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!