With the help of the “Paid Urbanism Project” cities can determine
the amount of people, the locations and the time of urban activities

The Paid Urbanism Project
A Strategy Outline

By Bernd Upmeyer and Thomas Söhl

There is a growing disappointment with the shape of urban life in many cities. An increasing disparity between our image of the city and its reality characterizes this dilemma. While the beloved central areas of most inner cities become economically obsolete we still wish to see them active and bustling. Today’s urban landscapes are dispersed, the center – periphery relationship has fundamentally changed: there no longer is one center containing a perfect mix of housing, working and shopping. Instead we have urban regions in which functions are increasingly allocated to logics other than centrality. The economic supremacy of city centers is diminishing rapidly. However, we never fell out of love with the traditional structure of towns. A bustling city center symbolizes to us true, good urban life. People occupying and using the public areas of a city means economic viability to us (they are presumably shopping or at least going to restaurants) and even more importantly it signifies the very core of civic life, the democratic interacting of all classes and professions in the public realm. So even though in reality we live in beautiful outskirts that provide everything except a ‘real’ urban experience the craving for the traditional dense and ‘urban’ life is ever increasing. Enjoying the reality of a non urban environment and at the same time dreaming of a better more intense urban life a short walk away is one of the most cherished past times of the contemporary (sub-)urban dweller. It is similar to living by the sea. Living by the ocean is not so desirable because we go to the beach every day, (in reality most people go to the beach only a couple of times a year) but because we want to have the option of going to the beach. And in the same sense enjoying an urban inner city like is not something we want to do every day but it should be there nevertheless – so that we have to option. The difference between the ocean and the city however is – and this is where the problem arises – that the ocean is there no matter what – if people go look at it or not, while a city is only urban if people use it, if they go there and work there and shop and so on…. While the ocean is there for free the city costs money.

Mayors and City Councils try to fulfill the wishes of their citizens. Make the paradox happen. Over and over they try to recreate a vibrant urban image of the central city areas. Revitalization is the magic word. And revitalization generally means investment in the physical city in one-way or the other. Public infrastructure projects are the most well known strategy. Creating parks and nice public spaces are the obvious solutions and their limitations are as obvious. In times where almost every city has severe fiscal problems and has to cut social services, the construction and maintenance of sophisticated cityscape seems hardly a justifiable revitalization strategy. Private sector investment is the other big hope for a city to keep up an urban image. Investment by the private sector in the central city is supposed not only to renew and expand the physical city but supposed to bring about urban life as well. However central locations are often times not sufficiently attractive anymore in order to draw significant private investment. In the competition for private investment with it’s own surroundings the central city almost always looses. Luring developers with subsidies, tax breaks or zoning relaxation are standard practices of almost every city. Both strategies however fail in one major aspect: They often do not create an urban atmosphere. On the contrary, the effect of the billions of taxpayer dollar subsidies is often anti urban. Tax breaks and subsidies to corporations create antiseptic office parks, plazas or atriums – life- and senseless urban design at best. And even the well-meant parks and public places more often than not seem pathetic because they lack people. Similarly the location of public administration, ministries, courthouses, backoffices and the like has no significant urban consequences we believe. Urban life however is not a mere aesthetic consideration; it has a clear economic impact. A bustling urban life attracts more real urban life and real economic activity. Everyone knows that a well-frequented restaurant attracts even more people. The same is true for neighborhoods; a restaurant/dining neighborhood that is popular attracts even more people. We argue that this principle holds true for whole cities – a popular vibrant city attracts even more urban life. In short what makes a location really attractive for business is busyness. And nothing signals busyness like busy streets.

Building more and nicer streets, buildings or creating useless jobs however does not produce urban life. In the opposite; it seems a logical that if the supply for urban actors (=people using the city) remains constant and one increases the amount of attractive urban space by building more parks and nice streets etc. that then the intensity and quality of urban life decreases. East German cities that had elaborate government subsidized makeovers after the German reunification experiences exactly that phenomenon. While millions were spent on renovating and beautifying the inner cities there was a virtual exodus of urban life in these places. If anything can be learnt from the work of the situationists and their contemporaries, then the lesson that urbanism has not so much to do with fancy streets, parks, office buildings or jobs but everything with people. If urbanity is related to the amount of people in a public space, then The Paid Urbanism Project is the last hope to make [Europe’s] ailing inner cities urban again. The Paid Urbanism Project proposes a radical shift in public investment. Instead of investing taxpayer dollars in questionable economic subsidies or city beautification programs we propose to create the job of the paid urban flaneur. Instead of investing money anymore in city hardware, like beautiful new benches, astonishing road surfaces and awesome streetlights, the city pays people performing in public space. A major goal of public spending in cities should be the creation of a vibrant urban atmosphere. A vibrant urban atmosphere conveys prosperity and prosperity attracts more prosperity. Unconsciously many cities are already practicing clumsy variants of Paid Urbanism: WEP (Work Experience Programs) or their German Counterpart ABM send out unemployed citizens on subsidized salaries to perform work –often in the public realm. The pity is that these people mostly have to perform rather unproductive tasks, often in humiliating prison-like uniforms, which greatly diminishes their “urban” impact. A strategy needs to be developed that maximizes the urban impact of social transfer payments. We propose instead of either dishing out social subsidies with no reciprocity (pure welfare) or instead of burdening recipients with unproductive humiliating tasks – the public should sponsor urban flaneurs.

The Paid Urbanism Project proposes a professional tool to realize the obsession with urban life. The urban ideal can exist no matter what the reality – the obsession for urbanism will be fulfilled– at least for now. Using the tools of the “Paid Urbanism” strategy a city can not only create urban life from the ground up it can also shape existing urbanism into a desired form. We distinguish between free urbanism – caused by unpaid people, and paid urbanism – produced with euros/dollars. So for example investing in some paid urbanism can augment a sparse shrinking urban life of a city. This could happen in certain locations; to enhance the urban life of a central restaurant district for example and thus to attract more ‘real’ guests or at a certain time; to create a busy rush hour once in a while to give the citizens the feeling of a strong economy. The Paid Urbanism strategy provides tools to control the intensity of urban life at any time in any place. The Paid Urbanism Strategy is a first exploration of the possibilities: We propose to develop a tool kit that can be used to design urban life. A city can create any desired kind of urban life at any time. A fake shopping buzz or rush-hour or a park full of people strolling around chatting. Urban design is then about assigning activities to paid urban actors (drifting, shopping, eating, chatting, rushing…), their movement (standing, walking directed, meandering….) and grouping behavior (alone, in pairs or bigger groups) and the like. More experienced actors could be allowed to improvise and so on. The goal is to create a pleasant and vibrant urban atmosphere. In elections or referenda the citizens can voice their preferences for which kind of urban atmosphere they would like to see in their city, a busy inner city or rather a laid back Mediterranean urban life. The details and exact schedules will be developed by the new urban planning departments, which finally can make a real contribution to the quality of urban life.

Title: The Paid Urbanism Project
Authors: Bernd Upmeyer, Thomas Söhl
Date: June 2004
Type: Commissioned article
Status: Published
Publication: MONU #1, P. 23-32