The Political Lab: How Can Urban Design Facilitate Socio-Political Engagement?

Nov 3 •

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Last year Mirian Calvo, postgraduate student of the Glasgow School of Art, contacted us to ask our vision on topics that have been very present in our own work lately: the relation between citizens and institutions, the role of “urban labs” or “urban kitchens” in urban development, and the use of urban mockups or prototypes to create spaces for interaction, engagement and transformation.

Some months later she sent us the the result of her research, turned into a proposal for the George Square in Glasgow. Here you can watch a short video and read a summary about the project. Thanks, Mirian!

The aim of this final Masters’ project is to determine in which ways design can facilitate socio-political engagement in public spaces and elicit conversations between citizenship and public authorities. It is not merely about protest in George Square, it is about creating the environmental conditions to enable socio-political interactions by people, and therefore promote inclusiveness and rethink the functions of public space in the near future.

The project has been very stimulating and I believe that it touches on issues that are important to reflect on how we want to shape the future development of society in the 21st century. Matters such as the meaning of public space and its functions to citizens are key in the urban transformation process, as reported by Harvey (2008).

Thus, I think this has been a small experiment that will require further research. Call me utopian, but I believe strongly that public space belongs to all citizens and that they should decide as a collective how to transform it and how best to use it. There is also the topic of virtual-physical spaces. For example, the physical space puts people in relation to proximity and it needs to be there in order to trigger interaction. Likewise, digital connects individuals remotely but one needs an electronic device access to the virtual space. And behind all this, lies the question of who is the owner of spaces, both physical and digital.

The displacement of the political and the public culture to other covering and mainly private spaces is another of the findings. This explains, to some extent, why Christopher Alexander (1977) said that nowadays there is a lack of public life. In current public spaces, citizens can barely be consumers or producers, there is not enough room for other interactions. This project aims to change that by suggesting other possible activities. Of these, research has revealed ways in which the design of public space can truly facilitate and enable socio-political engagement. Nevertheless, as Teresa Hoskyns (2005) avers, “the architect can only make possibilities for social relations”. Indeed, the same space changes its functions based on the people. Thus, society is whoever determines political relations.

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