The imagination paradox: Participation or performance of visioning the city

Balug, K.

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Balug, Katarzyna. 2017. “The Imagination Paradox: Participation or Performance of Visioning the City.” Geoforum. doi: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2017.08.014.

Aesthetics , Art , Imagination , Modernism , Participation , Public Space , Urban Planning

Models of urban planning after authoritarian modernism raise the question of democratic control over the city and the possibility of imagining as a collective act. The paper examines systemic hindrances to free-thinking, and thus free-acting, embedded in urban communities. Through the case study of recent work by the art collective Department of Play, it illustrates the rationale for engaging public imagination specifically via play as world-building; and it posits the potential implications and limits of such activity as an intervention into city planning processes. Interested in liminal spaces between territory, language and social affiliation, the collective advances an agenda of productive dissent in public space through play and performance. Department of Play begins from the position that we can only plan that which we imagine, and thus exists as an effort to free the public imagination from modes of thinking dictated by the capitalist context.

Main finding
Through the Department of Play’s context-specific events, moments of alterative envisioning were opened among the participants and performers involved such that new imaginaries for public space and public life could be articulated, debated, and potentially developed. The author argues that public art offers a “public construction of society” that joins a plurality of civic engagements with a planning vision for the future that helps to facilitate debate and dissent over depoliticized consensus. This seeks to disrupt the paradox created by formal planning-participation which tends to hinder and avoid true and alternative visioning.

Description of method used in the article
While no methodology is explicitly stated in the paper, the author participated in the art collaborative, Department of Play - along with an anthropologist - from which the case study is based. A series of short public play interruptions and eventually interactive play zones were developed at specific sites then embedded in two areas of Boston with local collaborators. One such site involved working, over several months, with two youth groups to create a play zone centered on “envisioning a city in which everyone feels welcome and comfortable”. The author found that both play zone sites “interrupted the script” one would normally encounter in a public space whereby forms of engagement were less restricted and reconceptualized.

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