DiY Urbanism

As a group, we realized that there are several different ways in which this week’s readings could be interpreted and analyzed. From the effectiveness to DIY Urbanism as a political statment or as a “rebellion” against the city’s method of organization, to the sense of entitlement that can be present in deciding what is right and comfortable in the city and what should be changed, we believe there is a lot of ground open for debate on the ideas proposed through the four readings. As a result, we decided to keep our summaries of the readings as neutral as possible by simply providing the main points in an almost outline form, with outside readings and ideas brought in to supplement, play off of, or challenge some of the ideas proposed in the readings. Please be sure to take a look at the discussion questions and try to provide your own opinions on the readings, support, revise, critique, and even challenge the ideas, keeping in mind what we’ve learned about different frameworks for democracy, city planning, anarchy, political action, and the rights to the city.

Iveson’s Do-It-Yourself Urbanism and the Right to the City:

  • Very recent article about the growing presence of micro-spatial urban practices and space appropriations
  • The only way to band together diverse DIY practices is to create a “shared politics” and a “universal” that threads them together. The projects mustn’t just transgress the current system, but assert a new authority as well.
  • No guarantee that realizing alternative uses for urban spaces alone will “give birth to a new kind of city”. These projects must unite into a wider politics. BUGA UP in 1980’s Sydney and the contemporary NY and Madrid Street Advertising Takeovers are examples of politicized public DIY movements.
  • This is import to Iveson because politics “is not made up of power relationships; it is made up of relationships between worlds” –Rancière
  • DIY urban movements must realize a city within the city and declare their right to an alternative type of authority. Rather than demanding a right to the city, we must declare and demonstrate through practice, that we already have the right to appropriate the city simply based on our inhabiting it.
  • Summary of common dynamics that emerge in everyday urbanisms:
  1. Defamiliarization – identify new possibilities for a space
  2. Make the alternative space through refamiliarization (ie. When people paint bike lanes where there were previously none, even if it is not designated by the state as an official bike lane)
  3. Decommdify the space by asserting use value over exchange value
  4. Impose an alternative economy (such as a gifting eceonomy)
  5. Involve new and emergent actors rather than limiting to pre-existent ones
  • The goal is to reveal the existence and possibility of not only alternative spaces but alternative forms of authority that produce urban space. In order to reveal the existence of the ‘city within the city’ to the public, the movement must unite as a political world and find a way to stage a disagreement with the city.
  • Scott Burnham: “Just as street level vernacular has innovated and filled in the gaps of a culture’s formal language, the street has as well developed its own vernacular to fill the gaps in the city’s formal design… transforms the fixed landscape of the city into a platform for a design dialogue”

Discussion questions:

  • What kind of politics do you imagine in DIY movement groups? Would it be that similar to the invisible organizing forces that Graeber talked about?
  • Do you think a DIY movement can be formed through pro-action rather than in reaction to the authority of the city? Is there any use in that?
  • Can you think of examples of urban interventions that “thrive on invisibility”? Do you think these movements have the ability to become public and political without disintegrating?
  • Why do you think there is so much historical discontinuity between urban interventions, like the BUGA UP movement from the late 70’s to early 80’s?
  • Have you had a discussion with anyone outside of the course about democracy and the capitalist framework recently? What was the biggest ideological hesitance he or she had in trying to understand the concept of alternative spaces and authorities?
  • If you don’t agree with Iveson that DIY movements must be politically united, what do you think could bring together diverse DIY movements to challenge the basis of the city’s authority rather than sampling challenging the city?
  • Rancière’s democracy is “based on the presupposition of equality, such that anyone has as much right to govern as to be governed” and this right is not based on merit, or any other foundation. Is the American political system a democracy by his standards? What is America to you if it is not a true democracy?

Some examples form the BUGA UP movement:

A few other examples of DIY interventions:

Do you think that city governments can instigate urban interventions effectively? Would that defeat their purpose? Take a look at the Street Pianos movement for inspiration.

Space “Dibs” in Chicago: For decades, Chicagoans have struggled with parking in snowed-in spots on their block during the long winters. For many years now, therefore, people in Chicago call “dibs” on their parking spots with random paraphernalia form around their houses. I really suggest looking at this article! It’s an interesting claim on space. Some people do it out of pride of being from Chicago, to keep the “tradition” alive, and others actually get belligerent with fellow neighbors if their “dibbed” spot gets stolen. Do you think they have the right to save space that is outside their home? If you shovel out  a parking space, is it fair to save it so that you can reap the benefits of your hard work?
A penguin is appropriately used to hold a parking spot in Humboldt Park on a sub-zero day in Chicago.

Parking spots are saved with furniture on Drummond Place, east of Central Avenue in Chicago.

Ann Deslandes’ “Exemplary Amateurism”

• Revisions DIY urbanism as “locally driven renovation, revamping and revivification of urban areas considered ‘wasted’, ‘dead’, or ‘empty’ by non-professional urban actors” (217)

• Aims to “discern a link between DIY urbanism and the demands of spatial justice; that is, the equitable distribution of places in which to live, be social and make culture” (218).

• “Favela chic” : is it spatial justice, or superficial beautification?

• “DIY urbanism constitutes a partial or piecemeal claim to spatial justice, in that it uses the rhetoric of amateurism, marginality and informality to make space in the city–to occupy or build its ‘favelas’. At the same time, it is a partial, or interested, claim; it cannot account for the marginality of others, and risks overriding it with an appropriative ‘chic’ “ (218).

• DIY urbanism implies amateurism and informality

• Reclaiming vacant property, associated with DIY urbanism, has symbolic roots in tradition of squatting

• Despite the amateur, illegal and informal implications, some groups have found ways to appeal to the capitalist system with their DIY occupations of empty space, and thus avoid confrontation

• These projects have different “barriers to entry” for accessing space than in the traditional city: they require less financial capital. What might the new barriers to entry entail?

Example: Renew Australia

A social enterprise that helps organize the occupation of empty shops and other urban spaces by artists, creative projects and community initiatives.

Renew Australia helps pop-up and occupation movements across Australia by facilitating insurance, providing advice, and connecting a support network between similar projects.

Check out their website here:


Empty Shops Network does similar work, “helping people to reduce, reuse and recycle empty shops and other spaces in towns and cities” by providing advice, advocacy, and helping with administration. Their website can be found here:

• DIY urbanists may assert their amateurism and marginality throughout all that they do (their practices, their spaces, and themselves) but they also may present themselves as a counteractive force to other forms of informality and marginality (i.e. squatting, graffiti, vandalism) in order to assert themselves as productive within the current system

Discussion questions: explore how this use of “amateurism” and “informality” plays out. If DIY urbanists are suggested as antidotes to the graffiti, vandalism, and squatting that might otherwise take over abandoned buildings, are they making any significant challenges to the real estate driven, capitalist system?

Urban social exclusion and spatial appropriation

• DIY urbanism is seen by some as a potentially exclusive force, resulting in “the gentrification of an entire city” (in the case of Detroit)– mainly because it is frequently enacted by a relatively affluent, white “creative class”

• The role of taste in DIY urbanist projects: are they just “hipster gentrification”?

• Is DIY urbanism simply “the colonisation of urban space through cultural capital” (221) ?

• DIY urbanist projects often share some common aesthetics

Discussion questions: Do you agree that DIY urbanist projects can be boiled down to a certain set of aesthetics and cultural forms? Do you see “hipster gentrification” or cultural colonization taking place in case studies of DIY urbanism?

We’ve all read about the influx of young artists to Detroit, but if you want to catch up, here’s a good article that deals with the movement and its associated gentrification of the city:


However, it could be argued that Deslandes also is taking a fairly narrow view of what constitutes DIY urbanism (the takeover of empty spaces for other appropriated uses). Feel free to also consider projects like the Anti-Eviction campaign in Chicago, which fixes up empty foreclosed houses for homeless people to move in. Read more here:


It’s also interesting to consider how the ideas of “DIY” function in economies besides just the real estate market (however integral real estate may be to our capitalist system). For example, here’s a blog post by a musician writing about the changing face of the DIY music industry. Can you see any parallels to the articles we read this week?


Here’s also a short piece that reframes some of the “Right to the City” ideas we’ve been talking about, with an eye to data collection and experimentation. Do you think that this approach is visible in any other DIY urban projects? Is it something that would help other projects?

Douglas’s Do-It-Yourself Urban Design: The Social Practice of Informal “Improvement” Through Unauthorized Alteration

Notes three main perspectives on urban interventions

  1. Sees unauthorized alterations of urban spaces as merely vandalism and/or trespassing.

    • Also common is the application of the Broken Window Theory onto these urban interventions.

      • The Broken Window theory surmises that visible and unauthorized alterations to the environment provide evidence, and will actually invite for others to contribute, to the presence of serious crime

  2. Views the acts as devoid of political weight and focuses on the psychology and sociology of them, while still acknowledging their artistic and expressive value.

  3. Takes into consideration personal circumstances, but also acknowledges the political implications of the acts of reforming urban spaces without authorization.

    • “Many observers in this camp go so far as to suggest the actions qualify as instances of outright ‘resistance’ to authority, capitalism, or mainstream culture” (5).

Study Findings:

  • Some of these acts of altering the environment are simply vandalism, though most have some political are element and are not simply intended to be destructive

  • DIY Urbanism, largely, does not constitute a social movement with any set goal or unified objective.

    • In fact, most individuals do not consider themselves activists, out of respect for people who directly act with the intent for making political statements

  • Most DIY urban designers believe themselves to be improving the system by asserting what they think is wrong with the city’s built environment and “fixing” it.

DIY Urban Designers: A demographic study

  • “Put bluntly, though there are exceptions, the vast majority of the individuals I interviewed qualified as members of the so-called ‘creative class.’ On more subjective measure of appearance, many of them also match a particular subset thereof: the young, middle-class urban neighborhood newcomers looking for (and making) ‘neo-bohemia’ who interest many in urban studies” (11).

  • Many have no long term or planned goals for their projects other than to help with a problem they believe they’ve identified

  • Their argument for their actions is, while they would like for the city to meet these problems, many ask the question, “Why wait for the city to do it?” when they themselves have the skills, resources, and capacity to take on the projects.

  • “Across all of these motivations, justifications, and goals, the decision to make DIY alterations like these also implies a strong sense of self entitlement. It involves a value judgement of some neglect or deficiency or opportunity in the space that the do-it-yourselfer hopes to address, and a willingness to make changes to the community based in large part on one’s own preferences” (13).

    • “What one of my respondents called his ‘DIY urban planning effort’ involved removing a bus stop entirely from the street outside his Seattle home, after the city ignored his pleas to place a trash can there” (13).

    • “Deborah, the woman behind a mass planting of flower seeds in Brooklyn, was surprised that her effort, conceived as a ‘gift’ to her adopted community, was met with a critical tone in the press and among some neighbors.”(14)

  • DIY Urbanism is seen to be more common in newer, more privileged, neighborhoods than in “ghettos” and “blighted” areas that, presumably, would benefit more from these “improvements”

  • Douglas argues that this DIY urbanism is “a challenge to basic normative assumptions about who controls, designs, pays for, and physically makes particular spaces or types of spaces” (14)

  • Douglas notes that there’s uneven development of these DIY urban plans, and that there are still communities where such investments are not occurring, even at the unauthorized level.

Ted Talk on Guerrilla Gardening:

Douglas does well to provide one image of DIY Urban Planners as white middle-class and apolitical beings. This Ted Talk by Robert Finley, a resident of South Central LA, provides another perspective, with a larger image and direct goal for guerrilla gardening to end the problems posed by a lack of healthy foods in low-income communities. Take into consideration the demographic of who is taking part in this urbanism and who is affected as well as how it contrasts with the populations Douglas speaks about in his article.

Examples of DIY Urbanism:

DIY signpost

DIY community furniture

Discussion Questions:

  • Considering DIY urbanism involves some members of the community make a declarative action based on how they believe they can “better” a city,  how is this form of city scaping ultimately different from city planners deciding how they think cities run most efficiently?

  • With the Iveson reading in mind, how does Douglas’s portrayal of DIY urbanism as a means of restructuring the city, despite the lack of a unified political agenda, hold? Is it effective, or too unstructured and decentralized?

  • Why might Douglas’s study have such an imbalance of DIY urban planners who come from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds? What might this imply about who takes part in DIY urbanism and their motivations? Why do you think people from other backgrounds may not want to or be able to take part in this method of urbanism?

Bloch’s The Illegal Face of Wall Space: Graffiti- Murals on the Sunset Boulevard Retaining Walls

  • Chicano Mural Movement, 1965, gives rise to LA public art organizations that bring together people from different city sects such as “gang members, graffiti writers, and traditional muralists”.

  • Many of the muralists during this movement consulted with community members and even gang members for permission to put up their art and, more importantly, keeping it from becoming defaced with tagging.

  • Judith Baca’s work focuses on Chicano history and stories such as that of the Work Project Administrations erecting of freeways and the Dodger Stadium that not only divided communities, but took the place of the creation of subsidized housing programs.

  • The city later begins to respond to graffiti and tagging with the Broken Window theory in mind, painting over it.

    • This drives taggers, despite their previous agreement to leave murals untouched, to begin tagging mural faces in order to be able to keep their tags up.

    • Many muralists, despite attempts to make agreements with the city, found their murals defaced by those in the graffiti community, who “in reality, had direct control over the appearance of… the walls regardless of the laws”

  • Cache and Eye One, for example, use their graffiti as a political response to “show the incoming hipsters who we are already living in this neighborhood” and  that they “don’t need no fucking money or permission to paint on walls in our community, we just do it” (121, 122).

Judith Baca Article on the History of Murals in LA:

Bloch’s article heavily focuses on murals and graffiti as the expression of Latino and Chicano Communities’ history, trials, and stories. This is an article written by Judith Baca, further fleshing out this history. While reading it, keep in mind how the goals of creating these murals may differ from the apolitical DIY Urbanism Douglas’s article portrays.

Examples of Murals in LA:

 Discussion Questions:

  • Bloch’s study almost serves in direct antithesis to Douglas’s, how does the nature of the murals and graffiti in LA differ from the DIY urbanism in the middle-class neighborhoods Douglas describes?

  • Bloch’s article seems to depict graffiti and tagging as a decentralized response to the city’s sanctioning of murals by specific artists. Considering Iveson’s call to the necessity for a unified political statement in retaking city spaces, does graffiti truly have the potential to challenge these governing structures?