DIY Urbanisms

Please post your response for: Jeffrey Hou, “(Not) your Everyday Public Space,” in Jeffrey Hou, ed., Insurgent Public Space: Guerilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities (Routledge, 2010): 1-17.

Please also check out Blaine Merker’s chapter, titled “Taking Place: Rebar’s absurd tactics in generous urbanism,” (p 45-58) in Hou’s edited book; and

Mimi Zieger’s pieces in Places: 

The Interventionist’s Toolkit I

The Interventionist’s Toolkit II: Posters, Pamphlets and Guides

The Interventionist’s Toolkit III: Our Cities, Ourselves


16 thoughts on “DIY Urbanisms

  1. Jeffrey Hou’s text “(Not) your everyday public space” brings us back to the first assigned reading for this course, David Harvey’s “The Right to the City.” Drawing from Henri Lefebvre, Harvey argued that “the freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is […] one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” (4) If public space was synonymous with democracy in ancient Greece, it is also one that excludes through power and political control. As spatial privatization has increased, traditional public space has eroded. It is not, as some authors suggest, the death of pulic space, but rather the emergence of new kinds of spaces. These new spaces, according to Hou, subvert rules and regulations of institutionalized urbanism, thereby resulting in alternative spaces. Pushing forward Harvey’s claim, Hou examines various urban interventions that restitute the initial function of public space as a forum for open discussion and expression.

    Through participation and action, insurgent public spaces emphasize the potentiality of the city as a place of civic exchanges, debates and discussions. Some tactics are temporary, others take advantage of the gaps in urban space or legislation. By appropriating, reclaiming, pluralizing, transgressing, uncovering and contesting public space, several groups not only question but attempt to transform the city. Park(ing) Day, an initiative of the San Fransisco collective Rebar, critiques spatial commodification with humour. This annual international event, celebrated in 162 cities in 2011, addresses social, ecological and artistic issues of the urban fabric. A wide range of urban interventions has developed: beyond their whimsical character, they reiterate the agency of users as essential for constituting a healthy public space. It is our responsibility, as urban dwellers but more importantly as architecture students, to be actively engaged in this reflection about tomorrow’s public space.

    Camille Bédard

  2. (Not) Your Everyday Public Space by Jeffery Hou describes the notions of creating public space by anti-authoritative acts of citizens, demonstrating examples of such deemed comparably more successful to those designed by bureaucratic non-present owners, as they respond to the actual growlingly varied needs of those inhabiting these spaces. In contemporary society, Hou gives examples of cities which preformed insurgent activities which “challenged the conventional understanding and making of public space”, in doing so creating new forms of exchange platforms. By pushing the boundaries of the “rules” urban spaces are being reclaimed and utilized in democratic ways and are thus arguably more successful.

    While I agree with this to an extent I still have to wonder if this is a utopian ideal and there is a point where there is a reason for laws as by human nature nothing could go for long without formwork evolving, at which point would it still be insurgent? In any case this “new” generation of spaces from activism can create forums that are better used, in which case would be the type of thing designers should look for when creating spaces, methods of design that are more organically formed. The artistic initiatives are great ways of opening discourse between passersby’s, so perhaps adding functions to urban spaces which are appropriable and modifiable would be an option. While these methods are interesting what is the line between expression and chaos? This idea of reclaiming the city is great when it’s a natural evolution which is generating the space, but will there always be limitations to this before it gets out of control, considering the too large a scale with too many opinions? Can we really revert back to organic notions of public space but maintain the certain level of comfort we’ve gradually been conditioned for, or can we find a balance between both?

  3. Nicki Reckziegel

    Jeffrey Hou’s edited book “Insurgent Public Space: Guerilla urbanism and the remaking of contemporary cities” begins by examining the exclusionary politics and limitations of public space that we have addressed throughout the semester. He argues that “the everyday and more vibrant urban life tends to occur the back streets and alleyways, away from official public domain.” (Hou, 4) The case studies assembled in the book aim to reveal these limitations and explore the use of “insurgency” to challenge and redefine public space, wherein there must be elements of action, struggle and occupation that have allowed a space to become truly public.

    Hou illustrates that the most dynamic and lively public spaces are created by “spontaneous events, unintended uses, and a variety of activities that defy or escape existing rules and regulations.” (Hou, 9) These are events and activities that “do not require overburdening investment or infrastructure, they enable individuals and often small groups to effect changes in the otherwise hegemonic urban landscapes.” (Hou, 15) It involves a non-commercial re-appropriation of the public sphere.

    Hou mentions the use of new technologies, namely social networking, in mass-mobilization and perpetuating action globally. Rebar, a San Francisco-based collective of artists, activists, and designers, also confirm that the “secondary experience”, those who learn of the work through images and descriptions spread by memes online, is essential because it “influences people’s notions of what is possible and acceptable in public space,” (Merker, 54) encouraging people to stage their own “insurgencies.”

    These new possibilities and alternative uses in public space reflect on the concept of public space as a democratic realm that existed in antiquity; including a new focus on an ethnically diverse and heterogeneous public sphere. Most importantly, these are individual actions effected in the “loopholes”, “cracks” and “niche spaces” pre-existent in the urban environment. As Ruth Keffer wrote for DIY Urbanism: “who: you / what: change / where: the city / when: now / how: do it yourself.”

    The question then is how do we, as architects, ensure that we are effectuating “generous urbanism” and not “paternalistic generosity” (in a similar vein to “heroic” design)?

  4. As Camille mentioned, Hou refers to several elements from our first reading this semester, including the constant struggle behind public spaces and the issues of exclusion public spheres inevitably entail. If I recall, we debated in class on similar questions as Hou’s: ‘Given all the historic limitations and contemporary setbacks, is it still possible to imagine a public space that is open and inclusive?’. I wonder sometimes if it is possible to even plan such places. It is in a way quite paradoxical to be designing a non-exclusive public space. Architects and urban planners always design with intentions in mind, we design for our perceived definition of the public. Also, when designing public spaces such as a square, or a park, we are shaping the possible social interactions and encounters. By defining them, we are inevitably inhibiting the opportunity for alternative social relations.

    In ‘(Not) your everyday public space’, insurgent spaces are described as ‘a site of potentiality, difference, and delightful encounters’ which reflects the potential behind this auxiliary way of place making. Such spaces require the input of the residents rather than the sole vision of the architect. Public spaces are rendered successful from their occupation, from what people make of it. As an architect, when dealing with public spaces, it sometimes feel like we are struggling with a complex conundrum. We must design them while maintaining some openness, some freedom for these impromptu urban moments to take place. Hou talks about hybrid public spaces where both private and public such as the community gardens in American cities. Although it is not specifically mentioned, I think hybrid can also refer to the design process, and how cities, architects, organization, residents work together in the shaping of public spaces.

  5. Hou’s article gives a brief sampling of projects that shape the different stories of spatial resistance. These ‘insurgent public spaces’ challenge conventional views of how urban areas are defined and used, and how they can transform the city environment. No longer confined to traditional public areas like neighbourhood parks and public plazas, these guerrilla spaces express the alternative social and spatial relationships in our changing cities. Jeffrey Hou expands and re-defines insurgent public space to include ‘self-made’ urban spaces, temporary events, and even ‘flash mob’ spaces wherein this guerilla urbanism begins to foster “smaller yet grander” public spaces. The paper features many case studies demonstrating how marginalized and under-represented groups are now staking claims in the public realm.

    The group Rebar had a very successful project called PARK(ing) wherein the designers identified several ideal sunny locations that were allocated for street-side parking areas and reprogrammed them by leasing a metered parking spot for public recreational activity. This project has evolved into several similar projects around the world, effectively re-valuing the metered parking space as an important part of the commons – a site for generosity, cultural expression, socializing and play.
    I wonder how much of an impact 2 hours of re-appropriating the parking spots will have towards reclaiming public space. What if this act were to continue for the entire day or even weeks? Is generating ‘curious looks from passer-bys’ enough to encourage public discourse revolving around reclaiming undervalued public spaces?

  6. The public sphere as a space for democracy is an interesting notion that the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, puts forward in “The Structural Transformation of Public Sphere.” In Habermas tradition the public sphere includes both the physical public space as well as the communicative space i.e. virtual, social media, media. Thus, the power of public space is immense for citizens to have a democratic voice. Public space as a contested space in the context of architecture and urban design with shared infrastructure has historical roots both in western and non-western societies. It is only now through contemporary actions that we see this notion re-surface to create shifts/changes in the public parks, plazas and streets, as Romand Coles says, the “capillaries of democracy.” Hou, presents examples of self-made urban spaces as interventions, “that have provided new expressions of the collective realms in the contemporary city” from which we can understand the possibilities of such an action in the public realm.
    The current era of unpredictability both in economic as well cultural milieu offers unique opportunities for citizens to re-act in ways that can change the course of urban environments. In an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-national setting new tactics need to be encouraged by grass roots community activists who can bring attention to the challenges of our times. Emerging architects, designers, urbanists and artists are at a unique position to influence and challenge the status quo and offer alternative means of creating change for social good. Civil Society has tremendous opportunities to take charge of their own destiny and solve problems in the built environment – as a grass roots movement rather than top down approach which is often not sustainable. This is what MIMI ZEIGER, in the Interventionist’s toolkit refers to as Provisional, Opportunistic, Ubiquitous, and Odd Tactics in Guerilla and DIY Practice and Urbanism.
    Art critic Michael Kimmelman, New York Times article entitled “D.I.Y. Culture,” wrote, “[C]ulture (often unconsciously) identifies crucial ruptures, rifts, gaps and shifts in society. It is indispensable for our understanding of the mechanics of the world in this respect, pointing us toward those things around us that are unstable, changing, that shape how we live and how we treat one another. If we’re alert to it, it helps reveal who we are to ourselves, often in ways we didn’t realize in places we didn’t necessarily think to look.” Thus, at this unique moment in history of human development, it is upon the new generation of architects, designer’s urbanists to offer new and uniques ways to address our challenges.

  7. Tanya
    In his article “(Not) your everyday public space” Hou explores the question of whether it is possible still, in our contemporary urban environment, to imagine a public space that is open and inclusive. Indeed, as ‘public’ space becomes increasingly regulated and privatized, individuals and communities respond by creating their own public space through direct challenges to these modes of regulation and privatization. Hou uses the concept of ‘Insurgent public space’ to define and articulate these expressions of ‘alternative social and spatial relationships’.

    Hou’s article celebrates these everyday attacks on ‘the official public sphere’, those ‘small yet persistent challenges against the increasingly regulated, privatized, and diminishing forms of public space’. He argues that although these efforts are temporary, often modest in scale, they are not isolated, but rather part of a broader movement committed to testing the limitations and possibilities of the public realm.

    Hou’s interests and research spans several disciplines (art, architecture, landscape architecture) and engages several actors (architects, artists, activists, scholars, community groups) as both individuals and communities across geographic boundaries. What comes out of this article in particular, and ultimately his full compilation, is the question of boundaries of activist practice – especially in the field of architecture. While the architect engages in these acts of insurgency as a citizen, what is the place for the profession? How does activism expand our idea of architecture, and its role in city building, and who are the actors? Are these ‘small yet persistent challenges’ fleeting or transformative? Are they able to effect lasting change?

  8. Mylène Carrière:

    Jeffrey Hou’s article “(Not) your everyday public sphere”, and also through his book “Insurgent Public Space: Guerilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities”, is tacking the idea of Guerilla Urbanism and the public space. He is introducing the reading with basic principle previously seen like private and public, exclusion and accession, control and state. Guerilla Urbanism is an activist method that is thinking of the citizen as the main actor. The Citizen is challenge in making public space that defies conventional rules and regulations and redefines boundaries of the public sphere.

    In relations to the other readings, especially the ones from Mimi Zeiger, “The Interventionist’s Toolkit”, we see the relation of guerilla urbanism with a bigger and broader concept; DIY [Do it Yourself]. The DIY is mainly acting in four fields. First, there is the street, where citizens reclaim it. Second, there is the garden movement, where citizens appropriate vacant plot to be closer to their food production. Third, there is the more art driven one. The introduction of Hou’s text with the pig is a good example of reclaiming public space through art. Last, there is the Market one, where people are studying the possible market of DIY, especially in San Francisco where a lot of interventions are based.

    All these type of activism are often bringing the question of who is doing it? Is there a difference between a citizen that reclaim an empty plot and a corporation? To me there is one. The ideas of privatization and exclusion are highly present in corporation. But, what if the corporation is working to make social change. Does the corporation can become a legitimate actor?

  9. Newsha Ghaeli:

    As already mentioned on this discussion board, Hou’s position recalls some discussions we have already had in class. Hou begins by illustrating the “small yet persistent challenges against the increasingly regulated, privatized, and diminishing forms of public space.” As a class we debated this viewpoint and, looking at examples such as the People’s Park in Berkeley, we asserted that spaces within the city dedicated to ‘public space’ were, in fact, designed to fit the needs and ideals of a certain elite.

    Hou follows this by introducing the notion of ‘insurgent public spaces’ where citizens and communities occupy and convert residual urban sites to meet certain needs – whether those of a collective or a small group – that they would otherwise be unable to perform in city designated ‘public spaces’. Insurgent public spaces challenge the traditional notion of public and the traditional methods of making space. Hou identifies these instances of self-made public spaces as created by predominantly marginalized communities. Examples of this can be seen around North America, where many cities find themselves home to an influx of a particular cultural or religious group. Initially, these cities lack some of the infrastructure customary by these groups of individuals – infrastructure that is widespread in their countries of origin.

    For example, the neighbourhood of Jamaica in Queens, New York City was previously a predominantly African American neighbourhood, however in recent years it has undergone a sharp and substantial influx of South East Asians, Indians, and Arabs. The neighbourhood was largely unprepared for the cultural and religious needs of this population – such as large prayer sites – which left local school football fields to host the end or Ramadan prayers. Since, the Jamaica Muslim Center has been opened attracting more and more Muslim immigrants, leaving the Center today unable to meet the needs of the entire populous. These situations highlight the limitations and possibilities of public realm in our contemporary city, as posed by Hou.

    The demographic of the contemporary city has never been more diverse, yet our infrastructure and public spaces remain relatively exclusionary. Or rather, they have been developed with the goal of social and cultural integration, and Hou identifies that our parks and playgrounds as “designed to assimilate immigrants into the mainstream American culture.” As Sideris puts it, the “contemporary American neighbourhood park does not always meet the needs of all segments of the public.”

  10. Yousef Farasat:

    In the first chapter of his book “Insurgent Public Space: Guerilla urbanism and the remaking of contemporary cities”, Jeffery Hou contends that “Insurgent public spaces”, created by “spontaneous events, unintended uses, and a variety of activities that defy or escape existing rules and regulations”, have challenged the “conventional codified notion” of the public space (neighborhood parks, public plazas, civic spaces), which Hou argues have long excluded certain social groups from the public domain. Hou for instance explains how “contemporary American neighborhood parks do not always meet the needs of all segments of the public”.

    Building on Hou’s arguments, the issues of financing, management and ownership have had a huge impact on the role of these conventional public spaces. In recent years, through mostly public-private partnerships, private entities have significantly increased their influence on the design and access to these archetypal pubic spaces. In terms of design, one can simply look at the recent design of the Quartier des Spectacles in Montreal, which was heavily influenced by the need and demands of the Astral group and the Montreal Jazz festival. Similar cases can also be found in other cities. In New York for instance, the contribution of the Tisch Family seems to have to been highly influential on the redesign of Washington Square Park. In terms of access, the constant need to seek additional sources of funding by private management companies has also led to a reduction of public rights. The organizing of high-profit, exclusive events, such as the New York fashion week in Bryant park New York, valueless to the large majority of the park’s users, is a very typical example of the erosion of the public’s universal right of access to these spaces.

  11. Jeffrey Hou’s, (Not) you everyday public space, seems to summarize a number of the discussions we have had so far in our seminars. The author underlines the exclusivity inherent to public spaces with Capitalist agendas; he then emphasizes a sort of sub-culture smaller-scale community-launched typology of public space. At the beginning of the text he states, “By delineating what constitutes public and private and by designating membership to specific social groups, the official public space has been exclusionary” (p.3). His opinion on the matter is quite clear; he sees no real social fruitfulness emerging from such environments. According to Hou’s understanding, in a world where the “private and personal have been taken precedence over public and impersonal” (p.6), the freedom of public space can exist only through struggle and vigilance. He speaks in depth of how our society has turned “complex, multiuse public space into a one-dimensional venue for consumption.” (p.7). In this sense, by limiting public functions, we have limited the potential of public space.

    I believe then that it is for this reason that Hou turns his attention to less formal types of public spaces, what is referred to in the text as “insurgent.” Again the author emphasizes the idea necessary struggle defining true public space. The struggle in this instance is against public spaces that are controlled and maintained by an elite power. He lists these rebellious instances as follows: appropriation, reclaiming, pluralizing, transgression, uncovering and contesting.

    Hou concludes the article with a sort of note to all those responsible and/or partaking in the act of developing public space and cityscapes. I believe his message is that, as designers, we should acknowledge the emergence and need of true public space; we should, therefore, try to foresee its occurrence and incorporate a larger variety of individuals in our decision making; or, at the very least, we should try to allow for these insurgent spaces to occur more freely within the city. The problem, however, is that by allowing for such spaces to occur freely, we remove from them their raison-d’être, their rebellion…

  12. In (Not) Your Everyday Public Space, Jeffrey Hou explained the character of contemporary public spaces becoming excessively controlled, and reminds us about the charming and lively atmosphere of the historical back alleys that are disappearing. Hou also references various social movements where people gain control of certain public spaces for congregation.

    Informal attempts are constantly made to reappropriate and recondition public spaces; these experimentations offer an insight as to the future potential of transforming public space to adapt to different kinds of socially produced function. Hou specifically referenced the usage of technologies as a tool to organize social functions in a massive scale. Technologies have made it possible to experiment new means of transforming public spaces. The emergence of new functions in social spaces are the manifestations through these experimentational events. The occurrence of these events reflects the people’s desire to regain control over the public space, not only as a space for socialization, but also as a focal point in the society to verify their social values.

    It is fair to say that unpredictablility contributes to the success of these new emerging social spaces, when the initiators overcome “control” and create chaos to get the attention to the media. With the aid of technologies, social space transformations become increasingly difficult to predict, and the role of design also becomes increasingly unpredictable. Predictions are involved in design, but when people are unpredictable, how do architects and planners speculate what is best for the public?

  13. Hou argues that an erosion of public life and public space is taking place, and that ‘the private and personal have taken precedence over the public and impersonal’ (Hou 7). He states that public space is only truly public if it is linked to an idea of struggle and contestation.

    Place des Arts in Montreal is an example of a public space that has been overly controlled, and where ‘the privatization and commercialization of space has turned our complex, multi use public space into a one-dimensional venue for consumption’ (Hou 7). It only becomes lively when it houses commercial and corporate shows or installations. Without these various undemocratic events, it is completely abandoned by the public. Art can not emerge in a controlled environment. The ‘Tacheles’ artist squatter community in Berlin is a good example of how illegitimacy is often what makes art and artistic communities interesting.

    If planning a space formalizes it it and defines it, how do we design undefined spaces that are suited for challenging regulations and for spontaneous and unintended events? Can we design spaces that would be highly flexible and that would allow for a wide range of spontaneaous activities, and for the unplanned to happen? Is there a way to do so without designing generic or modular spaces? Is a flexible space disposable?

  14. Jeffrey Hou claims that the 8 foot pig that mysteriously appeared in Fremont, Seattle represents an attack on the official public sphere. As a social and artistic statement, the pig “gives meanings to the full notion of publicity in a public space.” In common speech, “publicity” is most often referred to in the frame of marketing, as a dissemination of information to a “general public.” However, I believe that this small example is symptomatic of an increased interest in such “stunts,” as a part of a struggle against increasingly regulated, privatized, and diminished forms of public space. The mantra of “any press is good press” seems to be fully in force, as artists and designers increasingly take to the streets to make a point. Many of these smaller installations depend on transmission through viral media: that a parking space converted into a park can become international news hinges largely on the internet. While public space is considered “an expression of power and a subject of political control,” such publicity stunts can be perceived as propaganda: treating the idea of a public space rather than the actual materiality of it. Early reform parks in the states aimed to assimilate new immigrants to American culture with provisions for organized play, perfectly framing America’s pastime. Cities have, in the last few decades, made a conscious effort to transform downtown districts into “themed malls” and “festival marketplaces,” projecting a desired ideal of a city rather than reflecting its realities. Artists such as Banksy claim to use the city as a form of guerilla warfare to decentralize power from a controlling city. But to whom does this new power go- Banksy’s name as an artist has been forged from these struggles. As Watson claims: “public space is always in some sense, in a state of emergence, never complete and always contested.” But I feel as though there is a need to move beyond publicity stunts. There are problems in the current state of public space. But it is time for artists and designers to begin to propose solutions, rather than repainting the problems ad infinitum.

  15. Alexandre Hamel

    In “Insurgent Public Space” Jeffrey Hou’s criticizes the degradation of public life in our contemporary society and its effects on the quality of public spaces. Following on Mitchell argument, he states that ‘it is through the actions and purposeful occupation of a space that it becomes public.’ In order to generate this kind of activity, a space must be flexible enough so that the public is compelled to interact and take control of the environment. Such spaces of social justice often become the stage for revolutionary movements and anti-capitalist ideologies – the opportunity for the public to claim equity or simply to take back what belongs or should belong to them by transforming, altering or occupying a physical site. These spontaneous events and ephemeral micro revolutions have become more and more frequent to the point that they are now to be expected. Citizens are no longer the sole users of that strategy to raise awareness of a specific issue or attract the attention of the media. The underground, spontaneous pop-up events are now becoming more mainstream and often used by corporations nowadays as a marketing strategy. A good example of that was brought up in class comparing reclaiming the streets with Paris plage.

    I also think that a really interesting point has been raised earlier in the discussion about spaces that are designed for events and festival like place des arts but which don’t function as social spaces for interaction without the activities. What is the role of the designer in that context? Should we design as flexibly as possible to allow for the spontaneous or let the users figure it out? Careful minimal design or passive laissez-aller?

  16. The Article edited by Jeffrey Hou, ‘Insurgent Public Space”, circulates through series of examples where public space has increasingly become less about the expression of the citizen and more about a controlled dimension of the city, where publicity is exemplified by “leisure and consumption where nothing unpredictable must occur”.

    Hou finds comfort in the ‘Insurgent public space: momentary ruptures and everyday struggles’ that take a stand, even within their short exposure, against the privatization and otherwise domination of public space. Hou further extends the argument by stating that alternatively to the conventional public gathering as an evocation of concerned citizens, technology has aided in congregating the masses by extending the notion of the public realm to the contemporary virtual realm that we are all subject to.

    Hou quotes Mitchel and Watson:

    “[The idea of public space] has never been guaranteed; it has only been won through concerted struggle” (Mitchel l 2003:5). Similarly, Watson (2006:7) argues, “public space is always in some sense, in a state of emergence, never complete and always contested.” Mitchell (2003:5) further argues that struggle “is the only way that the right to public space can be maintained and only way that social justice can be advanced.” To him, it is through the actions and purposeful occupation of a space that it becomes public.

    It seems to me, having read the many examples provided by Hou of the uprising of the public to maintain the public consensus, that as long as there is an invested interest by the masses, space will be found in the city to display their concern. I feel it is within the “public” spaces of the city that are so controlled and confined by privatization or state that the public will find grounds to demonstrate. The designer can aspire to create democratic spaces for the public, however I feel it is the mass that inevitably deems what spaces are truly public within the city.

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