The Help-Yourself City

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
There’s this idea in city planning called “informal urbanism”. Some people call it “do-it-yourself urbanism”. Basically, informal urbanism covers all the ways people try to change their community that isn’t through city planning or some kind of official process. And if you think about it, this probably happens a lot where you live. If you put up a homemade sign warning people not to sit on a broken bench or that a parking meter isn’t working, that’s DIY urbanism. If you put out a set of cones or a chair to reserve yourself your own personal parking spot on a public street, you are a bad person. But that is also DIY urbanism.

Roman Mars:
Gordon Douglas has written a whole book about this idea. It’s called “The Help-Yourself City”. It looks at all the ways people are taking matters into their own hands, both for good reasons and for incredibly selfish ones. He’s local to Oakland, so he came in here to 99pi HQ and we had a great conversation all about the joy and chaos of DIY urbanism. And we started out by talking about one of the most perfect examples of the good kind of DIY urbanism, a municipal failure that led to a DIY intervention and then to real permanent change – the Hell Gate Bridge in Queens, New York.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Well, so the Hell Gate Bridge is this enormous feat of engineering that was built to be one of the single strongest sort of structures in the known world at the time that it was built. I read once if all human life ceased to exist, it would still stand for some hundreds and hundreds of years with no maintenance whatsoever, right? The Hell Gate Bridge is also a big kind of clunky old piece of infrastructure. It’s a railroad bridge.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
It had a started to leak and crack and have little maintenance issues, not the sort that were going to cause any danger to any anybody, but it was leaking all over the place down under it’s via ducks where normal New Yorkers were going about their days in Queens walking under these old archways. And in particular a lot of folks in this part of Astoria noticed that there was this kind of scum, they called it, some sort of effluents kind of coming down out of the leak in the bridge that was probably just kind of rainwater runoff trickling through a century of steel and other sort of stuff.

Roman Mars:
And rust and…

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Right.

Roman Mars:
… made it kind of nasty.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
And it was gross and it was running across the sidewalk. And so when it froze, it was super dangerous and slippery. And when it was warm out, it was just gross and green and kind of slimy. A handful of neighborhood folks got together with a couple of other people and basically built a small bridge to go over these effluents.

Roman Mars:
So it’s a tiny bridge underneath the gigantic bridge…

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Exactly.

Roman Mars:
… just so pedestrians can walk over this river of scum that comes off of the bridge.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
That’s right. Which they call the Astoria Scum River Bridge.

Roman Mars:
And how wide are we talking about this scum river?

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
The bridge? Oh, the scum river. I think it probably varies, but I think an athletic person could leap over it.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. And so why wasn’t the city handling the scum river? Who was responsible for the scum river?

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Well, so there was a bit of, as is often the case with this kind of stuff, there’s a bit of a lack of clarity in terms of who’s responsible, right? Because some railroad company built this thing along with the early public works folks of New York City and all that. And then that street down there is the problem of the New York City Department of Transportation, right?

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
So I think there was no clear answer. I also don’t think that it was clear even who you might begin to complain about something like a leaky bridge to, and it caught a little bit of attention. It was actually very quickly responded to by the local councilman who wrote a letter thanking them for their good citizenship. And you know, in fact it was repaired quite quickly and has ceased to be an issue, and the DIY bridge was dismantled.

Roman Mars:
Right. And so this so embarrassed Amtrak that they decided that they were going to fix it, and they did.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Whatever repairs, which were probably minor, that were needed, were made. The city council was pleased to have effected some change and made some people’s lives better.

Roman Mars:
And then they dismantled the bridge.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
And then Jason and Posterchild and the other kind of folks who had done it, dismantled it.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. So you call these kinds of interventions “informal urbanism”. But for informal urbanism to exist, we have to talk about the rise of kind of urbanism in general. So how new is the concept of urban planning and then urbanism context?

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
You know, it’s really hard to pin a date on some of this stuff, but we know that planning as a sort of professional vocation comes around along with a whole bunch of other professions in 18th and 19th centuries as cities become more organized and science, in general, becomes more rationalized, right? And you could look at ancient Rome and find analogs, and certainly there were aspects of planning always. But the idea that we might have a professional planner goes back to sort of 17th and 18th centuries as we started to deal with kind of chaotic cities.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
And the way that the planning profession understands itself is even more recent as a reaction to the sort of chaos of the late 19th-century city. You know, the London of Dickens, right? These massive, complicated, in many ways, terrible places where there was a great deal of inequality and a great deal of suffering. So planning as a profession, especially in the American context, emerges as a response to social problems in the city and the idea that we can kind of rationalize this.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
And so then you have it becoming increasingly professionalized. You have the first sort of programs to train urban planners in the early 20th century, first official programs in urban design as recently as the 50s and 60s. And so while the city has always been this organic, complicated human-made project, I think it does become increasingly professionalized in the 19th and 20th centuries. The idea, especially in the global north, especially in North America, it became increasingly surprising that somebody might take something like this into their own hands because it had become somebody else’s job.

Roman Mars:
Do these interventions happen because there’s a lack of planning, or because there’s bad planning, or what brings this on?

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
People are out there living their lives in real public spaces, real urban spaces in ways that a city planning department can’t hope to, even if everybody lives in town, right? They don’t walk the same streets the same way everybody does. They don’t think about whether this curb is a little too high for a kid on a bike to get up, you know?

Roman Mars:
Yeah. It’s a complex system. So it’s like you can’t really fault someone for not knowing every permutation of a complex system.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Right.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
No, totally. And I mean the vast majority of this sort of infrastructure and stuff that planners work really hard to get built, including quite progressive pieces of bicycle facilities and things like that, are wonderful and can’t get done by me and my neighbor and a shovel. But there’s also stuff that people notice.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
I mean one of the things I mentioned kind of quickly is there’s a street in Brooklyn near where I used to live where trucks were constantly parking on the sidewalk. In fact that happens all over Brooklyn. It happens all over many cities. But if you’re on a narrow street and you are making a delivery, you might think actually the best move for me here is going to be to pull up onto this sidewalk to unload all my crap and not block the street anymore. But it was damaging the sidewalk and bothering pedestrians and whatever, and so somebody who I eventually tracked down, worked in one of the local stores there, had just made a sign that looked as professional as you can do with paint with like your own materials, that just said no parking on the sidewalk. And it looked exactly like the one the city would put up if it were… Except for that it wasn’t on vinyl. It was just on cardboard or something like that. But they weren’t trying to do anything cute. It was just an effort to stop people from parking on the sidewalk.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
And I see tons of that stuff. And it does get cute sometimes where they’ll put DIY instead of DOT for Department of Transportation. That was what some of these folks in Los Angeles who were painting their own bike lanes were doing.

Roman Mars:
And so who are the people, generally, carrying out these kinds of interventions?

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
I think that anybody living in a neighborhood has maybe some moments where they feel like, “oh, I could fix that” or “maybe I should fix that.” And I am always careful to remind people I’m speaking to that we clean our streets ourselves, right? We sweep out front of our business if we’re a business owner, or we at least are supposed to keep up a sidewalk and do that kind of stuff. People put up signs in their neighborhoods about lost cats, and people do tons of things to make their neighborhoods themselves.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
They also write graffiti all over the place, create roadside memorials, and do all sorts of things like that, and I think that that stuff is just widespread across all cultures and classes and whatever. But I did find that most of the people creating this sort of visible do-it-yourself urban design interventions, those that really seem to be reflecting urban planning ideals and the sort of things that the city might really should be doing. The city might not agree that they should be doing it, but people view it as the sort of thing a city could do. Even if you can tell in one glance that the city had nothing to do with it because it looks so scrappy, it’s trying to kind of do that.

Roman Mars:
It’s trying to make a statement. Its existence is making a statement.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Sure, yeah. The more and more people I talk to who are doing this, once you get beyond people who are maybe just kind of repairing a pothole in their front yard or something like that, I found that the vast majority of people doing this looked like me. They were predominantly white, they were predominantly male, and a lot of them had backgrounds in design and planning, or at least some sort of professional education. And the additional point that I would make here is that a lot of them as a result of all that and other things had quite a bit of privilege, that they were kind of aware that they had, that I think whether they were thinking about it explicitly or not makes it a heck of a lot easier to go out and feel comfortable at three in the morning painting a bike lane down a street, or climbing a light post to hang up a sign, let alone impersonating a public works employee with an orange vest and wearing a hat and doing those kind of stuff. So many of the folks I interviewed did. Once you hit that kind of level of active kind of DIY urbanism practice on the streets, they were overwhelmingly wonderfully intelligent and well-meaning, but very sort of privileged and somewhat hubristic folks.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. You could interpret that two ways. One is that you could go, this represents a type of privilege that people should be mindful of, you know, the hubris that you mentioned. But also I think it’s incumbent on people with privilege to take action. That’s what privileges should be for rather than just resting and profiting, you know?

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Yeah, absolutely.

Roman Mars:
And so you could take that as the other, the alternative. You know, for the most part when we tell these stories of tactical urbanism, informal urbanism, they’re fun and they kind of have a quality of being just good, an unalloyed good. You know, fixing the scum river problem, this is great. But interventions can have sort of solipsism and selfishness to them. Could you tell me about the bus stop in Seattle?

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Yeah. So that’s a great example of somebody who was, in a sense, well-meaning. The story is that this man I know was living in Seattle and had begun to notice that trash was piling up at the bus stop outside near his house. And he was frustrated by all of this garbage and constantly feeling like he had to clean it up or walk over it. And he realized that the city had failed to provide a trashcan at the city-provided bus stop. So he’s emailing the city and calling the city, but after months and months of hearing nothing and realizing… to his mind, there was just no chance they were ever going to respond to that. So he went out in the middle of the night with a bolt cutter and just cut off the bus stop and threw it in the bushes.

Roman Mars:
And this is just like one of these eight-foot poles that just says bus stop…

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Yeah. Bus number whatever.

Roman Mars:
It wasn’t like a bench or a little…

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
A shelter.

Roman Mars:
… shelter or anything.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
No.

Roman Mars:
It’s just a pole that had a bus stop number on it.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Right. So he cut the whole pole down and threw it in the bushes. You know, he pointed out to me that, for instance, there was another bus stop not too far up the road.

Roman Mars:
Why wasn’t it his impulse to put a trashcan there?

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
That’s a great question. So I asked him that. I said, well, why if you were going to go on this trouble, why not? And he said, “Oh, I thought about that.” He had a whole design. He was going to get a little like a chicken wire thing and kind of wrap it around the…

Roman Mars:
Yeah, sure.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
But he pointed out, probably quite rightly, that the city would not know it was there and nobody would come empty that garbage can out, and so he’d be still stuck emptying out his garbage, which you could argue is better than removing a bus stop.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So he removes the bus stop. The bus stops stopping there, which is amazing to me that the bus driver is looking for those cues in the environment and doesn’t know to stop there if there isn’t a sign there.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Yeah. I mean it’s not like… I don’t believe they stopped immediately, but I think over time. But then the city came in and put another bus stop in and he decided not to remove it.

Roman Mars:
I mean the kindest act, which might be too onerous, and I don’t want to empty city trash either is to put a trashcan there and then empty the trashcan, but that type of act strikes me as privilege taken too far.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Sure. I mean there are also, to take a more extreme example, there are people who paint red curbs gray to create parking spaces.

Roman Mars:
For themselves.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
For themselves, right?

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Put trash cans on top of fire hydrants to create parking spaces that appear to be legal. I spent quite a bit of time learning about these variety of Malibu homeowners who’ve been trying to stop people from using the public access to the beach in Malibu through all sorts of stuff that is essentially the more antisocial equivalent of all this stuff we’ve been talking about there. They’re putting up gates. They’re putting up signs that say private beach. They’re hiring private security.

Roman Mars:
But a bike lane is like you were putting it there for the benefit of hopefully lots and lots of bicyclers. But blocking off a beach in Malibu or painting your own private curb is really just for yourself.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Yeah. Yeah, it is.

Roman Mars:
I mean some of these interventions are even more complicated in terms of just like being either selfish or selfless. I mean, another one of these that I thought was really interesting was the DIY bus benches in Los Angeles that they’re put there to fix the lack of public seating because a lot of the times advertisements pay for the public seating, and the places that the population doesn’t have is undesirable to advertisers, then there’s no benches, and so they put in benches. But that’s complicated because it’s not a matter of just putting it in benches, you actually have to take care of benches.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Yeah, that’s right. And so I should say it’s now the case that there are some stipulations of like where, if you’re an advertising company, you have to put benches. But yes. Huge amounts of Los Angeles are these long, stark, hot boulevards where people rely heavily on the bus and there is no shelter, no seat, no nothing. Again, all across the city people have built these benches. They’re just places to sit while you’re waiting for the bus. Sometimes they’re just literally a chair that somebody has hauled out there or maybe found in the trash and put there.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
But yeah. The problem with this, and this goes back to just how complicated all this stuff is and whether any of these things can really be purely altruistic, because once you have put something out there, good old fashioned urban planners have to deal with it or good old fashioned street maintenance people have to deal with it.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
I also spoke to a lot of planners for the book and they would say the problem with this is that somebody is going to get a splinter in their butt at some point and then it’s going to be our problem. At the very least, if it’s not our problem, it’s got to be somebody’s, because this thing is going to slowly deteriorate over the winter. And the concern would be that there’s not a lot of forethought. There are people out there who also just do DIY maintenance. I talked to one guy who goes out and fixes playgrounds all over the place for no recognition whatsoever. So, maybe they could get together. But I think…

Roman Mars:
We could have a matchmaking service.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
That’s right. But in the meantime, that is one of those often uncelebrated things that good old fashioned bureaucracy gets done. Just like ideally, I mean more in some cities than in others, but theoretically, the city is maintaining public infrastructure.

Roman Mars:
Do sometimes these DIY interventions and what someone wants in the city and then another person wants in the city, come into conflict with each other?

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
So certainly I think oftentimes these things will be more reflective of one person’s priority than another, which is kind of, again, not that bureaucratic planning is perfect, but at least it’s ostensibly has a democratic process behind it, right?

Roman Mars:
Right.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
For instance, kind of my favorite example is also in Brooklyn. Bedford Avenue, which is one of the longest streets in New York City, and had one of the longest bike lanes in New York city on it, and at a certain point it passes through the predominantly Hasidic community in South Williamsburg. And the Satmar Hasidim didn’t like all of the people biking through this neighborhood for a variety of reasons, but pretty clearly, and I think they didn’t try to disguise this as something else, said they didn’t like that there was a lot of scantily clad young hipster types biking through their neighborhood. And they were able to get that bike lane removed for those blocks through South Williamsburg.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Which of course incensed those in the more activists cycling community who threatened all sorts of things, including a naked bike ride through the neighborhood, which never actually materialized, but there was at that time a great deal of tension. This was seen as a real affront to the cycling community, which I think politics aside, it was truly a major bike route. But it was gone and it was taken away legally due to the political pressure from the community that it went through. And so then you had some do-it-yourselfers out there in the middle of the night trying to re-stripe this bike lane.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, that makes sense.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
And they then were apprehended by the Shomrim, which is the, I would say, DIY police force of the Hasidic community, right?

Roman Mars:
Right, wow.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Yeah. And that community is full of DIY, for lack of a better word, efforts from local signage, which I’ve seen just on all levels. Signage about how to park properly in the neighborhood, like encouraging people to park efficiently so there’s as many spaces as possible, I’ve seen that, to stuff that’s more controversial. There’s been articles written about signage that goes up that instructs, say, women to walk on one side of the street and other kinds of cultural things that are happening in that community. So their own neighborhood police force actually stopped these do-it-yourself bike lane folks and held them until the NYPD could come and people were arrested. And so you really did have kind of like a DIY on DIY situation. There is, to the best of my knowledge, there’s still no bike lane through those blocks of South Williamsburg on Bedford.

Roman Mars:
Gordon Douglas and I talk about the uptick in DIY urbanism and the lessons cities are taking from the movement, after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
Why is it, do you think, that we’ve seen a kind of uptick in informal urbanism, and do you think it says something about the way our cities are now?

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
I think that there are two things at play. One is perhaps a more organic natural reaction to how professionalized urban space had become. Simply people recognizing that not everything can be handled by this very professionalized state planning apparatus and they see stuff that they can fix.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Tied to that, I think, is at least over the last 10 years, but even more so over the last 40, we’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in the physical health of our cities. You have moments of this stuff in the ’60s and ’70s when cities were really being neglected. And that’s when some of the early examples, especially things like guerilla gardening come about, right?

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
In the context of a ton of vacant lots and a ton of vacancy. And, again, in the 2008 housing crisis and financial crisis and recession, that’s when I was doing a lot of my research, was kind of on the tail end of that. I don’t think that it’s all a reaction to like cities having no money and not being able to do it, but that is a broad trend.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Even now, in a strong economy, cities don’t have the money that other entities have, and they have to rely on things like advertising companies to build their bus shelters. I think that brings me to this sort of second point, which is that we live in an era in which we have decentralized a lot of this stuff, or neoliberalized, if you will, a lot of our public services and a lot of the basic responsibilities for getting our cities to run and to look nice, and rely on a developer to build a park and we rely on a developer to fund a school or whatever because we can’t tax ourselves properly, and we don’t have the services ourselves. We don’t have the resources to do it as cities.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
So it kind of doesn’t matter about the broader economic situation, we’re just in this kind of neoliberal moment, do-it-yourselfers are, in some ways, perfect neoliberal actors, right? It’s easy to view them as these great community-oriented, grassroots good Samaritans, but they’re also just individuals doing what they think is best, and what the state isn’t doing.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
So they’re taking it into their own hands. That’s kind of inspiring, but also the perfect example of a very individualistic society in which the state is not doing anything and they don’t have any more oversight than a corporate developer doing some big development.

Roman Mars:
Right, right.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
And we always bemoan this idea that the state isn’t regulating development enough or something like that, or at least those of us on the left in planning do. Yet, this is kind of a similar situation. It a lot smaller, but there’s certainly no more democratic oversight over any of these folks doing this kind of stuff.

Roman Mars:
Right. You have to sort of address … Or you have to assess each individually, if it conforms to your values.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
That’s right, and that’s a huge point. I think we do really have to assess these individually, and that’s why I think that this question of legitimacy is more important than the question of whether or not something is formal or informal or legal or illegal, is just whether it’s an appropriate fit. And that’s squishy. That’s very difficult to deal with in planning, right?

Roman Mars:
For sure.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
But we can begin to figure it out when we talk to people, and that’s why community participation is so, so important, and whenever we’re reshaping urban space publicly or formally or informally.

Roman Mars:
Could you talk about how the formal structures of urban planning taken some of the lessons of individual interventionism to create spaces differently than they may be used to? I felt like I’ve noticed this, there used to be, like what a public square was and it was very … It’s columns and marble and stuff, and now it’s folding chairs. Have you seen the results feedback into the formalized urban planning community?

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely the case. And it’s another part of your answer of why are we seeing an uptick in this now to the extent that we are. I think it has less to do with there being some moment then that these tactics, and in particular these aesthetics, of DIY culture, have become very trendy and mainstream.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
So, for instance, you have really, I think, mainly positive urban trends toward walkability, livability, pedestrian public spaces, complete streets, and in particular trends like tactical urbanism, right? At every scale, but all the way up to New York City’s Department of Transportation, employing the ideals of tactical urbanism, and the aesthetics of tactical urbanism to change, say, Times Square from a big complicated road intersection to a very different pedestrian plaza.

Roman Mars:
For someone who hasn’t seen Times Square recently, could you describe what is in Times Square right now?

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Sure. So actually right now it is becoming increasingly formalized. So kind of back to your question of what it looks like. But it is now a large pedestrian plaza. There is a little bit of access allowed down a very narrow Broadway that’s mainly good for delivery vehicles and bikes, and now just an enormous public plaza surrounded by enormous screens and advertising and all that other stuff that Times Square is about.

Roman Mars:
Right. And it really started with like folding chairs and very simple, but city-sanctioned, intervention.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Totally.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
And it was the DOT doing it, but they took this ‘act first and ask questions later’ attitude of … Because they knew there was a ton of opposition and they just went in there, shut it down. And we see the same thing in San Francisco with the Pavement to Parks program, the huge proliferation of parklets now everywhere in San Jose, Oakland. Oakland’s own Latham Square was briefly attempted to be transformed in this way.

Roman Mars:
Right. Could you describe the Latham Square example a little bit?

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
Sure. It’s a triangular flat iron sort of situation where there’s a very flat-ironesque building in a triangular piece of land where Telegraph splits away from Broadway in downtown Oakland. There has been a public space there, but there was this idea that they ought to shut down about a block of Telegraph so that Broadway could continue straight, and a new pedestrian space would open up right there.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
This was actualized here in Oakland, and the resulting plaza had all the trappings of these contemporary tactical public spaces that we were talking about. It had a lot of reclaimed wood aesthetics. It had a lot of Adirondack chairs or folding chairs of some sort.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
This is where you would imagine to see the ping pong table that’s been brought out as a public amenity. The piano that’s been … randomly appeared in a place for people to play. It’s part of this broader trend of creative placemaking that is increasingly dominant in urban planning and placemaking.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
I think that the spirit of tactical urbanism remains incredible, which is quite simply, let’s act quickly and cheaply to prototype something awesome, and then try to get it made more permanent. But the aesthetics that have gone along with it that borrow a lot from DIY, have become what these places are supposed to look like.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
So that parklets now up and down Valencia in San Francisco have this very similar aesthetic. Most of them have bike parking, most of them have reclaimed wood. Most of them have some sort of planter kind of a situation. They also basically serve as sidewalk cafes more than as public spaces, or at least they have that potential.

Roman Mars:
I think that potential is so realized that I don’t even know. Like there’s one in the gourmet ghetto area of Berkeley in front of Saul’s, I think of that is seating for Saul’s, but it, by definition, cannot be. It is a reclaimed –

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
It’s a public space.

Roman Mars:
It’s a public space that anyone could sit down at. But the visual cues of that space are not that anyone could actually sit down at.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
That’s right.

Roman Mars:
And I think that’s one of the problems of the aesthetics of these types of interventions that are done by the city is that they … Yeah, they create more public space, but what they define as the proper use of the public is coded into the language of the way the space looks. To me anyway.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
On the other hand, I think that cities are learning a different lesson, which is that the aesthetics of this stuff are increasingly trendy. And, as you pointed out, they look like places of consumption, not a true public space, which, for better or worse, a true public space is a place that I can roll up with my shopping cart and just sit there, if that’s all I’ve got, and I can throw a protest, and I can … I don’t know. Do all the other stuff that you’re supposed to do in public space. If they don’t look like that and they serve much more to just catalyze local economic development or sell overpriced coffee, then that’s not the best lesson, I think, for how we should be remaking our public spaces.

Roman Mars:
Thank you so much for talking. I really enjoyed it.

Gordon C.C. Douglas:
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Roman Mars:
Gordon Douglas, his book is called “The Help-Yourself City”. Get it. You’ll like it.

Credits

Production

Host Roman Mars spoke with Gordon C.C. Douglas, author of The Help-Yourself City. This episode was edited by Chris Berube. Supporting research by Kurt Kohlstedt.

Comments (4)

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  1. Giovanna Marinelli

    I found this episode particularly interesting since I live in Rome, a city in shambles, where associations of citizens have risen everywhere often as the only solution to avoid total disaster for parks and playgrounds, and other public areas. We have a group called Retake that organizes flash cleanings of schools and streets. I wish Romans had more sense of civic duty though, because were in the middle of a crisis, and most people still act as slobs…

  2. Kevin M Flanagan

    On a different front, there are people doing tech for civic good too. I’ve been a part of Civic Camp NC since the first year here in the Raleigh-Durham NC area.
    http://ncopenpass.com/civic-camp/

    Different years bring different things, but it’s a great chance to do something.

  3. Daybreaq

    In the battle of the “Hasidic vs Hipsters” did the Hipsters ever consider just cutting the eruv? I think that would have been a better and possibly more effective strategy.

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