Lab | Log

Twelve Urban Victories

Walk signal

Photo: courtesy Fb78, used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

Focusing on the negatives of city life is easy. We all do it. If it’s not the traffic, grime, or housing shortages, it’s the small things, like the neighbor who doesn’t clean up after his dog, or drivers who don’t shoulder-check before turning right across a bike lane. But every now and then the city hands you a little gift—a small nod that seems to let you know that it sees your struggle, appreciates your loyalty, and is on your side. They’re the tiniest little victories, but sometimes, if you’re in the right headspace, they can make you feel like you’ve won the lottery. Maybe they don’t make up for all the difficulties but, if recognized and appreciated, they bring an element of joy, adventure, and play to the mundane day-to-day of city life.

With that in mind, I’ve prepared this celebration of a few of my own favorite small urban victories.

1. The cross-signal conquest

Walking down the sidewalk, you approach the intersection just as the signal, like magic, changes to the “walk” sign. Freed from the awkward and impatient 30 seconds you would have otherwise had to spend on the curb, you triumphantly continue walking without missing a step. Brilliant.

2. The perfectly placed bench

Street furniture outside of parks is all-to-often poorly placed, or simply absent where you need it. If you’re like me, you wind up spending a lot of time sitting on curbs. If you’re not, you simply don’t stop and enjoy moments as often as you’d wish (though you probably also have cleaner pants than I do). But how lovely is it when, at the exact moment that you need to have a heartfelt chat with a friend, a cry, a talk on the phone, or simply just eat a drippy falafel sandwich, a bench magically appears right where you need it? There’s almost a part of me that hopes those who determine street furniture placement never get better at their job, so that the magic doesn’t wear off. Almost.

3. The rainy-day awning

On sunny days, they are perhaps the most unrecognized urban feature, but when you’re caught in a downpour, awnings are the unsung saviors of the umbrella-less city dweller. Unlike sidewalks, doors, windows, or walls, they don’t actually have to be there. But they are. It’s as if their very existence is a simple act of good will, just for you, just when you need them the most.

4. The seat during rush hour

It’s the peak commuter hour, and the subway is slammed. Maybe it’s even a “super-dense crushload.” But when the train stops, the one person to exit miraculously happens to be the one sitting in the seat right next to where you’re standing. You’d braced yourself for another 45 minutes of standing with your face in someone’s armpit, but instead you slip into the seat, relax, and enjoy the ride.

5. The free ride

Literally, when the toll-collection machine on the bus is broken, and you get to ride for free. Could the city have used that $2.75? Probably. But this time around, you’re the one that gets a little reward for maneuvering through mass transit.

6. The one-spot wonder

You arrive at the bike-share station nearest to your work or home to find just one remaining empty spot (or just one bike, if you need one). This also counts for parking spaces near where you want to go, spaces on popular bike racks, or the last Car2Go in your ’hood.

7. Secret free parking spots, bar back entrances, and other insider knowledge

The little parking spot downtown accidentally unregulated by city officials, the back door to a great bar that looks closed after midnight, the clean, accessible public bathroom that nobody seems to know about—these are the hidden gems that you have gathered through years spent in your city. Taking advantage of insider knowledge of these places always feels like a coup.

8. The guerilla interventions

Let’s face it: there’s a reason we love these urban interventions so much. You’d have to be a pretty cold fish to resist breaking into a grin when you suddenly come across a street tree coddled in a candy-cane-striped sweater, a swing at a bus stop, or a humorously altered street sign.

9. The unjayded driver

We all know we shouldn’t jaywalk, and drivers know it, too. But we all do it, maybe sometimes just because it feels naughty. Isn’t it nice, though, when a driver sees your ploy, but chooses to engage in a brief moment of empathy and stops to let you cross, even though you both know you’re in the wrong?

10. The extra change exchange

Pulling into a parking spot to discover there’s still time left on the meter—maybe even just enough that you don’t have to plunk any of your own coins in. So good.

11. The key to your heart . . . or your apartment building

There is no greater feeling of small serendipity than walking up to your apartment building when your hands are full, and having someone else walk up right before you and open the door, thus saving you the time and ever-so-minor annoyance of putting down your things, digging out your keys, and so on and so forth.

12. The discovery

At the end of the day, cities offer an endless bounty of things to discover, and the longer you’ve been in one, the more exciting new discoveries get. That’s why, despite it all, we love them. Whether it’s a piece of art in the subway station, a quirky building, a great little tucked-away café, or the alleyway box where the gourmet bakery puts out their day-olds for free, little urban discoveries make us feel like the kings and queens of our city. Because, well, we are. After all, who else are cities there to please?

What are your mini urban victories? Add them in the comment section below, or tweet them to us at @BMWGuggLab.

  • fjr

    I will add to guerrilla interventions planned decking of buildings with crochet, an evolving series of murals, or other temporary facings, school groups out for early-in-the-school-year team building exercises or local observation, and flyers around town promoting the large number of artistic/literary/social action/lecture or other creative undertakings people are continuously launching.

    • Christine_McLaren

      Love it!