Ways to build the city – stories from peripheral media.


This is the text of a presentation I gave yesterday at ECF’s Idea Camp

This is Sweden’s highest ranked male tennis player.

Sweden's highest ranked tennis player


In fact it’s not, it’s me.

But you could be forgiven for being mistaken. Sweden, despite producing Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg, Catarina Linquist and some of the best wheelchair tennis players, Sweden doesn’t have a player in the top 150 tennis players in the world.

What Sweden is good at is handball: here’s the Swedish Handball team playing Denmark during the 2012 Olympics.

They later won a Silver medal at the 2012 Olympics – one of their best performances at the games.

What could these videos of me playing tennis last week, and the Swedish handball team possibly have in common?

Well the answer is that we are both playing sport in venues that were built for the London Olympics in an enormous specially designed park covering 2.5km not far from where I live in north-east London.

The games ended three years ago and the park opened to the public last year. The ‘official’ story is that this park, prior to its transformation was built on a contaminated, uninhabited, post-industrial, empty wasteland. Apart from the contamination part, this is not true. There were 209 light industrial businesses employing close to 5000 people on the site – all of whom were relocated. But it wasn’t just small businesses. There are also two stories that are fading from memory.  

This is the only video I could find of the Clays Lane Housing estate, which until shortly before the Olympics was a disorganised housing cooperative, providing cheap accommodation, largely to single men. The estate had a compulsorily purchased by the London Development Agency, and they were mostly moved into insecure, privately rented accommodation. To my knowledge they were not rehoused in the new housing created in the Olympic village after the Olympics.

Here is another story from that time.

This was an allotment site, not different to the site near Subtopia which had been in place for 80 years. Allotments are treated as something close to a common good in the UK – most are managed by the council, or by charitable trusts and their allocation is determined by waiting lists, rather than ability to pay.  

I wanted to raise these two examples because the London Olympic Park was a profoundly depressing way to build the city. Much has been dug up, replanned and rebuilt by a combination of extreme public and private power – but it has left a park which is a bit empty and lifeless.






And now that the Games are over, no attempt has been made to return the forms of cooperation and friendship that was there in the first place. The allotments and the co-op seemed to have what the park today is missing, but they weren’t given a chance.

I was initially sympathetic to the Olympic project, but I ended up thinking it was the closest I could get to living in a totalitarian state. Change without citizens.

How did we end up here, so profoundly mistrustful of people?

Yes the Olympics are an exceptional mix of political vanity, money and power. But there is something deeper at work here: for all that the ‘hope’ that the Olympic Games embody’s, the project was delivered with a very pessimistic view of people. A belief that they cannot look after things themselves and will destroy the resources on which their survival rests.   

These ideas were crystalised in Ecologist Garrett Hardin’s – essay titled ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ which he published in the journal Science in 1968. The fact that the paper has become part of popular culture might lead you to think that it was based on empirical research, but this was not the case.  

But his essay was a wrong idea at the right time and was published just as politicians in England and the United States who believed that private enterprise was the best way to organise societies were emerging. 35 years on we are in the world of their creation. But of course today there are plenty of – anti-Hardins – who think differently about people and question whether the assumptions of much classical economics are the best starting point for organising all human activity.

First you’ll see Elinor Ostrom – a nobel prize winning economist who dedicated her life to showing that people can and have always found ways to manage common resources without destroying them. Then two people who are less meticulous but more effective at popularising the idea that markets and their underlying ideas should be challenged more often; a Canadian essayist Flora Michaels & super-philosopher Michael Sandel

Perhaps this fear of an all pervasive ‘monoculture’, is why contemporary artists are attracted to work in public space. I was quite intrigued by the title of this book – ‘Living is Form’. It is a review of what is called ‘socially engaged practice’ in contemporary art. As the title suggests, this is about artists who rather than using paint, plaster and ink, take social relationships and behaviours as their working medium: Living is their form.

Here is one well known example.


This work – often in public space – encourages audiences to look at people and see them in many different ways – or at least in more ways than governments and corporations do when they talk to them in public space (i.e. as subjects or consumers). These are artists who want to liberate people from dominant narratives.

This absurd video by a Czech architectural collective in the Doc Next Network Media Collection plays with that idea.

This performative, public work has many less cerebral cousins, nephews and great aunts in art and action which prosecute ‘unexpected’ acts in public spaces. Here’s a local example from Botkyrka.

So this is a long way of saying that public art and creativity in public space can be a kind of ‘sonic commoning’, because it challenges the pessimistic messages about people, which seek to dominate public space and challenges the norms of ‘top down’ regeneration. This book Living is Form, is really just a highbrow edition of adbusters.

This talk is slowly turning into an exploration of where we could look for the energy to build the city with the commons. And perhaps if lone artists are at one end of the spectrum, mayors and civic leaders are at the other.

In the media resource we have started to assemble examples of political leaders around the world who are starting to look more concertedly at helping citizens to help themselves: Mayor Ridwan Kamil in Bandung is a philosopher architect Mayor who uses social design and collaborative architecture. Mayor Park Won Soon in South Korea is a life-long activist and human rights campaigner who campaigned for election under the slogan, ‘The citizen is the mayor’ in Seoul. Manuel Carmena in Madrid and Ada Colau – Mayor of Barcelona have recently been elected in Madrid and Barcelona on a promise that they will do politics differently. Across Poland a number of different mayors have introduced participatory budgeting in recent years.

And I briefly wanted to introduce Antanus Mockus who was the mayor of Bogota 1993-1998 and 2001-2003 – his policies included recruiting mime artists to ridicule bad drivers, instituting a women’s night in the city and using female police force for patrolling public spaces and events. I have cut it with some extracts from Recetas Municipales a film which shows candidates and leaders from Spain’s municipalist parties.

It’s probably false opposites, but does the Commons in the city want leadership from a grand commons, philospher leader- designer maverick, or a delegating consensual creator of political participation, debate and decision making?

Inbetween artists and mayors there are of course many different actors who are trying to open up common spaces in the city. And that’s probably where you all come in. Building shared resources in cities means creating institutions that can guard and cultivate them. There are plenty of examples in the media archive and in the Build the City Media resource. Check out the stories of – Open Jazdow, Park Slope Food Co-Op, Autonomy on two wheels. But, to continue the sporting motif I wanted to show this video. I don’t know what they are saying, maybe we can guess together.    

From a British perspective this is interesting. In 1999 in response to the relocation of their club to Milton Keynes – a small town in the middle of England, Wimbledon supporters started their own club AFC Wimbledon. In 2006 Manchester United Fans disaffected by a leveraged takeover, left and set up their own club FC United. In 2010 after a succession of fines, and a period of administration Portsmouth fans bought a controlling stake in their club. And the device that these groups have used is called a supporters trust – a co-operative which anyone can join for a membership fee. This money is often used to buy shares in a football club and give a club’s supporters a say in how a football club is run. In the last ten years, nearly 80% of clubs in the professional leagues have started such a trust. But what is a social struggle in Britain is common sense in Sweden, where at least 51% of a football club’s shares have to be retained by supporters. It’s funny that in Sweden there’s pressure to get rid of this rule – presumably because there is something appealing about English football when viewed from a distance – but really football supporters in England would rather their football was run as it is in Sweden.

This could have 3 different outcomes. Will football in the UK naturally reform itself, without the need for a law or regulation that says that 51% of football clubs should be fan owned; will the rising tide of fan ownership in football clubs lead to a breakaway from the other clubs because their ability to compete is based on different rules; or will there continue to be an ongoing clash of ideologies in English football? It’s a drama, it’s interesting to watch and maybe indicative of what might happen to different attempts to create common resources in cities.

And as a footnote to this I wanted to mention how much I like watching videos of people singing at football.       

Singing at football is often stupid sometimes, but everytime people do, they suggest that what they are a part of something that shouldn’t be thought of as a commodity. Treating football as a business is absurd as expecting customers of Tescos or ICA Maxi to sing at its board meetings.

Fan owned football clubs self-identify as ‘punk’ – but they’re probably not as punk, as Mediterranean Europe is punk. These football clubs have legal structures and systems of accountability, relationships with local authorities. But elsewhere things are more off grid. In Brazil since 2005 the Off-Axis network has created a parallel economy with its own currency which supports music, art and theatre.  

Another example of this is the Calafou Integral Cooperative & Enric Duran – a catalan activist who defrauded banks across Europe to fund a radical newspaper and number of radical enterprises in Catalonia. I like this footage of him because he looks similar to another rather well known outlaw.


But how viable is this as a model for building the city. The allotments that I mentioned at the beginning were created by a Victorian philanthropist and bequeathed to East Londoners.

And so I wanted to end on the example on the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regulation of the Urban COmmons – a 30 page regulatory framework outlining how local authorities, citizens and the community at large can manage public and private spaces and assets together. It’s a sort of handbook for civic and public collaboration, and also a new vision for government. It hints at how some of the different elements come together to build a different kind of city – if only there had been one for the London Olympic Park. Perhaps there can be. 


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