Actions: What You Can Do With the City
Urban Crossroads #92

From top to bottom: The "Walkmobile"; small soccer field/plaza in Sharjah, UAE; children's play area in Seville, Spain.

From top to bottom: The "Walkmobile"; small soccer field/plaza in Sharjah, UAE; children's play area in Seville, Spain.

Actions: What You Can Do With the City is the title of an exhibition that the Canadian Center for Architecture recently organized. A main advantage to this exhibition is that one can experience all of its contents without having to visit it since most of the exhibited material is available in the exhibition’s catalogue and on its web site (

The exhibition features 99 interventions or actions that the organizers feel “instigate positive change in contemporary cities around the world.” These are primarily bottom-up ideas carried out by various participants, which the exhibition literature identifies to include - among others - architects, engineers, university professors, students, children, artists, skateboarders, cyclists, pedestrians, and municipal employees, all making contributions to improving the experience of urban living in unusual, creative, and, in some cases, rather subversive ways.

As the organizers of the exhibition mention, twentieth-century Modern planning concepts divided the city into three separate spheres, each of which concentrated on one human activity: dwelling, work, and leisure, with the automobile being the primary means of connecting those spheres of urban living. The exhibition does not accept these conventional categories. It puts forward different ones, thus dividing the 99 featured actions into four categories: walking, gardening, playing, and recycling, all defined in the wider sense of those terms, rather than a literal one. Although these four categories do not even attempt to cover the whole spectrum of human activities that take place in the city, they do approach the range of activities that the city embraces from a different and novel point of view.

The exhibition also is characterized by its interactivity. Its organizers have invited viewers of the exhibition’s web site to submit their own urban interventions (referred to as Challenger Actions), which they could upload to the web site in the form of text, images, and video clips, thus making the interventions available for all to see. Accordingly, anybody, anywhere in the world not only is able to view the exhibition, but also is able to participate in it.

The exhibition organizers state that a good number of the actions featured in it are of a playful nature. Some of them in fact are frivolous, if not downright silly; others come across as obscure, incomprehensible, unclear, and irrelevant in a manner unique to works originating from parts of the art world and of academia. This, however, does not reduce the value of the exhibition. A good number of the actions it features are inspirational, humorous, eye-opening, and show considerable sensitivity to and understanding of how we interact with the city and also encourage us to rethink such interaction.

Let me provide a representative sample of those actions. Beginning with the category of walking, one action deals with an expressway built in 1971 that cut through the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo. A municipal ordinance enacted in 1990 turned 2.7 kilometers of that highway over to pedestrians and cyclists in the evenings and on Sundays, thus banishing vehicular traffic from the expressway and allowing people to stroll and to sit along it, and to interact with each other as well as with vendors selling various items.

Another walking action involves an Austrian engineer who developed what he identifies as the “walkmobile.” It is a lightweight frame made of wood, rope, and safety tape that takes up the approximate area of a car (about 8 square meters) and may be carried by a single person through ropes attached to one’s shoulders. The designer of the walkmobile has walked with it strapped to his shoulders amongst vehicular traffic through streets in different cities of the world to protest the primacy given to the automobile in the city by showing how much space a single automobile (which usually is only used by a single person: the driver) takes up.

One of the more eye-catching actions (which the exhibition organizers decided to categorize under the theme of walking) belongs to the Canadian city of Toronto, where since 2005, a group of cyclists disguised as municipal employees has painted over six kilometers of bicycle-lane markings along streets in the city in order to expand the zones dedicated to the movement of bicycles. The actual city employees tried to remove the markings, but could not do so as fast as this group painted them.

As for gardening actions, one of them belongs to the city of London, where a gardening enthusiast created a “guerrilla gardening” movement, which started as a one-man effort aimed at tackling the problem of poor landscaping. He would identify badly-landscaped areas, barren traffic islands, forgotten parks, and roadway edges, and would plant them during the night, developing them into oases of greenery for the enjoyment of all.

Another gardening action also located in London consists of vacant paved lots that have been transformed into community vegetable gardens using very large plastic bags, each of which can hold half a ton of soil. In addition to creating greenery and providing urban residents with the opportunity to grow their own food, this project has the advantage of mobility in that it can be easily dismantled and moved to another location if the need requires. This action is just one of a large number of urban gardening and agriculture projects that the exhibition features from cities throughout the world.

Remaining with the theme of gardening, the exhibition features an action from the Italian city of Turin, where the city’s municipality brought in sheep from the surrounding countryside to the city’s parks during the spring, allowing them to eat the grass and provide manure, thus saving the city a considerable sum of money that otherwise would have gone to lawn mowing and fertilizing.

To move on to the theme of playing, in Amsterdam, a group of Dutch architects designed fences between neighbors so that a part of the fence is also a folding ping-pong table. When the table is folded in, it is integrated within the fence; when it is opened, it becomes a ping-pong table that neighbors on both sides of the fence can use. How functional is this arrangement, it is hard to tell, but creative and playful it is.

Moving closer to Jordan, in Sharjah, an Italian artist painted the lines of a small-scale soccer field on an existing plaza, and added a goal at each end. The arrangement has attracted soccer players to come and play on in the plaza even though its original benches were kept in place.

As for the theme of recycling, in the economically-challenged and generally troubled South Bronx district of New York City, construction workers created a community-based cooperative that sorts and repairs scrap dumped from construction and demolition sites, and sells the building materials locally as well as online. Another recycling action belongs to the Spanish city of Seville, where small empty lots have been converted into playgrounds, with rubble and street barriers being reused to make the play equipment.

A less literal interpretation of the theme of recycling is found in a project devised by a Belgian group that has spread to include a number of European cities. The group approaches landlords who are waiting for municipal permits allowing them to modify or expand their buildings and therefore are not currently using them. The landlords are asked to donate the use of the buildings as office-space for non-profit organizations until the permits are issued. The non-profit organizations do not pay rent, but cover the costs of utilities. It is estimated that in the Belgian city of Brussels alone, over 15,000 buildings are unoccupied at a given time, thus providing a considerable supply source for a project of this nature, which creates a win–win situation for all. The owners benefit in that their buildings are not left deserted and subject to dilapidation and vandalism while waiting for building permits to be issued; the non-profit organizations get free - though temporary - office space; and the city and its residents get adequately-maintained buildings.

The actions featured in the exhibition range from those carried out by municipal authorities or in cooperation with them, to more subversive ones carried out clandestinely and without municipal approval, and often against municipal regulations. Still, none of the projects are intended to cause harm to anyone, but, on the contrary, aim at improving the quality of urban life, whether by providing actual needed services or simply bringing a smile to the faces of those who pass by them. Most people - from municipal officials to the person on the street - generally agree regarding the importance of community participation as well as bottom-up interventions in determining the form of the city’s areas and the activities they house. The actions of this exhibition provide examples of how far residents of cities as well as their municipal authorities have been willing to go (or not go) to put those words into action.

Mohammad al-Asad

May 07, 2009