Ephemera, Temporary Urbanism, and Imaging

January, 2002


Urban ephemera are organized, momentary, repeated urban public presentations. They include parades, festivals, celebrations, outdoor performances, and rituals of all kinds. Because they impress themselves upon the public images of cities in small ways and large, Mark Schuster, a cultural policy analyst, urges city designers and planners to add ephemera planning to their list of tools. 

Hitherto commentators have viewed these events either as grist for tourist promotions or they have taken alarm at their possibilities for public pacification. The tourist promoters mistake the shows for the life within the festivals

while the social alarmists mistake communal fun for a social drug. Schuster challenges both groups by adding a third unit of analysis to the urban image discussion. To the familiar dichotomy of local images and outside images he adds the corporate media. By this step he makes explicit the assumptions of many of the essays in this book. Schuster asks whether such corporate media images really do so dominate the reputation of cities that city dwellers must accept their portraits. The workings of ephemera reveal the absurdity of such a stance.

With the exceptions of Worlds Fairs and Olympic Games, most ephemera are events where local people play before local audiences. If some of them catch the media's attention, and if they thereby catch the public's fancy, they may attract tourists. Surely the Mardi Gras at New Orleans and the Rose Bowl Parade are such events. Boston's infectious First Night and the Head of the Charles Regatta are, for all their crowds, not tourist attractions.

Schuster reviews a number of locally significant public events around the world: the long standing Las Fallas festival of Valencia, the newly altered Daimonji Festival in Kyoto, and the new WaterFire spectacle of Providence, Rhode Island. In all three he brings forward the local component. The fact that city residents carry on these events year after year, often as volunteers, is the key to their energy and dynamism. In all the cases the city government offers support, as do local businesses, and the media report and publicize. Thus, like all aspects of urban planning, urban ephemera are mixed affairs, full of possibilities for both local apathy and local conflict.

In his presentation of these events Schuster shows the mix which ranges from local street clubs who perform without anyone's aid, to the heavy subsidies of the Olympics. In the end he makes a persuasive argument that ephemera carry important benefits to their cities, especially by encouraging the residents to represent themselves, and by encouraging the residents to come together in ways that make them esteem their city. For planners, there await here all the familiar issues of land use politics: competition, conflict and the difficulties of locating and maintaining the public interest. In his review Schuster confirms the planner’s wisdom that an open process is the surest path to enduring success.

—Sam Bass Warner Jr.

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