Reopening the Liugong Canal. Sustainable Synergies?

by on Wednesday, 30 October 2013 Comments

Despite having spent hours on end frequenting a café which bordered one of the few remaining open sections of the 250-year old Liugong Canal, it was years after my arrival in Taipei before I began to understand its significance. While conducting eRenlai's May 2011 feature, Beyond the Pale, exploring marginal architecture in Taiwan, I came across and began exploring the works of the Ruin Academy where I was greatly intrigued by architect Marco Casagrande's mission of returning Taipei's citizens to nature and reality, including his vision for Taipei river urbanism. Casagrande went on to win the 2013 European Prize for Architecture, particularly for his ideas such as systematically including the 'local knowledge' of community and environment in urban planning and design, or healing the city with urban acupuncture, ideas explained in the following short documentary:

finish students liugong taipeiLater I gave some minor assistance with pre-arrival research and communication to a group of students from Aalto University's Sustainable Global Technologies Studio, under Casagrande's direction. They were building a multifaceted proposal for the reopening of the now underground Liugong Canal, with the idea of bringing people back to water and water back to the city. Just exploring above the old flow of the canal was a de-alienating experience, as I described and reported to them in the fullest detail what I saw along the way. It was foreplay with the land, getting to know Taipei as I ran my feet along the Liugong Canal, my first topography of Taipei's curves and quirks, searching, sniffing, seeing and feeling. These explorations formed the basis for a long term relationship with the Liugong Canal, which has only grown in intensity with time.

When the Finnish team of Virva Kajamaa, Kätlin Kangur, Riikka Koponen, Niklas Saramäki, Kristina Sedlerova and Sanna Söderlind arrived in Taipei, I also joined them in their explorations of an island of farming allotments surviving in the middle of the Danshui River, hidden and protected from the development of the metropolis. These explorations of alternative city lifestyles were empowering in themselves, as free running or parkour is to traceurs. It was an exercise in what social philosopher and Jesuit, Michel de Certeau[1] would call 'walking in the city', the practice of everyday resistance, where the people use everyday 'tactics' to survive and make consumer choices based on adapting to the constraints of city, yet never being fully controlled by them. This 'walking in the city' is a symbiosis between memory and action, creating the opportunity to change the existing spatial power relations. Indeed it was this social opportunism which interested me the most about the project. Behind these spatial aesthetics, there was an anarchic attempt to re-empower the community, strengthen social relations and release individuals from the excesses of the legal state, government power and market conformity.

Before they completed their field trip and returned to Finland I invited the Ruin Academy to a forum at our nomadic arts and action space, The Hole, to explain their ideas for bringing the people back to the river and the river back to the people. Novelist and curator Roan Ching-yue questioned the soundness of Casagrande's theoretical construction in the second part of the discussion and in particular the discrepancy between the ideas of urban farmers and a nomadic city. This led to an interesting discussion which touches the heart of the urban planning problem here - the psyche inherited from the KMT that Taipei is just a temporary home.

The final work of the Aalto University students was completed in 2012 under the name of Sustainable Synergies: The Leo Kong Canal (full pdf available). The plan included wetlands, parks, recreational canal streets, water cleaning facilities and far more ideas. The commitment to social innovation was particularly interesting:

Social innovation is often considered difficult to recognize since it is out of our sights and habits. The crux of the social part of the work became a search for a creative "hidden potential" so that the resource of our ideas and plans come from existing actions, traditions and memories, which are left unattended and can be illegal but as an integral part of the design process will enhance our attempt to create more sustainable solutions and raise the overall well-being.

Under social innovation we mean to:
- Improve social cohesion;
- Involve and improve the conditions of marginalized people;
- Promote systems enabling social integration between different generations;
- Enhance peculiar local cultural characteristics;
- Develop systems to encourage and foster local communities and network-structured initiatives;
- Adapt participatory approach and collective use of infrastructure. (p24)

The above are guiding principles by which to de-alienate the city from its memory (inter-generational dialogue), from other humans (community activity) and from our own agency (to act without permission). Throughout his work with the Ruin Academy, Casagrande emphasizes the need for cross-disciplinary research, and has tried to involve NTU sociologists and sociology students into their urban planning projects. Furthermore he has stated his will to bring further community participation into the design of the Liugong Canal project.

That said, while there were some interesting design suggestions put forward, one member of the proposal team, Kristina, questioned the social validity of the housing side of the project, which it was claimed would not really bring people closer to the river as it constructed 3 to 5 mega-expensive buildings "for some privileged people, who have the money to buy apartments there...". Others criticize the willingness of the Ruin Academy to collaborate with big development companies of the status quo, whilst claiming to be focused on social innovation. This criticism however is also related to one of the Ruin Academy team's greatest strengths. They are dreamers who believe that nothing is impossible and will find a way to make things happen, using the system when it suits them to further a project, yet never really giving up their autonomy and right to action.

In terms of sociological rigor and social fairness, these proposals may still need some research; nevertheless, further cross-disciplinary research with a focus on local knowledge can only help to create a more durable, fairer urban planning, which is more respectful to the community and individual agency. Furthermore, the holistic view that the sociological imagination provides and the rigor of the field of sociology can help bring into check carelessness and short-sightedness of urban planning and reducing the negative social effects of plans built on a whim. Therefore the development of this cross-disciplinary collaboration should be encouraged.


All photos courtesy of the Ruin Academy

[1] de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, University of California Press, Berkeley 1984

Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.


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