What is urban experimentalism?

by Charles Montgomery on

ex·per·i·men·tal·ism: noun

1/ reliance on or advocacy of experimental or empirical principles and procedures. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

2/ an orientation that favors experimentation and innovation. Related to instrumentalism, a philosophy advanced by philosopher John Dewey, who held that the truth of a thing or idea lay in its usefulness.

I began my search for the essence of the happier city as a journalist, searching for experts among planners, mayors, psychologists and economists. But I found time and again that many aspects of the modern metropolis remain as as mysterious and uncharted as the cosmos. Why do certain places make us feel better than others? How can design alter the way we regard and treat strangers? Can we build more trust and altruism into our neighbourhoods? Academics, engineers and other experts have yet to fill in all the gaps.

So, like other curious people, I started conducting my own informal experiments. First I challenged people to open their homes to strangers during the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Then, when I  joined the BMW Guggenheim Lab Team in NYC, I worked with scientists and the people of New York to understand the affect of public space on emotions. First, I designed a tour with Dr. Colin Ellard that tested the  effect that public space had on people’s sense of happiness and also their physical state of arousal. Inspired, I invited scientists and artists to help configure a space to boost feelings of trust among strangers for a night. The result: Love Night, a bizarre, fun, yet surprising experience that suggested pro-social environments and experiences may actually change people’s values.  Of course none of this is peer-reviewed research fit for an academic journal. But all of this work raises important questions about design, and some of it nudges the professional elite to take up the cause.

I realized I was not alone. Other urbanists, planners, activists and artists have been experimenting with city spaces and social effects for years. Darren O’Donnell and Mammalian Diving Reflex practice what they call social acupuncture, using surprising action–like haircuts for adults by kids–to shake up social assumptions. Jan Gehl, and the followers of Holly Whyte at Project for Public Spaces, have been using observations of human movement and interaction to guide design of public space for decades.

I like to call this realm urban experimentalism. Rather than running singular experiments in a controlled setting, the experimentalist gathers useful knowledge about the city in a broader sense, through an ongoing practice of observation, testing and experience.

Any of us can help reveal the mysteries of the city by doing our own informal experiments on the places where we live—and sharing the results. The better we understand the relationship between our cities, our minds and our experiences, the better equipped we’ll all be to design cities that are happier, healthier, and more resilient. We are all experts on our own urban experience.

The business of city thinking and city building has, for too long, been the sole property of elite architects, planners, engineers and land developers, many of whom have simply not bothered to gather evidence on the effects of their work. They need more than encouragement. They need help. Who has the right to shape the city? The French philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, once offered a straightforward answer: This right is not something that can be bequeathed by the state. It is earned through the act of habitation. If you live out your life in the shared urban landscape, then you have a natural right to participate in shaping its future.

The city is our laboratory. Let’s use it!

Charles Montgomery

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See more experimentalism here.