Urban Hacking (4): Hacking structuring space

(De)placed Bodies in Public Space

by Hanna Lutz

I stop at red traffic lights. I walk on the sidewalk instead in the middle of the traffic. At night I choose the illuminated path instead of the dark one. I (usually) don’t enter “No trespassing” areas. And if I want to have a rest on a public square I will  sit on a bench and probably not on the ground next to it – if I find a seating accommodation at all. If not, I will probably just skip my break. Walking around the city I definitely see myself being guided by architecture, design, existing (or missing) street furniture and signs in order to interact with the urban environment in a certain way.  Without trying to discuss the wide range of positive and negative effects those “structuring elements” have on the use of and the behaviour within public space (not to mention trying to give a picture of cities that don’t have them), this Urban Hacking blog entry deals with a) different elements in the public space that structure the residents’ behaviour and b) Urban Hacks that consider them having negative influence on the qualities of public space and try to deny or converse them.

Architecture, design and street furniture are often used to standardise behaviour in public spaces in order to improve public security. The most famous “civilisation strategy through design”[1] is the so-called CPTED, an urban planning and architectural approach for Criminal Prevention Through Environmental Design. Developed in the 70s, the CPTED study of the American criminologist Jeffery aims to prevent crime and unwanted behaviour by creating a defensive environment. Amongst others, it includes models of natural guidance systems that structure the actions of  people in public places by symbols, street signs or constructional indicators: Decorated and well illuminated walkways  encourage the use, while unlit paths are rather avoided. Benches invite to stay in the green, their properties (short in length and depth, curved shape), however, keep someone from sleeping on it. Advertising signs, flower pots or concrete ramps in front of buildings are intended to restrain people from loitering or begging in front of them. Sprinklers are used throughout the day for short periods of time to prevent people to dwell on urban lawns.                                                                  Most of the design features – but also the deliberate renunciation of elements like seating accomodations – aim to a) regulate lingering in public spaces in order to guarantee (only) one function of public space –  the transit of crowds and b) to keep people (like homeless or punks)  away that don’t fit in with the aesthetics of certain public areas.

“Design of Control” – bench that does not allow to longer sit not to mention lie on it.

There are different Urban Hacks that evolve around the topic “normalization of behaviour through urban infrastructure”. A really subtle one is Parcours, a technique of adaptation, transformation and reversal of urban regulations.  Just like the Situationist concept of “dérive” (drifting), Parcours opens the space for a multiplicity of individual and permanently convertible type of usage and movement. The Traceurs neglect the prescribed purpose of usage of urban elements and use them for their own benefits (which is usually sports). Walls become a walkable surface, barriers are transformed into take-off boards, inaccessible places such as rooftops become passageways, …

bodies in urban spaces is a choreographywhere dancers build body sculptures  at all possible locations of the public and semi-public space. They squeeze themselves into door and window frames, between columns and telephone booths and build athletic formations around hydrants. This Hack is supposed to raise questions about the relationship between people and architecture and the functional urban structure that results in limited possibilities of movement within urban space. The intervention creates irritations by placing the bodies at selected locations –  pedestrians, residents and audience are motivated and encouraged to think about their urban environment and their own habits of movement.

Unusual use of urban space: the choreography “bodies in urban spaces”

Guerilla Benching was a reaction to the decision of the council of  the Camden borough (London) to remove several public benches in order to move undesirables and homeless people away. What several young people did was to install new benches on the spots where the original ones had been removed before. Thus, they just added elements they missed to the public space.

Guerilla Benching in London

While Parcours and the bodies in urban spaces choreography playfully (re)conquests the existing physical terrain by using performative movements that disregard and overwrite the original function of urban elements, the project Guerilla Benching works directly on the physical body of the city and adds missing elements to its infrastructure. However, all given examples try to (re)gain and expand possibilities of movement in and usage of public space and thus contribute to keep its qualities.

[1] Löw, M., Steets, S., Stoetzer, S. (2007): Einführung in die Stadt- und Raumsoziologie. Opladen/Farmington Hills: Verlag Barbara Budrich, p. 137

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