“Space Activation and Re-Territorialisation” examines how alleyways and lanes are transformed through the current trend of space activation. Furthermore, an explication of what this means, how these spaces can be used, and by whom, is addressed by using theoretical frameworks to illuminate case examples. With a specific focus on Vancouver urban design, Melbourne and Singapore are also briefly referenced to show how the design trend is being borrowed, and is not an idea original to Vancouver urban designers.
The term space activation can be described by the Vancouver Canada urban design context. Space activation means to introduce visual interest to a building face, according to Vancouver architects and planners. This may take the form of greenwalls, murals, change in cladding pattern (cladding means the outside layer of a building), shifts in wall-planes (wall plane meaning the wall but excluding the roof), amongst other types of activations. The intention is that a visually interesting building face adds “colour” to the public realm. But, also from a crime prevention angle, there is an assumption that a well-programmed building face, especially a mural or artwork, will read as belonging to someone local in the neighbourhood, since special effort has been invested to have that building face contribute to the public realm. As such, seeing this investment of local energy, would-be minor crimes such as graffiti and loitering will be deterred.
The Vancouver notion of space activation assumes that design guidelines and policies are structured around assumed design hierarchies regarding types of spaces. For example, in public realm design in Vancouver urban design planning and architectural circles, the preferred spaces are those with active street life – the building frontage, at least at grade level (grade meaning ground), adds value to the public realm (as opposed to the private land areas). On the lower rung of the design hierarchy are blank walls and service areas that turn away from the public realm. A pedestrian’s journey must be enlivened by visual interests in these so-called neglected spaces, the blank walls and service areas, by creating ‘green’ walls (walls with vegetation), murals, cafes with sunny patios, and shops that wrap around into the alleyways.
The desire to save alleyways and bare walls from their neglected state by transforming them into active urbane spaces seems to suggest all spaces bear the same importance. These alleyways and parti-walls (parti-wall meaning dividing wall between buildings) must be carefully curated spaces with specific performances, to be appropriately ‘activated’. Although no longer barren or mundane, they become sanitized.
The main body of this article elaborates on how these curated activations of dead spaces may stifle the life or possibility for spontaneity that activation is meant to create. Activation sometimes disables the dialogues, bodies, and voices that do not conform to the image of the beautiful public realm according to those who have the ability to make decisions about the space.
Instagram Perfect Public Realm
The ideal public realm in Vancouver, according to the architects and planners, is often reduced to a prescribed set of rules to create the aforementioned space activation—a certain percentage of glazing must be transparent, a certain percentage of walls must have climbers or murals, the street wall must be a certain ratio to the street-width. The ideal public realm does not allow for the potential of the yet un-imagined space. History and future become extensions of the now, static.
The ideally “activated space” covers up the spaces that do not fall immediately within the real estate industry’s intention to sanitize urban form—the spaces that are hidden, left touched with garbage bins, or un-painted walls. The space is contained and orderly; the abject screened off. Urban forms and events—murals, graffiti and alley games—once considered too low brow for previous generations of urbanists’ taste, have become the celebrated forms for today’s urbanists, to be placed into their picture of the beautiful city.
Vancouver’s east side is often portrayed as the grittier side of the city. East side neighbourhoods are noted for their activism, often targeting socio-economic inequality and rising housing unaffordability issues. The area also has higher populations of indigenous Canadians, who have higher poverty rates than other demographics. Given the political activism, it is unsurprising many arts institutes and societies that go against the grain, like Western Front Arts Society, were founded in East Vancouver. Today, many artists continue to live and work in East Vancouver’s light industrial areas that historically offered cheap rent, though the art studio stock is dwindling.
East Vancouver’s arts hub identity has attracted the possibilities for gentrification. In particular, the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood has been identified by Vancouver’s development industry as a cultural area where redevelopment should include a range of uses like artist live-work lofts/studios. As if using Richard Florida’s Creative Class model as a blueprint to plan for these neighbourhoods, warehouses and light industrial buildings that used to house art studios have become lofts, brewhouses and laboratories for developing apps. Often, the inhabitants of these new live-work studios are not artists.
Besides these lofts, brewhouses and apps-labs, the city-owned lands are also changing. In summer 2017, two events in East Vancouver made headlines on the urbanist social media: Vancouver Mural Festival and Laneway Living Room Project. Existing graffiti and murals along alleys and on parti-walls are washed out to provide a clean canvas for the mural festival. Service alleys at the back of buildings where workers take smoking breaks became sites for alleyway parties with DJs and ping-pong tables. Events and spaces that were once the opposite of “sterilised” urbanity have made it into the urban design canon along with food trucks and pop-up shops.
Sociologist Mary Douglas reminded us that dirt is often just “matter out of place,” and that defining, hence including, dirt seems to contravene the purity of the “clean” or sanitized order, but it in fact reaffirms those precise hierarchies. The festival’s murals may seem, at first, to contravene the age-old preference for unadorned walls. But, these murals, in activating the walls, are today’s urbanists’ prized form and function. There is no contagion from these restrained murals that may threaten the ideal public space.
The dead space activations are deactivating their neighbourhood’s vitality, voices and spontaneity. Two Vancouver artists, Jesse McKee and Amy Nugent suggest that the funding structures and power blocs are aligning in the area for potential real estate transactions and business interests, which would eventually displace many low-income residents. Using the Belvedere Building where the festival’s main mural is as an example, they noted the building’s landlords were conducting renoviction of the residents—many of whom are artists, persons with disabilities, or on welfare. What McKee and Nugent are describing in this case is ‘art washing’, the tool of developers to use art to beautify a neighbourhood for development.
They also noted the original slogan to be written on the Belvedere mural was to be “Our Place, Our Home”, but the festival’s organisers rejected that in favour of “The Present is a Gift”. And, according to former Belvedere resident and writer Sean MacPherson, some of the long-time Belvedere residents were given eviction notice shortly after the festival ended. The Belvedere mural, rather than celebrating its residents, have become a notice for them to make way for those who can afford to pay to live in an arts neighbourhood. The fanfare surrounding Vancouver Mural Festival depoliticises many challenges lower-income Mount Pleasant residents are facing—eviction being one. The present is not a gift if one cannot afford to live there presently. As McKee and Nugent’s article’s title suggest, “the present is a gift for developers.”
This celebration and salvaging of neglected spaces also saw a few East Vancouver alleyways turned into “living room” parties with dancing, DJ-ing and ping-pong matches for the urbane crowd during summer 2017’s Laneway Living Room event.
Vancouver designers and developers are attempting to borrow trends happening, for example, in Melbourne, which started in the early 2000s as an underground street party surrounding an alleyway pub named St. Jerome’s expanded to an annual fee-paying music festival partially sponsored by the commercial radio station, Triple J amongst credit card companies, fashion labels, and alcohol companies. The term “lane”, presumably meaning something “grungy” has been branded so well that the St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival now also takes place in Singapore, in a park. A “lane” no longer needs to be physically located behind a building or property. It is now an image that can exist in multiple contexts, each instance changing its form as we witnessed with the St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival. Whether the “lane” is a localised “living room” or a global event, the people who get to inhabit it are a select few.
Urban theorist Jamie Peck, problematising the Florida’s Creative Class, noted these creative strategies often “commodify the arts and cultural resources, even social tolerance itself, suturing them as putative economic assets to evolving regimes of urban competition.” Repackaging urban cultural artifacts is rarely for culture’s sake, rather they become competitive assets valued for their “economic utility.” Hence, repackaging spaces into sites for fun pushes aside the socio-spatial injustice and hides the use of commodified cultural events as tools for raising land values.
The once political territory of protest graffiti and murals, and illegal alley activities, are dismantled into their elemental form, and re-presented as fun to boost real estate values. From these fragmented elemental parts, a new dehistoricised territory that almost looks similar to the pre-festival graffiti is created. These so-called creative urban strategies also pre-empt any challenges they may face by incorporating them into their own body. As sociologist Frédéric Vandenberghe noted, “Capitalism has progressively integrated the critique of capitalism into its mode of functioning.” Following Vandenberghe, one can see how the festival seems to present its murals and alleyway games as interventions against global hegemony. Yet, because the festival’s space-time is so thoroughly programmed there are no opportunities for any unanticipated coming of social, economic, environmental and historical forces that can form new spaces and subjects that may challenge the festival’s actual dominant logic to raise real estate values. By controlling both arguments and counter- argument, silence ensues. As Douglas noting on society’s fears about dirt wrote, “Purity is the enemy of change, of ambiguity and compromise.”
For this moment, the public realm is an Instagram perfect picture that does not need or have the capabilities to reveal its own constitutive forces, power relations and potentials. We know the still-life of these murals and alleyway games are never truly still or like a diagram1. Michel Foucault reminds us that the capacity to gain the potential to effect change for comes from the constant differentiation between parts. “Power relations are mobile, they can be modified.” From this lens, if real estate markets have de-territorialised the initial political purpose of murals and graffiti, and re-territorialised them as muted copies for festivals and rising property values, it is possible to again de-territorialise these depoliticised relations (between murals, lanes and property value), and reform them as politically charged forms, events and spaces to challenge the tamed public realm. The power relations refer in this case, to the power of the market and rising property values to de-territorialize residents from their public spaces. The power relations between real estate developers and residents play out in the public spaces they are activating.
If one takes Foucault’s understanding of power relations as always capable of being transformed, then one can deduce that this challenge, raised against the hip murals and alleyways, must necessarily be continuous. It will be a continuous effort of breaking apart each territory as soon as it presents itself as the finale; breaking them apart to reveal the surpluses and excesses. Philosopher Elizabeth Grosz wrote that to understand the excess in architecture is not just to understand the social and community needs, it is also to ask what are the forces that architecture and the socio-economic and communal structures have left out in their construction of space? Grosz wrote, excess “is not simply super-added but also undermines and problematises.”
The goal to sanitize public space by activating it has been to commodify what was once deemed useless space of little value, and find potential for new market value, as well as block the potential of the space to be deemed undesirable by the real estate developers and potential real estate investors. One ethical and practical effect this Instagram perfect urbanscape of mural festivals and alleyway games and musicals, is that the power relations, between developers and residents, along with the intermediary actors, architects and planners, have de-territorialized public spaces from residents.
The residents and citizens, users of public spaces, have the potential to re-territorialise the spaces. Further research could explore how once dehistoricised/depoliticised forces and relations can be re-territorialized, first to challenge the state of affairs, then to be catalysts for new people and spaces to emerge. What are the unlikely and unexpected forces simmering beneath that hold elements of the physical and social urbanscape together? How can the relations between these elements be recast and re-formed to bring about other new relations? How can these excesses and surpluses undermine the semblance of ideal urbanity, and facilitate other kinds of territories and voices to return anew?
1. Gilles Deleuze (1981), Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. pp.99-111. Gilles Deleuze sees Francis Bacon’s paintings, including his still-lives, as “diagrams”. Diagrams do not reference an external reality or even a fixed point of time / history. A diagram is like a set of utterings, graphics and ideas that can be read differently each time, depending on the circumstances, and used to produce different sensations, concepts and ultimately actions. They go beyond the representational to being something that offers up the forces for productive interventions back into this reality. Thus, even in its plastic stillness, a diagrammatic image bears the potentialities to go beyond what is represented. There is even the possibility for forces that can even counter what seems to be represented on the two-dimensional plane to emerge. The diagram is always beyond its frame.
— Deleuze, G . (1981). Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (Trans. D.W. Smith). London & New York: Continuum Books, pp.99-111.
— Douglas, M. (1984). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Tabo., New York City: Routledge, pp.36 and pp.163.
— Florida, R. (2012). The Rise of the Creative Class. New York City: Perseus Books.
— Foucault, M. (1997) Ethics. Ed. P. Rabinow; Trans. R. Hurley et al. London & New York: Penguin Books, pp. 292-293.
— Grosz, E. (2001). Architecture from the Outside. Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp. 150-151.
— MacPherson, S. (2017). Our Place, Our Home: Belvedere Tenants Fight to Remain in Mount Pleasant. The Mainlander. [online] Available at: http://themainlander.com/2017/09/05/the-belvedere-renters-against-evictions-in-the-wake-of-mural-fest/ (Accessed: 20-01-2018).
— McKee, J and Nugent, A. (2017). Vancouver Mural Festival: The Present is a Gift for Developers. The Mainlander. [online] Available at: http://themainlander.com/2017/08/16/vancouver-mural-festival-the-present-is-a-gift-for-developers/ (Accessed: 13-01-2018).
— Peck, J. (December 2005). Struggling with the Creative Class. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Vol. 29.4. pp. 763-764.
— St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival (2018). [online] Available at: http://singapore.lanewayfestival.com/ (Accessed: 29-01-2018).
— Vandenberghe, F. (2008). Deleuzean Capitalism. Philosophy and Social Criticism, Vol. 3, p.879.
Dr. Patrick Foong Chan was born in Singapore, raised in Australia, and currently resides in Vancouver. Dr Chan has a PhD in Architecture and Design Theory from RMIT University and a Masters of Urban Planning and Design from the UBC where he is a masters thesis external supervisor and an urban design planner at the City of Vancouver. Dr Chan has given public lectures on urban design issues and is the published author of other urban design journal articles.
Camilla Lade, born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, holds a BA from UBC, a Graduate Diploma in Urban Studies from SFU and is a MsC Candidate in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh while working in Downtown Eastside Community Planning for the City of Vancouver. Lade is also a women’s anti poverty advocate, environmental activist, and writer in Vancouver.