Psst – A Portland State Social Practice Talk about public urban green space

WCMT Fellowship 2016 research: innovation in participation in public urban green space.

Portland, Oregon, USA

On October 11th 2016, I was invited by Roz Crews to make a short presentation and have a conversation with students from the Art and Social Practice MFA at Portland State University, Oregon as part of my WCMT Travel Fellowship looking at innovation in participation in public urban green space. As well as being a Masters student, Roz is Programs Coordinator Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA).

Here is a PSU podcast of the hour long presentation and discussion: Psst Episode #1 Sue Palmer

And here are some notes from the conversation:

Sue: Recently, I realised that parks are an environmental equivalent of my social arts practice that includes nature: they are largely uncommodified, used in multiple ways both for good behaviour and clandestine activities, they are social space and civic space, they are pockets in the city for mental and physical space, and in a good park you can move in pretty much any direction: all these attributes line up with my social arts practice…

So how are cities innovating in relation to participation in urban green space in relation to planning and design? How are artists participating in gentrification? – where they are often asked through commissioned work to broker difficult relationships where for example communities are being displaced to make way for private development, or when places change and a neighbourhood needs to be ‘documented’ or where public space is lost.  All three cities that I’ve visited have had issues with gentrification, and with the lack of affordable artist studio space – I didn’t know this before I started my research.

And the central question I’m carrying: who’s not participating, who’s not included.

Who’s land is it? How is public space being made? What about the Commons? What are artists doing or making in relation to urban public green space? Who’s working in this field?


– Urban planning in the West of America had intention, far more than East coast cities.

– Interesting to think about public space in relation to design – how is a city park thought of? Is it civic? Do we relate it to taxes? How do we view it?

– Going to parks as a child – I can name the different parks that I grew up in – they were central to my childhood. As an adult, the associations are different: what does it mean to be in a park alone at night as a woman? I have a very mixed relationship between nostalgic memories as a child and these perceptions as an adult of these public spaces.

– When I visited London I found it very claustrophobic – Russel Square, Bethnal Green Park – they all appeared to have evolved from the tradition of the English cottage and its beautiful flower gardens – perfect rectangles of tulips! I’m from Singapore and that was part of the British empire. The parks there are now very controlled, and for me the parks have become spaces which the government utilises to continue building their narrative that we are hard working well-rounded people who will go to the park to exercise after work and find refuge and be happy little beings in our fake utopian city. They obsess with calling Singapore a Garden City – that’s a tourist image!  The parks are artificial and claustrophobic – everything’s newly planted, with signs and boardwalks, and so for me, it’s being used by the government oppressively.

– English gardens (and parks) were typically thought of in order to replicate nature – Hampstead Heath for example. French gardens were more regimented. In Portland there are many different kinds of parks, the city is known for its parks – from Pioneer Courthouse Square (a city centre hard surface park) to Forest Park (a big open wild space).  The park closest to me is Irving Park which is a big park, with lots of different activities – sports, kids, water, dog park, rolling hills, trees. Parks are still places where people are free to make out, smoke etc – so they’re not only places of oppression.

– Take Colonel Summers Park – there are various games and activities for just being able to play and do stuff.  There is systemic control – i.e. there’s a tennis court, so you go to play tennis, or basketball etc. There is determination of what you can do in public space based on the existing structures. There are examples where people are involved in public space doing things that aren’t determined for you – and you can do that until someone comes and stops you.

– Mauer Park, created by the Wall coming down in the centre of Berlin is a very interesting park and very different to any other I’ve been to – it’s pretty scruffy which is very interesting and there are drugs and alcohol around, and an amazing Sunday karaoke event drawing thousands of people, busking, barbecues – the management feels very hands-off and seems to leave people freer to do what they feel.  In London, we’ve seen a change in the way public space has partly privatised while retaining public usage as part of redevelopments (Kings Cross, More London around City Hall) with private security guards, and the ‘corporation’ determines the culture through their designs, with designated spaces for relaxation and play. Personally I don’t much like these spaces – they’re so ordered and deterministic.  Are there lots of moving tensions in relation to public space that are similar to social arts practice? – it’s on the move, alive. There’s a lot going on between nature and culture in a park: “a park is a dance between nature and culture” (Jesse Garbe)

– There’s not a lot of public space when you really start to think about it. Malls – they are used as a recreational areas even though they’re very controlled and not public space.

– I’ve been part of staging public rituals – for example the Green Dragon ritual in Director Park in Portland.  It was an organised event, a participatory ritual on Black Friday – we did a ritual about greed.  It’s a public space that’s worked for these kind of unofficial events, maybe because people can come and go. It’s right by the Mall. The performers were doing invocations, there was a crew of clowns, there were witches! People were coming and going, there was participatory dancing. It wasn’t funded – we didn’t get a permit – we just did it.

– Wilderness, wildness – I have a different experience – there feels to be tons of public land outside the city. Parks and what draws people to them – they are places where there is a freedom of expression – places where you can walk or move across. There’s also Rewilding that’s happening more on the West Coast. I grew up in the theatre – where are the places you can scream? – I found that in the theatre! Do you see a connection back to theatre yourself? – in relation to those spaces being open, functioning.

– We are just launching Creek College which is an experimental school that takes place on Creek environmental sites and combines art classes with environmental restoration. It’s free for people to take classes and in return they have to do a form of restoration on the Creek. We’re starting it this weekend. We’re thinking a lot about public space and ways of connecting community to public space, and parks specifically.

– I think a park, no matter how artificial it is, is a physical space that mirrors the wilderness inside each of our human souls, so its interesting that people would be drawn to a park no matter how artificial it is.

– Indigenous people: the land is taken from them that was free to access, then that land is restricted – I’m very interested in that.

– We had a newly made central park, in Mumbai that was for the people. The land was taken from people, and then re-given to city dwellers, restricting access. Culturally and structurally they are very important. I am thinking of working with the fence of the park, involving the local people, and create an artwork – defending the public space. It’s not a complete project yet.

– Parks as political gathering places – politics of land and the relationship to that.

– I’m interested in the public green spaces around the Museums – they’re working hard on their diversity agenda now and are these the places and institutions that can lead on this use of this space?

– We have a big history of the lawn! French, English. There’s so much ‘amenity grassland’. The perfect lawn, the perfect green surface that no one uses. Mown nothingness – there’s nothing living on them except grass. The lawns show us how powerful the institution because it doesn’t need the land.

– I’m just starting to work on a project about the National Parks, the Yellowstone National Park and Hilary Clinton: the way the Federal Government controls that land and physical displacement. Certain communities are allowed to form and others are not allowed – they are wild but they aren’t wild – they’re interesting – they have borders, they are controlled by rangers, and socially controlled too.

– I’m working Kim and Adam in Creek College. It’s going to be a conversation, research. There’s a bike path that is very publicly used along the Creek, and there’s a long history of people living there and camping there. There’s been a lot of displacement in Portland because of the housing crisis, there’s a lot of people who are homeless and houseless, and last summer they decided to kick everyone out. The conversation is hopefully going to be with some of the people who lived there: how the people living there saw it, how the city saw it and what is happening with that situation.

– Last year I finished a project in Orange County trying to make the Museums the cornerstones of the community. I wanted to know: how were the newly integrated Mexican immigrants? We did a public mural partnering with the cultural organisations and brought people together who hadn’t spoken with each other before.

– Community based-theatre work – performed Flash Mobs at the Framers Market, in the park. All the kids would come together and do a dance – engaging people. There are 2 other things, one is a phenomenon – Pokemon Go – this has come up a lot! And then there’s this App that people follow that brings people together to do an action all together – for example –  jumping up together at the same time.

Thank you Roz for inviting me to the session – I had such an interesting time meeting everyone and hearing about your great projects.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s