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.