The urban space is our new home. About 3.5 billion people live in cities today, the number is expected to double by 2050. With that said cities have a history; a history of baroque decisions which have made many a city an ugly place. Crammed with people, designed for business; they’re not public spaces. Walk around a European or North American city and what do you see? Malls, shopping districts, business districts and residential neighborhoods un-designed for the people who live in them. The history of the urban space is a history of money, speculation and the design of living constraints; constraints that have alienated the power of a space to ennoble, bring together and create free association.
The list of people who have rallied against the poor decision-making preceding the modern urban space is endless. From Lewis Mumford in 1938 to David Harvey in ‘Rebel Cities’ the essential complaint is that cities should be spaces in which the living inhabitants of a space are active participants of that space; the ownership of civic experience belongs to people, not to the businesses that rally and take living from the spaces in which we live. An essential feature of cities 2.0 is that it is our information that will inform how cities are planned. But the need to make cities spaces in which the sense of living is palpable is more that immediate.
So what’s a city hack?
City hacking are movements in cities that start at the grass-roots level. City hacking is treating the infrastructure of a city like the hardware of a computer and working around the limitations a cities architecture. That is using the space provided in new ways to bring people together, creating new experiences by ignoring the appearances of a city and finding new opportunities to create membership and community. City hacking is allowing people to use cities in new ways, be a part new urban experiences not provided by the concrete that makes cities centers monopolized business centers. A city hack is a movement in which people otherwise unable to profit, communicate or congregate the chance to do so.
City hacking is not necessarily a rebel movement. In some cases they are. But, a hack can be no more than using an existing space to bring people together and create new opportunities for local makers, craftsmen and businesses to create community. A city hack could be an event created by a community in conjunction with a a city. They can also be rallies; chances for people who otherwise sit disgruntled to raise their voice as a people. City hacking taking an otherwise illusory democracy embedded in the bureaucracy of cities and creating opportunities for people, otherwise separated, to share in an event that brings ownership and community to the places we live our lives.
City hacking has many guises, from community gardens to pop-up shops. Another term for city hacking is ‘Tactical Urbanism‘ which Wikipedia describes as “an umbrella term used to describe a collection of low-cost, temporary changes to the built environment, usually in cities, intended to improve local neighbourhoods and city gathering places.” And that’s the essential point of the ‘hack’; to improve the environment that we live in.
We all share the urban space. The history of that space has not been one of or for the people who live in it. Slums, ghettos; they’re nothing new. As soon as the industrial revolution hit its pace the city (except for boulevards designed to keep the poor away and from revolt) were places to work. That is they were not places to live.
Embracing the hack is like embracing life for moments on ingenuity, spontaneity and variety. And here’s the thing. When the hacks happen the people come and there is life. The built environment is forgotten for the brief moments that spaces transform into something different; something in that takes people away from the everyday and into a moment shared, lived and owned.