Do-it-Yourself Urban Design in the Help-Yourself City

As the geographer and urbanist Edward Soja wrote in 2000, “something extraordinary happened to cities in the late 20th century.” Surely one of the simplest statements ever penned by the usually verbose theorist, this still says a mouthful. The city today – especially the ‘western’ city, the city of the global north, the city of advanced neoliberal capitalism, the American city – is unique in history for its diversity, its size, its complexity, its interconnectivity, its unevenness, its unwieldiness. But in other ways it would appear to be turning toward (or rediscovering!) a way of making and remaking itself that is on some counts rather instinctive, quaint, even traditional.  People are doing it themselves, informally, spontaneously, whether as “needed” or simply as they are inspired. People are installing fanciful and functional infrastructure to improve everyday life, firms are developing projects in underutilized spaces to make contributions even without a client, and community groups are taking neighborhood planning into their own hands.

From what social and spatial context does the current trend toward an informal or “spontaneous” or “do-it-yourself” urbanism emerge? And what, in turn, does it say about the American city?

Now the concept of “informal design” is a fairly recent construction in its own right, and an imperfect one at that. We are creatures who transform our surroundings, and formality is relative. As recently as a couple of centuries ago, the western city was still largely the popular bricolage it always had been. It featured considerable top-down design of course, as even ancient cities had, but was constructed day in and day out by its inhabitants as needed, right down to a good deal of architecture and streetscaping. It was largely during the 18th and 19th centuries that, in keeping with the wider standardization of enlightenment, modernity, and industrialization, the shaping of the urban built environment became increasingly formal and professionalized. From Nash,  Hausmann, and Olmsted to building and zoning codes, Le Corbusier’s modernism, and “broken windows” theory, by the 20th century western cities were not only master-planned but tightly controlled and regulated, right down to the streets and sidewalks, essentially to be altered only by professionals.

Graffiti persisted through this of course, as did, at least in areas of economic disadvantage and among those with the greatest need, informal commercial spaces and illegal shelter construction. So too did small local beautification efforts, and the time honored (if now often legally required) practice of sweeping the public sidewalk in front of your home or business. But we simply stopped thinking of the urban built environment as open to popular reinterpretation. Indeed, as the very theme of the U.S. Pavilion demonstrates, it is remarkable to us that someone might put their design skills to use creating a real functional infrastructural improvement outside the formal process – painting their own bike lane where the city hasn’t bothered, converting a derelict phone booth into a book exchange, fostering community and engagement through a whimsical public installation, or building a project whose only client is the common good.

So where did this new trend come from, in spite of the formality, control, and professionalization, emerging over just a couple of decades? Interestingly, it is in just the last half century – fifty years since the first academic program in urban design was founded (at Harvard, in 1960) and the discipline began to become an issue of social concern (with, for instance, the publication a year later of Jane Jacobs’ Life and Death of Great American Cities) – that we see new roots for the practices of informal urbanism we have begun to celebrate today.

While all have their more deeply rooted historical antecedents, the most obvious precursors of these spontaneous interventions have been a part of urban life in recognizable forms for less than half a century. The general template for critical, site-specific interventions as we know them was pioneered by the Situationists in the 1960s, with related “culture jamming” practices from guerrilla theater to flash mobs since becoming common in art and activism. Contemporary graffiti writing emerged in Philadelphia and New York in the late 1960s along with the birth of hip hop, diversifying greatly in the form of global urban “street art” by the mid-1990s and only continuing to grow.

The types of design practices we call “spontaneous interventions” follow right in step: Gordon Matta-Clark’s seminal “Anarchitecture” projects of the early 1970s embraced Situationist and deconstructionist ideals in altering existing urban structures, including opening an early ‘pop-up’ restaurant in SoHo in 1971. Guerrilla gardening (as such) first appeared in 1973 in the company of squatting and other place-based strategies for resisting development on New York’s Lower East Side, and has flourished ever since. The installation of public seating or the repurposing of things like magazine racks or fire hydrants draw some lineage from informal urban spatial experiments in the late 1960s and public and interventionist art in the ‘60s and ‘70s, though they are even more connected to the street art installations and “place hacking” of only the last decade or so. Standout examples of other faux-official signage, street improvements, and aspirational development strategies appear to be even more recent.[i]

There is no mistaking the close temporal proximity of all these forebears of informal design. We ought to consider them in this context then, looking to the several decades of urban processes and cultural shifts with which they clearly coincided, and from which they can be seen to have emerged. With their contemporary origins in the late-1960s and 1970s, and their own boom in just the last two decades, spontaneous interventions may, it would seem, be the unexpected byproducts of postindustrialism or globalism or neoliberalism, and a reaction to the formalized process of urbanism itself.

Whatever one wishes to call it, it is generally accepted that the world entered a new political-economic phase of sorts with the “long crisis” of global restructuring beginning in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Following the age of industrialization and Keynesian regulation and, especially in the United States, the post-war boom of Fordist manufacturing and suburbanization, the world’s advanced economies responded to globalization with massive economic diversification, deindustrialization, and neoliberal (de)regulation.[ii]  This has had dramatic impacts on the spatial organization of cities themselves (the city is, after all, in the words of Henri Lefebvre, “a projection of society on the ground”).[iii] Dominant since the 1970s, what Neil Brenner, Jamie Peck, and Nik Theodore have called the “neoliberalization” of the city amounts to an unflinchingly market-based regulatory environment that “strives to intensify commodification in all realms of social life” and essentially opens urban development to the whims of capital.[iv] With its accordant feature of state disinvestment, the result is a general intensification of unevenness across urban space – a help-yourself city in which one area might see the spoils of global finance and “urban renewal” while another sees utter neglect.[v]

Considering the circumstances, a trend toward do-it-yourself urban improvement seems a pretty reasonable response. Whimsical installations, spontaneous beautification, creative adaptations, and human-scale street improvements are surely direct reactions to the abandonment or neglect of some spaces, or the hyper-commodification or overdevelopment of others.

Indeed, we might note that the rise of spontaneous interventions has occurred not only in tandem with the cold spatial exploitations of neoliberalism, but in the more fitting company of the democratization of urban design as a social concern mentioned above. Talk of how the city can and should function with regard to more “livable,” “locally sensitive,” “human,” or “people-centric” architecture and planning is now a popular meme, and is increasingly formalized through everything from historic preservation and local consumption movements to corporate-sponsored community gardens and the (quite official) pedestrianization of Times Square. But there is something special about the informality isn’t there?

Spontaneous interventions also reflect a reaction to the formalism of the city itself. Just as the rise of industrial manufacturing, mass culture, and mechanical reproduction (and the accompanying decline of small-scale craft production) yielded a strong desire for customization – from rolled up shirtsleeves, detailed hot rods, and “Bedazzled” electronics to the impassioned “personalizing” of our dwellings, our bodies, and our online presentations of self – the formality and control of the city itself may lead its inhabitants to seek opportunities for personal expression. Michel de Certeau wrote that, “if in discourse the city serves as a totalizing and almost mythical landmark for socioeconomic and political strategies, urban life increasingly permits the re-emergence of the element that the urbanistic project excluded.” Despite the control of the state, elites, capital, “the city is left prey to contradictory movements that counter-balance and combine themselves outside the reach of panoptic power.”  He goes on: “the ruses and combinations of powers that have no readable identity proliferate; without points where one can take hold of them, without rational transparency, they are impossible to administer.”[vi]

It’s not surprising then that the informal alteration of urban space is as old as cities themselves, nor that even in the face of considerable centralization of control everyday folks and professional designers alike are today making alterations outside the system. If capitalism’s reaction to the formalized city is the freedom of unregulated neoliberalism, perhaps spontaneous interventions are the unregulated freedom of the everyday urbanite. One man’s telephone booth, another’s book exchange. A signpost, the support for a chair; a billboard, a canvas. Streets and underpasses, civic plazas and undeveloped lots – opportunities all. As the media and popular culture scholar John Fiske so poignantly quipped, “People can, and do, tear their jeans.”[vii] In some sense, in a bold, unabashed, and perhaps surprisingly un-revolutionary way, it begins to sound a lot like Lefebvre’s “Right to the City,” his “autogestion,” his “moments.”

But then, if spontaneous interventions are reactions to these spatial conditions of the contemporary city, are they not in some ways contributors to them too? Certainly they do have impacts, or hope to. Certainly they are products of many skilled designers, architects, artists, and other members of the so-called “creative class,” often working in places they may not hail from originally. Should we consider the possibility that these design interventions for the common good may indeed, just like official improvements, still contribute to an uneven development of their own? That the very arrival of such actions (and their creators) might precipitate or even encourage the gentrification process in one place, or be viewed as quite unwelcome in another?  Connecting individual spontaneous interventions to changes in property values, median monthly rents, or the displacement of particular groups is a tall order. But, whether formal or informal, bike lanes, benches, gardens, services, or anything considered creative, trendy, and helpful is likely to do more good than harm to a neighborhood’s appeal to capital. One person’s “right” to improve her surroundings may present a potential infringement upon others’ “right to stay put.”[viii] Neoliberal conditions, including uneven development, make space for spontaneous interventions, but it may also be the case that some spontaneous interventions enable and indeed contribute to the continuation of neoliberal conditions.

In the final accounting though, this may be too harsh, or at least premature. It is important to be mindful of the complexities of these things, and the two-way streets on which they run. But it need not take away from the value and incredible potential inherent in the simple act of taking urban improvement into ones own hands. It is no small step to take. If the medium is the message, informal urbanism speaks volumes.

The phenomena of “do-it-yourself” urbanism has inherent to it a fairly explicit challenge to basic assumptions about who owns, controls, designs, pays for, and makes particular spaces or types of spaces. It questions the very formality of the city, the very logic of unregulated and uneven investment, and the very wisdom of going through the formal channels to affect local change. The movement back to spontaneous, informal, do-it-yourself urbanism suggests a more malleable, democratic, and dynamic city – truly the “oeuvre” Lefebvre described it as, truly the collective work of us all.

American City Interrupted: What Spontaneous Interventions Can Teach Us About Taking the City Back

Fifty-one years after Jane Jacob’s seminal work, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, our nation is still marked by a portfolio of “legacy cities” – a recently adopted term-of-art developed by the American Assembly at Columbia University describing the phenomenon of American cities that have been losing population, increasing in unproductive land and retaining a high majority of the region’s poor, unemployed and under-educated citizens. The current conditions of these cities can be traced directly back to many of the urban policies of the last century. Policies that allowed regional sprawl to decentralize the urban core, leaving behind underutilized and crumbling infrastructure, antiquated and inflexible land use regulations that discourage innovation, and concentrations of generational poverty resulting in weakened civic capacity. There is no better illustration of our collective desensitization to this condition than the media’s nonchalant reaction to Detroit’s crushing 25% population loss over the last decade, and the suggestion that for some cities, “death” may be a more viable option than “life.”

We must reject the notion that American cities of this type cannot become productive and competitive places to live, work and play again. After all, Detroit is still a city of 713,000 residents, including families and children – what would become of them if death were chosen over life? Instead, this condition should inspire us as designers and planners to take on the task of re-inventing the American City—reprogramming its function, redesigning its urban form and architecture, and identifying and/or legitimizing a new and expanded range of protagonists with the authority to act. The resurgence of our legacy cities and the neighborhoods within them depends on a willingness to embrace more innovative infrastructure technologies that reduce the spatial and social divides between race and opportunity; limits on urban growth with amended standards for permanent and transitional urban density; revised zoning that allows for more ingenuity in urban planning, building design, and ecological restoration; and new models of leadership and cooperation that facilitate a shared vision for the more productive and sustainable utilization of land and labor.

The Boom and Bust of the American City

Issues of equity, inclusion, race, justice, access and connection are still unresolved in many American communities, leaving a context of urban landscapes where the work of uplifting people and place remains a large task.  These issues have created a series of marginalizing conditions that continue to have a devastating impact on everything from civic identity and participation to household wealth and health to social equity and justice. The impacts of regional sprawl, urban abandonment, race and class segregation, and economic, spatial, social and civic isolation have been well documented as explanations for the depressed conditions of our legacy cities today.

So, how did we get here? Several American cities saw the beginning of their population growth fueled by the “Great Migration,” the period between 1916-1930 where nearly 6 million African Americans migrated from the rural south to the industrialized cities of the north.  The rail and automobile production industries offered these migrants unprecedented opportunities and freedoms to earn a living wage. Automobile pioneer Henry Ford’s revolutionary “five dollar a day” together with the five-day work week provided the average worker, with a high school education or less, the ability to afford a piece of the American dream—a car and a single-family home in a neighborhood with local schools, churches, play areas and shopping.

In some industrial cities, the migration propelled municipalities to expand through the annexation of neighboring towns, creating more spacious residential environments. In other industrial cities, there were fewer options for geographic expansion, resulting in rapid overcrowding and deterioration of infrastructure. As production technologies advanced, the regions around these overcrowded cities expanded to keep up with the pace of industrial innovation and growth.  But as we now know, in many cases this regional urbanization ultimately came at the expense of abandoning the city. In 1955, Detroit held over 55% of its region’s population, while today it retains only 15%. Simultaneously, issues of race and class became more spatialized as greater mobility in housing choice also meant furthering the preference for racial separation, a dynamic that remains very present in today’s regional geography. These trends were in part facilitated by a series of urban programs and practices implemented between 1933-1954 that offered the first opportunities for class ascension and a better quality of life outside the congested city.

Two such programs are of particular note. The first, the Housing Act of 1949, allowed returning war veterans, among others, to purchase homes in the less congested suburbs, while the lending practice of redlining between 1934-1968 and the restrictive convents of the 1960’s had the effect of keeping people of color rooted in increasingly under-resourced neighborhoods. In more recent times, the aftermath of the sub-prime lending crisis of 2004-2007 (often predatory towards low-income households) has created a new portfolio of undervalued neighborhoods by adding unprecedented numbers of foreclosed properties to the housing market.

Similar to the correlation between housing access and abandonment, the growth of the suburbs led to the creation of suburban shopping centers  and malls which in turn precipitated the decline of the historic retail spaces of downtown main streets and neighborhood centers

The second program, the Federal Highways Act of 1956, facilitated even greater mobility of people and goods, meaning that people could live out side of the city and commute to jobs anywhere in the region. This lessened the dependence on the city for concentrated dwelling, production and jobs. As early as 1925, Henry Ford was either prescient, or some might argue an instigator, by arguing that industrial production did not require spatial concentration.[i]

It is important to note that running parallel to these place-based interventions, were significant social movements involving education (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954) and civil liberties (Civil Rights Act, 1964) that were aimed at dismantling the 1876 Jim Crow laws that endorsed “separate but equal.” However, despite the best intentions and positive outcomes of these important public policy reforms, many citizens of color in legacy cities remain in segregated isolation even today. 

Can Designers and Spontaneous Interventions help to reinvent the American City?

Try though they may, these legacy cities have not found solutions able to uplift city and citizen alike. Population loss, economic decline, and property abandonment all contribute to a growing supply of vacant urban spaces that are becoming canvases for spontaneous intervention. The depreciation of public sector resources and the urgency of maintaining neighborhood health and safety compels community organizations, designers and local residents to step in as the new agents of change, introducing innovative practices that require fewer resources and permissions from “top-down” authorities.

These trends suggest an opportunity for integrating new design innovations into public policy aimed at remediating longstanding structural inequalities and progressing toward a more just and inclusive city. Harvard professor Susan Fainstein suggests, the principle components of urban justice are equity, diversity and democracy.[ii] The concept of a just city has been at the forefront of national debate as various ad hoc communities are rising up to “occupy” public space in protest against the uneven allocation of wealth and power, reward and respect. University of Washington professor Sharon E. Sutton observes “[in] the last half century, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in personal freedom, mobility, individual rights, and the reorienting of culture around individual needs. While this loosening of restraints on individuals has had many positive outcomes, it has simultaneously led privileged Americans to loose sight of struggling together in a hard country… “[iii]

As designers, we must acknowledge that the “places of marginality” and the “places of opportunity” are one and the same. [iv]  As Americans struggle together in the challenged conditions of legacy cities and other such spaces, their efforts provide us an opportunity to consider how their innovative and entreprenuerial contributions are making a positive impact on making cities more just. Since some traditional, top-down public policy programs clearly further the spatialization of economic and social inequities in our cities, what might the trend of these less formal initiatives teach us about a more balanced distribution of access, power and inclusion? We must embrace the fact that literally left behind in these cities are too often our most marginalized populations, the very folks who are disadvantaged by a lack of equity, access and justice. When we create interventions in these communities, some of which are already experiencing gentrification, we should be thinking about the possibilities of our work to expose the underlying inequalities of isolation and how it might raise the awareness and capacity of long-time residents to be their own change agents and participate effectively alongside other actors.

If we begin to embrace design as not only an outcome, but also as a process by which the physical designer (architect, planner or other professional) and cultural designer (resident, community activist, social entrepreneur or other participant) can engage and build capacity through spontaneous intervention, then we might use this work to inform and alter the ways that design and community development are regulated, subsidized and effectively deployed in the future. Physical designers have the ability to create outcome and process innovations  that accommodate cultural differences and multiple, changing uses and users. For cultural designers, an even broader range of change agents have the potential to create innovations in participation that bring new and underrepresented voices to the table where design is happening and decisions are being made. The untapped skills and ingenuity of low-income residents can be harnessed via entrepreneurial ventures that take advantage of new crowd-funding networks. These ventures in turn can promote leadership development that identifies and educates young people so that they become involved in the process and ultimately sustain the capacity of the community.

As physical and cultural designers are empowered to further develop these ideas, our public policy makers must seriously examine what can be learned from the trend of spontaneous interventions and the people and organizations producing them. If  these spontaneous interventions were formally authorized and properly resourced as effective strategies to help redefine the American city, rather than only temporary installations to help bring greater safety, stability and civic activism to improve blighted communities, might they do more to inform permanent strategies for neighborhood revitalization, zoning, community development programs and long-term civic capacity building? Let us take a close and thoughtful look at this spontaneous body of work and recognize its contributions toward keeping our cities “alive” and the promise it might hold for transforming design and city planning practice as well as the values of access, equity and inclusion that should be deeply embedded in our policy making.

[i] Charles Waldheim, “CASE: Hilberseimer/Mies Van Der Rohe Lafayette Park Detroit”, edited by Charles Waldheim, (Prestel Verlag, 2004): 21.

[ii] Susan Fainstein, “The Just City”, (Cornell University Press, 2010): 5.

[iii] Sharon E. Sutton, “Creating Landscapes of Safety”, in “Architecture of Fear”, Nan Ellin, Editor, (Princeton Architectural Press, 1997): 249.

[iv] For a discussion about place as a source of inequality, as well as a context of transformation for low income communities, see Sharon E. Sutton and Susan P. Kemp, “Introduction: Place as Marginality and Possibility”, in “The Paradox of Urban Space, Inequality and Transformation in the Marginalized Communities”, edited by Sharon E. Sutton and Susan P. Kemp, (Palgrave McMillian, 2011): 4-5.

A Very Short History of American Pop-ups

Cities have always contained flexible, temporary elements that allow for special events, emergencies, wars, disasters or mass migrations. What distinguished American urbanism, as distinct from Asian or European, was the speed at which a modern, industrial metropolis like Chicago, New York or Detroit could pop-up and then shrink, even disappear. Indeed, the history of American urbanism can be understood as a history of pop-ups at different scales.

The small population of the continent and ease of migration across a single country meant that Americans were perpetually on the move, moving on average once every 7 years. American cities grew and shrank with each shift in government or commercial policy favoring shipping, canals, railways, roads, airways or airwaves. The public space of the nation constantly morphed, as ghost towns and dead malls littered the continent.

Americans have always had to adjust at a personal level to these shifts, seeking communal solutions to common problems, through associations of various kinds based on particular issues. This self-help, do-it-yourself, communal tradition, often shielded by academic, labor or religious freedoms, provided the background to such pop-up organizations as the Civil Rights, anti-war, pro-democracy movements of the 1960s and 70s. At Woodstock, the pop-up instant city, rock and roll provided the anthems for the nomadic youth culture of the period. The streets and squares of the metropolis provided the background venue for the marches and other public protests, covered in full by the regulated media monopolies of the day.

The political pop-ups of the 1960’s sought to address the faults of the emerging consumer society of the 1950’s, itself a pop-up culture fueled by the excess industrial capacity and oil production created in the previous decade’s war effort. During WWII, workers in Seattle lived in mobile homes around new aircraft factories and shopped at temporary, wood-framed, prototype shopping malls. Young architects like Victor Gruen, who designed these open-air mini-malls, went on to develop this new public space morphology across America. Wood-framed buildings housed the first MacDonald’s on the commercial strips that popped up to serve the huge, on-site, industrial production line housing estates, like the 440,000-acre Levittown (1947–51) on Long Island (near a Grumman aircraft factory). 40 million Americans moved to these pop-up, timber-framed suburbs in 15 years, and then kept moving, further and further out along expanding highway systems, draining the inner city of taxes, jobs and industry.

In 1961, Jean Gottmann described the American East Coast suburban dream pop-up as one of the wonders of the world, the “megalopolis” stretching 400 miles from Boston to Washington, where 32 million people lived in peace, with a higher standard of living than ever before. Subsequent urban riots and pop-up political events of the late 1960s made Jane Jacobs’ calls for an alternative to inner city Urban Renewal demolition (also 1961) seem the more prescient vision. Jacobs wrote as artist’s studios popped into the vacant industrial loft spaces of SoHo in the path of Robert Moses’ unbuilt Lower Manhattan Expressway.  Hidden behind darkened windows to conceal illegal living, a new culture popped up with love-ins, be-ins, performance artists and Beat Poets, inevitably commercialized in Andy Warhol’s The Factory on the Lower East Side. Developers soon learned to capitalize on this “arts led” pop-up development trend, following artists and young people as they opened new galleries, restaurants or bars in declining low-rent industrial areas.

With the malling and fragmentation of the United States in carefully regulated new public spaces, a new kind of official, commercial pop-up became the norm. Boston’s Faneuil Hall Festival Market Mall (1976) showed the way, with its historic preservation and licensed carts for small-scale vendors.  The same logic followed in temporary street closures and pop-up festivals in major cities. This movement in its turn spawned the pop-up farmer’s market movement in American streets and suburban parking lots. When America’s drive-in cinemas became decimated with the growth of television in the 1980s and 90s, pop-ups again sometimes provided a solution, like the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, the largest flea market drive-in cinema in the world. In cities like Austin, Los Angeles, and Portland, the combination of youth culture and underused inner city parking lots produced the gourmet food truck craze, now exported around the nation.

As American personal mobility slowly becomes impacted by rising global gasoline prices, once frowned-upon inner-city locations become attractive venues easily accessible for pedestrians, cyclists and public transportation customers.  Public space that was once occupied by the car becomes available for other citizens, as in New York, where Transportation Commissioner Janet Zadick-Khan realized that taking out parking spaces, widening sidewalks, making bike lanes, planting trees and issuing licenses for pop-up cafes could radically alter the auto-based street culture.

The beauty of American pop-ups is their immediacy and apparent spontaneity. But usually they are complex phenomena operating at a variety of levels, involving many participants with varied short-term and long-term strategic goals. Times Square was first closed with beach furniture and folding chairs, restricting traffic flow, before being permanently transformed with more permanent landscaping and benches. A pop-up food park in a parking lot in Austin or Portland may serve in a mutually beneficial relationship with the bar nextdoor, while impacting the character of the city itself, in the company of new zoning for street life and cafes, and a light rail line sponsoring clusters of stylish apartment buildings around its stops, far from the malls. Pop-up culture offers a very different often pedestrian and bicycle-based vision of the American urban future.