Reimagining the Urban: Hallie Wells

As part of the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, the Arts Research Center co-sponsored the Reimagining the Urban: Bay Area Connections Across the Arts and Public Space on September 30, 2013. Participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Hallie Wells, a third year PhD student in Anthropology at UC Berkeley.
Keyword: Spontaneous
What is spontaneity if not serendipity—a surprisingly pleasant encounter, saying yes to adventure, walking up the steeper street on a whim and being rewarded with the better view? Spontaneity, perhaps because of its association with creativity and positive action, popped up throughout the conference as a human potential that urban art projects and development plans should tap into. Spontaneous interactions can be facilitated by architectural and design features, as Deborah Cullinan and Andy Wang noted of the 5M Project, or by technological innovations such as those discussed by Joel Slayton of Zero1. From Jake Levitas we heard about the unexpected hand-holding with strangers made possible by the “I Just Wanna Hold Your Hand” urban prototype project, and Ava Roy gave an eloquent description—both at the conference and in her blog post—of the moments of spontaneous joy engendered by the interactions between the natural and built environment, performers, and audience members during the We Players’ performances.
Spontaneity is not unique to urban environments, of course, but throughout the conference we heard calls for urban planners, arts administrators, policymakers, and artists to incorporate possibilities for spontaneous interaction into their projects. This seems particularly necessary as a means of countering the violent, painful, and troubling forms of spontaneity: police brutality, evictions, muggings, shootings, rapes, catcalls, stop and frisk, and on and on. The things that make us think twice about walking alone in certain places. The things that make us stop and stare or, conversely, avert our eyes. The things that, as Raquel Gutiérrez put it, make us hard.
Of course, many of these things aren’t spontaneous at all, at least not in the dictionary sense of occurring through some inner impetus, without an exterior force. In the same way that certain built spaces and landscapes lend themselves to certain kinds of human interactions (dark alleyways at night, sunny expanses of grass …), structural racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty make certain kinds of human interactions predictable. We are not surprised when they happen, except when they happen to us. And when they happen enough, surprise gives way to a mixture of despair, anger, and apathy.
We may spend energy and time and money on a heart-warming project one day, and someone will steal it the next. BART platforms become murder scenes, daytime playgrounds host nighttime drug deals. In planning for the serendipitous moments of spontaneous connection, we cannot forget or ignore the possibilities for harmful confrontation. Is there a way to create projects that acknowledge these possibilities but provide opportunities—and reasons—to treat each other better?