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Citizens have always made their marks on cities—graffiti has been an urban presence for millennia—but land use and city planning have long been the province of professionals and bureaucrats. As a result, many urban spaces today lack human scale and sensitivity. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in the unauthorized, creative alteration of public spaces for the common good. Enterprising citizens are repurposing abandoned phone booths, installing public furniture, painting their own bike lanes, and even reclaiming entire intersections. More targeted and purposeful than most graffiti, yet more personal and place-based than a political campaign, this is do-it-yourself urban design.
Photo used with permission.
DIY urban design comes in all shapes and sizes, and each project has its own genesis. Portland's City Repair Project has been doing DIY urban design for longer than most. In 1996, a group of residents in the city's Sellwood neighborhood constructed a small public gathering place near their houses before eventually reclaiming an entire intersection, converting it into a community plaza. It was the first of many such repaired and reclaimed intersections in Portland, including Sunnyside Piazza, above.
Many DIY urban design projects are responses to perceived problems or shortcomings in a city. Toronto's Urban Repair Squad points out dangerous potholes with street stencils, calls attention to flaws in city signage and bike lanes, and has, since 2008, been creating new bike lanes, sharrows, and safe intersection boxes themselves. Similar DIY urban design contributions for cyclists can now be seen from London to São Paulo to Los Angeles.
Photo by Martin Reis
Los Angeles has recently become a hotbed of DIY urban design culture, with a variety of actions, from bike lanes and sharrows to inspirational faux city parks and transit projects, attributed to an amorphous group called the Dept. of Do-it-Yourself. As one of the local activists behind these "pass with care" posters, which appeared across the city in a matter of days last spring, explained, "we went with English and Spanish, distributed the posters to probably about 50 people, and they took it upon themselves to just follow the guidelines. This isn't vandalism, this is what Ben Franklin did. It can't get more American than that."
Photo by Casey Caplowe
The Los Angeles EcoVillage is a beautiful example of DIY urbanism. Over the course of a year, Joe Linton and others at this cooperative "intentional community" have reclaimed their intersection with street art (inspired by and with help from Mark Lakeman of Portland's City Repair), demanded a stop sign, painted their own crosswalks, and placed seating and trees in a lovely bulb-out to calm traffic on the street. "It appeals to me a lot to get a bunch of friends together and just do something, and do it in an open, creative way," Joe explains. "Don't wait for anybody to give you permission."
Another thing that any person walking in Los Angeles will notice—at least if they're accustomed to more pedestrian-friendly environments—is the striking lack of places to sit. A couple of local designers took that problem as inspiration for nifty pieces of street furniture that fit right in with the existing infrastructure. Their SignBench appropriates an urban structure L.A. has plenty of—the freeway sign—and makes it useful for pedestrians as well.
Photos used with permission
Their SignChair, meanwhile, can be affixed to any standard sign post with holes in it, and can be folded up. "We were just kind of looking into ways that we could make the street more comfortable," explains one of its creators, who didn't want to be named. "The whole point of it is to make the place better to be in. It would be great if the city did it, but I think for us to expect and wait and hope for the city to do something like this is unrealistic. And it's fun for us to try to participate in making and shaping our own neighborhood."
Photos used with permission
In many parts of Los Angeles, the lack of street furniture is the result of a lack of funding. Seating and shelter at bus stops, for instance, are largely provided by the advertising companies that use these structures as displays. So in places where they don't bother advertising, there usually isn't even a place to sit—even at bus stops. In South L.A., a group of area residents and parishioners of St. Michael's Catholic Church on Manchester got together to address this lack of sidewalk furniture themselves.
In hyper-commercialized urban landscapes like New York City, DIY urban design efforts have also tried to edit advertising out of the environment. Jordan Seiler's "Public Ad Campaign" has been replacing corporate advertising—like the poster that would usually occupy this bus stop—with artwork. "I think advertising is in direct conflict with properties of public space," he says. "Right now we've got a situation where it's 'You buy the space, you can have it,' and that doesn't serve anybody except the people with the money to buy it, leaving out all the other public sentiments that need to be expressed in this space."
Photo by Julia Nevarez
Pieces like the one installed in this Manhattan phone booth play with the built-in back lighting that comes with many of these ad spaces. Seiler's Public Ad Campaign has also played an integral role in fighting back against the illegal "wild posting" advertising throughout the city. "I mean a hundred and fifty people going out and whacking house on illegal advertising in the city should be a positive! You know, Bloomberg should be like 'Awesome! Thank God I didn't have to send the fucking anti-vandal squad after these dudes, you guys took it upon yourselves!' Instead nine people are arrested."
Photo by Jordan Seiler
A somewhat similar, if more playful, sentiment is echoed in so-called "pervasive games," such as Gentrification: The Game from Toronto collective Atmosphere Industries (seen here being played in Park Slope, Brooklyn). Teams act as either developers or locals, playing to acquire or defend real-world properties throughout the neighborhood by completing different tasks, like the protest above, and investing in loft conversions or community centers. The game not only sarcastically critiques the gentrification process, but also turns the city streets themselves into game boards.
The preservation of local character and history is the goal of some guerrilla signage. The Pennsylvania Howling Mob Society designed and installed a series of historical markers commemorating the great railroad strike of 1877 throughout Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, in London, these posters commemorate the site of a medieval graveyard in Southwark and plea for its recognition by developers.
Some DIY urban design contributions are simply about adding a little color to an otherwise drab landscape. Last fall, local Los Angeles artists organized the city's first full-scale "yarn bombing" event, covering various public features with vibrant knitting. This tree wrapping appeared on a stretch of Figueroa Street in Los Angeles's Highland Park neighborhood.
The nearby Highland Park Book Booth got a needlework makeover that day. The Book Booth is another instance of DIY urban design, created by two local designers and gallery owners out of a long-defunct public phone booth. "It had the phone pulled out of it. It'd been like that for as long as we can remember. So we just kept thinking of an idea to use it," explained creator Amy Inouye. She's a book designer by day and had lots of extra books lying around. "And so, after like two years of trying on all these ideas, and walking by this thing, I decided 'OK, book giveaway!'" The resulting free community book exchange has been incredibly successful. "Literally we can fill it up at 10:00 in the morning and when we go up to the post office at noon, there's three books left."
"Yarn bombing" isn't just a Los Angeles phenomenon, as this yarn bike rack cozy in Red Hook, Brooklyn, demonstrates.
Meanwhile, up in Berkeley, this street sign cozy doubles as a low-tech community "msg center," where citizens can leave public announcements or notes for others who happen to be passing through the neighborhood.
One of the most common DIY beautification strategies is known as "guerrilla gardening." A gardener named Scott Bunnell has been working with others creating gorgeous, drought-tolerant spaces—like this traffic median in the Wrigley neighborhood of Long Beach—around Southern California for decades.
The luscious landscaping of this London traffic island is the work of guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds and his comrades.
Guerrilla gardening comes in all shapes and sizes. This small-scale project on a freeway off-ramp in Hollywood, California, is the work of a gardener known as Mr. Stamen and others.
These projects are only the beginning. There are examples of DIY urban design to be found in almost any city, and the idea seems to be spreading. What kind of impact DIY urban design will have in the face of the commercial and political forces that shape the city remains to be seen. But whether addressing a particular local problem, fostering community, or just beautifying a tiny corner of the city, these projects remind us that certain folks see room for improvement and just do something themselves.