BLOG: The rise of urban experiments: window dressing or catalysts for change?

by James Evans

The UK housing crisis is a key challenge for our times – demand far outstrips supply and   Ministers are seeking solutions, such as plans to create new ‘garden cities’.  But are policy-makers taking enough notice of the urban experiments that have already taken place around the world and are the right questions being asked? James Evans, Andrew Karvonen and Rob Raven investigate.

In the 1990s, Enrique Peñalosa, the Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, gained international fame for transforming his city from one of the most dangerous and unpleasant places to live into a global leader in sustainability. His so-called ‘Bogotá experiment’ involved a range of strategies to remove cars from the city centre and create a more walkable and liveable built environment. This simple but radical approach fundamentally changed the trajectory of the city’s development.

Urban experiments

Bogotá serves as a well-known example of a pervasive trend in cities today, that of urban experimentation. Experimentation is a common denominator in a wide range of current urban agendas including smart cities, eco cities, transition towns, urban living labs, and grassroots community projects. Advocates of urban experiments argue that there is a need to think and act radically to realise more liveable, resilient, prosperous, and healthy cities. They see experiments as catalysts to change the way that we design, build, manage and inhabit our built environment. But how are urban experiments conceived and enacted? Who instigates these experiments and who benefits from them? And how can the lessons from experiments be applied in other places?

In a book we have edited, The Experimental City (Routledge 2016), a group of 32 social and urban researchers from the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, India, Australia, and the US provide insights on the theory and practice of contemporary urban experiments. They present case studies ranging from ecological housing developments in Santiago, Chile, a community garden in Berlin that provides an arena for social learning and the aspirational project of Masdar City, a new development in the United Arab Emirates that serves an open platform for low-carbon technological applications. The case studies represent a range of scales, from a building site to a district or neighbourhood and even an entire city or region. They involve a combination of design strategies, large datasets, aspirations for social equity, regulations and incentives, economic strategies, and more.

Translating theory into practice

A common theme of the book is that experimental activities are compelling because they embrace notions of innovation and creativity. There is a recognised need for change and experiments provide a means to achieve this.

Moreover, they provide an opportunity to undertake concrete actions that can enhance a combination of agendas including economic development, environmental protection, social cohesion, creative sector support, infrastructure provision, and academic research. And most importantly, experiments are not simply about doing things differently; they involve a focus on learning from real-world activities. Experiments involve the setup of a specific intervention that can be measured and evaluated. They are intentional actions that provide rigorous evidence of the effects and processes of change.

As a whole, the book reveals the powerful rhetoric of promising radical change. Advocates of experiments see these activities as an enticing way to realise genuine and tangible transformation of the contemporary conditions in cities. Meanwhile, sceptics suggest that urban experiments are simply window dressing activities by the dominant elites that do little to effect real change.

In most cases, the actual achievements of urban experimentation are somewhere in between. The wide range of stakeholders that conceive, fund, and operate urban experiments include local governments but also private companies, third sector organisations, and civil society organisations. This has the potential to result in a shift in the balance of power and influence, empowering some stakeholders while disempowering others. Thus, urban experimentation is a highly political endeavour that has significant implications on how cities are governed.

And a key question with all urban experiments is how the insights and learning is scaled up. How do these discrete interventions influence wider transformations? Advocates of urban experimentation promote ideas of upscaling, replication, transforming, seeding, rolling out, and breaking through to describe how experiments can have broader influence. But there is often little information provided on how this will actually occur. Thus, the influence and impacts of urban experimentation continues to be a work in progress.

Policy implications

For policy makers, there is a need to look beyond the rhetorical appeal of urban experiments and consider how these activities can make cities better places to live and work in the long term. Who is defining the problem and who will benefit from the proposed solution? What criteria are being used to assess the outcomes of the experiment? Is it possible to include all affected stakeholders in the ‘co-production’ of the experiment? Can the experiment lead to more effective forms of governance?

These questions call for policy approaches that go beyond the experiment itself to consider how radical change can be enacted effectively and democratically while having long-term effects.

Urban experiments provide a compelling vision for how cities can address the grand challenges of humanity in the twenty-first century. From climate change impacts to economic uncertainty and social inequality, experimentation recognises that cities are both the problem and the solution to addressing widespread endemic problems. The rise of urban experiments at multiple scales in the Global North and South provides hope for conceiving and enacting radical change. The promise of experimentation, however, must take more account of inequality to ensure there is real benefit to those most in need.  There must also be a greater emphasis on lessons learned and ways to share those lessons, nationally and internationally, if true impact is be felt.

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