Este artículo está también disponible en / This post is also available in: Spanish
Why pursue urban experiments in historic downtowns?
It might seem counterintuitive picking the most consolidated areas of the city for experiments. However, the historic downtowns often face obsolescence processes that translate into decay, abandonment, overcrowding, or underuse. Urban experimentation breaks the inertia of such longstanding processes, transforming the energy of central areas into new directions.
We are aware that the concept of ´experiment´ involves the dangerous possibility of failure, something we would like to avoid when working with valuable historic and cultural objects (Otero-Pailos et al, 2016, pág. 11). We learn a lesson from the 2012 story of a Spanish woman who unsuccessfully attempted to restore an old damaged painting.
At the IDB Cities LAB, we don’t judge the results of that particular process, but we consider it a visual example to highlight that our processes are looking forward to pursue reversible options that minimize the potential damage to valuable cultural assets, yet allow us to test, analyze and evaluate temporary interventions in order to find long term solutions.
Surprisingly, this unfortunate preservation story put Borja on the map of Spain increasing the visitors and fueling the demand for producing merchandise with the altered image that was a trending topic. As this example demonstrated, the experiments should be evaluated considering both predicted and unexpected events, being conscious of the importance of the reversibility of the processes, learning from the failures without causing irrevocable damage to heritage assets.
The exploratory approach of the IADB cities LAB joins the global trend in architecture and urbanism, mentioned several times by the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels , betting on the design evolution instead of the revolution.
Revolutionary ideas, totally new and foreign to the existent ones were the trend in most of the XX century, but today there is a twist to the consideration of the previous characteristics of a place. In other words, the creative and innovative process in the contemporary city is linked to the Tabula plena , or the series of historical elements, that coherently coexist and participate in dialogue with new interventions.
In order to conduct this evolution, in an early stage of development, the Cities LAB operates under 4 criteria: (i) reversibility, taking care of the authenticity of the heritage space; (ii)temporal, with some weeks or months of testing; (iii) low cost, in comparison with the permanent and long term interventions; and (iv) high impact, mostly regarding the valorization and change in the community perceptions about the urban landscape they live in.
What urban experiments are carried out in historic downtowns?
Heritage areas and historic downtowns are usually focused on respect for the past over the current needs, which might seem counterintuitive for experimenting in such a stage. The respect for the past, especially the past we value and/or protect, should exist, but the current needs are fundamental in order to sustain those spaces as active parts of the city.
Over half of the Cities LAB pilots were developed in historic downtowns. This is evidence of the strong demand of local governments for new solutions in these complex central areas. On the other hand, global agendas are inviting us to rethink the future of yesterday’s cities. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ask (new) questions to areas designed centuries ago. With the Cities LAB, we are exploring alternative answers starting from the diverse local communities and values.
How do we approach urban experiments in historic downtowns?
Based on the Cities LAB general methodology, the experiments in historic downtowns take into account the iterative process of: Explore, experimenting, evaluating, scaling-up and communicating, Each pilot could follow the full 5-step sequence or just emphasize one or more, according to the local challenges. Through 6 selected experiments we will visualize these 5 steps in different contexts across the region, where the Cities LAB has been experimenting in partnership with local governments and communities, among multiple other partnerships.
Summarizing the toolbox is a complex process, and regional diversity pushes us to broaden our tools and improving the approaches constantly. As a first summary effort, we count at least 12 tools from different disciplines that help us in working with the territory. Tactical urbanism is just one of these tools, probably the most visible or photogenic, but informed by the contents and lessons learned from other tools.
Please find below a video (in Spanish) where I share the narratives behind each of the 6 cases. Here I will analyze the 6 common elements that teach us for future urban experimentation in historic areas:
1. Open competitions for ideas, especially at universities, bring fresh views to the formulas for adaptative revitalization in historic downtowns. The validation process, bringing to the same table the winners of the competition, public entities, and the community allows an interesting transition to the real project, and helps to make reaching a consensus easier. Our projects: Hermanitas de los Pobres (Santiago, Chile) and Bajo autopista San Telmo (Buenos Aires Ciudad, Argentina).
2. The IADB loans or public/private funding (involving long term local development and public works investments) are a key part of urban experimentation, whether the experiment is the trigger or the collaborator of theses public policy processes. Strategic planning and coordination among sectors are key. Our projects: SU-L1046 or BR-L1422.
3. New technologies could add value to the data collection and analysis, participatory processes, impact/result assessments, and audiovisual register. Testing new technologies is an experiment within the experiment, its adjustment or simplification contributes to the effectiveness of the process. We do not need cutting edge or smart technologies in the process but if it simplifies the work, it is welcomed. Our projects: Panamá Camina the traffic assessment in the control and influence area was with Waze Data.
4. Replicability is possible yet challenging because every historic downtown is unique. Each will need a creative and sensible adjustment to the socio-cultural, economic, and environmental context. Our Projects: Laboratorio efímero methodology both in Sao Luis and Campo Grande in Brasil.
5. Events: Such as festivals, are valuable only if inserted in a process that allows sustainable governance structures to develop for the collective area improvement. Our projects in Paramaribo and Plaza de la diversidad in Montevideo.
6. Co-design: The temporal intervention closure is a challenge from the management and communication perspective. Detecting and creating local capacity for the co-designing, adjustment, and continuity of the intervention and activities is a good practice, facing the imminent physical decay of temporal low-cost interventions. Local partners inherit temporary interventions. They are the real agents for a virtuous and sustained change.
Where is best to experiment within my city?
Today, the city center, which was once the whole city, is often a smaller space within the city or metropolis, but its structure serves diverse functions, and offers a site of opportunity for micro experiments which can be replicated or scaled up in the rest of the city (Carrión, 2017).
According to Habitat III, the historic downtown is generally an example of the sustainable and compact city, featuring walkability to various services, old trees, corners with layers of history, and multiple experimental possibilities for building inclusion, ecoefficiency, resilience, and collaboration in our cities. Stay tuned for more Cities LAB experiments and consider the criteria and lessons learned to explore in your own city while preserving and valuing your heritage.
 The ownership titles related to inheritance processes are also common and complex in historic downtowns. Leaving the properties frozen or available for temporary uses.
 Bjarke Ingels leads the office BIG architects, he proclaims evolution over revolution as well as the hedonistic sustainability, or how much of our quality of life we are willing to compromise to have a more sustainable way of living. What bring us to a previous blog that mentioned: living in the city center is like walking while living in the suburbs is like riding in a car.
 The concept Tabula Plena or full board emerges in contrast to the Tabula Rasa by the English philosopher Locke. In the Tabula Rasa the original way to approach a problem (or architectural/urban intervention) is from the conscious state of a kid, without preconceptions or rules. It is an open game, to act freely building a newexperience or perception. The Tabula rasa was quite common among modernists for urban renewal based on demolition and new buildings.