Where and how urban curating can act?

Meike Schalk

Meike Schalk has initiated and collaborated on central research projects in feminist and queer approaches to architecture and urbanism, with lasting effects on all of us today. Combining critical participatory research approaches to look at democracy, community-led development, sustainability and care in the built environment. Meike Schalk is professor in architecture, urban design and urban theory, at the KTH School of Architecture, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. She co-initiated the feminist teaching and research group FATALE, and is editor of the SITE periodical.

Urban curating is a strategic approach with a focus on re-reading the city. The term urban curation appeared by the end of the 1990s, e.g., the artist Jeanne van Heeswijk was one of the first to mention it. In van Heeswijk’s work the concept describes the facilitation of "the creation of dynamic and diversified public spaces in order to ‘radicalize the local’". Van Heeswijk's “community-embedded projects combine hereby performative actions, discussions, and other forms of organizing and pedagogy in order to assist communities to take control of their own futures.”1

The concept implies three important notions for me, these are urban curating's reference to temporariness, possibilities for re-reading and re-learning of public spaces, and third, its narrative and careful approach for creating connective and protective stories.

1. Temporariness, or urban planning as re-readings

In my chapter in Doina Petrescu's Altering Practices: Feminist Politics and Poetics of Space, I refer to a conversation with the art historian Måns Holst-Ekström where we speculate about urban curating as a constant re-reading of urban contexts as a possible extension and complement of urban planning2 . Such a practice could register changes and critically accompany them – a quality that the long-term and structure-focused practice of urban planning does not achieve. There has been criticism towards the temporariness of the short length of urban curatorial projects, and questions to what connections they can produce beyond their spatial and temporal moment of happening. This is a valuable concern. However, when regarding temporary manifestations through a feminist lens, it can be said that many groups and communities historically, recently, and even today that have had little access to mainstream attention capital – e.g. as they are less permanently inscribed in the city through representative buildings and institutional spaces – have always been using performative ways of appearance in public spaces. Their work has recently gained acknowledgement, as we see this in the emerging interest in squatter movements, migrants' experiences, and activist practices and their history records are finding their way into archives now3 . Temporariness can be forced4 , but it can also be desired5 . Importantly, temporary actions can also affect long-term changes through the reproduction of knowledges and practices by learning and pedagogies.

2. Learning - reading and getting to know

Urban curating can give rise to re-reading and environmental learning. J.K. Gibson-Graham presents a three-part ethical framework for performing “other worlds”. They hereby extend from their concept of “diverse economies” and suggest the ontological practices of reframing, re-reading for difference, and cultivating creativity6 . Diverse economies foreground the already existing non-capitalist transactions that are usually made invisible by violent capitalist discourses. Reframing the existing and creatively re-reading the world can lead to a plethora of possibilities that question normative assumptions and entail pathways to transformation.

As an example, the re-reading of the Swedish “Right to Public Access” (Allemannsrätten) could lead to seeing urban spaces otherwise. Allemansrätten is no law in Sweden but works like a code of conduct that gives everybody equal access to landscape and nature and maximum freedom of movement connected to the responsibility of handling them with care. Learning to visit a landscape involves observation, the acquisition of the ability to read landscape, to get to know an environment, to understand possibilities and limits for moving around, sleeping over, resting, picking edibles or material from the ground, to be informed about what can be left behind and what not, where and when and with what material to light a fire, etc. This means that there are temporal, seasonal and situational differences at stake that ought to be registered at any time visiting and reconsidered in both accessing and maintaining landscape7 . I suggest Allemansrätten as a spatio-ethical concept that plays out in urban curating, involving deep learning which potentially could be extended beyond landscape to urban spatial and ecological situations, even both, virtual and physical, for exploring the rights and responsibilities of such environments. Taking seasonal and temporal conditions stronger into account in the city would allow for shifting uses and suggested different actions of maintenance that everybody could participate in, during different times of the year and the day.

3. Narrating: Creating connective and protective stories 

Karen A. Franck’s notion of “greater connectedness and inclusiveness” was an inspiration earlier for my reflections on urban curating8 . “Connectedness” in my reading of her concept meant a quality that can bring various aspects into the planning process that are otherwise not considered, and that could make urban development more inclusive and more diverse. This relational character of urban curating is also at the heart of Henrik Ernstson and Sverker Sörlin, and Enstson and Hanna Erixon’s work concerning “protective stories” where they show that despite strong exploitation pressure, diverse urban movements of civil society organizations in Stockholm, New York, London and Cape Town have managed to provide narratives that were able to make visible and legitimise the need to protect urban nature such as green areas or wetland areas9 . Such “protective stories” have interlaced cultural history with conservation biology, when activists managed to make connections between various interests, human and more-than-human, to justifying the need for an overall protection of biodiverse spaces. In this case, narration can act as a strategy of urban curating that promotes a careful approach to our environments and supports the maintenance of open land.

  1. (accessed 18 April 2023)
  2. Meike Schalk, "Urban Curating: A Practice towards Greater 'Connectedness'", in Doina Petrescu (ed.), Altering Practices: Feminist Politics and Poetics of Space (London: Routledge, 2007).
  3. See for example the MayDay Rooms, (accessed 19 April 2023); recent exhibitions and publications about squatter movements at Het Nieuwe Instituut, 2019.
  4. DAAR, Permanent Temporariness (Stockholm: Art & Theory, 2018).
  5. Kate Eichhorn, The Archival Turn in Feminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).
  6. J.K. Gibson-Graham, "Diverse economies: performative practices for 'other worlds'", Progress in Human Geography 32(5) (2008), 613–632. Diverse economies criticize the predominant focus on capitalist economical transactions that made the already existing diversity of non-capitalist economical transactions invisible.
  7. Read more on the Swedish Allemansrätten here: (accessed 18 April 2023).
  8. Karen A. Franck, "A Feminist Approach to Architecture:", in Ellen Perry Berkley (ed.), Architecture: A Place for Women (London and Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1989, 201-216.
  9. Ernstson H., Sörlin S. (2009). "Weaving protective stories: connective practices to articulate holistic values in Stockholm National Urban Park", Environment and Planning A 41:1460-1479. Hanna Erixon and Henrik Ernstson, "Of Plants, High lines and Horses: Civics and Designers in the Relational Articulation of Values of Urban Nature, Landscape and Urban Planning, 2017, 309-321.
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