There’s a lot of talk nowadays (this blog included) about how bottom up movements have become more important in shaping and solving problems of the 21st century city. The drivers behind the trend include the rise of the internet and social media: It has become very easy to mobilize people around any issue. In addition, access to information has been democratized, making top-down governance models seem outdated and inefficient in their responses to today’s urban challenges. People are taking the initiative to improve their surroundings themselves.
While we’re experiencing all kinds of fascinating Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanisms or Tactical Urbanisms emerge in our cities, we, typically, just manage to see a snapshot of their activities. Many initiatives also fade away as soon as we hear about them. It’s rarely easy to get a nuanced understanding of the projects or evaluate their full potential in bringing change.
Sometimes it’s not easy even if you’re on the inside. I often get asked to elaborate the impact of my DIY urban planning activities and it is, indeed, a difficult task. I’ve tried to single out some tangible outcomes, but, as with most “activisms”, it seems that the greatest impact happens in places that are not visible nor measurable.
Luckily, there are also exceptions. Such as the work of Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization (Pirkanmaan Kaarikoirat Ry), a group of skateboarders who have proactively built their own skatepark instead of waiting for the city’s administration to deliver new skateboarding infrastructure. I’m grateful for having met them because their story is a unique window for examining the changing landscape between top-down and bottom-up processes. While DIY skateparks are not a new phenomenon as such, the one of Kaarikoirat managed to start an unexpected process of change that improved the quality of life for their peers and beyond.
So, if you’re right now pondering whether you should proceed with your own idea to bring positive change in your city, continue reading. Kaarikoirat have proved that it is possible to make the city better for everyone even when you don’t have any power, resources, or allies to begin doing so.
Worlds Apart: Tampere and Skateboarding
The setting of the Kaarikoirat story takes us to the early 2000s and the city of Tampere, Finland, where the local skateboarding scene was rolling away in an atmosphere of frustration. The dissatisfaction was due to a lack of proper facilities for practicing skateboarding. The sport had gradually become a popular pastime among the Finnish youth, but the network of skateboarding infrastructure was scarce, too generic, and poorly laid out.
The city’s officials had little interest in building skateparks. Nor did they have any real pressure, expertise, or guidance in doing so.
At the time, the local skateboarding scene was made up of fragmented and organically grown groups. And the Finnish Skateboarding Association was largely non-existent (they were founded in 2003). Consequently, there really wasn’t any organized lobby to pressure the city to do a better job. Only quiet pleas for improving the situation that got largely ignored or deprioritized.
The Kaarikoirat group was one of the fragments who occasionally tried to stress that the city could step up their game. During travels and studies around Europe, the guys had learned about the more advanced state of skateboarding culture and facilities in other countries. They knew how things could be. And new ideas kept pouring in all the time via social media. That was the new normal with different lifestyle scenes. For instance, Swedish DIY enthusiast Pontus Alv’s movies promoting self-made skateparks spread across the world like wildfire to inspire a whole generation of skateboarders.
From Dissappointment to Tikkutehdas DIY
Fast-forward to 2008, and things, suddenly, took a sharp turn for the better. Tampere’s officials revealed an extensive plan for skatepark development. The frustrating years of sending complaints had paid off, it seemed.
The excitement was, however, quickly replaced by disappointment and anger. Nothing was done to implement plan. As swiftly as the plans had emerged, they got buried by other projects deemed more vital.
Waiting for the city to act began to look like a waste of time.
Sometime later, a self-help opportunity for Kaarikoirat to improve the situation emerged. The skaters stumbled upon a sleepy former industrial site on the edge of the inner city. It was one of those places where the original industrial activities died out or moved away by the 70s and other endeavors, such as artist studios, had taken over. Some of the gracious red brick buildings also stood completely vacated, waiting for distant redevelopment plans to materialize. This was the case especially with the plot of Tikkutehdas, a former match factory, that served as an unsanctioned graffiti gallery.
Experiences of thriving do-it-yourself skateparks elsewhere in the world combined with the mixture of available assets such as the obvious lack of any formal activities around Tikkutehdas, a flat piece of land where a burned-down building once stood, and a wealth of discarded materials lying around, led the group to begin imagining about the possibility of constructing their own skatepark. By the next summer, the idea of Tikkutehdas DIY was ripe enough to put it into action.
This is when the magic starts to happen.
The guys had some experience of building small-scale ramps in school and their backyards, but no expertise in creating something of the scale of an entire skatepark. They also didn’t have any money. Despite these shortcomings, they launched a working process of “trial and error”, as they described it, to incrementally transform the area into a skating paradise. The examples from other countries provided important benchmarks to see what worked and what didn’t. Not to mention assurance that the project was feasible.
Pulling together the necessary materials and additional funding (much came from their own pockets) was a creative project of its own. The group collected bottles and cans to raise funds, recycled suitable materials they found in the area, and contacted local companies for support. Fortunately, they came across plenty of like-minded people in different businesses who were open to lending a helping hand. For example, construction companies gave away leftover materials, a skateboarding brand allowed them to use a van, and one company donated 3 cubic meters of concrete.
They also didn’t need to do the job by themselves. Other skateboarder groups and kids that hung out in the area joined to help. Kaarikoirat also managed to win the landowner on their side by assuring that nothing obscure was going on in the area.
Developing the skatepark became a meaningful and communal pastime for many: “One of the best things about our process was the feeling of communality and solidarity. We actually think that the skatepark project was a big factor in removing cliques in the local skateboarding scene and it brought older and younger skateboarders together.”, the group told me.
The Nudge from a Paper Tissue Brand
After a couple of summers of underground skateboarding and communal construction activities, an unexpected and game-changing sequence of events started to unfold.
It all began by a Kaarikoirat member discovering that a tissue paper brand had announced a call for inspirational community initiatives. They wanted to award the best one with 5,000 € and the winner would be chosen by the public. The group decided to seize the opportunity as the money would allow further expansion of their skatepark. Using social media, they mobilized the entire skateboarding community to vote for their DIY skatepark initiative. The prize was easily theirs.
But to be able to receive the money, they were required to establish an official association for the group. This practical byproduct later proved to be a useful tool for opening doors beyond money processing: It facilitated the group in advancing a dialogue with the city’s management. They, for example, were able to build a working relationship with the Deputy Mayor who was responsible for developing skateboarding infrastructure.
This gentle mingling had started to gradually evolve because, parallel to the construction of the Tikkutehdas DIY park and competition win, also the advocacy for pressuring politicians and the administration had been intensifying all along. For example, a petition requesting for new public skateparks had been launched. Collecting names had become much easier than before as the local skateboarding community were more unified than ever.
Finally, Kaarikoirat were approached by the media. The local newspaper had gotten interested in doing a feature about the group, thanks to their competition win and the interesting nature of the DIY project.
This proved to be a crucial turning point. Faced with growing dissatisfaction towards the city’s skateboarding policies and exposure of the situation in the media, Tampere’s high-profile politicians were cornered. They needed to react. This meant that the skateboarders’ long wait was finally over: the city’s leadership decided to do a complete policy turnaround, led by the Deputy Mayor.
A Remarkable Partnership Begins to Evolve
Thanks to the U-turn in policy, the city allocated several hundred thousand Euros for public skatepark improvement. The big development plans re-emerged on the planners’ tables. And this time to walk the talk, the city launched a landmark project to build a 1 200 sq. meter skatepark called Iso-Vilunen.
How, is the interesting part.
Noting the success of Tikkutehdas DIY and Tampere’s poor track record in facility development, the city realized they understood nothing about good skatepark design. They concluded it’s better to include the proper expertise in their process to ensure a sustainable outcome. The solution was to invite a well-known skater consultant as well as Kaarikoirat to advise the city in the design and implementation of Iso-Vilunen.
The collaboration was a great success. Today, Iso-Vilunen is considered Finland’s best skatepark. Someone has even praised it to be the best in the Nordics.
The amazing and fruitful collaboration facilitated the building of a new kind of trust between the skateboarder group and the city officials. More doors were opened. For example, one day the group spotted discarded roadside stones and got an idea that they, placed on an underperforming city center plaza, could double as an amenity for skateboarders and a way to bring eyes to an area known for unsociable behavior. The city implemented the idea. Kaarikoirat and the city have also cooperated in the organizing of Manserama, a big annual skateboarding event.
Remarkably, the decision to build a self-made skatepark eventually turned out to be a triumph for all of Tampere’s skateboarders. And there’s even more.
The communal experience of the Tikkutehdas DIY building process had sparked another interesting idea: What if Kaarikoirat repeated the process, but this time by also integrating unemployed youngsters into the construction of a new skatepark?
Proposal made and accepted. This new area of cooperation was launched a couple of years ago in connection to the effort for building an Olympic-size indoor skatepark in Tampere’s Hiedanranta area. In its first phase, the project employed more than a dozen long-term unemployed youngsters who shared an interest to advance a career in construction and developing skateboarding facilities. According to reports, 80% of them got employed afterwards. That’s something you don’t see every day.
Three Key Takeaways
The Kaarikoirat story shows how proactive and resourceful young citizens can stand up to shake the system, not only by complaining about the status quo, but by actively creating and proposing something better.
While their experience represents a niche, the story is packed with extremely interesting dimensions that also very much relate to other domains of society and DIY urbanism. Here are three that I find especially worth mentioning.
The interaction between citizens and government in a changing world
Back in the day, neighborhood associations and other formal entities that represented residents served as key interfaces in discussions between city administrations and the public. Now, however, people are increasingly organized into informal networks around things they care about. These don’t possess an address for contacting them. Or any kind of conventional representation at all. As in the story of Kaarikoirat, these types of actors or movements are often “invisible” to the eyes of administrations and get ignored in official public participation processes. At least until they do something that forces the government to react.
Cities should update their public engagement strategies to also cover the “places” (e.g. social media platforms) where relevant networks are active. Furthermore, initiatives emerging from the bottom up more often need to be understood and treated as signals for the city to begin self-reflecting about whether it should actually join in.
The shift to a problem-centric approach
In this story, progress and sustainable outcomes were achieved when focus was placed on all aspects of the problem itself: The shortcomings and the solutions for fixing them in a manner that includes everyone concerned into the process. In this case it was fairly straightforward, but the same philosophy should be applied in other domains as well. Complex urban problems cannot be solved without an integrated and collaborative process to address them. This will ensure that the relevant skills and expertise are included.
Terms like co-creation have recently emerged on the agendas of local governments and agencies. But are they really applied in practice? Cases like the one of Kaarikoirat paint a picture for self-reflection. A shift to this direction means saying goodbye to institutional silos and the control of (supposedly) all-knowing master planners.
The maturing cooperation
The third intriguing aspect of this story is the opportunity to observe the evolution of the cooperation when it matures. Generally, DIY urbanism is new and not very often do we see beyond the initial phases of different interventions. In this case, not only did the activists solve their initial problem, but they later applied their experience to help solve other problems, too. This story suggests that there is much potential in committing to deeper partnerships with DIY urbanisms. Working together can at best lead to completely new models for addressing urban problems. If this is the future, an important question to solve is how these partnerships will work out in a manner that is satisfactory for everyone. How do you manage to keep things fun and economically sound? Is it possible to maintain the collaboration platform after the original core group dissolves for whatever reason? Does the city have the courage to let go of any of the responsibilities that it traditionally has?
Finally, the big lesson the work of Kaarikoirat quite elaborately offers is this: Taking action on a small scale can bring positive change to the entire city.
The Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization story was originally recorded within the scope of the EUrbanities project I’m affiliated with. We collected 20 cases from 9 European countries to develop a deeper understanding of contemporary participatory processes in Europe.
Main photo credit: Pirkanmaan Kaarikoirat / Tikkutehdas DIY FB page.