The ‘New Life’ in Neighborhoods

Looking for new ‘centers’ for building your career, finding plenty of attractive spots to feel at home, where there is the ‘globalization of the local’.

Eyjafjallajokull, a new spot on most maps, was unknown to the great majority of people until the volcano filled the skies with its ashes. It is a name so far away, and yet a place where the global economy stopped for a while, burning millions of euros, cancelling businesses, and halting flying (the most global and popular dynamic after talking on the phone). The primeval forces of Nature gave us a ‘little’ lesson: what is at the very border of our life and our world can turn rapidly into the centre of our attention and interest. Maybe the destination we have chosen is more important than the problem of taking two days and not two hours to make our trip. So the Icelandic volcano gives us a paradigm for choosing ‘where’ to work, considering that we are now facing the ‘globalization of the local’.

We are living in a kind of world where you can write your own song, create a podcast version in any language you like and share it with the rest of the world. A single individual or community can meet other local experiences and content, no matter where the point of origin is. Thanks to new ‘reticular technologies’ explains Saskia Sassen, senior sociologist at Columbia University, “Many local initiatives are participated and shared with forms of global network, strengthening local battles to preserve certain standards for quality of life experienced in a defined perimeter.” The web, cell and smart phone communications are in fact bringing back the “liquid” hypermobility of ideas, messages and projects to a ‘physical’ perception, made possible by and occurring in the urban tissue, through a series of piece- by – piece transformations.

Last year in Hamburg a group of artists occupied abandoned and rundown buildings, which have stood mostly empty for years, in one of the oldest parts of the city: Gaengeviertel, a dense district of narrow alleys. So the city was delighted when an investor willing to foot the bill for the development of the project was found. A Dutch investment company drew up plans to tear down some of the original buildings, restore the facades of others, and develop a complex of high-end offices and apartment buildings. But what the city and the investor had not realized is that new life had sprouted in the historic neighborhood. In the dim and musty rooms, artists have set up ateliers, an information center and gallery space. Very soon after the artists occupied part of the property, the Hamburg Senate got in contact with them and the investor  to see if there was a way to meet the demands of the artists, looking for a way to preserve more of the original buildings while giving space for the artists to work. The case of Hamburg highlights a common trend in many big cities: giving room to artists’ initiatives to make life in the city as colourful and multifaceted as possible.

Many cities around the world are now looking to culture and arts as a real chance to ‘give new blood’ in the difficult season of cuts and losses that have made 2010 worse than the already tremendous 2009. The successful case histories of West Philadelphia, Harlem and South Brooklyn give the right example, changing the myth of displacement claimed by many urban sociologists.

The European Union is investing in cultural programs such as the Black/North SEAS, which connect artists and cultural organizations seen as gateways of intercultural engagement and laboratories of urban renewal. Black/North SEAS again raised the question of how one can have a cultural impact on big cities, such as creating cultural events. These kinds of ‘Culture injection’ for new social life are still the best recipe for the renewal of large and medium cities, which cope with facing global competition for attracting more talented workers.

In a city you can consider and discover the different relationships within neighborhoods. “A geographically localized community within a larger city, town or suburb”, states Wikipedia: “neighborhoods are often social communities with considerable face – to – face interaction among members.” So choosing an adequate location to work in is more a matter of ‘community’ versus ‘solitude’, says Fran Tomkiss, responsible for the ‘Cities Programme’ at the London School of Economics. People are looking for new social approaches and for new ways of using public spaces where the ‘borders’ are used as an opportunity, to get in touch, to know each others’ diversity and identity, without reproducing division and exclusion. Large cities are facing a challenge of another kind: borders that are able to be seen, but absolutely not exclusive or impermeable. No more ‘downtown’ versus ‘suburbs’: it is the ‘with’ dimension that’s winning, the participation and shared sense of living (and working) which are taking place worldwide. Restaurants, coffee shops, schools, museums, art galleries and parks, all express our search for a real quality of life. We need something anchored to specific spaces, so typical as to become our own little spot where we can feel at home.

An interesting experience is made by the Teachers Village designed in Newark by R. Meier.
In fact the planning of a four block-long mixed-use development would have passed nearly unnoticed, if it hadn’t been for the name and the standing of the architect. R. Meier is well known to the world for his design, from second homes in the Hamptons to international museums.  A new trend in US architecture is being called for after a long period devoted to work almost exclusively for the wealthy. As matter of fact, more and more design is playing a role in remodeling people’s lives in a neighborhood or other places. Brisbane, for instance investing in a new breed of under 40 designers and architects: a generation critically aware of bigger issues like water  consumption, transport solutions, energy efficiency and focused on reinventing city spaces such as multi-story car parks or playgrounds for children in green areas. Another kind of ‘cultural transformation’ is what happened in the South Bank neighborhood, which has become a prime cultural destination in London after a decade of significant public investments. The area is populated by numerous cultural institutions, most of them located along the Thames walkway between Westminster and London Bridge. For over 2 square miles, aligned one after the other, there is the SouthBank Centre, the Purcell Room, the Hayward Gallery, the British Film Institute, the National Theatre, the Tate Modern and the Shakespeare Globe Theatre.


Published in the hard-copy of Work Style Magazine, Summer 2010