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Working together to make our cities great

Sydney Park(ING) Day 2011

In the lead up to Christmas, a time of giving and community spirit, it seems only fitting we look at one of the big urban trends of 2011, collaborative urbanism.

Also known as ‘tactical urbanism’, ‘do it yourself’, and ‘lighter, quicker, cheaper’, collaborative urbanism describes community activated place making. Its about community led revitalization and the way in which it starts locally but has the potential to impact on a global audience.

Utilising new communication methods and savvy technology, citizens around the world are taking responsibility for the environments that they live and work in. Place making facilitates this resurgence and acts as a springboard for new ideas, supporting grass roots programs and cross disciplinary initiatives.

This by no means is a new idea, in fact the very emergence of cities is a direct reflection of people’s desire for a physical place that brought people together, and in a way collaborative urbanism is just experiencing a resurgence of sorts. The now quite ancient play street program provided a safe place for urban children to play without being arrested and was first recognised through British law in 1938. It became so popular that by the late 60s there were 750 play streets providing car free play areas for kids usually during daylight or working hours. In New York the program has continued to varying degrees and has recently been given its own rebirth with the popularity of the Jackson Heights’ 78th Street Play Street, a summertime street closure that has been expanded from two months of car-free space to three this year over summer.

The growth and continued popularity of Park(ING) day is also a testament to the power of collaborative urbanism. The first Park(ING) day was organized in 2005 when an urban design firm, Rebar, decided to experiment with a parking lot outside their offices in San Francisco. It has now grown to an international movement where in 2010, over 800 parking spaces participated worldwide. The reasons why people like getting involved; its easy, cheap and once a year as well as a global event so people feel as though they are a part of something bigger.

In Australia, the Garage Sale Trail that began as a pilot project in Bondi, Sydney in 2010 is now a successful yearly event. The idea is simple, sell your old things and turn them into someone’s new things. In 2010, there were 126 garage participants, each selling on average $750 worth of things per store. Its about getting to know your neighbours, having fun, activating the streets and all while building a new and more sustainable economy.

These programs are being communicated to global audiences at an increasing speed, riding on the wave of easy and cheap technologies that in an instant, have the ability to inform and empower citizens everywhere to actively work to improve their community. The continued growth of social media, the relative ease of setting up a web page and the continued development of crowdsourcing, act as catalysts for community-led, place based rejuvenation. Once in the hands of the community, these programs become an important tool in delivering benefits and overcoming urban challenges.  

Governments are both followers and protagonists in this movement. In 2009, the Department of Transport, Mayor Bloomberg and the Times Square Alliance, the local business organisation, decided to experiment with Times Square, closing it to traffic. People reclaimed the street; setting up lawn chairs and tables and even pot plants in the pedestrian mall, allowing those who wish, to stop and appreciate the city and the space. Since its conversion, the reclaimed public realm has witnessed a decline in pedestrian injuries, an increase in rents and more people than ever are now flocking to Times Square.

The diversity of projects that fall under the collaborative urbanism umbrella range in scale, complexity, and degree of participant and stakeholder involvement. From the relatively innocuous guerrilla gardening of previous decades to current community led economic regeneration programs. Collaborative urbanism speaks of a new era of shared leadership; collectivism over the individual.


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