Changing cities from the bottom up
Words by Suzanna Knight
Photos by Davide Franceschini
Creating green solutions for an ever-urbanised world from the bottom up - that’s what Commonstudio is all about. This Los Angeles-based, globally-operating social design studio, run by husband and wife team Daniel Phillips and Kim Karlsrud, explores the ways cities function as ecosystems through situated research and tactical experimentation. We caught up with them in Bangalore to figure out how they try to design and implement meaningful ways of human-nature interaction on different scales within the city.
Why do you think bringing nature back into the city is such an important part of the solution?
It’s important to understand that we live in a ‘post-wild’ world, and that our backwards notions of ‘nature’ and ‘city’ as separate entities need to change. We recognise that nature actually never left the city, it still exists all around us, not just as remnants in the periphery but in many strange and new conditions that are sometimes hard to register. There’s a need to focus on recognising, defining, and valuing urban nature in its many mutations.
We recognise that nature actually never left the city, it still exists all around us.
You’re based in Los Angeles, but are currently working in Bangalore. What are you up to there?
We are here with the support of the U.S. Fulbright programme, exploring various issues related to urban metabolism and the collective perception and management of urban ecosystems in the city. It’s the first time we’ve ever worked in the context of such a rapidly expanding megacity where, unlike cities in the States and Europe, the basic structure isn’t yet established or regulated. The primary drivers for growth in Bangalore are far more informal and functionally chaotic, which causes a lot of constraints but also opportunities. It’s a wonderful place to operate for tactical urbanists like us, lots of room to experiment!
The Commonstudio philosophy revolves around the idea that cities can become more vibrant, resilient and responsive from the bottom up. Can you elaborate on this?
Municipalities have a tradition of spending big on single sites and strategies, even though smaller projects are more affordable and far more effective. Take stormwater management and watershed contamination, for example. Top-down solutions to these issues usually tend towards large-scale, expensive projects that take years or even decades to complete.
One of our early speculative projects, Curban Ecology, looked into immediate solutions that could supplement these strategies from the bottom-up. It proposed a ‘hacked’ version of your typical curb and gutter. By cutting a system of voids and channels into the concrete, polluted runoff could be absorbed and treated with specialised plants at street level rather than flushed into the larger scales of a watershed. By targeting polluted urban runoff on this small scale, you respond to a huge urban challenge in a much cheaper, quicker way. We don’t necessarily think bottom-up solutions are always better, but it’s important to define local challenges on an urban scale and urban challenges locally.
It’s important to define local challenges on an urban scale and urban challenges locally.
You also mention that we should embrace existing urban conditions rather than erase them. The Metropoliz Future Forest project you did in Rome seems like the perfect example of this.
Yes, it is. The project was created in collaboration with another husband/wife team- Firat Erdim, who is an architect, and Olivia Valentine, an artist. It revolves around MAAM, a multicultural squatting community with a diverse range of residents, including seasonal workers and migrants, that occupies a former slaughterhouse in the eastern part of the city. The site operates in a kind of legal purgatory, so any aesthetic or spatial intervention acts as a crucial form of political protection, because it serves to create new identities and relationships with the rest of the city. Murals and smaller installations had been created as previous interventions, but we wanted to pursue a larger, horizontal landscape intervention that focused on long-term issues of environmental health. But how to create something like that when you know you can’t rely on any future resources of maintenance?
By embracing existing conditions. The ‘Future Forest’ began as a large scale drawing on the ground, echoing the iconic tile patterns to be found in Rome’s historic core. The holes, cracks, and perforations on the concrete slabs at the site provided ideal conditions for attracting and germinating opportunistic seeds and wild plants. These new ecological niches we created are intended to support, extend, and connect the various vegetal ecologies already present- the grasses, trees, flowers, and weeds that started growing spontaneously in the decades after the closing of the factory. By highlighting the important role of these ragtag botanical constituents, we celebrate the various modes of spatial appropriation which define the vibrant spirit of the MAAM community. Embracing the conditions, in this project, was both a functional necessity and a deeply symbolic gesture.
Is the ‘Future Forest’ still growing?
Yes! The spontaneous plants which we targeted for assisted migration are germinating and colonising the cracks and perforations of the pattern we drew. We’ve returned to Rome twice in the last two years to check on the progress- it’s amazing to see how fast things are growing in such a short amount of time, and we’ll continue to track the progress in the coming years. But the scope of this project is much larger than we’re used to- it could take decades, even centuries before this novel urban forest will emerge, adapting to future ecological conditions and climates we haven’t even heard of yet.
What would you say to people who question whether small, bottom-up projects would ever have a lasting impact?
There’s a lot of talk these days about what ‘Tactical Urbanism’ can actually achieve- it’s a very important and hard question, especially when compared to the scope of the challenges we face today. Whenever we feel discouraged, we find it helps to evoke the notion of the ‘trim tab’- the tiny surface on the trailing edge of a rudder of a plane or ship. Even though it’s very small, it’s the trim tab which creates the initial change in pressure which steers the rudder, and thus the entire movement of the ship. This was an essential metaphor for Buckminster Fuller, who carved “Call me Trim Tab” into his gravestone. It’s comforting to trust that even our failures, if honestly articulated, are fueling someone else’s future success. Coming together and trying to respond to urgent urban and ecological challenges in many divergent ways is an important and exciting part of being alive right now.