The Expanding Definition of Disruption

How architects, tenant associations, community organisations and bike sharing are changing the way that we understand cities.

When most people think about the word disruption, the first thing that comes to mind is how technology has disrupted our lives. Though our experiences have been radically changed by technology, our built environment is also being altered in subtle ways. Not just by technology, but by grassroots forces working in conjunction with architects and other artists.

Through June 16th, the Van Alen Institute in New York is featuring a series called Disruption?, part 1 of 4 of their Understanding Cities program, about the shifting meaning of the term. The event will look past the word’s common connotation and apply it to the built environment through talks, debates and urban interventions. The aim is to discuss the nature of cities from the perspective of community groups, architects, artists, and other professions, to see how the status quo of the built environment can be disrupted.

Vanalen

Those who want to make a difference do not always come from outside the establishment, but sometimes they are from within.  “For this series about disruption, we are not posing a specific definition, but looking at all different scales,” explains Steven Thomson, Programs & Communications Manager at Van Alen Institute, and the series organiser.

Even though architects invest a substantial amount of time cultivating client-relationships, some still find a way to get involved in improving the built environment in less formal ways. For example, Mark Gardner and Stephan Jaklitsch’s climate responsive project called Stilt City in The Rockaways, a beach side neighbourhood, just south of JFK International Airport. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, many houses were damaged and some were later razed. The storm had a deleterious effect on the neighbourhood.

“People are not always out on their porches, because a lot of the same people aren’t there anymore,” describes Thomson. “In order to cultivate and re-enact that sense of community, they (the architects) are disrupting the process of development that’s happening by partnering with artist Robyn Renee Hasty to build an art and community center in a set of bungalows near the beach. It will serve as a space for exhibiting and performing art, but also as a nexus for the community.”

Spring-Programs-2015-Van-Alen_Photo by Zachary Tyler Newton

Bringing citizens together can be empowering, especially when up against difficult circumstances. In cities like New York, it can sometimes feel like residents are fighting against a network of vested interests, especially when it comes to housing. As a counterbalance, tenant associations are the ones disrupting the way the rental market functions, by helping residents to organise and learn about their rights.

“You have tenants who are being offered buyouts from their landlords to take lump sums of money just to leave their rental apartment,” explains Thomson, “so that it can be flipped and renovated to no longer be in the system of rent regulation.”

Via Verde Affordable Housing_Photo from grimshaw-architects.com

Via Verde Affordable Housing_Photo from grimshaw-architects.com

Rent regulation impacts not only the maintenance of the buildings in a neighbourhood, but also the diversity of the people that live there. An area with the right mix of disparate incomes has more chance of being an interesting neighbourhood, than an area where the socioeconomics are more homogenous. A more interesting neighbourhood is good for everyone, including landlords. Despite rent regulation being better for the city as a whole, tenant associations still face opposition.

“It is hard for these organisations to gain traction because the political will is often embedded with development interests. Landlords can push back in invisible ways that aren’t perceptible from the street,” explains Thomson. “For example, signs in a building about tenant union meetings are sometimes removed by landlords.”

Via Verde Affordable Housing_Photo from grimshaw-architects.com

An example of a tenant association fighting for the rights of New York renters is the Community Action for Safe Apartments, based in the South Bronx. The group advocates for fair zoning. Like in many cities, affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges facing New York. The city has rezoned certain areas to allow for more density within taller buildings and a mix of incomes. It’s the solution that is needed, but not everyone is happy.

“There are long time residents who don’t want their neighbourhood to change,” Thomson says. “There are quotas for mandatory inclusionary housing, but even that is contentious.” As controversial as disrupting the cityscape of a neighbourhood might be, most New Yorkers can at least agree that the city needs more affordable housing.

In many cities, like Vancouver, Chicago and London, people are concerned about housing options, and how the high cost of living is threatening our quality of life. Thomson sees this increased concern for the well-being of fellow citizens as part of the Western zeitgeist.

“In the period after the recession, the public became more receptive to people being disruptive, both in commercial ways (think: Uber), but also with the rise of social justice groups like Black Lives Matter. People are ready to talk about these issues,” says Thomson.

Part of the strategy to create a built environment that works for everyone is to ensure that every citizen is valued, not just with housing, but also with transportation. If citizens feel like they are being taken for granted or that a city does not value their community, it can be problematic.

When most people think about the word disruption, the first thing that comes to mind is how technology has disrupted our lives. Though our experiences have been radically changed by technology, our built environment is also being altered in subtle ways. Not just by technology, but by grassroots forces working in conjunction with architects and other artists. Through June 16th, the Van Alen Institute in New York is featuring a series called Disruption?, part 1 of 4 of their Understanding Cities program, about the shifting meaning of the term. The event will look past the word’s common connotation and apply it to the built environment through talks, debates and urban interventions. The aim is to discuss the nature of cities from the perspective of community groups, architects, artists, and other professions, to see how the status quo of the built environment can be disrupted. Those who want to make a difference do not always come from outside the establishment, but sometimes they are from within. “For this series about disruption, we are not posing a specific definition, but looking at all different scales,” explains Steven Thomson, Programs & Communications Manager at Van Alen Institute, and the series organiser. Even though architects invest a substantial amount of time cultivating client-relationships, some still find a way to get involved in improving the built environment in less formal ways. For example, Mark Gardner and Stephan Jaklitsch's climate responsive project called Stilt City in The Rockaways, a beach side neighbourhood, just south of JFK International Airport. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, many houses were damaged and some were later razed. The storm had a deleterious effect on the neighbourhood. “People are not always out on their porches, because a lot of the same people aren’t there anymore,” describes Thomson. “In order to cultivate and re-enact that sense of community, they (the architects) are disrupting the process of development that’s happening by partnering with artist Robyn Renee Hasty to build an art and community center in a set of bungalows near the beach. It will serve as a space for exhibiting and performing art, but also as a nexus for the community.” Bringing citizens together can be empowering, especially when up against difficult circumstances. In cities like New York, it can sometimes feel like residents are fighting against a network of vested interests, especially when it comes to housing. As a counterbalance, tenant associations are the ones disrupting the way the rental market functions, by helping residents to organise and learn about their rights. “You have tenants who are being offered buyouts from their landlords to take lump sums of money just to leave their rental apartment,” explains Thomson, “so that it can be flipped and renovated to no longer be in the system of rent regulation.” Rent regulation impacts not only the maintenance of the buildings in a neighbourhood, but also the diversity of the people that live there. An area with the right mix of disparate incomes has more chance of being an interesting neighbourhood, than an area where the socioeconomics are more homogenous. A more interesting neighbourhood is good for everyone, including landlords. Despite rent regulation being better for the city as a whole, tenant associations still face opposition. “It is hard for these organisations to gain traction because the political will is often embedded with development interests. Landlords can push back in invisible ways that aren’t perceptible from the street,” explains Thomson. “For example, signs in a building about tenant union meetings are sometimes removed by landlords.” An example of a tenant association fighting for the rights of New York renters is the Community Action for Safe Apartments, based in the South Bronx. The group advocates for fair zoning. Like in many cities, affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges facing New York. The city has rezoned certain areas to allow for more density within taller buildings and a mix of incomes. It’s the solution that is needed, but not everyone is happy. “There are long time residents who don’t want their neighbourhood to change,” Thomson says. “There are quotas for mandatory inclusionary housing, but even that is contentious.” As controversial as disrupting the cityscape of a neighbourhood might be, most New Yorkers can at least agree that the city needs more affordable housing. In many cities, like Vancouver, Chicago and London, people are concerned about housing options, and how the high cost of living is threatening our quality of life. Thomson sees this increased concern for the well-being of fellow citizens as part of the Western zeitgeist. “In the period after the recession, the public became more receptive to people being disruptive, both in commercial ways (think: Uber), but also with the rise of social justice groups like Black Lives Matter. People are ready to talk about these issues,” says Thomson. Part of the strategy to create a built environment that works for everyone is to ensure that every citizen is valued, not just with housing, but also with transportation. If citizens feel like they are being taken for granted or that a city does not value their community, it can be problematic. When New York introduced Citi Bike, its privately owned public bike sharing system, many residents were left out. “(It) sparked a lot of debate, because it was set up in specific neighbourhoods at first. Questions were raised about whether access to it was equitable,” says Thomson. “Part of that may have been that they were testing it in denser areas near the core. It started debates on whether amenities just go to certain privileged areas that are viewed as ripe for development. It was interesting to see that conversation emerge about the connection between infrastructure and class.” In terms of mobility, it is ironic that such a familiar mode of transportation is out of reach for many residents. For this reason, the subway is still New York’s great equaliser, a public space in its own right. The subway can also be an entertaining place, where musicians hop from car to car, playing music for commuters who give what they can. It is a form of disruption, but in recent years people have been arrested for subway dancing. Though some of that disruptive vibe has been lost, the city has been careful to show how much they value what these acts bring to the urban landscape. “There use to be a more visible subculture of hip hop dancers who would rush onto a subway car with a boombox and say ‘what time is it?’ and they would answer ‘it’s showtime,” Thomson describes. “And they had really exquisite routines of dancing along the poles and they knew how to utilise the layouts of different subway cars.” With the practice now illegal, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and a dance company formed an organisation called It’s Showtime NYC. “They recruited the dancers who were more of a spectacle relegated to the underground, and gave them the opportunity to organise as an actual dance company,” explains Thomson. “Now, not only can they get gigs, but they also receive professional training. They learn how to make a living out of dancing instead of the more informal practices of busking.” Of all the issues facing New York, and other cities as well, which one is the hardest to disrupt? According to Thomson, the answer is simple. “Poverty.” “Planners and policymakers apply different ideas to improve equity, such as increased transportation or lessening the displacement that comes with gentrification, but behind all of that is a pattern of poverty that is more difficult to disrupt. As city dwellers, we all need to work together to generate ways to disrupt the incredibly complicated systems behind income inequality.” He’s right. Poverty influences the built environment too, but its solution goes beyond simply constructing a building. It has to deal with a myriad of structural issues in our societies that require a collaborative solution. That is why a series like Disruption?, where designers and professionals are cross pollinating their ideas, can cause us to rethink how we engage with our cities and how our small gestures, as a network, can make a huge impact on a city. Even one as big as New York. ******* If you live in New York or will be visiting this week, Disruption? will take place from June 11 to 16. Check out the schedule and event locations on the Van Alen Institute site here.

With AFP Story by Brigitte DUSSEAU: US-Transport-Bicycle-Share-CitiBike
(Photo credit: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

When New York introduced Citi Bike, its privately owned public bike sharing system, many residents were left out. “(It) sparked a lot of debate, because it was set up in specific neighbourhoods at first. Questions were raised about whether access to it was equitable,” says Thomson. “Part of that may have been that they were testing it in denser areas near the core. It started debates on whether amenities just go to certain privileged areas that are viewed as ripe for development. It was interesting to see that conversation emerge about the connection between infrastructure and class.”

***EXCLUSIVE*** NEW YORK - UNDATED: (L-R) Andrew "Goofy" Saunders, Dashawn Martin and Raymon "Lex" Santos perform dynamic dance moves while hanging upside-down from the handrails in a New York City subway car. THESE incredible pictures from Barcroft Media offer a celebration of "the amazing side of life" in 2013. The press agency, which has offices in London, New York and New Delhi, has been a key player in many of the year’s biggest stories, from the birth of Prince George on July 22 to the Boston bombing in April and the Kenyan mall massacre in September. The content provider captured surfing legend Garrett McNamara riding the biggest wave in history in January, as well as documenting cluster balloonist Jonathan Trappe's attempted trans-Atlantic crossing in September. The end of year round-up includes staggering images of lava kayakers, high liners, storm chasers, giant afros, tiny waists, as well as some of the year's most breathtaking wildlife photography. FILMED BY Wiktor Skupinski / Barcroft Media UK Office, London. T +44 845 370 2233 W www.barcroftmedia.com USA Office, New York City. T +1 212 796 2458 W www.barcroftusa.com Indian Office, Delhi. T +91 11 4053 2429 W www.barcroftindia.com

***EXCLUSIVE*** NEW YORK – UNDATED: (L-R) Andrew “Goofy” Saunders, Dashawn Martin and Raymon “Lex” Santos perform dynamic dance moves while hanging upside-down from the handrails in a New York City subway car. www.barcroftindia.com

In terms of mobility, it is ironic that such a familiar mode of transportation is out of reach for many residents.  For this reason, the subway is still New York’s great equaliser, a public space in its own right. The subway can also be an entertaining place, where musicians hop from car to car, playing music for commuters who give what they can. It is a form of disruption, but in recent years people have been arrested for subway dancing. Though some of that disruptive vibe has been lost, the city has been careful to show how much they value what these acts bring to the urban landscape.

Its Showtime_photo from the website

Its Showtime NewYork.

“There use to be a more visible subculture of hip hop dancers who would rush onto a subway car with a boombox and say ‘what time is it?’ and they would answer ‘it’s showtime,” Thomson describes. “And they had really exquisite routines of dancing along the poles and they knew how to utilise the layouts of different subway cars.” With the practice now illegal, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and a dance company formed an organisation called It’s Showtime NYC.

“They recruited the dancers who were more of a spectacle relegated to the underground, and gave them the opportunity to organise as an actual dance company,” explains Thomson. “Now, not only can they get gigs, but they also receive professional training. They learn how to make a living out of dancing instead of the more informal practices of busking.”

Of all the issues facing New York, and other cities as well, which one is the hardest to disrupt? According to Thomson, the answer is simple. “Poverty.”

“Planners and policymakers apply different ideas to improve equity, such as increased transportation or lessening the displacement that comes with gentrification, but behind all of that is a pattern of poverty that is more difficult to disrupt. As city dwellers, we all need to work together to generate ways to disrupt the incredibly complicated systems behind income inequality.”

He’s right. Poverty influences the built environment too, but its solution goes beyond simply constructing a building. It has to deal with a myriad of structural issues in our societies that require a collaborative solution. That is why a series like Disruption?, where designers and professionals are cross pollinating their ideas, can cause us to rethink how we engage with our cities and how our small gestures, as a network, can make a huge impact on a city. Even one as big as New York.

*******

If you live in New York or visiting today, Disruption? takes place from June 11 to 16. So today is the last day!  Check out the schedule and event locations on the Van Alen Institute site 

Words: Phil Roberts


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