Spontaneous Interventions’ exhibit of little changes that matter

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A building above the entrance to Building 403 celebrates sustainability. [Photo: Devon Kennedy]
A banner above the entrance to Building 403 celebrates sustainability. [Photo: Devon Kennedy]
On the evening of July 24th, I took the ferry to Governor’s Island for an event hosted by Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions For The Common Good. After the ferry crossed New York Harbor, the other guests and I landed on the hilly, meadow-covered island and walked along a path guided by chalk arrows. The arrows led to Colonel’s Row, a walk on the island that is lined with London plane trees and has old brick buildings on each side. Spontaneous Interventions has a residency in Building 403, a brick house at one end of the row. They set up on May 31st, and will be there through September. The event was held to celebrate a new feature of their exhibit.

Spontaneous Interventions catalogues and promotes initiatives for city improvement. These initiatives are intended to enhance life for common citizens in public spaces. Many are created by designers; Spontaneous Interventions lists almost 150 such projects.

Inside of Building 403, there are several rooms on the first floor, which is full of signs mounted on metal frames. Most of the signs describe one of the many actions that Spontaneous Interventions has documented. I learned about “Guerrilla Gardens,” which started back in 1973. Its members add plants to small places in city streets, such as sidewalk cracks and traffic medians. There’s “The Uni,” created in New York in 2011, which is a circular bookshelf placed in public places to act as an “outdoor library”. The group that performs “Intersection Repair”, created in Portland in 2007, improves street intersections with additions such as murals, benches, and plants, turning the intersections into pleasant gathering places.

There were many others, making it seem as if the ideas people have had to improve cities are almost endless. Each sign included certain quick facts about the project, including what urban issue it addresses, how much money and time are needed for the action, and how many people are working on it. Some signs instead list one of Spontaneous Intervention’s values in large type, such as “Participation” and “Equality”, with an elaboration beneath.

The new feature celebrated by the event was called the Urban Reviewer. It was a physical counterpart of a more complex online tool created by 596 Acres, which is one of Spontaneous Interventions’ documented projects (and has its own sign on the first floor). The physical Urban Reviewer consisted of a table with a map of the city on a Plexiglas sheet set in the top. There were two other sheets above this one that could be pulled in or out with handles on the sides of the table, allowing them to overlap with the map or not. One filled in sites where urban renewal projects have happened (in yellow), and the other filled in the city’s vacant land (in green). This interactive feature was in the exhibit until August 17th.

Mary Bereschka, who was an intern for 596 Acres and created the physical Urban Reviewer, said “Spontaneous Interventions connects all of these organizations that are doing work in parallel to each other. We all sort of want the same end goal and are doing different things to get there. And it’s awesome to hear how much other cities and other countries are making things happen from a ground up level.”

The Urban Reviewer is on the second floor of the building. The second floor also currently hosts exhibits for the Center for Urban Pedagogy, DSGN AGNC, BroLab, and Justin Allen, which are other designers or groups that Spontaneous Interventions documents. Outside the building, on its right side, there is a café stand that sells beverages and baguettes. Around the café is a colorful collection of chairs and tables. On the lawn in front of the building, there is an “Imagination Playground”, with containers of large, soft, light blue blocks of various shapes that children can play and build with.

The Spontaneous Interventions exhibit will be up until September 28th. It is open on all days except Wednesday. Admission is free. To get there, you can take the Governor’s Island Ferry from the Battery Maritime Building at 10 South Street in Lower Manhattan. Or, on Saturdays, Sundays, and Labor Day, you can also take the ferry from Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is at the west end of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The fare is $2 on weekdays in most cases – more details about ferry times and fares can be found here. Once on Governor’s Island, go to Colonel’s Row, and Building 403 will not be hard to find. In it, you’ll learn about many creative and inspiring actions.