In a state far from equilibrium

In a state far from equilibrium adapts the ecological model of forest succession in order to explore the ways in which cities change over time through a cyclical process of growth, stagnation, disaster, abandonment and revitalization. This project was created by Katie Hargrave, Meredith Warner, and Jeremy Beaudry for the exhibition "The Cleveland Convention and Visitors Bureau” at SPACES in May 2012. It was also exhibited at “Philly Works: Qualities of Life” at the Philadelphia Art Alliance in late 2012.

In a state far from equilibrium adapts the ecological model of forest succession in order to explore the ways in which cities change over time through a cyclical process of growth, stagnation, disaster, abandonment and revitalization. Visitors to the project are invited to play with a physical manifestation of the urban succession model and consider their own city and neighborhoods in light of this analytical framework.

The Think Tank that has yet to be named created this project for inclusion in a group exhibition called “The Cleveland Convention and Visitors Bureau” at SPACES in Cleveland. The project was then presented at the Philadelphia Art Alliance as part of the exhibition Philly Works: Qualities of Life in Philadelphia.

TT-SPACES-01As organisms and networks, cities live and breath, ebb and flow, change according to the myriad complex currents that are social, environmental, political, economic, historical, cultural, psychic, and so on. Buildings fall down, vacant lots become overgrown, and neighborhoods falter. People hold on, others leave; the same is true of institutions, businesses, entire ways of life.

In the process called forest succession, catastrophe and disaster — whether caused by human or non-human forces — are catalysts for regeneration and reorganization. In this moment of environmental crisis, usually suppressed species of plants assert themselves and thrive in the cleared places where decimated trees and other vegetation once stood. The first signs of this regeneration are grasses, weeds, and fast-growing perennials, not majestic old-growth trees towering above. Slowly the forest evolves from weedy plants and brush to large trees. The forest is always changing; even a forest of 500-year-old pine trees will eventually fall, inviting new hardwoods to take their place.

Imagine a process like forest succession occurring in cities: call it urban succession.

A moment of stress is often a moment of transformation, an invitation for more agile and aggressive pioneer species to be the first to establish roots and claim the land. These colonizers will lay the groundwork for a changed landscape. In time, they may rejuvenate the ecosystem and usher in mature, healthy organisms, which grow tall and build strong foundations for future generations – that is, until, as the cycle dictates, a new disturbance advances the process again. Urban succession describes a state of continual change, a constant state of flux. We exist in a state far from equilibrium, with a torrent of forces swirling around us, changing our lives, our environment, and our universe.

TT-SPACES-02The occasion of disturbance in the urban environment, while devastating and demoralizing, can be viewed as an opportunity. It is a call to collective action that beckons individuals to become engaged subjects who strive to make (and remake) the world as they want it to be. Philadelphia is — as it has been throughout its history — at such a crossroads. Institutions are faltering, people are leaving, and it appears that the economic and civic foundations of yesterday are in decline, or at least tenuous.

The cycle of transformation we propose in our model of urban succession is visible in the landscape itself. It can be seen in the bifurcation of Chinatown by the Vine Street Expressway; in the rapid wave of gentrification exploding outward from the city center; in the doubling down on extravagant starchitecture such as the Barnes Foundation on the Parkway; and in the unimaginative building of a casino on our abandoned waterfront, cynically named to reference a long-gone industrial past. Who and what held these landscapes in their previous states? And what forces propelled them from one state to another? What will change the city tomorrow? What role will we play in guiding that transformation?

We invite you to use this analytical tool and make visible this evolutionary process in order to see how abandonment and regeneration are possibly related. Over time, watch the system in the model grow, look for patterns, and build a baseline of understanding that might inform future actions in the city.

Instructions for using the urban succession model:

1. Think of an agent, actor, or force for change in the life the city as you see it. Who or what shapes the city? Who or what drives changes here, both positive and negative? Who or what impacts you and your fellow citizens’ quality of life in this city?

2. Now, choose the category of game piece that best describes the agent, actor, or force that you have thought of. Choose from Nature, Institutions, Built Environment, People, or none of these.

3. Write a description of the agent, actor, or force for change on the game piece.

4. Take your game piece and place it somewhere within the urban succession cycle diagrammed on the table top. Does it belong in Growth, Stagnation, Disaster, Abandonment, or Regeneration — or somewhere where these overlap?

Photos courtesy of  Jerry Mann / SPACES