Provisional, informal, guerrilla, insurgent, DIY, hands-on, informal, unsolicited, unplanned, participatory, tactical, micro, open-source—these are just a few of the words floating around to describe a type of interventionist urbanism sweeping through cities around the world. The fact that there are so many concurrent, competing names for these myriad citizen-led urban improvements suggests that they remain a phenomenon-in-the-making, ripe for analysis. With mayors’ conferences recently featuring sessions on “lighter, quicker, cheaper” tactics (the term of choice for placemaking experts at the nonprofit Projects for Public Spaces) as alternative recession-era approaches to urban revitalization, and with “social impact design” burgeoning into a veritable cottage industry that young designers and established firms alike are eager to join, the trend might in fact be close to a tipping point. The subtitle of Malcom Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, could just as easily be the tagline for Spontaneous Interventions, the exhibition of the U.S. Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.
On the most straightforward level, without overly complex theorizing, this movement is about action, about multitudes of individual responses to problems as small as the cracks on the sidewalk, or as ubiquitous as unsafe intersections, or as large as crater-sized vacant lots stalled by a depressed economy. Architects and designers are trained to observe and solve problems, as we know, and one cornerstone of their education is the studio class that challenges them to develop hypothetical solutions to real, local, social, or urban problems. Moving ideas off the drawing board and into the world is the tricky part.Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Goodcelebrates those who act, who take the initiative to transform problematic urban situations into new opportunities or amenities to be shared by the public, without waiting for clients or permission, and in some cases, risking fines or arrest. Rolling up one’s sleeves, personally bankrolling or finding creative sources of funding, using every tool at hand to network and form tribes, mobilizing for the sake of shared passions, and simply making things happen—these are the modi operandi of a new class of citizen activists who are changing the shape of cities today.
In researching projects for the exhibition, we found hundreds of examples even before we issued an open call in January, which itself yielded over 450 compelling self-initiated urban improvements. We narrowed our choice to 124—the maximum number we could fit in the 4,000-square-foot permanent American pavilion in the Giardini, the public gardens of Venice—though we wish we could have included many more. We were expansive in our consideration of what qualifies as a “spontaneous intervention,” including projects that encroach on the territory of art and graffiti, well aware that some acts are more about self-expression than tactics for long-term change. Our goal was to find a diversity of original projects that transform public urban space to better serve the common good, seeking those that would add up to a useful archive of actionable strategies that could be replicated in other cities facing similar problems.
The notion of the “common good” is mutable and subjective, to be sure—what’s good for some might not be for others—but in selecting projects we adhered to the idea of what is beneficial to the most people with respect to everyday needs. New bike lanes in New York City might irk drivers; guerrilla gardeners might be annoying squatters to property owners; culture-jamming billboard pranks might be classifiable as vandalism; and all of these acts might be gentrification by another name. But we believe that the positive impacts of our featured examples of hands-on city-making far outweigh the negative.
More appropriate than considering these works with respect to how they address the “common good” is how they address the “commons,” the space and resources we share, harkening to the originary political conception of the “common wealth,” or public wealth, and how it should be administered. The commons have been under assault for centuries, but intensely so since the dawn of industrialism with the extreme privatization and pillaging of land and natural resources combined with the sad mismanagement by our entrusted public entities of our public spaces, parks, infrastructure, schools, and other shared assets. The word “commons” suggests medieval laws involving free-grazing animals and the right to forage in forests, but we can’t forget that it remains central to our everyday lives, from the water running through our taps to the streets that get us where we need to go. With the commons so threatened, so in disrepair, is it any wonder that “commoners” feel compelled to step in? Spontaneous interventions embody innumerable ways of rethinking our collective well-being, both physical and emotional.
Our exhibition, selected to represent the country by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, focuses on projects realized in U.S. cities, which raised the question within the curatorial team of what distinguishes urban interventions in this country from those in the rest of the world. For this reason, we inventoried the problems to which our featured interventions are primarily responding, and arrived at 10 rough categories: (1) urban blight, crumbling infrastructure, and disinvestment in cities; (2) unsafe, banal, or wasted places created by autocentric planning; (3) vacancies, property abandonment, and damaged landscapes defined by shrinking cities (related to postindustrial job loss); (4) a different order of vacancies left by the post-speculation real estate bust; (5) lack of access to amenities (such as open space, parks, playgrounds, culture, recreation, fresh healthy food, etc.); (6) insufficient mobility options; (7) pollution; (8) disenfranchisement, exclusion, social alienation, and lack of information or knowledge about how to participate in civic affairs; (9) privatization or corporatization of public space; and (10) surplus or underutilized spaces caused by hasty, insensitive, or over-development.
These problems are evident in cities all over the world, and are the result of processes and phenomena that span decades, even centuries. To comprehend how we got here—what is it about today’s cities that make people want to intervene in them?—we created a timeline of important milestones in city-making and urban activism (which runs along the floor of our show at the U.S. Pavilion): Spontaneity might be a defining characteristic of these urban actions, but they must be understood against their long and complex historical, political, and cultural contexts. Admittedly imperfect, biased, and quirky, the timeline is meant above all to convey that cities are eternally works in progress, and that actions, large and small, top-down and bottom-up, formal and informal, have always had unforeseen consequences and counter-actions.
American cities are vastly different not only from their international counterparts but from each other. They share qualities, naturally—cars and parking everywhere, and more wasted space than one might see in tight historic cities in other parts of the world—but Dallas is different from New Orleans is different from Pittsburgh. Place-based and social policies have played a role in stratifying populations within cities, as Toni Griffin describes in her essay, in a manner that’s very specific to the U.S., though cities in the rest of the world also deal with the uneven distribution of amenities and hazards along the lines of race and class.
There’s an important cultural difference, too, that informs Americans’ expectations and use of public spaces: We’re not exactly a European café-sitting culture, or an Asian street-market one, or a Latin public-lounging one. But the explosion of coffee culture, farmers’ and flea markets, food vendors, street festivals, and more, seems to suggest that we are moving towards an increasingly globalized idea of what vibrant urban life is all about, embracing all the benefits it can bring—sociality, safety, economic activity, civility, and so on. As urban populations steadily grow and cities compete with each other to top “livability” lists to attract residents, investment, and tourists, they are naturally learning from each other and adopting best practices. Some spontaneous interventions appear to be efforts to “Europeanize” American cities: If it means more bike lanes, car-free pedestrian zones, and places for sitting and enjoying the city, this isn’t a bad thing, though urban sociologist Sharon Zukin has warned of the confusion of expanding public space with consumerism-driven development in the name of urbanity, or as she wryly puts it, “pacification by cappuccino.” To put this in a global context of another sort, we must acknowledge that what we call tactical urbanism is simply a way of life in parts of the developing world where people’s tenuous existences rely on self-help solutions.
All of this is which to say, Spontaneous Interventions is informed by innumerable factors and desires, and is comprised of countless parallel strands of thinking, each deserving of longer analyses—much longer than we are able to cover in this monograph issue of architect, though our insightful contributors do a fantastic job of touching on dominant influences and themes. When you have 124 projects, you find yourself doing a lot of taxonomizing, deliberating whether projects should be grouped by type (infrastructure, landscape, digital, process, art), by scale, by problem. Every way you cut it, intriguing patterns and trends surfaced. For example, a good dozen projects deal with food. Another dozen or so deal with vacancies or underutilized public land. A handful deal with play. At least three address POPS (privately own public spaces) specifically. Ten or so were crowdfunded through Kickstarter. Twenty-odd are information projects, printed or digital resources aimed at sharing, disseminating, digesting, mapping, or visualizing information. The majority of the projects by far are located in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, suggesting that big urban centers with high concentrations of creatives are especially fertile ground. This kind of breakdown could go on.
We did decide to encode one level of analysis, asking our protagonists to assess the type of improvements their projects brought about, choosing from six categories: information, accessibility, community, economy, sustainability, and pleasure. The reason for this exercise was to understand the desires of the actors and what they hoped their actions would accomplish. Each category was assigned a color, allowing us to create a sort of bar code to quickly convey the essence of each project.
The proportions of the colors seen on the cover reflect the average of the 124 projects in the exhibition. By a wide margin, community (pink) is the category cited most by interventionists. So while a project like San Francisco Garden Registry is overtly about mapping and quantifying the amount of urban farms in the city, its creators, Futurefarmers, note that building community is an equally important aspect of this online resource; or while Intersection Repair in Portland, Ore., appears to be about slowing down traffic in unsafe intersections by painting them into plazas, it is primarily a community-building exercise that brings neighbors together in a common annual task; or that artist Candy Chang’s I Wish This Was sticker campaign in New Orleans has inspired similar public message boards across the country, all in the name of sparking civic engagement. The overwhelming concern for community is a resounding affirmation of people’s desire to connect to each other and their belief that a strengthened community is the baseline for creating responsive, successful urban environments.
We asked our participants to name their inspirations as well as ideas about the ideal city, capturing some responses in filmed interviews that will appear in the Pavilion as well as online. We prompted participants to think big, blue sky, and to argue their case as if they were running for office: It’s an election year, after all. Some participants cite a generational shift, with Millennials and their heightened expectation of immediate results and collaborative exchange. Others cite a disappointment with institutions and a lack of confidence in their ability to solve problems. Some feel that every act is political, while others don’t self-identify as activists at all, but simply as conscientious citizens who hate to see a wasted opportunity. Many are as well versed in Guy Debord and David Harvey as in Jane Jacobs and Kevin Lynch. Some are running away from the dullness of their suburban upbringings. Situationism, Archigram, Abbie Hoffman, squatter settlements, Hugh Ferriss’ The Metropolis of Tomorrow, Fluxus, Dada, Jersey Devils, William Whyte are cited alongside democracy, equal rights, hacking, government efficiency, a desire for human interaction, a backlash against the car—the list of references runs long.
The ideal city doesn’t exist, of course, just as the ideal person doesn’t exist. But sights must be set high, with a combination of optimism and not just know-how but do-how, if we will ever approximate the just, sustainable, happy, healthy urban existence we all crave. Worth highlighting are four overriding themes that seem to pervade every one of the 124 projects: Citizenship,Equity, Protest, and Participation. These are elaborated upon in the four sidebars of this essay (thanks to Michael Sorkin for his eloquence).
Spontaneous Interventions is not the first to recognize this uprising, and it’s just the tip of an iceberg. Other projects, notably the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s fine exhibition Actions:What You Can Do With the City, Ole Bouman’s Studio for Unsolicited Architecture at the NAi, the exhibition Hands-on Urbanism at the Architekturzentrum Wien, the Hack the City festival in Dublin, TED’s City 2.0 competition, Kylie Legge’s bookDoing It Differently, Peter Bishop and Lesley Williams’ book The Temporary City, Nato Thompson’s exhibition Living as Form, and various other recent efforts—these all signal a Zeitgeist, each adding a new wrinkle of understanding to a broad movement.
“Elections don’t mean shit—Vote where the power is—Our power is in the street.” This was the resolution adopted by the Students for a Democratic Society in 1968, advocating a true participatory democracy. “Taking it to the streets” remains as thrilling and energizing as it ever was, maybe even more so with the possibility of even minor acts going viral. Still, Spontaneous Interventionsdocuments a rebellion, not a revolution: These micro urban moments—vast in numbers, ephemeral, situational, intelligent, idiosyncratic—can’t replace the effectiveness and reach of top-down planning. But somewhere in between, the two seem to be finding common ground. Some of the interventions featured in this exhibition have in fact made institutional inroads—Rebar’s PARK(ing) Day has morphed into city-issued Parklet Permits in San Francisco and Pop-Up Café licenses in New York, for example. New York and Washington, D.C., have launched competitions, making city data available for anyone to transform into apps that make them more navigable, transparent, accountable, democratic. Commons-based solutions are taking hold everywhere. One senses a relaxing sense of proprietariness all around. These are signs of triumph, and encouragement to any budding urban interventionist.