Category Archives: Human in the City

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!

 

 

The DIY Street and the Significance of the Ordinary

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).

At first glance unremarkable, Rye Lane plays a powerful role in London's adaptation to globalism.

At first glance unremarkable, Rye Lane plays a powerful role in London’s adaptation to globalism.

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.

Rye Lane, located towards the south east of London.

Rye Lane, located towards the south east of London.

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.

RyeLanePlan

Ironically, Rye Lane has become subject to a glossy, “transformative” urban plan aimed at intergration – in an aesthetic, physical and commerical sense – when it is alreay a vital site of cultural intergration.

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.

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.

 

 

Stockholm’s Post War Housing: a Source of Sustainability for the City

Over the next few weeks, the KTH Centre for a Sustainable Built Environment’s blog will look at Sustainable Homes from a rage of different perspectives based on the work of researchers at KTH. In this first post, Erik Stenberg from the KTH School of Architecture introduces us to Stockholm’s Million Homes project areas and asks us to reassess what they give to the city. A short video – cut with some excellent footage from the 1960’s when the homes were built – introduces the Million Homes project and current research. You can find out more about the Centre’s work with Sustainable homes here and may we suggest you subscribe to the blog to make sure you get future posts?

Stockholm: another building boom

Building homes, again, in Stockholm.

Building homes, again, in Stockholm.

Whilst you may think that a skyline dotted with a hundred construction cranes and endless glossy billboards advertising the launch of apartment blocks is a recent phenomenon in Stockholm, it’s nothing new. Stockholm has been subject to wave after wave of housing crises – and subsequent remedial building programmes – over its history. The city, it seems, is more attractive than it plans to be.

Erik Stenberg’s work focuses on the housing construction boom that took place between the mid-1960s and 70s in Stockholm. This is the so-called Million Program Era when Sweden set out to build one million homes for its expanding and urbanizing population.

The project was successful, providing homes for a whole generation. It was also considered an architectural, planning and construction success – at least at the time.

“The millions homes areas led modernist thinking on architecture and urban planning” reflects Erik Stenberg. “The construction process was also remarkable” Erik continues, “innovative apartment and block designs were realized through the production of modular units and, to varying degrees, prefabricated elements that were slotted together at the building site, speeding up production whilst maintaining quality. This hadn’t been achieved before at that scale”.

The Millions Homes area of Tensta, emerging from the wooded landscape outside Stockholm.

The Millions Homes area of Tensta, emerging from the wooded landscape outside Stockholm.

The results were, indeed, remarkable. Bold, elegantly simple housing blocks rose from forest landscapes around the city of Stockholm. The towers and low-rise apartment blocks circled around community resources such as shops, schools, theatres, health-care and sports facilities. These new areas were well-connected to the resources of the capital through new motorways and an expanding network of public transport.

This was top down, large-scale, social welfare state planning at its very best. At the time, the concern was that central Stockholm might be abandoned as people moved out to enjoy the delights of these new suburbs – Stockholm’s iconic department store, NK, even opened a branch in the Million Homes neighborhood of Farsta.

The triumphal opening of NK in the shopping suare at Tensta in the 1960's.

The triumphal opening of NK in the shopping square at Farsta in the 1960’s.

From boom to disaster?

How different the situation is today.

The large-scale million homes suburbs are amongst some of the most deprived and reviled areas of the capital. Their names have become synonymous with deprivation, social tension and neglect. Whilst genuine hardship is encountered in these areas, notably, the media plays a significant role in maintaining the image of the areas as “troubled”.

Images like these dominate perceptions of the Million HOmes areas today in the rest of Stockholm.

Images like these from Husby dominate perceptions of the Million Homes areas today in the rest of Stockholm.

This is a pattern of development mirrored time and time again in post war housing areas across Europe and North America. In many countries the “solution” has been demolition, with blocks of post war housing being knocked down so that cities can start again.

In the midst of this storm, Erik Stenberg’s work challenges us to see the Million Homes era areas again, for what they were meant to be – and what they can still give us.

He champions careful, community-engaged renovation rather than demolition. “These areas were well-built and today provide good homes and communities for many” notes Erik. Whilst modernism might have fallen out of fashion, Erik considered the apartments blocks well designed – and with a nascent potential to be redesigned – see next week’s blog for an example of how this is already happening.

Working with what you’ve got

In this month’s video blog, Erik takes us out to the Million Program era suburb of Tensta, an area where he used to live, to reflect on the design and construction of these still remarkable neighborhoods.

Before we rush decisions aimed at changing the Million Homes areas, Erik wants us to notice and reflect on the value of what is already there. “Sustainability is about managing with and for the assets you already have” he comments. Perhaps a new mind-set is required, rather than new buildings?

See the video here:

Next week Erik will talk us through some of the renovations that are already on-goin in the Million Homes areas, reflecting on how a more gradual and context sensitive based approach to renovation, an “incremental approach” is supporting sustainability goals.

You can read more about Erik’s work here or, if you speak Swedish, hear him on radio here.