Blanca Callén

GREDITS/ BAU, Design College of Barcelona. UVIC-UCC


Parallel to the organization of constructive workshops, Grigri Pixel has set into motion a research process aiming to enunciate common questions concerning the different participative experiences with the goal of uncovering different synergies, meeting points and differences in regards to the practices and processes of care and maintenance of the urban spaces in Africa and Europe. If they exist, what are the common public spaces which facilitate encounter in our cities like? What are the threats and weaknesses that put them at risk? What conditions should a grigri that takes care of and protects the cohabitation in our metropolis have?…, these are some of the questions the project aims to explore.

In order to respond to these matters, we interviewed representatives of both local experiences – EVA (Neighbourhood Space of Arganzuela) in Madrid, and the Taula del Eix Pere IV, in Barcelona – and the invited makers who came from Dakar (Senegal), Lagos (Nigeria), Lomé (Togo) and Kribi (Cameroon). Through their civic and communitarian experiences within the cultural, technological and art worlds, our goal is to unveil key elements that could stimulate a collective thought on the transformation of the city and possible ways to take care of it, and to take care for ourselves within it.

Public spaces for encounter

Public spaces for encounters are few and far between, disappearing. This categorical perception is common among every participant. Despite the fact that in places such as Dakar and Lome, the streets or the construction-free areas adjacent to the railways respectively, continue to be places for gathering and having tea, for peddling or meeting with acquaintances, in every of these African cities analysed the lack of space to rest, meet or be entertained, especially for the child population, is clearly manifested. This is also the case for Barcelona, where the population density makes for few leisure areas. “There is a lack of life spaces”, Mané said regarding Dakar. Madrid is no exception to this lacking of spaces in which to enable common living experiences. EVA – Espacio Vecinal de Arganzuela (Neighbourhood Space of Arganzuela), emerges precisely after a moment of the weakening of the neighbourhood movement and of a lack of spaces destined for activities in public centres.

The lack of parks and green areas is a common factor, especially in African cities. “Some years ago, the previous government came with the idea of planting trees and creating parks, but most of them were made under the bridges. (…) They are inaccessible.”, Aderemi comments about Lagos. In other cases, the scarce parks and existing resting areas are located in the centre of the city or in the wealthy neighbourhoods. In Dakar and Lomé, while in the centre you can find benches, recreational areas, trees, a few parks and green areas, on the outskirts what proliferates is dirt, as well as the lack of infrastructure (such as electricity in some neighbourhoods of Dakar) and violence. The division between the centre and the outskirts is very noticeable in the social and urban life of these African cities. In the case of Lomé, spaces with public access, such as the gardens of the university campus, end up being occupied by the people as a place for meetings. As a consequence, friend’s private houses, churches (in the case of religious communities in Lomé), markets, the beach (in the summer in Dakar) or where “chook” is sold (local beverage in Togo similar to beer), end up being the most common places for gathering.

The reasons that lead to this situation of the deterioration and disappearance of public spaces for reunion are, fundamentally, three: the rural exodus towards the African capitals and the consequential population growth; financial speculation with the construction and commercialization of public space; and the role of the administration and the governing model, many times quite distant from the people and their needs, but in complicity and collusion with certain economic interests.

However, in spite of the difficulties, people are continuing to informally occupy the streets as a place of encounter, and demonstrations in the defence of public urban property are starting to come up. As Ángel explains in the case of Arganzuela (Madrid), “EVA began to take to the streets throughout the neighbourhood and around the market without the necessity of rules, of requesting permission or of following the absurd logic prevailing at the time. In a way, it is giving the public space back to the people without the need of mediation by an administration that is, in many cases, incapable of managing or controlling it”.

Threats to common spaces

The main threats perceived towards the common public spaces and meeting areas mainly remit to three closely related facts. As we already pointed out, one of the main threats towards African cities such as Dakar and Lomé is accelerated growth and urbanization. Demographic growth, along with migratory exodus from the countryside to the cities of people lured by the opportunities that the capital cities have to offer, is bringing about the construction of fast housing in peripheral areas. This rapidness often comes hand in hand with a lack of urban planning, resulting in failures, or even in the absence of infrastructures basic for habitability. Modou complained about the number of peripheral neighbourhoods in Dakar, in contrast to central and wealthier areas, with a lack
of sufficient public lighting, a functional hygienic infrastructure or an adequate trash disposal system. This same threat of unplanned urban development is the reason that many previously protected sacred spaces in Lomé are being destroyed and delocalized, ending with their religious and spiritual meaning, ending with the symbolic power they once had. “There is an example in the centre of the city in a place called the sacred forest. (…) Now that the city is developing, this forest is threatened and a part of it has been sold.”, explains Afate.

This accelerated urbanization wouldn’t be possible without the financial speculation on housing and land, protected by globalized capitalism and market economy which puts the right to the city at risk. The negative effects of this threat appear in each one of the cities: in Dakar, Mané reports how the area of the boardwalk and the harbour have been occupied in the last years by hotels, banks and businesses oriented towards tourism. In the case of many large houses constructed previous to this housing expansion, some of the owners have speculated with renovations, converting them into various small flats. As a result of land speculation, in Dakar, there is an expansion of mosques financed with money from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, interested in the spreading of radical Wahhabist Islam that counts on a large following of the migrants of the Guinean population. In Kribi and Douda, Cameroon, Chinese companies have taken over the flourishing market of housing construction and commerce, occupying the empty spaces surrounding the river and harbour. In Barcelona, real estate speculation, driven by the economic benefit of tourism and foreign investment, is expelling locals from their neighbourhoods, like in Poblenou. In the case of Madrid, and
the Arganzuela district, one may see how the construction of shopping malls and luxury residential buildings is substituting the neighbourhood backbone and elevating the cost of living.

This commercialization of territory pushes towards the fragmentation of the social fabric and to isolation and conceives its inhabitants as clients and consumers. Like this, while the population loses its capacity as a political agent in the decision making and the collective organization of the city, the Administration and the State also lose importance as defenders and guarantors of those civil rights. With this setting, the governance models that appear are two: on the one hand, the absence of the State facilitates the presence of mafias that control the public space and act fraudulently, in collusion with politicians and civil servants, as in Lagos. As Aderemi explains: “If you want to do something in the public space, you have to negotiate more with them than
with the government. It’s the mafia we’re talking about. Some of these guys are dangerous. They are not the owners, they just claim the space”. On the other hand, we can see an over-intervention by a technocrat administration which leads towards the bureaucratization and hyper-standardisation of the public space, hence blocking and obstructing the emergence of civil initiatives with a certain degree of autonomy. This happens, especially, in Barcelona and
Madrid, where Ángel humorously points out: “It was more difficult to put a table on the street to ask for signatures than it would be to assemble a nuclear warhead”. In Dakar, Mané also explains how the government plans on building an amusement park in Obelisco Square, precisely where demonstrations and civil protests normally take place. What is relevant is that even considering the differences, none of the governance models avoids the opaque
complicity between the State and the market, with collusion between the Administration and certain groups, whose accumulation of power and economic interests depend on the mercantilization and privatization of the common space.

How to take care of and protect(ourselves)?

In the light of these threats, the first response to appear is social mobilization and direct action. “In the end, it is a fight in the field, arriving there, appropriating the space and claiming your rights”, states Arais from Barcelona. It’s about exercising co-responsibility for the creation and care of the common space and not necessarily waiting for the Administration to give you the permits nor for them to solve everything. This empowers the people, who, in the case of Madrid have been experimenting with these forms of collective and individual action for years, through neighbourhood movements, the experience of 15M or the different social movements. As Ángel explains about EVA, it’s about the proliferation of “places where things happen. And this is a place where things happen, where people unite to do things together, with no money involved nor individual interests, but simply the belief that doing things together is good for individuals and for the community”.

In African cities the belief is also in collective mobilization and direct action. “We have to be a little disobedient”, suggests Aderemi for Lagos. Meanwhile, Mané tells how in Dakar protests and demonstrations have
already taken place against the construction of an embassy in an area close to the sea. Mané, just as much as Aderemi, promotes taking over the streets in order to carry out activities and make culture accessible to the people, for example, through theatre and performing arts. “It doesn’t all have to happen in a theatre. The theatre performed on the stage is very Western-like”, which Mané ratifies when she points out: “Our conception of a live performance takes place in public space. If you ask them to come to a theatre, there is nothing to do. It is us who have to take the theatre to the streets for the people to come”.

In order to achieve co-responsibility and implication of the citizenry in the protection and care of the common space, others suggested promoting cultural activities in the territory and awareness through education. Somehow, we need to recognize and learn to value the role that these “urban communals” play in sustaining life. As Ángel points out, we need to create new worthwhile notions to review and broaden the concept of “profitability”: not just economic profitability, but also social and environmental; a longer lasting profitability, with perspective; redistributed, more inclusive and not only limited to the private sectors.

There is a proposal in various African cities for the creation of more open green areas, for citizenry encounters and, especially, dedicated to the child population in order to help achieve this goal. In Dakar and Lomé, Modou and Afate call for more playgrounds, more benches and space for leisure and resting. Afate and Ismael, in Kribi, also highlight the need for co-responsibility between the government and citizenry for environmental upkeeping and the protection of natural spaces. The idea of giving back a common good to the community and in so doing making a city for everyone is achievable through more accessible and inclusive spaces, eliminating the barriers -not only material and architectural- in sectors and collectives that see themselves as distant from each other. It would also be necessary to adopt more empathetic management and governance models, more flexible, porous and open to different experiences and conceptions of the city.

This idea of accessible and inclusive urban common areas or commodities is also about expanding the manners in which the city is built. In this sense, we think about how, from laboratories and experiences such as Grigri Pixel, urban objects can be developed that are capable of incorporating diverse sensitivities and experiences of the nonstandardized use of the public space which will allow to amplify and destandardize the available urban imaginary. It is all about ensuring a way of thinking towards public space, a public space culture in which it is understood that it is possible to evaluate, improve and adapt the space in order to incorporate the necessities of its users, a practice of flexible design in so far as collaboration with those groups that are not normally taken into account, an inclusive process of learning to make the city. With this thought in mind, for example, “it’s interesting to observe how a child plays in the public space because it gives you clues as to what works and what doesn’t and what is more or less correct. Because their use is more intuitive, which is, as adults, sometimes no longer the case”, Arais states. Despite the difficulties and restrictions imposed by regulations concerning more interactive modalities of design, Arais advocates for an urbanism easily reappropriated that may work with very few non-noisy elements, “just like that”.

Carrying out all these proposals for the upkeep and protection of public urban commodities requires co-responsibility and courage, on both parts, citizenry and the Administration: that the fear in the presence of threats does not overcome the desire or the political will of carrying out changes in these directions. On these grounds, the project Grigri Pixel encourages the creation of an entire network of grigris or amulets in the form of urban furniture that, through the magic of collaborative construction during which there are shared tales of the city, can take care of, reactivate and protect the common spaces. As a means to achieve this, Grigri Pixel calls for projects – such as EVA in Madrid, Taula Eix Pere IV in Barcelona, ICAF in Lagos, Madiba Nature in Kribi, Côté Jardin in Dakar, Woora Make in Lomé – that, in some way, are already operating as grigris in their respective
territories and that, upon contact with other grigris, their protective capabilities and collective powers are enhanced and multiplied.