Your regular commute is likely a bit of a drag: enduring traffic-clogged freeways, navigating inefficient public transport, hustling down blocks that could use a little TLC. But eh, that’s just modern life, right? Well... kind of. In some ways, navigating the realities of your day-to-day is a bit like backwards time travel. The world you step into when you walk out your front door was actually conceived a long time ago, when logistics of modern life were very, very different.
“The traditional model of city-making has historically involved experts with a definitive, long-term plan executed over time. The issue with that is that culture changes faster than infrastructure; we’ve surpassed our ability to keep up. One of the consequences is that we’re left living in cities we planned 50 to 60 years ago."
That’s Blaine Merker. He’s a principal and one of the co-founders of Rebar, an art and design studio in San Francisco set on evolving the way people interact and engage with their environment. He and his team are the co-founders of Adaptive Metropolis, an upcoming symposium focusing on a new wave of grassroots urbanism that addresses the needs of places and constituents—immediately. By the people, for the people. Merker calls it “user-generated urbanism,” or "collaborative city-making." But what, exactly, does that mean?
These ideas may be formed within traditional disciplines—architecture, engineering, landscape, design—but are adapted and promoted by locals who are most familiar with the problems and issues facing their areas. Merker describes three models:
Merker points to Park(ing) Day as a prime example of "open source" urbanism. In 2005, the Rebar gang put two hours worth of coins in a parking meter and rolled out some sod in a spot on a San Francisco street. Eight years later, the open-source movement has gone global with some seriously impressive installations that encouraging people to slow down, have a seat, and experience their neighborhoods with a new perspective. Check out the map for a look at how this year's event—which took place on Friday, September 20th—went down.
Photo by Dan O'Connor
This approach doesn’t attempt to lay out an entire, established plan upfront. Merker compares it to software development: “Try to get a beta out and break it early,” he says. “Fail quick fail often in an urban context where the risks and stakes are lower.”
San Francisco’s Pier 70 is in the early stages of a 15-year redesign by Forest City that will transform the iconic locale into a mixed-use hub for creative businesses, living spaces, rotating pop-ups, and retail space. By mapping out a plan and slowly enacting various elements, Merker says the firm hopes to be able to gauge the popular response and adjust accordingly.
Photo via Pier70
Peer Network Design
These plans focus more on crossing boundaries between disciplines—and Merker mentions the sharing economy as a great example. Take our hyper-congested streets, 75 percent of which he says are dedicated to the movement and storage of private vehicles. The existence of services like ZipCar and City Car Share are taking a significant chunk of these off the road, subsequently reducing gridlock and freeing up the thoroughfares for other shared services. “Access instead of ownership,” he says.
Photo by Shinya Suzuki
Social media has expanded the reach of these projects and put hyper-local efforts in an international spotlight, allowing for critical feedback and the dissemination of these ideas in other cities.
And of course, Merker's ideas have sparked some spirited debate, as well. Even those who appreciate these concepts in theory can be critical of the execution—just have a look at Alissa Walker's recent take on the aforementioned Park(ing) Day. But to the Adaptive Metropolis gang, these opinions are actually part of the plan. “Friction is an incredibly productive space,” Merker says. Dialogue is key, and the discussions that result from the tension between guerrilla movements and tactical solutions will get to the heart of what matters to the people who these changes impact the most.