By Leanne Junnila | 5.19.2015
That’s right, I think the avant-garde, oddity, and spectacle should be celebrated and even included as a strategy for the design of our cities. Now that just sounds crazy. Let me explain. Humans have had a long love affair with oddity and spectacle. Attracting visitors to peculiar attractions evolved from PT Barnum’s American Museum and the circus sideshow acts of the mid-1800s. The social willingness and attraction of people to pay for the experience of a ‘spectacle’ is still alive and well, and we need only look at the Las Vegas strip to see it in action.
Okay, I’m not suggesting that our cities should be reorganized to mimic a three ring circus (although some might argue they already do a perfect job of just that!). Much of North America was built at a time when purely functional architecture was popular and cities were constructed without many public plazas and squares. But these days, crazy, fantastical things are so easily found on television and online that I think there is a need for elements of whimsy, surprise, and even shock in the public realm just to get us out the door. For example, street performers, temporary art installations, or pop-up markets can do this. In Calgary, many people went to see “the giant head” sculpture in front of the Bow Building when it was installed because it was an oddity, something interesting and worth checking out. Celebrating the fringe, the surreal, and the strange gets us talking. The increasingly popular Market Collective and Beakerhead are other types of local events that celebrate the fringe. They support local artisans, revitalize underutilized spaces around Calgary, and offer playful opportunities to interact with the environment.
Sometimes small installations actually have a big impact on a city. They’re called ‘micro-spatial urban practices’ and they also include things like: guerrilla and community gardening, housing and retail co-ops, flash mobbing, bartering economies, street art, and Parkour. As these small projects accumulate they can build more vibrant streets (either temporarily or permanently).
So if creating ‘micro-spatial’ urban projects makes our communities more vibrant, where and how do we start? I believe a few friends and neighbours can get together and do something in their communities (for example, the ‘Calgary Bench Project’ or Park(Ing) Day), and community associations can look for small project funding to experiment with design projects (I’m sure the Faculty of Environmental Design students at the UofC have plenty of ideas to share in the community). Calgary Dollars grants support these types of projects. Dream up an idea and see if your community association will support it! For example, a group of Calgary citizens created the ‘Vibrant Village Society’ in Inglewood and now have really great events like the Summer Inglewood Night Market. These urban projects could be temporary or permanent. It’s up to us to grow Calgary into the type of city we want for our children, and I think Calgary has enough great things going for it that it’s worth the effort to make it just a little bit better. Perhaps you’ll see something strange and interesting while you’re here.
 Levin, Amy (2007). “Defining Memory: Local Museums and the Construction of History in America’s Changing Communities”. Altamira Press, UK.
 Iveson, Kurt (2013). “Cities Within the City: Do-It-Yourself Urbanism and the Right to the City”. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37-3, 941-56.