‘User-Generated Urbanism’

[Civic Center Victory Garden, San Francisco.  In 2008, 10,000 square feet of turf were removed from San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza and replaced by a temporary food production garden.  Design by Rebar.  Image source]

As recent discussions at Urban Tick have explored, Ecological Urbanism cannot lay claim to a single or unified approach to the subject (despite the heroic efforts put forth in the book’s introduction).  There are the shared themes of systems design, cultural, political and environmental justice, and more intentional engagement with the forces of what has been termed the informal.  But is seems more noteworthy just how broadly ecology is interpreted and utilized as a keystone approach to urbanism.  This becomes apparent in paging through the breadth of projects and essays presented in the Ecological Urbanism book, which is also part of the fun of reading it.  A question of what doesn’t currently get labeled as ecological urbanism might actually result in a smaller collection, suggesting that in the wake of the GSD conference, the ecological label is in need of more definition.

An aspect of ecological urbanism that we are particularly interested in concerns the relationship between our bodies and the city.  We have provisionally called this embodied urbanism, which explicitly emphasizes our unavoidable and shared ecology of physical containment.  Unlike cities, our bodies have remained largely the same throughout the evolution of urban forms (albeit with added height and longer life spans). Embodied urbanism investigates the agency and implications of our biological containment by examining the various components of it, such as awareness, phenomenology and the senses, mortality, imperfection, memory, metabolism, intelligence, strength, disease, irrationality, pleasure, desire, need, etc., as points of entry to urbanism.

Granted, a lot of urban strategies can and hopefully should claim inclusion of embodiment (even Corbusier thought he had defined ‘human’ scale, which to this day I still don’t think anyone definitely has).  But there is a certain scale emphasis, that while still attempting to affect urbanism more broadly, does so through a crafted consideration of the body’s experience, whether that be the human body or some other.

[Le Corbusier’s Modulor]

Embodied urbanism can be used as a more defined sub strategy of the broadly inclusive ecological urbanism.  Several essays within the Ecological Urbanism publication support this, such as Sanford Kwinter’s notion of ‘existential ecologies’ (derived from Felix Guattari’s Three Ecologies) which ‘define our ways of inhabiting the worlds we have created’ (in Notes on the Third Ecology). Embodied urbanism also provides a physical and scalar counterpoint to the problematic ‘city as body‘ metaphor (see Lawrence Buell’s, Ecological Urbanism and/as Urban Metaphor).

Tying this discussion into that of the current Infrastructural city blogiscussion, there are strong overlaps between an embodied urbanism and that of tactical and/or ‘hacked’ urbanisms.  These strategies typically operate outside standard modes of design process and emerge organically rather than from a hierarchical center.  They originate at an experiential scale and spread in effect to become something larger and influential.

Examples of the embodied and tactical convergence can also be found in the Ecological Urbanism book, such as the EcoBox, or many of the more experiential and whimsical artist inclusions, such as play me, I’m yours.  Ecological Urbanism also contains a short essay by Rebar (who appropriately designed the adaptable, ephemeral outdoor seating for the GSD conference) which offers their own provocative take on this subcategory, which they call ‘user-generated urbanism’.  They phrase it this way:

“We believe that there are two broad constellations of processes of formation of urban systems.  On the one hand, we have the technocratic planning establishment making use of capital-intensive strategic actions to shape space according to a circumscribed set of values.  These values are made evident in familiar patterns of resource consumption and inform a discrete social ecology…

In contrast to technocratic urbanism, there exists a set of people, processes, and places, that we would characterize as user-generated urbanism.  This is the urbanism of the tactician, those devising temporal and interim uses, and seeking voids, niches, and loopholes in the socio-spatial fabric.  These processes are made evident in circular, hybridized, and overlapping patterns of resource consumption and tend to foster a diverse, resilient, social ecology.”

Rebar employs the definition of user generated urbanism to describe their own design interventions, which entail the clever appropriation of existing urban regimes, such as their enzymatic park(ing) day:

[Above and below: images from park(ing) day, 2009, Seattle, WA.  F.A.D. collaborated with co-conspirators Lisa Town and Jason King and many others to appropriate a vacant parking lot with a variety of ‘other’ programs.  Our parking space installation, “4 Play” included a supersized Connect 4, a Twister carpet, board games and seating areas.  We were delighted to be deemed Seattle’s most ‘playful’ park by the city’s judging team]

Combining activism, art and design, park(ing) day is like a contagious viral happening that legally appropriates the standardized codes of the city to demonstrate the magnitude of urban space given to vehicles.  Similarly, their COMMONspace project explores and reclaims privately owned public spaces (POPOS) in San Francisco via a series of embodied, tactical interventions.

As catalysts for change, tactical and user-defined strategies are often positioned in opposition to, or reaction to the predominant commodification of urban space and the narrowing of programmatic choices dictated by the predominance of corporate ecologies.  In more recent press, Rebar described their designs in reference to ‘generous urbanism’, or the creation of public situations between strangers that produce new cultural values that do not have profit as their central motivation.  Indeed — an obvious sub category of ecological urbanism.  Similarly, Rebar closes their essay in the Ecological Urbanism this way:

“We see two future scenarios for the ecological city.  In one scenario a global greening movement consolidates power in the hands of corporate multinationals, further eroding the public commons and civil liberties under the rubric of resource efficiency, resulting in SCARE(E)CITY.  Another parallel greening movement, defined by dynamic, pluralistic, decentralized, and cooperative social ecology, results in a future of SUSTAINABLE ABUNDANCE. “

(for another very different take on user-generated tactics, check out the New York Times captivating article, The Freegan Establishment, and the earlier Not Buying It.  Both chronicle the opportunistic appropriation of urban wastes.)


  1. I really appreciate this idea and the pursuit of this theme, especially as an antipode to the euphoric cacophony surrounding the ideas of landscape urbanism and the focus on mapping, diagrams, systems, networks, etc.

    A critical connection, which you make strongly, is the dialectic between the two. I love Rebar’s work, yet would disagree with their notion of 2 separate future ecological urbanisms. I think the metaphor of web 2.0 is helpful here- the internet gets better as more people (or organisms) use it: users add value. And yet there is still an underlying architecture/infrastructure to the web. But it is not rigid and in fact the users inform the infrastructure and the infrastructure informs the users- they are in dialogue.

    Seen that way, it becomes evident that much of the great historical landscape design contains this dialectic. Then it becomes not a question of one or the other (eco urbanism or landscape urbanism, tactics or strategies, top down or bottom up). Rather, it is understood that each landscape has both in dialogue, and design then becomes a question of values, interventions, specific opportunities and aims- appropriateness (which was one of Olmsted’s big precepts).

    Sorry for the exegesis, I just love the topic and what you’ve shown here, and think about it a lot and hope to hear others’ thoughts. That said, in general in the US I think there is a bigger need for bottom-up focus (which is why ReBar’s stuff is so appropriate). The top-down capital project, for commercial ends or bread-and-circus, has been far too dominant…

  2. I like your notion of ‘appropriateness’ and the argument for an open continuum of strategies, rather than an either/or opposition. An adaptive specificity in approach. I think Rebar’s stated duality questions who actually is served or benefited by centralized, or hierarchical strategies.

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