From guerrilla gardening and seed bombing to public book booths and homemade bike lanes, unauthorized alterations to public space are on the rise. In contrast to other, often illegal, alterations like graffiti and culture jamming, these interventions are meant to be functional improvements to local communities. After two years of fieldwork in 14 cities, including New York, London, New Orleans, and Toronto, Gordon Douglas coined this new form of alteration “do-it-yourself urban design”.
Douglas found three forms of DIY urban design in his study: “guerrilla greening,” which is converting unused land for gardening; “spontaneous streetscaping,” the painting of traffic markings or installation of signage to ease traffic accidents; and “aspirational urbanism,” which includes posting public notices or informational signs voicing community policies. While most media framing of these interventions is positive, Douglas calls for a more critical understanding of their implications.
On the one hand, Douglas argues that these DIY innovations signal a critique of the widespread professionalization of urban planning and design that is prominent in Europe in North America. According to Douglas, the people in his study treat public space as “open to popular reinterpretation” as they set out to change their community’s infrastructure to better suit their needs. On the other hand, Douglas also points out that, although they are meant to be creative and helpful, these “improvements” can also inadvertently contribute to gentrification and the displacement of low-income and minority groups by raising property values and increasing outside interest in the neighborhood.
As individuals continue to take their community space into their own hands, it will be important to understand what these changes mean to them, but also to the community they are hoping to improve. Or, as Douglas puts it, “To the degree that these actions are an indication of what some people actually want out of their urban surroundings, we could learn a great deal about how to design our urban spaces more responsively in the first place.”