Practising urban alternatives

by Jana Wendler, PhD candidate in Geography

There is lots of talk about the need for cities and urban life to become more equitable and sustainable – and there are initiatives and people that already practice alternative ways of living based on such ideas. Often described as some form of experiment, these places currently attract much attention as sites where alternatives are tested, showcased – and ultimately lived. What is interesting here, and what I researched as part of my PhD, is that their ‘alternative-ness’ is not only, and sometimes not even primarily, a direct statement. It emerges from the way the spaces look and feel, and how they are inhabited and performed. They are places that challenge our perceptions and interactions, with subtle invitations to touch, to explore and to think differently about our urban environment.

One of the biggest and best-known alternative areas in Europe is the free town of Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark. A former military area next to the central neighbourhood of Christianshavn, it was occupied by squatters 40 years ago and has carved out an autonomous existence ever since. Christiania maintains its label as a “social-ecological experiment”, a term applied by the Danish government in the early 70s as a way of politically managing this alternative space in the middle of the city.

Although intricately tied up with ideals of alternative politics, anarchism and the right to self-determination, the experience of Christiania as a space of alternatives is primarily embodied. What strikes the visitor-researcher are the sights, sounds and smells. There is no traffic noise (Christiana is a car free zone), and the smells of hash (openly available) and woodfire (the main source of heating) are everywhere. At night, the unmarked gravel roads and paths are pitch-black. This sensory expression of being alternative marks the boundaries of the freetown as clearly as the big entrance gates proclaiming Christiania’s non-EU status.

Leaving Christiania: "You are now entering the EU"

Leaving Christiania: “You are now entering the EU”

Living Christiania: Open-air kitchen with rainwater harvesting system

Living Christiania: Open-air kitchen with rainwater harvesting system

Living Christiania: Colourful and creative house

Living Christiania: Colourful and creative house

These differences continue much deeper into the daily lives and the homes of the Christianites. Alternative urban life becomes materialised in the self-built houses that spread along the water. These wooden houses are reminiscent of anything from a playground hut to the masterpiece of a skilled craftsman, and they are intricately linked with the people that live in them. Some houses give a physical shape to their builders’ spiritual ideas (the pyramid house), others show their connection to nature and resources (a hut with an open-air kitchen and a compost toilet). They are part of the family history, and people come to be named after their house or vice versa. Often the effects of these open relationships between people and material are quite playful, with bright colours, strange angles and unusual objects. Beyond a different sense experience, ideas of alternative living are practised here through unusual material constellations.

Another example is the Prinzessinnengarten, an urban garden in Berlin, created in 2009 on a brownfield site in the hip but poor area of Kreuzberg. It offers 6000 m² of green against the roundabout and towerblocks just outside its fence, with a café area and many ways for people to get involved. It is experimental mainly in its approach: of seeing what you can do with a wasteland once you allow people to ‘plant’ their ideas onto it, and of asking questions about food, biodiversity and the sustainable city in an unusual setting.

The garden stands as a counterpoint to its surroundings but it remains fundamentally urban: the vegetables grow in colourful plastic boxes and bags because the soil is not usable, the sound of birds mixes with the police siren outside, the label on the garden-produced honey says it comes from “city bees”. This gives it a unique aesthetic and sensescape, and it makes room for interactions that are lacking elsewhere. There are no signs warning visitors against touching the plants; in fact people are encouraged to feel, to smell, to dig. If you order herbal tea, you can choose and cut your own ingredients. During the gardening days, anyone can help shovelling soil, and then harvest their own produce. The interactions with the space are tactile, embodied, direct.

Prinzessinnengarten: Growing Alternatives

Prinzessinnengarten: Growing Alternatives

Prinzessinnengarten: Touching Alternatives

Prinzessinnengarten: Touching Alternatives

 

These invitations to explore bring the alternative ideas of the garden to life. The suggestions it makes about sustainable urban life are not proclaimed but practised – by the office worker who tends to his bees in his lunch break, by the volunteers who mix soil and plant tomatoes. They are also expressed in the colours, materials and solutions in the garden, which provide new starting points and practical inspiration. The garden as a space for learning and engagement both emerges from and creates the conditions for new relations between people, plants and materials.

The buildings of Christiania and the plant boxes of the Prinzessinnengarten give us a glimpse of different ways of being urban, and of ways in which such alternatives can be tried out. They speak of the connections people form with their immediate surroundings, and introduce alternatives not based on any overarching idea of the sustainable city, but on direct embodied, material interactions. The spaces allow people to give a material expression to their values and visions. They encourage further experimentation by leaving loose ends, by juxtaposing ideas and by asking the visitor to take an active stance. They are also fun, interesting places to be – adding a playful element to the challenge of finding urban alternatives.

The fieldwork in Christiania was kindly supported by the Christiania Researcher in Residence (CRIR) project. More information on the research: http://greenplaylab.co.uk

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