Imagine Potential Futures with Malmö’s New Parascopes
What would daily life be like in a future Malmö with less cars? In an attempt to engage its citizens in a discussion on how to redesign the city to favour other means of transport, the City of Malmö collaborated with Unsworn Industries. They created three Parascopes – public viewers that show future panoramas based on citizen proposals.
Like many other cities, Malmö needs to reduce the negative environmental impact caused by motorised traffic. For the past five years the Traffic Environment Unit at Malmö’s Streets and Parks department actively promotes the use of sustainable forms of transportation, through campaigns aimed at changing attitudes and behaviours among politicians, businesses, and the general public. The goal is to get people to re-think the way that they use their cars; to encourage them to walk, bike, and use public transport, in order to create a sustainable urban environment.
In a campaign in the autumn of 2007 the City asked its inhabitants:
What should we do in order to reduce car traffic in Malmö?
The response to the question was overwhelming, with more than 1000 suggestions posted on the web forum at www.malmo.se/vagvalet. Suggestions ranged from extravagant sky-trains, to €100-per-hour parking fees, better bicycle infrastructure and free public transport. One proposal suggested canal taxis in the city waterways. Others called for a total ban of cars in the city centre.
The City then approached Unsworn Industries to come up with ideas for a follow-up campaign based on these suggestions, to provide action spaces for a continued dialogue with the public.
Imagine the Future
Together we decided to manifest the ideas and visions of the Malmö citizens in the form of future panoramas. These snapshots of possible, not so distant, futures, were to be experienced on site with special Parascopes (also called Future Binoculars) and on the campaign website.
We selected three busy Malmö spots and contracted five groups of architects, artists, graphic designers, and cultural geographers to create future panoramas for each spot. All panoramas were based on the suggestions of the citizens, but each group was given slightly different briefs and different themes to explore, think through and visualise.
The Imagine the Future campaign took place from 15 January to 8 February 2009. Using the Parascopes curious Malmöites could explore Triangeln (the traffic-congested heart of downtown Malmö) without cars, check out the car-pool hub by the Mobilia shopping mall, and get a glimpse of the canal taxi at Amiralsgatan (the most polluted street in the city).
Parascopes resemble traditional scenic viewer binoculars but instead of showing the here-and-now, they display visualisations of how things might be in the future, in a particular place. By changing the orientation and tilt of the Parascope you can peek around inside panoramic visualisations of a particular spot, and compare them to the present reality. A set of buttons allows you to switch between different visualisations, zoom in, and view a short text about each panorama.
Parascopes are designed to help people imagine, compare, and discuss many potential futures. Each Parascope therefore shows several varied, and sometimes contradictory, visions. Parascope panoramas are not presentations of a future plan but constructive provocations to engage citizens in debating and shaping a place.
It takes practice to learn how to decode a map and envision the terrain it describes. Unlike development plans and architectural models, the Parascopes give you an eye-level experience of future environments, on location in the city space. The Parascopes further blur the distinction between map and terrain by seamlessly aligning the panoramic future visualisations with the present terrain. You can experience and get an immediate feel for many different versions of a place.
From peeking to posting
We designed the campaign to cater to many levels of participation: from passive peeking into a Parascope to actively discussing the topics at hand on the campaign website and through other media.
City personnel regularly manned the Parascopes. Thousands of users took the opportunity to discuss Malmö’s traffic future with them, over a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. Few people, however, took the step to commenting on the panoramas further on the website. Shortening and simplifying the gap from peeking to posting is one challenge for future campaigns.
In contrast, a local newspaper article that featured some of the Parascope panoramas generated hundreds of comments and a heated debate. Instead of creating a separate discussion space and trying to move people there, we should increasingly embrace existing media spaces where people are already discussing local topics.
Expectations and Promises
Some people thought the panoramas showed changes that had already been decided. They were disappointed to learn that what they saw were mere suggestions. This is partly a communication issue. More interestingly, it shows that many inhabitants of Malmö regard a future with radically different traffic priorities as a plausible and desirable development. Also, people are not used to being asked about their opinion in city planning matters. At best, they are informed about coming changes after decisions have already been made.
Many Parascope users said they would have liked the Parascopes to stay up for a longer time. Several also suggested other locations for the Parascopes – both places that are under current reconstruction and places they would like to get some more attention or that they would like to see changed.
Over time and with frequent usage, we believe Parascopes could become physical and symbolic markers that designates that a particular place is “put into play”, is in flux and open for discussion. Keeping up a constructive dialogue with the citizens requires patience and commitment to building long-term, mutual trust.
New Roles, New Formats, New Tools
The Imagine the Future campaign is a modest step towards redefining the role of the citizen as a potential city and traffic planning visionary. To support this role we have utilized a layman-friendly panorama format for expressing and creating future scenarios. The Parascope is a new tool for experiencing such scenarios on-site.
Parascopes are only one type of tool for more open city-planning processes. We hope to further explore the democratic potential of this initiative by creating a series of tools for citizens, not only to experience and comment on existing scenarios, but to create their own vision panoramas.
What does it mean, what is at stake, and what are the consequences of seriously considering citizens as not only users of, but as visionaries and co-creators of our urban environments?
This is the English version of a forthcoming article in Danish landscape architecture magazine Landskab/Landscape. It was written by Tina Giannopoulou, project manager at the Streets and Parks Department in Malmö, together with Erik Sandelin and Magnus Torstensson, co-founders of interaction design and innovation studio Unsworn Industries in Malmö.