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City-making in the age of experimentation

Injunctions, developments, amplification
Charles Ambrosino et Laurent Devisme

Let’s illustrate contemporary experimentation in city-making with a few examples: (1) A collective of committed residents, assisted by artists and young architects, are setting up an urban agriculture area on a wasteland, and above all, sports and recreational facilities for local young people in need of space. (2) A developer tests a smartgrid system in vivo as part of an urban demonstrator set up by local R&D players seeking to position their artifacts and services on global markets for technological innovation. (3) The real-estate subsidiary of a major transport operator, awaiting a redevelopment project for a former industrial site it owns, has signed an agreement with cultural intermediaries for the temporary deployment of festive activities, third places (tiers-lieux) and the temporary hosting of social economy companies and associations. (4) A metropolitan government, through a cultural event combining a block party, tactical and participatory urban planning, is prefiguring new uses, programs and representations within a pericentral space destined, tomorrow, to host a new urban centrality.

What do these singular yet standard situations have in common? It is what the actors do. All of them - residents, local authorities, developers, operators and promoters - are exploring, demonstrating, testing and prefiguring, together or in isolation. In short, they experiment and, in so doing, shape the city while renewing the ways in which it is made.

Popular with many elected representatives, practitioners and civil society players, experimentation, once confined to laboratory and scientific activities, is now one of the essential modalities of collective urban action (Dumont, 2013). So much so that some authors no longer hesitate to invoke the idea of "experimental urbanism" (Evans et al., 2016), a practice likely to (1) reshape ways of producing knowledge about cities and local societies, (2) profoundly change the ways in which urban spaces are designed/made/transformed, and (3) ultimately lead to a specific mode of urbanization.

But what about the experimental approach itself? Does it refer to heuristic trial and error, to the importance of "doing it for real", "doing it on a 1:1 scale", over other activities that are more akin to planning or design? Does it involve overemphasizing the regime of experience, methodological situationism and incrementalism? And with what consequences? To shed light on these questions, urban experimentation is a fertile field of investigation, and one that justifies the interdisciplinary approaches to which it is regularly subjected (Landon, 2022).

At the crossroads of urban studies, geography and urban planning (how does experimentation play a part in city-making?), political science (what are its instruments and modes of governance?), science and technology studies (how does this modality of action stemming from scientific and technical culture play a part in the conduct, debate and realization of urban planning projects?), management science and transition studies (how does experimentation fit into a broader process of socio-technical innovation?), research dedicated to experimentation generally converges around four points that we would like to (re)examine:

  • experimentation generally takes place in specific contexts, when actors (public and/or private) demonstrate a willingness to move forward by trial and error rather than by authority in the face of a situation deemed uncertain (Karvonen and Heur, 2014);

  • the experimental approach invites its artisans to "cobble together" (in real world conditions, not in a laboratory) sociotechnical configurations appropriate to the problem that brings them together (Sengers, 2015; Ramirez-Cobo and Zepf, 2021); the emphasis on incrementalism, however, often clashes with the normative, certified and standardized practices that increasingly frame city-making;

  • the exceptional character of these activities leads to the production of "exceptional spaces" (Laurent, 2019), which focus all public and private attention (whether in terms of financial, material or more symbolic investments, with the quest for demonstrators ticking all three boxes - Chesnel, Devisme, 2020), thus raising the question of "ordinary spaces", mechanically excluded from such dynamics;

  • experimentation raises, more generally, the question of its governance, since it produces unprecedented social arrangements and an ecology of players involved that is "neither macro nor micro" and needs to be ordered (Laurent et al., 2019), even though they would like to escape such a logic.

Thus are built the cardinal principles of urban experimentation: by creating the conditions for temporary freedom from the frameworks that usually constrain action, and by fostering original forms of collective learning while bringing about a tailor-made aggregation of a very wide variety of stakeholders. On this last point, many commentators emphasize that experimentation emerges as a privileged lens for observation, or even as an "analytical category" (Ibid.) in its own right, of ongoing transformations of public action (Bureau et al., 2013). A closer look at the grey literature in urban planning and political science reveals four contrasting scenarios:

  1. either experimentation accompanies the strategies of a "facilitating State" seeking to better act "on" territories (Leprêtre, 2019); experimentation having carved out a place for itself among the "new instruments" (Halpern et al., 2014; Beal et al., 2015) mobilized by the State (alongside labels, calls for projects, best practices, prizes and other performance indicators) to establish its role within a "multi-level governance" arrangement enabling it to support the territorialization of public policies while governing local authorities "at a distance" (Epstein, 2005);

  2. or, on the contrary, experimentation is carried out in the shadow of public policy by organized elements of civil society who, lacking resources and long-term vision, deploy stratagems and transitory devices in the public arena (Lydon, 2011) by means of targeted (small-scale), punctual (short-term) and low-cost interventions - with a view to offering ephemeral event programming, bringing places to life or proposing new uses for them, transforming derelict sites, enhancing heritage, and so on.

  3. or, again, experimentation compensates for the inability of urban policies and their main instruments - such as urban projects - to respond to certain issues (Mallet, Mège, 2022) by instrumentalizing these "niche initiatives" (Savini, Bertolini, 2019) or by systematizing the use of "best practices" (Devisme et al., 2007) at the risk of playing into the hands of the neoliberal city (Ferchaud and Dumont, 2015) and institutionalizing, or even hijacking, more alternative approaches - as expressed for example by the often indistinct use, on the part of elected officials or technicians, of the semantic arc of tactical, transitory or temporary urbanism to account for or justify their actions ;

  4. or, finally, it becomes one of the tools favoured by local authorities, developers and other operators attempting to operationalize contextually-adjusted solutions (Bulkeley and Castan Broto, 2012);

Far from being an issue specific to public actors or protestors, urban experimentation is obviously widely at work among various types of private actors, who have moreover used it as a way to assert their presence behind the scenes of urban planning (Pertuso, 2022; Peynichou, 2018): eg, by responding to calls for projects from the European Commission, by their presence in various kinds of hackathons and other challenges...

Ultimately, the aim is to question the effects of these experiments on urban planning and city-making in the broadest sense (its forms, actors and processes) and on socio-economic dynamics: event urbanism, gentrification, the generalization of rental spaces for remote working, "corpoworking" in line with real estate optimization logics...

Similarly, as many observers have pointed out, the main question facing local authorities today is how to go beyond isolated experiments, how to develop a critical analysis of the spaces produced and delivered in this way (i.e., via experiments), how to distinguish one experiment from another, according to which criteria, scales, impacts and, more broadly, how to integrate experimentation into an approach that is both attentive to local social and cultural practices, and capable of feeding into more long-term strategic visions (Ambrosino, 2022).

Among the areas we would like to explore further are the following:

  • Analyzing the fortunes of urban experimentation requires us to work on the words used to describe it: it is clear that there is a certain linguistic inflation (Nédelec, 2017) in its “bassin sémantique”, which resonates with the political and philosophical dimension of the notion. There may be talk of urgency, of hic et nunc, of "one shot", with singularity being considerably enhanced with a nod to the laboratory: transitory, ephemeral and/or tactical urbanism, but also fablab, third places, ... What does this rhetoric of experimentation produce?

  • Does the valorization of the situation, of singularity, of emergence, end up leading to stabilized professional practices, or even a segment in the consultancy and project management market? Does the sedimented know-how that contributes to the circulation of "demos" become visible and end up anchoring a “demonstration society” (Rosental, 2019) in local action? Or is the timeframe of urban experimentation first and foremost the expression of a presentism of action without a compass, illustrating a problematic regime of historicity (Hartog, 2003)?

  • At the same time, how do we capitalize on the knowledge and learning generated by the multiplication of experiments in a given territory? How are these initiatives "amplified" (Lam et al., 2020), from their purely experimental phase to their eventual translation into public policy? What organizational changes do they produce (Evans et al., 2021)? Are we witnessing forms of "scaling up" and/or "scaling down" that are likely to profoundly transform city-making? What about the evolution of the players involved? Are we witnessing a broadening of the spectrum of those who make the city and/or a renewal of the skills required in these experimental productions?

*

Researchers in social sciences, engineering and architecture are invited to submit their texts by January 8, 2024 to the two coordinators of the thematic issue:

Charles Ambrosino (charles.ambrosino@univ-grenoble-alpes.fr), urban planner, professor at Université Grenoble Alpes/Pacte, specialist in urban planning, innovation and creativity,

and Laurent Devisme (laurent.devisme@crenau.archi.f), sociologist, professor at Nantes Université/AAU, specializing in urban action and theories of urban action.

Proposals will echo this framing, designed above all as guidelines for reflection. Contributions may deal with cases from any geographical zone, in order to engage a comparative reflection between the various articles in the thematic issue. They may draw on empirical material and/or position themselves within the theoretical debates.

Texts should be between 8,000 and 10,000 words, including notes and bibliographical references. Each article must be accompanied by an abstract and keywords, and comply with the journal's presentation standards - see https://journals.openedition.org/metropoles/4619.

Each text will be anonymized and submitted to at least two reviewers.

Only complete articles will be considered. However, authors who have doubts about the admissibility of their proposal may contact the people in charge of the dossier for advice.

Publication of the thematic issue is scheduled for autumn 2024.

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Bulkeley, H., Castan-Broto, V. 2013, Government by Experiment? Global Cities and the Governing of Climate Change, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38-3, pp. 361-375.

Bureau, M.-C., Sarfati, F., Simha, J., Tuchszirer, C. 2013. L'expérimentation dans l'action publique, Travail et emploi, 135, pp. 41-55.

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