Taking Back the City

Alexander Alekseev

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How activists around the world are fighting for urban space.

The Right to the City: Theory and Practice

French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, a neo-Marxist critic of capitalism, was one of the first to look at space from a political point of view and learn how class struggle unfolds within its confines. His work Le Droit à la ville (‘The Right to the City’) appeared in the 1960s and enjoyed huge popularity with activists of the ‘student revolution.’

Lefebvre explored how urban space is developed and transformed, and by whom – which groups have the opportunity to realize their own needs through it, who is represented in it, and who is excluded from it. The right to the city is, ultimately, the right of humanity to change and use the urban environment at its sole discretion. Obviously, different city dwellers have different means to exercise this right.

Lefebvre believed that under capitalism the dominant role is played by abstract space created by professionals (architects, engineers, geographers, urban planners, sociologists, and others), but that this space is imposed upon man from without, and is therefore alien and does not belong to him. Nevertheless, it determines the organization of his life to a substantial degree.

In the modern capitalist city there is virtually no room for spontaneous action and creativity. The public domain shrinks, giving way to the space of organized consumption as more and more people isolate themselves within their private family lives. But the French sociologist argued that there is a way to remedy the situation. One simply needs to change the way space is organized.

Henri Lefebvre developed a unified theory of space that would decode capitalist space and reveal its intrinsic mechanisms of oppression. In the meantime, the United States in the 1960s already had a huge civil rights movement, a struggle that had a spatial context in a very real, rather than theoretical, sense. Civil rights activists fought against the separation of black and white Americans in public places, on public transport, and in educational institutions.

Interestingly, one of the first mass protests against segregation was entirely urban in nature. In 1955, black residents of Montgomery boycotted buses in protest of the law that required them to give up their seats to white passengers when other seats were not available. The protest lasted 381 days and inflicted significant economic damage on the city transit system, since African-Americans were the bus systems main patrons. Ultimately, the boycott was successful and the City of Montgomery passed an ordinance that effectively ended segregation on public buses.

The prevailing social order still protects the interests of some groups while forcing others to the periphery of urban life. However, the struggle for one’s rights requires public exposure; for many, the only place to speak out and draw attention to problems is in the streets. Those who have a stake in maintaining the status quo do their utmost to restrict public expression, or at least to hinder it. They establish complex procedures for coordinating public actions, direct them away from main streets under the pretext that demonstrators may disturb other citizens, or make certain places inaccessible because of sudden repair work or official public events.

These struggles for space are triggered by more than just mass protests. Anyone who decides to use a public space, regardless of the existing rules and regulations, risks repercussions from the powers that be.

Small Deeds Theory

Still, the world of urban activists is often focused on local improvements rather than mass rallies with lofty political objectives. Such an approach is often referred to as ‘tactical urbanism.’ Small urban interventions usually require little time and investment; they are not always strictly legal, or they must be executed by sidestepping lengthy documentation and the numerous approvals required to carry out officially sanctioned urban improvements. The authorities are free to decide whether to turn a blind eye to regulation violations or to stamp out the seeds of activism.

Of course, many of these tactics are impossible to employ without the support of local authorities. These initiatives include, for example, the ‘open streets’ movement, which reallocates urban spaces to cyclists and pedestrians on certain days or at specific times. The forebears of the movement were the so-called ciclovías (literally ‘cycleways,’ although the main idea here is not the presence of bicycles but the absence of cars), which were set up in the mid-1970s in the streets of the Colombian capital of Bogotá on Sundays and public holidays.

Projects like ‘Build a Better Block’ are intended to target unused areas or buildings. Temporary markets, cafés, retail outlets, or simply areas to meet and interact spring up in places where activists and property owners come to an agreement. Not only do these projects brighten up the environment, but they also help develop local business and increase property value in the area.

Other tactics are easier to employ on an individual level, without the involvement of the city or local businesses. More often than not, they highlight rather than solve problems, exposing these issues to authorities or city residents. Typical problems that activists try to draw attention to are the lack of (or the non-development of) public spaces and greenery, excessive advertising, and poor access to the urban environment for the disabled. The following are just a few examples of tactical urbanism:

Guerilla gardening employs unauthorized gardening on public or private land. East Londoner and guerilla gardener Steve Wynn is on a crusade against sidewalk potholes – he fills them with miniature garden beds (thepotholegardener.com).

Roof gardens. Alla Sokol, a gardener from St. Petersburg, started growing vegetables on the roof of her cooperative apartment building back in 1993. Of course, ‘guerrilla’ is not really the right term for what she does; she had to apply for permits, and she and a few other ‘roof gardeners’ received support from foreign foundations. The time for such a venture proved to be ripe. Government control was loosening and the authorities looked favorably upon all kinds of experiments. The idea has spread to several more buildings, though some of Alla’s followers garden on the sly and at their own risk.

Chair bombing involves arranging makeshift furniture (basic furniture made from readily available materials, such as used pallets) in places where there is not enough seating and it is prohibited or just inconvenient to sit on the sidewalk. Many such projects have been implemented in cities across the United States, Australia, and other countries. Perhaps the line between activism and everyday life is particularly precarious here – after all, who hasn’t thought to bring a couple of chairs from home so they could sit outside?

Park(ing) day is an international movement to temporarily convert paid car parks into public spaces. The first time this happened was back in 2005. Rebar Art and Design Studio paid for a parking space in one San Francisco neighborhood that was in particular need of greenery and created a makeshift lawn, which housed a tree and a bench. When the parking meter expired, the activists removed the bench and the tree, rolled up the turf, swept off the asphalt, and left. Since then, similar efforts have taken place in many cities around the world and in a variety of ways – be it the construction of a temporary playground, an art installation, or a bike repair shop. Activists react and respond to the needs of a particular area, hoping to draw attention to them. The one thing that remains consistent is the site – it’s always a paid parking space.

Street food has always attracted crowds and livened up streets, something that encourages the development of public spaces. The problem is that the food service industry is tightly regulated, so guerilla activists run the risk of prosecution and all kinds of violations. However, many city authorities appreciate street food vendors, as long as they respect certain regulations. This is particularly evident in the popularity of the Restaurant Day food festival, where anyone can set up their own one-day café. The first festival was held in 2011 in Finland, but the number of participating countries (Russia among them) has now reached 68 and the number of participating cities is in the hundreds. The next step is reducing barriers to entry and developing conditions so that those who want to build mobile street cafés can do it officially and permanently.

Ad-busting. City streets have been overtaken by billboards, advertisements, signs, and messages. Few cities would be willing to do something as drastic as purging all advertising, but this is exactly what municipal authorities did in São Paulo in 2007. But in the rest of the world, urban activists have had to continue the guerrilla struggle against propaganda by drawing on and modifying posters and signs. Possible alterations range widely, from painting over or adding letters to creating masterpieces with form and meaning.

A Parisian artist known as Zevs gained notoriety through a series of artwork that used corporate logos, such as Nike, McDonald’s, and Louis Vuitton. By adding streaks and spots of paint around their logos on signs and billboards, he created the impression that the well-known brands – the icons of capitalism – were dissolving. In 2002, Zevs cut out and stole a huge picture of a woman from a Lavazza advertising banner in Berlin, and demanded the company pay a ransom for its return. Interestingly enough, the €500,000 ransom was ultimately paid; it was sent to the Palais de Tokyo museum of modern art.

Vandalism or Art?

Wars with advertising are closely connected to the phenomenon of modern urban life as street art. In general, street art is a phenomenon that is very much related to urban activism, although its creators have less concern for issues of practical benefit to the local community. Rather, it is an act of individual creative reclamation and appropriation of the city – one that, as a rule, finds approval with neither the authorities nor the urbanites.

A Parisian artist known as Zevs gained notoriety through a series of artwork that used corporate logos, such as Nike, McDonald’s, and Louis Vuitton. By adding streaks and spots of paint around their logos on signs and billboards, he created the impression that the well-known brands – the icons of capitalism – were dissolving

However, sometimes the whole thing gets turned on its head and particularly great street artists gain recognition outside the subculture. The most famous example is Banksy, the pseudonymous English artist who, while continuing to remain anonymous, has become one of the most influential figures of the contemporary art world. His works are not only never painted over, but are guarded and purchased for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Another striking example, in the same vein, is the Russian street-art group Voina. Their art prank of a giant phallus painted on the drawbridge next to FSB headquarters in St. Petersburg was awarded the state prize for contemporary visual art.

It should be noted that despite the recognition and the remuneration that such artists command, they continue to be pursued by law enforcement and reviled by the general public.

From Intervention to Project

In some cases, the fragmented and not-always-successful actions of urban activists grow into an organization truly capable of large-scale changes in the urban environment. The secret to their success is the fact that they are a union of professionals who are capable of designing complex projects and maintaining a dialogue with the authorities as well as activists, full of urban enthusiasm and a better understanding of the peculiar nature and needs of the local communities.

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a non-profit organization created in 1975 in the United States, is one such example. Today, it is a network of more than 700 experts and activists around the world. They work with local communities, municipalities, and governmental organizations, helping them infuse spaces with new life and making them more comfortable. They have completed projects in more than 3,000 communities. The task of PPS is to diagnose and describe problems, analyze possible solutions, and propose a transformative project. Usually, a request for change originates at the grassroots level, but the work of PPS transforms it into a concrete plan of action that local authorities are often inclined to support because someone else has already done the legwork for them. But naturally, this is only possible if the creation of public spaces and comfortable living environments has a place on the government agenda.

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