A group of young fashion designers occupy a studio space while the property group who manages it seeks a corporate tenancy. Next door, a snap-happy couple set up a temporary photography gallery in a disused shopfront owned by a wealthy local family. Across the street, a discussion group meets every week in a time-shared office space while it is being remodelled. Another group holds a bake sale and zine fair out the front about once a month.
Elsewhere in the city, a man in his thirties keeps his sleeping bag and a couple of milk crates under the steps leading up to a large empty building on a street corner. Across town six families erect tents in a city park, planning to stay for a time. Down by the river, five middle-aged women erect a tarpaulin under a bridge, filling the space with an old couch and a bag of donated groceries.
How are these two scenes related? The first describes manifestations of 'do-it-yourself (DIY) urbanism'. Activities associated with DIY urbanism have emerged in Australia, England and North America, where examples include Renew Australia, the Empty Shops Network, and Lighter Quicker Cheaper. These projects share a focus on place-making and the economic revival of urban areas such as main streets and town squares. In each case, proponents have successfully negotiated complex regulatory frameworks, such as building codes and zoning laws, to enable legally sanctioned uses of empty buildings in inner city areas.
So, whilst DIY urbanists and the primary homeless are responding to scarcity in very different orders, they share a reliance on marginal urban space.
The activities in the second scene are marked by 'primary homelessness': a categorisation used in social work and social policy to describe people who live on streets and in parks. Primary homelessness may involve living or sleeping in an apparently empty building, establishing a campsite (with tent, sleeping bag or blankets, storage containers, and personal possessions stationed in one place); or using public benches or parks for shelter, rest, sleep and social life.
Two responses to the scarcity of space
In placing DIY urbanism and primary homelessness together, my intention is to mark their shared relationship to the broader urban economy that determines the availability of buildings and the capitalisation of activity. In particular the two scenes are linked by the scarcity of accessible space in the cities where they show up.
DIY urbanists respond to the scarcity of urban space by opening it up to culture, community and the grassroots economy. The primary homeless demonstrate the scarcity of housing, social services and community resources in urban space by appearing in that space and using it for shelter and other necessities. So, whilst DIY urbanists and the primary homeless are responding to scarcity in very different orders, they share a reliance on marginal urban space.
Like the homeless and their advocates, DIY urbanists seek a wider distribution of urban resources and social goods. Renew Australia's Marcus Westbury has regularly described its constituents as 'people without capital'. Futurist Bruce Sterling described Westbury's founding project, Renew Newcastle, as 'favela chic', a term that captures the informality and ingenuity of Brazil's informal settlements for a 'post-scarcity economy'. Sydney's recent Right to the City exhibition featured works by collectives with names such as Milkcrate Urbanism and Makeshift. In London, the 3Space scheme has fostered projects with a demonstrated community benefit such as food re-distribution and mental health promotion.
Creative uses celebrated, other uses marginalised
Still, the 'creative city' policies that support DIY urbanism are unlikely to foster solutions for the homeless or similarly disadvantaged. As urban researchers Rowland Atkinson and Hazel Easthope have suggested, at worst these policies mean that 'low-cost accommodation for "creative" and artistic uses is celebrated, while space for "non-creative" labour and social groups is lost.'
The man who sleeps in the empty building, the women under the bridge and the families out in the park will not have their space-making celebrated for its informality and innovation. The DIY urbanists' will be.
Ananya Roy, Professor in City and Regional Planning at Berkeley, has observed that the ability to occupy urban space informally is 'an expression of class power.' To follow her analysis, the affirmatively marked DIY urbanism can 'come to be designated as "formal" by the state while other forms of informality', such as the homeless, 'remain criminalised'. The man who sleeps in the empty building, the women under the bridge and the families out in the park will not have their space-making celebrated for its informality and innovation. The DIY urbanists' will be.
Instead, the homeless' claim to space in the city is more likely to be the subject of cultural unease and punitive policing, as Marcus Tudehope has written. In such a way, the temporary and informal structures of DIY urbanism described in the first scene amplify the need for shelter and social life of those who populate the second scene, and the scarcity that they both work within in order to secure space in the city.
As such, along with its place-making and community development, DIY urbanism also demonstrates the conditions for achievement in an aggressively unequal society. It is up to the proponents of DIY urbanism — in their talent, passion, ambition, enthusiasm and creativity, as well as their relative access to city space — to choose how they register this, in their pursuit of urban abundance.