City, Arts and Public Spaces: Margaret Crawford

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is participating in the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, which aims to bring the humanities into closer connection with disciplines that study the built environment to help address the complex problems facing today’s urban areas. To jump-start conversation for an upcoming working session, participants have been asked to “reflect upon a keyword that provokes, confuses, inspires, and/or annoys you in current thinking about urban and/or urban arts engagement.” This posting is by Margaret Crawford, Professor of Architecture at UC Berkeley.
Keyword: Everyday Urbanism
In the early 1990s, I started working with scholars, urban designers, photographers, and writers on a project exploring everyday urban life in Los Angeles.  In 1999, we published Everyday Urbanismas a guide to investigating the “as-found” character of the city. We identified everyday urban space as a rich and complex public realm created by the multiplicities of daily experience– trips to supermarkets, the commute to work, journeys that included wide boulevards and mini-malls, luxurious stores and street vendors, manicured lawns and dilapidated public parks.
Drawing on both social and urban theory and highly specific local fieldwork, we portrayed such everyday spaces as a product of the intricate social, political, economic, and aesthetic forces operating in the city. By emphasizing the primacy of human experience and close-up observation of lived realities, we wanted to challenge the formalism of architecture and the abstractions of urban theory and planning.
Instead, we defined the city as a social product and a social geography, naming and drawing attention to a type of urban space that was pervasive but unknown; ignored by city planners, disregarded by scholars, and scorned by architects, but fundamental to the city’s residents. To mirror the multiples spaces of everyday life, we assembled essays, both scholarly and personal, photographs, drawings, and design proposals.
The concept continued to develop. In 1994, John Chase published Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving, a deeply personal depiction of Los Angeles as the product of an ad hoc but democratic urbanism in which developers, homeowners, renters, retailers, pedestrians and the homeless all assert their own place in the city.  In 2008, Everyday Urbanism Expanded Versionappeared, allowing us to acknowledge the numerous attacks on our ideas as well as including new contributions from around the world, a demonstration of the concept’s worldwide influence.
I see the Mellon Grant as a new project that has the potential to be as intellectually exciting and personally satisfying as Everyday Urbanism. In many ways, humanities based urbanism represents a continuation and expansion of the same concepts and methods; collaboration, a focus on the human subject, the inclusion of multiple voices, the creative use of a broad range of theories, and the intention to create new forms of critique, interpretation and representation.  Bringing these together, we can create a new urban discipline that will make the concepts, methods and insights of the humanities operative in urban space.