Starting Successful Urban Movements

Want to make better cities? Interested in political participation? Can you nail these all with one simple thing? You can. It is called urban culture and you are already doing it.

We talk, make, diss and admire urban culture, to the brink of an overdose. It has been the central point of gravity of everything that especially the young generations do—it is all culture and all urban.

Expectations for urban activism are high: they make our cities more livable, strengthen our sense of community, lower the bar for participation. They are fun, sporadic, social, political, self-organised and transparent. The number of meanings we give them is endless.

But instead of just attending urban events, you can also make one yourself. The trend of pop up events makes it easier to start one but harder to make it successful. In creating a globally successful urban movement you have to have a few basic things in check. And understand the phenomenon you are about to enforce.

Urban culture, citizenship’s new home

When we talk about urban culture, the same few examples pop up; in Finland they are Restaurant Day and Cleaning Day. Restaurant Day started out in 2011 and has since spread to more than 50 countries. Cleaning Day has transformed cities into big flea markets since May 2012. These events have become so popular that you have most likely attended one. And if not, you most likely have heard about them in the news.

They are the one-day festivals that made us reclaim our city and turned our social circles into active communities. What characterises these and other urban events is that they were and are born on a whim and rise and fall with the number of people interested in the particular day of the event. They put people before structure and emphasise shared responsibility. And luckily, they are not just for the young.

Attending a block party no more equals partying, it is participating.

We have welcomed pop up days to make better and more livable cities, but is that really the void they came to fill? We seem to lose interest in traditional channels of participation and have replaced it with urban citizenship.

Integrating a political frame into an urban event is a new revelation. A person baking cupcakes for a food stall probably did not see himself as a saviour of democracy. But that is the meaning we have given to urban culture. Attending a block party no more equals partying, it is participating.

What can you do with the pop up

Aside from the individual motives we can look at urban events as statements of what our cities should be like all the time. These one-day carnivals are just illustrations of a possible world, where public space would permanently be occupied by possibilities to react and interact with other people.

Urban events are driven by the desire to change the city or society by doing instead of talking about it. A Helsinki-based urban collective Prototype Helsinki recently published a guide for urban activism, with a mission of being a creative forum for citizens and groups to propose and try out new ideas, options and improvements to any problem or area of civic life.

The guide is an endorsement on how to improve your city and to create an atmosphere where people feel like they are free to do what they want. In other words, the guide for urban activism is in fact a guide for urban citizenship. It marks the shift from institutional citizenship to an active position. Citizenship is something you do, not possess.

It is not just a good idea, but the volume that forces things to move forward.

Still, it is not just a good idea, but the volume that forces things to move forward. It is what distinguishes a group of friends doing something together from a much bigger group of strangers doing the same thing in sync.

It was the volume that transformed Restaurant Day into a global movement and made it the symbol of urban activism. It is the volume that fixes the problems of participatory democracy with flea markets, block parties and pianos that you can play on the streets. It shifts the symbol of citizenship from a passport to a cupcake. And it sounds too good to be true.

The qualities of an urban movement—space, time and topic

To grow from a one-shot local event into a global phenomenon you need volume. And to gain volume you need to understand the basics of an urban movement.

All urban activity can be traced down to three main qualities—space, time and topic. Whether we are talking about a neighbourhood flea market, a block party or an international food carnival, everything that happens in a city has a time and a place. In addition, all urban activity has some kind of concept, topic or theme, regardless of how loosely it is defined.

Anything that happens in a city has a time, space and topic. An individual event can be transformed into a more wide-spread movement if one of the qualities is left for the participants to decide.
Anything that happens in a city has a time, space and topic. An individual event can be transformed into a more wide-spread movement if one of the qualities is left for the participants to decide.

Space, time and topic add up to a framework, which allows us to classify and sort urban activities to different categories. The first few urban events did not really have a framework—press and the public were satisfied with something new emerging in the public space. But everything new has an expiration date. The phenomenon of urban culture is not really a phenomenon in itself anymore.

It seems that the most successful urban events continue to offer a strict framework that leaves room for improvisation. What it means in practice is that not all three elements are fixed beforehand. Instead, one of them is left for the participant to decide.

Restaurant Day
Crêpes are being prepared for the craving while the Hammond organ plays for the people at Le Petit Crêperie de Rue in Helsinki on Restaurant Day (21 Aug 2011). Image by Tuomas Sarparanta

Restaurant day is a day when anyone can set up a restaurant. The event has a fixed time and topic, but participants may choose the locations for their restaurants themselves.

Restaurant Day
A concert on Container Square, Helsinki. Image by Timo Wright

Bermuda Helsinki enables anybody to organise their grassroots cultural event in Kalasatama, Helsinki. Space and topic are fixed, but participants can decide the time.

A concert in Mauerpark, Berlin. Image by Axel Kuhlmann (CC)

Mauerpark in Berlin holds a number of different activities from open-air karaoke to kite flying on weekends (and especially on Sundays). In other words the theme is free, but location and time are set.

Fixing two elements and leaving one undefined gives good preconditions for your event to happen anywhere (or anytime) successfully. It makes the events similar enough to carry your idea but leaves room for improvisation. This is what builds volume—a reproducible format spiced with local flavour. It also differentiates urban events from civic activism; the first thrives for repetition, the latter always does something new.

Why the physical surroundings matter too

Cities have always been places for different ideas of a good life to cross, but now they are also places for new forms of activism and citizenship to emerge. The streets are where it is all at. What drives urban culture is the incentive to do something together in space that we collectively own. Although the urban hype has more to do with people and less with walls, it is exactly the physical surroundings that make these events urban.

This sense of ownership is crucial for anything to happen; public space can also be understood as something that belongs to ‘the city’, which can kill an idea before even asking if it would be possible to do. Associating the city with bureaucracy is one of the things that urban culture can fix.

It is a balancing act to set the right amount and the right elements that make your event a hit. Getting all these right is not enough, the surroundings matter too. If you are planning an urban event, you need to stand out from the flood of things happening. It is not the same if you try to organise an event in Helsinki, Berlin or London. The mentality of these places is as different as the physical surroundings.

A map of Helsinki showing the locations of the 22 restaurants participating in first Restaurant Day ever. For a similar coverage in the busiest areas of Berlin (area 4.5 × Helsinki) or London (area 8 × Helsinki) you’d need to attract 99 or 176 participants.

The more participants you want, the better your organization has to be. General enthusiasm gets you places, but creating a globally successful concept takes footwork and form. Starting Restaurant Day from a scratch in a megalopolis like London or Tokyo would take a hell of a lot more work than in Helsinki—you’d be up against an existing web of cultures that could support or suffocate the event.

Helsinki, a rather compact Nordic capital, worked for Restaurant Day. Still, what works in one place might not work in another. What works for one day might not work for another. If your concept requires a lot of human interaction, choose an arena (small enough) where everybody knows each other. If you need volume, go for a bigger city. Evidently, what you will not do will never work.

The duty of urban culture is to disrupt

Mixing urban culture and citizenship is a conceptual hazard. Calling mundane things we do together urban culture gives them a different meaning, no matter how artificial. They get recognized as communal, as something empowering that blows life to the cities we inhabit even when a participant’s motive is just to sell his old shoes on the street.

A city as a physical environment can be conceptualized as a space for communities to manifest themselves or it can simply be a mean for passing through on your private agenda. What it comes down to is how we interpret the things that happen on the streets—we give them meanings that fit the current social order.

Whatever you put in public space is called urban culture and it has just become your civic duty.

The new urban movements embrace public space and the other way around. Attending for example Restaurant Day and Cleaning Day allows you to hang out on the streets just doing your thing, and ultimately, that is exactly what these events wanted to say.

So disrupt. If you want to initiate a movement that anybody will attend, get your thing together, create a form that allows people to make it their own, scale it to your city and wait for the city officials to start rewriting their rules. Whatever you put in public space is called urban culture and it has just become your civic duty.


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Signature of Jyrki Vanamo