Sustainability and Insurgent Spatial Practices

Friday 29.4 at 14.00–15.30

Learning from Insurgent Spatial Practices 

Dalia Milián Bernal, Mikko Kyrönviita, Elina Alatalo & Veera Turku

To build more sustainable and democratic urban environments, we need systemic changes to the way we envision them, how they are to be created, by whom, for whom, where, with which resources and for which purposes. Drawing on a variety of cases from our research, we argue that insurgent spatial practices (Lopes de Souza, 2016) are bringing about such change and we call for their recognition as valuable and legitimate sources of practical and theoretical knowledge to address the multiple socio-environmental challenges our societies face. 

We frame our discussion within Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) theory of the production of space, which argues that (social) space is socially produced, that each society produces its own space with its modes and relations of production, and that current forms of capitalism (neoliberalism) have produced abstract space; a contradictory space that is at once fragmented and homogeneous asserted through violence and exclusion, and a result of the fusion of knowledge and hegemonic political power (of the state and the elites).

Insurgent spatial practices, which we define as processes of urbanization, forms of urbanity and citizenship, and planning practices that happen outside, against, or indeed, as a result of state-sanctioned “spatialized policies” (Karaliotas & Swyngedouw, 2019), emerge in the cracks and margins of abstract space. These practices illustrate that other forms of spatial production are possible, indeed latent, challenging abstract space and its mode and relations of production. Insurgent spatial practices view and use (often abandoned and underused) urban space as a resource where alternative, social, and circular economies are practiced; where people meet and create networks of solidarity; where different social organizations are experimented with and where political action is deployed all of which make living environments and everyday life more sustainable.

The Cultural Turn for Urban Social Movements in China: A Case Study of Guangzhou 

Yimeng Yang

Large-scale urban renewal led to the growth of social resistance in Guangzhou at the beginning of the 21st century. Unlike the urban resistance actions that have emerged before in China and have been widely studied (e.g., anti-eviction, landless peasant protests, environmental movements, etc.), the protesters in Guangzhou were particularly concerned with alternative cultural discourses and practices. The cultural preservation movement and the urban social movement have become intertwined. This paper examines how the trend of cultural preservation emerged in Guangzhou in the early 21st century, how the protesters challenged the official cultural discourse through alternative cultural practices, and how ”culture” served as a more effective tool to promote the social movement for the right to the city in China’s political context. This paper will review a series of urban protests that took place in Guangzhou between 2005 and 2013, and categorize them into two groups. One category is ”cultural resistance,” which refers to actions initiated by grassroots cultural practitioners with the goal of challenging official urban cultural policies and discourses. Their central claim is the right to culture. The other category is ”resistance through culture,” which refers to actions initiated by more general social organizations that appropriate cultural preservation as a means of furthering claims to housing, development, and political rights. Their core demand is for broader social rights. This paper will illustrate these two points using the empirical cases of Zhongshan Si Road and Enning Road in Guangzhou respectively. Examining the ”cultural turn” of urban social movements in Guangzhou will also provide a new perspective for studying the state-society relations in China.

Socio-political roles in mediating temporary uses of vacant spaces 

Hella Hernberg

This paper discusses ‘mediation’ in the ‘temporary use’ of vacant spaces as a means of advancing and fostering sustainable local practices that challenge the prevailing conditions and values of speculative urban development. In temporary use, mediators are increasingly recognised as necessary actors for managing the complex socio-political dynamics and conditions that present barriers for temporary use. However, while mediation is rapidly emerging in practice, there is scant academic research explicitly addressing mediation in temporary use. Addressing this research gap, this paper investigates socio-politically engaged roles of mediators in temporary use. Concerning insurgency, mediation can be seen as pivotal in empowering local, insurgent spatial practices. At the same time, mediation might be seen as an insurgent practice itself, aiming to negotiate, stretch and transform the premises of the prevailing urban ‘regimes’ and related expert roles.

The articulation of mediation roles in this paper is based on a research approach integrating conceptual perspectives from the fields of temporary use, participatory design, urban sustainability transitions and architecture, as well as knowledge from practice. Empirically, mediation roles are investigated through the ‘practice-based’ research of my own work as a mediator in Kera, Espoo, and through qualitative, semi-structured interviews of five other professional mediators in European cities. The paper articulates how mediators broker the collaboration and partnerships between actors, negotiate the structural conditions and build capabilities for temporary use. This articulation of roles can be particularly relevant for cities and urban practitioners aiming to foster sustainable and insurgent local initiatives and practices and advance their agency to contribute to broader urban transformations towards sustainability.

DIY Skate spaces and Youth Development – Practice-based cases from the UK and Jamaica 

Tom Critchley & Chris Lawton

Concrete Jungle Foundation (CJF) build skateparks in lower-income countries, such as Jamaica and Peru, with youth development programmes situated at their sites. Skateboard GB (SBGB), the National Governing Body for UK skateboarding, launched the ‘Grassroots Skatespaces’ programme in 2021, providing capital grants for DIY and other ‘tactical’ spatial interventions alongside support for community groups behind these insurgent spaces. 

Deterioration or disappearance of formal mechanisms for youth development or custodianship of space may create opportunities to try new, potentially ‘better’ solutions, akin to Jamesonian exercises in ‘dual power’ (Jameson, F., 2016).  CJF’s Freedom Skatepark emerged within a context of Jamaica’s stagnating development, violent crime and lack of opportunities disproportionately affecting young people on the island. In 2020, CJF worked with local skateboarders to build and manage the youth development programming at the site which can be broadly described as participatory, empowering and DIY. Of note is the Edu-Skate Programme underpinned by Self-Determination Theory.  SBGB’s Grassroots Skatespaces follows a decade of ‘austerity’ for local government, which has significantly depleted formalised youth services, whilst covid-19 has increased the number of vacant or under-occupied urban spaces.

Our paper reflects on the Grassroots Skatespaces and Edu-Skate programmes, including an exchange visit from CJF team members to projects in Birmingham and Nottingham, and discusses the interplay between DIY spatial interventions and youth development. Our reflections are timely for UK policy objectives to ‘level up’ spatial inequalities. We will identify opportunities for future collaboration and will build on previous connections between skaters from Tampere and Nottingham, including a visit from members of the Kaarikoirat social enterprise to Nottingham in summer 2019.