We all know urban life can be a real grind — sometimes it’s hard to stop and smell the roses, let alone admire the art. In cities across the world, people are setting out to change the urban environment, making it more interactive, more fun and sometimes more political as well. Check out some of these fascinating, fun, bizarre, quirky and just plain delicious projects to spark conversations in urban spaces around the world!
1. Playgrounds: Anytime, Anywhere
Dutch designer Thor ter Kulve apparently got tired of looking at boring old city fixtures like fire hydrants and light poles. Everyone passes by them with nary a second thought as fixed elements in the landscape that don’t have much to offer, unless you’re the type who likes bursting into spontaneously choreographed song-and-dance numbers and twirling around lampposts. For the rest of us, though, ter Kulve came up with a quirky idea: why not turn them into a playground? A lamppost becomes a swing, a fire hydrant a fountain and your imagination is the limit.
2. Public Fruit Park
Raise your hands if you’ve ever picked your own fruit and eaten it right there, juices dripping off your hands in the summer heat. Fresh-picked fruit is the best, and picking your own is even better. Sadly, for a lot of people in urban environments, that’s not an experience that happens too often, unless they happen to have fruit trees or an urban fruit map (yes, these are a thing, and your city may have one!). One Los Angeles neighborhood set out to change that, however, with the city’s first public fruit park. In cooperation with the city, an organization called Fallen Fruit established the orchard, distributed fruit trees to the community, and encouraged public involvement in the orchard/art installation.
3. Giant Inflatable Rubber Duckies
Bathtub duckies looked so much bigger when we were little. Now that we’re all grown up, they seem pretty minuscule, but there’s still something endearingly, enduringly childlike about them. Except maybe in Hong Kong, where Florentijn Hofman’s 54 foot inflatable duck majestically sat upon the waters for a while, attracting the ire of the Chinese Communist Party in the process. There’s something about seeing a cartoonishly large inflatable duck in an unexpected locale that puts a grin on my face — I don’t know about you!
So much space in cities across the world is dedicated to cars. On Park(ing) Day, citizens strike back, taking over metered parking spaces to turn them into microcosmic parks as a way of bringing together communities, making a comment on urban environments, and, oh yeah, having fun. Some parks are decorated with plants and a few chairs, others might house a mobile chicken coop, others have people offering free knitting classes or teaching people how to make jam. You never know what you might learn about your own community on a Park(ing) Day.
5. Interactive Public Art
Last November, a building in Frankfurt hosted a stunning light display controlled not by a single artist, or by an automated system, but by anyone who wanted to interact with it. Smartphone users could change and manipulate the lights with gestures on their phones, turning it into a cooperative and constantly-changing art project. Photophore, as it was called, is similar to other urban light displays that have relied on user feedback to turn them into an expression of community-based art and expression.
6. Traveling Art
The RedBall Project isn’t content with just one appearance. It’s a giant red ball that travels the globe, insisting on popping up everywhere, and where you’d least expect it. As an art project, it’s pretty great; think of it as an updated take on the traveling gnome. As an act of urban whimsy, it’s even more fantastic, because I defy you to walk past a giant red ball without finding it at least a little bit funny, even on a dreary day when everything seems to be going wrong.
7. 3D Street Painting
3D artists have really come into their own with the canvas of sidewalks and streets, which provides a lot of room for serious fun, and some seriously trippy artwork. For the skilled at trompe l’oeil, it’s possible to produce paint or chalk-art pieces so vivid that people can feel like they’re standing on the edge of an abyss, confronting a monster, or walking up a flight of stairs when they’re actually standing with both feet flat on the ground in the middle of a busy city. Such art is, by nature, ephemeral, which encourages people to get out and interact with it before it’s too late.
8. Free Hugs
We all have hard days sometimes. And on those days, some of us really just want a hug. That’s what the Free Hugs campaign, which is active all over the world, is all about. Volunteers stand around with signs offering free hugs, and anyone who needs one is welcome to take one (and, hopefully, pay it forward in the future). It’s a little way of making life better in a sometimes frustrating world, and it inspires intimate interactions with not just urban environments, but the people who inhabit them.
If you feel a little moire boisterous, Pillow Fight Day is definitely what you want. Show up at an appointed place at the scheduled time with a pillow in hand, and have at it! Referees are present to keep an eye on the action and you may find yourself making unexpected comrades in the heat of battle. You’ll be left breathless and laughing — but don’t forget to clean up before you leave, because otherwise the city employees who’ll be expected to handle the aftermath won’t have nearly as much fun as you did.
10. Guerilla Education
You’ll find it at spontaneous and renegade urban gardens, where people are always ready to teach newbies. Hackerspaces, where people at all levels of ability are welcome to come play and learn about robotics, computing and other technological wizardry. Coworking spaces that randomly teach writing classes, or offer instruction in tango, or vegetarian cooking, or embroidery. Rogue urban knitters who’re always happy to take a break from yarnbombing to show you how to cast on.
If you live in an urban environment, you have access to a broad pool of people with some of the most amazing skillsets in the world. Look around, and you might just find a new hobby, some new friends and a new sense of fun.