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As citizen-driven urban action becomes increasingly potent and well-disseminated, the tension between spontaneous, bottom-up improvements and top-down planning and policy is thrown into higher and higher relief. As often as that tension might manifest through loud, messy confrontations, a great deal of it simply takes the form of confusion. The bottom-ups and the top-downs aren’t quite sure what to do with each other, so the future of cities remains cloudy. How we get from here to a more harmonious future seems anybody’s guess.

“[Citizen-led] urban renewal instruments might take an important role,” opines Istanbul-based planner Erhan Demirdizen in the new book Handmade Urbanism: From Community Initiatives to Participatory Models, “but only if the local authorities can turn these applications into local development programs.” In other words, policymakers need to figure out better ways to facilitate and channel the energy of engaged citizens, in order for their cities to reach their full potential.

While its tone can, at times, be a bit aloof (read: academic) given the informality of the subject matter, Handmade Urbanism is a significant contribution to those who are trying to figure out how to adapt governance structures to ease the tension between citizens and officials and encourage more action at the grassroots level. The book’s unique format presents diagrams and statistics illustrating three transformative, citizen-driven interventions in five rapidly developing cities and analyzes their impact and meaning through interviews with local activists, designers, and academics. The result is something of a hybrid between a guidebook and a handbook.

The case studies, all of which were selected through the Urban Age program, highlight a wide variety of interventions in slums and favelas in Mexico City, Istanbul, Cape Town, São Paulo, and Mumbai. Presented together, they lead the reader on a journey through a potential place: a city where public spaces truly belong to the public, and everyone is encouraged to contribute. The analysis of these projects looks at each city through a five distinctly different lenses, discussing the role of citizen-led projects with community actors, government officials, academics, artists, and intermediaries, defined by the editors as “those operating at the middle level (between top-down and bottom-up interventions) intermediating scales, and different layers of knowledge and action.”

One of the book's many detailed diagrams / Photo: Jovis

One of the book’s many detailed diagrams / Photo: Jovis

Unsurprisingly, given this staunchly multidisciplinary approach, there is a heavy focus on the role of partnerships in driving success with bottom-up projects. The success of any public space relies heavily on a strong network of partners, from individuals to organizations. This is especially true of citizen-led projects because unsanctioned improvements often require substantial public support to avoid being dismantled for any number of bureaucratic reasons once they are discovered. Thus, almost every case study presented in Handmade Urbanism involves some interesting examples of people from different constituencies working together. More importantly, several illustrate the power of partnerships and collaboration to transform and expand the reach of the groups that participate.

Take, for instance, Mumbai’s Triratna Prerana Mandal (TPM), which started out as a group of boys who gathered in an underused space to play cricket. They eventually began to take some ownership of the site, cleaning it regularly. This activity led to the site’s selection for a new toilet facility constructed through a World Bank/SPARC program. TPM was charged with maintaining the facility, and smartly capitalized on the centrality of this sanitation space within peoples’ daily routines by relocating their office on-site. Once there, they continued to care for and improve the space, eventually working with the community to create public cultural and educational programming. Their efforts have now been expanded into adjacent abandoned buildings, illustrating “how even basic infrastructure…can provide an impetus for much wider community activism and urban change” when woven into existing social networks.

The capacity for bottom-up projects to drive more systemic change is another key theme seen throughout Handmade Urbanism. Strong partnerships create the kind of productive bustle and vitality that spills over into the streets surrounding a public space, creating what the book’s editors refer to as a “ripple effect.” A case study from Istanbul, Music for Peace, illustrates this particularly well. The group set out to organize a music school and, taking a Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper-style approach, worked to improve surrounding buildings and public spaces “to create a proper spatial environment” for children to learn music.

They also considered how their activities would change the neighborhood’s social system: music was seen as a way to develop youth role models, and to fill the street with music as a way of enlivening public space. Kids carrying their instruments around the neighborhood affected the tone of the area’s street life. Altogether, this created a self-reinforcing cycle that generated support for and participation in Music for Peace’s programming. Within four years of starting up, the group was building a new music center. In 2012, a school was added. The group transformed their community; in return, the community transformed the group.

So how can the official systems in place today become more flexible and adaptable to allow for more responsive solutions to urban problems? There is, of course, no silver bullet for easing the tension between the bottom-ups and the top-downs. But Handmade Urbanism is a helpful tool for illustrating how collaboration can enhance the work that everyone is doing. Its case studies demonstrate for people at the top how citizen-led initiatives can create more bang for the buck. Through the interviews with policymakers and government officials, the book can also help citizens to better understand how contemporary decision-makers think about and approach this type of work, and what challenges need to be addressed.

Benjamín González, a cultural manager from Mexico City, offers perhaps the most succinct summary of the central message of Handmade Urbanism in his interview. Asked what he thinks the next steps would be for sparking more collaboration between arts and cultural programming and city governments to revitalize communities, González suggests that “[We need] to recognize that cities are also cultural projects, and that any particular initiative is also a cultural project, regardless of the subject, because in all of them we are talking about a change in people’s conception and behavior.”

As surely as we shape and change our cities, our cities shape and change us. Why not make that process as hands-on as possible?

A bustling street in Mumbai, one of the five cities explored in Handmade Urbanism / Photo: Jovis

A bustling street in Mumbai, one of the five cities explored in Handmade Urbanism / Photo: Jovis