Friday, 9 June 2017

Temporary use of space: Urban processes between flexibility, opportunity and precarity

Ali Madanipour

From popup shops and restaurants to container buildings and gardens, there has been a growing trend in the temporary use of urban space. This trend is celebrated by many observers, who see it as novel, progressive and exciting, making the underused space available for activities that would otherwise be unable to flourish, while adding colour, vitality and spontaneity to the urban environment. Such flexibilities in the use of space may open a door to new possibilities, but I wanted to go beyond the apparent aesthetic excitement and understand the trend more fully, to see where it fits within the broader context of urban processes and how it can be critically analysed.
Empty spaces are the outcome of fluctuations and crises in capitalism, which have reached unprecedented dimensions through globalization, and the associated technological and economic changes, as reflected in large numbers of empty shops, offices, and housing units in different parts of the world. The temporary use of space has been one of the key responses to this crisis of overproduction, introducing flexibilities in the control and use of land and property, which go past the traditional ways of rent adjustment. As I once discussed with Kira Cochrane of the Guardian newspaper[1], temporary spaces can be understood in contrasting ways: on the one hand making productive use of empty spaces for a variety of locally useful activities, and on the other hand a disguise for consumerism. Their flexibility offers new opportunities to creative entrepreneurs as well as civil society groups and local activities, but also normalizes the sense of precarity for these users, while it is being transmuted into a cultural instrument of branding and marketing, which is used profitably by large companies.
Elsewhere, I have investigated temporary parks and gardens that turn the city into an ephemeral event[2]. My focus in this article is on the temporary use of private space. I have used the example of Chesterfield House in Wembley, London, which provided the opportunity for temporary use of space offered at low cost to creative entrepreneurs, facilitated by the authorities and welcomed by the local media and community groups. By locating the temporary use within the longer period of property development, however, we gain a fuller picture of the initiative. In a project of converting an empty office space to high density housing, the other face of the temporary use of space becomes visible: an interim measure for reducing the costs and improving the local acceptability of the impending development. It is through this wider, mobile lens that we can see the different sides of temporary urbanism.
The ancient Greeks called a moment that captures many possibilities Kairos, a particular concept of time. I was interested in understanding whether the temporary use of space reflects a broader change in the concepts and character of time in urban society today. This is a subject I explored in a book, Cities in Time [3](Published by Bloomsbury in 2017), in which I have studied temporary urbanism in the context of the philosophy of time, at the intersection of instrumental, existential and experimental concepts of time.

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