Can Karaoke transform public spaces?

When my colleague Jing suggested Karaoke for a team social there were gasps of despair and our manager hastily booked lanes at the local ten-pin bowling alley. On the other side of the world, in a not-so-pristine park in Berlin, an Irish guy called Joe draws crowds of more than 3,000 people… and that’s before the karaoke has even begun. Which got me thinking, can karaoke transform our public spaces?

It seems an odd thing to say, but yes, I believe it probably can.  Councils, government agencies and marketing bureaus across the globe strive to find ways to get people into parks and using public spaces. Some spend millions with extravagant firework spectaculars whilst others import international music acts and others have an almost continual supply of farmer’s markets and craft fairs, many of which seem to fail to deliver a certain je ne sais quoi.

When my trusted Lonely Planet guidebook told me that Bearpit Karaoke was a ‘must see’ for a Sunday afternoon in Berlin I couldn’t resist investigating!  I arrived at Mauerpark amazed at the activity. The Flea market was in full swing with hundreds of people buying and selling old bikes, vintage clothes and ‘maker movement’ crafts. People, young and old, relaxed on the unkempt grass surrounded by complimentary entertainment from skateboard tricksters, circus performers and wannabe rock stars. In the stone amphitheatre a contortionist was pleasing a small but happy audience. As I sat watching and waiting it was apparent that something big was going down. Within minutes the crowd of a hundred or so had swelled to at least a thousand; families, locals, students and tourists, and in less than half an hour it was standing room only. As the contortionist took her final bow, the crowd broke into rapturous applause as a scruffy looking guy in a checked shirt and baseball cap walked across the stage. This was it, Joe Hatchiban was here and my opinion of karaoke was about to be changed.

Since the winter of 2009 Joe has been using portable, battery-powered boxes on a ‘hacked’ cargo bike to help people unleash their inner Rampensau. Weather permitting, Joe fetches up around 3pm and invites anybody who so wishes to take the stage for a few minutes to show those gathered there what they can do with a backing track and a microphone. Joe has shown that with no budget, a very large serve of motivation, Facebook and people’s desire to ‘get involved’ you really can transform a public space.

Bottom-up approaches are changing patterns of activity in our cities. The Australian Government’s new Urban Design Protocol for Australian cities “Creating places for people’ aimed at professionals and the general public, opens with this poignant quote from Jan Gehl “First life, then spaces, then buildings: the other way around never works”.

Without a shadow of a doubt Ottery St Mary, a chocolate box village in rural Devon (UK), puts life first. Each and every year on Guy Fawkes Night locals run through their narrow streets brandishing burning barrels. Those who have visited Ottery on November 5th know that perpetuating a tradition is the objective and commercial considerations take second place, as the website says “if you attend it, don’t try and change it, just stand back and enjoy”. I admit, when you’re there, in the crowd, with 20,000 others and a very large ball of fire is coming right toward you it’s hard to understand what motivates men, women and children into carrying a full sized lighted tar barrel on their shoulders and then run down the street. But, what I do know is that these brave folks are accepting complete strangers into their public space to enjoy an exhilarating and risky spectacle. Of course it’s deemed dangerous, but good organisation, cooperation between the various agencies involved and people using good old-fashioned common sense manages the risk.

Back in Brisbane my Lazy Sunday Cycle co-founder Amy Saunders is passionate about encouraging interactions between people of different generations, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Amy founded Games Night @ King George Square to help break down barriers in society. On the last Thursday of every month, in a public square in Brisbane CBD, board games can be played by anyone and with anyone. Like Joe, Amy doesn’t have a big budget but what she does have is proven knowledge that people crave interaction and a desire to be part of something fun. I guess that’s why, with the help of social media, more than 300 people attend each and every event.

These stories provide a basis for taking action – but please don’t run down your road with a burning barrel! – by demonstrating that low cost activities in the public realm can help to support diverse and resilient communities with positive benefits for individuals.

Creating and maintaining parks and public spaces costs money and the economic merits are regularly called into question. If we really want public spaces to be ‘places’ and a central part of our towns and cities we need to learn from people like Joe, Amy and the Ottery ‘barrel rollers’ but most of all we need to embrace the new movement of ‘bottom-up self-organization’.

The real reason that people turn up every week for Bearpit Karaoke, isn’t because they don’t have access to iTunes. It’s because they want the buzz of being part of something fun, the supportive applause that comes from peer-to-peer performances, the serendipitous connections with people they wouldn’t normally meet. I guess that’s why karaoke really has the potential to transform our public realm.