Taking DIY Urbanism to the Classroom

If we look back 10 years, the words popup, tactical and temporary were seldom used in city building and urban design. Traditionally, when designing for the city and for people, these terms were considered ‘out of place’. Today however, they are often injected in project meetings, at public lectures and for that matter, any discussion based on making better places for people. These words reference a worldwide movement towards Do-It-Yourself Urbanism (DIY Urbanism) and a design approach that leverages off local talent and considers the temporary, evolving and organic nature of our urban environment.


Local DIY Urbanism projects about Sydney

When I think DIY, I think graffiti, community gardens and yarn bombing, but I also think of more formal structures including the Venice Biennale, Serpentine Gallery and the New York City Department of Transportation. These organisations continue to support the many benefits of DIY and highlight potential for balancing temporary gestures with more permanent change.

A popular and broad view of DIY Urbanism is that it responds to ‘cracks’ in the urban environment and is generated when tension develops within a space between the normative and chaotic elements of that place. Some general characteristics of DIY include; an intervention, locally-led or ‘bottom up’; a latent sense of activism for reclaiming the community’s ‘right to the city’; an element of illegality and a generally temporal nature of interventions; a strong community development ethos which can give rise to local governance; little or no cost to implement interventions; and the often explicit (but sometimes tacit), creativity-based renovation of small-scale urban spaces.

In many ways, DIY Urbanism has always been an important facet of human culture. It has always been present in one form or another, it’s just that today, we have formalised the process and distilled the definition further to reference either guerrilla acts of urban intervention or strategic and tactical urbanism.  This separation has enabled DIY Urbanism to be incorporated into mainstream design practices and while going against its very nature, ‘controlled’ in one form or another.

An example of tactical urbanism, and a growing worldwide movement in its own right, is the ‘Better Block’ initiative.  The Better Block project is a demonstration tool that acts as a living charrette so that communities can actively engage in the buildout process and provide feedback in real time. In 2013, two Better Block projects, at Geelong and Clovelly, were staged in Australia with more planned in 2014. An important component of both projects was the coordination with local authorities to witness local pride in place and develop strategies based on community support, prioritised needs and design opportunities.


Better Block Project Map

The growing emphasis of DIY considerations within the design process is also being recognised at the tertiary level.  In January 2014, the University of New South Wales Faculty of Built Environment ran an intensive interdisciplinary course focused on DIY Urbanism. The first of its kind, the course titled ‘Contemporary Issues in Urbanism’ explored the DIY concept by focusing on Detroit and Sydney and looking at other contemporary urban issues including the post industrial city, gentrification and new media.

Over 2 intense weeks, the course discussed, reviewed and critically analysed the role of DIY Urbanism with some interesting results. One outcome was the importance of a strong vision and collaboration with other built professionals when designing for spaces regardless of an incorporated DIY element. Another outcome was ‘not just doing DIY for DIY sake’ but where appropriate consider DIY only if it responds to a social or economic void and complements long term design improvements.


On Site discussing Contemporary Issues in Urbanism

In the future, the value of DIY Urbanism within different contexts will become more apparent as the human scale of design is reemphasised and rediscovered. Not only will design practitioners be more savvy with using DIY as a tool for better design outcomes, but the public too will want a say on what improvements are most needed.  This will hopefully keep the DIY movement strong, authentic and meaningful. Its purpose to highlight opportunities, build social capital and respond to the organic, evolving nature of our cities.

Catch up on the conversation and see all the images from the course via the BENV6731 Twitter and Instagram feeds. Contemporary Issues in Urbanism was delivered by John O’Callaghan and Laura Crommelin and will return to UNSW in 2015. Thank you to John O’Callaghan for writing the above article and for sharing his expertise. John is an Urban Planner specialising in social activation, community engagement and new media. He is based in Sydney, Australia.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on DIY Urbanism and its impact on the modern city? If you have any opinions or references to other great DIY projects please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.


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