Is there serendipity in urban practice and if so, how can we foster it?
A rainwater retention basin appropriated as a self-organised natureculture learning space. An abandoned school garden activated as a meeting place for neighbours, local initiatives and multicultural artists. A central vacant building block saved from demolition and developed in cooperation with civic actors, with pioneer uses in the fields of climate justice and circular economy, art and culture, integration and social issues.
Projects like Floating University Berlin, Nachbarschaftscampus Dammweg and Haus der Statistik – also described as urban practice1 – emerge beyond conventional urban planning as community-driven, self-organised, trans- and post-disciplinary practices of commoning addressing urgent socio-spatial issues through artistic appropriation and transformation of un(der)used urban spaces2 . Based on civic and spatial agency, they aim to bridge the gap between the financialising rationale of urban politics and administration on the one side, and citizens’ claims for co-determination, social, spatial and environmental justice on the other.
Urban practitioners create unexpected connections through and beyond disciplines like art, architecture, culture, planning, education, social affairs, youth, sports, mobility and environment. They connect spaces, actors, resources and practices in unconventional, innovative ways and use artistic means, based on creativity and curiosity, to engage with places and other citizens in the co-production of space.
Urban practice challenges both the status quo of the urban and planning processes, by exploring alternative realities (micro-utopias)3 and unlocking unexpected possibilities. Urban practitioners create valuable impulses for urban development beyond the logic of planning. So, how do those imaginative, surprising, unconventional – at first glance, accidental – situations and practices emerge? Are they a result of creative ideas (phantasievoller Einfälle)? Of chance encounters or unintentional discoveries of overlooked but valuable information and resources – spaces, actors, ecosystems and other unforeseen circumstances? Of unexpected connections with other fields, networks, struggles? Is urban practice serendipitous?
Serendipity and urban practice
In the field of creativity, receptivity and curiosity in practice can lead to serendipitous discoveries of useful information. Serendipity is unintentionally finding something valuable by chance or when looking for something else, despite an overabundance of data, such as while browsing through library shelves, surfing the Internet or researching databases.
In the complex construct of the city, all resources – spaces, materials, actors, networks, practices, knowledge – are already there. How are they curated by urban practitioners into new places, practices and communities? To what extent does serendipity play a role in urban curating? And how can we learn and practice to grasp the unexpected opportunities that arise in the process?
Following aspects, qualities and logics of urban practice can help exploring these questions deeper:
Acting on spatial potentials
Urban practice activates spatial potentials, creating suggestive positive moments, discovering new opportunities in the city. One accidental discovery was the polluted rainwater retention basin of Tempelhofer Feld, which got the attention of Raumlaborberlin years ago, while they were working on projects in the adjacent area. The still-functioning hidden water infrastructure was appropriated by the collective into an off-campus that hosts cultural, artistic and educational programs on climate care, biodiversity, eco-social transformations, etc. Together with transdisciplinary practitioners and local communities, they created hands-on learning landscapes in a contaminated paradise.
Other examples include artistic and discursive explorations of how unused rooftops on inner-city panel buildings can be turned into community spaces for both human and nonhuman cohabitation (Operation Himmelblick); or how winter outdoor swimming pools can temporarily be repurposed as forest kindergartens, solar panels, ice skating, bathing infrastructure for the homeless, etc. (Pool Potentials).
How can we train an observant brain to recognize spatial potentials when scanning the physical space of the city? How do we activate those in creative ways?
Situated and situational practice
Urban practice is physically situated, exploring and engaging with and on specific sites. Urban practitioners work situationally, closely with local communities and users, desires and needs, existing resources and knowledge. As Renée Tribble writes, the local specificity of urban practice emerges from the autochthonous, i.e. it is a knowledge created from what exists on site (conditions, material, social relations...).
Freiraumlabor at Nachbarschaftscampus Dammweg creates a green space learning laboratory in a former school garden, opening it up for neighbours to artistically and ecologically engage with the garden, offering participative on-site research and experimentation with found materials.
How can we explore unforeseen connections of spaces, themes, disciplines, stakeholders, networks and practices deeply connected to the context?
While planning processes search for solutions to predefined problems, urban practice follows a contextualised and embodied chronology of idea to experiment to experience to knowledge4 . Remaining open to the unexpected, urban practice discovers new possibilities for urban transformation that would otherwise go unnoticed and thus activates “excluded possibilities”5 .
Torhaus e.V. explores the notion of a self-organised, emancipatory, solidarity-based and communal development of the gatehouse at Temeplhof Airport within a young community, offering a radio station, a discursive platform, non-commercial spaces for workshops and exhibitions. It is an experiment of a collaborative transformation based on civic self-determination, that could inform the top-down management of the development process of Tempelhof Airport complex.
How can we stay open to the unknown?
Urban practice is informed by subversive art, sub and counterculture, drawing alternative models and realities to the existing social order and concepts of living together in the city.
Organismendemokratie is a project by artist group Club Real on a fallow green area in Berlin, in which all local living beings have political rights and (re-)negotiate the future of the area in “parliaments of organisms.” The project practises an alternative political system, in which not only human citizens exercise their right to the city and shape urban development.
How do we create yet unknown situations and realities?
So how can we be prepared, curious and open-minded about initiating urban transformations? How to enable the leap of imagination beyond rationality? Louis Pasteur once said “Chance favours only a prepared mind.” How can urban practitioners train an observant mind for urban spaces, local communities and other stakeholders, for unexpected opportunities? Which skills are needed and how can we internalise and embody them?
- Artist and architect Barbara Holub shapes the figure of the urban practitioner in C. Hohenbüchler, B. Holub (eds.): "Planning Unplanned? Towards a new Function of Art in Society"; Verlag für moderne Kunst, Vfmk Verlag für Moderne Kunst GmbH, Vienna, 2015, based on concepts of critical spatial practice (Jane Rendell, informed by Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau) and spatial agency (Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till). ↩
- ZUsammenKUNFT Berlin eG, Über Urbane Praxis, ZK/U Press, Berlin 2021. ↩
- Meireis, Sandra: Mikroutopien der Architektur, transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2021. ↩
- Dr. Renée Tribble describes the different logics of planning and urban practice in Tribble, Renée, “Urbane Praxis als Impulsgeber - Kunst verändert die Agenda der Stadtentwicklung” in Agile Urbane Praxis, Urbane Praxis e.V., Berlin 2023. ↩
- ibid. ↩