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GLASS-HOUSE CHATS: Guerilla Urbanism – an approach to consider?

Posted on 20 July 2022

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

Our June Glass-House Chat, Guerilla Urbanism – an approach to consider?, set out to explore guerilla urbanism, which is generally described as citizens making changes to or appropriating spaces within towns and cities without formal consent or agreement from the owners. We were keen to explore its relationship with both individual and collective power in placemaking, and its potential as a tool in our placemaking belts. As we started to explore different examples of guerilla urbanism, we also uncovered a rich tapestry of intentions, actions and impact within placemaking as well as some interesting tensions.

Key Themes

Guerilla urbanism is an approach that is also known by many other names including (according to Wikipedia) tactical urbanism, pop-up urbanism, city repair, D.I.Y. urbanism, planning-by-doing, urban acupuncture, and urban prototyping. This variety of names sheds light on the broad spectrum of activities and the approaches that sit under this banner. The various names also illustrate a wide range of intent, desired outcomes, scale, permanence of the intervention, and indeed who is involved. 

As we talked through various examples of guerilla urbanism, we identified three key themes within this broad spectrum of activity that we found particularly interesting. The first was the tension between the individual and the collective. We also considered to what extent these interventions were permanent, temporary, movable or reversible. And finally, we tried to unpick what people are trying to achieve through guerilla urbanism.

The Individual vs. The Collective

Guerilla urbanism can be the act of an individual or a group of people, but in either scenario, it is about seizing power and making a decision about how a space should change. While that sense of agency is crucial to community-led placemaking, we asked ourselves whether the act itself is actually very inclusive. Whilst what one individual or group does through guerilla urbanism might feel a positive change to those who do it, what does this mean to those who had no role in deciding on or carrying out this intervention?

One example of an artist, who creates mosaics in holes in pavement or in streets, got us thinking about these questions. On the one hand, this person has brought beauty into unloved and under-maintained spaces, as well as evening out the surface by essentially repairing or patching the hole with the mosaic. But on the other hand, might this very act of appropriating space as an individual be seen by some as at odds with the collective? What if people don’t like what the artist has produced? What implications might that work of art have on the future repair, maintenance and general look and feel of the streetscape? Does that one person have the right to make a decision that affects all of us? Is that mosaic a gift to the community, or an imposition?

What if a small group of people decides to transform an underused space, occupying it and transforming it into a pocket park for the community to share? What if what they see as transforming an area of blight into a much improved public space for the community to share, is seen entirely differently by others? If they do not engage local people and organisations outside their group in their decisions about how to transform that space, could they potentially be at odds with the community regarding that space?

Temporary, Movable or Reversible?

This led us to consider whether the permanence or timeframe of guerilla interventions,  if they are temporary, moveable or reversible, might influence how the collective or community feels about it.

Would people feel differently about their streetscape being peppered with mosaics, in which the small tiles are cemented into place, to a pavement decorated with chalk drawings or banners? Would creating a temporary installation in a space, or “dressing” it for a single event, feel more or less beneficial or threatening than a more structural change to that place? 

We talked about ‘yarn bombing’, in which individuals knit or crochet decorative covers for street furniture such as lamp posts, post boxes, or fencing. This can create a radical change to a streetscape, injecting a sense of playfulness or protest, but for those who are not fans of knitting or crochet, might it look out of place and a bit tatty as it weathers? Are we more accepting of it because we know it is easily changed or removed?

With a growing interest and ever more examples of meanwhile or pop-up uses for underused buildings and spaces, might we be more accepting of guerrilla urbanism than we were a decade ago? We have seen a clear shift in policy over the years, which is increasingly allowing communities to step into the placemaking arena by occupying, shaping and using underused spaces for community benefit on a temporary basis. Does this make us collectively more open to the notion of simply trying something, and with that in mind, is guerrilla urbanism simply another route into doing that?

What is Guerilla Urbanism Trying to Achieve

In the end, we decided one can’t separate the physical interventions of guerrilla urbanism with the broad spectrums of the intentions and objectives that underlie them. In talking through the various examples we had encountered, we could see that the type of intervention was influenced by what they were trying to achieve, and that similarly, different interventions could achieve different levels and scale of impact.

A particularly interesting example with this lens is the guerrilla gardening movement, which surged in popularity about a decade ago and could be seen particularly on unkempt areas of land around roads. We talked about how what started as a provocation and protest has now grown into a movement of community gardening, with groups openly adopting leftover spaces for growing and then forming communities of interest around them. Very often, they do this with the permission and support of the land owners. So, as well as bringing moments of joy to drivers, those acts of guerilla gardening have also helped to provoke discussion and debate, catalyse action and indeed change policy and practice.

One member of our Chat group also made the important observation that whether carried out by an individual or group, guerilla urbanism sparks and creates spaces for conversation, which is the starting point for catalysing collaborative action and for driving change. Dialogue and collaboration are of course basic tools and guiding values of any participatory design or placemaking process.

Wrapping up

We ended the chat with the reflection that guerilla urbanism is very much more than any of its individual manifestations. It represents citizens seizing power, using their agency as disruptive placemakers to do things differently. It creates spaces to challenge, provoke and disrupt, but also to be joyful, generous and collaborative. It can both respond to immediate issues and problems and drive long-term and systemic change. Guerilla urbanism is not one tool in the placemaking belt, but in fact a whole new toolbox.  

So, is guerilla gardening at odds with inclusive and participatory placemaking or is it, instead, a method to catalyse it? I have no doubt we will be exploring this question more.