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DIY Urbanism Makes Creative Use of Public Spaces

As the economy continues to take big bites out of arts and city planning budgets, this bottom-up approach is changing the look of some cities. Are governments ready to embrace these grassroots ideas?

David Colburn
Last July, I was visiting my mother, who lives in Oakland, Calif., when I began spotting small wooden blocks attached to the base of telephone poles. Each block had a miniature painting of a gnome on it. They were everywhere in her neighborhood. I asked my mother about them and she said they had just started showing up one day. Nobody seemed to know who had put them there or why.

Graffiti? Not really. Guerrilla art? Perhaps. Small public images of gnomes at the base of utility poles may seem whimsical, but they are a subset of a much larger movement known as “DIY urbanism.” In recent years, as the economy has taken a big bite out of arts budgets and city planning efforts, do-it-yourselfers have increasingly stepped into the picture, setting up temporary parks, installing public furniture, painting bike lanes and displaying art in empty buildings or, as in Oakland, in unusual locations.

Helping these projects take hold and gain popularity is the Internet, social media and a groundswell of public interest in urbanism. What seemed like a fad grown out of fiscal distress has become a distinct, possibly game-changing trend. “Our current recession is inspiring its own strategies and tactics: It’s increasingly a catch-all for a host of urban interventions,” writes Mimi Zeiger, editor and publisher of Loud Paper, a blog on architecture and culture.

Unlike government’s top-down approach to planning, DIY urbanism (also called “tactical urbanism”) is usually bottom-up with an emphasis on creative uses for public spaces. It also tends to be inexpensive. Converting parking spaces into miniature parks doesn’t cost much. The same goes for urban farms in abandoned lots, Dumpster pools or mini golf courses built from scratch. There’s even a trend toward building little libraries in cities. When the Occupy Movement moved into New York City’s Zuccotti Park in 2011, one of the temporary structures the protesters set up was a library. Since then, little libraries have popped up in phone booths, mailboxes, public parks and train stations, according to Shannon Mattern, a faculty member in the School of Media Studies at the New School in New York City.

The enthusiasm for DIY urbanism has led to its inevitable mainstreaming. The idea of parklets [Read "Parklets: The Next Big Tiny Idea in Urban Planning"] has gained traction and has been embraced by a number of city governments. There’s the grand example of New York City’s Department of Transportation turning a portion of Times Square into a pedestrian park. And San Francisco, home to some of the most vibrant forms of DIY urbanism, has launched a website that guides residents through all the bureaucratic processes necessary to create bike corrals, guerrilla gardens, art installations, sidewalk fixtures, permits for car-free events and, of course, parklets.

Will DIY urbanism spread beyond pop-up parks, pools and libraries, to the heart of how cities make decisions on where and how to build bridges, roads and schools? Stay tuned.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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