Marginal Vernaculars and Place-Making Tactics

Presented at: Unsettling Heritage: Critical/Creative Conservation, Carleton Heritage Conservation Symposium 2015. Ottawa ON.

Abstract: In recent years, tactical urbanism has captured popular imagination. Its hands-on and bottom-up alternative practice of urban place-making encourages citizens to respond to their environment directly with ad hoc and relatively minimal or temporary transformations—often as a form of protest to the expected function or design of public space. This approach is set in direct contrast to the formally-driven design and future-oriented methodologies of the planning profession. Though framed as a form of ‘participatory urbanism’, it is important to note that tactical urbanism often operates around, rather than in direct collaboration with, official and authoritative professional structures of urban planning. A marginal but growing interest in vernacular architecture presents an analogous challenge within the architecture profession. Howard Davis argues that the tradition of architectural education promotes a certain kind of abstract thought that values clear and simple conceptual models and judges ‘messy reality’ as a series of problems to be fixed and brought to order. Vernacular architecture, by contrast, privileges a grass-roots sharing of knowledge and techniques that emerge in response to local conditions of place and culture. There is a shared disposition between vernacular traditions and contemporary urban tactics that challenges but potentially enriches our professional understanding of and approach to the built environment. These marginal practices, however, are often overlooked by mainstream studies and histories of urban planning—an oversight that perpetuates their exclusion. Far from arguing for the obsolescence of planning and design professions, or inherent conflict between planning and community development, when practiced in tandem with sensitive planning practices alternative place-making may better serve a heterogeneous society without absorbing outliers into the structure and requiring that they operate solely within the system.

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