Researchers and practitioners in London have begun to reveal the processes and value of the “DIY street”. Should their insights change our approach to city centre planning?
Over the past month the role of the street in making the city has been addressed by two worlds I feel part of. The approaches taken to the street in each are markedly different.
In the city where I studied, London, the London School of Economics, has released a short film reflecting on the use of an unremarkable street, Rye Lane, in the wider context of the city’s development. It can be viewed above.
Meanwhile, the city where I live has published a new strategy for its principal inner city streets. This strategy is everything you would expect from a city planning authority, full of comprehensive maps, of-the-moment concepts – “the walkable city”, “activating the ground level, “the 24hour city” etc. – topped-off with pictures of cyclists and street cafes. Many similar examples cross my desk, so the exact location of this city is not relevant.
A fresh contribution
The LSE City film, by contrast, is unexpected. It is both gritty and dazzling, revealing the lightly-regulated (ignored?) street as a powerful site of integration, creation, community and change in the city. The street can be seen as raw DIY urbanism in action. (If DIY Urbanisim isn’t a phrase you are familiar with, please take a look at the first blog in this series where the idea is explored here).
Rye Lane, the street in Peckham, south east London, the LSE team follows, is worked through with “gaps”, sites on pavements where casual market shops can be set up and shops that can be sublet in to smaller units, creating a porous and flexible urban structure. This allows a diverse multitude of people to establish themselves in it and, it seems, thrive along it.
What do we learn from the film? At first it seems that the London film suggests planners neglect the street and abandon it as a site for DIY urbanism in the raw.
Including the Ordinary
The insights of the film’s creator Suzi Hall and her colleagues are more subtle. The film portrays the ordinary street’s potential as a city-maker, an active site of integration and development. The film also challenges our “vocabulary” of “who counts and what matters” when streets are developed.
It reminds us that as planners we must understand, indeed, simply see, what is there already – what is ordinary and DIY, in the un-hip sense of the word. In particular we must see people and appreciate the power and sophistication of interaction with each other and the built environment. There is much urban poetry already on our streets – as Jane Jacobs noted many years ago.
It also suggests that gaps and footholds be designed into our plans. We should be confident in the abilities of our city residents thrive on street that leave opportunities for them to take.
In rapidly expanding and diversifying cities, the type that publish glossy strategies for their inner cities, schemes that helped recent immigrants get access to cheap shops or market stalls, for example, would open an opportunity for people to make the vision of the city as a thriving, human-orientated hub themselves.
Before we plan with maps, we must plan with people.
Emma Read Källblad, KTH Centre for a Sustainable Built Environment
The street images used in this blog come from LSE Cities.