2014 ended on a good note. Last October, I had the opportunity to participate, together with 49 other project initiators, in the Idea Camp event in Marseille. The European Cultural Foundation promoted this event, geared towards shaking up our views on public space. After the three-day gathering, all fifty participants were invited to present a Research and Development project to be funded during 2015. The ECF announced a set of 25 R&D grants last December, and ‘P2P Plazas: a Southern European network’ is in.
Today, Europe struggles through a volatile reality. Severe economic blight and the industrial dissolution suffered over several decades have devastated the social and economic outlook of our cities and rural areas. Consequently, many industrial buildings and factories are left empty, inactive; the public sector also has abandoned buildings and lots. Basic services like education, health and culture are cut as the Welfare State is contested. Paradoxically, this atmosphere has empowered citizens to reclaim their own environments and heritage, shaping innovative roles in their production and consumption of culture and public space.
Considering what Henri Lefebvre calls the “rhythmic character of the city”, we should heed the noises and voices of public space as unique expressions of Southern European spirit, through disruptive movements including Spain’s 15M, Greek and Italian street protests in 2011 and the Taksim Square and Gezi Park occupations in Istanbul. Movements which emerged rapidly and seemed ephemeral from outside reveal themselves to be widespread over local contexts. What once was underground has become commonplace, accepted: urban gardens, self-managed social centers, open schools, fablabs, squats, active urban squares, hacklabs, medialabs, makerspaces, connected by scores of networks.
We’re calling this Southern European phenomenon “P2P Plazas”: places where bottom-up initiatives connect actions among peers (citizens). Peers decide for themselves what to do to invent and participate in new forms of cultural production and consumption, far from the established so-called “Cultural Industries”.
Frontiers which were strictly demarcated, today merge and interact. Each local area contains its own unique context for its open spaces; community relationships to that context determine the eventual re-use and re-invigoration of those places. Abandoned factories become new types of work spaces (fablabs, makerspaces, worker cooperatives), open lots may become community commercial spaces (artisan and local food markets). The neighborhood’s cultural associations with the original space guide its rebirth, not only its original use or legal zoning. These places host practices steeped in site-specific knowledge and learning, giving a deeply expanded, personal significance to commons-managed public space.
Although these practices surround us, there is no “big picture” to explain the deep significance of these transformations on our societies.
Each space finds its way through different legal (and illegal) formats, agreements and contracts with private and public owners. If we could effect a clearer view by mapping these experiences throughout Southern Europe, including the management and legal aspects of how they’re (re)signifying their environments, we would provide a catalog of prototypes to be replicated.
Mapping these p2p practices also reveals their Achilles’ heel: sustainability. It is crucial that local governments understand these transformations, provide support and tools for citizens to promote their own initiatives. Future developments out of this research could prototype p2p practices to establish a Southern European network with the common ground of sharing tools, knowledge and legal frames.
Through this year-long investigation, we will listen to those noises and rhythms which sustain our cities, and shape a ‘least common legal frame’ serving institutions and citizens to establish dialogues and understandings. The communities reshaping their local environments are central to this research. We must feel the active beating heart of our cities, and to join hands across borders. This is a way to build Europe together.
This research requires the support of foundations and institutions that believe in investigation for social change. The peer-to-peer experiences we learn from are mostly based in community volunteer work. Archiving and researching are not prioritized as are other, more tangible and immediate tasks. Works which create a big picture do exist, but without time, effort and communication devoted to research, creating the overall map isn’t possible. Isolating the tools adapted in local contexts can provide a bellwether for paradigm changes, and help us identify innovations in social, political and economic opportunities.
This proposal emerges from a local perspective of engagement with the routine at El Campo de Cebada, a commons-oriented plaza in Madrid. It will expand to other territories through the digital sphere. The context of this research will include a central cluster based in Madrid collaborating with several feeder nodes (starting elsewhere in Spain, Greece and Italy, then throughout Southern Europe). The network extension will operate in the digital context through an internal/external communication toolkit.
Coincidentally, Spain is holding local elections in May 2015, especially noteworthy for the emergence of new political actors. The research will include meetings with political parties and citizen candidates to assess their position on these questions, and evaluate their willingness to implement a ‘least common frame’.
This research does not emerge out of the blue. It’s inspired by many – many! – existing initiatives that have helped build a common cartography. For example (and these are all in Spain, for the moment): La Aventura de Aprender (The Learning Adventure), Arquitecturas Colectivas (Collective Architectures network), cartographies by Vivero de Iniciativas Ciudadanas (VIC), among others.
Throughout 2015, we’ll be working hand in hand with other closely related research groups, like Straddle3’s guide for activating public space (Barcelona), Adelita Husni-Bey’s investigation on housing and squatting (The Netherlands and Italy), Radarq’s open source urban furnitures (Barcelona), the intense activity at Pollinaria (Abruzzo, Italy), and also the research by Catherine Lenoble –a little detached because of its field, but sharing a huge common ground and perspective– on digital toy libraries. The research and communication will also be supported by the Guerrilla Translation team.
We’ll also be watching other necessary projects with great impact potential, like Zemos98 (Seville, Spain), Sarantaporo.net (Athens) and 1+1eleven (Puglia, Italy).
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