Monday 17 March 2008

The art of re-imagining a city for the future

IMAGINE THE sort of questions that might be asked of a mayor if his first priority on taking office was to cover some of the city's oldest, most stately and serious civic buildings with copious quantities of paint. Not just conventional shades of cream and grey, but bright, brilliant buckets of red, yellow and blue. Edi Rama, first citizen of the Albanian capital, Tirana, and former artist, did just that with several hundred buildings, using them as fresh canvas for a "riot" of primary colours, writes Lorna Siggins

Billed as urban restoration, the project's main aim was to change the psychology of Tirana's citizens. The main challenge, Rama found, was to "persuade people that change is possible". As he observed: "Being the mayor of Tirana is the highest form of conceptual art. It's art in a pure state."

The story is one of many told by British planning consultant Charles Landry, who flew into Galway last week to offer his view of the Connacht capital, much troubled as it is by the competing demands of property developers, planners and those citizens, including participants in a new artists' grouping, who care passionately about its environment.

Landry, founder of the European cultural planning consultancy, Comedia, is regarded as an international authority on creativity and the future of cities, and has worked on several hundred projects for local and national authorities. Last year he was appointed "thinker in residence" in the Australian city of Perth, having held a similar title in Adelaide.

The trilingual Landry studied in Britain, Germany and Italy and lives in Gloucestershire, England. He professes to having "no other hobbies", has given advice to the World Bank, among other international institutions, and recent major projects have included formulating a vision for Dubai and rethinking London's Oxford, Regent and Bond streets.

He "inspires, facilitates and stimulates so cities can transform for the better", Galway City Development Board explained on its invitation to an event at the 400-seater Town Hall Theatre, "restricted to approximately 200 key influencers and decision-makers". If some of those present hoped Landry might slate Galway City Council for its controversial landscaping of Eyre Square (currently running at around €11 million), its record on planning and its current involvement with CIÉ on controversial €1 billion high-rise proposals for the city centre's Ceannt Station, they were to be disappointed.

Landry is a "critical friend", who prefers to engage with politicians, planners, developers to "inspire, facilitate and stimulate" ideas which might transform cities from car- and crime-congested ghettos into living spaces for cohesive communities.

In his view, articulated in his latest book, The Art of City-Making, there is no simple 10-point plan for this. His central tenet is that the skills required to "re-enchant" extend beyond architecture, engineering and land-use planning. As he explained in Galway, our definitions of "city-making" can, and have, changed radically in recent years. Some 15 years ago, 80 per cent of working city-dwellers chose the company and job first, whereas now some 64 per cent place far more emphasis on location. The old paradigm of a city - "hardware", "engineering" and what he calls "silo-thinking" - has been replaced by a new paradigm which combines "hardware and software-thinking" to nurture "imaginative places of solidarity" where relations between the individual, the group, outsiders and the planet are "in better alignment".

Cities which have succeeded, in his view, are not necessarily the aesthetically pleasing ones such as Paris and London, which may still have deep-rooted issues in relation to social environments. He cites Brazil's Curitiba, Spain's Barcelona and Denmark's Copenhagen as positive examples.

Curitiba has tripled size over the last three decades and has a population of 1.7 million. Landry identifies its public transport system and use of parks as "creative ways of turning weaknesses into strengths". An engagement between city officials and a group of activist architecture and design students in the 1960s influenced its transformation.

Jaime Lerner, one of those students, was obviously sufficiently charged with a belief in the political process to become the city's mayor on three occasions between 1971 and 1992. "Urban acupuncture" is how Lerner described his approach in a subsequent book - as in spotting "pinpointed interventions" which can be accomplished quickly, releasing energy and creating ripple effects.

In 1992, the last year of Lerner's mayoral office, Curitiba set up an "open university" of the environment in a reclaimed quarry. It carries out projects relating to ecosystem conservation and environmental education which have an influence on the city's growth.

Danish architect Jan Gehl, who designed the Canadian town of Seaton with an infrastructure based on sustainable principles, was another Lerner in his own home capital. His influence on city officials was such that not only did they introduce the free bike- borrowing scheme but gradually reduced the size of central car-parks. Yes, bikes did disappear initially, but the losses through theft or otherwise fell every year.

Language can be a medium for moving away from "engineering solutions" and making space for the natural environment, for children and for people from different backgrounds, according to Landry. His emphasis is on "interculturalism" rather than "multiculturalism". "Urban knitting" can be achieved by simple gestures, such as changing signage. He showed several examples, such as urging "more ball games" in a city park. A garage owner who had obviously given up on stern warnings to keep the doors clear and free of soccer balls created his own statement: "This goal is in constant use."

Landry has been in Ireland several times, has lectured in Dublin and Cork, and makes some interesting observations on Temple Bar in his most recent book: a positive initiative to guarantee affordable, long-term security for creative organisations came under threat from "over-popularity and consequent growth in tourist-fodder restaurants and meat-market pubs to deal with stag and hen night parties".

The same could be said for Galway, where many artists have been driven out of the city centre by unaffordable rents, and where said artists are now urging the local authority to commission a plan for cultural infrastructure in advance of any approval of the CIÉ's multi-storey property development venture at Ceannt bus and train station.

Sadly, the developers angling for a part of the action in the prime central site overlooking Eyre Square were not present for Landry's presentation. Questioned about the high-rise proposals, Landry said that he was not against skyscrapers, but the question was one of location. In Barcelona, a horizontal emphasis had ensured that 90 per cent of its streetscape was no more than six storeys high.

Galway is "just large enough to be taken seriously, but small enough not to pose a threat", he said. Its "niche" could be the arts, or it could be the fact that its university has a human rights centre. Unaware of the Galway Races, and their reputation as a magnet for developers, Landry suggested that there could be advantages in making a clear division, in calendar terms, between the annual international arts festival and the different type of energy generated out at Ballybrit.

One doesn't have to look further than a city library in terms of inventing new forms, he said, showing an image of the "possibility rooms" which a library in Singapore has provided for. As for "who leads", it could be an "inspirational mayor or a local authority as a whole". His own preference was for a combination of both, which should be "more like a jazz-jam session than a symphony orchestra".

The Irish Times

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