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Urban Tinkering

A playful approach to addressing urban challenges

By Llwelyn Coertzen

, |

Urban Tinkering

A playful approach to addressing urban challenges

By Llwelyn Coertzen

, |

2 min read

We are in the midst of a rapid rise in urbanism. Since 1900, the global urban population has increased from 200 million to 3.9 billion in 2014. In 2050, this figure is expected to reach 6.4 billion. Cities are experiencing the impacts of climate change more frequently and more intensely. Conventional urban infrastructure and landscape design emphasised single-use structures and facilities.

However, this approach creates lock-in situations in which urban infrastructure and landscapes persist across decades and centuries. The current urban infrastructure and landscape are not able to withstand the pressures of a rapidly changing social, technical and ecological environment. We need to rethink our approach towards designing our cities. An urban tinkering approach may be a key component in the solution towards designing more resilient and sustainable cities.

What is Urban Tinkering?

Urban (loosely defined here as town/city) tinkering (loosely defined here as the attempt to repair or improve something in a casual manner) is a conceptual framework that facilitates the collaboration between multiple stakeholders in the planning, implementing, monitoring and adjustment of urban infrastructure and landscape projects. The framework ‘seeks to transform the use of existing – and the design of new – urban systems in ways that diversify their functions, anticipate new uses, and enhance adaptability to better meet the social, economic and ecological needs of cities …’ One of the main strengths of an urban tinkering approach, as compared to the conventional approach to urban infrastructure and landscape design, is in its ability to produce adaptive and multi-functional solutions (refer to Table 1).

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An urban tinkering approach has the potential to create infrastructure with an innate potential to change function in response to the changing environment around it. It promotes the idea of engaging in small-scale urban experiments that cumulatively have the potential to transform urban landscapes on a larger scale. The framework incorporates the assumption that the future is uncertain and volatile, and therefore different future scenarios are anticipated at the design stage, allowing for a proactive approach throughout the project’s life cycle.

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The core principles of urban tinkering can be summarised as:

  • diversity of approaches manifested through continuous experimentation using multiple approaches to existing urban challenges
  • shift in function manifested through repurposing the uses and functions of existing elements
  • sense of place manifested through the participation of multiple local stakeholders in highly localised projects
  • coordination – adaptive management, adaptive governance, anticipation manifested through the successful alignment of top-down and bottomup approaches to addressing urban challenges
  • extended time horizon manifested through the success of the cumulative impact of multiple smaller-scale projects
  • multi-systems approach manifested through the successful collaboration of multiple stakeholders across disciplines in which experiments are linked to achieve common goals and objectives.

Conclusion

The rapid rate of global social, political and environmental changes has resulted in outdated, non-functional urban landscapes and infrastructure. Although not a panacea, urban tinkering can cumulatively address local and regional challenges by introducing an adaptive, inclusive, practical and playful approach to these challenges. It assumes that we are ignorant of the future conditions that we might face, and allows for a flexible approach in which the cost of experimentation is low enough to inspire a willingness to implement change in any environment.

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