From observations in my career in arts, architecture and the public realm, and together with my academic interest in psychology and individual and community conscientization, I recently completed a dissertation study of something that I have given the term of ‘relocalism’, the return to the city as a site of social, community connection which has the potential to impact cultural placemaking and the psychosocial experience of city dwelling.
Relocalism is an umbrella term I have given to the emerging global movement of urban-located, grassroots arts-led interventions that aim to change the lived experience of city life; it encompasses the many forms of unsanctioned cultural placemaking including guerrilla, tactical, pop-up, DIY, informal, opensource, participatory urbanism…; is led by artists (and I include architects as artists in this definition); are undertaken in the community setting, under their own initiative, with no or low level funding; and aim to solve urban issues. Projects can be seen in four broad operational categories of pop-ups; greening and sustainability; neighbourhood; and city and region-wide initiatives and projects; and range from 1-day events such as PARK(ing) Day, to those concerned with environmental issues such as guerrilla gardening, to neighbourhood and city-wide pervasive grassroots cultural regeneration such as occurring in Detroit.
My starting premise was that relocalism upsets the received wisdom of much of urban sociology that living in a city is an alienating, depressing experience that can lead to a condition of poor mental health and city-specific pathologies; instead relocalism recreates the city as local and connected, fostering community bonds from the hyper-local level upwards by encouraging a sense of individual agency and civic participation through community endeavour and challenging macro level placemaking.
My dissertation worked towards a categorical understanding of relocalism, including theories of relocalism and:
- social capital
- social cohesion
- attachment theory
- the therapeutic relationship
- dialogical and relational aesthetics
- the psychosocial
I define relocalism as the global return to cities as a site of community cohesion, not fragmentation, in which the emergence of grassroots arts-based socially-orientated initiatives are used to reconnect individuals across and through the urban setting, whether by connecting at the hyper-local geographical level or by interest group – from urban cultivation and greening initiatives, skill swap projects, to public art and social opensource initiatives for example.
Relocalism sees citizens with their own rationale taking the initiative and appropriating space to their own ends as a deliberate approach to activating change and creating their own solutions to local social and placemaking issues.
Relocalism is emblematic of a proletarian and bottom-up change to society, community-based and without reference to policy or city administrative protocol. It can also be seen as a movement that reintroduces a creative tension into the city narrative and aims to win back urban development from the private, profit-orientated and corporate-led agenda and seeks to counter public apathy to allow creativity, dissent and critique to thrive.
Relocalism projects will start from a point of questioning at the individual and community level, principally, ‘what are the problems in the life the I/we live?’ Arguably relocalism activities are experienced as more positive than governmental, top-down ones as they are based on community agency, conscientization and empowerment and have the potential to be greater than sum of their parts, being composed of individuals coming together in a group to affect change from the micro (the immediate project site) up to meso (city administration) and macro levels (national and master planning).
Individuals may form around a hyperlocal issue at the street level, or a localised issue at the neighbourhood or city region level. They may be recruited via physical proximity to the project (living on the street where it is taking place for example) and/or via personal interest (the interest group cross-cutting neighbourhood boundaries for example) and recruited via face-to-face or virtual opensource means (interest online forums for example).
With the global urban population increase and urbanisation trends, urban commentators are recognising that cities must address the consequential changes to the city built environment and its economic, environmental, social and psychological functions, and source and enact strategies and tactics to affect the necessary changes to keep cities liveable. There is an increased interest in the local as a site of activity and positive change and a trend towards urban population growth and it is where these two segued that I made an initial investigation of the potential effect of relocalism on city living and the creation and sense of urban community and wellbeing on the psyche and the role of arts in implicitly or explicitly ‘making’ of psychosocial urban spaces.
The challenge for masterplanners and policymakers will be how to learn from and work with relocalism without sanitising it, diluting it or appropriating it. There is also a need to examine the relocalism phenomenon from a psychosocial perspective to uncover exactly what it does, and to what degree it does it, to improve the psychological experience of city life and what the arts approach brings to this in particular, and this is something that I am aiming to pursue by embedded fieldwork study.
I am currently working on an executive summary of my dissertation, ‘Relocalism: the role of arts intervention in the psychosocial making of urban place’, and will post that here in due course. To request a copy, please do get in contact.