"They say city is broke. We fix. No charge." Documenting what I see, not what I do. Photos: Martin Reis
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'Actions' anthology a handbook for urban revolutionariesJanuary 12, 2009CHRISTOPHER HUMEThe writing's not great, and the title isn't exactly a grabber, but every city dweller in every city should read this book.The name, Actions: What You Can Do With The City, says all and reveals little. Yet this volume could change the world, or at least its urban centres.Published by the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, and edited by CCA director Mirko Zardini and curator Giovanna Borasi, this brilliant anthology might best be viewed as a handbook for the urban revolutionary. It is a catalogue of techniques, events, ideas and strategies aimed at making cities more sustainable, humane, efficient, livable and, not least, fun.The 98 examples, each one documented in photographs and text, range from the monumental to the ephemeral. They are alternately clever, innovative, poignant, practical, idealistic and hilarious."So who are the human motors of this project?" Borasi asks in her introductory essay. "Architects, engineers, university professors, students, children, pastors, artists, skateboard enthusiasts, Sunday bicyclists, root eaters, pedestrians, municipal employees – in a word, everyone." Also included are guerrilla gardeners, dumpster divers, playground builders and Toronto's Urban Repair Squad, which has stencilled more than six kilometres of illicit bicycle lanes since 2005.And who could resist the car-shaped tents made by artist Michael Rakowitz? Parked on the side of the road, the tents look like cars wrapped in cloth covers. Instead, they are homes for urban campers.Equally subversive are Sarah Ross's padded jogging suits. One model has foam cushions designed to allow the wearer to lie down on a typical Los Angeles bench comfortably by filling in "negative space in each structure."Then there's Viennese engineer Hermann Knoflacher, who contributed the "walkmobile." It is a wooden frame wrapped in safety tape that occupies the same space as an average car. The walker wears the walkmobile, which is held up by modified suspenders."Between the utopian fantasy of starting over and the impossible dream of continuing in the direction that we are headed," writes architect/activist Fritz Haeg, "there lies a middle ground in which we come to terms with the urban decisions that have already been made and repurpose aspects of our existing built environment in strategic ways. ... No matter what has been handed to us, each of us should be given licence to be an active part in the creation of the cities that we share."If Actions has a subtext, however, it's that of waste. Many projects included are based on reclaiming the vast quantities of food we throw away – a quarter of all food produced in North America ends in a trash bin, much perfectly edible."Our whole economy has become a waste economy," writes Zardini quoting Hannah Arendt, "in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared in the world, if the process itself is not to come to a sudden catastrophic end."Arendt's words, written half a century ago, have never been so pertinent.At the same time, Action recognizes that livability can be a strictly local issue. A Montreal collective, SYN., "inserts" furniture – picnic benches and pool tables – into unexpected public corners, thus giving residents a chance to inhabit their city more fully."Walking," Zardini argues, "means occupying the urban world in an appropriate manner. ... Gardening means caring for the urban ground. ... Recycling means thinking about our society's waste. Playing means taking possession of the physical and social city in unexpected and creative ways."Wherever it may be, that's a city we all want to inhabit.Christopher Hume can be reached at email@example.com.
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