Ask Not What Your City Can Do for You...
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Ask Not What Your City Can Do for You…

Photo by LexnGer.

Actions: What You Can Do With the City is a new collection of essays and photos brought to us courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. It’s lazy Sunday afternoon reading, perfect for dipping into at random, rather than the sort of book you settle in to work through from beginning to end. The goal of the collection (and of the exhibition it accompanies, showing at the CCA until April 19) is to bring to the forefront little pockets of activity which general hover under the radar of urban life. The essays are organized thematically around four areas—walking, gardening, recycling, and playing—and provide theoretical, historical, and cultural context for everything from freeganism to parkour. More than offering dry analysis, the essays celebrate these activities, casting them as expressions of joy and vitality which make cities better, even when they defy conventions, expectations, and sometimes also by-laws.

Photo by Metrix X from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

What binds the essays in Actions together is a fascination with overturning many of the established patterns which govern urban life. The actions the book considers are interesting precisely because they reimagine, in small and subtle ways, what a city is: our cities that have been built for cars and not pedestrians (until we shutter highways and throw street parties), whose concrete overwhelms flowers (until we do some guerrilla gardening), which favour the rapid disposal of unwanted goods (until we go dumpster diving). And while Actions clearly falls under the ideological framework of cultural studies, and in particular the strain of cultural studies that is interested in power dynamics and the role of capitalism in shaping our conceptual framework, you needn’t be a neo-Marxist to find it illuminating. No matter your location on the political spectrum, if you have an opinion on skateboarding at all—regardless of what that opinion might be—there’s interesting fodder for your thinking here.
Sprinkled throughout the book are one-page case studies, snapshots of actions which illustrate the essays’ subjects. From soccer fields painted onto the paving stones of a city square (Sharjah, United Arab Emirates) to stickers placed on composting bins that have salvageable food (Toronto and Montreal), these little photo-essays are perfect quick hits, glimpses into the nooks and crannies of urban activism around the world.
Actions is beset by a few rather irritating faults. For starters, it is in desperate need of an index. (Why, oh why, must publishers of non-academic books persist in thinking these dispensable? Commission a grad student for a week and save us all hours of frustrated page-flipping, please.) More significantly, some of the essays suffer from an unfortunate case of jargonitis, one bad enough to make our teeth hurt. (“Psychic filiations.” Yeesh.) In addition to the aesthetic offence, regrettable enough on its own, it makes it easier for critics to take pot-shots on the grounds that this is just another collection of academic leftie blather. For the most part the book isn’t blather at all though: it offers nuanced, thoughtful analysis of well-intentioned and sometimes inspired activities—terminological excesses notwithstanding.
Oh, and the non-consecutive numbering of the photos-essays? Cutesy and perplexing, not charming. (We’re guessing these correspond to display numbers in the exhibit, which is great for exhibit-goers but not the rest of us.)

Photo by iheartcities.

But these are ultimately minor protests. Actions is a fascinating look at some fascinating experiments in city life, one that takes urban activists and urban activism as seriously as they deserve to be, but rarely are. It simultaneously interprets the urban landscape and offers citizens a guide to friendly interventions they can stage in their own cities, both of which are services well worth rendering. We’re going to be spending a few more Sundays on this one yet.
Hat tip to Christopher Hume.