DIY Urbanism

Scott Page's picture

I think many planners, in principle, agree that public involvement and grass-roots approaches to planning are necessary. The emphasis on the sheer numbers of people a plan "includes" is only one recent example of our profession's emphasis on public involvement. But I think deep down, many colleagues see a distinctive split between involving the public and empowering them to implement. Involving is necessary and important to get any plan endorsed. But once that plan is complete, the public (residents, business owners, local stakeholders) is many times not regarded as an implementation partner except perhaps in roles of advocacy.

There is, of course, good reason for this. City, County or other agencies have budgets and an in-depth knowledge of how things work. Moreover, these agencies are charged with serving the public good so from that perspective, local residents are involved in implementation. And let's face it, many recommendations can't be completed by residents like building new streets or developing properties unless we return to a society that collectively builds our homes out of mud.

But if we think of city building as primarily an exercise in building with a capital "B" then we'll overlook the potential of do-it-yourself strategies. DIY urbanism - a newish catch phrase wrapped around an old idea – was effectively captured by Richard Sennett in the Uses of Disorder. (My apologies to him for the following overly reductive summary of his book.) In essence, a little anarchy (as in less centralized governing), he argued, would be good for society and cities in particular. It's the DIY ethic on the community scale – self reliance and empowerment would do an immense amount of good for all communities because people would be forced to organize themselves into action.

I'm not ready to eschew local government but I have been very interested in the increasing array of ideas that explore DIY urbanism whether explicitly or not. Block clean-ups are maybe the most elemental example but there's a wide range of examples from the traditional to the bizarre including guerilla painting, campgrounds, community gardens, townwatch, cows in the street, street pianos (thanks to fellow blogger Nate Berg for bringing this to my attention) and various examples of public art and festivals. The possibilities are limitless and although many DIY initiatives may often be temporary, the impact can be substantial.

Unfortunately, City agencies sometimes get in the way (maybe this is where a bit of anarchy can come in handy). Frustrations over "red tape," politics, onerous permitting, and other factors can effectively put a halt to some very good ideas that do not necessarily have to cost a lot of money. Keeping these factors in mind, DIY planning (sounds ironic doesn't it) could really be a three-fold process: 1) Emphasizing and developing creative ideas that can be done at the community level (in essence tapping the latent potential of the place); 2) Removing the barriers at the municipal level that prevent DIY activities; and 3) Implementing. The third aspect is key. Plans don't have to be just plans. It may be time we get out of our offices and build ourselves...with a lower "b." Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's call to public service as well as his community service days strike the right tone from the municipal side with an emphasis on partnerships and government support.

Our office is exploring these ideas with a DIY open house in Wicker Park / Bucktown that is temporarily transforming a vacant storefront into an exhibit on the community's present and potential future. With the WPB Special Service Area, we filled the space with content and created public art using video to raise awareness about changes in the area and prompt participants for their ideas. (Ruthless plug alert) If you're reading this in Chicago, feel free to drop by 1275 N. Milwaukee Avenue the next two Saturdays and help the community plan for its future. It should be fun which is exactly what DIY should epitomize.

Scott Page is the founder of Interface Studio, a collaborative design office based in Philadelphia.



DIY Urbanism? Would that be free market?

"City, County or other agencies have budgets and an in-depth knowledge of how things work."

Do government agencies really understand "how things work"?

A number of urban Dallas apartment complexes have been forced to be mixed use. Developers don't want to dedicate large amounts of ground floor building space to retail, but city planners and officials require such design. The apartments are quickly rented, and the retail space stays vacant for months and years. Dallas Morning News reported today on this failure of mixed use development. The result: apartment renters just pay higher rents to cover the costs of misguided city planning.

"City planners often insist that developers include more retail than would be prudent," Mr. Stuart said. "In some cases, it could be the only way to get a building permit, and as a developer you bite the bullet and assume the burden of what you know will be empty retail space."

Wouldn't "DIY Urbanism" - letting developers use the free market to determine whether and how much retail space is ideal for high density housing - work much better?

Cultural vs. Physical Interventions: A Proposal

Interesting post, Scott. In order to develop this idea of DIY Urbanism further, it may be useful to distinguish between physical and more permanent urban design and planning interventions, such as streets and developments, which are typically the purview of planning departments (since there are legal, infrastructure and taxpayer implications), and temporary or event/cultural interventions, such as the neighborhood art party, guerrilla painting/gardening, etc. The latter can almost entirely be organized by the public, in my opinion. The former, however, should involve a more rigorous process since so much is at stake.

The potential dilemmas in extending a DIY approach to heavier built investments are the same as those inherent in participatory public process in the United States, a country of ever-widening divides between the "haves" and "have nots"... Even the most thoughtful process can become a vehicle for the already privileged and empowered (i.e. those who have a strong voice/ample resources and know how to use them) to reinforce their interests over those of the less privileged using NIMBY, resulting in further segregation of resources and space along class and "race" lines (-- not exactly what advocacy planners of the 1960s had in mind when they fought urban renewal).

In order to realize what I think you intend or suggest with DIY Urbanism, which are cities that better reflect and physically embody the mass of untapped creativity that courses through our cities (how about "liberated urbanism"?!), I propose that DIY cultural programming of the kind you mentioned be used to address NIMBY, environmental racism and other contemporary social, ecological and economic challenges, by promoting interaction and cohesiveness among people and communities in more subtle (and heck, fun!) ways, such as the public pianos in Birmingham or your project in Chicago, with the goal of changing culture and, ultimately, local political representation (and consequently planning and design decisions).

It's subversive and gradual (and I don't suggest abandoning government-sanctioned public processes, however imperfect they are) but we all know that there are no quick policy fixes to our rather complex troubles. Sustainable change requires a cultural basis, and as you allude to, thankfully there is no end to the beautiful possibilities that creativity and art can generate! So keep "doing" and let us know how the project goes in Wicker Park/Bucktown!

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