My friend Jay recently asked me to do a post about guerrilla urbanism, specifically whether it is a form of selfish vandalism or community-supportive activism. This is a topic that fascinates me so I hope I can pass on some of that excitement to you. First, a crash course in guerrilla urbanism. The guerrilla urbanism movement initiates renovation in public spaces to improve cities and invite public discussion about the ways our cities have been constructed, especially in the areas of transportation and walkability. It is not a bounded movement but rather a series of ideas that are being implemented all over the world, often as a quick way to test more permanent developments within cities. These ideas include:
“Open streets” wherein roadways are reclaimed for temporary (and sometimes permanent) pedestrian use.
Bike lanes painted by residents of a city without permission from the government.
“Pop-up shops” wherein entrepreneurs build stands or utilize vacant buildings to sell their wares for a short amount of time (a day or a week).
Guerrilla gardening in which subversive citizens “seed bomb” a vacant dirt lot or plant flowers in an empty area.
And a lot more.
One of the key assets of guerrilla urbanism is its element of surprise. I would never think to paint my own bike lane in a street, even if it’s one that I travel down frequently with cars whipping dangerously close to me. Yet guerrilla urbanism invites this subversive act. Guerrilla urbanism says, “Don’t wait for someone else to fix it. Do it yourself.” Jay pointed out a perfect example of this do-it-yourself spirit in Washington DC a few months ago. It turns out that the hundreds of flowers blooming next to an escalator down to the Dupont Circle subway station were actually planted by “phantom planter,” Henry Doctor—a DC resident and artist who wanted to beautify an otherwise dreary concrete slab for the thousands of people who passed by it every day.
At this point, I hope your curiosity is piqued. Who doesn’t love a little rule-breaking…especially in the name of progress? So now we’re back to the initial question: Does guerrilla urbanism invite positive, collective change into our cities, or is it merely disruptive shenanigans? Perhaps it would be helpful to draw a comparison between guerrilla urbanism and that other controversial urban medium: graffiti. Throughout history, graffiti has served as a way for communities to speak out against the establishment, a method for marking group territory, a form of artistic expression, and also as an outpouring of hatred and destruction. Some examples of graffiti fit into more than one of these categories while others remain firmly in the final category. Does guerrilla urbanism appear to coincide more with the activist side of graffiti—political artwork on the Berlin Wall crying out for reunification and outraged pleas for government aid painted onto abandoned houses in post-Katrina New Orleans, for instance? Or does guerrilla urbanism lean in the direction of bigotry and selfish violence—as seen in spray-painted gang symbols and homophobic slurs pasted onto LGBT shelters?
From where I stand, guerrilla urbanism looks disruptive and subversive, yes. It is even sometimes performed by stealthy individuals under cover of darkness. But unlike hateful graffiti, it does not seek to exclude anyone nor is it in opposition to anything (except perhaps bureaucracy). Guerrilla urbanism is a creative force, not a destructive one—an activist approach to improving the spaces that belong to all of us. Even if the original motivations for, say, installing temporary seating at bus stops, derive from one or two people who are simply fed up with standing to wait for the bus every day after work—suddenly elderly neighbors and parents doing their grocery shopping with tired kids have a place to sit. I won’t naively praise such acts as revolutionary, or claim that they have the power to solve the ingrained problems in our cities, but I have to admire the can-do spirit of guerrilla urbanists tackling small issues in concrete ways. These are the acts that build a movement. They reorient our vision of the city.
Guerrilla urbanist endeavors were not initially sanctioned by the government; turning roads into sidewalks and setting up shop in vacant buildings is illegal in most cities. Gradually though, some municipal governments have accepted these projects after witnessing the positive public reception that they garner. Others have gone further and initiated such projects themselves, one of the most famous examples being the pedestrianization of Times Square in New York City. Despite prominent models though, guerrilla urbanist tactics remain subject to censure by local governments. Those flowers at the Dupont Circle station? The Transit Authority paid several workers to yank every last one out of the ground. In other instances, the guerrilla renovation of private lots has been halted by their owners, even when the lots appear vacant or abandoned.
We’re dealing with a tricky tension between public and private ownership, between the people who control a city through money and politics, and the residents whose lives are affected daily by their decisions. Guerrilla urbanists take these matters into their own hands with a brand of activism that refuses to be ignored, and one that has the potential to change our cities for the better.
What do you think? Is this a productive, collective movement or a series of self-interested exploits? Please share your opinion.
“Right-sizing the street not just for the DOT anymore” from Project for Public Service: