of a technical discourse, rendering it accessible, reframing issues by using play, invitation, celebrations, and appeals to emotion (climate change activism quickly comes to mind as a prominent example). Nicolas Nova (HEAD) talked about events such as fun fairs as itinerant laboratories for testing and diffusing behaviour-altering technologies (the cinema, the automobile, elevators, moving sidewalks etc). Thus, technologies that could otherwise be perceived as unsettling or outright dystopian could be experienced in ephemeral, fun doses, and introduced “tactically”. Primed by marketing, the public is reassured by the ephemeral and fragile nature of temporary installations, and is more willing to test them.
Luca Pattaroni (EPFL) noted that events are easily assimilated as experimental, exploratory, pilot changes. In other words, events introduce change without requiring immediate or drastic behaviour adaptation. The same logic was outlined by Giovanna Ronconi from the Republic and Canton of Geneva, who presented a version of the lighter, quicker, cheaper approach to urban change, centred on temporary, reversible interventions to facilitate shared decision making, the legitimization of projects by testing the response to the conflicting needs of residents, and use of little resources, which can stimulate creative solutions.
Outdoor cinema event on inflatable screen, Geneva. Picture: Cinetransat
Urban events may not make everyone happy
The limitations of urban events emerged less compellingly at the conference. However, it was acknowledged that event-based urbanism can be just as frustrating as any other urban development process, particularly if it doesn’t consider participative decision making (even grassroots, guerrilla and tactical interventions are often the initiative of a small group of people or an individual, not of the entire community exposed to them). Urban events can be a source of noise, environmental pollution, stress, and annoying disruptions for those who don’t want or cannot partake in them. These nuisances may extend far beyond the interval when the events manifest, accompanying the preparatory work that goes into assembling and dismantling them. Depending on their nature and scale, they can entail significant security costs and risks; for example, gatherings are a preferred target of terrorist and criminal attacks. Just as these events may create the illusion of safety, they can also instil the fear of crime. Besides, it was pointed out, not everyone feels happiness is the ultimate banner for urban action.
Are these potential negative effects justified by the happy city aspirations? After all, urban events cannot claim to actually improve most day to day living conditions that affect psychological wellbeing (housing quality, work conditions, commuting time): they are based in the public space, tend to be leisure-related and reserved for free time. This also means that they favour the segments of society with ample leisure time.
The current practice of seeking to transform cities through events acknowledges that people have evolving and conflicting needs: for varied cultural and aesthetic stimulation, for different urban uses, for social interaction as well as for privacy, for freedom as well as structure and control, for change as well as stability. It promises to lead to happier cities by addressing these needs on a rotating basis, by temporarily altering urban form, function, and social interactions. The approach is used by both grassroots organizations and administrations to test and diffuse urban change gradually. As we are running out of space in cities, perhaps a key to our mental wellbeing could be better use of our time through cyclical or nomadic opportunities.
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