Archives for category: DIY Urbanism


I’ve been in Switzerland for a couple of days – at a symposium organised by the Collegium Helveticum ‘Laboratorium für Transdisziplina­rität’ at ETH Zurich.  I rather liked a short discussion after a presentation by Juval Portugali, who was talking about cities through the lens of complexity and self-organisation theories.  It went something like this:

Audience member:  If we conceptualise cities in the ways you have outlined, does it mean we can still talk sensibly about planning for the future?

Juval: in fact, it highlights the fact that cities are hives of endless ongoing planning.  All of us make plans all the time.  Studies show that we are almost never in the ‘here and now’ – our minds are either reflecting on the past or speculating about the future.  To plan is to be human.


I like the way this sets up an interesting hall of mirrors.  By extension, from the perspective of the complexity theorist, all attempts at governing might potentially be seen as emergent phenomena like any others.  We can possibly trace the process of the emergence of plans, policies and institutions, but we can never fully predict them, or what their effects will be.  And formal ‘planning’ itself is just a tiny part of the way that a city’s inhabitants attempt to shape the future to their own end – in fact the very notion of ‘urban planning’ would appear as little more than a relatively recent, parochial idea.  However, for the planner (professional or everyday), complexity can only ever be a problem – something that necessarily has to be ignored – and might be seen as essentially a rather unhelpful ‘story’ through which some feel the need to explain the world at the moment.

Zurich, 4 May 2018


Large tower blocks. They have a commanding public presence, but sometimes don’t look too appealing.  And yet, when the money available for their upkeep is limited, it may seem problematic to prioritise aesthetic improvements. (Plenty of people have suggested that London’s ill-fated Grenfell Tower had been renovated primarily with the gaze of its more wealthy neighbours in mind.)

Well, I had a free day in Gdańsk, so I visited the Zaspa housing estate, on the city’s outskirts.  By all accounts, this was a fairly grim-looking place in the old days. But the blocks were all renovated in the early 2000s: this involved installing thermal insulation and painting the buildings in pastel colours. I think the outcome still looks a little austere, but it’s much better than grey concrete.

lBut what to do with those big blank walls at the end of buildings? Large murals have slowly covered these – signed and dated by their artists, rather than as graffiti. In fact, I went there because a leaflet in my hotel included Zaspa’s murals in a list of ‘The Best of Gdańsk’ – alongside the usual medieval buildings, churches and museums.  I didn’t have a guide, so I may have missed the most interesting examples, but these photos should give you a sense of the place:


Perhaps these murals cost the local housing authorities nothing at all (I don’t know – perhaps artists would be happy to pay for their own materials if their work can be displayed on huge canvasses like this). In any case, I’m struggling to think of who loses out from this initiative.  And it was interesting to compare Zaspa with other blocks of flats not too far away, whose ends face the main road, and instead display large advertisements for new property and holidays. A rather different way of adding interest to a wall, with a rather different affective outcome.




Gdańsk, 23 August 2017

Kin la poubelle

Increasingly, we live in a world where nothing makes any sense. Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell us stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality.  But those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow.

(Opening words from Adam Curtis’ (2015) film, Bitter Lake)

Over the last decade, attempts have been made to counter urban theory’s traditional focus on large cities of the global north. Understanding ‘cityness’, it is argued, should entail a broadening of the frame of reference far beyond such untypical ‘global cities’ as London, Paris, Tokyo, New York, and so on. The city of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a focus for some of this ‘decentring’ activity; it is “often invoked, used, and abused, as a trope to represent the quintessential postcolonial city” (De Boeck, 2012). And earlier this week I heard Filip De Boeck give a superb talk at UCL about life in Kinshasa, as part of the Power and Space in the City series of workshops.

He began by commenting that Kinshasa contains almost no buildings of architectural interest, and effectively no infrastructure. Or, at least, for most people, no functioning infrastructure. Those services which are provided are unreliable; in fact, it is not meaningful to talk about ‘disruptions’ to services, both in the sense that disruption is the norm, and because for many people it is precisely in disruptions that opportunities arise. Institutional attempts to ‘plan’ the city only play a minor shaping role in the urban space which results. Far more significant is an ongoing “random” occupation of space, characterised by uncertainty, improvisation and constant renegotiation; De Boeck (2011:271) suggests that it is precisely the

organic approach to the production of the city and its spaces that enables Kinois to survive at all…And many activities in the city become possible not because there is a well-developed infrastructure available to sustain them but, rather, because that infrastructure is not there, or only exists through its paucity.

Potholes in the road, for example, are welcomed since they can be filled in on behalf of motorists, in return for a tip.  (The potholes are then deliberately recreated every evening.)  In another example we were shown, there was no particular incentive for a group of stall-holders to fix a leak in an adjacent sewage pipe; this creates a permanent muddy patch forcing pedestrians to divert from the road and walk past their stalls, and thus become potential customers.

In Kinshasa, it is impossible to plan ahead. Residents often comment that “nothing has any meaning”; they can only make it up as they go along. They can only proceed by being open to possibilities, by being skilful “at being flexible, at opening up to this ‘unexpected’, that often reveals itself outside the known pathways that constitute urban life as most in the Global North know it” (ibid:272). There is no reward for imagining this way of life as linear: it constantly reveals itself as iterative, emergent, unpredictable. Causality only becomes clear retrospectively. Everything is pragmatic.

Now, any story of a city can only ever be a partial one. But I was wondering whether (my reconstructed version of) this particular story allows us to conceive of the people of Kinshasa as oppressed. In a different story, we might paint the Kinois as victims of global structural forces, or we might see the neglect of the state, or the arbitrariness of its workings, as itself oppressive. But that’s not what I’m getting at. Rather, that if Kinshasa in this reading constitutes a parable for the way we increasingly seem to interpret the world more generally – as something which can no longer be rationally understood or intentionally planned, and probably never could be – then the question of oppression becomes meaningless. In this way of thinking, everything just is (or, rather, becomes). There is no structure which can be complied with or transgressed; no basis on which justice, normativity, or ethics can be grounded. It is tempting therefore to ask if we even should be telling stories of this type. Rather problematically, however, this question itself is rendered senseless by the story.

And yet I seem to have set up a rather unfair binary choice here: between an illusion of modernity on the one hand, and a truth of ungovernable flux on the other; between the oppression of the concentration camp and the freedom of the slum. I’d like to think these are not the only choices we can make.

20 February 2015, London


Curtis, A. (Director) (2015).  Bitter Lake.  BBC Productions.

De Boeck, F. (2012). Infrastructure: Commentary from Filip De Boeck. Cultural Anthropology. Online Curated Collections. Available from: (accessed 20 February 2015).

De Boeck, F. (2011). Inhabiting Ocular Ground: Kinshasa’s Future in the Light of Congo’s Spectral Urban Politics. Cultural Anthropology, 26(2):263.


Photograph by Joseph Winter, and stolen from the BBC website: “The city council has just three dustbin lorries for a population of 8m – but lots of wheelbarrows. Council official Basil Lungwana says they are trying hard. He says the biggest challenge is to change people’s habits.”

Gecekondular in Izmir

Gecekondular in Izmir (photo by Veyis Polat)

I’ve just read an article about the idea of ‘nomotropism’, by two Italian researchers (Chiodelli & Moroni, 2014). I sense that all my readers are clamouring to learn what this alluring term might mean, and how it might be useful to them in their various endeavours. Please allow me, then, to explain.

Let’s imagine, first, that you are at a railway station in a foreign country, and urgently need to travel elsewhere, but have no money for a train ticket. A brief investigation suggests that tickets are checked by inspectors on every journey, and that passengers found not to have a valid ticket are sentenced to death. You therefore decide not to travel by train.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, you find yourself in the same situation. In this universe, however, it appears that the penalty for being caught ticketless is a mere £20 fine. You also learn that inspectors appear on the train only occasionally. You therefore decide to travel without buying a ticket.

In a third universe, finally, there is a version of you quite unaware that tickets need to be purchased for train travel.  You get on the train, in ignorance of the idea that you are breaking any rules. It is only after a ticket inspector approaches you during the journey that your transgression becomes apparent.

So, in scenario one, you are behaving ‘legally’; in scenarios two and three, ‘illegally’. Looked at from the perspective of nomotropism, however, the three scenarios would be categorised slightly differently, as will be explained below.

nomotropism 2

Universe 2 is the interesting one here.  Of course, you are violating an institutional rule; your action is illegal.  And yet, in a strange way, the violation has been caused by the rules. You have considered the implications of these rules, and based your action on this consideration, even though you do not (and cannot) comply with the rules. If the rules were different, as they are in Universe 1, your decision might be different. In both cases, albeit with different outcomes, the rules have had a causal effect on your behaviour (your behaviour is ‘nomotropic’). In Universe 3, the rules are broken, but without you being aware of them (your behaviour is ‘a-nomic’; it is not caused by rules).

The authors of the article borrow the idea of nomotropism from Conte (2011), defining it as action which takes place in the light of rules. This is not necessarily the same as action which conforms to rules. In fact, as the table above suggests, actions which conform to rules are a subset of nomotropic actions. Nomotropism, then, is a broad category of action which is somehow caused by rules, but which may involve those rules being violated.

The authors propose that the idea of the ‘nomotropic violation’ (as per Universe 2) is a useful way of understanding the relations, in poorer cities, between unauthorised low-income settlements and institutional regulations. In fact, it seems like an interesting way of looking at a much wider range of processes in cities more generally, but I’m sticking with their discussion for now.

Here are a couple of their examples of nomotropic housebuilding:

  • in Turkey, the official processes for demolishing illicit buildings are more complicated when buildings are already complete, rather than still being constructed. People therefore aim to complete unauthorised buildings in as short a time as possible. Although, then, building slowly and building quickly both constitute violations of the law, people choose the latter after having considered the set of rules as a whole. Thus, this particular ‘illegal’ outcome is caused by the land-use rules which apply to this type of action.
  • Often, people buy land and the right to occupy it legally, but then construct houses on it which consciously violate building regulations. This is more expensive than simply building on publicly owned land, to which they have no right of tenure. Either course of action would represent a violation of the official code of rules. However, eviction/demolition is much less likely if the builder owns the land. Thus, a particular set of rules leads to one type of violation being more common than another: the rules cause this violation to occur.

One key reason why such nomotropic violations occur is that “urban policies and land-use regulations in the Global South are generally inadequate for dealing with the question of low-income unauthorised settlements” (164), since they are typically “inherited – or imported – from other countries, where the institutional, socio-economic, and even environmental and climatic conditions are quite different” (165). Many urban residents are simply unable to comply with the regulations: building becomes too expensive, or too bureaucratically complex.

Nomotropic violations may be detrimental to the wellbeing of a society as a whole.  In many cases, however, they may be welcome: if official processes are unable to deliver housing (or infrastructure) for all, then informal building – which often ends up being legalised through amnesties or gradual upgrading over time – may constitute an outcome very much in line with broader policy goals of accommodating urban populations. The letter of the law may have been broken, but a wider social order has been upheld.

I think we could add the category of ‘a-nomic compliance’, to describe behaviour which takes place without reference to the law, but is not in conflict with the law, to complete a spectrum of behaviours as follows:


The challenge, then, for poorer cities, would be to extend the legal framework so as not only to reward conscious compliance, but also to encourage nomotropic violations which are nevertheless in line with broader state intentions. This, the authors propose, might involve the following principles (166):

  • that the place of each public rule should be considered within a more general legal system and social environment (so that there is a ‘good fit’ between individual rules and their larger context)
  • that emphasis should be placed on the ‘meta-aim’ of the legal system, which is to favour the “peaceful co-existence of a plurality of individuals with totally different, and continuously changing, preferences and desires”
  • that rules which offer a “general ‘orientation’ for behaviour are more relevant than rules introduced to achieve specific end-states”
  • that rules should be stable over time
  • that rules should tend to be ‘negative’ (ie those which “prohibit individuals from interfering with the protected domain of other individuals”)
  • that ‘positive’ rules (ie mandating particular actions or impose duties) should be kept to a minimum, and thus not impede experimentation and initiative.

In effect, then, they outline a legal framework which aims to facilitate ‘DIY’ action. By making the rule framework ‘open’ but stable, they suggest that it (and the institutions which it represents) will be less vulnerable to disloyalty and disrespect. This solution would respond pragmatically to the observable failure of (modernist) land-use planning systems to meet the needs of poorer cities.

However, at this point, I start to have a few questions.

I accept that such a framework would not amount to the state abnegating its duties, precisely because the state in such cases has proven unable to fulfil those duties. But I am puzzled by the normative status of the state within all this. If we equate traditional representative governmental actors with ineffectiveness, corruption, and all the rest of it, then why should we allow those same actors to retain a steering role in the process? Is there not an asymmetry here – a tension between, on the one hand, the rejection of the effectiveness of traditional government institutions, and, on the other, the assumption that their intentions are fundamentally noble?

Relatedly, I’m not sure how the framework might account for action which deliberately poses a challenge to the established order, in a political sense. Those actions, in other words, defined not in terms of whether and how they react to a regulatory system, but rather by their active questioning of that system. The authors assume that it is a good thing that urban residents should be loyal to, and respect the state. Does this perhaps imply a ‘depoliticised’ view of the city?

And I am equally uncomfortable that the reliance on individual citizens and civil society actors here too readily valorises the power of emergent creativity, or the ‘intelligence of the swarm’ (you can add your own buzzwords). Should we be so quick to assume that this self-organising intelligence is only ever a positive force in society?  We may have taken on board the lesson, from the twentieth century, that the modern state also has a dark side. But perhaps we have forgotten the still older lesson: that the ‘swarm’ sometimes has an even darker one.

20 December 2014, London



Chiodelli, F. & Moroni, S. (2014). The complex nexus between informality and the law: Reconsidering unauthorised settlements in light of the concept of nomotropism. Geoforum. 51: 161-168.

Conte, A.G. (2011). Nomotropismo. Sociologia dil diritto. 27 (1): 1-27.


‘Post World’s End Architecture’ 

Let’s build our own houses!  I find it strange that there isn’t more of this in the UK – especially as it’s so common in other countries. Of course, I have no idea how to build a house.  But, for various practical and theoretical reasons, I think it’s exactly what should be happening at the moment. Self-build seems to be very well aligned with so many other tendencies in the way the state wants to govern us, and our own expectations of how things should happen in society. In its own small way, furthermore, it may help shape the contours of the as yet unimaginable world to come.

To make my case, I’m going to begin with a lengthy diversion.  My starting point is that there seem to be big structural changes afoot in the world.  We seem to be developing a new sensibility about our place on the planet. As the world gets ever more interconnected, and change accelerates, its very complexity appears to be overwhelming us; we no longer feel we understand what causes what.  Our liberal institutions of governance don’t really know how to respond to problems that they struggle to define.  We sense that they are no longer up to the job, and that some kind of fundamental change is in the air.  We have a sense of impending catastrophe (of which we have so far only had a foretaste), but have little idea of what will come afterwards. The certainties of the modern world have long since dissolved, but we still look for ‘leaders’ and ‘plans’ to ‘take us forwards’.

I’m really talking about what seems to be the beginning of the end of the ideal of the ‘liberal state’. Liberalism is, after all, only a fairly recent ideal.  I see it as essentially describing a clear division between the limits of state authority and the ‘private’ world lying beyond; the state established to protect private interests, but with no right to intervene in these, such that, fundamentally, “any form of liberalism must be concerned with the freedom of the individual” (Graham, 1992). The liberal state makes a particular effort to protect the autonomy of the private property owner, through an elaborate legal and institutional apparatus. The market is valorised as emancipating humans from the dominance which characterised older feudal models of social organisation; in classical economics, the market thus appears as an ordre naturel (Habermas, 1989:79).

But aren’t we now in a ‘neoliberal’ world? Yes – although I accept that the term is typically used as a form of abuse (Hartwich, 2009), I understand neoliberalism as referring to a series of tendencies over the last few decades, which constituted a reaction to the expansion of the state in the post-WWII period – what Jessop (2002) calls the ‘Keynesian welfare national state’ (KWNS).  The nineteenth century liberal laissez-faire model had appeared to lead to cycles of boom and bust, with disastrous social consequences internationally; KWNS aimed to curb these excesses by expanding the role of the state. By the 1970s, however, this approach didn’t seem to work too well either (the alternative, as adopted in the Soviet bloc, of expanding the state even further, and denying the private sphere altogether, seemed worse still).  Neoliberal thinking was then raised to prominence. This involved shrinking the state, in an attempt to facilitate the workings of the ‘distributed intelligence’ of the unfettered market – an idea usually associated with Friedrich Hayek (1945). That’s the theory at least; in practice, the state hasn’t been shrunk so much as become “selectively active” (Connolly, 2013:21). It “takes a very active role in creating, maintaining, and protecting the preconditions of market self-regulation” (ibid.). The uneven application of neoliberal thinking has been characterised by various types of interventions which may have benefited certain groups more than others (see, for example: Crouch, 2011). The term ‘neoliberalism’ has come to be used more or less interchangeably with the idea of ‘the interests of big business’, or to suggest the ideological work done to conceal these interests.

But whether we understand neoliberalism as a coherent approach to managing our societies, or an ideology, or a set of practices, its potency and legitimacy seems increasingly undermined by various outcomes in the real world: we vaguely sense that we are facing some kind of looming environmental crisis (our uncertainty is such that this is even widely denied); rather than greater efficiencies in markets, we seem to face an ever growing disparity of wealth; and the recent economic crisis questions the ability of this approach even to defend the interests of the establishment.  Our institutions, and the core principles upon which they rest, are still liberal ones; but they now need to find a new way of protecting themselves.

The new policy discourse of ‘resilience’ seems to be closely connected to this project. David Chandler (2014) interprets resilience – as mobilised by policy makers – as a way not just of setting preconditions for markets and other complex spheres to work by themselves, unfettered by the state, but actually to bring this complexity into governance. In other words, “governance is no longer a matter of intervening in an external problematic but of self-reflexive understandings of entanglement” (5). I would argue that this attempt is somehow futile: we might expect unruly creative forces of unpredictable complexity to be welcomed only up to the point where they begin to suggest the possibility of radical transformation. Paradoxically, then, the transformative potential of the complex ‘outside’ seems to be limited precisely to the extent that it is institutionalised.  Furthermore, I am not convinced that we – as citizens in the complex private world that is out there – necessarily react well to attempts to institutionalise our complexity in this way.  Governments can’t take our compliance for granted. We didn’t like David Cameron’s idea of the ‘Big Society’ much, after all.

stop calling me resilient

There are alternative takes on resilience which highlight its potential as a force of transformation outside the state; that its decentralised concept of power suggests a way of resisting the state; that it provides a way for communities to turn their back on neoliberal globalisation (see, for example, the Transition Network); or that the idea needs to be rescued from ‘neoliberal capital’ (Nelson, 2014).  Meanwhile, and not unrelatedly, Occupy London adopted Hayek’s idea that “distributed intelligence in a voluntary co-operative is a hallmark of a real economy”, claiming that “we work more like a market than business does” (Occupy, 2012). There seems to be a problem, then, that the liberal, centralised state is by definition incompatible with decentralised emergent transformation. It seem unclear how it can bring this distributed ‘DIY’ intelligence into its fold without undermining itself.

At this point, we could overlay Zygmunt Bauman’s (1991) understanding of the nature of modernity.  For him, modernity is all about the endless attempt to classify, to delineate the orderly from the chaotic which lies ‘outside’ – the stranger, the ‘other’ (whose otherness defines the ‘inside’).  This attempt is futile because the chaos beyond always returns to challenge the categorisation; this creates ‘ambivalence’, anathema to the modern mind, but spurring it into further ‘legislatory’ action. But the newer governance approaches I’m hinting at seem to invite the stranger into the house – on a temporary basis – while still attempting to regulate the stranger’s behaviour.  But a still centralised liberal government makes for an unhappy bedfellow with the decentralised potency of the outside; the invitation looks rather like an act of desperation at a time when all other defensive strategies seem to have run their course, and our faith in the institutions of our ‘political economy’ seems to be dissolving year by year.

The implications of inviting this unruly stranger in are hinted at in Marc Stears’ contribution to a recent report by the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research (Cooke & Muir, 2012). He is responding to an essay by Geoff Mulgan, who calls for a new type of ‘Relational State’ to replace expectations of the ‘delivery state’. Here, Mulgan seems to be elaborating on the idea, outlined in an earlier report, of ‘Social Innovation’, which is “all around us” (Mulgan et al., 2007:4), often unrecognised and even stifled by the state, but which the state should encourage within its policy making. Mulgan suggests that social innovation often occurs among hybrid groupings of social actors, and is therefore

not unique to the non-profit sector. It can be driven by politics and government (for example, new models of public health), markets (for example, open-source software or organic food), movements (for example, fair trade), and academia (for example, pedagogical modes of childcare), as well as social enterprises (microcredit and magazines for the homeless)” (ibid.:4-5).

Stears, however, counters that “The state…is unlikely ever to be the primary agent of a relational revolution. The primary agents will lie outside. They will be those who pressurise the state, who make demands of it, who are unwilling to be told what to do” (Cooke & Muir, 2012:43).

Mulgan’s reference to ‘open-sourcing’ is significant. The media heralded this new mode of software development in the early 2000s as a revolutionary approach to business management, confounding assumptions that effective action depends on hierarchy and, as a type of ‘gift economy’, challenging the dominant self-interest economics paradigm (which fails to explain why would people voluntarily contribute).  Wikipedia is often cited as an example of collaborative knowledge made possible in a similar horizontal way, though for non-commercial purposes. Thrift (2008) suggests that the idea of open-source programming has inspired various other business approaches; he points to the growth of ‘user-centric innovation’, blurring the distinction between consumption and production, including the encouragement of online feedback and discussion forums where “interchange takes place around a co-created commodity experience” (42), and “consumer communities” (41) evolve, beyond a company’s control. He sees information technology as acting “as a system of distributed cognition which is also a means of capturing new potential” (43).

I was interested to read an article (Lerner & Tirole, 2001:819) which concluded that, actually, the open-source approach is “relatively well accounted for by standard economic theory” (821). Similarly, it can be argued that Wikipedia is not free of hierarchy and regulation; it is in fact rather prescriptive in the way knowledge can be structured and framed, and in the types of knowledge that are allowed.   And yet there is still something curious going on here: why have these new decentralised, internet-facilitated approaches captured so many people’s attention?

Why, I wonder, do I hear of new restaurants opening in London by being first ‘beta tested’; their menus are first developed and refined at small market stalls (Courier, 2014). Perhaps there’s nothing new here (it’s really just a sort of ‘pilot test’) – and yet, again, they are borrowing the language of computing. There is something in the idea (or at least the edgy potential) of open-sourcing that seems to have inspired us.  It contains the scent of an as yet poorly understood mode of social and political being, where older notions of government and governed – and even ‘governance’ – make little sense.

A wide variety of other ‘open-sourced’, ‘crowdsourced’ and ‘crowdfunded’ initiatives seem to have taken inspiration.  Some of these clearly take the form of resistance movements. I read of ‘open-sourced agriculture’, for example. But others are initiated by government institutions. A couple of years ago, just to take one example, Camden Council (in London) held a competition asking for ideas for spaces underused at certain times; the proposals received in response were themselves generally DIY projects. This is markedly different from a council simply deciding ‘on behalf’ of the people, or just reacting to public opinion: it represents an active attempt to tap into bottom-up thinking. Nobody is really talking about ‘rolling back the state’ here: it’s all about temporary decentralisation of power, letting things emerge from the bottom up in unpredictable ways.

In my own research, I’ve been looking at the EcoDistricts initiative in Portland, Oregon (USA). This aimed to explore the idea of making neighbourhood units sustainable – as a stepping stone to the as yet poorly understood concept of transitioning a whole city to sustainability. Their idea was to provide seed funding for groups of key actors in 5 locations across the city to develop their own ideas – without predefining the types of goals they would set, who precisely would be involved, or how they would govern themselves.  By tapping into this bottom-up innovation, they planned to see what worked and what didn’t, reflect on it, and they try to apply the results elsewhere in the city.  Whether or not this will succeed, it represents a rather novel way of governing for change – a long way from experts or representatives deciding things in rooms in city hall – but neither simply expressing the goal to simply let things be decided by some idealised notion of the ‘market’.

This new approach to political action even affects questions at the heart of statehood. I recently went to a talk about constitution making, by Eirikur Bergmann.  He suggested that the recent ‘crowdsourced’ (though as yet unadopted) constitution in Iceland was typical of new wave of projects variously related to fundamental principles of how the state should operate, in countries including Canada, Belgium, Holland, Australia, Ireland, and Estonia.  A student I’m teaching, meanwhile, wants to look at the process through which the new Hungarian constitution (2012) was created.  This has been received badly by many in Hungary specifically because many citizens feel excluded from its development.  Now, I would imagine that constitutions throughout history have been written by ‘experts’, politicians and presidents – they wouldn’t have brought laypeople into the equation throughout the process (except perhaps via the odd referendum at the end).  The interesting thing, then, is that the people now expect to be included – exactly at the time that we seem to be losing confidence in our representative institutions of governance.

At international level, too, something analogous seems to be going on, again in a slightly confused way.  I heard two papers recently by my colleagues Elisa Randazzo and Pol Barguès Pedreny, about newer approaches to post-conflict statebuilding. These approaches aim not to predefine particular outcomes or directions so much as to encourage a context-sensitive ongoing adaptive process.  And yet, Elisa argued, this new approach reveals itself in many ways still to be stuck in a liberal mindset, in its valorisation of ‘change’, ‘emancipation’, and so on. There seemed to be little disagreement in the audience that we hadn’t advanced beyond a type of ‘liberalism in disguise’.

Of course, I’m most interested in thinking about cities of the future. I’m looking forward to an event later this year at the University of Greenwich, at which the idea of ‘Reflexive Urbanism’ will be launched. This “proposes that cities of the future are not made but evolved”.  The blurb explains that Reflexive Urbanism “works with the messiness of cities, their vibrant natures and their inherent subversion, to identify new solutions for the practice of the built environment in a resource constrained world.”  The idea, then, of working with ‘messiness’, rather than treating this as the enemy without, or hopelessly trying to tap into its power from the centre.  So what? You might dismiss this as just some kind of academic conference – and yet academics often explore ideas which are still only on the periphery of general understanding – they look out for this kind of thing.

Anyway, if we’re thinking about how to design our cities of the future, then part of the task must be an openness to innovations in our living arrangements. Housing, in terms of units and how they relate to each other, might be very different in ways we can’t yet imagine. Will we live more communally?  Will housing be modular, or movable? Might the ideas of the ‘house’ or ‘flat’ even become redundant?  New innovations here won’t necessarily come from politicians – or from large firms of housebuilders constrained by market pressures and conservative by default. Perhaps they are more likely to come from individuals, and novel combinations of individuals and experts, doing it for themselves.

Provision of housing in the UK is currently seen as problematic.  While the government has good political reasons to encourage more housing to be built, and doesn’t seem to have abandoned the quintessentially liberal idea that the protection of private property rights is at the very heart of the state’s purpose, it seems undecided about how exactly this might be achieved through existing institutional mechanisms. The shortage of (affordable) housing is widely understood to be a social problem; we might see housing as a public good – the right to shelter is, after all, recognised as a human right – and yet it is developed and then bought and sold in markets. Since we know that ‘open-sourced’ approaches seem to work well when market success is our criterion, then this would seem like a good sphere of life in which to launch an experiment. By encouraging localised innovation, and a sense of personal agency, investment, and creativity, the state would meet its citizens’ growing expectations of decentralised involvement, without appearing to be abnegating its responsibilities, as well as potentially achieve a series of political goals in its own defence.  Who, in other words, would object?

Over a decade ago, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (Barlow et al., 2001) found that self-build was growing over time, but tended to be in non-urban areas, and was the sport of older, wealthier enthusiasts. They also outline the main practical and political barriers, commenting that “the political environment does not favour self-build.  Self-builders are too fragmented to constitute a political force” (32). And yet, they argued, it could have significant economic and environmental benefits, as well as freeing up the housebuilding process, if done properly. And things might be changing. We now have a National Self Build Association (formally launched in 2008); the Government now endorses its ‘self-build portal’ website. Since few individuals have enough knowledge either of construction methods, project management, or planning processes, they now promote the idea of ‘custom build’: hybrid arrangements where individuals work alongside professionals and specialists. And I read that the idea of providing self-builders with relief from the ‘Community Infrastructure Levy’ is being debated in Parliament this week.

There are models abroad for how the government might encourage this sort of thing. The most famous is the expanding town of Almere in Holland. Hundreds of plots are available in its Homeruskwartier district.  Infrastructure is provided, and some very broad guidelines are in place – but people are free to build whatever type of house they want, without worrying about planning regulations.  One of the key people behind this initiative comments:

“What I like most is the way people develop their curiosity and skills – they bring ideas and test construction techniques more than any developer would. We don’t insist on sustainability requirements, but it’s amazing how much people just do it themselves” (Collinson, 2011).

almere self-build houses

Homeruskwartier, Almere1

This wouldn’t resolve the paradox at the heart of all such schemes initiated by the state: it represents an attempt to organise from above what Connolly (2013) calls ‘self-organising systems’.  But this might be a good thing for all; while proceeding legitimately within the existing framework and agendas of the liberal state, the process of experimentation may contribute in its own small way to our collective ability to begin imagining whatever it is that lies beyond.

So – get your spades and hammers out.  Build yourself a house to prepare for the future. Unless, that is, you are still hoping that your local council will do it for you.

21 February 2014, London


1. Sources: Collinson (2011),, and wikimedia commons

Thanks to Daniel Tomozeiu and David Chandler for alerting me to the ‘beta-testing’ restaurant model and the Marc Stears essay, respectively.


Barlow, J., Jackson, R. & Meikle, J. (2001). Homes to DIY for: The UK’s self-build housing market in the twenty-first century. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Bauman, Z. (1991). Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Chandler, D. (2014). Beyond neoliberalism: resilience, the new art of governing complexity. Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses. 2(1):47-63.

Collinson, P. (2011). Self-build: it’s time to go Dutch. The Guardian, 25 November. Available from: <;.

Connolly, W. (2013). The Fragility of Things: Self-Organising Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Action. London: Duke University Press.

Cooke, G. & Muir, R. eds. (2012). The Relational State: How Recognising the Importance of Human Relationships Could Revolutionise the Role of the State. London: Institute for Public Policy Research.

Courier (2014). The Beta testing model powering food startups. Available from: <; [Accessed 19 February 2014].

Crouch, C. (2011). The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism. Cambridge: Polity.

Graham, G. (1992). Liberalism and Democracy. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 9(2):149–160.

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Hartwich, O. (2009). Neoliberalism: The Genesis of a Political Swearword (CIS Occasional Paper 114). St Leonards, NSW: Centre for Independent Studies. Available from: <;.

Hayek, F.A. (1945). The Use of Knowledge in Society. American Economic Review, XXXV:519–530.

Jessop, B. (2002). Liberalism, Neoliberalism, and Urban Governance: A State-Theoretical Perspective. Antipode, 34:452–72.

Lerner, J. & Tirole, J. (2001). The open source movement: Key research questions. European Economic Review, 45(4–6):819–826.

Mulgan, G., Tucker, S., Ali, R. & Sanders, B. (2007). Social Innovation: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Be Accelerated. Oxford: Oxford Said Business School/The Young Foundation.

Nelson, S.H. (2014). Resilience and the neoliberal counter-revolution: from ecologies of control to production of the common. Resilience, 2(1):1–17.

Occupy (2012). How Hayek helped us to find capitalism’s flaws. Financial Times, 25 January.

Thrift, N. (2008). Non-Representational Theory: space │politics│affect. Abingdon: Routledge.

space and language

There’s something I’ve wondered about over the last three years. If others have written about the same thing more competently, please let me know, and I will immediately delete this post.

I am curious about one particular parallel between ways of thinking about language and space, and what its implications might be. I’m trying to work out how it might be useful in thinking about transformations in urban space.

I’m not thinking exactly about the debates over the relationship between natural language and spatial cognition (although I might be); nor about the way people talk of things like the ‘language of architecture’ (although there’s no reason I might not be). Descriptions of space sometimes do borrow linguistic terms: we talk of ‘urban morphology’; there’s an urban design company called ‘Space Syntax’; and so on. My starting point is somewhere else….

Let’s simplify the field of linguistics into three areas of enquiry: semantics, syntax, and – to lump a few fields together – language as actually spoken or written. This third category I will refer to as ‘performance’. What has caught my attention in the past is the structural similarity between this and tripartite models of spatial analysis. These spatial models label their three dimensions differently, but, for the purposes of my loose thinking here, I will crudely simplify them to: meaning, form, and performance.1 Putting the two frameworks side by side gives us the following:

linguistic and spatial analysis

By the ‘form’ of space, I mean its formal characteristics – its raw shape and materiality – that which exists prior to, or beyond, our perception of it. I’m happy enough to accept both that reality will always exceed what we can know about it, and that things have a ‘thingness in themselves’. If, though, you tend towards thinking that there is no reality outside our perceptions, or that external reality is just a shapeless soup, or simply that speculating about this sort of thing is futile, then you might still accept that the ‘form’ of space describes its abstract qualities: its geometrical aspect.

The ‘performance’ of space, meanwhile, describes what we perceive: its sensory appearance, and what seems to happen ‘in’ it. This includes the goings-on of organic life; humans are also part of the perceived material world – objects as well as subjects, if you want to talk in those terms. The performance of space cannot be directly read off its formal qualities, though is constrained by these – just as actual performed language is enabled and constrained by syntax. Performed language, just like performed space, may be playful or transgressive, and not entirely predictable. At this point I’m obliged to make reference to de Certeau’s (1984) famous metaphorical use of walking through a city to evoke the idea of (potentially transgressive) agency within structural constraints. The connection with language is made clear by de Certeau: he talks of the ‘poetry’ of urban walking (to suggest its creative, improvisational, and rule-bending character); and explicitly refers at one point to Chomsky’s (1965) distinction between, on the one hand, the ‘performance’ of language – that is, utterances or texts as actually produced – and, on the other, idealised ‘competence’ in a language. Yes, I know I’m dipping in and out of different contestable ideas here – and, as will become clear, I specifically don’t want to think in terms of hierarchical causal structures – but I’m just seeing where it might take me.

The ‘meaning’ of space, meanwhile, describes our interpretation of what we perceive. This is the realm of affect, theory, emotions, and so on. Since the meaning of space will always be endlessly multiple, this is where contestations and politics spring from. Space may of course have ‘dominant meanings’ to which we may be blind, but they may be challenged by various alternatives. This aspect of space, therefore, is the site of ideological struggle. The meanings of space, in turn, affect the way that the formal qualities of the space are shaped in future, and constrain their performative qualities. This does not leave space in a state of shapeless flux. The different meanings that emerge from our entanglement with materiality (ie performed space) may coalesce into discourses, neither evanescent nor permanent, given voice through possibly self-conscious ‘publics’ of different types. Similarly, the performative qualities of a given space may be at least broadly predictable in the short-term, and the form of the built environment in particular has a lot of ‘friction’ built into it; it contains relatively permanent structures, each of which represents the outcome of a particular struggle of meanings at a particular time, but none of which are eternal.

There is no causal linearity here, then. Everything affects everything else, rather unpredictably. What we seem to have is an iterative triangularity:

spatial analysis

Thinking now about my three linguistic dimensions, let’s start with meaning. I’m comfortable with the idea that we can only see meaning as located within, or as a part of, language. This is the case whether we tend towards a post-structuralist view of meaning as only ever relational, or if we imagine, alternatively, that ‘pure’ thoughts (ideas, comparisons, decisions, responses, insights…) bubble up electronically from somewhere in the pre-consciousness, and are then translated, via semantics and syntax, into actual words. In the latter linear scenario, it is tautologically the case that meaning is created only at the point where our cognitive linguistic software kicks in.  Whatever ‘pre-meaning’ is beyond that is, self-evidently, unknowable in terms of meaning. Simultaneously, though, we might conversely see meaning as shaped by the formal constraints of language (syntax – and even metaphor – though I’m interested to think about what the spatial equivalent of a metaphor would be). We can accept that meaning is to some extent shaped by form without adopting a wholesale belief in the older ‘Sapir-Whorf’ hypothesis that our cognitive processes are delimited by the particular ways that phenomena are categorised in our own language.  Even more importantly, we develop deeper interpretations of the perceptual world precisely through the performance of language (clarifying and exploring meaning by, for example, writing and discussing things with others); in this way, meaning emerges from performance. Meaning in language (as in space) seems to be both emergent and generative.

Syntax, similarly, seems to be both structured and structuring. I see it as having an ontological ambivalence. On the one hand, syntax might be said to exist, in that it affects the world.  On the other, where actually is it?  Is it something that can only be inferred from our performed speech? Like the formal qualities of space, it might be understood in itself as, variously, an abstract model, an illusion, or as something which is ‘there’ but unknowable on its own terms. We also need to account for how syntax changes over time – even if this process (as is the case for the built environment) is slow and uneven; syntax is affected by the ongoing co-evolution of performed language and its meanings. There is a further problem if we think of syntax as an inferred abstraction (which also applies to a conceptualisation of formal space in abstract terms): abstractions are representations – and representations perform ideological work.

Again, then, no definitive causal linear model of language seems possible. Again, we end up with an iterative triangularity:

linguistic analysis

It’s difficult to think in terms of open-ended looping systems where cause and effect are endlessly diffused. We lose our sense of self as humans.  It’s tempting at least to try to retrieve the idea of agency by locating it within performance. Surely, at least here we are free to make choices about what happens in our material surroundings, and how we use our language. Can we look to de Certeau’s urban walk metaphor for salvation? Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can. As Thrift (2008) observes, de Certeau’s perspective is itself a humanistic one. What if instead we can only identify shifting assemblages of things and people in space; and what if our conscious actions and words are at the mercy of our preconsciousness? As Thrift reminds us, quoting Lakoff & Johnson (1998:13): “Conscious thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is the rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95 per cent of all thought…the 95 per cent below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought”.

Perhaps I’m trying to force a case here that doesn’t need to be made, using selective arguments superficially to solve a curious puzzle that only exists in my imagination. Certainly, the parallels between my two triangles are incomplete and rather shabby in places. They also keep leading me into philosophical jungles for which I have no map.  Time therefore to head back to the main road and drive home to safety. My original (and ongoing) aim was to think about how all this might help me think about urban spatial transformation. So, then, are any useful conclusions possible?

First, it’s important to remember that the spatial triangle is not my own; what I’ve done here is simply to transpose it onto language. My triangular thinking does not allow us to escape from the traditional ‘prisonhouse of language’ – in fact, if my parallels are of any value, they point to an analogous ‘prisonhouse of space’. Equally, though, I have no desire simply to portray our sense of ourselves as autonomous individuals as a delusion, by asserting that instead we are blindly entrapped within the ‘prison’.  Rather, that it makes no sense to think about our own individual agency as such precisely because ‘we’ and the prison are co-constitutive. If linguistics at least alerts us to the nature of the walls of the prisonhouse of language, might it have some lessons for us about the nature of the walls of the prisonhouse of space?

I can’t see how this might teach us about how urban environments might be better governed ‘from above’; the notions of ‘above’ and ‘below’ stop making sense. But even if the search for agency is pointless, we are still left with power, relative and shifting; its distribution never inevitable. And even if our individuality is an illusion, illusions are powerful forces in the world. As illusory individuals, might we learn better decode to the space around us? Might linguistics somehow help us with this? That might at least give us a practical sense of purpose, allowing us to think more confidently about how space might be reconstructed (or re-co-constructed) from within, rather than leaving us resigned to claustrophobic impotence. Which is another way of saying that we shouldn’t try to choose between being either ‘planners’ or ‘planned’; the first move is to accept not only that we are within the plan, but that the plan is also within us.

5 February 2014, London


I make no claims to have more than a vague awareness of the historical debates in and around metaphysics. I am also aware that the blogosphere provides a haven for armchair-based pseudo-philosophers to peddle half-digested ideas, much to the disgust of professional philosophers. In the explicit spirit of dreaming vaguely about the nature of reality and objects, though, and without wanting to align myself pompously and uniformedly with the idea of ‘speculative realism’ (particularly since it seems fashionable to do this in the blogosphere), I do like Graham Harman’s provocative observation that “there is already a long list of anti-object-oriented standpoints from which one can choose, which suggests that objects have a certain potency as philosophical personae that provokes reactive operations” (Bryant et al., 2011:22). He then usefully sketches out the different ways in which objects in themselves have been dismissed by philosophers through the ages, beginning with Anaxagoras. Interestingly, he points out that even in Latour’s ‘flat ontologies’, the object is significant only in terms of “what it modifies, transforms, perturbs, or creates… [It] is not an autonomous substance” (23).

2 There’s an established tradition of writers who have developed or drawn on this three-way analysis of space, for different practical, critical, or philosophical purposes, including: Cassirer (1944); Lefebvre (1991) [1974]; Canter (1977); Harvey (eg 1990; 2006); Punter (1991); Soja (1996); Montgomery (1998); and Franck and Stevens (2006).


Bryant, L., Srnicek, N. & Harman, G. (2011). The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne:

Canter, D. (1977). The Psychology of Place. London: Architectural Press.

Cassirer, E. (1944). An Essay on Man. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. London: University of California Press.

Franck, K.A. & Stevens, Q. (2006). Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life.

Harvey, D. (1990). The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Harvey, D. (2006). Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development. London: Verso.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1998). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) [1974]. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Montgomery, J. (1998). Making a city: Urbanity, vitality and urban design. Journal of Urban Design, 3(1):93–116.

Punter, J. (1991). Participation in the design of urban space. Landscape Design, (200).

Soja, E.W. (1996). Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-imagined Places. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thrift, N. (2008). Non-Representational Theory: space │politics│affect. Abingdon: Routledge.

I’ve always been intrigued by the way that municipal infrastructure is particularly likely to attract bits of graffiti. Casual acts of rebellion, spatial appropriations – but targeted at space which we are led to believe belongs to all of us. The more ‘public’ the space, the more graffiti it attracts.

For me, though, the public dimensions of the city which define it as a city are to be found more in the graffiti than in the grid.



People have made a special effort to lean over the hedge, to adorn the electricity meter with scribbles and stickers.



Don’t tell me how to move!



Barely visible scrawl on the street corner: the grid under attack.



When the streets are closed to traffic for the day, the young children join in too.

9 June 2013, flying over the Arctic Circle.

guerilla gardening

I want to explain why I think small-scale citizen-led urban interventions are more significant than might at first be imagined. To begin, though, I would like you to think about the area where you live. Let me now ask you a simple question: Do you ever find yourself thinking that your local area could, in some way, be much better than it is?

I expect that you probably do have this thought occasionally – even if you are already very happy with the place. You may, additionally, even have spent some thinking about why that place is the way it is (a question which can be approached in various ways). And, further, you may well have pontificated about what would need to happen in future for it to change for the better. However, I suspect that your thinking on this subject runs dry at a certain point. I bet you only rarely consider how you as an individual might change it.

If you are still with me on this, I think it is well worth considering more carefully why you wouldn’t get this far in your thoughts. Here are some possible reasons, each of which raises further questions:

  1. Perhaps you are conscious of some kind of social pressure which makes you feel uncomfortable about sticking your neck out in this way. But why would that be? You are keen to make all manner of changes to your private domestic environment, from the very moment you arrive in a new home. Why would you never even consider the possibility of making changes to your public environment?
  2. Perhaps you are too preoccupied with other duties to devote time to this type of thinking or action (“I’ve already got a job to do”) – you think it is best left to those with more time on their hands, busybodies, elected councillors or salaried local authority employees. Again, though, why have you deprioritised it in this way?
  3. Perhaps you might see it as somehow arrogant (or even undemocratic) for you to start changing things unilaterally on behalf of your fellow residents. From such a perspective, you might understand your current surroundings as already representing the outcome of a negotiated process over time; you might not be entirely satisfied with this outcome, but you are not the only type of person that lives there; sometimes inclusivity depends on compromises, with uninspiring results. But, still, is it satisfactory that you should have so little voice at all in what goes on, and not even expect to have more of a say?
  4. Perhaps you have never come across any channels or forums in which you would want to express your opinions on this matter. What is the point of writing to the local newspaper? Who knows who their local councillor is, or respects them? You might witter away all you like on a local internet forum, but who would be listening? Fair points, but, still, I wonder: why is your default assumption one of impotence?

Each of these ‘reasons’ then, are unsatisfactory; they simply defer the question. So I would like to approach the question of our mysterious apathy from a different angle. To clear the ground for this discussion, I should make it clear that I have no intention of asserting that any individual has an obligation to become a local activist in this sense; in fact, I value the right to be apathetic. Apathy on some issues may even be a prerequisite to focusing our attentions fully on others. Rather, I am interested in the possibility that somehow our imaginations in this respect have somehow been stunted.

One personal anecdote, which illustrates this possibility well, has always stuck in my mind. Every morning on the way to the tube station, I used to walk past a scruffy triangle of land next to a railway viaduct. This was always full of litter. I used to wish that somebody would clear it all up. This was a very passive sort of a wish; I didn’t ever get as far as wondering whose responsibility it might be to do so. But, one day, a leaflet came through the door. A local resident was asking for volunteers to go and remove the mess that Saturday. In the event, I couldn’t make it – but a few people did.  A couple of hours of their time, a few black bin bags, and a tangible change for the better was made. What felt very strange to me was that I hadn’t actually ever thought of making those changes myself. But why might that be? After all, I walked past the problem every day, and otherwise held strong and considered opinions about my local area.

Before reflecting further on this episode, I would make the preliminary (and, I hope, non-contentious) observation that any change to our immediate environment involves both spatial and social considerations. It describes a spatial reconfiguration of the physical environment which will in some way affect the social life of the humans who inhabit that environment, and their relations with that space. Perhaps, then, thinking about space itself might provide some clues to why I had never considered intervening personally. In fact, I would argue that one important reason why most of us don’t even start thinking about changing local space relates to the dominant ways in which space is conceptualised in Western society. If that sounds like too sudden a leap into theory, it is at least well-trodden theory (but which seems largely to have remained within the walls of the academy). On the other hand, those already familiar with Lefebvre’s ‘spatial trialectics’ might like to skip the next three paragraphs – I hardly do justice to them here in any case.

So, here we go. I am interested in a body of arguments made by critical geographers, drawing on Henri Lefebvre (1991), which point to the ways that the ‘social’ is evacuated from the traditional – and still dominant – conception of space in the western world. We are brought up to think of space as a Euclidean grid in which objects and flows are simply ‘located’. Space is imagined as a neutral backdrop to the various activities taking place ‘within it’. And yet this view of space can only ever constitute a ‘representation’ of space; a sort of two-dimensional snapshot; an exercise in cartography. Its air of objectivity belies particular ideological underpinnings; as is the case with a map, this conception of space potentially has ideological effects. In fixing and flattening space, for example, this view of space raises no conceptual obstacles to the free flow of capital – and Lefebvre aligned the Euclidean view of space specifically with what he called the ‘neo-capitalist’ worldview.

Paradoxically, grass-roots activists often unwittingly reinforce this understanding of space by reacting against it. Protest movements organised around ‘local’ issues often mobilise a notion of ‘place’ as offering a resistance to globalised flows of power and capital running unchecked across this abstract flat space. Place, in many activist groups’ ‘calls to action’, tends to be rhetorically constructed as having a coherent, inherent meaning. In everyday life too, we tend to operate on the dangerous assumption that places are simply imbued with certain characteristics. We know these change, but we foreground their relative stability over their dynamic potential and multiplicity. Place becomes an a priori category, a given, into which we are inserted. The internal social and political tensions within such ‘places’ are typically hidden behind the rhetoric of ‘community’, ‘cohesion’, ‘consensus’, and so on. But this way of thinking is not an inevitable one. Doreen Massey (2005, p.6), for example, calls into question the distinction “all too appealing as it seems, between place (as meaningful, lived and everyday) and space (as what? the outside? the abstract? the meaningless?)”.

Understanding space instead as ‘socially produced’ provides a way out of this problematic binary. This first requires a ‘relational’ understanding of space: the idea that space is not simply ‘out there’, somehow having a prior existence to the things ‘in’ it, but rather describes the relations between things. Lefebvre similarly rejects the idea that space is simply an empty or neutral ‘container’. He argues that its reality for us lies partly in the ways we subjectively interpret and schematise the social practices through which we perceive it to be constituted. Alongside its conceptual and physical dimensions, then, space also has a discursive and affective reality for us as individuals. In simple terms, we all make sense of it in different ways, and these manifold subjective interpretations lead to a variety of socio-political contestations. These contestations, in turn, shape space. This approximates to what he calls the ‘representational’ dimension of space. Representational space is also, for Lefebvre, the home of countercultural artistic activity. I interpret the spaces of so-called ‘DIY urbanism’ as ones with particularly strong ‘representational’ characteristics. They are not predicted either by the dominant ideological conception of space as an abstract grid, nor by the populist understanding of place as fixed and coherent.

The significance of my litter gathering anecdote was not, then, so much its substantive ‘success’ in achieving its modest goal. In fact, the welcome success of this initiative might have acted as a smokescreen for me, providing an apparently satisfactory but only superficial explanation for my interest in what was happening. To demonstrate this point, I can easily imagine other similar activities which might instead have raised objections among some local residents, including me – but which would still have interested me profoundly. The event seemed to wake something up in me. It felt like a highly political moment, even though the participants had no explicit goal of challenging institutional authority. It was political in the sense that it constituted a radically democratic appropriation of space; it marked an assertion of representational space. And the effect of its novelty was to alert me to the way that the representational dimensions of space are suppressed in contemporary society – even if I am theorising this reaction retrospectively, and didn’t think of it in these terms at the time.

Lefebvre (1991) sketches out a history of the nature of urban space, suggesting that much of contemporary urban space “leaves only the narrowest leeway” for representational spaces (50). He questions “the silence of the ‘users’” (51) of what he calls ‘abstract’ modern urban space. At the same time, he reminds us that this space remains subject to historical change, and therefore “carries within itself the seeds of a new kind of space” (52). It is when these seeds begin to germinate that representational space appears; and at that point it appears to us as ‘differential’ space. He uses this term to signal that “inasmuch as abstract space tends towards homogeneity, towards the elimination of existing differences or peculiarities, a new space cannot be born (produced) unless it accentuates differences” (52). When the representational dimensions of space emerge against a backdrop of capitalist ‘abstract’ space, they are ‘differential’ in that they emphasise “social reproduction and genitality, gratification and biological fertility, social relationships and family relationships” (52). This explains why the representational space which emerges in cases such as the one I experienced is a liminal and often carnivalesque one, characterised, for example by playful hedonism, ‘bringing nature back into the city’, and the subversion of conventional hierarchies. We are drawn to the glistening aura of difference, we are tickled by the disruptiveness, often without quite knowing why. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we are fascinated when this sort of thing happens in our local area. We talk about it to others, take photos, and post them on the internet. We instinctively understand that our unquestioned sense of spatial impotence is being unsettled.

A much wider trend of appropriating space for representational purposes has been identified in recent years, under the collective label of ‘DIY urbanism’, or ‘guerilla urbanism’. This is a loose umbrella label covering a wide variety of activities such as ‘guerilla gardening’, certain types of graffiti (for example, citizens painting the streets or local walls without official permission), some types of pop-up shops, impromptu uses of vacant retail property or shopfronts, temporary art installations, the phenomenon of the ‘flash mob’, the creative modification of street signs and advertisements (‘subvertising’), and so on.1 When these interventions are to be collectively realised, as in the case of my anecdote above, they are self-organising and often crowdsourced. They are characteristically temporary in their duration and ambition. They are low-cost and experimental. They typically bypass, and often contravene, official procedures. Crucially, an unloved or ineffective DIY initiative can easily be reversed, at very little cost to all concerned. They have been described as “insurgent public spaces which challenge the conventional, codified notion of public and the making of space” (Hou, 2010, p.2). They subvert the conventional wisdom in which “form follows capital” (ibid., p.6). They alert us to the possibility that the public spaces of our cities are elsewhere becoming increasingly subjected to “new forms of ownership, commodification and control” (ibid., p.6). And they always seem to be noticed by the wider population.

I had never thought seriously about the significance of this phenomenon (or considered the disparate activities which constitute it as related) until I heard a series of talks at the 2012 EcoDistricts Summit in Portland, Oregon. One of the case studies presented there – which might at first have the appearance of triviality – struck me as particularly interesting. It concerned an individual in Queens (New York), who noticed that a large number of local residents and visitors were driving or taking buses from the main thoroughfare to the local subway station and park. There were no signs encouraging people to walk, even though it would only have taken around 15 minutes to do so. Local people were not in the habit of walking this route, or – in the case of visitors – didn’t know the way. So, he made his own temporary signs, attaching them (illegally) to local lampposts, and this brought about an immediate increase in footfall in the local area. But this social benefit was short-lived: the local authority removed the signs within the week, and that might well have been the end of the story – at very little cost to all involved. However, shortly afterwards, the local authority decided that his idea was in fact an excellent one, and invited him to contribute to the design of a series of signs, which were then officially introduced with great success, and copied elsewhere. The local authority simply hadn’t thought of doing this before, and there was no official mechanism to allow creative ‘bottom-up’ thinking to influence the built environment.

What would happen, then, if dozens of similar small-scale initiatives were taking place all over a city? Most, of course, would be erased from space and memory soon after being implemented. Some, however, would stick, or have positive knock-on effects. As an increasingly common means of effecting urban change, this represents a significant shift in power relations. Instead of the citizenry reacting to what a local authority imposes on a space, the onus in these cases is on the local authority to react to what the citizenry creates.

Is this a straightforward case, then, of civil society asserting itself constructively? Not entirely. In particular, I am conscious of a fault line running through my argument. I am comfortable with the idea that, should an intervention fail to inspire, or be widely judged as excessively transgressive of its social and cultural context, then its ensuing erasal will represent a sort of broad-brush democratic vote of no confidence. And yet I am unable to make a meaningful distinction between DIY interventions and destructive acts of antisocial behaviour; many interventions have obvious potential to offend and upset. I am still struggling with this, and only have two partial answers. First, the observable fact that civil society actions may always have a ‘dark’ side is not a sufficient reason to refute the valuable role that civil society plays in a functioning democracy. Second, it is important to remember that the rule of law is not absent from the DIY dynamic; the more crassly confrontational an intervention is, the quicker the local authorities (or the local police) will be to take action to remove it. And perhaps it is precisely the more incremental, imaginative interventions, those which gently test and bend the boundaries of the acceptable, rather than deliberately break them, that are most likely to inspire and intrigue us. In any case, I remain unwilling simply to equate DIY urbanism to criminality; to do so is to surrender to the status quo; it misses the point.

A further complication appears when we observe that the line between civic and commercial activity has become blurred in this field. The tactics of temporary urban intervention have not gone unnoticed by commercial enterprises; corporate ‘pop up shops’ of different types, for example, are increasingly common. But I don’t see anything wrong with this per se; it extends the phenomenon in a different direction without necessarily diminishing its core potency.

More confusingly, Mike Lydon (2011) of the Street Plans Collaborative sees bottom-up DIY urbanism as forming just one part of a broader body of ‘tactical urbanism’. His team has surveyed a wide range of tactical urban interventions, placing them on a spectrum from ‘unsanctioned’ to ‘sanctioned’. Crucially, many of the activities they describe “began as unsanctioned grassroots interventions [but] proved so successful that they soon became sanctioned or permanent” (Lydon, 2012, p.7). In the case of the street signage described above, of course, the initiative ceased to be an example of tactical urbanism as soon as it was institutionalised. ‘Sanctioned’ tactical intervention, rather, occurs when local authorities seek to facilitate, or harness the power of, DIY activity for predetermined instrumental purposes.

These purposes often relate to a goal of ‘urban regeneration’ – and at this point a more ambiguous picture emerges. I was interested to hear Mara Ferreri of Queen Mary (University of London) talk about this at a recent postgraduate conference.2 She described how many local authorities in the UK are encouraging temporary uses for vacant retail properties on local high streets, and often providing funding for this. The properties are filled with artistic activities, for example, or provide a home for specific community-based projects. In such cases, the local authority relies on a supply of underemployed local people being available at short notice to populate the venues in question. Is this exploitative? When the purpose is served, or the time limit is up, these people are returned to underemployment. One advantage of using vacant properties in this way is that it reduces the possibility of squatters and homeless people occupying the spaces (or the town centre generally); it becomes a tactic of social exclusion.  Suddenly, the strategy begins to sound rather like it is aligned with broader trends of the ‘neoliberalisation’ of urban management. It certainly chimes rather well with David Cameron’s notion of the ‘Big Society’. It seems to tie in well with the established tradition of outsourcing services previously provided by the state to (democratically unaccountable) non-governmental organisations.

In this type of ‘sanctioned’ urban intervention, the space of DIY activity would appear to be a highly constrained one, created to serve particular goals which are determined by the state. It is difficult to imagine how unpredictability and experimental dissent, so fundamental to the notion of DIY activism, might flourish here. The space created is certainly a ‘differential’ one – but only up to a point; it is defined rather less by its social production than by its official regulation. The prescribed actions taking place within it serve primarily to reproduce existing power structures.

And yet our interpretation of the representational potential of these predetermined ‘pseudo-DIY’ spaces need not be so pessimistic. Of course, if we see our actions as only ever circumscribed and enabled by the structures of society, then our actions in space can only ever be catalytic and reproductive. But there is always the chance simultaneously to create new things, to assert our agency at least incrementally, to ‘appropriate’ space to some extent rather than merely pass through it. In the words of my colleague Mirko Nikolic, “the challenge becomes one of making continual extraordinary efforts to exceed the limits of the spaces which are allocated to us”.

Interestingly, the Street Plans Collaborative team also extend the idea of ‘tactical urbanism’ to include the Occupy protest camps set up in 2011. I’m a little uncomfortable with this bracketing, since the agenda and geography of the Occupy movement are qualitatively different from that of most DIY urban initiatives. And yet it exhibits a similar tactical spatiality. Much has already been written about the symbolic spatiality of the Occupy camps – Puneet Dhaliwal (2012), for example, has analysed the ‘politics of space’ in the Indignados movement in explicitly Lefebvrian terms. My point is that these occupations perhaps captured the international imagination not so much because of the message which they carried, as because they woke something up inside us. Our collective fascination with the phenomenon suggests that – at some level – these actions reminded us that the social dimensions of space are ideologically suppressed in our imagination.

In this sense, I have great faith in the potential for DIY interventions in the urban environment, as radically democratic acts, to effect significant constructive changes in society – even though risks are attached. Again, I would not argue that we are obliged as citizens to go out and claim back our spaces through representational spatial actions. But I think there is a strong case in favour of this type of urban activism taking place more widely. Even when space is being used by local authorities to ‘harness’ the latent creativity of the citizen, the citizen is still thereby given the chance both to embrace its creative potential, and to consider the possibility of doing so elsewhere in future. At its best, DIY urbanism playfully challenges the aesthetic norms of hegemonic ‘landscapes of power’. Since so many of us are fascinated by its occurence, it provokes dreams and discussions; we are conscious of its fecundity. Its importance, then, lies not so much in its material effects for better or worse, as in the way it opens our eyes to the possibility of all sorts of different urban futures.

11 March 2013, London


1 see Tactical Urbanism Vols 1 & 2, published by Street Plans Collaborative, for examples of different types of DIY urbanism (in the US). You can read/download these here.

2 postgraduate conference on ‘Scarcity in the Built Environment’, held at University of Westminster, 26-28 February 2013.


Dhaliwal, P. (2012). Public squares and resistance: the politics of space in the Indignados movement. Interface: a journal for and about social movements, 4 (1), pp.251–273.

Hou, J. (2010). (Not) your everyday public space. In: J. Hou ed. Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.1–17.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lydon, M. ed. (2012). Tactical Urbanism 2: Short-Term Action, Long-Term Change. Miami/New York: Street Plans Collaborative. Available from here.

Lydon, M. (2011). The Difference Between Tactical and DIY Urbanism. Available from here.

Massey, D. (2005). for space. London: Sage.

%d bloggers like this: