Do-It-Yourself Urban Design: The Social Practice of Informal “Improvement” Through Unauthorized Alteration

Gordon C. C. Douglas

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

civic design , DIY , gentrification , guerilla greening , informal , installation , intervention , public art , streetscape , tactical urbanism

There are numerous ways in which people make illegal or unauthorized alterations to urban space. This study identifies and analyzes one that has been largely ignored in social science: explicitly functional and civic-minded informal contributions that I call “do-it-yourself urban design.” The research, which began as an investigation into more “traditional” nonpermissable alterations, uncovered these cases—from homemade bike lanes and street signs to guerrilla gardens and development proposals—that are gaining visibility in many cities, yet are poorly accounted for by existing perspectives in the literature. This article examines the existing theories and evidence from interviews and other fieldwork in 14 cities in order to develop the new analytical category of DIY urban design. I present findings on the creators of these interventions, on their motivations to “improve” the built environment where they perceive government and other development actors to be failing, and on the concentration of their efforts in gentrifying areas. This introduces the possibility of conflict and complicates their impact. I argue that DIY urban design has wide-ranging implications for both local communities and broader urban policy.

Main finding
Do-it-yourself (DIY) urban design seeks to improve the built environment without getting formal permission in response to a perceived unmet need. These projects are creative, civil minded, and functional. Three categories of DIY contributions were identified: guerilla greening, spontaneous streetscaping, and aspirational urbanism (through which residents express alternative policy or development ideas). Destruction, politics, and self-promotion were not found to be major motivators of DIY projects. The projects are meant to have a positive and functional effect on the built environment. The creators of these projects felt they could specifically fix a spatial issue in the community and attempted to do so. However, the DIY nature and style of the changes is based largely on the opinion of the creator. The projects do not necessarily reflect the opinions and wants of the community at large. Additionally, given that most of the ‘do-it-yourselfers’ studied were new residents of the ‘creative class’ and were acting in urban areas of uneven investment and development, DIY projects may help to perpetuate gentrification, similar to formalized, approved urban design projects.

Description of method used in the article
Eighteen individuals in New York, London, and Los Angeles were interviewed in 2010 on many different kinds of unapproved urban design projects. Some practices did not align with the existing research, so forty-nine additional individuals specifically involved in DIY urban design were interviewed. Research also included photoethnography, participant observation, and background research regarding participants and contexts. Fieldwork was conducted in New York, L.A., Chicago, Phoenix, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Vancouver. Individuals and projects in Baltimore, Seattle, Dallas, Raleigh, and the San Francisco Bay Area were also studied without site-visits. In total, fifty-seven ‘do-it-yourselfers’ were interviewed, representing fifty-five DIY urban design projects.

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