Monthly Archives: November 2015

Asking questions about DIY Urbanism

The first blog in this series looked at what DIY Urbanism is, the second at what’s going on in DIY Urbanism in Sweden, and the third on international trends in DIY Urbanism. This final blog post in the series reflects on the role of research in DIY Urbanism. It also explores some of the research projects already going on at this university, KTH in Stockholm. Finally, some follow-on resources are suggested for finding out more – or taking action yourself.

Is “DIY Urbanism” a research topic – isn’t it about action?

When asked whether research on DIY Urbanism contributes to urban planning, KTH Associate Professor Karin Bradley is clear in her reply, “As researchers in urban planning we can deepen our understanding of city making by understanding why DIY urban interventions are happening, in what contexts. We can also analyze their effects and importantly map out what this could mean for urban planning and decision-making.” She goes on adding, “We can also help cities understand how they can use the power of DIY urbanism and how they might engage more deeply with it within their traditional planning structures, even re-considering what planning means today.”  Urban planners and city makers have much to learn from understanding DIY initiatives; research studies provide a method for collecting, analysing and summarising this knowledge.

What is going on at KTH in this area?

At KTH, DIY Urbanism and associated areas are increasingly active fields of research as well as teaching with many different people contributing from different angles. Karin is currently running a project called Urban Sharing that looks at the evolution of sharing initiatives and sharing cultures in cities. “Many people are sated with shopping and want an alternative to the consumer society; indeed, they are willing to build this alternative themselves” Karin comments. The project is exploring contemporary urban sharing schemes, examining why they start and how they grow as well as their consequences for the development of the city. The project draws on case studies in Malmö, Barcelona and London. As part of this research project she has made a documentary film, called “Dela är det nya äga” (Sharing is the new owning), together with film maker Lotta Ekelund.

Karin is also connected to a project based at KTH called Beyond GDP-Growth. This project develops scenarios for cities and small towns in a future when GDP-growth has been halted. This may be due to a redirection of politics towards a steady state economy or it may have come as result of financial crisis or failed growth politics. “We are questioning the status quo,” Karin comments, “and developing scenarios for a very different future.” From the perspective of her own research, Karin reflects that the grassroots “DIY” sharing of resources may well play a far more significant role in a post-GDP-growth society, at a neighbourhood level but also more widely with the help of digital technologies. The project has a focus on the built environment, reflecting on scenarios for building, transportation and welfare provision.

Elsewhere at KTH researchers are exploring how the power of computing is enabling community engagement in urban and other developments. This is in part about developing tools for analyzing the big data sets that cities and governments are releasing with ever greater frequency to let us engage in urban development. It’s also about supporting the open source and hacker communities. The Centre for Sustainable Communications provides a hub for many of these activities such as the Green Hackathon.

“A feature of DIY urbanism and research on it” Karin Bradley notes, “is its interdisciplinary. It involves bringing lots of people with lots of different skill sets together to create solutions. Here at KTH many of those skill sets can be found – and technology can be explored as a vital force underpinning, as well as enabling the next wave of DIY Urbanism.”  It’s an approach that Karin is keen to instill in the next generation of urban planners through the courses she teaches undergraduates at KTH.

Looking beyond the university, Karin comments that most typically she collaborates with municipalities and civil society organizations  in her work. She is also keen to work with more people from the open source software world and digital fabrication.

How can I become a DIY Urbanist?

If you feel inspired by this series, becoming a DIY Urbanist yourself is only a Google away. “A key feature of this movement”, Karin comments “is its openness and many projects produce wikis or handbooks that they publish online to allow others to replicate their work”.

Mike Lydon has produced a series of Tactical Urbanism Guides that can be downloaded.  Via the Open Source Ecology project, you can find information on DIY hardware – how to build ovens, 3D printers, multipurpose tractors etc: the “tools of civilization”

Finally, what  books should we read on DIY Urbanism and the cultural shift surrounding it?

Karin suggests the following texts:

Tactical urbanism: Short-term action for long-term change. Lydon, M. & Garcia, A. (2015).

Urban Catalyst: The Power of Temporary Use. Oswalt, P., Overmeyer, K. & Misselwitz, P. (2013)

Insurgent Public Space – Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities. Hou, J. (ed.)

If you would like to contact Karin Bradley about her research, she can be reached via the links on this page.

The KTH Centre for a Sustainable Built Environment thanks Karin for her insights and help with this DIY Urbanism blog series!

 

 

DIY Urbanism from a Global Perspective

The KTH Centre for a Sustainable Built Environment blog has been exploring a powerful urban force, DIY Urbanism, over the past few weeks. DIY Urbanism is about local people taking initiative towards and responsibility for the development of their own neighbourhoods. KTH’s Karin Bradley’s  gave an introduction to the topic in this post.

A challenge to how we understand urban development today

BEN

This week the blog will focus on DIY Urbanism as a global phenomenon. As the Ordinary Streets film from London showed, beyond the hip, new label of “DIY Urbanism”, many communities around the world are engaged in building grass-roots urban capacity. In developing countries its often the only type of urban development on the agenda; in developed countries its a form of local re-engagement and, sometimes, push-back against the establishment.

There is much that can be learnt from DIY initiatives in other countries and access to the internet as well as social media is changing the impact these initiatives have. DIY Urbanism has now raised itself to be a global force, concerned with civic engagement, fairness, quality-of-life and climate change, with which urban planners and other in positions of more traditional authority are learning to engage.

What’s new in the DIY Urbanism world?

Certain cities such as Berlin, Amsterdam and Barcelona in Europe and Portland or San Francisco in the US have strong reputations as pioneers in DIY Urbanism. In Berlin, the massive urban park created at a dis-used airport, Tempelhof, has become a hub of experimental DIY Urbanism.

Tempelhof

Pioneer field, Tempelhof Berlin. Image from www.uncubemagazine.com

The future of Tempelhof is heavily contested in Berlin, with some wanting it to be developed, in part, for housing and commercial uses, whilst others want it to remain a public and un-commercialised park. Many sites in cities across the world are similarly contested, a frequent outcome of which is that they sit, un-used and neglected, for many years whilst the planners and protestors battle it out.

Not so in Berlin. Whilst discussions about Tempelhof’s future are on-going, the city and citizens are working to ensure it finds an interim purpose, especially as a home to DIY initiatives. A part of the field has been dedicated to so-called “pioneer plots” where citizens can apply for a temporary tenancy of a grass plot, no more than a few meters squared, which they can do anything they like with, as long as it is not for commercial purposes. Most people turn their plots in to allotments – many of which are eye-catching and innovative, providing a fantastic scene for other Berliners to enjoy a stroll past. The planning process of Tempelhof field is being studied by Meike Schalk  at the KTH School of Architecture and further reflections on this innovative process can be read here in the recently published book, “Green Utopianism”.

Karin Bradley comments, “What we are seeing in Berlin is a new approach to urban planning where activities take place whilst the plan is being negotiated, indeed, these activities are influencing the urban form the plan will make possible. This is a far more dynamic, flexible and engaged type of urban planning than we traditionally see”.

Is DIY Urbanism only for big cities?

Vitally, it’s not only big cities that are being rocked by DIY Urbanism. In the north of England the modest-sized, former industrial town of Todmorden has been transformed through a bottom-up community gardening initiative called Incredible Edible. The project has engaged local people in planting edible crops at numerous locations throughout the town so as to share knowledge about food growing, improve people’s diets and build a stronger community.

Is DIY Urbanism only for rich cities and empowered citizens?

A criticism of the DIY Urbanism trend is that it is primarily a “hobby” for the urban, latte-drinking classes who have the time and resources to engage in projects. Indeed, some cynics comment that it’s as much about raising property prices as it is about raising communities.

DIY Urbanism as survival

Poor communities and cities have made use of DIY Urbanism under the more realistic label of “surviving” for hundreds of years, coming together to solve problems through local solutions – primarily because no external sources of support exist. Think of the “dubbawalla” lunch box delivery system in Mumbai (see the film above) or the Cooperative movement that developed across Europe during the industrial revolution. In Namibia, a grass-roots, cycle-design project has helped hundreds of communities across Africa access better health care. Started during the height of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, the Namibian Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN) constructed a simple “bike ambulance”, a bike trailer able to transport sick people to hospital. BEN also re-conditions bikes for health workers so that they can work over larger distances.

Karin Bradley comments, “Actually, a lot of the DIY tactics comes from the ways of working and the experiences in poorer parts of the world, in informal settlements where you have to solve things together locally. The Hindi concept “jugaad” has received a lot of interest in innovation and urban development circles – basically meaning low-cost, ad hoc, solutions to solve immediate problems. There is a similar idea behind the concept of “tactical urbanism”, meaning low-cost urban interventions initiated by citizens. This is now being picked up by many official planning departments, in the US, UK as well as in Sweden, and used as a tool to make cities more livable, and one should add, sometimes covering up for the  budget cuts in public planning.”

Reflections

DIY Urbanism is a long-standing, global phenomenon that is being revived today as communities try to take greater control of their environments and futures. Its making cities more vibrant, creative, inclusive and diverse. The rapid expansion and increasing influence of DIY Urbanism has sparked questions about the authority and role of traditional city-makers, such as local authorities and developers, and top-down approaches. Questions have also been raised about the accountability and power of those who drive DIY initiatives. Who owns the city and who has the right to change it? In the next blog we will explore what research is telling us about the future of DIY Urbanism.

The feature image for this post was provided by Meike Schalk at KTH – thank you!