Spontaneous Interventions presents merely a small sampling of the informal, improvisational 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.