In San Francisco, architect Douglas Burnham revives empty city lots with pop-up art shows, temporary retail spaces, and painted shipping containers. In New York, an urban forester and a landscape architect notice the city does not keep tabs on dying trees like it does with potholes, so they create their own system to crowd-source the collection of that data; they call it TreeKIT. And a popup film festival reclaims civic space for public dialogue around all things Detroit.
While the urban master plan has staged somewhat of a comeback in recent years, an array of public design projects, first organized by Cathy Lang Ho and the New York nonprofit Institute for Urban Design for the 2012 Venice Biennale, celebrates the other emergent force reshaping U.S. cities: direct actions by citizens.
More than 80 such projects are assembled under the banner of Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good, including 30 new projects on display for the Chicago show. Also new for Chicago is an “outdoor living room” in Millennium Park, designed by Wicker Park firm MAS Studio and featuring salvaged lumber seating and art by local artist John Preus of Dilettante Studios. Brooklyn design studio Freecell and Berkeley-based communication design firm M-A-D cooked up the main attraction, which takes the form of a two-room installation in the Chicago Cultural Center, on view through September 1.
Each project is described on an overhead banner, which exhibit goers can tug to lift (via pulley) wood blocks hung at eye-level against the walls. The blocks display a particular urban problem (“access to affordable, fresh, and healthy food,” for example) and move up to reveal the solution proposed by the corresponding intervention (“rebuilding food culture through market and education,” for Chicago’s 61st Street Farmers Market). Some are design endeavors, some are apps, objects, anonymous art projects.
The one unifying factor among the projects is that they are tangible—actions, not aspirations. There are some exceptions, such as the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project, a non-profit that promotes the creation of urban orchards, but even if shovels aren’t in the ground, so to speak, every project has financial backing, land leases, or something substantiating its cheery renderings.
In a way, the show challenges conventional notions of “vibrancy” in the urban environment, which in the development parlance seems to exclude low-income neighborhoods almost by definition. Multi-million dollar developments downtown seem practically devoid of vibrancy, in the word’s most literal sense, compared with interventions like the Fresh Moves mobile produce market or San Juan’s handmade streetlights, dubbed Iluminacción.
It also speaks to the prevailing sense that the country’s cities are simultaneously settling into new development patterns brought about by long-term decline, and birthing something entirely new. Rails-to-trails projects flip defunct infrastructure into fuel for the youth-driven “back to the city” movement making waves throughout the Midwest.
Sure, the guerilla urbanism taking place in L.A. or Milwaukee may not rival that in Cairo, where the New York Times reports on “do-it-yourself infrastructure” that is literally rebuilding parts of the city. But, in the words of the show’s program manager (and former AN associate editor) Samantha Topol, urban planning actually began with citizen involvement—it’s only relatively recently that planning as we know it acquired its Ivory Tower reputation in some circles. “Temporary projects are amazing tools,” said Topol, “because they help people see what’s possible.”
A timeline of major events in city planning and urban interventions is also included in the Chicago show. The goal is to make the experience more complete, mimicking the full environment of the city. The text lilts and jogs, ostensibly to mirror the emotional state or prevailing philosophy of the eras it describes—it outlines the hard corners of a square during bureaucratic, orderly city plans and loops frenetically back over itself during the tumultuous 1960s—but that touch is so secondary as to be completely overlooked, or confusing at worst.
Nonetheless, Spontaneous Interventions conveys its overall message clearly, following its own internal narrative by putting interaction at the heart of the experience. Written on the walls of the exhibition are four themes: Participation, Protest, Equity, and Citizenship. Pull any flag in the Cultural Center and you’re involved.
The militaristic bent of so-called “tactical” urbanism can seem aggressively self-important (Yarnbombing?), but the projects detailed in Spontaneous Interventions embody a struggle. They are “the aspirations of people who are on the edges,” said FreeCell’s John Hartmann. “They are the independent artists pushed aside who can’t control the larger city.” A little empowerment goes a long way.