Stop Planning Start Acting

When I was asked to write an article on the “guerrilla urbanism” movement, I hesitated because I’m neither a writer nor an urban planner. In 2010, we gathered a group of friends and created an art project called Better Block, in which we decided to create our dream neighborhood block in days, using very little money. We never envisioned the project becoming a national movement and being part of a larger trend of citizen-led eorts to rapidly transform blighted communities around the world. Prior to this, I had toured with a rock band, helped revive a historic movie theater, and returned a streetcar system to an underserved community (long story). My partner in crime, Andrew Howard, was a planner, but left the planning world when he realized that little of what he created was being built and much of his energy was being put into drawing pretty pictures of mixed-use developments that were largely a ruse for private developers to get public funds to add value to their land acquisitions. On a European vacation, I fell in love with city blocks filled with old and young people, street music, flower shops, cafés, old buildings, and small marketplaces. When I returned to Dallas, I drove around my neighborhood and saw boarded-up and vacant buildings, wide streets, small sidewalks, and little street life. I commented to a friend, “Why can’t we have blocks that look like the ones throughout Europe?” He scoffed, “Let’s be honest, Dallas will never be Paris.”

That night, I began looking into what was holding my neighborhood back. I found a series of ordinances that prohibited or heavily taxed things that foster amazing urban blocks. From restrictive zoning rules, parking minimums, exorbitant fees on café seating, landscaping, and more, I learned that the ability to have a great block like those I had seen abroad was largely forbidden.

The idea to rapidly transform my neighborhood was an outcropping of the street art movement being led by Shepard Fairey and Banksy, rather than a Jane Jacobs–inspired urban planning effort. The ingredients of our project were the opposite of those found in traditional planning: work cheaply and quickly, use temporary products, break rules, and focus on action over dialogue. The goal was simple: build our dream block in 24 hours using anything at our disposal. Artists were key, borrowing was imperative, and the potential of going to jail was likely. A group of friends and I met at night in a theater-prop warehouse and began laying out a vision for the block. Paint and clean buildings; create bike lanes; set up outdoor cafés and fruit stands; string lights across the street; convert vacant buildings to art galleries, flower shops, kids’ at studios, and coffee houses; and, lastly, print out the ordinances we were going to break and hang them in every window. On a Friday night in April, we began transforming the block, and by Saturday morning the street was unveiled.

For years we had been told that Dallas didn’t have the culture to embrace a walkable, urban environment, that it’s too hot, people are too accustomed to driving, and no one would come. What we saw that day challenged everything we’d been told. People walked to the street, sat outside, drank coffee, and read newspapers. Flowers hung from window sills, old men played chess, children made art in former auto shops, teens pedaled in freshly painted bike lanes, residents began volunteering in our pop-up shops, and musicians appeared unexpectedly with open guitar cases and performed on street corners. The street came roaring back to life. In 24 hours and with less than $1,000, we built our dream block and disproved the skeptics. Most notably, we learned that a vision is fruitless without action.

The hands-on movement seen unfolding around the world is a response to the pent-up demand of those who are tired of waiting for governments, consultants, or other so-called experts to create the kind of communities we crave. Better Blocks, PARK(ing) Days, yarnbombings, guerrilla gardening, pop-up businesses, and depaving efforts are byproducts of a more social and connected community that refuses to accept the idea that “We can’t be like Paris.”

Urban Interventions and the right to the City

SpontaneousInterventions presents merely a small sampling of the informal, improv-isational urban projects that are proliferating around the world today, a number that is expanding almost exponentially. These activities represent a movement where thousands of artists, activists, architects acting outside of the profession, and  many different kinds of citizens are imagining and trying to create a more humane,  just, and creative city. Responding to the excitement and energy they create, observers have attempted to conceptualize the larger implications of these projects.

Along with the proliferation of these acts of spontaneous urbanism come abundant theoretical readings. Unfortunately, many scholars and activists have imposed preexisting frameworks on these initiatives, falling back on a vocabulary of 20th century ideas rather than trying to understand what is innovative and unique about them. These conceptual misunderstandings—with actions evaluated according to tired categories, such as progressive or conservative and public or private, which have been predetermined to be good or bad—restrict a promising arena of political possibilities. Thus, offering alternative concepts that can accommodate and encourage these activities without prematurely judging them is more than an academic question—it can help shape these activities’ creative potential going forward.

One important concept is rights, perhaps most commonly discussed with reference to Henri Lefebvre’s idea of “the right to the city.” Some critical scholars see these “rights” only as a response to the evident “wrongs” of capitalism, deriding everything from urban nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and activist groups to individual DIY practices as ineffective political practices because they do not constitute a unified and coherent approach powerful enough to oppose global capitalism.

Lefebvre’s concept is far more emancipatory. He saw the city as composed of two interdependent and equal elements, one consisting of the material reality, the other consisting of a social reality. In specific situations, the interaction of these two elements can produce unexpected and paradoxical outcomes. This idea then highlights complexity, ambiguity, and contingency as key conditions for urban politics. And Lefebvre identified these rights from the urban subjects themselves, emphasizing human subjectivity and agency. For him, rights to the city are never predetermined but are always produced by particular groups with specific demands shaped by their circumstances. This open-ended concept acknowledges the political possibilities of a multiplicity of urban imaginaries, representations, and interventions. It empowers artists, architects, cultural activists, and ordinary citizens to become key players by inventing new practices, strategies, and tactics to claim their rights to their city and to freely project alternative possibilities for urban life.

What kinds of principles can put these rights into action? Looking at the selections in this year’s U.S. Pavilion, we can start to identify urban counter-dynamics that suggest what some of these principles might be. Rather than reacting against capitalist imperatives, they respond to opportunities; as much as solving problems, they offer possibilities. This short list of principles is only a starting point for an extensive catalog of ideas. Collectively, these ideas produce a very different view of capitalism, not as the all-powerful machine that Marxist theorists describe, but more like a tattered fabric, with many openings that can be occupied by practices that are not so much anticapitalist as they are noncapitalist.

The first opening is defamiliarization, the modernist cultural practice of “making strange.” Applied to the urban environment, unlikely insertions or juxtapositions of uses can unsettle our existing perceptions of urban life and space, opening up new possibilities and invigorating the idea of what a city can be. After seeing what is a normally car-filled street instead packed with Critical Mass bicyclists or with parking spaces transformed into mini-parks on PARK(ing) Day, the city will never look the same.   »   Refamiliarization then inverts defamiliarization, by making urban spaces more familiar, more domestic, and more like an interior. Inserting private activities and qualities into the public realm encourages people to sit, eat, and converse in unlikely places. This can dramatically alter urban situations, making what were harsh places feel more like home. In addition, refamiliarization, by colliding two realities that are usually opposed, can itself be a form of defamiliarization.

Spatial actions can also reconfigure economic processes. Hijacking or borrowing urban spaces for unintended uses, substituting use value for exchange value, can temporarily remove land from its market context and question its status as a commodity. We have seen the appearance of multiple alternative economies: recycling, bartering, gift exchange, methods of redistributing and remaking goods, information-sharing, and experiences based on generosity, usefulness, and pure play.

Finally, a new politics of collaboration underlies many of these efforts, and it is not based on preconstituted subjects or roles. Instead, the new politics involves particular groups and individuals emerging in response to highly specific circumstances, and it takes innumerable forms, ranging from crowdsourcing to intimate personal encounters.

Lefebvre proposed building “experimental utopias”—imaginings given concrete form—as the first step in acquiring rights to the city. Doing exactly that are the projects featured in SpontaneousInterventions, all of which are grounded in actual cities yet are expansive in their reimagining of urban life. The projects’ divergent goals, varied methods, and multifarious participants should be seen as strengths rather than weaknesses. They are openings towards a new urban politics, still to be discovered.

Socially Engaged Art is a Mess Worth Making

If there is confusion regarding what constitutes art in the emerging realm of socially engaged  art, that is understandable. As not only artists, but architects, city planners, grass-roots organizers, environmentalists, graphic designers, and many others grab at the numerous tool sets made available through the arts, we find ourselves in a jumbled realm where the descriptions of what things are seem to be turned around. As many artists in contemporary art have begun to turn their attention toward that thing we call the social, we that, as a matter of necessity, they must borrow equally from disciplines in order to make their work more effective.

Let’s take an example. The artist Rick Lowe has made an intricate piece that is instructive in demonstrating the complexity we are talking about here. His work, located in Houston’s Third Ward, is called Project Row Houses. It is a series of shotgun row houses that he purchased in a low-income, predominately African-American neighborhood. Over the course of 15 years, Lowe has slowly developed an artist residency and resource program that has inspired the neighborhood to converse with visiting artists, and vice versa. Project Row House then, in essence, is a long-term, socially engaged artwork that works across city agencies to provide much-needed cultural resources from the bottom up. At the same time, it conflates many traditional ideas of what constitutes an at practice because of its (at times) utilitarian nature, its entanglement with economics, and its hands-on approach to issues of poverty and race that are a central part of the American story. (Project Row Houses is an important progenitor of two more-recent projects featured in Spontaneous Interventions: Power House by Design 99 in Detroit and 1415 by Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation in St. Louis.)

This is the kind of artwork that makes cynics roll their eyes, because they feel that it limits what is often described as “the autonomy of art.” Referencing the pioneering beliefs of skeptics such as Theodor Adorno, they often voice a concern that this kind of work is neither good politics nor good art. Such critiques should be expected, for socially engaged artwork certainly does defy one of art’s most longstanding principles: uselessness.

But let’s not assume that we know what art is. Whether or not we agree with this mode of working—a mode we could summarize as people working with culture in the realm of the social—you should understand that this kind of engagement is a growing, global phenomenon. Putting their heads in the sand will not save the critics from the inevitable tide of cultural producers who are frustrated with art’s impotence and who are eager to make a tangible change in the world. What scares these artists more than art losing its supposed autonomy is the possibility that the world will keep going the way it is.

This is muddy territory. Escaping the rules of formalism, social works must encounter the complicated terrain of people—in all of their complexity. From language to sociology, from pedagogy to urban planning, the skill sets needed for this way of working are vast, while rigor is understandably lacking. What are the criteria for a successful socially engaged artwork? Who is the work for? What does it do? Are aesthetics even a consideration?

Instead of trying to lump all of this work into one large pile, it might be helpful to see the works as more of a range of affinities of methods. In grabbing skillsets from numerous disciplines, what truly binds socially engaged and experiences based on generosity, usefulness, and pure play.

Finally, a new politics of collaboration underlies many of these efforts, and it is not based on preconstituted subjects or roles. Instead, the new politics involves particular groups and individuals emerging in response to highly specific circumstances, and it takes innumerable forms, ranging from crowdsourcing to intimate personal encounters.

Lefebvre proposed building “experimental utopias”—imaginings given concrete form—as the first step in acquiring rights to the city. Doing exactly that are the projects featured in Spontaneous Interventions, all of which are grounded in actual cities yet are expansive in their reimagining of urban life. The projects’ divergent goals, varied methods, and multifarious participants should be seen as strengths rather than weaknesses. They are openings towards a new urban politics, still to be discovered.

Occupying Wall Street

The choice of Zuccotti Park for the occupation of Wall Street was a canny one. Compact dimensions assured that the threshold for a critical mass was tractably scaled. The location in the belly of the beast was apposite for a spectacle of equality encamped on the of insane privilege. A site across the street from ground zero, which was rapidly being developed as a zone of constricted speech and wanton surveillance, it made a crucial point about free assembly. And the anomaly of the park’s strange, if increasingly typical, public–private “partnership” was paradoxically enabling. Zuccotti was legally in a state of exception from the time, place, and manner of restrictions typical of municipal parks, which permitted it to be occupied around the clock.

As has been widely observed, the spatial organization of the occupation was itself a model of urbanism, balancing communal and individual desires under a regime of extreme neighborliness. The encampment was zoned with its alimentary, educational, sanitary, consultative, recreational, and media districts, its avenues of passage, and its sleeping and resting areas. It confronted issues of citizenship and crime, evolved styles of cooperation and cohabitation that were singular and precise, and devised fresh forms of communication and governance. The nature of its bounding membrane and relations to its friendly and hostile periphery were subject to both spontaneity and institutionalization.

And the occupation powerfully evoked another form of urbanism, the “informal” settlements that are home to more than a quarter of the world’s population and the most extreme manifestation of inequality at the urban scale. The encampment at Zuccotti Park reproduced, albeit in theatric and ephemeral style, many qualities of these despairing but often intensely organized places, illustrating struggles focused on property and legality, lack of essential services, impossible levels of overcrowding, the need for local economic organization based on scarcity of jobs and resources, tense relations with the authorities, and a gamut of the social and physical architectures of threatening impermanence.

Whatever its broader agendas and affinities—and notwithstanding the critique of the fluid specifics of its political demand—it is clear that the occupations of 2011 and the movements of the Arab Spring, the Indignados, and the others that they inspired were part of a long history, not simply of remonstrances at urban scale, but of events enabled by the special political character of urban space. The idea that a social manifestation might not simply take place in a city but might actually create a city is an originary vector for mass gathering, and there is a special power that flows from occupying the city as we know it with another cit, the city as we’d like it to be. This practice has a history of millennia, revealed in festival days, the ordered response to epidemics, as well as in the evanescent redistributions of power and privilege of political uprisings. All hail the Paris Commune!

Although the idea of utopia is, in too many ways, discredited, the spirit of Occupy lies precisely in this creation of intentional communities. My earliest experience with occupation was based on the re-inhabitation of buildings and the conversion of their purpose. I spent many weeks in the 1960s hunkered down in various academic administration buildings (and, later, squatting in abandoned houses) in the name of opposition to warfare and rapacity. The medium was crucial and the power of the action sprang both from expropriation and invention, from the demonstration of strength and from the demonstration of alternative styles of cooperation. Strategically, temporary communities do tend to be infused with special meanings. Whether in the form of a military bivouac in the field, the Bonus Army or esurrection City on the National Mall, refugee camps around the world that result from disasters, Burning Man, or Woodstock, these ephemeral assemblies are particularly purposive and they force inhabitant and observer alike to think about communities that do not embrace the ideas of business as usual. Whether consecrated to pleasure, survival, or protest, these communities share an idea of scale, and one can distinguish the virtual urbanities from smaller communalisms that simply elaborate the familial.

This combination of occupation and proposition also undergirds what has come to be the salient theoretical underpinning of these urban actions, the idea of the “right to the city,” articulated by Henri Lefebvre in 1968 but embedded in the work of community organizers, communards, and revolutionaries for a century before. Lefebvre understood the concept both as an assertion of a series of conventional rights—of assembly, of access, of movement—but also, and crucially, as the right to imagine the kind of city that might emerge in full consonance with fresh-born desire. The Occupy movement—and all its contemporary predicates—springs from this double valence and asserts, by its presentness in urban spaces that are programmed for relaxation rather than for insubordination, and by the inventive and equitable models of community the people practice there, that the possibility of another kind of city—another kind of society—is immanent in their gathering.

The emergence of fresh styles of assembly and communication (human microphones and pizzas delivered on credit cards from supporters on the other side of the globe) reinforces the idea that the occupation is both an act of protest and a cooperative effort of imagination. The dismissal of the movement due to the “incoherence” of its demands misses the point as well as the power of the occupation. Of course, there is an overarching demand for equity, a claim against the crazy, widening income gaps of the developed world, and a more general cry for justice. But the main force of the movement springs precisely from its defense of desire, its claims that a good city must emerge that right now exceeds anyone’s capacity to completely imagine it. To propose some exacting singularity, some “pragmatic” tinkering at the margins, would be to sap the real power of the movement’s message: Justice is the certainty, but a social poetics constantly contested and renewed must define the real city and its practices. Provocation is not enough: the system must change.

Guerrilla Bike Lanes and Other Acts of Civic Improvement Through Civil Disobedience.

Early one morning in July 2008, a group of friends gathered on the Fletcher Drive Bridge near the Atwater neighborhood of Los Angeles. In workers’ vests and hard-hats, protected by orange cones and barriers made of sawhorses, and wielding brooms, stencils, and a professional lane-striping device, they went to work amidst the early-morning traffic over the L.A. River. In less than an hour, and for a few hundred dollars in materials, they painted a new bicycle lane. The plan’s originators were moved by a desperate lack of safe cycling routes across the bridges between the city’s downtown and its East and Northeast sides, and had been inspired by similar do-it-yourself streetscaping actions in Toronto. They had studied old city bike plans, researched official regulations and design standards, and practiced their lane-striping skills in a K-Mart parking lot. They even put up two professional road signs denoting the new lane, with small letters at the bottom of each attributing the work not to the DOT, but to “DIY.”

Actions such as these—unauthorized, highly local, largely anonymous, simple, impermanent, and often far from slick—may seem rather insignificant when considered individually, or in comparison with the broad strokes of formal planning and public infrastructure. And yet they are bold contributions to the very fabric of the city and quintessential elements of the phenomenon of spontaneous interventions that we are celebrating at the U.S. Pavilion.

While guerrilla bike lanes have found great popularity among cycling activists, the small-scale, do-it-yourself approach can be seen addressing issues throughout the built environment: a New Yorker removes corporate advertisements from bus stops and phone booths and replaces them with artwork; community members in Portland, Ore., “reclaim” their intersection with decoration, crosswalks, and streetscaping; a woman in New Orleans jack-hammers into the asphalt to plant saplings; a few friends in Pittsburgh plant and tend a road median near their homes.

These interventions are small, locally motivated, and focused from the start on specific problems, problems that the people behind the projects see as needing to be fixed. As such, the actions may be oneoff events: a square curb softened with cement, a handful of seeds strewn in a vacant lot, “sharrows” (a symbol depicting a bike and two chevrons) stenciled on a half-mile of boulevard. As with the guerrilla bike lane painters, these creators often remain anonymous, too, wanting their actions to speak for themselves. Certainly, some must appreciate the modicum of acclaim that their actions sometimes receive in the press, but they rarely parlay the efforts into wider recognition or financial gain. Others say that the best design interventions are those that don’t stand out at all, which allows them simply to be used and appreciated by the public they are intended for without drawing attention from authorities.

Despite their small size, these interventions make an impact. In taking design actions into their own hands, citizens not only directly affect the change they want to see but may inspire others to do the same, fostering the possibility of a ground-up, crowd-constructed city. Even if these interventions are removed by authorities, they suggest the sort of city that residents actually want to see, something that authorities occasionally even recognize.

In L.A., the Fletcher Drive Bridge bike lane didn’t last long. Though cyclists had been using the bridge regardless, and observers of the new lane reported cars and cyclists safely respecting it, the city worried it was unsafe and removed it in a matter of days. That same year, however, someone signposted a long stretch of 4th Street popular among cyclists as a “bicycle boulevard.” And in late 2009, other Angelenos stenciled bicycle sharrows in the city’s Highland Park neighborhood. A few months later, hundreds of community members worked overnight to wheatpaste thousands of “Pass with Care/Pase con Cuidado” signs at intersections across the city.

And today? The city’s plans and street marking formally acknowledge 4th Street as a major artery in an expanding cycling network. The Department of Transportation began laying official sharrows and better signage on L.A. streets in 2010. As for improving cycling access across the Los Angeles River, only one of the city’s 14 bridges has been identified for painted, on-street bike lanes. Guess which one it is?

Green for a Day: Transitory Pastoralism in America

In the wake of the global financial crisis, urban farming seems like one of the few options left for struggling urbanites. You will probably lose your job any minute and then start falling through the cracks. Repossession awaits like an undercurrent tugging at one’s sense of destiny. Banks have failed, politics has failed, the grapes of wrath have been brought out of storage. But the ground is still there, and if one starts digging, seeding, and watering, then plants will grow. Despite all of humanity’s faults and follies, nature always takes its revenge, continuing her cycles. While Occupy Wall Street shook up the capitalist miscreants for a brief season and then faded, urban farming has begun to occupy American streets, vacant lots, and rooftops as an incredibly optimistic threat to the system.

A garden normally takes time, several years, before it acquires an identity. But when you’re desperate, you just start throwing seeds and hope you will still be there to watch them grow. Looking carefully at the many urban agriculture projects on display in the U.S. Pavilion at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, one notices a theme of transitory gardening, some on the flatbeds of trucks, others in the cracks of pavements, some the result of guerrilla gardeners’ seed bombs. Fritz Haeg, author of Edible Estates, has been coaching Middle Americans over the past few years on how to transform their wasteful front lawns into productive orchards. He resembles a latter-day Johnny Appleseed, and many others have followed similar paths. Do all of these idealistic greeners adhere to an ecological agenda? Will their interest in farming last longer than a season? Is growing food their real objective? Frequently the answer to these questions is “no.” Urban farming often proves less cost-efficient than going to the supermarket. Many an heirloom tomato, grown by an eager civic agriculturalist, has been coaxed along with synthetic fertilizers. And the enthusiasm for hoeing and watering is sometimes just a trend that not all participants desire to continue.

But even so, why not try? Every act of planting is remedial, both on social and environmental levels. An online urban farm registry that allows farmers in San Francisco to negotiate some neighborly swapping of kumquats for tomatoes, or an organization that gathers fallen fruit and other unharvested urban edibles to distribute to food banks in Los Angeles, or a market on wheels that brings organically grown produce to Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods where fresh vegetables are rare are all initiatives that restore faith in the great social project that once was part of a national ethic—even though they seem destined to last only as long as the enthusiasm of their volunteers. American civic agriculture might appear frivolous to Cubans, who have created organopónico gardens amidst their public housing projects due to economic necessity, or to the urban farmers in the slums of Nairobi, who make money from vegetables grown in gunnysacks.

Leberecht Migge, the “Green Spartacus” of Weimar Germany, who attempted to install vegetable gardens in all public housing blocks, would have scoffed at the lack of structure in the American efforts. For the moment, it appears green for a day, as ephemeral as graffiti. One longs for the delirious commitment of Adam Purple’s “Garden of Eden,” created on a vacant lot in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1973 (and demolished by mayoral order in 1985). Still, the more that people get involved in urban farming, the more they will seek associations, establish rules, create an aesthetic, and, whether for either necessity or pleasure, reshape the city’s landscape into a more productive and ecologically aware place.

How-To: The Power of DIY Instructions

In late January 2011, as Egyptian protesters filled Tahrir Square in Cairo, the activist website published exemplary pages from How to Protest Intelligently. Available as a PDF ready to print, the 26-page illustrated pamphlet, published in Arabic and English, clearly spelled out the Egyptian people’s demands and the actions and supplies needed to resist state forces.

In keeping with a do-it-yourself ethos, which positions the exchange of knowledge as a means of empowerment, the pamphlet listed simple details and tactical actions. For example, under the section “Necessary Clothing and Accessories,” it lists “Sweatshirt or leather jacket with a hood. This helps shield your face from tear gas.” The point is mundane, but effective. The aggregation of logistical details under a “how-to” header is a powerful step in turning small-scale actions into change at a local, regional, national, and even global scale.

As cities decline due to recessionary belt-tightening, and public space comes under scrutiny in the wake of Occupy Wall Street protests, contemporary how-to manuals are important tools to instigate urban change. Today’s documents are readily available at websites, on blogs, and as PDFs ready for printing. For example, the steps and materials required to participate in PARK(ing) Day, the project developed by San Francisco–based Rebar, are neatly compiled in a booklet available online. Similarly, the project People Make Parks (the brainchild of the Hester Street Collaborative and Partnerships for Parks) developed an interactive website to educate New Yorkers on the design and redesign of parks in the city. A rich resource, the site lists eight steps that turn the public into advocates for the public realm, including the why, when, and how of obtaining funding from local officials. In-depth details, such as how to create a questionnaire to poll neighbors on their hopes and visions for a new park, promotes agency among local citizens. It makes the design and construction process transparent, accessible, and participatory.

Access to knowledge and awareness of municipal processes are critical to incremental and interventionist change in the built environment. In 2006, the Center For Urban Pedagogy began publishing educational broadsheets in a series called Making Policy Public, which paired a graphic designer with an advocacy organization to produce a poster that visually conveys an arcane piece of public policy. Using a double-sided single sheet, every publication unfolds from an 8-by-11-inch pamphlet to a 32-by-22-inch poster. The policy issues covered range from municipal rules and regulations for street vendors—as illustrated in Candy Chang’s Vendor Power!, created in collaboration with the nonprofit Street Vendor Project (a part of the Urban Justice Center)—to affordable housing—as framed in Predatory Equity: The Survival Guide, a collaboration between Tenants & Neighbors, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, and graphic designer Glen Cummings of MTWTF.

Cheap production, rapid distribution, and nothing less than the belief in the transformative potential of print have led to today’s DIY publications. Stewart Brand’s late-1960s ecologically minded Whole Earth Catalogand William Powell’s 1971 instructional protest against the Vietnam War, The Anarchist Cookbook, understood the need for political and social movements to come with a specific skill set. With the deftness of a home-economics teacher, Powell presented recipes for manufacturing Molotov cocktails and other explosives. Both publications were modeled (with a decisive amount of détournement) on the homemaking manuals and garage-tinkering magazines, such as Popular Mechanics, that defined and shaped the postwar American landscape. At the root of all of these instructional documents, new and old, domestic and revolutionary, is a commitment to open-source knowledge. As such, the how-to pamphlet, PDF, or website proves an instrumental tool used by an active public as they evolve cities from sites of bureaucratic opacity to sites of civic engagement.

Notes on Minor Urbanism

Consider the contemporary form of urban mobility known as parkour. Practitioners of parkour, known as traceurs, appropriate the space of the city as a plat-form for exercising gymnastic skill. The city becomes an obstacle course through which one moves from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Understood not as a competitive sport but as a form of physical and mental training, parkour helps one develop a spatial awareness of specific affordances of urban structures and the ability to overcome mental and physical obstacles with speed and efficiency. In the traceur, we see refracted a lineage of alternative ways of moving through the city. From Walter Benjamin’s flâneur to the Situationists’ dériviste, these urban actors perform the city in ways that not so much reflect it (as representation) but enact it (through transduction). Though their movement, we can read a city and the possibilities that it offers as well as the socio-spatial relations found there. In this context, parkour becomes a form of urban hacking, a way of appropriating architecture and its attendant fittings for purposes neither sanctioned nor anticipated by the original design. Architecture becomes an obstacle that must be overcome as quickly and efficiently as possible, albeit with poise and grace.

Now consider the spatial topology described in The Catalogue (2004), a video by British artist Chris Oakley, which shows a shopping mall somewhere in the north of England from the point of view of a surveillance system. We soon see that the system is doing more than just watching. Shoppers are tagged, tracked, and monitored as they go about their routines. Transaction histories are mined, personal inventories are matched against products for sale, and recommendations are made. Prescriptions for eyeglasses are facilitated though the retrieval of a recent eye exam report. The purchase and consumption of food and beverage items at a conveyor sushi bar is matched against a person’s medical records and a health prognosis is made based on what he or she is eating. (Fortunately for the subjects in the video, the U.K. provides national healthcare. One can only speculate what would happen in the U.S., where this information would be shared with an insurance company.) While this video is a simulation, the technologies depicted are readily available today, and one can imagine such systems becoming standard in shopping-center design and management in the near future.

Combining these two ideas, the practice of “minor urbanism” involves transposing the practice of parkour to the space illustrated by The Catalogue. As with minor literature, minor urbanism involves speaking in a major language from a minor position. Contrary to major architecture and urban planning approaches that dominate contemporary urban development, minor urbanism examines local, networked, and distributed approaches to shaping the experience of the city and the choices we make there. As computing leaves the desktop and spills out into the world around us, technology increasingly becomes entangled with everyday urban life.

From crowdsourced, geo-located data sets of popular locations in the city produced through social media apps such as Foursquare; to advertising displays on bus shelters that determine your age and gender using vision systems in order to customize the products presented; to contactless payment systems for paying tolls on bridges and tunnels, such as E-ZPass, that store mobility patterns in remote databases which are also accessible by law-enforcement agencies: These systems are designed and programmed to remember, correlate, and anticipate our movements, transactions, and desires.

What happens when parkour becomes a conceptual vehicle by which not the material city, but this immaterial, information-driven city is appropriated as a performative platform for alternative mobilities? What new urban actor might emerge? How might he or she develop a spatial awareness of the affordances that are available in these systems and infrastructures and their entanglements with everyday life? How might he or she subsequently recircuit, reconfigure, and redirect the flows of people, goods, and data in these hybrid environments?

Between the Net and the Street

Whether they call their actions tactical, DIY, guerrilla, insurgent, or something more esoteric, the people now camping out in parking spaces and popping-up art installations in vacant storefronts are part of a long tradition that predates any of these terms. But if the idea behind the current bout of urban design actions isn’t new, what’s making it feel so novel? Certainly, the global financial meltdown and attendant public revulsion toward—and mass protest against—the excesses of modern capitalism have influenced the recent spike in activity. But some of the touchstones of the movement emerged years ago.

If there is one recent development pervasive enough to mold the minds across this uprising of design-savvy, politically minded young rabble, it is the rise of social media. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have had a profound impact on how ideas spread, and it’s no coincidence that this torrent of tactical urban actions has begun to present something resembling a united aesthetic front. Today’s urban adaptations are not merely practical, one-off responses to the challenges and needs of their particular sites; in a hyper-connected world, they are often seen by their instigators as an inevitable outcome of the larger shift to the urban age, a time when the majority of the world’s population is urban.

Reading Bruce Sterling’s “An Essay on the New Aesthetic,” which details the rise of an even more decidedly net-fueled design movement, it’s hard not to see the titular trend as an analog to the more socially minded one chronicled in SpontaneousInterventions. “The New Aesthetic,” Sterling writes, “is ‘collectively intelligent.’ It’s diffuse, crowdsourcey, and made of many small pieces loosely joined. … The New Aesthetic is constructive. Most New Aesthetic icons carry a subtext about getting excited and making something similar. The New Aesthetic doesn’t look, act, or feel postmodern. It’s not deconstructively analytical of a bourgeois order that’s been dead quite a while now. It’s built by and for working creatives.”

As with the New Aesthetic, the guerrilla, DIY urbanism movement is made up of many small, constructive actions that—through their simplicity, and often through avid promotion by their creators as well—entice other people to make something similar. Its practitioners are highly networked, and they know the value of a pair of eyeballs. Looking again at the increasingly identifiable aesthetic of these interventions, it’s easy to see how the focus on “shareability” plays out. In creating urban projects that are likely to go viral, contemporary interventionists have unwittingly become agents of digital manipulation of the physical city. Put another way, the same logic driving the creation of YouTube rants and LOLcats is now driving urban revitalization schemes.

But that might not be as terrifying as it sounds. Optimistic scholars of the Internet such as Clay Shirky argue that, while the “participatory culture” online has created plenty of inane memes (LOLcats not least among them), the upshot is that you have more people flexing their creative muscles. Ultimatel, the argument goes, individuals get bored with creating poorly spelled captions for weird pictures of Fluffy and graduate to more meritorious pursuits. So while the memes of the movement right now are stickers and joke signs and farms in odd places, they could very well act as gateway activities that lead to a more robust, dynamic civic life.

As any community organizing expert worth their salt will tell you, using digital tools should always be part of a larger engagement strategy that includes actual face-to-face interaction. Perhaps the best way to understand the current crop of spontaneous—lighter, quicker, cheaper—interventions, then, is as a transition point somewhere between the Net and the street. During the opening panel of the Tactical Urbanism Salon held in New York in October 2011, Chiara Camponeschi, author of the website The Enabling City, argued this point quite eloquently, noting that “the value is in creating these ‘aha’ moments; [the real engagement] comes during a conversation following the action. … Actions can frame things in positive terms, and help people understand that their own creativity matters.”

And it does. If today’s interventionists believe nothing else, they believe that.

The Gentrification Dilemma

SpontaneousInterventions spotlights dozens of well-meaning  urban actions by individuals trying to solve problems in their neighborhoods. But are the “improvements” they propose welcome by others in the community?  Do they really solve problems or just conceal them? And do they benefit the few while they neglect the many?

Many spontaneous actions intended as local improvements raise questions about gentrification. Not only are their creators often, apparently, gentrifiers, but the contributions themselves may bring unwelcome changes to a neighborhood’s character. Other similar actions—whether by conscientious new arrivals or advocates of social justice—explicitly engage the gentrifcation issue. They can bring much-needed attention to a process of neighborhood transformation that is usually ignored. But is this good enough? Government doesn’t defne, recognize, or deal with gentrifcation, and it’s time to bring it into the light of day. But how?

First, let’s be clear what gentrifcation is not. Gentrifcation is not the same as change in neighborhoods. Change occurs all the time and in every neighborhood: People move in and out, buildings fall into disrepair and undergo renovation, and businesses come and go. Gentrifcation is not improvement of housing, public space, and the physical improvement of the environment. That can and does happen without gentrifcation. Gentrifcation is not the arrival of “different” people—although that is often a part of it. The seeming homogeneity of some communities often conceal differences that exist underneath the surface—broad individual and social differences, which can be masked by narrow ethnic and religious mores.   »   So what is gentrifcation? Gentrifcation is when neighborhoods change in ways that force many longtime residents and businesses to move out because land prices and rents have skyrocketed overnight. “Different” people arrive in large numbers, and the big difference is that these newcomers are much wealthier and more powerful (they may or may not have a different skin color or ethnicity). With them comes the money to improve housing and the physical environment, often creating improvements that the past residents fought hard for but could not afford to do or lacked the political power to secure. Gentrifcation means wiping out the social history of an existing community or turning that history into a hip, marketable cliché. With gentrifcation, the people who are displaced disappear into the vast metropolis; governments and our leading institutions care not what happens to them or where they go, while signifcant public resources are provided to help make life better for the gentrifers.

To some extent, this Spontaneous Interventions exhibition honors gentrifers by giving them a prominent place at the prestigious Biennale. Missing from the stage are the local residents and businesses who, over decades and with little fanfare, improve their communities through many brilliant and creative actions. Their many gradual, small steps have to be analyzed and understood for their role in shaping the urban environment and creating livable cities.

This is also why it’s so important to bring gentrifcation into the light and consider not only the people and things that come with it but also all that is lost because of it. As a frst step, we need to talk about it, argue about it, and laugh and cry about it. Then we can move towards doing something about it.

Everyone living in a neighborhood facing gentrifcation—newcomers and long-time residents alike—needs to seek common ground and use that to struggle to improve the community in a way that doesn’t force people out. They have to learn to use established tools, including land trusts, rent regulations, and measures to stop speculators. They have to learn how to improve the environment without forcing residents and businesses to move. They need to develop their own plans, gaining increasing control over land and expanding local democracy by including people of all economic and social strata.

Those concerned newcomers who call attention to gentrifcation through creative actions need to do it in a way that reaches out to and embraces the community’s endangered people and institutions. Most neighborhoods that are tagged as “gentrifed” are actually “gentrifying,” and too often those who are still hanging on become invisible to the newcomers. Gentrifers need to open their eyes and mouths, and soon their hearts will open too. They may have personally done nothing to create the conditions leading to gentrifcation. They may have simply been looking for affordable housing in a livable environment and recognized the importance of a diverse neighborhood. The danger comes from hunkering down with the other gentrifers, thus becoming complicit in the process of transforming the neighborhood into a homogeneous, unwelcome, placeless enclave.

We need models of planning and development that involve community improvement without displacement. Gentrifcation is not placemaking but place-taking.  It destroys our collective memory of places, contributing to the global homogenization and commodifcation of everything. Bring it into the light of day and it could melt away in the sunshine.

Top Down Meets Bottom-Up

The playgrounds that Aldo van Eyck designed between 1947 and the mid-1960s in Amsterdam are famously beloved—not only because they were designed by van Eyck but because they were initiated by the people of Amsterdam and made possible by the civil servants of the city’s Public Works Department under the enlightened directorship of the great Dutch urbanists Cornelius van Eesteren and Jacoba Mulder. What began as the harmonious participatory relationship between the people and the civil servants of the city and ended up as official planning policy is what gives these recreation areas a unique place not only in the history of playgrounds but also in the history of social democratic government and welfare state politics.

Spontaneity played a big role. How the post–World War II Amsterdam playgrounds came about has become legendary. Mulder was on her way to work one day and noticed that the children in her neighborhood had to play in the dirt in the square in front of her apartment. The first thing she did at the office was to demand that van Eesteren plan a playground there. Aldo van Eyck was a young employee and was given the task of designing it. Once the playground was completed, a neighbor saw the playground and sent a letter to van Eesteren requesting a playground on her street. And so forth and so forth for the first few hundred. Before van Eyck was done he had designed all the play furniture and laid out nearly 1,000 playgrounds himself.

But without a responsible municipal government this would have been impossible. Ingeniously, it transformed terrible circumstances into opportunities. The job, which the municipality set for itself at first, was to find small, unused, derelict lots, many of which had been occupied by Jewish homes and ransacked during wartime. On these demolished foundations, playgrounds were built as cheaply as possible. Eventually the ad-hoc participatory process was made into policy by van Eesteren when new postwar towns outside of Amsterdam were built to accommodate young families. It is in these new towns that more playgrounds were built than anywhere else in Holland. In order to get one, people had to send a request to the Public Works Department. Imagine if every city in the world operated this way?

This ad-hoc process that became policy was carried out according to what I call the PIP principle—participatory, interstitial, and polycentric. Taken as a whole, the Amsterdam playgrounds may be seen as a tightly woven net of public places, knitting the city into a unitary urban fabric and creating a citywide feeling of community.

Is the PIP principle still relevant to cities today? I believe so. I hope that the urban interventions featured in Spontaneous Interventions have an enduring impact. They stand a good chance to do so if they invite the participation of the residents who are affected by the action, take full advantage of overlooked spatial opportunities, and are conceived not so much as stand-alone projects and one-offs but as a part of a larger network of public-space enhancements distributed throughout a city. Only a municipal government can carry this out. Good design is important but good government even more so.

Interventions like these have helped immensely to make Amsterdam the humane city it is today. But the playgrounds make up an infinitesimal part of a larger social democratic urban planning policy, involving access to good public transportation, good schools, good hospitals, good drinking water, and good policing. Without these things, playgrounds become quick fixes, band-aids on bigger problems and perhaps little more than tax-deductible public relations opportunities for a one-percenter philanthropist.

These sorts of interventions are easily translatable to cities all over the world. I have taken PIP-driven playgrounds to Rotterdam and Vienna, as well as to cities in China and Brazil. One project, for the orphaned children in the earthquake-devastated Chinese city of Dujiangyuan in Sichuan Province, was chosen to be part of the Shanghai Biennale in 2010. There seems to be no limit to the number of wonderful ideas emanating from the ground up, but the big question remains: How are they being received from the top down?

Economic Development By Proxy

In 2010, amid the severe economic downturn, San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office requested proposals for temporary uses on city-owned vacant lots as a way to spur economic development within a neighborhood marred by a 10-block-long linear void created when the earthquake-damaged Central Freeway was removed. In an early discussion with city officials, I remember thinking,  “OK, they’re asking for free design work and we have to fund the implementation. … What can possibly come from that?” Not only would we need to put forward a compelling idea, but we would also have to realize it financially, as undercapitalized young architects in the middle of a recession.

Yet we bit, motivated by the possibilities of transforming under-imagined territory. We hypothesized compelling temporary uses, sought out prospective vendors, developed design strategies that utilized low-cost, easily deployable modules, and built coalitions with neighborhood groups, local business owners, and city officials. Within nine months our first vendor, who uses liquid nitrogen to make ice cream and until then had operated out of a red Radio Flyer wagon, opened for business on a formerly derelict parking lot.

In many ways, our efforts were driven by sheer will and risk-taking. Banks weren’t loaning money, so we took out a six-figure personal loan from a supportive client to fund the site’s required infrastructure. Inventing as we went, we used our skills as architects to rethink the rules of development. We phased the project, rolling out successive elements (ice cream and coffee vendors, an arts institution, a beer garden, bike rentals, and, currently, retail components) as each became feasible, over the course of our five-year lease. Each phase has its own business model and each model has to grapple with the cold reality of an ever-diminishing timeline for recouping improvement costs for ourselves and for our vendors.

We named our project “proxy” because it is intended to be a placeholder for a more permanent development. Like other spontaneous interventions, proxy adopts an implementation model of lighter, faster, cheaper—but it also builds value and transforms the neighborhood by changing the perception of place and creating compelling content where there was none before. The project shows how incremental, place-based change can encourage entrepreneurial activity and community participation—despite economic obstacles—by establishing a framework to promote local micro-enterprises. This model lowers the economic barriers to entry, making it possible for new small businesses to participate in these temporary uses and demonstrating that goals for economic and cultural development need not be mutually exclusive, but together can be powerful catalysts for urban revitalization.

As we look ahead, we see continued economic uncertainty across the globe. Spontaneous interventions offer cities a strategy for remaining not only economically viable, but relevant—able to adapt to the rapid changes advanced by contemporary culture. To be successful, however, certain conditions must be met. There must be developers who support creative initiatives that enhance the cultural and economic value of place; arts, urban advocacy, and placemaking philanthropic groups who align their efforts to promote the cultural benefits that these interventions create; and economic development measures that offer incentives for temporary uses of underutilized spaces. These experiments also require designers, developers, philanthropists, and city agencies who operate beyond a bottom-line mode of thinking and consider the creation of places of quality and diversity within the city as a higher calling. This ethic of flexible urbanism extends beyond the deployment of vendors in mobile containers to urge thinking about the city as a vibrant, living construct that is constantly in the process of becoming.

From Spontaneous to Strategic: The Rise of Public Interest Design

For years, a rare breed of projects—designed for the public good—has earned acclaim and even a minute amount of actual criticism in design publications worldwide. Think bus shelters, community gardens, mobile clinics, street art, and the like. Many such projects are featured in this exhibition, or would have qualified to be included in it, since they intervene in social systems, often spontaneously.

This was absolutely the case with ScrapHouse, a temporary demonstration house made entirely of garbage, designed in 2005 by Public Architecture, the nonprofit where I used to work. The house was built in front of San Francisco City Hall in conjunction with World Environment Day.

To be generous, it was a stunt, and the process was challenging. As I traveled throughout the United States, speaking about ScrapHouse in the months following its short-lived existence, I often introduced the project in apologetic terms. This was a house that no one would ever sleep in, set in a city where hundreds or thousands of homeless people sleep on the street or in shelters each night.

My guilt was thus running high when I visited a class of Auburn University students at the Rural Studio in Newbern, Ala. Here were these kids, designing and building real homes for real people in need, often with materials subpar to those we had sourced easily for ScrapHouse.

But a fascinating, unforgettable thing happened when I spoke to these students, which opened my eyes to a totally different aspect of the project. They had routinely been told by visitors to the Rural Studio that they should cherish their projects because they’d never have the chance to do that kind of work again. Yet here we had created an urban project that at least resembled the aesthetic of many Rural Studio homes of the time—a beautiful collage of otherwise disparate materials. It turns out that our temporary intervention had made a lasting impression on those students, on the estimated 10,000 people who visited it, and on me, after all those years.

Fast forward to 2012, and ScrapHouse itself may be largely forgotten, but what we have instead is something far greater: a rapidly evolving field of public interest design. It’s a field and practice that has moved from spontaneous, temporary, and makeshift projects, to lasting interventions of all scales, across the U.S. and around the world.


We’ve seen the rise of game-changing nonprofit design organizations, such as and MASS Design Group—both employing human-centered design to improve public services, environments, and lives. Meanwhile, we have mainstream firms—such as Cannon Design, Pentagram, and Perkins+Will—who are strategically integrating pro-bono design at unprecedented levels. This collective work, and the field of public interest design in general, are premised on a conviction that everyone deserves good design and that every human being needs good design in order to live their lives as best as they can.

We may continue to see a trickle of fantastic public interest design projects, but addressing the bigger social challenges of our time will require breaking from the usual way that designers have long worked: serving the needs of private individuals, as a doctor would a single patient. Instead, we need to start considering the needs of entire populations, especially those who can’t afford to pay.

If I had one wish for this show of spontaneous interventions, it would be to look back in a few years and see it as a prelude to a comparably high-profile showing of even more deliberate, permanent interventions that address the real needs of real people in need. Designers must pursue these larger, more systemic public interest design projects at a scale and a pace never seen before—at a scale and pace that the world needs and deserves. If we’re going to achieve this, today’s designers will need to be far more entrepreneurial and will need to think far more systemically than designers ever have had to before. More than any one building or space, this is the great design challenge of our time.

Towards Decisiveness

This is the only country which gives you the opportunity to be so brutally naïve: things, faces, skies, and deserts are expected to be simply what they are. This is the land of the “just as is.” … America is neither dream nor reality. It is hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the beginning as though it were already achieved. Everything here is real  and pragmatic, and yet it is all the stuff of dreams too. —Jean Baudrillard, America (1988)

Can a country simultaneously celebrate the “just as is” and the “stuff of dreams”? Jean Baudrillard—a short-term visitor hoping to use the vast country of the United States as a mirror that would help him better reflect on his native Europe—struggled with this question, recording the slightly contradictory ideas you see on the left on the same page in his book America.

When we started working on Spontaneous Interventions, I began to reflect on my own attitude toward this country. As a recently arrived European, I was initially shocked, like many of my compatriots, at the cold imprint of American cities. There is a gray, hard quality to so many of America’s urban landscapes. Most of these cities lack the sort of exemplary contemporary architecture that can elevate the spirit, and, just as often, they lack the kind of ample public space that calms the mind. In my frst months here, American cities struck me as being indecisive and devoid of bold actions. I wondered if the people here realized that if they did not make decisions, others would make them on their behalf?

Then, as we started collecting examples of the urban interventions you see in this issue, and will see more of at the U.S. Pavilion in Venice, I wondered how they might compare to similar citizen-initiated urban improvement projects in Europe. At first glance, there is a strong resemblance: Most are small-scale projects that highlight issues of transportation, ecology, and social justice. As a European-in-denial, I am groomed to be what Baudrillard describes as “a fanatic of aesthetics and meaning, of culture, of favor and seduction.” That’s why, initially, I did not find many of them compelling. To be blunt: Many of them seemed easy, unpolished, one-liners compared to many of their European counterparts, which tend to be elegant, abstract, and part of a multilayered narrative. (There are, of course, exceptions on both sides of the Atlantic.) So what makes these projects worthy to be a part of something as elaborate as this exhibition?

With healthy exceptions (Jeanne van Heeswijk and Bik van der Pol, to name a couple), many European urban interventions are part of a slightly tired, overly critical discourse that takes place in art institutions and academia and is largely impenetrable to outsiders. Many of these European projects manage to receive funding from municipalities or institutions, or the designers aspire self-consciously for their projects to be included in exhibitions, which are also subsidized by government money. Although often highly participatory in ambition, I wonder if they really connect to the everyday life of cities.

The American projects, on the other hand, are bracing in their honesty: They are often rough, unpolished, and sometimes wild. Many are made by young and passionate urbanites who are not part of any formal art or architecture discourse, and do not aspire to join one. (This being said, many of our featured interventionists are as well-versed in Guy Debord as they are in the latest national transportation policy). Overwhelmingly, however, many of our featured artists simply strive to improve their neighborhoods, and, in so doing, they make a strong critique of American city planning, urban policies, and, most importantly, the ways in which Americans operate in urban space. Their projects amplify a renewed decisiveness from ordinary individuals who feel as though they can—and will—change their cities.

It is my hope that these creative thinkers and urban activists will help shape the urban landscapes of the future—not only through small-scale interventions or institutionalized creative projects, but by being invited by the gatekeepers of city halls and developers’ offices, and at federal policy desks, to inspire a rethinking of what the American city can be at its grandest scale. What does it mean if we let these seemingly radical ideas take center stage? American urbanites—and their cities—can become decisive as they find a balance between a confident state of “just as is” and a reality of dreams.

Get Local

If there’s a common question to be answered by the dozens of projects collected in SpontaneousInterventions, it might be: “What is the role of a local project in a global age?” The individual projects represented—pop-up parks, community agriculture, ad-hoc street furniture, guerrilla bike lanes—are not necessarily overt as they position themselves against the effects of global capital. However, taken as a group, these interventions run counter to the unchecked boom-and-bust development of what David Harvey and others critically describe as the neoliberal city. Small-scale and socially engaged, spontaneous interventions use design to enrich public space and foster civic life at a time when the disparity between daily life and the governmental and corporate mechanisms shaping cities is at an all-time high.

Over the last decade, and especially during the slow recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, interventionist and tactical practice organically emerged as a global phenomenon. Design actions led by artists, architects, urban planners, and community organizers cropped up across Europe, South America, and Africa. These interventions, like those in the United States, are wholly determined by local conditions and defy the top-down strategies of traditional master planning. Consider the series of acupunctural projects proposed by Venezuelan NGO Caracas Think Tank for the city’s informal settlements and a 2010 series of playful and educational interventions installed around a soccer stadium in Mafieng, South Africa. Although they vary in whom they serve and why, both projects are specific to a place

If we look closely at these two examples, we find that the conceptual instigators and financing come from outside academic and governmental institutions, a situation not uncommon in developing countries. For another example, the much-lauded, rainbow-colored Favela Painting project in the Santa Maria slum of Rio de Janeiro positively impacts the local condition. Brazilian youths receive training and a paycheck during the month-long project, but the ideas and funding come from nearly 6,000 miles away. The project is the brainchild of Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, who developed the idea while filming a documentay about informal settlements for MTV, and their backing comes from the Amsterdam-based Firmeza Foundation.

At times, the critique that’s leveled at these kinds of projects is that they represent a kind of “parachute-in” approach that offers press and praise for the do-gooders without accounting for long-term impact. To be fair, in Europe—and especially in France, Germany, and the Netherlands—artistic interventionist practice draws on a history of support for arts and culture funding. In 2009, for instance, Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum underwrote The Cook, the Farmer, His Wife and Their Neighbor, which is a community garden and kitchen in an Amsterdam suburb by Slovene artist/architect Marjetica Potrc and design collective Wilde Westen.

In South America, where the sheer scale of need due to poverty, crime, and slums often outweighs the limits of tactical practice, architecture and infrastructure projects are implemented from the top down. When New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman visited Medellín, Colombia, he reported on “a cadre of young architects being aggressively nurtured and promoted, and a commitment by local businesses to improve social welfare that begins with the city’s biggest business: its state-owned utilities company, E.P.M.”

And it’s in this relationship between maker, user, and funder where the U.S. strain of interventionist practice veers from many of the international models. Individuals and small teams created the bulk of the works represented in Spontaneous Interventions to benefit theirown communities. Because of the limited scope of these projects, but not due to any lack of ambition, funding comes in small-to-medium allotments from personal resources, nonprofit grants, and microfundingsites such as Kickstarter. Matt Tomasulo’s Walk Raleigh project—an act of guerrilla wayfinding that consists of 27 unsanctioned streetsigns installed around Raleigh, N.C.—was created for $275 dollars in supplies. Support from the community led the City Council to approve the project as a pilot education program.

In many ways, these projects capture a decidedly American can-do drive to make things better, starting in your own backyard. This is as true for BroLab’s portable commuter benches installed along the Q39 and B57 MTA bus routes in Long Island City, N.Y., as it is of Urban Operations Parkman Triangle, in Los Angeles, which is a small slice of urban landscape that sits a few doors down from its designer’s office

These efforts fly in the face of NIMBY attitudes that spring up in boom times. Small-scale interventions reaffirm the local, the practical, and the hands-on. They return to an older pioneering spirit, once about setting off to the West and now about rejuvenating the territory outside our front doors.