Everyday Unrealities: A Call for Creative Planning

A mural on the side of a building in Lynn

Cedric Douglas and Julz Roth

Rob Larsen

Everyday Unrealities:
A Call for Creative Planning

A reflection by Arts and Culture Fellow Emma Boast

It’s been nearly half a year since COVID-19 erupted into and upended our lives. As the crisis deepened, we lost friends, family, colleagues, and members of our communities. We lost livelihoods. We lost spaces of gathering and moments of collective celebration. Now, amid a tentative and tenuous everyday reality, many of us have developed habits and routines to help us cope with these losses. But the reality is that we are more fragile and precarious than ever; the emergency has not passed. If anything, it has taken on new urgency as we collectively grapple with the twin crises—the virus and our preexisting condition of racism—that are rending society. 

While many sectors of the economy reopen, the arts and culture sector remains on an extended, indeterminate pause. Artists and cultural workers are unemployed and adrift. In the midst of this stillness, we are building a movement and making space for difficult conversations whose urgency the pandemic has underscored. Over the past six months, countless conversations among artists, educators, and organizers have been devoted to reimagining the creative sector’s social responsibilities and role in public life in the wake of the pandemic. This challenge to see anew and nurture creative vision is also the responsibility of those of us who work at the intersection of public systems and the designed world, but it cannot happen unless we choose to make space for these difficult conversations—and the difficult (though often joyous) creative work they yield. 

In a March 2020 essay in The New Republic, Siddhartha Deb suggests that pandemics serve a particular purpose in fiction: more than plot elements, pandemics reveal what has been hidden, repressed, or overlooked in everyday life. In 20th century fiction, a disease was not just a disease, a one-off event, but an eruption of symptoms within a diseased society. How appropriate that we might use art and fiction as a guide to making sense of this period of unrelenting unreality. COVID-19 has triggered eruptions of our social sickness. Its disproportionate and devastating impacts on communities of color has prompted a renewed reckoning with the nation’s entwined legacies of Indigenous genocide, colonialism, imperialism, slavery—and racism’s enduring and insidious presence in everyday life. 

The American Planning Association articulates the goal of planning as maximizing “the health, safety, and economic well-being of all people living in our communities.” We cannot achieve this goal without facing those insidious legacies and tending to our social sickness through a reimagined, anti-racist planning practice. This practice requires the capacity to examine the historical roots of inequity and cast our reality in a different light, or, in the words of Kenny Bailey and Lori Lobenstine of the Design Studio for Social Invention, the ability to “make the normal strange.”  

How can we use this moment as a time for reflection and purposeful action? Can we see our so called new normal as strange? Can this moment of living surreally become a moment where we treat not only the virus but also our social sickness? 

Those who work at the intersection of arts and planning have an obligation to do just that: to rethink our starting point, to reimagine processes, and to embrace repair as a guiding ethic and creative process of everyday design. Only by tapping our creative capacities—and collaborating with those who share our impulse to imagine a future as yet unrealized—can we recognize and dismantle the deep structures and systems that have patterned our everyday reality in the shape of injustice.