Let's Shed a Light on the City: Places of Hope in the Time of the Pandemic
By Mohammadmahdi Zanjanian
Since the Covid-19 outbreak, the face of cities has changed dramatically. Hidden smiles behind masks, anxious looks, and empty spaces have stolen urban life. Tehran has not been spared from the vicissitude of pandemics either. Perhaps this absence of vibrancy has intensified in Tehran due to its inefficient utilization of public spaces, spatial boundaries, and government-owned properties.
Critical conditions caused by the pandemic resulted in top-down hasty decisions of policy-makers, such as imposing spatial restrictions on entry to parks, turning off public lighting, and enacting temporary traffic bans in the city. In other words, Tehran's old problem of lack of activated public space, which reduced opportunities for spontaneous social interaction, has been further aggravated by the pandemic, resulting in the complete blackout of the city by night. The creation of activated public spaces is crucial to decrease the adverse psychological, social, and economic effects of darkness and isolation in the city. The activation of public spaces creates a place for collective actions and the co-existence of different social groups. Participation imparts the residents the freedom to act collectively and bring about change. The exercise of having choices to exist in a flexible place is an essential element in human contentment and well-being. However, waiting for municipal bureaucratic procedures of placemaking are not the answer, as they are neither agile nor efficient. Given the situation, the main question became: How can -planners create a participatory platform to reveal the residents' capabilities to activate public open spaces by implementing creative, small-scale interventions in times of health and community crisis to improve access and interaction among different social groups?
To explore this question, "Let's Shed a Light on the City" was conceptualized and held as a series of events in the threshold spaces. Namely the boundaries of urban parks in Tehran. Such in-between abandoned spaces have dual characteristics: easy access for passersby and joggers and lack of municipal surveillance, which allows for the organization of events and activities without top-down interference. The event's approach, based on the "tactical urbanism" movement, revolves around the idea of "experimentation" and "imagination" by low-cost, low-tech, and short-term actions. These tactics create symbolic spatial temporary effects to urban spaces intending to attract the attention of residents, policy-makers, and other stakeholders with the hope of influencing long-term changes in the neighborhood.
In other words, the right to use urban spaces and benefit from urban life has been taken away from residents. In this situation, instead of waiting for decision-makers, residents can take direct action and reclaim their freedom to revalue the underutilized public spaces. In this regard, shifting from high-tech techniques to available homemade resources that enable scalable interventions at the local level is the key. In this way, the designer acts as a facilitator to reveal the capacities of residents for participation and their active presence in the process of change. It is an effort to transform dull spaces into an "atmosphere of hope.”
The main actions that came out of “Let’s Shed a Light on the City,” focused on illuminating the dark, abandoned thresholds of Nahjolbalaghe Park by lighting candles. This park, like many of Tehran’s public spaces, has severe maintenance and operation problems. As a way of introducing a do-it-yourself (DIY) technique for lighting and simultaneously critiquing the lack of maintenance of municipal infrastructure, homemade yarn-wrapped candle holders, woven by volunteers and local residents, were installed on the park's broken pole-mounted lights and handrails. The installation of candles creates a dynamic platform for conversation, placemaking, and continuity of social activities at night. The candlelight creates an imaginative and eye-catching atmosphere for presence and contemplation amid the monotony of the city's gray landscape. The unexpectedness of candlelight attracts people to stay in public spaces, especially in a time of isolation. Optional activities were observed throughout the events, such as staying, sitting, viewing, discussing, taking photos, or playing around the candlelight. At the same time, in order to protect public health, the placement of information boards in the park emphasized social distancing to avoid overcrowding.
Such unsanctioned tactics carried out in forgotten transitional spaces create opportunities for improvised activities. These secluded spaces turned into an animated venue for participation and dialogue. The importance of creating space for community dialogue seems lost on decision-makers. For this reason, the opportunity for the community to gather and take action in the abandoned spaces has the possibility of lighting the sparks of resistance and incremental changes in the community.
Despite the undeniable effect of tactical urbanism on neighborhoods and its power to create tangible changes by nimble actions in urban spaces, this movement received several critiques, particularly around whether or not it is an effective strategy for change. Critics argue that guerrilla planning (another name for tactical urbanism) enables momentary changes without impacting a problems' origin through city policy. Thus, the actions remain short-term public events, rather than a consistent driving force for radical change. For example, in our case, although the transitional unlighted spaces transformed to activated places with our immediate action, the severe problem of municipal maintenance of urban parks remained intact. From theoretical points of view, these critiques are valid. However, considering the setting for the use of tactical urbanism is crucial. In the socio-political context of Iran, where public gatherings are met with objections from the authorities, the most important achievement of this series of events was not their impact on municipal policy, but rather that it provides a model for peaceful demands in the public realm.
All in all, this project aims at creating a glow of hope and existence in public spaces for residents in the time of depression and recession, encouraging temporary actions with bottom-up experimental and imaginative nature to shed light again on the city.
Mohammadmahdi Zanjanian is an urban designer/architect experienced in public space activation and placemaking. His research interests include, transitional spaces, informal practices within public space, equality in access to urban spaces and tactical urbanism. Mohammadmahdi received his M.Sc. in Sustainable Urban Design from Lund University.