As designers, we must acknowledge that the “places of marginality” and the “places of opportunity” are one and the same. (See notes at end of article, #4.) As Americans struggle together in the challenged conditions of legacy cities, their efforts give us an opportunity to consider how their innovation and entrepreneurialism are helping to make cities more just. Since some traditional, top-down public policy programs clearly further the spatialization of economic and social inequities in our cities, what might the trend of these less formal initiatives teach us about a more balanced distribution of access, power, and inclusion? We must accept the fact that literally left behind in these cities are too often our most marginalized populations, the very folks who are disadvantaged by a lack of equity, access, and justice. When we create interventions in these communities, some of which are already experiencing gentrification, we should be thinking about how our work can expose the underlying inequalities of isolation and about how we might help to raise the awareness and capacity of long-time residents to be their own change agents and participate effectively alongside other actors.

If we begin to embrace design as not only an outcome but also as a process by which the physical designer (architect, planner, or other professional) and cultural designer (resident, community activist, social entrepreneur, or other participant) can engage and build capacity through a spontaneous intervention, then we might use this work to inform and alter the ways that design and community development are regulated, subsidized, and effectively deployed in the future. Physical designers have the ability to create outcomes and develop innovative processes that accommodate cultural differences and multiple, changing uses and users. Cultural designers, who are an even broader range of change agents, have the potential to create innovations in participation that bring new and underrepresented voices to the table where design is happening and decisions are being made. For example, the untapped skills and ingenuity of low-income residents can be harnessed via entrepreneurial ventures that take advantage of new crowd-funding networks. These ventures can, in turn, promote leadership development that identifies and educates young people so that they become involved in the process and ultimately sustain the community.

As designers are empowered to further develop these ideas, our public policymakers must seriously examine what can be learned from the trend of spontaneous interventions and the people and organizations producing them. If these informal contributions were formally authorized and properly resourced as effective strategies to help redefine the American city, rather than only temporary installations to help bring greater safety, stability, and civic activism to improve blighted communities, might they do more to inform permanent strategies for neighborhood revitalization, zoning, community development, and long-term civic capacity building?

Let us take a close and thoughtful look at this spontaneous body of work and recognize its contributions toward keeping our cities “alive” and the promise it might hold for transforming design and city planning practices as well as uplifting the values of access, equity, and inclusion that should be deeply embedded in our policymaking.


1. Charles Waldheim, CASE: Hilberseimer/Mies Van Der Rohe: Lafayette Park Detroit (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2004), p. 21.

2. Susan Fainstein, The Just City (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2010), p. 5.

3. Sharon E. Sutton, “Creating Landscapes of Safety,” in Nan Ellin, editor, Architecture of Fear (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997), p. 249.

4. Sharon E. Sutton and Susan P. Kemp, “Introduction: Place as Marginality and Possibility,” in Sutton and Kemp, editors, The Paradox of Urban Space: Inequality and Transformation in the Marginalized Communities (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 4–5.