An ecosystem is a group of logically interconnected elements, shaped through the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment. The urban world is no exception. It harbours the densely braided interaction between the inhabitants (with all their cultural, economic and political spheres) and their urban habitat.
The creation of that urban habitat is subject to the understanding of many various circumstances and influences, who’s main core however, is the inhabitant; the user, the designer, the caretaker, the maintainer, etc.
The simple actions of building, designing, maintaining, growing in population and consequently again redesigning, building, maintaining; have put up a cycle of urban creation, which is driven by demand instead of need. This is more evident in post-industrial towns and their industrial areas. To this unbalanced trend the arts and culture not only have an answer, but also provide a solution – linear involvement in the urban (eco)system.
It is needless to point out the social, economic, political losses, or the loss of the commons, that our culture has endured in the last decades. As a civic mass, we are already engaged in politics, active civil initiatives, protests and basic decision-making, demanding a quality life and the quality space to live it in. The arts fill in the gap as a provocative reminder to the “ruling class” that those are the basics that we as a modern society lack, now more than ever. Banksy has revolutionized graffiti art, but for other artists as well, taking the messages to a higher level. Community arts have given rise to building awareness of an earlier cultural life, spreading arts and culture from shared homes to prisons and addressing issues of concern to the urban inhabitants. Amateur arts have grown and taken on the role of a glue in the multi-layered universe of urban growth.
But the arts can do more. Artists are the creatives: once hired to find solutions for corporate problems, they are now taking up a new trend of activity. They are now finding new solutions filling in the gap between the bureaucratically and economically centered decision-making and the needs of actual life.
There are many ways in which the arts are approaching the question of urban issues, where they encounter fundamental questions; What is urban life? Who makes it? Who actually lives it? Where does it happen?
Urban life takes place in an urban area, such as a town or a district. In this place, the population interacts with each other to create an endless variety of stakeholders. We, the urban residents, in consequence, are those who build these urban areas; we also use them and, as users, are also obliged to take care of them.
Through this interaction, be it social or economic, we are structuring an (eco)system where we all contribute to urban life, through our jobs and the real estate we own and shape. The way we use our living habitat is a direct marker of how we live and how the “decision-makers” develop the urban areas.
The way we govern and develop those areas is mostly visible in post-industrial towns, where the (eco)system has stopped functioning due to the breakdown of its most important stakeholder – the industry and its workers. Those areas now lie in decay and/or are so badly maintained that one would never suspect that they are still functioning.
Here, the arts offer many solutions, approaches, and methods to understand and once again build a healthy (eco)system. The key aspect is what is lacking in the top-down approaches usually implemented by the “decision-makers”. The predisposition is that the need of the space is equal to the need of its users. For if the users’ needs did not meet it, the user would have no reason to be in the place, and thus it would be empty.
One way of implementing this method is through the many tools developed in the recent years, which are focused on the needs. Their basis is to take the users (population) through a process of understanding their needs: letting them discover and understand their environment and, through this, identify their needs and express them in a clear way.
The second stage is to present these finding to a broader public, which must include experts from various fields connected to urban life. This second stage presents crucial moments in which the arts provide a sustainable and effective way of communication. Here, the art and culture work hand in hand to muster motivation and equally distributed responsibility for the development of an urban area.
One such tool has been developed in Maribor (Slovenia) by an NGO called “House! society for people and places”, which uses art in degraded spaces to redesign them. They named it Urban Hackathon. It is based on linear inclusion and the finding of solutions in a short period. The term hackathon is used in computing, where a diverse range of IT experts (programmers, graphic designers, managers, users…) gather at a densely paced event to find solutions for computing/programming issues. The Maribor group, diverse in themselves (consisting of an architect, a programmer, a producer and an artist), have taken this idea, changed the focus from IT to urban development, and adapted the densely packed program of the event to the needs of the subject matter. The involved participants come from various fields (architecture, sociology, culture, administration, private sector working in the urban area, anthropology, media, economy, ecology, anybody connected to urban life, and real estate owners, with the most vital being the inhabitants and local administration. This mix of people is essential for success, as all the stakeholders hold a piece of information that makes op a bigger picture, much like the cooperation within the (eco)system.
The event provided a constructive space for explaining, presenting and debating current issues of urban life and development, resulting in three important factors:
1. gathered data from inhabitants, studies from experts relating to specific degraded areas, data relating to the town from the local administration (such as statistical data of the town), data of administrational procedures and law. This aspect provided a transparency of data flow and direct feedback from the users, or rather the interconnected urban elements.
2. Artistic, place specific, easy to make, low-cost ideas for the rejuvenation of the degraded areas, which can be implemented directly and which ensure the engagement of the local public as well as obligating the local administration to implement the ideas.
3. Each hackathon set finished with small-scale actions with simple artistic expressions directly in urban space (for example, painting the pedestrian crossings in various colors). This ensures that the participating teams stay motivated for the projects and keep on participating.
These three factors become the guideline focus of the working groups to develop and implement the changes needed on one side, satisfying the needs of the urban population and, on the other, ensuring that local administrations is activated and the guidelines are being enforced.
In Maribor, the Urban hackathon resulted in the addressing of a degraded area pestered with car pollution and health issues, the collapse of historical monuments, low economic drive, and vandalism. The event brought together various experts, who found solutions which are being addressed by the local administrations and other civic groups.
In practice, this method gives good results in action. Maribor’s degraded spaces have been addressed, and solutions have been found. After three years (as of 2017) the echo of the Urban hackathon is still in the air and a strong reminder that the (eco)system is only working when all the stakeholder work together and fill out their role in urban development.
However, the process is not always successful if there are stakeholders or partners who do not want to participate, distancing themselves from their habitat. Such refusal is usually linked to the decision-makers disregarding the users. In the case of Maribor, this trend of governance has resulted in a status quo of the projects designed in the Urban hackathon.
As a result, the (eco)system of urban development is still not fully functional, as one part is not operating.
With this in mind, the arts and the various creatives have a difficult task of constructing spaces where the (eco)system will get to start. Such spaces provide what we, as a culture and society have forgotten: participation, open knowledge exchange, and, perhaps the most important quality of an eco-system, working together to create a better habitat, better relations and better urban life.
There are many NGOs around the world shifting their interest from explicit art production, interlacing it with places we have pushed out of our habitat. Their activities invite us again to take part in the (eco)system and make our urban life grow in the right direction. As part of this, we need to be aware of our part and why we should join their cause.