Culture  Rethinking the city, from the ground up

Actions exhibit presents fantastic yet feasible solutions for the urban landscape

Have you ever wanted to scale the side of a building with a rope ladder? Ever wished that sheep were being used to trim the lawns on campus, instead of gas-powered mowing machines? Can you envision walking down a city sidewalk knowing that the compression caused by your bodyweight was producing electrical energy? These ideas may seem implausible, but in fact they aren’t; each of them has been successfully realized and, along with 96 other creative initiatives, they are being featured as part of “Actions: What You Can Do With the City,” the latest exhibit at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture. The exhibition, which gathers together the work of 99 innovative architects, artists, and urban planners, aims to challenge the way that ordinary people interact with the cities in which they live.

In putting together “Actions,” co-curators Mirko Zardini and Giovanna Borasi were focused on re-examining seemingly mundane activities like walking, playing, recycling, and gardening, and investigating possible links between these everyday acts and bigger issues. “Even if these actions are not now considered to be structural ones in planning and managing our cities,” Borasi says, “they could [provide] a different way to look at and tackle common urban problems such as pollution, traffic, food security, waste management, employment, and the tensions between a city’s different inhabitants. I feel that looking at these issues from a different angle will allow new, different, and unexpected answers to emerge.”

Thus, the exhibit features projects and experiments that take a range of approaches to rethinking the modern city, from using parkour for the re-appropriation of abandoned buildings to guerilla gardening techniques that can transform concrete lots into vegetable gardens. There is also room for the whimsical and outlandish, like the inflatable pink rubber structures that transformed a German field into a temporary playground and meeting place in 2004, or a Vancouver-based design firm’s “suspend pants,” which are fitted with high-tension cords, metal clips, and a reinforced seat, allowing nearly any surface to be transformed into a space for people to swing. “Our intention was to give a new picture of urban phenomena, things that are going on in our cities, and the new needs of our society; we wanted to inspire in designers, architects, planners, and city managers a different way of looking at our built environment,” Borasi explains.

Indeed, the exhibition is grounded in all of the contributors’ individual critiques of entrenched urban patterns of production and consumption. Though their methods and approaches vary, the artists featured are connected by the common belief that successful civic planning can be a grassroots effort. Borasi notes that all the projects were accomplished “without a huge budget or a complicated process.” She adds that one of the exhibit’s goals was to “focus on something that the public could see and relate to with a certain immediacy.”

The exhibition’s dynamic title suggests the importance that is placed on taking an active stance in changing the way society conceives of public space. It is also fitting that the exhibition’s curators established a web site to accompany the project: The site not only provides short descriptions of all the contributors’ actions, but also features a virtual forum where members of the general public can submit their own undertakings and discuss concepts and projects. Borasi is excited about “the idea that people could start tomorrow to do something similar” to what they’re seeing in exhibition. One of her favourite actions exemplifies this concept: “Oranges Lead Nocturnal Walk,” by Los Angeles-based foraging group Fallen Fruit. “They organize public night walks around the city of Los Angeles to harvest fruit from trees with branches growing over fences or across property lines into the public domain,” Borasi explains. “It is a very simple idea that introduces a new way of treating public and private space, while recuperating food that otherwise would be wasted.” That’s the “Actions” exhibit in a nutshell: a gathering of creative and effective ideas that brings people together to reclaim their urban environment.

The CCA (1920 Baile, Metro Guy-Concordia) hosts “Actions” through April 19. For a schedule of the exhibition’s accompanying lecture and film series, visit