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Engaged Urbanism

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The UCL Urban Laboratory's 2016 collection, 'Engaged Urbanism', collated work from its long-running exhibition and events series 'Cities Methodologies', presenting new ways to reimagine cities and respond to urban challenges.

Engaged Urbanism

Taken from the series ‘Images of Enjoyment and Spectacle’ (2015) by Max Colson. Part of a sequence of appropriated ‘photorealistic’ advertising images originally used to market privatised public spaces and luxury housing developments in Britain.

Credit: Max Colson

In 2009, the UCL Urban Laboratory ran its first Cities Methodologies exhibition, launched in collaboration with the Slade School of Fine Art and the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

A transdisciplinary centre for critical and creative thinking, the Urban Lab brings together academics and students from across The Bartlett and UCL, from architects and geographers to engineers, artists and anthropologists. Cities Methodologies was no less eclectic, curating everything from film and art to architecture, performance and design, to explore new methods for understanding and intervening in the city.

In 2016, the Urban Lab published Engaged Urbanism: Cities and Methodologies, an edited collection of work from the series. Professor Ben Campkin, co-editor of the book, Co-director and previously Director of UCL Urban Laboratory (2011–2018), talks about how these assemblages of work can help us reimagine cities and think about urban challenges with fresh vigour.

Engaged Urbanism

Overlay of sixteen photographs taken in the north-eastern part of the Heygate Estate (formerly Pollock Road).

Credit: Felipe Lanuza Rilling

Does Cities Methodologies set researchers a challenge to present their work in a way that they might not normally?

Yes, it asks researchers to expose their work in-progress, so that others can see the methods they are adopting, even as they are still being formulated. This is unique, as exhibitions of architecture and urbanism typically give a false sense that the processes through which urban knowledge is produced are seamless. The opposite is true, and we ask exhibitors to let others see the challenges they are facing and the things they had to speculate about and experiment with.

Engaged Urbanism

Exhibition view of forty-five photocopies, 297 × 420 mm (2011).

Credit: Fugitive Images

What is the benefit of presenting peer-reviewed academic work next to undergraduate projects?

There is an irreverence towards conventional hierarchies in Cities Methodologies, and that includes academic hierarchies. This allows younger, emerging generations of urbanists to come forward. As the book shows, the exhibitions featured a new generation of urbanists who display great energy and flexibility as transdisciplinary thinkers. Through prioritising co-design and collaboration with community partners they inspire reconsideration of traditional academic and professional structures.

Engaged Urbanism

‘The Vertical Slum: a Contestation of the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan Vision’.

Credit: MSc Building & Urban Design in Development students (2010)

What do you think is missing from approaches to urban research today?

In Engaged Urbanism, we are particularly interested in the sociopolitical aspects of urban knowledge production and the social life of this knowledge. Given what we deem an over-reliance, in policy and practice, of certain kinds of quantitative data, often taken out of context, our position is that more hybrid and imaginative approaches to research, which privilege qualitative evidence and community-based knowledge, have the potential to lead to better decision-making and, ultimately, more equitable cities.

Engaged Urbanism

The destruction and reconstruction of heritage areas affected by earthquakes in Chile by Bernadette Devilat. Photographic elevations of Los Libertadores Street in San Lorenzo de Tarapacá. Top: just after the 2005 earthquake. Centre: after the reconstruction in 2013. Bottom: 3D scanned elevation from 2013, used to scale the photographic records above.

Credit: Bernadette Devilat

Over the years you’ve been running Cities Methodologies, what has surprised you most?

I am struck by the openness of researchers to collaborate and their capacity to speak across disciplines and practices that have very different languages and rituals, and which on the surface might not seem to connect. The array of topics, and desire to increase the capacity of globally dominant forms of urbanization to enhance public good, are also impressive.

Why did you publish Engaged Urbanism when you did?

Governments and other agencies are acutely focused on the future of cities worldwide, as the launch of the New Urban Agenda at Habitat III and the Sustainable Development Goals in 2016 attested. With this in mind, we thought it was an important moment to be making the case for an experimental turn in methods of researching and understanding cities.

In that sense, we think of the book as a kind of handbook of inventive approaches that will inspire researchers, activists, policy-makers and service providers everywhere to question hierarchies of expertise, and work with available resources towards knowledge that will lead to improved practice and more equitable cities.

Engaged Urbanism: Cities and Methodologies, Edited by B. Campkin and G. Duijzings (I.B. Tauris, 2016)

Part of this interview was first published under the title ‘The power of unlikely connections’ in The Bartlett Review 2016.

Urban Laboratory is a collaborative cross-disciplinary platform to promote critical and creative urban research, teaching, practice and participation. It is supported by four faculties at UCL: The Bartlett, Engineering, Social & Historical Sciences, and Arts & Humanities. Find out more: https://ucl.ac.uk/urbanlab

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