Open urban tools. A catalogue

The title ‘Open urban tools’ (in Spanish ‘Herramientas de ciudad abierta’) attempts to highlight a peculiar dimension of the civic urban projects that have proliferated in Madrid in the recent years: Community gardens, squatted social centres and occupied plots of vacant land that have spread throughout the city. Cornerstone to these projects has been the construction of a multifarious repertoire of tools: maps, urban archives, dérives, hand-made pieces of furniture, digital platforms… They compose a catalogue that we would like to suggest opens up city design to the participation of its inhabitants, something has been happening in other cities of Spain too.

I would like to give a few notes to contextualize the climate of political invention and urban creativity that has spread over Madrid in recent years, we could say that the projects that have proliferated are infused by this climate driving the re-imagination of the city. A paradigmatic project would be the Campo de Cebada, The Barley Field, a plot of vacant land located in the centric neighbourhood of La Latina, it has been self-managed by the neighbours for the last five years after they reach an agreement with the council. Although the project lacks any kind of funding (public or private), it has been able to construct a vibrant space full of activity: weekly cinema sessions are organized during the summer, concerts take place in the weekends and workshops of very different kind happen all the time. The project was awarded in 2013 by the Arts Electronica Festival and 2014 received the award of the Spanish Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism.

The Campo de Cebada is an exceptional project but it is not unique. Since 2008, more than 40 community gardens have been created in alegal or extra-legal occupations of vacant plots of land in Madrid. Some of them have been later legalized by the council after Madrid Urban Allotment Network (ReHd Mad) designed in collaboration with the council an act that was approved in 2015 paving the way for the expansion of these projects. I would like to outline three aspects of this particular form of urbanism because it offers us some clues on the kind of urban tools that have produced in these projects and their peculiarities. These three aspects are, namely: (i) The problematization of property regimes, (ii) the construction of open urban infrastructures and (iii) the production of precise and detailed forms of documentation and archival repositories.

i. Urban commons.
The property regime of our Western societies has been traditional organized following a dichotomised way of thinking that classifies anything in one of two categories: public or private. A large part of the urban projects and civic initiatives (iniciativas ciudadanas, as they are called) that have come to life in the last years invoke a different understanding of the property of public urban goods. It is sometimes described with the notion of open governance and the notion of the commons (in Spanish, procomún) to refer to these urban spaces.

The invocation to the commons evinces a distinctive aspect of these forms of urban occupation. For if squatting has traditionally been a practice of law transgression that makes of legal transgression a key instrument for its political practice, these other forms of squatting are occupied with the technical exploration of new legal mechanisms for the production of urban commons. Indeed, they have laid aside the traditional idiom of occupation (okupación) and has instead started to use the expression of liberation to refer to their forms of intervention in the city. The conceptual distinction between public and private categories furnishing our property regime is thus an object of experimentation in many of these projects.

These projects pose us a question: How could we re-imagine the governance of the city? A city that is not owned by private companies or only governed by the public administration, a city that turns into a commons, or using the Spanish concept: procomún. I do not have spaces to get into details, but very often this experimentation draws inspiration on Free Software. What Free Software did on the Internet inventing a robust legal architecture of licenses, many of these projects are trying to replicate in the urban space.

ii. Open urban infrastructures.
The projects like the Campo de Cebada or initiatives participating in the Madrid’s Network of Urban Allotments have all proceed equipping the urban space with humble infrastructures. Those civic initiatives take usually abandon spaces and unoccupied buildings, occupy them and by equipping them with infrastructures reintegrate these spaces into the circuitry of the city. The infrastructures equipping these spaces are constructed in open workshops where people with no expertise learn how to refurnish the public space with new capacities. City planning is not anymore a practice solely in the hands of traditional experts, on the contrary, it is now carried out by these urban dwellers taking part in these spaces of apprenticeship.

iii. Documentation and archives.
These infrastructures are not only auto-constructed by citizens, very often they are precisely documented in sketches, drawings and instructions. Driven by the idea that those experiences could be reproduced in other places, there is a great effort put in the documentation of designs, methodologies, techniques, etc. Very often, free software is explicitly stated as a source of inspiration for this documentary practices that not only auto-constructs the city but produce the instructions to reproduce it. Large amounts of information are made public in these forms of intervention in the city. Methodologies of different kinds are documented on the Internet, designs of infrastructures are uploaded to archives and the data produced is shared on open repositories. Sometimes this documentation takes the form of maps, in other occasions it takes the shape of archives that recount the story of the city anew.

The initiatives proliferating in Spain have thus produced a series of tools that open up information (maps, archives, catalogues, repositories…) and at the same time information that attempts to open up tools. There seem to be a sustained effort to explore how to open the source of the urban infrastructures that are produced in the auto-construction of the city. It takes the form of manuals of instructions that are published under creative commons licence that allow anybody to replicate the designs.

Certainly, the occupation of spaces and the construction of community gardens is nothing new, but I think that the last aspect I have mentioned, the production of manuals, instructions, how-to-guides and a variegated forms of documentation that instruct auto-construction bear witness to the distinctive dimension of the urbanism emerging in Madrid: An urban imagination that is sourced by the liberating impulse of free software. This particular form of urbanism materializes the encounter of two different sensibilities: one represented by the insurgent practice of autoconstruction and another one infused by the liberating impulse of Free Culture. The outcome is a particular urban sensibility driven by a pedagogical impulse. A form of urbanism that not only auto-constructs the city but looks for the sources to auto-instruct the urban fabric.


For those who didn’t have the chance to attend to the session, here you can find the slides of the presentations:

Introduction. The free city: an urban encounter between open source and auto-construction (PDF). Adolfo Estalella and Alberto Corsín Jiménez (Urbanisms in beta). Agenda ciudadana de acontecimientos urbanos, Vivero de Iniciativas Ciudadanas (PDF), Alejandro Zappala Delgado.

Civic Tech Manifest: CivicWise (PDF), Domenico Di Siena.

Archivo TAZ (PDF), Todo por la praxis.

Saberes que son poderes. Una ciudad de manual (PDF), Zuloark / Ciudad Huerto.

Senyalem la Memòria (PDF), Territoris Oblidats.

Caseando. Nuevos espacios colectivos desde la vivienda (PDF), Vivero de Iniciativas Ciudadanas.

Micos Projet: educational facilities as strategic elements for urban regeneration (PPT), PEZ Arquitectos.

Marco común para la cesión de espacios ciudadanos, Red de Espacios Ciudadanos (REC) (PDF).

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