Text by Donatas Baltrusaitis
The first day of the excursion started with a a meeting with the internationally well known architecture office Ecosistema Urbano, who operates within the fields of urbanism, architecture, engineering and sociology. They define their approach as urban social design by which they understand the design of environments, spaces and dynamics in order to improve self-organization of citizens, social interaction within communities and their relationship wihtin environment. Ecosistema Urbano was co founded in 2000 by architects Belinda Tato and Jose Luis Vallejo, the directors since then. The young and creative office received more than 30 awards in national and international architecture design competitions with projects all over the globe: Norway, Denmark, Spain, Italy, France, China and Netherlands.
Ecosistema Urbano is using a DIY (do it yourself) platform in order to implement design philosophy of Tactical Urbanism. The meaning of Tactical Urbanism is based on the idea of improving the livability of our cities. By using the street and public space as a laboratory for small, activist spatial practices, it is focused in a participatory approach of local people which aims to take back the street for its inhabitants and induce long term changes in towns and cities. They are as well focusing on Society participation platforms with the interaction and the use of digital technologies, while focusing on concepts such as transparency, open processes and open access to information. All aimed towards a more human understanding of the city. All of it sounds very promising and interesting, however does it really work? Maybe there are some financial aspects, which don’t let these great ideas happen?
Lets jump back to the office of Ecosistema Urbano. We were very pleasantly greeted by Luisa Zanceda and Jorge Toledo. They made a brief presentation of their work and activities, their working strategy, DIY encouragement and etc. It was truly inspiring, but however raised some questions. After being asked what is the situation with their ECO boulevard project in Vallecas, huge residential district development designed for 90,000 people in outskirts of Madrid, they paused for a moment with the following answer: “Well… in the pictures it looks better than in reality”. They didn’t really mention financial parts of the projects in their story, but that’s what we were seeking for. Of course, DIY platforms are meant to be finance-free with the help of the people and these ideas are becoming more popular after the recent financial recession. However what did they mean that their project was not really working?
And so the next day, we actually went to Vallecas to see the developments in reality and to figure out, what happened wrong. The Vallecas was full off new, fancy, fresh and modern architecture, however completely empty. There were barely any people in the streets and the same in already mentioned ECO boulevard. Wide street of 20 meters intentionally designed for people with public pavillions and with only one lane roads at the sides without people? Crazy. Those public pavillions, designed by Ecosistema Urbano were quite even scary with dried out plants, some kind of weird digital text, which was not working, parts of pavement ripped off – they were not maintained at all. So we had our lunch in the middle of the huge boulevard and only for us. Aim to design something very energy efficient sometimes results in overdesigned expensive objects, which are actually not working at all by their primary function.
Architects, designers, planners ought to seek not for a fancy effective efficient and selling image, which is great and inspiring, maybe sometimes innovative, but for coherence to the actual needs of the context and needs of the specific location. The ECO boulevard could work and could be very nice for local people, but there are so many factors playing in the game, that designers sometimes simply can not handle to control nor by their design nor by understanding the actual reality. The whole area could be lively with people living there, but the housing apparently is not affordable and there is no demand for it.
Urban policies and platforms have to be created and developed in order to make a link between municipal planning, societal role and of course, the part where does the designer step in. But again, who’s role is to plan finances? How can a designer stop the city being constructed and reconstructed by the power of the developers, financiers and all of those who make profit of speculative housing? We should at least know a grip of money flows in order not to make disastrous effects on the city with our architecture and planning. We should find new ways and new mechanisms to fund the projects for whole civic society and not only how to make more fancy office towers for the top layer of rich.