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From Sparks of Brilliance to Waves of Reform

Bottom-up urbanism, now becoming increasingly popular in the academy under the rubrics of “do-it-yourself (DIY) urbanism”; “guerilla urbanism”; “tactical urbanism” etc., are the surest sparks of brilliance and hope for our urban future.
Vinayak Bharne | November 16, 2012, 4pm PST
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The other day, a distinguished academic colleague made a provocative argument: That the numerous practices of bottom-up urbanism, now becoming increasingly popular in the academy under the rubrics of “do-it-yourself (DIY) urbanism”; “guerilla urbanism”; “tactical urbanism” etc., are the surest sparks of brilliance and hope for our urban future. That these modest grassroots efforts by activists and non-government organizations are seeing uncanny success on issues, and in places, where formal planning has failed to make any relevant impact. That these efforts continue to remain beneath the radar, and need to be highlighted and brought into mainstream dialogues on the future of our cities.

I agree. In cities heavily controlled by local or national authorities, marginalized communities have long sought to subvert top-down control by providing alternate solutions or defying conventional and permitted practices, often as a reaction to dismal administrative performance. From self-help strategies, micro-finance tactics, and awareness-based interventions, to temporary farmers markets and community gardens, such insurgent efforts challenge our normative ideas of what city-making is. They diffuse socio-cultural differences and multiple professions towards the common advocacy for a better urban future. They transcend political affiliation making them unsettling to many authorities, and this is where their true power lies. India, for instance, has more than 3 million non-government-organizations, more than any other country in the world, and there is no question that the successes of many of these entities with some of the most gripping urban issues – poverty, informal economies, social justice etc. – are things we planning professionals should constantly learn from.

But that said, to what degree do such alternative efforts offer solutions to the myriad other pressing problems plaguing our cities? What about rampant sprawl and rapacious capitalism? What about the looming water crisis? What about the anathema of pollution, grid-locks, and the erasure of rural and agrarian landscapes? What about the debacle of single-use zoning and FAR regulations? These issues are equally pressing, for they are destroying the long-term viability of cities across the world – for the rich and poor - by the minute. They cannot be resolved by modest bottom-up tactics, but by ambitious and visionary long-term planning, where every investment - transit, development, infrastructure, regulation - is synergized as an interdependent socio-economic opportunity. They can only be resolved by clear alternatives towards retooling the same petrified processes that have perpetrated the current urban condition. In cities with the dire need for such large-scale transformation - not just small-scale interventions - tactical urbanism offers only short-term sporadic sparks, instead of a much-needed wave of reform and long-term change. Bottom-up tactics are necessary band-aids for temporary relief, but they are not the antidote to long-term urban health, whether in Mumbai or Los Angeles.

If, as Michel de Certeau has noted, “tactics” are employed by citizens to negotiate daily life in the city, and “strategies” in turn emanate from the state and corporation in the form of government regulation, what we need are mechanisms that will help transition tactics towards strategy. The city of Bogota for instance - thanks to a progressive mayor – has undergone major reforms in infrastructure and public transit. The planning department prioritized the improvement of bike lanes, buses and light rail over vehicular roads. It also simultaneously initiated the first Ciclovia, a weekly event in which over 70 miles of city streets are closed to traffic and opened to walking, biking, recreating, and talking with neighbors and strangers – a concept now picking up in several cities across the United States. Another example is the city of Curitiba’s “Farois de Saber” (Lighthouses of Knowledge) project, wherein fifty brightly colored, lighthouse-shaped towers were built throughout the city’s neighborhoods. They are free educational centers which include libraries, Internet access, and other cultural resources for citizens of all ages, diversifying access to knowledge, and expanding the area of formal education. The most important thing is that all these ideas and initiatives have happened without the necessity of guerilla tactics. These initiatives are truly exemplary, because they emerge from both communities as well as governments, with intimate collaboration from conception to implementation and follow through.

We need bottom-up urbanists and their sparks of brilliance. But we also need simultaneous waves – not sparks – of long-term reform, that will enable catalytic, incremental, systematic and large-scale change beyond isolated interventions, not for a day or a week, but for decades and beyond. The task for us planners is to facilitate these connections; to get citizens and activist-groups to understand the virtues of collaborative planning - to not only support, but demand, expect and embrace progressive change. This indeed is what participatory democracy is all about. It’s not an “either/or” but a “both/and” proposition, with “top-down”, “bottom-up”, “sideways” and “networked” efforts all collaborating towards better cities.  

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