Urban Times correspondent Christina Franken met with Ekim Tan, an architect/urbanist, bottom-up activist and entrepreneur with academic ambitions, to discuss ‘Freezing Favela’, the self-organised temporary town in Amsterdam.
As we’ve written before, Amsterdam is full of surprises. Here, bottom-up urbanism and self-organisation are hot topics in city-planning conversations, with conceptual experiments becoming a reality. Using her PhD research on gaming as a tool for urban design at TU Delft, Ekim Tan established the Play the City Foundation as a platform for hands-on testing and case studies. The foundation develops simulation games to solve complex urban issues, empowering citizens to push innovative solutions beyond municipal top-down master plans. With the motto, ‘Do not Plan, Play the City’, Ekim built a network of researchers and practitioners based in Noord, Amsterdam’s flourishing district on the other side of the river.
So far, Play the City’s urban games have taken place in Dutch cities with heaps of regulations and too little space, as well as in more complex Middle Eastern cities like Istanbul and Cairo. There are also self-organising systems in the West, according to Ekim: “The unfortunately hyped self-organisation in the Netherlands is distracting the real debate on how society, the state and the market relate to one another in the making of cities.”
How Van Gendthallen became ‘Freezing Favela’
The Van Gendthallen (or ‘Halls of Stork’) are located in the oldest industrial area at Oosterburgereiland in the east of Amsterdam. The island has been owned by the housing corporation, Stadgenoot, since 2002. The existing master plan (Amsterdam Oostenburg Ontwikkelplan), designed by Urhahn Urban Design, is currently on hold due to the fiscal crisis.
But for a few exceptions – Roest, the beach bar and club, and a pizza restaurant, Rosa & Rita – the ‘Halls of Stork’ stand empty. However, in Amsterdam, creative workers are constantly searching for affordable working spaces accessible from the city – the Van Gendthallen, by that logic, are ideal.
In 2011, Amsterdam’s art and design institution, Mediamatic, came across the empty Van Gendthallen when looking for a new home. Although a great location for the institution, the entire industrial hall required renting; Mediamatic only required 2,000 sqm of space and would have found it impossible to afford or even fully occupy. Nevertheless, the ‘Halls of Stork’ were reinvigorated as Mediamatic hung swings from the 18 ft. high warehouse ceilings, bringing in onion punk bands and aquaponics projects.
Faced with the impossibility of filling the Van Gendthallen, the institution made an open call for other creative types to help breathe life into the old industrial halls. Ekim suggested an experiment: ‘play Van Gendthallen!’ to establish Freezing Favela, a temporary mini-city defined by the participants’ individual programs, rather than being defined through a top-down plan. But with so many ‘mayors’ playing the game of Van Gendthallen, how is it that Freezing Favela operates so well?
Play Van Gendthallen!
UT: Why was Freezing Favela a great chance for you and the Play the City Foundation?
Ekim: Freezing Favela is a chance to prove our hypothesis. We believe gaming can inform reality. In the case of urban design, gaming can help us co-create cities. Gaming literature claims the importance of play in learning, behaviour change and policy-making. It is widely accepted that gaming can channel collaborative thinking and work alongside collaborative intelligence. We believe gaming can generate plans; it can make things happen, and Freezing Favela has become live evidence for our thesis.
UT: Was it hard to find participants, and what were the conditions for participation?
Ekim: The group of participants was generated by an open call, and from the local network within the group of organisers. There was one simple rule to join: 50% of your activities should be reserved for the public. Most of the Favela residents attended the weekly meetings regularly and showed commitment. It’s a mix of people who create things, do innovative work or up-cycle.
‘Fool’s Gold’ collects garbage from the neighbourhood and designs jewellery; the Tosti Fabriek brought urban farming into the middle of the city centre; the Poo Factory is making paper from the poo of the cows; White Trash Liqueur Factory create vodka from the organic trash they collect and Italian chefs are teaching us how to make pasta, risotto and more – the food, by the way, is amazing.
UT: How was the game organised?
Ekim: It was quite an organic, steady process of people meeting weekly for months. When we finally played Van Gendthallen in January 2013, there were 24 enterprises ready to fight for their position and activities both in the game and in reality. Normally, we introduce the play rules and let the players adapt and variate spaces using our rules. But this time, Freezing Favela residents debated the design of our rules and we decided them together. It’s great that the players show us the way; next time, I will open the rules to discussion [you can see the final rules for the Freezing Favela here].
We played three sessions. In the first one, everybody introduced their vision and ideas individually. This helped people to visualise what they were looking for, and where it would make most sense to place their business within the hall. One would think, for example, “These guys are doing a Hammam and I need heat for my project as well, so maybe we can join forces.”
After this session, people started to think about spatial advantages when entering a collaboration, in order to find the perfect spot for their project within the hall. The rule was that unexpected partnerships gave you an advantage. If you collaborated with more than three partners, you would raise your position in the ranking of the game.
UT: Do you think that this rule was important to come to fruitful solutions?
Ekim: From the games we organised before, I learned we needed to encourage collaboration. People typically follow their own individual agendas. Throughout the course of the game, players discover that cities are not places where an individual can isolate himself from the complexity of urbanity.
There is always something to negotiate with the ‘players’ that surround us. In our games, people learn about lobbying, about collaborating with other people to negotiate their agendas and build consensus. If someone plays smart and listens well to other people, they are already halfway towards realising their own crazy ideas – just like it works in real life.
UT: It is fascinating to be able to pinpoint parallels between real world and game simulation so clearly. Did you find that playing these games is somehow resurfaces childhood memories in participants?
Ekim: In the beginning, people often think, “Ah, it’s just a game, I’ll only go for an hour” but then players don’t want to leave. Intense game sessions can take up to 7 hours per day. We saw aldermen cancel an entire day of meetings to attend the full session and fight for their ideas in the game. People get really angry and walk out of the game, or get very excited. Everybody is learning and adjusting their ideas – it’s really magical.
UT: Now that there are people actually working, what’s the organisational structure of Freezing Favela? Is it a cooperative or a club?
Ekim: Ottomans had a great rule about ownership: individuals cannot possess land, and everything is owned by God by default. But if you are able give a use to a place, you can just claim it without having the property title. This is also the source of the Gecekondu tradition in Turkey today, and somehow, this rule seems to work in our Amsterdam ‘Freezing Favela’ pretty well.
After the simulation sessions on the three-dimensional game table, people started to build the newly established ‘master plan’ in the hall. There’s Tosti Fabriek, a art installation with animals, an array of publicly accessible workshops, performances and a small restaurant, Favelous (see the set-up in the video below).
Do not Plan, Play the Rules
UT: Would you suggest that bottom-up projects work best by tweaking existing rules to make your own for improving the urban environment?
Ekim: I think Freezing Favela is a great example for this. Sometimes, just doing it instead of going through the complicated system of regulations seem to be more productive. Take, for example, the Freezing Favela’s ‘crying cow’ story; it grew quite big on social media. The cow, Els, from the Tosti Fabriek [animal art installation] had been separated from her baby for milking.
This happens in the industry everyday, but here – a short distance from residential areas – you could hear Els crying for three straight days. One frustrated neighbour, who knew all the municipality’s regulations, approached the city with the request to act against the noise disturbance. After all, people do drink milk and don’t want to witness the reality of how milk comes to our table.
Now, however, Mediamatic is in negotiation with the city for legalizing Els. Interestingly enough, the city officials seem to sympathize with the Freezing Favela project and are consulting ways to keep the cows and pigs in the city. That’s another thing about Dutch urbanism – there are so many rules that, at some point, they start conflicting with one another, but if you know them well enough and follow the right ones, you can do almost anything you want.
UT: What are similarities to the projects the Middle East, in Cairo for example? How are people reacting to no rules at all?
Ekim: There are urban rules in Cairo. They are not always made by governing parties, but by residents themselves. Before the Arab Spring in Cairo, one could observe how people organised their urbanity. For example, the state was not able to collect 60% of the city’s waste, so communities – a population reaching up to 1.5 million – built their own economies from the situation. In the absence of rules, people start organising themselves. We have to be careful not to romanticise these stories, but you can see that people find a way to deal with complexities.
UT: Looking back at things, do you think you could have started the same kind of business in another country?
Ekim: Things are changing everywhere all the time, but the Netherlands are still far better off than other countries. The Dutch institutions could be much faster, but there is this openness for criticism and experiments – so you can push it and people will listen, which is something I believe is really important.
Although Ekim’s PhD work, ’Do not Plan, Play the City: Design and Negotiation for the Self-Organizing City’ at TU Delft, is not yet completed, Play The City’s projects present brilliant case studies for her work’s hypothesis: by using games as a tool, we can successfully create complex urban structures from the bottom up. Play the City ’s latest project is ‘Majority Report’, based on crowdsourced research into digital tools available to improve urban space from the bottom up. Everybody is invited to contribute their favourite tools from all around the world through the online platform.