The Do-It-Yourself Urban Future

This week the Centre for a Sustainable Built Environment at KTH introduces a new blog theme – DIY Urbanism. Curious? Then follow the blog over the next four weeks as we explore the theme from different angles in the company of Karin Bradley, Associate Professor at KTH and engaging thinker on the future of the city.

So, what is DIY Urbanism?

Are you passionate about changing your city? Are you willing to get your hands dirty? How about strike up conversations with a stranger from down the road? More and more people are answering “yes” to these questions. Rather than waiting for local municipalities to improve their neighbourhoods, people are starting initiatives themselves. Vitally, these people are not acting alone or on behalf of their own interests; instead they are collaborating with other people, locally and internationally, on projects that make neighbourhoods better, meaning friendlier and more sustainable places to be, especially with regard to the environment. This is Do-It- Yourself (DIY) Urbanism and together with its close cousins, “tactical urbanism” and “guerilla urbanism”, it will be changing a city near you shortly.

“Local planners”, KTH researcher Karin Bradley comments, “have engaged the public in planning decisions for many years now. DIY Urbanism is different. It’s about a new wave of urban initiatives that have their origins in society, which come from people, rather than from the municipality”.

Karin Bradley, Associate Professor at KTH

Karin Bradley, Associate Professor at KTH

This global movement is in part is a product of dissatisfaction with traditional top-down urban planning, especially its struggle to respond to environmental challenges and a lack of high quality public spaces that support a feeling of community. It also reflects a wider change in society with people now re-casting themselves as active “prosumers” who contribute towards what they need rather than passive consumers of items produced by other people.

“Before” Karin Bradley comments “people read a handful of newspapers and these were written by experts, journalists. Now there are millions of bloggers using the internet to write and share stories that they think are interesting. The same thing is starting to happen in urban planning; the agenda is being shaped from the bottom-up and this is releasing an unprecedented wave of community creativity and engagement.”

Whilst positive towards this development, Karin thinks we should also question it, “There are issues about accountability, representation and the role of public authorities in these bottom-up processes that we still need to understand, reflect on and develop.”

Exploring DIY Urbanism

Over the next few weeks this blog will look at DIY Urbanism in more depth. What sort of activities are DIY urbanists starting? What are the strengths of these? What issues do these types of activities raise for society more widely?

What do DIY Urbanists do?

ParkingDay2

A park created temporarily in a parking space in San Francisco. Photo from Park(ing) Day.org.

As a first stop-off point on the journey Karin directs us towards the Park(ing) Day movement started in San Francisco by design-art-activist group Rebar that’s about transforming car-parking spaces in to community parks, often on a temporary basis. In 2005 Rebar created its first urban park by hiring a car-parking space for two hours and transforming it for those hours into a miniature urban park that included grass, a tree, a park bench and a “Park Open” sign.

Is DIY Urbanism really changing anything?

Park(ing) Day celebrated in Singapore

Park(ing) Day celebrated in Singapore. Photo from Park(ing) Day.org.

Whilst Park(ing) Day is a clear example of citizen-led urban intervention, what makes it especially powerful, Karin reflects, is the way in which Rebar uses open-source tactics and the internet to enable the initiative to go global. As of 2011 Park(ing) Day has spread to 162 cities in 35 countries.  Rebar’s “how-to” guide to making your own Park(ing) Day is open to anyone to download and act on – or improve. One Park(ing) Day initiative is interesting, hundreds of such days spread over the world is an urban movement capable of creating change. Park(ing) Day.org has been established to share information and they even have a Facebook page. In case you are interested, global Park(ing) Day is held the third Friday in September each year.

Park(ing) Days organised in North America and Europe in 2014. From Park(ing) Day .org

Park(ing) Days organised in North America and Europe in 2014. From Park(ing) Day.org

And things have changed, notably in public planning authorities. The San Francisco Planning Department now supports the creation of temporary parks seeing them as a civic asset that challenges the car-culture of the city. They have minted a new typology term the “parklet” and created a process that allows people to apply to create one. By 2013, 40 parklets had been launched in the city and a further 40 are under development.

Park(ing) Day projects are getting bolder and bolder. In 2014, a cinema parklet was created in Vancouver by the Vancouver Public Space Network.

A cinema created in a car park in Vancouver for Park(ing) Day 2014. Photo by Chris Bruntlett.

A cinema created in a car park in Vancouver for Park(ing) Day 2014. Photo by Chris Bruntlett.

Next week the blog will look in more depth at some Swedish DIY Urbanism initiatives.