Social Innovation and the Ludic City

23 Jul 2012
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Narratives have always shaped Dublin, from the everyday lives of its inhabitants to the reputation the city has acquired across the world. However, there is a growing realization that innovative urban narratives are missing in many public spaces in cities. The proliferation of non-places and the intensive privatization of public life, constantly whittle away at Dublin’s story of itself as a cultural capital. The landscape and spaces of Chris Binchy’s recent novels on Dublin, relating the disassociations of exurbia or the bleak anonymity of inner city hotels provide good examples of this problem. Designers provide an important script for the city. Potentially they possess the anecdote to these unsatisfactory qualities of urban living.

Designers, in other words, can tell different stories about how cities could be. Their vision, their solutions and their experiments provide the hope and the drama needed to animate the urban, turn concrete into laughter and translate problems into occasions for creativity and new ways of living. In many ways, Dublin has a rich store of such innovation. The materials, genius and episodes for change gathered in the annual festival, ABSOLUT Fringe provide a case in point. One intriguing project they curated in 2011 was the transformation of Dame Lane (between Georges Street and Dublin Castle). The design team at me&him&you created an eight day temporary installation in the lane that encouraged new uses and interactions. With seating constructed from found objects, and creative use of planting and music, the project attracted people through the space, which like many of the laneways in the city suffer from neglect and are veiled with a certain aura of disquiet and sometimes, fear. This event interests me as an example of the Ludic City. In his book of the same name, Quentin Stevens asks ‘Why do we have public spaces in cities? What are they for? What role do they have in everyday social life?’ He concludes that one of the fundamental functions of public space is as ‘a setting for informal, non-instrumental social interaction, or play’. In Dame Lane, the rediscovery and application of the play-principle certainly brought a new narrative to the city. Play – in all its forms – peoples the city, brings joy to the streets and no doubt contributes to the economy. But the Ludic principle must be more than about the creation La Vie Boheme, or further opportunities for chic or eco shopping opportunities. These détournements in Dame Lane also interest me, as research we have on-going, points to the startling loss of lanes and other public rights of way in Dublin. In fact, between 2000 and 2011, about 260 paths, lanes and other public of rights of way were closed by Dublin City Council.

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Public rights of way can be extinguished through the Roads Act 1993 or under sections 14, 206, and 207 of the Planning and Development Acts 2000-2010. Many are shut to facilitate new development, but interestingly, many others are closed due to what termed as ‘anti-social behaviour’. It’s arguable that in many instances, the legal extinguishment of public rights of way is an unfortunate example of the failure of social and urban designers to create a liveable city. Moreover, their loss is also possibly an example of what urbanists like Marshall Berman and Steve Graham call ‘Urbicide’. This form of politics and planning and the retreat from design and innovation, leave in its wake a population impressed by surveillance, and a rising social value attached to CCTV, alarms systems and other modes of control. The loss of these public rights of way also impact on local mobility and effects in particular young people and poor young people specifically, whose use of public space is becoming increasingly criminalized. The great challenge to designers of all kinds is to address pressing social issues- particularly those that divide an already inequitable city. Dublin has great examples of artists doing exactly that. Between 2002 and 2010, Breaking Ground at the site of the Ballymun Regeneration project sought to expand and enrich the lives of communities through experiences with contemporary art. They made a difference. The sculptor John Byrne’s bronze horse featuring a tracksuited girl, modelled on a local in Ballymun, is a powerful example of design and art confronting prejudice whilst simultaneously connecting with a community.

A great deal of working through about the role of design in this kind of thinking and practice already exists. At the Design Council they called this approach ‘transformation design’ – a practice that supports collaboration between designers, policymakers, social scientists and local people in order to solve complex socio-economic problems. Looking at contemporary Dublin – particularly from outside the orbit of its branding as a hub for the ‘Creative Class’ – there is an opportunity with truly global prospects, for designers to address the difficult, and apparently unsolvable social and urban problems. Now, that’s a conversation. That’s a big story. That’s a narrative worth writing. Denis Linehan