Do-It-Yourself Urbanism Intervention - For the wider community or for a privilege few?

DIY urbanism, tactical urbanism, guerrilla urbanism, temporary urbanism, [insert next catch phrase here] urbanism, is a rapidly growing movement in which citizens take it upon themselves improve the public's urban experience. They are simple, inexpensive and quickly implemented and temporary interventions. It has recently emerged as a response to the large-scale top-down redevelopment projects of the years past. These rely on large pieces of infrastructure (stadiums or shopping centres) and significant investment to activate and improve cities. One of the most powerful aspects of the movement is that it challenges the conventional or authorised use of space.

However, is one group's improvement another's nuisance? By their very nature, DIY interventions generally involve little community engagement, even though they can have wide-ranging implications. A study of the DIY movement and the motivations of the participants by Gordon Douglas (2013) found in the 18 projects he examined in New York, Los Angeles, and London, that the vast majority of DIYers interviewed qualify as members of Florida's "creative class":

"Most do-it-yourselfers I have met have stable day-jobs of a wide variety, from things like professional art practice, writing, and small business ownership to careers in formal design and urban planningmany of them also match a particular subset thereof: the young, middle-class urban neighborhood newcomers looking for (and making) 'neo-bohemia'" (p.15)

with a strong sense of self-entitlement:

"It [DIY alterations] involves a value judgment 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." (p.17)

When examining the location of these interventions, he finds that they are much more common in gentrifying and 'trendy' neighbourhoods than in the impoverished inner-city neighbourhoods where DIY actions are arguably most needed. The study goes on to highlight that these acts of unauthorised intervention, can in many cases, increase property values and 'trendiness' of the neighbourhood and thus perpetuate the gentrification process.

One such example was a guerrilla gardening project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, organised by a new resident. Its aim was to transform a neighbourhood struggling to emerge from years of high crime rates and stubborn blight, into a meadow of wildflowers by summertime. What was conceived as a gift to her new community, was received with negativity and fear of attracting more 'outsiders' and for some residents, exacerbating the feelings of alienation and loss of control they were experiencing in their neighbourhood and lives.

The biggest failure of many DIY projects is the lack of meaningful engagement with the community during the planning and their involvement in the delivery. The most powerful and impactful DIY interventions are those initiated, designed, and built by residents acting in their own neighbourhood. They respond to issues raised by the community and aim to foster ownership and empowerment in their implementation.

If you would like to know more about successful DIY urbanism and engaging with your community, please get in contact with Cath Blake-Powell, leader of our TPG Conversations team.

Douglas, G. (2013). Do-It-Yourself Urban Design: The Social Practice of Informal "Improvement" Through Unauthorized Alteration. City & Community, 13(1), pp.5-25.


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