Recent efforts to reconnect urban spaces divided by infrastructure include the creation of parks in underutilized spaces, for example, by making use of the space under elevated highways or by covering sunken highways. Industrial waterfronts and yards are also being reinterpreted and turned into promenades and linear parks. This requires the redirection of traffic and the coordination among different stakeholders, government agencies and institutions. This is often only possible under a long-term, comprehensive planning approach. A tactical approach is often the only alternative.
What are the consequences of not solving fragmentation in the short and mid term? Fragmentation affects the quality of life in many ways. The spaces adjacent to the infrastructure lines are under-maintained and inaccessible. Pollution, noise and abandonment discourage people from crossing or walking along these spaces. They also create "sinuosity." That is, the pedestrian is forced to take sinuous ways to go around elevated or sunken highways to go to places that are otherwise close in a straight line.
What can be done when no significant reconstruction is possible? There are several alternatives that, even if they don't effectively reconnect the territory, can alleviate the sense of disconnection. Here, there are two important aspects to considerate. First, the fact that urban experience works independently of factual urban space. That is, we imagine the territory regardless of how the space is constructed. Kevin Lynch (1960) explored this idea throughout his work. Our mental (or cognitive) map of the territory differs from architectural representations of it. The legibility of the space is key to improve the quality of life in urban spaces. Our sense of connection goes beyond the actual disconnection. Second, we should not forget that most urban territories are now actually and effectively linked by intangible and virtual flows. Communication, exchange and information in the internet flow across divided territories, thus connecting them virtually. This is a fact that we might take for granted but before the internet, the telephone and the telegraph, physical walls could actually seal a city from the outside world.
Having said that, there are three main alternatives to physical reconnection of fragmented urban spaces. (1) Tactical stitching, (2) Appropriation of the edges, and (3) conceptual reconnection. Tactical stitching entails finding key spaces (or "holes") that can serve as corridors to link spaces across the infrastructure lines, thus creating legibility across the space and linking the space cognitively. Appropriation of the edges entail intervening the edges created by infrastructure. Community gardens, pocket parks and murals are some examples of how communities reappropriate infrastructure and improve the quality of life in communities. However, here I want to focus on the latter.
Conceptual reconnection is by definition abstract, and it entails the creation of conceptual totality in the minds of the users. This is a provocation that result from brainstorming session and community charrettes after 4 years of testing methodologies of participatory planning in my Urban Laboratory studio in Montreal.
Interesting ideas have come out of the process of thinking out loud about the topic of fragmentation. Some ideas where never implemented in our projects, but provide interesting images to reinterpret fragmentation. For example, in one occasion a group of students suggested the idea of putting phone booths in different spots of the city that could be used to create conversations with anonymous and random citizens. Another idea was to project images from one side into a surface on the other side of the infrastructure line, as well as shooting light or lasers into the sky that were visible on both sides.
In a recent exercise to reconceive a small park in Montreal a latent provocation has arose. The park is very complex site. It is located in the intersection of a bike path, a bus terminus and a train station. It is adjacent to the rail tracks. And, there are community spaces across the rail. This inevitably suggests that, given that a physical reconnection of the fragmented territory is not feasible in the short or mid term, a conceptual reconnection is possible. This is where Gestalt theory can be helpful.
Gestalt is a theory that was mainly developed in psychology, but that has influenced numerous disciplines including design. Gestalt departs form the idea that there is a general overarching background that structures our mental reality. We tend to fit different elements of it according to that structure. This becomes particularly interesting when considering elements that might be missing in the mental structure. Our mind tends to complete the missing spaces and construct a toto. This is a strategy that can help in creating legibility in a fragmented territory. In a fragmented space, there are gaps that separate the totality of the territory. Therefore, if we create structures on both sides of the gap that create a conceptual totality, the user will hypothetically tend to put it together. The possibilities for this strategy are endless. Architectural pieces, sculptures, textures, surfaces can be designed as complete across the rail in order to create an idea of totality.
Urban space is a text. In the same way that we read a text and can understand a concept by context and can sometimes skip a paragraph or a page without loosing sense of the general, we can create a general concept for the space that the "urban reader" can make sense of even when the space is physically fragmented.
Lynch, K. (1960). The image of the city (Vol. 11). MIT press.