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 Spontaneous Interventions. “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. Ultimately, 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.
Brendan Crain spends his days working at the intersection of urbanism, digital media, and social storytelling. In all of his work, his primary goal is to make cities more enjoyable, accessible, and engaging for people. His writing has appeared in various publications, including Dwell, Next American City, and MAS Context. He is also a member of the curatorial team of Spontaneous Interventions.