Grow Your Own City

Programming

Gardening is my graffiti: I grow my art.

– Ron Finley

Ron Finley urban famer

Ron Finley, graffiti-gardener

Urban farming has its new hero: Ron Finley, artist-gardener, on a mission to make kale sexy in South Central Los Angeles, one of America’s food deserts. Since he planted a vegetable garden on a city-owned strip of land outside his house in 2010, then got fined for it and successfully led a campaign to make curbside gardening legal, he’s received a lot of media attention, including a TED Talk in 2013 (from which the quotes above and below are taken).

“Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

“Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus, you get strawberries.”

“If kids grow kale, kids eat kale. If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes.”

“We gotta flip the script on what a gangsta is — if you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta.”

The video below, featuring Ron pre-TED fame, encapsulates the multiple benefits of urban gardening: healthy eating, communal activity, cultural heritage, sensory stimulation…

From producing fresh food in a brownfield and at the same time beautifying an area to providing a physical activity to local people while creating community links, urban farming is a multi-layered activity that keeps on giving. I’ve looked below at 3 other initiatives with deep roots – transforming a school’s rooftop, re-inventing the city as a public orchard and blowing the seeds of change from a West Yorkshire village to the rest of the world.

The Teachers: School Grown

If there is one constant with urban farming, it’s that it can happen anywhere and everywhere: on the side of the road in LA, 33 metres below the busy streets of Clapham, or at the back of a truck, anywhere. By comparison, a rooftop farm is perhaps quite banal, but the one transformed by Food Share in Toronto – that can be seen from scratch to end in the timelapse video above – is rather special, because it doubles up as a “food literacy education centre, large market garden and vibrant event space all wrapped into one”.

The 16,000 square foot rooftop currently includes over 450 garden planters, 100 shiitake mushroom logs, a dwarf fruiting orchard, seating for over 200 people, a covered area and an indoor classroom – and has plans to add a rooftop teaching kitchen, a small greenhouse, a composting area and an open air cafe.

Students sell their ‘school grown’ produce at three local farmers’ markets and also supply several Toronto restaurants.

foodshare.net/schoolgrown

@FoodShareTO

The Gleaners: Not Far From The Tree

Founder and director Laura Reinsborough got the idea for Not Far From The Tree when she was working as a Community Arts Facilitator for the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) and was asked to pick apples from an urban orchard and put them to good use.

From this first experience was born Not Far From the Tree, an initiative that picks unwanted or surplus fruit from residential properties, sharing the harvest 3 ways: ⅓ to the fruit owner, ⅓ to the the volunteers and ⅓ to social agencies. In 2008, their first full season, 150 volunteers picked a total of 3,003 pounds of fruit, and the concept has now grown into a fully-fledged, city-wide, award-winning charitably constituted organisation with permanent staff.

In 5 years, they have:

  • harvested over 70,000 pounds of fruit;
  • donated more than 22,000 pounds to social service agencies;
  • registered over 1,500 trees to be picked in our operating area;
  • registered more than 1,600 volunteer pickers.

They have also produced a pretty 5-year annual report available to view online, listing these achievements and more, and also regularly commission artists – such as the one below – for their event and campaign visuals.

Apple-by-Zeesy-Powers-Oct-2012-e1393605838297

Apple by Zeesy Powers (2012)

notfarfromthetree.org

@NFFTT

The Planters: Incredible Edible

This is the extraordinary journey of a small market town in the North of England, now a hotspot of the local food revolution. With just a handful of people and seeds to start with, Todmorden has transformed itself into a place where fruit and vegetables are grown everywhere – outside the police station, in the cemetery, along the canal – and for everyone. Pam Warhurst, one of the instigators, calls it “propaganda gardening”: a way of ensuring resilience by creating deep links between community, learning and business. It’s even created a brand new genre of tourism, with “vegetable tourists” coming to the 15,000-strong town to visit the Incredible Edible Green Route.

The Todmorden experiment has inspired over 200 local groups in several countries that form the Incredible Edible Network and are typically involved in “setting up community growing plots, reaching out to schools and children, and backing local food suppliers”.

c554_incredible_edible_todmorden_police_station_food_to_share_incroyables_comestibles_w680

Incredible Edibles, outside Todmorden Police Station

c558_incredible_edible_todmorden_green_route_food_to_share_incroyables_comestibles_w1600

Food to Share – Incredible Edibles Todmorden

incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk

incredibleediblenetwork.org.uk

@incredibledible

 

No There There?

Spotlight

There is no there there.
— 
Gertrude Stein

This non-there is Oakland, California, where author and art collector Gertrude Stein grew up at the end of the 19th century – and there now is a there where there once was no there: since 2005, an eight-foot high powder-coated steel plate twin sculpture spelling out “HERE” and “THERE”, by artists Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer, marks the border between Berkeley and Oakland.

HERE-THERE_2-900 Steve Gillman 2011

HERETHERE by Steve Gillman (Berkeley/Oakland, CA )

According to the commissioning agency, the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission, “the sculptured letters form a poetic message of hello and goodbye and provide a sense of place”.

Maybe not enough for some residents: the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2010 that “renegade knitters … sewed a multi-colored tea cozy onto the letter T”.  The knitters were asked by Berkeley’s civic arts coordinator “to remove their handiwork because modifying public art is against state and federal law”, but instead “resisted and … held a knit-in at the sculpture”.

There yarn

Knit-in at the HERETHERE sculpture – Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle

One of the artists expressed his support for the knitters, applauding them for “start(ing) a dialogue where possibly only a monologue had existed before”. Unfortunately his views were not echoed by the civic arts coordinator, who pointed out that “he has a right to his opinion (…). But he doesn’t own (the artwork) anymore.”

While this is almost as gripping as the Tilted Arc controversy, and raises many questions of context, appropriation, ownership and authorship, it also provides an opportunity to revisit the Gertrude Stein statement. Here’s a longer quote to give context to this famous ‘no there there’ (punctuation is sic):

She took us to see her granddaughter who was teaching in the Dominican convent in San Raphael, we went across the bay on a ferry, that had not changed but Goat Island might just as well not have been there, anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.

…but not there, there is no there there. … Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and overgrown. … Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use …

It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing and then you live somewhere else and years later, the address that was so much an address that it was like your name and you said it as if it was not an address but something that was living and then years after you do not know what the address was and when you say it it is not a name anymore but something you cannot remember. That is what makes your identity not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember.

And that is what makes (good) (public) art important: it (can) create strong, lasting, shared memories. Created for permanence, it’s a link to a place and an anchor in time; a landmark, a there that’s always here. If temporary and diffuse, it’s an experience that becomes a reference, a living memory which meaning expands – or fades – with time. Whether or not the first life of the THERE sculpture did provide that sense of place, of ‘there’, the art hackers gesture – tangible sign of a collective spirit – has contributed to creating a futher memory-to-be.

But what if there is really no there there? In an article for Public Art Review entitled Strategies for Defining the Non-Place with Public Art and Urban Design, Ronald Lee Fleming writes:

Stein’s remark has come to be associated with suburban and fringe development since World War II, which has disfigured, with a banal sameness, the edge of almost every city and town in the country. How can public art and enlightened urban policy transform the non-places that one moves through on the way to the airport?

This claim – which takes Stein’s quote out of its eminently personal context and conveniently distorts its meaning to forsake anything outside the centre – is supported by some rather strange statements throughout the article (“Banal places are often full of very average people”, “People in modest neighborhoods are often fascinated by craft”). The underlying assumption is that the North American sprawling suburbs are nothing more that a ‘non-place’ (defined by ethnologist Marc Augé as places of transience that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places”, generally the by-product of ‘supermodernity’ and acceleration, places where people don’t meet and where they can’t build collective references) – and that public art can inject meaning in these semiotic deserts – in Fleming’s words, “artists can help redefine the meaning of a site no matter how boring it may appear”.

Here again, ‘non-place’ is taken a little too literally: Augé emphasises, throughout his essay, the many ways people ‘invent’ the everyday and create trails of memories and stories in the most unlikely and clinical places, from airports to budget hotel chains and supermarkets.

Fleming continues with further invoking the need for enlightenment for average people in these boring places:

What is needed is an enlightened artist constituency who can move beyond signature works of ego to serve a restive public that wants more meaning embedded in the infrastructure of the banal sites where they live. People want to experience well-crafted elements that often require a team of artisans as well as the conceptualizing artist. This is not the coterie of city sophisticates who value abstraction and the shock of the new.

So average people deserve average public art, something simple, “well-crafted”, that helps them to feel just that little bit less bored. One wonders if they deserve art at all, given the challenge that their abject banality presents for artists:

Working with these contours of meaning can be a challenge for an artist with a big ego—and let’s face it, a big ego is often necessary just to prevail as an artist and to justify the amount of energy that it takes to do public work.

At a time when placemaking is hailed as a remedy to urban ills – be them new and shiny developments or old and crumbly neighbourhoods, places with not enough or too much ‘identity’  -, is there a consensus about the practice at large, its methods and especially its ethos? The term is now widely used by public commissioners, artists and arts organisations, community interest companies, property developers and commercial agencies alike, and as a result seem to range from condescending opinions such as Fleming’s to thinly disguised PR campaigns for property developers (via a whole host of interesting long-term, artist- and community-led projects).

Quality frameworks are currently being developed for participatory arts – such as this paper by Toby Lowe from Helix Arts – and art & health – such as this contribution by Creative Health CIC to the West Midlands commissioning practice. What would a framework for placemaking look like? Has a consensus been reached yet on the term itself? Can a variety of approaches be evaluated against the same standards? Here are three examples in three different countries that exemplify this range of methods and angles, but also a common aspiration for ethical guidelines and for sharing their process and experience.

– – –

The public space activists: PPS (USA)

Project for Public Spaces have been developing a conceptual and practical framework for placemaking since 1975, such as the 11 Principles of Placemaking (starting with “The community is the expert”) and the Power of 10 (“the idea that any great place itself needs to offer at least 10 things to do or 10 reasons to be there”). They are firmly positioned as a civic militant organisation, quoting Jane Jacobs and William “Holly” Whyte as inspiration and mentors, and are currently sharing their approach with over 600 international practitioners through the newly-formed Placemaking Leadership Council, which, amongst other goals, aims to “clearly frame the value and “language” of Placemaking” and “develop a common set of standards and indicators”.

pps.org
@PPS_Placemaking

 

The cultural pioneers: Artscape (Canada)

Toronto-based Artscape have also developed a Creative Placemaking Toolbox, based on their experience of opening and running arts centres and artist studios. It’s a very practical resource, with video seminars (such as this conversation with PPS), tip sheets on how to conduct community consultations and work with an architect, an exhaustive series of guides – from funding sources to feasibility studies, planning charrettes and the role of the project manager – templates and examples. There’s also a glossary of urban planning, legal and property management terms, a series of case studies as well as the Artscape Archive documenting 25 years of creative placemaking.

torontoartscape.org
artscapediy.org
@Artscape

 

The community champions: Mend (UK)

Mend is a social enterprise specialising in responsible procurement, planning and placemaking. With an ethos of “Community as Client”, they are not just delivering consultation and strategic services, but also acting as a convenor of ideas by running networking events for different groups. As part of the “Lab”, they look after three networks, each with a different focus, that feed back into their own practice: Urbanistas, “a network for women who love cities, crowdsourcing support for their project or idea” – Planning in the Pub (“the agenda is simple, let’s talk about planning and cities, whilst in the pub”) – and the soon-to-be-launched Source RP, “Responsible Procurement network for the built environment, with a focus on building social value”.

Roman-Road-Mend

Roman Road Vacant Units Project

mendlondon.org.uk
@lianemendsacity
@urbanistasuk
@planninginpubs
@source_rp

Virtual Street Art 2: Promenade Nocturne in Marseille

Spotlight

Google have collaborated with French sound artist and urban storyteller Julie de Muer to create an immersive night walk through the back streets of Marseille using the Google Street technology.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-21 à 23.32.22

Promenade Nocturne / Night Walk takes the virtual walker in Julie’s footsteps, through the narrow, graffiti-covered ruelles of the Cours Julien neighbourhood in Marseille. The walk is guided by Christophe Perruchi, musician and street art enthusiast, who shares his personal insights. A map shows the recommended route, but also some off-track options in dotted lines, and the location of the 34 “secret” landmarks to check out.

Walk start

The Marseille-by-night atmosphere is conveyed by field recordings – echoing footsteps, music spilling out of bars, buzzing conversations on terraces – and a soundtrack composed by Perruchi.

Artworks and other points of interest to explore are signaled by icons to be clicked on.

Snapshot with secrets

Selected artworks can be explored in more details, with a mini-gallery and a few words about the individual artists.

Blaze - papier

It’s not all about street art: historical and cultural facts are part of the visit, such as this quote by Schopenhauer on Marseille.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-21 à 23.26.51

A stunning scrolling panorama of the city at night, with clickable points of interests, is also one of the ‘secret’ treasures to unlock.

Panorama with click points

A few 1-minute films – a timelapse video of a mural painting (below), street musicians, a chef describing his favourite dish, an elderly Marseillais recalling a personal story – are interspersed in the walk like as many chance encounters.

Part immersive virtual urban walk with great sound and visual effects, part video game with a territory to explore and treasures to discover, part interactive tourism trailer for Marseille, this first Promenade Nocturne is a captivating experience with many layers to explore.

The walk is available in French and English

 

Activate your Alley

Spotlight

…and so the alley could once again become a special world, not so much a place for the discards and helpless but for a wider range of city dwellers. It offers one of the few urban rather than suburban or rural ‘retreats’, an enclave just off the busy street, a step away from the hurly burly.

from Alleys: A Hidden Resource by Grady Clay

As the streets of Toronto are disappearing one more time under a beautiful blanket of snow that will turn in no time at all into slush and ice, an article on alleys and urban renewal in Torontoist made me long for the days when you can go out without the mandatory down-filled uniform (video). After all, now is the perfect time to plan for next summer’s alley parties, so here are a few thoughts, images and links.

Eventful Alleys

World Cup screening, Alley Network Project, Seattle (2010)

World Cup screening, Alley Network Project, Seattle (2010)

‘Alley activation’ is one of the core activities of Seattle-based not-for-profit International Sustainability Institute. Focusing on the network of alleys around the historical Pioneers Square and working collaboratively with residents, business owners and community groups, they have developed the Alley Project Network to promote local arts, commerce and healthy living.

Since 2008, the Alley Network Project has hosted art installations, documentary screenings, bike festivals, Tour de France and World Cup viewing parties and performance art shows, attracting over 5,000 visitors to the alleys surrounding Pioneer Square.

They share the lessons learned in a handbook (pdf) that provides a step-by-step guide to organising an alley event, from a planning checklist that would be relevant to most situations (including cleaning, signage, communicating with residents…) to a breakdown of the alley permit application in Seattle, useful to understand the kind of process and responsibilities that might be involved in other contexts and plan in consequence.

The handbook opens with the guiding principle behind the ‘alley activation’:

WHY EVENTS?
Putting people in your alley is a first step. People breath new life into spaces that have long been used for illegal activity or dumping trash. Our approach was to throw unique events. After hosting numerous events over several years, we can see Pioneer Square’s alleys transforming. A bicycle repair shop recently moved into one alley – with its front entrance in the alley. Plants and flower pots are starting to sprout up in the nooks and crannies of alleys. And some shops now feature their signs and menus on alley doors. All of these steps are collectively starting to change how these spaces are perceived and used.

The cobbled back streets have hosted photo slams (local professional journalists presenting 5 to 8 minute photographic essays on a variety of topics, from prison photography to portraiture), a summer festival called Alley-Palooza, various screenings (documentaries, World Cup, Tour de France…), PARK(ing) Day installations and an annual dog parade (with hot chocolate and live music), all of which are free, broadly inclusive and involve local businesses or interest groups. Coming up: a Bike Love Party, with beer and tattoos. In late 2013, the Project also led a series of community consultation workshops to develop a new “historically appropriate” lighting and resurfacing design.

alley-Open-House-10.3-1024x768

Alley Design Concepts Survey ‘open house’ (2013)

———————

There are many other projects around the world injecting a new life into the dark and neglected back alleys, most of which I borrowed from Vancouver blog This City Life.

Green Alleys

Vancouvery Photo c:o Ben Nelms for National Post

Country Lane, Vancouver (Photo: Ben Nelms for National Post)

Vancouver has been running a Country Lane programme for several years, ‘countrifying’ back lanes by depaving them, save for 2 concrete strips, and planting durable grass.

Montréal has a similar volunteer-run programme, Ruelles Vertes – the website offers lots of links and practical tips (in French).

Chicago has retrofitted over 100 laneways since 2006 and produced a free Green Alley Handbook (pdf) for inspiration.

San Francisco is also developing a community-led Living Alley concept and offers workshops to residents to help them design and implement a Living Alley Network.

Ruelle Verte, Montréal (photo Sylvain Ouellet)

Ruelle Verte, Montréal (photo: Sylvain Ouellet)

Public Art & Design

Athens street

Pittaki Street, Athens, Before Light & Imagine the City (2013)

Sydney has developed a curated programme of commissioned public art, Laneway Art, featuring among many other projects the lovely Forgotten Songs by Michael Thomas Hill, a sound installation commemorating the songs of fifty diurnal and nocturnal birds once heard in central Sydney; yarn-bombed steps in Sussex Lane by Knitta founder Magda Sayeg; and a giant PVC donut by Brook Andrew.

Austin Art Alliance created “temporary activations” in Alley #111, a “mix of installations and multi-generational happenings” including visual and sound installation, an opening party, a Pecha Kucha and a family day.

Athens-based non-for-profit urban renewal organisation Imagine The City partnered with creative studio Before Light to illuminate one seedy back-alley for one year, gathering “Chandeliers, shantungs, bell shades, paper Asian lanterns (…) retrofitted with new wiring and weatherproofing” to create a party-ready fairy-tale atmosphere (video) that makes the alley both safer and prettier.

Dublin‘s city centre Dame Lane got ‘activated’ for 8 full days by designers me&him&you, who conducted a community consultation to install colourful custom seating, a ‘play me’ piano and lots of plants.

And finally, small street parties everywhere have their own planning toolkit (covered a few months ago) which goes hand-in-hand with the outdoor event accessibility guide.

Laneway Project Dublin

Laneway Project Dublin by me&him&you (2010)

Street Art

Most of the banner images I use on this blog were taken in Toronto’s back alleys.  They provide access to garages and business back doors – and, incidentally, perfect canvases for street artists.

Lego Head - Spud & DMC

Lego Head – Spud & DMC – via Torontoist

Toronto is developing guidelines and programmes for street art, encouraging commissioned murals to ‘beautify’ neighbourhoods and deter vandalism (including graffiti). A map of these official murals is available on the City website, and if some are easily forgotten, others are pretty epic, such as Andrew Schoultz’s ‘The Winds Are Changing‘, which I try to walk by as often as I can.

Left to their own devices, alleys develop other interesting sights. Local guide Graeme Perry (from whose website the opening Grady Clay quote is borrowed) has been leading free walking and cycling alley tours for 10 years and has documented his favourite categories on his website: greenery, textures and ‘funk dump junk’.

Graeme Perry_GreenGraeme Perry_TextureGraeme Perry_funk dump junk

Local photographer and urban cyclist advocate Yvonne Bambrick also captures the alley sights, here framed within reclaimed bicycle wheels:

Yvonne Bambrick, Rusted (2013)

Yvonne Bambrick, Rusted (2013)

Yvonne Bambrick hot pink

Yvonne Bambrick, Hot Pink (2013)

If Toronto’s alleys lend themselves well to urban exploration and graffiti safaris, they’re also prime estate for another type of activation, also a bit more on the wild side than previous examples.

Every summer for the past 3 years now, the Ossington neighbourhood has hosted an Alleyway Party that has everything from local bands – including Toronto’s very own Balkan-Klezmer-Gypsy-Party-Punk-Super Band, dancing in the rain, communal BBQ, giant Scrabble and collective garage door painting. It’s a bring-your-own, pass-the-hat affair between neighbours, with no lane closure – traffic is usually very light – or formal schedule. Time to get planning…

Ossington Village Alleyway Party

Ossington Village Alleyway Party (2012)

Ossington Village Alleyway Party Scrabble

Second Floor

Virtual Street Art: Tour Paris 13

Spotlight

Tour Paris 13 is an old crumbling residential tower in Paris’ 13th arrondissement marked for demolition in less than a month. It’s also, for that remaining time, allegedly the biggest collective street art project realised to date. Over 100 artists, coming from 16 different countries, were invited to use the 9-floor, 36-apartment tower as their canvas – from the basement to the facade and every single inch of the floors, walls and ceilings.

The art is as real as it gets and visiting the tower is free as long as it’s still standing, in small groups of 49 people maximum at a time for safety reasons. So what’s virtual about it? How we can experience it.

El Seed

El Seed

While the artists were working inside the tower, the project was kept under wraps and extensively filmed by Thomas Lallier – in preparation for a documentary – and audio recorded by French public service Radio France (well known for their excellent ‘création radiophonique’, or radio art), to create an immersive digital experience.

Second Floor

Second Floor

When ‘visiting’ an apartment, a collage of user-generated images scrolls across the screen, revealing the space by fragments, and the voices of the artists at work raise above the ‘soundtrack’: traffic, sirens, footsteps echoing in these empty spaces, doors creaking, phones ringing, and the sound of the spray can, with that clicking of the shaking and phrasing of the breathing, in long lines and short bursts.

Sébastien Preschoux

Sébastien Preschoux

The project was spearheaded by Galerie Itinerrance, a local gallery specialised in street art. It’s not the first time that it spills out of the walls: as well as representing artists and showing their work, gallery owner Mehdi Ben Cheikh has been offering ‘official’ outdoor tours to discover large-scale murals in the neighbourhood (presumably commissioned). In an interview available on the Tour Paris 13 website (with English subtitles), he talks about his remit, as a street art gallerist, to have an ‘urban practice’. He also tries to describe the tower project:

I don’t like the word exhibition. It’s something a bit strange… It’s not a museum, it’s not a gallery, it’s not a wasteland neither, it’s not a squat… It’s a mix of all of these. It’s something more or less organised, but that still has a soul.

He also talks about the role of the internet – and therefore of digital experiences such as the tower’s – in making street art “the first truly international movement”.

Shoof

Shoof

After 31st October, the Tour will be closed to the public, but the website will remain accessible. During the following 10 days, virtual visitors will be asked to ‘save’ the art by clicking on what they want to keep, pixel by pixel. The resulting archive will become a ‘witness’ of the artistic project.

Mosko

Mosko

Finally, the 52-minute documentary that will be released in September 2014 will reveal the creative process of the artists involved, but also the history of the tower itself and of the neighbourhood, pre- and post-urban renewal.

Sean Hart

Sean Hart

All photos are from Tour Paris 13‘s website; click on images to access the artists’ individual photo gallery, interview and biography.